Across The Caribbean Aboard Westerdam: A Floating, Family-Friendly Hotel - My Family Travels

Have children who want to learn about the world on the ultimate field trip? Holland America cruises can fulfill and exceed that educational requirement.

It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere. This means late sunrise, low temperatures, gray days, precipitation, and early darkness in the mix. What might bring warm days and sunny skies, powder-sand beaches and destinations that offer unusual sights? How about a family-friendly mix of comfortable space for everyone where you would only pack and unpack once? Add some exceptional customer service, a minimum of hassles, and there you go.

The Holland America Line offers the m.s. Westerdam, a 1,900-passenger, 950-foot, 82,500-ton masterpiece, the third in their 21st Century Vista-Class fleet. This particular itinerary left from Fort Lauderdale, stopped for the day at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas and cruised over 40 hours to Aruba for a daytime call. Next it was on to Curacao for another 11-hour visit before returning to Ft. Lauderdale. In all, a lot of time at sea, not usually a family-friendly event, but, given the right mix, something to learn from the Caribbean’s vastness.

Twas the Night Before the Cruise

In Ft. Lauderdale, the airport, hotels and cruise piers are within about 3 miles of each other, making transfers smooth and easy for all concerned. Arriving at the gigantic yet manageable Ft. Lauderdale Airport, members of our group were escorted to the Marriott Harbor Beach (3030 Holiday Drive, Ft. Lauderdale 33316; 954/525-4000) for a night’s stay before the cruise. We were treated to a most pleasant dinner at the on-site 3030 Ocean Restaurant (okay for older children, younger children may get bored by the course pacing). More family-friendly was the Cascades Restaurant, also on-site.

For the kids, the hotel offers a huge pool and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean with a lovely, sandy beach. My room was well appointed, with a great view of the waves and of the various cruise ships as they came along. This pre-cruise deviation will put any family into the mood on the morning of embarkation. An overnight here is well worth it if your budget allows, especially since flight delays have become so common that a same-day flight from home might threaten your arriving in time for the cruise’s departure.

And Away We Go…

Dawn came, welcoming the site of majestic, almost balletic cruise ships approaching the harbor. They discharged passengers and crew from last week’s trip, and then provisioned supplies, loaded crew, passengers and baggage for the voyages that would leave that night. After breakfast and a hurried beach walk, we descended upon the piers with thousands of other cruisers scattered among the many vessels that awaited them. Embarkation, although laborious, went routinely and quickly enough. I was in cabin #7035.

Under the guidance of Captain Peter Harris, this vessel was the city that moved! Picture 924 staterooms, 19 public rooms, a crew of 800 (almost 300 alone associated with food preparation and service), a spa, pools, and Club HAL for children. Anything you could ask for, served with a grace unique to Holland America, was granted. Captain Harris took his responsibilities seriously, and was a most delightful host.

Promptly at 5pm on Sunday, this gigantic vessel pushed out from the pier along with several maritime relatives, all bound for ports throughout the Caribbean. As the ship pushed further into what was to rapidly become an inky darkness, Ft. Lauderdale became smaller and smaller against a glorious sunset with just about every primary color in evidence in the sky.

As everyone on the ship entertained the idea of eating dinner, they could choose between the Lido, which offered cafeteria-style dining, the Vista Dining Room, a bi-level formal dining room with an excellent menu, and the Pinnacle, which was a premium fee dining room, offering specialties from the American Pacific Northwest. The Lido is very family-friendly, the Vista better suited to teenagers that are somewhat patient, the Pinnacle more formal in presentation, and suited to adults. Both the Vista and the Lido offer breakfast, while the Lido offers lunch, along with the Terrace Grill on the main pool deck. Dinner is served at all three restaurants. The menus have recently been through a re-design and many foods offered are low in carbs and fat. Coupled with smaller portions, healthier dining is family-friendly. The dining staff did an outstanding job, bringing style and service up to a level rarely seen in most restaurants.

Enough about food, tomorrow would bring an encounter with Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s own private island in the Bahamas.

Half Moon Cay: The Nicest Rest Stop You Will Ever Encounter….

The state of Florida is proximate to many islands in the Caribbean. While air travel has made even the furthest Caribbean island only a few hours from south Florida, the Bahamas are closest. As on-deck shuffleboard was innovative to a seagoing populace a generation ago, it is now considered mandatory for any cruise line worth its salt water to have their own private island as an oceanic rest stop for cruisers eager to start or finish the ports-of-call with a special flourish.

The Bahamian Island of Half Moon Cay (also known as Little San Salvador) is located about 200 miles Southeast of Ft. Lauderdale, between Eleuthera and Cat Islands, and is Holland America Line’s contribution to this expanding domain. Holland America transformed the 2,400-acre uninhabited island into a cruise destination in 1997. Only 65 acres of this paradise are open to people — the rest of the island is devoted to nature, including a part of the island named by the Bahamian National Trust as a wild bird preserve. For cruise passengers, it boasts a 9-mile shoreline, including 2 miles of fabulous crescent beach on the west side of the island, where you disembark. With no dock available, you tender out to the island, about a mile and a half away from where the ship is anchored. The calm Caribbean makes this as easy as getting on and off a bus at the curb, certainly a family-friendly feature for children.

Club HAL has its own private venue on the island. Snorkeling, horseback riding, an Aqua Park with waterslides, an enclosed open-air cafeteria and an ice cream parlor coupled with the fabulous beach make this an incredible experience for the entire family. Did I mention the Stingray Encounter? It begins with an information briefing by a specialist on marine life followed by swimming or snorkeling with these graceful creatures, touching their wings and even feeding them. And what about swimming on a horse? They have this covered, too. These two activities are certainly not everyday events.

Everyone in the family (ok, maybe not everyone is an early riser) will be consumed by its beauty from the first tender out at 8am, to the last tender back at 3:30pm. And, even if you are a head of state, a CEO or a rock star, the only way to properly experience this destination is to be a passenger on a Holland America Ship. Naps for all when you get back to your cabin; you will need them, for sure!

Keeping Busy on the Somewhat (for Kids) Long Voyage

Right on schedule, at exactly 4pm, the Westerdam pulled up anchor and was bound for Aruba, for almost two days of continual cruising. While this could be somewhat problematic for any child with a short attention span, on this cruise there was much to keep everyone occupied all day and all night.

Holland America accepts passengers 6-months of age and older, although these junior sea-men and women will have to wait until they turn 3-years to participate in Club HAL. Besides Club HAL for the 3 to 12-year-old set, The Loft, with an assortment of video appliances, a big screen TV, and activities until midnight, is aimed at the 13 to 17-year-olds. The well-supervised activities range from story-telling to card games to scavenger hunts, depending on the children’s ages.

What happens if even that doesn’t seem to be enough? Even though both facilities operate all days during times at sea, with breaks for meals, what else is there to do? Food and Wine magazine has come to the rescue. In one of the lounges in each of Holland America’s ships, a Culinary Arts Center has emerged. Twice during our week-long cruise, cooking demonstrations were offered by the chefs on board. Sound interesting? The inner chef in everyone emerges as you sit in your comfortable chair, watch (and maybe participate in) the proceedings; live or via a closed circuit plasma TV with close-up views of the preparation. Then you can enjoy the results in a tasting of what has been prepared. Recipe cards are available, so you can replicate those dishes at home. And, kids won’t feel left out as there is also a culinary program for all those budding cooks under the age of 17.

Weather on this transit was mostly pleasant, although the second morning, it was dark and gray. Looking out the window, I noticed a lighthouse with a strobe light. Land! it was the southeastern coast of Cuba. What a wake up call. For a few hours we were within sight of Cuba and Haiti — an instant geography lesson for the not-yet voting set. And once we left the shores of Haiti, there was no land sighting for almost a day. Granted, we were traveling on a deluxe vessel filled with every kind of convenience, but there was something about being confined to this almost 1,000 foot moving island traveling 1,250 miles across the Caribbean Sea.

The vastness was staggering — the horizon, over 10 miles away in every direction — you could see nothing but a school of porpoises chasing the ship. Two thousand seven hundred people in a shared environment, surrounded by nothing but the sea. Staggering. You cannot comprehend the vastness of oceans until you are out there. If anyone in your family has astronaut leanings, this is an eerily backdoor way to experience being far away from home in a huge body of water. No trees, no grass, no pavement, no billboards, no buildings. Just waves, and a chance to appreciate the beauty. Families may find the vastness, and the week’s duration of the cruise with few port calls, to be a blessing in disguise.

For parents, there are the usual activities to be enjoyed while the children are occupied in Club HAL. The onboard spa makes the voyage even more relaxing, as evidenced by the skillful artistry of the therapists. Movies and popcorn, art auctions, on-board shopping; other programmed activities ran from sunup to past midnight all over the ship. There is always an Internet center on board and while the charges are not inexpensive, it is nice to be able to send and receive emails, and maybe even look at the local news. With many sunny days in that part of the world, just lying on a chaise was a favorite activity among all ages. After dinner, the professional caliber, on-board entertainment provided another great diversion.

By the way, babysitting is available from 10pm to midnight during Club HAL after-hours, and on a by request basis during the day. If you want to see that movie, listen to that comic, or see the show, it is not a problem. And, if you want to splurge on a special meal, the Pinnacle Grill is the place for incredible fare.

Land Ho !!! and Under the Sea

Almost two days after leaving Half Moon Cay, a landmass loomed over the horizon and, as we got closer, shapes and forms of human endeavor poked forth. Radio towers, airplanes, other ships all came into view. It was Aruba, a great place to stretch your land legs after transiting the Caribbean.

Once arriving in Aruba, I sampled a memorable experience. As you probably are aware, shore excursions are a big component of the port visits and on all port calls, there were at least 10 activities ranging from very mellow to strenuous to choose from. Curious? Take a look at Holland America’s website for a complete selection. My choice took me back to the water as it involved boarding a launch to a point 3 miles from the pier, and waiting for… a submarine! Atlantis Adventures operates in 12 different locations throughout the world, and offers a subway-car sized (okay, a 70-foot-long, 9-feet in diameter) tube carrying 48 people, operating at 3-miles per hour, traveling over 100 feet below the surface of the water. More compact than scary, with no auxiliary outside lighting, you get a fish-eye view of shipwrecks, stingrays, other sea life and beautiful coral formations. Our First Mate, Angie, gave us all a great description of everything that we saw. The passenger height requirement is only 36-inches, so most members of your family should qualify. It was an incredible 45-minute experience. After meeting (but not sleeping with) the fishes, a little landlubbing was called for.

I hopped aboard one of the frequent buses in Oranjestad, just a few blocks from Aruba’s main pier, and rode to Palm Beach for a snack and a walk on perhaps the best powdery sand on earth. There is much to do and see on Aruba and Family Travel Forum has some great reading about the island, so take a look around the website and you will find a wealth of information.

Back on the ship, and, after an overnight voyage to Curacao, we docked in the heart of Willemstad, the main city on this island of 150,000. Again, a shore excursion was in store, but a much tamer one. I boarded a bus for a tour of the western part of the island and saw many plantation houses, beautiful beaches, tidal flats filled with flamingos, and the moonscape-like Christoffel National Park. This was a nice introduction to the island and after that, I took a walk around downtown Willemstad. It was bursting with interesting Old World Dutch colonial architecture, including some forts. Willemstad is the home of Mikve Israel Emanuel, the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas Hemisphere founded in 1651 by Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Curacao as they fled the Spanish Inquisition.

Given the relative small size of “downtown,” it was very kid-friendly. Interestingly, it was much different than its neighbor island. While Aruba seemed very tourist driven, Curacao’s pace seemed quieter, less slick. Both are worthwhile port calls for all members of the family.

The Long (Sea) Road Back Gives Us Time for a Behind The Scenes Tour

Once we left Curacao (on time!), it would be another 2½ days back to Fort Lauderdale, with no exotic ports of call left to enjoy. Just us, the Caribbean, and what turned out to be a rather hazy afternoon’s transit along the north coast of Cuba.

Time for my journalist’s group to learn about the Westerdam. While touring from the lowest deck to crow’s nest lounge, we were told all about the workings of the ship. We toured the Environmental Station, where on board staff monitor environmental safety issues; the kitchen and stores; the bridge and, after an interesting question and answer session about life aboard the ship from senior crew’s perspective, there was little left to imagine.

One of the most revealing features about the ship is the lack of vibration, which made the trip even more pleasant. It turns out that the propulsion is achieved through the use of azipods, which steer the ship on flexible pods, a marriage of propeller and rudder, not unlike the bottom of an outboard motor, just about 100 times larger.

We also learned that the dining areas can process as many as 1,500 people during mealtimes. With most of the international crew onboard working from 10 to 14 hours each day (with a few hours off in between shifts, and then a long break every six to 12 months depending on job class), everyone is trying to make your cruise a most pleasant time for all. I credit Captain Harris and his contented staff for making guests feel at home on this cruise.

Too soon, all 1,900 of us were back in Ft. Lauderdale, waiting for the buses to take us back to our flights home, back to cool northern climes, to work, to school, to real life. But the week we all spent together will be one large collective memory of new experiences and knowledge for all of us. We gave thanks to all aboard and on shore that made this such a worthwhile experience.

To book your Holland America Caribbean cruise whose 2008 – 2009 itineraries include the Panama Canal, the Caribbean and Alaska’s Inside Passage and Glacier Bay, contact your travel agent, visit Holland America or call 877/932-4259.

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