Ahoy: A tale from the High Seas

We just returned home from a 14-day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to San Diego, through the Panama Canal. This is the longest cruise I’ve ever done, although Maggie did a trip in 2016 for 37 days with her sister Diana, around South America. Loving the experience, she wanted to test a longer tour on me, no doubt, with the hope of luring me into considering these more longish trips in the future. The short answer is that longer trips certainly have advantages. You get to know the ship better and are more relaxed without the pressure to make every second count.

Maggie pretty much nailed my reaction, but there are some caveats.  Here are my impressions of this cruise with fresh notes written on our last day aboard the ship.

A purse designed to look like an overflowing treasure chest.

  1. Always selling: Cruise ships, including Holland America, have tuned into the desire of many passengers to shop. Research and experience tell them people really aren’t 100% sold on “all-inclusive” experiences. There are many heavily marketed opportunities to buy:  shore excursions, art (including an art auction), jewelry, professional photography, casino gambling, specialty drinks, reservation-only restaurants beyond the main Dining Room and Lido buffet areas where most food items are included, a well-stocked gift shop with designer purses and bags, clothing, accessories, cologne, gifts and lots more. I’m not much of a shopper and Maggie doesn’t consider it one of her core sports, either, so other than the art, we sort of bypassed this part of the experience. Not everyone will feel this way and it may be good to keep in mind this is an observation from someone (me), who’d not been in a shopping mall in five years.
  2. #1 Goal: Crew members seem to be fiercely dedicated to making sure guest passengers have a good time.  They do this by thinking ahead and trying to have available and on hand, just about anything someone would want.  It is nearly impossible to pass a crew person without them issuing you a greeting – “How are you doing today?” delivered with a big smile. Our two-person room hospitality team of Bakti & Eko entered and cleaned our room 3 times a day. These guys were especially effusive in their greetings and goodbyes, always singing out our names, “Have a fun day, Mr. and Mrs. Larsen.”  While experiencing several superb almost “over the top” service experiences, such as an upgrade to First Class on a KLM flight between Hong Kong and Sidney, Australia, nothing had the consistency and sustained flawless effort of every single team member on the Eurodam.
  3. Cruise Length: Maggie may have had some consternation about my tolerating a longer than 7-day cruise. As one of our dinner companions pointed out, while cruise marketing emphasizes the total number of days of a cruise, such as 7 days, the first and last days are filled with lining up to get on the ship, waiting for luggage, getting familiar with the ship. The morning of the last day, which isn’t counted, is just disembarking in the morning. Thus, a seven-day cruise is more like a six-day cruise. Based on this experience, my future interests will likely focus on longer cruises, as I think they’re more fun, relaxed and allow you to see more stuff.
  4. Dinner companions: Being seated at a dining room table with the “wrong” fellow passengers can ruin a meal. Now, this only happened twice, but it convinced us to request a table for two for the balance of the trip. The first time it happened, we were sitting at a table for six, Maggie and I on one side. A woman and two of her companions joined us. The woman sat directly across from Maggie, the next person skipped the spot across from me, and took the next chair. It soon became obvious why. While everyone else at the end of the table away from us enjoyed a nice conversation, the woman directly across from us began talking to Maggie and did not stop. It was a loud and boring monologue of her life and recent travails. She barely took a breath. Attempts to tune into the folks at the other end of the table were difficult, as they were further away. It was even worse for Maggie as this woman was closest to her. Rescue attempts on my part, such as asking Maggie a question when the woman stopped for air, didn’t work, and in fact, failed to faze her – she kept right on. Not all dinners were like this, only two.  We met several couples on board with whom we had highly enjoyable times (Gary and Rick from Las Vegas as well as Gary and Patricia), and it was worth the extra effort to get reservations and find a time to eat with them.  Experienced cruise travelers are happy to share great tips on special things to try.
  5. The SH Diana tied up next to us. It holds just 192 guests and looked like an ideal size to me.

    Bigness: Holland America’s Eurodam ship is (from my perspective) massive, with its ability to take on over 2,000 passengers. And yet, it’s far the largest cruise ship out there. Royal Caribbean Icon of the Seas can handle 7,600 passengers and many other larger cruise ships boast passenger limits of over 6,000.  The Eurodam never felt like there were 2,000 other guests on board.  Lines were rare, elevators almost always quick and available, finding a table in a lounge or bar was easy.  While fascinated with the technology of what makes a colossus like this work, (I attended every tech briefing they offered), I suspect I would prefer a much smaller ship with fewer passengers, perhaps in the 150-220 range for a future cruise.  Longer trips are fine, but going to places where I’ve not been, South East Asia, Polynesian Islands, India, Africa, the Far East would be more compelling to me.

  6. Self-Image Boost: Perhaps it was this cruise line or maybe this itinerary, but it sure felt like the “Old Fat People Cruise.” If you’re a bit overweight, this cruise is a shot in the arm for your self-esteem, as plenty of people on board will be bigger, heavier, and slower moving than you.  There is a heavy emphasis on food, as well as drinking.  Options to eat and bars are everywhere and they’re open nearly all the time.  DINING ROOM: A two-floor, main and formal dining room, where you’re waited on by tuxedoed (okay, not tuxedos but very nice looking formal uniformed) staff, where you choose from 5-6 different starters, main courses, sides, and desserts as well as signature cocktails. And people aren’t shy about taking double of their favorite items.
    LIDO: The Lido buffet is almost as large, with food down the center, on both sides, surrounded by tables surrounded by ocean views. It offers multiple stations, often duplicated on both sides, consisting of hot American food items (steak, potatoes, fish, etc.), two areas for creating elaborate salads, an Asian food area along with two large dessert stations. The variety and quality of the food choices are staggering.  But that’s not all. For extra dining fees, there is Tamarind, a high-end spot mid-ship along with Canaletto’s, featuring amazingly well-prepared Italian pasta and other delicacies. Nami Sushi and the Pinnacle Grill for Steak and Seafood are two more “formal” spots, although we never made it to the steak restaurant. Quick snacks can be found around the pool area – New York-style Pizza, and “Dive-In” for burgers & hotdogs. I heard people raving about how good the pizza and burgers were, although we never got to them either.The cruise line seems to pride itself on having and serving copious amounts of food that to most people are mostly rare and special: Lobster, real anchovies in Caesar salads, rare cuts of meat like oxtail, or things like escargot, lamb, and veal. They’ve got it all and lots of it. The consumption of food is a large focus of this cruise line, although it’s not the only thing. To their credit, they’ve eliminated the elaborate midnight buffets which are featured on other cruise ships.
  7. An onboard Tech session with a group of female department heads.

    Busy, busy, busy: Every day is brimming with activities. There is a full, well-equipped gym, hair salon, a dizzying array of massage treatments, tanning rooms, and areas for every sort of luxurious personal care imaginable. You can browse or sit and read in a good-sized library (no need to check out, just take any book you like and bring it back at the end of the cruise, card rooms, areas set aside with special tables for puzzles and playing cards. They have a massive concert hall (the World Stage) filling two or three floors of the ship and easily seating close to a thousand people (890 seats). They’ve got a decent-sized casino with craps tables, blackjack, and other card games, tons of slot machines, roulette, and other games of chance, a large bar along with a two-piano entertainment lounge in the center with live performances every night. Besides walking the exterior promenade circling the ship (3 times around makes a mile), there are Yoga classes, Tai Chi, Pickleball, and table tennis courts, a room for bridge and another for poker, and a chapel for Mass.  My favorites were the tech sessions which covered how the ship works, why WiFi is so complex and who runs things. They have painting and art classes, crochet classes, trivia challenges, contract bridge tournaments, mixology classes for budding bartenders, wine and port tasting events, movies, and all of this without talking about the 40-50 different excursion options in each port (everything from deep sea fishing, snorkeling, shopping, museums, learning about the local people and their lives) or just wandering around on your own.

  8. A view into the canal next to us, temporarily closed for repair.

    Panama Canal: The major feature of this cruise was the day-long passage through the Panama Canal and it would be impossible to overestimate the splendor of this experience. My friend Steven Pittendrigh recommended I read David McCullough’s book on the history of the Panama Canal, titled “The Path Between Two Seas.” I was so glad I began the book a month before our trip as it took nearly 3 weeks to finish its 837 pages, but it lent depth and context to our passage.   The other book I read on the trip was “Cruise Confidential,” a light-hearted but detailed look at life aboard a cruise ship not unlike ours, written by Brian David Bruns who spent a year working on Carnival Cruise Line ships.  It’s a fun look below the deck and what the crew’s (in our case over 800 people) working lives are like. Short-hand characterizations of guests were fun, such as “Americans are like cows, large, slow-moving, docile and easy-to-please.” While somewhat light on details, it was an entertaining and informative read.

  9. Weather: We got lucky, there wasn’t a spot of rain and every day was beautiful and sunny. The ship went through only one night of somewhat rough seas, but even then, the sophisticated stabilizers minimized what no doubt would have been much more severe on a smaller ship or one without this advanced tech.

As the ship finally docked in San Diego, we bid farewell to the bouncing Pacific Ocean. It was a truly epic journey with the Panama Canal transit a true highlight, a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Yet, it was all good: the seamless blend of indulgence and exploration, the opportunity to savor relax, while forging connections with fellow travelers from all walks of life and a staff from all around the world. In two weeks, the Eurodam had become a microcosm of the world itself, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the richness of cultures, cuisines, and experiences awaiting us on future adventures. As Maggie and I disembarked, our feet firmly planted on solid ground once more, one thing was certain: this is fun stuff, and future trips beckon us onward to discover what other marvels lay just over the horizon.

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One Response to Ahoy: A tale from the High Seas

  1. Harley Manning says:

    Sounds about right based on our one cruise experience. We loved the activities in various ports, like snorkeling and kayaking, but being on the ship itself was a mixed bag.

    The only consistently bad part was that we had a permanently assigned table with three other couples: One couple was about our age at the time but they were on the cruise strictly for the endless booze and food (in that order) — i.e., they were always drunk. At least they were happy drunks.

    The second couple was in their 20s and recently married. They were from Idaho and the wife made it clear that she didn’t see any reason to ever leave Idaho. She was always in a sour mood because she wasn’t in Idaho — apparently the Caribbean was awful by comparison. Her husband had been raised in an Army family and had lived all over the world. Why he was with her is something we will never fathom. He apparently dragged her onto the cruise to try and broaden her worldview. Although he seemed pleasant, he had a bridge instead of front upper teeth. We knew this because when our meals were served, the first thing he did was take out his bridge and put it on the table. (On the plus side, the sight of him doing this helped us to not overeat.)

    The third and final couple were about our current age — mid to late 60s — and retired. The husband was very pleasant but his wife always wore a frown and was critical of everything. That was another puzzling personality mismatch.

    So, oddly enough, of the three couples it was the drunks who were having the best time. At least they were in synch and seemed to like each other.

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