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Cruise Ship Review
Holland America Line


by Sharon Jackson

Western Caribbean Cruise January 4, 1998

Veendam in Cozumel
Veendam at the International Pier in Cozumel

I've heard a lot of conflicting opinions about the Veendam lately, and most of them are "all or nothing." I received a note from some folks on the December 28th cruise, and read a review in the CompuServe Cruise Forum from a couple on the January 11th cruise where both couples expressed a lot of disappointment in their cruises. Bob and I and five other couples were on the January 4th cruise - the one in between - and I think I can speak for 8 of us and give the opposite opinion.

When I wear my "professional cruise travel agent" hat, I consider it my number one responsibility to my customer to recommend the right cruise line and ship - for them. As I've said many times, there is a "right" cruise out there for every one, but not every cruise is "right" for every one.

If you are a cruiser who likes to be entertained a lot, who listens for every loudspeaker announcement of every activity, who doesn't mind being asked to leave the pool so that "Pool Volleyball" can begin, who checks the daily schedule several times a day hoping to find multiple "Bingo" and "Horse racing" sessions, who plans his or her nightly schedule around what time the "Broadway Extravaganza" and "Adult Comedian" shows begin, who wants a bar waiter within 10 feet at all times, and who looks forward to "Macarena Night" and "Bob-a-loo Night" and "Toga Night" in the dining room, then please do not run out and book space on the Veendam, or, for that matter, on almost any other Holland America Line ship.

If, on the other hand, you are a cruiser who is looking for little more than rest and relaxation, who appreciates lounging in the sun by a quiet pool, who likes the fact that there isn't a bar waiter within 10 feet at all times, who checks the daily schedule several times a day hoping to find trivia contests and guest lecturers, who enjoys having an after-dinner drink with new-found friends in a lounge where the piano player, string quartet or dance band is not drowning out the conversation, who is grateful beyond belief that he does not have to sit through 3 choruses of "O Sole Mio" on Italian Night in the dining room, and who is truly amazed that at the end of the cruise he can count on his fingers the number of loudspeaker announcements heard during the entire week, then, by all means run-don't-walk to the nearest travel agent and book space on the Veendam.

Of course I'm over-generalizing, but I think you get the point. Different strokes for different folks. And there are many of us that can enjoy BOTH types of cruises I've described above. I'm one of them - you know the saying: "The only bad cruise is a land vacation."

I'll go out on a limb now and tell you that there were three aspects of our Veendam cruise that I can't imagine anyone would NOT appreciate:

  1. The Ship Itself
  2. The "No Tipping Required" Policy
  3. The "Debarkation Process"

The Ship Itself

To quote my husband, Bob:
"The ship was furnished and appointed to be quietly elegant. Art objects displayed everywhere, and the nightly string quartet performances, are examples. The use of colors, woods, and lighting emphasizes this feeling. Nothing was loud and bright and obtrusive, but rather, 'stately.'"

Veendam SuiteThe Veendam truly is an elegant and stately ship, and you actually "feel" this before you "see" it. From the moment we set foot on the ship, we felt relaxed and comfortable. Of course, having splurged for the first time ever by booking a suite with a verandah had to help a LITTLE. Put me in this suite on the ss Dinghy cruising from Purgatory to Hell and I'd be "relaxed and comfortable" in a heartbeat! I can hear all of you "The size of the cabin and whether or not it has a window or balcony doesn't matter because you're never in your cabin anyway" folks, but when you have 395 square feet of "cabin" and 155 square feet of "private balcony" and a jacuzzi tub in the bathroom and 19 (I counted them!) drawers and 3 huge closets and a private dressing room with makeup table and his and her sinks and a curved sectional sofa and coffee table and 19" color TV and VCR and stocked mini-bar and terry cloth bathrobes and free laundry and dry cleaning and I can't remember what else, you not only spend time there, you invite company! So, save your pennies for that "special occasion" - that's what we did. Our "special occasion" was the 9th anniversary of 2 months before our wedding and 1 week after we first met. It wasn't exactly "shotgun", but it was QUICK!

Our Cruising Group
Our "Cruising Group" (You know who you are!)

The accommodations aside, we were greatly impressed by the "hardware" of the Veendam. I won't give you a deck-by-deck description of the public rooms and cabins. Holland America likes to describe their ships as "people-sized". In the evening, instead of huge lounges and bars which hold hundreds of people at one time, you'll find a a plethora of smaller lounges and public rooms with live music. If you like to "ballroom" or "old-fashion" dance, you'll enjoy the band in the main showroom and the Ocean Bar. If you like classical music, you'll enjoy the Explorer's Lounge. If you like to "disco" or dance to more modern music, you'll enjoy the Crow's Nest. If you like Caribbean steel bands, you can try the Dolphin Bar up on Lido Deck which actually has upholstered seating and banquettes. As I mentioned, we very much enjoyed the Piano Bar after dinner - the pianist was quite good and the folks sitting at the bar around him seemed to be having a great time singing along, and yet we could carry on a pleasant conversation sitting elsewhere in the lounge.


The Crow's Nest

Of course there is a Casino with the usual slot machines, blackjack, poker, craps and roulette, and the Casino Bar which has a very comfortable sitting area with a big-screen TV showing sporting events. Besides the three movies-per-day alternating on the cabin TVs, the honest-to-goodness Wajang Theatre featured two movies daily - one a "matinee" and the other shown at both 8:15 pm and 10:15 pm to accommodate both main and late diners. AND, free popcorn was served prior to each showing!

One of our favorite places during the day was the Java Cafe, a coffee and tea bar not far from the atrium. The Java Cafe, open from 9:00 am until Noon every morning and again from 1:00 pm until 4:00 pm on days at sea, served a variety of exotic teas. as well as coffees such as Cappuccino, Espresso, Mocha and "Latte". And - it was FREE. No charge to your "cash card"!

There is also a lovely library, a card room, a puzzle room, several shops and boutiques surrounding the main atrium, a full health spa, beauty salon, work-out room, massage, sauna and steam rooms, an elegant two-story dining room, a video arcade, two conference rooms with one usually used by "Club HAL" - the kids program, two whirlpools, two practice tennis courts, a ping pong table, a kids wading pool, a Lido/Buffet Restaurant with LOTS of outside dining space and one of the most pleasant inside, large window-lined dining rooms we've seen, and two large swimming pools, with the one at the stern of the Navigator Deck our favorite as it was mostly deserted. I think folks forgot to look on their deck plans and thus never found this area. That was certainly OKAY by me, as I enjoyed many solitary hours around this pool and on the Lido Terrace above.

Hugo De Groot Library
Hugo De Groot Library

All of this in a 55,000 ton, mid-sized ship. And yet, the Veendam has an intimate feel to it. Our cruise was booked solid, but that's less than 1300 passengers. We never felt crowded, never stood in long lines and ALWAYS felt we were on a ship, not on a floating amusement park. The full-circle outdoor promenade lined with wooden deck chairs, the beautiful artwork displayed throughout, the fresh floral arrangements everywhere all contributed to our feeling of being on an elegant ocean liner of the 30's.

Were there imperfections and disappointments? Yes. I didn't particularly care for the food. I had a couple of tough and/or tasteless steaks at dinner and found too many "Indonesian" and "Dutch" specialties and stuff I couldn't identify by sight. But Bob liked it and I have to confess to being a pretty picky eater and not very adventurous when it comes to food. You'll understand how weird I am about food when I tell you that I really like Carnival's food almost as much as I like Celebrity's food, which means if I'm going to venture away from good old meat and potatoes, it will be in the direction of the "French" and "Michel Roux".

I don't think the Main Showroom entertainment was anything to write home about either. We did see a fairly entertaining ventriloquist one night, but the one time I stayed to watch, I thought the main "troupe" of song and dance performers were "just okay" and went on for way too long. However, I don't go in for much of this type of evening entertainment anyhow, so I'm not a very good judge of how these folks compare to those on other lines. When I'm cruising with my husband "on vacation", as opposed to "working", I'm searching for ROMANCE in the evenings, and I find that out on deck, under the stars, walking hand in hand with my definitely-better half - not in the Main Showroom.

Perhaps our biggest disappointment was in our dealings with the Front Office. And, we weren't the only ones to have problems here. I had a problem with a gift order which I had placed prior to the cruise with the Special Services department in Seattle. It literally took from Sunday until THURSDAY to get this straightened out and my gifts to my group members (and to ourselves!) delivered. In the end, the fault lay somewhere with Holland America - not with me - and yet I never received even a word of apology.

As the week progressed and as I began hearing more and more "stories" of problems with the Front Office, I suddenly realized the WHY of it all. Several other events helped to solve the mystery, such as TWO "crew" lifeboat drills in addition to our full-scale passenger drill (they even lowered a life boat all the way to the water!), and a couple of crew fire drills. The Veendam very much appeared to be training new crew members - in almost every area of the ship. I haven't confirmed this but I believe that the arrival in Ft. Lauderdale of the new Rotterdam VI just two weeks prior to our cruise, and her imminent departure on her 1998 World Cruise is the answer. It is standard practice by most cruise lines to "take" their best crew and staff from each ship and re-assign them to the "world cruise" ship. That could be why the folks at the "Front Office" had trouble answering a lot of questions and doing any speedy problem-solving. At least I hope that's the reason, because that is "curable" in time.

Other than this one "break", the service and treatment we received on board was superb.

Universe Explorer (Volendam)I don't have a whole lot to say about the ports. We are not big Jamaica fans and spent the day in Ocho Rios on the ship up in the deserted Crow's Nest reading and watching all of the water sports going on near the pier. We were treated to a nice view of the Commodore Universe Explorer which was anchored a bit behind us. I say "treated to" for two reasons. First, both Bob and I love the old ships which look and feel like ships. Second, today's Universe Explorer was the last Holland America Line Volendam!

In Cozumel, we docked at the new International Pier and took a cab downtown ($4 per couple each direction), where we wandered around and shopped. We sailed from Cozumel at 1:00 PM, so there was not a lot of time to sightsee, shop, swim, dive AND snorkel. We took the Island tour in Grand Cayman which was quite nice but a little too much time at the Turtle Farm and much too little time in "Hell."

Half Moon Cay is not quite finished. Besides completion of some of the "West Indies Village" structures, the walking paths are all sand at this time and not very accessible to strollers or wheelchairs. However, I do agree with John Blinn's assessment in his Rotterdam VI review - the beach is the prettiest I've seen anywhere in the Bahamas. The island is sure to be a big hit with water sports and beach lovers.

Veendam in Half Moon Cay
Veendam Anchored off Half Moon Cay

The "No Tipping Required" Policy

This was finally explained to us at the Debarkation Talk on the last day of the cruise, when the Cruise Director said the following:
"You are on vacation. We are here to serve you, not to ruin your vacation by pressuring you for tips. No tipping required means just that. If you want to tip and can afford to tip, you are welcome to tip. If you can't afford to tip, then you will receive no less service than you would otherwise. If you'd like envelopes, you can get them at the Front Office. Officers are not allowed to accept tips."
That's it, folks. End of discussion. No one ever asked us for a tip. Not one penny over the cost of a bar drink or soda or bottle of wine was added to the bill you signed. What's more, no one who personally served us - Dining Room Waiter, Assistant Waiter, Wine Steward, Maitre d' or Cabin Steward - asked us for a specific rating on the survey card. None of the frequent pleadings you run into on other lines for "Excellent" ratings. We really appreciated this.

Did we tip? You bet we did. We received excellent and friendly service throughout the week. And we ran our cabin steward ragged with all of our little "parties" in our suite, and our full-room-service breakfast each morning on the veranda.

The only negative comment I've heard on this policy surrounds the bar waiters and waitresses. Due to the "cashless societies" on board cruise ships, one does not carry cash much of the time aboard. So, if you want to tip those serving you drinks in the various lounges or out on deck, you have to remember to "find" them that last night to hand them the tip. Not being big drinkers, we easily managed to find the fellow who took care of us so very well on several nights in the Piano Bar.

The Debarkation Process

Oh dreaded day, the last. "Loudspeakered" out of bed much too early. Called to breakfast while you are too sleepy to taste anything. Forced to sit in over crowded, roped off lounges, listening to announcement after announcement calling someone to "report to immigration" or to "report to the Front Office" to pay a shipboard account - ordered out of your cabin so that it can be readied for the new occupants who will be happily boarding this afternoon while you are trying to find a seat in the gate area of a much too crowded airport, devoid of cheery bar waiters, bountiful buffets and sunny, breezy pool decks. I know what you're thinking, too. "7 Days is just too short. Next cruise will be at least 10, 11, 14 days. . . . " You'll do just about anything to postpone debarkation day.

Not so on the Veendam. Debarkation was very relaxed. Breakfast was served in both the Lido Restaurant and Dining Room until 9:00 am. Room Service breakfast was even delivered - something which I can't recall seeing offered that last morning on any other ship. No "roped off lounges" - we were told we could wait in any area we wished, even in our cabins.

If you are really lucky, you'll be flying home on Delta or US Airways. Both airlines sent representatives ON BOARD, who set up check in tables in the Main Showroom. At around 9:00 am, after a leisurely breakfast on the Lido Terrace, we took out our airline tickets and photo identification, waltzed right up to the US Airways desk where we were asked how many bags we would be checking. We were given baggage tags to place on the bags after we claimed them from the customs area, along with our tickets duly stamped with the "security check mark", to allow us to waltz right up to the airport gate for our boarding passes, bypassing the sky caps and ticket counters completely. When we left the ship, we found our bags immediately, tagged them and handed them over to the the US Airways baggage fellow who we found right outside the exit gate.

After checking in with US Airways, we passed the time until actual debarkation out on the promenade deck watching the troops below loading and unloading "stuff" from and to the ship. This was BY FAR the best debarkation process we've ever gone through. I might go so far as to say the entire experience was pleasant. Well, maybe not that far.

For the Jacksons and the "mood" we found ourselves in at the time, the Veendam was the right cruise for us. On the end-of-cruise survey cards, Holland America asks for ratings from 1 to 9 only. They concede that nothing deserves a "Perfect 10" because there is always room for improvement. Many things on this cruise rated a "9" from us, a few things did not. Again, "right for us" - maybe not "right for you." I hope I've given you enough information to help you decide if you'd like to give the Veendam a try.

And oh yeah. There were NO art auctions! (grin)

Photos by Andy Newman, Holland America Line and by
Sharon & Bob Jackson

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