A holiday cruise story: Sea of Sorrow, Sea of Joy

Editor’s note: At this time of year, it is always nice to hear wonderful stories about cruising adventures. This year contributor Judy M. Zimmerman shares her tale of happiness found at sea.

Special to AllThings Cruise

Christmas was only a few days away and I was about to begin an adventure I’d dreamed of for many years: a cruise from Singapore to some of Indonesia’s most exotic ports — Java, Bali and Borneo.

Why, then, was I not the least bit excited?  Why did I feel so discouraged instead?

Months ago, I’d envisioned Bali on Christmas Day would be all the cruise brochure promised: “an enchanted paradise, fragrant with flowers, lush with tropical fruits and blue-green mountain terraces with rice paddies descending to the sea.”

I was going to do something very different this year

Last Christmas had been miserable.  I was mourning the loss of my husband who died of cancer six months before.  “Next year I am determined to do something very different,” I told my mother and sister as we faced the holidays together.

Now I seriously questioned the wisdom of my decision to spend this Christmas at Sea.

Oh well, if Bali failed to live up to its glorious reputation, there were other adventures awaiting in the South China and Sulu Seas.

In Java, the world’s largest Buddhist temple would rise dramatically from dense surrounding rainforest.

In Borneo, I pictured myself rafting through verdant jungle bush, the invited guest of a communal “long house” along the riverbank.

Pre-Cruise Jitters

In fact, I had no idea what to expect of this holiday voyage.   Still, two foreboding feelings began to grow:  I dreaded the confining 24-hour flight to Singapore. And, being one of many widows might be even more depressing than last year.

A friend who would accompany me tried to offer encouragement by mailing a page from Fodor’s guide. “(Our cruise ship) has a reputation for its sensitivity to the needs of many older single women.  Carefully screened senior gentlemen travel on board as unsalaried guests to act as partners for dining, dancing or bridge.”

Really.  Just how desperate can you get?  I’d be humiliated if one of these paid escorts asked me to dance

I was so blasé on the foggy morning of my departure, I hadn’t even bothered to finish packing.  To make matters worse, about noon, the thickening fog threatened to cancel my connecting flight.

Frantically, I secured one remaining seat on the last shuttle bus to San Francisco Airport and was safely aboard as our flight departed at 1:30 a.m.

After a series of naps, the in-flight activities filled the time quite nicely.  But, as I’d feared, the last few hours became almost unbearable.

In an attempt to relieve my aching leg muscles, I stretched and turned around to see how others were faring.  Directly behind me sat a distinguished-looking gentleman with smiling eyes.  We chatted for a few minutes.  His wife had also passed away two summers ago

I teased him good-naturedly about all the women who would assail him aboard ship.  (At least I had the good sense not to seek romance at sea.)

Unfortunately, my roommate developed serious seasickness

After wearily unpacking that evening, my cabin mate and I headed for Singapore’s Orchard Road, a wide tree-lined boulevard with brilliant Christmas lights and bustling shoppers.

But, the following morning she did not get up.  Her relentless seasickness was just beginning.

A few days later, from the tour bus window in Java, I spotted the tall handsome widower who looked like a professor.  There were no ladies at his side.  Maybe he was shy.

Christmas Eve in Java 

With a police escort, we drove through Java’s hilly countryside, past coffee and clove plantations and rice fields towards the architectural wonder of Borobudur.  Somehow, it seemed ironic to be climbing a Buddhist temple on Christmas Eve.

Celebrations aboard ship that evening appeared low-key at first: a Christmas tree on each deck and a special holiday menu.

Then, what a nice surprise!  My pleasant friend from the plane was asking me to join him for a drink before dinner.  Later, we met to watch a delightful Christmas musical together.

Other women were happily dancing the night away with their cruise line hosts.  When one host persisted, I reluctantly agreed, only to discover I’d been too hasty in my assessment.  I actually enjoyed dancing with him.

Later that night, as we anchored off the mystical isle of Bali, I was so excited I could hardly fall asleep.

I found that I liked dancing with the gentleman escorts

But, from bed the next morning, I listened incredulously to the captain’s voice:  “A typhoon is threatening nearby.  All excursions on Bali are cancelled…we strongly recommend you remain only in town.”

Blissful Bali

After buying some inexpensive souvenirs, a few of us sought refuge from the driving wind and rain.  Seated on a dry bench beneath an open stall, we ordered beers and forlornly peered out upon the muddy, miserable fishing village of Pandangbai.

This was to be our one blissful day in Bali, then?  No!  I pulled a rumpled magazine article from my purse:  “The Amankila Hotel is influenced by the finest Balinese architecture and represents one of the island’s legendary charms still intact.”

Defying the typhoon warnings, we hailed a taxi and ventured up the steep cliff to find this charming Amankila.

The rain stopped just as we were seated for lunch on the magnificent hotel’s poolside terrace.

With our ship securely anchored on the horizon below, we laughed and shared the spirited camaraderie of each new pleasure all afternoon.

Until, that is, the ship suddenly disappeared from view, enveloped in a foggy mist.

No horns or whistles signaled the last tender’s departure from Bali to flee the storm that day, but we were on it – just barely!

Full steam ahead to the island of Borneo, called “Land Below the Wind” because it’s just south of the typhoon belt.  Once again, disappointing rain and fog shrouded the view of majestic Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak.

Now for the final two days of our voyage — north to Hong Kong on the notoriously choppy South China Sea.

Fortunately, “Christmas at Sea” had been absolutely nothing like what I imagined.  It was not the ports of call that were the real “holiday treasures.”

A Gift of Friendship 

The best gift was what I least expected: the man with the smiling eyes became my traveling companion in the new year.  Together, we cruised in the Eastern Mediterranean and through the romantic isles of French Polynesia along with many other travel adventures in the years that followed.

If you want to go: There are five cruises sailing from Singapore to Bali and other Indonesian ports in December 2018. They are on Azamara Club Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Princess Cruises.

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