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Mick Bettesworth

Age: 51

Occupation:Head of Corporate Development

Number of Cruises: 5

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Veendam

Sailing Date: November 10th, 2001

Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean

Review of Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard MS Veendam 10th November 2001.

We live in England. We cruised in 2000 aboard the Maasdam on a Western Caribbean cruise and were so impressed with the service and comfort aboard Maasdam that this year we booked aboard sister ship Veendam for a 7day Eastern Caribbean cruise. We have previously cruised twice aboard QE2 and once on the MS Funchal. Holland America impressed us enormously the previous year, despite a trip that had nothing but monsoon rains for the whole time at sea! We were anxious to see whether it was just Maasdam or whether other ships in the HAL fleet were as good. We need not have worried. Veendam was every bit as good and better in some ways. HAL do not advertise in the UK and it was not the easiest to book. There are always difficulties in getting hold of an up to date brochure, a shame really, because the HAL product is ideally suited to the discerning UK market.

Having plenty of frequent flyer miles, we had booked a cruise only and flew in a few days earlier with British Airways. We hired a car from Miami and drove up to Ft Lauderdale. We had a superb (upgraded) room at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper which is situated right on the beach at Ft Lauderdale. We passed a very comfortable few days there enjoying hotel, beach and shopping.

Security

We left our hired car at the Alamo depot and took the shuttle to the terminal. There were road blocks at the entrance to Port Everglades, but as there were 5 large ships in port that day there was plenty of traffic and no one was being stopped. Arriving at the pier we went straight to a booth and presented our documents which were quickly processed. Boarding commenced about 2pm and we were aboard by 3pm. There was a number of armed National Guardsmen patrolling, which, although comforting, was somewhat disconcerting to we British whose policemen are not normally armed. We had to show photo ID at the gangway and this was necessary every time we rejoined the vessel after an excursion ashore. A coastguard vessel escorted us out of Ft Lauderdale and into and out of San Juan.

The Ship.

Veendam was in excellent condition. The great thing about HAL is that all in this class of ships are laid out in exactly the same way so once you have found your bearings on one ship, you can find your way around all of them. There were lavish arrangements of fresh flowers everywhere and the ship was spotlessly clean. I only had two complaints - there was a stain on our bedspread and our balcony door had a really loud squeak which annoyed both us and our neighbours. This was reported before we went ashore at Half Moon Cay and was oiled by the time we returned. By the end of the week, however, it was back! I also noticed, during the course of the cruise, that whilst on Maasdam crew seemed always to be washing windows, on Veendam this practice was omitted.

The Food.

My wife had been unwell in Ft Lauderdale and was advised by doctors to eat a very low fat diet. We had not been able to advise the ship of this requirement beforehand and we were a little concerned that this could cause problems. On explaining the situation to the Maitre d’, however, our fears were dispelled. He could not have been kinder or more solicitous, bringing her menus 24 hours in advance, advising and ensuring that her dietary needs were met, even going to the length of cooing up a special order if the menu was unsuitable. This was real service. It was all handled very discreetly and with a great sense of care and thought. We had requested and got a table for 2 in the second sitting, located next to the glass balcony enabling us to see everything that went on. Our dining room team were pleasant, courteous and so very efficient. Each evening I chose from the menus and found the food to be of a high standard, beautifully presented, and always piping hot. They even managed to cook my steaks and beef exactly as I wished – no mean feat when there are 600 people at the service. Desserts were light and well made, the only exception being a rather ordinary chocolate mousse which was paraded round the dining room. The “running of the moose” (sic), was hailed as a new departure in dining room entertainment for HAL. The quality of the mousse, however, hardly warranted the effort! HAL receives some adverse criticism for its food, particularly from American passengers. Having experienced the sizable portions which are generally served in US restaurants I am sure that the Nouvelle Cuisine favoured in the dining room would not suit some American appetites. For us the portions were more than adequate and the choice was superb. We breakfasted every morning on our balcony. HAL room service breakfasts are a bit hit or miss and on the first morning they’d forgotten to include cutlery. A complaint resulted in a fast delivery and thereafter room service telephoned on 2 occasions to enquire whether we were satisfied. Generally though I felt the quality of these breakfasts could be improved, but the balcony location made up for the limited appeal of the fare. We ate breakfast in the dining room only once on the morning we arrived in San Juan and I think the entire passenger load arrived at the same time resulting in queues for the Lido and the dining room. Lunch was taken in the lido café where there was always a choice of hot dishes together with a salad bar. Quality here was first class although the main menu tended to be a bit monotonous, however we were always able to find a suitable dish for my wife and I also enjoyed fresh cooked burgers or tacos from the grill. As we were in the second sitting we did not attend any of the late night snacks or buffets.

The Entertainment.

Last year, aboard Maasdam, we were very critical of the standard of the shows. My wife is a theatre director and this is an area in which she takes a keen interest. This year, we watched two shows, one of which had been hastily cobbled together in place of the planned show which could not go ahead because of “technical difficulties”. It’s difficult to understand the “technical difficulties” excuse because there is precious little on the technical side to go wrong with these uninspired offerings! The cast in the “Up on the Roof” show, a 50’s and 60’s tribute, were certainly more energised than the cast we endured last year on the Maasdam! Friends who have travelled with HAL and Princess say that Princess leave HAL standing in the entertainment department. Audiences expect more nowadays in the way of professional entertainment. It would not take much to elevate HAL’s current offerings…a new Director might help?? Generally my impression is that if you are looking for lavish production shows this is not the line for you. In HAL’s favour, the cruise director and staff are always discreet and passengers were never hassled to ‘join in’ the daytime on board entertainment.

Ports of Call

Half Moon Cay

Our first call was Half Moon Cay which is HAL’s private island in the Bahamas. This is a piece of heaven with white sand, blue water and a perfect beach. Because of engine problems during the night the ship arrived late and our time here was curtailed. A pity, because this is a real paradise. The chefs set up a hamburger buffet, which was a little disappointing, however this may have been because the late arrival prevented anything more ambitious. The bars were manned from midday onwards. There were many choices of sporting activities but most people were content to lie on the beach. The rest rooms were absolutely spotless and a great credit to the company. There were a couple of souvenir shops and stalls of moderate quality.

San Juan.

This was disappointing for us. When we visit new places for we generally try to take a city tour in the morning and then return to areas that appeal in the afternoon. We had booked to go on such a tour of San Juan. The outskirts of the city are industrialised, the old part of the town is very quaint and colourful. The tour included a one hour stop at the local fort. Again, quaint with some stunning views from the ramparts. The souvenir shop was mediocre as indeed were the few lack-lustre exhibits housed within the fort, but the hour was far too long. At the end of our tour the bus driver suggested he drop us, not back at the ship, but some 500 metres from the dock, happily, for the shopkeepers of San Juan at least, in the heart of souvenir- shop-land! The impression we had was that the driver had difficulty in filling the time allotted with suitably interesting attractions! This tour was poor value in addition to demonstrating that San Juan, apart from the old town, is not particularly attractive. If I were coming here again, (highly unlikely), I would engage a taxi for a private tour. The ship was in port from 8am until midnight and for us this was too long. We came back on board during the late morning and spent the afternoon by the pool. Quite a number of passengers seemed to be aboard during the afternoon and evening so we were not the only ones to feel this.

St Thomas (Charlotte Amalie)

We had visited St Thomas on a sailing holiday in the British Virgin Islands and already knew the layout of the town. The ship was not berthed on the main pier with the other cruise ships but in a small harbour near the airport about 2 miles from the town. There were a number of tours on offer which did not appeal -particularly after the previous day in San Juan. I had previously enquired at the tour desk if it was possible to hire a car and did not receive much encouragement. We wanted to see the island at a leisurely pace in our own time and therefore decided to hire. We took a taxi from the ship to Avis and rented a jeep for the day for $80 which was good value compared to the ships tour prices. We drove all around the island including beautiful Magens Bay and returned to Charlotte Amalie for lunch. The roads are pretty awful but there is not much traffic outside Charlotte Amalie and you have much more opportunity to see the real St Thomas. Like most Caribbean islands there is a startling contrast between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but most people were friendly and hospitable. In the afternoon we returned to the main town for a bit of Christmas Shopping. We were hassled in the town and my impression in the nine years since I was last there is that standards have slipped a bit. In those days the town seemed to cater for a more eclectic customer. There were any number of expensive jewellery shops, whose inflated prices were often halved in the course of a five minute visit. A lesson – never pay the ticketed price. The tee-shirt shops were legion and some were very tacky, but the middle ground seems to have gone. One or two people had ‘attitude’ and this included the security guard on the pier who gave our Avis driver, returning us to the ship, (a nice touch), a very hard time. I got the impression that as St Thomas has about 3 ships a day every day, they don’t really care. If you don’t buy - someone else will. A shame because some of the island is very attractive with some good hotels.

Nassau.

The ship was in for just an afternoon. There were a number of other ships in so the pier was crowded. We decided not to do a ship’s excursion and walked into town to do some shopping. The town itself is a mixture of West Indies meets British colonial, but the atmosphere is poles apart from St Thomas with some very smart shops, amongst the inevitable tee shirt emporiums .The shop keepers were very professional – no hassling - and for Brits, the shops represented good value for luxury goods such as designer handbags and accessories. It was very windy but we enjoyed our time in Nassau. Most people went over to the island and visited Atlantis or the beaches. There was a very useful little shuttle bus that took you from the dock gate ( right by the main street) to the ship. I would return to Nassau on a future cruise and would have welcomed more time in port.

Finally….

We really enjoyed our cruise. HAL suits us down to the ground. We are in our 50’s, we like good food and nice surroundings with 1st class service. We certainly had all of this on Veendam. The ship is classy and understated, and represents excellent value. However, it’s not a ship for party animals or those who like dancing all night! The average passenger age must have been similar to ours and most were in bed by midnight! The crew were generally excellent, we never saw our steward, but isn’t that the mark of a good steward? He always seemed to know when we out and kept the cabin spotless. The dining room staff were outstanding. The barmen could smile a little more but were nevertheless efficient and prompt. The entertainment…………well, you can’t have it all!!!

Just a final tip…. If you can afford it pay that little extra and get a balcony cabin, the extra space in the cabin is great and you can lie in bed at night with the door open and listen to the waves! During the day there is more than enough room for sunbathing, eating and drinking and the privacy is great. It adds a whole new dimension to cruising. We like spending time in our cabin and would not now book a ship where we could not have a balcony!

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