We just returned from a 10-day cruise on Holland America's Rotterdam. This was our ninth cruise so we are by no means experts, but we are able to make general comparisons based on our personal experiences. Prior cruises have been on the Carnival Inspiration (Southern Caribbean), HAL's Veendam (Western Caribbean, Alaska Inside Passage), Sea Princess (Western Caribbean), RCI's Radiance of the Seas (Pacific Coast), Celebrity Millennium (Eastern Caribbean), Sun Princess (Mexican Riviera) and RCI's Enchantment of the Seas (Eastern Caribbean). We hadn't cruised with HAL in several years, so we were anxious to try again now that we had a better perspective on other lines.
As usual, we flew into Ft. Lauderdale a day early and spent the night at the Marriott Marina on 17th Street near the port. We booked through Priceline and got a great rate of $79. I had called the hotel directly to request a room with a view of the port and they put us on the ninth floor with a great view. We booked the cruise through our travel agent but booked our own air. We've stayed at the local Embassy Suites, Renaissance and AmeriSuites, and I would rate the Marriott as best for its location if nothing else. We had enough time that evening to catch the Water Taxi and ride up the inland waterway to look at houses and visit the Las Olas area. The taxi is $5 per person and the pass is good all day. We had a nice dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. It was so nice waking up the next morning and seeing our ship in the port. I enjoy this day before the cruise as much as any day of the cruise itself.
Friday morning, we took the free hotel shuttle over to the port terminal. We got there about 11:30 a.m. After we left our bags with the porters, the entire check-in process took 20-30 minutes and we were on the ship with very little waiting. (It certainly helps if you pre-register on HAL's website.) They would not let us drop our carry-on in our cabin, so be careful how much you try to bring on the ship – you'll have to keep it with you until about 2 p.m., when they finally let us into our cabins. I always enjoy getting as many pictures of the ship as possible before the crowds arrive. We start at the top deck and work our way down, getting familiar with where things are. Once we hit the Lido, we stopped to eat.
All the HAL ships have a similar layout, but the Rotterdam is a bit larger than the Veendam. It is HAL's flagship and is in good shape with only some signs of wear and tear. The interior was very clean and there was an ongoing effort by ship's staff to keep things polished. We noticed crew members constantly wiping down handrails and doorknobs to prevent the spread of bacteria. They also give you antiseptic hand wipes each time you come back on the ship from shore. The exterior shows some age and there are some places that could use a new coat of paint, but overall, this ship is in great shape.
The public areas, including lounges, Time Square (Atrium), Queen's Lounge, Ocean Bar and Explorer's Lounge, are in great shape. There are several shops but nothing extraordinary (watch for price reductions towards the end of the cruise). We found some fairly reasonable prices for jewelry on-board. The Rotterdam has a great card room and the library is staffed by the entertainers and dancers during the cruise. The Internet works well but is overpriced at 75 cents a minute. (Your best option here is to hit the Internet cafes in port.)
The casino is small and can get smoky and crowded. Slots seemed really tight; we saw few winners on this cruise. We're not big gamers but people seemed to be having a good time. One advantage HAL has over other ships is the outside Promenade, which is on the Lower Promenade Deck. The deck goes all the way around the ship and the lounge chairs are padded. We also enjoyed the Navigation Pool in the back of the ship with its comfortable deck chairs. We never saw any difficulty in getting deck space out back, and HAL provides unlimited pool towels on deck and on the Promenade. They issue beach towels at the gangway when you leave the ship but I don't see how they keep track of who takes one and who brings one back.
We booked an Inside Cabin Guarantee and were given #2665 on the Main Deck. We got a great price but we saw a special on outside cabins, so we called our travel agent and he got us upgraded to an outside cabin for our original price. We ended up in #2565, also on the Main Deck and in a great location. HAL has the best cabins on the seas -- much larger than we've had on Celebrity, Carnival, Princess or RCI. We've stayed in a mini-suite, balcony cabin, and outside cabins, but we prefer an inside cabin for cost and convenience. We actually sleep better in an inside cabin and since we spend so little time in there, we probably will keep booking them. We're booked on the HAL Zaandam for Alaska this summer and have booked an inside cabin. If we're upgraded to outside we will view it as a pleasant but unnecessary surprise.
The cabin safes on the Rotterdam require a key that you must then keep with you or hide in the room. We prefer the numeric keypad safes on Princess. There is one electrical outlet in the room and one in the bathroom. There is a hairdryer in the bathroom, as well as soap, shampoo and hand lotion. There's excellent storage space, in fact the best we've seen. I understand the Rotterdam has more storage because it is used for world cruises. Our cabin steward was friendly and did a good job, but did not seem as outgoing as other stewards we've had. We didn't see any towel animals on this cruise, but we survived regardless. One nice feature about these cabins is they had the best showers at sea: all the hot water you want and excellent pressure. The bad news is that halfway through our cruise they replaced the shower heads with new "water-saving" shower heads that cut the pressure and water in half.
The on-board entertainment was excellent. The lead singer was the best we've seen on any ship. Overall the singers were excellent and the dancers were very good. The featured singers sang live, but there is an obvious "sweetener" track so it appears that the dancers are lip-synching. Our cruise director was Tom Lee, who did a good job. He had just joined the ship, having been on the Prisendam. His support staff was also good.
On Day 1 we had a comedian, David Reid, and a short presentation by the cast. The comedian was only okay. Day 2 the entertainer was a pianist, Jon Darsk. He was very good. On Day 3 the ship's cast presented Showstoppers, a salute to Broadway musicals. Day 4 featured a deck party and fireworks as we departed Curacao. On Day 5 we saw magician Russ Stevens, who did a good job. Day 6, the ship's cast presented "Personality," a salute to great entertainers. Day 7 was Professor Watson, a comedy violinist. This guy is a talented musician and in my opinion should lose the comedy routine and present himself as a gifted musician. Day 8 featured Carla Capps, a talented singer who gave a great show. Day 9 was the final presentation by the cast, "Undersea Follies." If you like shows with energy, this is it. And Day 10 was Super Bowl Sunday, so the whole show was the game, presented in the Queen's Lounge along with plenty of food and snacks. HAL did a great job making this part of the cruise. On day 10 they had a "meet the cast" activity where passengers were able to meet the cast and ask questions.
There were also two different movies shown each day in the Wajang Theatre throughout the cruise.
We ate all our breakfasts and lunches in the Lido or at the grill by the Lido pool, so I can't tell you about breakfast and lunch in the dining room. We enjoyed the Lido and found the food to be varied and tasteful. At breakfast you can expect the normal cereals, fruit, eggs cooked to order, pancakes, waffles and French toast. They also have an omelet bar, which was hardly ever busy. On most ships this is the biggest line. At lunch they offer heavy buffet meals but also a pasta bar, deli bar, pizza and curry bar. Around the back of the Lido restaurant is a salad bar. And don't forget the ice cream station, which is open much of the afternoon and early evening. HAL really shines with its desserts in the Lido. And you will always find their famed Bread Pudding. Decent burgers, hotdogs and Mexican fare are available out by the pool grill.
For dinner, we were scheduled for main seating and asked for a large table. As luck would have it, we were seated with eight very friendly people. It's always a roll of the dice, but we have always been lucky and we quickly warmed to our dinner group. One couple was from Toronto, another from Wisconsin and the third from New Hampshire. They were great! Food in the dining room was good to excellent. It didn't measure up to the food we've had on Princess or Celebrity, but it was good nonetheless. Our table service was excellent, but the waiter and assistant waiter were not as engaging as others we have had. I don't think either of them bothered to learn our names. This was different from any other experience we had on HAL or any other cruise line, but we heard the same thing from others on the cruise. By contrast, many bar stewards and helpers on the ship seemed to have an incredible manner of remembering names. In fact, we remembered one of the headwaiters from our last Veendam cruise and he claimed to remember us. The food was plentiful, warm and presented well. We did not eat in the alternative restaurant, the Odyssey, but we heard many good things about it. The head chef of the Odyssey did a cooking presentation and that was certainly interesting.
After using the spa facilities on Radiance of the Seas and Celebrity Millennium, these facilities looked a little small but they were sufficient for the number of passengers. I never saw this area crowded and there were always available treadmills and weight machines. Treatment rooms were nice but very small and I was disappointed with the massage. There is a sauna and steam room in the men's changing room and the area was never crowded. The steam rooms are great on HAL and I enjoyed this area almost every day. They have lockers, towels and showers in the changing area.
We're probably not the best to offer opinions on ports because we tend to avoid the ship excursions and do things on our own, but here's my take:
Half Moon Cay. We booked the parasailing on-line and everything went well. This is easily the best of the private islands. We spent the day on the beach and enjoyed this day as much as any other. It would have been nice to stop here for another day on our return trip. One improvement at Half Moon Cay is the addition of private cabanas. They're air-conditioned and have their own showers. They're small but looked nice. There were plenty of beach chairs and the weather was perfect. The Oosterdam was also there, but it wasn't too crowded. Still, it would be nice to be there with only one ship.
Curacao. I was surprised at how large the island is. Willemstad was a great place for taking photos, as it is so colorful. It's also perfect for just walking around to shop. It is a short walk across the pedestrian bridge to town from the pier and the people are very friendly. There is a great "floating market" on the north side of town. It is really a food market, but worth the visit nonetheless. Upon leaving Curacao at 10 p.m. there were fireworks, which was a nice touch.
Aruba. We spent most of the day at the beach. We bought a day pass at Allegro Aruba for $45 per person. It's a $10 taxi ride from the pier and the beach is very nice. You don't need a reservation, just walk up to the front desk and they will take care of everything. The day pass includes all drinks, meals, towels and use of a "courtesy room" to change and shower. The food was typical cruise ship fare and we thought the experience was worth the money. I love the beach, but don't want to spend the entire day in the sun. They have shade umbrellas and lounge chairs. It is located on Palm Beach between the Radisson and the Hyatt.
Panama Canal. We entered the canal about 7 a.m., so you will want to get up early to watch the approach. Once you reach Gatun Lake, those who booked excursions are let off the ship by tender and the Rotterdam returns to Colon, Panama. There's not much to do in the area where the ship docks. You only have about two hours, but there is a small mall built to handle cruise passengers. I was amazed at how much of the stuff was made in China. There was little authentic Panamanian stuff.
Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. I had read several negative reports about this port stop, but it was one of our favorites. Limon has not developed into a typical commercial cruise port. There are no new shopping malls; it's just a quiet fishing and shipping town. It is an easy walk from the pier through the tourist market and on into town. It reminds me of what Cozumel was like 20 years ago before all the development. In the town's public park, you might see sloths in the trees. There are plenty of stores, but not many high-end tourist traps. We booked the Tortuguero Canal excursion and were fortunate to be in the first group early that morning. With cooler temperatures, it is likely that you will see more wildlife. We saw sloths, monkeys, crocodiles and many exotic birds. The facilities are excellent and the tour company did a first-rate job. The excursion ends with a stop at a refreshment stand for free soft drinks and fruit and then a bus ride back through a large banana plantation. I would recommend this trip to anyone.
Disembarkation was a breeze, easily the best we've seen. HAL lets you wait in your cabin until your number or letter is called. We walked right out of our cabin and off the ship with no lines and no delays. There we caught a cab for the ride to the airport. From the time the taxi dropped us off, it was less than 15 minutes, and we had checked our bags and received our boarding passes from the curbside skycap.
This was a great trip, and our visit to any of these islands except Half Moon Cay. I'm glad we tried this itinerary, but I'm not sure I will visit any of these places again. The water in the southern part of the Caribbean apparently loses the beautiful blue of St. Thomas and St. Maarten, and is more of a cloudy emerald green. It is pretty, but I would definitely choose the beaches of St. Maarten over those in Aruba. This is more of an adventure itinerary than a beach itinerary.
1. HAL provides an excellent product that can hold its own with any of the other cruise lines -- great cabins, excellent service and good eating. 2. Many have commented on the age of HAL passengers and I would guess that at least 90 percent of those on our cruise were in their late 60s and up. We are in our 40s and love to cruise with this older generation. We find them gracious, engaging and excellent conversationalists. I would never hesitate to cruise HAL. 3. We love the size of these smaller ships with plenty of room but fewer passengers. We got to know more people and there were never any lines. We could always find a seat in the Lido and a deck chair at the Navigation Pool. 4. The Promenade Decks on HAL ships are the best place in the world to read a good book and catch a quick nap. I could spend every day out there. 5. The HAL steam room: What a life!
1. HAL ships are a bit more formal than many other cruise lines. On formal night we saw some tuxedos, but most men wore dark suits. Semi-formal night is also a "jacket required" night and I don't recall anyone not abiding by the dress code in the dining room. Moreover, passengers tend to hold to the dress code in other areas of the ship after dinner, including the entertainment lounge and casino. Hardly anyone changes clothes after dinner. I'm more of a casual wear kind of guy and while I will observe a cruise line's dress code, I am more comfortable with the Princess or RCI standard. 2. Spa prices are way too high and I was disappointed by the friendliness and service by the staff in this area. 3. There are limited eating options on this ship – i.e., there are times during the day when there is no place to get something to eat. For example, the Lido closes from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., so if you come in late from an excursion and don't want to clean up for the dining room, your only choice is room service. I love the fact that on Princess and RCI, I can find pizza or a late night dessert at almost any time of the day. 4. There are no outdoor whirlpool tubs other than those in the covered Lido Pool area. We love the outdoor whirlpools up on deck in the cool air for sunrise.
And finally, some updated comparisons based on our experience: HAL provides a great cruise, but RCI and Princess may be more in line with my casual vacation lifestyle. Princess and Celebrity provide better dining, but the service on HAL and RCI is much better. Entertainment on HAL was equal to or better than anything we've seen on RCI, Princess or Celebrity. In my opinion the friendliest people cruise HAL, Princess and RCI. Based on our experiences, I would still rate these lines: 1) HAL 2) Princess 3) RCI 4) Celebrity and 5) Carnival. Now we're looking forward to our Alaska Inside Passage cruise in June on the Zaandam.