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St. Vincent, In The Rarely Visited Caribbean

Dominica Carib Canoe-1

Looking down on the St. Vincent cruise terminal at Kingstown

THIS is where the notorious Capt. Bligh left his lasting mark

The main reason Linda and I chose this 35-day Maasdam itinerary is because the ship stops at places most cruise lines don’t. The island of St. Vincent in the Grenadines was a major attraction because I hadn’t seen it for far too long. With scuba diving now on my back burner, a cruise is my best way back to St. Vincent.

Based on yesterday’s post about Carib Indian history, what does St. Vincent have to do with the topic? One of its major attractions is the oddity of the cannon placement at Fort Duvernette, located 195 feet and 250 steps above the Caribbean. The unfortunate soldiers involved in its construction in the 1800s had to haul the cannons to the top. Once at the summit, the cannons were not aimed seaward–all the cannons face inland.

The British were terrified of the fierce Carib Indians who waged a bloody 7-year war from their mountain hideouts. The Vincentians proudly claim their country is the only place in the hemisphere where a fort was designed to repel invaders from the land instead of the sea. Some of the local literature, however, doesn’t make it clear that the Caribs were their greatest threat, not other European soldiers.

The Caribs may not have their own Territory here as in Dominica but their heritage survives. They intermarried with the black slaves brought over to work the sugarcane, a mix that accounts for the heritage of most present day Vincentians.

St Vincent Maasdam-1

The Maasdam at dock in St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a late-comer when it comes to Caribbean cruising. Cruise ships didn’t start visiting St. Vincent until 1999 but passengers had such bad experiences with hustling locals (think Jamaica and the panhandlers on the beach) and the poor condition of the capital and cruise port of Kingstown that cruise ships became scarce. Tourism officials learned a lesson and in 2006 St. Vincent received one of “The Most Improved Destination” awards from Dream World Cruise Destinations magazine.

The cruise dock is located at the edge of Kingstown and the small terminal building is among the Caribbean’s most user friendly. It’s an easy walk into town from here but seeing the real St. Vincent and its St. Lucia rain forest-like lushness requires a cab or a tour. One popular stop is Fort Charlotte but of special interest is the village of Barraouallie beyond it, not only a fishing but a whaling community.

That’s right–whaling from nothing more than an unusually long motorized canoe. Whaling in St. Vincent has a long tradition, but in truth the Vincentians do the whale population little damage. The harpoon is thrown by hand, which almost requires the harpoonist to stand over a whale and drive the point in with the force of his own weight. Whales are taken only once in several years, so the whaling industry is hardly a thriving or threatening one.

St Vincent Botanical Garden Sign -1

Entrance sign to New World’s oldest botanic gardens

My own interest is to revisit St. Vincent’s famous Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1765 , by General Robert Melville, Gov. of the Windward Islands. These 20-acres comprise the oldest botanic gardens in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, they were administered by the British War Office and charged to cultivate and improve native plants and to import others from similar climates that would improve the island’s resources. From St. Vincent, some of these plants went out to other islands, which not only dramatically changed the islands’ foliage but added new food sources for both settlers and slaves.

The gardens’ most famous plant is also one of the Caribbean’s most important: a “cutting” from the original breadfruit tree brought from Tahiti by Capt. William Bligh in 1793 from Tahiti, Polynesia. This is the same Capt. Bligh of the famous in 1789 Bounty mutiny. Not only was he a skilled navigator–it’s amazing he and his crew survived the mutiny–but obviously a skilled horticulturist since young plants on a long voyage had to be maintained since the seeds of breadfruit die quickly when stored. From St. Vincent, breadfruit was introduced to the rest of the Caribbean.

St Vincent breadfruit sign-1

Sign marking Capt. Bligh’s famous breadfruit tree

St. Vincent’s breadfruit “cutting” has grown into an enormous tree, probably at least 85 high, the tallest they grown. Many say breadfruit as tasting potato-like or freshly baked bread. Those are polite descriptions of what I consider to be dry and tasteless, perhaps my least favorite of Caribbean “vegetables.” Being Irish, I know a little bit of how potatoes are supposed to taste. To breadfruit, I say “yuck!”

Despite not wanting to eat breadfruit, standing in front of Capt. Bligh’s massive and historic 200-year old tree is a surprisingly humbling feeling. Breadfruit and other plants first planted here truly changed the Caribbean landscape. But St. Vincent can’t be blamed for introducing sugarcane into the Caribbean, which needed a huge labor supply for harvest and the need for cheap slave workers. That was introduced into the Caribbean from Brazil via Barbados, the home of Caribbean rum.

The taxi ride from the cruise dock to the Botanical Gardens, a mile from Kingstown up a steep hill, was just $10. That fee included the driver waiting until after we toured and a return to the Maasdam.

Instead, to the surprise of the driver, Linda and I paid him the $10 and bid him good-by. I wanted to walk back to the ship and see what present-day Kingstown looked like. For a photographer, roaming by foot is the only way to travel. Especially when it is downhill.

This post barely touches on what there is to see and do in St. Vincent. On the other hand, the Maasdam excursions were limited, ignoring the island as a good dive destination. For more info, check out the St. Vincent and Grenadines website at http://www.discoversvg.com/

St Vincent Kingstown-1

Leaving Kingstown, St. Vincent

Carib Indian Tidbits

George Town Grand Cayman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Traditional round Carib meeting house

 

Chewing On Carib History

Because some upcoming Maasdam destinations have strong affiliations with the Carib(pronounced kar-RIB) Indians, this seems like a good time to mention their place in island history.

Fiercely independent. Unyielding. Vanished. That pretty much sums up the status of the Carib Indians throughout the Caribbean, the island group named after them.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Caribs still can be found on Dominica and St. Vincent and along the coasts of Honduras and Guyana, but elsewhere in the Caribbean they have disappeared, the victims of Europeans diseases and brutality.

One of the largest surviving groups of Caribs, who often refer to themselves as the Kalinago or Garifuna people live inside the 3,700-acre Carib Territory on Dominica. About 3,500 Caribs live inside the Reserve and another 2,000 live elsewhere on the island, the largest group of island Caribs left anywhere in the world.

George Town Grand Cayman

 

 

 

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Carib woman selling her hand-made baskets

The Carib villages extending for 9 miles along the island’s east coast are almost indistinguishable from other parts of the island. Small wooden and concrete houses largely have replaced the traditional round great houses and A-frame buildings.

Except for two small signs marking the northern and southern ends of the Carib Territory (also sometimes referred to as the Carib Reserve. Visitors pass occasional roadside stand selling hand-woven baskets, there’s nothing to indicate you’re among the Caribs, a people who so terrified early explorers that they were relentlessly hunted almost to extinction.

They survived on Dominica only because of the mountainous landscape that made pursuit of them difficult and dangerous. The French and later the British found it made more sense to trade with the Caribs than to fight them.

George Town Grand Cayman    George Town Grand Cayman   George Town Grand Cayman
Carib Territory homes new and old-style; Carib woman with her son

The Caribs were not the original settlers of the Caribbean but part of the second wave of Amerindians from South America. The Tainos arrived first, about 500 B.C., and the Caribs appeared in their canoes about a thousand years later. Greater seamanship skills and a more war-like mentality allowed the Caribs to conquer and absorb the Tainos. They expanded as far north as Puerto Rico.

European explorers found the Caribs to be formidable opponents. They often fought to the death rather than endure slavery. On St. Vincent they were considered so dangerous that the cannons at one fort pointed inland; the Caribs were considered a far greater threat than any opponent who might arrive by sea.

The battle between guns and arrows also turned into a war of words, and the most effective propaganda story of the day was that the Caribs were “man eaters.” This resulted in the invention of a new term, “cannibal,” a corruption of what the Spanish called the Caribs, “Caribales.” Demonizing the Caribs as cannibals was a good excuse for European explorers to kill or enslave them and seize their land.

George Town Grand CaymanThe Caribs were skilled sailors despite their primitive dugout canoes

One of the wildest stories was from a French priest in the 1600s who reported that the Caribs had performed their own taste test on Europeans and concluded that the French were the tastiest, followed by the English, Dutch and very much in last place the Spanish (said to be too stringy to be worth eating).

Today’s Caribs steadfastly maintain their ancestors were not cannibals. The film was criticized the popular The National Garifuna Council criticized the popular Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest for portraying the Carib people as cannibals. Adding insult to injury was where parts of the film were shot: on Dominica.

Some historians says that what was mistaken for cannibalism actually was an important part of war rituals where the limbs of victims were taken back to their villages as trophies.

A victorious Carib apparently chewed and spit out a single mouthful of flesh of a very brave enemy so that bravery would be transferred to them. There is no evidence that the Caribs ever ate humans to satisfy hunger.

George Town Grand CaymanBecause of the canoe’s importance in Carib history, canoes
are used as altars in some Carib Territory churches.

Choose The Right Cruise Cabin

How Big A Rock ‘N Roll Fan Are You?

There is no delicate way to say this, but when a container of barf bags is hung on a rail beside all the Maasdam elevators, I know the captain is anticipating high seas and a rough ride.

(If you don’t know what a barf bag is, then you are recent to air travel, but at one time at least two these motion sickness bags were in the pocket of every airline seat, the one in front of you. Cruise lines rarely bring these out this prominently.)

The idea of rough seas and potential seasickness doesn’t bother me. I am lucky, I don’t get seasick. Instead, the rolling of the ocean makes me sleepy. A long time ago when I was a reporter for the now defunct Richmond News Leader in Richmond, Va., I had an assignment to go along for some weekend NATO or U.S. Navy maneuvers out of Norfolk. The reason I can’t be more specific is because the sea was so nasty all I did was sleep. That’s my reaction to rough seas. I’m lucky.

Linda, on the other hand, is of more delicate disposition. She sometimes needs to take seasick pills in anticipation of the motion of the ocean.

Minimizing Ship Motion

When I pointed out to Linda the new addition beside the elevator, she isn’t much worried. Although we might have received an upgrade toward the bow, we prefer to be at the stern—the same place the dining rooms are on most cruise ships. The stern also is referred to as the aft or back of a ship.

Dining rooms are situated at the back of a ship instead of forward, where the most expensive cabins are. Cruise ships like to have their passengers dine as peacefully as possible. Place the dining areas at the bow and the up-and-down theme park motion would be too much for many passengers.

Since the aft area is the part least affected by high seas, this is why we always book a cabin in that area.
Ironically, rooms on the top decks near the bow are often where the most expensive suites are located. They may have great views, but they can be among the least comfortable in truly rough conditions.

The cheaper aft cabins nearest to the dining areas usually have an elevator within a short distance from your cabin. From a stern cabin, there is no need to walk—or be tossed or struggle—compared to getting to the restaurant from a bow cabin.

This is a secret cruise lines don’t disclose: Many of them place their most expensive cabins at the wrong end!

At the end of the 35-day Maasdam cruise, I am surprised to have “land legs” from the moment I step off the ship. On other cruises, sometimes it’s taken several days before I stopped walking like a drunken sailor.

Note: Blog postings about our 35-day Caribbean cruise are not over. We’ve had a lot of reality to catch up with plus all the holiday reunions since returning. And, the need to make a living to help pay for the cruise will make these postings less frequent.

Dominica Whale Watching

dominica whales-2

Dominica is the Caribbean’s whale watching capital

The captain of our whale and dolphin excursion boat slips a hydrophone into the water only two miles off Dominica’s shoreline and almost directly in line with downtown Roseau.

He fine-tunes the underwater listening device, hoping to pick up the clicks, pings, whistles or any other sound made by the pod of female sperm whales that reside in Dominica’s deep coastal waters year-round.

So far Moby Dick’s sisters have proven elusive, without a single sighting. However, sperm whales make distinctive clicking noises and we’ll soon know if any animals are within the sensor’s two-mile range.

“Babies sound like an old time watch, going click-click-click,” the captains tells us as we listen to the hydrophone. “Female clicks are stronger and faster, like horses galloping. The males sound like metal hitting a bottle but with the speed of a pile driver.”

We listen intently but hear only what sounds vaguely like the whine of a boat propeller. “A dolphin,” the captains says as he pulls in the cable. He returns to the flying bridge and restarts the engines, resuming our search before dropping the hydrophone again.

I glance at my watch. Almost half of our three-hour trip is over, still lots of time left to find our first whale…right? Maybe not.

dominica whales-5   dominica whales-6
       Spinner dolphin just off the bow                           Spinner dolphins showing off

Almost all the other passengers aboard our 60-foot catamaran from the Anchorage Dive Center are making a repeat trip because they didn’t see a single dolphin dorsal or whale fluke yesterday. That’s unusual because these trips usually boast a 90 percent success rate.

With 22 different kinds of cetaceans roaming through its waters, Dominica has rapidly become the Caribbean’s whale watching capital. Pilot, pygmy sperm, false killer, dwarf sperm, melon-headed whales, even giant humpbacks during winter, all pass through here.
In addition, spinner and spotted dolphin are plentiful throughout the year. As we learned just minutes after leaving the dock when a huge pod of spinner dolphin started playing around our boat. They were fun but whales are what we all yearn to see.

Even though I have yet to meet my first sperm whale, I feel I’ve known them forever. Largest of the toothed whales, they are the usual models for whale toys and drawings, and of course a giant sperm whale was Herman Melville’s choice for Moby Dick. Yet they don’t grow to a “monstrous size” as Melville implies.

The females grow only to 38 feet, the males up to 70. If an enraged male sperm whale was racing “toward us, open-mouthed, raising the waves” like Moby Dick, I’d probably regard their size differently.

dominica whales-10   dominica whales-9
                    Thar she blows!                                                       Thar she goes!

Everyone on our boat becomes charged as several people point to a short plume of spray a half-mile from us; our boat was already heading for it. My telephoto lens picks up three long black sausages with blowholes floating on the surface. The blowholes seem strangely out of alignment, positioned on the left side of the head and toward the front. An arrangement that obviously works just fine as one female expels a miniature geyser about 15 feet high.

Because of their relatively small size, I expect to see a dorsal fin, which sperm whales lack. Instead, they have a hump and a series of bumps along the ridge of their back

The whales are logging, resting on the surface. They’ve undoubtedly seen our boat countless times and at first pay little attention as we approach to within 30 yards. One of the whales becomes curious and “spy-hops,” raising her head up in the air to have a good look at us.

dominica whales-4   dominica whales-11
                 Pod of sperm whales                        Sperm whales have a hump, not a dorsal fin

Which offers a much better view of her, especially her distinctive blunt head that contains spermaceti, a white waxy substance once highly prized for making cosmetics, ointments and candles. An estimated one million sperm whales were killed before their hunting was banned. Today, somewhere between 20,000 to 100,000 remain, spread throughout almost every ocean of the world.

The whales usually stay on the surface for short stretches, about 15 minutes, then vanish for up to 45 minutes as they dive thousands of feet in search of squid, their primary food. Until then we can view and photograph them leisurely.

Our whales appear restless, a sign they’re about to dive. The captain warns us, giving us time to ready our cameras for the shot every whale watcher wants: the notched, triangular tail as it lifts slowly from the water, pauses for an instant and then slips majestically beneath the waves.

Amazingly, we quickly locate two more small groups of whales before returning to the Anchorage Hotel, sighting a total of nine whales that morning. Dominica’s whale drought definitely is over.

The Anchorage Hotel & Dive Center is Dominica’s oldest and most experienced whale watching operator. Toll free from the U.S. (1-888-790-5264) or http://www.anchoragehotel.dm/main/whalewatching.php. Their boat holds up to 30 whale watchers.

dominica whales-3
A parting shot, just the one I wanted

Maasdam’s Hands-On Cooking Class

Part 2—Chef Joseph makes his class more fun than recess

Last night the ship rocked and rolled like a 60’s band without any music, unless you count the water in the pipes sloshing back and forth. But despite the waves, I’m on my way up to deck 7 for a hands-on cooking class with Chef Joseph Caputo.

I enjoyed the free cooking demonstration with the chicken soup so much I think this $29 hands-on cooking class will be a lot of fun. There are 13 of us gathered in the Culinary Arts Center as Chef Joseph explains what we’ll be making.

Linda O"Keefe              Linda O"Keefe
Chef Joseph                                 Explaining the crepe pan

He says, “This is my Grandmother Angela’s manicotti recipe. I’ve been making it since I was 7. It is a tradition for my Italian family to have manicotti for celebrations such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays. My grandmother would get up before dawn and start making the tomato sauce, the crepes and the filling. Since the crepes aren’t very big, it was easy to eat 5 or 6.”

Linda O"Keefe        Linda O"Keefe
Blanched, peeled plum tomatoes                                              Fresh eggs

Chef Joseph quickly organizes us into 4 groups. Assignments are handed out. My group begins seeding tomatoes as others start cracking eggs and whisking in flour and milk. Another group is busy mixing the cheese filling.

Chef Joseph watches us closely and offers advice to make sure everything goes well. Before long, it’s time to start cooking the crepes. This is the part I’m nervous about. Chef recommends using an electric skillet set at 250 degrees for the crepes. He says that’s the best way to maintain an even temperature.

Linda O"Keefe              Linda O"Keefe
Bad crepe, good crepe                Pouring the crepe mix

My turn comes. I slowly pour in about 2 tablespoons of the mixture and flatten it out with the back of a spoon. In a little over a minute, the  thin crepe is ready to be turned and is done. Now I wonder about all the fun things I can make with this recipe.

Unfortunately, on the Maasdam the Culinary Arts Center stage is in the same room  (and behind the screen) of the ship’s movie theater. Things start to get a little crazy when we realize our time is almost up and we’re not done. People are coming in to watch the movie and the screen isn’t down and the the curtain hasn’t been drawn to hide the kitchen from the audience. Our group isn’t ready for their prime time.

Linda O"Keefe               Linda O"Keefe
Stirring the sauce                           Almost ready

The sauce is done but we’re still cooking crepes. When the crepes are done and laid out on the work stations, it’s time to stuff them. I put the filling at one end and from there I begin rolling, ending with the seam side down. Another team member spoons sauce into  a pan  and I place the filled crepes into the sauce. Someone else sprinkles cheese on the top. My crepes are ready for the oven at 350 for about 30 minutes.

Linda O"Keefe      Linda O"Keefe
Mixing the cheese filling                     I did these all by myself

Linda O"Keefe      Linda O"Keefe
Filling and rolling takes a while              Time to start on the salad

Now we tackle the salad dressing. The greens are combined with roasted walnuts, blue cheese, dried cranberries and a light citrus vinaigrette dressing. Chef Joseph warns, “The salad should be dressed not drowned!”

This is his own special dressing that he is sharing with us. Since he’s now bottling it for sale, I won’t give away any secrets. But it is delicious.

Linda O"Keefe                    Linda O"Keefe
 Chef Das takes a break                      Chop, chop, chop!

Maasdam’s Pinnacle Grill Chef Das stops by to join the fun. He gives pointers to several  about how to cut properly and not add extra protein to the salad.

I take pictures, roll crepes, laugh, drink wine and try to take notes. I find out I need a silicon spatula and a ceramic knife to make life in the kitchen easier. This session also helped me realize I will be back in my home kitchen in a few days. I hope my end result there will be as magnificent as this cooking session.

Linda O"Keefe              Linda O"Keefe
Chef Das and Chef Joseph       Chef Joseph serves up the goods       

  by Linda O’Keefe         

(I also look forward to the magnificent results, Tim O’Keefe)    

Maasdam’s Guest Chef Joseph F. Caputo

This is part 1 of 2

Today I’m attending a cooking demonstration with the Maasdam’s guest Chef Joseph F. Caputo who will prepare Coconut Chicken Soup. I’m eager to learn how.  Chef Caputo is part of Holland America’s regular program of bringing aboard chefs who not only are outstanding in their kitchens but also in their teaching skills.  

When I arrive at the Culinary Arts Center, I find all the ingredients for the soup are divided and ready.  The chicken stock is even in the pot, ready awaiting the ingredients. 

                 Maasdam Cruise       Maasdam Cruise
                              Ready to start                                      Tomatoes fresh and ripe

The first thing Chef Joseph explains is how important the stock is to any soup. He says you must cook it 4 or 5 hours but never let it come to a boil. In this case, after the chicken is removed, the stock must be strained several times. Or, to skip this entire first step you can use organic pre-packaged stock. Like me.

The recipe for this soup calls for a quart of stock, a 28 ounce can of plum tomatoes, unsweetened coconut milk, a rib of celery cut into 2 pieces and an onion studded with cloves. Um, I find that very interesting. Cloves.

To my surprise, Chef Joseph says the onions, celery and tomatoes are added to the finished stock, boiled for 20 minutes, then remove the onion and celery. He suggests using an immersion blender or a counter top blender to puree the tomatoes but to leave some flecks for color.

Joseph tells us he owns and operates Zuppa del Giorno, il restorante del pranzo which means “soup of the day” and Catering by Joseph LTD in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Explaining how he was inspired by the cooking of his mother and grandmother and that culinary success started early in his life, Joseph uses the kitchen as a stage while preparing the soup. 

              ‘    LindaOKeefe_457      Maasdam Cruise
                       Chef Joseph preparing soup                           Telling us about his career

No wonder he did so well. Graduating with a degree in Communications and later earning a Master’s degree in Theatre, Joseph spent time in New York City pursuing a professional acting career while working at restaurants there.

His expertise gained from the theatre, combined with an easy going nature, make watching him cook a pleasure. Where I would be clunking around,  he seems to glide through the recipe like a dancer.

He says that one time during his acting days while catering a private party, he suddenly realized cooking was his true passion.  He changed direction first by becoming a personal chef. To enhance his skills, he attended the Culinary Institute of America. Before turning 50, he was the owner of two successful businesses: Both a catering operation and a restaurant.

In watching Chef Joseph teach our class, he switches gears as smoothly as a Rolls Royce. As he adds the chicken to the recipe,  he says the best way to prepare the chicken is to roast it for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 425 so the chicken will remain moist and not shred up. After placing everything in the stock pot, he emphasizes how the mixture should be heated thoroughly but never boiled. 

My mouth is watering when tiny cups of the finished soup are handed out. My taste buds are not disappointed. The velvety texture of the soup is filled with hints of curry, clove and coconut, all in a rich creamy tomato base. YUM!

                               Maasdam Cruise         Maasdam Cruise Maasdam Cruise
                                        Soup’s on!                        Caribbean comfort food

As we sip the soup with the little spoons, Joe tells a story about one of his experiences, which also is quite revealing about how a true chef thinks differently than the rest of us.

“One day I was in a restaurant where they were serving grilled cheese sandwiches. That started me thinking how I could use grilled cheese in a soup. So I made a tomato cream soup, then grilled the cheese sandwiches and cut them into small pieces. Using the grilled cheese tidbits as croutons, I called it “Childhood in a Bowl.”  He says people love it!

Watching Chef Joseph’s enthusiasm and listening to his stories, I wonder if Chef Joseph isn’t reliving fond childhood memories of his family every time he prepares soup. Both here in this small quantity and back home (as much as 120 gallons a day).

Whatever the reason, he certainly loves every minute doing it.

In part 2, I cook with Chef Joseph.

   By Linda O’Keefe

Dining on the Maasdam

Herb-crusted prime rib with horseradish
                     Herb-crusted prime rib with horseradish

In-room service often reflects a ship’s commitment to overall dining quality

Good dining and good service: Some ships I have cruised on had one but not the other. Several, including now the Maasdam, have had both.

Having never sailed on NCL, I am not sure why they paint “Freestyle Dining” on the sterns of their ships, which implies the rest of the cruising world is somehow enslaved or held captive to their main dining room.

On the Maasdam and all HAL ships, the dining program is called As You Wish. Even though I think of the film The Princess Bride (and what Westley always said to his great love, Buttercup, every time I hear the term),  As You Wish does perfectly describes the dining choices we have on the Maasdam.

In the Rotterdam Main Dining Room, before departure you choose either the traditional pre-set seating and dining times or the more freestyle approach of Open Seating (our choice) for dining anywhere between 5:15 and 9pm. For those with Open Seating, the Rotterdam opens a half-hour before the first main seating and extends 45 minutes beyond the second main seating.

Strawberry cheesecake
                                        Strawberry cheesecake
 
Or, for a more casual, Caribbean-type atmosphere, the Lido Dining Room buffet features about 80-percent of the same items as the Rotterdam for every dinner. Sometimes the specials on a particular night are better in the Rotterdam; on others, they’re in the Lido. The Lido Restaurant also is where the buffet breakfast and buffet lunch are served.

HAL’s website has detailed information about the Maasdam’s other dining areas. As a note, it is worth pointing out that the only rolls not cooked on the ship are rolls needed for the huge quantities of hamburgers and hot dogs served at the Terrace Grill from 11:30am until 6. The demand is just too great for the ship’s cooks. The Terrace Grill also features freshly baked home-made pizzas and—about 80-percent of the time—a Taco Bar throughout the afternoon.

Room Service
As anyone who cruises on the Maasdam or any HAL ship should learn on their first cruise, the As You Wish promise extends to room service, available 24 hours a day. The 24-hour room service menu provided in the staterooms is limited to 10 items and some suggested remedies for “high seas.”

However, a breakfast as full as you possibly could want will be delivered from 6am-10am every morning. The tags with your selections are hung outside on your stateroom door handle in the night, which is the way most ships operate.

From noon until 10pm, the room service menu offerings increase but you need to know this important fact: Anything served in the main dining room is available for room service when the main dining room is open, either for lunch or dinner.

Which means anything on the Rotterdam’s featured dinner menu will be brought to your room without extra charge. The key to ordering this way: You need to check the posted Rotterdam menu in advance and know precisely what items you want when you call in your order. No one has time to read the menu off to you over the phone, then give you added time to think about it and ask questions.

So, be prepared. The in-room dining phone is a busy one.

In order to blog as much as we have, most of our Maasdam dinners have arrived by room service. Delivery always is promised within 45-60 minutes but it usually arrives within 20 unless the ship has an unusually busy in-room dining night.

Seeing is Believing
Wish I could insert a drum roll here. To prove again that each picture is worth a thousand words, the following is a sample of the Maasdam’s in-room dining. If a ship doesn’t provide this kind of service, then it doesn’t live up to the grand heritage and traditions of cruise dining. It’s just another buffet joint, in good disguise.

Something that may or may not be important to you when choosing a cruise. To us, because we are on the go all day in port and usually don’t feel like dressing up, it’s a significant consideration.

ice tea man    sashimi of salmon w wasabi mayonnaise
No, we didn’t eat as much as it appears                   Sashimi of salmon

chilled blackberry soup   asian style rotisserie of duck w sweet & sour sauce on stir-fried vegetables w soy-splashed fried egg noodles  
              Chilled blackberry soup                                   Rotisserie of duck breast

dark and stormy tuna   Quail stuffed with dressing
            Dark and stormy Ahi tuna                             Quail stuffed with apricot dressing  

Clam and shrimp appetizer   Surf and turf
             Clam and shrimp appetizer                                 Classic surf and turf

Caesar salad   Chicken breast
                         Caesar salad                                Grilled chicken breast, sliced mango, peppers

OK, this is enough! I have many more pictures but you get the idea. Putting them together has me starving.  Time to call in-room dining, one final time. We arrive home tomorrow.

Cruise Planning – Gadgets and Gear

These items make extended cruising much easier

Power Strips
(Those of you who normally cruise in a suite can skip this first part, assuming you have a plethora of electrical outlets in such cabins. Not in my budget for such extra amenities.)

The average cruise cabin, regardless of age of the ship, typically is way behind the times when it comes to the electrical needs of the modern traveler. Think of all the items you need to charge every day: iPod, cell phone, iPad and/or Kindle, digital camera, Nintendo DS, you name it.

gadget outlet
That switch on the right controls our cabin lights on the Maasdam

But many cabins have only a two electrical outlets, located just above the desk and under the mirror. One outlet is for 220 volts, the other outlet for 115 volts. If you have an adapter for European travel, many smart phones and digital battery charges will also work off 220v, but you still end up with a grand total of two outlets.

No problem if you carry a power strip with you, right? That certainly will help but maybe not as much as you think.

Take a look at the basic power strip below (not surge protected) and how the outlets are positioned side by side:

gadget strip 1 empty

Now, here it is, full . . . or as full as can be considering all the different style of plugs these days.

gadget strip 1 full

This second type of power strip is surge protected and the outlets are positioned in a row, just as you find them in most homes:

gadget strip 2 empty

Yet even it isn’t perfect:

gadget strip 2 full

Solution: Carry both types, plugging one into the other.  That way you can handle more than one odd plug size at a time and keep everyone fully charged at the end of each day.

gadget both strips

Staying in Touch on Ship
At home, many families with children are in the habit of texting each other to see what they’re doing during the day. You can’t do that on a cruise ship unless you’re willing to pay cell phone surcharges.  More likely, your cell phone won’t have a signal most of the time. 
On days-at-sea, only satellite phones work. Those are much too costly to give to all family members, especially children.

Better to go retro and use an old fashioned device to keep in touch: walkie-talkies  Get a pair with a range of several miles, making it more likely they will work the entire length of the ship. If you have an inside cabin you might have to go out on deck to establish contact.

In addition, walkie talkies are a good way to keep in touch with one another in a cruise port. You, for instance, can stay by the pool to relax and be updated by the serious shoppers as they report about the bargains they find.

gadget walki talkis


For Digital Photographers

A Powered USB Hub

Buying enough SDHC memory cards to allow you to photograph freely on your cruise  without downloading any video or images could be almost as expensive as taking another 7-day Caribbean cruise, especially if you are shooting HD video or raw and large jpeg still images.  Most photographers don’t want to wait until returning home after their trip to view their material. Besides, who wants to wait until then to find out if their camera(s) are working properly, when it’s too late to take corrective measures.

Downloading to a laptop as well as a portable external memory drive (for backup) is routine for many serious photographers.  Downloading pictures in several places is the kind of redundancy that NASA tried to employ. 

Personally, I prefer to download simultaneously to 2 external hard drives and not dump them onto my computer’s hard drive. Many high capacity external drives will not function properly by simply plugging them into a regular USB port. Instead, the external drives work only when each drive is plugged into the computer because of the power they need to operate properly. Not all computers have enough ports (mine doesn’t.)

My solution is to choose a USB hub which is self-powered because it has its own plug-in power adapter. Like all USB hubs, it requires a host computer to be attached to.


gadget ext drives, powered usb hub

Memory Card Case
SD cards are scarily small compared to the old compact flash cards, which you could dump in a camera bag or pocket and easily find them. My solution to avoid misplacing them  and to make them easy to  locate is a hard memory card case I originally purchased for the larger  compact flash cards but never used because they didn’t play hide-and-seek every day. The card case keeps my four 8-gig SDHC cards trapped together quite well. They are allowed to come out only when they need to go to work. This memory card case has me the most organized I’ve ever been since digital cameras entered the market. Because I’m deathly afraid I’ll lose one of them.

gadgets SD card holder

Memory Sticks and High Speed Digital Flash Card Reader
I normally bring several memory sticks on a cruise to bring along documents not on my laptop. They can come in handy in other ways. You can use them to carry photos to show on other laptops. And, when docked in cruise ports, to download emails and other items using the faster and cheaper onshore Internet services.

If you download photos from your camera directly to your computer by using a cable, you risk losing all your material. If the camera battery is weak and the camera shuts off during the  transfer process, you could lose all the images in the camera as well as the material you were downloading when the battery died.

No need to take that kind of risk if you use a digital flash card reader. You simply fit the card into one end and the USB end into your computer and that’s all there is to it. You can use whatever program you want to make the transfer, too, not rely on what your camera furnishes. However, most lap tops don’t require a card reader since they have a built-in card reader slot, which sends your images directly into your computer and much easier and faster to send to external hard drives.

  gadgets memory stick, digital flash card reader

Have some special gear or gadgets of your own that others might be interested in? How about sharing them with the rest of us.

How to Carve Decorative Fruits and Vegetables

Not as hard as you think, thanks to this Maasdam demonstration

Ever wonder how to make one of those beautiful fruit carvings to accentuate your dining room table? Or tried doing them? My own attempts always end in total disaster so today I’m attending a seminar at the Maasdam’s Culinary Arts Center to see if there’s any hope for me.

Cat Noble, the Maasdam’s Party Planner, introduces Apprentice Chef Romel David who will demonstrate how to make carvings from various fruits and vegetables.

   Maasdam Cruise   Maasdam Cruise

He begins with a watermelon, intending to create a rose petal with leaves on one side. Using an extremely sharp bread knife, he first slices off the bottom of the melon to make a base with a gentle tilt. Next, with the same bread knife, he carefully cuts away several thin strips of green rind to expose the white covering beneath. This gives Romel a white background from which to fashion his rose.

Cat explains one side of the melon is for display while the other side is what you will  eventually serve from.

Maasdam Cruise   CutandCarveLindaOKeefe_389

As Romel picks up a small paring knife, he explains that it doesn’t matter how expensive your knife is—he buys his at a dollar store–but how sharp it is. He says he sharpens his own knives. The one he uses today has been ground down to half the size of a normal paring knife blade.

In the middle of his white melon “canvas,” Romel makes a small circle to form the center of the rose.  Around the center, he designs four petals to surround it. To me, this looks like a stencil on the white rind; interesting. I can do that!

After his basic design is outlined, Romel begins cutting deeper, carefully shaping and forming each petal. Then he fashions four larger petals that surround the four small ones.  Next, he finishes by crafting six leaves. As he works, each row increases in size and is placed to alternate with the previous row to create the depth and dimension of a real rose petal.

Once he finishes the floral design, Romel carves zigzagging cuts on the remaining white background area to give it a textured detail and create a frame around the melon canvas.

Cat says, “The best way to keep the melon fresh is to drape it with wet paper towels and store it in the refrigerator. When you take it out to display, put plastic wrap over the carved area.” So that explains why some of the carvings displayed in the Maasdam’s dining areas are covered in plastic.

  Maasdam Cruise         Maasdam Cruise

Chef Romel explains he became interested in how making fruit and vegetable carvings by  watching others. Then he began sneaking food into his room to practice.  He says his favorite thing to carve is ice and that last year he made a large dragon for a captain’s  farewell party.

The next item Romel chooses to carve is a tomato. I feel more confident about this than  attempting a watermelon. With his same dollar store knife, he starts peeling the skin off  the top of the tomato and continues he reaches the bottom. The peeling is a long continuous strip about ¾ inch wide.

Next, he takes the long strip and simply keeps curling it until it becomes a flower blossom.  He says to use the rest of the tomato in a salad, garnishing it with the edible flower.

For his final demonstration, Romel chooses a lemon. This is another one I feel confident at attempting, especially when lemons sell seasonally at six for $1.

Romel  cuts the lemon in half, then cuts a base out of one of the halves. With his magic knife, he peels a thin, ¼-inch continuous strip of lemon rind from the half but does not cut it from the lemon. Next, he takes the free end of the strip of rind and circles it around the end attached to the lemon to create a loop knot.  Place a piece of parsley inside the loop and you have the perfect garnish to add to any seafood plate.

 Maasdam Cruise      Maasdam Cruise

This seminar is a lot of fun with good ideas about how to give home dining and entertaining the same extra flair you find on the Maasdam. I only worry about grinding the super sharp knives and my clumsy fingers.

  By Linda O’Keefe

St. Kitts Sugar Train A Sweet Ride

train smoke bright white lead

It has an unlikely association with Skagway, Alaska

Many of us seated in the fifth and last of the two-story passenger cars are acting like jacks-in-the-box as we continually pop up from our seats, photographing one stunning island view after another as our toy railroad chugs along at a maximum of just 8 mph.

On the right we have the coastline to shoot and, later, the islands of St. Eustatius and Saba in the distance. The left is dominated by seemingly endless fields of sugar cane with a dramatic backdrop of cloud-capped mountains, villages and old estates.

Whenever our energy starts to flag from all the activity, our waitress always seem at hand to provide a free rum punch, pina colada or Diet Coke. Or the gospel chorus may appear on our car and sing something uplifting to bolster our spiritual sides.

train choir   train waitress drinks  
We’re riding the St. Kitts Sugar Train, a one-of-a-kind tour in the Caribbean that’s likely to remain that way. Unlike most other islands, St. Kitts never tore up its train tracks even after they went out of use back in 1970’s when sugar cane stopped being the island’s main economic mainstay, replaced by tourism.

Also called the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, this 90-minute tour uses a 500-hp diesel engine (made in Romania, of all places) to pull its five passenger cars along a 30-inch narrow gauge railroad bed built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane from the fields to the processing factory in the capital city of Basseterre.

sugar cane field   statia in background

The tracks still extend for about 30 miles but the Sugar Train uses only 18 of them, among the most scenic. The train departs Basseterre to travel northward where the tracks parallel and sometimes hug the Atlantic coastline. Chugging along at a maximum speed of just 8 mph, the train crosses three bridges up to 200 feet long over chasms as much as 90 feet deep.

When we board the train, almost everyone chooses the canopy-covered, open-air top deck of our car and its bench-style, cushioned seats extending along both sides. A few chose the lower level, which is enclosed and air conditioned. Seats there are in the form of rattan chairs clustered around a table located beside large vaulted, tinted windows.

 inside car   train big windows

We definitely get more of a feel for St. Kitts out in the open but the train also shakes, rattles and rolls up here quite a bit. People susceptible to motion sickness may find conditions more to their liking at the lower level. Ours is the last car, #5, and that allows us to notice how much #4 right in front keeps pitching and rolling from side to side. Not the steadiest photo platform whenever we shift to our “top” 8 mph speed.

sugar cane fieldIt’s important to choose the correct side of the car when you board: right for the coastline, left for the inland region. I go right, Linda sits across on the left; that way we can quickly trade places if necessary. With large tour groups, there may not be any open seating (like today). And the lurching train makes it impossible to stand in the center and take photos on both sides.

We choose the last car since it allows us to lean out and photograph the entire train whenever it comes to a curve. Best morning sunlight starts out with the sun on the right side of the train but as we circle the northern end of St. Kitts the light shifts to the left.

  train close to plants   train mountain

Wherever you sit, everyone hears the live running commentary, not taped, which makes the experience much more spontaneous and entertaining. And this is how we learn of the amazing association with this Caribbean narrow gauge train ride with one in Skagway, Alaska: they were both started by the same person who chose locations where many miles of abandoned but still usable rail lines were available. (This trivia should be good info for making small wagers the next time you’re in Skagway or St. Kitts).

Ever since the Sugar Train began running in January, 2003, there has been a kind of waving contest between passengers and the locals, who are known as Kittians. We’re advised by our conductor that passengers always are supposed to wave first. Whenever we pass a school yard or a group of youngsters, they gallop toward the train with their arms waving in the air. Their unadulterated enthusiasm always exceeds our best waving attempt.

train black beach   train end roundabout

After our 18-mile trip from Basseterre, we arrive at a roundabout where the train stops in a circle. We will not return to the city by train but by buses, the same ones that took us from the cruise port to the train station. They arrive with another group of passengers who will retrace our route as the sun moves even higher in the sky, not as good for photography.

Depending on demand, the train may make another round trip later in the day. In summer, outside of the cruise ship season, the train may not even run every day. For more information, visit .

For a quick overview of the northern half of St. Kitts, no other tour offers such high vantage points, visits the same out-of-the-way places or does it with such style and fun.
If you’re not into photography, you may find the last 20 minutes of scenery a bit repetitious. If so, sip a rum punch and just relax to the rock and rolling of the Sugar Train. And see if any more of that sugar candy is left. That stuff is addictive!

train bottom cover