My wife and I took the January 11 cruise to the western Caribbean on the MS Oosterdam. For openers, I should point out that we have in the past become Holland America fans: I returned from a year in Europe in 1959 on the old Statendam, we cruised in January 2002 to the eastern Caribbean (eight days) on the old Westerdam, and this past October and November on the Ryndam (ten days) to the Sea of Cortez and the Mexican Riviera. In between we also sailed from San Diego to Ft. Lauderdale in December 2002 aboard Celebrity's Infinity. We hope in the future to repeat the Sea of Cortez cruise and eventually cruise to Hawaii and Alaska.
The arrival and embarkation in Ft. Lauderdale went smoothly. We had used frequent flier miles to fly to Ft. Lauderdale the day before the departure, and took the reasonably priced Days Inn shuttle to the pier at 1:00. Since I am an amputee using a three-wheeled mobility scooter in such situations, we were immediately sent to the head of the handicapped line and were aboard with luggage delivered by 2:15. The cabin we had been assigned, #6091, did prove to be somewhat of a disappointment. When our agent informed me of the arrangement by phone, I checked the deck plan on a non-HAL website and noted that this cabin was directly adjacent to one of the exterior glassed-in elevators, and called the agent (Cruise Club of America) to express our concern about privacy on the balcony. She called the Seattle HAL office and was told that there was no problem, since the balcony was adequately screened off. But the moment we stepped out onto the balcony we noted that there was a lack of privacy: elevator riders could see into all of our balcony. We went immediately to the Front Office to see if there could be a change, but were told by the person at the desk that no changes could be made, since the ship was full. My wife, who is very sensitive about privacy, then asked to see her supervisor, who was able to change us to cabin #4178, right at the stern, where we had a balcony easily twice the size of the one at #6091, with plenty of privacy. The point here is that we feel something should be done to screen all balconies adjacent to the glass elevators.
In general we found the ship very attractive and tastefully decorated, but I did note a few things where some simple effort could achieve significant improvement. A case in point were the Jacuzzis both astern and amidship on the Lido deck: they were all much too cool, scarcely above body temperature, to do any good for a sore back. My therapist at home says that the temperature of a whirlpool should be at least 105° to have any therapeutic effect. I realize that there are probably some guests for whom this temperature would be too hot, but with five such pools on board, I would think it a simple matter to have at least one at an appropriate temperature, with a warning sign for overly sensitive guests.
And there were problems with the sauna, as well: I spent 25 minutes sitting at the uppermost level without even breaking a sweat, and could find no control to adjust the heat. Again there are probably some passengers for whom a proper sauna would be too hot, but they could be warned away by an appropriate sign. The main problem with the sauna, however, cannot be remedied for this ship nor, I assume, her sister ship, the Zuiderdam: the space is simply too small. On the Ryndam I was disappointed because the drinking fountain and the toilet inthe sauna area were out of order during the entire voyage, but on the Oosterdam such amenities are totally lacking! It was as if the designers had at the last moment discovered a tiny unused space and decided to stick a sauna in it, The space there is so tight that there's room for only one person to sit on the bench to change clothes! I have seen larger saunas than this in private homes, and I hope that this problem can be addressed before the new Westerdam goes into service.
We also found the music on board rather annoying. On all of our previous cruises there had been a string quartet playing soothing, tasteful chamber music in the main dining room, but on the Oosterdam there was a piano "stylist" who must have been on the lower level, since we couldn't see him on the upper, playing what my wife accurately described as "bar music", saying she could practically smell the booze and cigarette smoke. Further, this music was evidently amplified for those on the upper level, with the result that conversation with the friendly couple at the table adjacent to ours was difficult. The music on the Lido deck also came as a disappointment. On the Westerdam there was a steel band playing authentic Caribbean music that was really fun, but on the Oosterdam the band seemed to have lost any Jamaican roots it might have had, playing jazzed up amplified music that to us was enervating.
Also enervating were the constant announcements. On the first day, just before the boat drill, there was an announcement that for the rest of the cruise only emergency messages would be directed to be heard in the cabins, yet in our cabin we could hear all the announcements about bingo games, lotteries, and sales so clearly that they often interrupted afternoon naps.
We generally found the staff at the shore excursion desk knowledgeable and helpful, but there was one significant exception in my case, the excursion from Cozumel to the ruins at Tulum. We had originally booked this excursion online, to include the Xei-ha national aquarium, and when we discovered from the pink excursion envelope in our cabin that this excursion had been canceled, we went to the excursion desk to rebook the Tulum trip alone. At this point both the agents at the desk tried to dissuade me from this trip, saying that I would be unable to use my mobility scooter, and would thus find the excursion too much for me. Since my sister, who is at least 150 pounds overweight and has back problems even worse than mine, did take and enjoy this trip while on a Princess cruise in the heat of the previous summer, I insisted that I be permitted to buy this excursion, and was required to sign a waiver to the effect that I had been prewarned about the exertion and difficulty. When we actually got to Tulum, I discovered that I could use the scooter, and they even provided an individual guide to assist me over the few obstacles I encountered. The next day I went to the excursion desk to inform them of their error, but it was closed for the rest of the cruise, since Cozumel was the last port of call. I had the distinct impression that neither of the women in that department had actually made the Tulum trip and couldn't know how helpful the staff there were. One further suggestion: Why not arrange an opportunity for parasailing in Ocho Rios as an offering to your guests? My wife, who had done this on our Ryndam cruise, actually went out and found a provider who came directly to our pier and had no qualms about taking on a 75 year old amputee (Ya, no problem, mon!), and I had one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!
One further suggestion concerning equipment in the cabin: from my observation of other passengers on deck and on excursions, I would estimate that fully 90% of the guests on board were using either camcorders or digital still cameras, and sometimes even both, and I've been using digital cameras for five years now. In view of such preferences on the part of your guests, wouldn't it make sense to equip cabin TV sets with audio and video inputs on the front of the set? Then one could view and even edit the photographic products of ones day. Such TV sets are actually more common and no more expensive on today's market than sets without such inputs. Surely your guests would appreciate such convenience and become even more devoted HAL fans! Another problem with the cabins is the arrangement of shower controls. My wife and I have lived in Germany and Austria over five years and traveled widely throughout Europe, and had never before encountered such an arrangement, where the left knob controls temperature and the right one controls volume of flow. Since we are now experienced HAL cruisers we no longer get scalded by trying to cool the water by turning the right knob (in the US, always the cold water control), but other passengers we encountered did experience such discomfort. At the end of our Westerdam cruise, I went to the Front Office and suggested that a simple placard be posted in cabin bathrooms to clarify the arrangement and was told that this was a splendid idea. I'm chagrined to find that there has been no follow through on it.
The only further observation I have has to do with the food and service aboard. We have recently heard that our beloved HAL has been bought out by Carnival Cruise Lines, and it would appear that service and quality of food are suffering to some extent by Carnivalization. On our first night aboard we noticed that the assistant waiters were staggering through the dining room with incredible loads of covered dishes; one paused near our table long enough for me to count seventeen such dishes in his stack! When we asked our very efficient, polite, and friendly chief waiter about this, he ruefully replied that, whereas previously HAL had provided two assistants for each waiter, now two waiters had to share a single assistant, an economy which clearly leads to deterioration of the excellent service to which we've become accustomed on HAL ships. And while the quality of food on this cruise was mostly up to our expectations, we did notice some deterioration. On "Turf and Surf" night, for instance, the lobster tails we were served were smaller than the prawns we'd had on previous cruises, and the filet mignon was so small and overcooked that it should have been described as a medallion of beef, if not a hockey puck. And while on past cruises we had been able to order shrimp cocktails every night, even when they weren't on the menu, when we tried to order them on the second night our waiter told us that we could get them only at extra cost. This practice does not conform to our previous expectations of HAL service!
In closing, I should say that while we will certainly continue to choose some Holland America cruises in the future, we are saddened by the minor disappointments on this last cruise. It's a little like having to watch the Yankees or the Green Bay Packers, the former leaders of their leagues, slide downhill. We hope the trend can be reversed!