Background and Planning:
Later this year I turn 50 years old. While previous milestone birthdays did not bother me, for some reason this one does. Age, of course, is just a mindset. Luckily, most days I feel like I am in my 20s, and I still possess the strong desire and curiosity to see as much of the world as possible. So what better way to celebrate the half-century mark than to take to the skies and the sea to explore new and exotic locales?
My partner is just as adventurous as I am and is the perfect traveling companion. When he turned 50 a few years ago we spent 12 fantastic days and nights sailing around Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. In our 18 years together we have spent a significant amount of time in Europe, and since moving to California eight years ago have traveled extensively in Asia. When we sat down early last year to plan my 50th birthday trip, we decided that we wanted to travel in early 2013 (even though my birthday is in July) and go somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere where it is summer. In the end, and after watching The Lord of the Rings for the tenth time, we ended up looking at cruises in and around Australia and New Zealand.
As seasoned cruise experts and after researching cruise lines and itineraries, we decided on a 14 night voyage on Holland America Line's ("HAL") Oosterdam from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand, with a variety of interesting ports-of-call along the way. I booked the trip online in late April 2012 using HAL's website. At that time, there was a plentiful selection of cabins in all categories. I chose a Superior Verandah Suite (category SS) on the starboard side of the ship's Navigation Deck (deck 8).
Once I had the cruise dates, I worked on getting us from our home near San Francisco to our embarkation port -- Sydney, and back home from our disembarkation port -- Auckland. Given the length of the flights (12 to 13 hours), there was no way that I was going to fly coach. In planning our air travel, I first checked with United Airlines to determine if I could get us two-business class seats using either accumulated miles or systemwide upgrade certificates. My next call was to American Express. As a Platinum Card member, I am entitled to use Amex's 2-for-1 international business class ticket program. After 20 minutes or so discussing options with the very pleasant and knowledgeable Amex travel agent, I had two business class tickets from San Francisco to Sydney (via Auckland), with a return from Auckland to San Francisco. Although I had to pay for one full fare business class ticket, as well as the taxes and fees for the "free" ticket, it was still a bargain, and since the business class ticket is in my name, I received miles toward my 2013 elite status on United.
While I was on the phone with American Express, I also booked one night at the Four Seasons in Sydney.
A note here about trip insurance -- buy it!!! My mother became very ill in May 2012. By October, she had been in and out of the hospital three times and was moved into a skilled nursing facility. In November, everything seemed very bleak and I thought we were going to lose her. Luckily, she bounced back in December, although she is still in a nursing home. In any event, I am glad that I had the foresight to purchase HAL's Platinum Protection Insurance Plan. We thought a couple of times about canceling our trip -- with the insurance we would have received most of our money back. Moreover, although we did not purchase our air travel through HAL, the Air New Zealand tickets were fully refundable up until the time of departure. If for some reason we need to return to California early, we could make changes without a penalty.
Our Down Under Adventure started on Sunday, February 3 at home in Northern California. After a morning spent packing and running last minute errands, our car service picked us up at 2:15 p.m. After a harrowing drive down the 101 and across the Golden Gate Bridge, we arrived at San Francisco International Airport a little more than an hour later. The Air New Zealand check in counter did not open until 4:00 p.m., so we killed some time walking around the international terminal and constantly checking our iPhones for Super Bowl score updates. Shortly after 4:00 p.m., we checked our bags all the way through to Sydney and received our boarding passes. The process was very easy and we were on our way to security in no time.
As is our tradition, we walked through International Terminal G and domestic terminal 3 to kill some time. Eventually we made our way to the EVA Airlines Evergreen Club, which we could use because we were flying in business class. As a member of the United Club, we could have gone there, but decided to try something different. Although EVA's lounge is very small, it was comfortable and offered significantly better food and drink options than the United Club. We hung out there for about an hour and then made our way to Gate 93 for boarding. We were on board by 6:55 p.m. and quickly made ourselves comfortable in seats 6K and 7K on the B747-400 aircraft. Business class on this plane was divided into two lower deck cabins, and part of the upper deck. We were in the very front portion of the lower deck, where rows 1-7 consisted of an "A" seat and a "K" seat.
The Air New Zealand crew was spectacular. They were friendly, attentive and helpful. As soon as we sat down the flight attendant came by and introduced herself by name and asked if we would like a pre-flight cocktail. We, of course, asked for a glass of champagne to toast the beginning of a wonderful holiday. We then quickly settled into our seats for the nearly 13-hour flight across the equator and International Date Line to Auckland. The door to the airplane closed shortly after 7:30 p.m. and at 7:50 p.m. we pushed back from the gate. The giant 747 taxied to runway 28L and at 8:05 p.m., we began our takeoff roll and then lifted off into the night sky.
About 30 minutes after takeoff, the flight attendants began the in-flight meal service. In business class we were offered four entrees for dinner -- steak, prawns in chili sauce, pasta or chicken. I ordered the chicken, which came with a parmesan cheese risotto cake and baby bok choy. The antipasti appetizer included a small asparagus salad, roasted artichokes and cured Italian meats. The meal ended with a very delightful tiramisu. Snacks (cookies, crackers, fruit) were available in the galley throughout the flight. Approximately 2.5 hours before arriving in Auckland, the flight attendants offered us either a light continental breakfast or a more hearty full American breakfast. I opted for the latter, which included scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausage, and my choice of hot bakery items. Of course, the coffee flowed freely. Overall, I would rate Air New Zealand's food as adequate.
As we approached Auckland, we descended into heavy clouds. It was dark and rainy when we touched down on Runway 23L and taxied to Gate 9 at Auckland International Airport. Once at the gate, we exited quickly and proceeded through a security checkpoint before heading to our connecting flight -- Air New Zealand 101 to Sydney. For this 3.5-hour flight we were on a 767 in business class seats 2J and K. Boarding was very smooth and we again received excellent service from the cabin crew. We pushed back from Gate 10 right on time at 7:00 a.m. and taxied to Runway 23R for our takeoff at 7:10 a.m. We quickly climbed through the clouds and into the morning sunshine.
About 30 minutes after departure, we were offered a delicious banana yogurt fruit smoothie, as well as a full breakfast. After breakfast, exhaustion set in and I fell into a deep sleep for about 90 minutes. When I awoke, we were about 100 miles off the Australian coast and the cabin crew was preparing for landing. We approached Sydney from the southeast and flew north of the city before turning 180 degrees back toward the airport and a landing on Runway 16L. After a very long taxi, we finally parked at the gate around 8:30 a.m. and deplaned shortly thereafter. Although the customs hall was crowded, we made our way through in about 25 minutes. Our driver was waiting for us in the arrivals hall and by 9:15 a.m. we were whizzing toward the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney's Central Business District.
What can I say about Sydney, except that it is a beautiful city. Although we were there for only 36 hours, we loved every minute. When we arrived at the Four Seasons around 9:45 a.m., our room was not ready. At check-in, the desk clerk offered us a free upgrade to a city view room, with the caveat that we could not occupy it until later in the day. We agreed, and after checking our baggage we headed out for a very long walk around the Sydney Opera House, through the Royal Botanical Gardens, and down the shopping streets surrounding Pitt and George streets. We found a nice pub for lunch and finally headed back to the Four Seasons around 2:00 p.m. When we arrived, our room was ready -- great timing because we both needed a nap.
After a good three-hour snooze, we awoke, cleaned up and headed to Cafe Sydney on top of the Old Customs House on Circular Quay for dinner. We had a wonderful outside table with spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the opera house. We ate and drank as the sun set. It was the end of a very long day.
The next morning we awoke early and went for a quiet walk through The Rocks neighborhood at the end of the harbour bridge. We took some excellent photos of the sun rising over the harbor and the opera house, before making our way up to the Sydney Observatory for a panoramic view of the city. By now we were hungry, so we headed back to the Four Seasons for breakfast (included with our room rate.) After breakfast, we walked back down George Street to the Swatch store on the Old Victoria Building -- my partner needed a new watchband. By 11:00 a.m., we were back at the hotel to catch a taxi to the pier where Holland America's Oosterdam awaited us.
To refresh your memory, we embarked the Oosterdam in Sydney on Wednesday, February 6 and disembarked in Auckland on Wednesday, February 20. Although we originally booked a Superior Verandah Suite (category SS), a week before departure we accepted HAL's reasonable upgrade offer to a Deluxe Verandah Suite (category SA). Our suite -- 7053 -- was on the Rotterdam Deck (Deck 7).
Wed., Feb. 6: depart Sydney 6:30 p.m.
Thurs., Feb. 7: sea day
Fri., Feb. 8: Melbourne
Sat., Feb. 9: sea day
Sun., Feb. 10: Hobart (Tasmania)
Mon., Feb. 11: sea day
Tues., Feb. 12: sea day
Wed., Feb. 13: Milford Sound and cruising Fjorland National Park
Thurs., Feb. 14: Dunedin
Fri., Feb. 15: Akaroa (Christchurch)
Sat., Feb. 16: Wellington
Sun., Feb. 17: Napier (departed at 2:00 p.m.)
Mon., Feb. 18: Tauranga
Tues., Feb. 19: sea day
Wed., Feb. 20: arrive Auckland
HAL offers online check-in, so we printed out all of our documentation and luggage tags before leaving home on Sunday, February 3. Because we arranged our own flights, we did not attach the luggage tags to our three suitcases until the morning of embarkation.
After a quick cab ride from the Four Seasons to the wharf at Barangaroo on Darlington Harbour, we quickly handed over our bags to the stevedores and entered the makeshift terminal (a very large tent) to receive our boarding passes. The Celebrity Solstice was docked at the nicer cruise ship terminal on Sydney Cove near Circular Quay and across from the Sydney Opera House, so our first welcome to the Oosterdam was not very glamorous. Still, the temporary terminal was better than the run down piers where the Queen Elizabeth 2 use to dock on Manhattan's west side before Cunard built its new terminal in Brooklyn. In any event, who really cares what the terminal looks like?
Because we were in a deluxe suite, we received priority check-in and boarding. The check-in process was very easy and within 10 minutes of arriving at Barangaroo, we had our ship identification cards (which were also our room keys) and our Group 1 boarding passes. At 12:30 p.m., boarding commenced, and somehow my partner and I were the first two passengers to board the ship via the gangway to the Main Deck (Deck 1). An Oosterdam crewmember welcomed us graciously and offered to escort us to our suite. We declined because we wanted to explore the ship before going to our cabin.
Bottom line: a quick, easy and efficient embarkation; we were off to a good start. Disembarkation in Auckland was seamless as well.
Deck Layout (top to bottom)
- Sports Deck (Deck 11)
- Observation Deck (Deck 10): Crow's Nest Bar
- Lido Deck (Deck 9): spa, fitness facilities, Lido and Canaletto restaurants, pools
- Navigation Deck (Deck 8): bridge, cabins
- Rotterdam Deck (Deck 7): cabins, Neptune Lounge
- Upper Verandah Deck (Deck 6): cabins
- Verandah Deck (Deck 5): cabins
- Upper Promenade Deck (Deck 4): cabins
- Promenade Deck (Deck 3): outdoor promenade, shopping arcade, ocean bar, upper Vista Dining Room, Vista Lounge balcony, meeting rooms, photo shop
- Lower Promenade Deck (Deck 2): Vista Lounge upper main floor, lower Vista Dining Room, casino, piano bar, sports bar, Northern Lights night club, Queen's Lounge, Pinnacle Grill and Pinnacle Bar
- Main Deck (Deck 1): front desk, excursion desk, future cruise consultant, atrium bar; Vista Lounge lower main floor
- A Deck: Medical offices, tenders
The Oosterdam is clean, comfortable and easy to navigate. She does not have the bells and whistles of some of the newer ships, but is a wonderful place to spend 14 days. There are numerous public rooms, and the crew keeps the ship meticulously clean. (While I appreciate the attention to detail and cleanliness, I was disappointed that numerous times in the evenings, the crew would do a "deep cleaning" around us. One night, this even included washing and painting the ceiling in the Explorer's Lounge as we had a pre-dinner drink.)
Bottom line: While she has some rough edges and an eccentric color scheme in some of the public rooms, I would definitely sail on the Oosterdam again.
The Crew and Passengers:
Although I have read complaints in other reviews about the Oosterdam's crew, I found everyone to be delightful. Crewmembers greeted us with smiles and "hellos" each time they passed us in the hall. Service in the restaurants, bars and casino was exceptional, and we truly enjoyed talking with many of the crewmembers.
Both on the Oosterdam and on previous cruises, I am continually amazed at how rude some passengers can be to the crew. Yes, the crew is there to provide excellent customer service, but they are people too and there is no reason to talk to them like they are stupid or personal slaves.
The passenger manifest included a good mix of American, Canadians, Brits, Australians and New Zealanders. We also met people from Spain, Brazil, and Mexico. There also was a sizeable Chinese contingent. One of the crew told us that only seven children were on board. Overall, the crowd tended to be older, and included many retirees.
We made friends with a number of people (primarily Canadians) and tended to "hang out" with the same people. (A special "hello" to Kristina and Alan from Ontario -- we spent a lot of time with them and had many laughs!!!)
Bottom Line: The Oosterdam has a warm, friendly and knowledgeable crew. As on any cruise you tend to gravitate to passengers with similar backgrounds and experiences.
We were in cabin 7053, a deluxe verandah suite on the starboard side. As described on the HAL website, the deluxe verandah suites include: 2 lower beds convertible to 1 king-size bed, bathroom with dual sink vanity, full-size whirlpool bath, shower stall, large sitting area, dressing room, private verandah, 1 sofa bed for 2 persons, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Moreover, we received complimentary laundry service throughout the cruise, in-room afternoon high tea and/or hors d'oeuvres served before dinner each evening on request, priority boarding and disembarkation, priority dining room requests, and exclusive access to the Pinnacle Grill for breakfast, among many other "perks." We also had exclusive access to the Neptune Lounge, which was just steps away from our cabin. The lounge is a private place to relax, have a bite to eat, visit with other passengers and enjoy the personalized service of a concierge.
We took full advantage of many of the deluxe suite amenities, especially the free laundry service (we arrived home with only a small amount of dirty clothes) and the Pinnacle Grill breakfast (Sebastian and his team are top notch.) We also appreciated the assistance of the concierge, who helped us with a number of issues and questions; she also made sure we had dinner reservations each night at a table of our choosing.
One fabulous highlight of the cruise was the special lunch for deluxe suite passengers in the Pinnacle Grill. We were served an Indonesian Feast, which was one of the best meals we had on board.
The cabin itself was very comfortable. The large bathroom was a dream and we spent a lot of time on the verandah soaking up the sun and watching the beautiful blue sea. Ary, our cabin attendant, kept our suite clean and was always available when we needed him.
Bottom line: Our cabin was terrific and the upgrade was well worth the money.
The Oosterdam's food was fantastic. The portions were perfect, the selection varied and the taste delicious. Although we ate breakfast and lunch at the Lido on a few occasions, we preferred sit down service for most of our meals. The main dining room -- the Vista -- is your typical cruise ship dining room; a large, two story facility with hundreds of tables designed to seat from two to ten persons. Although we could have opted for either "early" or "late" dinner seating, we were very happy with HAL's "As You Wish" dining option, which allows you to eat dinner whenever you want. We ate at 7:45 p.m. nearly every night, and the concierge at the Neptune Lounge always reserved us a nice table.
I did not have a bad meal at the Vista. The highlights were the soups, the vegetarian channa masala, the salmon and the barramundi. My partner also enjoyed his meals, although one night he ordered Australian short ribs, which were fatty and inedible. The service in the Vista was excellent. We often sat in Ahmed and Dany's section (table 127) and they became two of our favorite crewmembers.
Before we left home, I made dinner reservations at both the Pinnacle Grill and the Canaletto. There is a small surcharge to eat at both, but it is well worth it.
The Pinnacle Grill is quiet, sophisticated and small. We both had the sumptuous and rich lobster bisque. I also had the tasty Caesar Salad prepared tableside and the wonderful grilled lobster tail. The entire dinner was fantastic and the service was impeccable. We ate breakfast at the Pinnacle on most mornings. We enjoyed the personal service and the made-to-order, fresh and hot options.
The Canaletto was a real surprise. It is located in a corner of the Lido Restaurant and serves traditional Italian fare. I had the Chicken Cacciatore over a bed of polenta, which was one of the best meals of the entire trip. Like the Pinnacle and the Vista, the service in the Canaletto was top notch.
I don't have much to say about the Lido. I generally stay away from cruise ship buffets. The food was adequate and the service was acceptable. We never ate dinner at the Lido and did not take advantage of any of its late night meals.
On two mornings, we ordered breakfast room service. It was delivered on time and we loved the ability to enjoy a leisurely meal on our verandah.
I'm not a drinker, so you will need to look elsewhere for opinions on the Oosterdam's wine selection. I became addicted, however, to the non-alcoholic "Cucumber Cooler," which I drank almost every evening during the 2-for-1 happy hour in the Crow's Nest.
As far as dessert is concerned, I can't remember anything that was particularly memorable. Everything was good, but nothing really knocked my socks off.
Bottom Line: The dining room and specialty restaurant food was wonderful, the portions perfect and the service excellent.
We don't go on cruises for the entertainment, and we did not make it a priority to get to the Vista Lounge for each night's show. Having said that, the "headliner" entertainment was mediocre. The Oosterdam's singers and dancers were talented, but nothing to write home about. We went to one of their shows and it was enjoyable, but forgettable. We also saw an illusionist, a voice impersonator and a young Australian-Vietnamese pianist. We had fun watching all of them, but enjoyed the pianist the most. By the second week of the cruise we stopped going to the shows and instead spent our time after dinner hanging out with new friends in one of the bars or spending time in the casino. The casino staff was excellent and dealt me good cards. I walked off the ship with $400 in winnings.
Given the number of sea days on this cruise, there were a number of activities available to passengers throughout the day, including: cooking and mixology classes, computer classes (which were always full), various games and contests, and port lectures. Moreover, the spa and fitness center staff offered a number of "lifestyle" classes.
One of the great things about a cruise is that you can do as much or as little as you want. I preferred the latter. While at sea, all I wanted to do was sit in a lounge chair or on the verandah reading a good book and listening to music. The only sacrosanct appointment that I kept each day was the Team Trivia Challenge in the Crow's Nest. We had a good group of new friends that we met each day, and thought that cruise director Michael did an excellent job despite continual griping from some of the other teams (who need to learn the difference between a carnivore and an omnivore.) Although we didn't win the grand prize (this was a cumulative challenge held over the two weeks), we came in fourth or fifth and had a great time.
Bottom Line: There was as much entertainment as one might expect and the cruise director and his staff were friendly and approachable. We never felt pressured into being anywhere at a certain time or doing anything that we didn't want to do.
We learned our lesson on this cruise. Take the time to do some research before leaving home and make your own shore excursion arrangements. In most cases, you will save money and get more "bang for your buck." More importantly, you won't be marshaled onto a bus with 75 other people. Being experienced cruisers, we should have known better. However, the months leading up to our departure were stressful and busy, and we found it easier to pre-book and pre-pay for our shore excursions on the HAL website.
We booked the following excursions through HAL:
- Melbourne: kangaroos & koalas at the Serendip Wildlife Sanctuary and the You Yangs Park (1/2 day)
- Hobart: Tahune Forest Air Walk (1/2 day)
- Dunedin: Otago Peninsula and Yellow-Eyed Penguins (1/2 day)
- Akaroa: Southern Alps, Arthur's Pass & Tranz Alpine Express (full day)
- Wellington: Lord of the Rings Tour and Weta Cave (1/2 day)
- Naiper: No excursion
- Tauranga: Waitomo Cave and Kiwi Bird House (full day)
- Auckland: City Highlights with Airport Transfer (6 hours)
All of our excursion tickets were waiting for us in our cabin on embarkation day. Each excursion day we reported to the Vista Lounge and waited for the staff to direct us to the gangway/tenders and our tour buses. This was an easy process and the staff executed it well.
Our excursions in Melbourne, Dunedin and Wellington were excellent. We had interesting guides, saw interesting sites and generally had a good time. The Hobart, Akaroa and Tauranga excursions included some very long bus rides to get from the ship to the sites. On the Hobart excursion, the guide was horrible. She read verbatim from a script and was very bossy. The Akaroa excursion included two very long bus rides, in addition to a two-hour ride on the Tranz Alpine Express railroad. Luckily, the sites were incredible, especially the views from the top of Arthur's Pass. After the rail journey, we faced another two-hour bus ride back to the Oosterdam. Our very friendly and knowledgeable bus driver/guide obviously has a two martini (or more) lunch while we were on the train. He reeked of alcohol. Of course, there was not much we could about it except inform the excursion staff when we returned to the ship.
Without a doubt, however, the Tauranga excursion was the worst. HAL billed it as a 90-minute ride through the New Zealand countryside to the Waitomo Caves (to see the glow worms), the Otorohanga Kiwi House and lunch at a working dairy farm. After we boarded the bus, the driver told us that it was a THREE-HOUR bus ride to our first stop. In the end, we were in the caves for 45 minutes and at the kiwi house for 30 minutes. The lunch at the working dairy farm was excellent; however, after rushing us through the caves and the kiwi house, the driver said that we had two hours for lunch, to be followed by a THREE-HOUR bus ride back to the Oosterdam. Everyone was done with lunch in about 45 minutes, so we forced the driver to take us back to the ship after only one hour on the dairy farm. By the time we returned, my nerves were raw and my butt was very sore.
The Auckland highlights tour was nice and gave us a good overview of the city. Moreover, it was a good way to kill some time before our flight home. (We disembarked the Oosterdam at 9:00 a.m. and our flight home did not leave until 7:30 p.m.)
Bottom Line: While the logistics of getting everyone off the ship and onto the tour buses was seamless, HAL's excursions are very expensive and not described very well on the website or in the brochure. We know better and next time will do more research and plan our own excursions.
All in all, we had a great time on a great ship. We definitely would sail with HAL and on the Oosterdam again.