Captain: Robert-Jan Kan Cruise Director: Glenn Coenen
I had a good time on this cruise, even with the curve balls that were thrown our way. We had five family members traveling together in two cabins, three of us in a deluxe verandah suite and the other two in a verandah cabin. The same group cruised with HAL last year, a 12-day Panama Canal cruise on the Zuiderdam.
We choose this cruise in order to see the fjords in Norway. It is a more laid back itinerary than other European cruises we have been on and that was fine with us, as we had one 89-year old with us and another family member who was recovering from recent surgery. We did not plan our port days as thoroughly or as jam-packed as we have in the past.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Rotterdam. We remember well the Zuiderdam's "issues" so I approached the Rotterdam with some, well, trepidation I suppose. Happily there was nothing to be concerned about. The ship is in excellent shape; my only complaint was the state of the Crows Nest, which was pretty much unusable for us all week because of cigarette smoke. There is one small area on the port side for smokers but there were so many of them (it was really too cold to be out on the decks for the most part, and the Crows Nest and the Casino are the only indoor smoking areas) smoking that you were hit with the smell the minute you set foot on the 9th floor. It was truly awful and there didn't seem to be any ventilation at all (or if there was it was completely ineffective).
The more I cruise the more I realize that I'm a small ship gal; I just like the more intimate nature of them. We tend not to take advantage of many of the offerings on a larger ship (we don't shop, use the casino, or go to the shows usually). The Rotterdam is actually on the large side for me but I enjoyed our time on her. Everything I saw was in tip-top shape and working order. It's really hard to believe that the Zuiderdam is part of the same line as the Rotterdam.
This was my first cruise in a suite; it made sense for us because HAL doesn't charge for the third person in the room (other than taxes and port charges). The suite cost us $1,000 more than the Verandah cabin we had planned on but the extra space (twice the size) made it SO much more comfortable for us. The larger verandah was wonderful as well, although it was often too cold this week to use it. When we did, however, we loved having the big table and chairs as well as the loungers. It meant that all five of us could hang out together comfortably. This "third in a room free" policy is one of the most important factors for us and why we look first to HAL now to see if they have an itinerary we want when planning a cruise.
We did not take advantage of many of the perquisites that come with a suite. We did stop into the Neptune lounge occasionally to grab something (it was located just one door down from our cabin) but I couldn't understand why anyone would spend much time in an interior space when there were such fantastic views to be had out every window. We had breakfast twice in the Pinnacle Grill but were not impressed; I prefer the main dining room. We did love having the laundry service, that perk was much appreciated.
The food was good, for the most part, but never great. I love the portion sizes -- small -- because they are almost always enough. It keeps me from overeating, yet I know I can always get more if I want it. Ice cream was a good example. When you buy it on the street they pile it on and I eat it. On the ship the default was one small scoop unless you asked for more. I found that the one scoop satisfied me, but knew that if they had given me more I would have eaten it, so I was glad for their conservative approach. I particularly enjoyed the veggie burgers from the Terrace Grill and almost all of the vegetarian soups in the main dining room. On the other hand, the pizza from Slice was bland and tasteless.
We did not attend any of the shows, other than to stop in for a couple of minutes one night while walking by. We did sit and enjoy the piano player one night, as well as the adagio strings on several occasions. DJ Marty was a lot of fun and we enjoyed spending time with him.
The lemon drop vodka martinis were wonderfully tart, I enjoyed many of them throughout the week.
Travel and Pre-Cruise
For our first two European cruises we arrived the morning of embarkation; starting with last year's river cruise we decided to stop tempting fate and flew in the day before. As our cruise began and ended in Rotterdam, that meant flying into Amsterdam arriving on Friday morning, May 25th. We had an uneventful direct flight but landed about an hour later than scheduled.
There were three of us traveling together; grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter and we were meeting two additional family members in Rotterdam. My mother can walk short distances but for the last several years we have used a lightweight folding travel wheelchair when we go away. We take her right onto the plane using her own chair, which is checked at the departure gate and comes back to us at the destination gate. Having this chair has greatly eased our travel and allows us to move around quickly. We had two large rolling suitcases and one mid-sized duffle bag for all three of us.
We found our luggage quickly and made our way to the Schiphol (Amsterdam airport) train station, located on the arrivals level. I knew from our experience there last year (and the year before) that US credit cards do not work in the ticket machines, so we got on line at the office where we used our credit cards last year with no problems. Now it is a problem; the ticket agent told us that their systems have all been upgraded to the chip and pin technology and even the office can no longer accept US credit cards. Fortunately I had Euros and purchased our tickets with cash.
The train ride from Schiphol to Rotterdam Centraal was fast (about a half hour) and uneventful. We stashed the big bags and the chair in the front of the car where we found seats. At Rotterdam we took a cab for the short one and a half miles to our hotel, the NH Atlanta Rotterdam. The hotel was good for our purposes and came at a very reasonable price of about 140 Euros per night for a double room. We were able to check in as soon as we arrived at 10:30 AM; after quick showers we met up with the rest of our family (they had arrived the day before) and headed back to the train station for a quick ride to Den Haag (The Hague).
We arrived too late for the last tour at the Peace Palace so we opted to walk to the M.C.Escher museum instead. I first became aware of Escher's work when my 7th grade math teacher took us into Manhattan to see an exhibition of his works and it was good to see more of them. After the museum visit we enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner at an outdoor restaurant alongside a small park before taking the train back to Rotterdam. Those of us who had just arrived that day went off to bed early while the others had dinner at the Chinese restaurant in the hotel.
Embarkation Day, Saturday May 26, 2012
On Saturday morning we walked to a local restaurant my cousin found on the internet for breakfast, then returned to the hotel to check out. We took taxis to the cruise port and arrived there at about 1:30 PM. There was no line at that point (we later learned from the cruise log that embarkation had begun at 11:55 AM). Our cabins were ready so we dropped off our stuff and made ourselves at home.
The two other family members had a verandah cabin on the sixth (Verandah) deck, we had an SB Deluxe Verandah cabin, #7020, on the Navigation deck just steps from the central elevators and stairs as well as steps from the Neptune lounge. Fortunately the sixth level cabin was also near the same stairs so we could easily run back and forth between the two.
The life boat drill went off as planned at 4:30, attendance was taken and missing guests were paged. We departed at 5 PM and slowly glided out of Rotterdam.
We had signed up for open dining which worked out well for us all week. We only shared our dinner table once and it turned out to be a couple we had gotten to know during the week at Trivia games.
Sunday, May 27, at sea
I'm an early riser which works out well when there are three people sharing one bathroom. I was up and out before the other two opened an eye most mornings, including this first one on board. I had intended to go to mass but got distracted on my way and didn't arrive at the Wajang Theater until about five minutes after eight; I listened at the door and was amazed to find that the priest was already beginning his homily so I didn't go in. Since the theater is right across the hall from the Pinnacle Grill I decided to have breakfast instead. I was immediately seated at one of the window tables (the windows open onto the hallway) and felt like I was eating in a fishbowl as folks walked by and glanced in. It was the same menu as the main dining room and the food was good, but a bit on the tepid side. We spent the balance of the day learning the ship and participating in the team trivia (with Cruise Director Glenn) and bar trivia (with DJ Marty).
At some point during the day the Captain announced that, due to an ongoing labor strike in Norway, we would be unable to dock at Oslo on Monday and would instead be going to a small town about 75 miles SSW of Oslo. We discussed our options and decided to look into two possibilities; taking the train to Oslo or renting a car and driving ourselves.
Monday, May 28, not Oslo (Sandefjord, Norway)
Arrival: 9 AM
On Board time: 7:30 PM
Departure: 8:30 PM
At breakfast this morning we learned from other passengers that most things in Norway would be closed all day in observance of Pentacost (Whitsunday), which is a public holiday in Norway. Somehow I had missed this fact in my research. Even if we had made port in Oslo many museums and most shops would all have been closed but we still would have been able to enjoy the Vigelandsparken sculpture park.
We pulled into Sandefjord (the replacement port) and docked at a pier one and a half miles south of the town. Shuttle buses were provided by HAL (free) to drive passengers into town and they made continuous loops all day long. My cousin and I were on one of the first shuttles and walked from the drop off point to the train station, which was less than a half mile from the shuttle stop. Our plan was to take the train to the airport, which was the closest place where we could rent a car. We had first talked with a taxi driver about taking us to the airport but he quoted a rate we found absurdly high, and then explained that they were charging double rates due to the holiday.
At the train station we learned that we'd missed the morning train to the airport and the next one wasn't until 11:45 AM (almost two hours later). We were told that there was a shuttle bus from the airport train station to the airport that runs every half hour or so and we quickly realized that the best case scenario wouldn't get us back to the ship with the car to pick up the rest of the family until 12:30 or 1 PM. Even though we had a relatively late on-board time, we also knew we'd need to drop them back off at the ship no later than 4:30 PM in order to give us the time to drive back to the airport, turn the car in, take the shuttle bus to the airport train station, take the train back to Sandefjord and the HAL shuttle back to the ship by 7:30 PM all-aboard. The last minute one-day rental rate we found online was about $200, which we decided was a lot of money for about four hours. It was certainly not enough time to drive to Oslo and back, so we'd only be able to drive around the immediate area. Ultimately we decided against that and went back to the ship for the day. We did walk through the town on the way back to the shuttle (five blocks long and two blocks wide) but everything there was closed for the holiday.
Tuesday, May 29, Kristiansand, Norway
Arrival: 8 AM
On Board time: 4:30 PM
Departure: 5 PM
Kristiansand had been listed as a tender port but we pulled right up to a dock along Sj'lystveien, next to the Performing Arts Center. From here it was an easy walk into town, although there was an open tourist tram for those who wanted a ride. The day was sunny but windy and the older members of the family were quickly chilled, which limited our ambitions for the day. We visited the cathedral, walked around the old part of town and admired the architecture, strolled along the waterfront and shopped along the main street (but gave up the dream of the natural history museum and botanical gardens as well as the Harley Davidson dealership). We picked up roses at a local florist for the next day's birthday celebration and headed back to the ship around 2 PM.
Wednesday, May 30, Stavenger, Norway
Arrival: 7:30 AM
On Board time: 2:30 PM
Departure: 2:45 PM
The port in Stavenger is right in town, another easy stroll off the ship right into the heart of things. We were on a mission this day to buy a Harley Davidson tee shirt for one of our cousins, which meant we needed to find the dealer in Stavenger. We had the address and had mapped it on a hand held GPS as well as on Google (via my Kindle). But first we wanted to go to the Norsk Oljemuseum, the Norway Oil Museum. It was a simple half mile walk from the cruise port and we got there about thirty minutes before it opened, so we wandered around the outside exhibits and children's play area. Once inside we were blown away by the exhibits which were thorough, interesting and interactive. We spent two hours here and could have stayed longer but we had an early on-board time today and we still needed to find that HD dealership. It was a pretty straight two mile walk but it was another windy day, which ate into our energy. We found the address and there were still HD signs, but no dealership anymore. Back we hiked and boarded the ship around 2 PM.
This afternoon we got our first real views of the fjords, as we had missed the scheduled Oslo Fjord on Monday. Today we glided through the Lysefjord, which was stunningly beautiful. The long hours of sunlight (it didn't get dark until after 11 PM) stretched out our enjoyment of the views.
Thursday, May 31, Flam, Norway
Arrival: 8:30 AM
On Board time: 5:30 PM
Departure: 7 PM
I got up early this morning (4:30 AM) in order to see the Sognefjord as we cruised toward Flam, another spectacularly beautiful sight. We arrived in Flam quite a bit later than our scheduled 7 AM but it didn't matter as this is another town that can be completed walked in about an hour (at a really slow pace). The two primary attractions here are boat rides through the fjords and the Flamsbanen train up the mountain to Myrdal and back. We opted for the train and my cousin and I got off as soon as possible to purchase our tickets. The noontime train was already sold out, so we went for the 11 AM run. The train is quite comfortable and the ride is slow and enjoyable, with fantastic views all along the way (it takes about an hour each way, with a 15 minute stop at the top).
The main site along the train route is the Kjosfossen waterfall. The train stops here for about ten minutes and everyone gets off to take pictures. After a few minutes music started playing (it was very Disney-esque) and off in the distance a woman appeared on the rocks and began dancing. In total three different women, stationed at different points along the river, danced for us. Cheesy but fun, once we stopped laughing. We didn't get great photos or videos on the way up but when we stopped on the way down we were prepared.
We were late departing this day, ostensibly due to a broken down train that delayed a large group. However, we also heard that the ongoing pilot strike had a role in our late departure.
Sometime that evening, perhaps around 10 or 11 PM, we were in the Crow's Nest when we noticed several speed boats zipping alongside us. We conferred with Marty, the DJ, who told us that we were making a courtesy stop at a town that will soon be added to HAL itineraries. I forgot to write down the name of the place, but I did wonder how happy it made the townsfolk that we were blowing our horn to acknowledge them so late at night (even though the sun had not fully set yet). It was a weeknight, after all, and someone must have needed to get up and go to work the next morning!
Friday, June 1, at sea
The captain really hit the gas this day, according to the cruise log. We traveled back to Rotterdam at an average speed of 21.0 knots, nearly twice the speed we had been at on the way up.
The birthday girl and I had appointments at the spa for facials this morning, one of her birthday presents. It was a wonderfully relaxing way to start the day.
More trivia today and the Mariner's brunch, where we got our first tiles. We had missed the Captain's welcome aboard cocktail party for suite passengers earlier in the week so we were hyper-conscious about making this event. The food was okay, not great, but we got the tiles and left happy.
Even better, our newly 20-year-old (her birthday had been on Wednesday) won at Bingo. And best of all, we beat our nemesis at trivia this afternoon. We didn't win the game, but we came in ahead of them which was an achievement in itself. They had been a juggernaut all week and knew just about everything thrown at them; when they didn't know an answer they managed to come up with really funny alternatives.
Saturday, June 2, disembarkation at Rotterdam
Arrival: 8 AM
Disembarkation begins: 8:30 AM
Disembarkation was a little slow to get going and they didn't even begin to call groups until 9:30. We decided to try the Pinnacle Grill again for breakfast; the service this time was extremely slow but the food was good.
We sent my cousin off early while the rest of us stayed on board until the end; he went to pick up a rental car and then came back for us. We stayed on board until they called "everyone off" at nearly 10 AM. Luggage was set out in a tented area adjacent to the port building and we found our stuff easily. Amazingly, they let my cousin come back into the secure area to help us with the luggage so we got out of there quickly and easily.
Our rental van was huge, more like a truck. It had seating for nine but we needed that last row for some of the stuff (a wheelchair and a motorized scooter take up a lot of room). Once loaded up we headed off to find the Amsterdam Harley Davidson dealer (still on a quest for those tee shirts). We set the GPS to take local roads and saw quite a lot of the Netherlands along the way. The most salient impression is that there is an awful lot of construction going on. We lost count of the number of detours we took due to road works.
We eventually found the dealership and bought the shirts (hallelujah!); after that we headed toward the sea for lunch. We found a nice town near the water, Zandvoort, and had a late lunch/early dinner there. Afterwards we cruised along the coast for a while then headed to the airport, where we had booked rooms for the night.
The hotel, the Citizen M, was ... different. It's positioned as a "new age" hotel and it is. You check yourself in (there are people there to help if you get stuck), make your own electronic key, and you're in. The rooms are ... more different. Small and narrow, they are the width of a king size bed. As you walk in the toilet is sitting in the room on your left and the shower is on the right. Each of them has a circular glass enclosure that you pull around for privacy, but the toilet enclosure glass is only slightly frosted and the shower glass is clear. Just past them is the bed, which is a big built in wall-to-wall unit that takes up the last third of the room.
The room concept is fine for a single traveler or for a couple who have few boundaries, but it clearly wasn't going to work for my aunt sharing a room with her adult son. They went back downstairs, got their money back, and went over to check into the Hilton. They paid about 60% more than we did (105 Euro per night for the Citizen M) but they were comfortable.
Sunday, June 3, return travel
I was up early so I ran over to the airport with one of our checked bags; the hotel is so close that I walked to the airport, found the desk, checked in (to be fair, it was three hours before the flight and there was no one on line ahead of me) and checked my bag, and made it back to the hotel in under fifteen minutes. It really could not have been easier. When my mother and the birthday girl were ready we checkout out and went over to check them in. At this point, about 45 minutes later, there was a line and it took about 20 minutes to get them checked in.
One note about Schiphol airport: you don't go through the physical security check until you get to your gate, as each gate has its own security setup. The problem with this is that (1) you can't purchase anything liquid in the airport to take on the plane with you and (2) once you are through security you may nor may not have access to a restroom. Some gates have them and others, like the one we used this trip, do not. It's not a great setup for elderly passengers with unpredictable bladders. Enough said.