Holland America Line - Westerdam
By Chris Rogers
Western Caribbean - January 15, 2006
I sailed on two back-to-back cruises totaling 14 days, through the Western and Eastern Caribbean. These were my 10th and 11th Holland America cruises.
The Westerdam is approximately 85,000 tons and 950 feet long; it is the third ship in the Vista class series and was launched in 2004.
Embarkation was smoother than expected, given that 1,848 passengers had to leave and roughly the same number had to come onto the ship, with disembarkation starting just before 9 a.m. and the ship sailing around 5 p.m. The check-in was rapid once we were in the building.
I was in a cabin by myself, in the aft part of the ship, but forward of the aft staircase. The couple I traveled with had a cabin beside the forward staircase. Both cabins were starboard (right) side on the upper-promenade deck (above the open promenade deck). This resulted in some minor motion in rough seas, but nothing unpleasant. I was in outside cabin F4121, which can sleep three 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, parasailing and some jet-ski and boating activities. There is also a nature walk. Holland America has only developed a small part of the island. Bring both sunscreen, and -- something less obvious -- insect repellent! This was followed by a day at sea.
Noel Coward's Estate
The next stop was in Ocho Rios, on the northern coast of Jamaica. Many tours are offered from the ship; safety dictates this is the best way to go. There was an interesting shore expedition to Firefly, Sir Noel Coward's spartan Jamaican estate. This trip is not mentioned in many brochures. To get there, one travels 20 miles east in an air conditioned bus on steep, winding roads, some unpaved, 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 two 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.
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 $25 per pound, 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."
We were supposed to go to Grand 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 at least four other ships were visible and three more were coming in, it would have been fairly crowded.
We proceeded to Puerto Costa Maya (PCM), very far south on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in the state of Quintana Roo, just north of Belize. This is a new facility that does not appear even in recent guidebooks but is described in some on-line reviews. It was built only in the last few years in a very isolated, undeveloped area near Majahual. Two of us joined an all-day expedition to the Mayan ruins of Kohunlich in the tropical jungle, consisting of a large city, of which about 85 percent is not excavated. But what has been is spectacular; it 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. They gave us a decent lunch 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 port shopping center 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. The isolation of PCM has led to excessively priced not very good quality items being available, including very obnoxious and aggressive salespeople who follow (i.e. harass) potential clients from store to store. 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. Even the extra passengers here resulting from Hurricane Wilma reducing traffic to Cozumel has not satisfied the need or greed of some of the merchants. 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.
The Second Leg
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 instead of lining up by the Front Office.
Our first port of call on the second leg was Nassau, Bahamas. A stop from 7 a.m. to noon is not long to do much sightseeing. It would be nice if HAL would increase the amount of time spent here. The pier area has some old colonial buildings still used as the seat of government, and there is a market (the Straw Market) close to the port where you can get some good deals. 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; just be prepared to 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 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 as 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, on the Dutch side of St. Maarten/St. Martin, is the hub of the Netherlands West Indies. It was quite crowded, since there were at least four large and two small cruise ships in port. Side trips are available here and on the less traveled 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; if you find a flaw later, this can be fixed through the shipboard 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. Free motion sickness chewable tabs are available. While those amidships and lower down experience less movement, I did not regret being near 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, 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. 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; three of us were at a table for four, at the late seating (table 151). Service was above average. Unfortunately, Holland America appears to have discontinued an important feature of the Wine Navigator program: 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. This means a busy wine steward taking soft drink orders (and serving them), while also 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 reverting to the older practice.
The Pinnacle restaurant was very good, with impeccable service. The layout is different, being more open than on other classes of ship. The three of us went on the first day of the second leg of the cruise, so we only had to pay half the surcharge, normally $20 per person. The beef is as good as the Alberta Grade A that 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 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, but the deck ahead of the forward and behind the aft staircases is very wide, leaving enough space for those walking and those using deck chairs. The TVs are of a better make than on earlier ships; there was a minimum of signal-fade 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 were high-end HAL and knew their work. There were no plumbing problems, which have affected some other HAL ships.
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 projected onto large screens. The shows are re-played on one of the ship's internal TV 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.