As the depth gauge of the submarine Atlantis indicated 80 feet, I took a deep breath and wondered why a claustrophobic like me had paid $80 for this experience.
But I soon forgot the fathoms of water overhead as the coral formations and the bright blue, yellow and multicolored fish that swam through the waters off Grand Cayman Island mesmerized me. The 45-minute dive went by too quickly.
The Atlantis adventure was one of many memorable experiences my daughter and I had on our recent western Caribbean cruise aboard the Zuiderdam, one of Holland America's new Vista Class ships.
The seven-day cruise departed from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and visited ports in Key West; Cozumel; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Half Moon Cay, Holland America's idyllic private island. There were also two days at sea.
More space, more choices
The 1,848-passenger Zuiderdam and its sister ships, the Oosterdam and Westerdam, are one-third larger than previous Holland America ships, and 75 percent of the cabins have balconies, according to hotel manager Nick Burger.
"This is the first Holland America ship that is fully ADA compliant," Burger said. "You can go anywhere aboard without leaving your wheelchair. Another new feature is our four glass elevators facing the sea. We had to slow them down because they made passengers dizzy."
Burger said other innovations include the Vista Dining Room, which has two separate dining rooms with ocean views from floor-to-ceiling windows; the reservations-only 130-seat Odyssey, which offers a more intimate dining experience (there is a $20 charge per person); the Greenhouse spa, which is double the size of previous spas; a golf center; and a disco for guests 18 and older.
Other dining options include Lido's pizza, pasta, salads, Asian stir-fry, deli sandwiches and daily specials; the poolside Terrace Bar with hot dogs, hamburgers and fries; and the Windstar Cafe, offering cappuccino, lattes, teas, pastries and snacks.
The elegant three-story Vista Lounge hosts the evening shows, but also bingo, wine-tasting parties and afternoon teas, which drew a big crowd. Nightly shows included a wide variety of top-notch performances, such as musical productions, a comedian, a magician, and my favorite, ventriloquist Patrick Murray with his friend Matilda. There was also a variety of entertainment at the other lounges, including country, blues, '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s music, sing-alongs and trivia contests. My daughter went with me to Elvis night and I accompanied her to '80s night. As hard as we tried, we couldn't find time to do everything.
Our first port stop was Key West, one of the great small cities of the world. We took the narrated trolley tour and the guided tours through the Truman White House and Ernest Hemingway's home.
Wanting to try Cuban cuisine, we had lunch on the patio of El Meson de Pepe's Restaurant in Mallory Square while enjoying the aromas from the kitchen and the bustling sights of the square. I had the Cayo Hueso Cuban Mix, described as the Key West version of the traditional Cuban sandwich.
After lunch we strolled through town admiring the restored homes, which were surrounded with lush tropical trees and flowers. We peeked into art galleries, bookstores and quirky shops. We had to be back on the ship by 5:30 p.m., so we couldn't stay for Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square.
Nineteen tours were offered at Cozumel, our next port, including several scuba and snorkeling excursions, a dolphin encounter and a jeep safari. We opted for a trip to the Mayan Ruins of Tulum, which involved a trip by high-speed catamaran to the mainland, then an hour bus ride to the ruins.
The Tulum ruins, the only significant Mayan site on a coast, offer breathtaking views from the cliffs overlooking the turquoise-blue Caribbean water. Built in the 10th century as a fortress overlooking the sea, the ruins were still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. The well-preserved El Castillo, the most impressive of the 60-plus structures, served as a fortress and temple. It was sunny and incredibly hot, but a beautiful beach was accessible from the ruins. On the way back, we stopped at Playa Del Carmen for shopping.
Can this be real?
We spent the last day of the cruise at Half Moon Cay, a crescent-shaped mile-long beach on a protected bay, which won the Best Private Island award from Porthole Cruise Magazine for three years in a row.
Island activities included sailing, snorkeling, kayaking, volleyball, horseshoes, shuffleboard, hiking a nature trail, and my favorite, basking on the white sand beach with a good book and tropical drink from the I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever bar. The barbecue lunch featured ribs, chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, salads and desserts.
"Half Moon Cay is just like heaven," said Bobbie Andacht of Sun City, Ariz. "I sat there and thought 'Can this be real?' No hustle, no bustle, and nobody tries to sell you anything."
A Caribbean cruise may not be heaven, but it's a great respite from gloomy falls and chilly winters, whether you're 80 feet under the sea in a submarine or relaxing on the beach at Half Moon Cay.
Marge Peterson is executive editor of "Home & Away" magazine.
The atrium (above) onboard Holland America's Zuiderdam.
Below: Visit Mayan ruins in Mexico./ Holland America photos