Philip M. Haggerty
Number of Cruises: 11
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: March 13th, 2004
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
I am Phil Haggerty and my wife is Edith Goble. I am a retired city attorney and Edith is a homemaker and retired health service provider. This would be our 11th cruise, but the first on HAL. Our initial cruise was on Carnival’s Elation to the Mexican Riviera, followed by a Caribbean trip on the now defunct Commodore Lines’ Enchanted Isle. Next we had our first two Celebrity cruises, Galaxy for the Eastern Caribbean and Mercury around Cape Horn. We then took Sun Princess to Alaska for a cruise and land tour combination, followed by a Western Caribbean trip on Norwegian Sun. We returned to Celebrity for our next two cruises, taking Infinity through the Panama Canal and Millennium from Barcelona to Venice. We next sailed on Regal Princess as part of a Europe and Baltic cruise/land tour, and returned to Infinity for a Hawaiian cruise last December. Reviews of all cruises from Galaxy on appear on this website.
Why this Cruise?
After sailing on four of the major cruise lines we thought that we should experience Holland America Lines. We had already scheduled a transatlantic repositioning trip on Galaxy in May, and this particular cruise seemed well suited to us. Although we had
visited Cozumel and Grand Cayman on Norwegian Sun, and Jamaica on Enchanted Isle, we felt that there were different land excursions we could take on this venture. We also liked the schedule of sea day, two port days, sea day, port day and final sea day. This rotation between sea and land days has not always been possible, of course; but we both think that cruises should be more than just visiting different ports or countries.
We sailed from Tampa on a Saturday. After a day at sea we stopped in Grand Cayman. The next day was at Montego Bay, Jamaica, followed by another sea day. Then we landed at Cozumel Island in Mexico for a long day. This was followed by our last sea day and return to Tampa the next Saturday.
Review Format - What Is Covered and What Is Not
I suppose there are people who call their travel agents, tell them to book a cruise, and do nothing until the day before embarkation when they pack and take off. We like to plan a lot, and feel that this is part of the fun of cruising. So we divide the review into pre-embarkation planning, getting to the ship; the cruise proper, port visits, and debarkation, followed by an overall picture of how we liked it, and the reasons for our feelings. Since we do not gamble, we will not review the Casino, which seemed fairly nice, and had some frequent play from our dinner companions. Nor do we use the spa facilities. We can’t rate the service or comfort of the poolside deck lounge area either. We do not play trivia games or newlywed games. If I tried Karaoke with my singing voice, the Captain would signal for another lifeboat drill, or perhaps just abandon ship.
Pre-planning Any Cruise
If you have questions about any ship or cruise line, you can get a review of most ships and cruise lines in the “Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2004” Douglas Ward; Berlitz Publishing Co.; the “Unofficial Guide to Cruises; 8th Edition”; Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger; Wiley Publishing Co. and “Stern‘s Guide to Cruise Vacations 2004“; Steven B. Stern, 13th ed. Pelican Publishing Co. You can find (or order) these at most large bookstores such as Borders or Barnes and Noble. I know the Berlitz 2004 edition is out as is the “Unofficial Guide” and the Stern should be shortly. All three of these books will also provide a wealth of detailed information on cruising. Since itineraries are subject to change, and not set much more than a year in advance, you should go to the cruise lines’ websites to get the correct itineraries and dates. You then can check with your travel agent to see the brochures which will give you a schematic of the ships’ layouts and cabin locations. In many cases you can order brochures directly from the cruise lines, but these brochures for the major lines cover separate specific destination areas, and not the entire cruise line repertory in one brochure. (Small lines with few ships are an exception.) The pricing options vary widely. Every line has an early booking discount; many offer specials in the last days before sailing if you want to take a chance; and there are a variety of “specials” and package deals through various travel agencies. No one recommends that you do your booking through the net; having your travel agent do the actual talking to the booking clerks is best; but the net can provide a lot of information. Some people make the itinerary the prime factor, some the cruise line or specific ship, and others are controlled by time constraints and the availability of cruises within their budget range. Like many people, we consider the itinerary first, and then look at the cruise line and date options.
We wanted to visit Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula, see a little more of Jamaica beyond Dunn River Falls, and wander around Grand Cayman with some snorkeling thrown in. We also did not want to rely on the tours provided by the cruise line. Sometimes these work out well, and sometimes they are really the only thing available; but we have found researching travel books and searching the web on our own can be very rewarding. So off I went to the net about two months before departure. In checking other reviews on Jamaica we were advised that Barrett Adventures would be good. This company does not have a web site, only an e-mail address, which is: Carolyn@barrettadventures.com. If you are going to Jamaica, particularly if you are landing in Montego Bay, I strongly advise checking this out. What they do is give you a list of possible sites with a fairly detailed explanation. Then they will set up any itinerary within this range which falls within your time and budget perimeters. The company charges for driving you on the selected tour by the hour, so the more people who can get together, the cheaper. The locations visited will have their separate admission fees which you pay. We selected the rafting trip, the bird sanctuary and Greenwood great House. After we made our selection and confirmed it, we received an e-mail with detailed directions on finding the tour which included the following:
“Work your way to the back where the desk is and look for me
standing near it. I will be smiling foolishly and holding a sign
with Barrett Adventures on it. Hopefully, it will even be legible
and spelled correctly.”
Anyone with that approach and sense of humor must be fine.
For Grand Cayman we would skip the sting ray petting at Sting Ray City since we had participated in that marvelous activity on our prior visit. I like to snorkel and had read several books which stated that there were a number of spots where you can simply walk into the water off the beach and do some good snorkeling. Since we did not plan to spend all day in the water, we rented a car on the net. There are a number of tours to Chichen Itza, including flying tours. We did not want to fly, especially since a chartered flight on a prior cruise had crashed a few years ago. There are several outfits that provide the tour, which from Cozumel involves a ferry to the mainland and a bus to the site. We had read of two companies recommended in a travel book and selected Fantasy Tours, which can be contacted at: email@example.com. In their e-mails they were concerned about time, and said that ship’s time was often an hour earlier than Cozumel time. After several efforts, and what I consider a very unprofessional lack of response by Holland American, I finally talked to someone who said that the ship would keep local Cozumel time. It turned our that this was not so, but we did arrive in time to make the ferry connection. The price quoted by Fantasy was $95.00 US per person, which was considerably less than the $129.00 via the ship’s tour. The actual price, since I paid by credit card and did a lot better on the exchange that the 10 to 1 offered by stores in Mexico, worked out to be about $98.00; still a lot better than HAL’s price.
Shipboard Accommodation Planning
Once you have decided on the cruise line and itinerary, the next decision concerns the actual accommodations to be selected. The range here is again very large, from suites of more than 3000 square feet (how big is your house?) to “standard” cabins of about 180 square feet. Obviously the difference is price. These days the newer ships feature “veranda” cabins which make up almost half the cabins available. Then there are a variety of staterooms labeled “suites”; some of which, like Celebrity’s “sky suites” are little more than larger cabins with added amenities and features such as butler service, access to spa facilities at a reduced rate, etc. Many people, like us, enjoy the outside access of a veranda, where you can sit on a small deck all your own and enjoy the sound and smell of the ocean for a better “at sea” experience. Others, including a travel agent I know, book the lowest cost inside cabin on the theory that they don’t spend much time there, and they can enjoy the rest of the ship to the same extent as the people in the largest suite. Traditionally the higher decks are more costly for identical cabins. Very often the costlier suites are on the upper decks; the Millennium class ships of Celebrity being an exception with all its expensive suites being located on deck 6. Most cabins have only showers, and only very expensive suites have double sinks. Unless you bring an excessive amount of luggage, you will find that cabins, even the smallest, hold a large amount of clothing, toiletries, etc. Ships’ architects have long mastered the art of squeezing the maximum amount of storage space out of every square foot of cabin area. Hotel architects could learn a lot by observing how ships utilize space. What about your bags? In most cases they will fit under the bed, but the ship will store them elsewhere if necessary.
This of course leads to the topic of what to pack. The cruise lines will offer their suggestions, as will the books cited above. However the season, destination, length of cruise and type of ship control this. Some lines such as Holland America, Celebrity and Princess tend to more formality than Carnival or Disney Lines. A new, somewhat upscale line, Oceania, has no formal nights and neither does the very expensive Seabourn Line. But no line actually requires formal wear, although they may not admit passengers to the main dining rooms for dinner in bathing wear, cut-offs or shorts.
Aside from that, the weather and the destinations basically control what to bring in the way of clothes. Some ships have self-service laundries, and the Berlitz guide will tell you which these will be; although if you closely peruse the ships’ layouts in the brochures, you may discover the laundry rooms on your own.
Getting to the Ship and Back Home
The next consideration is planning the route to and from the ports of embarkation and debarkation, which very well may not be the same city. All cruise lines offer to purchase air fare to and from the cruises for you. If they do so, they will normally include the transportation between the airport and the pier both ways. You can purchase your own air tickets, of course, and you may be able to buy transfers to and from the pier separately. If you are going round trip from the same city for departure and return; a common event for Caribbean cruises, you can probably do better buying your own air tickets, especially if you are good at internet shopping. Your travel agent may be willing to help if you have bought the cruise from him or her, even though their commissions these days on air travel are virtually non-existent. If you are required to use “open jaw” flights; i.e. leaving from different cities for embarkation and debarkation, it is a little more complex to get any savings compared to the cruise lines, who can save money by block booking on major airlines. [For a good example of pre-cruise flight planning, read the review of our Celebrity Mercury cruise from Santiago to Buenos Aires in January 2002 on this website.] However you may end up with weird routings as we did on our Infinity Hawaii cruise because we felt we should use Celebrity in order to insure the right connections to Ensenada. You can vary the departure dates, but the cruise line might charge extra for this service. Celebrity waives any deviation charges for cruisers who are members of its Captains Club. If you can do so, always provide extra time, and for safety’s sake, an extra day in planning your air connection to the departure city.
Finally, there is the issue of trip insurance. We recommend it, but suggest that you buy from one of the independent insurers rather than the cruise line. The basic reason is that insurance you buy from the cruise line only covers you for services supplied by them. If you fly independently, take off on shore excursions that you book yourself, or extend the trip before or after on your own, the cruise line insurance will not cover you. However your own carrier will cover all events within the dates you specify. We have found a firm known as CSA to be responsive and reasonable. Incidentally, you do not have to insure for all the costs; but you can pick a figure you would settle for to cover the travel portion. In other words, you don’t have to add the flight cost to the cruise cost because you would probably not lose both. The main point is that with any coverage you get theft insurance, baggage loss, baggage delay and health coverage. You can even get pre-existing health condition coverage if you buy a higher priced policy as soon as you book the cruise. Talk to you travel agent about various policies that are available since they are commissionable also. It is worth it for peace of mind.
Off to the Caribbean - One more time
While in theory it might be possible to fly from the West to the East on the same day that the boat sails; in practice this is very difficult and risky. The only time we did this was when Celebrity arranged our air flight to San Juan for our Galaxy cruise, and we felt that they had total responsibility for getting us to the boat on time. It also involved getting up at 4:00 A.M. for a 7:30 A.M. flight; not a lot of fun. So we flew by a nice, non-stop America West daylight flight, leaving Phoenix at 9:55 A.M. and arriving in Tampa at 3:40. Unfortunately, Holiday Inn did not have its shuttle act together and, after waiting two hours and making repeated phone calls, we took them up on their cab offer, along with a family sailing on RCI the next day, and got to the hotel about 6:30.
This was the Holiday City Centre Hotel, and it was all right for the price, ($110.00 including tax) but still a showing some wear and tear with bare spots showing through our carpet. The desk clerk suggested that Ybor City was only a short distance away, so we started hiking. It was about two miles away, and not through a section of town one would choose for a pleasant evening’s stroll. We were extremely happy when we arrived at a street with lights and restaurants, even though it is a very tourist oriented place. We ate at an Italian restaurant called Bernini’s, and it had a nice lively atmosphere, very decent food, and reasonable prices. We walked around the area for a while, but did not see much going on for a Friday night, so we hopped a cab back to the hotel and bed.
I should note that I took the Bose Company up on its offer of a free 30 day trial of its
heavily promoted noise canceling headphones, with disc player. I used it on the flight. It did work in conjunction with the airplane’s in flight sound system and movie, as well as with the disc player. The jury is still out on whether it really does cancel noise to a degree sufficient to justify the cost. I will try it one more time before the trial period expires.
Our cruise documents noted the sailing tine as 5:00 P.M. and that embarkation would start at 2:00. After breakfast at the hotel, we waited in the lobby for a while before stepping outside to catch the shuttle van to the pier, which is not much more than a mile or so away. There were a goodly number of cruise passengers waiting as well as the normal airport transfer guests, but we got to the pier about 12:45. Our bags were promptly taken away by a porter on the sidewalk who reminded us that we would not see him again. After complying with this not very subtle tip suggestion, we went inside the pier building where embarkation proceedings had already started. So much for a 2:00 P.M. boarding commencement. We had filled out our immigration questionnaires on line, and retained printed copies. When we showed this to the first HAL person, we were directed to a line which appeared much shorter than the line for those who did not have this questionnaire in hand. In fact we were at the check-in desk in a very few minutes and the process there was short. HAL gives you the usual plastic shipboard card which lets you on and off and serves as a shipboard charge card. But it does not operate as a room key. Nor do they take a credit card imprint, but rather hand you a piece of paper which would contain your credit card information and ask you to fill it out and drop it off at shipboard guest relations within a day after embarking. After this check in we were given a number card and directed to a further waiting area for actual boarding. When they called our number, in about 15 minutes, we got in a queue and while partway through it, posed for our embarkation picture. Once again it was the best photo taken on board. We actually boarded about one hour after arrival at the pier, and when we reached our cabin, our bags had been delivered. HAL provides a guide to your cabin, but no champagne a la Celebrity; not that we drink it anyway. Our cabin keys were on the desk, and they were the type with holes punched through a thick plastic strip. This is not exactly state of the art considering the ship was built in 1996.
We had what is called a Verandah Suite on, appropriately, the Verandah Deck, Deck 9. In size it is little larger than a veranda cabin on Infinity or Millennium, and slightly smaller than the Celebrity Sky Suite. The desk is good sized and there is a 72 inch couch (which might form a bed, but we did not try this out). The teak decked veranda has room for a lounge chair, two side chairs and a small table of the usual garden variety, not padded teak furniture as provided on Celebrity‘s Sky Suites. The railing is solid steel for about 2 feet, with a bar above that and then a wood railing at the normal height. The steel portion is low enough so that you can see over it while on the lounge chair. Although this arrangement is not as nice as the Celebrity clear glass railing, it is better than the higher steel barrier on Princess. The dividers between the verandas are not floor to ceiling, there being about a six inch gap at floor level and a larger space above the seven foot level. Why cruise lines do not make these dividers solid is beyond me, since you can hear normal conversations from the verandas next door. As I noted, the desk was good sized and had nine drawers, a place for the TV, and some shelf space above. The desk also had a rack for holding brochures, etc. There was a fixed, fairly good sized table between the sofa and desk. The bed had two drawer nightstands on either, one with a Gideon Bible, a first for a cruise ship for us. The bathroom had a small tub/shower, about 2/3 the length of a standard tub. but it was a jacuzzi tub. The sink had a somewhat smaller cabinet than we were used to, and no drawers or other storage space, but still was adequate. The toilet was the normal vacuum type, but was by far the quietest we had ever experienced. The hair dryer was one speed, one temperature only, but was sufficient. Closet space was very good, and HAL provided more than enough good wooden hangers. The lighting switches took a little getting used to, but lighting was good, especially the reading lights on either side of the bed. The bed itself was on the firm side as usual, but we slept well and have no complaints. The cabin was decorated with three attractive framed ancient charts of the western hemisphere; a properly decorative touch. There was a mirror behind the bed and a full length mirror on one of the closet doors. HAL kept up the grand tradition of naval architects in providing more than enough space for our clothing and accoutrements. The wall paneling was a mixture of light wood and painted surfaces, and was neat, spotless and attractive. The table had a vase of fresh flowers, and we noted fresh flowers all over the ship. Bathrobes are provided. All in all it was a highly functional and very attractive stateroom with all the space one would ever need for a seven day cruise.
Sailing Day Exploration
There was an envelope on the desk with a “ticket” bearing number 61, which was our table number. So, in our usual tour of the ship we were able to enter the dining room and locate our table, which was for six persons. The dining room protocol is a little unusual. The dining room is on two levels, Deck 7 and Deck 6 connected by a staircase, and an open area between the two, making the lower level much larger in terms of actual tables. While most ships simply have 2 seatings, HAL actually has 4. The early dining group eats on the smaller level, Deck 6, at 5:45; the lower level diners start at 6:15. Similarly the “main” dining group has the upper level starting at 8:00 and the lower level at 8:30. I suppose this was designed to help the servers, although I have some difficulty in imagining how this works in practice. We did observe that there appeared to be a larger number of tables for eight or more on the lower level while the smaller upper level had more tables for two, four and six, with only a few for eight and none larger. The dining room is at the stern, so it has windows on three sides.
The ship is pretty well laid out. Decks 4 and 5 are mostly cabins. 6 has a few offices and is the lower level of a three story atrium. It is called the Lower Promenade Deck and has a real teak walking promenade around the entire ship. Since there are outside cabins on this deck, their windows are mirrored on the outside, I hope successfully, so that the walkers cannot see in. At one point I walked past one of these cabins while it was open, and the view was clear to the outside. I think it would be a little disconcerting to have people visible to you outside your room while you were dressing for dinner. Deck 7 forward has the show theater, the Rubens Lounge, the photo gallery, Guest Relations, the shore excursions desk, the Wajang motion picture theater, the Java Cafe, some meeting rooms and the HAL club for children. Aft of these there is the main galley, not open for passenger traffic. Beyond that is the lower level dining room, which is reachable only by the aft elevators and stairs, and as well by the internal dining room staircase. Deck 8 forward is the upper level of the Rubens Lounge show room, shops around the atrium, the Ocean Bar also off the atrium, the casino, the piano bar, the Explorer’s Lounge, a large card room and an attractive library. The aft part of this deck is the upper dining room. Deck 9 is almost entirely Verandah Suites and deck 10 also Verandah Suites, Deluxe Verandah Suites and one large Penthouse Suite, plus the bridge forward. The aft portion of this deck also has an open, saltwater swimming pool and deck chair setup. Deck 11 is the Lido Deck with the gym and spa forward, the open Lido Pool with deck chairs amidships, and the Lido Buffet and Lido Terrace aft. The Lido Pool area has a sort of terrace at one end, with umbrellas and again vases with flowers; all very pleasant. Deck 12 has the Crow’s Nest Lounge forward, a walking area amidships with a sliding cover for the Lido pool, volley ball and deck tennis courts on each side of the funnel, and another HAL Club room aft. There are two elevator banks with stairs and lobbies. There are also many stairways forward and aft on the outside decks. This allows you, for example, to walk down to the open prow area on Deck 5, clear up to the front overlooking the sea and pretend are on the Titanic! I should note that the ship itself has that “yacht” profile with a long pointed prow making it look like the more traditional ocean liner rather than appearing like a floating hotel.
The layout is rather compact, and this is not a very large ship by present day standards, only 55451 gross tons. But since it carries only 1266 passengers (at 2 to a cabin), the space ratio is therefore 43.8, a very generous size, and just about in line with Celebrity.
Our cabin location on Deck 9 meant that we were in the center of all activities and could easily walk to every function or venue above and below without using the elevator.
The decor on Veendam struck us as unique and very attractive. Rather that having just paintings of single sculptures, HAL added several display cases filled with examples of china, ships models, and object’s d’art of all kinds. These displays were found throughout the main decks. The corridors did not have art or photo exhibits as does Celebrity, but they were light and clean, although some carpet areas looked stained. The stairwells and elevator lobbies were open and bright, and had some paintings.
The ship was immaculately clean and maintained that way throughout. The only thing we noticed that was a little off were two locations on our corridor, one forward near the front elevators and the other aft near those elevators. Both these spots had unpleasant “bathroom” odors for a stretch of about twenty feet. Our table companions, who had staterooms identical to ours on the same deck, also noticed this.
We had a quick bite in the Lido Buffet. It is a very attractive site, with fresh flowers on each table, and attractive furniture. You are provided with real plates and cloth napkins. HAL has servers to help you to your table as does Celebrity. There are two main buffet lines, an auxiliary buffet station, a pizza station and an ice cream site as well as a separate dessert station at lunch.
We unpacked with ease and as the ship pulled away at 5:00 promptly it was interesting to observe some nice Tampa residential areas off the starboard side below our cabin.
We went to dinner at 5:45 and were joined by our table companions, Joey and Chris from Pennsylvania and Jim and Sue from Akron. We were a congenial group from the start. Our waiter was Sumi and his assistant Achmed, both from Jakarta, Sumatra. We noted that there were no women among the dining room staff. Dinner was quite good, especially for a sailing day. Since it was Joey’s birthday, we shared a cake and did not see the dessert menu.
The Veendam Dining Experience
I had read in the Berlitz Guide that Holland American meals do not live up to the nice Rosenthal china on which they were served. I disagree. Their menus have choices among 5 appetizers, 3 soups (one at least is cold), 5 “entree’s”, one of which is vegetarian, and 3 “grill” items. The normal dessert menu has a fairly wide range of choices. I believe that every entree I had was well prepared and served. I thought that my entrees consisting of an Indonesian dinner, venison, paella, liver and bacon, duck, snapper and osso bucco showed a nice variety and imagination. The vegetables were also varied and well prepared. The soups were always quite good, and everyone enjoyed a variety of appetizers. The desserts were perhaps the weakest point, but still very nice. I don’t eat salad, but Edith enjoyed hers as did everyone else. One roast beef was brought to Chris in a medium state, although he had clearly asked for the cow to still be mooing. It was replaced with a suitable piece immediately. Edith was not too pleased with one or two of the vegetarian dishes, and thought that more choices should be offered as is provided on Celebrity. We did feel that the staff was overworked compared to Celebrity, and were a little rushed. We missed the chance to chat with our servers after the meal that we enjoyed on every Celebrity sailing. It was not quite as bad as on both Princess ships, but still not that good. Our wine steward was very nice and helpful. The assistant maitre’d was pleasant and available, but I am not sure if he really accomplished much compared to one or two we have had. We were told that the Executive Chef was leaving after this cruise for another HAL ship. Just about everyone of the crew who talked about him was full of praise and said they would miss him, so I hope that my dining experience is not limited to ships in which Jock Barelmann is the Executive Chef.
But our overall impression of the Dining Room experience on Veendam was very good. If Celebrity rates a 95, Veendam is a 93.
As I noted, the Lido Buffet is very attractive. We seldom had any delays at either breakfast or lunch. Breakfast is pretty standard, but the coffee is bad and only once did we get good potatoes. The lunches had a good selection, and the food was warm and reasonably tasty. The desserts tended to fall into patterns, that is, a lot of tarts or fruit pies, or a lot of cream pies and cream cakes; but all were fresh. Every night there is a different late buffet, but the only one we attended was the dessert special. Needless to say, this was pretty crowded, and there were some very good items to be had. We have never tried room service on any cruise. We did enjoy a “formal” tea one afternoon in the main dining room and casual tea in the Explorer’s lounge on several other days. So I believe that saying Veendam’s food and food service package is a very close second to Celebrity is high praise and anyone should be quite pleased with this aspect of their cruise.
There may be some question arising from the limited alternative dining. Evening meals are served in the Lido buffet, although the Dining Room always seemed very full except for the late day in Cozumel. The Lido Dining Room menu for dinner was posted each day so your choices were known. There were two auxiliary rooms, the “King’s Room” and the “Queen’s Room”, located just off the upper level dining room. We asked about these and were told that originally they had been reserved for special parties or groups, although no one used them until the Cozumel port day when we were allowed to eat a regular dinner, wearing shorts yet, in the Queen’s Room at 8:30, because of our late shore excursion. We were told that the King’s Room would be converted into a “grill room” whatever that might be. Each of these rooms hold about 35 people. We have no idea if there would be an extra cost for the “grill room” or what would be served. But we imagine that adding alternative dining sites involves distinct extra costs since there is no reduction in the number of regular dining room staff, at least where the traditional two seating, fixed table dining system is used. Open seating allows more flexibility, but alternative dining usually involves extra charges except on the super luxury ships where the basic cruise tariff is high enough to cover little extras and then some.
Well, sort of. I suppose we should start off with praise for the fact that the sound was kept under control and did not drive us out of the room as it had on Regal Princess.
The physical set-up is somewhat unique. The upper level seating is fairly standard, upholstered benches seating four or six people. The floor pitch is a little shallow, so if you have a large person in front of you, there will be a sight problem. You cannot move from the right to the left side in the upper seating area since the sound equipment takes up the center area entirely. It is the lower level which is different. Instead of fixed theater type seats, or fixed benches, there are a few benches forming the first and last rows, and the rest of the seating is in the form of free standing, completely moveable dining room type chairs with curved wooden arms and upholstered seats. There are also some fixed small tables and marble stanchions around the room. The chairs do not fill up the entire room, so that gaps and paths between seats are scattered about.
To some extent you can correct any sight problems by moving your chair, but this is at the risk of getting in the way of someone behind you. The stage is curved forward, with
steps in place in front leading up from the audience and a limited proscenium area. I went on a stage tour and could see that the ability to lift, or “fly” sets is very limited. While they did their best under the circumstances, the production numbers were restricted, and the lighting constrained.
The regular shows consisted of two productions featuring the usual singing/dancing troupe of ten performers, a show consisting of a gentleman billed as the world’s fasted banjo player, another show with a young lady playing an electronic violin, a third show with a comic magician and a final show with the three individual acts combined. There also was a HAL regular feature, a show put on by crew members, who were all Filipino.
The singer/dancer shows were typical Las Vegas type affairs with the cast frantically dashing from one number to the next with multiple costume changes. I enjoy them somewhat, but felt that the stage limitations and the dancing limitations brought this group down compared to Celebrity and even Princess. I was joined by several people in wondering how you can listen to 50 minutes of banjo playing, no mater how fast or skillful. Edith really disliked the violinist, whose repertoire ranged from pop, to country to gospel. I found her mildly entertaining and unpretentious. The comic magician had an excellent and amusing routine, and was by far the best entertainment of all. We noted before his show started that several rows of seats in the upper seating area where we were stationed had been reserved for HAL Club members, so we knew that the act would not have any “blue” material, for which we were grateful. The crew show was well meaning and earnest, but pretty amateurish. The entertainment apart from this was minimal. One of the musical groups had some sort of immigration problem, and did not arrive for several days. There was a “steel band” playing on deck which sounded okay and not too loud. There was also a two piano and bass duo which played cocktail music in the Explorer’s Lounge and a pianist of course in the Piano Bar.
All in all the entertainment was not great, but fortunately, not obnoxious or loud either.
We like sea days. They are very relaxing. However, Veendam provided very little activity beyond bingo, trial games and the like. There were no onboard educational speakers. By comparison, on Celebrity’s Hawaiian cruise, each sea day had at least four speakers or similar cultural activities. There was a Catholic Mass every sea day.
There were also a few stretch and exercise classes without charge, and the gymnasium was quite nice. Edith thought that the instructor provided for the workouts was excellent. Of course there were the usual art auctions conducted by Park West. As I noted, the Library was a very attractive room, but its selection was rather small, about 300-350 fiction titles, and perhaps 100 non-fiction books. The room did have several jigsaw puzzles out in various stages of completion. There was an internet cafe of course, with the usual high charges which did not stop some people. The pools, especially the aft deck salt water pool had a lot of use, if not exactly activity. The Lido pool with its spas seemed to attract the children. We had 139 children on board on spring break, but this was nothing compared to the RCI ship which sailed out just before we did. It had 400 University of Miami seniors on a pre-graduation party cruise. Ouch. The HAL Club cruise staff divided the children into three age groups, and except for their domination of the Lido Pool, they were not in the way at all. Of course one reason why we took this cruise was to relax, and so the lack of activity on sea days was not disturbing. Edith went to some events while I walked around a good deal and got some fine recreational reading in. The ship had a very large map with our route laid out in a series of dots which changed color to show our actual location. There were movies twice a day, but the only one we wanted to see showed only on the first day, and we had seen two of the others. There were no cooking lessons, vegetable carving demonstrations, craft sessions, nor even that old standard, napkin folding. Edith did go to one of the shore shopping talks and found that it was very informative, and not just a touting of favored stores. We did conclude however that we would not try for the Hawaiian Island round trip on Statendam in December because that would involve four straight sea days getting there and four returning, with seven Island days in between. We think that 15 days on a ship identical to Veendam, with 8 sea days and HAL’s lack of programming for these days would be too much.
To be fair to Holland American, I believe that their Alaska cruises and cruise tours, at which they have a great deal of experience, would not have the same problem. Even the sea days on an Alaska cruise are marked by great views of the inland passage, the Alaskan bays and the glaciers.
Our Land Tours
George Town, in Grand Cayman, is the city of misdirection. Our e-mails from Budget Rental indicated that they had a downtown location. We asked at the information desk on the tender pier where it was and were pointed across the pier to the Hard Rock Cafe. No Budget Rental. We asked several people and all were willing to give directions, none of which provided a correct answer. We had experienced the same round of misinformation asking for our tour headquarters when we landed there two years ago. We went back to the information desk and had the lady call Budget. Their office is only at the airport, and we were advised to got to a store on the pier and wait, which we did for about half an hour. Eventually a driver appeared and took us to the office. We were greeted by a large sign saying our auto insurance would not be recognized there, so we had to buy some. This ran the original, reasonable $37.00 charge up to $70.00. We were provided with a Suzuki mini-Jeep with right hand drive for left side British driving. It worked out well though. After only one wrong turn I found my way to a beach and went snorkeling. The fish were quite varied, although not in huge numbers. The water is beautiful and the temperature was perfect. After a satisfactory swim we returned to the jeep and drove to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Garden. The most striking feature of this very pleasant garden was the blue iguana project. It seems that while green iguanas are everywhere, the blue iguana was down to just two when the garden began its breeding project. There were two very large iguanas, perhaps the Adam and Eve pair, in a large enclosure, and cages with many more in various age groups in the breeding area. We were getting a little hungry and returned the car to Budget. Grand Cayman has a high standard of living due to its off shore banking industry, and there are many very nice apartments and condominiums available for substantial amounts of money in this unique tax shelter. The driver who took us back to the pier was from Cuba. Since Grand Cayman is a Crown Colony, ruled by a Governor appointed in London, it enjoys British recognition and unrestricted travel to Cuba. In fact there is a substantial foreign population in Grand Cayman to supply the demand for workers.
Jamaica does not have a good reputation. We have read that the capital, Kingston, is very crime ridden. On our Enchanted Isle cruise in December 2000 we landed in Ocho Rios and did the Dunn River Waterfall trip. We had walked around Ocho Rios without any problems, except for the constant hustling by street vendors. We had asked at a tourist kiosk about Jamaican jerk, and were directed to a fast food spot, where you ordered by the number on the board. But all the patron were local and the food was good. So our prior experience was not bad. Our arrival in Montego Bay led to some further confusion. There are apparently two main piers. Carolyn Barrett had assumed we would arrive at the Terminal Pier, but we went to the other one, so her explicit directions were inapplicable. After wandering around watching the tour buses leave we finally located someone who told us to take a shuttle to the Terminal Pier where the directions made sense. We found Carolyn quickly. She was waiting for a group on Norwegian Sun which was running an hour late. Carolyn is from Lake Placid New York, and has lived in the Caribbean for many years, and I think 9 years in Jamaica. She led us out back to the loading area and waved up a van which was driven by her husband Lloyd, a native Jamaican. We proceeded through town to the rafting site. The rafts are bamboo with a seat for two people. They are guided by a “captain”, ours was a young man named Rabbi, and you proceed down the Great River at a leisurely pace. Carolyn had responded to my e-mail inquiry that it was perfectly safe to bring a camera on this trip. The cost, which we paid in cash since plastic money seems to be unknown in Jamaica, was $38.00 for the two of us. It was a pleasant ride and I got a few photos.
We were met at the end, about a 30 minute ride, by Lloyd, who then drove us to the Bird Sanctuary. This was a private home on a hillside, owned by an Englishwoman, who had turned it into a private bird sanctuary, mostly for native hummingbirds. The Sanctuary was maintained by her family and managed by the same local family who had worked for the founder. They provide you with a small bottle of nectar and instruct you to sit in a covered lanai next to the house. Then the birds come, and how beautiful they are! There is a swallowtail hummingbird, with tail feathers about 6-8 inches long, as well as others. Edith held the nectar while I tried to take pictures. The light was a little too low for me to use the maximum speed on my camera, but I did get a few very good shots. There were three or four people, British by their accents, there when we arrived, but soon left the place to us and the manager. The cost was $8.00 each and well worth it. Our next stop was to be Greenwood Great Hall. Montego Bay is on the north shore of Jamaica, and we had been south and west up to this time. I was running out of cash, since I had not wanted to bring much, and Lloyd said he would have to be paid in cash, so we stopped at the Terminal Pier, I caught the shuttle to our pier, got some dollars from my cabin, and caught the shuttle back to the Terminal Pier, all because Jamaica customs would not allow direct access to our pier. We then proceeded east along the coast to Greenwood Great Hall, the major home of the Barrett family. This family, of which Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a member, although she never visited Jamaica, started its operations on the island in the late 1600’s. By the time slavery was abolished in 1831, their holdings amounted to 48,000 acres of plantation forming a 12 mile strip along the ocean. The house is up on a hill, about 100 feet above sea level, with a magnificent view. It is actually lived in by a family today, and they derive some revenue from visitors. It cost $12.00 per person. The present site is five acres in size. Our guide was a native Jamaican, and she was extremely knowledgeable and very pleasant. The whole tour took more than an hour, and the artifacts, furniture, and household items were fascinating. The views from some of the upstairs windows were spectacular. I got some excellent photos and we both enjoyed the tour immensely. On the way back Lloyd asked if we were hungry. I allowed that I could use some jerk, and while we were going through a small town named, of all things, Lilliput; he pulled off the road into an open air jerk stand. You order by size and I had a 1/4 chicken plus a coke. Lloyd had some also, but Edith declined. The chicken was cooked on an open grill and put into aluminum foil with some sauce. It was hot temperature wise, and reasonably spicy, but I am used to Mexican food, and even Thai food. It was delicious, and to say the least, authentic. Lloyd said it was one of his favorite jerk spots, and I am sure I was the only non-Jamaican customer they had all week, if not all year. We also stopped to get Blue Mountain Coffee from a hillside store and restaurant which purportedly overlooked a house once owned and used by Al Capone. We got back to the ship about four which made for a 7 hour day at $20.00 per hour, or $140.00 plus tip for both of us. The entire day thus ran, including tips, $248.00 for both of us. I think $124.00 per person for a seven hour, personally guided tour for two, with three separate aspects, was well worth while. We highly recommend Barrett Adventures, and if anyone reading this uses their services, say hello to Carolyn and Lloyd for us; they are really nice people.
We were over an hour late leaving Montego Bay, partly because of some tours which had been delayed, and partly because a passenger was taken off in an ambulance. We could see the ambulance approach with lights and sirens, a gurney taken on board, and later taken out, baggage loaded into another van, and the ambulance depart without lights or sirens.
Cozumel and Chichen Itza
After a relaxing sea day we arrived in Cozumel. Our daily newsletter, On Board, clearly stated that we would not be changing the ship’s clocks to local time. Our tour was to start at 7:00 at the ferry pier, and we were advised by Fantasy Tours to be there 15 minutes ahead of time. All was well however, because our docking time of 6:30 ship’s time was 5:30 Cozumel time. Cozumel has two cruise ship piers and one ferry pier. Fortunately, we docked at the pier closest to the ferry pier, clearly visible as such about 300 yards down the waterfront. We were able to grab a quick bite to eat and walk to the ferry pier to meet our tour contact person with ease. There were only three other people with us, a couple from Austin and a soldier on R&R leave from Iraq by way of his home in Ohio. The ferry ride was fast, but Edith found it very rough and almost was sea sick. We docked in Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland shortly after 7:30 and found our tour guide, Alejandro. Playa del Carmen is a small, but bustling tourist gateway, with a pier side area featuring many of the same stores found in Cozumel. Our van was a new Ford nine passenger, fully air conditioned and quite comfortable.
The trip to the Mayan ruins takes about two and one-half hours. The countryside is very flat, with one good sized town, Valladolid, and otherwise very rural. Many of the women wore Mayan style dresses, basically white smocks with colorfully decorated fringes, bodices and sleeves. We stopped briefly at a store for a rest stop and the opportunity to buy their wares. Edith liked a necklace, but once again I was short of cash by choice. We had been provided with a sort of sack breakfast consisting of a sweet roll, yogurt, crackers and a canned fruit drink. We arrived at Chichen Itza around noon, and while there were a goodly number of people, it was not overly crowded. The main site covers about twenty acres, with eight major buildings. The only one you can actually enter is the big pyramid, which has a smaller pyramid built inside it. Our guide said that it is very small inside, conducive to claustrophobia, and resembling a sauna in atmosphere, so we skipped it in in favor of climbing the outside steps to the top. This is an experience not to be missed, and even Edith was very pleased to accomplish it despite her fear of heights. It involves going up 91 steep steps to a platform top with a room allowing an inside passage to all four sides. My photos came out very well. Descending is more difficult, and we both used a rope going down the length of the north side to descend. The view from the top enables you to see several of the other buildings in the immediate vicinity and a few others over the tree tops. Since you are above the tallest tree, you can gain a very clear picture of how flat the peninsula is. There is not another object you height in sight as far as you can see. Alejandro had given us a guided tour of the ball court and some of the stone carvings, but for the last hour or so we were on our own. We regrouped at about 1:30, reboarded our van and proceeded a few miles to a restaurant. It was obviously designed for tours, but there was only one small group besides us when we arrived. The food was served buffet style, and since Edith and I both enjoy Mexican food, we were satisfied. Drinks were extra, but the lunch was included in Fantasy’s price. Entertainment was later provided in the form a four very young children dancing in native costumes. Tips of course were expected. By the time the dancing started the place had filled up with several bus loads from larger tours. We then returned to Cozumel and boarded the ferry which was 6:00 Cozumel time, but 7:00 ship time. Again the trip was a little rough for Edith, but I had no problem. On shore in Cozumel we went to a couple of Diamonds International stores to redeem charm coupons provided by the ship’s shore shopping guide, and got back on board just before 8:00. We went up to the Lido Buffet, but it was closed. We then decided to try the main dining room, which would have its last seating at 8:30. We showed up in our tour clothes, a polo shirt and shorts for me and equally casual clothes for Edith, and explained our situation to the Maitre’d. He graciously led us to one of the auxiliary dining rooms next to the main dining room where we joined other early seating diners who also had been on a ship’s Chichen Itza tour, so we had a full normal dinner service menu and service. Our conversation with the other diners reinforced the validity of our decision to buy our own tour. Not only was it cheaper, but the personalized service from our excellent guide, the comfort of the mini-van, and the lack of crowding at all stops contributed to a very relaxed exploration for a long day. We were both delighted with our adventure since this was a place we had both wanted to see, and it was well worth it.
We would land in Tampa at 8:00 A.M., and our flight back to Phoenix did not depart until 4:40; so we decided to buy a Tampa Tour from Holland American to occupy the time as well as provide transportation to the airport. HAL did not require luggage to be placed outside our cabin until 1:00 A. M.; and this is never a problem for us. Because we bought the tour we were given a debarkation card labeled A. Everyone else seemed to have numbers. We were forced to wait until after 9:00, but we were the first number called. Finding our luggage was easy and we were directed to our bus immediately outside the terminal building. The tour lasted about three hours and was highlighted by a visit to the former Tampa Bay Hotel, built by Henry Platt, a railroad tycoon who had been responsible for the development of Tampa in the late 1800’s. The hotel is now occupied by Tampa University, and is a truly wonderful relic of the Victorian era. We then went to Ybor City, which had been founded, also in the late 1800’s, by Cuban refugees from Spanish rule. They brought the cigar industry to that part of Florida, and there is still a cigar factory producing stogies. This is the same locale we had visited the night before our departure, and on this Saturday morning it featured an antique flea market. We then took our tour bus to the airport for our flight home. The debarkation tour cost $57.00, which was a little high, but we had time to kill and needed transportation to the airport in any event, so it was not that bad a deal, and the hotel/university was worth a visit.
All cruise ships put out daily newspapers announcing the ship’s activities, meal times etc. On Holland America it is called “On Board”. It is the smallest in terms of size that we have ever seen, and although it covers the necessary items, it seems very minimal compared to the much larger and more information daily sheets put out by Celebrity and Princess for example. Every noon there is an announcement of the ships location and other information by the Captain. Of interest was the fact that after we stopped in Grand Cayman, the announcement was by a new captain who said he would be taking over for the rest of the cruise. No reason was ever given. The room TV also contained the usual display called “Report from the Bridge” which shows location, sea condition, winds and air and sea temperature. We were also provided with the New York Times news digest, and 8 page, letter size affair which provides brief news stories, weather reports and sports; all very nice. Of course we could receive US CNN at all times. The problem with the Captain’s announcements was that they were not audible in our cabin, so we missed some of them. There were a few other “bingo” announcements, but certainly not many and not very annoying.
The grand sea tradition of horrid photos continues. The boarding picture was the only one we purchased, and was the only one that was any good. We did not do a formal night portrait.
The Crew and the “No Tipping” policy
Holland American has a reputation for excellent service, and we saw why. I have already mentioned the dining room staff, but all the servers at all the venues were similarly smiling, helpful and friendly. They all seem honestly cheerful and happy in their work. Our room steward was also friendly and smiling at all times, and when I requested a fresh towel from housekeeping after our steward had gone off duty, they had one delivered very promptly. The Guest Relations staff was also very nice, as were the shore excursion people in our limited contact with both departments. They did not have a bank desk per se, but Guest Relations made change when asked.
The “No Tipping” policy still causes confusion, and HAL does little to help. The Cruise Director, as part of his debarkation talk, read the policy which simply states that HAL pays its people and therefore no tipping is required. Employees are not allowed to solicit tips. They did not, but neither have the crew on any other cruise line we have been on. But they are not forbidden to accept tips. The consensus at our table was to provide tips at about the same level as on other cruises, $7.00 per couple per day for our waiter and cabin steward, and $4.00 per couple per day for the assistant waiter; and we expect most people do the same. There are a few of the very expensive cruise lines which have a true no tipping policy in which crew members will politely refuse tips;
but HAL’s ambivalence is merely frustrating.
Overall Evaluation - Would we do it again or would we recommend it?
Our final evaluation was that this cruise lived up to our expectations in virtually every respect. In one area, the food in the main dining room, it was better than anticipated, while in another, shipboard activities, it provided less that we expected. The land cruises were our own, and neither their success, very high in Jamaica and Chichen Itza; nor the shortcomings, the high car rental cost in Grand Cayman; can be laid at Holland American’s door. The appearance and decor of Veendam is most attractive, the public rooms very soothing, our stateroom almost all we could expect in its category and price range. The shipboard service in all departments was beyond reproach. The entertainment was weak, but not actively annoying as on Norwegian Sun. Our table companions were delightful and contributed to our enjoyment of the meals, but I guess HAL cannot claim credit for them either. But we have found that almost all the fellow passengers we have had at our tables, (and with the exception of Norwegian Sun, we have always had fixed seating), have been very pleasant. So the final rating on the success level for this cruise would be very high.
Would we do it again? Probably not, since we have been to all three stops twice already. But for someone who has not been to the Western Caribbean, or who, like us, has had only one prior visit; this is a cruise to be recommended. Holland American is extremely professional once you are on board Its crew members’ dedication to passenger service is remarkable even in an industry which is generally marked by devotion to the too often forgotten maxim that the customer is always right. The food is well above average, and the general ship ambience is artistic and pleasing. We wanted a relaxing Caribbean trip with a tour of Chichen Itza and Jamaica, and we got what we hoped for.