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Cruising the Mediterranean

Holland America’s 10-Day Mediterranean Cruise

by Courtney Caldwell

with contributions from Shannon Caldwell

I’m a workaholic, I admit it. I’ve never taken a vacation. Not one. Ever. But I love what I do so every day is like a vacation to me. Call me crazy.

Courtney Caldwell (right) and her daughter, Shannon
Courtney Caldwell (right) and her daughter, Shannon.

So, when the press trip invitation arrived for a 10-day Holland America Cruise to the Mediterranean, my first impulse was to assign it to one of ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine’s excellent travel writers, someone who could spend 10 days away from their office. This is standard procedure. They go off on all the press trips; I’m chained to the desk to keep my own ship afloat.

Jokingly, I forwarded the email to my daughter, Shannon, with a quip, “Too bad you can’t go on this with me.”

In her final month of school in New York with graduation looming, and holding down a part-time job with RTM, not in my wildest dreams did I expect her to be able to go but knowing she had always wanted to go to Italy where the cruise embarked, I thought I’d tease her with a what if.

Within minutes she shot back, “Why wouldn’t I be able to go?” After reminding her of the job she was holding down, her weekend trips to classes in NY with graduation right around the corner, she said it wouldn’t be a problem. Ironically, the trip dates fell right in-between her last class and graduation. Stars aligned indeed.

She was not the problem. I was. Could I really afford to jump ship for two weeks? The thought sent shivers down my spine. I’d never left my company in the hands of anyone before, not in its 25 years. After all, it was my baby. But so was my daughter. So, after days of self-debate on the shoulds and shouldn’ts, the shoulds won. I must say though that making preparations for this much time away turned me into a maniac. Going away for two weeks presented several challenges not to mention fears, which needed to be overcome if it was going to work.

One of my fears, in addition to being away for so long, was the sense of confinement that I thought I’d feel being on a ship for 10 days, which would most certainly conflict with my A-Type personality. In an effort to quell that fear, I interviewed other business owners and executives and learned that for the same reason many had never taken a cruise either, which didn’t help much.

Another fear was not being able to stay connected with the office for that long. You laugh, but with more than 250 emails a day, some of which need immediate attention, and endless deadlines for the magazine, being disconnected for that long was a real issue — one that almost nixed the trip. After all, if something can go wrong, it will and always does at the worst possible times it seems.

With these two fears looming I vacillated whether to go or not.

However, when Holland America sent the itinerary with the shore excursions it become very clear very quickly that confinement was not an issue. The ship would be sailing at night while we were sleeping. Each morning we would wake to a new destination and the option of disembarking for a shore excursion to view the amazing ruins and history of each ancient city and of course, SHOP.

VerizonThe second fear was also quickly dissipated when Verizon Wireless offered global phone service to test on the voyage. Providing a standard, slighter older model cell phone, Verizon set up the phone to receive global communication as soon as we landed in Rome. It was so simple, even a caveman could do it. (Couldn’t resist).

All I needed to do when I arrived in Europe was click on settings, which brought me to several choices, one of which was a simple click on GPS global and in an instant I was connected. Both emails and phone calls arrived without issue. The only caveat was that service was not accessible while at sea, which included two full days and every night, but otherwise, it was available in every port. This put me at ease immediately. Ironically, Verizon released their new Blackberry with global service shortly after my return so now their global service is available to everyone on the most up-to-date equipment.

AIR FRANCE by Shannon Caldwell
We flew from Detroit to Rome via Air France, an airline that impressed the hell out of us. Far more sophisticated and equipped than the usual American planes on which we've flown, Air France provided far more leg room, very comfortable seats, and more amenities with each seat. In-flight service was exceptional. We thought flying a 7-hour flight in coach would be difficult, especially flying all night and landing with a six hour time difference. We were so wrong.

The comfort of the Air France plane coupled with the excellent service made the time fly by (pun intended). Of course, a couple of movies and a good book helped. As far as sleep, we basically got little to none but that ended up working in our favor because by the time we got to the hotel in Rome on the first night, we were so exhausted, we immediately crashed, allowing us to quickly acclimate to the European time zone.

Holland America's Westerdam
Holland America's Westerdam

Embarking on the Westerdam was an experience in itself especially if you’ve never cruised before. The ten-story, 60-million-ton vessel was a sight to behold, so massive it stopped us in our tracks with mouths agape. Security is very tight both embarking and disembarking so first timers should have no fears of unsavory pirates (unless it’s Johnny Depp) unwittingly boarding the ship.

Photo ID key cards are provided to each passenger who must show the card to get on or off the ship. One thing to note is that the gangway on which passengers embark and disembark is very steep. Those who needed assistance were escorted by the many officers on hand, inside and outside of the ship, to greet and help any passengers needing help.

Holland America LineHollandAmerica’s 10-day Mediterranean cruise offers a wide variety of shore excursions in each port from two-hour bus tours to eight-hour walking tours. Be wary though, the walking tours are vigorous with lots of hills, stairs, and uneven and rocky terrain in ruin locations, so those with bad backs or weak ankles should carefully weigh their excursion options. We opted for four-hour tours that included riding the bus and walking. Most cities also offered hop-on/hop-off bus tours so you could go at your own pace and see what you want, when you want.

There is much to see and do in each port but Holland makes it easy to choose by providing a full schedule of what’s available on each tour, what to expect, and what you’ll see. Additionally, a tour seminar is offered each day by a tour guide who explains what the region is about. He’ll even share which areas accept Euros or American dollars, or both.

He also provides warnings of the specific areas where taxi drivers are the least honest or where local pick pockets are the worst. These were very helpful warnings and should be heeded. What I found most entertaining about the seminars was his advice about shopping locations in which many vendors are willing to bargain, which saved us a lot of money, however negotiating with some of these characters is exhausting as they work hard to get the most out of you while you argue for less. I had to drag my pip-squeek mother away from some of the negotiators in fear of a brawl.

Westerdam's Pinnacle Grille
Westerdam's Pinnacle Grille

For those who preferred not to leave the ship Holland provides dozens of onboard activities for people of all ages. Although they target affluent boomers, we found most passengers to be about 75-years-young. However, with so much to do on board and in each port, age doesn’t deter younger people from cruising.

In fact, there were many occasions when Courtney and I shared a lunch or dinner table with several seniors, many of whom had unique and interesting tales about their numerous cruising adventures. They also shared many tips on what to do and not to do based on their experiences, which became very useful on our virgin cruise.

Each evening, our cabin steward left a new schedule in our room of the next day’s activities. For those who choose to stay aboard or return early from a shore excursion, there are literally dozens of activities offered. If you opt not to participate in an activity there are two huge pools on board, one forward and one aft with more than enough lounge chairs and full bar service via deck stewards. Aside each pool is a Jacuzzi, a ping pong table, a basketball court, tables for card playing, snacking or just hanging out, and near the forward pool, a band that helped celebrate a the med event each evening.

Greenhouse Spa & Salon
Greenhouse Spa & Salon

In addition to its pools, dozens of activities, numerous restaurants and bars, movies and live entertainment, the Westerdam offers The Greenhouse Spa & Salon, a full-service spa, which impressed me a great deal. The services rivaled that of any upscale full-service land spa with everything from seaweed treatments, foot and body massages, hydra pool, couples treatments, and facials.

They even offer classes for couples to learn how to massage each other. Very romantic! For black tie nights, there is also a full service hair and nail salon. After going on a few of the more demanding shore excursions we found the foot and leg massage treatment to be especially delightful. Each night in the activity schedule, there is a list of spa specials and gift shop sales, which are especially nice for those on a more limited budget.

Of the seven shore excursions I found Sicily, seeped in rich and ancient history, to be my favorite. Of special interest were rumors revealed on how Sicilian men look at and ‘appreciate’ women. For awhile there I thought I might have to wrestle a few to the ground to protect my youthful and robust daughter. From the youngest to the oldest, there wasn’t a block we walked where a local native either stopped us on the street with a touch to her arm to say ‘Bella’ or ask if we wanted a ride. Keep in mind; these were taxi drivers who already had customers in the back seats of their cars.

Even the polizia were craning their necks around corners to catch a glimpse. There is nothing shy about Italian men expressing their thoughts in word or deed as to what they think of young women passing by. As for me, a couple of spunky 80-year-olds gave me a nod from their rocking chairs, or perhaps they were just nodding off, but I couldn’t let that deter me from blocking my 5-foot-6-inch daughter with my aging and incredibly shrinking 5-foot body from anyone who wanted to usher her away. Shannon commented on how they made her feel like a goddess. I guess that would make me the godmother… considering the location. Unscathed, on
we went.

The ship sailed at approximately 6 p.m. every night so you’re strongly urged to be back on time. Watching the ship set sail every night from our stateroom balcony was one of the highlights. It’s such an amazing process to see the engines churn up the mud beneath the sea and then slowly float away into the sunset. This is something you don’t want to miss. In fact, you don’t want to miss the ship either because if you do you’re plum out of luck… and cash. They hold the ship for no one so if you miss the boat you have three options.

First, they can arrange a flight back to the ship from your stranded location to the ship’s next port, at your own expense. Second, they can fly you home from the location where you’re stuck. The ship steward will pack up all your stuff and ship it back to you at home (all at your own expense plus no refund on the unused portion of the cruise). Or you can make your own arrangements to either get back to the ship when it arrives at the next port or fly home (again, all at your own expense). So you better not be late.

There is no shortage of food on the Westerdam. The Lido deck (or 9th floor) is open from 6 a.m. to dinner time and offers a wide variety of buffet style meals. This allows a lot of flexibility for people with different schedules or dietary needs, from multiple choices of healthy foods to your basic cheeseburger and fries. It’s quite easy to put on 10 pounds on a 10-day cruise if you don’t watch it. I’m not a dessert person but they were so deliciously outrageous that I found myself eating at least one a day.

Westerdam's Fitness Center
Westerdam's Fitness Center

For those who want the best of both worlds, there is a full size gym at the front of the ship with huge windows overlooking the sea in front of you. There, you can work off the added calories and enjoy the view at the same time. Additionally, the outside deck of the ship is perfect for power walkers or joggers, with three full walks around the ship equaling one mile. The gym also provides aerobics classes, yoga, and health seminars.

Evening dining takes place in the elegant Vista Dining Room, which offers two seating's; one for the early crowd at 5 p.m., and the other at 8 p.m. The two-story restaurant is divided by a majestic glass-studded spiral staircase with a landing half way up. The positioning of the landing makes it visually easy for guests in both dining rooms to see special presentations like parading chefs showcasing an impressive Baked Alaska with sparklers aglow in a darkened atmosphere.

Dress is upscale in the Vista Dining Room with two evenings set in black tie. As journalists we were assigned to a specific table during the cruise, however there is ample room for all passengers whether a party of two or 10. No reservations necessary. Together, both dining rooms hold about 1,000 people so with 1,800 passengers on board, the two seating times easily accommodate everyone. Additionally, the Westerdam provides a more intimate dining experience in their upscale Pinnacle Grille, which does require reservations.

Deluxe Verandah Stateroom
Deluxe Verandah Stateroom

During my initial cruise research I heard from just about everyone who had ever taken a Holland Cruise that their service was impeccable, which is likely why they’ve earned the honor as the leading cruise line. Holland didn’t disappoint. In fact, their motto is to provide service above and beyond passenger expectations and they did indeed live up to that motto at every wave.

From the state rooms to the dinner service to the poolside treatment and everything in-between, Holland staff make you feel like royalty. They not only provide exceptional service they also fulfill special requests such as birthday cakes, anniversary surprises, special meals… even at the last minute, although they do prefer advance notice when possible. The ship’s captain even performs marriage renewals on Sunday evenings.

To give you an example of their superb service, I purchased a lovely Roman glass necklace in the ship’s jewelry shop as a graduation gift for Shannon. The goal was to surprise her with it at dinner one night with all of our new-found journalist friends. I asked the manager of culinary operations, Sam Ismail, if the kitchen would make her a sugar-free cake (she’s a diabetic) with congratulations to Shannon written on top.

Not only did they make a delicious cake, Sam left in the middle of another dinner commitment to personally deliver it to the table at the perfect moment and with the perfect presentation speech. Moments later, he presented her Roman glass necklace, wrapped in gift paper, on a silver platter with a rose. We were all blown away at the entire presentation not to mention the surprised look on Shannon’s face, who knew nothing of my devious deployment, and employment of participants, leading up to the surprise.

A surprise for Shannon (Photo credit: Susan Breslow)
A surprise for Shannon.
(Photo credit: Susan Breslow)

And, to top it all off, the cake was the best any of us had ever had, sugar-free and all, bar none. Shannon cried with tears of joy, which made me cry, which made the other journalists cry, which made Sam cry. It became the kind of moment that will be forever burned into our memories. That’s the kind of service Holland Cruises provides.

While most cruises are very exciting and full of fun, they usually stay on course. Rarely does anything unusual happen, oh say, school of sharks lurking, unusually high seas, or people falling overboard. However, during one particular evening, we experienced something rarely seen on a civilian cruise — the rescue of eight Algerian refugees stranded in a rowboat at sea, and with some of them near death from machete wounds, dehydration and a sinking boat. Oh, what a night! [Read about the adventure]

I learned the hard way of what to bring by things forgotten. In addition to casual and dressy outfits, both of which you’ll need, be sure to bring at least two pairs of very comfortable walking shoes. There is a lot of walking on the tours, even on the ship. If you use arch supports or any other types of products that provide the kind of support you use at home in your everyday life, be sure to bring them along. Bring a hat… there is lots of sunshine in the Mediterranean and don’t forget your suntan lotion.

The one thing I forgot and missed the most was a pair of binoculars. There are so many sights to see from the ship while at sea; castles on mountain tops, little villages still living as they once did, and historical caves used during Viking days, as well as other unusual sights that from a distance look like little mountainside dots but with binoculars would have been an entirely different experience.

Also, be sure to bring enough of your own meds, aspirin or pain relievers for whatever ails you as it will be quite unlikely that you’ll find the same products that you use in your home town in other countries.

And last, if you still use a film camera, bring plenty of film. If you use a digital camera, the Westerdam even offers a class on how to use it.

While the Westerdam does have an extensive gift shop where most of these items can be found, they are expensive compared to normal retail prices. Additionally, the gift shop is not open when the ship is in port, which means if you do run out of something you either have to go into port to find it or wait until the ship sets sail in the evening to access the gift shop. So stock up before you leave home on the essentials you'll need for your trip.

Holland America is proud of their reputation and they should be. It's clear that they live up to their motto to impress passengers beyond expectations. They certainly exceeded mine and by the happy faces that disembarked the ship on our final day, I'd say they exceeded everyone else's too.

Would I cruise again? I’m just sorry I didn’t do it sooner. In fact, don’t be surprised is you never hear from me again. I just may embark on a permanent world tour.

If You Go...

Holland America Line
(206) 281-3535

The Holland America 10-Day Mediterranean Cruise included several port stops in countries including Spain, Italy and Tunisia. Read more about each individual port and what it has to offer travelers.

Westerdam Mediterranean Shore Excursions

Barcelona, Spain
Mallorca, Spain
Naples, Italy
Sicily, Italy
Livorno, Tuscany
La Goulette, Tunisia

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