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The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2008
Hosted by Wayman Tisdale

by Linda Coffman

January 2008 — It's no secret that this Cruise Diva loves cruises. What you may not know about me is my passion for music. Although I won't divulge what I'm listening to on my iPod, I'm happy to share some recent down time with an upbeat tempo when Mel and I immersed ourselves in music while relaxing at sea.

Like other music lovers, we appreciate music festivals where the artists really connect with their audiences. Unfortunately, for most of us that means traveling to distant cities where the hottest musicians are most likely to appear. It was relatively easy for us to attend the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival when we lived nearby, but we've found an even better way to enjoy concerts without the hassle of parking and crowds—one of the full-ship charters presented by Entertainment Cruise Productions (formerly Jazz Cruises LLC).

Come along as we sailed for a week-long Smooth Jazz Cruise aboard Holland America Line's Westerdam...

Embarkation Day
Even on a dreary afternoon in port Everglades we felt the electricity generated by fellow passengers during embarkation on Westerdam. Many were repeat Smooth Jazz Cruisers and looked forward to hearing their favorite music and artists live on stage. Later, as we waited in the Sports Bar for our after-dinner show, one music (and football) enthusiast told me this was his fourth Smooth Jazz Cruise—he’d only missed the first one.

To kick off the Welcome Show, Rick Braun and his trumpet made a grand entrance, giving the audience a close-up as he literally played his way to the stage. While the music swept over the Vista Lounge, everyone was on their feet, moving and clapping to the beat. A few bars of “won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise” were met with approval.

Smooth Jazz Cruise posters awaited on our beds when we returned to our cabins—pillow gifts that are great for collecting autographs, as are the beautifully designed combination program-and-journal books we received earlier. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to use them.

Two Days at Sea
Although we encountered strong winds and some rain during our first two days in the Caribbean, we began our first sea day on a high note during a rousing Gospel Hour with Jonathan Butler. What an appropriate way to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this, his national holiday.

Don’t get the impression that it was all seriousness on board Westerdam. Our first sea day was also T-Shirt Party Day with complimentary afternoon cocktails and snacks served poolside and later a behind the scenes look at “how songs become” and then Daiquiris with artist Mindi Abair. Naturally, we attended another concert after dinner.

Because we set our clocks forward an hour, I had to cut my time short at the PA-JAM-A party tonight. At least I was ready to fall right asleep—the late night dress code called for PJs and, of course, jazz.

It was all about the music on the Smooth Jazz Cruise. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but performances had me tapping my toes and, of course, swaying with the beat. Ranging from the simplicity of unplugged guitars to the rich sounds of multiple horns, Westerdam rocked.

For a second day at sea—the sky was blue and the sea full of “smooth” wavelets. Clearly we were in for a beautiful day full of activities and behind-the-scenes looks into the lives and careers of the musicians who worked so hard to entertain us.

In addition to the lectures and autograph sessions, there was a Smooth Jazz “Idol” in the making aboard Westerdam. One talented passenger will win Wayman Tisdale’s Star Search competition.

The Smooth Jazz Cruise backpack we received (pictured along with a cute towel animal created by our cabin steward) will come in handy when we go ashore.

A Day in Aruba
Aruba is called “One Happy Island” and we were as pleased to be going ashore with our Smooth Jazz Cruise caps and bags as the residents were to welcome us. In addition to the main show last night, extremely strong winds kept us rocking and rolling aboard Westerdam so we've looked forward to spending all day in Aruba.

One appealing aspect of an evening in port is the accessibility to local dining and nightlight. Well, it's usually appealing. Although Carlos ‘n Charlies has its charm, I doubt that any Westerdam passengers were there. In fact, the hottest night spot in Aruba was surely the Vista Lounge when all the artists on board took the stage and special guest Jeffrey Osborne made his first appearance.

We were pierside in Aruba until midnight and the night’s schedule included one of the signature events arranged by Entertainment Cruise Productions for their full-ship charters. Caribbean Luau Night began with a Poolside BBQ Dinner and ended with a Luau Sailaway Party. Westerdam’s chefs (pictured) outdid themselves with the deck BBQ dinner. We were treated to down-home and upscale fare: ribs, steak, chicken salmon, chilled salads, and the best jambalaya at sea. There was even a white chocolate fountain with assorted fruits for dessert.

Because food is such a highlight of any cruise, I’d like to say a word about the cuisine on Westerdam—delicious. Seriously, every meal was enjoyable and service was superb. In addition to the elegant Vista Dining Room, where we were all assigned to either early or late seating, a very popular alternative for dinner was the Terrace Grill where waiters served your entree and dessert of choice after you made your own selections from appetizers and the extensive salad bar.

A Day in Curacao
We awoke anxious to go ashore in Curacao, one of our favorite Caribbean islands. Instead of a formal tour, we joined a few fellow passengers downtown to sample the local beers and compare our favorite brews and cruise activities. It’s been a real pleasure to sail with so many like-minded passengers and meet jazz fans from all over the country. Many travel far and wide to attend concerts and some have been on previous jazz cruises. Their delight at seeing one another onboard is infectious and we are having a great time—this is a very social mix of people.

Unfortunately, our time in Curacao was all too short and interrupted by a brief, but heavy, tropical shower. Back at sea, there was a full afternoon of activities to pass the time in lectures and one-on-one meetings with the stars and the second round of Wayman Tisdale’s Star Search.

The night’s concert, featuring Mindy Abair and Jeffrey Osborne, promised to be one of my favorites. And, with a sea day to look forward to, we could stay up late to enjoy the musicians in Westerdam’s lounges without worrying about getting up too early in the morning.

Another Day at Sea
Captain Peter Harris promised us clear skies and balmy weather for our day at sea and he delivered. A gorgeous, sunny day on board Westerdam was perfect for participating in a volleyball competition in the pool (crew vs. guests) or simply lazing on a deck chair.

Dane Butcher (left) with Alonzo Bodden
 
The day’s line-up of activities was full with autograph signings, a poolside party, and a “Just Sweet Enough” cookie baking class with Gerald Albright. Naturally there is music everywhere. One of the day's most entertaining events was an interview with comedian Alonzo Bodden hosted by Smooth Jazz Cruise's very own Cruise Director, Dane Butcher.

I must admit that I wasn’t a Smooth Jazz aficionado when we boarded Westerdam and barely knew what to expect. While the style is difficult to describe, it’s a little bit funky with some soul and R&B tossed in, and all performed to a great beat. It’s contemporary and the sounds are infectious. And, yes, you can dance to it. Janeta fellow passenger who is 83 years younghas captivated us during the nightly concerts with her dancing in the aisles. Staying seated is nearly impossible.

Dressing to the nines for dinner is always special and never more so than on a cruise. Tonight was our only formal night of the cruise and the ladies I’ve spoken to are looking forward to dressing up… not that this isn’t a well-dressed crowd already. All other evenings have been smart casual and nearly everyone ramped it up a notch.

Another food note... nothing beats dinner in the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's upscale, reservations-required restaurant ($29 dinner). We looked forward to it so much that one of the first things we did upon boarding Westerdam was make a reservation early in the cruise. We set the bar pretty high and our expectations were exceeded. In fact, it was so good that we were pleased to find they had room for us a second time and formal night was the ideal evening to savor steaks and seafood that were even better the second time around.

A Day at Half Moon Cay
I don’t do time zone change well, particularly when it means losing an hour. However, we reclaimed the hour lost earlier in the cruise, which meant last night's late-night comedy show starring Alonzo Bodden wasn’t too late, even for me. And I didn’t want to miss it.

Westerdam’s scheduled arrival time at Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private island, wasn’t until 11am so it was a good morning to sleep in just a bit since. Another day in paradise awaited ashore where we enjoyed the pristine beach under an overcast sky. The clouds were no problem; it was still nice and warm but not overly hot and humid. Oh yes, there was food—a terrific barbecue provided by the ship's culinary staff—and tropical drinks. While we shared Half Moon Cay with passengers from Holland America Line fleetmate Maasdam, we didn't feel at all crowded.

Alas, after our day shore, it was time to think of packing up to disembark. Our cruise was a week of music, fun, activities, more fun, and making new friends. A fellow passenger from Montreal commented that if nations could follow the example of passengers aboard The Smooth Jazz Cruise then we’d all live in a better world. I can’t disagree.

The final concert of the cruise starred our host Wayman Tisdale and it was quite a show even without a surprise presentation by passengers—the gentle giant was truly touched when given posters autographed by participants wishing him continued success in his battle with cancer. 

Reflecting on The Smooth Jazz Cruise
Although I've sailed on 80-something cruises since 1989, The Smooth Jazz Cruise was different in numerous ways.

Mindi Abair prepares to
"rock the boat"
First, everyone on board had an interest in smooth jazz and the artists brought together for our enjoyment. While there were some typical cruise ship activities listed on our daily programs, such as art auctions—and the casino, spa, and fitness center facilities all operated as usual—the producers of The Smooth Jazz Cruise were at the helm for all other activities.

Quite naturally, the music was center stage, but the theme carried on virtually non-stop through scheduled autograph sessions; informal talks presented by various musicians; the hilarity of Bodden's Bingo; sessions with featured performers in Westerdam's intimate lounges; and cocktails hosted by artists Mindi Abair, Rick Braun, Jonathan Butler, Brian Simpson, Jeff Golub, and Kirk Whalum (with a nominal fee for beverages).

In addition to the Caribbean Luau BBQ and theme parties featuring Pajamas and Spots & Stripes attire, all guests were invited to attend a Smooth Jazz Cruise afternoon T-shirt party poolside, where complimentary cocktails and hors d'oeuvres were served.

To answer questions and lend a hand during The Smooth Jazz Cruise, passengers had access to a Hospitality Desk manned by Entertainment Cruise Productions staff members. I can't praise them highly enough for their professionalism.

The Smooth Jazz Cruise: An Annual Event
The beauty of a full-ship charter with Entertainment Cruise Productions is that everyone on board is included in all festivities and no one is left out. They think of everything and even select the itinerary. Best of all, though, is the great roster of musicians they bring together.

Fully booked, and with a waiting list, a hot activity during this year's Smooth Jazz Cruise was making reservations for next year. The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2009 will set sail January 18-25 from Fort Lauderdale, FL on m/s Westerdam and call at San Juan, Santa Barbara de Semana, Santo Domingo, and Half Moon Cay.

Book your cabin early—with special guest Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan, The Smooth Jazz Cruise 2009 promises to be a sell-out as well.

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The Smooth Jazz Cruise: Hitting the beach at Half Moon Cay

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