What a pleasure to sail again with Holland America. Our previous sailing with Holland America was on board (the former) MS Westerdam for a special 11 night millennium sailing from December 1999 into January 2000 and it was a once in a lifetime experience. While the old Westerdam always looked a little nondescript when docked in port alongside more modern mega ships, the classic and elegant interior of this ship was truly beautiful and the service we experienced and cuisine we were offered during that cruise was memorable.
Early in 2005, we decided that we would like to have the opportunity to cruise onboard HAL's "new" MS Westerdam, one of the newest ships in the fleet. (The old MS Westerdam I believe has been renamed and is now part of the Costa fleet.) The itinerary was of less importance to us than the ship herself, and it happened that MS Westerdam would be sailing the western Caribbean during a New Year's cruise. So, although we had visited all of these ports only a few years previously, we booked an outside statement with balcony and counted down the months and then weeks untilour cruise began.
"We" consist of a family of three. I'm a 47 year old Executive Assistant, my almost 18 year old son is in his final year of high school and my daughter is a 13 year old in her final year of middle school. We live in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto Canada, and this was our 4th cruise in the past 5 years. Our "second home" is the Island of Aruba which we have visited 15 times in the past 12 years.
Getting to the Ship: This turned out to be almost ridiculously pain-free (especially since exactly one year ago to the day, December 26, we had a horrific time getting from Toronto to board a cruise ship in Puerto Rico). This time, everything went perfectly. The flight was on time, we were met by representatives of Holland America at the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale airport, and we were escorted to a bus that quickly delivered us to Port Everglades.
Embarkation: I had taken advantage of the opportunity to do the pre-boarding information on line and brought the required copy with me. Once inside the terminal, we were directed to the line for those who had done the pre-boarding info electronically. At that time, approximately 10:45 a.m., the line was fairly short. Within 15 minutes our photos were taken and we were given our ship's ID cards. As we stepped onto MS Westerdam, we were immediately greeted and informed that our cabin would most likely be ready by about 1:30 but that we were very welcome to go to the Lido in the meantime. By 11:30 we were seated in the Lido restaurant having a light lunch.
Around 1:15 p.m. we ventured to find our cabin and it was in fact ready for us. 2 of our 3 suitcases were there, and within half an hour the third one arrived.
This is absolutely the smoothest embarkation I have experienced to date. Very impressive and stress-free. The Cabin: We had booked a triple Cabin, Verandah Deck, #5036. It was well laid out and quite adequate for our needs. The closet space was ample and included a programmable wall safe. It had 2 twin beds (which I understand can be made into a queen, though this wasn't of interest to us) and a sofa bed that our cabin steward made up for my daughter every night and then re-stowed in the morning. Under the two twin beds are drawers which cabin stewards use to store blankets, etc. Other reviews had given me the impression that we might not be able to store luggage under the bed. We had 2 very large suitcases, and we had no difficulty putting one under each of the two twin beds. The drawers do not take up all that much space.
The night tables each have 2 deep drawers, and can be locked with a key, so this is useful for extra storage. We didn't open the mini bar at all. We did enjoy the complementary fresh fruit in a small basket that the cabin steward tops up daily.
The bathroom had a bathtub (which I personally enjoy). The toilets, when flushed, are VERY loud (more so than we recall from any previous ship) and we found that toilets flushing could even be heard from the hallways. It would be loud enough to wake another sleeper in the cabin.
The vanity in the cabin had 2 electrical outlets (great for charging all these electronics that travel with us these days), a make-up mirror, and a hair dryer in addition to the requisite television.
The balcony was large enough for 2 chairs , a small table, and an ottoman. We enjoyed the balcony, especially when the ship was tying up or casting off. It was a great vantage point for viewing sunsets, or for sitting outside on "at sea" days to read when some of the other outdoor areas might be a bit busier than usual.
The Ship: We all thought it was quite beautiful, with gorgeous sculptures and artwork everywhere, and we especially loved the size. At about 1850 passengers, it seemed "just right". It was always possible to find places to sit, nothing ever seemed crowded. There was never any difficulty finding a table at the Lido, even at the most "prime" meal times of at-sea days, and the food line ups were never painfully long.
It seemed to me that the ship had the intimate feel of a smaller ship and yet with a vast selection of public rooms and areas so there would be something for everyone. The exterior glass elevators are a special treat and give a wonderful panoramic view. However, it's my understanding that this might not be a good thing if one has over-indulged at the bar, so do govern yourself accordingly.
It always seemed as though we were fairly close to one or another bank of elevators and generally there wasn't any significant delay moving up and down the decks. I felt this was one of the most "user friendly" layouts of the ships we have sailed.
Cuisine: Food at the Lido was generally very good. Our biggest complaint was that almost nothing was self-service. I think Holland America's philosophy is that they would prefer to serve the guest, and I can understand it, but this method has some shortcomings. Some of the counter staff either did not have a great command of English OR perhaps weren't aware that passengers need to be told about all their choices.
So, for example, there was a Belgian waffle station that had wonderful toppings available for the waffles (fresh fruit, strawberry sauce, maple syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce). But all of this is "behind the counter", not self serve. If you asked for a waffle, then a waffle was put on the plate and handed to you - plain, with no toppings offered. When I asked for syrup one day, perhaps a tbsp was put on top of the waffle and quickly disappeared. These kinds of condiments need to be self-serve as we all have our preferences.
My daughter is a big fan of Belgian waffles and she found it a never-ending battle to get the toppings she wanted, in the quantity she wanted, and in the location she wanted. She never quite achieved success and eventually would just give up and eat what was handed to her. At a self-service counter, she would have put whipped cream on the waffle, then strawberry sauce on top. At the Lido, when she asked for whipped cream, about a tsp was put on the edge of the waffle, and when she asked for "more whipped cream", maybe another half tsp was added. Strawberry sauce was put on the side, not on the waffle. Small things, but if the toppings are available, why not get it right?
It does become a little frustrating when every food station is participating in the same program. Finding out what toppings are available is the responsibility of the passenger, and asking for them in the desired amounts each time gets somewhat wearying, especially when the desired result is seldom achieved. Additional signage would be a benefit throughout the grill area.
My son found the process of assembling a breakfast rather cumbersome and felt that a more straightforward self-serve buffet arrangement would have worked better for most of the items. Sometimes gathering up the usual components of a meal (bacon, toast, eggs, coffee and juice) took quite a lot of walking and lining up as they were all over the place.
Of course, custom items (like omelettes) will always need to be cooked and served to order (and actually the Lido was quite efficient with these items) but routine breakfast items like porridge, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes ... these can easily be handled by a self-serve counter and the lines would move more quickly.
Having said that, none of us lost any weight on the cruise (!) and we found the selection and quality of food in all areas of the Lido to be consistently very good.
It seemed that, after the first couple of nights, the dining room was only half full during our seating (6:15 p.m.) presumably because they had drifted to the Lido for a more casual experience. We stayed with the dining room every night and enjoyed the experience. Our two stewards, Mario and Purnama were excellent and made good recommendations when I asked for input about the entree. Purnama also kept us entertained with a "table trick" each night for the last 5 nights, when the dining room was less busy and he had a little more free time. Our head steward came by every evening to greet us in a friendly manner. Unfortunately his very poor command of English limited his greetings to the same two sentences every evening, and he was not capable of much conversation.
Our wine steward I found to be not especially friendly or forthcoming and if I ordered a wine by the glass, he was unlikely to return when the glass was empty to enquire if I wanted another. I solved this problem on New Year's eve by ordering a glass of champagne and letting him know, upfront, that I might well want another. In this instance, he did come back and ask when my first glass was almost empty.
The dining room menu changes every evening and it seemed to me that there was nearly always a good selection. I think there was one night when we were a little hard-pressed to choose an appetizer, because nothing really appealed, but most evenings we all found selections we would like. I have read in other reviews that the entree portions tend to be small, and I would agree with this (although personally I found the portions fine since I wouldn't normally be consuming 3 or 4 separate courses). Hearty eaters might need to order a second appetizer or second entree in order to feel satisfied. At no time did I hear a server suggest that this could be done, but my son (who is 6'5") did this several times and was cheerfully accommodated.
Generally, the dining room fare was nicely presented, served at an appropriate temperature, and of good quality. The room was very pretty, with a special highlight of the 2nd floor ceiling being graced by an enormous piece of glass art which was spectacular. I intended to photograph it but never remembered to bring my camera to dinner.
There was the usual assortment of formal / informal / and casual evenings. I am always a little bothered by people who can't conform to these codes. Formal evenings DO require a jacket, and some in the dining room chose not to wear one. I was also a little disappointed that some families whose young children were simply not capable of sitting through the dining room meal didn't opt for the Lido Restaurant instead. However, these things weren't enough to interfere with our enjoyment of the experience.
One policy that I think HAL should enforce is that the dining doors will be closed 15 minutes after the seating begins. Near us, there was one table that consistently arrived 30-40 minutes after the meal began. This obviously creates a lot of extra work for the servers who have one table out of step with everyone else, and it also gives them little time to re-set those tables before the next seating. A dinner seating time is just that, and people who wish to simply dine casually at whatever hour can be accommodated in the Lido Restaurant. To have people walking in at any time they choose seemed rather disruptive of the flow of the dining room service.
Club HAL: Because our sailing was during a school break, there was a higher than usual complement of children on board. Holland America scales its child and teen programs (Club Hal) up and down according to the numbers on any particular cruise. I believe for our cruise, something like 35% of the passengers on board were under the age of 18. Thus, they were fully staffed to handle this kind of crowd and, except for the period from about 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (Dinner and show times), they had a lot of programming for the 13-17 group (to which my daughter belonged).
Teens could come and go as they pleased and my daughter said the staff running the teen program were "cool", had lots of activities going on, and were laid back with this age group so the programming was enjoyable and fun. Often my daughter returned to the cabin quite late at night, long after I fell asleep, and then in the morning she would report on the results of the scavenger hunt or contest in which she participated until midnight! She has indicated that "cruising is her favourite way to travel" and I think the teen program is one of the reasons for this. There's always something to do, and it's a great way to meet other teens onboard ship.
Ports of Call: I tend to think of these as individual preferences and not entirely the responsibility of the cruise line or ship. We did not use a lot of ship excursions but we enjoyed what we did use. We took an excellent bus tour on Cayman that included Hell as well as the Turtle Farm. The Turtle Farm was interesting and both of my teens thought it was a highlight.
We very much enjoyed the Dolphin Cove swim in Ocho Rios although the "for purchase" video of our Dolphin Swim was incredibly expensive! Not HAL's fault however. The swim itself was a lot of fun. The Dolphin Cove facility was well organized for groups and while we waited for our group to be called we toured their nature walk.
Before heading back to the ship, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some wonderful Jamaican cuisine. We had been given the name of a small restaurant in Ocho Rios that was highly recommended. "Bibibip's Jerkin' @ Taj" The place seemed full when we arrived but magically a table and 3 chairs appeared and was put in position and voila, we were seated and handed menus. We were almost sitting on the sidewalk, but no matter. We almost licked our plates clean that day and all this from a kitchen about the size of my desk in the office. Absolutely delicious!
We had a surprisingly wonderful day at Costa Maya in Mexico. Due to the hurricanes earlier in 2005, the port of Cozumel was closed to our ship months in advance of our sailing so our excursion in Cozumel was cancelled and refunded. That left me to figure out "what there was to do" in Costa Maya (a port I'd never heard of). I got on the internet, did some research, and learned that Costa Maya is a very new port basically build to attract the cruise ships. It has a Mayan Village (freshly constructed, go figure) that offers some insight into the Mayan culture as well as a small beach, pool, bar, restaurant, and tourist shops like Diamonds International. This didn't seem a very authentic experience to me so I researched further and found that there is a fishing village (Mahahual) only about 5 minutes away from the Dock by taxi.
We pre-booked a beach day with one of the small (and I do mean SMALL, like maybe a dozen rooms?) hotel properties on the beach. The taxi driver delivered us to the beginning of the street and told us to "walk to the end of the main street". The main street is a dirt road and there were various vendors along the way. We smiled and kept moving until we saw the small hand painted sign indicating that we had reached our "beach party" destination.
In addition to a warm welcome at the bar which was festooned with loveseat sized swings hanging from ropes (a charming novelty), we were given wrist bands indicating we had paid for use of the beach and unlimited beverages from the bar including sodas, bottled water, beer, and mixed drinks. The best part, though, was that Mahahual is located on a pristine sandy beach, sheltered by a coral reef, with shallow, clear, beautiful water.
A table, beach umbrella, and chairs were set up for us, our pre-ordered lunch was served at noon, and we had a very enjoyable beach day indeed. The surf near the port was very rough that day and when we returned to the ship, we learned that all water sports had been cancelled which disappointed many. In fact, you could hear the ship crashing rhythmically against the pier and I suspect those who spent their day on board became heartily tired of the sound! From our vantage point at Mahahual, we wouldn't have known there was a ripple in the water. It was almost perfectly smooth and beautifully clear.
Summary: This cruise absolutely met our expectations. Overall we found the service to be friendly, professional, and nearly always enthusiastic. (Interestingly, when we cruised a few years ago on RCI we found the service in most respects, while certainly capable, was not enthusiastic at all.) We enjoyed our Western Caribbean cruise on Westerdam so much that we plan to sail in August of 2007 on Westerdam's sister ship, Zuiderdam, from Vancouver to Alaska.
This was our 20th cruise. Our most recent trips were on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Princess, so I've provided comparisons where I think they are appropriate.
Embarkation was very smooth. There was a shorter line for those who pre-filled the immigration forms on line and brought a printout than for those who did not. We missed the champagne welcome from Celebrity and escort to our cabin, although we had no trouble finding the cabin on our own.
Cabin. The new beds on the Westerdam are great - as good as Concierge Class on Celebrity. Lots of closet space, lots of hangars. Verandas are average size; we were with a group that had five cabins in a row and were especially pleased that part of the veranda dividers would open so we could freely move back and forth. We had bon voyage and farewell parties out there, and many nights "met" for a pre-dinner glass of wine.
The sewage odor we'd read about on the Zuiderdam is present on the Westerdam, especially outside the forward elevators and in the hallways. Some days we could smell it in the hall outside our cabin and onthe veranda. The front desk was pretty rude when I went there to inquire about it ("an engineer is working on it," "don't know when it will be fixed," tone of voice implied "don't bother us, we're sick of hearing it"). They acted like this was the first cruise where it happened. It stated the second or third day and never went away!
Customer service is very poor. The front desk staff was rude. When we asked for a deck of cards, they said, "we're out of them." We weren't looking for anything for free, and they didn't tell us we could buy them in the casino for $1. There is no equivalent we could find to future cruise/Capt. Club manager, social hostess, etc. To book a future cruise, they ask you to call Seattle (free of charge) from your cabin. I tried once, but got tired of holding. I don't think I'll be back on HAL any time soon, anyway.
Public areas - Celebrity Century and Millennium classes beat HAL Vista class by a mile. Westerdam theater had lots of poles and places where it was hard to see. Theater is small and not very attractive. There is a round box on either side of the upper level that the comedian appropriately dubbed "ashtrays." Very few seats had tables to include drinks; seldom saw a bar waiter before the show anyway. The ship as a very small atrium. Didn't like the décor nearly as much as Celebrity's.
Dining room didn't have that open, expansive feeling you get on Celebrity ships or even older HAL ships. Service was the worst we've had. We didn't even have the same waiter and assistant every night! Dining room food was mediocre. Steaks and other entrees can't compare to Celebrity. Lobster tails were small and part of surf-and-turf. No one removed the meat from the tail for you like they do on Celebrity and there were no seconds available. Food was mostly bland and sometimes overcooked. Desserts were pretty good though.
Westerdam left a note in each cabin discouraging people from ordering room service breakfast on port days. Although they said there would be delays, our traveling companions found that some mornings breakfast was too early and once it didn't arrive at all! Room service was OK at other times of the day.
The best food was in the Lido buffet, which beats Celebrity, RCCL and Princess by a mile! Great variety and traffic flow. Separate areas for deli, oriental, Italian, salad bar, and regular lunch foods. At the pool, you could have burgers, hot dogs and taco bar. Liked the flambé desserts in the Explorer Lounge and the Chocolate buffet.
Entertainment was excellent, but schedules were all geared to early seating. Karaoke was well run, but always in the smaller lounge, which was firetrap - people standing in aisles, sitting on floor. This was inexcusable when finals were held at a time when main theater was empty! The Elton John impersonator and the illusionist/comedian were both exceptionally good. Cruise Director and staff did a nice job (it was Jason's last cruise on the Westerdam; assistant CD was promoted and Jason moved to Oosterdam).
The Steiner Spa is not as well laid out as on Celebrity (and on M-class, thalissotherapy pool is free!). However, Westerdam had great port day specials, including 50% off all services over $79. I've never seen such good specials before; guess the passengers weren't booking without incentives!
Shops are not as good - mote crowded and less selection - then on Celebrity. I didn't buy a thing on the Westerdam - a first!
Private island - loved Half Moon Cay and our pink cabana. Service was excellent. Our friends who did the stingray and horseback riding excursions on HMC were very pleased. Tendering went smoothly.
Disembarkation went very well. We loved the fact that we could wait in our cabins or on our verandas and weren't crammed into the lounges until our color was called.
This was our 13th cruise and our seventh Holland American Line (HAL) cruise since 1995, with each cruise on a different ship. Our cabin was a deluxe verandah outside (Category B) on the Verandah Deck near of the stern of the ship.
We sailed on a 13-day Mediterranean cruise from Rome to Livorno (Florence), Italy; Monte Carlo, Monaco (tender service); Barcelona, Spain; Valletta, Malta; Kusadasi, Turkey; Piraeus (Athens), Greece; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Venice, Italy. Every port was most interesting.
We got an extra three-day pre-cruise package for Rome, but actually stayed southeast of Rome, in the little mountain town where the Pope has his summer residence, with daily sightseeing trips into Rome.
HAL used Lufthansa Airlines for the flights to and from Italy via Germany. These flights were very long (over 12 hours), the seats were too close together, and half of the video entertainment was in German. On the return flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, all of the HAL customers' luggage didn't get loaded onto our flight but was delivered to our homes two days after got back.
Faster than usual; a digital camera takes your photograph. Each time you re-board the shipyour ship ID card is scanned and your photograph is displayed to the ship's security personnel, eliminating the need to carry a second form of ID with your photograph (driver's license, etc.). Also, every time you re-board the ship, all carry-on items (purses, cameras, etc.) will be scanned. Gone is the express check-in service for Mariners (repeat HAL passengers).
This was the 15th voyage of this ship -- one of the larger-sized ships that HAL calls its Vista class. It has 11 decks with 11 elevators, four of which are glass-walled and located on the outside mid-ship. The ship carries 1,848 passengers with a crew of 800.
Our room seemed smaller than the previous non-Vista class ship that we sailed on. In fact, it is smaller - on this ship, our deluxe verandah outside cabin was 254 sq. ft. including the verandah; on the smaller Statendam a similar cabin - verandah suite - was 284 sq. ft. Gone is the long set of three drawers, shelf of glasses, etc. In its place is a cabinet without drawers that barely holds the TV set and ice bucket. There are two drawers under the couch, two drawers in the two nightstands, and two drawers at the foot of the bed, but they are mostly used by the room steward for extra blankets, etc. There are three small closets for hanging your clothes. A hair dryer is mounted permanently in the cabinet below the TV. There is one medicine chest or cabinet in the bathroom. There's no curtain between bed(s) and couch/TV/chest of drawers. The curtain instead is located between the bed(s) and the bathroom/closets/inside door. The toilet is very loud. Housekeeping services were excellent. With the Statendam, in contrast to this ship, our verandah cabin had a whirlpool bath, a couch that you could lie down on, and VCR.
It has two chairs, one footrest, and a small table. On Previous HAL ships, one of the chairs always had a footrest so that you could stretch out or lie down. The partition between the verandahs on this ship may be folded back for easy access to the adjacent cabin(s) if you travel with other passengers who are staying next door.
IN-CABIN TV AND SOUND SYSTEM
There were no separate audio channels into the cabin, nor a special channel for hearing all ship announcements as on other ships. TV channels included CNN/ESPN/TCM/Cartoon Network, plus four on-ship movie channels and 10 other channels showing bow and stern views, ship and port shopping information, etc. Sometimes some of the ship's channels would be playing music without any video.
LAUNDRY There were no self-service laundry or room irons. A ship's bag full of laundry would be washed, folded, and returned in 48 hours for $15. Other laundry and dry cleaning services were available.
VISTA DINING ROOM
Some tables have benches instead of chairs. The room has four sittings - Early (5:45 and 6:15 p.m.) and Main (8:00 and 8:30 p.m.). The serving of dinner was slow every day as the servers appeared to be understaffed; frequently the table captains perform some of the server's duties, etc. The overall food seemed bland. The ship ran out of porterhouse steaks, milk in containers, certain salad dressings, and certain wines, very early in the cruise.
TERRACE GRILL (Outdoor fast food) – Next to pool; no longer exists.
The layout is somewhat open as opposed to the other ships; there were some benches instead of chairs. Service was very good and the food was much better than the main dinning room. There is a $20 per person surcharge.
There's an automatic assessment of $10 per day per guest and 15% is added to all drinks.
At the Greece and Spain ports, local professional dancers and musicians were provided. The other nightly entertainment lacked the "Broadway" type of dance shows; the typical entertainment was a single singer, comedian, or magician.
Movies were shown in the Queen's Lounge - it's not a theater. The chairs and tables are movable and the rear area is open to a public walkway. The nice thing is that the sound track was not interrupted by the ship's public announcing system as on other ships.
The ship has nine bars; three don't open until after dinner. The price of a glass of wine varied at different bars from $4.50-7.50. The best price was at the Crow's Nest and the highest price was in the Ocean Bar.
CAPTAIN'S AND MARINER'S PARTY - The same as usual.
There seemed to be fewer but larger shops. The photo shop will burn a CD from your camera's memory stick for $14. It's cheaper to do it in town.
I'm sorry, but I'm not impressed with the Westerdam. It is a large ship with small cabins. I will not sail again on another Vista class ship. Thank heavens for the Noordam, (old) Nieuw Amsterdam, Statendam, Ryndam, Veendam, and Amsterdam. Now a piece of trivia – the Westerdam was docked at the Athens port earlier this year and served as a hotel during the Olympics.
I'm not sure how many cruises I have taken. But it has to be at least 20. Most cruise lines and to many destinations. I have to say the of all of them, The Westerdam has to be the worst. We took a verandah cabin on the starboard side, about midships. These new "Vista" class ships of Holland America Line are way too big. Three football fields long... At dinner time, it was a real hike from our cabin all the way to the stern, have dinner, then walk all the way forward to the show lounge, and back to the cabin to sleep. For breakfast and lunch, same thing. For disembarkation, and embarkation, same thing. We noticed in the hallways outside some cabins, some childrens toys with wheels, where the parents would pull the children along as it was too far to walk and the children were too slow.
Many times to avoid the walk (many times I need a cane) I would order breakfast in our cabin. Not in 14 days did it come close to arriving at the requested time. Most times at least 30mins before or after.But then with nearly 2000 passengers, I must be amazed that it was even that close. The cabin seemed so much smaller than the Verandah cabin on the Amsterdam. Which I think is a fabulous ship. Our ports of call were superb, and we much appreciated two full days in St.Petersburg, the highlight of the cruise. I (We) will not travel on any of the "Vista" class ships ever again however. That is The Zuiderdam, The Oosterdam, or The Westerdam. We shall stick with the Amsterdam,Ryndam, Maasdam etc. So much nicer, I think.