We have now had a week to digest our wonderful cruise. I would like to share some impressions of our time in San Diego and our week away from reality on the ms Statendam.
We arrived in San Diego just before sunset on Thursday October 23. Our flights across the country had been flawless. We met our friends from Minneapolis, who had arrived before us. We stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Beach.
The hotel is well known as a playground for the rich and famous. We enjoyed our stay there, but it is safe to say that we all agreed that the hotel is past its prime. It is very expensive, but we found the hotel to be ordinary and noisy. We were able to enjoy the Zoo on Friday and the Wild Animal Park on Saturday.
Sunday we awoke to a disaster. Looking out across the beach early in the morning we saw smoke across the horizon. I left early to return our rental car. I was appalled to find the car covered in ash. As I drove across the Coronado Bay Bridge the scope of the disaster was evident. The smoke over the city was a fierce back, looking like a terrible storm was about to erupt. To the east was another plume coming off the backside of a distant mountain. By the time I reached the rental car return ash was falling like snow. I found a cab and returned to the hotel to meet my wife and our friends. We watched TV in horror. The fire had closed the highways we had driven just the day before to visit the Wild Animal Park. The images of the fire ravaging the countryside and neighborhoods were unforgettable. It was incomprehensible, less than 24 hours before there had been no fires at all.
We left the hotel around noon. By that time the smoke had reached the ground in an acrid cloud. The odor and taste of the smoke will always be seared in my memory. It was impossible to avoid breathing the miserable smoke.
We arrived at the pier without any problem. There was little traffic as people were being asked to stay off the roads.
Check in was a breeze. A porter took our bags in seconds. There were no lines. We had pre registered on the Internet, but it really did not matter. San Diego is the easiest check in of any of our cruises.
We found our way on board. We were not escorted to our cabin as on previous Holland American cruises. We were led, with several other couples, to the Lido. No one noticed that we were in a suite, so we made our way down to our cabin on our own.
Our suite was ready. We stayed in suite 020, directly across from the new Neptune Lounge. Our cabin attendant Ansari introduced himself and told us he would bring our bags shortly. We settled in, found our friends, and went up to the Lido for lunch.
The scene outside was surreal. The pier in San Diego is directly across from downtown. By the time we finished lunch the smoke obscured most of downtown. It was so dark streetlights were on and cars had their headlights on. We returned to our cabin and stood on the veranda. The view was across the harbor to the airport. We could just see the airport, and to my amazement flights were coming and going. I watched one jet on final for landing, and to my astonishment it went around, disappearing into the smoke. Later we saw a second flight do the same thing. It was scary to watch, and I could not imagine how people must have felt who were on those flights. Most people are pretty nervous these days while flying, and can you imagine smelling smoke then your pilot taking you around for a second try?
It was not comfortable to stay outside for long. The air inside was fine, so visits to the veranda were brief. By the time the Life Boat Drill was scheduled the ash had changed from white to black. Touching anything exposed to the smoke left my hands black with soot. It was obvious that the crew had some tough days ahead cleaning up the mess.
The Life Boat Drill was uneventful. Our Captain Peter J. Van Maurik announced that we would leave an hour late to accommodate late flights. Later we were told that over 40 people missed the ship due to flight problems. I did not envy them, and we were especially glad we had arrived a few days early.
We met our friends and headed to dinner. We had reserved the first seating and were seated at table 20. Table 20 is located on the upper level of the Rotterdam restaurant along the windows. We laughed when we realized it was the same table we had been assigned to on the Veendam last January. Our waiter Rahmat met us and soon his assistant Wibowo and the Head Steward Bram introduced themselves. We also met our sommelier for the week, Romeo.
It is safe to say that we were immediately impressed with the food. After a few meals we all agreed that the food was more flavorful than we enjoyed on the Veendam last January. The dining room selections were varied and flavorful. The service was typical Holland America, uniformly superb!
Not long after we finished dinner we ventured outside. To our great relief the smoke was gone. The crew went to work immediately to clean up the mess. It took them two days. Every outdoor surface had to be cleaned, including all the verandas. They did a great job!
We explored the Neptune Lounge and met our concierge, Monet. Monet is a beautiful young woman, and proved to be a great help to us throughout the cruise. The lounge is nicely done in dark wood, and was always supplied with goodies including a continental breakfast. We enjoyed spending time in the lounge relaxing and chatting.
It was now time to pick a bar. We walked around and settled on the Ocean Bar. A young lady was singing and Jhomar welcomed us. He proved to be a classically wonderful Holland America waiter, immediately learning our names and remembering our favorite drinks. Just how do they do that, anyway? We ending up spending each evening there, and it was always great fun.
Monday was a sea day. We had a one-hour later time change. We attended a party for the suite guests in the Neptune, and met the hotel manager Frits Gehner, Guest Relations Manager Paula De Man and the Cruise Director Jack Jones. Otherwise we did absolutely nothing. Isn't that wonderful?
I did check out the Internet Café, and signed up for the wireless service. The manager Paul helped me setup my notebook computer. The speed was considerably improved from my experience on Veendam. It was much better using my own computer, as managing my e-mail is much easier than going directly to the mail server as I have to do from the terminals. The price was unchanged from the Veendam; I paid $100 for 250 minutes. Bring your own wireless card, they charge $10.00 a day or $50.00 a week to rent one. The service was erratic as wireless so often is. It was only available on the 7th deck near the Internet Café. I became a bit of a celebrity because of my cool little Lifebook notebook computer. Many people were amazed at the small size and weight. Interestingly the wireless and terminal accounts are not interchangeable. If you have a wireless account you cannot use it on the terminals.
Monday evening we reserved a table at the new Pinnacle restaurant. It was a formal night. We arrived promptly at 7:00 PM. Monet had made the reservation for us. The restaurant was perhaps ½ full. The meal and service were absolutely divine! The steaks were simply superb, on a par with steaks served at fine steak houses like Morton's or Ruth Cris. The service was incredibly attentive, even better than the excellent service in the Rotterdam. We did note the menu was fixed for the entire cruise. If you sail on the Statendam and want a treat be sure to enjoy dinner in the Pinnacle!
Tuesday was another sea day. Again we had a one-hour later time change. The captain sailed us along the Baja California coast. Our cabin is on the port side, and we enjoyed a fantastic view as we headed south. The weather was perfect, sunny and warm. We saw a structure on the beach, and the Captain told us it was a movie set. We decided to have room service on the veranda, and our friends joined us for lunch. We passed by Cabo San Lucas, and some jet skis came out to ride in our wake. All of a sudden one of the guys leaned over and dropped his bathing suit. He was, well you know! We laughed and wondered just how much the guy had to drink. I suspect the captain was no so amused. We soon passed out of the sight of land as we headed southeast. It was a good time for a nap, and the breeze on the veranda and the comfortable chaise lounge made it a nap to remember.
We returned to the Rotterdam Tuesday evening. We enjoyed another fine meal. We did notice that the dining room in our area was quite warm. It was a minor problem that bothered us through the cruise.
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on time Wednesday morning. We looked out from our veranda and had to laugh. Directly across from the cruise ship pier is a Wal Mart and Sam's Club. No joke! So much for an exotic port, but it did make for a good photo op. The day was perfect, sunny and warm.
Our shore excursion for the day was the Sierra Madre Expedition. The tour operator met us at the pier. We were soon whisked away on a bus to their headquarters building. We were encouraged to buy bug repellent and to use the bathroom. We were separated into two groups of two, and boarded our vehicle for the rest of the tour. It was unique, to say the least! It was a 4-wheel drive truck, with a modified bed that includes two long benches with seat belts and a canopy top. Our guide sat at the end, warned us about our crazy driver, and off we went.
The seat belts were essential. The trucks were built for off roading, and the ride was tough even on pavement. Everyone was in a great mood and we headed towards the mountains, bouncing along as we went.
Our first stop was at a Mexican village. Our tour guide was from Holland and his English was excellent. We explained about life in Mexico and gave us a tour of a church. The poverty was everywhere. Almost no buildings were finished. We were taken to a taco stand, where the source of the meat was only from the head of a cow. Needless to say everyone passed! We were again encouraged to use the bathroom, and then we headed into the forest.
The ride was a blast! We went off roading along a riverbed. The truck was amazingly agile, and we roared up and down the riverbank. The poor folks in the front got wet as we raced along the riverbed. We stopped and everyone laughed about the ride we just enjoyed, or endured, depending upon your point of view!
We next took a beautiful hour-long walk through the subtropical forest. Our guide explained the plants, birds and insects we found along the way. The bug repellent proved invaluable, as there were loads of ticks. We saw woodpeckers, parrots, termites, butterflies and huge spiders. The shade was welcome and the forest quite beautiful.
We headed back out to civilization. We stopped at a second village, and were given a tour of the garden maintained by one of the families. We were all famished by this time, so we all enjoyed the tacos and local fruit served by the family.
Our final stop was at San Francisco beach. We arrived late at about 3:00 PM. Lunch was prepared for us, but we ate little as we knew dinner was at 6:00. We were warned by the guide not to buy any jewelry from the "vendors" waiting for us, as the silver was not real. We were regularly approached, but they did go away when we said no. Eventually 2 police officers arrived, and most of the "vendors" disappeared. Their fake silver is apparently well known.
Our ride back to the ship took an hour, I think. Our guide had a bottle of tequila and other spirits. He had us play a question and answer game, where the winner got a shot of tequila. We had a blast, and we all had a buzz by the time we reached the ship. We might have been upset that we were two hours late, but I doubt anyone cared!
Dinner was pleasant that evening as we regaled our friends with stories of our fun excursion. We departed about 9:00 PM and left to the cheers of people on the Carnival Pride, which was docked next to us.
Thursday morning we docked in Mazatlan. Again the weather was perfect. We had a one-hour forward time change. The view was quite different than Puerto Vallarta. The dock is part of an industrial port. There were countless small cars and trucks lined up in the port. We learned later they were imports by Hyundai.
We left on our excursion around 9:30. Our friends joined us on the Stone Island tour. We took a cab ride to the dock where our catamaran awaited us. We then were given a tour of the harbor, including the point of land at the entrance of the harbor. We had a perfect view of the Statendam and the Pride, which was docked next to us. Stone Island was across the harbor from the ships. We docked the catamaran and were escorted to what our guide called "Mexican limousines". They were carts with benches towed by tractors! Our ride to the beach was through a village. There were many horses and countless coconut palms. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant, which would be our home for the day. We grabbed a table close to the beautiful beach. It had a palm frond roof that gave us protection from the sun. Once again we had been warned about the "vendors." They soon arrived in droves, selling everything from hammocks to carvings to tattoos to hair braiding to carvings and tee shirts. They were an annoyance, but never harassed us when we said no.
Our friends went horseback riding while we went on a horse drawn sleigh. The island's economy is tourism and coconuts. The poverty was much the same as we saw the day before.
The beach was lovely and safe for swimming. We enjoyed an open bar and a delicious lunch cooked by local people. The service was excellent. Our guide Dorita spent some time with us and told us about her family. The conversation was personal and real and was a highlight of the trip. Later a piñata was broken by some of the children, who enjoyed the candy. We were a little bored by mid afternoon, and were ready to return to the ship.
There was a shopping bizarre at the terminal. We looked around before returning to the ship. Most interestingly were the prescription drugs being sold by "pharmacies". I was amazed at how brazen they were!
Dinner that evening was in the Rotterdam. To our astonishment, as we were leaving after dinner, the Maitre D called us over and invited us to dinner the next evening with the Chief Officer. We were flabbergasted, as we had received the same invitation on the Veendam. The odds of this two cruises in a row are unbelievable!
Friday we arrived in Cabo San Lucas. For a pleasant change there was no time change. The weather was again magnificent. We had not seen a cloud in 3 days! Cabo is a tender port, and we set anchor south of the Pride.
Our excursion in Cabo was Half-Day Sport Fishing Adventure. The tender ride was uneventful once we got on. Swells made it difficult to board. We docked near a US Coast Guard Cutter and were escorted to our fishing boat. We headed to sea past the famous arch at the entry of the harbor.
They say a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work. That was our solace, as we caught no fish. We did see one magnificent marlin make a classic jump. The views were beautiful as we trolled along with many other fishing boats. Oh well, that's how it goes sometimes.
The tender ride back was hot and rough. They had a great deal of difficulty getting everyone off in the swells. I fell as I got off the tender, but no harm was done. I don't like tendering, and this experience did nothing to make me like it any better.
Dinner at the Chief Officer's table was a pleasure. Chief Officer Robert-Jan Kan met us before dinner and escorted us to the table. The couples were split up, and we enjoyed a wide-ranging and most interesting conversation. The special menu was outstanding. The entrée choices were filet minion or lobster tail. Excellent wine was served and the food was terrific. Chief Officer Kan told us about his career and his future assignment, and answered many questions about the vessel. Don't you dare call the Statendam a ship. It's a vessel!
Saturday was sea day. Our time changed again by one hour forward. The day started uneventful.
About 10:00 AM the Captain announced that there was a serious engine problem. A turbocharger on one of the generators that drive the engines had malfunctioned. There was no danger, but we would arrive in San Diego about 6 hours late. Many of had blank looks as we realized we would miss our flights. Monet offered us free use of the satellite phones, but all the circuits were busy. What were we to do?
Our friends went to the Internet café. Incredibly their secretary was on line, and using instant messenger we were able to convey our problem to her. She was able to reach their travel agent at home, and she contacted the airlines and got us new flights. She also made us hotel reservations. It was incredible, all done without a telephone! It was pure luck she was on line. Needless to say this good fortune saved us a great deal of heartburn!
The front desk handled the many people affected with their usual grace. I was amazed to see so many people with a big problem, yet I never heard a voice in anger. We later learned many of the staff was affected as well. They had plans to meet friends and family on shore, and now they had to deal with an almost instant turn around.
Saturday night we enjoyed our last meal in the Rotterdam. It is always a little sad to goodbye to the wonderful dining room staff.
Sunday arrived with another one-hour time change. Considering that the time had changed from daylight savings to standard time the day we departed we had experienced 5 time changes in 7 days!
We enjoyed one benefit from the engine problem. The sail into San Diego was in daylight and the view was incredible. The smoke was gone, replaced by cold air and a clear sky. I took lots of photos as I savored the view.
Disembarkation was slow. One incredibly inconsiderate non-American couple did not report to customs. We waited about an hour listening to repeated announcements for them. They must have eventually found them. Once we were let off all went well.
I would like to add a few comments about our experience on the Statendam.
We did not attend any of the entertainment. We enjoyed our evenings with our friends.
If you reserve a suite and are sensitive to noise avoid the cabins near the Neptune. There was lots of socializing outside the lounge in the morning, which awoke us almost every day. It wasn't a big deal for us, but might be for others.
The air conditioning on the ship is poorly balanced. The public areas varied from hot to cold. We kept our cabin set at the warmest setting while our friend next door kept theirs at full cold. I don't know it was so irregular, but it was annoying at times.
We are not fans of Holland America's "Tipping not required" policy, but during the disembarkation talk you are informed, "tipping is the international gesture of thanks". It would be far easier and fairer to the staff to adopt a clear tipping policy. The dining room was half empty the last night, and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to know why. We've been on another cruise line with a clear policy, and the service was also excellent. The staff pays the bill for this outmoded policy, not the passengers. I have no doubt that the service would not suffer if the policy were changed. Holland America does a superb job in selecting and training their staff, and that is far more important to ensure good service than are tips. The staff would only work harder if they were assured consistent tips.
These were minor flaws in an otherwise excellent experience. The ship was spotlessly clean and the service exceptional. The itinerary was excellent. I highly recommend the ms Statendam!