Here's my overdue review of our 24 day collectors voyage cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam in July. We are two adults and a daughter who turned 11 on the trip. We are all very experienced cruisers and have been on many different lines, as well as several different HAL ships.
We sailed from Barcelona all the way through the Med to Istanbul and finally back to Venice, where we disembarked. We have had mixed experiences on HAL ships but were keen to try this ship because it is one of the newest and most modern in the fleet.
I personally have never sailed on HAL for their interior decor. Our initial impressions were that the ship looked old and dated, which really surprised us given it is all of two years old. I do not think it is going to age well and looks similar to many of the older HAL ships. Low ceilings, long, narrow corridors, dim lighting, smoky mirrors and a garish red dining room were what stood out to me. Many people we met commented on the dated decor and especially the muted carpets, which looked flat and faded. My feeling is they really need to go back to the drawing board and start over on ship design. There is nothing innovative about the ship.
Fortunately, the NA has many positive aspects to it and these far outweighed the negatives. The balcony cabin was comfortable and extremely quiet. The beds were excellent. The bathroom was very plain but roomy. The desk area lacked storage space for personal effects and really needs some shelves on the wall. The couch was fairly ugly and the seat cushion seemed to be permanently falling off, which made sitting on it a weird experience. The balcony was deep, but unfortunately we were next to smokers for the entire 24 days and it significantly impacted balcony time. As soon as the door next door opened I knew the lighter flick was coming and I was going to be breathing in smoke. Really a shame.
We enjoyed the gym very much and thought it was very well equipped, with no time limits on the ample cardio equipment. It needs better ventilation but worked very well for us and I loved the icy cold face cloths in the fridge by the door for refreshment after a long workout.
I also really liked having a dedicated screening room on the ship. It could stand a bigger screen and more chairs, but it's a real pleasure to go and watch a decent movie in a shipboard cinema in very comfortable chairs.
The main midship pool seemed too small for the crowds on board and far too cramped, with cabanas, table tennis tables and loungers all jammed in together. There are a lot less casual, lounging chairs on this ship than Vista class ships and they have no protection from the sun, which was intense. It was extremely hot on the trip and it would also help if the side windows slid open to allow more of a cross breeze. Fortunately, we're not big sun worshippers but needed to be by the pool to supervise our daughter.
HAL isn't known for its entertainment, so my expectations were low. I've seen a lot of shows in 40 cruises. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality and variety of acts. The Olympic gymnast and mindreader were unusual and different. Thankfully, there was a decent, tiered seating show lounge and it was surprising to see it was never packed out. Maybe people were too tired after the long port days. The CD was Dan Bernbach who had the perfect personality for the voyage. He's young, enthusiastic and smart and went over very well with the passengers. Daytime activities were limited because the itinerary was so port intensive but we enjoyed renting movies, reading in Explorations or sitting in a nice shady spot on the deck. My husband really missed cultural lectures on board and there is nothing offered in that area. We don't use Windows so the computer classes were of no use to us. We would have liked educational or historical lectures on the areas we were going to. It really helps if you like cooking demonstrations on HAL. We usually do Trivia a lot but ever quite found our groove on the NA because of the time spent in ports.
We found the dining room service to be decent and had no complaints. We were never once approached by a maitre'd to see if everything was okay in 24 days. The waiters worked hard and tried hard, but there doesn't seem to be any oversight. Dining room standards are not what they once were, but we were happy. We thought the food was excellent overall, always hot and tasty and well presented. For a truly top end dining experience on a ship these days you need to go to the specialty restaurants. We've always been fans of the Pinnacle Grill and went there a couple of times and couldn't fault it. However, it was Tamarind that got us hooked. We ate there three times and I could easily have gone back for more. Everything about the experience was fantastic and I can't rave about it enough. Worth every penny, and frankly, it's underpriced. For us, with our Three Star Mariner discounts, it was almost embarrassing to enjoy a meal of such high quality for what we paid.
To be honest, it was one long cruise of food, food and more food... BBQ's on the open deck, special regional food presentations, chocolate buffets... HAL works extremely hard and the food never stopped coming. We needed the gym....
The Lido buffet... Well, remember what I said about dated ship design??? This is a huge negative on the ship, with its galley design and long lines, which made it a slow, congested experience. The food was excellent and the variety of offerings was too, but the thought of lining up for each section was a real turn off. As an ex-pat Brit, I really appreciated the English breakfast section and teabags too. Table bussing tended to be lacking here and often nothing would be removed at all until you had finished your meal, so plates stacked up and no-one took them away which isn't very elegant. There were plenty of tables for two, if you didn't mind them being in the aisles next to the food lines, which were always crowded. It was akin to eating your meal on the side of a slow moving freeway, with constant traffic jostling by you. For a two year old ship, HAL is way behind the times on buffet design. Most new ships feature the island system and other ships are retrofitting their buffets in line with the trend.
There is also a mandatory 2 day suspension of self service in the Lido for health reasons, which means you can't even get your own tea or coffee. Most food is served to you anyway, but the drink stations were extremely clogged up by serving tables at either end of the Lido and everyone was extremely relieved when it ended. For us, we went through it again when the second leg of the voyage started. HAL believes it helps keep Norovirus at bay. It is, nonetheless, highly frustrating to have to direct someone to make the perfect cup of tea whenever you want one, and made meal service even slower and more congested than usual. I cannot imagine going an entire voyage like that.
Our daughter turned 11 on the cruise and was well treated by the kids club and our waiters, who ordered her a personalised cake and sang to her. The only shocker came when we went to the front desk to get some balloons put on our door and found we had to pay $2.50 per balloon for this to be done. Yikes!!! Club HAL did a very good job and our daughter had a lot of fun up there and made some good friends. We think HAL tries very hard with families and made sure everyone had a good time. There were approximately 250 kids on board, and 2000 adults. Overall, the staff on board are absolutely excellent with kids. Our waiters made paper origami designs every day, which complimented the inevitable towel animals in the cabin. Christopher the Canaletto chef provided free cotton candy every evening for our daughter. She had the movie theater wired and knew when to find fresh popcorn deliveries at the start of every movie.
The staff are one of the best features on the NA. They work very hard and are gracious, professional and friendly. We didn't find there to be an excessive amount of overbearing rules or restrictions and can't fault the crew. The captain was very low key and other than a extremely brief, blink and you missed it welcome speech and toast, was hardly seen and only heard from the bridge. He was apparently a very nice, shy older seaman, but interacting with the masses was definitely not his thing.
We had been to many of the ports before which meant we could relax a great deal on the trip and did not need to rush around touring in 100 degree temperatures every day. The ship was a very comfortable, relaxing place to be on a port day. We don't do ship tours usually and do find HAL tours to be extremely expensive, but we did do a tour in Istanbul in order to gain access to the Topkapi Palace, which was closed on the day we were there except for cruise tours. Many ports were tender ports and particularly in Kotor, it took forever to offload all the passengers for the short amount of time we were there. Independent passengers definitely play second fiddle to ship tours, and some people who had booked tours privately and couldn't get off the ship until 2 hours after arrival were quite upset about this.
The tour guide Tom was extremely knowledgable and helpful, and always available, and gave excellent presentations on the ports as well.
Overall, we had a fabulous time on the ship, once we made the initial adjustment and accepted its shortcoming and embraced its positives. No ship is perfect. Compared to the thoroughly contemporary one year old Celebrity Silhouette which we sailed on last year, and which we anchored next to in Mykonos, the two year old NA is positively old fashioned and dowdy, yet it still managed to charm us and endear us in its own way and we were ready, but not happy, when the 24 days came to an end. We would sail on the ship again. I love many of the traditions HAL clings to and want to drag them into the 21st century at the same time, but I suspect they would kick and scream all the way...