To cruise or not to cruise?

By Marsha Caplan
This item appears on page 24 of the February 2019 issue.

Floral arrangement outside the <i>Westerdam</i>’s main dining room. Photos by Marsha Caplan

It was Oct. 12, 2017, and I was enjoying coffee on our cabin's veranda, watching the shoreline go by and thinking about my cruise adventure, which was coming to an end.

My husband, Michael, and I have been independent travelers for many years. Every two or three years, we would choose a country in which to spend five to seven weeks, then make advance reservations for a rental/buy-back car and for apartments in some locations, and off we'd go. Our last trip of that kind was in 2011, driving across northern Spain, which we recounted in an article in ITN (June '12, pg. 20).

We had talked about returning to Spain and spending a month staying in San Sebastián and Barcelona rather than planning the usual driving itinerary, but after a variety of health-related problems, we began to think about something we'd never seriously considered before: taking a cruise. I was ready to be pampered!

Early in 2017, our frequent-cruiser friends told us about a 24-day cruise that they had taken on a mid-size Holland America Line (HAL) ship. It left from Barcelona and ended in Venice — two of our very favorite cities — and included ports in Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia. Michael and I took the plunge, called our travel agent and made our reservation for embarkation that September.

We made our own flight arrangements using miles, rented apartments for three nights each in Barcelona and Venice and began reading reviews of the ship and ports.

Following are observations of what we liked and did not like about this adventure.

THE SHIP — Our cabin (No. 5149) on HAL's Westerdam was comfortable, with plenty of storage space. We loved being able to relax on our veranda. We enjoyed breakfast in our room or in the sun by the pool.

The public spaces were beautiful and filled with fresh flower arrangements. We looked forward to our three-laps-equals-one-mile walk around the promenade deck every day.

Calvi Beach in Haute-Corse, France.

At dinner, usually at a table for six or eight in the open-seating dining room, we met a variety of people.

The service on board was excellent, the food was very good, and the ship, which holds 1,900 passengers, never felt too big.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ACTIVITIES — Except for a performance by flamenco dancers from Cádiz, we were very disappointed in the main-stage entertainment. The ship's show troupe was amateurish at best. However, the young string quartet and their pianist on the Lincoln Center Stage were fabulous!

We also spent many evenings dancing to the energetic music of B.B. King's All Stars.

Many repeat HAL cruisers complained that there were no interesting onboard activities, such as language lessons or history lectures, and we agreed. And Michael found that, with no way to sign up in advance, there were never enough electronic poker table players to have a good game.

INFORMATION Holland America Line (855/932-1711, www.hollandamerica.com/en) is noted for providing good information about every port, and we looked forward to hearing background lectures, but this was a major disappointment.

The two lecturers were part of the staff whose primary goal was to sell shore excursions. While one of the lecturers covered some history, most of the information concerned how to get from the ship to the town and where to shop.

Explanada de España in Alicante, Spain.

For each port, a single-sheet handout provided scenic and restaurant suggestions but no addresses and no local street map. The first hour of every port visit had us searching for the information office to get a local map.

THE PORTS — You will seldom get a sense of the country, or even the city, on a port stop. Those we wished we had skipped include Gibraltar, Livorno, Civitavecchia, Messina, Corfu, Dubrovnik (only because three other large ships had docked and the streets were too packed to be comfortable), Korcˇula and Koper.

Following are the ports we especially enjoyed:

Cádiz, Spain, is a very pretty, pastel Andalusian town. The first thing we did was go to the Mercado Central, opened in 1838. The interior stalls were filled with fish — more varieties of fish and shellfish than we'd ever seen.

We found the lovely Plaza de Mina and went to the combined archaeological museum and contemporary art museum. The artifacts from Phoenician and Roman times, especially the jewelry, were very interesting. Each room had an introductory paragraph in English, but the individual exhibits had only Spanish descriptions.

Málaga was a lot bigger than I expected. It has lots of wide, marble pedestrian areas, with mountains in the background and lots of palm trees and greenery.

Museo Picasso (12 [near $13.75], reduced for seniors at the ticket office) is well worth a visit. The museum chronicles Picasso's work over 80 years in a way that lets you see why and how his artistry changed over time, and it had a very good audio guide. It took about two hours to go through.

Palma de Mallorca's Fundación Juan March contemporary art museum (free entry) had a beautiful interior space, converted from an old mansion and housing a very interesting collection.

We followed our visit with lunch at the San Juan Gastro Market (www.mercadosanjuanpalma.es/en/our-gastro-market). It was a pleasant, very long walk to get there, passing through a nice shopping area and off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, but we were glad we found it. There were about 20 different food stalls, including Thai, seafood, regular tapas and San Sebastian-style pintxos.

Toulon, France, was a wonderful surprise, from its long street market to the excellent National Maritime Museum (6). It is the largest naval base in France, and many intricate model ships are displayed.

Calvi, Corsica, provided a good day at the beach. We walked on the boardwalk, which runs parallel to the beach on one side and fronts rustic cabins on the other, and enjoyed dipping our toes in the Mediterranean.

Monte Carlo, Monaco, is beautifully landscaped and pristine. The highlight was the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco (14), which has so many species of fish, coral, anemones, etc., on display that it boggles the mind. The exhibits are very well done, most having some explanation in several different languages.

Our day in Valletta, Malta, was shortened because of bad weather, but it turned out to be a favorite place for us. St John's Co-Cathedral (7.50 for seniors) was well worth a visit. It's a magnificent cathedral — ornate, with floors that are works of art, as are all the side chapels. The audio guide was very good.

Guitarist performing in Cadíz, Spain.

We followed our visit with lunch at Palazzo Preca (palazzoprecavalletta.com), located in an area formerly called "the gut," once a slum. In the process of being upscaled, the area has small boutiques and cafés. This restaurant, opened by two sisters, is in a renovated palazzo and was lovely, with beautiful chandeliers, fine white linens and excellent food.

Kotor, Montenegro, was another surprise. The harbor is stunning, and there are steep rock mountains all around, with the lovely Old Town and new town at their base.

At the end of most of the streets there was a plaza with cafés. At Luna Rossa, where we stopped for coffee, we had such a pleasant time sitting in the sun, watching people go by and listening to the soft jazz coming from the tavern across the way that we stayed to order lunch.

Split, Croatia, is a beautiful city and, in my opinion, has Dubrovnik beat. The centuries-old Diocletian's Palace was packed with large tourist groups, so after a quick walk-through, we went outside the walls onto the Riva esplanade and got a city map.

We wanted to go to the Meštrovic´ Gallery, a former palace converted to a gallery for this sculptor's work. It was a very long but lovely walk through a nice residential area, and we spent an hour or so at the gallery enjoying Meštrovic´'s work.

If you asked Michael what he liked best about the cruise, he'd say "The three days in Barcelona before the cruise and the three days in Venice after." Yes, we both loved being back in those wonderful cities.

In Barcelona, we rented an apartment at 7 Carrer Mozart (www.feelathomeapartments.com), in the Gràcia area. Just walking around the city and eating wonderful food is all one needs to enjoy vibrant Barcelona.

Our time in Venice didn't start out as smoothly as we had hoped. The ship was scheduled to dock at 6 a.m., but the port was fogbound, so we couldn't dock until 1:30, after which we found the disembarking process quite unorganized. Lines were sort of forming, and some people were jumping the lines, as they claimed to have signed up for land tours, not necessarily HAL's. The advice of the only person in charge was to "Be patient."

Marsha Caplan about to head to dinner aboard the <i>Westerdam</i>.

As in Barcelona, walking around Venice — and perhaps enjoying a gelato while doing so — is all one needs to be happy there.

So what did we learn? If we take another cruise, it will be on a smaller ship with a more focused itinerary and good lecturers, though it will still have to have very good food and allow me to be pampered!

I'd be happy to answer any questions or provide further details (marsha1340@gmail.com).

MARSHA CAPLAN
Boulder, CO

ITN emailed a copy of the above cruise account to Holland America Line, inviting any response, but received no reply.