7 Day Mexican Riviera Cruise, February 2005
Introduction:Having cruised many times with the Holland America Line, and being well-acquainted with their popular Statendam and Rotterdam Class of ships, I was nevertheless feeling ambivalent about their new Vista Class ships. Over the past few years I have read quite a few reviews which left me worried and unhappy about the direction HAL was taking in their newest vessels, and entirely unwilling to try them. According to these reviews they were appointed with strange ("funky") furniture and color schemes, were "shoddy" in their construction, had terrible vibration problems, were too large, too crowded, and had rooms that were too small. All of these criticisms, and more, had been written about the Vista ships ... and because of these statements I was very hesitant about trying them out.
However, the Oosterdam and the Westerdam had also received some excellent reviews; after reading several such from people whom I trust, I determined to try the Oosterdam on one of her 7-day Mexican Riviera Itineraries. After much research I found a deal that enabled me to book a cruise, with single supplement, for an acceptable (i.e. "low") price, and so I jumped at it.
Embarkation, Cabin, and Sail Away:The Oosterdam was docked across the pier's parking lot from the San Diego Ship Terminal, which was occupied by the Carnival Spirit, so we had to use the "tent." It wasn't a bad setup, and there was plenty of room inside "the big top" for registration operations and a line, which snaked back and forth several times. Check-in was, itself, a painless process; by far, this was the longest line I stood in for the entire cruise, and even still it was a fast moving one. I passed through the terminal gates and surrendered by luggage to HAL staff at 12:20. By 1:30 I had gone through check-in, been processed, and was moving up the gangway line and into the ship. Since I boarded prior to the staterooms being readied, I was directed to elevators and whisked to the Lido deck, where food was to be found in a panoply of delicious variety and amazing quantity. Long ago I discovered that a 7-day cruise is often a week-long gorge fest interrupted by 3 ports-of-call; this was certainly the case aboard the Oosterdam.
After having explored the Lido Restaurant, and being much-impressed with its layout and ease of access, and after having consumed an excellent lunch of fruit, vegetables, roast beast, and ice cream, I sat and chatted with my fellow passengers until an announcement was made (along about 2:15) informing us that our staterooms were ready. And, so, I proceeded down to my cabin on Main Deck, Cabin 1037, which was a J-Category Inside large enough to dance in! I was extremely pleased with this cabin; research had told me that many of the inside staterooms were tiny, but that most of those on Main Deck were larger than average. Truth be told, this was an understatement: these J-Category cabins on Main Deck are "huge." Within a few minutes of arrival in my cabin a knock on the door announced that my luggage had arrived, and I quickly unpacked, putting everything into the voluminous closets which were ridiculously more than adequate for one, and would have been sufficient even for three. As it was, I didn't use all of the storage space available to me.
The sail away party was nice, and well attended -- pretty much the standard HAL fare -- however departure was delayed due to something of a minor disaster ... well, it wasn't so minor to those whose luggage had been dumped into the bay by clumsy longshoremen. Yes, that's right, the pier staff had accidentally dumped a pallet of passenger bags into the bay and underneath the ship. The captain announced that they were sending divers down to make sure that all the bags were recovered, and I later learned that those who suffered this mishap were compensated, their clothing cleaned, pressed, dry-cleaned, and repaired. Nevertheless, as a result our 5 pm departure was delayed until sometime between 6:30 and 7 pm, by which time I was already nursing a gin and tonic in the Ocean Bar.
The Oosterdam:Since I have intended this review to be more about the Oosterdam, herself, than about any particular cruise, I really should shift my focus, now, to the ship and her many various aspects. Contrary to the reports of others, I must say that this vessel is not too big. Yes, the Vista series of cruise ships is larger than HAL's other vessels, but she is very much a ship of the HAL tradition. On a cruise ship which could, easily, carry 2700 passengers, HAL plays host to 1800-1900 guests with grace and style befitting the Line's 133 year history.
Improvements with the Vista ClassClassy examples of the Holland America Line's many years of seafaring experience can be seen everywhere aboard the Oosterdam. This is true in her elegant décor, which retains aspects of her Dutch nautical heritage as heir to the ocean liners of a by gone era, as well as in the touches of grace which can be seen in her wood paneled rooms, pleasing color schemes, and generous use of antiques. Her distinct arrangement of public rooms, I quickly discovered, reveals the logic of her designers in their function and orientation. One major improvement over the Statendam and Rotterdam class vessels is that, on both public decks (the Lower Promenade and Promenade Decks) one may pass all way through the ship, from the Vista Lounge in the front to the main Dining Room in the aft, without having to go up or down a deck to by-pass the kitchen! This is a marked improvement over the older design.
Another significant improvement is that the outside promenade deck is actually on the Promenade Deck, and that this deck is not an accommodations deck but, rather, a public rooms deck! Indeed, it's the deck where the Ocean Bar, the shopping arcade, the Library, the Internet Café, and the lecture rooms are all located. This is a significant improvement.
A further improvement, and one that is particularly interesting, is the placement of the Ocean Lounge amidships, surrounding the Atrium, on the Promenade Deck. On the Starboard side one will find the Ocean Bar along with several small nooks and crannies where one can sit, chat, have a drink, and enjoy conversation while being somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle, the noise and confusion, of the band and the dance floor. The band and dance floor is to be found on the port side of the atrium, with a sitting area, bandstand, and dance floor which is more than adequate for a nominal crowd. This central location makes the Ocean Bar and Lounge a very popular hangout for both pre-dinner cocktails and post dinner drinks.
The Crows Nest, up on Observation Deck 10, is larger and more open than on other ships of the Line, with plenty of seating at the forward windows, in the central section, and in the side lounges. It also has a band stand and a dance floor adequate for evening dancing and other gatherings.
Even though I am not a smoker, I particularly enjoyed the Oak Room on the starboard side aft of the Crows Nest proper. It has a direct access to the aft observation deck, where one may enjoy "cigars under the stars" without bothering the nonsmokers. This is also where the captain sometimes holds small, private receptions, and where other groups sometimes set up for indoor / outdoor activities.
The Sports Bar is larger and divided into two sections, with an excellent large-screen display for watching games (like the Super Bowl), as well as several other displays situated above the bar. It is right off the Casino, and there are built-in Poker machines built onto the bar which, incidentally, gives one something to do other than just watch sports and booze.
For its own part, the Casino is much larger and more open than on other HAL ships, stretching across the width of the ship, with more tables and more video poker and slot action. One doesn't feel crowded in the Casino, and in my observation I never saw large crowds gathered around the tables or machines except for during the tournaments. As always, the Casino is one of the more exciting venues for making voluminous "contributions" to the economic prosperity of the Holland America Line. In the past I have noticed that some people seem to cruise in order to play in the casino; this was true on this cruise, as well, and the Oosterdam certainly did provide a nice and inviting environment for those so-inclined to make their cash "contributions."
The Northern Lights Night Club is situated just aft of the casino and has a large, boisterous dance floor and an active and inviting Bar. One of my favorite places to go late in the evening, its existence makes for a somewhat quieter and less- congested Crows Nest late at night. It also allows for theme-specific music and dances to be held in several different places on the ship during any given evening. All-in-all, I found it to be a major improvement to have a large, dedicated dance floor in a night club aboard ship. While HAL vessels have not been traditionally known as the kind of ships where passengers dance the night away, on the Oosterdam in the Mexican Riviera the catch-phrase for the evening was "rock-it-till-we-dock-it."
The Pinnacle Grill is centrally located to port of the Atrium, amidships on the lower Promenade Deck. This location keeps it from either being buried in depths of the ship, cut off from the outside world (as on the R-class ships), or being a retrofitted afterthought (as on the S-class ships). It is plenty-large, and comfortable, and the meals provided here are excellent, indeed. The Hotel Manager, Mr. James Deering, invited me to dinner here one evening, and I enjoyed myself immensely. The service was excellent, the steak was cooked to perfection, the sides were delicious, and the Volcano Cake was fantastic. The quality of the food and the service was only matched by the quality of my host's generosity and conversation.
The Lido has been expanded, with a well-designed "Food Court" making it easy to obtain different kinds of foods in the various areas, while also cutting down on the line-lengths. Breakfast and Lunch are fantastic here, and while I'm sure that the same is true for dinner I never partook of the Lido Restaurant's offerings during Dinner time.
The Front Office and Shore Excursions Desks are located on either side of the Atrium on Main Deck. This is an excellent place for these services, and the staff which manned each were exemplary.
Needs ImprovementThe Vista Lounge -- where the evening's main entertainment is performed and where the Captain's Champaign Reception is held -- is large and comfortable, with three decks (Main, Lower Promenade, and Promenade) all providing access to it. However, certain elements of it are poorly designed, including the pillars in the middle section which support the balcony but which obstruct the view from several locations. Other vessels manage to support a balcony without such pillars, the engineers could have done a better job with this one. Another area that needs improvement is the location of the display screens ... they simply cannot be seen by anyone sitting anywhere above the halfway point in the middle section.
The Queens Lounge is a very nice, medium sized show room, however it is not conducive to showing movies ... the heads of one's fellow passengers invariably get in the way.
The Windstar Café is a nice idea, however during our cruise aboard I didn't notice it receiving much business; I, myself, didn't use it at all. The Hotel Manger, Mr. James Deering, mentioned to me a suggestion which he will be making to the Home Office: that the Windstar Café be replaced with a third alternative dining venue ... like an Italian Bistro. This sounds like a workable idea that, perhaps, should be explored.
The Explorers Lounge is divided into three rooms. The main room is where the classical music stand is located, the next room is divided off from this and, while one can hear the music from here, one cannot see the performance. This is also the area where the specialty dutch chocolates can be found. The third chamber is closed off from the others because it serves as the smoking room. In general, I really like the idea of having the Explorer's Lounge divided off into separate chambers, and I particularly appreciate that the smokers are given a room where they will not bother the non smokers. However, the division of the open Explorer's Lounge into two chambers truly does limit the seating in the portion where the music stand is located. I found it difficult to find seating in the room for the classical performance on any evening. With this limitation in mind, however, I didn't really find the Explorer's Lounge to be overly small ... it is about the size of the Lounge on the Statendam, though it is much smaller than the lounge on the Maasdam or the Volendam & Zaandam. An improvement to the layout might be to leave the music stand in the middle, between the two non smoking chambers, but to remove the wall-structure between them so as to make the non smoking area of the Explorer's Lounge a large single room again. This would have the effect of doubling the seating area for those who wish to be able to see the music stand.
The Main Dining Room is certainly larger, and while several improvements (including lovely new chairs and side-seating arrangements) have been made, the center of the Dining room is taken up by a large central music stand and service area. This may be more convenient, but it takes up critical central dining space, robs the room of its open feeling, and it is impossible to hear or even know if music is being played on the stand from a table on the lower level in the aft or side galleries. Frankly, I'm not sure anything can be done to repair this problem ... it may just be an unfortunate fact that on a ship the size of the Oosterdam not everyone is going to have a dining table well-positioned for seeing what's going on throughout the meal.
The aft Verandah cabins are probably wonderful accommodations, and their balconies are huge, but one should really take care not to nude sun-bathe on them. The view from above -- from the aft Lido deck abaft the pool -- is quite "good." Frankly, I'm not sure I like this arrangement, though I suppose I should withhold judgment unless and until I actually book one of these cabins. If I do, I promise you I shall be fully clothed while on my deck. ;-)
And, finally, I must say that the Vista Class ships' lacking the self-service laundry is a hindrance to taking longer cruises. I would suggest HAL consider retrofitting the ships with at least one or two laundries for the use of those of us who "travel in steerage."
Noted Problems Not NotedMany reviews had indicated vibration problems in the main dining room and shoddy workmanship in the construction of the Vista class ships. None of these "problems" were observed on this cruise. Indeed, even when "The Big O" was making 23 knots, the dining room was smooth and stable, with only the very slightest shimmer noticeable. I have noticed more motion and more vibration on the Statendam than I noticed on the Oosterdam this cruise. Likewise, I thought that -- after one year in service -- there were few, if any, signs of "shoddy workmanship." I noticed one light fixture out on the aft pool deck, a cover blown off the port side compass stand on a forward observation deck, an occasional plant that could do with some TLC, and one of the "Captain Kirk chairs" in the Crows Nest that needed attention. Frankly, one should remember that a ship like the Oosterdam is a working vessel at sea and -- as is true with all things man-made -- maintenance is warranted. And, indeed, every day I noticed the crew working on the ship: painting, cleaning, repairing ... work continued around the clock! The Oosterdam is a credit to "The Spotless Fleet" monicker of the Holland America Line ... and, having twice achieved a nearly unheard of 100 on her CDC health inspections, her Hotel Manager hopes to have her make history by earning a third 100 at her next inspection. If any ship of the Line can do it, the Oosterdam can!
The Crew:What else can I say but "wow!" I have always expected the best from HAL crew and staff, and I have rarely been disappointed, but on the Oosterdam every single expectation was met and, indeed, surpassed. My cabin steward, Andri, was exemplary; he kept the cabin spotless and in order, even though I am neither of these things. So superb was his work that I was tempted to forgo packing my clothing and just pack him! Something similar could be said about my dining room stewards: Sri and Tamy were outstanding in terms of service; they were quick, courteous, and never failed to "make things right" when something was lacking. Even though they had many passengers to serve, they never failed to take the time to chat, and were truly a pleasure to get to know. Especially Tamy, who proved in the Indonesian Crew Show that he could sing and dance as well as the ship's cast -- though, perhaps, he would have preferred dressing as one of the ladies!
The lounge staff were excellent, particularly the stewards in the Ocean Bar ... on a ship of 1800+ passengers I never cease to be amazed that these people can learn my name and my normal cocktail of choice.
The Hotel and Beverage Staff are all under the able direction of the Hotel Manager, Mr. James Deering, who is an excellent officer. Knowledgeable in his field and in the history of cruising, I must say that HAL has chosen well in taking him back into their service from a competitor Cruise Line. Needless to say, I am impressed with his abilities and his wealth of knowledge, and I hope to cruise, again, on a ship where he is serving.
The Ship's Cast was excellent. I have often found HAL's professional entertainment staff to be able, if not a bit too frenetic, but on the Oosterdam I found the cast to be capable in their areas of specialization and a joy to watch. Excellent singers and dancers, all, they are to be commended. Sadly, I cannot say the same for the entertainment which they brought aboard for this cruise. One of the entertainers was a juggler; I suppose he was ok, but that just wasn't my cup of tea. Another fellow was a singer ... last name of Black. He was a good singer, but I didn't appreciate his program. Specifically, he did a romantic song in which he invited all the couples to stand and dance, right there where they were sitting. I was the only single person in the midst of a whole bunch of couples, and so I was left sitting, alone, while others towered over me, dancing in front of their seats. It was a very conspicuous, very uncomfortable situation, and one which I didn't enjoy. Solo cruising can sometimes be awkward enough without having my being alone rubbed in my face by the entertainment.
The Food:Fantastic!!! There are many places to eat and eat and eat and eat on the ship. As I've pointed out above, there's the Lido and the Main Dining Room as well as the Pinnacle Grill. All of these are excellent dining venues, and the food they cook and serve is all wonderful. Additionally, one could order room service meals from a large menu which was not lacking in variety and quality. To put this simply, I didn't have a single meal or dish on the Oosterdam that I didn't enjoy. From the burgers at the Lido Grill, to the Pizza, the sandwiches, and the Bistro meals in the Lido Restaurant, every lunch and afternoon snack was outstanding and filling. Breakfasts were excellent with a multitude of egg dishes prepared while you watch; meats, breads, hot and cold cereals, all complimented by hot coffee and fresh squeezed Orange Juice. And, at dinner in the Main Dining Room the pasta dishes were good, the chicken was excellent, and the beef dishes were uniformly perfect. I didn't try any seafood dishes, so I can't speak to those, but others indicated that they were good if not a bit overcooked.
The Itinerary:I suppose a few words should be said about the Itinerary. This was the "Mexican Riviera" cruise out of San Diego, with port stops at Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta.
In Cabo I took the basic "Coastal Highlights" tour, which gave me excellent views of the harbor from Giorgio's Restaurant, a stop at Cacti Mundo to view an amazing array of Cacti, a trip to San José del Cabo where I toured a Mission Church and did a little shopping, and a stop at a glass blowing factory.
In Mazatlan I took the Deluxe City Tour with Papantla Fliers. This was an excellent overview tour, which provided a trip to the downtown Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a shopping stop where I was able to purchase local handicrafts, and an excellent Mexican and native cultural show including the performance of the Papantla Fliers (not something to be missed).
In Puerto Vallarta I went on the "Dolphin Encounter" excursion, where I got to swim with, pet, ride, and kiss a wonderful bottle nosed Dolphin. It was, truly, an experience to remember.
Conclusion:If you are a fellow HAL Mariner who has been apprehensive about the size and passenger compliment of the Vista class ships, and have avoided them up until now, I'm here to tell you that you should set your concerns aside and give these ships a try! The Oosterdam, with her excellent wonderful crew, is an exemplary addition to the Holland America Line! I had a wonderful cruise aboard her, and am looking forward to future cruises on Vista Class ships like the Westerdam and the new Noordam. And, of course, I would return to the Oosterdam in a heartbeat. While I think I still prefer the S and R class ships for their smaller size, these Vistas are handsome dam-ships indeed!
PHOTOS courtesy of Gregory S. Neal.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Oosterdam, click HERE.
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: email@example.com.
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