On river or sea, cruises are fun


You have decided to take your first cruise. The ideas that once the luggage is on the ship it stays there until you disembark and that the ticket includes lodging and meals are appealing.

But which style of cruise will you choose? Will it be on a gigantic ship with 3,000 or more passengers, or a river cruise with 150 on board?

The two cruising styles offer decided differences.

Compared to several voyages I have made on large ships, my river cruise experience is limited. Still, the four days in Belgium in March was a well-rounded introduction to the style of water travel that keeps the ship within view of shore scenery and generally is less congested because of fewer passengers.

The Belgian cruise was on the River Splendor, one of four new ships in the Vantage fleet that travels the rivers around the world that accommodate the ships and that have sufficient cultural interest to attract tourists. Vantage prides itself on operating river routes in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Antarctica, the Mediterranean, and the South Pacific.

Two months later I took an 11-day cruise from Istanbul, three Greek Islands, Ephesus, and Egypt on the Noordam, a large ship in the Holland America line.

There were 150 passengers on the river cruise and 1,400 people on the Noordam. On former cruises to Iceland, Alaska, the Mediterranean, and the New England coast, the passenger count was about 3,000.

The river ship, with boarding in Antwerp and disembarkation in Amsterdam, was much easier than the usual hassle on the large ships. There was no long waiting line to register or to disembark. Instead, our taxi pulled up to the 442-foot-long River Splendor that looked like a train docked in the Antwerp harbor. A jolly man who turned out to be Capt. Roger Spoor greeted us at the entrance and directed us to the registration desk that was as quick a procedure as signing in at a hotel.

Getting to the cabin was also less stressful. Think of it as a long hotel corridor with rooms on either side. In contrast, quarters on the big ships are often on upper decks.

Fortunately, there are plenty of elevators to take passengers up and down to the various activities that continue from morning until the wee hours.

We didn’t need a map of the ship to find the dining room which was on the main deck and the lounge on the second deck. Entertainment would be in the lounge.

The large ocean-going vessels give several choices of dining rooms, lounges, dance floors, and afternoon and evening productions in a large theater.

Add to those choices, swimming pools and a library. The long balcony on the Noordam suite was a plus, especially on sea days when there were no port calls.

Weight gain is a given on a cruise and it is not necessarily based on the quality of the food, but on the quantity and the service.

Repeat cruise travelers enjoy comparing the food on one cruise line with another line, but first timers can depend on unusual dishes, prepared by professional chefs, and served by waiters trained for their positions.

It is also refreshing that tips are not expected until the end of the trip. On the Holland America we each were billed $132 or $12 for each of the 11 days.

And of course some passengers like to dig deeper for favorite waiters or stewards.

Shore excursions are a major consideration on any cruise. Shore tours from the big ships can be costly and are often by bus with 40 or 50 people. The alternative is to book a tour online in advance of the trip to save money and to travel with fewer people.

Web sites are overflowing with cruise schedules for this fall and winter, including promotions with Thanksgiving and Christmas dates.

Companies also mail four-color catalogs with enticing photos of places around the world. Travelers who would like to see more can pay for added days before and after a cruise. Several passengers on the River Splendor were continuing on to Venice and Rome from Amsterdam.

Please don’t ask me which style of cruising I prefer because the answer is “both.”

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.