This was our first cruise with Holland America Line on board the MS Volendam which sailed from Kobe, Japan on 4th March 2013. The cruise was to take us to Nagasaki, Busan, Dalian, Xingang, Shanghai and to Hong Kong on the 18th March.
We have cruised with most of the major cruise companies in the past and so this review is based on a wide experience of ships and companies. We had never previously booked with HAL because their prices were always quite a lot more expensive than some of the other major cruise lines and I suppose for this reason we had formed the opinion that they were something outstanding and this view appeared to be shared by a number of fellow passengers that we met. Recently, HAL have advertised some very attractive fares and this was the main reason that we had booked this cruise together that we had friends in Hong Kong that we wanted to meet up with.
Pre Cruise Experience
The booking procedure was fairly straightforward but our first problem that emerged was obtaining a Visa for China. Obviously, we were notified that we needed a visa but everyone that we spoke to appeared to have a different view as to which visa we needed one company informed us that we needed a double entry visa, another indicated that a multiple entry visa was needed and another indicated that a single entry visa was needed so we submitted an open entry and sent a copy of the itinerary with the application and a credit card number and we had a multiple entry visa granted at a cost of Â£90 plus recorded delivery postage.
On the first night at dinner on board we sat at a table of 6 people, none that we had met before, and the question of visas was raised and it appeared that we all had different visas and that everyone had also been given conflicting advice from different sources. One lady had been informed that a single entry visa would suffice at a cost of Â£30 whilst the others had either got double entry at Â£60 or multiple as we had. It appears that HAL had also given conflicting advice to different passengers. Obviously, the difference in cost was quite significant so during the cruise I sent a note to the Front Desk asking which was the correct visa but did not receive a reply. Shortly after this I was in a queue at the Front Desk when I heard a lady in front of me also asking the same question and so I related my experiences and we were informed that they could not answer our query but would get back to us. As I had not received a reply I raised the question again and received an apology together with some chocolates and was asked to go and discuss the matter with the person that understood these matters which I did and it appears that only a single entry visa is required and so we had wasted Â£120.
The second problem arose in the form of a notification that the ship would not now dock at the Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong but at a Container Port some 30 minutes away from the center of Hong Kong. As my friends had advised me that this would be difficult to get transport from this container terminal I emailed HAL asking if they were going to provide transport and this was their reply "The new address for the dock at which the Volendam will be at is attached in the following documents. A map is also attached for your use. Local taxi services are located close by and they will be able to take you to and from the new terminal. If you are unable to alter your arrangements from the original Cruise Terminal to the Modern Terminal a taxi will be able to take you." As my friends had informed me that getting a taxi would be difficult here and with over a 1,000 people disembarking I could foresee many problems and so I had asked my friends to make alternative arrangements which they did. During the course of the cruise we were notified that HAL were now providing a shuttle to the Hong Kong Cruise Terminal as obtaining taxis would be almost impossible and I raised this issue with the Front Desk and was informed that this docking arrangement had been in place for 12 months. If this is correct why was the cruise sold on the basis that it docked at HK Cruise Terminal two months before it sailed? I did ask the question but have not received a reply.
The third problem arose due to the fact that the Internet was not available on the ship whilst the ship was in Japanese ports or within 50 miles of the coast of Japan -- this really inconvenienced many people that needed to be in touch 24/7 and should have been notified to passengers at the time of booking.
The last problem relates to the seating for dinner and as I wanted an early sitting I was informed that this was not available and that we would have to have a late sitting and try to change this on the ship. When we boarded I was informed that we had been given open seating, which suited us better but there was no mention that this was available when we booked.
The ship accommodates 1432 guests and is now some 14 years old but is still in nice condition and is quite well laid out and it was never very difficult to find a seat in the restaurant or Lido.
The choice of food was reasonable but not outstanding and the officers and crew were always polite and helpful.
The ship was kept very clean and our cabin steward was excellent.
Entertainment was ok but not outstanding as were the enrichment sessions.
The fresh flowers around the ship added to the atmosphere.
The shops are very limited and do not carry a good range of products and tend to major on jewelry, watches and small gifts.
The library and internet rooms are quite good and spacious and it was only on sea days that it was difficult to find a seal.
We did not take any excursions because we found them very expensive -- for example the overnight Beijing Trip offered by HAL would have cost us about Â£280 each but by arranging a private tour we did it for Â£180 each and visited more sights. The Nagasaki Trip that we arranged via the local Tourist Office only cost us about Â£50 whereas doing it via HAL would have cost us about Â£120 and in this instance we had a personal guide as well. In addition to this we found the private tours more personal and were able to make some good friends. This was the first time that I had arranged private tours but it definitely wont be the last.
We enjoyed this cruise because it went to destinations that we wanted to visit, was good value, the weather was quite good, the ship and facilities were good and we made some nice friends.
On the minus sign HAL need to improve their communications pre cruise and their customer service on board. Whist I made these comments on board some of the questions have not yet been answered.