Westerdam October 1998 Eastern Caribbean Cruise
SeaLetter Cruise Bashers departing Port Everglades on Oct 17, 1998
Photo by 1997 Cruise Basher Glenn Sweeney
The Second Annual Cruise Bash, organized by Sharon Jackson of Jackson Klarin Travel and the Sealetter, took place on Holland America's Westerdam from October 17 to 24, 1998. The First Annual bash took place on Carnival's Sensation in September of 1997, and many of this year's Bashers were repeaters from last year.
The cruise departs from Port Everglades, FL. That is Fort Lauderdale. The cruise docks are very conveniently located near the airport, about a 10-minute ride at most.
Most of the participants air arrangements were made independent of the cruise line, so I can't report on HAL's efficacy in that department. About a third of the participants flew in at least a day early and stayed at an eminently forgettable Holiday Inn about 8 miles north of the cruise port. Of those, 16 of us went to Maguire's Hill 16, an Irish pub, for dinner and music Friday night. It was an interesting start to the cruise, with bangers and mash, lamb stew, Guiness Stout and Irish coffee the fare of the evening.
The MS (Motor Ship) Westerdam is a bit of an oddity in the HAL fleet. It has the highest passenger density, for one thing. For another, it was built as Home Lines' Homeric, then bought by HAL. It was built with a stretch in mind, and HAL did exactly that, adding 140 feet in the center section. The interior layout will be very familiar to anyone who has cruised on the Nieuw Amsterdam or Noordam. Virtually all the public spaces are conveniently located on the Promenade Deck. Valuable museum-quality art abounds, and the decor is understated and classy. The lounges are large and varied. Cabins are fairly large and comfortable, although most lack a refrigerator.
This is the largest capacity ship in HAL's stable, and both embarkation and debarkation showed it. Boarding started fairly late, compared to most cruises. After dropping your bags at the luggage area, passengers first have to wait through a long line to enter the check-in area. As you enter, you are given a boarding number. After checking in, you wait in the lounge until your embarkation number is called. A hot tip here: Wait until late to get to the dock. I had no line to wait through before entering the check-in area.
When you board (after the obligatory boarding photo), you will be escorted to your cabin by a ship's staffer. This at least helps you get off on the right foot. Then you can get your passenger ID card, room key, and ship directory and head for a buffet to preserve you until dinner time. Of course, you first must endure the traditional and necessary indignity of the lifeboat drill. Then, it's time to be on your way!
This is the time to bring up what may be a problem with the MS Westerdam. At every docking and departure, tugs were used to assist the ship in maneuvering. I have seen no other ship use the tugs in this port, and it makes me suspicious. Also, I heard rumblings among crew members about a "thruster out."
As you may know, most modern cruise ships have large "thrusters" located on each side near the bow and stern to push the ship sideways in tight spots. Most have no trouble easing up to or away from the most difficult of docking spaces. The Westerdam seems to have a problem, and it seems to be a long-term one. I saw the crew lose control of the Westerdam in Ketchikan while docking in 1994, and they had to back out into the open and start over again. There WAS a heavy off-shore wind, and I just assumed that was the problem. Seeing the maneuvering on this cruise, I begin to wonder if the ship is too large for its thrusters.
If you want to watch the maneuvering, there is plenty of rail space available at the rear of the lower promenade deck.
Shipboard activities are many and varied. If you're looking for beer-drinking relays, bathing suit fruit-stuffing contests, hairy chest and knobby knee judging, etc., stick to HAL's parent company, Carnival. Here the activities run to trivia contests, passenger talent shows, dancing lessons, Dutch High Tea, etc. No one was bored, but the late-night life is not as active as on some other lines. Of course, there was the usual bingo and horse racing, not to mention the casino.
There are the usual Vegas-style shows, in addition to a comedian, a magician, and a singing impersonator. All were good; none were great. The musical revues are painfully loud; so loud, my father-in-law would not attend them.
The ship has a jazz combo that appears for nightly dancing in The Ocean Bar. A string quartet performed in The Explorer's Lounge. The Queen's Lounge, one of the largest public rooms, had a Filipino band appearing almost continually that had the most varied and realistic oldies repertoire I have ever seen. With only two main vocalists, they were convincing doing every- thing from The Doors to The Carpenters! They played for the 50's Sock Hop, and Chuck Berry would have had to look twice to be sure it wasn't him singing!
And by the way, the 50's night was one of the most heavily attended events of the cruise. It had just got going, it seemed, when it ended. In fact, it was nowhere near long enough. I would suggest a whole 50's evening; the interest in this one event leads me to believe it would beat out a semi-formal night anytime!
Food, of course, was not in short supply. There are two buffet restaurants which serve breakfast and lunch, a grill serving in the afternoon, a fairly constant salad bar, room service, and the main dining room.
Westerdam's dining room is located very low in the ship. It has only portholes, no windows, and is very stable. That's good, if you're there to eat and not gaze at the scenery.
The dining room's meals were good, but not great. One major problem appears to be the location of the kitchen. The waiters told us this is their least favorite HAL ship, since there is a fairly long carry from the kitchen to the table.
Also, HAL's table service organization is different from most other lines. The waiter is responsible for both serving and bussing his own table. This is not as efficient as other lines, and leads to some long waits between courses.
Another hot tip: The Lido dining room, on the Upper Promenade Deck frequently had long lines. The Verandah dining room, on the other hand, rarely had more than a few people in line. Same food as the Lido, of course.
After departure from Port Everglades, we sailed to Nassau in the Bahamas. We arrived there Sunday morning, almost everything was closed, and the general consensus was it was a day wasted.
From Nassau, we had a day at sea, then arrived Tuesday morning in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Last year's Bash Cruise had arrived there just as everything closed in the afternoon, and the feeling was that a whole day there would be great. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico had a visit from George the Hurricane about a month earlier, and the island has not fully recovered yet. We were unable to visit the rain forest, concessions at the beach were closed due to no electricity, and getting anywhere on the island without traffic lights to control the traffic flow was a nightmare.
After leaving Puerto Rico at midnight, we docked in St. Thomas early Wednesday morning. We spent the day there, doing what tourists do in St. Thomas. We shopped, went snorkeling or scuba diving, shopped, took tours of the island, shopped, and went back to the ship.
Thursday was a day at sea.
Friday was supposed be to at HAL's private beach in the Bahamas. When I looked out my cabin window and saw the wind whipping the tops off the waves, I figured it wasn't gonna happen. Sure enough, the captain soon announced that due to high winds, we would be unable to beach it that day. All the passengers received a $25 refund for the port charges, a free glass of champagne at dinner, and we slowly sailed toward Florida. New activities were added, and most seemed to take it in stride.
Saturday morning brought us back to Port Everglades.
DebarkationThis could be called the debarkation from hell. All our group was assigned #18, which might have been fine, except some had flights home before 11 a.m.
The ship was about 45 minutes late docking, for some reason. Then, we waited. And waited. And waited. No word on what the problem might be. Finally, around 10:15 a.m., the first group was called for debarkation.
At that point, we rebelled. All of us who were on the chartered bus to the airport went down to the gangway, told them we were leaving, and left. As it was, we made it to the airport with less than 30 minutes until the first flights were due to leave. We all made it, but no thanks to the crew of the Westerdam.
We were informed that the main gangway was inoperative, and debarkation had to be changed to another one. However, that was never communicated to the passengers before we left. When will these service providers learn that informing their customers immediately of problems only makes sense?
Although there was not a hurricane in our area during this cruise, we consistently had seas running about 8 - 10 feet. This is the worst consistent weather we have ever had on a cruise, but not the worst we've ever seen for a day or two. This was the first cruise on which the motion bothered us, and that sentiment was expressed by many other experienced cruisers on this ship.
My opinion is that the stretch made this ship a little less stable in heavy seas. It has an odd, "tailwagging" motion that was uncomfortable at best, and nauseating at worst.
Another minor gripe: It takes a long time to figure out which elevators go up to the Verandah dining room, or down to the main dining room.
My research indicates that the service, motion, and organization of the Westerdam is not typical of HAL. The Ryndam, for example, was debarking at the same time we were, and the passengers there, in the same seas we experienced, had had no problems; their debarkation had gone smoothly, and their dining room service had been excellent.
In other words, we would sail on HAL again, but never on the Westerdam.
Mike Blanche has contributed many reviews and advice articles to the SeaLetter over the years. Mike is also a cruise sysop in the CompuServe UK Travel Forum and can reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editors Note: We had a total of 52 "cruise bashers" in our group and will be publishing more reviews, articles, photos and "surveys" of our SeaLetter Cruise Bash on the Westerdam over the next several months!
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please