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Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam

On a lark one day in January 2012, my husband sent me an email with a link to an incredible transatlantic cruise ship sale. Leaving Miami, Florida, on April 1 it would take more than four weeks to arrive at its final glorious destination -- Venice, Italy. Along the way it would stop several times in Portugal and Spain, once in France, followed by three or more stops in Italy, then Turkey with Venice bringing the adventure to glamorous end. Seeing all of these places sounded terrific and we spent wonderful hours giving it some serious thought.

Our original plan for this year's spring holiday had been to spend April in Sicily and May in Naples, but the cruise idea put a little more complexity in the planning. On the one hand, cruise voyages never seemed like "real" traveling to me. I thought of them as secure and pampered vacations -- lavish dining, lazing on board, massages in the spa, shopping, poolside sunning, light gambling in the casinos, meeting and greeting thousands of other passengers with the whole experience enhanced with beautifully managed visits ashore in exotic ports of call. On the other hand, taking a cruise was something totally new for me and my husband was thrilled with the idea. In the end, the real plus was crossing the Atlantic by ship. Stassi had sailed it a few times and wanted to share the romantic feeling that truly being at sea can bring. The first of April is our anniversary and that sealed the deal -- we were on for a cruise!

We had business to do in Miami and couldn't confirm our sailing date until a few days beforehand and by then the ship's schedule had changed for the type of cabin we wanted. Now we would be leaving Miami to arrive at our final destination Barcelona, Spain, in only seventeen days. And what luck, Stassi, my husband, had spent some years of his youth there building a steel ship replica of Joshua Slocum's Spray. He loved the city and had many fond and funny memories to share with me on arrival.

April 1 came, our business was done in Miami and we were off! Getting on board the Holland America ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam was a pleasure especially compared to flying these days. Security was in place, but not intrusive and invasive. Anticipating the civilized welcome, most passengers were well dressed and all were excited to be traveling. Everyone we interacted with on staff was courteous and helpful, even gracious and within a short time we were on board and invited to a pre-sailing lunch. There was a buzz on board with the anticipation passengers brought with them while the ship's crew actively welcomed their guests and made all of us feel at home.



After lunch we found our cabin which was inside and free of windows, but it was on the seventh deck many stories above the ocean. On first sight, I had a touch of claustrophobia, but recovered in a few minutes. My husband called our cabin the sleeping cave and that seemed perfect. We had stayed in a land based cave in Santorini just a few years ago at my insistence and in truth a sleeping cave made the idea of crossing the Atlantic in a sailboat sleeping in a berth below deck a lot more real -- everything had to be in its place at all times and opening windows was often dicey. On the Spray, an 80 foot sailboat, sleeping cabins had 12 inch glass port holes opened only if the sea was just about flat calm.

On board the Nieuw Amsterdam, everything we needed to be comfortable was there in our little cabin -- a queen sized bed with nightstands on each side and good reading lamps, a desk with a good reading lamp and access to the internet, a large closet safe, great storage for luggage and clothes, a very appealing bathroom and a steward who introduced himself as Helmi. He would prove to be one of the best features of the cruise. From Indonesia, Helmi brought his culture of graciousness to his work. He proved to be a lovely person and we are grateful to have met him. Helmi kept our cabin spotless and well organized, he answered our endless questions about his country and about the ship and he never once forgot the chocolates on our pillows.

      Helmi from Indonesia

Though all seemed to be going well initially, there were a still a few points on which Stassi and I differed -- sharing dining tables with strangers, engaging in conversation in a heartbeat with yet more perfect strangers and signing up for shared activities that I'd never considered interesting or appealing and still don't. Now that I think back on it, I am reminded of settling in to my college dorm at B.U. I didn't like it much then either. Those issues settled, we had a wonderful trip. I spent a lot of time in the cabin at the desk writing every day, Stassi gambled now and then, had a go at bingo, played basketball with pick up guys, perused the library and engaged the internet manager, we read books sitting on the deck, we ate wonderful food and we interacted with staff from many countries, mostly young people with bright shining eyes and an eagerness to learn about passenger's lives. Even the young woman in charge of passenger internet services had an exotic home base -- Namibia. She showed us her wonderful photographs of the wildlife and exquisite landscapes in her country.

Below are photographs of just a few of the charming staff we met. They work very hard on these cruises, but they also visit beautiful ports of call even if only for a few hours. They will have those memories forever.

Indriyani from Central Java in Indonesia
Chef Christopher from India
Tomo Iputu and Dalo Fachrud
both from Indonesia
Septiari (Ari) from Bali Island, Indonesia
Some of the service staff were older and one felt the weight of their separation from their families and home countries. Our voyage had a predominance of Indonesian staff with others from Thailand, India and even Mexico where we lived for many years. In the days we were on board we got to know some of these staff better than with any of the other passengers. Most of those we remember well were in the dining rooms calmly serving food in a gracious manner to hundreds of people three or four times a day.

Chef Emmanuel Calderon
from Cancun,

Chef Gabriel Meyer
from Mexico City (D.F.), Mexico
Chef Andy
from the Philippines
This was a seventeen day cruise, leaving warm sunny Florida to first touch land in the chilly springtime of the Portuguese islands. The first land we saw was on a rainy gray day in the harbor of Horta Island in the Azores. With tenders being used to ferry passengers to the docks on shore we decided to remain on board. Lots of passengers, even those appearing infirm, hustled on down to board the tenders and made for land. Maybe it was the desire to walk on terra firma after almost a week at sea or a feeling that this was their chance in a lifetime to explore. Nothing would be missed. We watched the tenders being unloaded from the promenade deck with admiration as these large capsule shaped boats were lowered from their perches above deck, slung overboard and lowered to the sea.

Tenders which you see in the photographs above and below double as lifeboats, but that is not a thought I want to dwell on. When we boarded the ship in Miami, before leaving port all passengers were required to participate in a safety drill so we were well acquainted with the deck and with procedures should anything go wrong and there were additional drills for staff every few days along the voyage -- man over board and others. Our captain was a serious fellow from Holland named Vincent Smit. He was very gracious with the ship's passengers and with us personally, but he was all business about his job. That proved very comforting as there had been a few serious cruise ship problems in the news in the month before departure. As it is easy to say, Captain Smit "ran a tight ship."
Now in range of mainland Europe our next stop was Ponta Delgada, also in the Azores. This time we were docking in a port where one would have had to hog tie me to keep me on board. I was excited about walking on land and seeing something new! The weather was still pretty chilly though and being folks who haven't experienced a winter in two decades, we faded pretty quickly. The ship docked for several hours and our send-off was fantastic. One of those tugboat/fire fighting ships sprayed water for several minutes in all directions while our captain tooted the ship's horn. They made our departure quite an event! Usually considered a hard hearted Hanna, even I found it very romantic.
Lisbon was our next port of call and it proved itself not only a lovely respite from ship board days, but an exciting place to explore. This relatively unknown city has a long history that is well evidenced in its architecture and unique culture. We loved it and look forward to visiting the city again when we can spend a week or two. One of the wonderful features of cruising with Holland America is the wealth of accurate information provided on each and every port of call -- what to shop for, special places to visit foods and entertainment to enjoy and much more, even good maps with outlying areas of interest well marked. And, there are always guided tours available for those who want them.
Our next port of call was Cadiz, a Spanish city I can also readily imagine revisiting. It has not yet become a tourist destination so it still has a feel of the vibrant life of its residents. Its fresh food market is wonderful especially for the wealth and variety of fresh seafood. Just imagine eating some of the seafood featured in the photographs below. We bemoaned not having a kitchen, but once again Holland America came through with a truly fabulous shipboard seafood extravaganza. It was extraordinary!

Malaga is a city seemingly created for tourism. Shops sell goods that will pass airport inspection and the port is comfortably arranged to move people from visiting cruise ships into the central city and back within the 7 or 8 hour ship's visit. It's pleasant and much of the city is beautiful with carefully restored architecture, but where is the adventure or the nooks and crannies with something surprising? It was all very civilized.

The excitement of our arrival in Barcelona two days later was dampened by a cold rainy day and almost impossible to find accommodations. As is our custom we hadn't made any advance reservations and that is a mistake if you are heading to this extremely popular city. As with Malaga, Barcelona is a city of tourists and those that serve them. I don't think we actually ever met anyone who grew up there. That said, the city has a list of interesting things to do each day and offers lively choices for evening diversions. In particular we loved the Miro Museum. The renowned Las Ramblas is a very wide promenade dotted with flower shops, souvenir kiosks and street performers as you'll seen in the photographs below. It is also truly filled with people, even on a chilly day in April. What had been a rustic port neighborhood before the Olympics arrived -- the Barcelonetta -- is now very stylish with cafes and upscale renovated apartments, but all in all I thought it a little too sanitized to be interesting now. Having spent a couple of days there getting our landlubber legs back, we were then on our way to Sicily.

This sea voyage passed more quickly than I would have imagined. The Nieuw Amsterdam was beautifully managed, always spotlessly clean with attractively and comfortably furnished spaces. The air handling system was the finest I have ever experienced. We had narry a sniffle nor a morning cough during the whole voyage. Staff were friendly and helpful without ever being intrusive. The food in the two main dining rooms was always good and there was enough variety to keep everyone happy. The three small specialty restaurants were each disappointing even though there was an extra charge for dining in them. There were lots of spaces for socializing, but as well there were comfortable places to enjoy a bit of solitude. The Nieuw Amsterdam seems to appeal to mature adults who aren't looking to be scaling rock walls or other things of that sort. It did have a schedule of activities -- lectures, cooking classes, bingo, music ensembles, night club acts and it had a beautifully outfitted gym with huge windows overlooking the sea. Stassi and I entertained ourselves reading, catching up on unseen movies, walking the deck and writing. All in all, it was a very pleasant time.