This was our first HAL cruise and we were anxious to compare our experience to last year's Carnival Victory cruise. We chose the Veendam due to its Tampa departure (we live in St. Pete) and its Caribbean itinerary. Price for a veranda cabin through our travel agent seemed attractive and competitive.
Our arrival at the Tampa Port was not particularly traumatic although we were surprised when we were told to fill out immigration papers even though we had done so online with the promise that we would not have to do it at the port. Oh well. Our time to register and board the ship was probably about an hour with comfortable seating while waiting.
The Veendam is a mid-size ship and much smaller (and therefore quieter) than our Carnival comparison. It is clearly aimed at a more sedate, mature crowd than some of the other cruise lines. We were delighted to find that our cabin was actually larger than our last experience plus we had a full tub and Jacuzzi. Our veranda was also very nice and outfitted with a chair, table, and lounger. Don't ever sail without a veranda or balcony!
After boarding and exploring the boat, we headed for the Lido deck to check out any welcome party. There was a nice Caribbean style band and plenty of waiters pushing fairly costly drinks but little food. The Lido buffet was not open; however, one could get a burger or hot dog. Departure from the dock went smoothly although the ship courteously waited for two groups of people who had been delayed by airline and weather difficulties. A nice touch I thought and we headed to the early seating in the two level Rotterdam restaurant. We sat at a table for 10 and introduced ourselves. Dinner featured several choices of appetizer, soup, salad, and main course. Desert options were presented by menu after the dinner dishes were cleared.
I will echo what you may already have seen elsewhere. The food quality was not consistent. Some dishes were delicious. Many were just ordinary. Salads tended to not be fresh as if prepared early in the morning for the evening dinner. My biggest disappointment was that the Lido buffet (the option to the dining room) was open only from 6:00 to 7:30. Bam! At 7:30 the curtains came down, the ice cream and deserts were quickly put away and there was no further food service until an 11:30 snack was offered (long after we were asleep). Other ships seem to manage a small buffet, maybe some pizza, soft serve ice cream, etc. at all hours for those of us who feel the need of a snack. True, room service is available 24 hours but that has a limited menu. We did take advantage of the continental breakfast menu card left on our pillow every night next to the delicious chocolate piece. Coffee and a croissant arrived promptly in the morning with no fuss. The breakfast buffet was adequate and we were pleased to see smoked salmon every morning. Coffee was available 24 hours.
Waiters and room stewards were all very attentive, pleasant, and helpful. I didn't feel the busboys were particularly interested in their guests. I was surprised when a guest asked for a coffee refill and was told that there were coffee pots at both ends of the Lido deck rather than the busboy offering to go get a cup. I was also surprised to see 3 staff people almost trip over a towel that had fallen to the floor on the deck rather than bend down and pick it up. Ditto for the cabin attendant who walked off an elevator and stepped over a crumpled wad of paper on the floor as he exited. Just little things but not what you expect on a cruise.
We enjoyed the entertainment, which featured a cast of young enthusiastic performers. Maybe not Broadway quality but a couple of very nice shows. The casino was fun and several people were very lucky. Not me, as usual, but people did win. Daily activities were offered for every taste. Sea days had plenty to offer or just watch the waves roll by on the Promenade Deck. 4 laps to the mile if you walked or 10 laps to the mile for runners on Deck 12. I never did use the gym (in spite of my promises) but there seemed to be an adequate number of exercise bikes, stair master, treadmills and similar and everything was well maintained.
However, my wife used the gym/spa/salon/fitness classes. There was the usual "spa tour" with an assortment of expensive goodies to chose from. A brochure also listed the various services. However, she was disappointed to find out that some of the listed services were not available on the Veendam.
Even though she changed her mind three times, about the type and time of her massage, the reception desk was very understanding and accommodating. The massage was fabulous, plus there was no hard sell to buy product.
On the Carnival, there was no additional charge for the fitness classes. There were a couple of free classes on the Veendam, but there was a charge ($11 each) for the unique classes (i.e. Pilates, yoga, fit ball). My wife took advantage of a special offer of unlimited classes for $40. The Veendam staff was well trained and highly enthusiastic when leading the classes. She felt that even though she had to pay for the classes, they were worth it.
We did one ship's excursion and arranged a couple of our own. The latter proved more enjoyable and affordable but the Veendam did offer a nice variety of excursions in each port and good information on each.
When we arrived back in Tampa, we found the process for disembarking was easy and convenient. We were given a number based on our preference for departure time. We chose a later departure since we had no flight to catch. Groups were called to disembark and claim their luggage. It took us less than 20 minutes once our number was called to disembark, find our luggage, and pass through customs.
In summation, we very much enjoyed our cruise on the Veendam and felt we received good value. We appreciated the many nice touches around the ship and their efforts to please their guests. An increase in the hours of the casual buffet on the Lido deck would probably make it easier for us to select HAL for a future cruise.