Cruise report: HAL Nieuw Statendam transatlantic with teens

The kids and I sailed with Holland America Line once before, when they were fairly young. Embarking on HAL’s Nieuw Statendam in August 2022 was my husband’s first cruise with this company. We spent 24 days together on this grand vessel, visiting four countries in addition to the United States, and briefly crossing into the Arctic Circle.Certificate signed by Captain Barhorst showing crossing Friday, 8/12/2022 at 20:25

The experience was good enough for us to purchase Future Cruise Credits (FCC)—a minor commitment to future travel with the same company—while still on board.

Link to explanation of FCC’s at The Points Guy site

Our transatlantic (TATL) cruise itinerary called for boarding the ship in Boston, calling in several Canadian ports, followed by stops in Greenland, Iceland, Greenland again, Canada again, France in the form of the island of St. Pierre, Canada third time, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and finally back to Boston.

The round trip itinerary—no flights required from our New England home—absolutely sold us on this particular itinerary. HAL transatlantic cruise itinerary round trip Boston

If we hadn’t had a credit to use from a scheduled 2020 trip cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely we would have gone anywhere during the rampant snarling of summer travel in 2022. If we’d had an international flight planned, I can guarantee we would have called off any trip as reports of hours’ long lines snaking outside of airports proliferated in the lead up to our departure.

While our cruise wasn’t perfect, the hassles were fairly minimal and we found the experience well worth the bumps in those road that we did encounter.Holland America line vessel, rear view

I plan to publish a series of posts covering ports we visited, but, today, I’ll begin with an overview of embarking on transatlantic travel on HAL as a family with teens. I hope this perspective is helpful to other potential family cruisers since Holland America has a reputation for catering to an elderly crowd.

My kids enjoyed the trip, but there were very few people their age on the ship. We socialized with each other and with adults with whom I’d become acquainted on Cruise Critic prior to the voyage.

In addition to a lack of youth-oriented trip reports, I also couldn’t find much information for travelers with special needs regarding Polar-adjacent travel in the North Atlantic. I live with a chronic condition that sometimes affects my mobility and energy levels. Here’s hoping I can offer relevant tips for future adventurers with similar limitations in this and future posts.

First impressions

As it happens, one of the first SNAFU’s of our trip occurred at its very beginning: embarkation from Boston’s Flynn (formerly Black Falcon) Cruise Port was a mess. More frequent cruisers than I commented later that they’d never endured such a poorly executed boarding elsewhere or in Boston.

Here’s the official Massport site for the cruise terminal.

It’s easy to mock social media and blame it for many of society’s ills, but the utility of crowdsourced information cannot be denied. If I weren’t an active member of Cruise Critic—and a participant in a Roll Call for our August voyage—my embarkation experience could have been even worse. Tips from passengers who arrived at the port earlier than we did saved us at least a couple of hours of unnecessary waiting on site since we could elect to leave our home later to drive to the terminal.

To begin with, HAL sent notification a day ahead of boarding offering a completely revised boarding plan with new times for each passenger, all of which superseded the information given on one’s boarding pass. By not updating boarding passes—offered in digital format for cruise passengers just like most of us use on flights!—Holland America missed an opportunity to reduce confusion instead of sowing it.

Screenshot of HAL's recommended cruise app, NavigatorHAL reaped what it sowed. Thousands of people waited outside for hours beyond the embarkation time on their documents.

Nowhere in their last minute, change-of-plans missive did HAL inform embarking passengers that their digital documents would fail to update to reflect the new instructions. It’s bad to have a communication system that can’t update digital docs in real time; it’s worse not to confess to this fact up front to help reduce confusion!

At least two ambulances were required to whisk away people who weren’t up to the physical demands of standing in line for so long. We were incredibly fortunate that a recent heat wave ended before this marathon queue, but even 80°F became uncomfortable to many, and, while much of the line was shaded by adjacent buildings, there was no other shelter. Almost no seating was available, either.

Purple aluminum HurryCane walking stick freestanding on a wood floorBecause my own mobility limitations wax and wane, I always register a request with common carriers at the time of booking for wheelchair assistance. I’m often well enough to decline the requested service upon arrival at a terminal, but it is harder to get help on demand when it is needed if I haven’t initiated the process in advance. At Boston’s cruise port, it was lucky I was having a pretty good day.

When we arrived at the port, I checked in with an employee and noted we’d requested wheelchair assistance. According to that agent, “So did 1/3 of the people here waiting to board!”

Massport was short by at least dozens of personnel to offer wheelchair assistance. I believe that the lack of “timely assistance” was in violation of U.S. law. It reflected poorly on the port and on the city of Boston.

While the kind Massport employee I’d encountered couldn’t do much for me or anyone else, this lady did find folding chairs for a few of us who were concerned about walking the length of the line that disappeared out of sight across at least two long city blocks. Later arrivals sat on the curb.

My husband and kids trekked to the back of the line, and I waited in tolerable conditions if not comfort with the “special assistance” crowd. It was from that vantage point near the entrance that I saw one woman collapse and get taken away by ambulance.

By the time I boarded, I had yet to see a single passenger escorted onto the ship via wheelchair pushed by port employees. That period of time extended for well over an hour. The fortunate disabled passengers were those traveling with their own mobility aids and friends or family members capable of providing assistance.

After about an hour waiting alone, my family made it to the front of the line where I was sitting. Since no wheelchair assistance passengers were being taken aboard the ship as far as I could see, I rejoined them. My kids took my carry on bag, and I walked myself carefully through the disorganized thicket inside the terminal building with an occasional hand from one of my able-bodied relatives.Embarkation crowdThe gangway with which we boarded Nieuw Statendam was set at a particularly steep angle, too. A fellow passenger said they’d heard that the usual “jet bridge” style boarding ramp for Boston was broken and awaiting repairs, but I have no confirmation for that rumor. I was glad I’d brought my cane to help negotiate boarding, though, fortunately, I didn’t need it much once we were at sea.

Again, according to people who have cruised Boston more than I have, there is a port building here with some features of a modern travel terminal. We were not in that space! Instead, the Nieuw Statendam passengers were being processed in an open, warehouse-like space that might’ve felt familiar to our forebears’ experience at Ellis Island.

The flooring was uneven asphalt, there was no climate control, and there was no reasonable signage to help anyone self-select the correct lines. With various levels of “self check in” one might have performed prior to arriving at the port, there were at least three different types of confirmations that might be required to complete check in on site.

Through dumb luck, we were in the correct line for those who had performed the maximum online steps ahead of time, and we spent only ten to 20 minutes finishing up the check in process before preceding to the gangway that led onto the ship. The new facial recognition software did speed up check in, and, interestingly, could identify ³⁄4 of us with our N95 masks still in place.

One member of the family had to remove a protective mask to be correctly ID’d by the computer.

Some of the confusing requirements befuddling our embarkation day may be laid at the feet of COVID-19. There are national directives demanding certain steps or paperwork, it’s true. Failing to post signage to correctly direct thousands of boarding passengers into the correct lines based upon the status of government and health requirements, however, was entirely the fault of the Flynn Cruise Terminal and its staff.

The communication from HAL that changed boarding times at the last minute stated that a mandatory Coast Guard drill was the cause of the adjustment. That is probably true, but the Coast Guard didn’t prevent HAL from updating information on our virtual boarding passes or within the cruise line’s own app which they tout as an innovation in cruising convenience.

Neither was the Coast Guard responsible for inadequate staffing on the part of Massport, the government agency that runs land-side port operations.

Once we made it on board, the giddy relief of dropping our bags in our beautiful staterooms quickly eased the frustrations of the long morning day. Running the gauntlet of Boston’s cruise terminal was sufficiently exhausting that all of us—even the teens!—spent some part of our first afternoon aboard napping instead of exploring or reveling.

We were told in advance that we would board at 11:40; the port actually seemed to begin embarkation proceedings closer to 14:00 from our vantage amongst the crowds. My first photos from our cabin were taken at 15:45. We were scheduled to sail at 16:00. Nieuw Statendam actually cast off from its Boston mooring at 19:31.

port employees releasing ropes holding Nieuw Statendam to dockI think I’m being generous when I say we experienced a delay of at least three hours. For those who view lunch on the ship as the start of their vacation, our embarkation must have been particularly painful. It was certainly debilitating to those of us with health issues, and proved tiring even to young travelers.

Aside from mentioning that disembarkation three weeks later was similarly hideous—with poor communication again being the element for which HAL itself should be held fully accountable—I won’t go into detail for the latter fiasco. Suffice to say that I will still sail in or out of Boston because “not flying” remains on my list of “good to have” vacation characteristics, but I will always travel through this port carrying as little as possible to preserve my energy, and I will assume zero mobility assistance will be offered regardless of what’s legally mandated or promised.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend embarking on a cruise out of Boston’s port for anyone with severe mobility restrictions at this time unless that person can afford to travel with sufficient personal assistance to cover all boarding needs. I hope the situation will improve if staffing levels recover, but I wouldn’t bet a friend or loved one’s comfort on it personally.

Also, on the subject of advance communication, I think it is worth pointing out that Holland America Line mandated the wearing of masks indoors, when not eating or drinking, for all passengers as well as crew for the duration of our sailing. This was not announced in advance of embarkation, though it could have been. The captain announced the policy on board the ship, and reminders were broadcast by him and other officers once or twice a day over the public address system.Disposable surgical mask

Most destinations, and all excursions, appeared to have dropped all COVID prevention rules or requirements, though the majority of our fellow travelers opted to wear masks on the one tour bus we joined.

Our group enjoyed a much greater degree of relaxation and feelings of safety due to the enhanced precautions, but some cruisers felt deceived and complained bitterly about the unexpected need to mask. At least one Cruise Critic member in my Roll Call group bragged about “always carrying a drink” in order to intentionally and spitefully subvert the protocols as much as possible.

Most Nieuw Statendam passengers appeared to make a sincere effort to adhere to the mask rules, in our personal experience on the ship. We elected to exceed HAL’s requirements, and we all avoided catching COVID-19, testing negative on our own home tests multiple times during and after the journey. There were reports of viral spread on the ship, however, and visibility of guests in isolation increased over time.

We believe that it was possible for cruise passengers to make personal choices to increase the odds of avoiding getting sick, but that the mask mandate made it many times easier for cautious travelers to do than it would have been otherwise. For example, I would have felt far less comfortable without the face covering requirement when I squeezed onto any of the crowded ship’s tenders required to visit the smaller ports on which we called.

Our family felt fortunate that HAL mandated masks; other passengers felt cheated out of the freedom they thought they’d been promised on the same voyage. Continue reading

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones

Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

Continue reading