Holland America Line
by Larry & Carolyn Leonard
Veendam 7 Day Western Caribbean Cruise
Social Ballroom Dancers Reflect on the March 1999 Big Band Theme Cruise
As first time cruisers, we depended to a great extent on the recommendation of our cruise specialist to match our interests to the many cruise lines and available ships. My wife, Carolyn, and I are social ballroom dancers, among other things. The thought of combining ballroom dancing, which we love, with a cruise, about which we knew very little but had considered for several years, had great appeal to us. We had a number of favorable reports regarding ballroom dancing aboard ship. The idea of dancing on deck under the stars, or alone on one of a cruise liner's intimate (read small) dance floors, is the stuff of movie romances, with the possible exception of the Titanic experience and its murky ending.
We originally booked a cruise on Holland America Line's MS Westerdam, a Glenn Miller Big Band Cruise to the Eastern Caribbean on 9-16 January, 1999. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the cruise and rearrange our plans as the result of a slick dance floor, Carolyn's new dance shoes, a double underarm turn while dancing triple swing at a December 4 Rotary Christmas dance, a broken wrist, and a late night trip to the emergency ward. An orthopedic surgeon attached an external fixator to Carolyn's wrist and made the strong recommendation that we not leave Metropolitan DC until the fixator was removed, eight weeks later.
Our dance instructors at Colvin Run Citizens' Association Dances, Fred Long and Patricia Stranahan, told us about another Holland America Big Band Cruise aboard the MS Veendam, a cruise on which they would offer dance instruction. We immediately signed on the Veendam cruise. Fred Long has taught ballroom dance for 30+ years. Anyone living in the Virginia/DC area who is looking for a dance instructor for private or group instruction should place Fred and Pat at the top of their "to contact" list. The instruction is excellent and fun, and with just a little practice, the dance steps can be readily incorporated and used on the dance floor. With some dance instructors, very little of what they teach can actually be used. Fred is in the Northern Virginia Yellow Pages under Dancing Instruction - "Fred Long The Dancing DJ." He and Pat can also be reached by E-mail as well at: email@example.com.
An Internet search for cruise information in June 1998 led me to The SeaLetter, the absolute best online source of information on cruises, cruise ships, cruise tips and cruise links. Were I writing this article for any other publication, the advice would be the same. There is no better way to prepare for a cruise than to go to the SeaLetter Master Index, download and study the "Cruise Reviews" of cruise lines in which you are interested. Also be sure to download and study all of the "Cruise Tips" articles - they contain a wealth of practical information which you can apply directly to preparation for and enjoyment of any cruise. Then visit the comprehensive cruise links that SeaLetter conveniently makes available for your use and study information obtained from these links. Armed with SeaLetter and peripheral information, you will be one of the best-informed first time or many time cruisers on the ship.
In studying for the cruise, I have read about smooth, relaxed embarkations and embarkations from hell. Our flight arrived at the Fort Lauderdale Airport at 10:30 AM. HAL personnel transported Veendam passengers to the embarkation area at 11:45 AM; boarding began at 1:15 PM; we were escorted to our cabin at 1:40 PM; and all of our luggage was delivered in pristine condition by 2:16 PM. Having no benchmark upon which to base the embarkation process, the time duration seemed reasonable to me. The process was orderly, photos were taken as we boarded, and all instructions were clear and easy to follow.
A number of reviews have described the interior of the Veendam, so I will be brief, concentrating primarily on the dance floor accommodations. From the moment that we came on board, we were very favorably impressed by the muted elegance of the ship. The Veendam's included art, antiques and artifacts, the use of earth tones, natural woods and polished brass in the very pleasing decor, and the design and flow from one functional area to another made us feel almost immediately comfortable with our new surroundings. Throughout the ship, lovely fresh floral arrangements were interspersed, further enhancing the very tasteful adornment.
Take the orientation tour of the ship, offered the first afternoon on board, to familiarize yourself with its many areas and features. Be sure to remove the color-coded deck plan from the Holland America cruise brochure and take it on the tour so that you will be able to identify the deck and location of each site visited on the tour, and with any luck return later.
The Veendam is a small floating city with many interesting features that you should visit during your cruise. If you don't take the tour and you don't explore the ship using the deck plan, you will very likely not locate features that might be favorites if you were aware of them. Among the many rooms and areas other than the very comfortable passenger cabins, the ship houses: five lounges varying in size from small and intimate cocktail and piano lounges to a large, two-tiered theater lounge; an auditorium/movie theater; a very pleasant library with elegant writing desks and a small collection of fiction and non-fiction works which passengers may sign-out to their cabins; a card room; a puzzle room; several duty-free shops that offer quality merchandise; a two-level stately dining room; a cafeteria-style restaurant on the Lido deck offering delicious food and wonderful views of ports, passing ships and the ocean; a three-level atrium containing a three-level work of art, "Jacob's Ladder"; two swimming pools (one fresh water, one salt water); a beauty salon; a health spa; a gym; an ice cream bar; a coffee/tea bar; tennis courts; volleyball courts; a casino; and last, and of major interest to ballroom dancers, three dance floors (a relatively decent sized one -- I won't say large -- in the front of the Rubens Lounge stage, and two small floors, one each in the Ocean Bar and the Crow's Nest). All three dance floors are polished marble, reasonable for dancing, but not nearly as nice as a large floating oak floor. We measured each of the dance floors using a 10-foot tape measure purchased at Fay's Fabrics in Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island (see next section).
The Band and Dancing
This particular cruise was a Big Band Theme Cruise, originally scheduled for HAL's Westerdam, but rescheduled for the Veendam when the Westerdam was completely booked for other purposes. Ballroom dancing and a big band were what initially interested us in taking a cruise. HAL schedules several Big Band Theme Cruises each year, primarily in the Caribbean, but also including a Spring and Fall Trans-Atlantic cruise. HAL books one of the following Big Bands for each cruise: the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Buddy Morrow; the Glenn Miller Orchestra; and Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians with Al Pierson.
Fortunately, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra was booked for this cruise (the Glenn Miller Orchestra would have been equally fine). I danced to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the early 50s at Elitch Gardens ballroom in Denver, Colorado. I enjoyed the sound then, and I enjoyed the sound of the current big band with band leader Buddy Morrow. They played in the Rubens Lounge from Sunday through Wednesday nights and again on Friday and Saturday night. On Thursday evening, they played poolside on the Lido deck.
The dance floor in the Rubens Lounge was directly in front of the stage, a polished marble floor. In shape, it was a trapezoid (one side of a truncated obelisk) with slightly oval ends, 14 feet wide near the stage, increasing to 22 feet wide at the base farthest from the stage, and a total length of 19.3 feet (340 square feet total with credit for the oval ends - liberal calculation). It accommodated 18 to 20 couples (actual observation) with reasonable comfort and some room to dance. Above 20 couples, dancers experience bumping and an occasional dancer's foot not belonging to you or your partner. The overflow crowd tried to dance on stage the first night. The stage, however, had a rubberized surface suitable for acrobats or gymnasts, but not good for ballroom dancers. Dancing to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra was generally fun, even if there were too many dancers on the floor at any time. (Note: A 4 foot by 5 foot space - 20 square feet - accommodates one dance couple for Latin/rhythm dances - cha-cha, hustle, mambo, merengue, rumba, samba, and swing - if they take small steps. For smooth dances - foxtrot, tango and waltz - the same 20 square feet should be adequate as they move counter-clockwise around the dance floor observing line of dance).
The dance floors in the Ocean Bar and the Crow's Nest were basically rectangles of marble with a corner cut off here and there, and an occasional truncation on a long side. The Ocean Bar dance floor rectangle (before truncations) was 20.3 feet by 15.8 feet (275 square feet total of dance space after truncations - liberal calculation). The Crow's Nest dance floor rectangle (again, before truncations) was 19.5 feet by 13.9 feet (235 square feet total of dance space after truncations - liberal calculation). Each dance floor accommodated 10 to 12 couples; any number above 12 again elicited bumping, some stomping and an occasional frustrated look. The City Lights Trio played a variety of good dance music from 5:00 to 6:00 PM and again from 9:00 PM to Midnight each night in the Ocean Bar, playing any and all request numbers. The Pandigenous Steel Band played in the Crow's Nest from 9:00 PM to 11:00 PM. A DJ took over from 11:00 until the last dancers quit for the night. The Veendam Orchestra filled in for Wednesday night dancing.
Ocean Bar Dance Floor
Fred and Pat provided dance instruction each day in the Ocean Bar. They taught advanced patterns for several ballroom dance steps, offering an afternoon lesson on port days and morning and afternoon lessons on sea days. The instruction was excellent and the classes were fun, even on the Monday rough seas day. Fred taught a drunken sailor step on Monday afternoon that complemented well the roll of the ship.
The Veendam dance floors were designed to accommodate only a relatively small number of dancers at any one time, a situation common, I imagine, to many other ships as well. I am told that the older ships tend to have larger dance floors. I will check to see if that is a pattern that dancers could generally expect. With the resurgence of interest in ballroom dancing, dancers on existing ships may have a problem if there are a number of passengers on board who are interested in dancing, and they try to dance on one dance floor at the same time. (See Final Thoughts for comments on Big Band Theme Cruises).
Food and Service
The food and service on the Veendam deserve a solid "10" but get only a "9." Holland America Line does not believe in the "10" rating, stating that they are not perfect, but have room for improvement as they receive feedback from passengers, and as they adjust and affect service modifications. In essence, Holland America has redefined the rating scale from 1 to 9 rather than 1 to 10. We rated every element but one a "9" (see Ports section).
Dining aboard the Veendam is a delightful experience, whether in the lovely Rotterdam Dining Room or in the Lido Restaurant. Although the food and ambiance of the Lido Restaurant are very good, we prefer a dining room setting to that of an upscale and pleasant cafeteria-type situation. After the ship settled down from rough seas on Monday (see Seasickness Test section), we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room. Service in the Dining Room was superb at each meal. The food was well prepared and delicious. The Chef and kitchen crew prepared food portions that were just right, not too small and not too filling. Not only was the food delicious but the presentation was a delight as well.
All of our meals on the Veendam, either in the Dining Room or the Lido Restaurant, were enjoyable. The dining room stewards delivered wonderful service. For the breakfast and luncheon meals we had different waiters, depending upon where in the Rotterdam we were seated. We had an assigned table, first seating, for all evening dinners, with the same Dining Room steward and assistant dining room steward each day. We could not have asked for two nicer, more professional, gracious and friendly persons than Jaya and Yohanes. The impeccable service complimented well the formal Dining Room. We had the good fortune to be seated with three delightful couples from our dance group: Floyd and Fran Clark; Bill and Ruth Kreitz; and Clay and Doris Pioth. With the combination of dinner companions, delicious, well-presented food and marvelous service, we looked forward to dinner each evening. We all went to a late evening chocolate dessert extravaganza with Bob and Nancy Hoyler, dancers from an adjoining dinner table, took photos of the many elegant dessert creations, and sampled several more than we really needed, having a delightful time in the process.
Our cabin steward, Hamdi, gave us the same friendly, professional service that we experienced in the dining room and other areas of the ship. He never intruded, but always was there to clean and straighten the room after we had left it, replenishing the fruit bowl, turning down the bed each night, and responding immediately to any request. Service could not have been better. Comedian Don Sherman said that he got up late one night to go to the bathroom and the bed was made when he returned (comedic exaggeration, but not far from the truth). He swore that his cabin steward must have been sleeping in one of the dresser drawers.
In 1988, Carolyn and I were supposed to take a hydrofoil from Sorrento to Capri. The water was so choppy that we had to go to Capri on a mid-sized ferry instead. The sea became even choppier as we sailed toward Capri, and passengers in the bow of the ferry became ill. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing from the bow to the stern, and the spray carried about a quarter of the length of the ferry. Fortunately, we were in the ferry's stern. People became ill over the side of the ferry, or stumbled to the restrooms. We didn't become seasick, just wished that we were not where we were at the time. With that introduction to seasickness, we felt reasonably confident that we would have no problems on a cruise ship in rough water.
Veendam Seasickness Test
In preparation for the cruise, we bought Dramamine, Bonine, ginger wafers (Solaray Ginger Trips), and wrist bracelets, just in case. The first night of the cruise, Sunday night, the ship encountered winds of 40 to 50 knots, a situation that lasted into Monday night. Large swells developed and the ship experienced pronounced motion both port to starboard [roll] and bow to stern [pitch]. Despite the size of the Veendam, the ride was rough and walking around the ship was definitely not easy going. When walking is difficult on a cruise ship, try dancing or T`ai Chi for a really different experience.
Early Monday morning, we took several Ginger Trips wafers, and took more periodically throughout the day. During a wine tasting at 10:30 Monday morning in the Rotterdam Dining Room's lower level, we heard plates and silverware dropping to the floor from the upper level tables. While we were in a dance class in the Ocean Bar on the Upper Promenade deck level Monday afternoon, a wave crashed against the windows at that deck level. That was as good a test of our susceptibility to seasickness on a cruise ship as I want to have, and with the help of ginger tablets, we got through to calmer waters with no problems. Other passengers could not make that claim. When the Veendam staff put motion sickness bags in the elevators, we knew that a number of the passengers were not doing well. The Monday night dining room tables had a number of empty chairs. The Captain and crew did all that they could to steer clear of the worst of the storm, but it was widespread and not something that they could avoid. We will take ginger wafers on all future cruises; they really seemed to work for us.
We rated the ports lower than "9." However, we came for the cruise and the ship, not for the ports, so anything of interest in each port was a plus. We were underwhelmed by Cozumel. What we could see of Cozumel near the docking area was not particularly interesting - a collection of tired shops with tired merchandise. I'm sure that there must be more interesting areas. We passed on the Mayan ruins this trip, but will likely take the time given a second cruise with a Cozumel stop. Georgetown, Grand Cayman Island, was a marked and pleasant contrast to Cozumel. Many interesting shops and restaurants were interspersed among the 450+ banks of Georgetown, a British colony looking very British. There are a number of very expensive stores in Georgetown, so if you want to do any serious Georgetown shopping, bring a serious amount of money.
We had heard that walking around Ocho Rios, Jamaica could be hazardous to your health if you ventured into non-tourist areas. We heeded the warnings, just as we pay attention to similar warnings regarding areas of many large American cities. We didn't meet any bad guys; in fact, we met a number of very nice, very decent Jamaican merchants, and even several taxi drivers not out to rip us off, Mon. In Half Moon Cay, Holland America's island in the Bahamas, we enjoyed a leisurely walk along a gorgeous beach, and did the last of our shopping for friends and relatives. We are not bake-in-the-sun people or snorkelers, but enjoyed the island, and were pleased that much of it was not commercially developed. HAL has done a fine job of developing a small portion for passengers' activities while leaving most of it as a lovely Bahamian Island.
For those passengers interested in locating Internet sites through which to check e-mail and whatever else, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that Cozumel, Georgetown and Ocho Rios have businesses that provide Internet access. The bad news is that the one Internet workstation in Georgetown was "temporarily" not functioning and the Ocho Rios Internet site is somewhat difficult to find. [Cozumel: Calling Station - walk left from the docking area toward the Meridian Hotel. The Calling Station is on the right side of the street and has four Internet workstations. Georgetown: Cable and Wireless Company - I hope that the workstation is now operating. Ocho Rios: Mil-Bes Academy Computer Centre, 81A Main Street - suggest that you take a cab. The school is reputable, but outside the normal tourist beat. After 10 minutes on the Internet, I was presented a bill for $90, fortunately Jamaican dollars, about $3 US].
Debarkation was just as orderly and painless as embarkation. Color-coded luggage tags (for passenger/luggage destination sorting in the debarkation area) and debarkation numbers were distributed to passengers the day before debarkation. All checked luggage had to be tagged and placed outside passenger cabins by 2:00 AM on debarkation day. We had a leisurely, delicious breakfast in the Rotterdam Dining Room at 6:45 AM, and then relaxed in the Library until our debarkation number was called. Debarkation began at 8:30 AM, and our number was called at 8:50. We walked down the gangway, claimed our luggage in the color-coded debarkation area, moved it to an airport bus, boarded the bus at 9:15 AM, arrived at the Miami Airport at 9:55, and were on our way home with no mishaps and no hassles.
If a Big Band Cruise draws a large number of people who simply want to listen to the big band sound, that is a major plus for ballroom dancers who may then have enough space to dance even if there are only minimal dance floor accommodations on a ship. It is great to meet and mingle with other people who share a genuine interest in ballroom dancing, and to dance on the same floor, noticing steps in common and steps that we might want to learn. If a Big Band Cruise with very limited dance floor space draws a large number of ballroom dancers, it is not so great since we will be competing for floor space with these same dancers who naturally will want to take every opportunity to dance at least as much as Carolyn and I do. To paraphrase the King in "Anna and the King of Siam," a Big Band Theme Cruise "Is a puzzlement." For dancers and quasi-dancers who are satisfied with a businessmen's shuffle or disco-type dancing, shifting from one foot to the other, generally in time with the music and remaining in the same relative spot on the dance floor, an overly crowded floor with static dancing may be acceptable. For ballroom dancers who want to observe a line of dance for smooth dances, or have enough dance floor space for Latin/rhythm dances, an overly crowded floor with groups of static, inexperienced dancers quickly becomes a frustration. For dancers who do Lindy swing dancing, on a crowded floor their dancing may be hazardous to the health of other dancers around them.
Given these considerations, we very much enjoyed our first cruise and were highly impressed with the Holland America Line (even with the limited dance floor space; it would likely be more than adequate on a cruise with many fewer dancers than were aboard this Big Band Cruise). It's a good thing that we did enjoy the cruise, since we had already booked a HAL 16-day Panama Canal cruise to San Francisco 18 April through 4 May 1999 on the Noordam before beginning the March Veendam cruise. We look forward to many future cruises on Holland America Line.
We have contacted the U.S. Amateur Ballroom Dancers Association (we are members) and the Cruise Lines International Association regarding their interest in a listing of dance floors (number and size) on all ships for which the major Cruise Line's will furnish the information. We will work through the Rotarians' International Fellowship of Ballroom Dancing (I am the Vice Chair this year) in obtaining the information and compiling a listing. The list would be of interest to ballroom dance groups and couples planning cruises, letting dancers know what to expect concerning dance facilities as they develop cruise plans. Dancing under the stars on a cruise deck is a nice thought, as long as there are one or more sizable dance floors somewhere inside the ship, with a good band or combo, and large windows offering views of the ocean and/or ports as the dancers move around the floor.
Photos by Larry & Carolyn Leonard
Larry and Carolyn Leonard live in Springfield, VA, and have recently retired from mid-upper level management positions with research libraries in the private sector, academe and government. They are enthusiastic social ballroom dancers, avid walkers, T`ai Chi players, travelers, readers, movie buffs (Larry is a SAG movie extra), computer junkies and now, cruise advocates. They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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