I have to preface this review by saying I've never really had a bad time on my 15 previous cruises even though many times things have been far from perfect. The cruise experience to me has always been more than the sum of its parts. Cruising has a rhythm, and texture. It's about stepping outside of your normal life. It's about slowing down time, savoring the moment and creating memories. The ability to overlook problems and shortcomings while a useful coping tool in life, may not impart information to readers trying to decide if a certain ship is right for them. Therefore, prior to boarding I decided I would write a bare-knuckle review. Yes, the gloves were going to come off, and I'm not talking about the latex gloves the food servers wear in the buffet lines!
Pre-Stay: San Diego, CA. The Holiday Inn at the Bay. Across the street from the Cruise Ship Terminal the location could not have been more convenient. The rooms although on the small side (especially the bathroom), are clean and comfortable. The only negative comment I have were the tacky plastic wall edge protectors held on with peeling duck tape in the entrance hall. I can only surmise their purpose was to protect the decidedly not upscale wallpaper from being ripped by guest's bags. My room was next to the elevator and mere inches from the ice machine so everything I need was within easy crawling distance. The restaurants on the property include a British Pub/Restaurant knockoff and the venerable Ruth Chris Steak House. I will definitely stay here again, for the express purpose of arriving a day early not to miss the ship.
Embarkation: I awoke to find the sky eerily dark. Ash was falling from the sky as the wildfires around San Diego raged. The Airport was closed off and on, and it was definitely not a good day for outside breathing. It reminded me of when Mt. St. Helens erupted. We arrived at the Ship at 12:00pm, (coughing and wheezing) and were onboard by 12:15pm. My first attempt to "rough up" Holland America Line (HAL) were thwarted by a flawless check-in. The Pier Staff was efficient, professional and pleasant. They requested that we use the public rooms of the ship until 1:00pm as they were still cleaning some of the cabins, a very reasonable request. As we walked the open decks black soot was falling everywhere. I heard people complain about that, and I had to wonder didn't they realize that the soot was someone's home? Because of the airport closures the ship was delayed one hour in departing.
The Cabin: #100 Outside cabin located forward on the Verandah Deck. This is my first non-balcony cabin in several cruises and I was prepared to pick it apart. Alas, it was generous in size, had a full sofa, tub, was spotlessly clean and had tons of closet and drawer storage space. Curse you HAL for not giving me a chance to use clever insults other than the color of the bedspread wasn't to my liking! The cabin attendant was stealthy and figured out our routine the first day, no complaints here.
The Ship: The Statendam was launched in 1993, and was the first of fours identical sisters (Massdam, Ryndam, Veendam). I've sailed the Veendam before so I knew what to expect, other than few interior-decorating differences. At 55,400 tons by today's size standards she is a "compact." It doesn't have a rock-climbing wall, skating rink, 10-story atrium, glass elevators, hermetically sealed disco, or water slide. What she does have is vast open decks, comfortable lounges, and classy inviting interiors. Having read a few comments of late that the she was showing her age I decided to judge for myself and let the insults fly. As we toured the ship from the top (Sky) deck to the lowest public deck (Lower Promenade) the list of defects grew. I found a shocking total of 4! The most obvious of which was the carpet on the Upper Promenade that leads past the Lounges (Ocean Bar, Piano Bar and Explorers Lounge) to the Rotterdam Dinning Room, is a bit faded and worn in spots. Also I discovered the scourge of every ship, rust, by the aft pool on the Navigation Deck, above the Ping-Pong table, where an exterior metal speaker attaches to the ceiling. There it was, a quarter inch diameter patch! Of course since I'm 6'5" and live my life at ceiling level so I was probably the only person that could see it. I'm sure Leona Hemsley could have found a few more things wrong (being in prison sharpens ones perceptions I've heard), but I was forced to concede that another literary opportunity was lost. The ship is lovingly cared for, and in great shape.
We were sharing the ports with the behemoth Carnivore (I mean Carnival) Pride. At 88,000 plus tons and carrying a 1,000 more guests then we were, she had a lot of flash and dash, not to mention balconies everywhere. While I stared at the water slide somewhat enviously, I also noticed how little open deck space she had. One of the Prides passengers mentioned how tight the lounge chairs were placed, that was if a person could even find one. Such was not the case on the Statendam.
The Food: The Statendam doesn't have 10 or 15 alternate eating venues, or open seating for dinner. It has a "traditional" two seating dinner (6pm and 8:15pm) with assigned tables. There is a large buffet type restaurant, The Lido, located on of all places the Lido deck (go figure), along with a smaller pool side food area on the same deck. There is one alternate reservation only establishment, The Pinnacle for an extra charge of $20 per person. Although the dining room serves breakfast and lunch via open seating, we opted to eat those meals at The Lido. Nor did we eat at The Pinnacle, although the comments from those that did were extremely positive.
The Lido: Two long buffets lines were set up on both sides of the ship. Even in peak dining times, tables were always available, either in the restaurant or outside by the retractable domed pool. There is also a salad bar and two specialty stations for omelets for breakfast or stir-fry for lunch. While I prefer the configuration of multiple buffet stations on the newer ships, the "one long line" configuration gets the job done well unless you get behind the "buffet as art" (they use the tongs like they're painting a masterpiece, one tiny tomato at a time) or "I just can't decide" sort of person. Bus People are available to assist those who need help carrying their trays to the table, which is very considerate for the elderly or those with mobility issues. The quality and variety of the food exceeded my expectations. If I was forced to find fault it was that the lettuce in the salad bar was always wet (we know what Leona Hemsley would do with that) and the condiments were limited (no shredded cheese or bacon bits).
Rotterdam Dining Room: A two story, beautifully decorated room. With assigned seating, conversation nightmares can and do happen. I always go to the first dinner with a combination of anticipation and dread, hoping for the best (sparkling conversation) but prepared for the worst (asking to be moved after dinner). There were 5 of us at a table for 6 and the cruising fates smiled on us. We were also fortunate enough to have a "hosted table" by the same exceedingly charming ship Officer for both formal nights. This gives you an insight into the life the crew leads, not to mention free wine.
HAL is not known for gourmet cuisine, and I prepared myself accordingly. When I was on the Veendam several years ago the food was decidedly ordinary. On this cruise every night I would leave the table trying to figure out how they fed us so well, for how little we paid. The food was great! The portions aren't huge but with 5 courses who needs a 12oz steak? A word of advice, choose carefully, the more exotic the dish the greater the risk that it isn't conducive to mass preparation. You're safe with the steaks, chicken, pork chops, lobster and fish generally. The paella tasted like dry fried rice with chucks of sausage and seafood. Fortunately on that one, we had asked the Waiter for a sample and he brought us an entrée that the entire table shared. Which brings me to the service. Our Waiter and Assistant Waiter were attentive yet unobtrusive. My two most recent cruises on Celebrity and Norwegian the Waiters were trying to double as entertainers. Here they just focused on service. Personally, I prefer that.
Entertainment: Here HAL misses the mark, sometimes in a big way. Evening entertainment consists of three things on a ship, headliners, lounge acts, and shows/reviews. There is no such thing as a "Vegas caliber show" on any cruise ship and to be honest I usually avoid most of the headliners and shows/reviews while aboard. The headliners are usually on their way up (if you're lucky) or on the way down (usually the case) the slippery slope of third tier entertainment mediocrity. The shows/reviews usually have an energetic cast of young singers and dancers in not so dazzling costumes doing their best with 10-year-old choreography that would work even if the ship were in the process of capsizing. Normally, I keep to the lounges after dinner, however this time I did go to most of the shows.
Shows/reviews: I had to admire the singer/dancers not so much for their talent or stage presence but for their sheer physical endurance. The singing and dancing numbers were staged at a death defying frenzied pace. Because they use canned (recorded) music even though some wear microphone headpieces you're never sure if it's all lip-synced. When we asked the Cruise Director he said, yes they were singing but additional voices were pre-recorded. Therein lies the problem. When you have two singers wearing headpieces and you're hearing about 20 voices, what conclusion is there other than it's all pre-recorded? Better just to have the dancers dance than pretend they're all singing. Those "kids" have talent, but the choreography, costumes and staging never gave them a chance to present or showcase it.
Headliners: An illusionist, comic and Elton John impersonator (or is that impressionist?) performed during the week. I walked out on the comic (standard observational cruise ship humor---cabin size, food, vacuum toilet system, etc) right before he used his best material to rip apart the Cruise Director. Oh well. The Elton John impressionist, looked like Elton, in a limited range could sound like Elton but he sure has heck couldn't play the piano like Elton. Still he was very funny, and it was an enjoyable show. I didn't see the illusionist, but those that did enjoyed the show.
Lounge Acts: For me the best entertainment on the ship is conversation, usually in one of the lounges. The Statendam has four distinct venues, Ocean Bar, Explorer's Lounge, Piano Bar and The Crows Nest. Of these for live music the only standout act was Blue Fondue in the Ocean Bar. On the decidedly negative side, the D.J. at the Crow's Nest never really read the crowd well and picked songs that kept the audience in their seats with the exception of "oldies night" on the first formal night, and the Halloween party, which was the second formal night.
Activities: If a person can be bored on a ship, they need to go on anti-depressants. HAL offered a variety of daily activities, from bingo to pool games. The Cruise Staff performed their functions without being psychotically peppy.
The Ports: Puerto Vallerta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas: The ship offers a variety of tours none of which we took. As a general rule, you can find a much better deal on shore, but booking through the ship offers convenience, certainty and priority disembarkation. In Puerto Vallarta we headed to the beach in the old section of town. In Mazatlan we did a bit of shopping in the "Golden Zone". At Cabo due to the exceptionally slow tendering (from 7:30am to 12pm before they went to open tenders due to heavy swells) and short stay we didn't get off the ship. If you are interested in the available activities and beaches in the ports you should do your research prior to leaving either by buying one of the Mexico guides or doing research on the Internet. The Port Guides given on the ship really only offer information on the few shops that pay royalties to HAL.
The final leg, Little Ship of Horrors: At 10am on Saturday the Captain announced that due to a leaky turbo charger in one of the generators our speed was reduced and we would be arriving as late as 1:00pm on Sunday (our scheduled time was 8:00am). Long lines formed at the front desk and the ship to shore phone lines were jammed as people scrambled to re-book flights and notify their families. As the Cruise Director said, there are worse things in life then having your cruise vacation extended by half a day. I was surprised and impressed that most of the guests remained as composed as they did. Much of that credit goes to the calm and concerted effort of the Front Office staff. We were informed that the calls to re-book flights would be free of charge. I'm going to take their word for that because due to the delay in closing the accounts we never did receive a final shipboard account statement. I guess I find out when I get my credit card statement. It took me about two hours to get an outside line and arrange the flight changes and I also had to pay a "deviation fee" of $50 to book on a later flight.
We were able to sleep in, and did not have to vacate our room until 11:00am, which was a very pleasant experience. We arrived in San Diego at 11:30am, however clearing customs took longer than anticipated when a foreign couple took their sweet time (despite repeated requests) in meeting with custom officials. General disembarkation began at approximately 1:00pm and we were off the ship by 1:30pm. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the passengers who were just beginning their trips. While we had breezed onboard at 12:00am they would have to wait for several more hours. The waiting room that for us was empty was now packed. There was also the uncertainty that the repairs could even be accomplished. If they could not, the itinerary would have to be modified.
Tipping Not Required Policy: The tipping not required policy punishes the staff members who rely on tips (room attendants, bar serves, waiters/assistant waiters). I heard some guest say that they thought tips were not permitted, others thought it was already included. It's time for HAL to be up front with the guests and at least publish suggested guidelines. I'd also like to see HAL include a 15% gratitude for bar service, or add a tip section to each bar slip. Hunting down the various beverage servers the last night of the cruise is frustrating and time consuming.
And In The End: Why did I take a HAL cruise? Part of it is to take a ship that is a ship, not floating mega Club Med resort. They are classy, spacious and vastly comfortable. Part of it was for the great value, but mostly it is about service. Here HAL shines, and the service is second to none in the premium cruise category. It is seemingly effortless, genuine, gracious and remarkably consistent. The Front Office staff, so often a source of frustration on other lines, handled guest requests, complaints and general ranting with professionalism, patience and respect. The Officers don't breeze past you as if you don't exist while they make their rounds. The bar servers are exceptional; they'll remember your name and your drink preference after your first order. Throughout the ship the staff always seemed to anticipate your needs. For as much as HAL advertises it's high level of service, it is remarkable that they deliver even more. The Statendam far exceeded my expectations and on a scale of 0 (the ship sinks with all hands) to 10 (the perfect cruise and you win the bingo jackpot while onboard) I'd rate the cruise an 8+.