We are not the cruising type.
Okay, now that that's out there I will also admit I had been on a cruise once before at the invitation of a friend. It was fun -- but that was 20 years ago. I was in my twenties. Single. And not a mom. In recent years, vacations with my husband and young son (now 5) have tended toward quiet lakeside cabins, house-sitting stints in the country, cheap-and-cheerful beach getaways, or "cruising" our son around in our station wagon to spend time with relatives. As far as my husband is concerned, a great vacation is hiking to some remote spot in the woods and pitching a tent.
Still, we are not beyond a little indulgence, nor are we immune to the allure of the sea. So when presented with the opportunity for a seven-night "Historic Coasts" cruise up North America's Eastern seaboard, we decided to go for it. Our ship would be Holland America's Maasdam, a classic, moderately sized ship that had been described as "classy" and "intimate." We'd been told that HAL was long identified as a "seniors" line, but that was changing. The genteel, leafy, New England itinerary -- as opposed to sandier, beach-y routes -- suggested an older crowd. How well would Maasdam -- and this itinerary -- work as a "family cruise"? Would our son be forced to endure with just us -- and a thousand surrogate grandparents traipsing through chilly and less-than-exciting ports?
Really, we are not the cruising type. At least I didn't think so....
By a couple weeks before our cruise, the vague hesitations I'd had began to morph into high-drama worries, bordering on phobic. A cruise? What if my son fell overboard and was eaten by sharks? What about hurricanes? Norovirus? Claustrophobia? Boredom?!
Turns out, I needn't have worried so much. Based on the kinds of concerns I was seeing raised on Cruise Critic's message boards -- mainly the Holland America Line forum and Family Cruising forum -- one of the biggest qualms among my fellow first-timers was whether or not there are hair dryers in the cabins!
Clearly, there's a fine line between reasonable preparedness and obsessing about the details. This is, after all, a vacation experience designed to be self-contained, safe, easy and fun. In general, three lessons learned stand out:
1. Take less stuff. Odds are if you need it, you can get it.
2. Don't worry about food: there will be lots of it; it will be fine and there will always be something your kids can eat.
3. Yes, your kids can pull off formal night, even if it means jerry-rigging your husband's tie to fit your 5-year-old. No one will be the wiser -- and he may look so darn cute they won't notice the sandals (those, and sneakers, being the only shoes you packed).
Armed with three pairs of Seabands, two different kinds of travel sickness pills and a backpack full of toys (but no hairdryer), we headed to Boston's Black Falcon Terminal, more trepid than excited. "Let's see who can be the first one to spot the Maasdam," I said, trying to be chipper. We all saw her at the same moment. For an "intimate" ship, she looked enormous. In good faith, we kept going.
Embarkation proved to be a reasonably smooth affair. A tip from a previous passenger had suggested that the check-in line was actually much shorter for passengers who had not filled out the online forms in advance (as you are urged to do). This secret advantage proved true in our case, too. I avoided the envious glances of the more dutiful passengers as we, the purposely unprepared, were directed to the shortest line. (Note: Don't try this! I suspect that once this article sees the light of day, HAL will be onto it and the jig will be up.)
I was sussing out the crowd, hopeful to see other families with children, still not persuaded that HAL was the right choice for a family cruise -- or that my family was cut-out for cruising at all. I was flashing back to David Foster Wallace's “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again,” his acerbic and hilarious account of cruises and the people who take them. But it was too late to turn back. I'd gotten us into this.... I smiled, sallied forth, and slowly began to notice some potential vacation pals for my son. A boy in a Red Sox shirt -- though it was the wrong team in my New York state of mind -- was a good sign.
Walking into our cabin for the first time was another uplifting moment. We were especially pleased to see our verandah. We'd use it a lot over the course of the week --with or without each other, with or without binoculars, with or without books, with or without a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, with or without ... being awake. One night, my husband dozed off out there on the chaise and slept the entire night al fresco.
The cabin that was attached to the verandah was great too. Maasdam's staterooms (among other parts of the ship) got a major makeover last year as part of HAL's extensive overhaul of its entire fleet. The look is about clean, contemporary lines, subtle hues and comfort -- and efficiency.
As New York apartment dwellers, we know how to fight for closet space. But in our temporary home on the Maasdam, no scuffles were necessary; there was ample closet space and a bank of drawers for each of us, enough, even, for a designated toy drawer.
Out to Sea
A full day at sea to go from Boston to Newport seemed like a bit of a geographic zigzag, Essentially, we had driven four hours north from New York to Boston, and then we were sailing for a full day to get to a destination that was about a three-hour drive from our home. And after all that, we'd be docked in Newport only until 1:30 p.m. and then sail northward again.
But in some ways, having that first full day at sea was good, a leisurely day to get our bearings, have a dip in the pool (father and son) or lounge poolside (me), and explore the ship, including the new Explorations Cafe, with its 2,000-book library.
But the thing we enjoyed most on that sea day was simply watching the sea. The expansive and continual ocean vista is the most remarkable quality of a cruise. You just don't get that from other kinds of vacations. If there were soul-stirring moments on this cruise, they were born of gazing at the sea and spotting a whale, birds or the occasional migratory butterfly.
When a cheerful young woman greeted us at embarkation and handed my son an invitation to the welcome party at Club HAL, Maasdam's kids club, I was heartened. There were well over 100 kids onboard, she'd said. We did attend that party -- but the facility itself is compact and a bit disappointing. The row of video-game machines commanding a prominent position near the entrance -- games like "Metal Slug" -- didn't create a strong first impression, seeming more like an element of a turnpike travel plaza than a ship that prides itself on elegance. The party was a low-key affair: greetings from the staff, a rundown on the program and a picture of a shark to color.
In fact, throughout the cruise, we'd find that the programming in Club HAL was not particularly inspired. Though my son gamely went each day, the times there would not rate among his favorite cruise moments. He'd be more impressed by the "grown up" productions in the theater, the Piano Bar, his jokes about "smart casual" night vs. "dumb casual" night in the dining room, his attempts at Ping Pong, and small points of pride like leading the way to our cabin from almost anywhere on the ship.
Maasdam -- and Holland America -- might not win over families with older kids or those who have tried and loved lines like Disney that really run ahead of the pack in terms of extreme family programming. This ship is decidedly more low-key. But that was perfectly okay by us.
New Kid in Newport
Our first port of call, Newport, was a "tender" port -- meaning the ship anchors offshore and passengers take smaller shuttle boats (tenders) to the pier. Mainly what this means is an extra layer of logistics and lines, and in this case, even less time in this port we'd made such a long journey to reach. For my son, though, the tender was another adventure: climbing on and off, claiming the "shotgun" position up-front near all the levers and controls, watching as a group in the back got splashed by an errant wave.
Going Our Own Way Ashore
There were plenty of shore excursions offered by the ship, but I hadn't heeded the "book early" advice on shore excursions -- and by mid-week, most of the ones I thought might be good for us had booked up. (Word to the wise: DO book early!) But in fact, most of the other families we met hadn't booked the ship's excursions, either. For families, it can be hard to satisfy varying ages and energy levels and interests, and excursions can be costly for even a small brood.
The ship's staff does warn you: If you aren't on a ship-organized excursion and you're late making it back, you're out of luck. But since our adventures weren't terribly far away from port, we took the risk -- and it was worth it. In every port, it was cheap and easy to make our own way: on foot in Halifax, on the cheap-and-cheerful (if crowded) tourist trolleys in Newport, in the quaint local taxi driven by a chatty retiree in St. John or on environmentally friendly propane-powered busses to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor.
Dining onboard was a pleasant surprise. Maasdam's elegant Rotterdam Dining Room is at once bustling and subdued, with floor-to-ceiling views of the ocean. We had a window table for just us three. There was a kids' menu, to my relief and my son's satisfaction. The holy trinity of his diet -- pizza, spaghetti, mac and cheese -- were all there, along with hot dogs, burgers, chicken nuggets for, er, "variety." The adult fare was quite nice -- not spectacular but rather good. And the service staff was superb. That evening, my son would receive the first of a series of origami creatures made for him by our wine steward. Together with the towel animals we'd find on our folded-down bed covers each night, our room would become quite a menagerie by week's end.
These tiny touches helped Maasdam's family-friendly quotient enormously. Crewmembers remembered my son's name, greeted him with high-fives, carried his tray and brought him drinks with maraschino cherries. I don't imagine that staff on ships with a higher proportion of kids can give them this kind of personal attention.
Having not requested a dinner seating in advance, we got assigned to the early slot -- 5:45. Initially reluctant, I decided to make it work. And here again my lack of advance planning turned into an advantage. The early dinner slot allowed for a leisurely meal and then enough time for Club HAL or an evening show or stroll before bedtime. Already, I'd concluded that I'm on the traditionalists' side with regard to the hotly debated subject of traditional vs. progressive cruise ship dining formats. Frankly, I'm glad we didn't have to choose from a dozen different restaurants.
I'm also glad there wasn't the pull of Johnny Rockets or other chain establishments. There was a certain civility in the regularity of our dinner routine, a welcome contrast to the erratic dinner schedule that typifies our life at home. On Maasdam, there was never a moment of squabbling about where to have dinner, or when. It was very simple. Though we did try the ship's raved-about alternative restaurant, Pinnacle Grill, once, on every other night we made our way to the Rotterdam Dining Room, to our usual table where we were welcomed by the servers whose names we knew and who knew ours. In just a few days, we had become regulars.
Nightlife for Everyone
Seems we also became regulars at the Piano Bar. I grew to like cheerful (and unstumpable) Charley Rady, who presided over the nightly songfests around the glossy red piano in the intimate lounge. I'd never have guessed it would have been an attraction, and certainly not a family attraction. But what had drawn us in was the precocious 12-year-old with a fledgling zeal for Broadway tunes who did guest stints at the mike. The young singer attracted young audience members (and their parents), and thus, most nights there'd be a couple of kids, including my own, perched on the barstools.
Sure, I thought twice about taking a child to the Piano Bar, if only because "Bar" appeared in the title. There may have been one or two passengers who looked askance. But there was also the grandfatherly gent who sat next to my son and did magic tricks for him. Honestly, it was upbeat and smoke-free and convivial but certainly not drunken or rowdy -- in other words, it was good, clean fun. In this way, too, Maasdam had managed to be kid-friendly without being kid-centric.
Getting Dirty in Portland
Much of the itinerary, too, worked for families in an unsuspecting way. Portland, Maine, which is known for its arts and culture, managed to hold the interest of our son. At the superb Children's Museum of Maine, we dissected an owl pellet -- a hairy brown knot of half-digested bones and hair. It seemed (to me) a rather unsavory souvenir, but my son insisted we take our plastic bag of regurgitated matter back to the ship.
It would join a growing display that included a dead dragonfly, a large stick, a broken lobster claw and a mother lode of "special" rocks. With our apologies to the cleaning crew for the rocks, it was as though on some primordial level he was compelled to introduce elements of nature to our pervasively man-made environment of the ship.
Finding Some Mom-Time
Martyr Mom that I am, I claimed little luxurious time during the week. And Maasdam's Greenhouse Spa was inviting, with its quiet rooms, beautiful attendants and exotic sounding treatments. With a little over an hour before dinner one night toward the end of the cruise, I booked myself into the Thermal Suite ($18), an oasis of blue and yellow tiles with trickling fountains, a whirlpool, saunas and aromatherapy showers. I hurried to change, knocked back some of the complimentary herbal tea and got into the whirlpool. Ahhh. "Serenity now," I chanted in my head. "Serenity now!"
Serenity, it seemed, wasn't coming so fast.
I headed for the sauna. More pretty tiles, hot as the dickens but I like it like that. For about two minutes. It is hard to achieve serenity when you are sweating so much. I moved on to the heated ceramic tile loungers, which were curvaceous and sleek. Alas, they were also uncomfortable.
Back in the whirlpool, I eased my head back and let my body float up. Finally, I thought I felt something that may have been a glimmer of something like serenity approaching, when another passenger entered. A man. I self-consciously looked down at myself, only to discover that my bathing suit was on inside out.
I was outta there.
"How was the spa?" my guys wanted to know.
"Great!" I replied.
At breakfast in the Lido Buffet on that final morning, my husband did that thing he does that always lets me know he's had a good time: talk of staying longer.
"A week just isn't enough. You really need two weeks...."
"Two years!" chimed in our son.
So not only did the apple not fall far from the tree, but the jury had reached a verdict on our cruise experience. We'd all had a great time. The entire week had passed without a single meltdown or standoff or disagreement (and in my family, that's rare). Maasdam had offered up a manageable, comfortable, family-friendly cruise, which in some ways worked as a family cruise not so much because of its dedicated kids' programming (Club HAL), but more because of its small touches, relaxed atmosphere and exceedingly gracious service all around.
Epilogue: No Worries
I'm happy to report that none of us fell overboard. The sharks didn't get us, and neither did Norovirus (Purell must be making a fortune; the stuff was everywhere!). The three pairs of Seabands and two kinds of motion-sickness pills had not been needed. Hurricanes? No. Claustrophobia? No. Boredom? Not a minute.
Oh, and what about the hair dryers? Our cabin had not one, but two.
--by Deborah Bogosian, whose travel stories have appeared in The Washington Post. Top photo appears courtesy of Deborah Bogosian.