It is said that folks never forget their first love. It may also be true that we never forget our first cruise. Ours was on the Rotterdam from New York to Nova Scotia. Hours of Internet research taught us what to anticipate, yet we still found a ship full of surprises.
Much of what we experienced surpassed our expectations. The beauty of the ship (magnificent art everywhere), its cleanliness, our cozy stateroom, the elaborate and enormous dining room, the swimming pool that splashed side to side with the rolling of the ship...one could go on and on.
But these are only physical attributes. The soul of the ship is in its human element, and here the Rotterdam shines brighter than its brass work. The crew - almost to a man and certainly to a woman - pulled off a very difficult trick: Each member was serviceable but not subservient, ever observant but never obsequious. How these mostly Filipino folk manage to wait on 1,200 passengers hand and foot and yet act as our equals is a secret that Holland America Lines keeps locked in its training schools. Or maybe it is simply a feature of the Filipino character.
The Filipino character radiated on stage one evening in a Crew Show, a pure delight and the trip's highlight. We spoke to members of the crew. (We should note here that this was The Nation Cruise, and we were part of a 200-member contingent of readers of the liberal Nation magazine.) We were curious about the crew's working hours, living quarters, eating arrangements. Two waiters I spoke to answered my questions candidly.
They sleep in a small room over the engine with all its attendant noise and vibration. They work a 10-hour day. They may not partake of the lavish buffets they solicitously prepare and serve; they eat in their own dining room. They cannot use the swimming pools. I believe they earn $300 a month with, of course, room and board. They are not members of a labor union; they do not bargain collectively with their employer.
Some Nation Cruisers called for next year's trip to be on a union ship. (Is there such a thing?) But crew members seem pleased with themselves and proud of their work. This was especially evident in the Filipino Crew Show.
I must cite two examples of Holland America's courtesy and generosity. On our first morning aboard, the loud ringing of our stateroom phone woke us at 6 a.m.! We had made no request for an early wake-up, and reported so later in the day to the Front Office. They apologized profusely, explaining that it was a computer error. Later that evening, as we entered our room we found a letter of apology attached to a complimentary bottle of wine.
Another instance: I wanted to run off 250 copies of a cartoon drawn by a fellow passenger. The Front Office (by way of the Print Shop) did so happily without charging us a penny.
The food? I'm a guy who never eats out but at a smorgasbord, so the cruise was cuisine heaven. Though more discriminating diners (a retired judge at our table, for example) found many dishes disappointing, I thought everything was delicious. And yet I hardly ate everything, since I am a vegetarian. And would you believe they have at least one vegetarian dish at every meal, and that rice milk is available, and herb tea? That the Lido Grill will cook you up a veggie burger? (Although a purist would complain that the veggie burger is fried in the grease of the hamburger - hardly kosher!)
Only one dish on the entire trip did I find tasteless - the sweet and sour tofu. But the fact is they DO HAVE tofu! The pizza I thought outstanding and always made sure to say so to the chefs.
As a 'health food nut,' I try to avoid excessive dairy and sugar. In both cases, temptation crushed my self-control. The thick cheese on the pizza and the mouth-watering display of cheeses at every buffet were just too much. As for sweets - the berry pies were the most delicious in my experience, and to plop a scoop of ice cream on top...this is the heaven of which I spoke. And they always had sugar-free deserts.
I could easily have eaten all my meals at the Lido. I would entirely forego the La Fontaine dining room if I didn't need to join my Nation Cruise shipmates every evening for dinner conversation. Even that terrific salmon bake took place on the Lido. Yes, I could live altogether on the Lido Deck and never set foot elsewhere on the ship. With its steam room and sauna, Jacuzzis and swimming pool (both at ideal temperatures!), its Ocean Spa Gym, Terrace Grill and Lido Restaurant, why would I ever leave the Eighth Deck?
Why, to take pleasure in the music lounges not found on the Lido Deck! It was on the Fifth Deck, in the Explorer Lounge, that you could find me every night after supper. No Las Vegas-style shows for me in the Queen's Lounge, no gambling in the Casino...I sat and did my paperwork while listening to the Champagne Quartet.
These four gentlemen (violin, viola, bass, and piano) play schmaltzy operetta music, and I love the stuff. I sang Franz Lehar with them, and Victor Herbert, Emmerich Kalman, Rudolph Friml and Johann Strauss, Jr. I made friendly conversation with these musicians and learned they were all from Hungary. "From Hungary! Then play me Sigmund Romberg!" All four gave me blank faces. "Who?" Why, Sigmund Romberg, I told them: He was born in Hungary. No matter what I said they still looked dazed. "The Student Prince!" I cried, and even sang the drinking song. "The Desert Song!" I implored, and sang "Blue Heaven and You and I." Nothing. I found it unbelievable that these four Hungarian musicians never heard of their great compatriot!
The cocktail lounge pianist was equally ignorant. I could forgive him for not knowing "Blame It On my Youth," the great song written by Oscar Levant and made famous by Nat King Cole. But not to know "Isn't It A Lovely Day to Be Caught In the Rain?" Why, this is an all-American standard written by Irving Berlin. Fred Astaire sang it to Ginger Rogers in the movie "Top Hat." Abysmal ignorance!
A few more disturbing surprises: The Neptune Lounge with large-screen TV and fine cookies with drinks is open only to passengers with cabins on the Seventh Deck. Our cruise took place smack in the middle of the World Series, but we could not watch it; the ship does not subscribe to Fox TV. And for some crazy reason, every clock on the ship shows a different time.
Well, the ship is in a time warp of its own, a world unto itself--a very large world, a universe of food and diversions galore. But there IS a larger world beyond, and it is only when one leaves the ship to explore the land that one realizes how small that big ship is. And only when we return to the ship do we appreciate how wonderful it is.
But we're home now, and wonder if we'll take another cruise. The November 20 New York Times informs us "Cruise Line Cancels Trip After Onboard Illness." It's all over the TV news too. The very day we departed New York on Holland America's Rotterdam (October 22), the line's Amsterdam left Fort Lauderdale for the Caribbean, and 231 passengers and crew members fell ill. Altogether 500 passengers on recent Amsterdam cruises were made sick by the Norwalk virus. One man died. Holland America is taking the Amsterdam out of service for thorough disinfecting.
Another headline in USA TODAY proclaims "Cruise Ship Dumping Poisons Seas." Holland America and other lines are fined heavily for dumping toxins into the oceans.
Finally, the utter incongruity of it all: Readers of The Nation magazine are champions of the poor and homeless, but here they sail in luxury on a liner so lavish it would make an emperor of Rome blush for shame. The waste that takes place on these ships; the tons of food thrown out!
It'll be interesting to see how all this plays out in the upcoming year and how we will respond when The Nation magazine says "Hey! It's time for another cruise!"