Our 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise on Holland America Line's Westerdam from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale -- Sunday, November 25 through Sunday, December 2, 2012 -- exceeded our expectations in almost every respect.
We had taken two cruises before (a last-minute weekend cruise nearly 25 years ago and a week-long school vacation cruise with two of our sons), but this was truly our first real cruise vacation.
As a result, this review is really for the first-time cruiser -- not the seasoned or experienced cruiser. Because of our limited experience, we can't provide comparisons between the quality of the staterooms, food, services, amenities and entertainment with other ships or cruise lines.
Boarding the Westerdam at Pier 21 in Port Everglades -- Fort Lauderdale
Holland America allowed passengers boarding the Westerdam to arrive as early as 11:00 AM to begin the process of boarding and embarkation.
We stayed at a nearby hotel so we took a cab to the pier. Our cab left the hotel at 11:15 AM, and despite waiting 5 minutes for the 17th Street drawbridge to open and close, we still arrived at Pier 21 at 11:30 AM.
Our cab driver drove us right to the unloading area where there were dozens of staff waiting to assist with our luggage. We had pre-printed our luggage tags using Holland America's easy on-line process so it was simply a matter of tipping the cab driver and the porter for taking care of our luggage.
The entire boarding process -- from the moment we walked through the door, including security checks, passing through the x-ray machine, verification of all our pre-boarding documents, getting our ID photos taken, printing our ID and stateroom cards, stopping to have boarding photos taken by the cruise photographer and walking onto the Westerdam -- took only 15 minutes! It was easy, well-organized and very efficient. Our stateroom category (SC) allowed us to go to a special check-in counter and we're sure that made a difference, but the entire operation was amazingly smooth and impressive. We were enjoying our first drink at the Lido Deck pool less than 45 minutes after checking out of our hotel!
The ship is large (935 feet) with eleven passenger accessible decks. The Westerdam was clean, well-maintained and tastefully decorated with interesting art at every turn. The brass was highly polished, the windows were crystal clear and spotless, the decks immaculate, the carpets bright and freshly vacuumed and all members of the staff were warm, welcoming and very attentive. The Library was simply spectacular, with an assortment of very comfortable chairs and tables with a bar and cafe a few steps away. We found a great selection of classic and current books, magazines and DVDs -- and breathtaking views high above the ocean.
Our Cabin - 6164
When we finally made it to our cabin, we were greeted by our room steward. If first impressions are important -- and they often are -- he made a great first impression. He introduced himself, showed us our stateroom, encouraged us to call him at any time, and addressed us by our names. All we could think of was a luxury hotel where nearly 2,000 guests had checked out just a few hours earlier, and 2,000 new guests were all arriving at the same time, and he already knew our names. He and his colleagues provided us with a level of service that equaled or surpassed every five-star hotel we've been lucky enough to stay in.
The cabin and deck really exceeded our expectations. Both were larger and more beautiful than we expected, and the stateroom was in pristine condition. We're still not sure why, but the verandah for Cabin 6164 is twice as wide as most other verandahs in the SC category on the Westerdam.
Everything was perfect, including the time of our departure from Fort Lauderdale -- sunset. With our cabin perfectly located high and at the center of the rear of the ship, we started our cruise by enjoying a glass of wine with fresh fruit, a light warm breeze, calm seas and a spectacular sunset with a panoramic view of the South Florida coastline.
Being at the stern, we enjoyed completely unobstructed views and protection from the wind. While the ship was underway, we felt only the slightest breeze. When the ship was docked, we were treated to beautiful views while relaxing on our verandah high above our ports-of-call.
Our SC category cabin included use of the Neptune Lounge located at midship on Deck 7. The Neptune Lounge is like the best Concierge level at high-end hotels, only better - the staff were always available, attentive and helpful. They answered all our questions and took care of every reservation we wanted to make -- dinner, culinary arts program, wine tastings, etc. It's a very private suite, beautifully decorated, with an endless and varied assortment of coffees, teas, juices, appetizers, fruit and desserts. From early morning to late evening, the service, comfort and offerings far exceeded our expectations.
Dining and Food
The service, menu and food were extraordinary. The matre d' and our head waiter took exceptional care of us each time we visited - from our first visit to our final early morning breakfast before we disembarked at the conclusion of our cruise. We have never enjoyed such exceptional restaurant service.
While there is a reasonable additional charge for dining at the Pinnacle Grill and Le Cirque, and a small charge for Canaletto, we felt it was well worth it. Our dinner at the Pinnacle Grill on the first evening of our cruise was simply perfect and set the tone for our dining experiences throughout the week. Starting with the matre d', who sat us at a very private corner banquette on the window, the service was extraordinary and the setting was elegant. Our head waiter and wine steward were also exceptionally warm, engaging, professional and knowledgeable. We were so impressed and pleased that we reserved (and enjoyed) two additional nights at the Pinnacle Grill.
Our dinner at the Canaletto was good, but uninspired by comparison to the Pinnacle Grille and Le Cirque. The service was excellent, and the Italian cuisine was good -- but not exceptional.
The concierge in the Neptune Lounge told us we could also enjoy breakfast at the Pinnacle Grill because of our cabin category. This was another very pleasant and unexpected surprise that we enjoyed several times. There was no additional charge for breakfast, and the service and food was just as exceptional in the morning as it was in the evening.
We tried every restaurant on the Westerdam during our seven day cruise: the hamburger and hot dog grill; the taco bar near the pool; the Lido buffet and Main Dining Room; Canaletto; Pinnacle Grill; and, Le Cirque. There were more options than we expected at all of them, and the food was consistently well prepared, delicious and plentiful. Although there were over 1,800 fellow passengers on board, we never felt crowded or hurried, and never had to wait for seating. We enjoyed lunch at the Lido buffet three times and were able to easily find a table with beautiful window views each time. The Westerdam offered As you Wish Dining, which means you can make a reservation in one section of the main dining room for pretty much anytime you want -- you're not committed to the early (5:30 PM) or late (8:00 PM) seating. It took a few minutes with the matre d' desk each evening, but they were always happy and able to accommodate us.
On-Board Entertainment and Activities
The on-board entertainment was varied, well-staged and professional. No criticism meant for the professional performers, but we enjoyed the performance by the staff the most.
We signed up for the Culinary Arts program and the Premium Wine Tasting class during our day-at-sea. The Culinary Arts program was exceptional. One of the Westerdam's chefs hosted the program and did a great job of teaching the 16 participants how to cook several of the dishes served on board. It was inexpensive, and the lunch (the food the class had made) was served with wine in a private section of the Pinnacle Grille. Truly memorable and delicious.
The Premium Wine Tasting class was very informative, but disappointing in comparison to the Culinary Arts program. It was more expensive and not nearly as enjoyable.
The casino was exactly what we expected. Those who do not like smoke might want to avoid it, because one section of the casino is the only interior location where smoking is allowed. It's noticeable, but easily avoided.
My wife had booked a Spa treatment package shortly after we made our cruise reservations. She enjoyed it, but was surprised (and a little aggravated) when a couple of days into our cruise the Spa began to offer essentially the same treatments at a much better price. She returned and took advantage of one of the daily specials, but lesson learned for new comers to cruising -- wait until the second or third day to buy a Spa treatment because it will cost less.
Our eastern Caribbean itinerary included: Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Philipsburg, St. Maarten; and, Half Moon Cay. We were blessed with great weather throughout our cruise for walking (not too hot) and relaxing on the beach.
We did not use or take any of Holland America's Shore Excursions -- or any of the many local tours -- so we can't offer any advice or opinions on those. We planned to just start walking and see what we found. For us, this worked out great. No schedule -- except getting back to the ship on time.
Grand Turk -- Turks and Caicos
Grand Turk is an ideal Caribbean port-of-call with a modern pier that is conveniently located only steps from a beautiful public beach, shopping, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and a small, but interesting site dedicated to remembering John Glenn's landing of the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule nearby in 1962.
Old San Juan -- Puerto Rico
The Westerdam docked at the base of the hill that is the center of historic Old San Juan.
We spent half of our time visiting the old fort, learning about its remarkable history and taking photos. Those who enjoy historic sites will truly enjoy visiting the fort. For photographers, every view provided a palette perfectly preserved in time, with a natural patina and light that guaranteed memorable photos.
The architecture of Old San Juan has been wonderfully restored and maintained. The streets are busy and crowded with locals, tourists and lots of cars. But, finding a quiet, seemingly forgotten-in-time street, is as easy as turning a corner.
Phillipsburg -- St. Maarten
Again, the Westerdam docked within walking distance (maybe 15 minutes) of a beautiful, although very crowded, public beach and picturesque downtown shopping area. We decided to take the 10 minute ferry across the harbor to see the downtown from inside the harbor. Front Street contains every store a tourist with a shopping problem could dream of -- from very high-end jewelry to the fun and cheesy store fronts offering painted coconut heads and local rum.
Half Moon Cay -- Bahamas
Every good thing you may have read or heard about this private island is true -- even more than Holland America Line says in its marketing literature. The beach is one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. It is meticulously clean, and the sand is like fine white powder. There are more than enough chaise lounges for every visitor and, the further you walk from the main part of the beach, the fewer fellow guests you see. A 15-minute walk from the tender and you'll think you have the beach to yourself. The main beach faces southwest, is shaped like a half moon (hence the name) and is about a mile long. A round trip walk the length of the beach (including a lot of dawdling to explore) took a little over an hour. Other than a few buildings for guest services and cruise employees (Holland America owns the island), it is virtually undeveloped. There is a small square with all the amenities needed for a day at the beach.
A bar-b-que style lunch is served just a stone's throw from the beach -- think a county fair or large company picnic. The service was good and the food was fine for a day at the beach. I heard a few complaints about having to pay a couple of bucks for a soda or beer, but we couldn't find a reason to complain in paradise.