Cruise takeaway

Onboard the MS Amsterdam from Melbourne to Sydney, Neena Bhandari discovers a floating life worth living up every minute

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Published: Fri 20 Jan 2012, 7:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 2:58 PM

With the advent of summer, cruise liners begin port calls on Australian shores. So instead of a 90-minute flight or 10-hour drive, I embark on my maiden cruise on Holland America’s MS Amsterdam from Melbourne to Sydney. Overzealous customs officials greet me at the Melbourne Port before I am ushered on board by cheerful crew.

The classic interior, broad staircases and polished decks display Dutch heritage and tradition. At the epicentre is the Planeto Astrolabium, a signature sculpture soaring in a three-story atrium, which tracks constellations, the planets, world time and ship time.

The 12-deck ship has 700 cabins and guests can choose from an inside, ocean view, balcony or suite. One of the gracious Indonesian crew shows me to my Stateroom with a balcony on the sixth deck with a queen bed, a sofa, flat-screen TV and a mid-size private bathroom. He reminds me of the complimentary 24-hour room service. With nearly one crew member for every two guests (2.4), the service and hospitality is indeed very high-end.

Cruise control: Ms Amsterdam near the Sydney Opera House; (below) Dominic Harrison, 2nd officer, Navigation

If you are looking for liberation from daily chores, cruising is the way to go. Also, the all-inclusive nature of cruising means the ease of unpacking on Day 1 and packing on the last day whether you are travelling for days, weeks or even months. Probably, this is the reason why cruising is fast becoming the choice of holidaymakers to explore the world.

As my wheelchair-bound friend Barbara Goldstein from Florida, who is taking an 11-day cruise on Holland America’s Noordam, said, “Instead of an assisted living facility, I may just start doing back-to-back cruises. After all, they feed you three or more meals a day — will even bring it to your cabin, clean it and there is plenty of entertainment.”

Well, once you are hooked onto cruising, you get sucked in by all the pampering — what with fresh flowers, chocolates and champagne and your very own unhurried pace. A cruise seemed a good place to meet interesting people and it is an absolute delight for people who love to talk. With 20 per cent of passengers sailing solo and a majority of them women, the ship had five dance hosts. From waltzing to Ballroom dancing, the hosts were there each night for the solo cruisers on the ‘Crow’s Nest’ dance floor.

Other leisure activities include three pools including the kids’ pool on the Sky Deck, the Lido Deck Pool located mid-ship with its sliding glass roof and two spa tubs, and a quieter Sea View Pool. There was chess and Scrabble, a well-stocked library of books and DVDs.

For fitness enthusiasts, a large gym offers elliptical trainers, treadmills and stationary bikes. Instead, I headed to the Greenhouse Spa and Salon, which offers a wide variety of spa and wellness treatments including bamboo and Thai herbal poultice massages. I decided on La Therapie Oxygen Lifting facial. The gentle strokes from the Japanese beautician, who had trained in Perth, did invigorate my senses.

I remembered the solace of the Nile Cruise while Cairo was enmeshed in Egypt’s tumultuous events that created political history, marking the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorial reign. Cruises can indeed be a sanctuary for passengers with time to reflect, especially on this 70-day Grand Voyage from Seattle to Los Angeles via the buzzing cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, the romantic Polynesian islands rimmed by coral reefs and Australia’s eastern and western seaboard.

Internet is expensive and mobile phones often don’t work, but I found this ‘non-connectivity’ a boon to gaze at nature’s wonders. Relaxing on the sun-lounge on my private balcony, I craned my binoculars to possibly spot a migratory humpback whale or dolphins or sea lions lazily sprawled on the islets we crossed in the rather unpredictable waters of the Tasman Sea. Seagulls and other water birds were aplenty. Cruises are also a great place to explore the stars and witness an eclipse.

Known as a ‘premium’ cruise line offering affordable luxury aboard mid-sized ships, Holland America also has elegant dining options and has established a Culinary Council comprising internationally renowned chefs including Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, Manhattan’s Marcus Samuelsson and David Burke, Jacque Torres and Holland’s top chef, Jonnie Boer. Each night, the main dining room menu features signature dishes and desserts that showcase their expertise and specialities.

Holland America Line was one of the first to introduce full Lido buffets for breakfast and lunch, where guests can request custom dishes prepared exactly to their specifications. During a Mongolian cookout, I relished fresh chestnut and vegetables lightly stirred with flat noodles and sauces. For those with a sweet tooth, at 11pm the Lido restaurant is open for self-service, featuring on-board chefs serving dazzling pastry displays, chocolate fondues and other sweet treats. The ship has recently introduced ‘As You Wish’ dining, allowing passengers a flexible dining schedule.

Among the dining options, there is the Terrace Grill for day-time casual dining, the La Fontaine main dining room, or the Pinnacle Grill restaurant with its distinctive Bvlgari china, Frette linens and elegant Riedel stemware. Besides, there are various bars and lounges to meet and make friends. However, a waiter did confess that when the cruise begins, people tend to book tables in large groups, but after two weeks or so many want to sit furthest apart! So maybe, getting too close is not a good idea when you are on a boat in the middle of the high seas.

To get a glimpse of how this impeccable service of catering 9,000 dishes per day is sustained for weeks on end, I took a tour of the Galley, which is available for guests several times per sailing. As we trace the footsteps of a waiter to where it all begins, I discover how every detail is executed to military precision from the bread being baked to room service trays being set.

I was also fortunate to get a tour of the Bridge, the control room of a ship. These tours are seldom offered since 9/11.

Dominic Harrison, the 2nd officer Navigation, told me how everything from life-saving and navigation is micromanaged on a cruise ship and the challenges new ports pose on a world voyage.

The 36-hours are action packed with special performances. On the first night, the Indonesian crew’s talent show attracted almost all the 1,000-odd passengers, who seemed to have struck a genuine rapport with the crew having already sailed for 45 days. On the second night, ‘Soul Mystique’ straight from Las Vegas drew a standing ovation. Gavin Skinner and Lydia Lim captivated and mesmerised audiences with their astounding ‘dance and quick change act’.

As I headed back to the warmth of my bed, a towel shaped into a big-eyed octopus for company, I drifted into slumber, waking up at the break of dawn to see the soft glow of the sun falling on the iconic Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, one of the vistas with few parallels in the world and it happens to be in a city I call home.

Interested parties can book Holland America Line (HAL) cruises in the UAE through Discover the World Marketing, No 105 Executive Offices, Building No 8, Dubai Media City, 04 3902633. For cruise itineraries, pricing and more information, log on

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