In early October I had the opportunity to embark on a fabulous sail down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Diego, California aboard Holland America’s MS Zaandam. I have to admit that when the trip came up I was a little apprehensive. I’ve never been on a cruise and flying to the west coast from New York without my family made me feel like I was going REALLY far away—especially since after arriving in Vancouver I’d be out in the Pacific Ocean for four nights. But the experiences I was sure to have–visiting my best friend who lives in Vancouver, touring the charming city of Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island during our shore excursion, taking advantage of the ship’s incredible amenities and meeting some fabulous food and travel writers–pushed me to take the leap. And I’m SO glad I did!
Since this was my first cruise ever, I was paying close attention to all the details that I could share with other first timers. From the moment I stepped aboard the ship and unpacked in my cozy, well-appointed stateroom, I began learning all about shore excursions, shows, dining, and, of course, indulging. Here are five takeaways to help even the biggest landlubber feel comfortable setting sail.
- Book an Outside Stateroom – A common concern of novice cruisers is that they will feel cooped up aboard the ship. I was assigned to an outside stateroom—one with a large window but no balcony–and was initially concerned that I might feel claustrophobic without the outdoor space provided by a verandah. I was pleased to discover that this wasn’t the case at all. Having the window did make a big difference, however, and I don’t think I would have been comfortable in an inside stateroom. I liked being able to look out at the sea and the natural light that came into the room made it feel bright and spacious.
- Learn Something New – Each evening my stateroom steward left a menu of the following day’s shipboard activities next to my pillow. I loved reading through the extensive list of options while lying in bed at night, trying to decide which experiences to sample. The options ran the gamut and included group exercise classes, digital photography workshops, culinary demonstrations, health and wellness seminars, book discussions, gaming lessons, crafting classes, and behind-the-scenes tours to name just a few. During my days on board the Zaandam I joined a blind wine tasting with the ship’s cellar master, took two spinning classes in the fitness center, learned a slight-of-hand trick with a professional magician and had the chance to explore the inner workings of the ship’s enormous kitchens. As a teacher and education nut, I wish I’d had time to take advantage of more!
- Indulge a Bit – Holland America provides their guests plenty of opportunities for pampering and relaxation and I had the pleasure of enjoying many of the luxuries offered aboard the Zaandam. A morning spent lounging in the steam room and enjoying a relaxing facial in the Greenhouse Spa was the perfect antidote to everyday busy-ness. I passed my afternoons writing in the peace and comfort of the Explorations Café, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, a steamy caffe latte by my side. And thanks to the spinning classes, I didn’t feel too guilty taking advantage of the ship’s abundant culinary delights. Whether it was the delicious scones at afternoon tea, savory appetizers during our evening cocktail hour, a signature martini or a sublime meal, I relished each and every dining experience during my time on the ship.
- Enjoy the Talent – Our family loves to experience live performances of all kinds and I was amazed by the variety of exceptional entertainers aboard the Zaandam. I would have needed at least a week to experience the theatrical shows, disco dancing, sing-alongs, and poolside music and games that were available each day. Highlights for me included sipping a cup of tea while listening to the classical violinist in the Explorer’s Lounge and dancing along to the swinging jazz trio in the Ocean Bar. I kept thinking of the fun my kids would have had, especially during the incredible magic show I watched in the Mondriaan Lounge one evening. There are tons of options for everyone in the family.
- Go Ashore – One of the best things about cruising is the opportunity to get a taste of several different ports of call without having to fly all over the globe. And while each stop offers just that, a taste, these quick visits are a great way to experience a place where you may want to return to for a longer stay. During my cruise, the Zaandam docked for the morning in the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. I chose to do a short bus tour of the city with a stop at the luxurious Fairmont Empress Hotel to enjoy their famous high tea. Be sure to peruse your cruise’s excursion options before you leave and book those that interest you in advance if possible. Otherwise, visit the onboard shore excursion desk as soon as you can after you board for the best chance of getting the ones you want.
After the fabulous time I had on my inaugural cruising experience I am definitely a convert. It did take me a few days to get rid of my sea legs after coming back to New York and I had a bit of a hard time adjusting to the fact that no one was going to be delivering me a pot of hot coffee with a lovely china cup each morning now that I was home. Holland America offers an enormous variety of itineraries and one thing I learned is that you can piece together different ones to create any custom sailing length you wish. From the rugged beauty of Alaska to the tropical waters of the Caribbean and every destination in between, you can find the perfect cruise for your family. I can’t wait to sail away again!