Embry and I have been on several cruises starting in 2015. This post is directed to those who have not had this experience.
Picture this: You are now taking your first cruise. Your cruise ship is motoring at 19 knots en route to Iceland from Norway. It is foggy, rainy and 45 degrees outside with plenty of sea motion as the vessel plows through six to 10-foot icy seas in the Norwegian Sea. No stopping in port until tomorrow morning around ten. But will that affect any of the 1,600 happy passengers aboard your Holland America vessel, the Nieuw Stantendam?
Because there is so much to do and so much going on aboard ship. This will be your activity for today:
Your first activity will be breakfast, a huge, scrumptious feast on the Leido deck on the ninth level, where it takes up almost all of that level of the giant ship except for the two swimming pools, more accurately described as “splashing pools,” one covered, one not, each with a bar and three hot tubs and in use 24/7. On your way to breakfast, every ship crew member you pass greets you warmly with what would be a broad smile if you could see it below his covid mask, and wishes you a great day. Some—and you have no idea how—will even know your name. All will have Filipino or Indonesian accents, which remarkably you can actually understand most of the time. How can they be so happy and courteous, you wonder? You silently wish everyone could be like that.
Your first decision will be what to have for breakfast. There are over a dozen dining venues on the ship, only two of which are included in the fee, the main dining room and the informal, massive Leido Deck dining, which is set up like an upscale food court. That choice makes the most sense since the food is terrific and already paid for. The ship’s “food court” on the Leido Deck must have more than a dozen food stations serving the most delicious breakfast food you have ever seen. So many choices. You decide to go easy this morning and order from the chef behind the glass Eggs Benedict, two Danish, freshly baked pastries, a bowl of fresh fruit, bacon, sausage, and a side order of blue berry pancakes. Once you find an open table, your waiter appears immediately with juice, coffee, and if you like, a Bloody Mary, which you may order for an extra charge, but it does not seem extra because only ship cards are used, not credit cards. The view out the window is usually magnificent though in the fog, today you can’t see much.
You consider going back for seconds but rule it out because the first activity of the morning is about to start. You rush to the main auditorium called “Millennium Stage” just in time to hear the cruise social director talk about all the fun things you can do today—a lecture about “diamond basics,” a pottery class, several jewelry presentations by the ship’s jewelry shop vendors, spa appointments that are still available, special skin treatment options, perfume testing, dance classes, music recitals, ping pong and pickle ball tournaments, wine tasting, whisky tasting, or a workout in the world class fitness center. These are just the starters. So many things and so little time. Morning concerts, afternoon concerts, evening concerts, lectures, and affinity group gatherings. Good heavens, how to choose? You scan the activities flier and count the options. There are 81 possibilities.
So you decide to start off with the lecture, “How to Eat More and Weigh Less,” which you believe is timely as you pause at one of the ships dozen or so coffee spots where you can pick up a quick latte and muffin. You pass by an abs class and a stress-and-release class before changing your mind and deciding to take the Tai Chi class, which turns out to be fine. So now it is time for your morning break and for another latte and pastry. Then you pass by the “bridge play” area, another group playing Mahgong, a large group playing a trivia game, and you decide to catch a little of a talk on acupuncture before settling on the jewelry auction preview and how to tell a good diamond from a bad one. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for the fitness center. That will be an afternoon activity. It is now time for lunch. My, how time flies!
You could choose between a dozen options but decide on the Leido again because the breakfast was so good. The lunch choices offered in the food stations are even more appealing than breakfasts—salads of all types, fresh fruit, quiche, sushi, pizza, several kinds of stew, lamb, roast beef, tempura, fried chicken, and more kinds of sandwiches than you knew existed. You settle for a cheese burgher with fries with a pecan pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Now it is time to go up to the observation deck for a short rest before attending your favorite afternoon activity. On the way you are tempted to join a bingo event or a class on mixing Old Fashions and Mai Tais, cost only $15. You pass by Rye Whisky tasting, but the cost is more, $35, and the sun is not even up above the yard arm. You note that the class is SRO and conclude there could be some on the ship with a drinking problem. You decide to go to the observation deck instead.
You reach one of the ships 20 high speed elevators, punch in floor 12 where you stroll into the observation lounge and bar where over a hundred relaxed passengers are sitting in easy chairs looking out the windows where they are watching the clouds lift and sipping cappuccinos or white wine. You find the perfect chair, order your white wine and think about going to the World Class Fitness Center. Just as you are about to doze off after finishing your wine, you glance at your watch and realize that High Tea is about to start. Oh, my goodness! You can’t miss that, so you charge off, pass by the fitness center and after passing the diamond, apparel, and perfume shops arrive at the elegant main dining room as about a dozen groups are sitting around large tables where waiters in suits and wearing white gloves are serving petite sandwiches, tea, and sparkling wine. A string trio is playing in the background.
The elegant tea lasts a couple of hours with a lot more sparkling wine served than tea, but, hey, how often do you get to take a cruise?
You look around and notice that almost everyone sipping tea and sparkling wine seems to be pretty old, lots of white hair, wrinkles, some canes and a walker or two. If you didn’t know better, you would think you were in a retirement community. As you think more about it, most of the other passengers on the ship are not spring chicks either. It figures, you conclude, old folks have the time and the money. Also, pretty neat, you conclude. We humans keep on trying to squeeze the last drops out of the lemon.
And what else about the passengers? Most seem to be Americans but not all. However, you realize that you have seen few persons of color. A family or two from Asia and one African American. What is that all about? Time or money? Something wrong here.
Finally, you make a mental note of the large number of overweight people, many actually quite obese, and wonder what that could be all about. You think about all that you have already consumed. Frequent cruisers?
The balance of your afternoon is a mirror image of the earlier part of the day but on steroids. A blues band is playing here, then a rock band there, and there are several dance venues going on. Bars are open around every corner, many with music and entertainment. There is just enough time to take a dip in the pool and warm up in a hot tub, then head back to your stateroom for a brief nap, shower and to get dressed for the evening.
The highlight of the evening is a delicious, three course dinner in the elegant main dining room. The service is terrific, and it is nice to see everyone all dressed up. You heard that only a few years ago, black ties were required for men and evening gowns for women, but nowadays that has loosened up though ties and jackets for men are encouraged.
To finish off your day, you take in the magic show on the Millennium Stage, stroll through the jam-packed casino watching people play the slots, blackjack, and poker. You have just enough time to stop for a nightcap and second desert at the piano bar and get back to your cabin around eleven where your bed has been turned down and chocolate candy has been placed on your pillow.
“Tomorrow,” you softly tell yourself, “Tomorrow, I will get to the World Class Fitness Center.”
You call it a day.
While this scenario makes the assumption that you are alone, this is rarely the case. You will probably be traveling with a companion, spouse, or a family group. But there are those who do travel alone: former frequent cruiser widows, who love the experience and do not want to give it up even after losing their husband. On this cruise there are several groups of four or five elderly women who appear to be traveling together. There are also opportunities for singles to become part of affinity groups. A singles group meets every afternoon at cocktail hour time; and in the main dining room, a single diner will be asked if he or she would like to be seated at a table with others. “Friends of Bill” meetings and “Pride Gatherings” also happen every day.
And, of course, no one does every activity. Embry and I actually participate in very few of the activities, spending our time reading (Embry) and blogging (me) and alternating eating in the main dining room with a meal at the casual Leido Deck. We tried one of the dozen other restaurants once but did not think it was worth the extra cost. We take walks around the deck—three laps to the mile—and when the weather permits spend time on deck or on our balcony just taking in the natural beauty. Embry always gets in her daily swim. And there are plenty of land excursions along the way, which, of course, are the major reason for choosing a cruise in the first place.
And a taboo about discussing politics appears to be an unwritten rule. Not one word about the abortion Supreme Court decision, which if allowed to leave Pandora’s box, would surely alter the mood of the experience. You have paid your money. Let the controversial stuff rest until you get home.
(And, no, we do not devour food quite to the extreme as suggested here though a lot of passengers appear to. Even with trying to avoid excess, however, I know will have to lose five or so pounds when we return home.)
When all is said and done, in my view, what helps make a cruise special is the exceptional service and what surely feels like genuine friendliness from the people who do the cleaning, the heavy lifting, and fix stuff. All of them. No exceptions. You are treated like royalty, and, boy, does that feel good! I do not know how Holland America does it. Maybe it has something to do with the Asian temperament, since the cabin and wait crews are all from Indonesia or the Philippines. Maybe after two years of covid cancellations, these folks are just glad to be back to work.
Also note that with 1,600 passengers served by 1,300 crew comes out to .8 crew for each passenger! That has got to make a difference.
After a day or two of receiving warm greetings by the crew, passengers find themselves greeting each other with pleasant smiles. Why can’t we continue to be nice to one another when we return home? Why is this limited to a short voyage on a cruise ship sailing on the North Atlantic on one of the longest days of the year?