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Dominica Whale Watching

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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.

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       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.

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                    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.

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                 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.

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A parting shot, just the one I wanted

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.

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

St. Thomas: Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons

Or stranded in a strip mall

The clock goes off at 6am and after a few minutes I drag my groggy-eyed self out of bed. Before heading up to the Lido Restaurant for a quick breakfast, Tim checks the weather outside via the camera HAL has mounted on the bow connected to our stateroom’s TV. It looks fine and I’m anticipating a fun day of sightseeing and photography on beautiful St. Thomas.

As I step off the elevator and peer around the corner toward the window-lined dining area, all I see are gray clouds. Then as look more, I wonder, “Where in the world are we? It doesn’t look anything like the Charlotte Amalie I remember. ”

                                               Maasdam Cruise
                                                    Crown Bay Cruise Terminal

Then I remember we docked at Crown Bay, which looks like an industrial park instead of a cruise terminal. With the threat of rain heavy in the air, Tim and I head toward the plain buildings and recognize the names of a few jewelry stores.

I notice good directional signs with arrows pointing to the locations of different stores, the bank and Wi-Fi hotspots, so we decide to forget Charlotte Amalie and get caught up on some computer time. But the signs lead to empty storefronts.

          Maasdam Cruise             Maasdam Cruise
               Iguanas fighting over bread                                       The winner!

As I’m returning to the ship for a computer power cord I notice several people standing around the edge of the walkway throwing pieces of bread at something. Turns out iguanas are enjoying the hospitality of some passengers passing time in this middle-of-nowhere- port. Cheap entertainment.  The best St. Thomas has at the Crown Bay port?

Tim spends several hours on the computer while I try to get my phone to work. By now my patience is wearing very thin; my phone won’t work. Only one computer can connect off the ship. This cruise ship terminal looks like a bad dream. I’m tired and hungry. Back on the ship finishing up lunch Tim says, “I’m going to take some pictures of the port this afternoon.”

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                            The Lido Pool sign                                          My hat

I reply, “Not me, I’m on strike. The sun is finally out and I’m going to put on my bathing suit, sit by the pool and read my book.” 

               LindaOKeefe_339         Maasdam Cruise           
                             Bag and hairclip                                         Favorite Tevas

After changing and gathering my pool gear plus my camera, I go to the Lido deck for some fun in the sun. As I’m empty my bag an elderly gentlemen stops by and asks, “Like your book?” pointing at my Kindle, I tell him how much I love it and he proudly holds out a small notebook and says, “Got me one, too!”

                                               Maasdam Cruise
                                                                 Love my Kindle

Before I settle down in the chaise, I decide to take some pictures I can use this in our blog. After finishing my shots,  I pick up my things and glance around to realize everyone at the pool was watching—and probably wondering why—as I photographed everything I brought with me. I’m laughing as I put on my hat, settle back and start reading.

After a while, watching everyone walk by with ice cream,  gets to be too much. I bypass the pool bar and head for the Lido Restaurant for a pineapple sherbet waffle cone. By now, the ship is pulling out of St. Thomas.  I tote my bag containing my camera to the upper deck for pictures as we leave.

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                            Lido Pool bar                                  Friendly Lido Pool bar bartender

It’s a beautiful sail away and can’t help but think of Jimmy Buffet’s song “One Particular Harbor,” as we pass sunlit sail boats anchored in small coves with white sand beaches. After finding Tim, we watch the coastline of St. Thomas slip away as the Maasdam leaves Crown Bay, the worst port we’ve encountered on our cruise. 

              Maasdam Cruise      LindaOKeefe_381
                             Sail away shots                         A beach and anchorage we pass

So what started out as a crummy sour day, finally turned into frosty lemonade thanks to the beautiful sunlit island we pass on our left, no part of St. Thomas. 

   By Linda O’Keefe