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Cruise Ship Review
Holland America Line

Volendam

by Gregory S. Neal

Volendam

Holland America has become our favorite cruise line. Their quiet, refined atmosphere and tradition of exceptional service, combined with a welcome lack of crowds and long lines, appeals to us. Hence, when it came time to select our January 2002 Caribbean cruise, the choice of line was not in question; the choice of itinerary was another matter. After much discussion, my traveling companion and I decided upon the 10-Day Southern Caribbean Wayfarer Cruise aboard the ms Volendam. From our past experience, we had every reason to expect a marvelous adventure, and we were not disappointed. This was, by far, the best cruise we have yet taken.

Arrival and Sail-Away

We arrived at Ft. Lauderdale after a full but quiet flight from Dallas. Since we had arranged our own air transportation, and had not purchased a transfer to the port, we had to wait forever for our luggage at the baggage claim area, followed by another long delay at the Yellow Cab taxi stand. The money we saved by arranging our own air transport was probably still worth this frustration, but for many minutes I gave a lot of thought to purchasing the HAL-arranged air and ground transfers in the future.

We finally managed to secure a taxi and were swiftly taken to Port Everglades, where we got into a fast-paced line to check in; the whole process at the pier went like clockwork, and while additional security was noted, it didn't present any problems or slow down the process at all. After checking in and receiving our shipboard ID cards, we were invited to wait with our fellow passengers in the terminal lounge. We were with group #25 to board, and while it must have taken about 45 minutes for the process to work its way up to our number, this wasn't a problem - we were relaxing in the Terminal lounge, enjoying conversation with new friends and anticipating the ten days of luxury that were to come. When our number was called, we went up the escalator to the second floor of the terminal and joined the line to board. We presented our ID card and our passports to the security officer on duty, paused to have our photograph taken, and then made our way down the enclosed gangway and into the ship to a chorus of "Welcome back onboard!"

We were introduced to a white-gloved porter who took one of our carry-on bags and swiftly escorted us to our mini-suite on the Verandah Deck (#6145). Our room was in excellent condition - clean and well maintained, just as we have always come to expect. There was no sign of the traditional bowl of fruit: clearly, a victim of the budget cuts of which we had heard many rumors, but it was not missed. A goodie basket (with candy, chocolate bars, and other sweets) was present, our mini-bar was well stocked, and the small refrigerator had an ample supply of beverages. Most of our luggage showed up before we had the time to stand on the verandah for more than 15 minutes and "enjoy" our view of the busy HAL terminal, but not all of our bags were present. We called and were informed that our additional bag would show up soon. And, sure enough, it did.

After unpacking, we proceeded up to the Lido Restaurant for a wonderful late afternoon (it was about 3:30pm) bite to eat and a brief exploration of the ship before returning to our cabin to don our life vests and attend the mandatory lifeboat drill. As such drills go, this one wasn't too bad; most of the passengers showed up quickly, although on the starboard side of the ship - the side facing the pier - it was difficult to hear the crew calling out cabin numbers due to the noise from the port. One bonus: while they were calling out cabin numbers we got to watch as the QE2 pulled away from a nearby pier . . . what a lovely sight!

After returning our life vests to our cabin and freshening up, we went to the aft Lido Deck pool for the sail-away party. We picked up a couple of the sail-away margaritas, served in a tall HAL glass with the ships of the fleet printed on its side (to add to our collection), and wandered around for a bit as we listened to the band, and I shot some video. It was rather loud and crowded, so after the Veendam departed (she was docked behind us at the pier), we left the Lido and proceeded up to our favorite haunt for departures and arrivals, the Crow's Nest Lounge. There we sat where we could have a good view out the port side of the ship, drink a few cocktails, and enjoy the sights as we backed out from the dock, turned around, and then sprinted out past the beach-side condos and on into the Atlantic. Ah, it was a joy to be aboard ship and at sea again!

Eating One's Way Across The Caribbean

Much is said about the food on Holland America being a bit bland, and this is generally true: they appear to have geared the cuisine to please a slightly less-spicy palate. However, apart from this, the food is excellent, well prepared, well presented and very plentiful. One can, in effect, eat one's way across the Caribbean. Of course, by the time you get to the other side you'll be larger than the Volendam, but that's your problem.

There are several places to chow down aboard the Volendam:

The Rotterdam Dining Room
This is the formal dining venue where the three main meals of the day are served. For breakfast (8:00am - 9:30am) and lunch (12:30pm - 1:30pm), seating is open, but for dinner, all passengers have both an assigned seating time (early: 6:00pm, and late: 8:15pm) as well as an assigned dining table. Holland America has not succumbed to the current fad of "freestyle dining," with no formal seatings for dinner. If one wishes to experience the traditional style of cruise dining from yesteryear, eat your meals in the Rotterdam Dining Room. While at sea, we take all our dinners there, and a few breakfasts and lunches, too. We had second seating for dinner, which we much prefer over first seating because it allows more time after port departures for dressing for dinner.

The Lido Restaurant
This is the primary alternative dining venue onboard. Here one may find food and drink at nearly any hour of the day or night, presented in a casual atmosphere. If you're looking for a light Continental Breakfast (6:30am - 10:30am), or if you would rather begin your day with a hearty buffet filled with eggs, bacon, hash browns, etc., (7:00am - 10:30am), here's where you want to come. Lunch begins before the smell of bacon is gone (11:30am - 2:00pm), and if your speed is a nice oriental stir fry or a great big Reuben sandwich, you can find that here, too, at the portside Stir Fry Bar and the starboard side Deli Bar. What HAL terms a "Casual" Dinner (6:00pm - 7:30pm) is also served here in semi-restaurant style, with waiter-service, but without assigned tables.

The Lido is also where the "Late Night Snack" can be found (11:30pm - 12:30am), usually presented in geographical Themes (an Alaskan night, a Mexican night, an Italian night, etc.). Ice cream can be found in the Lido, too (11:30am - 5:00pm and 11:30 pm - 12:30am), and for no extra charge! This is also where the famed Dessert Extravaganza takes place one night each cruise . . . don't miss it: the chocolate and cheese cakes are to die for.

The Marco Polo Restaurant
This is the formal alternative dining room where, if you can get reservations, you can eat dinner in class and style (6:00pm - 9:15pm). The meals are Italian, and by all reports outstanding. We didn't get to sample their fare because we were slow about making our reservations and, as a result, they were booked solid for the remainder of the cruise when we finally did check. We'll try again next time.

The Lido Poolside Grill
Here one can chow down on pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, tacos, salad, and a host of other fattening and delicious foods. If one gets back from a shore excursion late, this really is the place to head (11:30am - 5:30pm) for a quick bite to tide one over until dinner.

Staffing Cuts Hit the Rotterdam Dining Room

Prior to taking this cruise on the Volendam, I had been reading about the severe impact that the 9-11 terrorism attacks had on the cruise lines. One of the things that I had read was that there had been some major cuts in the service staff aboard the Holland America Line, and that these cuts were especially noticeable in the Rotterdam Dining Rooms across the fleet. As a result of these reports, I went with an eye especially attuned to identifying any drop in the level or quality of service. On the whole, while a few cuts were in evidence, they were not especially troubling, nor were they long lasting.

For example, dinner our first night out from Ft. Lauderdale was excellent - it tasted wonderful and the selections were sufficiently broad enough to tempt even a finicky eater. But the service left something to be desired. There must have been about 2/3 the normal number of staff present in the Dining Room, and the service was slow and disorganized as a result. Additionally, the wine steward had to be requested four times before he appeared. We could tell they were doing their very best, but with too few staff members on duty, that simply wasn't good enough. A couple of us had a few pleasant words with one of the supervisors and were told to expect things to improve. And, thankfully, things did improve.

What to Wear, What to Wear?

During the day, nearly any kind of casual wear is acceptable: shorts, t-shirts, jeans, slacks, sports shirts, polo shirts, Hawaiian shirts . . . the list could go on and on. Days aboard a Holland America Ship are casual, laid back, and relaxed. Evenings, however, are another matter entirely. Some people complain about the dress code on HAL being too regimented, too strict, too reminiscent of "the old days." There may well be some truth to these complaints, but it's part of Holland America's style and atmosphere: there is a dress code for each evening, and all guests are asked to follow it as best they can.

It's not as if it's difficult. They have made it easy to follow the code by having only three kinds of evenings: Formal, Informal, and Casual. They even tell you, the day before, which kind of night it will be and make suggestions as to what one might want to wear. In general, the following guidelines constitute the "dress code":

  • Formal: Tuxedoes or business suits are suggested for men, with jacket and tie being required; cocktail or evening gowns are suggested for women.
  • Informal: Jackets are required for men, while dresses or blouses and slacks are suggested for women.
  • Casual: Comfortable attire is encouraged, but shorts, T-shirts, and jeans are expressly discouraged.

The dress code is intended to promote a festive evening environment - "come on guys, it's a tuxedo, not a straight jacket!" - and all passengers are encouraged to follow the code throughout the evening. On this cruise of the Volendam, it appeared as though just about everybody was taking the spirit of the code to heart with little, if any, grumbling. And that was a blessing; on some previous cruises a few passengers could be heard complaining, rather loudly, about having to get "dressed up" for dinner . . . as if it were a major imposition. In my opinion, it's part of the fun of making a cruise. On a 10-day cruise, the normal number of Formal Nights is three, with two Informals and five Casuals.

A Day At Sea

On our first full day at sea, we slept late, missing breakfast, but awoke in time to attend the pre-auction art lecture and walk the deck for 25 or 30 minutes, enjoying the beautiful blue sky and strong sea breeze. We ate lunch in the Rotterdam Dining Room and were pleased not only with the quality of the food, but also with the level of service. The waiter who took our order was efficient, and the busboy who assisted him was quick. Our meal was ordered and delivered quickly, efficiently, and with the care and grace that we have grown to love on Holland America ships. And the food was excellent, too: the lettuce in my Chicken Caesar Salad was cold, crisp, and refreshing, while the chicken was warm and tender and the dressing had a kick, but wasn't too strong or too thick. Such balance is a rare combination, even in land-based restaurants.

That afternoon I was naughty: I won about $190 at the Blackjack table, then gave back nearly all of my winnings to a poker machine. I would end the cruise losing more money than I won, so that first time at the tables must have been a fluke. In truth, I should avoid the casino; it's a bad habit.

 

I spent a few hours exploring the ship, discovering the minor differences in layout and character between this vessel and the other ships of the HAL fleet we had been on. The Volendam is a work of art in motion. She is among the largest of the Holland America ships, yet still of a size to allow one to get to know in a few days' time. She is 781 feet long, 105.8 feet wide, and weighs in at 63,000 GRT. She can make 23 knots, though she rarely goes that fast, and can carry 1440 passengers at double occupancy (two per stateroom). A mega-ship she is not.

On my self-guided tour of the ship I took my digital camera with me and snapped a host of photos of all the lounges and public rooms. It was a nice exploration, and I discovered some critical differences between the Volendam class and her slightly smaller Statendam class sisters. For example, access to the prow observation deck is through two large, unmarked, watertight doors at the center-front of the promenade, where one crosses from side to side.

Show LoungeThe Captain's reception is always on the first formal night of the cruise, and is usually a pleasant way of getting to know some more passengers while also getting to eyeball what they're wearing. On the Volendam, this was great fun, with the free champagne flowing and excellent hors d'oeuvres being served throughout the Frans Hals Lounge. The Volendam Orchestra played an assortment of Big Band music - Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James - while several couples "cut a rug" on the dance floor for so long that Jay Bernard, the Cruise Director, had to ask them to "please be seated so that the captain can make his address."

One of the biggest criticisms one hears of HAL is that so many of its passengers are "older than average," and this means that the night life on a HAL ship is supposed to be "dead." Well, for my taste, it's a joy to be around so many people with so much experience and wisdom. And . . . my! . . . how these "old geezers " can boogie, even late into the night! They were great fun to watch!

Dinner was EXCELLENT. The food was superb and the service was, without question, precisely what HAL always has provided. It was clear that all of the Dining Room staff were pitching in to help at all the tables in their area, and not just at their own assigned tables. They really hustled that night, and made dinner perfect. We were also surprised to discover Baked Alaska on the first formal night; we've been used to this on the last formal night of a cruise, but this change was a great, festive way of beginning the cruise.

After dinner we attended the "Las Vegas" production in the Frans Hals show lounge, and enjoyed it immensely. Another common criticism of HAL is that its entertainment is not the best, but this cruise of the Volendam proved to have some of the best shows I've ever seen on Holland America. After the show we went to the Explorer's Lounge for drinks and some pleasant conversation with our fellow passengers and some of the ship's officers, while listening to the lovely music of the Champagne Strings. All in all, it was a lovely evening and the close of a wonderful day, as most days at sea are.

Surfing the World Wide Web While At Sea

The Volendam is equipped for internet access via satellite, with accommodations for passengers to surf the web while at sea in the Internet Café. This little lounge is located on the Upper Promenade deck between the Library and the Hudson Room and, at least on this cruise of the Volendam, was well used throughout the ten days. It is unfortunate that Holland America doesn't provide data ports in the staterooms, though future ships are supposed to be so equipped. It would also be nice to be able to write one's letters on one's own computer and then transfer them to the HAL-provided terminals for upload to the internet, but this is also not possible. Instead, to use the terminals at all - even for drafting an email while one is not signed onto the internet - one's shipboard account is charged 50¢ a minute.

The alternative for those who know they'll be using the internet and the ship's computers extensively, is to pay a one-time fee of $169.95 and gain unlimited access for the duration of the cruise. This was an excellent deal, and I took it. It enabled me to communicate with friends and church members all over the world, make reports of my cruise to my favorite boards, and keep track of what was going on with my family at home without having to fork over $15.00 a minute for ship-to-shore telephone calls. The terminals provided access to the internet through several different service providers, including AOL and Earthlink, and I was told that if you had your account information you could sign on through whatever internet provider you use.

The Lounges of the Volendam

There are many places onboard the Volendam to kick back and relax, read, chat, listen to music, drink tea, coffee, a cocktail, or a soft drink, and just enjoy the days at sea or in port. Among these are the wonderful lounges. Everyone has their favorites, but mine are the Crow's Nest and the Explorer's Lounge, with the Piano Bar/Sea View Lounge a close third.

Crows NestThe Crow's Nest is a wonderful place - a bar, really - perched high up above the bridge. From here one has unsurpassed views of the open seas which stretch ahead, or of any ports which the ship may be approaching or departing. It is one of my favorite places to go with a book and my sunglasses; I like to sit back in a recliner, my feet up, a soft drink at my elbow, and spend a few hours reading and/or gazing at the ocean. During calm seas, as they were during most of this trip, the view is incredible, with only tiny ripples visible breaking the surface of the water. On high-sea days, the calm beauty of a lazy Caribbean day is replaced by an altogether different kind of beauty. As the prow of the ship slams the water, and as the waves surge up over the forward deck, one can come to know the true power and awesome majesty of the sea. In such times, and from such a perspective, one gains a new, deeply felt respect and love for these wonderful ships and the men and women who sail them.

But, such days were not to be found on a lazy January afternoon in the middle of the Caribbean. All of our days this cruise were pleasant, with moderate seas and refreshing breezes. And no place gave one a more lofty view of this beauty than the Crow's Nest. During the evenings, and on into the wee hours of the morning, one can find live dance music and, later, a DJ and recorded music. This is the place where, if one is so inclined, a loud and active nightlife can be found onboard the Volendam.

Explorers LoungeThe Explorer's Lounge is my second favorite haunt onboard. It is an excellent place for afternoon high tea, conversation, reading, and after-dinner drinks. The classical string quartet which plays here during the after dinner hours - on the Volendam, the "Champagne Strings" - is very good, with a broad repertoire of classical pieces. During the day, one can find art lectures, discussions on formal dining, the daily high teas, and a great place for quiet conversations, reading, or writing.

 

The Piano Bar and the Sea View Lounge are third on my list of favorite haunts onboard. Piano BarThis is an excellent place to come and listen to jazz and popular favorites, engage in a game of "name that tune," sip the "drink of the day," and enjoy excellent hors d'oeuvres before going on to dinner. During the day, it's a nice secluded spot to read, engage in an informative conversation with a member of the cruise staff or a fellow passenger, or even practice the piano! There is a dance floor in the middle of it, although except for when an upbeat rendition of "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" and "The Way You Look Tonight" was being played on the piano, I didn't see very many people dancing here. This is also where the captain likes to hold some of the special VIP receptions, including the one held for the Suite Passengers, because the Piano Bar can be curtained off from the Sea View Lounge and hallway.

There are other Bars and Lounges onboard the Volendam, like the Ocean Bar and the Sports Lounge, and we visited them all at least once while on this cruise, but the above were my favorites.

Port Days

On the 10-Day Southern Caribbean Wayfarer Cruise we visited Curaçao, La Guaira/Caracas (Venezuela), Trinidad, Martinique, St. Thomas, and Half Moon Cay. Each port was excellent, and while there were many different things to do in each, I can only speak to the specific excursions which we took.

Curaçao
We arrived in Willemstad, Curaçao, about an hour earlier than projected, but we didn't miss the arrival, since I had planned to get up early anyway. It was a lovely approach, even though the sky was overcast. After breakfast in the Lido, and a few minutes of photography from the Sports Deck and the Crow's Nest, we went down, made landfall, and joined up with our excursion group: "The Island Drive."

This tour was a pleasant drive out and around Willemstad, with visits to several of the more famous sites and Land Houses. The most impressive part of the excursion, however, was the tour leader - she was a wealth of information about the island, its culture, history, and government. Between our stops, she carried on an animated monologue about her home island. Between stops, we drove through the various housing districts, so we got to see what she defined as "upper middle class" as well as the "housing projects" which were run by the government. It was, while not the BEST tour we've ever been on, certainly informative and worth the time.

After returning to the ship at noon, we ate lunch in the Lido Restaurant and then headed out again, this time on our own, to cross the Queen Wilhelmina pontoon bridge and enter the older section of Willemstad. We visited the Mikve Israel Emmanuel Synagogue, which was by far the highlight of the visit, as well as Fort Amsterdam. The buildings are lovely, and the people are kind and not at all pushy . . . even when it looked like we had no intention of buying anything. The shopkeepers of Jamaica could learn a thing or two from the wonderful people in Willemstad. I really enjoyed the stay.

We returned to the ship from our self-conducted tour at about 4pm, which provided plenty of time for a shower and a short nap, both of which were very important because we were HOT and tired. The air temperature was high, the humidity VERY high, and the sunlight VERY VERY bright.

The evening schedule was a little different than normal. They had "the Great Volendam Deck Party" on the central pool deck, with excellent BBQ and other tasty items, accompanied by music. We ate a snack there at 6:15pm, but then also attacked the Rotterdam Dining Room at 8:15 pm for an EXCELLENT dinner. After dinner, although so stuffed we felt like beached whales, we went up to the Sports Deck and watched as the ship pulled out of Willemstad at 10pm, followed almost immediately by a fireworks show. It was a nice program, but nothing super-spectacular, and we were told that this show is put on every time a HAL ship leaves port at night. After the fireworks, everyone rushed downstairs to the Frans Hals Show Lounge for the evening's entertainment.

La Guaira/Caracas, Venezuela
We arrived in La Guaira, Venezuela, at about 6:45am. From our veranda we had a view of three military patrol boats, a World War Two era destroyer which now belongs to the Venezuelan Navy, and several large freighters. The port of La Guaira really looked awful . . . it is a noisy, dirty industrial port, with nothing easily accessible from the pier without one having to take ground transportation. We were warned about crime, and counseled that we should either take one of the many planned excursions or avoid disembarking. The view of the town beyond the port also wasn't too encouraging: the streets were congested with traffic and the mountainside behind the port was covered with tiny, shack-like houses which, we would later learn, are called "ranchitos." It was not a pleasant sight.

We took the "Grand Tour of Caracas," a 9-hour excursion and, by far, one of the best offerings to be had here. By bus we traveled for 35 minutes along a fairly modern highway up into and through the mountains, and on into the valley where the city of Caracas is located. The drive provided for some lovely views of the Venezuelan countryside, as well as more views - in the distance - of the "ranchitos." We learned that squatters lived in these homemade shacks, receiving city services and electrical power for free.

Once in Caracas, we first visited Quinta Anauco, which is a well-maintained 17th century Spanish manor which now houses the Museum of Colonial Art. It was an excellent tour, and our guide - who was with us for the entire excursion - did an excellent job of presenting all of the details about the house and about all subsequent stops. He was very easy to talk with, and had an excellent sense of humor.

The second stop included a trip on a cable car up to the top of Mt. Ávila (7000 feet above sea level) from where we had (through periodic breaks in the clouds) a breathtaking view of both the Caribbean on one side and Caracas on the other. This is a new stop on the "Full Day Excursion in Caracas," and they're still working on the hotel at the top of the mountain.

After a stop for lunch at a hotel, we visited the Boulevard of the Heroes, where our guide gave us a detailed account of the history of Venezuela, making reference to the monuments found there in the process. This was one of the most informative parts of the tour, which is really saying something because all the stops were very informative. Our last stop before returning to the Volendam was at the Murano Venetian Glass Factory, where we got to spend an hour watching as glass art was handmade, talk with those who did the work, and then shop for some of their glassware. It was one of the few places on this tour of Venezuela where we could actually do some shopping. All in all, the visit to Caracas was a real treat.

Trinidad
We arrived in Trinidad at 12 noon, and our tour was one of the first to leave the ship. We took the "Monastery Excursion," and I'm glad we did, because we heard that some of those who went on the Culture trip either got "sunstroke" or were otherwise exhausted by their day. In comparison, we had a pleasant afternoon; the Monastery trip took us up into the mountains and gave us a cool, shaded, relaxing afternoon.

We toured the Mount St. Benedict Monastery, visited their chapel, learned about the history of their presence on the island, had afternoon tea in their Guest House, and shopped in their gift store. It was a very nice afternoon, the views of the central plain of the island from the mountaintop were lovely, and both the monastery guide and our transport guide were excellent. During the trip to and from the monastery, we learned a great deal about Trinidad, its history, people, and industries and customs from our transport guide. Unfortunately, we only had a half-day there, otherwise I would have liked to have shopped a bit in the city of Port of Spain before departure.

Martinique
We docked at Martinique at about 7:45am and were cleared by Customs at 8:00am. Our tour, the "Tropical Island Drive," left at 8:15am, and by 9am we were driving into St. Pierre, where we got a look at the Mt. Pelee Volcanological Museum. It was interesting, but really not worth the stop. The next stop, however, was worth getting off the bus: the Agricol Rum distilleries. Here we learned how they make rum on Martinique, and had an opportunity to taste and buy some . . . which, of course, we did. We also had some excellent views of the volcano from there, though clouds kept covering it's top. Still, it was very pretty.

We then made our way along a very zigzaggy Road (that was actually its name) for about an hour through the rainforest to the Botanical Garden of Balata. This lovely garden was an excellent stop, and we spent an hour there (longer than we should have), walking among the lovely, lush tropical plants and trees. I got some fantastic photographs. I also got to practice my French, which has become horrible; I'm much better in German. Anyway, because we took so long at the Gardens, we were not able to visit the one site I really wanted to visit in Martinique, the Balata Church. But, we got to glance at it as we whisked by on our way back to the ship.

St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.
St. Thomas was, after Curaçao, the loveliest stop on this cruise; it is hard to beat the beauty of the bay and Charlotte Amalie. We didn't have any tours planned (been there, done that), we just went ashore and did a little shopping. There were three vessels in port that day, a Celebrity ship, a monster Royal Caribbean ship, and the Volendam, so the streets and taxies were busy. We spent a few hours downtown, walking through the many shops and sampling some of the food as we went. We bought our maximum allowed bottles of booze and the obligatory T-shirts and other trinkets for friends back home, but didn't blow the bank. We'll do that on a future cruise.

As shopping goes, St. Thomas really is the Mecca of the Caribbean. Havensight Mall, which is next to the pier where we docked, is a nice place to go if one doesn't want to travel far from the ship or use taxies. One can find the basic souvenirs, liqueur, and jewelry there. One can also access telephones and ATMs there, the last of which was of critical interest to us because our cash reserves were starting to run low and we knew we'd be wanting to tip at the end of the cruise. What one finds at Havensight Mall one will find, in manifold multiplied and gaudy splendor, downtown. I prefer the downtown shopping because there is just so much more to choose from and so many more interesting things to see. The view of the Volendam from across the bay is also lovely, although she looked like a bathtub toy parked behind RCCL's monstrous Adventure of the Seas.

We departed from St. Thomas with a beautiful evening ahead of us. It was a casual night, and so we retreated to the Crow's Nest for pre-dinner drinks and conversations with our fellow passengers. It was Dutch Night - we got our little Dutch hats, and most of the food was Dutch in character, enough like German to be familiar, not enough like German to allow me to easily pronounce some of the dishes. I ended up eating the Roast Duck, which was outstanding. Yet again, the service was excellent, although we played a naughty trick on the wine steward by swapping our usual drink orders around the table.

After dinner, we retreated to the Explorer's Lounge and did some damage to a couple of glasses of port before going to - drum roll - the movies! They were playing "The Score" in the Wajang Theater, and we were burned out on singers in the show lounge, so the choice was obvious. We shouldn't have eaten the free popcorn, though, because that made us thirsty. After the film, we went up to the Lido where the Dessert Extravaganza was underway, and we stuffed ourselves . . . again. By about 1:00am we found ourselves back in the Piano Bar, where we and about ten other passengers played an impromptu game of "name that tune." All in all it was a very pleasant evening and day.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Half Moon Cay is Holland America's private island and, in many people's estimation, one of the principle highlights of any Caribbean cruise. I tend to agree. It has a lovely bay and a stunning beach, excellent hamburgers, hotdogs, fruit and dessert. It also provides for some of the most tranquil, relaxing, soul-inspiring views of the cruise. The ship cannot dock here, since there is no pier capable of handling a cruise liner, so they drop anchor out in the bay and provide tender service to ferry the passengers and staff in and out of the sheltered port. Because weather is not always agreeable, it is not always possible to actually land on the island; the average of successful stops at HMC seems to be about 70%, although I have been blessed with getting to go ashore each time we've stopped there. The trip ashore is half the fun. The tender service is interesting to watch and even more interesting to experience; it is quick, efficient, and provides excellent views of both the beach and the ship.

Once ashore, one can shop for souvenirs in the small kiosk, pig out at the grill, have a massage, play volleyball, or visit the little chapel. However, the big attraction is, of course, the beach. Even if more than one ship is there, the beach is not crowded; it is wide, long, and shallow, with incredibly soft white sand, and water so clear you can see the bottom even as far out as the ship. On this trip, the Volendam was the only ship there, so everyone was actually quiet and unhurried. We splashed in water up to our waist, but didn't feel like going out any further because the water was rather cold. The best part of the day (after my two cheeseburgers, ribs, and pineapple) was just relaxing on the beach chair and watching people play. Oh, and the view of the Volendam, out in the bay, was a photographer's dream.

Photography Onboard

A word must be written about the photographs that were taken aboard the Volendam by the cruise staff. I hate to say this, but often their pictures are uniformly dreadful. And not just of me, which would be understandable, but of nearly all the passengers. For example, the photographs of the passengers with the captain (during the first formal night) were all horrible. Whoever took the pictures used such a weird angle that everyone ended up looking like "vertically challenged" people. Except for the ears, I looked like a hobbit! Not all of the professional photographs were bad, and one of the formal sessions produced some excellent pictures of me. However, by and large, the best photos on the cruise were the ones taken by the passengers themselves, except for the two taken of our table group by our head waiter, which turned out far better than those taken by the so-called "professionals."

I suppose the nice thing about the photographs taken on the Volendam by the cruise staff is that we were not continuously hounded to buy the prints. The photographs were displayed, and if we wanted to buy them we were welcome to. However, there was very little pressure to do so. Likewise, throughout the ship, while special sales were offered nearly every day at sea, and every evening after departure from port, the pressure to "buy buy buy" simply wasn't there. Nor is one "nickel-and-dimed" to death aboard the Volendam. If one wants to purchase something, there is plenty to buy. If not, one can go the whole cruise and rack up nothing more than drink charges and excursion fees on one's shipboard account.

Tipping Not Required

While some people have difficulty with the concept, Holland America's tipping policy actually means precisely what it says: tipping is not required. Nor is the HAL staff supposed to solicit tips. This does not mean, however, that tipping is not allowed, nor does it mean that tipping is not appropriate. Tips are not included in the cost of the cruise, nor are they added onto the bar tabs or assessed in any other way. If the passengers wish to tip for the service they have received, that is entirely up to them. It is also up to them as to how much to tip. Many people tip the industry standard, with more being given for better service. Some tip less than the industry standard based upon the reported fact that the HAL staff is paid more than the industry standard.

While this may be true, I have never been able to understand why it should matter to the passengers what the staff makes . . . suffice it to say, with few exceptions, it is guaranteed that they earn less in a year than the average passenger does. In my opinion, if I have received good service I will want to tip appropriately. What is appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for another. The industry standard - which can be found listed many places - is a good benchmark, however, if one wishes to use it.

Disembarkation

As on many cruise lines, luggage had to be out in the hall by 1:00 o'clock on the morning of arrival back in Ft. Lauderdale, so packing was best done before dinner the night before. This last night being a casual night made things simple: we wore what we would be wearing for the trip home. It is amazing how one's possessions seem to expand during the trip, making it twice as hard to pack up as it was at home. Thankfully, we were able to purchase some small Holland America luggage onboard to supplement our bags. And we weren't the only ones!

Each cabin received a disembarkation questionnaire, a US Customs form, and a disembarkation number. The questionnaire had to be filled out and returned to the front desk; the Customs form is surrendered on the pier. Upon arrival at Ft. Lauderdale, the ship had to clear both US Immigration and US Customs. This usually takes a little time, because there are always a few passengers who believe that these rules do not apply to them.

The current rule is that, if you visit a US port after having visited a non-US port, the entire ship - both passengers and crew - must clear Immigration. On the Volendam at St. Thomas, they called everyone by stateroom blocks (6100-6199, etc.) to go down to the Frans Hals Lounge and join a line which ran along the parameter of the lounge: down the starboard side, across in front of the stage, then back up the port side. Down in front of the stage stood one or two US Immigration officials and, when you reached them, you showed them your passport. They glanced at it, looked at your face, said "Good morning, Gregory" (or whatever your name was), and that was it. At the end of the line, up at the port side entrance to the lounge, were cruise line staff with a computer printout register of the ship, by stateroom number, and there you had them check you off. Done, simple and quick. This was also how they did it in Fort Lauderdale.

At St. Thomas they only had to call a couple of staterooms, and then only once, before we cleared. I suppose the eternally late ones wanted to get off and go shopping, too. At Ft. Lauderdale, however, a few staterooms from every deck had to be called. Most of them were called only once. A few were called multiple times. One was called by stateroom number, then by name three times; the last time, the Cruise Director said "Would so-in-so please do us all the courtesy of interrupting your breakfast and proceed to the Frans Hals lounge so that some of us can get off the ship?" The round of applause in the Explorer's Lounge, where we were waiting for disembarkation, was heartening.

Once disembarkation actually began, it went quickly. We were #26 to depart, but were off the ship and on our way to the airport by 9:45am. And so ended our 10-Day Southern Caribbean Wayfarer Cruise on the lovely and beautiful ms Volendam.

A Few Final Remarks

The Volendam is a wonderful ship, with a gracious crew which knows how to provide premium service to their passengers. Like all Holland America ships, however, it is not a party boat. It is a cruise ship with many of the characteristics and traditions of the ocean liners of yesteryear. There are no rock walls to climb, no all-night discos to dance in, and the passengers do tend to be a little older. This, however, should not be a problem if what one is looking for is a wonderful, quiet, relaxing, luxurious trip. We are in our late 30s and early 40s, and yet we so enjoy Holland America that we simply don't consider other cruise lines to be options for us. This is because we appreciate the refined style and gracious atmosphere which have become the hallmarks of the HAL fleet. The Volendam met and, indeed, surpassed, our expectations in this department. The only negatives which we identified on this cruise, and with the Volendam, have to do with the staffing cuts. The crew worked very hard to make up the shortfall, and their efforts were both most successful and greatly appreciated.

PHOTOS courtesy of Gregory S. Neal.

For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Volendam, click HERE.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church and has served as the pastor of several churches in North Carolina and North Texas. He is a popular teacher, preacher, retreat leader, and the author of several books. He frequently travels with his cousin, Christopher Neal, as well as with other family members. Reverend Neal can be reached through his website, www.revneal.org, or via email at: revneal@aol.com.


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