One could technically argue that cruising is anything but slow. Port hopping, frenzied excursions, tourist hordes would seem to weigh in on the side of the frenzied tourist. On the other hand the mammoth cruise boats do not got faster than 22 knots an hour allowing for a leisurely place in moving around the scenic Caribbean. This fall Mike and I were initiated into the delights of cruising and found it slow cruising indeed. We were two of the lucky 1700 guests who boarded the Holland America Line “Zuiderdam” in Fort Lauderdale on a sun dappled afternoon in late October. We chose our maiden voyage without much forethought or research, finding the date and length appropriate and the destinations exotic sounding and far enough from home to make it sound like a real vacation.
Upon boarding ship we found our stateroom with king size bed, sofa, coffee table, desk and chair, very comfortable, and our veranda looking out to sea, outstanding. The fruit bowl and ice bucket were full and remained magically filled our entire stay. We began to explore the ten decks of the ship and all of its offerings almost immediately, since our bags had not yet been delivered and we were both hungry and curious.
Ah yes- hungry…that was the last time we were hungry while aboard ship. We found to our delight an open buffet serving approximately 23 hours a day (we never did check to see if they were open at 2 AM), with an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and drinks. Later research opened up new vistas to us with kosher ice cream and baked goods as well as bagels and lox.
After filling our bellies we moved on to the spa where we quickly signed up for the “thermal suite” allowing us entrance to the thalasso-therapy pool, wet and dry saunas and heated ceramic chairs overlooking panoramic windows to the sea. You can be certain that we did not miss even one daily visit to the spa which was open daily from 7 AM to 10 PM, allowing us even a quick visit on Saturday night. Down the hall from the spa was the remarkably spacious gym. It was situation right at the front of the boat on the ninth deck with large windows facing the sea. We both enjoyed daily workouts and exercise classes, starting off each day with time in the gym.
Many people have asked us, “Didn’t you get bored?” and the answer is a resounding no. Remember that slow travel allows one time for contemplation and reflection, naps, and long talks, reading and writing on our veranda, and listening to music as we watched the sun setting over the Caribbean. Neither of us was bored for a minute. When we wanted to partake, there were activities galore: cooking classes, trivia, ping pong tournaments, daily movies in a full-fledged movie theatre, shows and more.
Our Indonesian room stewards, Fadley and Singam, pampered us and took care of us so well that I begged them to come home with us. They smiled. Every night they would leave a different “towel animal” on our freshly made bed along with two chocolates. Mike loved the animals so much he took private lessons with Fadley. The wait staff in the main dining room were also extremely solicitous and helped us navigate kosher eating with no difficulties at all. We had chosen open eating so some days we dined alone, and others we chose to sit at larger tables enjoying the company of our fellow travelers.
In between the days at sea we stopped at six ports in our twelve days. Each port provided a different opportunity to sample the richness of life around the Caribbean Sea. Our first stop was at an island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay, owned by Holland America. There we soaked up the sun, swam and snorkeled. I was lucky enough to see a barracuda and other colorful fish. It was a lovely day at the beach, sun, turquoise sparkling water, white sandy beaches, with palm trees weighted down with coconuts. A picture of paradise.
Our second stop was in Aruba where we joined an excursion from ship to sail and snorkel a famous wreck called the Antilles. The excursion was fun, and afterwards we joined a couple we met and explored Aruba by dark (no pics). We quizzed the tour guide/driver so thoroughly asking him endless questions about life in Aruba that I am sure he had no idea what hit him and he is still recuperating till this very day. I think our enthusiasm to find out about Aruba expressed the limitations of cruising in that you have very little time to meet the local folks and get a feel for life in each country. If you take that as a given, then you can be happy cruising.
Our third stop in Curacao gave us the opportunity to spend a full day scuba diving, with a prearranged local dive club. We were most fortunate that the dive master took us up the island to the tip, allowing us a chance to see much of Curacao before reaching one of the best dive sites on the island. We were not disappointed. Both Curacao and Aruba boast beautiful beaches and a lively tourist trade, but they are quite poor, and the contrast between fancy tourist hotels and local housing is quite stark.
After a day at sea to rest (fortunately for us it was Shabbat), we set out early Sunday morning to explore Cartegena, Columbia, a picturesque walled city replete with colonial history including many building where, “Sir Frances Drake slept here.” We set off on our own, taking a cab from the port to the old city, where we were convinced by a local guide, Manuel, to hire him to show us around. He convinced us by telling us that he was actually learning to be a tour guide and he wanted to practice. He told us that we could pay him whatever we wanted. Thinking it over, Manuel may have a good thing going with that story, but he gave us a great tour and we saw far more than we would have rambling around on our own.
Monday 6 AM found us outside onthe fourth deck with hundreds of other passengers vying for the first site of the Panama Canal. After a short while we found better vantage points on the tenth deck that provided both air conditioned comfort and chairs to sit in as we watched our progress through the Canal. Was it interesting? Mildly. We both have seen canals before, and this is really no different than the Erie Canal or the one I saw as a child on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The history of the Canal is quite interesting, and its importance in world shipping and world affairs is great. Many folks set off for excursions so that they could say that they had touched the Atlantic and Pacific in one day. We chose to stay on board, and limited ourselves to enjoying the local supermarket at our stop in Colon, which apparently is one of the high points in this rather sad looking city in Panama. Interestingly enough, there was a shelf full of kosher products, many of them from Israel there. On the checkout line we met some of the staff of the boat, one of them a young guitarist in a jazz band. After talking to him we decided to check out his band, and found another nice music venue on the boat featuring swing and jazz music nightly. Up until that time we had spent many evenings listening to a singer playing acoustic guitar to accompany himself in singing songs of the 60s and 70s. Just our cup of tea (or glass of wine, should I say?).
Our final port stop was in lush, green Costa Rica, a country with no army, the highest standard of living in Central America and an unbelievable array of wildlife. We joined a few other people from our cruise and hired a minibus and tour guide to take us to the Torkegena Canal where we took a boat ride and saw exotic birds, iguanas, sloths, monkeys and lush vegetation.
Rounding out the trip were two more magical days at sea, enjoying the slow and easy pace and the feeling of being far, far away. The blue waters all around, sunrises and sunsets, the slight movement of the ship that lulled us to sleep, the sunny afternoons sitting on the porch, all these are snapshots of a great time on a slow cruise.