On January 4, 2020, Holland America Line’s Amsterdam departed Fort Lauderdale on what was to be a 128-day World Cruise visiting 48 ports in almost 30 countries. Cruise Specialists Voyage Hosts Tom Mullen and Steve and Wendy Bodenheimer were also on board hosting our group of about 275 travelers.
The itinerary was poised to present an in-depth exploration of South America and Africa, plus an incredible opportunity to cruise in Antarctic waters. It started by charting a course through the beautiful Caribbean, down the east coast of South America, and cruising for several days in Antarctica. Then it would traverse partially up the west coast of South America and cross the South Pacific while visiting several tropical islands. Then to some world-class sightseeing in Australia before cruising to Africa, crossing the Atlantic and back to Fort Lauderdale. You can read more about the Cruise Specialists Bon Voyage Event that kicked off this grand voyage here.
Escorted Group Tours: A Highlight of the Grand World Voyage
As the cruise unfolded, our Cruise Specialists Voyage Hosts escorted numerous tours for our Cruise Specialists clients, such as:
- A tour of Rio de Janeiro, including a cable car ride up Sugarloaf Mountain, with its spectacular views. They also drove through the beach neighborhoods for some photo opportunities at Ipanema and an up-close view of the sea and sand.
- An all-day tour of Buenos Aires. They visited several of the city’s highlights — including the Recoleta Cemetery, which houses the grave of Eva Perón, the Casa Rosada (the home of the president of Argentina), the famous Colon Theater, and the La Boca neighborhood full of brightly painted houses. Guests particularly savored a home-hosted lunch, where they feasted on local delicacies and learned from Argentinians about more of their cultural traditions. It was capped off by a spectacular afternoon tango show.
- A city tour of Punta del Este, Uruguay, including the Punte del Este Lighthouse, the Ralli Museum of Contemporary Art, the Iglesia de la Candelaria Catholic Church, and the iconic beach sculpture known as The Hand in the Sand, which has become a symbol of the city. They also took a drive in the countryside to a farm and enjoyed generous samples of Dulce de Leche, a sweet caramel made from milk and sugar. Totally decadent! To cap off the tour, they made a quick stop at Casapueblo, a stunning artist’s home built into a cliffside that is reminiscent of a Gaudi structure – only all white. A busy and rewarding day.
- A full-day tour of Santiago, Chile (port of San Antonio). Our group visited a lovely estate and sampled empanadas and Chilean wine while watching a traditional dance performance. They visited an artistic section of Santiago where they had lunch and learned how to make Pisco Sours, one of the region’s famous drinks.
- A scenic tour of the island of Tahiti, where they visited private gardens and the sumptuous Vaipahi Gardens filled with tropical flowers and rare woods. They also visited the Arahurahu Marae, a sacred place for early Polynesian societies and the Maraa Grotto caves known to Captain Cook in the late 1700’s. The scenery along the way was beautiful, and in four hours, they got a good sense of what the rest of the island is all about.
- From Sydney, our escorted tour started at Featherdale Wildlife Park, with many native species, and where koalas are always a hit. There were also kangaroos, cassowaries, mini penguins, crocodiles, wombats and even a Tasmanian devil. As the group proceeded to the Blue Mountains, they viewed the famous Three Sisters Rock formation and had a delicious lunch at The Lookout Restaurant.
- In Cairns, Steve and Wendy hosted a tour to the mountain village of Kuranda, within the Barron Gorge National Park. They reached the village via a scenic rail journey, and returned via the Skyrail Rain Forest Cableway, skimming over towering trees below them. In the village itself, there was leisure time to visit with local artisans, have lunch or walk the many trails. Taking into account the spectacular waterfalls, the majestic gorge and the awe-inspiring forest, it was an amazing tour.
These optional Cruise Specialists escorted tours are just one of the special benefits of reserving your World Cruise through Cruise Specialists.
The Antarctic Experience
Another major highlight of the 2020 World Cruise was the four-day Antarctic Experience curated by Holland America Line, where the ship cruises the most scenic routes around the Antarctic Peninsula. This part of the trip deserves its own section because, simply put, it’s a life-changing experience for many.
Some of the Antarctica highlights included:
- Dramatically beautiful ice: Huge icebergs that have wandered into channels; and a stunning display of snow and ice in every direction in Paradise Bay. Spectacular flat bergs that look like tabletops. Breathtaking beautiful fields of ice near the Lemaire Channel.
- Wildlife: Large colonies of penguins, including 50,000 pairs of chinstrap penguins on Deception Island, many of them riding the surf onto the beach. Minke whales and killer whales, close enough that they seemed to be checking out the cruise ship. Humpback whales feeding near the surface of the water. In Herrera Bay and Charlotte Bay, they viewed singles, pairs and even small groups of humpback whales, almost as if on cue to put on a show. This was along with other plentiful wildlife, including leopard seals and grey seals.
- The actual landscape of Antarctica: Its vast fields of ice are hard to fathom until you see them in person. Some areas of Antarctica also feature tall and steep black cliffs with traces of ice and snow, and even green space in some areas.
- Enrichment and lectures: a team of three international experts on board provided detailed narration on the sights. They explained the geology and topography, as well as the history of these remote areas. They were especially good at identifying and describing the animals and birds. They shared decades of accumulated knowledge from working in and around Antarctica.
Voyage Hosts Steve and Wendy, for whom this was their six time in Antarctica, commented, “Considering the awesome wildlife, the vastness of the icefields and glaciers, the power of ice and water, and the unspoiled beauty of it all, Antarctica is a must-see place, unlike any other on this planet.” One Cruise Specialists client, Maria, emailed her Cruise Consultant, Sharon Whiting, to say that Antarctica and Patagonia were spectacular. In addition, “The scholarly presentations were first class and added to the understanding of this magnificent region.” Another client — a first-time World Cruiser — checked in with her Cruise Consultant, Carol Terhune, to say, “It has been amazing to meet so many people who have been on the World Cruise so many times! I’ve learned a lot from them. The staff and crew are wonderful.”
A Rapidly Changing World
It was in Antarctica, one of the least-populated places in the world, that the World Cruise experienced its first indication of the impact coronavirus would have on this voyage. To back up a moment, when the World Cruise departed in early January, there had not yet been a single known death reported worldwide due to coronavirus. It was in mid-to-late January when multiple countries (including the United States) began experiencing their first cases. And so, in Antarctica, during the first week of February, it was decided that out of an abundance of caution, the Amsterdam would not make a stop at the Palmer Research Station and bring several of its researchers on board for planned educational lectures.
The ship then moved along its scheduled itinerary, north to Argentina and Chile, with increasing reminders about staying healthy on board. Housekeeping stepped up its regular cleaning processes. New screening procedures went into effect for boarding guests and crew. As the ship called on remote South Pacific islands such as Easter Island and Rarotonga, shore tours continued to take place; however, more concerns began to surface that changes to the itinerary may need to occur.
A significant round of itinerary changes was announced in the second week of March, after the ship visited Nuku’alofa, Tonga. It was decided that the ship would visit New Zealand and Australia, but bypass Singapore, Indonesia, the Maldives and Kenya. Cruisers knew that their own safety and wellness was being put first with these decisions, and they were able to enjoy time ashore in Auckland and Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands. The Amsterdam then proceeded to Australia where the plan was to visit several ports, including Sydney, Townsville and Cairns on Australia’s eastern and northeastern coasts; and then on to the northern and western coasts of Australia where the plan was to call on Darwin, Broome, Exmouth, Geraldton and Fremantle, the port for Perth.
On March 13, our Voyage Hosts reported in from Sydney that they felt very safe and passengers were healthy. Additional precautionary measures went into effect, including more hand sanitizing stations with staff stationed to be sure they were used, limited self-serving at the buffets, and additional announcements about washing your hands.
After successful calls on Townsville and Cairns, World Cruisers received a new itinerary update that the ship was going to need to make an even more drastic change, to ensure the safety of its guests and onboard staff — and because so many cruise ports around the world had suddenly begun closing. The difficult news was delivered that the remainder of the cruise was going to be cancelled, with disembarkation taking place in Fremantle. This news was devastating on many levels. For many of our clients, it meant an added layer of stress on how they would get home. For our Voyage Hosts and our Cruise Specialists staff back in the United States, it meant overcoming a massive time difference and a world of uncertainty, to ensure every single one of our clients could make it home safely.
Orchestrating a Long Journey Home
Many of our clients do not fly for health reasons or simply because they prefer not to. For them to suddenly need to board international flights for two, three or even four legs of flying to get back home, this had the potential to be a stressful situation for them. On board the ship, our dedicated Voyage Hosts, Steve, Wendy and Tom worked tirelessly on behalf of our clients to assist with their arrangements home. As a Travel Leaders Group company, we utilized our parent company resources to establish an Emergency Air Desk, staffed 20 hours a day with four agents processing the new flight requests. Our proactive approach afforded our clients better fare basis and itineraries. We verified in-transit regulations for all routings, ensuring no quarantine issues in connecting cities.
In Steve and Wendy’s words — written to us from Australia: “We spent six days almost around the clock, meeting with guests and providing information so our cruise consultants in Seattle could book flights. The time difference between us and Seattle is great (15-16.5 hours) and the level of detail required is extraordinary. We would wake up from our short night’s sleep to find 30+ emails, most requiring some action. We had lists and notes all over. With only a short time left until we were to disembark, we were racing to get everyone the help they needed. This whole operation would not have been possible without the organizational skills and dedication of our home team to helping the guests,” wrote Steve and Wendy.
As a company, we are grateful our operations staff, our dedicated Cruise Consultants, and of course our Voyage Hosts: Wendy, Steve and Tom. On a typical World Cruise, our Voyage Hosts already do an immense amount of work behind the scenes to help build camaraderie and ensure a superior vacation experience. In this case, they went above and beyond expectations. The level of professionalism they presented while in the midst of this storm was second to none.
After disembarking the ship, there were other tense moments, as passengers dealt with new restrictions in airports, flight updates occurring on the spot, and much more. Steve and Wendy continued to provide assistance throughout the day from the airport in Perth to rebook those whose flights had been cancelled. Our Voyage Host, Tom, and one of our guests had their own drama to secure a medical certificate to check in for a connecting flight to Bangkok. They hailed a taxi and sped off to a local hospital to obtain the necessary paperwork showing they were in good health.
As clients began to disperse from Fremantle, our Cruise Consultants monitored their progress back around the globe and could see they were indeed homeward bound. How happy our Cruise Consultants were to do more check-in calls with our clients and hear they were safely back in their homes.
In Retrospect… and Looking to the Future
Many questions have been raised about the timing of the decision to terminate the World Cruise in Fremantle. Those are changes that, as a cruise agency, we did not have the power to make. What we do know is that between our Voyage Hosts and our Cruise Specialists staff alone, more than 900 emails were exchanged to help get our clients home. We are grateful that our clients were able to enjoy two excellent months on the Amsterdam. We are focusing on the present and working with other clients who have cruises booked in the near future to adjust their plans as needed. And, we are looking forward to the day when there is a “new normal” in the world of travel. When there is that right balance… that more destinations are open and safe. When the locals who live there are ready and able to embrace visitors again. And when humanity’s unquenchable passion for discovery once again bubbles to the surface, Cruise Specialists will be here to assist you every step of the way.