It felt like a hairdryer at low speed blowing on my arm, but it was an exhalation from the trunk of a 6-month-old elephant at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka. The baby had a soft, fuzzy appearance but its hair felt wiry as it eagerly accepted a bottle of milk from an attendant.
Three hours by bus or train from Colombo in Rambukkana, on 25 acres on the Maha Oya River, the orphanage houses Asian and African elephants ranging on grasslands and bathing in the river — one of the many incredible sights forever etched in my memory from a cruise around the world this year.
If I had to choose just one day to last my whole life through, as the song goes, it’d surely be that day in January when my husband Humberto and I boarded Holland America’s ms Amsterdam in Fort Lauderdale to circumnavigate the planet.
The day was full of anticipation of exotic places and dreams of adventure. We were welcomed aboard with flutes of champagne and surrounded by the smiling faces of fellow passengers, and our journey was celebrated with a sail-away party. It was a day that made me feel like a superhero able to run circles around the globe.
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And that was just the first of 113 consecutive days on board the 1,380-passenger ship. “I’d go bonkers being on a ship that long,” a neighbor had told us before we left. But if anything, for us the cruise — our second world cruise — was too short, a glorious combination of fun-filled life on board and memorable adventures ashore.
Such a long trip required an adjustment, of course, as if we were moving for a few months to a new home in a new town. This new home, however, is afloat and moving from place to place.
We found it useful to get into a routine — not a rut — that gave structure to our days. Our typical day at sea included meditation class, port lecture, pool and/or gym time and immensely popular team trivia in the morning; a word game, computer classes, drawing classes and pub trivia in the afternoon. There was no time to get bored.
We also could choose from culinary demonstrations, dance classes, arts and crafts, bridge lessons and tournaments, destination lectures, movies and shows, sometimes including presentations by folkloric groups from our ports of call. We spent many hours in the well-stocked ship’s library.
As on most cruises, there was lots of great food. Here we established a routine as well after I stepped on the ship’s scale and found I’d put on two pounds in the first five days. Alas, with 108 more days to go, I’d have to cut back on the beef Wellingtons, lobster tails, crème brulees, soufflés and chocolate avalanche cakes! We henceforth ate breakfast and lunch like at home, and indulged on dinners. We walked, exercised and took the stairs more than at home, so we got off weighing about the same as when we came in. The menus were varied — never completely repeated — with multiple choices for appetizers, entrees and desserts.
There were 18 formal nights during the cruise. We would have preferred half. As it was, Humberto and I adopted our own formal routine: tuxedo and long gowns for six of the 18 nights and, for the rest, either dark suit for him and dressy pantsuit for me or we simply skipped the formal by having dinner in the casual Lido Restaurant where formalwear is never required.
Packing for the trip was easy once we decided we’d bring only enough clothes for two weeks. As Holland America frequent repeaters (four-star Mariners) we got free laundry. For everyone, there are self-service launderettes onboard.
We went on a trip around the world, of course, to see the world, not to stay onboard. “It’s like having the whole world at your fingertips,” said Barbara Heanni, our port guide and a veteran of 16 circumnavigations. We never stayed onboard at ports, even if we’d visited before. There was always something we’d not seen or done.
In ports of call, we booked tours, took complimentary shuttles to city centers from the pier (available at most ports), or toured independently.
We were impressed by the natural, cultural, rural, urban, poor and affluent contrasts: a blue morpho butterfly fluttering in the rainforest in Costa Rica, artisans weaving Panama hats in Ecuador, waves of incense in a temple in Hong Kong, skyscrapers in Singapore, thatched-roof-house villages without paved streets in Papua New Guinea. And as Heanni recommended, we took each place for what it offers, not for what it lacks.
Here are some days at various ports that I might choose, like our world cruise embarkation day, to last my whole life through:
▪ Easter Island: There are nearly 1,000 moai — mysterious, volcanic rock-carved statues sometimes called “big heads” — on this speck of land in the middle of the Pacific. Created between 800 and 1600 and weighing up to 82 tons, they acted as “antennas,” said our local guide, Carlos. Placed over graves of distinguished ancestors believed to possess manna, a supernatural quality that protects people, they “beamed” the manna back to the people through their eyes. I stared into the eyes of one statue and could swear I felt something.
▪ French Polynesia: Our itinerary devoted three days to French Polynesia with calls at Papeete, the capital, in Tahiti; Bora Bora, and Moorea. We’d been here before so this time we toured Tahiti independently, feeling as if we were again unfolding a book of postcards with green mountains, volcanoes, aquamarine beaches, the Papeete Market and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its red steeple. We reserved overwater thatched-roof bungalows at the Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa and at the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora. Steps lead from each bungalow’s decks to lagoons filled with rainbows of tropical fish and corals — it felt like swimming in huge, well-maintained aquariums, particularly in Bora Bora.
▪ Sydney, Australia: We were up early to watch our entrance to Sydney with its opera house, Sydney Harbor Bridge and city skyline. My heart skips a beat when the ship gets close to the Sydney Opera House with its white sail-like forms. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this opera house hosts 1,600 events annually. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon, it has 10 roofs — the highest one reaching 221 feet above the sea — with tiles gleaming in the morning sun.
▪ Hong Kong: Hong Kong Harbor, one of the world’s most scenic, rewards passengers with vistas of skyscrapers, mountains, ferries and sampans. We rode the Star Ferry from the pier in Kowloon across the bay to Hong Kong Island — these ferries have been transporting people for more than a century. This was our second visit, so we used the hop-on/hop-off Big Bus to get around. Views are marvelous, including the 118-story International Commerce Center Building, the futuristic Convention & Exhibition Center and the colonial-style Clock Tower. From Victoria Peak we enjoyed views of the harbor and, after descending, took in Hollywood Road and Cat Street with their jade shops, antiques, and ivory stores. The Man Mo Taoist Temple, dating from the 19th century, is a cultural treasure, dedicated to two deities: Man, a deity of the mind and literature, and Mo, a deity of martial arts.
▪ Singapore: We spent two days touring this city-state with its eye-popping architecture, including the Marina Bay towers with a top shaped like a ship. We rode the 541-foot high Singapore Flyer, an observation wheel 90 feet higher than the London Eye, for panoramic views. We stopped for a Singapore Sling cocktail at the Raffles’ Long Bar where it was invented. As we sipped, I thought of celebrities who stayed at the Raffles, including novelist Somerset Maugham and Michael Jackson. The late king of pop, locals tell you, entertained a gorilla from the Singapore Zoo for tea in his suite.
▪ Cape Town, South Africa: A safari to the Aquila Private Game Reserve, two-hours away, was exciting. This 11,000-acre reserve in the Southern Karoo Highlands encompasses a mountain range and wetlands. Thrilling moments occurred when we came across two elephants, a mother-and-daughter pair of white rhinos and a group of zebras near our vehicle. We also spotted wildebeest, elands, giraffes, springboks, and hippos partly submerged in a pond. Another highlight was when Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the Soweto Gospel Choir came onboard. Tutu talked about his role as the first black African archbishop of Cape Town and presided over a Sunday service accompanied by the choir.
Not everything is perfect, of course, and there were moments I’d rather forget, like the day I entered our cabin bathroom to a noise sounding like someone was riding a motorcycle in there. The racket continued for days, then suddenly, it stopped. Staff suspected a problem with the cold water pipe, but nobody could tell us exactly. The 14-year-old Amsterdam has her secrets. Though her interiors are gracious with elegant furnishings, fresh flowers and art, there were plumbing problems — with leaks from various ceilings, particularly during the first half of the cruise.
There were also annoyingly slow and dropped connections with a new Internet system. It generated enough complaints that, three months into the cruise, the line refunded 50 percent of what passengers had paid.
On the other hand, the rough seas I expected crossing oceans never materialized, and we generally had fair winds and following seas. All in all, these were 113 days I would like to relive my whole life through.
To me a world cruise is “like eating a whole box of chocolate liqueurs in one go,” just as the writer Truman Capote said of Venice. And I’d add, it leaves you wanting more.
Even before our voyage ended, fellow passenger Marilyn Courtot of West Palm Beach booked the 180-day 2015 World Cruise aboard Oceania Cruises’ Insignia. “No matter how much you’ve traveled, there’s always the draw of that place you haven’t seen yet,” Courtot said.
Like her, we’re looking forward to new explorations and have booked the 115-day Grand World Voyage aboard the Amsterdam in 2016 out of Fort Lauderdale.
Going on a world cruise
World cruises may offer some last-minute bargains, but typically more incentives are available the earlier you book. Among the perks we received by booking an outside cabin for the 2014 world cruise by May 31, 2013, were a 3 percent fare discount, included gratuities (almost $1,300 per person), two pieces of luggage per passenger shipped free to the ship from home via FedEx, a bottle of champagne per passenger, and onboard credit of $500 per passenger. Our fare for an oceanview cabin was $55,210 for the two of us, and our touring expenses came to approximately $6,000. By booking early, you have a better chance of getting your choice of cabin and dining room table, plus you have time to take care of any required visas or vaccinations.
WORLD CRUISES FROM SOUTH FLORIDA IN 2015
Crystal: 108 days from Miami on Crystal Serenity on Jan. 14, from $40,995 per person, double; www.crystalcruises.com.
Cunard: 82 days from Fort Lauderdale on Queen Victoria on Feb. 2, from $12,699 per person, double; www.cunard.com (this is part of a longer cruise that departs Jan. 20 from Southhampton, England)
Holland America: 114 days from Fort Lauderdale on Amsterdam on Jan. 5, from $19,999 per person, double; www.hollandamerica.com.
Oceania: 180 days from Miami on Insignia on Jan. 10 and again on July 8, from $41,999 per person, double; www.oceaniacruises.com.
Consult a travel agent for additional possibilities and world cruises beginning in other ports. Shorter segments may be available.