My wife and I decided that January and February are ideal months to get out of the Midwest weather. Since we were visiting kids in California in January, we decided to take a Mexican Riviera cruise and try a new cruise line, Holland America.. The Statendam was leaving from San Diego on January 7, 2002, and returning to San Diego on January 17. As long as we were trying out new things, we decided to book a guaranteed inside and see what happened. This was our sixth cruise. The others have been on Royal Caribbean and Princess. We have cruised the Caribbean, been to Alaska and sailed through the Panama Canal. We booked our own airline reservations.
In San Diego the cruise terminal is in close proximity to the airport making transfer very easy. No cabin had been assigned when our cruise documents arrived so we eagerly anticipated our cabin assignment. Before checking our baggage at the ship, we learned that we were assigned Cabin 303, a six category upgrade from inside to outside albeit with an obstructed view cabin.
In fairness to Holland America, we arrived at the beginning of embarkation which was part of the reason for the long lines waiting to check in. However, the embarkation process for Holland America was not nearly as smooth, organized or efficient as either Princess or Royal Caribbean. First there was the line to check-in. This was to check paper work and identification. They do not deal with the opening of onboard accounts at the check-in. Then you have to wait to be processed through security. Then there was a small wait for photographs to be taken. Then you have to wait to have someone take you to your cabin. It seems to me that are too many steps with all too much waiting.
Apparently, it was the cabin steward's responsibility to collect luggage from some location and take it to the passengers' cabins. The plan does not work very well. The cabin steward was attempting to meet the passengers and to handle their immediate requests while attempting to locate luggage and distribute it to the cabins. As you can imagine this was a lengthy process. Much longer than it takes on other cruise lines.
The ship and our room
The ship was quite nice. The Rotterdam dining room is at the rear of the ship. It is on two levels with an open middle area having two curving staircases linking the floors. It is very nice! There are plenty of quiet hide away places for relaxing, reading or conversing throughout the ship. The Van Gogh show lounge is lovely! It has a balcony and is designed for performances. The Lido dining room and the main pool are on the same level. The arrangement is good. The Statendam has a retractable roof over the pool which was particularly useful on this cruise as the temperature on the northern portion of the cruise was a bit cool for swimming outside but perfect with the roof closed. Many folks rave about the Crow's Nest lounge. It is located at the uppermost reaches of the ship with a panoramic view. The view was great but the furnishings just do not go with the rest of the ship. Service was terrible. This was not one of my favorite areas.
To the credit of Holland America, the lovely art was subtly highlighted throughout the ship. Princess has art that is hidden by the second rate auction art on easels and leaned against it. There is a small amount of art auction merchandise displayed on the Statendam but it does not overwhelm the resident art.
Our room was located on the Lower Promenade deck, Cabin 303. The room had a window which looked out on the main outside deck. The view beyond was fully obstructed by support beams for the upper levels. Another problem with 303 is that it is located in proximity to forward areas where storage and equipment is located. Consequently, there was quite a bit of residual noise and there was no sleeping when anchors where dropped or holding lines where drawn up.
The room has the standard bedding arrangement (modified queen when put together or twin beds). It also has a small couch with a table and a desk with chair. As advertised, Holland America has the largest (but by no means large) standard rooms in the industry. The suitcases fit under the bed and there was ample closet and drawer space for clothing. Each room has a television with limited programing. There was a safe in the closet. There was no refrigerator. The bathroom has a small bathtub/shower combination. The commode is poorly located at an angle toward the tub making it uncomfortable for a large person. A hair dryer is located in the bathroom that probably would not do the job for a person with lots of hair. There are loads of shelves in the bathroom.
The room was clean but well worn. It fact, it was so worn that it bordered on shabby. The track holding the shower curtain had been damaged and it allowed one or two curtain holders to repeatedly fall out. A leak developed behind a wall in the bathroom and two of the wall tiles fell off and were not repaired. One of the plastic trays in the shelf unit in the bathroom was missing. There was a curtain which screens the sleeping area from the rest of the cabin. The ends of the curtains could no longer be hooked and were hanging loose. There are two wing curtains which partially come out into the room for decorative purposes. The ends no longer could be hooked and they were hanging. The bed skirt had been torn loose from one side of the bed and was hanging ready to trip the unwary. We repeatedly tucked it under the mattress (as did the cabin steward) but it kept coming out. Not exactly what you would expect from the Holland America line.
There is a laundry room on each floor and they are not identical. Some are larger than others. They are really nice. They are clean and user friendly. Two dollars gets you a load of wash, the use of a dryer and the laundry detergent. There is an ironing board and an iron. There facilities were a whole lot better than those on the Princess!
A final word on the overall condition of the ship. Any one of the problems that I observed could be written off to wear and tear. My concern is the number of these problems. There was a window that was broken in an exterior door on the Lower Promenade deck. It was broken when we boarded the ship and it remained broken throughout the cruise. My question is when will it be fixed? There certainly was more than enough opportunity to fix it during the 10 days we were on board. Two of our dinner companions, Marv and Edy were sitting on deck chairs on the Lower Promenade deck when black oily liquid came down from above covering them and their belongings. No one came to their assistance and they had to go to the front desk to get any assistance. The staff offered to clean their clothing but what about the ruined book and other belongings? In one port I observed the exterior of the ship being maintained. It was obvious to anyone looking that the exterior of the ship badly needed it. This is totally unlike Princess which has the crew working on the exterior at every port. There seemed to be a lack of pride or investment by the crew in keeping the ship in the best condition possible. Rather when they were performing maintenance it was in a half-hearted manner.
The ship has a regular movie theatre with theatre type seating. Free popcorn is offered for the movies and there was a pretty good variety of movies available. Drinks will cost you. Located across from the theatre is the Java Cafe where you can get a free coffee, expresso, or cappucino. The only problem with the Java Cafe is that the person operating the cafe also must pop the popcorn, bag the popcorn, serve the popcorn, and sell the drinks in addition to making the coffee. Furthermore, it is likely that you are going to have to wait behind one to three staff members of the ship waiting to order coffee.
The casino is small but adequate. In is interesting that you can have chits placed on your shipboard account for chips each day without a surcharge as is taken by other cruise lines. Blackjack, craps, roulette, Caribbean stud and slots are available.
There is a nice variety of shops with some good prices.
The Rotterdam dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was of the impression that the staff was not thrilled that anyone showed up for breakfast or lunch. The breakfast menu can best be described as ordinary. It never changed during the ten days of our cruise. The lunch menu was only marginally better than the breakfast menu. I would describe it as uninspired. The service was only slightly better than non-existent. It did not take me long to decide that cold, heavy pancakes where not my idea of an attractive breakfast. Even though my wife likes to be waited on when at a restaurant, we had the majority of our lunches and breakfasts in the Lido dining area. There was a better variety of food, it was warmer, and, since you serve yourself, the service was much better. As compared to the Horizon Court on Princess, I found the Lido much better. However, the hours of the Lido where quite limited unlike the hours of the Horizon Court.
Dinner in the Rotterdam, as far as the food is concerned, was quite good except for two courses which were consistently disappointing: the salads and the desserts. I wasn't very fond of the beef courses but that may be my taste. Each night the supervisor prepared a dessert. And each night he would begin the preparation and then leave it cook. As you might imagine, such inattention does not make for haute cuisine. Let me say that the ice cream was very good.
Somewhere in the hierarchy of Holland America (or the Carnival Corporation) there is a budding accountant who thought that a good way of cutting costs was to reduce the dining room staff. This brilliant move probably looked good on the books but the person who developed the policy never had to sit through 10 nights of excruciatingly slow dinners! Now I ask you, isn't eating dinner one of the events that makes cruising special? Why would you tamper with one of the foundations for your business? Well, they have done it! One table steward for way too many tables. There are assistant table stewards but I'll be damned if I could figure out what they were doing. We saw ours maybe 5 times during the entire cruise that is not 5 nights but 5 times. During our 10 day cruise our table was unable to make a single after dinner show on time. The dinner always took more than two hours and often times it took two and half hours because of the limited number of table stewards and assistant table stewards. Our table steward had virtually no help. The help which the supervisor offered was just slightly more than nothing. One couple sitting at our table has been on 13 HAL cruises and they were shocked by the service.
Speaking of table companions, we could not have done better. There were two other couples at our table and they were wonderful. If it were not for them, I am afraid that the dinner debacle might have soured our entire cruise. It did not and we have Bernie and Ruth and Marv and Edy to thank for that!
An alternative to the Rotterdam dining room is the Lido. An observation or two is in order concerning the Lido. It was a rare occasion to observe any steward carrying a pitcher to refill coffee or iced tea in the Lido area. This was not for a lack of stewards as they were regularly huddled in groups of two and three chattering away. During these chats they were totally oblivious to the needs of the passengers and I never once saw them reprimanded by a superior. I watched one elderly woman spill her drink on the table and become very upset as she tried to contain the liquid. The three stewards close to her stopped talking to watch the event. Not one offered to help while the surrounding passengers took their napkins and assisted her.
The clustering of stewards was not an isolated incident. They frequently left tables unbused. Passengers had to mill around looking for a clean, open table. It was painful to watch senior citizens trying to walk with a tray on a moving ship looking for an open table while the stewards watched. This simply does not happen on other lines. The stewards would assist those having difficulty but I never saw them help anyone on the Statendam.
The Lido is apparently the dining room for the staff of the ship. One of the reasons the passengers mill around for tables at lunch is that many of the tables are occupied by the staff. It is one thing to wait in line with the rest of the passengers. It is quite another thing to wait in line behind several staff members.
There are some really good things in the Lido. For breakfast they have freshly squeezed orange juice (yes, you can watch them squeeze the oranges) and an omelette station. There is a continental breakfast line if you are not looking for something hot. At lunch there is a sandwich station, a dessert station, and an ice cream station. The pizza in the Lido was really quite good. Just outside of the Lido there is a hamburger, hotdog, sausage grill and a taco/nacho station.
There is no alternative dining room on the Statendam.
Ar Nes, our cabin steward was great. He was attentive and always ready to be of assistance. I mention the problems with the room but they seemed to be coming from higher up rather than from a lack of attention by Ar Nes.
Frequently overlooked are the front desk personnel. They were as good as any I have encountered. They were always pleasant, efficient, and thorough. Rarely was there ever a line at the front desk.
We felt sorry for our table steward Dibia. Our poor dining experience had little to do with him and a lot to do with terrible corporate decisions. He worked very hard but was unable to keep up with the demands placed on him. I have never seen a single person responsible for tables on any of my five previous cruises.
Excursions seem to be an after thought on the Statendam. You could book excursions by dropping a form in a box. However, if you wanted assistance then you had to be present for the limited time the excursion window was open. We only booked one excursion and dropped the form in the box. I did want to speak with the excursion staff about one or two of the ports but the window was never open when I thought of a question. As an alternative to the excursion desk, passengers can often get their questions answered by the shopping and excursions guide. Unfortunately, this service seems to have been contracted out by Holland America. The shopping and excursions guide was totally worthless for anything other than information about the recommended stores. In fact, she knew nothing about the sites in the area other than what was included on her preprinted form.
Many cruisers talk about booking excursions independently. If you are considering a tour of a town or a tourist site that carries no risk and can be easily reached by taxi, you may want to consider touring independently. Alternatively, if the tour is unusual or runs the risk of delay or physical injury, you should consider booking with the cruise line. If something goes wrong, and you are on a cruise line excursion, the cruise line is responsible for working it out. If you are on an independent tour and something goes wrong you are on your own. However, when the risk is minimal or non-existent, the cruise line excursion will cost you more; it will be less personal; and, the delays will be exasperating. We learned that when the situation is right we can see more of what we want to see in less time with a lot less aggravation at a much better price by touring independently. I will go through our excursions as I cover each port.
Rusty Martin was the Cruise Director. His jokes were either extremely lame or quite dated. The activities were not well advertised and I would rank him at the bottom of the Cruise Directors I have experienced.
I do not think the entertainment on Holland America changes nearly as frequently as on other lines. Our table companions told us how many times the various programs had been presented on their 13 cruises. Unfortunately, the service at dinner was so bad that we did not make a single after dinner show on time. From what we saw the entertainment appeared to be okay. Some nights were better than others but that is to be expected.
Cabo San Lucas
Prior to the cruise, we booked a fishing trip with George and Mary Landrum of Fly Hooker Sportfishing (www.flyhooker.com). They were great. We were met at the end of the tender pier. The boat was ready to go. We had arranged for lunch and bait to be on board to maximize our fishing time. The boat crew was knowledgeable and helpful. Best of all, they located dorado and we landed 8 ranging from thirty to forty pounds. At the end of the trip, George and Mary were there to help us back on the tender. They run a good business and I would recommend them.
Cabo San Lucas is a place I had heard much about but I was not that impressed with the place. From what I saw, if you have seen the picture of the rocks at Cabo you have seen Cabo.
We were met by friends in Mazatlan who gave us a private tour of the city. The terminal is located in a commercial port and, consequently, is not very attractive. There is an extensive mercado which we found to be very interesting especially with a person to explain and communicate for us. We are forever indebted to Isaac and Bibi for showing us their home.
We had been to Acapulco previously and knew that we could tour on our own. You should always determine the rate up front and be sure you do not let them side track you for special deals at merchants that are family or friends. We caught a cab in downtown traffic and it was not a location to negotiate rates. We let him take us to some shops which we actually enjoyed. However, at the end of the "tour" he wanted $40.00 which was at least double what he should have been paid for the ride. After arguing for a short time, I paid and took it as a lesson to follow my own advice. Out of 5 cabs we used, he was the only one to rip us off.
We did some shopping. Jewelry bargains can be found in Acapulco. You have to bargain hard for them. You have to be able to walk away. But if you can bargain as hard as the merchants, there are some great deals available.
We arranged the Shotover Boat Adventure on our own. Even at our age we enjoyed the daredevil antics with the jet propelled boat. The Shotover Boat Adventure is located quite a way out of town. It was an interesting ride and would have been more pleasant had the company used a respectable vehicle to get us from town to the river and back. They used a vehicle which had been used as the Popemobile when the Pope visited Mexico City. I swear it could not go over 30 mph! The tour guide who informed me of the origins of the vehicle said that the owners never realized that the Popemobile was specially geared for going very, very slow as there is no need for the Pope to speed along. The vehicle lost speed going up hill (and there were a lot of hills) to the point that it was doing well under 5 mph as it approached the crest of the hill! I told the tour guide that the owners seriously needed to replace the vehicle. Do not let the Popemobile dissuade you from experiencing this adventure. Everyone who went on it, enjoyed it. You do get wet so dress accordingly.
We got back to Acapulco in time for the first of the three nightly exhibitions by the cliff divers. We viewed the afternoon performance on our last visit. I thought the night exhibition might involve torches but it does not. The area is completely illuminated and I do not think the night exhibition was nearly as good as the afternoon exhibition. My speculation is that the afternoon exhibition is for the cruise ship passengers and they really put on a show for the tips from the vacationers. The night show was primarily attended by Mexican citizens and I suspect the tips are not as munificent.
Acapulco is very nice and it is an interesting city. It is a big city with big city amenities including big time night life. It has a beautiful view; gorgeous resorts; plenty of activities; and, is tourist friendly.
The only bad weather we had occurred during our visit to Zihuatanejo. The skies opened and it poured. Zihuatanejo is located six miles down the coast from Ixtapa. It is a tender port. Whether is was the rain or the fact that it was Sunday or a combination of both, there was not much activity. As it rained the police closed the streets to traffic because there was 6 to 8 inches of rain overflowing them. Nevertheless, my wife and I together with Edy and Marv braved the elements and had a really good time walking around the market area. Marv decided there was really only one supplier since every stall had the same variety of the various items.
It appears that the majority of the shore excursions in Puerto Vallarta are contracted by Holland America through Vallarta-Adventures. These excursions can all be booked directly with Vallarta-Adventures without paying the toke for Holland-America's excursion office. However, we wanted to do the San Sebastian flight seeing adventure and we followed our own rule (small plane flying into mountain country - possibility of problems and the consequences of those problems was high enough to warrant booking through the excursion office). There were 13 on the tour but only four from the Statendam. What a great tour! We flew out of Puerto for 25 minutes into the Sierra Madre mountains. The plane landed on a gravel landing strip outside of San Sebastian. A truck with benches in the back took us a short distance to the La Quinta coffee plantation where we had a tour of a cottage operation of coffee production. The coffee beans are grown organically, then roasted on the premises. It has only been in the last couple of years that they have acquired an automatic roaster. Prior to that the beans were roasted over a fire pit and hand turned during the roasting process. They are then placed in plastic bags and sealed over a burning candle. Amazing! The coffee was quite good.
From La Quinta we walked over cobblestone streets into town. Our guide was outstanding and very informative not only with respect to the history of the town but its customs as well. San Sebastian has been in existence since the 1600s and has served as a mining community. Now most of the working age adults work outside of town returning either in the evening or on weekends. The church is magnificent. We ate a native lunch at the hacienda. It was very good. After lunch we toured the buildings surrounding the square and loaded back up on the vehicle for our return to the landing strip. It was truly a super tour.
Two days at sea and we arrived in San Diego. On the eighth night of our cruise we were awakened by raucous activity somewhere in proximity to our cabin. If you have ever been awakened in a hotel or motel by loud guests that is exactly what was happening to the sound of music. Investigation by me determined that the crew was having a party which was not clandestine since every staff and crew member I spoke to knew about it. The problem was that the party occurred in the passenger area! Specifically, the fire doors to the passenger hallway in the forward lower promenade deck were closed to screen the activities and noise of the party. The party wound up on the forward Lower Promenade deck and the forward Promenade deck both inside and outside. The crew ran up and down the passenger hallways and in the forward areas between decks talking, singing, and playing music. It was great fun except for the fact that passengers were not invited and it occurred at 2:00 a.m.! It took two phones calls to security through the main desk to get things quieted down. I realize that hotels and motels are only somewhat accountable for their guests but these were not guests, these were staff and crew. It is even more aggravating to know that the officers of the ship were aware that the party was planned and permitted it to happen!
The final assault to my sensibilities occurred on the final day at sea. A poor woman passenger suffered a heart attack and had to be transported off the ship. This was done by United States Coast Guard air evacuation using a helicopter and a litter which was lifted from the deck of the ship. Not wanting to waste the opportunity to make another dollar, the photographers from the ship were standing by to memorialize this woman's tragedy. That evening, and for the rest of the cruise, any passenger wanting photographs of this unfortunate woman being lifted off the deck of the ship by helicopter could purchase copies in the photo gallery with the charges added to their ship board account!
Debarkation was delayed an hour by one individual who refused to respond to countless pages to report to immigration. Once that problem was resolved debarkation seemed to move relatively smoothly.
The experience on one ship does not necessarily reflect the quality of the entire cruise line. However, with recent problems on the Rotterdam, the myriad of problems being experienced on the Noordam and my experience on the Statendam, the question has to be asked, what is going on with Holland America? Is the influence of corporate Carnival behind these problems? I will not say that I would never sail Holland America again. I will say that after having read and heard so much about the elegance, the service and the stature of Holland America that I was shocked by what I encountered. When you spend as much money as you do on a cruise and take hard earned vacation time you expect the experience to be something very special. Holland America has forgotten this and it was a major disappointment.
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