Number of Cruises: 5
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: November 24th, 2001
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
M/S Veendam, Eastern Caribbean Nov 24 – Dec 1
Departed Houston, TX for Fort Lauderdale the Friday after Thanksgiving. We arrived at the airport two hours prior to departure. It took about fifteen minutes to check in and go through security. Security changes are mostly cosmetic. There’s no difference in handling of checked luggage. The same security guards are on duty as before 9-11, but an occasional National Guard troop has been added to the scenery. Major difference is that security guards realize that passengers are entirely intimidated and can be easily bullied about. Guards undisguisedly enjoy barking at people, telling them where to queue. The guard on the security X-Ray takes a little more time viewing carry-ons, and no hand checking of anything is allowed. Photo IDs are required everywhere, but no one takes a really close look; flea market IDs would likely do. The airline personnel are still courteous and friendly. At Port Everglades, vehicles must go through security gates to enter the port area. Guards briefly scan documents. Although we went through, I’m still not sure if they required photo ID or boarding documents. They seemed too bored to care, either way. Boarding the ship was the usual slow process, bogged down by the photographers. Here too, photo IDs are required. A photo ID is required at all times when leaving or entering the ship. This means you carry a minimum of four cards: Personalized ship’s ID, Room key/card, photo ID, and a credit card (or similar) for the room safe. No, the ship’s ID won’t work for the safe because there’s no data in the card’s magnetic strip. Since we had a 12N return flight, and being obsessively paranoid, I badgered the poor girl at the front desk until she gave me a ‘first off’ disembarkation number. Every passenger on board must clear immigration before anyone can leave the ship when disembarking from a non-sequential United States port, in this case our homeport. All had cleared by 8:30AM, and we were at the airport nearly three hours before our flight time! We were early enough that it once again took only about fifteen minutes to get through to the boarding gate. However, a little later I looked out and saw an awful long line waiting to go through security. So, reading newspapers and drinking coffee until it was time to board the aircraft trumped standing in line(s). The guards seem to love forming and reforming snaked lines, periodically barking at the cattle (previously known as customers) to “line up over there. No, not there, there!” I wouldn’t resent the officious attitudes so much, if these folks were properly trained and background screened for the job, and if the security were truly improved vis-à-vis European airport procedures. Having said all that, the security changes have resulted in limits to carryon luggage, a major enhancement for comfort and convenience.
The fourth of the Statendam class ships, the Veendam is in excellent condition. There is no sign of wear in any of the public areas. The cabins, too, are equally well maintained. For those not familiar with HAL’s ships, the public areas are concentrated on two decks, plus the Lido. Except for The Crow’s Nest, a large viewing lounge forward on deck 12, the other lounges are on the upper promenade deck, which is dominated by the casino. The largest of these lounges is The Ocean Bar, which specializes in small dance bands and the music is mostly swing, waltz and cha-cha. The Explorer’s Lounge regularly offers an evening fare of classical style string quartets. The Crow’s Nest has late night disco offerings. There’s also a small piano bar. Occasionally, and during some sail-a-ways, there is a band on the lido deck, so there’s a little something for everyone. The San Juan sail-a-way featured a steel band on the aft deck pool area, a great place to watch the nighttime departure from San Juan and Fort Morro. A saxophone led the steel band, and, so help me, they played a Glenn Miller number. Yes, even in The Caribbean, Holland America is for the older set. The Wajang Theatre, a full screen cinema, offers current films and the ever-popular fresh popped popcorn. The show lounge is large with two seating levels and has good site lines. However, the majority of the seats are uncushioned barrel chairs, real back killers. The show offerings are two major variety shows with full cast, and an assortment of magician, comic and juggler acts the other nights. There are also the ubiquitous art auctions, normally conducted out of the way in the Ocean Bar. Unfortunately, the silent auction littered the Java Café and atrium areas with its prints. This litter seems more appropriate for the parent company, not Holland America. The Java Café is a favorite offering, at no extra charge, espresso, cappuccino and properly brewed regular and decaf coffee during daylight hours. You’ll always find a tray of freshly baked cookies and often a side table of pastries or hors d’oeuvres. You’ll also find a fitness center, internet café (which offers unlimited use for $99.95), beauty/massage spa, photo gallery and an assortment of boutique shops. For children ages 5-17 Holland America offers Club HAL, which provides a full schedule of activities during sea days. Although there were few kids on board this cruise, the Club HAL director carried through with the games and crafts, even when only two or three children were in attendance. A special soft drink package can be purchased for $17.50 for 14 soft drinks. This is not an unlimited “soda card”, and according to front desk personnel can only be used at the bars, which rules it out for children. The dining room is large and comfortable, the service always outstanding. There is no alternative restaurant on The Veendam; however, the Lido buffet offers an excellent option to the main dining room. The Lido buffet’s ice cream bar is open throughout the day, and again during midnight snack time from 11:30PM-12:30AM. There are two formal nights during which most gentlemen wear suits. We saw maybe 25-30 percent tuxedos. The emphasis is on formal night. The great majority of passengers adhere to the dress code throughout the evening. The food was absolutely the best I’ve experienced on a cruise ship, or for that matter in many restaurants. From appetizer through dessert the emphasis was on quality and presentation. All of the seafood entrees were fresh and properly cooked. Amazingly, the meat entrees were always served to order. Medium rare came to the table medium rare! I don’t know how they accomplish that for 600 guests at each seating, but they did. The standard cabins are very comfortable. Outside cabins are large at 197 sq ft, the inside cabins are only slightly smaller at 186 sq ft. The verandah suites, aka mini-suites, are a roomy 284 sq ft including the balcony, which occupies 63 sq ft. The stateroom TVs offer live CNN and TNT and an array of movie channels, mostly current releases. There is a self-service laundry on each cabin deck.
The Crew and Staff:
The service staff are all either from The Philippines or Indonesia. The dining staff is entirely Indonesian. Every one of the staff personnel is required to attend a Holland America training school before serving on board. This preparation is apparent in their extraordinary proficiency. Their gregarious and friendly nature, though, is a result of culture and upbringing. They are absolutely delightful people. Be sure to attend their crew shows. They’re the best afloat. And please don’t stiff them. Holland America’s policy is tipping not required, but you ought to compensate them as you would the staff on any cruise line. Most of the crew on The Veendam is British, including Captain Jonathan Peters, who could double as the cruise director. He’s very smooth and humorous, characteristically British.
First stop, Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, 8AM – 4PM, the only tender port. Due to reported high winds, which were not in evidence, all water sport excursions were cancelled. So there was no parasailing, diving, fishing, kayak adventure, banana boat ride – not even the glass bottom boat. There was, however, a lovely powdery sand beach and crystal clear water. Water “toys’ are available for rental, and a barbecue lunch is served up beachside. The far end of the beach area is designated for snorkeling. You can snorkel there, but all you’ll see is a sandy bottom and the very occasional rogue fish. In a so far unsuccessful effort to attract fish, Holland America has placed what appear to be large upside down strawberry planters throughout this portion of the bay.
Day three, San Juan, P.R., 8AM – 12M. The ships dock directly in Old San Juan, which retains much of its historical Spanish heritage and architecture. There are a number of attractions here, including the popular El Morro Castle. If you follow the ‘walking tour’, it’s recommended that you taxi up to El Morro, and walk downhill from there. On your return, take a rest stop in one of the plazas and enjoy a cup of excellent Puerto Rico coffee from the small kiosk there (NOT Wendy’s or McDonalds). In addition to the many attractive historical sites, there are numerous shops. Do not miss “The Butterfly People”, within easy walking distance from the ship. Their displays are unimaginably beautiful. The butterfly gallery exhibits a number of artistic arrangements sealed in Lucite boxes, and all for sale. But, beware; this place will do serious damage to your pocketbook. You can sample their work at http://butterflypeople.com/. The ship offers a number of tours. The most popular are the rainforest excursions. You can choose either a driving or walking tour. Each takes about 4-½ hours. Since we lived in Puerto Rico for a few years while serving in the USAF, we had previously traveled most of this region. We just wandered Old Town, shopped, and made a huge donation to The Butterfly People - irresistible. Finally, know that no one may go ashore until the ship has been cleared and US immigration has seen everyone on board, whether going ashore or not. Naturally, since this was the first US port, a number of passengers delayed disembarkation for more than an hour.
Day four, St. Thomas, USVI, 7AM – 5PM. Unfortunately, swells were extremely bad and roiled up the bottom, so the diving/snorkeling trips were called off. We were on The Champagne Catamaran. Since snorkeling was impossible, the boat’s captain decided to take us to a beach on Greater St. James Island. He’d never visited this beach before, and for the sake of future passengers, he should never go again. The beach is extremely rocky, very small and the bottom of the bay covered with sea grass. It was a totally disagreeable location. With all the beautiful beaches on the US Virgin Islands, we went to this piece of garbage. Although, the Mimosas and snacks were ok, the trip was a dud. But wait, Nassau is about to make up for it all. You can easily take independent beach trips at St Thomas. Taxis are plentiful, and there are ferries between St Thomas and St John where you’ll find the best diving/snorkeling beaches. If you want a beach experience sans snorkeling, Magens Bay is probably your best and most convenient choice. Since St Thomas, also a US port, immediately followed San Juan, it was not necessary to clear immigration.
Day six, Nassau, Bahamas, 12:30PM – 6:30PM. What a great diving/snorkeling location. Here too the swells had limited the dive trips, but our boat captain took us to sheltered ‘Angelfish Reef’ where we enjoyed a magical coral garden and hundreds of fish. Only at Roatan Bay have I enjoyed such a variety. This was absolutely marvelous. The water was so crystal clear I was able to get a number of great underwater photos. I can’t imagine our scheduled dive on ‘Thunderball Reef’ surpassing this place. The water, however, was a bit cold, and without wet suit protection my torso chilled after about 45 minutes. This trip more than made up for the two previous disappointments.
Despite some weather frustrations, this was a pleasant voyage with good ports. The ship is well cared for and is a comfortable size, 55,451 tons 1,266 passengers. It is easy to transit, and offers many places to relax. A major negative worth mentioning was the freezing cold water in both pools, making them virtually unusable. The Jacuzzis were also too cold. However, since the pools were suitable only for penguins and a tablemate from Pennsylvania, the Jacuzzis got a lot of use. With barely tepid temperatures, I hope they put in lots of chlorine. We had one moderately rough sea day, and the stabilizers seemed to have little effect. There was lots of rocking and rolling. The highlights were the ship’s crew and staff and the cuisine in both the main dining room and The Lido buffet. As Chairman Kaga would say, “Haute Cuisine!” Unless you are looking for a party cruise, Holland America, our favorite by far, offers an excellent product. I not only recommend this ship, but we’ve already booked back-to-back Alaska cruises (north bound Hubbard Glacier, south bound Glacier Bay) on The Veendam for June 2002. Bon Voyage!