Holland America’s warm embrace

Mark Eggleton

Edgar Allan Poe called it the “imp of the perverse”, that little voice in your head that grabs you as you stand on a cliff edge or on a train platform that sometimes says, “Jump”. My imp is talking to me as I stand peering at the sea from my eighth-floor balcony onboard Holland America’s MS Noordam.

A dive deep into a black-hued Mediterranean Sea seemed a beautiful way to end it all. I’d wave to the other decks on the way before splashing down and disappearing into the warm depths.

It’s my second last night onboard the MS Noordam and we’re crossing from Palermo in Sicily up Italy’s ankle to Naples. Reflecting on the first few hours onboard eight days previously, I realise how much my feeling about cruising had changed.

Things had begun inauspiciously, all the passengers had been corralled onto the ship’s Lido deck where ravenous overweight tourists ranged across the assorted buffet counters like an infestation of fire ants. Standing and staring at my fellow passengers all my prejudices were playing out live. I was standing in a floating Vegas – full of noise, bad food, cabaret and slot machines.

Now, eight days later I stood contemplating the dark rippling blanket the MS Noordam was effortlessly crawling over, I realised I had well and truly drunk the Kool-Aid. I was a cruise junkie.

Reason being is those first few hours were nothing. Once we were released into all the public areas and had access to some good restaurants such as the Pinnacle Grill, I was in a happier place. Sure there was loud people, bad food, cabaret and slot machines but they were all easily avoided. There were plenty of cafes, bars, lounge areas, restaurants and more on a ship measuring over 900-feet in length.

Pinnacle Grill
Pinnacle Grill

Turning back into my stateroom after winning the argument with my imp I wandered down and through the ship to the Pinnacle Grill. It was Le Cirque night and the menu was a reflection of New York’s famous fine diner. I kicked-off with an amuse bouche foie gras parfait followed by Butternut Squash soup with huckleberries and sage chantilly. It was all very good with delicate flavours driven by natural ingredients. Chateaubriand with a horseradish flan and baby beets followed before a signature Le Cirque crème brulee rounded out the evening. Good wine including a solid Californian Cabernet Sauvignon and most of my cruise food misconceptions had disappeared.

Over dinner we had discussed Palermo and its lack of what Italy normally oozes – style. That day I had made the mistake of hiring a local cabbie for a tour. He decided stories of mafia hits and the criminal organisation’s control of business and government was what I wanted to hear. He seemed rather proud of the fact that the whole city was controlled by a vast criminal enterprise.

“Everything is good here because the mafia keeps things running smoothly. They make sure everything works well and keep the peace,” he said as I stared out the grimy car window at rubbish-strewn streets and sad-looking browbeaten citizens with listless eyes.

Mondello, Sicily
Mondello, Sicily

For lunch, after getting assurances that I was going somewhere special, he dropped me off at a mediocre seafood restaurant in nearby Mondello. Good friends of his I was assured.

In front of me, crammed cheek-by-jowl on a rocky beach were thousands of holidaymakers with each one looking unhappier than the last. The water looked inviting but swimming involved picking your way through the equivalent of a human elephant seal colony in the middle of mating season – a heady mix of heat, anger and alpha males.

My lunchtime view was spoiled somewhat by a local hood beating up a couple of kids before he smashed the bulb in a street lamp and threw a bike off a wharf while screaming obscenities. Watching him were the local middle-aged peacekeeping adults who walked down to high-five him and hug it out. Everything was running smoothly. Palermo … all class.

After lunch I asked my fine driver to ferry me back to the cruise terminal. The words “Do not pass go and do not collect $200” may have been used. As we approached, the blue-hulled MS Noordam loomed magically ahead ready to carry me to more blessed lands. In my eight days aboard I’d never looked at it with such fondness and I never wanted to leave its firm, friendly embrace again … at least not until we reached Naples and I could get a ferry to Capri.

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