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Cruise Ship Review
Holland America Line

Volendam

by Richard P. Shipman

Volendam

Bright sunny skies and warm temperatures greeted us in Fort Lauderdale as our US Airways flight arrived right on time for our 10 day cruise aboard Holland America's m/s Volendam. Barbara, my special traveling partner, and I selected this cruise because we wanted to take a longer cruise on a new ship that sailed round-trip from S. Florida and visited some islands in the Caribbean we had not been to. We also wanted to sail on a different line than our most recent cruises on Royal Caribbean, Princess and Celebrity. This "Wayfarer" cruise fit the bill in all respects. The Volendam's sister ship Zaandam was also an option, but we preferred the ports on the Volendam itinerary.

The Overall Cruise Experience

This was a most enjoyable cruise. It had a nice combination of days at sea and in port, and the ports of call were for the most part, interesting. We have sailed on Holland America before (Maasdam and Ryndam) and were interested in seeing if HAL had joined the trend to add-on pricing and nickel-and-diming that has befallen most of the other "mainstream" cruise lines. I'm happy to report that they have not. The ice cream bar served its delights daily and a coffee bar dispensed expresso drinks and gourmet coffee, all at no extra charges. Not only were assorted nuts available in all lounges before dinner, but the friendly lounge staff served hot hors d'oeuvres as well (as if we needed them!). A nice canvas tote bag awaited us as we arrived in our room, and an attractive commemorative tile coaster made a great farewell gift. The alternative dining room had no surcharge, and the casino assessed no "service fee" for chips charged to your onboard account. Kudos to HAL for bucking current trends.

To be perfectly honest, Holland America cruises tend to be a little more expensive than their midline competitors (there is no free lunch, even on cruise lines), but I much prefer their approach of folding the extras into the fare rather than nickel-and-diming throughout the cruise.

The Passengers

Holland America has a reputation for attracting an older clientele, and this cruise did nothing to alter that reputation. As one of the comedians put it, "this ship looks more like the prune barge than the love boat!" I would guess the average age on this cruise was 65, which, for us younger (a relative term) cruisers, was a good news/bad news situation. The bad news was that the Lido Buffet line was pretty slow, but the good news was there was no waiting at the treadmills! Seriously, though, there are distinct advantages to cruising with an older group: no wild parties in the cabin next door, no problem getting Second Seating for dinner, and for the most part, these seniors are an interesting group with many varied life experiences.

The Ship

Atriumm/s Volendam is one of HAL's newest ships, having entered service in early 2000. It is an elegant ship with subdued colors, beautiful fresh flower arrangements throughout and expensive art abounding. It is less striking, perhaps, than the Vision Class ships of Royal Caribbean, with their dazzling chrome and glass, light, and soaring open air atria, but Volendam projects a quiet beauty and refined elegance that fits well with its older clientele.

Rather than give a room-by-room description of the ship, I will concentrate on the features that I liked and disliked, particularly compared to the ships of our recent cruises.

The Plusses

  • I really liked the lower promenade deck that completely circled the ship and provided a great location to walk or recline in a real wooden deck chair, softened by thick cushions that were laboriously removed every evening and reinstalled the following morning. For those of us who are solarly challenged, this is a perfect deck to read, rest and watch the waves, protected from the elements.
  • The staterooms were another plus. Our outside room was very commodious with more than ample storage and closet space. The bathroom was good-sized, with a bathtub (standard on outside cabins, but with only a shower on the inside), and was well stocked with toiletries in real bottles rather than paper containers.
  • The ship is well designed with an easy flow from deck to deck and fore to aft, with three sets of stairs and elevators. The public rooms were attractive and comfortable. The Crows Nest, located high and forward, was a particular favorite as it offered a wonderful panorama of the sea ahead. Add to this several recliner-type chairs with foot rests and you have a most pleasant and relaxing environment for reading, watching or dozing.

The Minuses

  • As with every ship, however, there were things I didn't care for. For starters, it is hard to find a good location for an outside room without a balcony. These rooms are offered only on the three lowest passenger decks and each of these has its limitations. The A or Dolphin Deck, where we were, is close to the ship's engines, thrusters and machinery, causing unpleasant noise particularly at the fore and aft extremes. Even though our cabin was amidships, we experienced some noise from the stabilizers. The deck above, B Deck, is underneath the wraparound deck, meaning walkers and the occasional rogue jogger (such as myself) are constantly making noise on your ceiling. And finally, rooms on the lower promenade deck are not really desirable because they either overlook the walking deck or are obstructed by ship structures. Those passengers in these rooms expecting to open their curtains and see the beautiful blue sea are more likely to see not-so-beautiful blue hair and fanny packs as walkers huff and puff their way around the deck. The obvious solution is to book a cabin with a verandah (very nice), but if fiscal constraints won't allow it, I'd recommend B Deck amidships as the best compromise.
  • Most of the negatives on the stateroom came from the female perspective. Barbara expressed chagrin at the lack of light at the makeup table and the absence of an outlet for her curling iron in the bathroom. Also, the safe required a credit card to open and close, which was cumbersome and inconvenient.
  • Another complaint I had related to the crowds at the pre-dinner lounges (where the free nuts and hors d'oeuvres were served!) There were only three locations on the ship where you could order drinks and listen to live music, and these tended to fill up early. The ship was full, and I don't imagine this was a problem for First Seating, but still, it was bothersome.
  • My only complaint with the ship's décor was the main dining room. Maybe we have become jaded over recent years, having dined in truly spectacular dining rooms aboard the newer ships of RCI and Princess, but this dining room seemed just a little on the plain side. Also, there were two large chandeliers which appeared to be made of wrought iron, and, to my non-artistic eye, were really ugly.
  •  

Food & Service

The dining room food was outstanding, a noticeable jump from RCI, Princess and Celebrity, and better than I remembered from previous HAL cruises. The fish, in particular, was well prepared: tasty and far fresher than most offerings on cruise lines. Service, as always, was outstanding. At the end of the cruise, everyone at the table received a complimentary set of dinner menus, another nice HAL touch.

The casual dining, self-service Lido restaurant was also good, with options for served meals on certain evenings. Breakfast, our most common meal in the Lido, was notable for its custom egg offerings and choice of freshly toasted bagels, muffins or toast.

We ate once at the Marco Polo, a reservations-only Italian theme alternative restaurant (you're allowed one reservation per cruise, at least in "steerage"). There was no surcharge for this restaurant (we did leave a tip), but interestingly, both Barbara and I found the food in this restaurant not as good as in the main dining area; maybe it was our selection. Anyway, it was a nice change of pace and enjoyable, nevertheless.

Entertainment

This was probably the poorest entertainment, overall, of any of the 12 cruises I have been on. The first night there was no entertainment, other than an introduction of the cruise staff, and the ensuing days assortment of comedians, ventriloquists, singers and ship's company dancers was only average. Entertainment was definitely the weakest aspect of this cruise.

Ports and Shore Activities

Here's a quick summary of the ports we visited, our activities and our opinions:

Half Moon Cay
This is a beautiful private island with a large and gorgeous beach. Two ships were using the island, however, which produced crowds at the luncheon barbecue. Nevertheless, this is one of the better private islands, and it was an enjoyable day.

Caneel BaySt. Thomas
We organized our own tour here. We took a cab from the ship to Red Hook landing where we caught the ferry to Cruz Bay on St. John. Once there, we hiked the Lind Point Trail to Honeymoon Beach and Caneel Bay. Returning, we stumbled across Solamon Beach, which is in a beautiful and isolated location accessible only by foot or boat -- and also a totally nude beach. My reaction? Put on a swimsuit, please! We returned to Cruz Bay and took the ferry to downtown St. Thomas where we had planned on doing some shopping; this was a Sunday, however, and all the shops had closed at noon. Either bad luck or good planning, depending on your perspective. We have been to St. Thomas many times, but between St. Thomas and St. John there is much to do in this port, and we've always enjoyed it.

Martinique
This was an island we had never been to before, so we decided to rent a car and explore the island. Unfortunately, the office for the Avis rental I had booked in the US was nowhere near the piers, so we were forced to rent from a nearby Budget outlet. Budget proved to be a rather serious misnomer as we could get only get a walk-up rate quoted in Martinique Francs, and we didn't know the exchange rate, which seemed to have a huge variance. It is on the credit card, though, so I'm waiting to assess the exact damage, and it isn't going to be pretty.

Once in our high priced, manual transmission, non-air-conditioned Peugeot 106, we attacked the twisty roads of north Martinique and visited a pretty botanical garden, drove through a rain forest, hiked to a deserted waterfall and returned along the coastline. Traffic was bad along the coastal highway and the views not particularly pretty, but some parts of the day's drive were scenic. In retrospect, I wouldn't recommend renting a car here, particularly after filling up the gas tank at about $6.00 a gallon. Even so, I don't think we spent more than we would have on a ship's tour. Overall reaction: a reasonably pretty island with a French flavor, but we wouldn't return there for a dedicated visit.

Trinidad
We took our only ship's tour here. From Port of Spain, we took an air-conditioned bus to the Asa Wright Nature preserve, which was a scenic and interesting botanical and bird watching sanctuary in the mountains of Trinidad. Overall, it was a good look at Trinidad, even though the drive was rather long. One of my pet peeves on tours is the guides who apparently believe that their tips are dependent on how much they talk. After three hours of non-stop jabber, I would have given our guide a tip right then and there just to SHUT UP. Our reaction to this island? See Martinique above.

La Guaira, Venezuela
Been there, done that. We did the city tour/glass factory excursion on our Princess cruise, so with no other desirable tour options, we stayed aboard the ship. We did laundry in the morning (the self service laundries are GREAT on these longer cruises) and just relaxed. I wanted to talk to someone who had taken the Angel Falls tour (at $450 per person) to see what it was like, but couldn't find anyone who did. Overall opinion of La Guaira: a great place to stay aboard and do your laundry.

Curaçao
This was the best port of the cruise. There were three other ships in port, and according to some priority system that no one seemed to understand, we got the dock farthest away from the city. It wasn't a problem for those of us who like to walk, but for some of the less mobile folks it was a real inconvenience.

Curacao
Curaçao

We rented a car again (at a reasonable rate) and drove to the northern part of the island on good roads in light traffic. We toured the Christofel National Park and watched the waves crashing along the beautiful and rugged northern coast. We returned via the southern coast line, where the lovely beach and dive areas are, and returned to the ship for a late room-service lunch. We then set out for Fort Nassau, which overlooks the harbor, and has been converted into an interesting-looking restaurant with a great view. That evening, the ship sailed out of the harbor behind HAL's Amsterdam to the accompaniment of fireworks courtesy of the city of Willemstad. Most enjoyable.

Random Thoughts

In this age of age of "free style" cruising, fewer formal nights, more casual dress and increasing on-board charges, it was refreshing to be on a cruise "the way it used to be." I have always enjoyed many of the cruise traditions that are now being challenged. I like to put on a tux occasionally and attend formal dinners with the women all turned out. I enjoy sitting at the same table with new friends and regular waiters every evening. Over the years, we have met many enjoyable, interesting people at our assigned tables, including this cruise, and these friendships have enhanced the cruise experience considerably. I have nothing against meeting new people, but if you sat with different people every night, would you really get beyond the "where are you from - what do you do - how many cruises have you been on" stage? Also, I'm just a little skeptical that service would be as good if you had a different waiter every night and tips were somehow pooled or included in the fare. Witness the service you typically get at an open-seating lunch compared to your evening dinner at your regular table.

Speaking of tipping, this is not getting any easier. Holland America has a "no tipping required" policy which, as best as I can tell, really means "tipping expected, but we're just a little more subtle about it." Some people believe the "no tipping required policy" and others don't. I usually tip on HAL the same as I do on other cruise lines, but things are getting more confusing. Do you leave separate tips at the alternative restaurants which are a one-time occasion (I did)? If so, do you deduct this much from the daily total you give your regular waiters (I didn't)? How about room service waiters and wine stewards? It is clear that as new ships are built and more dining alternatives are available, the way tips have been handled in the past needs to be revisited. The ideal situation would be to have all tips unambiguously included in the fare, such as a few of the premium cruise lines do, but I fear if this practice became standard industry-wide, service would suffer.

Conclusion

This was a most enjoyable cruise on a quality, traditional cruise line. Holland America has a slogan, "oceans apart" (from other mainstream cruise lines, I assume) which may be a stretch, but I say "large lakes" apart is fairly accurate.

PHOTOS courtesy of Richard P. Shipman.

Line

Richard Shipman is a regular cruiser and has written several reviews for The SeaLetter. He is a pilot with US Airways, and lives in Concord, NC, just outside of Charlotte. Richard may be reached at: ship@vnet.net.


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