Voyage of the Vikings 2012 HAL MS Maasdam
The Voyage of the Vikings is a once a year cruise following many of the old ports the Vikings were known to have visited. This year it was a 35 day round trip from Boston leaving July 14th and returning August 18th. We are almost 4 Star Mariners who have cruised on HAL ships for many years. Each year since the Carnival acquisition of the line we have noted a drop in overall quality of the cruise experience. Service by the hardworking crew was appreciated but they are spread thinly in some areas. The one big disappointment was the food. There was a general lack of flavor on dishes that were visually appealing. HAL should take notice of lines like Oceana where "cruising in the grand manner" still has some meaning.
To get a truly good meal on board one had to go to the Pinnacle Grill. The Maitre'd of the Pinnacle Grill for this cruise was Colin Dsouza, my favorite HAL Maitre'd I've met so far. He brings warmth and personal attention to the Pinnacle Grill which was sorely lacking from the Zaandam after he was transferred to the Maasdam.
We were very impressed with Dani keeping the Lido service staff running smoothly. Of great exception we give credit to Desy/Daisy and Yadi/Sole. These two people were at the top of their game for passenger service. They kept smiling even with the most troublesome of pasengers. Yadi was in the Canaletto most of the evenings. He always provided top notch service in the Canaletto. Sadly, the Italian food would only get a grade of C minus from me. On one evening there I had the Tortellini special. It was tough and not al dente. It had no sauce on top but was served with olive oil and tough string beans. Some pesto sauce would have been nice to add some dimension to the lackluster taste. In this Italian themed dining spot on the Lido there was one thing sorely missing. GARLIC ! It could only be found on the two tiny slices of garlic toast placed on the table. The marinara sauce was acceptable but the meat sauce had an off taste throughout the entire voyage.
Our cabin on the Lower Promenade Deck was acceptable but I would have made some modifications to the new bathroom that was installed in the last "upgrade." The socket on the new bathroom overhead light shuts off with the light switch outside. This means you could not put in a nightlight. Nor could you charge a shaver or electric toothbrush without having the bathroom light on. To those of us who are gentrifying, a bathroom nightlight is a needed safety feature. The single room outlet for 110 Volts will require you to bring a multiple plug adapter and if you have a medical machine like a CPAP you will also need to bring an extension cord to use it next to your bedside.
Shore excursions by HAL were not that good either. Some were downright infuriating. The tour of Bergan, Norway, had the bus picking us up at the ship driving around town with a girl from Spain who was not that fluent in English. The problem was that she told us what we had just passed by and not what was coming up. Most photographs were a blur. It was all very rushed. The bus dropped us off at the funicular railway terminal where we were to board a railcar to the midpoint up a mountain. She wanted all of us to get on one car which made for a very tight ride up the mountain. At the top she gives us just 20 minutes to take in the view then she herds everyone back onto the railcar for a trip down. At the bottom we find out the bus has left and we are on a walking tour down to the fish market. Those with walkers and wheelchairs find out there is a mile plus walk back to the ship. NO BUS ! ! ! Before the cruise when we signed up for this and prepaid, there was only one walker on the rating. My wife was hit by a car three years ago and we were not happy about walking back to the ship which gave her great pain. We would have taken a taxi but the ship ran out of the Norway Kroners at the first port and could not provide us with exchange currency.
The second most annoying tour was that of Plymouth. We were put on a bus taken to a small town with no time to explore, put on a steam train (I'm a rail buff), and run down to the end of the line where our tour guide was in a big hurry to load us onto a ferry to cross the river. Once on the other side the guide told us the bus would be there to pick us up in about 2 hours. I would rather have had time to go to the rail station gift shop and a chance to take pictures of the train making the reverse run.
The tour to Stonehenge was equally rushed. The only way we could get back to the bus in the allotted time was to keep walking around the monument and head back. The bus then left us off in a nice nearby town for over an hour but the tour was supposed to be Stonehenge. Be sure when booking with HAL to read the descriptions carefully. Tours with Celebrity have more accurate descriptions and are planned better from our past experiences. One big improvement would be for any HAL sponsored tour bus to have a portable step for those of us who are ambulatory challenged. One woman on the Bergen tour fell because the step down from the bus was very high. My wife managed but it was difficult to make that first high step on several buses.
On board crowd control was a big problem with a less than sensitive security staff. Upon returning to the U.S. in Bar Harbor we were told to line up through the casino for a U.S. Customs inspection. We were late leaving the previous port because of a tardy tour. Even steaming at full speed this put us late to Bar Harbor. Our tickets read meeting time at 7:45 AM and we were supposed to meet the U.S. Customs at the same time. This led to an unsupervised large crowd in front of the closed casino doors. Some HAL person decided the line was too long and brought up a huge crowd from far back in the line. This did not set well with the people who had been lined up before 7 AM to be first. Many of them had non-HAL tours and wanted to be first off the ship. At the front of the line there was a heated argument between two persons. My wife signaled the HAL security person on the other side of the closed doors but was ignored. I had to step in and tell two men to cool it. I am surprised that in that long parade of walkers there was not one Blue Star Alert since they were standing there getting dehydrated for over an hour.
So, we get through customs and are told "don't worry, we will get you on to your tours" but this did not apply to the non-HAL booked people. Those people rushed the gangway to get off. Since we were tendering in to shore there was only enough room for so many and no more. Those of us who were given tender tickets made our way when called. Once ashore we found the bus loading zone and were told that the 8:30 AM tour was rescheduled to 11 AM. No problem, we walked through the lovely Bar Harbor town center, sat on a nice bench for some time, and got back by 10:45 AM for the 11 AM tour. We waited and waited then found out the tour was moved again to 12 Noon. All of these schedule changes pushed the time spent on top of Cadillac Mountain to under 25 minutes. This was a disaster since it takes our bus full of septuagenarians a full ten minutes to empty. Then we had only about 5 minutes to visit the view point after a 10 minute uphill hike from the bus parking area. I have a fast camera and fast lens but we then finished the tour whizzing past points of interest and photogenic spots that just blurred by. The sad part was that day the Lido had a special buffet that was long over by the time we got aboard again. I had to settle for a hot dog from the Poolside Grill.
As for our cabin attendants, they were very hard working and did an exceptional job considering their grueling workload. On the first day our mirrors were smudged with something greasy, one of the courtesy robes had a big black handprint on it, the bedding and pillow cases had stains, the bathmat for the shower was stained with something black, the blackout curtains had a broken rod, the shower wand hose sprayed water all over the room, and the toilet leaked. The cabin stewards were apologetic and things were cleaned within a day or two of sailing. The problem is that there are just too few stewards to be able to make a smooth end of cruise and beginning of cruise turnover.
We missed 4 ports due to weather. Our excellent Captain, James Russel-Dunsford, opted to outrun bad weather that would have made visiting some ports downright dangerous and impossible for tendering in. You really don't want to be in a tender with swells of 12 feet. Even at top speed away from the gale force storm we could not outrun the heavy swells. I really rather enjoyed the "motion of the ocean" as the Captain termed it. The sway of the deck under my feet has always been a personal joy. We did add a truly lovely port that was not on the original itinerary, Molde, Norway. It was very picturesque and had a wonderful main street with shops. The people there welcomed us even though we were surprise guests. To make up for missing ports HAL provides a glass of cheap champagne after dinner. I would rather have had a nice piece of chocolate which was all but missing from this voyage.
Speaking of chocolate, whatever happened to the HAL tradition of an afternoon chocolate extravaganza? We have been reduced to a "dessert extravaganza" at 10:30 PM on one evening of the voyage. The desserts have gotten tiny and I have no problem with that. However, I do object to many of them being tasteless with chocolate that can best be described as "simply brown." Finding a decent chocolate means going to the Canaletto for the gelato or waiting for the one day the "chocolate purse" pastry is made in a very limited quantity. Even the little after dinner chocolates in the Pinnacle Grill were of poor quality. The cheap milk chocolates left by the cabin attendants were the most chocolate flavor I could find on most of the days.
Chefs Pablo and Joe did a great job at the pasta station in the Lido. When the lamb chops were tiny and tough, the pasta provided a nice alternative. Jose out in the Poolside Grill did a good job also. But, when the ingredients are just not up to par then there isn't much a chef can do. I had one prosciutto sandwich that could not be eaten. The prosciutto was so tough that it could not be bitten off or chewed. I wish I had a sharp steak knife for many of the dishes were we served, as the ships cutlery were simply not sharp enough for much of the food.
One bright spot was the cheese selection. From a very nice Danish Blue Cheese to a caraway seed infused Leiden, the cheeses were wonderful, when you could find them. At the cheese extravaganza the cheeses were left out for people to cut it themselves. The result was a mess. The hard cheeses got hacked and chopped while the soft cheeses were mushed. The dull table knifes for cutting the cheeses were downright dangerously deployed by some of the people partaking.
I could go on and on about the poor quality of the food but will end that topic here for fear of boring the reader.
For a cruise with so many days at sea, the selection of TV movies you could watch in your room was very poor. It also repeated the schedule which limited what you watched. The DVDs available from the Front Desk helped and we went through many of them. Gone are the days when ships had first run movies on board. Now the theatre has a DVD video projection on one day then the movie is on the ships TV system the next day. The video projection in the Wajang Theatre is dim with the color washed out so it is better just to see it in your cabin the next day.
A big plus to the in-room TV selection was the addition of FOX News. The BBC and CNN coverage were also available but one tires quickly from their short repetitive schedule cycling. When the BBC and CNN satellite reception went off for some time due to satellite problems we didn't even miss them.
What can I say about the ship's entertainment? Yes, there was some. For those of us who attend Broadway shows we have become a bit jaded. Many of the main showroom shows might work as a lounge act in Vegas but some were painful to watch. The bright spots were the piano combo in the Ocean Bar and the Adagio String Quartet.
The very last annoying thing was the HAL transfer from the ship to the airport on a touring bus that took us through Boston. It left us at the wrong part of the airport even after we had repeatedly told them we were on Virgin America. We had to hike to a far off elevator with our luggage, go to the second floor, cross through a large parking structure, and hike down another concourse to the airline desk. A HAL representative was there at the bus drop off point and told us Virgin America was just upstairs and obviously had no real idea of where it actually was. Next time I will save the $100 bus transfer fee and go with a $30 taxi ride.
Bottom line, we did enjoy the cruise. The ports and scenery were interesting and picturesque. The crew was always great and went out of their way to make us happy. The food was not so great. I lost weight on the 35 day cruise because much of the food simply was not appetizing. The land excursions needed better time management. The logistics of crowd control needed some help to avoid problems. We are going to give HAL one more chance with the Solar Eclipse Voyage out of Sydney in November. The good will and brand allegiance is wearing thin so the day after we get back into Sydney from the Solar Eclipse cruise we are getting on a Celebrity ship that sails up to Singapore. HAL had better wake up or the many disgruntled passengers we conversed with will be jumping ship to another non-Carnival line. My brother-in-law, a 4 Star Mariner with 305 days, just cancelled a 68 day cruise to the Mediterranean because of the shabby way HAL treated him in booking the Los Angeles to Australia and Australia circumnavigation, back to back cruise. They refused to guarantee him the same cabin for the whole cruise so when he reached Sydney he would have to move to another cabin. Is that dumb or what? The same thing happened to people on the Voyage of the Vikings for people wishing to take the next leg up to Canada. Someone in HAL Seattle has no idea what they are doing.