At Sea Again

January 2005

It seemed like a good idea at the time—flee frigid Washington for a balmy Caribbean cruise. And it did turn out to be half true. At several islands we visited we were told that we must have brought the sunshine, because it had been raining for a week. The other part didn't work out as planned, as CNN kept informing us about the unseasonably warm weather in the north. Temperatures did plummet after our return home.

What attracted us, in addition to the last-minute price that was almost as cheap as staying at home, was the new Holland America Line port: Norfolk. No airport hassles, not to mention the possibility of weather delays jeopardizing the whole trip. And we did hear from the Captain that they delayed embarkation for about twenty people who had encountered weather difficulties. We had seen them scurrying aboard during the lifeboat drill, but the ship departed without three others who didn't make it in time. Since their flight reservations had been made through HAL, they were flown to the earliest feasible port of call, St. Thomas. However, they did miss the first three days of the ten-day cruise—it's a long sail to the Caribbean, and the first stop is at Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island in the Bahamas.

That long sail does have the advantage of requiring one to relax before and after the island hopping.

I guess we're more cautious than most. We even drove down the day before, taking advantage of the Norfolk Radisson's "Park and Cruise" package, for about the price of parking near the dock. The package included room, parking, breakfast, a welcoming open-bar reception, and transportation to and from the ship. In fact, their shuttles also took us to and from a restaurant downtown in the World Trade Center building that night, from which we could view our lighted ship, and the impressive Chrysler museum the next morning. We found that the ship had been in port for four days, having all the carpeting replaced and many amenities upgraded, including pillow-top mattresses, 350-count sheets, and bathrobes.

Based on people we met, most passengers came from more northern East Coast areas. There were also quite a few Canadians, many of whom had flown down the day of departure. Others came all the way from Seattle, which is the headquarters of Holland America, and one couple flew in from Tennessee. I think if I were flying from Tennessee, I'd pick a cruise leaving from Florida.

On the other hand, by selecting the Maasdam, they avoided the fate of some who sailed on the Veendam from Tampa a week later. Perhaps you've read that the cruise was cut short when 20% of the passengers contracted a gastrointestinal virus, while those affected were quarantined to their rooms as soon as their symptoms appeared. We sailed on the Veendam two years ago, before the Norwalk virus was widely known, but last year, the Volendam was very vigilant. Disinfectant spray dispensers were positioned by the ship's entryway and a crew member made sure everyone used it before boarding. We noticed this year that, although dispensers were likewise available, enforcement of their use was more lax.

This year, the eastern Caribbean was awash with ships, including some of the new monsters. Twice the QM2 was in the same port as we were &nash; this photo is at Sint Maarten. She's really impressive from a distance—as dusk approaches, "Queen Mary 2" in white neon leaves no doubt of her identity.

Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is a relatively small island—36 square miles—but nine ships converged on it the day we were there. The local Sint Maarten newspaper claimed that 27,000 people would be visiting, which would almost equal their entire population of 32,000. Since our ship only held 1,250 passengers, it's obvious that somebody's PR department was revved up, although some megaliners do hold over 3,000.

The island has the distinction of being the smallest in the world to have been partitioned between two different nations. Legend says that the boundary was set when a Frenchman and a Dutchman walked in opposite directions around the island until they again met. The Frenchman must have walked faster, or perhaps had longer legs, because the French side is about 60% larger, but the Dutch side has the better harbor. They have built this advantage into one of the Caribbean's biggest duty-free and gambling ports.

You may have read the recent Washington Post Travel section article by a QM2 Caribbean cruiser who decided not to disembark at Sint Maarten. We saw her ship in the harbor, and we feel that she missed out on some fun, although maybe she'd been there before. After browsing Phillipsburg's main street for a while, we did the same thing as the last time we'd been there—flag down one of the privately-run minibuses, for $1.50 a person, to go over the hills to the French side. We were soon sipping French wine at an outdoor café in Marigot, people-watching in the shadow of the ruins of Fort Louis.

After a leisurely lunch we returned to Phillipsburg and selected some Cuban cigars from among a huge assortment in a shop with a large humidor room. I had in mind that some evening I'd join the "Cigars Under the Stars" group in the Dolphin Bar, but never got around to it. Fortunately, there were no cigar-sniffing dogs to greet us in Norfolk. I imagine a group of fogies from a Holland America Line cruise don't attract that much contraband attention.

© Copyright 2005 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved