Ted K. Wade
Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: February 9, 2003
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
Badly needing a getaway, I booked an
Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Maasdam. This was my first cruise alone, and I
definitely had some reservations about it, but decided the timing and price were
too good to turn down.
I had cruised the Ryndam, Statendam and the Ocean Princess, all in Alaska, so I wanted something totally different. I booked my first verandah, and flew to Fort Lauderdale to start the cruise. I was not impressed with my hotel, the Springhill Suites by Marriott, however, they did offer complimentary shuttle service from the airport and to the cruise ship, and that worked quite well.
Check in was different than in Seward. I arrived at the cruise terminal about noon and went through the usual screening process, and flew through the lines to get my boarding cards. Boarding, according to my ticket, was 3pm, with a 5pm sailing, and the recommendation was to be onboard at least an hour before sailing. Thanks to posts on boards like this one, I determined boarding would begin about 1:15 - and it did, though at 1:30. I walked on the ship by 2:00. The 2 hour wait in the cruise terminal wasn't bad - it was very comfortable.
A porter carried my carry-on bags and showed me to my mini suite, room 203. I was not particularly happy about being at the back of the ship, but that is the chance you take with a "guarantee" fare. The room was large and very nice, and the verandah was about 7' x 7' with a chair, table, and lounge chair. The verandah floor was the wooden deck common to HAL, and much nicer than Princess's astroturf.
We sailed on time at 5, along with several mega ships and quickly left land behind. My cell phone was out of range by about 5:30, and I put it in the safe for a few days.
On Monday morning, we visited Half Moon Cay, which is HAL's famous private island in the Bahamas, about 90 miles from Nassau. The time was announced as being one hour earlier, so I set my watch back, and sat on the verandah waiting for my "intermediate snorkeling" shore excursion. I went to the boarding lounge at 9:25, only to find out the time announcement was wrong, and that I had 5 minutes to board a tender, and get to the dock on the island to make the shore excursion. They moved me to the front of the line, and on the way to the island, I wondered how fun the snorkeling would be in the somewhat heavy seas - one wave threatened to go over the top of the lifeboat as we headed to the dock. Luckily, I missed the excursion, got a refund, and instead used the snorkeling area on the island. I got some good underwater pictures of colorful fish, and spent over 2 hours in the pellucid water.
There is a barbecue on the island that runs until 1:30. I advise you not to be late. I arrived at 1:20, picked up some good ribs and sausage, and noticed they shut it down right on time. The only downer of being on the island was they started folding up the lawn chairs around 2:00, even though we did not have to be off the island until 3:30. I boarded a tender about 3:00 and the Maasdam sailed at 3:30 - earlier than we were scheduled, but Captain Schoonderbeek, also the Captain of my Statendam cruise, explained that the weather was turning bad fast, and the heavy seas made it impossible to even drop anchor there - he had used the engines to keep the ship in approximately the same spot all day. I had noticed the ship moving quite a bit during my beach time, but didn't think too much about it. We headed for Puerto Rico in light rain, but it cleared up shortly.
The next day was a sea day, and there was not a lot to do. Workmen hammered for over 3 hours to get rust off the back railings of the ship. This drove me out of my stateroom, and was intolerable for anyone on the back third of the ship. I complained to the front desk, suggesting they do the maintenance when people were in port or between sailings. They said they were sorry, but the hammering continued. I watched a movie in the Wajang Theatre and attended the Royal Dutch Tea. The Captain announced that we were in 7-12 ft seas, and it began to take its toll on me. I took some of their motion sickness medicine and slept about 2 hours, after which I was fine. It's a good thing, because dinner was formal this evening.
One of the concerns I had about taking this cruise alone was sitting through dinner with boring strangers. However, I had the best dinner companions of my four cruises, and looked forward to seeing them every evening. Everyone contributed to the conversation, and seemed interested in each other's opinions. I would cruise with them again anytime.
The next morning we arrived in San Juan, and it was another beautiful day, though warm and humid. I did not like any of the shore excursions offered by HAL, so I walked out to the end of the pier and booked a $15 city tour, which was quite nice. They showed us the historic forts of San Juan, and drove us around for a couple of hours. San Juan is a pretty city, nicer than I expected, but not worthy of the 16 hour stay we had on this cruise. The tour bus driver let us out downtown with directions on how to walk back to the ship, but they were wrong, so I got to see more of San Juan on foot than I expected. I returned to the ship before 2pm, and did not go back into town.
The ship offered a special Caribbean barbeque for dinner, and it sounded good until I saw the dining room offered one of my favorites - Dover Sole. I couldn't pass it up, but several of my dinner partners, and perhaps a third of the dining room went to the barbeque. The sole was great, and all three of us got it after my bragging on it. The report of the barbecue was not all that positive, but mainly because it was too crowded and noisy.
At midnight, the Captain pulled the ship away from the pier and headed the short distance - 78 miles - to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Despite being on the Verandah deck (floor 9), I got a lot of vibration whenever the maneuvering thrusters were used, or anytime the ship was moving at flank speed. This is one of the joys of being at the back of a 10 year old ship.
I had a snorkel tour planned for the afternoon, but nothing in the morning, so I thought I would again go to the end of the pier and pick up a cheap tour. Not this time. I did get a $3 cab ride into town in the back of a pickup though. All of the tours I could find started in the afternoon, so I approached a cab driver about doing a private tour, and she offered it for $35, including a stop at KMart and a ride back to the ship. This worked out very well, as Julianne was very charming, and took me to all the cool spots on the island for exactly as long I wanted to be there. St. Thomas is beautiful, and I plan to get back there some day to spend more time.
I returned to the Maasdam in the early afternoon to prepare for my snorkeling trip aboard the Leylon Sneed. The Sneed pulled up at the dock next to the Maasdam, so it was a short walk to board her. We set sail for a FOUR hour tour to St John, and one of the top 10 beaches in the world, Trunk Beach. The water started getting rough, but thanks to the efforts of the crew, we would NOT be lost. We had a delightful young lady from Alaska do some narration, and then handed it off to other crew member. This was a beautiful, though somewhat rough cruise, and many movie sites were pointed out along the way. We moored about 1/4 mile off of Trunk Beach, and were given 3 choices. Take a dinghy to the beach, jump off the back of the boat, or climb down a ladder with fins on. I took the third option, and was down the ladder before I knew it. The water was cool and beautiful, and about 20 ft deep. Lots of amazing fish, coral, and other strange features were in the water. I took some pictures, and swam around for over an hour. A very nice experience, though I did swallow my share of water thanks to the waves.
On the way back to St Thomas, the crew served complimentary rum punch, which was guaranteed to remove the saltwater taste, and it did. It also helped me deal with the rough water. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and we were back at the Maasdam at 4:29 (all aboard was 4:30). We sailed at 5 for Nassau.
The ship headed back into moderate seas, and the Captain said this is the way the Atlantic usually is. We were at sea the next day and a half, and arrived in Nassau at about 1:30pm. I had an excursion to Stingray City planned, and we had to walk over a half mile to the boat to take us there, as Nassau does not allow buses or small boats to visit their dock (though I did see one for older people).
About 55 of us boarded the small boat, which then passed within 50 ft of the Maasdam. We passed Atlantis, and a lot of beautiful scenery and expensive homes, including those owned by Oprah and Michael Jackson, on the way to Stingray City. We had to sign forms that waived any right to sue the vendor, as "snorkeling is inherently dangerous". That was a confidence builder, just before I got in the drink with some giant rays with 10 inch stingers.
Stingray City was a little smaller than I expected - about the size of an average restaurant. The area was fed by the ocean, but fenced in to keep the rays in and other things out. There was a stairway into the pen, and lots of large dark spots moving quickly through the water. We were told we couldn't wear fins, but I had my snorkeling suit and water booties on. I swam around while the beginners were taught how to snorkel. It was pretty cool watching the rays swim below me, and there were a lot of colorful fish as well. Once the beginners entered the water though, it became overly crowded, and some brought some food in with them. This got the rays excited (they were about 6 ft long and about 4 ft wide according to the guides), and one stuck to my side for a while. This was a little closer than I wanted to be, so I swam off. A ray on the bottom spotted me and swam straight up to stick his face right on my chest. After a while I realized the staff (with the food) were all black, and I had a black suit on, which made me a potential feeder to the rays.
One of the staff was holding a white ray, and he said it was only one of two in the world. Everyone was petting it and he was holding it out of the water at times. I touched it, and it was slick and slimy. Once he let it go, I tried to follow it to get some pictures, but it headed to the far end of the pen and buried itself in sand. I had the impression it had had more human contact than it wanted.
I got tired of bumping into people and being violated by rays in the pen, so I got out after about 40 minutes, had some rum punch, and took the trip back to Nassau. It was relaxing, but the boat was so slow that even 2 passenger outboards were flying by us. We got back to the dock about 90 minutes before sailing, so I went into some shops, but didn't like anything, so I headed back to the Maasdam. I'm glad I did this tour, but would not do it again. I prefer nature to captive animals.
There were six other ships in port with us in Nassau, and all were larger. We had only the end of the farthest pier. The Captain said most ports give preference to the larger ships, which is why HAL is building the Vista series (Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, Westerdam...). We sailed at 7pm, after 3 of the other ships. It was a beautiful moonlit night as we left the Bahamas.
We returned to Port Everglades in Ft Lauderdale the following morning, and I had a final breakfast served on my verandah just before sunrise. It was the end of an excellent cruise. We docked at about 7:45am and I was off the ship and through customs by 9:40.
Regarding the cruise in general, I was very happy with what I got for the price. However, it is evident HAL has had to cut back in the wake of 9/11. On my previous HAL cruises, the room steward would get your room cleaned while you were at breakfast. That no longer happened, but at least the noisy cart used in hotels and on Princess was not rattling in the halls.
The food was very good - no cutbacks here, in fact, they now have some of the fruity, cold soups that I enjoyed on Princess, and the hot soups were better too. Bread was also improved. The service suffered a little, as the assistant waiter position has been eliminated - though the busboy seemed to do some of that work. Also gone are the nightly flambe's, though we did have one. An innovative dessert, which I believe they called Mombo Number 5, a fancy watermelon pie - complete with chocolate "seeds" was served on one of the nights to everyone, and Baked Alaska was still going strong on another night.
While the name "Norwalk" was never mentioned, evidently there was a small outbreak of illness early in the cruise. The salt and pepper shakers disappeared, and bread was served individually by the already overtaxed waiter, instead of in the usual community basket. A letter from the Captain explained that there was an outbreak, and these and other measures, including closing the hot tubs, and no self service in the Lido restaurant, were implemented for the remainder of the cruise. The crew's diligence in this matter was appreciated.
The entertainment on HAL, traditionally average, was no better on this cruise. I went to all the shows except one, and that one was a combination of 3 acts I had already seen. The shows are family oriented, and beat sitting in your stateroom or a bar, but probably will not be memorable.
All in all, it was a great experience. If I could afford the time and money, I would go again tomorrow. Thanks to Rod, Leon, Susan and Sherri for their encouragement on the snorkeling - it was definitely worth it! As for HAL, I think they are doing the best they can in tough times. I like the Statendam-class ships and am very loyal to HAL, but may at times go on other lines. However, most any "dam" ship is good enough for me.