A little confession, off the bat: I was a first-time cruiser, and I didn’t hate it. In fact, I unabashedly embraced it.
If you fashion yourself a Traveller vs. a Tourist, how you travel is as important as where you travel (if not more so). That’s why a little shiver crawled down my spine when my Mother-In-Law-To-Be announced we’d be taking a Caribbean cruise over Christmas. As someone who has long balked at the idea of a floating mega-resort packed with bougie gray-hairs, I was essentially throwing myself into a Traveller’s nightmare – or so I thought.
Over seven days in December, I called Holland America’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam home, quickly discovering that there are ways to cruise without feeling like a mindless tourist (although, not taking advantage of free room service would be wasteful).
- Meet the locals – …and by locals, I mean the ship’s crew. The Nieuw Amsterdam employs 929 staff members from around the world, primarily from the Philippines and Indonesia. Each and every one of them – from the bartender at the casino to the en-suite attendants to the waiters in the dining room – were ridiculously friendly. By the bottom of our first margarita, we had gotten to know 2 lovely bartenders from Manila who were more than happy to share stories of sailing around the world, going back to the Philippines for holidays and their favourite ports of call. We even managed to get some intel on the best out-of-the-way places to explore once we docked – all before the end of our first night at sea. Over the course of our trip, I traded engagement and marriage traditions with Grace from Zambia in the salon, crooned (albeit poorly) with fellow Canadian Greg at the piano bar, and learned a few words of a traditional Indonesian Christmas tune from some merry carolers. Due to the close-ish quarters and hours of leisure that unfurl before you mid-sea, you may even establish a stronger connection to ‘the locals’ than during longer, over-land expeditions.
- Ports of Call: You Can Go Your Own Way – Expect to spend approximately 6 – 8 hours at each port of call; with limited time to explore, you’ll want to get the biggest bang for your buck. The pre-packaged tours can sound tempting (and hey, if they’re your thing, by all means!) But for us, the concept of air-conditioned 15-passenger vans, manufactured experiences and convenient ‘rest’ stops at the gift shop kept us from pulling the trigger. Instead, we scoped out the port via our new friends on the ship, then ventured out and away from the crowds until we spotted a friendly-looking local to point us in a promising direction. In St. Thomas, a local shopkeeper hailed us a cab to the most beautiful, pristine and secluded beach we’d ever set eyes on. Not only were there very few people, but we received a warm welcome from a Canadian expat who rented beach chairs by the day – bonus! In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, we spotted an ancient fort atop the city. Shady-looking vendors with touristy minivans jostled to win our business, offering to drive us there for $15 USD each. Running on intuition and the advice of a helpful local, we discovered that we could hoof it in 15 minutes flat – and for free. Weaving through the winding and narrow city streets lined with cafes and fruit markets, we reached the Castillo San Cristóbal as the sun began to slip below the horizon, affording a stunning 360° view of the centuries-old cityscape.
- Let (Them) Entertain You – The in-house entertainment can be as authentic as you’d find on land. The Nieuw Amsterdam B.B. King’s All-Star Band is described by the Liner as bringing ‘the best of Blues to the sea”. The soul that bleeds through the sounds of Big Band Dixieland Jazz is pretty near to the personification of my soul, so to say I had low expectations is beyond an understatement. From the first peel of the trumpet to the driving drum beats accompanying the swinging guitar, I was instantly transported back to Frenchman Street, New Orleans, where a different Jazz Quartet greets you on every street corner and in every bar. We danced many nights away to some of the best music I’ve ever heard beyond the clubs of Chicago and the streets of NOLA. Stumbling into the group later on the buffet deck, we learned many of them were from Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans, and were going back home in the off-season to play with their respective local bands. Call that another lesson learned.
- Stake your Claim – On a ship jam-packed with 2,000+ passengers in a limited space, we had concerns that there would be no place to call our own. While you can expect certain areas of the ship to be forever busy (the pool, the casino and any place with food on offer), we were pleasantly surprised at how many free, quiet spots we were able to root out. Our favourite areas were the restaurant and cafe at the top deck of the ship (hint: people tend not to explore the furthest reaches of any location), and the Promenade Deck, which offered spectacular views of the horizon, especially at sunrise and sunset. Whenever we wanted a moment alone away from the chaos, we would retreat to the stern of the ship with only the sound of the waves, the sea spray on our faces, and the warm glow of the sun, moon or stars above us. Naturally, it was here that ‘the question’ was popped, and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place, on land or by sea, to say yes to my sweetheart (insert obligatory awwwww here)!
- Keep an Open Mind! – As on any trip to any destination, it is perspective that will define your experience – and that responsibility is entirely your own. I often find myself giving heed to the words of the great French Author Rabelais: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” Your own Great Perhaps could be awaiting you at the next port of call, or from the Crow’s Nest with a coffee and a view that goes on for days. Or hell, maybe it’s that poolside chair with a margarita and the latest YA novel – after all, it’s not a crime to just be for the day, amIright?
Are you a ‘cruiser’? Share some of your own experiences (the good, bad and ugly) below!