Westerdam March 1998 Big Band Theme Cruise
Bill and Monica's spring cruise adventure was around the "Eastern Caribbean." (When did they start segmenting the Caribbean? Is there a Southeastern Caribbean?) This cruise by Holland America was a Big Band cruise, featuring the Royal Canadians, made famous under the leadership of Guy Lombardo, and now conducted by Guy's protégé, Al Pearson. This cruise was sold out, but not all the passengers knew it was a theme cruise!
Our flight connection to Ft. Lauderdale was wonderful from LaGuardia airport in NYC; we live near LaGuardia, the flight to Fort Lauderdale was short, and the ship terminal is 10 minutes from the airport. While in the terminal, we amused ourselves with the duty free shops, preview tables of on-board spa services and chatting with other passengers. It was the best pre-boarding experience we have ever had (although there were several people who had the required lost-luggage experience, some of whom did not get their luggage until two days into the cruise).
Food, Glorious Food
Our first comment is about the food. The dining room food was the best we have ever had aboard any cruise ship. All dishes were fabulous, which may explain why the chef is treated as a bigger celebrity than Al Pearson or the captain. However, no matter how light you may try to eat, you can be guaranteed to gain at least 6 pounds. If you are a party animal, be prepared to run into the chef at late night Karaoke or any late night activities (if he is not autographing photographs).
Since we are discussing the chef, here are some items about him: Joachim Barelmann is German, but "lives with his wife and daughter in Goa, India" and "while on vacation he likes to travel and continue his hobby of restoring classic cars and bikes". Prior to Holland America, Joachim worked at various famous hotel chains, and was Chef Manager for US troops for the Gulf War Support Team in Saudi Arabia. Somehow, this guy managed to become a great chef.
Music, Music, Music
Next item of greatness was the music. The Royal Canadians were wonderful, although they did not have a separate singer. Al Pearson, who is a wonderful pianist, bandleader and singer, seemed to be 50 per cent of the show. We don't want to seem too critical, but the orchestra seemed to be running "on the cheap". If you are used to enjoying a full big band, with a great singer, this may seem a little short-staffed. We also noted a lot of repeated songs, but since these guys played 7 nights straight, generally 6 hours straight, they can't be expected to have a completely unique repertoire. There were several other musical groups playing on board, generally small groups, but we hope the next Big Band cruise features at least one more well known orchestra. We hope Holland America enhances this program in the future.
After setting sail, our first port of call was Nassau, Bahamas on Sunday morning, where we took our first "walk". Nearly all the shops were closed, and the few that were open only sold the very cheapest trinkets imaginable. Bill's unforgettable quote about this hamlet: "Nassau is a big, fat zero". Other passengers we discussed this port with said they had been there before, and even with the shops open, they do not care for the island, because the people who live there simply "don't care". We believe the only reason the ship stopped there was to unload sewage and trash. It was shocking, since we had the notion it was a paradise. This may have contributed to our indifference to taking excursions later on in the week. Thank goodness this was just a half-day stop.
Shocked At Sea
The next day was an "at sea" day, so Monica indulged in the spa with a muscle-spasm-toning program, called "Ionatherapie". It electrically stimulates the muscles in areas you wish to slim down (which are generally the hips and thighs). It feels like an internal muscle massage. In the US, this procedure is allowed at only one-quarter of the strength given on the ship, which is understandable, since for any one with any serious health problems, this could cause problems. For anyone else, it is an expensive luxury, but only a momentary pleasure.
While Monica was out wasting money, Bill generally napped, since the television service on board was seriously lacking (CNN, video repeats of excursion talks, and some old movies were the standard fare).
If It's Tuesday, It Must Be San Juan
Tuesday found us in San Juan. Bill and Monica walked around Old San Juan a little bit, but since we've been there, done that, we headed back to the ship after an hour to enjoy the beautiful sunshine. Other passengers took excursions to El Morro or the beach. We wanted to save our energy for our next port.
You Shop, I'll Drop
Wednesday we stopped at St. John at 6:30 am to let off the diehard beach types, and continued on to St. Thomas, where we docked at 9 am. No excursions needed here: Monica loves the shops, both dockside and in Charlotte Amalie. Bill and Monica found a Nicole Miller outlet in which to spend a lot of money, and after Bill died out and returned to the ship, Monica continued to window shop until the very last second before the ship departed at 4:30 PM.
Low Impact At Sea
Thursday was another at sea day, where Bill and Monica vegetated. Monica tried the "low impact aerobics" class, but got an injured left knee (which still bothers her two months later). This was a major R&R day.
The Most Beautiful Beach -- Half Moon Cay
On Friday, we dropped anchor off Half Moon Cay, Holland America's private island in the Bahamas; this was the only "excursion" Bill and Monica took (which entailed taking a tender to the island). Monica rated this as the most beautiful, pristine beach she had ever seen. The ship provided a cookout (hotdogs, hamburgers, etc.), but the beach was the star. White sand, blue sky, and turquoise water: the ideal of a Caribbean dream vacation. Unfortunately, we only were able to spend two hours there, due to a late arrival (which was due to a passenger falling ill and the ship awaiting a med-evac copter to take the passenger to a hospital).
Our final destination was Fort Lauderdale, where we arrived on a beautiful sun-filled morning. We were whisked to the airport, and seemingly in no time, we were back home in New York.
Another interesting issue we learned aboard Holland America was that they have a "no tipping required" policy. We tipped the cabin steward, waiter, bus boy and wine steward, anyway. They were extremely grateful (the wine steward said, "come back ANYTIME!"). It's a good feeling to give something to people who appreciate a gift (they are all Indonesian).
At the start of the cruise, we felt the cabin management was lacking. When we entered our cabin and unpacked, we found old underwear and socks left by the previous occupant. As we were about to leave to go to dinner, we received a call from the front desk asking us to switch cabins: it seems there was a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by taking a cruise with their children. The children were in four adjacent cabins, but the anniversary couple were placed on the other side of the ship, and we were in a cabin in the middle between the kids' cabins. Would we switch? Of course, Bill negotiated a free bottle of wine from the ship for the switch, and we got the gratitude of the family. (The room we switched to was incredibly dusty, which Monica set about cleaning herself).
Here's the part you've all been waiting for: Bill, the cruise connoisseur, rates the trip a score of 9 out of 10. Monica also gave it a 9.
The food, decor, and fellow passengers were wonderful. The service was good; we've had worse, we've had better. The ports of call were OK. We will definitely sail Holland America again.
Bill Sanchez has been cruising for fun and relaxation for over 15 years. Bill is the NY Regional Director for Pinnacle Decision Systems, Inc – a specialty consulting firm that uses mainstream software to solve business problems for the Fortune 1000, government agencies and universities. Bill can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org and you can learn more about Pinnacle at http://www.pinndec.com/.
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