What a pleasure to sail again with Holland America. Our previous sailing with Holland America was on board (the former) MS Westerdam for a special 11 night millennium sailing from December 1999 into January 2000 and it was a once in a lifetime experience. While the old Westerdam always looked a little nondescript when docked in port alongside more modern mega ships, the classic and elegant interior of this ship was truly beautiful and the service we experienced and cuisine we were offered during that cruise was memorable.
Early in 2005, we decided that we would like to have the opportunity to cruise onboard HAL's "new" MS Westerdam, one of the newest ships in the fleet. (The old MS Westerdam I believe has been renamed and is now part of the Costa fleet.) The itinerary was of less importance to us than the ship herself, and it happened that MS Westerdam would be sailing the western Caribbean during a New Year's cruise. So, although we had visited all of these ports only a few years previously, we booked an outside statement with balcony and counted down the months and then weeks until our cruise began.
"We" consist of a family of three. I'm a 47 year old Executive Assistant, my almost 18 year old son is in his final year of high school and my daughter is a 13 year old in her final year of middle school. We live in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto Canada, and this was our 4th cruise in the past 5 years. Our "second home" is the Island of Aruba which we have visited 15 times in the past 12 years.
Getting to the Ship: This turned out to be almost ridiculously pain-free (especially since exactly one year ago to the day, December 26, we had a horrific time getting from Toronto to board a cruise ship in Puerto Rico). This time, everything went perfectly. The flight was on time, we were met by representatives of Holland America at the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale airport, and we were escorted to a bus that quickly delivered us to Port Everglades.
Embarkation: I had taken advantage of the opportunity to do the pre-boarding information on line and brought the required copy with me. Once inside the terminal, we were directed to the line for those who had done the pre-boarding info electronically. At that time, approximately 10:45 a.m., the line was fairly short. Within 15 minutes our photos were taken and we were given our ship's ID cards. As we stepped onto MS Westerdam, we were immediately greeted and informed that our cabin would most likely be ready by about 1:30 but that we were very welcome to go to the Lido in the meantime. By 11:30 we were seated in the Lido restaurant having a light lunch.
Around 1:15 p.m. we ventured to find our cabin and it was in fact ready for us. 2 of our 3 suitcases were there, and within half an hour the third one arrived.
This is absolutely the smoothest embarkation I have experienced to date. Very impressive and stress-free. The Cabin: We had booked a triple Cabin, Verandah Deck, #5036. It was well laid out and quite adequate for our needs. The closet space was ample and included a programmable wall safe. It had 2 twin beds (which I understand can be made into a queen, though this wasn't of interest to us) and a sofa bed that our cabin steward made up for my daughter every night and then re-stowed in the morning. Under the two twin beds are drawers which cabin stewards use to store blankets, etc. Other reviews had given me the impression that we might not be able to store luggage under the bed. We had 2 very large suitcases, and we had no difficulty putting one under each of the two twin beds. The drawers do not take up all that much space.
The night tables each have 2 deep drawers, and can be locked with a key, so this is useful for extra storage. We didn't open the mini bar at all. We did enjoy the complementary fresh fruit in a small basket that the cabin steward tops up daily.
The bathroom had a bathtub (which I personally enjoy). The toilets, when flushed, are VERY loud (more so than we recall from any previous ship) and we found that toilets flushing could even be heard from the hallways. It would be loud enough to wake another sleeper in the cabin.
The vanity in the cabin had 2 electrical outlets (great for charging all these electronics that travel with us these days), a make-up mirror, and a hair dryer in addition to the requisite television.
The balcony was large enough for 2 chairs , a small table, and an ottoman. We enjoyed the balcony, especially when the ship was tying up or casting off. It was a great vantage point for viewing sunsets, or for sitting outside on "at sea" days to read when some of the other outdoor areas might be a bit busier than usual.
The Ship: We all thought it was quite beautiful, with gorgeous sculptures and artwork everywhere, and we especially loved the size. At about 1850 passengers, it seemed "just right". It was always possible to find places to sit, nothing ever seemed crowded. There was never any difficulty finding a table at the Lido, even at the most "prime" meal times of at-sea days, and the food line ups were never painfully long.
It seemed to me that the ship had the intimate feel of a smaller ship and yet with a vast selection of public rooms and areas so there would be something for everyone. The exterior glass elevators are a special treat and give a wonderful panoramic view. However, it's my understanding that this might not be a good thing if one has over-indulged at the bar, so do govern yourself accordingly.
It always seemed as though we were fairly close to one or another bank of elevators and generally there wasn't any significant delay moving up and down the decks. I felt this was one of the most "user friendly" layouts of the ships we have sailed.
Cuisine: Food at the Lido was generally very good. Our biggest complaint was that almost nothing was self-service. I think Holland America's philosophy is that they would prefer to serve the guest, and I can understand it, but this method has some shortcomings. Some of the counter staff either did not have a great command of English OR perhaps weren't aware that passengers need to be told about all their choices.
So, for example, there was a Belgian waffle station that had wonderful toppings available for the waffles (fresh fruit, strawberry sauce, maple syrup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce). But all of this is "behind the counter", not self serve. If you asked for a waffle, then a waffle was put on the plate and handed to you - plain, with no toppings offered. When I asked for syrup one day, perhaps a tbsp was put on top of the waffle and quickly disappeared. These kinds of condiments need to be self-serve as we all have our preferences.
My daughter is a big fan of Belgian waffles and she found it a never-ending battle to get the toppings she wanted, in the quantity she wanted, and in the location she wanted. She never quite achieved success and eventually would just give up and eat what was handed to her. At a self-service counter, she would have put whipped cream on the waffle, then strawberry sauce on top. At the Lido, when she asked for whipped cream, about a tsp was put on the edge of the waffle, and when she asked for "more whipped cream", maybe another half tsp was added. Strawberry sauce was put on the side, not on the waffle. Small things, but if the toppings are available, why not get it right?
It does become a little frustrating when every food station is participating in the same program. Finding out what toppings are available is the responsibility of the passenger, and asking for them in the desired amounts each time gets somewhat wearying, especially when the desired result is seldom achieved. Additional signage would be a benefit throughout the grill area.
My son found the process of assembling a breakfast rather cumbersome and felt that a more straightforward self-serve buffet arrangement would have worked better for most of the items. Sometimes gathering up the usual components of a meal (bacon, toast, eggs, coffee and juice) took quite a lot of walking and lining up as they were all over the place.
Of course, custom items (like omelettes) will always need to be cooked and served to order (and actually the Lido was quite efficient with these items) but routine breakfast items like porridge, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes ... these can easily be handled by a self-serve counter and the lines would move more quickly.
Having said that, none of us lost any weight on the cruise (!) and we found the selection and quality of food in all areas of the Lido to be consistently very good.
It seemed that, after the first couple of nights, the dining room was only half full during our seating (6:15 p.m.) presumably because they had drifted to the Lido for a more casual experience. We stayed with the dining room every night and enjoyed the experience. Our two stewards, Mario and Purnama were excellent and made good recommendations when I asked for input about the entree. Purnama also kept us entertained with a "table trick" each night for the last 5 nights, when the dining room was less busy and he had a little more free time. Our head steward came by every evening to greet us in a friendly manner. Unfortunately his very poor command of English limited his greetings to the same two sentences every evening, and he was not capable of much conversation.
Our wine steward I found to be not especially friendly or forthcoming and if I ordered a wine by the glass, he was unlikely to return when the glass was empty to enquire if I wanted another. I solved this problem on New Year's eve by ordering a glass of champagne and letting him know, upfront, that I might well want another. In this instance, he did come back and ask when my first glass was almost empty.
The dining room menu changes every evening and it seemed to me that there was nearly always a good selection. I think there was one night when we were a little hard-pressed to choose an appetizer, because nothing really appealed, but most evenings we all found selections we would like. I have read in other reviews that the entree portions tend to be small, and I would agree with this (although personally I found the portions fine since I wouldn't normally be consuming 3 or 4 separate courses). Hearty eaters might need to order a second appetizer or second entree in order to feel satisfied. At no time did I hear a server suggest that this could be done, but my son (who is 6'5") did this several times and was cheerfully accommodated.
Generally, the dining room fare was nicely presented, served at an appropriate temperature, and of good quality. The room was very pretty, with a special highlight of the 2nd floor ceiling being graced by an enormous piece of glass art which was spectacular. I intended to photograph it but never remembered to bring my camera to dinner.
There was the usual assortment of formal / informal / and casual evenings. I am always a little bothered by people who can't conform to these codes. Formal evenings DO require a jacket, and some in the dining room chose not to wear one. I was also a little disappointed that some families whose young children were simply not capable of sitting through the dining room meal didn't opt for the Lido Restaurant instead. However, these things weren't enough to interfere with our enjoyment of the experience.
One policy that I think HAL should enforce is that the dining doors will be closed 15 minutes after the seating begins. Near us, there was one table that consistently arrived 30-40 minutes after the meal began. This obviously creates a lot of extra work for the servers who have one table out of step with everyone else, and it also gives them little time to re-set those tables before the next seating. A dinner seating time is just that, and people who wish to simply dine casually at whatever hour can be accommodated in the Lido Restaurant. To have people walking in at any time they choose seemed rather disruptive of the flow of the dining room service.
Club HAL: Because our sailing was during a school break, there was a higher than usual complement of children on board. Holland America scales its child and teen programs (Club Hal) up and down according to the numbers on any particular cruise. I believe for our cruise, something like 35% of the passengers on board were under the age of 18. Thus, they were fully staffed to handle this kind of crowd and, except for the period from about 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (Dinner and show times), they had a lot of programming for the 13-17 group (to which my daughter belonged).
Teens could come and go as they pleased and my daughter said the staff running the teen program were "cool", had lots of activities going on, and were laid back with this age group so the programming was enjoyable and fun. Often my daughter returned to the cabin quite late at night, long after I fell asleep, and then in the morning she would report on the results of the scavenger hunt or contest in which she participated until midnight! She has indicated that "cruising is her favourite way to travel" and I think the teen program is one of the reasons for this. There's always something to do, and it's a great way to meet other teens onboard ship.
Ports of Call: I tend to think of these as individual preferences and not entirely the responsibility of the cruise line or ship. We did not use a lot of ship excursions but we enjoyed what we did use. We took an excellent bus tour on Cayman that included Hell as well as the Turtle Farm. The Turtle Farm was interesting and both of my teens thought it was a highlight.
We very much enjoyed the Dolphin Cove swim in Ocho Rios although the "for purchase" video of our Dolphin Swim was incredibly expensive! Not HAL's fault however. The swim itself was a lot of fun. The Dolphin Cove facility was well organized for groups and while we waited for our group to be called we toured their nature walk.
Before heading back to the ship, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some wonderful Jamaican cuisine. We had been given the name of a small restaurant in Ocho Rios that was highly recommended. "Bibibip's Jerkin' @ Taj" The place seemed full when we arrived but magically a table and 3 chairs appeared and was put in position and voila, we were seated and handed menus. We were almost sitting on the sidewalk, but no matter. We almost licked our plates clean that day and all this from a kitchen about the size of my desk in the office. Absolutely delicious!
We had a surprisingly wonderful day at Costa Maya in Mexico. Due to the hurricanes earlier in 2005, the port of Cozumel was closed to our ship months in advance of our sailing so our excursion in Cozumel was cancelled and refunded. That left me to figure out "what there was to do" in Costa Maya (a port I'd never heard of). I got on the internet, did some research, and learned that Costa Maya is a very new port basically build to attract the cruise ships. It has a Mayan Village (freshly constructed, go figure) that offers some insight into the Mayan culture as well as a small beach, pool, bar, restaurant, and tourist shops like Diamonds International. This didn't seem a very authentic experience to me so I researched further and found that there is a fishing village (Mahahual) only about 5 minutes away from the Dock by taxi.
We pre-booked a beach day with one of the small (and I do mean SMALL, like maybe a dozen rooms?) hotel properties on the beach. The taxi driver delivered us to the beginning of the street and told us to "walk to the end of the main street". The main street is a dirt road and there were various vendors along the way. We smiled and kept moving until we saw the small hand painted sign indicating that we had reached our "beach party" destination.
In addition to a warm welcome at the bar which was festooned with loveseat sized swings hanging from ropes (a charming novelty), we were given wrist bands indicating we had paid for use of the beach and unlimited beverages from the bar including sodas, bottled water, beer, and mixed drinks. The best part, though, was that Mahahual is located on a pristine sandy beach, sheltered by a coral reef, with shallow, clear, beautiful water.
A table, beach umbrella, and chairs were set up for us, our pre-ordered lunch was served at noon, and we had a very enjoyable beach day indeed. The surf near the port was very rough that day and when we returned to the ship, we learned that all water sports had been cancelled which disappointed many. In fact, you could hear the ship crashing rhythmically against the pier and I suspect those who spent their day on board became heartily tired of the sound! From our vantage point at Mahahual, we wouldn't have known there was a ripple in the water. It was almost perfectly smooth and beautifully clear.
Summary: This cruise absolutely met our expectations. Overall we found the service to be friendly, professional, and nearly always enthusiastic. (Interestingly, when we cruised a few years ago on RCI we found the service in most respects, while certainly capable, was not enthusiastic at all.) We enjoyed our Western Caribbean cruise on Westerdam so much that we plan to sail in August of 2007 on Westerdam's sister ship, Zuiderdam, from Vancouver to Alaska.