I tell everybody that the Eastern Caribbean is a classic first-time cruiser's destination. Its islands generally have quite a well-developed tourist infrastructure, ranging from beautifully restored historic sites to duty-free shopping bonanzas -- balanced with some pretty awesome scenic views. Folks there are typically fluent in English -- and, widely, accept U.S. dollars.
For veteran cruise travelers, however, the Eastern Caribbean has a ho-hum reputation. St. Thomas and St. Maarten, its two anchor ports, are frequently overcrowded and attractions overrun.
So what's a hard-core world cruiser, who's fond of exotic tropical locales and far less congested itineraries, doing in a place like this?
After repeated voyages (and a one-year stint living on the island of St. John), this is my favorite close-to-home warm-weather cruise destination in the world. Highlights include the water sports, the islands (both popular and lesser known), the beaches, and the shopping (both of the boutique and duty-free variety). The other appeal? Holland America's still-new Westerdam is said to offer the best of the HAL cruise experience: great service, elegant ambience and contemporary amenities.
In planning this trip, however, my husband and I made one near-fatal error. Traveling without kids, we hadn't realized that our voyage was scheduled smack dab in the middle of peak "spring break" family cruising season. With nearly 400 youngsters (and limited children's facilities), the ambience wasn't at all the elegantly relaxing experience we'd craved. On shore, ports were often challenging as well, not only because every other ship we met was equally family-laden but also because March is high season in the first place -- and Caribbean ports have never learned to "just say no."
While we would have preferred a less rambunctious cruise experience, the challenge we faced was to find our own islands -- both onboard and on-shore -- of quiet pleasures amidst the hubbub. By and large, we succeeded.
Embarking in Ft. Lauderdale was so efficient -- the well-organized arrivals hall was almost empty -- that I could've sworn the ship would be sailing empty! Arriving onboard, we were greeted with a lineup of cabin stewards, but none came forward in that usual Holland America way in which guests are personally escorted to cabins. Hmmm. Small detail, but a huge hint about the service challenges we'd experience through the voyage.
Our cabin was fabulous: a standard balcony stateroom, located on the back of the ship, with a very deep and wonderfully private verandah that overlooked the wake.
Having cruised on Holland America half a dozen other times, we anticipated a lovely dining experience in The Vista, the ship's main restaurant. We were wrong. Service at our 8 p.m. seating (the ship staggers dining times four ways, including 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.) was so non-existent in the half hour we sat at our table that we abruptly decamped and made our way to The Pinnacle Grill. Fortunately, the ship's Northwest-themed alternative restaurant wasn't busy (otherwise, make your reservations a.s.a.p.) and the fabulous maitre d' not only found us a table, waived our service fee and called his counterpart in the Vista to chide him on our poor experience, but he also orchestrated a magical meal. Lesson #1: Seek out more intimate venues whenever possible.
First Stop: Nassau, The Bahamas
Limited to just a five-hour morning call here, there was little time to explore anything beyond Nassau's general port area. After breakfast at the Lido Cafe (one of the most beautiful buffet areas in cruising) and a swim in the aft pool, I headed into town for a quick look.
Nassau, as a duty-free emporium, can't compete with St. Maarten (which was on our itinerary), but the Straw Market -- as touristy and claustrophobic as it is occupying temporary quarters under a tent on the edge of town -- is worth a visit. Actually, the nicest place of all to pick up souvenirs is the cruise terminal; it's been kitted out with tiny boutiques selling charming crafts.
Back onboard, we ordered room service lunch from the dining room menu and lounged on the balcony as Nassau slowly disappeared into the horizon. A long languid lunch, a nap and a not-too-busy afternoon -- now this is cruising at its finest!
Sea Day (and a Half)
All of Westerdam's major public rooms are located on Decks 2 and 3, centered around a small atrium. There's a roomy Internet cafe (Wi-Fi is available); a well-stocked library; the Queen's Lounge, a secondary theater which shows movies (with fresh popcorn); the Vista Lounge; the main showroom; and the sprawling Ocean Bar. This area was pretty quiet during the day, except during art auctions.
Graced by a gorgeous dolphin sculpture, the lido pool reflected Holland America's elegant style. On this day though, the atmosphere was Carnival-esque. Kids swamped both the aft and lido pools (even during stated adult-only times) and a couple of times we saw them dive off the dolphin sculpture into the main pool (dangerous!). Ironically, one of the quietest places onboard was Club HAL, Westerdam's kids' facility; at the height of the afternoon there were just 20 youngsters there participating in its programs.
Lesson #2: Fee-extra facilities will by nature offer a more serene ambience and indeed, The Greenhouse Spa became a favorite spot. Day (and full cruise passes) are available and permit entry into the thalassotherapy pool and the aromatic steam room.
On learning that the Pinnacle Grill was open for lunch, we happily returned. The wine tasting held there afterward (the hors d'oeuvres were a nice touch) was another pleasant diversion.
St. Maarten at Rush Hour
When we pulled into St. Maarten, the port was so full -- six ships -- that our ship was required to anchor because, at 85,000 tons and carrying nearly 2,000 passengers, we were one of the small vessels!
St. Maarten may seem touristy at first but it's actually quite intriguing. The Dutch St. Maarten shares the island with the French St. Martin. On this trip, Philipsburg, the capital of this Dutch port, was predictably jammed and we discarded any idea of a shopping expedition for (genuinely) excellent bargains on liquor, electronics and jewelry. Instead, we escaped, via taxi, to Marigot, St. Martin's capital city. This charming Frenchy-yet-tropical town is full of designer boutiques and fabulous sidewalk (and waterfront) cafes. My favorite is Tropicana in the Marina de la Royale ... but honestly, it's hard to go wrong.
In contrast, Tortola, the "capital" of the British Virgin Islands, bears no resemblance to St. Maarten. There's a bit of shopping in Roadtown (Sunny Caribbee is fantastic for spices and island tchotchkes) and even lunching (Pusser's on the waterfront is a fabulous pub, though we also love the Italian trattoria Capriccio di Mare). But experiencing Tortola is still more about the water.
Many folks took the ship's excursion to the BVI's Virgin Gorda; there the major attraction is snorkeling in The Baths, a collection of eerie caves and huge boulders. It is fantastic, though perhaps not the best choice during high season (it gets too crowded). Instead, we took a ship's snorkeling excursion to uninhabited Norman Island and the reefs and fish were magnificent. On one stop we headed into its "port" -- basically a shallow harbor that's home to a cafe called Pirates (order the conch fritters). Returning to Tortola on the smooth-sailing catamaran, the rum punch was plentiful and the conversation convivial.
Our Last Day at Sea
A sea day is normally one of our favorites aspects of cruising, but my husband, who has spent much of his time hanging out on the verandah in order to escape the young ruffians who have invaded the ship, was now complaining of claustro-balcony-itis. Under the guise of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," we entered the fray, also known as the wacky pool games. And you know, there really were some beautiful moments: watching young'uns, for instance, cheering wildly for their fathers during the belly flop competition. And at lunch in the Vista dining room, we were seated with a woman and her 18-year-old son and enjoyed their easy repartee.
Half Moon Cay
Half Moon Cay, Holland America's private island in the Bahamas, was the highlight of our trip. Having recently undergone a major upgrade, the island had something for everyone: a kids' area, a spa bungalow, a great range of activities from horseback riding in the surf to parasailing, and a simply lovely beach framed by the most tranquil turquoise waters. You can rent clamshells (to protect you from the sun) and floating mattresses.
We booked a cabana. Unique to Half Moon Cay, it's one of a series of private little shacks on the beach that includes a fridge, a dining table, a porch with loungers and, if you splurge (the cabana is $219 and the butler's only $50 more, tip additional), a butler who proffers Pinnacle Grill-style lunch fare complete with white wine and drinks from the bar -- no mean feat as it's quite a distance away. Hint: Cabanas are popular. Reserve yours the minute you book your cruise!
It was blissful.
Back to Reality
While on Westerdam you have the same early embarkation as every other big ship in the parking lot (oops, I mean port). One nice difference is that passengers are welcome to relax in cabins until they're called. Other than that -- with the exception of some general highs that included our ports of call, the Pinnacle Grill, our deep aft balcony and the camaraderie with people we met -- the experience onboard Westerdam was marred by consistently mediocre service and the kid conundrum. Lesson #3: Numerous folks, who were also a bit disappointed, offered this advice: never again sail during spring break.
But that's too easy. Responsibilities have to be met all around. Holland America itself erred in accepting more children than its facilities could reasonably handle. The significantly higher-than-usual crowd capacity put more pressure on its crew and undoubtedly had something to do with their general malaise. And it should go without saying (sadly it doesn't) that a huge cruise ship is not simply a big ol' playground for parents to dump their kids without reasonable supervision.
Holland America bills itself as a premium cruise line. But this experience, despite its high points, fell far below that standard. Ultimately, while the shiny-new Westerdam offered impressive choices, I'd prefer a smaller ship -- with fewer options and more respect for all of its passengers -- any day.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Photo of Tortola appears courtesy of the British Virgin Islands Tourist Board. Photo of St. Martin appears courtesy of the St. Martin Tourist Office.