It started out as a vacation…and turned into a love affair

There are oodles of reasons why I adore big ship cruising but chief among them is the disconnect. No phones, no faxes, no work or any other obligations for that matter. The only real connection to the outside world is an onboard internet room which many of today’s modern vessels offer as a cruise amenity.

Even so, I resist plugging into the World Wide Web when I’m on the high seas, preferring instead to take the seven or more days on the water to plunge into a state of oblivion, rest, relax and enjoy the ports of call, just as I did during a late October cruise aboard the Holland America Line’s Oosterdam. The 2,013-passenger ship departed from San Diego and followed a week-long itinerary south to the Mexican Riviera. This was my virgin voyage with Holland America and also my first cruise in the Pacific waters along Mexico’s west coast.

The ship

With Dutch roots, the Holland America Line (HAL) has a 130 year history of circumnavigating the globe and the Oosterdam, among the newest ships in the line’s 13 vessels, was officially christened in 2003 by Her Dutch Royal Highness, Princess Margriet of The Netherlands. It’s a handsome vessel both inside and out with 85 percent of its staterooms having ocean views and nearly 70 percent of these are cabins with verandas. The centrepiece of the ship is a giant Waterford crystal chandelier as big as a Volkswagon that hangs prominently in a three-story central atrium.

In a highly competitive cruise industry, it seems that almost every credible vessel is on a mission to outdo the others. In the case of the Oosterdam, its overall décor gives it a competitive edge by incorporating an art collection worth more than $2 million together with the extensive use of crystal, marble, a collection of antique furniture, gleaming wood and brass.
Moreover, passenger demands have dictated that contemporary cruise ships must have a spa. Meeting this market demand, the Oosterdam boasts the Greenhouse Spa and Salon a full-service facility that offers a variety of treatments including a sea water hydrotherapy pool, a wide variety of massage therapies and all the body-beautiful stuff like manicures, pedicures and facials.

Bon appetite

Let’s start with a shocking statistic. “The average passenger consumes 5,000 calories a day,” says Stephan Schuetz, the Oosterdam’s culinary operations manager. Numbers don’t lie so it’s fairly obvious that food is a prime attraction on any cruise, consequently it had better be good and there’d better be plenty of it. The Oosterdam rises to the occasion on both of these issues.

To contend with what has all the earmarks of a feeding frenzy, the ship has several restaurants. The two-tiered main dining room serves lunch and offers two dinner seatings (6:30/8:30) featuring five-course menus and an extensive wine list. I shamelessly turned over a dinner plate in the main dining room and discovered I was eating off of Rosenthal china. A very nice touch, indeed. For more casual dining (breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night noshing) the Lido restaurant has an extensive string of buffet stations where passengers are tempted by cuisines from around the world, all presented simultaneously: Chinese, American, Japanese, Italian and more.

The Oosterdam’s fine dining restaurant is the Pinnacle Grill where reservations are required in addition to a supplementary surcharge of $30 for dinner and $15 for lunch. The ambiance and cuisine here are well worth the extra levy and I might add this luxury restaurant serves a to-die-for Grand Marnier chocolate volcano cake.

Even more casual is the Terrace Grill an outdoor, pool-side eatery that serves pizza, tacos, nachos, burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches. For folks who prefer to dine in their cabins, the Oosterdam has an extensive menu offered on a 24/7 basis. The ship also caters to people with food allergies and dietary restrictions. Overall, the quality of food aboard the vessel makes it difficult to avoid becoming one of those 5,000 calorie a day people.

Ports of call

After two days at sea, first port of call was Cabo San Lucas situated on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula. While there were many shore excursions offered including swimming with dolphins, bird watching, snorkelling, scuba, desert ATV tours and a jeep safari, the alternative was to simply go ashore and explore the pretty oceanfront town where, not surprisingly, there was a host of trendy restaurants and stores selling everything from duty free diamonds to typical Mexican souvenirs.

Second stop was Mazatlan, a charming historic town on Mexico’s Pacific coast that was first populated by agrarian tribes in 8000 BC and is widely known today for its more than 10-mile-long beach. The pre-booked shore excursion I took here was a rewarding tour of the city’s Old Town. Mazatlan also has an extensive newer section with high rises and the ubiquitous shopping bazaars but for a taste of the real Mexico the Spanish-influenced Old Town is the place to explore. Mazatlan was officially founded by the Spanish in 1531 but until the 18th century, this was a port to be avoided because of its reputation as a pirate haven.

Final port call was Puerto Vallarta. This town south of Mazatlan is a long-standing tourist mecca not terribly unlike Cancun and, except for the cultural differences; it is not unlike St. Thomas, BVI.

All aboard for entertainment

Like most modern cruise ships, the Oosterdam has nightly Las Vegas-style shows that include dancers, singers, illusionists and comedians. As well, several cocktail lounges, nightclubs and piano bars rock on well into the wee hours. Moreover, few of today’s mega ships are without a casino and the Oosterdam is no exception.

In fact, there’s no shortage of ways for passengers to amuse themselves and the truth is I got tired just reading the daily activities list: line dancing, trivia contests, putting competitions, card playing, volleyball, exercise classes, art auctions, afternoon Dutch royal tea—and that list is just the tip of the iceberg.

A fairly new entertainment option that was a huge hit with onboard guests was a three-day superstar contest (like American Idol) where passengers with vocal talent competed for top spot. An even newer entertainment choice aboard the Oosterdam is a Culinary Arts Centre where daily gourmet cooking demonstrations are staged by the ship’s chefs as well as special guest chefs.

For families travelling with children there’s plenty of entertainment for youngsters ages three to 12 in Club Hal. This is a supervised, no-charge play area where there is a good selection of age-appropriate activities for kids while their parents get some time on their own.

The acid test

One good way to measure the merit of a cruise line or particular vessel is repeat business and the Oosterdam seems to have plenty of it. During the cruise I observed scores of passengers wearing HAL paper badges identifying them as repeat cruisers.

One gentleman even sported a bronze medallion which I was told recognized his 1,500 days of cruising on the line’s vessels. I also learned that one female passenger spends six months of the year (over winter) aboard HAL ships. I suppose if I was a retired person with unlimited finances, I too might earn an HAL badge or brass medallion. Alas, I don’t see this opportunity looming on the horizon.

For more information on the HAL Mexican Riviera cruise or its other itineraries (Alaska, Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, Panama Canal, and South America) see or visit a travel agent.

Pre-cruise San Diego

On this or any other cruise, for that matter, I highly recommend arriving a day or two prior to sailing. Anyone who has ever cruised knows there is a certain amount of tension associated with boarding a flight to the designated port city on the same day the ship sails. Like time and tide, ships wait for no man.
San Diego is a beautiful waterfront city just a few miles north of Tijuana, Mexico, filled with some great attractions and one of the best, no-fuss ways to explore them is aboard the Old Town Trolley. It follows a 32-mile route offering on/off privileges and covers the bulk of the city’s highlights.

Stops include the San Diego Zoo, one of the most famous in North America, as well as Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the U.S. Called the Smithsonian of the West, its 15 free-standing museums are devoted to art, history, transportation, science, photography and more. This complex alone could take a full day to explore. Passengers can also disembark at the famous Hotel del Coronado that has hosted the rich and famous from Presidents to Marilyn Monroe and Charles Lindbergh. This historic hotel is said to be the place where King Edward VIII first met divorcee Wallis Simpson for whom he later abdicated England’s throne.

Tour stops also include a chance to board the USS Midway aircraft carrier, explore the city’s old Gaslamp Quarter or visit Seaport Village, a 14-acre waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment complex. For more information go to or call 619-232-3101 for free brochures and travel planner.

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