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REDIRECTED Come Aboard My First Family Cruise on Holland America's Maasdam

Deborah Bogosian
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All content was accurate when this story was published in March 2009.

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.

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?!

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. 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.

First Impressions

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.)

Our Digs

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.

Out to Sea

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.

Club HAL

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.

New Kid in Newport

Going Our Own Way Ashore

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.

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.

Nightlife for Everyone

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.

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.

Finding Some Mom-Time

Serenity, it seemed, wasn't coming so fast.

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.

"How was the spa?" my guys wanted to know.

Last(ing) Impressions

"A week just isn't enough. You really need two weeks...."

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.

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.

Updated October 10, 2019

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