“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous
First, I would like to apologize to all who have been waiting for the final post of this blog. I had good intentions of completing the task in a timely manner, but we all know the saying about good intentions. The simple fact is, after returning home, real life intervened for the first few weeks and then the writing of a summary became a chore awaiting to happen instead of the usual pleasure I have doing my blog entries. Second, I would like for it to be known that the views, thoughts and opinions expressed below are entirely my own. They may or may not reflect in all cases the views of my fellow travel companions. At any rate, here we go…
Instead for rehashing the trip port by port, I am going to try and give my impressions of our travels and the impressions our travels have made on me. In addition I will try to answer some general questions which have been posed to me either in person by friends or through emails from individuals I don’t know who have read the blog.
I will start with our Travel Service, Cruise Specialists (CSI), located in Seattle (www.cruisespecialists.com) . As the name indicates, they specialize in booking cruises. They are, I believe, the largest single booker for Holland America Lines (HAL). When we made our first long voyage we did a lot of searching and pricing of different agencies. We found that CSI was not necessarily the lowest cost agent for the cruise itself but their ADDED VALUE made the choice easy. Our adviser, Michelle Boots, whom we have used for the past 5 years is a dedicated professional who listens to what you want and makes every effort to deliver that for you. She is pleasant, informed and responsive. As always Michelle, it was a pleasure to work with you (and thanks again for the birthday and Easter cards as well as my favorite Sees candy you sent on Valentine Day.
And no, the cards and candy were not the added value I was talking about. CSI provides company escorts on all the longer cruises. On the Grand World Voyage we had three. Henk and Lucia Barnhorn, and Tom Mullen. The hosts not only act as resources to help with any problems, either personal or travel related but host several CSI sponsored cocktail parties during the trip. They are all lovely people who we have traveled with before and hope to again.
CSI also gives additional shipboard credit and provides excursions at many ports. Sometimes these are unique and sometimes they are the same as HAL provides, but with CSI you are with a smaller group, escorted by one of the hosts and they are generally less expensive. Oh, I almost forgot – CSI give you an additional credit toward their tours or they will give the credit to your shipboard account if you don’t take any of their excursions.
In the past, I usually have always booked my travel insurance on my own because I found it to be more cost effective (cheaper). With CSI, Michelle has provided trip coverage at comparable cost or even less than what I could acquire. Here I will admonish you readers to NEVER, NEVER, cruise without travel insurance. Sure it can be expensive, especially for a long trip like this, but what if you do have a serious medical problem on the other side of the globe? The costs could easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Don’t skip the insurance.
As you can probably see, I am very pleased with the service and price I receive from Cruise Specialist and from Michelle specifically. I can’t imagine booking a cruise with anyone else. And, no I am not a representative of CSI nor do I get any “perks” for my praise. I simply like their service.
Now, on to the cruise line – Holland America Lines. We travel with HAL for several reasons. First, HAL has the atmosphere we like, and this is very important. Many people who take their first or even second cruise are disappointed. Many times this disappointment comes from a mismatch between the client and the cruise line. There are many lines, and they each fill a certain niche. Some people want a lot of exciting activities like wall climbing, surf machines, etc. Others prefer a quieter atmosphere with lectures and classes. Do your homework and make sure the cruise line suits you before you book. A great place to start is the forum Cruise Critic (www.cruisecritic.com).
Another reason we like HAL is because in addition to the major, have to see, tourist ports they also visit many smaller lesser known (or even unknown) areas which might not even have a port. On longer voyages, you are not a tourist, but a traveler. The ship is just a wonderful place to live while you learn about various cultures, religions, politics, etc. of the places you travel to. Again, this is why you should research your cruise line before booking.
Holland America, like all lines, gives you extra perks as you reach certain levels of travel as measured in days. This is to encourage you to remain loyal. The perks can be pretty good. We are at the Four Star Mariner level (200+ sea days), which provides us with FREE laundry, discounted wine packages and other beverage’s at 50% discount, priority check-in and priority boarding on tenders. The priority services weren’t too helpful on this trip because almost everyone aboard were at least Four Star and many fellow passengers had over 1500 sea days. Getting these perks does inspire you to return to HAL.
Another little known perk is the benefits of stock ownership. If you own 100 shares of Carnival Corp stock (CCL), you are entitled to shipboard credit for any cruise on any of the lines under Carnival ownership. This includes not only Holland America but also Princess, Seabourn, Cunard, Aida, Costa, P&O, and Fathom. This perk is easy to get and varies according to the length of the trip from $50 for 6 days or less cruises up to $250 for 14 days or longer. The stock has been a pretty good performer and currently pays about 2.5% annual dividend. If you cruise often on any of these lines a 100 share holding offers good returns.
Is Holland America Lines the most perfect, absolutely greatest line to ever float a ship? Certainly not. HAL is a middle of the road line, far above the mass, short trip ship lines, but below the true Luxury Lines. I will say again, you must find the line that fits your niche (and budget).
My biggest complaint with HAL, which I understand is the same with almost every other line, is their cost cutting measures which we have seen over the last five years. It is evident in several areas, particularly in the number of stewards aboard ship. This was our first sailing on the MS Amsterdam and we could not have been happier with the service and crew. The food was excellent and by the second week our attendants felt like family.
The ship did have some problems and was a little worn but she was going into dry dock at the end of our voyage and I am sure some of these deficiencies were addressed. My only complaints were not with the ship or the ship’s crew, but with HAL corporate. It is a fine line they have to walk to maintain competitive pricing and meet the expectations of their guest.
As stated earlier, the food quality was excellent as was the dining service, except for one problem which I feel evolved simply due to “bean counters”. Our excellent wine steward, Ernie, had to depart about two weeks prior to the end of the voyage. He has reached the maximum days allowed by the International board which sets the rules for ship workers. Prior to his leaving he told us that he was not being replaced and one of the other stewards would be taking over his duties. The simple fact was, there were not enough stewards to meet the needs of all the dining patrons. Our table seemed to have fallen through the crack and after three days of little or no service I met with the Cellar Master. He was most considerate and made no excuses which I appreciated. They just didn’t have enough help. I cancelled the remainder of my wine package for the trip which he handled very nicely.
This incident pretty much summarized the problems we encountered due to cost cuts primarily through reduced staff. This was seen with our cabin stewards (again, they were excellent but overworked). The shore excursion staff, who seemed to have plenty of staff but weren’t nearly as knowledgeable as the staffs we have had on previous long cruises. We had some excellent lecturers during the cruise, but it seemed that the number had been reduced in order to have “cultural enrichment teams” who for me offered nothing I was interested in. To be fair, this might not be a cost saving move but a change in the experience HAL provides. I am sure many people did enjoy the cultural enrichment programs, they were just not for me. I have no desire to learn to play the mandolin or weave a headdress from flowers or play the didgeridoo. I would have much preferred a lecture about the history, economics, religion and politics of the country.
Please don’t take the two previous paragraphs as a definitive statement that the cruise was horrible. It certainly was not. My disappointments were far outnumbered my wonderful experiences which are simply too many to enumerate. My point is, I feel HAL like all other cruise lines is struggling to find that sweet spot which will satisfy the majority of travelers at a cost which is affordable. Will I cruise again on HAL? – Certainly. Will I also look at other cruise lines in the future? – Probably, although I might not be as happy with them as I am with HAL J.
Another topic I wish to address in this summary is shore excursions. Unlike a five day Caribbean cruise, the variety and number of shore excursion on a cruise which encompasses more than 60 port days is overwhelming. When planning your voyage you should allow ample budget for your excursions. It would simply be senseless to sail around the world to these beautiful ports and not experience at least a sampling of the tremendous offering they present.
The four of us spent hours, meeting together several times, researching various possibilities for excursions. As a general rule, we try to book as many tours as possible outside the ships excursion desk. It has been our experience that you generally get at least as good a tour and usually a better one by booking with or through a local agency. Many times you are using the same tour company the ship books through but paying only a fraction of the cost and you enjoy traveling with a smaller group of people, many of which are often international travelers or even locals who are not a part of your ship. I enjoy the opportunity to meet people from other countries and backgrounds and hear their views on where we are visiting as well as their views about the U.S.. On one excursion into the desert in the U.A.E. we were a private group of four who met at a Bedouin camp for a meal and entertainment. I believe we were four of only six native English speakers. The other two were from South Africa.
For this trip we booked the majority of our excursions through several different agencies. We used CSI, our travel service, for the many tours they offered. In addition we booked several tours with Cruising Excursions (www.cruisingexcursions.com). They are an international company which offer a huge number of excursions in ports throughout the world. This was the first time we had used this company and were a little hesitant. After reading many reviews and doing some research we decided to take a chance. I believe we books about seven trips and they were all excellent. In many cases we were in a “small group tour” to be no more than 16 persons and it turned out we were actually on a private tour of just the four of us.
We also used Shore Excursion Group (www.shoreexcursionsgroup.com). We have used this company many times in the past and have always been satisfied with their tours. The only drawback is the more limited number of port cities where tours are offered.
Both Cruising Excursions and Shore Excursion Group offer a guarantee that they will get you back to the ship prior to sailing or they will arrange and cover your expenses to get you to the next port. This is one of the selling tactics the cruise lines use to encourage you to use their excursions – fear that you will be left in port.
We also used Tours by Locals (www.toursbylocals.com). We have booked through this service many times and have always had excellent experiences. Tours by Locals is a company which screens individual local guides in various cities throughout the world and provides the booking service for them. The advantage of using a Tours by Locals guide is that you can communicate directly with you guide and arrange a customized literary for your port visit. The downside (which we have never experienced) is that you are dealing with an individual and not a company. Your payment is held in escrow until after your trip. If the guide doesn’t show up or it is a catastrophe, your only recourse is you get your money back. Also there is no guarantee that they will get you back to the ship before sailing time so we always use a Tours by Locals guide on the first day of a two day port stop. But like I said earlier, we have never experienced being late or a no-show. We have used Tours by Locals in South America, Europe and Australia with excellent results.
Lastly, something we seldom do but have done with no untoward results is booking onshore after debarking in a port. In this case as in all travel in a foreign port, use good judgment. This is an especially good option for the second day of a three day port stay. You have the advantage of getting feedback from more adventuresome fellow travelers and often the shore excursions department of the ship will direct you to known reliable vendors.
In addition to preplanning your shore excursion agenda, it is of utmost importance to plan for what is happening at home while you are away. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Worrying about an unaddressed issue at home while you are thousands of miles away for months can completely spoil the enjoyment of a trip.
The standard issues must be addressed, mail, bills, security, plants, as well as preparing for the unexpected. Being gone for multiple months means you must make arrangements other than just a hold on mail. We used a temporary change of address to one of my sons for all of our mail. Another option is to have a good neighbor get the mail for you. Most travelers today pay the majority of their regular bills automatically online and that works for me for about 95% of our payments. The catch is those once a year items such as life or long-term care insurance, auto tags, etc. I went back through my payment records to spot these items and made appropriate arrangements.
Finally on to the trip itself. As stated earlier I am not going to do a port by port rehash of my previous posts. I will say that I personally did not have a single port I didn’t enjoy. But, to fully enjoy travel, one must be open minded and be able to push into the background any preconceived ideas, prejudices, and yes even expectations you might have. You must just embrace the moment life has given you and enjoy it for what it is. Sometimes this might mean being in one of the world’s most picturesque sights where you have been planning photography for months only to arrive in rain and fog. It happens. Rather than bemoaning your misfortune, get the best photos you can and then spend your time sampling the local food or just observing the culture. This way you might not come away with the photos you wanted, but you will come away with a better understanding of the people of whom you were their guests. As Samuel Johnson once said “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” And if you prefer to look at this maxim in more negative terms, famous author James Michener said “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” Unfortunately I see people like this on every trip I take. If you are going to go then GO! Immerse yourself in as many way as possible, study before you leave home, study while traveling and then continue to study from what you learned after you get home. Do this and you will truly receive the value of the cost of your travel.
In regard to terrorism, pirates, flying, etc., I am often asked weren’t you afraid of _______? My answer is always the same, NO. Sure there are risks. There are risks everywhere. The decision is always whether to travel or not. When I decide to make the trip, I do my homework, prepare for possible problems and use common sense to avoid getting into a situation which could be dangerous. Does this mean that on our travels I am never frighten or scared. Of course not. On this trip there were several situation where I ranged from being merely uncomfortable to being scared. The point is, these were passing incidents. You should not let fear rule your life whether at home or 10,000 miles away in a country where no one speaks your language. Again, use common sense, be careful and enjoy. As someone said, stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.
Always be respectful of your host countries customs, laws, religion and language. It is easy to see how Americans have the reputation of being obnoxious know-it-alls. Some of our fellow travelers have absolutely no regard for anyone’s culture except their own (of which most in this category have very little). By simply making a small effort to say a few words of greeting in the native language will go a long way to getting started with your best foot forward. Show interest in the local culture, ask questions. Almost everyone is interested in telling you about what is special about their village, town, country, etc. Avoid saying things like “In the U.S. we do it this way….” It is fine to compare and contrast our way of life to life of the villager in Myanmar’s, but don’t do it in a condescending way. Always be respectful and you will certainly have a more fulfilling and enjoyable trip.
What was my favorite thing and my least favorite? Again this is from my prospective only. The country I most enjoyed was Myanmar (Burma). I believe this was due to the fact that it’s still has a relatively primitive lifestyle. Having been essentially cut off from the western world for so long, it has a lot of catching up to do. Although the poverty was shocking and the living conditions in many cases deplorable, the people were so genuine. It was easy to elicit a smile from a child and a laugh from an adult. They were as interested is us as we were in them. The monasteries were fabulous!
I enjoyed all the ancient sites, Delphi, Ephesus, Pompeii, Masada and especially Petra in Jordan. As I walked through the streets, I tried to imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago. You could almost smell the bread baking in the ovens in Pompeii, as well as the urine collection system… To think of all the great historic figures which had walked these same streets. It was almost overwhelming.
My least enjoyable excursion was also the ancient site of Masada in Israel. I loved the site for all the above stated reasons. My unhappiness was with the HAL excursion we were on. The ship had very incorrectly described this 12 hour trip as being wheelchair friendly. As a result there were many persons on the trip who really should not have been. This caused everyone delays and prevented us from seeing much of what we could have seen. It was as bad a situation for those with walking disabilities as it was for everyone else. In fairness it was the excursion which was disappointing and not Masada itself.
There are far too many wonderful experiences we had the opportunity to enjoy to cover again in this summary. For those who may not have read the entire blog, if you would like to share in some of these, read the blog.
This diatribe has continued longer than I expected and I know I have rambled. For those of you have persevered to the end, I apologize. In closing I will say that I truly wish everyone on our planet had the opportunity I was granted: To see at least a small portion of our great earth in the company of a loving spouse, great friends and pleasurable traveling companions. Traveling has widened my horizons. I have learned many things. No place is as bad as you were told it was going to be. No praise can prepare you for how great some places are. My way is not the only way, and not necessarily the best way. We can always learn from others, regardless of the language they speak or where they live. This trip has caused me to reexamine my life and try to see its place in the grand scheme of things. It is small but not insignificant. I will end with a quote from Mark Twain “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.”
Until the next trip, I bid you adieu.