Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Relaxing Cruise

Several months ago Ann said she'd like to participate in a Mah Jongg tournament that is being held on a one week Caribbean cruise, great prices with the group rate, so would I like to go?  We did this a few years before with our friends Harry and Susan, and as I did not want to "be on my own" while she played her games, I said, sure, if Susan goes, and Harry agrees, I'd love to, otherwise, please room with another participant and I'll stay home.  Harry and I had shared some fun times on the last cruise, so he readily agreed and therefore on Jan. 11 we departed on the Holland America's 'Westerdam' from Ft. Lauderdale and have just recently returned.

We've done many cruises in the past, so easy from neighboring Ft. Lauderdale, no planes to catch, just drive there and leave the car until we return.  And with group pricing, a nice, warm Caribbean cruise is so inviting.

Naturally things have changed drastically in the 14 years that we've been cruising  and I figure that we've spent nearly a year at sea, with several Atlantic crossings as well as one Pacific crossing, and a river cruise.  During those years, the cruise industry has been morphing from a select market to a mass market "product."  I don't mean to be elitist, but our tastes in theatre and traveling have been refined over the years and more and more they seem to come in conflict with the experience many cruise lines are now offering, mostly in an attempt to draw larger audiences, with each person a mini-profit center to whom they can sell drinks, services, tours, shopping, so-called art (at "auction"), cocktails and wine, and drinks (did I mention drinks?).  And of course there is the omnipresent casino to relieve passengers of any loose change left after the foregoing (although one of the Mah Jongg ladies at our table put a few quarters in a slot machine and won more than $1,000!).

To achieve their objectives, cruise lines are building their ships larger and larger -- Royal Caribbean International's 'Allure of The Seas' and 'Oasis of The Seas' topping out at about 225,000 gross tonnage, accommodating up to 6,200 people.  Other, larger ships are being built in the race for more passengers.  These are now small cities and their mere size makes them Disneyland kinds of destinations onto themselves.  Not every port can handle them, and tendering has to be a nightmare.

There is probably a direct correlation between the size of the ship and the nature of the services offered, one of the reasons we try to choose smaller ships, preferably under 2,000 passengers.  These now tend to be the older ships (old in the cruising business is anything nearing 10 years in service).  Oceania is now our choice cruising line, but some of the Holland America, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity ships can be found in the smaller vintage.

And that is one of the reasons I agreed to this trip as it was on the classic Holland America 'Westerdam' and although some of the photos might make it look leviathan, compare its "mere" 85,000 gross tonnage and 1,800 passengers to the large ships being built today.  It is still stately, and Holland America does make an effort to maintain some of the traditional aspects of cruising and ship architecture.  I particularly appreciate the Promenade deck, harking back to the days of swift ocean crossing vessels, which makes for a perfect, unobstructed place for a morning power-walk, it's teak deck usually wet from morning dew or heavy seas.  Three walks around the deck equals one statue mile and as I usually walked very early in the morning, I normally had the entire deck to myself, or occasionally just a few others, fairly remarkable considering the number of passengers on board, most sleeping in due to their nighttime activities.

Nonetheless, there is the inevitable feeling that you are always being marketed to, and later in the day it is sometimes hard to find a quiet corner.  For us, one of the big negative aspects of Holland America is that they still allow smoking on the verandah balcony, including cigar smoking, so if you are a non-smoker (and militant non-smokers as we are  -- Lady, can't you read the sign, smoking kills!), and you have a balcony, you are left to the vagaries of who might be next to you or over or under you if you want to step out and enjoy your own balcony.

For this reason, we now only book ocean view (no balcony) on Holland America, the irony being, on this particular trip, our stateroom was (unknown to us after much research) under the specialty restaurant kitchen and for some reason they'd be banging away, perhaps throwing pots and pans into the dishwasher, in the middle of the night.  After four nights of being awakened, and complaining, HA finally moved us to another stateroom, our friends Susan and Harry also moving with us to an adjoining stateroom.  We had assurances that those next to us did not smoke and therefore we accepted these verandah rooms as compromise, despite the inconvenience of moving.

Ironically, our one meal in that same specialty restaurant was a disaster.  My halibut completely dry and inedible, the shrimp cocktail served lukewarm, the maitre d insisting that that's how it's served at really fine restaurants!  Harry's porterhouse was tough and the coffee undrinkable. The main dining room on the other hand was consistently fine, food quality and variety, and in addition we enjoyed getting to know our table mates from Michigan.

We had been to all the ports on this cruise -- Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Half Moon Cay -- but there was one new one for us, Grand Turk.  The latter and Half Moon Cay have great beaches, and what else to do in the Caribbean?  Grand Turk is a fairly deserted island, perhaps best known for when John Glenn's 1962 Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft landed in the vicinity.  I remember anxiously following the flight in my college dormitory and Grand Turk meant nothing to me, a remote part of the world I would surely never see.  And here I was merely 52 years later. 

St. Maarten was a sea of humanity -- and that is how the newer cruise ships are impacting the cruising experience, even if you are not on one of the megaships.  There were seven ships at the dock in St. Maarten and one at anchor.  The ENTIRE island's population is about 70,000 and the day we were there those ships were delivering 24,000 tourists!  Imagine the lines and lack of facilities.  What's the sense?  After a brief walk, we returned to the ship for peace and quiet.

Puerto Rico's Old Town is always a fun place to walk around.  

Meanwhile, days at sea there were some 60 women engaged in Mah Jongg battle, including Susan and   Frankly, being with our friends, and being able to relax and read were the high points of the trip for me.  Poor Susan and Ann returned each afternoon slightly frustrated by the Mah Jongg games, Ann in particular who said she never played more horribly.  I don't understand the game, have no intention of doing so (actually, I don't play any games, too little time), but from what I do understand it is like most of them, a mix of luck and skill.  I think Chess -- which I used to play -- is the only game where pure skill prevails.  Any game that involves luck doesn't seem to be worth playing (it's too much like life!).  And Mah Jongg tournaments are intense, emotions running high, accusations of cheating, cat fights galore! (Again, too much like life!)
Ann, while Harry and I had to "endure" the hot tub, conversation with some of the other passengers (when they were awake) and then reading.

It appeared that Susan, with a very high score at the end, had a good chance of winning some tournament prize money, and we all had her hopes up, but it turns out someone incorrectly tallied her score and in the end, she dropped out of contention.  Meanwhile, Ann was in the running for the booby prize but at least escaped with her dignity.. On the very last night of the cruise, with suitcases mostly packed, she was invited to play in another "mini tournament" (these organized for the women who just did not get enough MJ during the day).  It turns out, she was on fire and came out not only the top money winner but with a final score higher than anyone had achieved so far.  Needless to say, she skipped back to our cabin with her $60 as happy a winner as anyone ever saw! 

All in all, it was a very relaxing and fun cruise, remarkably covering some 2,221 nautical miles in a week.  That's a lot of cruising and overall Holland America did a fine job providing enjoyable meals and excellent services.  I love being at sea when I have some time to read, and although there was a lot to do, I did manage to finish two books.  More on those in the next entry