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Cruise, anyone? // The Noordam

Just after dark, the huge ship slid quietly under the Sunshine Skyway. Standing on the deck, we admired the beauty of the structure from a new perspective, watching the lighted supports soaring into the sky as we approached and then, all too soon, went under the bridge and out into the Gulf, away from the spectacle.

This, the second time we made this trek under the Skyway, was very different from the first. Thirty years ago, as we left for Rotterdam, we sat in the superstructure of a German freighter and watched the old bridge approach and then recede in the early morning August light.

Everything else about the second trip was as different as our views of the Skyway. Two days before Christmas 1995, we were on board a Holland-American cruise ship, the M.S. Noordam, for a 14-day trip through the Caribbean. We had driven to the Garrison Seaport Center in Tampa, left our car and boarded the ship with good help from the porters, enjoying the view of the Aquarium across the street. Thirty years earlier, we had bumped down a sand road to the dock where the ship was being loaded with its 12 passengers and its thousands of tons of phosphate _ some of the latter falling over all of the former as we boarded. Progress is not all bad.

This trip, we reveled in all the expected pleasures of a cruise vacation: wonderful food and plenty of it; service that spoils you quickly and thoroughly delivered by skillful, pleasant and very talented Indonesian and Filipino crew members; good entertainment every night; hosts of interesting people to get to know; walks on the decks in the moonlight or under tropical suns; swimming, shuffleboard, table-tennis, aerobics, Jacuzzis; varied shore shops, with interesting tours planned _ all of these things and more, we could either participate in or not as we wished.

We quickly learned to look for the next day's schedule slipped under our cabin door while we were at dinner. It detailed any special plans for shore excursions, listed special activities on ship, and specified the dress code for the evening: casual (sport shirt for men, pants suit or cotton dress for women), informal (sports coat and tie for men, less sporty outfits for women) or formal (tux or dark suit for men, dressy ensembles for women _ there were four of these in 14 days).

Some people ate three times a day in the dining room, while many others chose the Lido's buffet for breakfast and lunch. When making original travel plans, you choose either early or late seating for dinner (6 or 8:15) and are assigned a table _ the same one every evening.

We rapidly adjusted to the slight roll of the floor as we walked, and to the gentle rock of our beds as we slept. We spent time in the library each morning, followed by many other activities _ including walks on the deck, lectures, visits to the lounge for dancing and shows.

The whole experience was marvelous, but some of the special highlights for us were:

Being with such wonderful table companions and now good friends _ two young people from Salt Lake City, Heather and Dan; two lovely folks on vacation from demanding jobs in Seattle, Margot and Larry; and Margot's father Franz and friend Renata from Garmisch in Germany.

Watching the Panama Canal accept the enormous ship into its narrow "ditch," then lift the huge burden up to the next level of the lock by raising the water, a process observed from the top deck on a blistering hot day.

Observing the Filipino crew's celebration of their homeland with music and folk dances, including the "Candlelight Dance" and the "Coconut Dance."

Driving high into the hills above St. Thomas and looking down on all of the "blue roofs" _ not a charming local idiosyncrasy but a mark of the houses left without roofs in Hurricane Marilyn and covered temporarily with blue plastic material while the owners wait and wait and wait for materials and workers to replace what was lost.

Slipping and sliding down the half-mile trail to the Emerald Pool in the heart of the rain forest on the island of Domenica, which is just now discovering the benefits that tourists can bring. By far the poorest island we visited, the people stand to gain much materially, but their culture will, of course, lose some of its identity.

Listening to the Indonesian crew members' "orchestra" of bamboo cages play a spirited and heartfelt rendition of America the Beautiful as well as their own national anthem. Inspiring and enchanting.

Visiting the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama and admiring the beautiful molas the women make and wondering at their primitive living conditions in which they seem productive, satisfied, creative and very skilled at displaying and merchandising their beautiful crafts. The men and boys of the Cuna Indians, thoroughly at home in the water, row out to the liner in their dugout canoes and seem to have as much fun as the tourists when quarters are thrown from the deck for the agile swimmers to dive for.

Meeting and talking to so many interesting people from all over the world (Europe, Canada, Asia, Latin America) as well as several hundred from our own area. Sun City Center alone was represented by a group of 65 travelers. We met people who have become cruise experts, like the couple who were on their 48th cruise, and people who were first-timers.

For us, at least, it was a perfect way to spend the holidays. The ship was tastefully decorated for Christmas and the music of the season was widely available but never obligatory.

New Year's Eve was joyously celebrated with balloons, confetti, Auld Lang Syne and wonderful dance music. All in all, this was one of the best Christmas presents we have ever given each other.

If you go ...

Expect a wide ranges of prices, depending on the cruise line chosen, the length of the trip, the type of cabin, how many shore excursions are taken, how much is bought from the local vendors, and to what extent the onboard duty-free shops are patronized, not to mention the level of alcohol consumption (which, with very few exceptions, is not included in the price of the ticket).

Remember that any money spent over and above the initial outlay is strictly up to the passenger. Perfectly wonderful trips are possible with no more than pocket change spent after the traveler steps on board ship _ but, to be realistic, this seldom happens. The average out-of-pocket expenses for a seven-day cruise for bar bills, shore excursions and souvenirs will probably average about $300 a person.

A two-week holiday cruise, per person with double occupancy, in one of the lower-grade cabins can cost between $2,500 and $4,000. There are many variables, though. If the passenger books four or five months early, there is considerable saving. Previous Holland-American line clients can often get deep discounts on ticket prices, particularly if they book early. Almost every cruise line has special savings packages available, so some shopping around by the consumer is definitely indicated.

Ask your friends for help in finding a travel agent _ one with some experience and a good track record in helping people plan successful cruises _ and expect to spend some time tracking down just the right trip for you. It's out there, and if you've never been on a cruise, you're in for a real treat. Bon voyage!

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