Yes, Cruise Ships Will Leave You (Lisbon, Portugal)

Written by Mark McElroy


In Lisbon, at the port, is a ship – our ship, the MS Prinsendam. In minutes, it is scheduled to set sail for Bilbao, Spain.

It sounds its horn: one long, strong, mournful blast: a signal to parties still on shore that the ship is preparing to depart. The ship’s captain makes an announcement: a last call for seven missing passengers.

Will the stragglers make it back to the ship? Or will they come running onto the pier, only to discover that the Prinsendam has raised anchor and left them behind? Passengers already on board line the deck, settling in to watch the drama unfold.

We are not among them.


We are in Lisbon, feeling blessed to have a third opportunity to enjoy one of our favorite European cities. To help us see it through new eyes, we’re sharing the day (and the excellent services of Paolo, one of the planet’s best local guides) with a sweet family of five from Florida.

We’ve seen many of the sights before, but being with a little group of first-timers lets us see familiar places through new eyes. (I confess that, after three trips here, the massive elevators connecting the upper and lower portions of the city still amaze me.)


We’ve stood with our own family in the Commercial Plaza before, but we’ve forgotten the story behind the plaza’s iconic statue of the king. We’ve sampled Lisbon’s traditional sour-cherry liquor, ginja, before, but we’ve never had shavings of melt-in-your-mouth Jamon Iberico (air-cured pork) from a little deli just around the corner or the pasteis de bacalhau (Portuguese fish croquettes) from the deli nearby.

The Igrega de Sao Roque, a stunning Jesuit church we hoped to see a year ago (closed, back then) is open today, affording us glimpses of its ornate gilded chapels.



Paolo’s course he’s mapped out takes us to all our favorite places again: to the (decomissioned, roofless) Convento do Carmo, to the Miradouro (overlook) Sao Pedro de Alcantara, near the Bairro Alto neighborhood (where it feels as though all of Lisbon is at your feet) via the Elevador da Gloria (one of the city’s funicular-style elevators), to the bakery in Belem that originated the flaky, creamy, egg custard Pasteies Belem.


Near the end of the day, I catch myself glancing at my watch. All aboard is scheduled for 5:30; it’s 4:30 now. “Shouldn’t we be heading back to the boat?”

The consensus, though, is that there is plenty of time, and so we stop in at the monastery in Belem and wander through the attached church.


At 4:45, I start getting twitchy. Our little troupe is headed down to the Discoveries Monument by the Tagus River, planning to follow it up with a visit to the nearby Tower of Belem. Again, though, the consensus is that there’s plenty of time. We’re eight minutes from the pier at most, the logic goes. Doesn’t it make sense to make the most of our limited day by squeezing in every sight we can?

The Tower of Belem, to have been little more than a tax assessor’s office, is a remarkable little structure, half fairy-tale castle, half wicked-looking military installation.

tower of belem

(Photo credit: Joaquim Alves Gaspar, Lisboa, Portugal)

I can’t enjoy seeing it, though, because I’m obsessed with my watch. It’s now ten after five.

After photos are snapped and sights are seen, our little group is bundled into two taxis and sent toward the port. It’s 5:15. We zip down the frontage road, bypassing many traffic lights and making good progress … but then, suddenly, all traffic grinds to a halt.

The main road to the port is closed for construction, and a logjam of buses, cars, and taxis results. Traffic presses forward, but there is nowhere to go; the side streets simply cannot handle this volume.



Paolo says to the taxi driver: “Their boat leaves in five minues.”

The taxi driver shrugs and holds up his hands, wordlessly saying, “What can I do about that?”


Once before, we’ve been left behind by the ship in the middle of a cruise – not because we were irresponsible or self-indulgent, but for medical reasons. So, as I sit in the taxi, going nowhere, I know what kind of trials await those who don’t make it back to the ship.

Holland America collects passports from your room, leaving them with the port authority. The ship sets sail. And it’s up to you – using cars or ferries or taxies or airplanes or whatever arrangements you can make – to make your way to the next port and catch the boat again.

Clyde and I alone could manage it; we have trip insurance, after all, and the means to take care of challenges like these. But today, we have a family of five with us – people we don’t know well, and who may or may not take things like missing the boat in stride.

5:30 comes and goes, and we are still very, very far from where we need to be.


By the time we arrive at the port, it’s nine minutes after set-sail time. There are two security guards out front of the entrance, waving us on. “Hurry! Run!” On the pier, we can see dock workers getting ready to lift the gangplank and untie the massive ropes that moor the ship in place.

We flash our ID cards, dash through security (pausing to have our bags x-rayed, even now), and streak down the pier, running at full tilt toward the boat. We clamber up the gangplank and stumble into the open door. Even as we do, the crew snatch up the last of the ship’s equipment and shut the door behind us.

The three kids with us laugh and give their mom and dad high fives; their them, it’s been quite the adventure. For me, the adventure cuts just a bit too close to the bone; I feel less like celebrating and more like collapsing.

Later – after decompressing (and insisting that, in the future, we will leave a port when I say it’s time to be going) – I’m just happy to be back here, on board, in our room, watching the world go by.

The captain announces that tomorrow, in Bilbao, everyone is to be back on board by 6:00 p.m.

Even as I’m making a mental note to be back on board by 5:00, Clyde glances over at me and says, “So, for us, back by 5:55 at the earliest, right?”

prinsendam lisbon departure

Do yourself a favor. Learn from our mistakes. When on a cruise ship and touring independently, give yourself plenty of time to get back to the boat!

About the author

Mark McElroy

I’ve racked up more than a million Delta SkyMiles exclusively through pleasure travel — earning me the nickname “Million Mile Mark.” Because family and friends planning their own vacations ask for recommendations all the time, I came up with the idea of sharing my suggestions online. For more about me and my mission, please see "Who is MillionMileMark?" on the main menu of this site.

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