Playing Santa at Sea

Karl and Carol ready for formal night in their US Air Force dress uniforms.

One Christmas, my wife and I broke with tradition and packed our bags for a Princess cruise to Antarctica. It felt a little strange to be leaving home when all the songs on the radio pined, “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” But we got over that pretty quickly. Why would we stay home by ourselves–we are empty nesters with busy children–when we could be on board a beautifully decorated ship, meeting friendly people who were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat as us?

Carol and I have taken 14 cruises with Princess, covering much of the globe. But ever since our first holiday cruise to Antarctica, we’ve tried to time them so we can spend the holidays at sea.

Antarctica offered a real-life image of a shimmering Christmas card. Imagine sailing down “Iceberg Alley” on Christmas Eve, the outside world a crystal chasm, with seals floating along on ice floes and a million penguins gazing back at you from their frozen land….then, to turn indoors and be embraced by all the warmth, richness and festivity of this magical season.

Maybe it was easy to capture the Christmas spirit in that most wintery of wonderlands, but we found it in even greater abundance at the equator. Carol and I spent our most treasured Christmas in a small village along the mighty Amazon River, where the landscape is green, not white and icy blue, and you are more likely to find a tapir paddling alongside the ship than a seal.

It was Christmas season 2009 and we were enjoying a four-continent adventure aboard Royal Princess, beginning in Rome, sailing across the Atlantic and into the Amazon before heading up through the Caribbean. We’d met some lovely people and once again were enthralled by how merry the ship looked, covered bow to stern with fir trees, wreaths, twinkling lights and ribbons. We’d decorated our cabin door with wrapping paper and a “Merry Christmas” sign, as had other passengers. Everyone was getting into the spirit.

The Princess chefs were outdoing themselves with different carvings each night, which were only the centerpieces to these magnificent holiday feasts with all the trimmings. The nightly shows were joyous and the crew sang carols on Christmas Eve. It was another wonderful time that we were truly blessed to experience.

We traveled up the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil, then back down again. On the way up the river, the ship stopped at the isolated village of Boca Da Valéria. Throngs of children met the ship and many passengers (including Carol and I) handed out candy. At the time, it seemed like a nice gesture.

Later, a guest lecturer told us there was no dentist in the region and that these children’s bodies were not used to digesting sweets. Our gifts might make them ill! We vowed to do things differently when the ship called again at Boca Da Valéria on the return trip.

We docked in Parintins. Carol and I were now on a mission to find a toy store, and we did find a small place that sold toy cars, trucks and motorcycles. We must have bought more than 100 of them.

On Christmas Day we docked at Boca da Valéria again with our hearts and minds filled with the spirit of the season. I put on a red shirt and a Santa hat that the crew had given all of us passengers, and filled my laundry bag with the toys we bought in Parintins. Santa Claus was coming to town, although the village children just saw a strangely dressed man with a large bag over his shoulder.

Karl and Carol playing Santa in Boca da Valeria.

They instinctively knew to flock to me and gathered round, arms outstretched. Enlisting our Air Force training (Carol and I were both master sergeants), we lined them up like new recruits and handed out the cars one by one. Their eyes grew large as they assessed their gifts, but I could discern puzzlement, too. Of course! They did not know how to play cars.

The kids followed us to a group of tables, whereupon old Santa and his Mrs. Claus demonstrated how to wheel a car across a table. In no time, we were driving the cars around the table, pushing them back and forth. Two hours later, we were still laughing and playing until it became time to reboard the ship.

Talk about a Christmas present! We’d made a small effort to buy these toys and gotten back tenfold joy in return.

I like to think the toy cars will be passed along to a little brother or sister. Maybe they’ll find their way to these children’s own children. Will they remember how to play toy cars or invent new ways to entertain themselves? I’ll never know, but I hope that they always bring happiness and laughter.

That joy in the children’s eyes really put a spark in the meaning of Christmas for us. Here was the true spirit of the season, and an experience we wouldn’t have at home alone.  It added to the warm and cheerful atmosphere we found on our ship, something that has brought us back to cruise at Christmas again this year.  I’m ready to don my Santa hat again, so who knows how we will spread a little Christmas cheer this time!

 Karl and Carol live in Rockport, Texas, and have enjoyed 14 Princess cruises, four of them during the holiday season.


15 Comments Post a Comment

  1. Princess Cruises says... December 18, 2012 | 12:59pm

    Karl and Carol — We’re happy to have you aboard again this year for the holidays! Thank you for sharing your Santa story.
    Merry Christmas!

    • sharon and glenn says... December 19, 2012 | 2:14pm

      We’ve been on 2 cruises with Karl and Carol…still friends!

      • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... December 21, 2012 | 5:35pm

        Although the miles separate us, we are with you in spirit, and will always remain your friends. Have a great Christmas…I could use Glenn’s jacket!

        • Chrisendaye Baldah Singh says... December 21, 2012 | 9:39pm

          True spirit of Christmas, keep it going. Merry Christmas Karl and Carol Hoepfner wish there were more people like you. You are blessed people.

          • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... January 9, 2013 | 12:57pm

            Thank you.

        • Chrisendaye Baldah Singh says... December 21, 2012 | 9:46pm

          True spirit of Christmas, keep it going. Merry Christmas Karl and Carol Hoepfner wish there were more people like you. You are blessed people

        • Chrisendaye Baldah Singh says... December 21, 2012 | 9:51pm

          Great job Karl and Carol. We need more people like you two. Merry Christmas.

    • Jerry Ellingson says... December 29, 2012 | 4:46pm

      I really enjoyed your Holiday Cruise travel story. My wife and I have cruised the Panama Canal over the Holidays and of the 9 cruises we have experienced the Holiday one seems to have been the best.
      I have the South America/ Antarctica cruise on my bucket list and would like to be put at ease from a previous cruiser.

      • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... January 9, 2013 | 12:48pm

        Hi, Jerry, I don’t think Princess offers the Antartica trip anymore. (Whoever is in charge of Antartica doesn’t like ships possibly harming the environment). But, it was a fantastic trip. I went up on deck one morning about 4:30 and we were going through “Iceberg Alley”, with huge icebergs all around ths ship. There were four directly to the front of the ship and I wondered how we would ever get around them, but we did.
        There are only four colors to this region – black, the color of land, blue, the color of the ocean and the ice, white, the color of snow, and grey, the color of the sky and clouds. Seals did float by on small ice floes, and the penguins were there by the thousands, plus a few whales. The scenery was stark, but beautiful. The ports of call were great. Highly recommended, if you can find a small ship that travels there.

  2. Nana Deb says... December 20, 2012 | 11:30am

    Beautiful! You two are truly living the reason for the season. God Bless You and Merry Christmas.

    • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... January 9, 2013 | 12:49pm

      Thank you – we loved the experience and it taught us so much about giving, We always have, but this was something special and it really made our holiday great.

  3. Jennifer Collett says... December 28, 2012 | 4:05pm

    I think this is one of the best stories I read in 2012. I would love to hear more about how they came up with this idea and what their future plans entail. I would love to get involved in some way. I have been looking for something amazing to do with my family next Christmas to really make a difference. I love this idea. I needed someone to restore my faith in humanity….I am glad I took the time to stop and read this amazing story.

    • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... January 9, 2013 | 12:56pm

      Thank you, Jennifer. I hope some day you can take a cruise to the Amazon and experience what we did this Christmas. It made for a holiday we will always remember as one, if not the best. I have pictures of the small kiddos, their eyes so wide with excitement, thrilled to have a toy to play with and learning how. We have always been giving people – we won a national contest and gave most of the money in the form of meals to 1,000 people – you can read about our story at
      We continue to give by working with the wounded warriors who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan missing limbs.
      To answer your question about how we came up with the idea, it just popped into our heads as a way to make up for our previous error. I guess you could say a higher force was guiding us that day.
      I write novels, and you might be interested in those – check for more information.
      Thanks again for your kind words, and Happy New Year!

    • Karl & Carol Hoepfner says... January 9, 2013 | 1:00pm

      Thank you, Jennifer. The idea just came to us out of the blue. We felt like we needed to do something to correct our previous error, and since we would be coming back to the village on Christmas, it just made sense. As we said, the joy we received from those big eyes full of surprise and excitement made this one of our best Christmases ever.
      I posted a previous reply, but it doesn’t show up – hope this one does. Thanks again.
      Check out my novels at:

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Learning to Cruise on Our Own…Traveling through Time! « Traveling Through Life… says... December 19, 2012 | 2:40am

    [...] To Celebrate the Holidays [...]