Back-to-back cruise, 14 days, Western and Eastern Caribbean
These were my 10th and 11th Holland America cruises.
The Westerdam is approx. 85,000gt, and 950 feet long, it is the 3rd in theVista class series and was launched in 2004.
Embarkation was smoother than expected, given the 1,848 passengers had to leave and roughly the same number had to come onto the ship, with the disembarkation starting just before 0900 and the ship setting sale around 1700. The check-in was rapid once we were in the building.
I was in a cabin by myself, aft (rear) of the ship, but forward of the aft staircase, the couple I travel with were beside the forward staircase; both cabins were starboard (right) side on the upper-promenade deck (above the open Promenade or "walkies" deck). This meant that there was some minor motion in rough seas, but nothing unpleasant. I was in outside cabin F4121 which can sleep 3 and whose sea-facing wall was the window, my friends were in a verandah cabin VF4041.
We docked first in Half-Moon Cay, Bahamas, Holland America's private island, found on maps as Little San Salvador. Many people left the ship, on tenders for there are things to do on this island mostly involving water, such as scuba, snorkeling or snuba diving, para-sailing and some sea-do and boating activities. There is also a nature walk - Holland America has only developed a small part of the island. Bring both sun screen, and, something less obvious -insect repellent! This was followed by a day asea.
The next stop was in Ocho Rios, on the northern coast of Jamaica. There are many tours of Jamaica offered from the ship, which safety dictates is the best way to do it; although 'Ochee' now has little crime, it is wise to pay attention to recent guidebook advisories concerning this country. There was an interesting shore expedition to 'Firefly', Sir Noel Coward's spartan Jamaican estate. This trip is not mentioned in many brochures and I have only seen a few reviews of the site. To get there one travels 20 miles East in an air conditioned bus on steep winding roads, some of which are not paved, to the cliffs above Port Maria; this is a short journey and is well worth it for coastal views, a glimpse of rural Jamaica, and a look at the eccentric English playwright's well-maintained garden, where he is also buried (he died in 1973). The grounds are a national monument cared for by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. The house has been preserved largely as Noel Coward left it: There are 2 grand pianos in the living room on which he composed some of his tunes, and his gramophone and some records are on hand, along with clothes still in the closet (!) and a modest library which may have suffered from pilfering over the years.
On our return from the tour, we went to Margaritaville near the port; this is an area restricted to tourists with a minimum of aggressive hustling. Blue Mountain coffee was available at the Plaza for U$25/lb., as are Caribbean shirts, dresses (and other things). We had lunch which was pricey, but the service was good and the drinks were very large and relatively cheap. We walked from Margaritaville to the port without incident although one of the souvenir vendors asked my friend if he wanted to buy some "smoke". (--No!)
We were supposed to go to Cayman Island next, but rough seas prevented use of the tenders for getting ashore (there are no port facilities for a ship as large as ours). Since there were at least 4 other ships that were visible, and 3 more coming in, it would have been fairly crowded.
On to Puerto Costa Maya (PCM), very far south on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in the state of Quintana Roo, just North of Belize (formerly British Honduras). This is a new facility which does not appear even in recent guidebooks but is described in some on-line reviews; built only in the last few years in a very isolated and undeveloped area near Majahual. Two of us joined an all-day expedition to the Mayan ruins of Kohunlich in the tropical jungle, which consist of a large city of which about 85% is not excavated; but what has been, is spectacular and includes a Mayan ball-court, several pyramids, a large number of dwellings and other ruined buildings, spread over wide open spaces. It is also famous for its six-foot tall statues in the Temple of the Masks, which represent the sun god of the Mayas. A decent lunch was provided on the way to the site, and the toilet facilities on the bus worked fine. This is worth doing, although for those not interested in such a long trip, it was possible to go to places much closer to the ship (the ruins at Chacchoben for example). There was a lot of walking involved, and people should remember hats, sunscreen and insect repellent.
At our arrival in port there was one other HAL ship, the Ryndam and one of the very large Royal Caribbean ships. The actual port shopping centre here needs some re-thinking: Several cruise lines were involved in its development and construction as a 'restricted' shopping port, and as an alternative to overcrowding at Cozumel further North. The isolation of PCM has led to very excessively priced not very good quality items being available, including very obnoxious and aggressive salespeople who follow (harass) potential clients from store to store (this has been mentioned in some reviews of the port). It is clear that some of the people who set up shop were given too many empty promises from either the government or the contractors who built the place. Even the extra added influx of passengers as a result of hurricane Wilma reducing traffic to Cozumel has not satisfied the need or greed of some of the merchants here. The pharmacy was two to three times more expensive than back home, the drinks were outrageous and lousy, and there was no point in eating there since the ships are right there. A Cozumel this is not, but with some effort it could be made into a nice place.
After two days at sea, we were back to Fort Lauderdale. Going back-to-back on the same ship is not very complicated. In essence we were in transit because we were heading out on the second leg in a few hours on the same ship. This was over quickly but might be difficult for those who are not able to stand for long periods; transit people should have been told to assemble in one of the lounges where seating was available as opposed to lining up by the Front Office.
Our first port of call on the second leg was Nassau, Bahamas. 0700 to 1200 is not sufficiently long to do much sight-seeing. It would be nice if HAL would increase the amount of time spent in Nassau. Their pier area has some old colonial buildings which are still used as the seat of government and there is a market (the 'straw' market) very close to the port where you can get some good deals by doing a bit of humming and hawing. The Caribbean shirts are attractive and if you get a reduced price for one, you can get a second or third one for a lot less; the thing is to be prepared to simply walk away if the price is too steep - it comes down quickly!
The next stop was Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Having been there before, we did not go on any of the expeditions. There are trips to nearby islands, water sports, and glass-bottomed boat tours of the reefs outside of the port; you can also get as good a tour from the locals for a lower price than that provided by the ship. The three of us headed off the ship to sample a British navy rum concoction known us "Pusser's Painkiller" at a local bar. There are souvenirs to be had, but attire is quite expensive on Tortola compared with Nassau or Philipsburg.
Philipsburg, located on the Dutch side of St. Maartin/St. Martin is the hub of the Netherlands West Indies. It was quite crowded, there being at least 4 large and 2 small cruise ships in port. Side trips are available here and on the less travelled French part of the island whose capital is Marigot. Philipsburg is full of shops of all kinds especially jewelry stores; pay attention to the cruise ship's handouts because some stores have very similar names. The big cruise lines have their recommended shops, and these should be used since if there is a flaw discovered later, this can be fixed through the ship-board guarantee.
Two days later and we were back to Half Moon Cay, Bahamas before arriving in Ft. Lauderdale.
During the cruise there were some occasions when the wind was strong, up to Force 9 on the Beaufort scale, but there was only a little pitch (front-to-back) and roll (side-to-side) movement. There are free motion sickness chewable tabs available. While those amidships and lower down experience less movement, I did not regret being towards the back of the ship for equipped with stabilizers, the Westerdam is able to sail comfortably in high seas.
The Lido, the casual dining area of many cruise ships, was a vast improvement over that on several previous HAL ships. The omelette station at breakfast includes an assortment of fruit, juices and bacon or sausage; at lunch, there were 'food stations' for Italian (pasta etc.), custom sandwiches, wok (stir-fry), and sushi was available at one place- all of which meant fewer multiple-line-ups. Given the number of people on the ship, at breakfast and lunch, you still have to send someone to guard seats in the Lido while the others of your group make their selections.
The dining room was good, 3 of us were at a table for 4, at the late seating, (table 151). Service was above average. Unfortunately, Holland America appears to have discontinued an important feature of the Wine Navigator programme: You can no longer pre-order your wine from the package you have bought, on the day you are having it, instead you must order it at the meal itself. This means a running-around wine steward taking soft drink orders (and serving them), while dealing with having to fetch wine for dinner! I am told this was the old practice before 1993. For some years, because the dinner menu is posted and available in the morning, you could visit the 'wine desk' and your wine would be at your table when you arrived in the evening. HAL should re-think about how reverting to the older practice overworks the wine steward and how really inefficient it is to have any wine steward dealing with soft drinks.
The Pinnacle restaurant was very good, impeccable service. The layout is different, being more 'open' than on other classes of ship. The 3 of us went on the first day of the second leg of the cruise, so only had to pay half of the surcharge (normally $20 per person). The beef is as good as the Alberta Grade A which used to be served on all HAL ships until restrictions on exporting Canadian beef to the U.S. made that impossible.
The pools, one outside, aft, and the other near the Lido were well maintained. The Promenade "walkies" deck does not extend the full length of the ship, and, in some areas clear sight lines are lacking, obstructions (which are not shown on the ship's plans) include space for raft stations and zodiac rescue boats, however the deck from ahead of the forward and to the rear of the aft staircases is very wide, leaving enough space for those walking and for those using deck chairs at the same time. The televisions are of a better make than on earlier ships, there was a minimum of signal-fade from some networks on the satellite feed.. There are no washing machines, but for $12 you can cram a large bag; I would rather not be doing laundry anyway! The room stewards (a different one for each of the two cabins) were high end HAL and knew their work. There were no plumbing problems which have affected the Statendam class and some other ships in the Vista class.
The three of us attended two wine tastings, presided over by the head wine steward who was from Quebec. HAL started this a few years ago and the ships have been expanding and improving them since; there is a fee for this activity, and the wines are all sampled with food. There were also (free) cooking demos in the Queen's Lounge and Culinary Arts Centre where a variety of things from the ship's menu are prepared; a couple of TV cameras are used including one giving overhead shots which are projected onto large screens. The shows are re-played on one of the ship's internal television channels. For either the wine tasting or the culinary demonstrations, plan on eating less lunch.
I preferred this ship over the Zuiderdam, possibly because the service was better, but it could also be that the ship was so new.