It was sunrise in the Caribbean, a few days after Christmas. As a 63,000 ton behemoth lumbered into port; a slim, masted vessel slid alongside, almost unnoticed. Almost.
Both ships were arriving at new port of call, their passengers relishing week-long respites from the winter back home. While they sipped their morning coffee and prepared to go ashore, the two groups waved gaily to each other. On which ship would you rather sail? We’ve sailed on both.
Two years ago, my husband, Peter, and I launched a new family tradition: a holiday cruise. Since Peter’s office shuts down the week between Christmas and New Year's, we’ve been taking the opportunity to escape the cold and head south WAY south - for an end-of-the-year getaway. No, we're not mimicking John Grisham's delightful novel, Skipping Christmas. The holiday is properly observed on cruise ships, big and small.
The Big Story
For our first such sojourn, we settled on Holland America’s Zaandam, which offered a varied Caribbean itinerary. Sailing from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, we visited four ports of call: Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, Grand Cayman Island, Jamaica, Key West and back to Fort Lauderdale. The weather was less than perfect; it rained cats and dogs on Half Moon Cay, but that's beside the point.
Built in 2000, the 63,000-ton Zaandam, along with her sister ship the Volendam, is the largest of the Holland America Line (HAL) fleet. That translates to about 6 million cubic feet of enclosed space. She can haul 1,440 passengers and a crew of 647. The Zaandam is lovely to look at, handsomely appointed with teak and gleaming brass. We found a lot to do on board ... when we could access the facilities. Daytime entertainment on the Zaandam offers something for everyone: putting and chipping golf, table tennis (when you can snag a table), dance lessons, and orientation sessions on each port-of-call. A computer room provides a website for guests to send and receive e-mail and surf the Internet. The casino is well appointed with slot machines, black jack and other fun ways to lose money. Spas and the beauty salon pamper guests shamelessly, who may also work off those midnight buffets in the well-equipped health club. The movie theater shows first run films.
After dressing for dinner each evening, we usually had cocktails in the Dolphin bar (near the pool) or in the Crow's Nest. While the practice is changing (the Princess line now offers what they call "Personal Choice"), many large ships still have two dinner seatings with assigned dining companions. We invariably opt for second (around 8 pm). That way, we have plenty of time to relax, enjoy the sunset, dress leisurely (a week-long cruise usually has two formal nights, while dress is always casual in port). Moreover, later seating is virtually all adult, making for a serene environment.
We’ve always lucked out with compatible tablemates, and have formed lasting friendships. However, if stuck with a lemon (it does happen), passengers may usually request a switch. Like many larger ships, Zaandam has three restaurants, each with a distinct dining style: the Rotterdam Dining Room, the casual, buffet-style Lido (fine for breakfast and lunch), and the absolutely marvelous Marco Polo. The latter boasts its own chef, and reservations are required. Those reservations were difficult to come by, but well worth the hassle, as we enjoyed the best meal of the voyage. Everything was cooked to order: carpaccio, spinach tortellini with sun-dried tomato pesto; osso bucco, accompanied by an Australian merlot. The ambience was marred only by unruly children at a nearby table who managed to demolish a lamp as their parents looked on.
After dinner, we would usually take in the evening's entertainment in the Mondriaan Lounge. While not as flashy as most Princess revues, Holland America shows are quite entertaining. One evening we enjoyed "Dancin' Fool," with the toe-tapping flair of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Bob Fosse. Another evening featured "Broadway in Concert," with selections by Rogers & Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein and other famous composers. Christmas Eve was beautiful, as the ship’s multi-cultural crew serenaded us with carols in English, Dutch, Indonesian and Tagalog (Filipino). This was followed by midnight Mass.
Often, we’d conclude our evening in the Explorer’s Lounge to unwind -- after a busy day spent doing nothing -- with a nightcap and the soothing classical strains of the Champagne Strings. Or, sometimes we would end up in the Seaview Lounge piano bar.
At the end of the voyage comes the inevitable disembarkation, often a pain on a big ship. Everyone is issued colored luggage tags indicating departure time. Bags must be left outside the night before, which means passengers have to pack toilet articles, night clothes and next day traveling apparel separately. In spite of all this organization, leaving a large ship always takes several hours, and tempers can get short. Strange, they never show this on those seductive "Love Boat" ads! Such is life on a big boat. (I should add that 63,000 tons is considered middle-weight these days. The Grand Princess weighs in at 109,000 tons and carries 2,600 souls; and even she is dwarfed by Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas and Adventure of the Seas, each weighing 142,000 tons with 3,114 berths.) Ships are getting bigger and bigger. Carnival Glory arrived in Port Canaveral, Florida on July 11 and made its maiden voyage July 14, becoming the largest "Fun Ship" to sail from that port. Carnival is also building a 2,974-passenger monster, Carnival Valor, scheduled to hit the high seas in December 2004.
Overall, we enjoyed our Zaandam Christmas cruise. However, lovely as it is, we found the ship just too damn big with too many people. After that experience, we decided to do things differently. To rephrase that famous line from "Jaws," I said to my travel agent sister: "I think we need a SMALLER boat."
The Smaller Story
So, last Christmas, we decided on the Wind Star of Windstar Cruises, related to Holland America. The most dramatic features of the Wind Star (and her three sister ships) are sweeping, wing-like sails. The nautical term for such a vessel, we learned, is a masted-sail yacht. The sails (rarely all at once) unfurl in two minutes at the push of a button. We boarded in Cancun, Mexico; getting there was a horror show but that’s another story. As we clambered up the gangplank, we were greeted by the captain, Timothy Roberts. Can you imagine that happening on the Zaandam?
Obviously, such a small ship does not have all the amenities of her larger, roomier sisters. Deck space is narrow, the Wind Star's single swimming pool is smaller than some bathtubs we’ve seen. There is a Jacuzzi, and the tiny health club has two or three exercise machines. We did not see a Laundromat, and the lack of elevators makes the Wind Star off limits to disabled passengers. The Signature [gift] Shop was small but surprisingly well stocked for its size. There we purchased the CD of Vangelis' "1492, Conquest of Paradise," the soundtrack of an obscure 1992 movie about Columbus. I'll never forget hearing that haunting music while gazing up at the billowing sails etched against a crescent moon.
In the Wind Star Restaurant, dinner seating is open; passengers may dine whenever and with whomever they wish. While formal wear is not required (my tux-hating husband was elated!), most guests choose "casual elegance." Women don smart sun dresses while men might wear natty, tailored slacks and sports shirts. We had breakfast and lunch, clad usually in shorts or bathing suits with coverups, in the laid-back buffet-style pool bar. The food on the Wind Star was absolutely delicious; Philippine-born chef Zomie Concepción cooked every dish to order. On Christmas Eve we dined on caviar with crème fraiche; broiled lobster; belle poire Hellene. Another night saw creamy lobster bisque, pasta with oxtail and baby artichokes.
Evening entertainment on the Wind Star was pretty much limited to a very good chanteuse, Helga, accompanied by piano player Costel, who regaled us with popular tunes before and after dinner. Somehow, that was just fine with us.
Another delightful feature is the Wind Star's "open bridge" policy, which allows passengers to drop by the bridge, chat with the crew, study the charts and observe the proceedings.
Our itinerary was somewhat exotic: after a day at sea, we spent Christmas Day in Omoa, Honduras. We spent much of the day on a bus, bumping along through beautiful natural scenery marred by wrenching poverty and squalor, to the thundering Pulhalpanzak waterfall. From there we had lunch at the luxurious InterContinental Hotel in San Pedro Sula, browsed in a touristy craft shop and just before reboarding our ship we explored the 18th-century Fortaleza Omoa.
Our cruise also took us to Roatan, Honduras, and two ports in Belize, a tiny, off-the beaten track nation that boasts the world’s second largest barrier reef. The Wind Star was able to navigate such waters, inaccessible to some larger vessels. Even then, because of the fragile coral, we usually dropped anchor some distance out and took tenders to shore. Twice, we rode in a glorified inner tube called a Zodiac, hanging on for dear life. On various islands, we sipped local cerveza, ate barbecue on the beach and floated in azure waters. While snorkeling (when we were not struggling with our gear or swallowing water), we ogled day-glo-hued fish, giant starfish and lacy purple coral.
Our final port-of-call was Cozumel, Mexico, where we purchased ceramics, visited the fascinating Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, and enjoyed a delightful lunch at Pancho's Back Yard. Just before reboarding, we lingered at an outdoor café by the harbor. Nearby, a vendor displayed brightly plumed parrots; one perched on my arm. As reggae music blared, we finished our beer as the sun warmed our faces. Paradise.
But paradise ends. The next day, we disembarked at Puerto Morelos (Cancun). It was time to return to jobs, cold weather and reality. But our pain was lessened somewhat, as disembarkation was much quicker and easier than it had been on the Zaandam a year earlier. By 9am, we were bidding farewell to Wind Star and heading for the Cancun airport.
We prefer small ships. Next year we might go for the Wind Star's sister ship, Wind Surf.
But Some Would See Advantages to A Large Ship
Photographs courtesy of Celeste McCall, Holland America Line, and Windstar Cruises.
A freelance food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., Celeste McCall loves ships, past and present. A member of the Titanic Historical Society, she has embarked on more than a half dozen very modern voyages. She has visited ports of call including Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Hong Kong; sailed through the Panama Canal, explored the Volga, climbed the Great Wall of China and snorkeled in Belize.
A former writer and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, Celeste has contributed to local and national publications including Fodor's City Guide to Washington DC, Caribbean Travel & Life, Porthole, The Washington Post, Foodservice Monthly, Lodging and Roll Call.
She is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international organization of women in the fields of food, restaurants and hospitality. When not traveling or writing, Celeste and her husband of 31 years, Peter, who shares her love of travel, like to read, lounge on the beach and cook out in their backyard. They dwell on Capitol Hill with their two cats, Eggplant and Artichoke. Celeste may be reached at email@example.com.
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