This was our second cruise on HAL, and my ninth overall. Our previous sailing on HAL was aboard the Zuiderdam, a much larger ship sailing to the Eastern Caribbean. We booked this cruise largely for its unique Mediterranean itinerary, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that while the Rotterdam was older (1997) and smaller (59,000 tons), it was in excellent shape and a lot more to our liking. The ship was recently dry-docked and received the Signature of Excellence upgrades. We were told more than $25 million was spent refreshing the ship and cabins.
I did a lot of research on embarkation in Venice, as I had read many complicated stories about it. We flew in a few days before, and found it relatively easy to get to the terminal. From Piazzale Roma, free shuttles were available to the cruise ship terminal. When we walked over to the luggage hangar to drop our bags, the dispatcher told us we should leave a tip for the porters, which we did. I don't know if that mattered, but when we got to our cabin, all four bags were there! After luggage drop-off, we walked to the terminal for registration. The line to the counter was fairly short, and if you had completed the immigration form online, you went to a counter immediately. They gave us a number and we sat in the waiting area for an hour and a half before it was called. But after that, everything was quick: They took our picture for the ID card, collected our passports, took the usual souvenir picture and that was it. A shuttle took us to the ship. Once on board, we were in our cabin within five minutes.
After settling into our cabin and a quick lunch at the Lido, we found a spot on Sports Deck for the sail-away. You MUST be out to see Venice as the ship sets sail around the island and out the lagoon. It is incredible. Barbara, the port lecturer, narrated the passage on the PA. To sail past Piazza San Marco is a view you do not want to miss. After a while, we went down to the Lido and found a table by the windows where we looked at the scenery until 7 p.m. The lagoon, the islands, small fishing boats -- everything about this sail-away was fascinating!
We booked a guaranteed F category cabin, and about 10 days before the cruise, we were assigned a category E cabin on Dolphin deck 1, cabin 1831. We weren't thrilled about being on the bottom deck, but it turned out to be a great cabin in a great location -- close to the forward elevators and one flight of stairs from the gangway! The cabin was very spacious. All cabins have the Signature of Excellence upgrades, including a flat-screen TV, DVD player (great to view your pictures once you had them transferred onto a CD), new Egyptian cotton linens and plush towels, and new Euro-top mattress. The new beds are wonderful -- extra thick with a wonderful padding. Terry robes were already in the room as well as a basket of fresh fruits that was replenished daily. There are plenty of closets: three closets for hangers, two with shelves, a desk with three drawers plus two night tables with two locking drawers! The room has a safe but no refrigerator. The cabin was very comfortable and we loved everything about it.
Our cabin steward Hermanto introduced himself as soon as we returned from a quick tour of the ship and lunch at the Lido. He was very friendly and always helpful when we needed anything. Also we really enjoyed the towel animals - I know some people find them silly, but I was anxious to get back to the cabin every night just to see who would be greeting us. I have to admit I kept the elephant for a few days. It was just too cute!
I had booked the Pinnacle Grill for the first night. What a treat that was! Our team of waiters was very friendly and extremely professional. After they showed us the various cuts of meat, we opted for the Petite Filet Mignon. First, we received a plate of amuse-bouches, a Chef's special, presented on three porcelain spoons: a vegetable sushi, a salmon tartare with caviar, and a walnut cheese. It was exquisite. Our appetizers followed: clam chowder and crab cakes - delicious. Our filet mignon was cooked to perfection and was very flavorful, which is not always the case. It was served with a delicious béarnaise sauce along with grilled mushrooms, asparagus and scalloped potatoes. Everything was extremely tasty. We didn't have room for dessert, but we had heard so much about the chocolate volcano cake that we had to have it. And we didn't regret it! It was exquisite.
We loved the Rotterdam! Our only other HAL cruise was on the Zuiderdam last August; while we enjoyed that cruise and our aft cabin, we fell in love with the Rotterdam. Due to its smaller size, the ship is much more manageable. The décor is classy, with lots of lounges and public spaces. The new Exploration Café is awesome -- filled with great books, new releases, best sellers, travel books, atlases etc., the latest magazines and several Internet stations. It was a great place to sit and relax while browsing a great book. I love the memorabilia about HAL history, and the artwork representing the various Rotterdam ships. The ship felt like new thanks to the renovations.
The public restrooms were always spotless and never ran out of hand towels. There were fresh flowers on every table in every lounge, bar, restroom counter, and restaurant. There was an orchid on every table of the Lido, inside and around the pool area as well! The shops were larger than the one on the Zuiderdam, with an extensive collection of jewelry. The show lounge was accessible from Deck 4 and 5, and you had a great view no matter where you sat. The cinema was also very comfortable, and we heard it was also use for culinary demonstrations with a fully equipped kitchen behind the screen. We didn't attend any of the classes but heard it was very interesting.
Laundry facilities were available on Deck 3 and 4. We had no problem using them on sea days ($2 for washer, $1 for dryer - soap included). The atrium is on three levels and the big astronomical clock is a beauty. The Rotterdam is truly a classy ship and we would love to cruise her again.
La Fontaine Dining Room
Dinner: We requested and received a table for the Upper Main seating at 8 p.m., a perfect time for this port-intensive cruise. I don't know how people can make it to the earlier seating. We had requested a table for six but were given a table for two. That was a bit disappointing as we enjoy meeting new people and sharing our experiences. However, we did not request a change as we liked the location of our table, and were still able to fraternize with people in the tables close to ours. Our table, number 78, was around the mezzanine and we really enjoyed that as we could see the musicians during formal nights, and we could also see the set-up of the lower level and the entrance of all the guests.
Our waiter Henri and his assistant Sapto were very friendly, funny and extremely courteous and attentive. They remembered everything after the first night. They offered above average service: They de-boned our fish, arranged lobster tails etc., and we saw that not all waiters did that. The food was very good. There was a good variety every night; the food was creative, well prepared, tasty and flavorful, all signs of a good chef. The food was far superior to that on the Zuiderdam last August. The only area that was less than stellar was dessert; they weren't extraordinary but fine on average. However, there was a flambé every night in the dining room and every one we had was very good. I have to say that the lobster tails were exceptionally good -- Maine lobster as opposed to langouste; I had never had them so tender and sweet on any ship. I can only give two thumbs up for the dining room food. We had Dutch night, and two formal nights (our documents stated three formal nights).
Breakfast: We had breakfast in the dining room once. The service was good, and the eggs Benedict fair. They had a really good yogurt parfait!
We never made it to the dining room for lunch.
Lido Buffet and Grill
The Lido buffet was also very good. With 1,200 guests onboard, we never had to queue for the buffet. The breakfast fare was excellent: Smoked salmon was available most days, along with a build-your-own omelet station, pancakes, waffles, French toast, scrambled eggs and meats, etc. They had a fabulous Swiss Muesli made of oat, yogurt, honey and fruit that was to die for. Fresh fruits, baked goods, cold and hot cereals -- you couldn't ask for anything more. Moreover, the food was always hot.
Lunch was varied and always good. As per the tradition, they had the wonderful bread pudding every day for lunch! I just love that pudding doused in warm crème anglaise. Sometimes we opted for the Lido grill where they had hamburgers and hotdogs, pizza and a taco bar.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a full menu for room service, not only through the day but for breakfast as well. You could order pretty much anything you wanted hot or cold for breakfast. It was delivered on time, hot and fresh -- perfect for those early excursion days.
The main reason for choosing this cruise: From Venice we had a day at sea, then stopped in Messina where we visited Taormina. The next day took us to Civitavecchia, where we took a day excursion to the Etruscan villages of Tarquinia and Tuscania. At the next port of Livorno, we opted to see Pisa and Lucca. The next day was spent in Monte Carlo, then on to Ajaccio, Corsica, the home town of Napoleon and his family. Our next stop, Cagliari, Sardinia was a wonderful surprise. We had little expectation but discovered a beautiful island with warm people. The last port of call was Dubrovnik, Croatia, and I would certainly say they had saved the best for last. We loved it!
Overall, this was a perfect combination of a great and unusual itinerary, especially for those who have traveled a bit; and a great ship. The service, food and amenities on board Rotterdam are some of the best we've seen in the recent years, and we must command Captain Jan Smit for keeping his crew and staff focused on what is important!