European Tapestry on the Rotterdam.
This was our second cruise on Holland America. We chose it because of the great itinerary and the fact that we did enjoy our cruise on the Statendam to Hawaii in the spring of 2003. The ship's CDC rating was good (We always check the rating of a ship we are considering. Is it an integral part of our decision making.) We also read various reviews of the ship on various cruise sites, always taking into account the age, the number of cruises, the class of cabin and the kinds of comments from the reviewer before giving it any weight (It can be positive or negative, but if we notice a comment, for example, about the fact that the staff wasn't wearing white gloves, we will instantly discount anything written in the review). The number of positive and negative reviews will also influence our decision. Although, this can be a little tricky, because not everyone will post a review and not every review site can be read. However, if we can't find a good review of a ship and the sampling is good, then we will certainly think twice about it. Finally, the price was right.
The cruise began in Copenhagen. (24th of July, 2004). We had purchased the HAL's transfer, flight and hotel package. The flight was on Air France from Montreal to Paris then onward to Copenhagen. (We live in Montreal) The flight was great and the service, on Economy class, was excellent. We met a HAL rep at the Copenhagen airport who took care of our luggage as we proceeded to be transferred to our The Scandic Hotel in downtown Copenhagen. We have already visited Copenhagen a few years ago and had stayed at the Hilton located at the Copenhagen Airport, but this hotel was excellent and located a few blocks away from Tivoli gardens. (The downtown location of the Scandic made it more convenient than the airport location, although the rail system to get to downtown from the airport is clean, efficient and relatively cheap.) We are not picky people, but we do have certain standards, especially my wife, and we were quite satisfied with the accommodations. (Note: We visited the Karen Blixen museum and it was well-worth it if you saw and enjoyed the movie Out of Africa or know of the literary work under her real name, Isak Deniesen. You can visit the museum's web site for the directions. It was quite easy to get there via the train and a short, local bus ride. (You can use the same ticket you purchased for the bus. The people at the information desk at the train station were also quite helpful.).
Embarkation: We had an early check-out and was given a city tour before boarding the ship. (No walking was required. Not that we mind any walking, but the comment might be of use to you.) While we had already seen much of the sights of the tour, it was still a good way to have another glimpse of this fine city. The embarkation process went smoothly with no major delays. The completion of the electronic information form sped this up at the check in. (It avoids someone at the desk having to write the information up while you are standing there.)
Our room on the Rotterdam was on the third level, overlooking the wrap-around, walking deck. No fear- You can see outside, but no one can see inside your cabin. It was centrally located had more space than the outside staterooms we had on our previous cruises. (Celebrity--Mercury and Millennium--- and the Statendam. It was also had more space than the outside room on the Crown Princess, but that one has been sold.). Storage space was above average. (We had four suitcases and two take-on luggage)
There was only a steward for our room. (That was also the case of the Statendam. On Celebrity, there was a main steward and his help.) However, we found our cabin service superior to what we had received so far on all five, previous cruises. This might be the luck of the draw, but we can only comment on what we experienced. (By the way, all our comments are from personal experience. We will avoid any third party stories, because personal ones are hard enough for you to digest.)
Having already cruised on HAL, we were familiar with the different rooms. (The Java Bar with it's free Lattes and the Wajang Theater with it's popcorn and first-rate movies being personal favorites of mine. My wife, who has edited this review, also enjoyed the suger-free cookies offered at the Java bar.) All the rooms, including the Lido and the Explorer lounge (with its afternoon high-tea), not to mention the Crow's Nest with its great views were all clean and well managed by the staff. Again, my wife-- the editor-- who is much more critical than I can be, without being picky, was quite satisfied with the overall ship.
The ship has around 1300 guests with 600 crew, so it's somewhere between the smaller ships and the new, mega liners that have twice as many of the same things and more walking. Although we don't mind the larger ships, for us, this was a nice size ship. Throw in the wrapped-around deck and you have it made. (Note: Bigger is not always better. Some people that we talked to seemed to be impressed by the size of a ship. That is definitely not our case.)
By the way, it has always amazed us that no matter what size of ship, there are always "private" places onboard to be found at most times.
Oslo, Norway: We had already visited this fine city, so we had forgone the HAL tours to go on our own. We suggest HAL tours for first-timers, unless you are well prepared to maximize your visit. Otherwise, we might just do a sight in proximity of the ship and call it a day.
We visited Vigeland Park, within Frogner park, that functions as a sculpture park and a public park. The life size sculptures found there (about 190 sculptures) are a sight to behold. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and the locals were soaking up the sun--- a blessing in this part of the world--- and it just made the whole experience for enjoyable. (Being on your own, you can easily spend a couple of hours enjoying the view.)
Dover, England: Never having been to London we decided upon the walking tour offered by HAL. We walked around BIG BEN, Trafalgar Square and Covent Gardens. We had some free time to have lunch and shop before taking a short bus ride to Kensington Palace where we visited the palace and the grounds. Lady Di's dresses are on display. We also checked out where Princess Margaret's lived. The ride to London from Dover was around 1:30 (This was during morning rush hour.) All in all, a fine way to introduce you to the city. (Although you only pass by Buckingham palace among other famous sites. The tour's description and amount of walking required were accurate on this occasion. (Not the case for all the tours, notably in Rome.) The tour delivered what we had bargained for: You can't ask for more than that.
Le Havre, France: We opted to visit Le Havre in the morning on our own and do a transfer to Honfleur in the afternoon. (Transfer: A coach bus drops you off at designated area and lets you roam around for 3 hours or so. There is a guide on board that provide some commentary along the way. The coach took the more scenic route to Honfleur on the way there and the more direct, and less interesting route on the way back to the ship. While getting there chewed 30 minutes from our time in Honfleur, it was, we believe, worth the interesting comments along the way.)
Le Havre is a quite little town with a nice museum approx. 30 minutes from the ship or a 8 Euros cab ride. (The museum at the time of our visit had works from Monet and Boudin.) It is a 8 Euros taxi ride from the ship. Being a francophone from Quebec, we did have a change to talk to some of the locals. It made the visit that much more interesting. As far as Honfleur is concerned, it is a little gem. Lots of stores and some nice museum. We could have easily spent the day and more. (Note: While we have never been to Paris, we had decided to opt out of taking any tours involving Paris, because it involved a 3 hour bus ride each way. It is a lot money just to have a photo op of the Eiffel Tower or to ride down the Seine in a bateau-mouche under a blazing sun.) We were quite satisfied with this day in Le Havre/Honfleur.
Vigo, Spain: This is a city where a lot of uphill walking is required. The old town near the pier offers a lot of shops and restaurants. I walked up to the top of the hill overlooking the city and got some great photos. It is the main park of the city. (My wife, the editor, decided to go back to ship after some touring of the old city.) No HAL tours attracted us, although with hindsight, a tour in the morning would have maximized our visit. (And it should be strongly advised if you don't like to walk uphill. and still have a taste of the city and its surroundings.) To be honest. while we like Spain, we would not have cried if this stop would have been omitted. (And another port added in its place.)
Lisbon, Portugal: Very hot day in Lisbon. Did not book a tour simply to cut costs. The ride was a free, one-way shuttle into the center of town where you hop on tour buses. The double-decker, you can get off and get back on at anytime for 15 Euros per person was our chosen means to visit the City. Because of the heat we only got off once and that was along the waterfront, at the famous monument of the Explorers and a 14th century castle. We took a taxi back to the ship. Next time we will opt for a HAL tour.
Barcelona, Spain: We have been there before and adore this city, so our comments might be a little bias. Then again, all the comments we got from our acquaintances on board ship were positive. We took a double-decker tour bus for part of the day, (15 Euros, but better planned than the one in Lisbon) and then wandered around town, stopping at a restaurant we had discovered during our previous stay for a bite of lunch. It was quite enjoyable. Beware: because of added security, the road leading back to the ship can be quite jammed. If you are on your own, make sure that you give yourself at least one hour to get to the ship. The walk to the ship is about 45 minutes from the Columbus Statue. There is a shuttle from the pier to the Columbus Statue, at the foot of Las Rambla. (The main pedestrian street that leads you up to the major square of the city where most of the tours busses are located.) The cost of the shuttle: 2,50 Euros, each, return. One sour point: There weren't any HAL reps around at the pier for those of us who had decided to go it alone. It would have been nice to have someone there to tell where the shuttle was parked etc. Not even a sign... Bottom line: We would there again in an heartbeat.
Monte-Carlo, Monaco: The playground of the rich and famous is indeed that. We had opted to go it alone, planning to visit the Oceanic museum and the church where Princess Grace is buried.
A lot of walking is involved to get up there and taxis are scares and costly. The information booth wasn't much help to us and while we were told, and had read, that there was a way to get up to the Castle (and the church and the museum) that included elevators, we had still taken the road that led to the center of the city and, more importantly, the longer and much steeper on foot, way up to the hill. So much for being prepared to not fall into that trap of marching into the city....:-)
Bottom line: It was worth a visit just for the Aquarium part of the Oceanic museum. A must. (Note: The tours on HAL did not stop and let you visit that museum.) My wife, the editor, would also have mentioned that visiting the church where Princess Grace was buried was also a must.)
Rome: We had booked the In the Footsteps of Rome tour, a ten-hour tour that included the roughly three hours bus ride, there and back. (We visited Rome on a Sunday, so traffic wasn't as bad as it could have been. However, most of the shops in the city were closed.) This was a "lot of walking" tour and it was scheduled to be a hot day, so my wife, the editor, opted out at the last minute, because she does not traditionally "perform well" under those conditions. (I had written something else, but my wife- the editor- did some editing.) She did a find a tour with less walking involved and decided to give it a go, not wanting to miss her chance to see Rome. However, while the information on the amount of walking involved was not, in her view and in the view of many on her tour, accurate. We checked the description of other tours with the same pictogram (Three men pictogram equals a lot of walking. Two men equals less than three and one man means minimal walking involved) and while her tour contained a two-man pictogram other tours with two-man pictograms contained the term "minor walking". We believe that there should have been a clearer indication that the alternative tour chosen by my wife containing this two-man pictogram actually included "some walking" to distinguish it from the other two-man pictograms that contained the term "minor walking". Otherwise, the tours with the minor walking comment should have been lumped with the one-man pictograms.
We did write a complaint to HAL on this. We were a little disappointed when the "we have no control because the tours are done by vendors" was provided to us at the tour desk onboard ship.
Give us a break HAL, YOU are responsible for those tours as if YOU conducted them. We would think that someone at HAL actually went on those tours and evaluated the walking time, taking into account how their customers base might find the walking time. My wife- the editor- also had an awful experience with the guide who seemed as tough as nails, but in my case, our guide was one of the best I have ever had. The sights were fantastic and a must to see again and again.
Bottom lines: My tour went as expected and was enjoyed from start to finish. (A nice snooze on the way back.) My wife- the editor- experience was less than enjoyable and a waste of hard-earned cash.
Lesson learned: Beware of men pictograms bearing false messages. :-)
Dubrovnik, Croatia: Took the half-day walking tour of the old, walled city and went on our own in the afternoon, walking from tower to tower on the city's walls. It's a minimum one hour walk around for a couple of Euros. Lots of walking and going up steps, but well-worth it for the photo op. My wife- the editor- that by now you might have guessed is not a great walker did not join me when I walked on the wall. Surprising little city. An interesting and gorgeous stop. Better than expected. A ton of shops that are a little more pricier, we were told, than in years gone by. The half-day walking tour's description was accurate. We also drove to the top of the hill overlooking the city for a brief photo op. This stop was by tender. (As was the Monaco stop.) Although using tenders is a little more time consuming, there is something about watching your ship anchored in the middle of the harbor.
Disembarkation: We docked in Athens along side the Westerdam and joined QM2, among other cruise ships that are being used as floating hotels during the Olympics. It was neat to see our ship back in while fireworks lit the skies. The disembarkation went smoothly for us, even though because of the time of flight and heighten security due to the Olympics, we had to disembark at 5:30 am. The 9 hour flight home to Montreal gave us ample time to sleep.
This and that: For the first time we did not attend any of the production shows offered, except for the crew two shows. After a few cruises, you realize the sameness of it all. We did not even attend the other shows. There were choices to be made and we made them.
We were the late supper crowd, and we preferred going to the movies instead or wind down (Imagine "winding down" on a cruise???) in the Crow's nest dancing.
The staff on the whole was fine. Very obliging.
The HAL's crowd was a healthy mix of people mainly in their 30's, 40's, 50's and plus. It was a younger crowd that on our last cruise on HAL to Hawaii, although we befriended a couple in their 70's that would put to shame some youngsters.
The food was better than expected. (Better than on the Statendam, last year and just as good as the food on our two Celebrity cruises) A good variety.
Finally, as usual, part of the fun for us (and the apprehension to some extend) is to meet people that will make up our table for supper. (We always take a table for 8). So far we have been lucky that the people we have met have been great. For the most part, we do not invade each other space during the day, but then share our daily experiences while having supper. On this cruise, we were quite fortunate to have met three diverse couples, one of them being a mother (who can tap dance!) and her daughter (who is from the school of shopping until you drop.) The stories shared were interesting to say the least and added to the overall satisfaction of this cruise.
The bottom of all bottom lines: My wife-the editor-has now put this cruise on the top of her list of all time best cruises and I've got it a close second. It was worth every penny. (Even though a percentage of it still needs to be paid. :-))