Before sailing on her I began to think of the Volendam as the Cinderella of the HAL fleet. For a fleeting moment in time she was the largest ship in the HAL fleet. From there her fortunes changed. Eclipsed by the Rotterdam class and the new "Vista" class she and her sister the Zaandam seemed to become the forgotten middle children of the fleet.
After returning I had not planned to submit a review on this cruise (my 15th). This was my friends last trip, as he was in the final stages of liver cancer. When he was told that the tumor had metastasized he was given 6 to 8 months. As it turned out, he had 6 weeks. He passed away peacefully two weeks after our return.
Embarkation: We booked this cruise less than 2 weeks prior to sailing, during a Holland America "flash sale" with his doctors whole hearted permission. In a word cheap, especially for a Verandah cabin. Since it was a 10 day cruise and it left on a Thursday, I didn't expect I would be dealing with a "spring break crowd." Our group of 4 arrived from Orlando, via one-way car rental, and when I dropped the group off at 2:00pm, the embarkation area was deserted. When I arrived after dropping the car off about 40 minutes later it was still deserted. I had my choice of 3 available boarding Agents. It actually took me longer to walk across the huge warehouse size room, than for them to process the paperwork. Spooky.
The Ship: I'm a veteran of the Statendam class ships. I love them. The Volendam and Zaandam are slightly larger and the most notable change for me was having both pools on the Lido deck, instead of the aft pool one deck down. I actually found that very convenient, especially traveling with someone that wasn't particularly mobile. The lounges (Crows Nest, Explorers, Ocean Bar, Piano Bar) are essentially the same as the Statendam class with the exception of the Piano Bar. Instead of being a cozy hideaway it is open on one side, has a small dance floor and is in the major traffic pattern from mid-ship to the dining room. Cutting to the chase, it was not my favorite space. The Crows Nest was, with its circular bar and comfortable nooks and crannies. The verandah stateroom (7055) was wonderful, although I could see the need for a second full length hanging closet instead of several half closets with many shelves.
The Passengers: Shortly after embarkation and settling my friend in the stateroom to rest, I walked the decks to get a feeling about the other passengers. Although all age groups were represented the majority of the passengers were 70 plus. Again, I was prepared for this since this was a longer cruise with a Thursday departure. The parade of walkers, wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs, scooters, and people with canes (my friend included) led me to think that for this cruise HAL should have changed its funnel colors to white with a large red cross. Still there was a significant crowd (age 30 to 50) each night in the Crows Nest. The ship was sailing with only about 900 to 1,000 passengers so it had a ghost ship (River Styx?) quality
The Food: Since we had been on the Statendam out of San Diego in October I had expected the food to be of the same caliber, which was consistently excellent. It wasn't. Perhaps it was a "provisioning" East Coast, West Coast thing. Don't get me wrong it wasn't awful, in fact it was quite good (for the most part). There were hits and misses. The steak on the first night left me with the thought, "so this is what mad cow beef tastes like." The soups were generally wonderful, as were the fish courses. The salads continue to be boring and as aforementioned the beef ranged from great to nearly inedible. Service can make up for a lot of shortcomings, but alas our server in the dining room was somewhat clueless and his assistant nearly invisible. Considering the whole rear section of the main floor was empty (eerie in itself) because of the low passenger count you'd think they would have had adequate staffing. Leisurely dining is one thing, a 20 minute wait every night from the time your dinner plate is removed until you get coffee is another.
The food at the Lido where we did most breakfasts and several lunches was very good. The specialty stations for omelets in the morning or stir fry at lunch did a commendable job. As I noted in my Statendam review, a thoughtful touch are the servers that help the elderly and those with mobility issues with their trays. I had first hand knowledge of how that helps on this cruise. The food station by the Lido Pool became a favorite this cruise with very tasty burgers and well stocked taco bar.
Which brings me to The Pinnacle, I have no complaints about the food. It was excellent. We said so to the restaurant manager on the way out. Then like a lawyer who asks one too many questions and blows his case he asked, "and the service?" While I thought of an appropriate response another member of the group responded, "not great." In fact the service at times was offensive. They make a major production of just getting you seated at the table, and it was as if there training never got further than that. It was like a musical that has all the good numbers in the first 10 minutes then drizzles on for several more hours. Either they were obtrusively hovering (swarming the table to bring courses) or disdainfully shunning. A request to have a steak sent back so it was medium rare (as ordered) instead of blood red (as delivered) was greeted with an attitude bordering on indignation, water glasses weren't refilled without having to ask, and the bread basket sat empty. Not ordering wine brought an audible gasp. Never before had I rated the service a number one (poor) on the HAL questionnaire, but I did so this time. I hope management actually reads those things. The "we're so special and you're lucky to be eating here" doesn't work on any level.
Cruise Director and Staff: Usually a great source a barbs in any review for me, but this was different. They were great. They showed genuine concern and respect for the passengers. They were involved, they were appropriate, they were engaging. Instead of fleeing on formal nights at midnight (when they go officially off duty) from the Crow's Nest, they danced, mixed and mingled. They performed their bingo, trivia and pool game functions with a great sense of fun. This is what a Cruise Director and Staff are supposed to look and be like. Other ships in the HAL fleet and cruise industry could learn a thing or two from them.
Entertainment: A distinct improvement over my last HAL cruise. The production shows had less of a lip synced quality, the dancing was competent (especially considering how much the ship was rolling the second night) and the staging and costumes although decidedly not "cutting edge" were enjoyable. The individual "headliners" were for the most part entertaining. One singer a bass/baritone was described in the daily program as "he'll remind you of Howard Keel" had me out of my seat in 4 bars. Not clapping, but sprinting for the exit. Most definitely not my style, but he did sing loud enough that anyone other than the completely deaf could hear him.
Ports: Private Island, Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozemel, Vera Cruz. Do yourself a favor check out www.portreviews.com. It will give you information and reader reviews on all the ports, far better than I can do here.
Dante's Inferno. At Costa Maya, which is a large facility built by the friendly folks at Diamonds International we had a huge problem. Arranging for a ships wheelchair to take my friend from the finger pier where we were docked to the main pier where the shuttle ran was done through the front desk. We confirmed the pick up arrangements with the Boarding Officer when we left the ship. Simply, we would send back someone from our party several shuttles early to get the wheelchair so we could pick him up, at the junction of the main pier. The point was for him to be able to swim in the Ocean one last time, and walk as little as possible. We taxied into the fishing village and had lunch and our swim. It was perfect. On the way back he enjoyed the salt water pool at the port facility but his energy was fading. As arranged we sent the "advance party" to pick up the wheel chair 2 shuttles early then I boarded a shuttle with him. When we arrived, there was no one at the drop off point to meet us. We waited another 5 minutes, and it was hot. He decided to walk with my assistance the 1,200 feet to the gangplank which was located at the bow. Frankly, it was an ordeal, especially for someone who a month before was extremely physically active. He was humiliated but determined, and I was livid. When we were halfway to the gangplank, one for the "advance party" came sprinting from the gangplank, without a wheelchair. She explained the new Boarding Officer refused to release the wheelchair, nor would he confirm our arrangement with the front desk. He said one of them would have to go up there, as he wasn't going to call. By the time his cousin got up to the front desk, waited in line and confirmed the arrangement we had made it back to the ship. Meanwhile, the Boarding Officer had been peering out the gangplank watching us struggle the whole time. Truly sadistic. After getting my friend settled back in the room I had a "chat" with the front desk. Yes, I'm aware of HAL's policy about ship wheelchairs not being used off the ship, but since they had given us permission to use it, they should have honored it in a timely fashion. One phone call from him to the front desk would have solved the problem, but he refused to yield. Instead while his cousin waited impatiently in line we struggled back, his mortality exposed in every shaky step. The Boarding Officer, Dante because of his inflexibility, and severely rude attitude added considerable to an already difficult situation. When a major part of your clientele is aged, immobile or infirmed having someone devoid of compassion is not only distasteful, it's dangerous. Shame on you HAL.
Service in general: With the above noted exceptions, both good (cruise staff), not so good (dining room service) and horrendous (Dante), the level of service was acceptable but lacking the "sparkle" I usually associate with HAL. This was just prior to HAL switching over to their new tipping policy and the uncertainty seemed to distract the staff. Pleasant but flat would be another way of describing it.
Disembarkation: Because the ship was going into dry dock immediately after this cruise we were allowed to stay in our stateroom until our disembarkation number was called. It was painless.
Final Thoughts: I've been trying to write this last part for many weeks, with no luck. The Volendam was not as charming as the Statendam Class ships, nor as classy as the Rotterdam /Amsterdam, and certainly not as flashy as the new Vista Class but it performed its 10 day itinerary very adequately, providing a comfortable but uninspired cruise experience. This is one cruise I can't wrap up in a nice little literary bundle. It will always be bittersweet.