By RENÉ RAAYMAKERS
My daughter and I are travel addicts. Just the spark of an idea of a trip and the beginning stages of planning fill us with a giddy pleasure we get from nothing else. We have been fortunate enough to visit many countries, and through experience, we have found that the best way to see several places in a two-week time span is to go on a cruise.
Cruises are not for everyone, and my first cruise to the Bahamas many years ago was disappointing. I said I would never cruise again. Years later, my sister surprised me for my 40th birthday with a weeklong Caribbean cruise, so I gave it a try and was not disappointed the second time.
There is an art to cruising, and it begins with matching up your personality and lifestyle with the correct cruise line and then deciding what ports best suit you and those who will travel with you.
In this article, I will be comparing the Holland America European cruise to the comparable Carnival cruise.
In 2013, we boarded a Holland America ship in Athens and embarked on a two-week cruise through many islands of Greece, Croatia and Montenegro, as well as stops in Italy.
In September, we boarded the brand-new Carnival Vista, the largest in the Carnival fleet, in Athens and set sail for another European adventure that would include many ports in Italy, as well as Greece, Malta, Sicily and France.
We had originally booked another Holland America cruise, but because of a few unsafe ports, the entire itinerary was canceled, and we could not find another one we liked. About this same time, we received an invitation to book on the brand-new Carnival Vista at an amazing rate. We had been on several Carnival cruises to the Caribbean; we used it as a way to scuba dive in four top-dive countries in one week, and they live up to their reputation as the “party ship.” At first, we were not sure if that is what we wanted to take to Europe, but the price, the itinerary and the immense size of the ship, as well as all of the on-board activities, made the decision for us.
Following a flight to Athens and an easy boarding process, we were off to sea that evening. Our first port was to be Turkey, but it was canceled a month before we left because of the unrest within the country. This gave us another day to experience the ship at sea.
What a ship to explore! So many areas to relax, so many places to dine, so many things to do. I’m sure that even by the end, I had only explored 75 percent of it. The ship is so new, so clean and so cared for by the crew, which was the friendliest and most content I have ever seen, that it was impossible not to get caught up in it all. We had only two days at sea to explore it, and we did all we could.
They have a ropes course that is high above the ship and is quite exhilarating. Surrounding the course is a brand-new contraption called the Skyride, where you pedal cars around a frame, similar to a small self-propelled roller coaster. We even went down the water slides and played putt-putt, as well as trying out many of the ship’s pools and hot tubs.
One of our favorite activities was to spend time on the serenity deck, which is a relaxing space for those 21 and over. It features comfy lounges and clamshells to read and rest.
Dining is an area where the Vista goes above and beyond the normal Carnival fare. Of course, all ships have the 24-hour pizza and ice cream, but this ship has more — a special salad area where you can custom make any kind of salad you can think of; a delicious Mexican cantina that, along with customized burritos and tacos, also serves breakfast; a Guy Ferraro grill with amazing burgers and fresh-cut fries. Even breakfast on the Lido deck has many items to choose from besides the usual American tastes. Our favorite treat every evening was freshly popped popcorn with a newly released movie on the huge main pool deck.
We booked most shore excursions through Carnival, but we did a few things on our own. When it comes to booking through the ship versus doing your own thing, be very aware of what you choose to do alone, and make sure that you make it back to the ship on time to avoid getting left behind.
To sum up the Carnival European experience, if you want to have all of the normal things Carnival offers — hairy-chest competitions, bingo, outdoor pool parties — and the chance to see Europe, this may be the cruise for you.
In comparison, the Holland America Line is known for smaller ships, five-star dining and personalized service. This is evident by the type of information they give you about the places you will visit. More than a talk about where you should shop and what shore excursions you should book through them, they go out of their way to educate you about each country you are visiting and the cultures and customs there.
They actually help you do things on your own in port and give amazing advice on what public transportation to use as well as where to visit. It is very personalized service, and you feel like you know the entire crew of the ship in a friendly, comfortable way. One of my favorite things on the ship is the library, where they have a variety of books and games available to check out. Even though there is not a giant screen with an outdoor movie, they have a huge selection of movies you can check out to watch in your cabin.
The food and dining service is the finest around. It is a highlight of being on the ship, whether relaxed or formal. Attention to detail is important to every member of the ship, and you feel very tended to.
The atmosphere on the Holland ship is quieter and more cerebral than the party-themed Carnival ship. There will not be island dance music and congo lines all over the ship, and there are many quiet places on board to relax and read. There are families on the ship, and they have wonderful children’s programs as well. They have pools, hot tubs, a spa and gym, all of the things you would expect on a cruise liner. The wooden deck chairs and blankets and hot chocolate on cool evenings are very comforting.
The smaller ship allows for some very special opportunities during the cruise. They have scenic cruising, where they open up the entire front portion of the ship to allow you to get up close and personal at several ports. As the ship pulled into beautiful Santorini, the sun was rising, breakfast was being served and a commentary of the history and geography of the area was being given. As we left Venice, the ship was once again opened up and a commentary was delivered on the culture and history of Italy as we ate gelato, taking in the city’s beauty. Finally, we had more scenic cruising through the straights of Messina with a wonderful commentary pointing out the island of Stromboli and many other places in Italy.
Another offering Holland has on its European cruises is using the ship as a hotel twice during the cruise, allowing you two days in different ports. We had two days to spend in Athens, as well as Venice. One of the drawbacks in cruising is just one day in each place; this itinerary allows two days in two of the nicest ports of call.
After completing my second European cruise and being able to compare two cruise lines, the differences are evident. Holland America offers smaller ships, more personalized service, the finest dining and the chance to enjoy scenic cruising. Being able to overnight on the ship twice and spend more time in port was special. The quieter atmosphere and the opportunity to learn about the different countries we were visiting allowed for a more memorable trip.
Carnival’s Vista offered an amazing array of onboard opportunities. While the service is not as personalized due to the immense size of the ship and all of the people on board, the crew is very friendly and they take great care of the ship. Being able to do a ropes course, new activities like the skyride, an onboard IMAX theater — the list is endless when it comes to onboard activities — makes you want more days at sea. This ship has so much to do; it could stand alone without any ports and just cruise around the ocean.
In the end, I decided that if I go to Europe by ship again, I will go with Holland America; the quiet atmosphere, more personalized service and learning opportunities on board are more appealing to me than the large, active ship, even though I am glad to have had the experience.
René Raaymakers grew up in the Champaign-Urbana area and raised a family in Mahomet. She recently moved to the St. Petersburg, Fla., area to be closer to her grandsons. She was employed as a surgical technologist at Carle Hospital for 23 years and now works at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. An avid traveler and scuba diver, she is now just four short hours away from the Florida Keys and 30 minutes away from the Tampa cruise port.