“Get off one ship and hop on to another the same day?” My husband Humberto asked when I told him it would be good to sail to the Caribbean on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam in early November and after disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, hop on Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity the same day.
We had never done this in nearly 250 cruises (we had taken back-to-back cruises before, but only on the same ship). “Why not?” I said. And he agreed after mulling it over: we would spend on transportation to and from the ship(s) once, we would visit different ports and experience diverse shipboard life: dining at different restaurants and enjoying varied entertainment.
This is how our tale of two cruises went:
We checked into the Nieuw Statendam and quickly unpacked (we traveled light to be able to walk easily from one terminal at the end of one cruise to another terminal to begin the second voyage). Our 14-day itinerary visited several beautiful eastern and western Caribbean islands with rainforests, cascades, beaches and colonial towns to explore, and onboard we had a battalion of caring staff seeing to our needs – from keeping our cabin ship-shape every day to serving us delicious meals every evening.
Port highlights included two stops at Holland America’s private island Half Moon Cay. An idyll in the Bahamas, it is ideal for swimming and snorkeling in turquoise waters and enjoying activities including stingray encounters, horseback riding excursions and parasailing. After the adventures we could enjoy the line’s complimentary barbecue or opt for an alternative lunch at the Lobster Shack with an a la carte menu including grilled lobster tail with Caribbean rice and beans and pineapple sauce ($20) and conch chowder ($5).
Another port delight was Cozumel, a sacred island for the Mayans as they considered it their “Eden” from where they sprung up and went on to populate the continent. Among the attractions is Chankanaab National Park, with a lagoon that is like a big natural aquarium. Optional excursions were offered to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its imposing Pyramid of Kukulkan, as were trips to the Mayan ruins of Tulum near Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean. We had already been to Chichen Itza (wow) and Tulum, so we opted for a tour to the Mayan Cacao Company and The Mayan Bee Sanctuary and enjoyed honey tastings and chocolate sampling (chocolate is arguably the Mayan’s greatest gift to civilization). Yum.
San Juan, one of our favorite ports – bouncing back from the 2017 Hurricanes Maria and Irma – welcomed us with many options including a driving tour to a waterfall at El Yunque National Rainforest Park, a musical show with Caribbean dances, and tours to Old and New San Juan and the 16th century Spanish fortress of El Morro. We went for a stroll in Old San Juan, basking in its colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and picturesque plazas. We found something new in the Old City this time: the “Umbrella Street” on Fortaleza Street, which is decorated with lots of colorful umbrellas overhead –so picturesque – and symbolic of protection against rain and storms. It was created after the hurricanes. Nearby, on Paseo La Princesa we stopped at Princesa Gastrobar, a restaurant with trees and bushes inside, to enjoy Puerto Rican dishes from the 1800s such as “garbanzada de mero”(grouper and chick peas stew) and corn fritters.
Other stops included Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, where we opted for a day pass to Ocean World water park; Georgetown, Grand Cayman where Stingray City, with stingrays in shallow water that brush past your legs like kittens awaited, and Falmouth, Jamaica, with nearby Dunn’s River Falls, the quintessential Caribbean cascade. We had been to Dunn’s River Falls on previous cruises so we headed for the Good Hope Plantation Great House for high tea. The Great House, formerly the main house of a sugar cane plantation dating from the 19th century, is filled with art and antiques that opened a window to another era on the island, and we were served a high tea alfresco on colorfully set tables and including Jamaican Jerk Chicken, cucumber sandwiches, fresh fruits, and sweets – the scones with guava jam and banana bread were delicious local tastes.
The 2,666-passenger Nieuw Statendam herself, our floating island, was another highlight. Holland America’s newest vessel, second of its Pinnacle Class after the Koningsdam, was launched in December 2018. Her interior design, inspired in the fluid lines of musical instruments, boasts abundant art and floral arrangements creating a gracious ambiance. Guests find the facilities and conveniences modern cruise passengers expect: a spa, pools/hot tubs, casino, dining room and a variety of alternative restaurants and eateries including Rudi’s Sel de Mer serving French accented seafood (a la carte), Tamarind featuring Pan-Asian fare (a delicious Rijsttafel dinner was $30 per person), Canaletto’s with Italian specialties ($19), the Grand Dutch Café with complimentary pastries and light lunch bites, the complimentary New York Deli & Pizza, the complimentary Dive In with burgers and hot dogs, and the Pinnacle Grill offering steaks, seafood and other gourmet fare ($39 per person).
Rudi’s Sel de Mer from master chef Rudi Sodamin, has become one of our favorites at sea. We loved the Trio of Seafood Salads with bay shrimp, crab meat and tuna tartare, the Grilled Seafood Platter with scallops, jumbo shrimp and even a langoustine hanging from a hook over the platter, and Rudi’s Chocolate Face to Face with gelato, caramel popcorn, chocolate and berries arranged as a face on our plate. The restaurant features complimentary treats: an “amuse-bouche” of salmon, a platter of crudites and French baguette warm from the oven, and a “chocolate tree” with chocolate-covered strawberries and other treats. Dinner for two came to $60 (with our Mariner status loyalty program it was $30 and we would have expected to pay more than $100 for this meal at a land-based restaurant). For non-seafood lovers the restaurant offers Steak Frites, Souffle au Fromage and other selections.
Our cabin, #1017, ocean-view, mid-ships in a lower deck, was comfortable with a walk-in shower, big screen television and seating area with desk.
Activities include demonstrations and classes from America’s Test Kitchen, deck games and team trivia sessions we love. There is lots of live entertainment at the Music Walk with varied venues we loved, including the Lincoln Center Stage, Billboard Onboard, Rolling Stone Rock Room and B.B. King’s Blues Club. Additionally, there are BBC Earth Experiences in the World Stage, a two-level state-of-the-art theater.
Too soon, it was time to pack (the only drawbacks we found in taking back-to-back cruises on two ships were having to clear customs/immigration twice – but both times it was a speedy process as we disembarked at the last possible minute – and packing and unpacking twice). We disembarked one ship in Fort Lauderdale, but, bright spot: we had another cruise on the horizon. Terminal 26 for the Nieuw Statendam was across a couple of blocks from Terminal 19 for the Crystal Serenity, so we asked the porter to take us with our luggage to the other ship (and doubled his tip).
The next 12-day cruise aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity was a southern Caribbean chic experience – a novel lifestyle in new, ultra-deluxe surroundings. The last time we were on the Crystal Serenity was on a Greek Isles cruise a decade ago and we had fallen in love with her. She had received an extensive three-week redesign late last year, and we were eager to get reacquainted. We found her refreshed and with expanded space and options that made us fall in love with her all over again.
As a result of the redesign the ship now has 36 new Penthouses and two new Penthouse Suites that replaced veranda staterooms on Penthouse Deck 10. Our room, 10020, one of the new Seabreeze Penthouses, was spacious at 403 sq. ft., stylish and comfortable – with a walk-in closet, bathroom with rain- and hand-held-shower (plus the ability to hear television programs and music) and a roomy veranda with three chairs and two tables. On this veranda we enjoyed breakfasts al fresco with berries, chocolate muffins, fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee served by our very attentive butler, Richard. The transformation from veranda cabins to penthouses and suites reduced the ship’s capacity from 1,070 passengers to 980, but the number of crew remained the same. Translation: more space and more service.
Other aspects of the redesign we loved were the refreshing of public rooms including the popular Palm Court, now with an in-the-round-style stage. Here, arguably the best afternoon tea afloat, the Mozart Tea, takes place with a vast array of sandwiches and sweets with a “side” of violin and piano music by Amadeus – and staff and musicians are dressed in period costumes.
In Waterside, the main restaurant, the introduction of open seating dining allowed us flexibility for evening activities, and there are more tables for two (our preferred table size). Waterside serves classics like filet mignon as well as modern specialties. And the redesign created new dining venues.
Top on our list of favorites is the new Churrascaria, a Brazilian-style barbecue evening venue in The Marketplace (that also serves buffet-style breakfasts and lunches). It welcomed us with traditional “caipirinha” cocktails, Brazil’s national drink (and no need to sign bar tabs as beverages are included throughout the ship), and it offers tapas, ceviche, salads and grilled meats carved tableside by “gauchos” on sword-like skewers. We liked it so much – particularly its “feijoada” black-bean-and-sausage soup and grilled pork medallions wrapped in bacon, jumbo shrimp, sirloin steak, lamb chops, chicken parmesan and other delights– that we returned twice.
Another big favorite of ours is Silk Kitchen & Bar featuring Chinese specialties served family-style, including delightful dim sum, among the choices for dinner. It is open for lunch too. All these unlimited complimentary venues joined the line’s Prego, serving delectable Northern Italian cuisine including a signature mushroom soup in a bread bowl and “osso bucco,” and Umi Uma & Sushi Bar, featuring the Japanese-Peruvian cuisine of celebrity Chef Nobu Matsuhisa – the chocolate souffle cake with sesame seed ice cream is to die for. Guests enjoy a complimentary dinner at both Prego and Umi Uma and return visits are $30 per person.
Port highlights on this run included several southern Caribbean idylls. Among them are chic St. Bart’s, with its yacht-dotted harbor that recalls the French Riviera; and lovely St. Lucia, with arguably the most picturesque sight in the region: its green-clad seaside Les Pitons mountains. A World Heritage Site, Gros Piton rises to more than 2,600 feet by the Caribbean Sea; Petit Piton has an altitude of more than 2,400 feet. In the past we had enjoyed the view of Les Pitons, a visit to lovely Marigot Bay where the movie “Dr. Doolittle” was filmed, and La Soufriere “drive-in volcano,” so this time we concentrated on Castries, the capital, taking in such highlights as its colorful Castries Market with all manner of fruits, vegetables and other products and enjoying a Creole lunch of such specialties as local crab, plantains, mango rice and breadfruit cakes at the Pink House Plantation, a five-minute taxi ride from the cruise pier. Other stops of the voyage included British-influenced Barbados and Antigua as well as the tropical paradises of the Turks & Caicos and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands with awesome beaches for swimming and snorkeling. But as great a pleasure was to enjoy an abundance of excellent entertainment and activities including wine tastings, culinary demonstrations, shows by magicians from Magic Castle in Los Angeles, lavish Broadway-style revues and variety entertainment while being pampered 24/7 on the Crystal Serenity.
Combining two cruises on two different ships – one relatively new and one renewed – we had been able to enjoy two shipboard lifestyles (premium on Nieuw Statendam, and luxury-all-inclusive on Crystal Serenity) and a variety of cuisines and entertainment. We had visited different ports in the eastern, western and southern Caribbean. For us, this “tale of two cruises” was definitely a success.