"Aren't all cruise ships the same?" I asked my girlfriend, Lori, as we were about to board Holland America's MS Veendam for a journey around the tip of South America and into Antarctica.
"No, they aren't," said the woman in front of us. "See that suitcase?" She pointed to the one in her husband's hand. "It's filled with wine. Holland America permits you to bring all the wine on board you like, and that's different," she said.
That being the case, we raced to a nearby wine outlet and bought some bottles for the 20-day journey.
Another question I had was whether we'd have any privacy on a big cruise ship. This trip was going to be a test to see how well Lori and I could get along together in close quarters.
Luckily we both like hot tubs, and we found the ones on this ship often to be empty. We were the first ones in just before sunset on Day One and each night thereafter. We were relaxed when we got to a late dinner in the plush dining room, and that meant we were not rushed and had better service.
Lori loved the desserts, especially the family of crisps -- boysenberry, apple and peach -- while I was head over heels for the lamb dishes and the salmon. I only regret not ordering the Filipino dishes earlier. That was a last-night decision that introduced me to a great new cuisine.
Lori loved to bundle up and go outside to reach out and almost touch the glaciers of Antarctica, while I preferred to enjoy them from the saddle of a bicycle in an enclosed glass gym on the top deck. And I was thrilled with the digital-photo workshops offered on board. These free classes turned out to be very valuable for passengers with basic questions about their digital camera's operation. The instructors then focused on photo storage and manipulation. There was even a class on moviemaking.
The classes began last year and were a marriage between Holland America and Microsoft . They turned out to be so popular that the companies extended them on all cruises through 2014.
Something else we learned was that we should choose shore excursions carefully to match our skill levels. We figured since we'd ridden bicycles as kids we could do it again. That was before we figured out that riding a bike in Buenos Aires is clearly for daredevils.
We chose a bicycle trip through the oldest sections of the city, La Boca and the San Telmo district. Unfortunately in Buenos Aires bike lanes are not yet in place.
"It was a harrowing day, the kind of day you will take to you grave," a woman riding with us said. Our companions on the road included a driver blaring his horn nonstop as he made a right turn, rolling right through our long line of riders.
"I prayed I was not going to die," Lori later confided.
Perhaps we should have chosen a day of wine-tasting.
We did that just outside Montevideo, Uruguay, at the Bouza Winery, a family-run business that believes small is better. The winery has added a big dining room with grand windows where waiters poured four tastes of wine and served an extravagant lunch of lamb, beef and tasty cheese. Live music provided by a pianist and a banjo-player made for a memorable day.
That experience was topped only by a visit with penguins in their natural habitat. The MS Veendam offered three possibilities during this South America journey. Based on conversations with other passengers, however, they found that Magdalena Island outside of Punta Arena, Chile, proved to be the best choice because guests have more time with the penguins and access to the island via a modern ferry is easy and involves less walking than the other options.
Magdalena Island is home to Magellanic penguins that look like they are smiling. More than a thousand of them were hopping about, some digging out a new front porch, others coddling fledglings that had just been born just about 40 days earlier. Some of the adults were waddling around while others lifted their heads, puffed their breasts and made a honk-sounding call. Sadly, we learned from Palmer Station employees that the penguin population is dying off due to global warming.
There were plenty of lectures on board about history and geology as well as about birds of the area and the great explorers who passed through these waters, among the earliest Ferdinand Magellan and among the most recent Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Lori found a special spot at the very back of the boat where she could view such birds as the wide-winged albatrosses gliding about in the air drafts created by the ship.
In addition to all of this, passengers could play pingpong and take dance lessons and cooking classes, so we all had plenty to do. Best of all for me was that Lori and I figured out we didn't mind being together all the time and in small quarters. We had shared 20 pretty wonderful days.
WHEN YOU GO
Holland America offers three-week South America and Antarctica Explorer cruises on the MS Zaandam embarking Dec. 18, 2013; Jan. 8 and 29, 2014; and Dec. 22, 2014.
Stuart Wasserman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
(c)COPYRIGHT 2013 CREATORS.COM
Continue reading this story on the...