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Neil Sullivan

Age: 50

Occupation:Warehouse Manager

Number of Cruises: 7

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Amsterdam

Sailing Date: October 17th, 2006

Itinerary: Caribbean

This was a 13-day “Panama Sunfarer” cruise. It left New York Oct. 17 and ended in Fort Lauderdale on the 30th. In between, it stopped at Fort Lauderdale, Half Moon Cay, Curacao, Aruba, Cristobal (Panama) and Puerto Limon (Costa Rica).

Embarkation

We found out that the majority of passengers were embarking only in Ft. Lauderdale. This meant that there weren’t that many people to board from New York. It also meant that the ship would be less than half filled for the two full days it would take to reach Florida.

As you would expect, that made embarkation a breeze. We were greeted by friendly Port staff who cheerfully helped us deal with the bureaucracy and pass the time until boarding. A porter even volunteered to verify our cabin number when he received the manifest. To our delight, he came back and told us that he had found the information. We made our way onto the ship a little after 11 and ran into a minor glitch.

We had been told that the rooms would be available only at 1 in the afternoon and that we should make ourselves comfortable in the Lido buffet. Unfortunately, it quickly proved too small for the crush of new arrivals. Compounding the problem, at first there was only one salad bar available to feed all those hungry mouths. It proved impossible to get any food or even a place to sit. This gave me some concern as I knew the ship was only half-full. As it turned out, this was one of the few times during the trip that we had any sense of feeling crowded.

We were then told that we were free to walk around the ship as long as we stayed away from our rooms. This allowed us to get a little breathing room and to become familiar with the layout. By 1 o’clock, we were able to drop our hand luggage in the cabin and within a couple of hours our luggage was placed inside our room.

The Ship

The Amsterdam is a beautiful ship. While one might take exception with some of the décor, it is very well maintained and lavishly decorated. Holding about 1400 passengers, the ship is smaller than many others we had taken. This is reflected in the relatively few areas we had to “learn” during our explorations. Most activities seemed to be on the 5th (casino, library, shops) and 8th (Lido buffet, pool) floors.

Cabin

We were in an outside room on the 2nd passenger deck, near the stern. It was roomier than a similar cabin on the Veendam had been. There was space to store all our clothes and luggage; helping to keep things tidy. There was even a small sofa so that you could sit two people quite comfortably.

While we spent relatively little time in the cabin, the time we did spend was agreeable. The sole complaint was that the flat screen TV showed a very poor image. It’s a measure of the small amount of time spent there that it didn’t bother us enough to complain.

The cabin attendant did a wonderful job keeping things neat while remaining unobtrusive. This was representative of all the marvelous service we received from the front line staff.

Since we were low in the stern, there was a fair bit of noise and vibration. This only bothered us early in the morning when we were docking.

Passengers

I would estimate the average age of the passengers at well over 60. I heard someone remark on the “token young people” they saw. There were almost no children under 18 and very few couples under 40 years of age. At 50 and 44 respectively, my wife and I felt quite youthful on ship.

This is great if you are looking for a quiet, relaxing time. Party people would be bored stiff. It also means that activities and the general pace of life on board are geared towards senior citizens. Getting around, both on ship and on tours, was often a tediously slow process. So, you get a well-behaved, quieter clientele that makes moving around an occasional test of your patience. We met our share of great people on board as well a small number of not so nice ones. This is all par for the course.

Entertainment

As I said, the activities were geared towards an older crowd. We saw a couple of very tired comedians, a xylophone player and a young woman who played the oboe. Personally, I was unenthusiastic about all the shows I saw, although many people seemed to be quite pleased.

We played trivia and a few other games; more to pass the time than for any other reason. With 6 full days at sea, you needed to be able to entertain yourself. As we enjoy reading and relaxing, we were fine with things as they were. Still, I could see some finding the pace a little too slow.

While it doesn’t count as entertainment for me, my wife enjoyed playing blackjack in the casino. Her only complaints were that it was a lot smaller then casinos on other ships and that she often had no company at the tables and chose to wait until other players appeared. She did say that the gaming staff was very good.

Ports

We had 6 stops, including Fort Lauderdale where the rest of the passengers joined us. There didn’t seem to be anything of interest in the ship’s tours and the boat docked far from any interesting areas of town. We ended up sharing a cab with two other couples and going to the Galleria shopping center to spend a few hours.

Next was beautiful Half Moon Cay. This was a very lovely stop. The tender service worked well and we whiled away the time on the beach and in the water. Some sunscreen, a good book and a drink or two made for a very pleasant day.

After that came Curacao. I had been looking forward to this but came away disappointed. While I enjoyed the fact that we could walk into town over the pontoon bridge, the capital city struck me as dirty and unappealing. It was odd to find that, here and in Aruba, the clerks at the souvenir shops would follow us at a distance of 3 paces. It must be the norm, but it made us feel like shoplifting suspects.

We took a tour with a taxi driver; one who turned out to be less than kindly disposed towards tourists. He seemed bitter and this didn’t make him pleasant company. It made me realize how one’s level of enjoyment often hinges on relatively trivial points.

Aruba was better, even though it surprised us to see how arid it was. We tend to think of Caribbean islands as lushly foliated, but Aruba, like Curacao, gets only about 20 inches of rainfall per year. A consequence is that neither island exports very much. This makes living there an expensive proposition. We were told that Aruba’s only export was aloe.

We took a ship’s tour that consisted of a pleasant bus trip to see the sights. Our guide was a very engaging fellow and we enjoyed seeing some landmarks.

One of the main attractions of the cruise was seeing a bit of the Panama Canal. The ship was to go through the first set of locks, stop in Gatun Lake and then retrace its steps. I have to say that HAL did an excellent job with this. We were informed of the schedule; one that started before 6 in the morning. There were interesting handouts about the canal’s history and a great commentary over the loudspeakers on deck.

People were constantly moving abut to gain new vantage points and the decks were crowded, even at the early hour.

Only people on ship’s tours were allowed to leave the ship, by tender, at Gatun Lake. The rest of us had to wait until the boat returned through the canal and docked in Cristobal.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I heard a lot of complaints from folks who had paid $150 for the pleasure of kayaking in the rain.

For the first time ever, we were warned to show “good common sense” in port, both over the speakers and in the daily bulletin. I don’t remember ever being told not to wear jewelry, flash money, etc. Of course this is always good advice, but being specifically told it for this one stop made us feel a trifle uneasy.

As it happened, we never even left the port area. With only about 4 hours at our disposal, we spent it exploring the best marketplace we had ever seen on a cruise. Instead of row after row of the same plastic, made in China souvenirs, we were treated to a great range of native crafts. Indian artisans were selling Tagua nut carvings of animals, wood carvings, paintings and small tapestries. We ended up learning a lot from chatting with the vendors and spending more here than in all the other ports combined. We never had to worry about what the rest of the city held in store.

The penultimate stop was Port Limoin in Costa Rica. Here we took a tour that we found on the dock; a 3-hour ride for only $25. Our guide was a sincere and articulate fellow who managed to convey his national pride effectively. The trip took us to a butterfly farm that featured a friendly spider monkey, a banana plantation and a few other spots.

The banana plantation was remarkable for the amount of hard, manual labor we saw. Observing the workers handling the bananas in the sorting and packing area was a reminder that life is, as a rule, easier for us North Americans. They were constantly wet and worked in a confined area cleaning and sorting an endless sea of fruit.
The guide managed to show us some monkeys and sloths and was quite patient with our questions and curiosity. I was very impressed with his indignation at a fellow we saw carrying a sloth to show to tourists. His attitude was that the animal belonged to all Costa Ricans and that it was wrong of the man to keep it.

The port city itself was not too picturesque. It was also the first time we had seen a large number of young children trying to ingratiate themselves with the tourists. They seemed very intent on getting us to the park to see a sloth, but we managed to resist the attraction.

Food

Neither my wife nor I are keen on long, formal dinners. For this reason, we never once made it to the formal dining room. Instead, we were quite content with eating at the buffet for every meal. This may seem like a shame to some, but we found the food and service quite agreeable and were also able to get in and out at our own pace.

The food was simply the best I have ever had on a cruise. It seemed that a great deal of care was taken with the variety of meals and the presentation and service. While we didn’t enjoy everything we ate, I came away very impressed.

Most remarkable was the unflagging friendliness and helpfulness of the entire staff. Service was warm, efficient and very skillfully carried out.

Most of the food was portioned out for you, rather than served buffet style. I appreciated this a great deal as it keeps things tidier than what one sees in a self-serve setting. While we didn’t require the same level of assistance as did some of the older passengers, it was heartening to see how helpful the staff were in carrying trays and carrying out special requests for the guests.

It was also the first time I had seen fresh squeezed orange juice on a cruise. I remember how annoying it was to see the miniscule glasses of juice from concentrate on our last sailing with NCL. The large glasses of juice said a lot about the quality of the entire culinary experience.

The not so good

Overall, the cruise was so enjoyable that complaining almost makes me feel churlish. However, there was one major sore point.

The internet and phone service went out in Fort Lauderdale. It took them 5 days to fix it only for it to fail again in Panama. Now, I realize we live in an imperfect world and I can accept the fact that sometimes things don’t work. Where I saw a problem was with the reaction of HAL to this challenge.

Given that people had paid in advance for a service they weren’t receiving, I thought that HAL could have at least apologized for the problem. We had been exchanging e-mails every day with our children and found it very reassuring to be able to keep in touch. Now we had no way to contact them and this caused a bit of stress as we knew our daughter would worry.

The situation was made worse by the internet manager and the library’s “assistant cruise director”. The former declined to comment and the latter just giggled and gave out ridiculous and contradictory information on the problem. It was never possible to have a clear answer as to what was the matter and when might it be fixed. Spending a fair bit of time in the library, I grew annoyed at hearing the woman constantly complaining to anyone who would listen about how hard this all was on her.

It seemed logical to post a status report that could be updated periodically. Instead, the staff gave out a wide range of uninformative responses. It seemed like they never saw the situation as a problem, except inasmuch as it affected them.

To hear “It doesn’t matter because there are internet cafes in port” was annoying. Who wants to have to scout out these places and stand in line to use them when you have bought a $100 plan on board and have limited time in port?

I thought the staff was dismissive of all concerns and clueless as to any notions of customer service. To make things worse, the daily bulletins continued to pitch the internet service. It was ironic to see specials and features touted while the service was unavailable. Someone said that the special should read “Internet service - 100% off”!
Adding insult to injury, when I asked the internet manager what compensation we would get, he said our money would be refunded. To my surprise, when I went to see him on the last day, he offered only a very partial refund. I was so annoyed that I didn’t bother commenting. Instead I just walked away. Again, their policy on compensation should have been spelled out and the customers should not have had to ask for it.

This horrible service was in very marked contrast to the rest of our experience. HAL should really send these people back to the customer service class they so obviously missed during their training. If they don’t think the service is important to passengers, why offer it?

Disembarking

We appreciated that we were allowed to remain in our rooms until our numbers were called. This was much nicer than being in the theater waiting and waiting. Our turn came quickly enough and getting off, picking up our luggage and clearing immigration was a breeze. We caught a cab to the airport and, since out flight was in the afternoon, never felt any stress over getting there on time.

Overall

This was a relaxing and low-key cruise. Other than the frustration over the internet situation, I was very impressed with the entire experience. I can’t say enough about the excellent, friendly service we consistently saw.

While I wouldn’t necessarily want all my cruises to be so mellow, I can heartily recommend this ship to anyone looking to spend a relaxing time.

Comments or questions: akibasimba@hotmail.com



 


 

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