Guidebooks said it would be like being immersed in a glass of champagne but the sensation for us was more other-worldly. We dove down a few feet and then let ourselves go, soaring up in the midst of the swirling bubbles. We reached out to touch them.
This was our experience snorkeling at Champagne Beach on the volcanic island of Dominica in the Caribbean. The spot was named for the underwater hot springs caused by a crack in the ocean’s rock bottom which releases tiny streams of sulfur bubbles. Besides drawing snorkelers and divers, the warm, fizzy water attracts a multitude of colorful sea life, some not usually seen in other parts of this area.
We were in Dominica on the fifth day of our 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise on Holland America’s MS Maasdam. My wife and I had decided to take the spring cruise, principally because it stopped at Dominica, an island we had never visited but had heard good things about. Also the itinerary included Curacao and Aruba, two islands we like very much.
We chose Holland America because, after several trips, it had become our favorite cruise line in the mid-size range. Its combination of tradition and old-world elegance has always pleased us, from the multi-storied sculpture in the Atrium, the art collection around the ship, or just finding a comfortable teak deck chair on the Promenade Deck in which to just relax. We have always found the guests on Holland America ships to be interesting, enthusiastic travelers, whether they’re from the United States, Canada, Mexico or abroad.
Besides the Maasdam, Holland America has seven other ships in the medium size range, accommodating 1,258 to 1,432 guests-Amsterdam. Ryndam, Statendam, Veendam, Volendam, Zaandam and Rotterdam. Four other ships are larger, taking around 1,900-Noordam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam. One small ship in the fleet, Prinsendam, holds 791.
This summer the line will launch its largest ship, Eurodam, capacity 2,044. All together the ships sail routes throughout the world.
We embarked from Fort Lauderdale in the evening, and next morning we anchored off Half Moon Cay, a small atoll in the Bahamas. It proved a great to unwind. On one side there is an idyllic bay with a soft white sand stretch of beach. Parasailing or sailing, sunbathing, swimming or snorkeling were the order of the day. On the lagoon side, there were wave-runners and the popular Stingray Adventure in which people are provided snorkel gear to swim with some dozen sting-less stingrays.
Rental horses were available for those wishing to ride on trails throughout the cay’s interior. And massages were to be had on the beach. A barbecue lunch was served while a steel drum band played in the background. It was your fault if you weren’t in a vacation mood by the end of the day.
The next day we were at sea which gave us a chance to settle in and get to know the ship. On sea days we started each morning walking laps around the promenade deck (four to a mile.) Relaxing around the pool was an option for later in the day. In the sunny weather, many came out early to ensure having a lounge chair.
For entertainment, there were a number of activities from bingo to bridge. Some days there were special activities such as a boat building contest- winning entries had to stay afloat in the Jacuzzi. At night shows were presented in the Rembrandt Lounge, starring musical revues by a company of young performers, as well as guest entertainers ranging from magicians to comedians.
All together, the Maasdam epitomizes the atmosphere of elegant ocean travel that Holland America is famous for. As for art, this ship has numerous pieces of antique Asian porcelain-bowls, plates and larger serving pieces. Cruising also offered an opportunity to catch up on our reading, perhaps because the ship contains so many comfortable spots in which to relax.
As cruise passengers well know there is the temptation to overeat with all the wonderful food served. In fact, HAL passenger surveys rate the Maasdam No. 1 for food and service. We chose to dine at a large table with several couples. We looked forward to sharing our day’s activities with the others. By the end of the trip, we were all friends.
Like us, they had all cruised extensively and agreed that the food on board was as good as it gets at a fine dining establishment, both in quality and selection. While most days we chose to have breakfast and lunch in the Lido, a buffet on deck 9, we always had dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room. Arriving for dinner, we were greeted by our server and his assistant who immediately pulled out the chairs for the ladies, d napkins in our laps, while offering a cheerful greeting and the evening’s menu.
On every Holland America Cruise there are always nights in which prime rib is one of the selections-and my wife says the Maasdam’s is the very best. (This was our third Maasdam cruise). And on this cruise it lived up to her expectations. As well, the others at our table who ordered the prime rib agreed that it was excellent. Also rating especially high marks at our table was the Oven Roasted New Zealand Rack of Lamb rubbed with Dijon mustard and fragrant garlic herb crumbs served with a Pinot Noir sauce. A seafood lover, I thoroughly enjoyed the Broiled Wild Salmon Filet, (available daily), the steamed Alaskan King Crab Legs along with the other ocean delicacies I dined on.
Lunch choices were also varied and interesting, both in the dining room and the Lido, but special pool side barbecues were not only delicious, but fun and enjoyed by guests and ship officers alike. Worth visiting, as well, is the ship’s alternative reservations-only dining room Pinnacle Grill, a quiet, more elegant space.
The leisure day behind us, next morning we docked in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, a popular, bustling tourist spot. Some guests went diving and snorkeling, others took excursions, a few were ferried over to St. John Island, next door, for hiking. Many went into the pretty port town of Charlotte Amelie for shopping and exploring. The inveterate snorkelers and divers, us included, took a boat trip out to see the underwater life on a reef.
Our stop on Day 5 in Dominica proved to be the highlight of the trip. This is the “newest” of all the Caribbean Islands, formed by volcanic eruptions 26 million years ago. The landscape is still sharp and steep-few soft-sand beaches here, lots of rocks instead.
The lack of beaches is more than compensated for by the lush scenery. Because it was colonized by France for a time, it is sometimes called French Dominica. However, its official language is English though a French Creole is commonly spoken. The island is still being formed by geothermal-volcanic activity, as evidenced by the world’s second-largest boiling lake.
This so-called ” Nature Island” is 29 by 16 miles of rainforest, dense vegetation, waterfalls, freshwater pools and bubbling hot springs from the active underwater volcanoes surrounding the island. It had the look of StateHawaii, unlike its Caribbean neighbor islands which are comparatively flat. Of course, we had to snorkel at highly publicized Champagne Beach. The beach itself is covered with large pebbles, not so easy to walk on. We were happy that we approached via a dive boat.
There were ship excursions inland to view the spectacular scenery, replete with deep gorges and waterfalls. A couple at our dinner table took a tubing trip down a river. They said it was wonderful but a little chilly because it was raining in the mountains most of the day.
First a French colony and then British Dominica is off the beaten path, with no large resorts, attracting few tourists. This remoteness is part of the island’s charm. In the capital, Rouseau, there is a long row of brightly painted small hotels built in the plantation style with big verandas that overlook the ocean-very inviting to those who want to get away from the spa-hustle of big hotels. After our snorkel, we took a hike through town up into the Botanical Gardens which gave us a view of the rainforest.
The next two days the ship visited the Dutch Antilles Islands, Aruba and Curacao. Both are known for their colorful buildings, making the beachfront seem like an artist’s palette. As would be expected of the Dutch, both islands are very clean; everything is kept up and people seem well off. First thing in Curacao, we hired a cab to Baai Beach, a popular spot for divers and snorkelers. A big attraction here is a sunken tug boat several feet off shore, amidst some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful corals.
That afternoon we strolled through the port town, Willemstad, with its array of buildings in a variety of pastel colors. We had fun walking along the harbor checking out the smalls boats tied to the dock, heaped with a colorful variety of produce. Since little is grown on the sparse land, vegetables are imported from Venezuela ,15 miles away. We also visited the Mikeve Israel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and one of the area’s finest surviving examples of colonial Dutch architecture.
In Aruba, there are many natural sites to visit which we had previously seen on another trip. We decided to take our snorkel gear and go out our on our own. Taking a local beach bus, we passed a stream of casinos and large resorts-Hyatt, Westin, Marriott, to name a few of many. There are miles of nice beaches on Aruba with countless sunbathers and swimmers-no lack of tourists here.
As recommended, we got off at the end of the line for some wonderful snorkeling. On the reef, we observed a group of squid up close as they seemed to be resting. Usually we only see them in larger groups in deeper water hurrying by. Up close, we could see their fascinating bodies and colors as they slowly swam back and forth. (They can go in both directions). Suddenly, it was time to go, and they launched off like rockets.
We finished our voyage with two sea days, giving us a chance to finish our books and re-acclimate ourselves for the return to work. The Maasdam, itself, will leave the Caribbean in May and sail north where it will settle into New England and Canadian routes.