We had a very enjoyable cruise on the Veendam for three weeks over Christmas and New Year from Rio to Santiago including three days along the Antarctic Peninsula. The itinerary was superb and we were very fortunate that neither the weather nor politics prevented us from reaching any of the destinations en route. We went from +35 degrees at start and finish in Rio and Santiago down to days of 0 degrees or below in Antarctic. In many ways this was a trip of a lifetime at a very reasonable cost. There are many great memories, such as watching penguins jumping off icebergs, seeing the highlights of Rio from the sea, the endless stunning vistas of the Chilean fiords ... but perhaps the pick has to be counting down to midnight on New Year's Eve in the showroom -- with the curtains open and still full daylight outside -- and a snow-capped, mountainous Antarctic island drifting past outside the window just as the clock struck.
I have commented below on many aspects of the ship and cruise, mainly for UK readers as it was our first chance to compare the US-based Holland America line (HAL) with the more British--style operators Fred Olsen and P&O which we had travelled on before.
We were in an outside view cabin (no balcony) on Deck 5 towards the bow. The most impressive feature was its size, certainly larger than equivalent cabins we have had on Fred Olsen or P&O. The storage space was quite adequate and we had a two-seater sofa, single armchair and dressing table in between the bed and bathroom. This provided a useful living space in the daytime. The double bed itself was very large and the most comfortable of any we have had on a cruise. The shower and wash basin were fine and the room was cleaned up twice a day by our friendly cabin steward.
FOOD AND DINING
For the first time on a cruise we opted for the "open dining" and are very pleased we chose this option. We chose it partly because the two fixed eating times seemed too early (5.30pm) or too late (8.00pm) and also to see how changing company each evening would turn out.
We found that we never needed to wait more than a minute or two to be seated. There was always the choice of having a table for two or sharing, which we mostly opted for. This led to many very interesting conversations with fellow travellers of many nationalities.
The main dining area with service is called the Rotterdam and extends over two decks at the stern of the ship. It is a good sizeable space which never seemed overrun and with a fair variety of table sizes e.g. for 2,4,6,8, 10 even 12. As we got increasingly disillusioned with the self-service Lido on Deck 11, we avoided that unless we were in a hurry, and ended up often taking all three meals each day in the Rotterdam.
The quality of the Rotterdam food was high overall. We thought the steaks and other meats and fish were very good and the soups in particular were very tasty. There was a very good variety of breakfasts on the waiter-service menu. There was also considerable flexibility in one's choices. There was no difficulty, for example, in having two appetisers if one wanted instead, say , of one appetiser and one starter. Iced water was provided profusely (to suit US tastes) and coffees refilled regularly except at dinner. The quality of this coffee was not that good however and you needed to pay about 2 dollars to get a "speciality" coffee at the Explorations Cafe on Deck 8 for better quality. Tea was always of the "stick a teabag in a cup of hot water" variety. My wife complained that the only decent cuppa (British-style) she had on the trip was one in a cafe , perhaps unsurprisingly, on the Falkland Islands! The only downside of the Rotterdam MDR was that service could be pretty slow on occasion.
The other main eating area for all meals was the self-service Lido up on Deck 11. The food was OK, no more, and the general ambiance quite frenetic. There are two main serving areas on each side of the deck , but they don't replicate each other exactly so you need to wander round a lot to find what you are looking for. Thus one is constantly weaving in and out to avoid others and it was sometimes difficult to find a free table at busy times. They have done away with trays (to cut food consumption in the view of some of the passengers), but this means more trips with individual plates for people to get all the bits and pieces they want , causing yet more congestion. In the end we decided that given the choice with the calm, waiter-service arrangement in the Rotterdam even for breakfast and lunch, it was a no-brainer, so we rarely frequented the Lido after the first few days.
Further along the Lido deck by the pool there is also a burger bar with salads. We had a burger a couple of times and it was pretty good.
Finally there is room service and we took this for breakfast on a few occasions when we needed an early start. The food came efficiently and on time.
There were two options for this on the Veendam both of which require pre-booking and come at extra cost. We tried each one once. The Pinnacles Grill is the top notch one at an extra cover charge of 25$ per head. There is both a qualitative and quantitative difference from the usual fare in the Rotterdam. Service is very attentive. Our experience was very pleasant and it is fine for a special occasion, but it is in our view quite a lot extra, so once was enough. The other dining possibility is the Canaletto which is an area quite well "fenced off" from the rest of the self-service Lido and with a fixed menu of Italian choices. Again this was fine (at 10$ per head) for a one-off bit of variety, but not so different in quality from the main dining room to justify repeated visits.
FACILITIES AND ACTIVITIES
There were plenty of activities going on during the sea days. There were lots of quizzes at different times of day which we took part in. One good feature is the IT and IT-related sessions and support offered. My wife was very pleased with the digital camera sessions she went to. There were also exercise classes and we followed the tai chi sessions. The spa and fitness training area was fine and just about large enough for the amount of use it got and had most of the usual appliances, though I missed having a rowing machine. Unfortunately the sauna could not be accessed for free as on some other ships and was only available as part of a 130$ package across the cruise, or 20$ a day. Ouch!
One very positive feature to keep you fit and get some fresh air is the nice, open and wide walk-around deck -- 4 laps = 1 mile. The swimming pool and jacuzzi areas on Deck 11 were fine and usually not too crowded.
The "Explorations Cafe Area" was about the best we have come across so far. It had a nice flowing layout including a good library with easy lending system and was well equipped with games. I play a lot of chess and found some good fellow players. There were good quality boards and even a chess clock, to my surprise.
The general ambiance of the ship's main public decks is very pleasant. There are many quite decent artworks dotted around.
There is a section on Deck 8 of three interlocking bars called the Mix. One held the (very good) nightly piano bar session. One was a bit more sporty, but to be honest we didn't use them much. Despite my comments elsewhere on the prices, one notable feature was that in Mix , as in the main showroom, we didn't feel nearly as pressurised to keep buying drinks as on other ships.
It was easy to get the hang of the ship's layout and find one's way around. There were plenty of lifts/elevators. They even changed the mats in the lifts every day with each having the day of the week written on them, so you knew if it was Monday, Tuesday etc.!
Another very useful feature is that there are plenty of launderettes on the main cabin decks. To use them you need to feed the washing machines and driers with quarters which can be bought at the main Front Office. It was 2$ for one cycle of washing + 1$ for drying.
The Crow's Nest on Deck 12 is very good for observation on three sides.
Deck 8 also had a relatively large casino area. This was of little interest to us, but it was the one inside venue which allowed smoking. This was accentuated while we were in Antarctic waters as there was a total smoking ban on outside decks. Unfortunately the main way through to the very pleasant Explorations Area was right through the very smoky and smelly casino.
There was a very international mix, probably because of the itinerary. The main element was from North America. An unscientific guess based on the people we met each time we ate would suggest about 60% USA, 15% Canada, then a fair number of Australians, New Zealanders, then specific groups of Germans, Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, Spanish-speaking Latin Americans and a small sprinkling of individually-travelling Europeans e.g. Dutch, Germans, Brits, Swedes etc.
While the majority of passengers were probably of retirement age, it was certainly much less "geriatric" in composition than our experience with Fred Olsen and P&O and there was a fair number of passengers in their 30s, 40s and 50s. There was a small number of children. This composition may have been a reflection of the fact that the cruise overlapped with Xmas holidays for several countries. Many passengers were extremely well-travelled and it seemed to us that there were few first-time cruisers.
We don't believe the ship was completely full so there were about 1250-1300 passengers in total. It rarely felt crowded with that number on board.
This is not really a major consideration for us on a cruise, but we did see a number of shows. The quality was a bit hit and miss. Some of the resident singers were actually very good and it was surprising and a bit disappointing that we didn't see more of them. Otherwise it was mainly variously talented individuals singing, playing instruments, a comedian, a magician -- the usual fare. The main showroom is on two levels and isn't actually that big. It goes back a long way from the stage and we found, that contrary to other cruise ships we had been on, there was less of a feeling of commitment to the show/performer(s) by the audience, so there was a lot of rather annoying coming and going during performances.
The piano bar man was very good. We didn't really listen much to the classical quartet or guitar man who were usually on in various venues most evenings. Others had mixed opinions as to how good they were.
PROVISION OF INFORMATION/ LECTURES:
This was a long cruise in terms of distance covered -- over 6000 nautical miles in the three weeks -and a lot of it was across waters with a terrible reputation for storms. We were kept well up to date with sea conditions, routes and plans by the excellent captain, Peter Bos. We were fortunate to get over Drake's Passage to and from Antarctica with only medium size swells and no Force 12 gales as occur regularly in these parts. We had to change course a few times off the Antarctic Peninsula to avoid pack-ice and we were always kept up to date as to why this or that manoeuvre was necessary. We watched with bated breath as the captain squeezed us between icebergs more than once.
The captain somehow also managed the feat -- I'm not quite sure how -- of getting us to the Falkland Islands when we were scheduled to go to Puerto Madryn in Argentina instead, and then , wonder of wonders in the present political climate, of getting us back into Argentina again at Ushuaia.
There was an excellent programme of lectures on the history of Antarctic Exploration (led by the superb David Wilson, a great nephew of one of those who died with Captain Scott returning from the South Pole in 1912) and also on the all the wildlife of the area. Later there were interesting talks on Darwin and his expeditions as we cruised by Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel etc. A section of the Crow's Nest on the top deck was filled with charts and books about Antarctica. A group of researchers from a US Antarctic station came on board one morning for a question and answer session. All in all, we felt that HAL did an excellent job in preparing us for and immersing us in the Antarctic experience.
World news was provided every day very impressively in a variety of A5 folded sheets. The basic paper was a compilation based on the New York Times, but we were very pleasantly surprised also to see a daily Britain Today, Australia Today, Canada Today as well as papers in Spanish, German and Dutch. Quite a feat! There was also a daily "Explorer" newspaper listing all the events and times of activities on board, also offered in other languages.
PORTS AND TOURS:
The itinerary was just right for the three weeks and the ports of call sufficiently varied: Rio -- Buenos Aires- Montevideo-Port Stanley-cruising Antarctica -Ushuaia-Punta Arenas- Puerto Montt -- Valparaiso. We generally find that all ship tours on cruises are rather overpriced. HAL's were even more so than P&O and Fred Olsen in this regard. We did take a couple of ships tours though. I went on one in the Falklands to see the sites related to the war, while my wife went to see a penguin colony. We also went on one from Ushuaia into Tierra del Fuego. To be fair, these were all pleasant and well organised. But mainly we did our own thing or joined with others we had contacted before the cruise through the CruiseCritic noticeboard and had some excellent trips putting together our own groups.
We booked our cruise quite late in the day so were able to get what we thought was a very good deal, though it appears that even better deals were available quoted in dollars to customers in the US. In this sense the basic price is very competitive with other cruise lines. We did however arrange our flights and transfers ourselves as the price offered by HAL for the full package was several hundreds of pounds more. Day to day costs on board are certainly higher than P&O or Fred Olsen. The daily tip is 11.50$ per head -- over £7 -- as against £4 on the others, and while basic drink prices are not that much above those of the British-style competitors, the practice of adding on 15% for service on every drink does make a difference.
Wine prices were very steep. The very cheapest bottle offered at dinner was around 30$ (+ 15% of course). Most were substantially more, though, to be fair, carafes of passable wine were available at 12$. One way round this is to buy your own bottles at the ports en route as there is no prevention of passengers bringing on their own supplies. However, if you want to drink your own bottle at dinner you have to pay an 18$ corkage charge. Drinking in your cabin is OK. So we, and friends we made on board, ended up supping Chilean and Argentinian wines we had bought onshore at get-togethers in our cabins.
Prices in the shops on board were on the contrary not too bad. Most days there was some offer or other available.
The internet is available but the cost is very high. We managed to find a number of places either free or very cheap in the various ports to check and send some emails, but given that we were at sea for long periods we gave in and bought a package of 100 minutes for 55$ on board. To be fair, this did work well and with not too much delay despite our remote location.
There were a number of activities at cost during the cruise such as beer tastings , wine tastings and culinary demos/ participation -- all from about 15-30$. Fair enough I would say.
We were impressed by HAL. They catered well for their international mix of passengers. Food was good and the lecture programme and information provision was very good indeed. The crew were fine and did their best, if not quite as wonderful as on Fred Olsen. We would certainly travel on a HAL ship again with no hesitation.