By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

On the seas with 'Big Mama'


It is April 12, 2013, and for the next 21 days, house keys for us four McMinnvillans will be a plastic card that magically opens a stateroom door on the MS Veendam.

The Veendam is a cruise ship that for 5,768 miles will be “Mama” for us travelers and shepherd us along the coastlines of Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Jamaica, and the Cayman and San Blas islands. A crew of 560 will care for the guests — 1,258 of us.

Big Mama will have no problem with this parental job. She is one hefty lady: gross tonnage, 55,451; draft, 24 feet, 6 inches; length, 720 feet; width 101 feet; with 10 decks and eight elevators.

And although I — and my traveling companion (who wishes to be known as Katie) — would revel in lolling in deck chairs and reading for 21 days, Big Mama has different plans. Not only does she plan to entertain and educate us — but to see that her charges are properly attired.

Long before leaving McMinnville, we were advised that attire was formal for six dinners, so Katie and I scoured closets for such. The male passengers would have no problem. They could rent formal dinner attire on the ship. Dress for the other 15 dinners was casual and Katie and I thought we knew about that.

But Mama thought differently. The first Veendam newsletter advised that dress for that first dinner would be “Smart Casual.” And we McMinnvillans weren’t exactly positive as to what constituted smartly casual attire.

The first night, we are a bit apprehensive as to dress but apparently the other 1254 guests also are “at sea.” Here they come in jeans, golf shirts, pedal pushers, T-shirts, hoodies. We McMinnvillans are learning. We, too, can dress smartly casual.

Now, here at dinner, we are escorted to the linen-draped window table reserved for four of us. An attendant hurries to open the linen napkins to place in our laps. Fresh flowers adorn the table. These flowers, we learn, are flown weekly from a Holland flower market and arranged by the ship’s florist. We are told that the Holland America Line spends almost $2 million a year for flowers for its ships. And when a new ship is being built (and a 16th Holland America vessel is now under construction) a master florist coordinates colors and shapes for eventual arrangements for the ship’s lounges.

We now study our poster-like dinner menus for cocktail, soup, salad and entree choice. A separate menu lists the elegant desserts. And already we envision the resulting pounds — but we think we already have a solution. Each day we shall walk the deck four times, equal to a mile, and surely that will help.

Then, too, it appears that no guest will be permitted to be inactive even for a few minutes. Our first newsletter lists 57 activities in which we can participate on a given day.

If we bestir ourselves and have an early breakfast, we can join Lifestylist Claire for the morning stretch, or the Fab Abs class at 7:30. The Path to Yoga sounds interesting, and we surely won’t want to miss the Complimentary Tongue and Pulse Diagnosis at 8 a.m.

Mama cares not whether your interest is crafts or cooking or computers; there’ll be no rest for you. And Katie and I do as Mama commands, although with all these options, it is difficult to choose. We pencil in our schedule and make hard choices. The complimentary eye renewal treatments at 10 a.m. sound interesting, but that’s when the bridge players meet. It would be fun to go to the cooking show at 3 p.m., but afternoon tea at the Rotterdam conflicts with that. There’s Texas Hold ’Em, and the book club meeting, and the Spanish lesson, and help with your digital camera or Windows 8. The Art of Origami sounds intriguing, but so does the complimentary Good Foot Analysis. Big Mama has thought of everything.

If we tire, we might attempt a 15-minute nap during the matinee movie, because we could go back tonight for the evening showing. But then we will want to go to Showtime. And after that, we could, of course, cap off this wonderful day up in the Crow’s Nest with DJ Clint.

Thoughtful Mama, even before we left McMinnville counseled us. “Bring money,” she said. And Mama is right. The instant we set foot in Chile we pay $160 — as a visitor fee. When we grumble about that, we are advised that the U.S. likewise charges Chileans when they visit.

And we localites were warned repeatedly about the need for preparing for hot tropical climes. Bring broad-brimmed shade hats, stay hydrated, use sunscreen. Beware of mosquitos. Bring insect repellant, and consider buying a hat with a veil that comes down over the face as protection. Before boarding the Veendam, we were required to have proof of yellow fever vaccination, or a waiver from our doctor.

We McMinnvillans are lucky. As far as we know, we incur not a single mosquito bite — nor do we even shoo any away.

But not even careful Mama can’t prevent an outbreak of a gastrointestinal ailment aboard ship. Mama then immediately goes into action. Those afflicted are asked to remain in their rooms — with free room service available. Automatic handwashers are at the ready at the entrance to the Lido Restaurant. “Squirter” crew members are stationed every 20 feet to disinfect our hands. At the Lido buffet, clear glass plate barriers are placed between food and guests, and the crew serves us. Salt and pepper shakers are removed from the tables. The ship’s library is quarantined, with grids placed on all the book- shelves. No books can be removed.

But by trip’s end, the quarantine is lifted — no doubt due, in part, to Mama’s watchfulness. And oh, so many things she did teach us during our 2l days — such as that perhaps our U.S. plumbing is outdated. The vacuum toilets on the Veendam, use only .4 gallon per flush — 75 percent less than the 1.6 gallons used by many residential toilets.

And we McMinnvillans receive proof of our learning. Each of us is given a certificate attesting to that. True, every other guest receives a similar award, but nonetheless, I proudly post on the wall of my office that document. I now have my Crossing the Equator Certificate.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at



"I now have my Crossing the Equator Certificate."

What an excellent companion read to Richard Henry Dana Jr's ... 'Two Years Before the Mast'. Thank you, Elaine

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