My first ever cruise. Had a brilliant time, didn't want to get off and would sail with Holland America again at the drop of a hat.
Pre-departure: stayed at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 the night before having flown into Miami and taken a shuttle to Fort Lauderdale. The Hyatt Regency Pier 66 has that 'tropical worn' look, a nice tropical garden feel and is convenient to the cruise boat terminals. As a newbie, I had no idea how to get from the hotel to the Westerdam. I understood there were 8 cruise boats in and out on the day and there would be a lot of passengers and bags going in both directions. The concierge was clear and helpful on how to get to the Westerdam; "Talk to the lady over there directing the shuttles". I did, she was also clear and helpful and the transfer worked as advertised. The shuttle transfer itself was an experience; we touched all the terminals and I have never seen so many vehicles, people and bags; organised chaos. At the Westerdam terminal I was a little disappointed to have the Porter asking for a tip before our bags were out of the shuttle.
As a newbie, the ship check in procedure was not entirely clear to us. We were handed our boarding number prior to / without being directed to check in which confused us for a while. However, that was a minor muddle, and everything went smoothly once we knew what to do. Boarding was smooth and we found our cabin quickly. Departure was delayed a little by the loading of food and supplies. From our portside vantage point I was amazed at the long stream of trailers bringing in everything from milk and fresh produce to new mattresses.
Cabin: Great. Great linen including bathrobes, fridge, wi-fi, nice veranda with two chairs, table and footstool. Bathroom was fine. Cabin was serviced twice a day with a turn down and the stewards were awesome. Nothing was too much trouble and any of our questions and queries were answered promptly, clearly and accurately. Absolutely no complaints. TV programmes included tracking map and reruns of shore excursion briefings. Fresh fruit was constantly topped up. We took the 'by the bag' laundry service and that worked fine. Complimentary shoe cleaning worked fine too.
Food : Breakfast and lunch was generally in the Lido. No issues with the quality, quantity or range, it was always awesome. My quibble, which is insoluble, was that the Lido would get pretty crowded at peak times as passengers worked to find a table (with a view!) and get their food. You needed to bring some patience with you to breakfast most days! Staff, with one minor exception, were unfailingly friendly and anxious to ensure your needs were meet. Failing that, there was always a team of officers in white shirts and executive chefs circulating to address any issues.
I recommend the Terrace Grill; the Lamb burgers were great as were the sweet potato fries. I felt sorry for the cooks at the Terrace Grill; because of the nature of their cooked to order product, there was often a line and they were under pressure but they maintained their smiles. The nearby Mexican station was good; check out the mango and pineapple salsa salads.
We had afternoon tea in the Vista dinning room several times. My small quibbles were that the 'Dutch' afternoon tea didn't seem very Dutch and that butter was not served for the scones. Admittedly a small point which I solved by bringing my own from the Lido! I witnessed an interesting exchange one afternoon when an English passenger asked the Indonesian steward for a piece of 'fruit cake' with his afternoon tea. There was no fruit cake on the menu and the steward was not clear what fruit cake was but they seemed to muddle through.
We had dinner most evenings in the Vista using the walk up / free seating which worked fine. After a week or so, we had found of group of like minded other guests and would form up with them. That got around the constant need to reintroduce yourself of an evening. Service was always good (prompt, polite, accurate and sensitive to what's going on at the table) but the food standard varied abit. My quibbles were that the soups were often so mildly flavoured that you could not tell what it was supposed to be (the always available French onion soup being the exception), a fish was very dry and that the presentation of the same dish on the same night could vary quite widely. Portions were fine, the range and quantity of bread was fine and, bottom line, you could always say something to the staff and they would do their best to fix it. I witnessed an issue one evening with a table apparently concerning their dietary needs. It seemed pretty animated but they were back the next night; it appeared the catering staff addressed the issue/s and the customers happily completed their cruise.
I am not personally a fan of 'formal' so putting on the tie for 'formal nights' was an imposition. I didn't feel that the Vista food on formal nights was significantly different to the other nights.
We also ate once each at the more upscale (you pay an additional amount) Cannaletto and Pinnacle restaurants. Both were great; excellent service and excellent food. We talked about going back to these very nice restaurants but the problem for us was that we were surrounded by great food all over the ship!
We purchased wine by the bottle. Next time I will look more closely at Holland Amercia's wine packages and also maybe bringing wine on board. They had a very good system of storing your unfinished wine for your next meal. It worked smoothly every time, even across different restaurants. Well done.
Bars: We settled in to a very nice routine around 'happy hour' at the Atrium. Great barman, Henry, who developed quite a clientele. We met some very nice people around Henry's bar.
Entertainment: the Cruise Director, Armen, was awesome! An almost constant, but carefully measured, presence amongst the passengers. Part of the fun some days for us was just to watch and listen as Armen did his thing. We went to, and enjoyed, most of the shows, usually the later post dinner production. Armen also mc'ed the Team Trivia up in the Crows Nest which we enjoyed a lot. We won a pin, came runner up a couple of times and again met some nice people.
We were conscious there were lots of other entertainment options going on around the Westerdam. There seemed to be something for everyone or very close to it.
Summaries of the New York Times and some foreign press were available daily along with Crossword and Sudoku and a daily cruise update appeared in the cabin each evening along with the turn down chocolates.
The ship photographers were a constant, but not too pushy, presence.
Cleanliness and maintenance: seemed to be constant cleaning and appearance maintenance going on and the Westerdam felt clean and well maintained. My two minor quibbles are (1) a taco shell that was lying on the deck by the Mexican station the next morning; how many cleaners and other crew missed that? and (2) a maintenance rag left behind a box on Deck 9 near the flag staff. It had been there for a while but was easy for passengers to spot; how many maintenance crew had also missed that?
Crew friendliness and professionalism: Awesome, from top to bottom. I was left wondering "how do they manage to train and motivate this entire crew to this consistently high standard day in day out?". The two minor exceptions (both in the Lido at breakfast!) were the cook at 'express eggs' who seemed a little stressed (he did manage to start smiling towards the end of the cruise) and the executive chef who offered to deliver a grapefruit half to my table one morning when it looked like they ran out. I didn't see him again that morning and did eventual find my own grapefruit. It appeared that fresh grapefruit was in good demand on this cruise (the demographic?) and they seemed to struggle at times to keep it on the breakfast bar, along with Granola.
Excursions and port calls: my one quibble is that it was very hard, if not impossible, to get decent maps suitable for the ports we called at. Some maps provided by the ship were focused on shopping and a couple didn't even mark where the Westerdam would be docked, which made planning any independent shore activity that much more challenging. That being said, the shore excursions team did a great job of providing 'pre port call' briefings on history and culture which were repeated in the TV, and the 'on the day' excursion organisation and disembarkation was always smooth for us.
The two tender port stops were well organised and smooth.
Half Moon Cay, by tender: swam in the sea with some fish, posted a post card, had the barbecue lunch, walked the island 'trail', another swim then a drink in the Capt Morgan 'pirate ship'. Great spot.
Willemstad, Curacao: walked around the town, posted some post cards (with difficulty!) and had a couple of beers.
Kralendijk, Bonaire; did a local tour of the island from a guide engaged at the pier which was great. She then told us where we could swim in the harbour close to the Westerdam.
Oranjestad, Aruba; did a Holland America sailing and snorkelling excursion, totally awesome; fish and a WW2 wreck. Wi-fi at Starbucks and posted some more post cards.
Cartagena, Columbia; did the Holland America 'Walking Tour of the Old City'. Again, awesome, great guide, really interesting city.
Panama Canal; the ship did a great job of historic briefings and bringing on a commentator for the day. It was an amazing day and experience. Highlight of the cruise.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Puntarenas is pretty ramshackle, and apparently the day was an Easter holiday in Costa Rica which meant the roads were jammed. We did the Holland America Scarlet Macaw & Mangrove Cruise tour and had a wonderful day.
Corinto, Nicaragua; Good Friday. Corinto seems an interesting little town. There was a tourist market about 2 blocks from the wharf with some unusual items. The vendors were friendly and many spoke English. We did the Holland America Botanical gardens and Leon tour, which was ok and an excursion was probably the only way for us to see something of Nicaragua. The botanical gardens were modest / a work in progress and they were still learning how to work with tour groups! They sold us beer at US$1 / can, some of the group would have preferred water, the guide was constantly apologising that they were still learning about tourism, used up a lot of time with toilets and then got his count wrong as we left! Streets in Leon were very narrow and parts were crowded but the Cathedral is an impressive structure. An interesting day and glad that we did it but not a highlight.
Pto. Quetzal, Guatemala; did the Holland America Iximche, post classical Mayan ruins excursion. A long but excellent day in the bus. Great guide, provided map and bottled water, ruins were accessible and interesting and opportunities for some interaction with local Mayan. Interesting stop for lunch (tortila, soup, rice, beans, chicken, cheese, fantastic 'cream caramel' with very tasty sugar) on the way back. Great shopping at the wharf with lots of interesting stuff and not too crowded and a great little bar that did rum in coconuts. Great day, a highlight!
Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; nothing here other than a cruise boat terminal building! However we walked through the pier gate and found a little family run cantina, had a Coke, talked with another couple off the Westerdam. There was a family eating food; my lasting regret is not trying to buy some lunch! After Mexican for lunch on board we went back to the cantina for a couple of beers.
Huatulco, Mexico; getting more touristy as we head north. Walked off the Westerdam for a beer, guacamole, nachos and fish tacos.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; just walked off for a walk around, checked out the local Wal-Mart and shopping mall!
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, by tender; there was a short delay while the ship found a calmer spot to stop. The captain keep passengers well informed. We just walked off to find the Post Office, then fish tacos, nachos and a couple of beers.
Disembarkation: very smooth. Armen, the cruise director, spent several hours carefully informing passengers, step by step, on what was going to happen, what was happening and / or which group of passengers was to do what. We opted for a later disembarkation time as we were staying overnight in San Diego. Our bags were waiting for us on the dock and Customs waved us through and we walked over to the nearby Embassy Suites.