Holland America Line Amsterdam by David R. Parker Caribbean October 24, 1999
This is the oldest of HAL's ships and also the smallest at 33,930 gross tons. The Noordam, launched one year later, is virtually identical except for some decor. I won't bore you with too many deck details, since anyone with a brochure can see all the specifics. We were very impressed with the cleanliness and upkeep of this boat. Crew was always painting, polishing, cleaning, varnishing, etc. I had been concerned that the maintenance might slip due to the announced sale of the Nieuw Amsterdam to the American Hawaii Line at the end of the 2000 season. No cause for concern though, everything was in great condition.
The feel of the Nieuw Amsterdam is elegant and "proper". No glitzy neon or plastic. Lots of wood, brass, and antiques. We very much enjoyed the feel and ambiance of the decor and furnishings. We sailed with a full passenger complement (approx. 1200) but never felt crowded. There were few lines and there was never a problem finding a quiet place to sit and read. As to air conditioning, it was hit and miss. Some parts of the ship were very cool, like the Peartree lounge, the casino, and parts of the Lido restaurant. Others were a bit warm, like the Explorer's lounge, Henry's bar and the Manhatten dining room. Later in the cruise the Explorer's lounge was very cool....so it's possible that the crew was adjusting the public room temps to try to accommodate the passenger's comments. A lot of the older people constantly complained of areas being too cool.
Now, about that "vibration" some have written about. This ship (and reportedly the Noordam) definitely has a significant vibration that I can best describe as a slow throb or bounce. In some parts of the ship you can't even feel it, in other places it's almost comical. The worst places were the Crow's nest lounge and the balcony of the Stuyvesant Lounge. At times, it was hard to even read in the Crow's nest due to the bouncing. It reminded me of sitting on my Harley Road King at idle. Seriously. Whenever I started missing my Harley, I'd just go sit in the crow's nest and close my eyes. Hehe. It really wasn't uncomfortable, just a bit amusing. We never felt it at all in our cabin.
The last day at sea was the only rough one. I was on deck (completely alone!) as we came around Grand Cayman and ran smack into a tropical depression. It was fascinating. The sky/sea ahead looked like a black wall, while the sun was shining behind us. I was about ready to get in the shower anyway after snorkeling so I decided to stay put and see what it was like. I wrapped my left arm around the center post of the top forward deck rail and hung on to my glasses with with my right hand. Wow. The head winds were 30 knots and we were moving at 20, so it was like hitting a wet wall. A really wild ride. That night and the next day were pretty rough heading around Cuba and back toward the Gulf. We slept fine (like being in a giant cradle that is swinging gently) but Sharon was briefly sick the next day. After throwing up a few times, she took a short nap and then was fine. I never got sick, but had to focus to avoid it.Just Old Folks?
Just tell most people who cruise that you are going on a HAL cruise, and you will probably hear that it will be mostly old folks. I heard it from our travel agent when planning this trip. Well....for the most part, it's true. I'm 42, and my wife is "a little" older than me. I'd say the average age on this cruise was between 65 and 70. There was one twentysomething honeymoon couple, one (1!) child, a couple dozen couples in their 30s and 40s....and the rest of the 1200 passengers were 50-80. The vast majority were in their 60s.
But....so what? That's a great demographic for people like us. Obviously, if you are young and single and trolling for action, or just interested in the view on the topless deck, you won't find much among this crowd. But there were no noisy kids (the one was a cute little toddler...rarely seen), and no (absolutely none) tweens or teenagers. There were always lots of lounge chairs, deck chairs, and nothing but space outside. The real old folks just don't spend alot of time there. We had no problem getting the real active shore excursions we wanted (sailing, snorkeling, etc) because they were all on bus tours. And these older folks are great to visit with, dine with, and get to know. They are widely traveled and well educated. And many of them are a real riot...especially after a little bit to drink. We much prefer the older crowd for dining, dancing, and conversation. That generation knows how to have a meaningful conversation. I'm often afraid many my age and younger don't know how to engage in gracious conversation that isn't just about themselves or their interests. Give me the HAL folks any day!Cabins We booked a mini-suite (the highest category available on this ship) for several reasons. Given the length of the cruise and the rare opportunity to do a trip like this without our kids, we wanted "the best"...and it was a relative bargain. This ship has few large single beds and the mini-suite assured us of a king bed. It also comes with a sofa, chair, table, desk/chair, huge dresser with make-up seat, mini-bar with fridge, TV, stereo, large tub with shower, two plush HAL robes for use on board, full breakfast in cabin if desired, and just a huge amount of storage. We couldn't begin to use all the drawers and storage cupboards. Two of the dresser drawers locked with a provided key. We just locked jewelry and excess cash in a drawer and never had a problem.
The room was almost 300 square feet, which is huge. All the mini-suites are listed as "partial sea view" due to the life boats. The view was really fine. The windows were just about even with the top of the open life boats, allowing full view straight out or up. The only obstruction was looking straight down. The mini-suites on the deck below us had windows even with the bottom of the lifeboats, giving them a good view down or straight out, but not up. Either arrangement works, though I think our deck (the Navigation Deck) was a bit better view. Another reason I wanted the Navigation Deck is that I could assume (correctly) from the deck schematics that the Captain's private quarters are on that deck near the bridge. Actually, the Hotel Manager and the Chief Engineer's quarters were also forward on Navigation. This was important to me because of scattered reports I'd read about plumbing/air conditioning problems on this boat. I figured that these systems are probably deck specific and there would be a better assurance of smooth operation on the deck where the Captain sleeps. As I hoped, there were never any problems with plumbing of any kind...everything worked great. And the air conditioning was capable of keeping our cabin (number A060) in the low 60s! My wife revolted when I'd crank it below about 70....but it was nice knowing I'd never have to sleep hot in the Caribbean. We did hear reports of air conditioning problems on the B deck. On the last night, we sat next to a passenger at the evening show that said she had not had any A/C in her cabin for the entire two weeks...the best they could do was to bring her a large fan, which dominated her relatively small cabin. The irony is that she is a travel agent and was really steamed...HAL will probably regret not solving her problems. One of the couples at our dining room table had a shower that barely worked (very low pressure) for the first several days. Their cabin was on the Upper Promenade deck. They finally got the public relations manager's attention and got the problem fixed. It required opening up the wall in the shower. They had very good follow up by the PR manager to assure they were happy. Makes me wonder about that travel agent on B deck...
Food In the dining room the food was spectacular. Excellent variety, taste, presentation and quality. Some portions were small, especially the chicken and lamb entrees...but they were happy to bring you a second serving. A real highlight was the chilled soups the chef created. Very tasty. The Lido was not so impressive, mostly just usual cafeteria food...but then we ate dinner in the dining room every night anyway. The hamburger grill was okay, but offered nothing with their burgers other than standard garnishes. I was dying for some BBQ sauce....and it would have been nice to have been able to get some chips or fries. As we often didn't return to the ship from shore excursions till 3:00 PM or after, it was often our only choice for a late lunch. One of HAL's best extras is the Lido Ice Cream bar. "Abel" took care of me with a smile and a greeting...he even learned my name. One day I hadn't visited him until the late night serving and he thought I'd fallen overboard. (I love ice cream!) The varieties were a bit odd at times, but he came up with some masterpieces. I loved the banana fudge, cinnamon vanilla and coconut sherbet. They are all made fresh on board. The only room service we ordered was coffee or breakfast in the morning, depending on our excursions, and they were always delivered hot and promptly when requested.
Service In a word, excellent. HAL has created a corporate culture of service and friendliness that must be the envy of the other cruise lines. The room and dining stewards were the best. And the bar staff were welcoming even if you weren't buying or drinking. The entertainment staff were absolutely fantastic...though the same can't be said of all the entertainment...more on that later. Even the ship operation people..you know, the guys you pass on deck or in a hall that are wearing dirty coveralls or a sailor's uniform...all would greet and smile like they really enjoyed seeing you. It's easy to see why so many people become brand loyal to HAL. Over 70% of our passengers were HAL alumni.Ports/Excursions
The primary reason we chose this cruise was the number and variety of ports. The only change was the substitution of Dominica for Guadeloupe. There were political demonstrations and labor strikes in Guadeloupe so we called on Dominica instead. Everyone was very happy with the change. Those that had been to Guadeloupe before had nothing good to say about it, and Dominica was a treat. More "third world" than most of the Caribbean, it is a lush and beautiful island. They clearly were not as accustomed to cruise ships and we were able to see more of the "backside" of Caribbean life.
But first, we hit San Juan, Puerto Rico after two sea days. We spent the day walking San Juan's old town on our own. We took the free trolley from near the docks to the fort of San Cristobal. We leisurely toured the fort and enjoyed the incredible view from it's ramparts. We then walked the mile or two along the sea wall to the fort of El Morro. We spent over an hour just climbing around this magnificent place. We fell into a Park Service tour and learned a great deal about it's history. From there we walked all through old town, stopping to visit the San Juan Cathedral where Ponce de Leon is at rest and then leisurely walked and shopped back to the ship. It' s all a down hill walk from El Morro. For those who can walk and aren't intimidated by foreign places, this is a great place to skip the excursions and set out on your own.
Next was St. John/St. Thomas. The ship stops at St. John at 7:00 am and allows off those who have excursions there, then proceeds to St Thomas to dock at about 9:00 am. You are not allowed off at St. John without an excursion ticket since transportation to shore is by special ferry. We wanted off at St. John to be on our own for swimming and snorkeling and did not want a restrictive excursion. Thankfully, they offer an $8 per person "Ferry Transfer" on the excursion form that basically just drops you off at St. John. You are on you own from there. Perfect for us, so that's what we did. We shared a taxi to Trunk Bay, (there are rows of taxi trucks everywhere we went...cheap and easy) and were in the water by 7:30! We brought our own mask/fins/snorkel, but they are available to rent at trunk bay. This is the place with the underwater snorkel trail and is a nice easy snorkel for beginners. The facilities there are great, with fresh water showers, rest rooms, snacks and a small store. There is also lots of shade, with rows of trees right up to the white sand. Perfect for those of us that burn easy. We had intended to move on over to Cinnamon Bay next, but it was so perfect at Trunk, we just stayed most of the day. In the afternoon, we taxied back to the ferry terminal where we arrived and bought tickets for the 45 minute ferry trip over to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas to rejoin the ship. The ferry was $6 or $8 each...I forget....but very reasonable. It runs about every hour and the taxi drivers know it's schedule by heart. The ferry drops you off right in the heart of Charlotte Amalie's waterfront market place. It's about a $2 taxi to the cruise ship dock after you've had your fill of shopping. The hair braiders kept after me...wanting to do my hair or my beard, or both. Thankfully my wife put an end to that before I could be seriously tempted. We had a full day at one of the best beaches in the world, swimming, snorkeling, and snoozing, a delightful ferry ride, and plenty of shopping....and it cost a total of about $25. And we went at our own pace. A real bargain. It was kind of sad when the cruise ship excursions hit Trunk Bay, all of a sudden about 100 people would show up with day-glow stickers on their shirts and were constantly looking at their watches or asking us the time because they only had about an hour. Much better to just do this one on your own if you desire beach time or snorkeling. The ship offers 17 excursions here that would cover most any other plans.
Though the change to Dominica was done at the last minute (literally the afternoon before) they came up with two excellent excursions. This is a rustic and backward island that lends itself to an organized excursion, though there were many taxi/tour drivers aggressively looking for business. Two even got in a fight near the dock. If you are comfortable dealing with very assertive locals, you could certainly save money dealing direct. It's a British Commonwealth Windward Island, so language is not a problem. This island reminded me the most of parts of Hawaii. Very mountainous with many streams, rivers, and waterfalls. It was without a doubt the most beautiful of all the islands we visited. We took a tour into the mountains and visited the Emerald Pool and Falls which were spectacular. It involved a moderately demanding walk down a rainforest canyon and back up on a well groomed trail. Any who wanted to could swim in the pool under the falls...most of us just scampered around on the rocks posing for pictures. Large fresh water crabs could be seen without effort. There was an off and on light rain, but you couldn't even feel it under the huge canopy of the rainforest.
We went next to a local mountain meeting hall where a group of local women did a charming music/dance production. It was rustic in every way....and the rum punch was strong enough to start your car. Next stop was a botanical garden and then a scenic overlook called Morne Bruce which is near their President's residence above Roseau. We returned to the dock, which is right at the heart of their downtown area, and set out on foot to walk the area. Though the taxi drivers were rather aggressive, the local people and merchants were very friendly and seemed thrilled we were there. It didn't look like they get many cruise ships. Lots of little stalls and marketplaces near the ship. Also plenty of opportunity to sample the local "ganga" as I found out. If a local comes on just a little too friendly, he' s probably looking to sell some of his "reeely good ganga, mon". The local that approached me was still very friendly and solicitous even after his proposition was declined. There was a local festival going on celebrating the 21st anniversary of their independence from Britain and most everyone was dressed to party and looking for a good time on this Friday night. We ventured several blocks into Roseau (though it made my wife a bit nervous) to visit the local cathedral that looked very impressive from the ship. We entered through a side door and marveled at the simplistic beauty of this church. After noticing that they were setting up for a funeral, we slipped out and worked our way back to the ship. As we walked these narrow twisting streets, the locals were hanging out everywhere with much talk and laughter. We could smell strange and wonderful aromas coming from the many little kitchens that were busy preparing for the parties. It was a wonderful visit. It is certainly one of the more African influenced islands and seemed quite a bit more "foreign" than any of the other ports on this trip. I was amused later to observe a local man climb the seawall right next to the dock, strip naked, swim around bathing, climb onto the rocks next to the dock, dry off and redress. He then climbed back over the wall and joined the other party goers. I guess he just wasn't as fresh as he wanted to be for the night ahead. Nobody paid him any attention.
The absolute best sail/snorkel excursion we took was at Bridgetown Barbados. If you book only one of these type excursions....take this one. After a short shuttle bus ride within the port area, we boarded a huge 60' sailing catamaran that was shining clean and well maintained. On boarding, I commented to my wife that I sure hoped they'd really sail this thing and not just motorsail...I was not disappointed. We had a gentle sail downwind to a beautiful beach/snorkel site. The entire crew was friendly and solicitous of our every need. When a group of passengers in the water were in need of more rum drinks, they began to bring pitchers out to the them. And not just rum punch...they were creating some beautiful custom rum drinks. Rum must be very inexpensive in Barbados because they sure were generous with it. We had a blast snorkeling and then slipped out of the bay to sail and eat lunch. It was a fantastic fully catered hot lunch with fish, BBQ chicken, rice, salad, bread, dessert, ...more food than we could possibly eat. Very hot and tasty. And then we sailed....really sailed! There were strong trade winds blowing, but they rolled out all the jib and only put one reef in the mainsail. We were close reaching at breakneck speed and were taking spray and frequent waves clear back to the mast. Anyone wanting to stay dry could certainly stay in the cockpit/cabin seating area, but many of us chose to set out on the forward hulls or the trampoline connecting them....and we had a great thrill ride. Very wet, very fun. This crew was great, the boat was wonderful and the water was perfect. Easily the best excursion we took. It's listed in the HAL excursion planner as "Beach Sail & Snorkel, 5 hours, Catamaran sail, beach, snorkel, lunch, drinks, $79, 125-0601"
Castries, St. Lucia was easily the worst of these type of excursions. Absolutely beautiful island though. There is a mini-mall of sorts right next to the dock with many different stores for shopping. One shop even had a life-size wicker Harley. Entirely made from wicker. Amazing. Anyway, this sail/swim/plantation excursion was quite a contrast to the one in Barbados. The crew were not very friendly, mostly just stayed back by the wheel and ignored us. This was a 5½ hour excursion from the docks at Castries around the island to Soufriere, where the ship would meet us and pick us up by tender. The catamaran crew never turned off the engine and just motorsailed the entire time. We did circle in through the hurricane hole of Marigot Bay which was fascinating, and the view of the twin Pitons near Soufriere were magnificent. What was described as a "brief swim stop" at Anse Cochon cove mid-trip turned out to be 1½ hours due to the crew motorsailing quickly instead of sailing slowly along the coast. No snorkeling equipment was provided, but I had brought my mask and snorkel for the "brief swim stop" so I asked the crew about the snorkeling prospects. They instructed me not to go beyond the point at the north end of the bay due to the strong currents, but said the cliffs short of the point were good to snorkel. I did not bring my fins and lived to regret it. Not wanting to just set around on the beach for 1½ hours, I set off to snorkel. Swimming and snorkeling along the cliffs was delightful and I soon found myself near the point a considerable distance from the beach. I didn't think it was a problem since I hadn't gone around the point and it was an easy swim getting there....come to find out, it was an easy swim because of that current. As I began to work my way back, I had a very hard time. Having usually worn fins when diving/snorkeling, I had neglected to realize how very hard it is to power against a current without them. Bare human feet are just pitiful against a strong current. I pumped like a crazy man for about 30 minutes to finally make it back. Was just a little scary. In doing so, I ended up straining or pulling some tendons in my left lower leg that I felt for days. After arriving at Soufriere, we boarded buses for a visit to the Morne Coubaril Estate plantation. Very interesting despite the seemingly bored tour guides. Beautiful island, but not as friendly people. Very aggressive vendors, some very young, meet you at the dock at Soufriere and you have to almost beat them away with a stick. Too bad.
Next was Porlamar, Isla De Margarita, Venezuela. We skipped the excursions and taxied into town to shop. Pearls are a big item here and are great values. The people are very friendly and dollars widely accepted. This is a great place to find good souvenirs for the kids, lots of Indian handicrafts. We even found the Harley dealer and got a couple of his tee-shirts. Very cool. The Hilton is right next to the tender dock (the only thing near the tender dock) and new and very nice. It's a great place to make phone calls back to the States. Few excursions were offered here, but it's a great place to just explore on you own. Porlamar has the feel of a boomtown that is growing very fast. A wonderful stop.
Next was Kralendijk, Bonaire. It and Aruba are in the Netherlands Antilles and were simply charming. I loved Bonaire. It was like a little Dutch village transplanted to the coast of South America. Very friendly people, easy, no-hassle shopping, and some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. We took the "no name" beach snorkel transfer excursion which offered great snorkeling in crystal clear water. But, as we discovered, this beach is on a barrier island (no facilities) near the harbor and is easily and cheaply reached by water taxis that are near the ship. We paid $39 each for about a 10 minute ferry to the beach. Skipping the ship excursion and doing it on your own would be much cheaper...though of course you'd need your own gear. The folks I really felt sorry for were those who bought the "Samur sail & snorkel" excursion. They paid $69 each to ride an old Chinese junk the same distance and to snorkel the same beach. On another subject, my left leg was now miserable after battling the current in St. Lucia and walking alot in Porlamar. We asked in Bonaire for a pharmacy to try to find an over the counter pain killer and anti-inflammatory called Actron that has been effective for me in the past. Tylenol and Excedrin had been useless. There was a wonderful pharmacy nearby with an English speaking pharmacist. She was not familiar with Actron and we didn't know it's active ingredient, but she patiently described several different options. On her advice we bought a Swiss drug called Voltaren that we found out later was prescription only in the States. (we saw other perscription drugs, including codeine, available over the counter here) It was very inexpensive, and very effective. We'd only bought 10 tablets and needed more at Grand Caymen a couple of days later, and once again found a nearby pharmacy who gladly sold us as much as we wanted (a British equivalent to the Swiss drug) for a very reasonable price. We paid about $8 for 20 tablets, but discovered after we got to the ship that he had mistakenly given us more than 30 tablets. These were just as effective. Anyone on expensive medication ought to consider checking some of the local pharmacies in these islands...might be able to save a great deal.
Oranjestad, Aruba was a bigger, more commercial Bonaire. We did another catamaran sail and snorkel (just can't get enough) and it was delightful. It was a 55' catamaran, not as nice as in Barbados, but the people were great. They kept the rum flowing, with lots of music and dancing. They anchored at Arashi, near the west point of the island and the water and fish were spectacular. After returning to the ship and cleaning up a little, we walked the waterfront shopping area. Lots of western influence here. You' ll find American franchises and even a Carlos n' Charlies saloon & restaurant.
The next day was a sea day, which we greatly appreciated. It was great to just relax, read, and mix without an excursion or port. The last stop was George Town, Grand Cayman. Some of the most spectacular water yet. We did the Atlantis submarine in the morning. There are Atlantis submarines operating in St. Thomas, Barbados, Aruba and Grand Cayman. We had heard that Grand Cayman was the best, and we very much enjoyed it. These are real submarines, not semi-submersibles or glass bottom boats. It's over 60' long and costs over 3 million dollars. We dove to over 100' down the Cayman wall which goes on to drop about 6,000 feet. The dive lasted 45 minutes, and they hover the sub right up to the wall, close enough to reach out and touch it, if there were no windows. We saw two huge sea turtles, several large stingrays, and thousands of fish and eels. Spectacular. Worth every penny. After the sub, we did a little shopping and then joined our last excursion, a reef snorkel trip. This was a dive boat that took us to two dive sites nearby. First was the wreck of the Cali, a freighter hauling rice that began to take on water....and proceeded to burst and sink as the rice expanded. Great snorkeling. It was near enough to the surface (maybe 15-20 ' feet down) to dive down and climb around a little. Very cool. Lots of fish, including 4-5' long fish that look like sharks...though they aren't. I forget their names. They were very docile and let you swim all around them. One of the smaller fish did nibble at my fingers once....didn't hurt, but it sure startled me. It's easy to pet most of the bigger fish, even if you aren't trying to. After the Cali wreck, we motored over to a natural reef which had more coral and vegetation than had grown on the Cali. The crew of the dive boat was great. They swam with us, dove into some of the caves to chase out fish, and even caught a few small fish by hand. We had a sea turtle swim right through us as well. Wonderful.
Entertainment The ships performers, three young men and four young ladies, were absolutely fantastic. Incredible dancing and singing. The only problem was they only performed four times in 14 days. The other evening entertainment was mediocre at best. There was a banjo player (!?), a "silent comedian" that belonged at a child's party, a ventriloquist, a pianist, two other comedians, one of which was average, the other one, Frank Berry, did three performances, two of which were the evening show and virtually every bit of his material was old recycled stuff that I'd heard or read numerous times before from different sources. I expected more quality from HAL. They would have done better to just stick with their own singing/dancing cast. In addition to the shows, there was usually the Rosario Strings in the Explorer's lounge in the evenings, (my favorite) a dance band in the Hudson lounge, a pianist in the Crow's nest, and DJ music in the Peartree. There was also frequent live music at pool side on the Lido deck. Strangely, they did not have a Caribbean steel band. For Halloween, many of us and most of the cruise staff dressed up for dinner and then enjoyed a party in the Peartree lounge. I took a huge Viking helmet with horns, complete with braids, that looked like real metal and horn, though it was made of rubber. Made a big hit in the Manhatten dining room. For the rest of the cruise, crew and passengers would ask me about it. Sharon was fetching as a French maid...though she was constantly worried someone would put her to work. There were some really great costumes. My favorite was a pirate that looked fantastic. The Princess theatre was showing two movies a day at four different times. We only watched one movie, Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in the remake of The Out Of Towners. Popcorn was served before each show and the theatre was very comfortable. Other movies were also available in the cabins...but we never watched any....always something better to do. Of course there is a Casino and frequent bingo games, but since we aren't gamblers, I've nothing much to say about them.
Conclusion I wouldn't hesitate to go around the world on HAL's Nieuw Amsterdam. It feels like a ship instead of a Vegas hotel and is an elegant and comfortable home away from home. HAL's service and standards make the entire experience satisfying. It's definitely not for someone looking for a "spring break" or "animal house" kind of party, but for everyone else, it's great. We made several friendships that we expect to continue long after returning home. If you have any specific questions, please e-mail me. I'd be happy to answer any questions I can.