Since this was my third time on the Volendam, I pretty much knew what to expect, but there were some changes. I'll get the unpleasant stuff over first.
Embarkation was the longest I've ever had in more than 25 cruises - over 1-1/2 hours. I don't know why; maybe a bunch of buses unloaded at the same time. I got there at 11:30 a.m. and didn't get onboard until well after 1 p.m. But (as I advise all first-time cruisers) I just blocked it all out and didn't listen to the people crabbing and saying, "this is unacceptable." That's the way it is today, so deal with it!
Luggage arrived in my cabin by 2:30 p.m. and I was all unpacked before the lifeboat drill at 4:15. Since my last HAL cruise a year ago, there have been some pleasant changes. Hair dryers are in the vanity drawer, much more powerful than the wall-mounted ones in the bathroom; the fruit basket is back; and there are wonderful, cozy robes in every cabin (even in the "cheap seats," like mine).
The food in both the dining room and the Lido was beautifully displayed, very tasty, offering great variety, and pleasantly served. I had snapper in the dining room one evening and it was the best I've had anywhere, ever. People at my table complained there weren't enough choices, but I certainly couldn't agree - there was something for everyone in every category of the menu.
I found the food to be wonderful and beautifully presented in all venues. Morning coffee and rolls from room service were promptly delivered and the order was correct and nicely presented daily.
The production shows were good; the kids are so talented and try so hard, but HAL needs to spend some money on costumes. Theirs looked like they came from high school productions. The magician (Bob) was wonderful and very funny, as was the comedian (Tom Drake, husband of cruise director Dottie Kulasa). The Piano Bar was a great disappointment, as this is my favorite after-dinner spot. The performer was Johnny Panama (can you believe the name? And he's a Brit!). He was unfriendly, unsmiling and arrogant; he refused to play requests, took way too many breaks and generally was rude and ineffective. He had NO rapport with the crowd -- which is the job of a Piano Bar entertainer.
The Portofino Strings in the Explorer's Lounge were wonderful for an after-dinner coffee drink -- very talented, eager to take requests, and displaying good crowd rapport.
The band in the Ocean Bar was Italian and quite good – they played some wonderful Brasilian Jobim-type music and the dancers seemed to enjoy them. The Crow's Nest had a group called Rain, a run-of-the-mill rock/pop group with a girl singer who seemed uninterested in it all.
The cruise staff is young (as usual) and mostly quite good. The Cruise Director, Dottie Kulasa, is wonderful - a funny lady and perfect for the job. I met her about 10 years ago on the Norway for two or three cruises, and it's a great coup for HAL to lure her away from NCL. The few flaws in the young staff will be remedied under her guidance.
The ports of Nassau, St. Thomas, Tortola, Dominica and Barbados are as wonderful as ever. If I ever hear someone say, "Why did we stop here - there's nothing there" again, I will scream! This seems to happen in Tortola and Dominica a lot and it annoys me - don't they read the brochures? Aren't they familiar with the itinerary? If they want a mall and Diamonds International, MacDonalds and The Gap, why not stay home?
The BEST new thing about HAL is that on the morning of disembarkation, you can now order a room service breakfast and stay in your cabin until your number is called -- no more lugging your stuff around for two hours trying to find a place to sit! It makes the very sad departure day much more pleasant and much less stressful.
Once again I lucked out with wonderful table companions (which can make or break your cruise when traveling alone). They were so thoughtful that one evening when I was late for dinner (because of a too-long nap after too much sun at the beach in St. Thomas), they called my cabin to see if I was O.K. I rushed to dinner and thanked them for their concern.
For the first time, I booked a Dolphin Deck (very lowest deck), ocean view (window) cabin. I was on a fairly strict budget this time and couldn't do a balcony/verandah cabin. I found I really enjoyed being where I was; at night I would crawl into the "window seat" and have a glass of wine while watching the sea – almost within my reach, had it not been for the glass. It was most relaxing. It was also only one deck down to the gangway at every port - very convenient! I will definitely book a lower deck again.
The new "tips added" policy had me and others somewhat confused. While I did not object to the plan of $10 a day, I felt some people were being overlooked, so I tipped the waiter, a few favorite bartenders, the room service person and cabin steward more. I heard they were "duty bound" to pool those tips as well, which I think might create some ethical situations for them. I still have mixed feelings about this policy. I understand that the "behind the scenes" people deserve compensation, but I sincerely hope those who serve above and beyond know they are appreciated.
All in all, it was a wonderful cruise - perfect weather for 10 days. Half Moon Cay is still the best place on earth for me. And I made new friends - what more could one ask for?
Oh, I know -- another cruise!