Forget the staid image of a cruise

To cruise or not to cruise? That's a question many of our middle-age friends are asking as they consider ways to spend their vacation time and hard-earned money. A lot of people have one of two images: the Party Animal Special with 20-somethings being rowdy and stupid, or the God's Waiting Room cruise with a demographic roughly equivalent to your local senior center.

The truth is that most cruises fall somewhere in between, although there are cruise lines and destinations known to appeal to the very young or to the very old. We just came back from our second trip on Holland-America, this time to the Western Caribbean, and we found both cruises to have a smattering of the young, a few more of the old, but a lot of people like us who were smack in the middle.

We view cruising as a kind of sampler vacation, a week or 10 days in which you get to try several destinations and decide which ones you think you would enjoy visiting for an entire vacation period.

With cruising, you pack and unpack your bags once, while the scenery changes before your very eyes. The meals are no-muss, no-fuss, always cooked and ready for you to eat. Alcoholic drinks usually cost extra, but meals are generally covered with your price of admission. Most onboard activities are covered and only shore excursions cost extra.

Our most recent cruise was on the Veendam out of Tampa, Fla., visiting Cozumel, Mexico, Montego Bay, Jamaica and Grand Cayman Island.

On the Veendam, our “triple” stateroom gave us a couple of twin beds and a couch for our daughter to sleep on. We didn't have a private outside balcony but going with just a window saved us about $500 a week.

The Veendam's outdoor promenade deck is lined with a single row of deck chairs perfect for watching the scenery. It's also where we did our daily walking.

Days in port can be pre-planned by buying shore excursions such as boat trips, snorkeling trips and various sightseeing tours. We like to get off the ship, start walking the town and then take taxis or buses as necessary to see sights we had previously researched.

As you might expect, great beaches and warm-water swimming and snorkeling were plentiful in all three destinations. But each place had its own flavor and attractions and we especially enjoyed such destinations as the Harbour Street Craft Market in Montego Bay, where we loved getting to know the local merchants and vendors, and Cozumel's Chankanaab National Park, where there are beaches galore, giant iguanas run wild and even a pool where visitors can swim with dolphins. On Grand Cayman Island, we found the perfect snorkeling beach at Seven Mile Beach.

Back on the Veendam, the food was generally prepared to a high standard and we usually ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria-style Lido restaurant, and dinner in the Rotterdam dining room. There were three formal evenings – meaning everybody gets to dress up for dinner -- with all other meals remaining casual. Interestingly, we overheard some older passengers complaining there was too much cafeteria dining, not enough formal – yet we probably would have preferred even fewer formal dinners. It's hard to please all the people all the time.

With Holland-America, there is a $10 charge each day that goes toward tipping your cabin attendant, waiters and others who have helped you during your stay on the ship. Frankly we were glad to pay it. The service was as good as any umpteen-star hotel we've visited, always cheerful and responsive. For decades, Holland-America has been recruiting most of the ship's workers from Indonesia and the Philippines, even to the point of establishing training facilities in those areas, and it seems to be a great marriage. Second and third generation workers are happy to follow in their parents' footsteps and Holland-America continues to score high with passengers in the category of service.

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For more information on travel in California, visit www.californiaweekend.com.


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