I have read a lot of reviews on AOL and other Internet sites that seem to focus on the physical aspects of cruising. The size of the cabins, quality of the food, and condition of the ship, are all important in researching a trip. However, the overall "cruise experience" is greater than the sum of the physical parts. A cruise has an attitude, rhythm, and a texture. It is a mind set, and a psychological experience. It is the combination of those elements that can make people have a wonderful cruise, even if the physical elements leave something to be desired.
I have cruised many times before, but not in the last eight years. Between work, and a cruising impaired partner, the brochures I collected always ended up in the recycle bin. One word changed that. Cancer. In January 1998 I was diagnosed with a rare malignant tumor. Fortunately, if you're going to get cancer, Seattle, is a good place to live. After an operation, twenty chemotherapy treatments and six weeks of radiation, I was pronounced cancer free. For cancer survivors there is no such word as "cured," we achieve remissions, hopefully long term, but there is no guarantee. Because of that, time seems to take on a different quality. If I survive this, I thought at the time, I'd start cruising again. I also decided that instead of having a reluctant or resentful cabin mate I would do the trip solo.
Why Holland America Lines? It is the ships themselves. They are the right size. They look like ships, not gaudy floating Hotels. They have more or less a traditional decor, with wood, polished brass, extensive art collections, and real promenade decks. They have larger than average size cabins, with extremely good sound insulation. Knowing what you want is as important as knowing what you don't want when picking a cruise line. What I didn't want was a mega ship with three thousand other passengers. I didn't need a golf course on top, or a skating rink. I don't want to see Katerina Witt try to land a double axel in a rolling sea. It would be a blood bath. I didn't want gimmicks, endless announcements over the public address system, or too much glitz. I wanted a ship, and a beautiful one. The Veendam fit the bill.
I chose a repositioning cruise, where they take the ship out of Alaska waters to the Caribbean for the number of sea days in comparison with the number of port days. Out of eight days, five were at sea. You also can't beat the value of a repositioning cruise.
The Veendam physically has been described in numerous reviews. I won't rehash that. After a short and efficient embarkation procedure in Vancouver, I was led by a porter to my stateroom. My cabin was #10, a full blown suite, with a 100 square foot verandah. When my Travel Agent first told me of the upgrade I was rather shocked. I had cruised in outside and inside cabins before, but I'd never been on the top of the ship, as they say. I was still skeptical during check in, half expecting them to discover their error and send me to the bowels of the ship where I belonged. I didn't believe it until I walked through the door, past the marble and smoked glass bar; past the long curved sectional sofa, coffee table and two arm chairs; past the king size bed; past the wall of Birdseye maple drawers; past the changing room with its mirrored closets and bathroom with Jacuzzi tub. I believed it when I noticed the toilet was leaking and running onto the tile bathroom floor and that the carpet was wet from the closet into the other room. The water had even seeped onto the marble floor tiles by the bar, making my first trip across it as close as I want to get to a skating rink at sea, after all I'm not Katerina Witt. The cabin steward introduced himself and indicated that he had already reported the problem.
Before my bags arrive in the room, I walk the perimeter of the ship from the very top deck to the lowest public deck. That way you get the feel for the layout and the location of public rooms, and burn off a few calories in a preemptive strike against the deluge of food you know will follow. The Statendam Class Ships (the Statendam, Maasdam, Ryndam, and Veendam) are identical in layout, with minor decorative differences I'm told. They really do seem vast when you're standing on the top decks. They are well laid out, with excellent traffic flow from the public rooms. During the tour you also get a feel for your fellow passengers. The passenger age was much younger than I had expected, the average seemed to be about forty-five. There were even couples with young children. Certainly there were "seasoned" citizens on board, but on the whole this was a fairly lively bunch.
by the time I returned from my ships tour, the toilet was no longer leaking and towels had been placed all over the floor. A minor inconvenience. My luggage had arrived so I unpacked using approximately one quarter of the available closet and drawer space, and I over packed! As we sailed from Vancouver in the mist and gray and I did something every solo traveler should not be afraid to do, ask someone to take your picture, with your own camera.
Returning to my stateroom I prepared to shower for dinner, and found how they had solved the toilet leaking problem. They had turned off the cold water to the cabin. A rather creative approach, but not conducive to safe bathing. I called down to the front office, grabbed my shaving kit and headed up to the men's sauna/steam room where they had two showers. See, it pays to check out the ship doesn't it? by the time I returned, a crew of workmen were tearing the toilet out, which gave me a unique perspective of the ships vacuum waste disposal system.
The first dinner, is a moment of great anticipation, especially for a solo traveler. My Travel Agent and I had discussed this at length prior to me leaving. I was leaning towards a round table for eight, because of better conversation dynamics. He liked the placement of the six person tables in the room better than the eight, so that is what I signed up for. What I got was a table of four, #35. On the second level, next to the stern windows, by anyone's estimation a power table. I anxiously awaited the exhilaration of good conversation, the sharing of life histories, and finding common ground. Good table companions is one of the key elements of the cruise experience. It is a bonding process, your safety valve for the rest of the voyage and in many cases a place to make long term friends. I arrived promptly at 8:15pm and waited for my table mates. At 8:25 I was still waiting, people were still filtering in but hope was fading. At 8:30 other tables are getting their appetizers, and I was in the midst of the solo travelers nightmare. This is when you paste on the game face. It is a bemused expression, a rye sort of a knowing half smile with a touch of whimsy in the eyes. It says, I'm enjoying just watching the world go by. But, I do have to check my reflection in the windows now and again to make sure it doesn't slip into a psychopathic mass murderers glare. The waiter finally brings the menu, "where are your friends?" "I'm traveling alone," I reply, and only then do I fully realize what that means. With the lights of Victoria BC ablaze in the stern windows everyone naturally turns to take in the view. They can't help but notice me there alone, like the kid on the sidelines that never gets picked for a game of football. I gamely mug for the ships photographer with the stooge pirate, who swoops in during the salad course. After the entree I discreetly slip out, and corner the maitre'd. While mentally I would have liked to take him by the lapel's and slammed him against the wall, I was polite and asked to be assigned to another table. Later, when I looked at the photos in the gallery I notice that in all the other picture the pirate is smiling. For me, he wore a sad expression, I had achieved the pinnacle of pity.
Part of the texture of cruising is finding where you fit in on the ship, and who you relate too. For me one of the most important aspects of cruising is meeting people, and the under appreciated art of conversation. Like the saying goes, everyone has a story to tell. Perhaps I'm an intellectual vampire, but I've never walked away from a good conversation without feeling energized. Where is the best place to do that is the question? Like Goldilocks, tasting porridge and test sleeping beds I went from bar to bar after my dinner of humiliation. The Explorers Lounge with the Rosario Strings was a too soft (classical) the Crows Nest too hot (couplish) and the Ocean Bar, the it's white slacked dance hosts, too cold (scary). Don't get me wrong, I don't view dance hosts as moral Neanderthals. They provide a valuable service to the women who are traveling alone, or whose husbands don't dance. Perhaps it's the white slacks and white shoes they are required to wear. It is a tough look to pull off, even for a poorly dressed golfer. Need I say more? A few twists and turns later and I'm in the Piano Bar. "Just right" says Goldilocks. In there I find conversation, companionship, laughter, and perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all, not just a good piano player, but an exceptional one by the name of Ron Van Dyke.
There is a rhythm to a cruise, you can fill your day with organized activities, or do nothing. You can eat in the dining room for breakfast and lunch or choose the cafeteria on the Lido, or pool side hamburger and make your own taco bar. You can go to a show, dance, work out in the gym, watch movies, gamble or do a hundred other things. The rhythm is time, and how you spend it.
I rise early, and have coffee on one of the side tables on the Lido deck, by the pool. In the rolling seas of the North Pacific crossing the Lido deck for the older passengers is a death defying act. Rumor has it the ships fin stabilizers are not functioning properly. Although fully deployed there is something wrong with the computer control that makes the micro adjustments. In any event, the ship was really rolling, and would do so the entire voyage. I meet up with (okay, barge in on, crash, however you want to put it) a Canadian couple, Jim and Joyce who I bonded with the night before in the Piano Bar (all right, who I unmercifully attached myself to). They would become my anchor, reality check and brain trust for the rest of the journey. We share a few observations then I continue on with the day. I steer clear of the organized activities, preferring to walk the lower promenade deck for an hour, continue my exploration of the ship, read, watch people, chat, and write. This was to be my routine in the days that followed.
The food is about what I expected. The marks fall generally in the good category. As I had read in other reviews the salads at dinner seem to be a weak link, generally slightly wilted and bitter.
Back in suite #10, I do the Cha-cha over the towels on the floor, thinking it will help absorb the water faster. I know if the white shoed dance hosts could see me they'd be impressed. Every time I leave the room for more than thirty minutes the room steward has placed down new towels. I begin to wonder how he knows when I'm gone. I notice an envelope on the coffee table, revised dinner assignment, table 166. I do some checking, 166 is a table of eight.
This particular "Pacific Coast Cruise" is broken into segments. Four days to Los Angeles, where six hundred Canadians will disembark, and four hundred people will join the cruise, then four days to Acapulco, with stops in Puerto Vallerta, and Zihuatanejo. At Acapulco, more people will join the cruise through the Panama Canal which ends in Ft. Lauderdale. The Canadian contingent is why the average age is so young. It coincides with their three day Thanksgiving weekend and is bargained priced. It is also the reason why Holland America Lines didn't do a formal night the second night at sea, which would have been logical and traditional. Instead of having a formal dinner and the Captains reception they do an informal night, with sort of a reception. The line I heard was that one particular tour group of four hundred didn't have "appropriate attire." I'm not sure I buy that, in any event I think they've cheated the Canadians to an appropriate Captains reception. This also means they will double up the formal nights out of LA, with the second being after a port call in Puerto Vallerta, which is very unusual.
The reception is little more than a photo opportunity, with three separate shots being taken, one by the atrium glass sculpture, one with the captain, and one in the lobby of the show room. After that they hand you a glass of warm cheap champagne, and take you to a seat while the band plays, no introduction of the bridge crew, zip, zero, zilch. I take the three photo's, after all my mother needs something for Christmas, swill the champagne, and head out the back door, to brace myself for my second attempt at dinner.
I come in later this time, 8:20pm. If no one is there, I'll look like I forgot something, turn and flee. Dinner in my room is preferable to being alone at a table of eight. What I find is one vacant seat, and everyone engaged in happy conversation. Yes, I've hit pay dirt. #166 is a great table and the main attraction is a lovely woman from Vancouver. She is a widow, who emigrated from Denmark years ago. She speaks with a charming accent, dresses beautifully and has jewelry worthy of a Harry Winston advertisement. Her traveling companion also a widow from Denmark would occasionally lament, "butz I never getz to talk, she doez all zee talking." Some people have an undefinable power, a star quality, as if they travel with their own spot light. Later in the Piano Bar I dub her "The Queen of Denmark." The title will stick throughout the voyage. Ship board friendships grow exponentially the first days out. You make acquaintances, they introduce you to their acquaintances, and so on. The fabric of who you know and talk to grows and grows. For the intellectual vampire, this is heaven.
In Los Angeles the tone changes completely. I go ashore to make a few phone calls and look around in San Pedro. Not too much too see, the little tourist trap village on the waterfront is about fifty percent vacant and the downtown core itself is small and unremarkable. It is also blazingly hot. I really didn't hear wonderful things from the people that took the tours, and I watched as one man crucified a staff member about how bad the LA tour was. I don't know how the staff takes it, especially when the passengers keep repeating the same thing over and over, thinking they're making some other point. I thought this particular passenger could have used a little creative visualization relaxation techniques. Personally, when he repeated himself for the fourth time I visualized him in the ships vacuum waste disposal system. It worked for me, I felt much more relaxed.
Some people rent cars and go on their own, they seem to have a better time. After taking a long nap, in the company of a roaring turbo fan (yes, we're still drying the carpet), I go up on deck, and suddenly wonder if I'm on the right ship.
Most of the Canadians have disembarked and many more "seasoned" travelers get on, along with a large contingent for a floating Panama Canal Star Trek convention. George (not quite sure how to spell the last name here) Tekaki who played Lt. Sulu is the main draw. The line William Shattner uttered years ago during a convention keeps coming back to me "why don't you people get a life?" I don't understand the Star Trek phenomena, but I am determined to.
I get my chance at dinner. Since the bulk of table #166 were Canadians we had a new group after LA. As it would happen two are with the Convention. "How many conventions do you go to a year?" I ask one of them. "Well, let me preface this by saying sometimes I work at the merchandising booth with for a friend, but about 40 per year." The Queen of Denmark utters under her breath, "zhat is a lot." However, the Trekkie is bright, articulate, well dressed, and funny. When the photographer and stooge pirate comes by (for the LA people) she poses like a pro. These people have a life it seems. They have good jobs, families, and friends. It is not so much that they live and relive episodes of a show that went off the air thirty years ago, but that they have created an extended family and social network with each other. They are science fiction fans, like some people are sports fans, opera buffs, or art collectors. This is their texture, the fabric of their cruise.
As we head down the Mexican Coast, the heat intensifies, as does the humidity. My verandah is now rendered almost useless to me. If I go outside my glasses fog, as does my camera. I'm a northwest boy, born and raised, when it gets about eighty degrees I start wilting. The Lido pool even with the Mega Dome open is stifling. I escape to the salt water pool on the Navigation Deck. If I'm going to be outside I have to be in the water. I start to consider the prospect of extending my trip even if it means giving up my big fancy-smansy suite after Acapulco. The process puts me between two worlds, staying on or leaving.
I talk with the Guest Relations Manager, Michelle, about pricing and availability. She said she would e-mail the Holland America Lines main office. Being a frequent visitor of the message boards along with reading every review on Holland America Line ships, I had seen some less than glowing remarks about the front office staff. I had made it a point to observe them interacting with the passengers on this cruise. Now I was in the fray myself. I began the process of alerting my office to the possibility of staying on. by the time I reached Puerto Vallerta, I was leaning towards staying.
The Puerto Vallerta port call was a study in heat and humidity. I have been many times before, but not in the last few years. There were more large American Hotels, but little else had changed in the main town itself. I opted out of the organized tours again, and took a friend I met on board to the beaches in the old section of town. The high season for North American tourists doesn't really begin until the middle of November, and the beach vendors desperate for dollars were predatory. It is a terrible feeling, the constant assault. They try to take advantage of your the good manners, and in the end you have to be flat out rude. It makes you appreciate the ship, and its protected environment even more. When I returned to the pier I tried to use the land telephone lines to call home. They have them set up so you can't do anything but call collect at six dollars per minute. I realized I should have used the pay phones in town, where I could have reached the AT&T operator. Finally, tired and sweating bullets I went back on the ship to call from my room. At approximately eight dollars a minute from the ship verses six from shore the air conditioning in my cabin more than made up for the two dollar difference. The path was clear, if I wanted to stay on.
The figures to extend the trip finally arrived. They seemed high to me at first, considering how little I paid for the first eight days. Panama Canal transits are much more expensive I'm told. I make another call to the office, and have my Administrative Assistant call my Travel Agent, to see if this is the "bargain" price. I receive word back that it is. They showed the room I would have if I stayed on #637, and outside cabin, aft on the main deck. Certainly not my suite I had come to know and love but a very well laid out cabin with a love seat and a large window. I had actually seen a mini suite and inside cabin of friends I made on the cruise. Frankly, they are all good, well decorated and larger than you would think. But once you've been on the top of the boat does that set your expectations? If I remained on would it be a let down? Would I be constantly second guessing myself? I continued on with the process completely torn. My friends Jim and Joyce thought I might have gotten everything out of the cruise I was going to. Okay, the brain trust is con. What does random chance say? I take out a quarter, heads I stay, tails I leave, best three out of five. I flip five tails in a row. Okay, I try another five. Four out of five come up tails. I quietly calculate the odds of that happening with math skills so deficient I can barely divide. I conclude the odds to be very, very, very high that random chance says leave. The final straw, as they say, is that I cannot get a flight out of Ft. Lauderdale until Monday afternoon, the day after the ship docks. Since I have an important meeting out of town on Tuesday, staying on is out of the question.
Throughout the whole "stay or leave" exercise, I was very impressed by the Guest Relations Manager. She handled every question, request and inquiry quickly, courteously, accurately. She took the initiative, checking available rooms options, and possible flights. She couldn't have been more polite or professional.
The unintended consequence of "stay or leave" dilemma was to interfere with the rhythm of my cruise. When you know you have a certain number of days of vacation you can time yourself. There is a beginning, middle and end. For two and a half days I wasn't sure if where I was, or how to pace myself. If I stayed on there was also a good chance my liver would not have made the first lock of the Panama Canal. The end was in sight now, and mentally you start winding down. After all I was staying over in Acapulco for a few days after the cruise, so I had other stuff to look forward too.
Zihuatanejo, is a tender port, since the small fishing village, does not have a pier for cruise ships. Ten kilometers away is Ixtapa with it's huge luxury hotels. The morning is again blazingly hot, perhaps ninety degrees and rising. The humidity must have been close to one hundred percent. by the time I think about going ashore, many of the early tendered passengers are returning, soaked in perspiration. The temperature inside the tender, which is covered, was nearly a one hundred ten degrees. Walking around a quaint fishing village might be a pleasurable experience, but it's not when you are verging on heat stroke. I stay on board, write, chat with friends, and am glad I did, as the shore excursion passengers return to the ship and head straight for the pools in an attempt to lower their core body temperature.
This was my last night on the ship, and I pack before heading down to the Piano Bar for my before dinner ritual. I also did my notes and tips to those members of the staff that had made this an extremely pleasurable experience. I DO NOT LIKE HOLLAND AMERICAS LINE POLICY OF NO TIPPING REQUIRED. You either have tipping, or you don't. If the tip is built into the price of the trip, at least you know you are done with it. If not, then you can use the guidelines of Berlitz Cruise Guide Book, or what the ship recommends, (which usually is the amount listed in Berlitz's). What no tipping required does is either make people think tipping is not allowed, or gives people an excuse to feel morally justified for not rewarding good service. Either way, from what I witnessed, the staff is punished. Then there is the question is it appropriate to tip the entertainment? In my case the Piano Bar and Ron Van Dyke had been a mainstay of my voyage. Although I had bought his C.D. (which is wonderful by the way), I would have preferred that the trusty old snifter were on top of the Piano. In this case, I tried to figure how much I would have put in it, in various level of sobriety and intoxication and that's what I tipped.
The television show, The Love Boat, has never done justice to the cruise experience. Life is more than three plot lines with everything being resolved in one hour. On the Veendam there are literally hundred of plot lines, fascinating characters, and a buffet of personalities. Bill, the kilt wearing (for a formal dinner, but hey, he had the legs for it) Nova Scotian traveling with his butler Patrick, who, if not one of the ten most sociable people in the universe, is certainly in the top twenty. Robert, from LA, with a jet black mustache in contrast to his gray beard, and living on borrowed time from cancer with courage, and humor. Gill and Rita whose appearance at the formal dinner after their margarita pushing catamaran cruise in Puerto Vallerta took herculean fortitude. The list goes on, and on. Yes, everyone does have a story to tell, but at sea the stories seem better.
With my bag's packed and outside my stateroom I prepared to leave. At 8:00am the next morning I dutifully vacated my room, knowing that at least for the next inhabitants the floor would be dry. Were there things that were less than perfect? Of course. But if you have an attitude that focuses on every minor defect, what kind of cruise are you going to have? So what if they run out of towels in the men's sauna room at around 4:00pm? Will the world end because the shows are amateurish? Will you drop dead if they bring you potatoes at dinner, when you asked them not too? That is not what I'll remember. I'll remember the kindness, humor, and insight of the passengers and crew, for it was the people that made the cruise memorable.
I disembarked around 9:30am and took a taxi to my hotel, along with a friend who was staying on until Ft. Lauderdale, but with whom I would spend the day and go watch the cliff divers of Acapulco. I went up to my room to drop off my bags and was somewhat horrified. It was your basic hotel room, no Birdseye maple drawers, no marble bar. The windows were steamed over from the air conditioning, which smelled like a flawed system spewing Legionnaires Disease. Welcome to the real world.