We are not frequent cruisers. We cruised in 2002, 2003, 2009 and, most recently on the Nieuw Amsterdam in February 2013. Since we don't cruise often, we choose to go with the cruise line that has regularly provided us with the style of cruise we want. We are in our mid-50's, a same-sexed male couple, and we enjoy casual relaxation as well as a splash of elegance. We are not into parties or gambling - but, when we are on a ship, we want space to relax, unwind, and an opportunity to get away from the demands of our daily work. We like to meet new people and visit new places - but we also like being able to steal away into a quiet refuge. HAL provides this nicely and the Nieuw Amsterdam did not disappoint.
For our last cruise (on the Oosterdam), we got an incredible deal on a Deluxe Veranda Suite. It was such a great experience, we decided we had to do it again. (Here I'll put in a pitch for the HAL Visa card. We use this card for everything - groceries, gas, take-out - and pay it off in full each month. In three and a half years we earned enough points to save $1500 on this cruise - making the splurge of a Deluxe Suite possible.)
Boarding was effortless. As a suite guest, you get priority boarding and as ushered to the gangway directly after expedited check in. (We aren't snobs for privilege, but who doesn't enjoy a bit of special treatment now and again!) From check-in to entering our stateroom was about 15 minutes.
We're experienced travelers and have learned to pack light, so we used just carry on bags. This way we brought our bags directly to our room and we unpacked and settled in in a very short time.
THE SHIP -
The Nieuw Amsterdam is laid out in the familiar HAL format, while having it's own flavor. The combination of familiarity and new things to explore is nice.
I'm always impressed by the artwork on HAL ships. It's not cheap or cheesy - it's the real thing. (There was a signed Lichtenstein and a pair of stunning Versace vases among this ship's collection.) There was a strong Manhattan flavor to most of the work (in honor of the ship's name.) The works were a nice balance of old world and modern mixed media. The corridors of every deck and all the staterooms are decorated with vintage black and white photographs with a New York or shipping theme.
The overall decor is warm. The tones are tan, brown, copper, silver. It was a nice change from the teal and orange that predominates on some other HAL vessels.
Although we don't shop or gamble on-board, both options are expanded from other HAL ships we've sailed, and are inviting.
The public areas are furnished very attractively and invites you to sit and stay awhile. During the morning I would sometimes sit in one of the bars (that was closed for business at that hour) in one of the very comfortable chairs and look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the sea while reading.
The central Atrium has an impressive and enormous crystal chandelier. Each HAL ship has this feature, although the chandelier is unique to each ship. This one is a stylized representation of the NYC skyline reflecting in the Hudson River. It's really incredible.
SUITE ACCOMMODATIONS -
The Deluxe Veranda Suite (18x22' living space) provides more than ample space for a couple to travel in lush comfort. We had a king bed, a large sofa, two chairs, a coffee table, a desk/bureau that covered the entire wall under the huge window, a dressing room (6x6'), and a bathroom (6x10') with double sinks, a shower and a separate Jacuzzi tub. The storage space is ridiculous - 8 closets and cupboards and drawers everywhere.
The decor: cream walls, wood furnishings and accents, black-and-white photos, brown leather sofa.
The suite had nice touches: a bottle of champagne for sail-away, flowers, binoculars, very nice robes, personalized stationary, and a beautiful bonsai tree in the picture window.
The bed, as on every HAL ship, is extremely comfortable and has a choice of three densities of pillows.
The deck was huge (8x22') and had two chairs for relaxing and a table with four chairs for dining.
This may sound like a silly observation, but the light switches are not easy to find or figure out. They are recessed and are the same color as the outlets. It's also hard to figure out which switch (once you find them) goes to what. A small complaint, but it is something that took attention repeatedly.
One of the nicest perks of having a Deluxe Suite is having access to the Neptune Lounge. There is always something nice to snack on (smoked salmon, sushi, custards, fresh fruit, cookies, truffles, coffee, juice...) and a concierge that is friendly and extremely helpful. The concierge learns your name after first meeting and remembers your likes/dislikes. They treat you like someone special without it being aloof or pretentious. For pretty average folks like us, we felt like royalty.
MAIN DINING ROOM -
The main dining room is similar to all HAL ships - two levels with prominent spiral staircases in the center.
The food and the service is consistently very good. If anything, the service is too efficient - read "rapid".
There was something about the room, though that made us not return there but once during the week's cruise. The lighting was uncomfortably bright. It was unpleasant to the point that I politely gave feedback to the hotel desk that the dining atmosphere in the casual Lido Restaurant was more inviting and relaxing than in the Manhattan Dining Room. I was very surprised to get a phone call from the dining room manager inviting us to dine there that night because the lights would be dimmed. We did. They were.
OTHER DINING VENUES -
In the past we have enjoyed dining at the PINNACLE GRILL. It is consistently very, very good. The steaks I have eaten there have been some of the best I have had anywhere on land or sea. We didn't eat here this trip, however (for no particular reason).
Neither did we dine at CANALETTO. The menu choices weren't very broad, and we noticed the food was being served from a food line by staff (one of the buffet stations during the day, re-purposed to a serving line for Canaletto at night). This, along with the fact that the restaurant is just a dressed-up section of the Lido Restaurant (although done quite nicely) didn't make it very inviting. We opted out.
The LIDO RESTAURANT was a huge improvement over our previous HAL experiences. The dining area was very warmly decorated and didn't look like a buffet dining room at all. It was very, very inviting. The food was quite good (usually the same as what was being served in the main dining room - but with more options), and the lines not long.
There are separate GRILL and PIZZA locations near the pools. I had a cheese burger from one, and a few slices from the other. Both were very good.
Our favorite place to dine this cruise was in TAMARIND. At the very top of the ship, the dining room for this pan-Asian restaurant is quiet, elegant, comfortable, relaxing and warm. It is actually divided into two separate rooms by the kitchen, so that the 140 seat restaurant feels like a much smaller, more intimate setting. The food here was really quiet notable. Some dishes better than others, certainly. The best to our taste was: the Chicken Pho and the Thai Beef Salad as starters, and the Wasabi-Crusted Filet Mignon or the Red Curry chicken as a main. The filet was so tender, you could cut it with your fork - no kidding.
Although HAL is trying to fit other ships in its fleet with this restaurant, it is, for now, only available on the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Eurodam.
The lounge connected to the Tamarind is the SILK DEN. I was surprised by how empty this bar was every night. It was intimate, on the top deck, and had great views. In addition to tables for two lining the floor-to-ceiling windows, there are curtained-off tables for 6-8 that feel very exotic.
The staff and service in both the Tamarind and Silk Den were excellent.
We had ROOM SERVICE (no charge) one evening. We "rented" a movie (no-charge DVD delivered to your room - there is more than a 1000 to choose from), which we watched while we had dinner in our HAL bathrobes. The menu selection was pretty decent. Our only complaint is that we asked it to be delivered at a certain time (because we would be out having a cocktail before) and it must've been delivered way too early - because dinner was waiting for us when we returned, and it was pretty much on the cold side. They were too efficient I guess.
We went to the main show twice and were pleased both times. There was a male acapella quartet that did old standards and current tunes that was really good.
On other cruises, we've had more enjoyable small group music in the lounges than what was offered on this trip on the Nieuw Amsterdam.
Overall, the entertainment was good - better in the main venue.
FORMAL NIGHT -
I've noticed that formal night seems to be a point of great debate on Cruise Critic. Personally, I enjoy getting dressed up since I don't have to in my real life. We rent tuxes, which are delivered to and picked up from our stateroom. We like it.
There was a very noticeable decrease, however, in the number of passengers taking part in formal night. We actually felt a little out of place walking the ship in our tuxedos. Too bad - from our perspective. We like a touch of elegance now and again.
We also noticed that HAL seems to have lightened up on its promotion of the formal nights. They used to write in the daily newsletter something to the effect of, "we ask that all passengers take part in the formal evening so that...". Now, it is only noted at the top of the newsletter as, "This evening's dress: formal".
They are, I'm sure, bending to the trend of casual cruising. Some will applaud this, and others mourn it. Although I wouldn't want formal wear every evening, I enjoy it two nights out of seven.
SPECIAL CELEBRATION -
We were celebrating our 25th Anniversary on this cruise. Not only did a large contingent of wait staff sing and bring desert to our table the first night of the cruise, but one day we returned to our stateroom to find our door decorated with balloons and a large note with hearts on it signed by our housekeeping and concierge staff. We noticed such treatment throughout the ship for birthdays and other celebrations.
FAVORITE PLACES ON THE SHIP -
The CROW'S NEST is a wonderfully open, spacious, airy lounge facing forward with an expansive view and comfortable chairs. Not only is it a nice spot for a pre-diner cocktail, but a great place to spend some time with a good book during the day.
The SILK DEN, which I mentioned above, was definitely a favorite spot.
The EXPLORER CAFE was a great addition to the ship. We always liked the Explorer Lounge on the other HAL ships - a quiet place to read or play a game. Books and games were available there. This newer version is very nice. It is adjacent to the Crow's Nest, has a coffee bar, and a lending library with a good selection of current books. The only thing I didn't like was the large screen at one end of the room that projected zooming views of pastures, landscapes and seascapes. I'm sure this was intended as a quiet, meditative touch - but it was really just the opposite. It was an out-of-place and unpleasant distraction.
The THERMAL SPA is a big favorite. The heated lounges that look out over the ocean, and the quiet, relaxing jetted pool are definitely worth the added cost ($249 for two for a week-long cruise). I lose hours in this refuge and feel great when I come out (and have no idea what time it is).
The TEAK PROMENADE on all HAL ships is definitely a favorite. Regardless of how much glitz and modernity there may be inside, this deck always feels like you're on a ship a hundred years ago crossing the Atlantic. It's like a Bogart movie or some such. Even though we had our own private veranda, I still love sitting in the teak steamer lounge chairs watching the sea and people pass by. It always amazes me how (more often than not) there are are plenty of empty chairs to choose from and you never feel crowded. It's one of the several places I go on HAL ships to feel like I have all the space in the world to relax and get away from it all.
BEING A SAME-SEX COUPLE -
We don't like traveling or living in a homogeneous group - we prefer to just be ourselves wherever we go and enjoy the wide diversity the world has to offer. As a gay couple, we aren't always received with open arms (though we usually are). On HAL ships, no one blinks an eye. It couldn't be a more comfortable and welcoming environment. There's nothing else to say on the subject.
There seemed to be a couple (minor, but unfortunate) apparent cost-saving measures. Every cruise, you would find on your bed a large canvas HAL tote bag and ceramic tile for each guest. This time, we received a single smaller non-canvas bag and no tiles. This may sound like a minor complaint, but they were nice gifts - and we missed them.
We are always pleased with HAL staff. Rarely do we find anything but absolute excellence. This cruise was no exception. I can't think of a single thing to point out as a negative.
PORTS OF CALL
The ports of call for this cruise were: Half Moon Cay (HAL's private island in the Bahama's), Grand Cayman, Roatan (Honduras), and Costa Maya (Mexico).
We didn't get off the ship at HALF MOON CAY, having done it before. The island is quiet pleasant and the swimming fine. There are no inhabitants, so the only things to do there are the cruise line provided excursions - which, of course, cost money. The island looks much more built up since we were last there - nicely so.
We didn't do much of anything at GRAND CAYMAN other than stroll around, so I can't really comment on it.
We very much enjoyed ROATAN, HONDURAS. It's a lovely island with lovely people. We rented a car and drove away from all the hubbub of the cruise crowd. It was an enjoyable drive through the surprisingly mountainous island. The snorkeling was great.
We ate at Cal's Canteen - on the main road (pretty much the only road on the island), a few miles east of the port on the right-hand side of the road. It was an open-air shanty-style place with stupendous food ... cheap.
We didn't get off at COSTA MAYA, MEXICO because we have already visited the Yucatan a few times. The main reason, though, was because the port didn't interest us. It is a "fabricated town" - apparently built for cruise ships - out in the middle of nowhere. There is not much of anything to do, other than go to tourist shops, lay on a small beach, or take a rather long excursion to some ruins. It really is hours away from anything.
We loved it. It's what we needed for a vacation. We'll be on HAL ships again.