Age: 55-64 range
Number of Cruises: 10
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: June 3rd, 2002
Itinerary: Transatlantic, European Highlights, and Baltic Summer
Many passengers on the first few voyages of Holland-American Line’s Prinsendam believed (some had read) that it was a new ship. Most, however, seemed aware it was the former Royal Viking (later Seabourn) Sun, supposedly comprehensively overhauled and refurbished. Both views were mistaken, or perhaps, mislead. It’s well-advertised 2002 overhaul was neither comprehensive or complete when on June 3, 2002, the ship sailed from New York bound for Southampton via Halifax, Cobh and Plymouth. Holland-American had taken the Sun and attempted to transform it into their “Elegant Explorer”. It might be an explorer, but it’s not very elegant.
The Sun was one of the world’s most luxurious ships 10-12 years ago. Today, even after overhaul, it is a tired, somewhat worn-down dowager of a ship with new engines and refurbished public spaces. The loyal Holland-American crew tried to cope with its numerous problems and limitations, but nothing could overcome the hyped up expectations that resulted in a full ship on the inaugural crossing and the third leg through the Baltic on 6/26. My wife and I endured a standard cabin on Main (6) deck for the first three cruises of the Prinsendam: Transatlantic, European Highlights, and Baltic Summer, June 3rd to July 10th. There is limited storage space in this type of cabin, just four small drawers and a narrow tower of shelves in the closet, mainly to hold the safe.
The condition of some cabins was appalling. A couple at our table, with several hundred days cruising on Holland-American and the medallions to show for it, were almost flooded out of their penthouse suite. The woman had an expensive designer handbag ruined, and the carpet was damp and musty-smelling for much of the rest of the crossing. While she was finally compensated (a credit to her on-board account), they told us the ship was nothing like the usual Holland-American cruise experience. This theme was repeated numerous times by others, including one honest ship’s officer and many crew members. Perhaps the Prinsendam is the exception.
When we boarded this supposedly “completely refurbished” ship, our cabin was shabby – worn carpet, chipped furniture, and two dilapidated-looking single beds rather than the queen configuration requested. Worse yet, there was hair all over the very small (barely adequate) bath, and nail clippings on the rug in the cabin. My wife just despises hair and personal filth! It took our room steward a couple of days to get us ice, almost a week to find us a bath mat, and the cabin was always stuffy no matter what was done to the thermostat.
While service in the dining room was quite good, in the Lido it was marginal, and on occasion we heard crew complaining that the Lido’s kitchen and buffet facilities were not able to handle the number of passengers on board. At peak times, you had to hunt or wait to find a place to sit. More than one crew member told us the cooks in the Lido were furious over the wretched situation. Initially, room service was just awful. We had breakfast in our cabin most mornings. Every morning for the first six or seven days something was wrong. No bread or rolls one morning. No butter another. Then they brought an empty coffee pot! Often, the cream we ordered came as low-fat milk. After a while, things improved, but the service was never up to the standards we are used to, not nearly. Overall, the quality and variety of the food was pretty good on the crossing, but seemed to deteriorate thereafter, possibly because the menu repeated each segment. Perhaps the best testament to the food is I actually lost weight on this extended cruise! Unbelievable; but there is a first time for everything.
The alternate restaurant, the Odyssey, was good, but the menu was limited and remained static for the entire 37 days of all three cruises. And it made the Prinsendam a two-class ship: passengers in suites could eat breakfast and lunch in the Odyssey, while the rest of us were allowed in only for dinner, and then if and only if there was room after suite passengers had been accommodated. After a month-long round-the-world cruise experience in Grill class on Cunard’s QE2, we would not knowingly have booked again on a ship with class distinctions. One table-mate enjoying a suite (not the ones with the flood) often mentioned how relaxed the Odyssey was at breakfast or lunch, rubbing in the contrast with the long lines and scarce seating in the Lido. Tipped off by our astute travel agent, we managed to eat dinner in the Odyssey twice, once on each of the first two legs. We didn’t even try to make reservations the third cruise; there was nothing else on Odyssey’s menu we wanted to try.
Perhaps the most annoying part was the constant “nickel and dimeing” and over-charging we faced throughout the trip. The tours seemed expensive, compared to what we’ve paid on other cruise lines as recently as April-May of this year. The quality of these high-priced tours, particularly the food and busses or trains, left much to be desired. On board, a coke or a small bottle of water, even with a meal, cost $1.95. A liter bottle of water in your cabin was $2.00 some times, $2.50 others. They charged $5. for a single shot of Doubonet. I’ve been drinking Doubonet before dinner for more than thirty years, off and on, but have never once seen it poured using a shot glass before! A liter bottle of Doubonet cost us just over $8 in a small (taxed) grocery store in Ireland. We stocked up on beer, tonic and snacks in Halifax, then picked up some reasonably priced gin in the ship’s store. That, and a couple of timely wine purchases ashore took care of our basic needs.
Shipboard computer access to the Internet was 75¢ a minute! When you read the small print, it turned out that rate was for any use of a computer! They didn’t even have Word or Excel installed! Simply outrageous! We were able to access the Internet in most ports at usually reasonable cost, not more than a dollar or two per hour. The ultimate fleecing came when they started charging $5.00 per person each way for the port shuttle on the third (Baltic) leg of our cruise. In one port, better public transport for the same trip was five Swedish krone, about .55 cents US! We learned to ride local trams and busses, and walked a lot. A healthier alternative.
Holland-American offers a number of “deals”, so many pieces of laundry, a number of bottles of wine, etc., for one price. I signed up for 100 minutes of “internet time” on one of these deals, only to learn the real facts when I read the fine print (see above). Our gripe is that multi-segment guests couldn’t carry over unused allocations to subsequent segments; everything was based on each individual cruise segment. We personally discussed this with the ship’s hotel director. He made it very clear that each cruise stood on its own, no matter how long you stayed on board, no discussion. They had to balance their records and accounts! The bean-counters win again!
A lot of critical things on board were broken, and no one seemed able to fix them. The sprinkler system leaked. We never saw the four elevators working all at the same time. Often two or even three would be out of service. And four elevators is not nearly enough for a ship with nearly 800 passengers, many of whom are elderly and unable to manage the stairs. Only the forward elevators went to four deck and the tenders. When the plight of a wheelchair-bound guest unable to get to the tenders because both forward elevators were out of service was reported to a front desk Guest Services staffer, she said, “Thank you, sir, We’ll take care of that right away” then promptly went back to counting stamps! You could hear the poor woman crying in the Atrium from a floor away – she had apparently been abandoned or trapped there. Even after a complaint to the hotel director, including the staffers’ name with the time and full particulars, nothing changed at the front desk; it remained unresponsive and defensive. They couldn’t even get a guest’s name right; not even after three tries!
Our cabin was on Main (6) Deck next to the gangway, amidships on the port side. We had complained and asked to be assigned another cabin weeks before embarkation, to no avail. The gang-plank squealed like it was corroded or worse. Everywhere we docked with the port side to the pier, we were awakened (often quite early) to the sound of doors banging, motors running, and the gang-plank bumping and screeching. My wife never found the clothes washers all working at the same time, so there was often a long wait. On the crossing, there was no place in the laundry to sit while waiting, and one of the two irons was broken.
Leaving Copenhagen June 26th after a late sailing, we were awakened just before 2 AM by a loud screeching noise; it sounded just awful. Turned out to be the pilot boat, scraping its tire-bumpers along the hull as it nudged alongside to pick up the pilot, and lasted ± five minutes. Another night the smoke detector in our cabin went off around 3 AM. Never did find out why, but it sure was loud. It also went off occasionally when you took a shower. When we complained, we were told they were “sensitive” for our protection. Hard to believe.
I don’t want to give the impression that everything was awful; it wasn’t. The itinerary was well planned and quite interesting. We had a complete if quick look at a part of the world we hadn’t seen before, guided by a truly outstanding port lecturer. The overwhelming majority of the crew tried to make the trip comfortable and enjoyable. The casino used the more reasonable American blackjack rules, and the team there was friendly and helpful. Many of the problems were perhaps beyond anyone on board’s ability to fix, given the schedule. The ship clearly needed more time in rehab; many tasks just weren’t finished when she left Charleston for her New York “inaugural”. The crew also needed more time to become familiar with the ship and work out its kinks. Holland-American should have been more candid, in both its literature and touting, that the Prinsendam was a rehabilitated, 14 year old ship. When you pay a premium, you expect a superior product. They did not deliver!
What we did manage to get out of all this was an interesting overview of western and northern Europe. The initial attraction for us was a comprehensive tour where you moved into one room (cabin) and it moved with you. Our “tour” left from New York, called at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and included two ports each in Ireland, England, France, Spain, Norway and Denmark, three in Sweden, with single port calls in Northern Ireland, Finland, Russia (overnight), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Germany. After transiting the Kiel Canal, it finally ended 37 days later in Amsterdam, Netherlands. We didn’t enjoy every port; in fact, we would have passed by some for more time in others. Two ports per country seemed about right. Applying that to Sweden, by-passing either Visby or Kalmar would have allowed an overnight in Stockholm; a single day there is not nearly enough. Having both Ireland port calls on its south coast (Cobh and Waterford) was a waste. Substituting Dublin for Waterford (normally a tender port) would have been a lot better. We left Oslo too early to see that city properly; early morning flights of departing passengers from Copenhagen apparently forced that decision. Too bad.
Although port calls in each of the Baltic states seemed an attractive feature of the itinerary, they proved to be a repetitive disappointment, particularly right after the splendors of St. Petersburg. Two days in St. Petersburg was not enough either, even though the Russian visa “squeeze” limited us to the overly expensive ship’s tours. Other lines spend three days (two nights) in St. Petersburg, and have more and better tour offerings. This city was the site of one of the most heroic siege defenses in all history: 900 days during World War II. Some lines offer tours highlighting this epic struggle, but none was available from Holland-American, unfortunately. Based on our experience, the tours available seemed highly overpriced. From Belfast, the ship’s full day tour to the Giant Causeway with lunch was $122 per person. Four of us went on the pier and rented a taxi with driver for about five hours, got a two-part tour of Belfast on the way out and in, plus the Giant Causeway for $120. A nice two-course lunch with drinks at the Bushmills Inn, the same place the tour ate, cost my wife and I $45. with tip. We had time for shopping in downtown Belfast where the taxi dropped us at the end of our tour. We saw more in less time at less than half the cost, even viewing some fallout from “the troubles”: bricks in the street and nasty signs. The only glitch was the return shuttle bus was not where the ship’s tour office said it would be. I spotted and flagged it down at a traffic light, but others weren’t so lucky. The tour office on board was good at selling tours, but hard to find open. The saving grace was Frank, the port lecturer, a truly amazing man. What a font of knowledge! His advice was invariably accurate, unbiased, comprehensive and witty. Bravo!
Overall, there were a number of good tours, including the one to Kinsale from Cobh, the hastily arranged tour to Stonehenge and Salisbury from Southampton, the tour of Bilbao and its new museum, and the Hermitage at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. After taking a wine country tour from Bordeaux, we were skeptical of the price vs. value, and especially careful about booking . On the Bordeaux tour, the bus was uncomfortable, the guide poor, and the winery awful. We were given a single glass of a white wine which I suspect didn’t sell very well. The worst tour rip-off was the 13½ hour tour to Berlin from Warnemünde at $298 per person. The train was old and shabby, much like parts of the ship. The “snacks” provided were awful. They didn’t even have coffee on the train, which left at 7:30 AM. Our guide in Berlin was an archetypical German, straight by the book. He seemed inexperienced, and stood faced back into the bus instead of sitting facing forward, paying attention to where we were, and commenting on what we were actually seeing. Consequently, his talk was often out of sync with what we were passing, but he rigidly stuck to his script, even when passengers asked what he was talking about. He gave us long break at the Brandenburg Gate, which you couldn’t even see as it was being repaired, shrouded in a huge ad! This caused us to fall behind schedule, so he by-passed the Reichstag, one of the more interesting sights, to insure we were on time for lunch! No German is late! Ever! It is Verboten!
After lunch we had a break in a shopping district, but it was Sunday. Stores aren’t open in Germany on Sunday. We could window shop. It was just a little too far away from a lively, interesting looking flea market we had passed to get there and back, independently during the break. Why not take our break there? Absolutely not! Why, someone might enjoy themselves and forget the time! The final indignity occurred when they took us back out to East Berlin to catch the train to Warnemünde. Wait! First, we had to pick up the passengers who took the longer Berlin tour ending in Potsdam, far to the west. So for an hour and a half we rode around Berlin, through what seemed an endless train yard, to the Potsdam station. Only then could we begin the 2½ hour trek back to the ship at Warnemünde! The “snack” on the way back (which the hotel director personally told me would be “substantial”), was a stale bagel with less than a smear of cheese and wilted lettuce, with juice, a piece of candy and fruit. An unpleasant end to a long, disappointing day in a very interesting city. The good news was they kept the Lido open so we could get a bite to eat when we finally got back on board.
The tours in St. Petersburg were quite good, particularly the Hermitage. This is a truly magnificent building, full of impressive art and artifacts, many with interesting stories. The quirk was that our guide, usually quite thorough, basically refused to guide us through the modern (20th century) galleries at the back of the building. She told us we could walk through them and meet her at the far end in 20 minutes or so. Then she disappeared. Later I asked her why, but got no real answer. I suspect she felt the modern pieces aren’t real art. Next day, the tour of Imperial St. Petersburg with hydrofoil (boat) ride on the Neva River to Petrohof was interesting but a little too long. The bus driver nearly flew on the way back; I guess they were afraid we’d miss the boat.
Earlier, the tour of Bilbao and its new Frank Gerry-designed titanium sheeted Guggenheim Museum was fascinating. Bilbao is a really intriguing urban setting with many squares surrounded by four and five story buildings. At street level are shops and other retail businesses. On the floor just above are professional offices, above that are apartments. Just the mix that makes for a lively, livable city! The spectacular museum seems to have acted as a catalyst to bring Bilbao to life. In this new museum are many interesting pieces. We’ve visited the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Massachusetts MOMA in North Adams in the past two years. Both are spectacular spaces, without much to show in them yet. Bilbao’s Guggenheim doesn’t have this shortcoming. I’d like to go back and see more of Bilbao. Another highlight was the day-long transit of the Kiel Canal, which separates Denmark and the Jutland peninsula from the bulk of Germany. A very nice day.
This extended tour confirmed our strategy of getting away from the crowd, going off on our own, or with another couple, and exploring. We did that a lot; basically we saw Scandinavia that way. The cities, museums, and historical sites, the castles and fortresses. But mainly the people. We ate and drank in street cafes and watched them go by. We rode the trams and walked the shopping streets, looking for bargains, and even did some bargaining ourselves. We saw lots of nice, attractive people. Many spoke English. Never a problem in Scandinavia, and even in France we got by without a hassle. We found tours sold on the ship were often available ashore for as little as half the on-board cost. Better, we found compatible English-speaking taxi drivers, and listening to what they thought was the best use of our time. If we liked what we heard, we hired them to show it to us. That worked well. The only glitch was in Amsterdam, where the highly touted Floriade, a once-in-ten-year flower show, turned out to be over-rated and over-priced, not worth even a side trip. The canal tour there, even though recorded sequentially in five languages, was interesting, and the walk back from Central Station to our hotel on the Prinsengracht near the Anne Frank House, a must see itself, was even better.
We found the Anne Frank House open evenings, allowing us to avoid the long lines seen earlier in the day. Touring the house where eight people hid from the Nazis for more than two years, experiencing the feel and size of the spaces where they lived, ate, slept, etc., is a moving, truly unsettling experience. The excerpts from this young girl’s diary in the exhibits were particularly effective in conveying the essence of the experience. It forces you to wonder how a civilized people could allow such things to happen, let alone actually do them. Hitler and his henchmen didn’t personally carry out these atrocities, the German people and their cohorts in, for example, Norway, Holland and eastern Europe did. The place stopped us cold, it was just simply frightening. After this emotional stop, we had dinner at “Moeders”, a local Dutch restaurant where we shared a sampler-type meal with beer, wonderfully served by three charming, over-worked but cheerful women. This was our last night away, and a good finale to our overly long trip. We were really happy to be home the next night!
We’ve traveled widely, and cruised with Cunard twice, Celebrity once, and Radisson three times. We’ve never been as dissatisfied or disillusioned as we are after this trip. Travel is just getting to be too much of a hassle to be enjoyable. Not only was the cruise disappointing, but the five star “preferred hotel” I selected in Amsterdam and the business class flight home were both at best second-rate, if that. We were awakened by bright sunlight leaking around the drapes in the Pulitzer Hotel before 6 AM both mornings, even after we asked to have them fixed. Many of the towels in this so-called “luxury” hotel were threadbare. On the 9½ hour Martinair business class flight to Orlando, we were stuffed into very tight seats with limited legroom and atrocious food. Orlando international arrivals is a debilitating, two-stage, delay-prone trial, even for the fit, which I’m not.
I do lots of research, both on-line (Internet), by talking to people: fellow cruisers and travel agents, and by reading everything I can get my hands on. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I sure was fooled this time. So we’re re-thinking our future travel and cruise plans. Right now, our planned 30+ day trans-Pacific cruise to Australia this fall or next winter is on hold, indefinitely. Perhaps a summer place in the Adirondacks is a better use of our discretionary dollars, vs. the frequent traveling we’ve been spending them on.
In our opinion, the June 3 – July 12 inaugural voyages of Holland American’s Prinsendam from New York to Southampton, then around western Europe to Copenhagen, and finally through the Baltic and on to Amsterdam, was nearer an ordeal than the wonderful vacation we had planned and anticipated. My wife’s been known to be tartly critical before, but this time her terse opinion is right on the mark: a bummer!