Cruising in the midst of a coronavirus panic and economic upheaval

Aboard the M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, off Haiti, March 9, 2020

Markets are plunging and authorities are pleading for people not to get on cruise ships. So of course we are on a cruise ship. We merrily set sail on Saturday along with close to a dozen other cruise ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We’re on a Holland America ship again, but the difference this time is that rather than being one of the youngest passengers on the ship we are now one of the oldest.

Holland America passengers skews toward 60+, but it’s really more 70+, which is why we felt so young on our last cruise. The difference in this cruise is that it’s a themed cruise, a JoCo cruise to be specific. Having invested over $6000 in this cruise, we weren’t going to be deterred by the threat of coronavirus. We might have had we not paid all this money into it and had some way of getting it back. So armed with plenty of saniwipes in our carry on, we took our chances and boarded a JetBlue flight last Friday from Hartford to Fort Lauderdale.

There are hundreds of cruises still going on across the globe and last I checked only two had cases of coronavirus, both of the Princess Cruise Line brand. There were two Princess cruises going out of Fort Lauderdale with us. The two thousand or so of us passenger onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam may look odd. My wife is hardly the only woman around here with purple hair. In fact, it’s more normal to see oddly colored hair on this cruise than not.

This cruise is full of weird people and oddballs, the sorts of whom we used to meet at science fiction conventions thirty years ago when that was still a thing. Now there is plenty of evidence that the remainders of this tribe take this annual JoCo cruise instead. It’s aligned around a programmer turned nerdy song writer Jonathan Colton. There are plenty of polyamorous people on this ship, along with all sorts of other other odd people, but I’m betting they are much more a safe sex type than the general population at large. They are at least 90% white, average age probably somewhere around 35, the sorts that like to dress in costumes, decorate their cabin doors with quirky stuff, play endless role playing games mostly in the upper dining room, sleep little and frequently queue into long lines at the food court on the Lido Deck.

Time will tell if we suffer the fate of the two Princess cruise ships, but most likely we’ll be fine. Even before all this coronavirus started, sanitation has always been a high priority on cruise ships. Purell stations are everywhere and people are mostly refraining from touching each other and washing their hands thoroughly after bathroom stops or when leaving or returning to their rooms.

We’ve rented the whole ship so it’s been largely transformed for us. Generally, this is good. There is no annoying art auction and the shops and casino look eerily empty. Also largely empty is the promenade (Deck 3) which is usually full of walkers and joggers. I saw one lone jogger and a few others in deck chairs. It was the quietest place on this noisy ship.

Should I take it as an omen that we didn’t berth at our first port of call? It’s Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, and pretty much always the first port of call on one of their ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We weren’t spurned due to coronavirus fears, but because seas were choppy due to a strong low pressure system north of our ship. That’s why the captain changed course and this morning we found ourselves south of Hispanola where the seas are finally calmer.

Tomorrow we are expected to berth at Santo Domingo where we’ll have an outdoor concert. Last I heard, the Dominican Republic hadn’t refused our entry. That’s because no one was let on the ship sick. They took our temperature prior to boarding, and we had to assert we hadn’t recently traveled through suspect Asian airports.

Still, you never know. We don’t get much news on this cruise ship. Internet is prohibitively expensive, but we do get satellite TV and Holland America doesn’t block the New York Times site, in fact it subscribes to it for us. For the most part the passengers seem vigilant about hygiene but won’t let it affect their valuable social interactions. This cruise is a place to be your inner oddball, so it’s quite okay to be Corporal Klinger in high heels and hose around here. You are probably one of a dozen passengers with a similar theme. Klinger though was just vying for a Section 8. There are plenty of real trans people on this cruise. If you can’t figure it out from their somewhat manly appearance and breasts, their name tag suggests you use “they” as their personal pronoun. They look happy and liberated. For a week they can be accepted and be themselves. It’s going home to a much colder world that is the hard part for them.

If anything, I am the oddball around here. I’m dressed American-ish, my personal pronoun is He, and I’m not polyamorous, in costume, have a stuffed dragon on my shoulder or am particularly into the odd stuff most of these people are into. My wife is quite into this culture. I just kind of observe it all from the sidelines. I’m no redneck and believe in live and let live. In my sixty plus years, I simply don’t care what your color, age, body shape or your sexual orientation is. We all are here and should just get along. The only thing that gives me some heartache are self-identified Republicans and conservatives. I just don’t understand them.

And until Saturday when we return and are hopefully let off the ship, I don’t have to. We are living in a kind of private space on this cruise, mostly insulated from the real world which will probably come crashing back to us on Saturday. Any coronavirus is likely on shore, not here on the ship. There are board games and weird seminars and exclusive shows on the Main Stage every evening. It may be that for us the safest and friendliest place in the world, at least for the moment, is right on this ship with the coast of Haiti off the port side.

Storms, sea and salty air

If you want to escape winter this year, it’s not easy. We were one of the lucky ones to escape on one of the few flights allowed out of Bradley International Airport (Hartford CT) Thursday morning. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I can’t recall a flight quite like this one. A Nor’easter was moving up the east coast bringing a ton of snow and high winds. Our original flight Thursday got canceled. We were agile enough to quickly book another Southwest flight that left around 7 AM. To improve our chances, we booked a room at the airport’s Sheraton the night before.

For once luck was with us. Only two commercial flights made it out of Bradley after ours on Thursday. While blizzard conditions mounted outside, a deicing truck gave our aircraft a quick shower. While we left the gate the storm worsened and it became hard to see out the window. When the aircraft made it airborne, the passengers spontaneously applauded. With 4500 flights canceled due to the storm, we were lucky indeed. We even made it into our gate at Tampa International five minutes early. Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful as well.

You would think that in Florida you might be able to escape winter, but snow had made it as far south as Tallahassee. Tampa was in the forties on our arrival, and Fort Lauderdale was breezy and a bit warmer in the low fifties. This was likely as cold as it was going to get in south Florida all year, but at least there was no snow. There was the occasional report of falling iguanas, who like to inhabit the trees and were literally stunned by the cold weather. Floridians donned their rarely used coats to go outside. Holed up at my sister and brother in law’s house in nearby Hollywood, we too found reason to stay indoors, eat Thai and play endless games of hearts.

Winter proved hard to escape. The cool temperatures and stiff winds continued on Friday but at least it was better than at home where ten inches of new snow hand fallen. Negative temperatures were also in the forecast there, so by comparison the weather seemed balmy. By mid afternoon when we had boarded the MS Westerdam (of the Holland America cruiseline) at the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal, winds had dropped somewhat and temperatures hovered in the mid 60s. Leaving port brought back memories of a similar cruise four years ago from the same port. Aside from the ship (then the Noordam) little had changed.

Back home airports like JFK are still recovering from the storm, as are we. The Nor’easter had effects both north and south. On our overnight trip to the Bahamas it meant eight foot seas and quickly acquiring sea legs. We spent Saturday at Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay. It had changed so little in four years that it didn’t take me long to walk the island and reboard the tender back to the ship. One surprise was to find I had Internet access. We didn’t intend to pay Holland America’s usury rates for its Internet.

The effects of the Nor’easter though just got worse. Moving south Saturday we pushed through the front, which made Friday night’s seas look relatively mild. We were rocking and rolling all night long. Normally I don’t use seasick medicine, but Sunday morning I popped a Bonine just to be proactive. Swells appeared to max out around twelve feet. With our cabin far forward, we could feel the keel bottom against the sea occasionally, making a huge noise. There were also other strange noises that may have been doors on the Promenade shutting from the wind or deck chairs skittering across the deck. By mid morning Sunday the worst of the waves had ebbed as we cut our way through tropical gloom and rain between Haiti and Cuba.

Today (Monday as I write this) feels like the first proper day of our cruise. We are heading south at fifteen knots toward a brief visit at Cartegena, Colombia before going through the Panama Canal on Wednesday. The skies are mostly sunny, the air moist and the feeling is definitely tropical. You can walk around the Promenade and feel like you actually are in the tropics again. We are settling into a cruising routine at last on this lengthy 15-day voyage. On January 20 we should arrive at San Diego where we will finally disembark.

This is our sixth cruise and the first in four years. It is both similar and new. The Westerdam is not much different than the Noordam we were on four years ago. Most cruise ships are similar in both style and layout, so much so that you can usually find your way around without a map. Main stage is forward, Decks 2-4. Dining is way aft, Decks 2-3. The Promenade is on Deck 3, and there is always a Lido deck on Deck 9 with pools, hot tubs, bars serving tropical drinks and an enormous food court open day and night.

It’s impossible to lose weight on a cruise, so the challenge is not to gain weight. Mainly you avoid the food court on the Lido deck as much as possible and eat meals in the Dining Room. Weather permitting you make regular circuits of the Promenade. I’ve walked two miles on the Promenade already today and plan to do two miles more later.

All the cruiselines serve terrific food. One thing I like about Holland America is they serve reasonable portions. In addition, the food arrives so slowly that you partially digest one part of the meal before the second part arrives. Allow two hours or more for dinner in the dining room.

The Westerdam was built in 2004 but is already showing signs of age. You can find rust spots in places, spots they try to hide with coats of paint. Somehow the rust still leaches through the paint. The crew is always busy doing something, but standards may have slipped a bit. I am seeing things I haven’t seen on other cruises, things that amount to annoyances more than complaints, like finding no soap in the soap dispensers in certain public restrooms. Like other cruiselines, there is a lot of surreal happiness from the crew, who of course have orders to always bend over backward to be friendly and helpful.

Still, there is more than a little overt class division among the crew. I have carefully surveyed the dining and cabin crews. They are all Indonesian. Considering they never get a day off and must work at least twelve hours a day, it’s perhaps understandable that Indonesians have these jobs. Then there are the “white” jobs. You probably won’t see an Indonesian behind the desk at Guest Services. Positions like these seem reserved for whites. Speaking of whites, we passengers are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly senior. At 60, I am still probably well below the mean passenger age.

It’s a great life while the cruise lasts. Holland American cruises have innovated by adding Lincoln Center Stage, where you can indulge your love of classical music three times a day if you want. The entertainment is a bit less fancy than on other cruise lines, but only snobs will care. Their ships are smaller than most these days, which I find nice because it feels more intimate. Still, there is always something to do here, although the most popular activities tend to be the most passive and involve sitting on deck chairs on the Lido deck in front the pool and ordering tropical drinks.

At least it is far, far away from the bitter cold and snow back in New England. Exotic ports of call await.

Cruising for a difference

Is there really that much to distinguish cruise lines? This cruise is our fifth, and each has been on a different cruise line. In general, one won’t complain about the food on any cruise line. That certainly is not the case here on Holland America’s ship the Noordam, wending its way in a leisurely fashion toward the southern Caribbean. The staterooms on Holland America don’t look much different than staterooms on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian. They all have a promenade where those who prefer to move can stroll around the ship’s periphery, smell the salt air and get a little cardiovascular exercise. I noticed the picture gallery and theaters were in the very same spots on this cruise line as they were in the last two. Differences between cruise lines tend to be more of style than anything else. Carnival, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for partying, young adults and families with small children. Royal Caribbean is more buttoned down.

Holland America is definitely not a party ship. It is mostly a well-moneyed old people’s ship. There are a few middle aged people on the ship, by which I mean thirty or forty something, but just a few. By that criteria I no longer qualify. Still, I skew younger than the average age of a passenger on the Noordam. Sixty or seventy something is more par for the course. Expect passengers with canes, walkers and motorized carts. Holland America and the Noordam in particular is just more relaxed and quiet in general than other cruise lines we’ve experiences. There are fewer long waits at the elevators. There are fewer passengers elbowing you in the hallways. The staff doesn’t try quite so hard to ply you with booze (extra of course) or to petition you to buy overpriced art. Moreover, checking in was a breeze. We were expecting a ninety-minute process and long lines. Passengers tend to show up en masse as soon as the cruise line opens its doors. Two hours before sailing, at least for us, there was no line. It took ten minutes tops to get from our drop off point at the front of the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal until we were walking onto the ship. Why do people show up early when for most other events people show up either on time or fashionably late? I believe it’s not the ports of call that attract most people to cruises. It’s the buffet and the promise of as much food as you can eat that really has them signing up, so the sooner you can start the mass gluttony, the better. And generally if you want to find someone that’s where they are. In the case of the Noordam, it’s Deck 9, the Lido (“Lee-doh”) deck with its mostly always-open buffet. And mostly business is hopping on Deck 9, which is also convenient to pools, hot tubs and lots of lounge chairs.

Beach at Hollywood Florida
Beach at Hollywood Florida


This time our cruise was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came with a bonus: the ability to finally see my sister Teri’s house in nearby Hollywood. She has been there for sixteen years with her husband, her dog and her boat. We avoid Florida except, apparently, as a place to catch a cruise ship. So we arrived a day early to see her and get a sense of Hollywood, Florida where she lives and the Fort Lauderdale area. My general impression was favorable. Florida has a lot of ugly beach communities, but Hollywood is not one of them. It has a long and impressive “broadwalk”, sort of like a boardwalk except it is not elevated, wider and not wooden. It has a charm to it, and tries hard to be the Florida you see in postcards, if you can ignore the condos, hotels and seaside businesses next to the ocean and broadwalk. Nearby Dania Beach to its north is also nice. We stopped at a pier for a quick lunch at a restaurant at the pier and marveled at the cool weather in the 60s and the dry and breezy winds. What soon became more interesting was a school of shark that appeared just off the pier. Everyone outside on the pier eating lunch quickly turned their attention away from their food to the sharks stalking a large school of fish nearby instead. The fish appeared to escape, but probably lost out when they went out of our range.

The Fort Lauderdale cruise terminals proved hard to get to, particularly since roads are under construction, which meant weird detours were needed. The cruise terminals are frankly in an ugly part of town, as freighters also load up there, which meant plenty of freight containers for scenery. The view was much more impressive once onboard the Noordam, particularly from the Lido deck. Fort Lauderdale looks great from that high up. It is a major city in its own right, certainly not as big as Miami to its immediate south but catching up quickly and with an impressive skyline.

Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship
Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship

So we quickly settled into our room on the main deck, enjoyed their four-star dining room, then went on our first of what will be many walks around its promenade. Miami was just a twinkling of light in the distant west. It seemed that nothing could interfere with this wonderful eleven day adventure. Then the lights went out.

Dead stop. Just an emergency light winked on near our cabin door. After about a minute the emergency power kicked in and the lights came on but there was nothing but silence from the engines. After a few more minutes the captain came on to announce us the obvious. There had been an electrical malfunction. Happily it didn’t last too long and was over in about ninety minutes. Eventually one engine came back online, then the next. Our arrival in the Bahamas this morning was not delayed, but no one will say or admit to a reason for the incident.

Cruise lines prove that they are major players when they buy their own private island in the Bahamas. Holland America bought theirs, and it’s called Half Moon Cay. It comes with the usual accommodations for cruise ship passengers: bands playing calypso music and singing Jimmy Buffet songs, white sandy beaches, gift shops and a huge outdoor barbecue where you can gorge yourself sick. That’s what most passengers were doing. Frankly, it made me ill to look at all that greasy food, so I opted for a short walk to the other side of the island instead. A fake shipwreck along the shoreline was actually a bar and allowed another opportunity to get plastered. Despite the sandy beaches and temperatures in the 70s, few were in the water. Empty beach chairs were in abundance. The water was an amazing shade of blue and closer to shore, colored aquamarine.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Next stop: Grand Turk Island.