Occupation:IT Business Analyst
Number of Cruises: 7
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: October 17th, 2006
My wife and I have just returned from a 2
week Panama Canal Sun farer cruise with Holland America Line on the MS
We flew out to New York on the 16th October 2006 and were put up by Holland America in the Marriott Hotel right on Times Square. We couldn't have asked for a better start to the holiday as the hotel was extremely comfortable with very opulent rooms and you couldn’t have a better location in New York then Times Square. Indeed, from our bedroom window on the 36th floor, we not only had great views over Times Square, but the next morning could even see our ship, the MS Amsterdam, in her dock – which was comforting.
Check in the next morning at the quayside went fine, even if it was all a bit soulless. There was a slightly sour note when, as soon as we got out of the taxi, a tip was demanded by the shore staff handling the baggage. As we did not want to see our baggage ‘lost’ while we sailed off, we reluctantly paid up. However, once we had checked in and went towards the ship, dodging the line of ship photographers, and we were welcomed at the gangplank by a smiling Argus, who was also to be our ‘door-boy’ in the dining room, all was good with the world.
We must say that the MS Amsterdam is a really superb ship. Yes, there were a few ‘niggles’, but overall we were more than happy with the ship. We were particularly impressed with the organization of the facilities and everything was available that we would expect to be available. Someone had obviously gone to a lot of time and effort to ensure that ‘all the bases’ were covered and there was literally nothing that we could think of that we would want to be available on the ship but wasn’t. The standard cabins even had flat screen TVs with DVD players and a recyclable items holder on the bin! There were sometimes minor issues over degree or quality but all the facilities were present and available.
We had a standard outside cabin on main deck which was great. Very comfortable, queen size, high, beds and large cabins with plenty of space for all one’s things – I understand that Holland America standard cabins tend to be about 20% to 30% larger than most of the competition. The cabins could be a bit plusher but then it was a standard cabin and really, it was perfectly fine. The light switches by the bed though were poorly designed in that they were placed to be right in the way if you were sitting up in bed so one was frequently accidentally switching the lights on or off. The portholes were large so one had good views though I wish they had put the beds 90 degrees differently rather than having the headboard right up against the porthole which meant you couldn’t see out when lying in bed. There was a fruit-bowl in the room which was always replenished if one ate anything, as was the usual toiletries in the bathroom and indeed an ice bucket which was automatically replenished by our cabin steward twice a day. The toilet paper though was a bit harder than we are used to. The cabins were made up immaculately in the morning and then tied up again in the evening when one was at dinner. A nice touch was that we always had different ‘animal’ figures made out of towels every night, with chocolates where the eyes would be. A very nice, as well as entertaining, touch.
There was one main dining room, with 2 levels, on Decks 4 and 5, and 2 sittings which worked fine, even though you couldn’t be more than 15 minutes late for your sitting or they shut the doors! But it was worth being on time as it was a lovely dinning room with great views and comfortable chairs. There was also a buffet restaurant on Deck 8 which was more basic, but perfectly fine and comfortable, and with 2 lines (one port and one starboard) so generally one did not have too long too queue. We had breakfast and lunch mainly at the buffet but not our evening meal, though the choice in the evening seemed to be pretty similar to that in the dining room. All food was ‘free’ apart from the ‘Pinnacle Grill’ where there was a $20 charge per head per meal. We did intend to try the food there but were disappointed that the menu never changed apart from a daily special for each of the 3 courses. As the main menu choice was not great we never bothered with it in the end. There was also for most of the day a Pizza/Burger/Hot Dog/Barbecue type informal eating by the pool which we only tried once and seemed to be of reasonable quality with a wide choice of accompaniments. We heard a couple of people complain that the buffet was not 24 hours but to be perfectly frank, we had difficulty enough coping with the amount of food we had at the main meals let alone wanting even more! They did have the standard midnight buffet from 2230/2300 to midnight with a different theme every night but we never went as we couldn’t have managed yet more food. And I generally have a reputation as a good trencherman so I know my food!
Food was generally good quality with good ingredients, especially in the dining room where the presentation was excellent and food relatively freshly cooked. It was only a set menu with plated dishes, but there were enough choices for each course and you could have as many, or as few, of the dishes as you wanted. We certainly never had any difficulty with insufficient choice. Lunch in the restaurant was similar, though a more limited choice, but at breakfast, although there was a wide choice, the menu never changed which is why we mainly ate breakfast, and often lunch, in the buffet. The quality of food in the buffet was not as good as in the dining room, though one would expect that as the food is ‘sitting around’ for longer but you could at least choose different combinations. They still managed though to produce great scrambled eggs every single morning as well as excellent omelet's.
Our main criticism of the food was that the sauces tended to be very bland. Not always, but usually, and as, in my view, sauces and taste are by far the most important test of a chef and most enjoyable aspect of the meal that was a bit disappointing. Given that their main market is the elderly I suppose that is not surprising but all the same we wish the chefs had been more adventurous. Some dishes though were great, and they had really good fruit soups, their watermelon gazpacho (and also the roasted garlic soup) in particular was worthy of a top restaurant anywhere in the world. I normally am not a fan of soups but they were so good here we normally tried all the soups on the daily menu. More disappointing was the range of fruits available at breakfast. Now I like melon, particularly cantaloupe, but not every day but that was normally all they had available, 3 types of melon and banana in orange juice. Great the first day but not afterwards. They also had pineapple twice, a berries selection twice, strawberries thrice, mango (unripe) once and that was it. We should have been having those every day and where was the Papaya or the citrus fruits. Come on guys, this was the Caribbean we were sailing in, not Alaska!
The patisseries were also not good. They looked great and were well presented but had so much air pumped into the cake and the cream to lighten them that they became virtually tasteless, and it wasn’t helped by the high sugar content. More traditionally baked cakes which were heavier, but tastier, would have been far more welcome. After the first few days we rarely had any of the cakes, maybe just as well! Yet more disappointing was the quality of the Asian food on board. The buffet always had an Asian section and the dining room often had Asian food on the menu but invariably it was extremely poor. It purported to be Indonesian or Singaporean, or Thai or whatever but in reality had virtually nothing to do with Asia at all. My wife is Thai and I was born and brought up in Malaysia, so we know Asian food very well and this wasn’t it! A passing resemblance would be the kindest thing we could say about the Asian food on board. I understand that the head Asian food chef was a Filipina which is all very well but he clearly had no idea what Indonesian, Singaporean or Thai food should taste like. The crew had an Indonesian chef for their meals and we were most jealous of them! Having said all that, overall, the non-Asian food was well presented and perfectly eatable.
One of the other most important factors on the cruise was the quality of the service and that was superb. We had no criticisms on that score. Everyone we met was invariably polite and helpful and generally very efficient too. There was the odd slip up but we never met with the arrogance or off-handedness that one sometimes gets. Also the way some of the buffet staff remembered nearly all the passengers’ names after they were told only once was quite phenomenal. The staff/crew were mainly Indonesian or Filipino, whilst the officers were mainly Dutch or British, and the Entertainment staff were mainly British or American. There were also some Aussies on board in the gym and spa staff. The service from the Indonesian and Filipino staff in particular was superb with just that right blend of service and friendliness without going over the top. Indeed, our main waiter, Roy, in the dining room, was one of the best waiters that I have ever come across, and though it is easier to know one’s waiter better when one sees him every day for a fortnight, one can also see the cracks more, and in Roy’s case, there never were any cracks in the service. The general quality of service was undoubtedly a major factor in our enjoyment of the cruise.
The entertainment was OK, perfectly reasonable. Not as wide a range or quality as one might get in some of the larger ships but then we are not party animals and mainly just went to the main evening show. Those shows were more geared towards the older age group with most of the songs being from the classic Hollywood movies or the Sinatra generation but there was a wide enough range of acts not to get bored. There were plenty of other things to do on board and in particular we liked the lower promenade deck 3 which had the classic wide teak deck and was great for walking around and enjoying the lovely ocean. Then one could relax into the surprisingly comfortable wooden deck chairs which were solid and strong enough for someone of even my girth and weight! In addition, there were lots of spots around the ship for relaxing and just chilling out. The library was one of the best places (and it was surprisingly well furnished with decent books to read or DVDs to borrow) as well as having a range of computers available - though it was a very popular area and usually difficult to find somewhere to sit. My main criticism of the activities would be that although they did have one good speaker do a series of talks on the Panama Canal and another on US Foreign Policy, I would like to have had more choice available. They did have some Port talks which could have been interesting but it was all a hard sell on the shopping in the ports which was frankly extremely boring, especially as they concentrated on jewelry, watches and stuff you could just as easily get in your home country. The talk we went to had about 3 sentences about the port itself and the rest of the 45 minutes or so were just details about the ‘amazing’ shops! Dullsville!
A few of the passengers that we met who were about our age (I am 51 and my wife is 42) complained about the lack of other passengers of our age for them to talk to as the vast majority of the passengers were retired couples. However, that was not a problem for us as we mainly wanted to relax rather than meet with other passengers, and certainly nearly all the passengers that we talked to seemed to be very pleasant people , some very intelligent as well, so we were perfectly happy with that aspect. Indeed, from our point of view, the passenger profile on the ship was an asset as the last thing we would have wanted was to have hordes of people rushing around the ship and making a nuisance of themselves.
Shops on board were mainly geared towards luxuries like paintings, jewelry, watches, T-Shirts, that sort of thing and seemed somewhat pricey, but not over the top. You could get some of the basic needs like toiletries or snacks (if you had any space left in your stomach) but the choice was very limited so remember to bring your own. One aspect I did like was that the Front Desk sold stamps in advance for each of the countries we visited and you could post cards/letters on board if you wanted to, up to one hour before the ship departed. General on board prices were on the high side, especially things such as the photos taken by the ship photographers or Internet access, which, unless you bought a package, was 75 cents a minute, very steep! BTW, we wouldn’t recommend the DVD of the voyage which they offer you which was not only expensive, but having bought it, we were very disappointed with the poor production and use of stock shots for half the DVD of film clearly taken on other earlier cruises. I could have done a far better job than the ‘professionals’! The cocktails were usually over $7 each though they were usually large ones so were OK. Soft drinks were also chargeable, though as there was free coffee, tea and (sugar free) iced tea and iced water up in the buffet for 24 hours, that was no problem. The good thing though was that you were never hassled to buy things, although they were often promoted on the tannoy or the newsletters, so if you didn’t want to buy stuff on board and didn’t drink, as we rarely did, you could do the whole cruise with little additional expenditure other than the compulsory tips at the end – though as the service was so good, we didn’t mind that and even gave extra to our favorites. The way the compulsory tips are divided is that 70% go to the dining room staff and the cabin steward and the other 30% to the rest of the crew.
The ports of call were OK, some better than the others. The first was at Fort/Port Lauderdale to pick up the other half of the passengers as only 700 or so had got on at New York. We could have gone sightseeing but went shopping instead! Then it was Half Moon Cay, the island in the Bahamas owned by Holland America. One could only do beach type activities and for me it was a very boring stop which we could have done without, though my wife quite enjoyed it. Then it was on to Curacao and Aruba which were fairly clean and colorful. Not much to them but the Pontoon Bridge in Willemstad and the Casino and shopping mall exteriors in Oranjestad were quite fun to see. Then it was on to the Panama Canal, the main point of the trip. We had to get up at 0500 hours in order to see (as far as we could, as it was dark till about 0600) the transition through the Gatun Locks. It was certainly a worthwhile experience, although we were disappointed that the ship didn’t sail around Gatun Lake as promised in the itinerary but just stayed at anchor until it was time to go back down through the locks again before berthing at Cristobal/Colon. The final stop was Port Limon in Costa Rica which was very laid back and had a pleasant feel to it.
Apart from one, we did not take any of the organized tours as they seemed very expensive for what you got, though no doubt many people did enjoy them. We did take one tour though in Costa Rica, to go on the Aerial Tram, which was wonderful and we would highly recommend that. It was about a 2 hour drive in an air conditioned coach from Port Limon and we then had about a 90 minute (there and back) trip through the top and middle of the privately owned rain forest terrain. Each gondola takes 6 passengers with a guide in each, sitting behind us. Our guide was certainly extremely knowledgeable about the ecology of the area as well as being very humorous which made for a very entertaining ride. The gondolas are well designed with a solid floor for your feet but otherwise largely open sides, but with thick supports so you never felt at risk. Even the roof had a canvas covering which could be rolled back when there wasn’t any rain, as was the case when we were there. We wished the ride could have been twice as long. You hardly see any animals, even with the early tour and we were on the first coach out, but you do see some birds and some insects as well as lots and lots of trees and plants. Which might seem boring, but was actually quite lovely. In our gondola, we even saw a Toucanette (the smallest of the Toucan family) sitting on a branch only about 3 feet away. Back on the ground we also saw a sloth in the distance but really only visible through binoculars. After the gondola we had a lunch which was a bit boring but perfectly edible. Then it was an hour’s trek through the rain forest with our guide but at a very leisurely pace and on a concrete path, so no problems there. Then back to the ship – an excellent day out indeed.
Disembarkation at Port Lauderdale went well on the whole and was efficiently handled. My main criticism was that whatever the time of ones flight, we all had to go onto the same bus to Miami Airport, which meant that we arrived at the airport nearly 8 hours before our flight. As BA didn’t start check in till about 3 hours before the flight we had a long wait at the airport with our luggage. It wasn’t helped that virtually all the facilities in Miami Airport are currently shut down for a major renovation of the airport which no doubt will be great once it is finished but for the time being meant that it was a very boring 8 hours. Mind you, it was good exercise walking for miles and miles through the boarded up corridors of the airport trying, largely in vain, to find something that was open!
Despite some small complaints though, we really had a most enjoyable time and we would both have not the slightest hesitation in recommending a cruise on the MS Amsterdam, and I would expect, probably on any other Holland America ship.