This Dec 2 -- Dec 9, 2012 review of the ms Westerdam 7-Day Western Caribbean is written as my impressions which may or may not conflict with the impressions of others.
Pre-Cruise Hotel: We did not have a pre-cruise hotel but came from the Nieuw Amsterdam (NA), Pier 26.
Luggage: Our luggage was transported by a porter as we made the short walk across the street from Pier 26. With a new collection of souvenirs from the previous week, our collapsible HAL roller bag (always carried in our second suitcase) was filled and added to the luggage cart.
Embarkation: As soon as we arrived at the Terminal 21 (10:00 AM) our luggage was collected. The wait outside the closed terminal doors was no longer than 10 minutes and the number of waiting passengers was around 20. Before 10:30 AM the doors were opened and passenger processing started. From the time we entered the building, we were seated approximately 100 feet from the gangway entrance in 15 minutes. Fortunately, the ship's photographer was late in setting up his equipment and we were able to miss the long line that normally forms for embarkation photos. Since several passengers had failed to leave the Westerdam by 10:00 (they were awaiting porters to pick up their luggage), the waiting area also included a number of back-to-back passengers waiting reboarding.
The ship set up a refreshment station in the waiting area that was a real hit with the HAL terminal staff. Boarding started at 11:25 AM. After stopping at the Front Desk for a hole punch in my room card and registration for cooking classes, I went to the cabin which was cleaned and ready for occupancy. At the Mariner's Embarkation Lunch, I noted that the menu was the same as the previous week on the NA. Luggage arrived at the stateroom by 1:30 PM which was not as quick as the previous week on Pier 26.
Ship's Furnishings: I will dispense with any comments about the decor as being very subjective and having no bearing on my level of satisfaction with the cruise. The artifacts as well as the coloring throughout the ship did indeed complete the intent of the designer.
Stateroom: SA7085 was ready for our occupancy when we arrived before noon. My first notice was the television was much smaller than on the NA the previous week. The stateroom was larger than the previous week's aft-wrap stateroom and had plenty of closet space. The free glass bottle of VOSS water, found on the NA was replaced with a plastic bottle of the same water for sale with the minibar. When the Room Steward, Ricardo, came to the room, we discussed room cleaning times and ice refreshment times.
Room Stewards: Ricardo was not one of our better HAL Room Stewards. Ice replacement was haphazard at best and cleaning time was sporadic.
Dining -- General: I was able to scan every daily MDR menu and will find a location to post them for others to see. I discovered that the menus for 7-day Caribbean cruises were the same on every HAL Vista-class ship.
Dining -- Lido: The food was good with the Pepperoni pizza being especially favored. It must be noted that HAL pepperoni pizza does not have tomato sauce but rather a light brushing of olive oil. The cooked-to-order pasta was excellent. The Lido Restaurant management was active in speaking to diners about the service and quality of the food. The servers were friendly and offered their suggestions for those passing down the serving line. Tables were cleared quickly after diners left the table and a rolling cart with free beverages was in constant motion through the dining area.
Dining -- Terrace Grill: The bratwurst reminded me of my days in Germany. I appreciated the melted nachos cheese on the Taco Bar. Since I often delivered a plate of nachos to the stateroom for an afternoon snack, I shall repeat my helpful hint for delivering nachos whether with melted or shredded cheese: put some cheese on the plate, before introducing the chips, to keep the nachos from sliding off the plate during delivery.
Main Dining Room (MDR): I ate only two meals at our table for two and on other occasions notified the Dining Room Manager that our table could be given to others. On both occasions, the food was very good. It must be noted that the menu was the same menu I had experienced on the NA. This gave me a chance to eat something that I had made my second choice the week before. As a tea drinker, I was reintroduced to those very hot silver teapots that require a napkin over the handle to safely pour their hot contents. Compared to the NA MDR duration of 1-1/2 hours for a single diner, I completed my meal in 45 minutes on both occasions. When the Dining Room Manager, after speaking to nearly every table on his path, reached my table, I complimented him on his speedy service. He replied that in his dining room, food is staged based on the number of diners at the table which assured me of a quick dinign experience. As I looked at the tables around me, I did not notice more than a short delay between courses for the other diners. I also complimented the waiter and told him of my NA experience. That made him smile. We ate the MDR menu on our verandah for two nights.
Pinnacle Grill: My 20-ounce ribeye steak entree was cooked perfectly and the service was excellent. The waitstaff was inquisitive on how my day had been as well as being very interested in my previous weeks experience on the NA. The menu is the same for all of the Pinnacle Grills, I think, so the only variation from ship to ship would be taste and service. The Westerdam Pinnacle Grill excelled at both. During my 6:30 meal on Embarkation day, the room was only half filled. It must be emphasized that the Manager moved from table to table to check on the quality of food/service.
Room Service: As on every HAL cruise, food arrived almost to the minute requested. The food was always at the correct temperature. The European muesli was a good and healthy start for breakfast which meant I could eat a few extra chocolate chip cookies during the day. I became addicted to fresh-squeezed orange juice. It must be noted that if you want ketchup for an omelet, an extra empty glass, or chocolate croissants, you need only write it on the Room Service card before hanging it on your door handle.
Facilities: The ship was clean and was in a constant state of scrubbing, vacuuming, and painting in all areas. The Hotel Manager, Ron Botenbal, who had participated in a previous Cruise Critic Meet & Greet (Sep 2011) is a friend and invited us to sit at his table for the Mariner's Lunch. Unfortunately, he had to cancel due to an ongoing audit but I had the chance to meet a 1000-day Mariner getting ready for another Grand Voyage. Also seated at Ron's table were two New Jersey victims of Hurricane Sandy and we learned first-hand of the storm's devastation.
Neptune Lounge/Concierge: Claire Moreno and Hazel, concierges, represented HAL in a very friendly and efficient manner. They arranged MDR meals to be delivered to the room. At least twice a day, we were called to check on any needs or wishes. Claire came to our stateroom at least once a day to make sure we were enjoying our stay. We exchanged personal email address for future correspondence. The Neptune Lounge was clean and responsive to all who were greet by name. As always, it was a good stop for a snack. The WI-Fi reception was one of the best spots on the ship.
Laundry: The Laundry stuck to the 24-hour rule from submission to delivery as opposed to the 12-hour delivery on the Nieuw Amsterdam the previous week. That was disappointing as we had become spoiled with such quick service. Note that each article of clothing has a specified location for laundry tags so as soon as you learn the standard location, they are easy to find/remove. After many cruises, we have learned to remove those pesky laundry labels before wear and not wait until they start causing skin irritation.
Shops: The Shops personnel were very helpful in finding correct sizes and answering questions. There was never a delay to checkout. The Tortuga rum cake was significantly cheaper in the Shops than at the Tortuga factory on the Cayman Islands.
Culinary Arts: The Culinary Arts Center was open during embarkation and the Party Planner reaffirmed that the cooking classes ate the same food that they prepared in contrast to the NA health restrictions requiring consumed food to only be prepared by the ship's staff. The Culinary Arts television demos were always on the room televisions each day. My cooking class was cancelled and I was refunded my payment.
Computer Classes: I spoke with the Microsoft technician and was told that Windows 8 was not yet installed on the class computers. I did not attend any computer classes.
Casino: Since I don't gamble, I can only comment on the lack of smoke when walking past it when the casino was in full operation. There must be new exhaust fans installed.
Excursions -- Half Moon Cay: I remained on the ship during this stop since I had just been there the previous week.
Excursions -- Tolum Ruins: The seven-hour excursion started with a 45-minute high-speed catamaran ride from the Cozumel port to the Mexican mainland, Playa de Carmen. A bagged snack of chips, banana, cupcake, and water was provided as we entered the bus. The -filled, air conditioned bus ride made a brief stop at a non-descript craft shop on the way to the ruins for some shopping and a chance for a restroom break.
The tour guide spoke nonstop about the history of the area as well as Mayan history during the bus ride which made the time pass quickly. Upon arrival at the ruins, we were briefed on what to expect and where to meet (Dairy Queen) at the shopping area when it was time to depart. It was a brief seven-minute walk to the actual ruins but we were not forewarned that the guide meant at Olympic walking speed. I recommend spending the $2 for the roundtrip train ride. The tour inside the walled city included an explanation of each portion of the ruins. In addition, armed with a stick, the guide explained the Mayan counting system by drawing in the dirt. The history of the Mayans was fascinating and the guide laughed at the end-of-the-world predictions that some journalists started. He did appreciate the extra tourist money pouring into the area from all of the doomsday folks. As he stated, "Our calendar runs out on December 21st just like yours runs out on December 31st. Then we put up the new calendar." It must be noted that the shopping area has a Haagen Das and a Subway. The Mexican government welcomes all US franchises except for Taco Bell, which is banned from the country. I took lots of photographs of the city and fortress walls.
While waiting for the catamaran ride back to the Cozumel starting point, the tour guide took us to a local's taco stand. As he stated, "Tacos here are $1 each and $5 each over in Cozumel." The tour guide was of Mayan decent and was well versed in Mayan, Mexican, and US history. I strongly recommend this tour for photographers and history buffs.
Excursions -- Key West: Key West is a large tourist area filled with bars, restaurants, fishing gear stores, souvenir shops, a yacht harbor, and key lime shops. The key lime pie I bought was excellent and the yacht harbor provided a number of great photos. With two ships in port, the all-day trolley rides were filled and thus it was impossible to find a seat on the trolley. Even though I paid for the excursion, I resorted to foot power and the chance to stop whenever I wished.
Entertainment: We did not attend any of the shows so I cannot comment on the entertainment.
Meet & Greet (M&G): I owe a special thanks to Tricia (aka Hal lover) and Wayne for all of their help in letting the attendees know of the event. The M&G was well attended by Cruise Critic members. Jason, Cruise Director, and Kyle, ship's Event Planner, spent at least 30 minutes at the M&G answering questions. Jason told us that the "Dam Dollars" were cancelled since they had been copied resulting in many times more being cashed in than were ever printed by HAL. It must be noted that Jason is the longest serving HAL Cruise Director and has trained most of the others.
Security: At the Key West port, US Immigration officers boarded the ship and the announcement was made that the mandatory processing was to proceed based on the deck level of each passenger. There were separate lines for US citizens and non-residents. When our deck number was called, I joined the line to the Vista Lounge processing site. My passport was held up to my face for comparison and my room card was punched with a very odd-shaped punch. Total time away from the stateroom was less than ten minutes. Approximately 45 minutes later, the Captain announced that 53 individuals failed to be processed and had ten minutes to complete processing before having a federal fine assessed to their ship's account. Fifteen minutes later a single Room number and two occupants were requested to proceed to the Immigration processing. In addition, the Captain stated that since the occupants had Russian names, the announcement was to be repeated in Russian and the fine amount to be raised. The threat worked and the ship was finally cleared.
Internet: Wi-Fi connection speed was typical of any cruise ship but better if you sit underneath one of those ceiling domes in the Neptune Lounge, Explorations Cafe, Lido Restaurant, or Indoor Lido Pool area. Internet speed can be measured by the download speed of the new Windows 8 upgrade by the Microsoft Technician. His six hours through the ship's internet connection compares very unfavorably to my home download of 11 minutes.
Staff: The Westerdam staff were exceptional. The Westerdam's officers spoke freely with the passengers when riding elevators or passing in the common areas. The traditional greeting, "How are you today," from the other Room Stewards that you pass in the hallways was ever present. The dining staff, both MDR and Lido, had frequent interaction with passengers in my observation. The Pinnacle Grill waiters were much less formal than the NA staff and made each diner feel comfortable with the menu. In my opinion, the Westerdam richly deserves its reputation as the "friendly ship" as they adopt new members (passengers) each cruise. The crew and staff are proud of calling themselves, the "Besterdam." As noted during the Mariner's lunch, the Westerdam had double the number of crew members signing repeat contracts to remain on the Westerdam as other ships in the HAL fleet.
Disembarkation: From HAL's prospective, disembarkation went smoothly and there was only a ten minute wait to clear Customs at the 9:30 AM disembarkation time. In the absence of a Taxi Manager, it was a free-for-all with those passengers in the back of the waiting line grabbing taxis rather than waiting their turn. The law enforcement officer present condoned the rudeness if only to get the taxis filled and gone. The cost of a taxi to the hotel was $14 plus tip.
Post Cruise: We stayed at the Sleep Inn, Dania Beach, due to its close proximity to the airport and three restaurants within walking distance. There was a two-hour wait until our room was cleaned before we could check in to the hotel.