Reviews of the Veendam are overwhelmingly positive for South American cruises and quite mediocre for Bermuda cruises, and I now understand why. The South America and Antarctica itineraries are wonderful scenic and adventure cruises, with strong history and naturalist support; but if you're the sort of person who cruises for the luxury-floating-hotel experience with an occasional glance out the windows, Veendam has enough niggles that it might become irritating.
The cruise began in Valparaiso with a plethora of birds, as well as seals and whales, and this set the tone for the entire cruise. The presence of Chris Wilson as naturalist and Antarctic specialist made this cruise; he was often on deck as well as lecturing, full of information and identification. The list of observed wildlife covered two full sides of paper tightly spaced. For birders and others interested in wildlife this cruise is unmissable. The scenery is also spectacular; any 20 minutes in Antarctica contains all of the scenery of a complete Alaska cruise.
We were unable to dock in Puerto Montt because of the levels of swell and the wind direction (tender port) but the 20 or so who missed the ship in Santiago managed to board via a local boat. Castro is a small, not very interesting town, but the cruise in and out are worth being on deck for. From this point on, until Puerto Madryn, penguins were common in the water. Chacabuco is likewise not of great interest, although trips into its hinterland are modestly interesting; but again the cruise in is as good as any Norwegian fjord and well worth getting up early for. The Chilean fjords and the associated glaciers are good (but nothing like Antarctica).
Punta Arenas used to be a major city on the Straits of Magellan but is less significant since the opening of the Panama Canal. There are two large colonies of Magellanic penguins nearby. We went to Magdalena Island which has a large and accessible colony, as well as kelp gulls with babies, cormorants, and a teenage gang of giant petrels. We went on the ship's tour but others managed a tour via zodiac that was much less time-consuming.
We had to miss Ushuaia because of strong winds, so off to the Antarctic. Heading out into the Atlantic we encountered large pods of dolphins and seals, as well as many sea birds, usually missed because this part happens at night.
The Antarctic itself was foggy, rainy, and snowy which spoiled much of the views but seemed to bring out the wildlife: many whales, many thousands of penguins, and occasional seals. Itinerary around the peninsula is weather and ice dependent, so we missed the Lemaire Channel and Deception Island but managed most of the other high spots.
Heading North we discovered we would be going to Puerto Madryn because of weather in the Falklands. Puerto Madryn is the base for two long excursions which were perhaps only marginally worth it (2.5 hours at least each way, and occupied all of the time in port).
Montevideo seems to have improved since our last visit, and looks a bit more lived in. The architecture is interesting. There are high-quality shops quite close to the port.
Finally, Buenos Aires, a moderately interesting city, but not one that I find as attractive as its publicity claims that it is.
Now back to the niggles:
HAL uses open-topped containers on hot metal surfaces to keep food warm in the Lido and this just doesn't work -- so all of the food, all of the time, is lukewarm. We really began to miss having hot food by the end. Something similar must happen in the main dining room because food there was never hot either.
Sharing a table in the MDR guarantees at least a 2 hour meal. Often it was 25 mins before an order was taken, and sometimes 40 mins before the first course appeared. This is not a criticism of the waitstaff who work really hard; there are just two many tables per server to make the system work.
So overall the food itself is of better quality than Princess, but it doesn't taste any better because of temperature.
The ship is noisy. There are loud machinery noises on every deck and I don't know how some people slept in their cabins; even walking by was sometimes painful.
There were a number of breakdowns: several (?3) cabins has major floods which meant people being moved to interior cabins for a few days; a sprinkler went of in the phone exchange disabling emergency and front desk phone access for a few days; there were rumors of a fire. Accidents happen, but at this level suggest some management problems.
Entertainment wasn't strong (less of a problem on this itinerary). We seemed to be carrying 20+ entertainers who only gave one show (sometimes less) over the 2 week middle of the cruise. The HAL dancers only appeared on the first and last nights. The classical quartet were not well received by music lovers. The other lounge entertainers suffer from the availability of music today: who wants to hear a poor cover of a song when they can listen to the original on their MP3 player?
The CD made announcements three or four times a day about the usual farrago of pointless retirement-home nonsense that cruise ships specialize in, but was mercifully brief in the theater. The "photographers" made their usual annoying tours of the ship (c'mon, folks, if we all stop buying this rubbish, they'll eventually stop producing it).
The handwashing machines in the Lido are a nice touch. The gel dispensers are everywhere, but there isn't a staff member standing by them to "encourage" their use, which is a pity. The staff serve in the Lido for the first 48 hours which seems sensible and also seems to work. So no Noro for us on this cruise.
There were very few smokers on this cruise so even the promenade deck was relatively smoke free (and not filled by smoking staff as it tends to be on Princess). Sadly, the major indoor smoking venue is the casino which is open in several directions so that its smoke fills most of the deck it is on.
The gym was so hot that it was unusable. Apparently this was unfixable even though the outside temps varied from +35 to 0 C.
The long flights needed to get to and from this cruise probably selected a demographic that's younger than typical HAL. There were only a handful of people with scooters or wheelchairs (who should NOT have gone on a tour requiring crossing a rocky beach from ship to shore). Mostly Americans, Canadians, Brits and Aussies.
These big-ship Antarctic cruises are always hanging by a thread. So if you're interested in wildlife or the natural world, take the chance while you still can.