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Swee Hong Lim

Age: 36

Occupation:Architect

Number of Cruises: 8

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Amsterdam

Sailing Date: March 30th, 2005

Itinerary: South America


I have traveled fairly extensively, having cruised on many occasions. This cruise would be my 7th cruise. I have cruised mostly on Princess Cruises; have experienced premium cruise lines like Cunard’s Queen Mary (Queen’s Grill Class) and Silversea’s Silver Cloud.

However, this is my first cruise on Holland America and since ms Amsterdam is Holland America’s flagship, I should be expecting the best that Holland America has to offer.

This cruise was selected because it was the only cruise ship offering South American cruises during this period. In fact, it is the last ship to ply these waters for the season. The 33-day cruise embarks from Rio, Brazil and ends in San Diego USA. This cruise have a fair number of days at sea, a hence with plenty of free time on my hands, I decided to write this account. The following is focused mainly be on the ship itself and less about the destinations visited; otherwise this would be rather lengthy.

The following account is based on my experience and observations on the cruise. The opinions are personal.

Hopefully, this account would reach the good people in Holland America as constructive criticism and other potential passengers considering cruises with Holland America.

The Ship

I will not go into the statistical details about the ship; this information is readily available on many websites. Generally, the ship is mid-sized, small enough for embarkation to be a breeze. Queues are generally never too long for services. Large enough to have a decent sized theatre and productions.

Opinions about the interior design of the ship are subjective. There is a fine line between elegance and tackiness. Amsterdam’s interior design is treading dangerously towards tackiness.

Let me illustrate my point with the Queen’s Lounge. The color scheme is as follows: purple, red, gold and silver. There are semi-naked statues finished in silver-leaf, holding up backlit platters lining the walls. Class or crass? You decide.

The heart of the ship is a three-storied atrium where the front offices, lounges and shops surround. The atrium itself is not large. In the middle of the lobby is an “Astrolabe”. It’s a rather impressive contraption, with the ability to tell time, constellations, moon phases, etc. This “Astrolabe” completely dominates the already small atrium, rendering it generally useless, negating any opportunities for functions to be held in the atrium.

I do however appreciate the fresh flowers arrangements throughout the public areas of the ship. The variety of potted orchids on the Lido buffet adds a pleasant touch to the dining experience.

Cabins


I stayed in a Balcony suite. It is divided into three sections. First, the entry with closets on one side and the bath in the other. This is typical of most hotel rooms. There is a bathtub with a Jacuzzi. Second, the sleeping area, there are two beds that can be combined to become a double. There are curtains that separate this area from the other. Third, the sitting area, the sofa converts into a single bed for the third passenger in some rooms. There is a large desk with the television on one side. The Balcony has a lounger and a chair.

The cabin is comfortable with plenty of storage. There is nothing much to complain about here.

Food

There are several dining options available on the ship.

The main dining room is called the La Fontaine, the only ‘Fontaine’ noted were the two automatic hand sanitizers on two sides of the entrance. It’s a double-decked dining room with a central atrium complete with fake palms.

There are two sittings for dinner. A typical dinner consists of 4 choices of appetisers, 3 choices for soups, 2 choices for salads, 7 choices for main course, many choices for deserts.

There is always a fruit based item for the appetizers. There is always a cold soup, fruit based as well. The main courses are divided into two parts, items from the entree or grill. There is always ice cream and a flambé item in the desert section.

Food quality is generally good, through not up to be standards of premium cruise lines like Silversea but hey, it cost a lot less. The quality and variety of deserts is somewhat lacking. (Princess offers better deserts, for those sweet-toothed cruisers out there).

The western dishes prepared are good enough. The problem arises when the chefs attempt to interpret cuisines that they are not familiar with. I take particular offence to the appetizer named “Grilled Chicken Sate Singapore Style”. We’re from Singapore and imagine the delight when we saw the item on the menu. All of us ordered it only to be gravely disappointed. It neither looks nor tastes like the satay (we spell ‘sate’ as ‘satay’) we know. Even the accompanying condiments are wrong. We would have no issue if the dish were called “Grilled Chicken Sate Amsterdam Style”. Please do not associate Singapore with the culinary imposter. When and if the Amsterdam gets to Singapore, please try the real Singapore Satay and see how wrong it is.

My family has registered our comments (and displeasure) over the item in the comment cards midway through the cruise, only to find the item repeated again on the menu. Either the chefs had ignored our comments or thought that those pesky (and occasional) Singaporean have disembarked and that it is safe to bring out the dish again. Chances are, the dish would be repeated again. So, a word of caution to all diners on the Amsterdam, do not believe that you are getting “Grilled Chicken Sate Singapore Style” when you order the dish.

This is not the only Asian dish bastardized by the chefs, the “Thai Prawn Curry” is another story, but I’ll let the Thais take the issue up with the chefs…

The Lido Buffet is located on the top for the ship. It offers breakfast from 7.30am to 10.00am, lunch from 11.30am to 2:00pm and dinner from 5.45pm to 7.30pm. My biggest issue with the buffet is that it does not offer continuous service. For example, there is no food from 10.00am to 11.30am. (Gasp! No food on a cruise ship! Its sacrilegious!) There are days where I had to make myself wake up in time for breakfast (OK, I’m a pig) especially during those long sea days. Holland America could easily have extended breakfast service on one of the two buffet lines while preparing the other for lunch, so the two could overlap. It’s simple enough and have been frequently done on other cruise ships and I don’t see why Holland America can’t do it. It gives passengers peace of mind that food is always available.

The Lido also has an ice-cream bar as part of the buffet. While the quality of the ice cream is not quite Haagen Daz, it is very well appreciated and exploited, much to the detriment of the waistline.

There is premium restaurant is called the Pinnacle Grill at the Odyssey. There is a cover charge of $20 per person. Holland America says that the cover charge goes towards the premium ingredients. Personally, I have not eaten there. The feedback I received from fellow passengers that have dined there was that the food is indeed better than that served in the main dining room, but it was not worth the $20 charged. On the occasions where I have walked pass the restaurant; it is semi-deserted most of the time. It seems that the popularity of the restaurant could be improved either by improving the quality of the food or by reducing the cover charge.

Entertainment

There is always a two identical shows on every night of the cruise, one for the early seating diners and the other for the main seating diners.

Throughout the cruise, there are four production shows with a cast of 4 lead singers and 6 dancers. Because for the length of the cruise (33 days), the production shows were repeated for the benefit of guests that has joined us midway.

On the other nights, there are other guest performers. There are a wide variety of genres offered. We had performances by pianist, flutists, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians etc. Most of the performances were well executed and a joy to watch.

All the performances are backed up by the wonderfully and professionally by the Amsterdam Orchestra.

One suggestion to Holland America: The ship was docked overnight in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of the optional tours offered was to watch Tango in one of the bars in the city. We were disappointed when we were directed into the venue. It was a small and dingy hall with a tiny stage. The stage lighting was rudimentary. The dancers and the musicians were good though, but the stage could hardly accommodate all of them.

Holland America could easily have invited the performers to perform on board at the Queen’s Lounge. The stage, sound and lighting system are far superior to what the bar had to offer. It would also save us the hassle of transfers from the ship to the bar. More passengers instead of only those who signed up for the tour would be able to enjoy the performance.

That would also mean that Holland America could not charge us $79 a person for the show without dinner. Those who opted for dinner were charged even more. It boils down to whether the ship could absorb the cost of the bringing the Tango performance onboard, to be open to all guests. Having said that, I would rather pay a nominal amount to watch the show in a ‘state of the art’ stage onboard the ship where the full potential of the entertainers could be better expressed.

Overland Tours

My family and I have signed up for a 4-day, 3-night overland tour to visit Machu Pichu. The tour was booked through the Internet based on the itinerary from Holland America. The tour was to begin at 1030am in the morning of the first day, arriving in Lima in the afternoon for an overnight stay. That would give us sufficient rest before the next morning’s flight into Cuzco.

One day before the departure, we received the itinerary in a briefing. It came as a shock to most of us. The tour only departs at 4pm in the afternoon. We will only arrive into Lima at 10pm, arrive at the hotel at 11.30pm. Breakfast the next morning would be at 3am! That leaves us with 2 and half hours sleep at most for the night. Understandably, a lot of us were unhappy with the arrangement. The tour office offered us the option of canceling the trip with a full refund. But for many of us, that wasn’t much of a choice, because we would not be returning to this region for a long time. (South America is a 30-hour flight away for us). The reason given for the change was the flight schedule.

Underlying the dissent was that this tour was exorbitant to begin with. We were each charged $1699 for double occupancy for the ‘standard’ package. The luxury package costs $2199.

What Holland America should have done was to verify the flight schedules before publishing them on their brochures and not promise what they cannot deliver. They could also have informed us, days, if not weeks in advance of the change in the itinerary, giving us time to make alternative arrangements. Note of advise to other passengers, don’t bet on all the information on the brochures.

On a positive note, the tour guide assigned to us, Kika was efficient, friendly and informative. (We had one more hour of sleep in Lima, arranged through skipping breakfast in the hotel, it was much appreciated).

Technology

Holland America claims the ship to be “State of the Art”. But there are little things that make me wonder.

We all remember the key cards that we are issued at embarkation. This is the first ship that I have been on that does not record an image of the passenger in the ship’s database. As result, we are all required to display a ‘government issued photo ID’ whenever we board the ship. The security at the gangway would then match our faces with the photo ID and the names on key cards. On all the other ships that I have been on, whenever the key cards are swiped, the passenger’s face would appear on the monitor behind the security desk, immediately verifying the identity of the keycard holder. No photo ID required. Yes, it’s a minor inconvenience, but the technology isn’t rocket science either. However, its implications on the ship’s security would be of greater concern.

The security personnel would also accept a photocopy of our passport as verification (since the ship is holding our passports). If a passenger were to lose his keycard with a photocopy of his passport, any criminal with access to photocopying machine could easily superimpose his photo onto the original. All the security features inherent in the original passport are voided in the photocopy. The criminal would hence have free access onboard the ship.

The ship’s photographers still use film. Considering the number of photos, some wanted, mostly unwanted, taken on and off board, the amount film wasted must be phenomenal. While cost of the digital camera equipment is high, its running cost is minimal. Given the volume of photos taken on board, I’m sure the cost would be covered in no time. Think of all the rolls of film and chemicals needed to develop them. Digital is the environmentally friendly way to go.

The above may be viewed as minor, but viewed on the whole, it’s indicative of a company’s willingness to embrace technology for the convenience and security of its customers. Let’s not forget that the Amsterdam is the flagship, I wonder what’s on the other sister ships…

Conclusion

Would I travel on another Holland America Cruise in the Future?

The overall experience is pleasant enough and I did enjoy the trip. However, I find Princess Cruises to be marginally superior to what Holland America. I would have opted for Princess Cruises if given a choice. (The two cruise lines are in the same price category)

However, my criteria for selecting cruises is based more on the destinations rather than the cruise line, so if Holland America can come up with interesting itineraries, I might yet return…

Hopefully, the above account is construed as constructive criticism by the management in Holland America, including suggestions to improve their product.

I hope that the above would be helpful other potential passengers considering cruises with Holland America.

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