Number of Cruises: 11
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: December 23rd, 2007
Itinerary: Panama Canal
As a change of pace this year, my wife and I decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s on a cruise ship. The two of us, along with my daughter and her boyfriend, took a ten-day cruise on the Volendam, round trip from Fort Lauderdale, to various ports in the Caribbean and Central America. I had a good time, but was not wowed as I was, for example, on our previous cruise on the Paul Gauguin. If I was grading this cruise I would give it a B or B+. Here are some specifics.
EMBARKATION. This was relatively smooth and painless. Although the official embarkation time is listed as 1 pm the ship does allow people on earlier. We showed up at the pier at about 11am and were on board about a half hour later. Registering online earlier at the Holland America (HAL) website and filling out the form there did save some time, and I recommend all passengers do so. I cannot comment on the efficiency of HAL’s transfer options from the airport because we arrived in Fort Lauderdale a few days before sailing and stayed with relatives. Getting to the pier in Fort Lauderdale by car was quite easy.
THE SHIP. I thought the ship was quite attractive; it has a floral theme and there are lots of bright flowers throughout. Since this was a holiday cruise there were also lots of Christmas decorations, trees and so forth throughout. HAL gave us a complimentary upgrade in cabins from the K-class cabin I had ordered to an H-class cabin, which was nice of them; for some reason my wife and I were given a wheelchair-accessible cabin, which had a nice walk-in shower; my daughter’s cabin had an actual tub, a rarity on cruise ships. Every stateroom comes with a flat-screen TV and a DVD player. DVDs can be rented for three dollars a night from the library (and are free to people who have booked a suite rather than an ordinary stateroom) but parents may wish to bring DVDs from home to entertain kids. One discordant note was that for the first few days of the cruise our toilet did not flush properly. One would push the flush button and nothing would happen. Sometimes after about three or four minutes the toilet would then flush, other times it never would. After repeated calls to the plumbing department, the toilet finally began working properly on about day four of the trip. Another feature about the cabin that we didn’t like was the dearth of electric sockets. There was one in the bathroom and only one in the main cabin.
DINING. There are essentially four dining venues: the Rotterdam dining room (decks 4 and 5), the Lido buffet (deck 8), the Pinnacle Grill (an extra-fancy restaurant for which an additional charge of thirty dollars per person is charged for dinner) and room service. I never used the latter two and so cannot comment on them. There is a form menu for breakfast at the dining room which does not change, but every day there are three or four special breakfasts available on that day only. I ate most of my breakfasts at the Lido buffet and was very impressed. I think it is the most extensive breakfast buffet I have seen on a cruise ship (it had all the special breakfasts available in the dining room as well as a ton of other stuff) and also has freshly-squeezed orange juice (for some reason I think the orange juice I had in the regular dining room was not freshly squeezed). Likewise, I ate most of my lunches at the Lido and was also impressed, though chilled fruit soups, which I particularly enjoy, were never available there even though they were available at the dining room. There is also an ice cream parlor at the Lido with excellent ice cream, the flavors of which change regularly. (The banana ice cream was particularly good.) Right off the Lido buffet, in the pool area, was a place where you could get burgers, hot dogs and pizza. The one hamburger I had there was pretty good. We ate all of our dinners in the dining room. HAL is doing some sort of test at the moment and half the passengers had assigned dinner seating (on deck 5) and the other half had “open seating” on deck 4. We were in the latter group, but after getting a table with a nice view and a good waiter on our second night, we made reservations for that table at a particular time for the duration of the cruise; it was convenient that we could, at one time, make a standing reservation for the duration of the cruise.
There were special menus for Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s, which may have disrupted things a bit. It resulted, for example, in some duplication of entrees during the cruise. Prime rib was served four times in ten days, for example, and on two consecutive days. Turkey was served twice, within a few days of each other. (We all thought, by the way, that the turkey was mediocre; it tasted more like pressed turkey than the stuff one carves off the bird.). Generally speaking I thought the entrees were good, but nothing was particularly memorable. We also thought that more chocolate desserts were necessary (on some nights there were no chocolate desserts at all, and we are a family of chocoholics). Finally, I would have preferred more chilled fruit soups at dinner; one day, when I knew that chilled banana soup had been served at lunch (which I couldn’t eat because I was out on a shore excursion) I asked at dinner whether I could possibly get some for dinner, and without even checking the waiter said that was impossible.
SERVICE. All the people on board seemed very friendly and attempted to be helpful, but sometimes were not up to the task. There was a lamentable lack of knowledge on the part of some people. For example, on one morning we were cruising by an island that I thought was Cuba. I went to the front desk to ask whether it was, in fact, Cuba, and the person there had no idea. She attempted to find out the answer but couldn’t; finally a deck-hand walking by confirmed that it was. You would think that this was something she would have known. On another occasion there was a dessert at the Lido that I couldn’t identify; I asked the person behind the counter what it was and he didn’t know. There was also a certain amount of disorganization. On one night the waiter simply forgot to serve us bread at dinner; none of us particularly cared (if we had I could certainly have just asked for it) but that never happened before on a cruise. The “dessert extravaganza” midnight buffet was also badly disorganized. The buffet was arranged in two long lines but the items were never identified and the people serving them often had no idea what they were. (The posted menu listed white chocolate mousse cake as an item; I never did find it.) It was also unclear whether the two lines were the same (I think they were) but each line had two beginning points, so that people wound up meeting in the middle and reaching over each other. Children got to the buffet before the opening time and smeared chocolate on things; it would have been smarter, I think, to have a separate “kids only” buffet that perhaps started a bit earlier.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS. Our ship stopped at five ports and spent the rest of the time at sea. Our first stop was on Half Moon Cay, HAL’s “private island” in the Bahamas. We had brought our own snorkels with us, but even though there was a designated snorkeling area we found absolutely nothing in the way of fish, just a lot of first-time snorkelers who screamed in delight every time one of them saw somebody’s foot underwater. The beach was nice, though, and we spent a pleasant few hours on the island despite the disappointing snorkeling. We were delayed leaving the island because of two idiots who, despite the numerous announcements about how the last tender left at 3pm, did not make it. The captain, after making progressively more urgent announcements on ship about these people (even resorting, at one time, to asking everybody to look to the person next to him and asking whether they were one of the people) finally (and somewhat belatedly, in my opinion) organized a search of the island, where the two morons were found attempting to swim to the ship through the rocky ship channel, where they succeeded in getting themselves cut and bruised.
The second stop was Oranjestad, in Aruba. We arrived here on the day after Christmas, and because that is a holiday there, most stores closed at 2pm. Had we arrived late because of the afore-mentioned morons there would probably have been no opportunity for shopping at all, but the ship managed to make up some time overnight and most people had a little time to shop. In the afternoon my wife, daughter and I took the “ticket to paradise” shore excursion to DePalm Island. This looks like a giant private water play area containing a beach, water park, snorkeling reef, open bar, buffet, etc. I didn’t bother taking my snorkel because I was told one would be provided, but the island was so mobbed that no snorkels were available. After I pointed out that I would either be given a snorkel or a refund, one was found, but I missed about twenty minutes of snorkeling time. The snorkeling was pretty good, particularly if you like bright blue parrot fish, which are everywhere.
A day later we docked in Willemstad, Curacao, a very attractive city with Dutch style architecture (you could almost believe you were in Amsterdam except for the fact that the buildings are pastel colored). We spent a very pleasant few hours walking around and then my wife and I took the “Spanish water” shore excursion to the site of a sunken tugboat that has become crusted over with 70 years of barnacles and reef. Excellent snorkeling here too, although the water was somewhat rougher than at DePalm Island and much deeper; the sight of the fish going in and out, and over, the sunken boat was very interesting.
The Panama Canal was next. The ship’s itinerary does not provide for a complete transit of the canal, only a trip through one lock to Gatun Lake, at which time the ship turns around and returns. However, an optional shore excursion (“Panama Canal Experience”) allows a transfer to a smaller vessel which goes all the way through to the Pacific, followed by a bus ride across Panama back to the ship. We took that excursion, which turned out to be quite memorable, though not necessarily in a good way. Because of delays at the entrance to the Canal, the shore excursion was also delayed, and if a ship misses its lock time, the wait to the next one can be quite extensive. Ultimately we wound up being delayed by almost five hours, and got back to the Volendam after 10pm, after doing the last few hours of the Canal in darkness, missing both dinner and that evening’s show. (The Volendam did keep the Lido buffet open for dinner after its normal hours, though.) A number of people left the shore excursion early and were bussed back to the ship. My wife and I have differing opinions about this excursion. She is fascinated by the engineering of the Canal and thought the excursion was a successful one; she liked the fact that she got to see the Canal both in darkness (though lit up) and in the daylight. I thought that if you go through one lock, you pretty much have gone through them all, and I found the excursion, particularly with the delays, boring.
We all agreed, though, that the next day’s excursion, in Costa Rica, was wonderful. The port here is Puerto Limon, a squalid little town with nothing much to offer, so shore excursions are pretty much a necessity. We took the aerial rain forest tram excursion. After a lengthy drive through interesting scenery we arrived at a rain forest preserve, where we boarded cable cars for a trip, about 75 minutes long, through the rain forest, both through the middle section and then, on the way back, higher, through the canopy. Wildlife exists there but was pretty hard to spot, although we did see a toucan, some birds, and some butterflies, and heard (but did not see) howler monkeys. Even without seeing more wildlife, though, the trip was interesting and scenic. After it, we took a nature walk, where we saw giant ants, a very poisonous snake, and a sloth in a tree. This was followed by a tasty “native-style” buffet lunch and the obligatory visit to the gift shop, which actually had some very nice stuff in it. There followed another two-hour ride back to the ship. All in all, this may have been our best excursion, and I recommend it highly.
SHOWS. There was a show just about every night, and they were generally fairly good. A troupe of singers and dancers gave three shows; other evenings there were comedians and magicians.
DISEMBARKATION. This is generally the worst part of any cruise, but HAL handled it pretty well. Breakfast was served early in the Lido and in the dining room and then you just waited around until your disembarkation number was called. At least on this ship, unlike many ships, you can wait in your cabin rather than in a public room. For some reason disembarkation was delayed here and although we had requested 9am disembarkation we didn’t wind up getting off the ship until about an hour later.
SUMMARY. As I said, this was a good cruise but not a great one. Since HAL considers itself a premium line, it should, I think, stand out from the others, and I’m not sure it did. A premium cruise ship, for example, should hand out water bottles to people heading off to the private island without then billing them two and a half dollars per bottle. A premium line should not have the cruise director tell passengers that when filling out the comment card, “excellent” means the same thing as “met expectations”; this kind of grade-grubbing is a bit off-putting. All in all, I would certainly travel with HAL again, but I wouldn’t necessarily seek out a Holland America cruise over others.