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.
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.
m/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.
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.
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
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.
La Guaira, Venezuela
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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com.
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