With the exhaustion of 2 weeks of theme parking we are in desperate need of a break, and coincidentally we have found the perfect break in the shape of a cruise on the Holland America Line ship the Zuiderdam. We have actually run into this particular ship a few times up in Vancouver and Alaska, so the chance to be on it for a good price seems like an apt way to spend one of our final weeks. Add to that the fact that if we play our cards right we get to tick off 2 more National Park sites on this cruise, and we have ourselves a winner! Fun part is that Luc and Bo have no idea where we are going, so the surprise is extra special.
With our parking spot falling through at the last moment we have stress building up right before our check-in finding a place to park our RV. We end up in a truck stop that provides parking, and fork over a hefty fee, but at least we do not miss our ship! As we roll into the cruise terminal in our taxi, the boys realize we are not only going on a cruise, but we will actually be on this enormous ship the Zuiderdam and are of course over the moon. As it is the first time for all of us on a luxury cruise ship (the Antarctica ship was much smaller and more of an expedition), we are all very excited to get on it and explore.
As our first destination is more than a day of sailing away, we have a lot of time to do so and discover what a cruise ship has to offer. The possibilities are endless – though often coupled with a hefty extra fee – and the luxury is tremendous. Our cabin is really nice with a balcony and even a bath in the small bathroom. For the boys there is a one person bunk bed that gets pulled in and out every day by housekeeping, and a sofa bed with the same routine.
Traveling light as always we pack away our stuff and spend the first day and a half exploring, relaxing, swimming, eating (omg the endless line up of food) and playing games while watching the other travelers. In the evening there is entertainment in the big theater (a live singing group called the Jukebox Rogues) and live performances in the different bars across the ship, and during the day the boys enjoy the fun at kids club, making lots of new friends.
Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos
After a day at sea we are excited to get off the ship and explore the Caribbean, starting in the island group of Turks & Caicos. The destination for this cruise is Grand Turk, which really sounds like an impressive destination, but as we arrive there it is clear that ‘grand’ is not really the word for this spec of land in the ocean. The island is flat and has little to offer other than a lighthouse at the other tip of it and of course beaches. Now we are not too picky here and so we get off the ship and take a right where everybody else turns left to the Margaritaville here (goodness gracious), and find ourselves a part of the beach that is our private piece of sand for the day.
Every single beach is good enough for the boys to enjoy themselves and build fortresses out of sand, and this beach is no exception. Fun part is that the tide is quite strong here, so their dam building skills are put to the test several times, and all their creativity is invoked to come up with non-flooding solutions. Final and effective design is a sunken piece of bamboo enforced with sand and a line of conch shells, which seems to do the trick.
Before getting back on the ship we take a stroll to a local beach shack for a taste of the local cuisine; the conch fritter. After all that building and swimming any fried snack will do, but the conch fritter is deemed a true rival of the bitterbal. Satisfied with our day at Grand Turk we get back on board again for a dip in the swimming pool and a great dinner before going to bed and check our possible sun burns – besides a slide line on the legs we did well! – this Caribbean life is not bad at all!
San Juan, Puerto Rico
The morning on the boat is very relaxing while we make our way towards Puerto Rico. Getting closer the view is quite spectacular as we see the big harbor and the fortresses up on the hill. We are really looking forward to this stop as it has a NPS site (Puerto Rico is a US territory) and is the one destination with some proper colonial history rather than just being a beach destination. Unfortunately we are only deemed to visit for half a day so we need to make the most of it.
We get off the ship as one of the first and head straight up to the fort, a sweaty short hike up the hill and through the gates. The routine of stamping our books and getting the JR booklet for it is still working on an island in the Caribbean, so we get to work and explore the fort. With Puerto Rico being the ‘gateway to riches’ there was enough to protect and the fort is being restored to its original glory with especially its tunnels being fun to roll through.
The fun part here is that there are tropical hints to them, like the plentiful iguanas that scale the walls and are like the little dragon protectors of the fortresses. So we go on a bit of a scavenger hunt for iguanas as we make our way from one fort to the next, and take those wide open ocean views in. The boys are very good at it, and we easily make our way to fort number two on the other edge of town through a small neighborhood by the sea.
While conch fritters are the Grand Turk snack of choice, Puerto Rico has its own local must eat in the shape of mofongo. They are hashed plantains that you can combine with meats and vegetables, but as we had a full lunch we are only taking it as a side and munch on it. Turns out to be another great snack we need to put on the list to recreate when we get back home. For now, we walk the streets of San Juan in search of the last local invention – the Pina Colada!
Possibly not the only place it was invented as pineapple, coconuts and rum were pretty common in these parts at some point, but we will take any excuse to drink so we have a round (some without the rum of course) and enjoy it! The place we do this is called Barrichina, and is a lovely indoor courtyard where we put our legs up for a sec before we need to get back to our ship. A quick cheezy souvenir stop before embarkation to make sure we have a Puerto Rico memento for our collection.
Back on board the evening has started to set and the ship is leaving this beautiful port as the sun sets. We have dinner and take another stab at some late night entertainment before we call it quits. It was a long but very nice day out here in Puerto Rico!
The American Virgin Islands; St Thomas & St John
In the American Virgin Islands we actually have a full day on land, which means we are a bit more flexible in our plans and have the opportunity to venture away from the ship more. This is perfect as we have another bucket list item nearby: the National Park of Virgin Islands and its protected reef! To get there however we need to cross the water to the next island over; St John. Getting from the boat to the ferry on the other side of the island is easy enough, but we make the mistake of taking the taxis a short distance away from the ship… not far enough it turns out and thus we make a ridiculously expensive taxi drive of 15 minutes.
The ferry goes every hour, so we hop on the 11am one and smoothly set off in 20 minutes to the next island. From there the walk to the visitor center of the NPS is very short, where we get our stamps and Jr Ranger work for the boys, and learn about the beautiful, protected nature both on land and in the water. From there we drop by a snorkel rental and then set off further afield to the Trunk Bay beach. To the eye it may seem like any other beach around the Caribbean, but the fun is underwater as they have set up an underwater snorkel trail with signs and all!
Seeing as that is a first for us as well, we are all taking the ‘trail’ and enjoying this serene piece of beach for a few hours. Of course we do not want to miss our cruise so we head back to our ferry on time, but this time when we get back to St Thomas we do the smart thing and follow the locals to the buses (which are actually the same vehicles we rode in in the morning) and this time take the scenic/long route back for only 10% of the price… phew! We are nicely on time back at the ship where we slide into dinner and then on to the main stage for the movie Home Alone, always a classic!
When we put the boys to bed it is time for us to go to the so-called ‘Orange party’. Very funny to see the mostly American guests put their orange outfits on and party with typical Dutch snacks; oliebollen, boterkoek and soezen. There is even a contest for the best outfit (we obviously missed the memo on this one) and an introduction about the Netherlands and its history. What we miss however are the ‘bitterballen’, which is a question for the captain in the Q&A the next day!
Out at sea again
With a long sail to go back north to the Bahamas, the itinerary has another day at sea planned today. This is not a bad thing, as the boys can go to kids club in the morning while the grownups relax, and then in the afternoon play to their hearts content with all the other kids in the pool. There is another pool on the ship that is specifically for the adults, which we now understand why :-). It is absolute mayhem, but they all really enjoy themselves and get along great, really fun to see.
In the evening we go to the final show of the Jukebox Rogues, this time with plenty of old but also some new songs that are good enough for Luc and mom to go down to the stage and dance with all the other guests as a proper goodbye and thank you to the band for the great entertainment. When we bring the boys to bed, we get a surprise knock on the door of our cabin, with roomservice we did not order. Turns out the bitterballen question was put forward by the Dutch captain to the F&B team, and they made a special plate of them for us! YUMMYYYYYY!!
Half Moon Cay, the Bahamas
Last destination on the cruise, Half Moon Cay is a small island leased by the Holland America Line company and is thus solely set up for their cruise ships stopping by and enjoying the sunshine here. As we arrive, so does the ‘Zaandam’, another ship of HAL which will share the island and a competition of beach volleyball with our ship. The lunch is served in the shape of a BBQ on the island and the long morning is spent playing and tanning and reading on this beautiful slice of the Bahamas. A perfect final day on shore.
When we go back on board, there is more playing in the pool before we need to go and eat dinner. There is a special kids club tonight with a bingo and a ‘field trip’ down the stairs to the ‘Tree Lighting Ceremony; a typically American tradition (we think) where the Christmas tree lights are lit while carols are sung and hot chocolate is enjoyed. We go there as well and enjoy the experience together with the boys and all the other guests, then set off for some final drinks and chats on board of the ship.
Time to disembark
As all good things come to an end, so does our cruise in the Caribbean, with a sunny morning in Fort Lauderdale. With no luggage to manage we are free to disembark at any time we please, so we decide to take it slow and have one final breakfast with a view out to the ocean. It has been a great trip, and leaving our cabin is a bit bittersweet, but the final part of our adventure awaits so we tear ourselves away from the ship and hop back on land. A short Uber-ride away awaits our RV again, safe and sound, and we gladly settle in again in our home on wheels.
Next week: South Florida Highlights