Our group was composed of two couples from Belgium and one from the UK. Two were first time cruisers, two were new to Holland America and two had cruised with HAL before. Our age range was mid 30s to mid 50s.
As suggested in the cruise documents, we parked at the SS Rotterdam (which is now a hotel) and took the shuttle bus to the MS Rotterdam. It wasn't very clear how to get the shuttle between the two but we worked it out.
Coming back after the cruise, again there was very little information but we got there. It wasn't clear that to pay the reduced rate you had to go into the SS Rotterdam rather than use the machines in the car park, but someone kindly pointed that out to us. They had not been able to explain this on the ship when I had asked at the front desk.
Also, we were charged for 8 days (i.e. two full Saturdays), despite arriving at 12 noon on Saturday 22nd and leaving at 10 AM on Saturday 29th (thus actually less than 7 full days)!
The shuttle took approximately 10 minutes between the car park and the ship.
Being used to boarding the ship in larger ports such as Fort Lauderdale, I found this process rather disjointed. You had to drop your bags, walk, show your boarding pass, walk, show your passport, walk, clear security, climb the stairs, stand in line, pick up health form, sit at tables, fill in health form, sit in holding area, wait until called. It was only at this point that you did the actual check-in. Nevertheless the process did not take too long. This was followed by the customary embarkation photograph and walk up the gangway. There was no crew really to welcome people on board and definitely nobody handing out drinks. The cabins were ready when we embarked at about 1 PM and we quickly proceeded to the Mariners' lunch. The whole process from car park to being on the ship took approximately one hour.
Less than a week before the cruise we were offered an up-sell to an A category cabin, which we took. We were assigned cabin 6240 which is an aft balcony. Our luggage was in the cabin when we arrived after lunch. The balcony is a wrap around balcony meaning that it has quite a bit more outdoor space than the other aft cabins. There were two chairs, two small tables and a lounger out there. The cushions and one of the tables were rather worn. The cabin itself was in wonderful condition, very spacious and with plenty of storage space. The bathroom has a whirlpool bath.
There is one thing I hate, however, and that is finding the disembarkation questionnaire in my cabin as soon as I get on the ship. Surely this could be handled in another way, maybe as part of the online check-in procedure.
The emergency drill took place at 3:45 PM. We were not required to take our life-jackets to the drill. However, it was pointed out to us that the life jackets are now of a different design. As always, a certain number of passengers deemed it was not necessary for them to attend until they had been called out by name by the captain, wasting everybody's time. I wish they would be more strict about this since in my opinion there is no excuse whatsoever for not attending a lifeboat drill immediately when it begins. I like the fact that with HAL get to stand at your lifeboat station. I am still uneasy about the fact that they do not actually make you try on your life jacket.
We ate all of our breakfasts in the Lido buffet. On the first day this was extremely crowded. In fact, it was crowded every morning and sometimes quite difficult to find a table. There is a wide choice of food on offer, but sometimes long lines formed at specific stations.
For lunches, we ate at the buffet, the pizza place, the burger place, or the Mexican food station. There was plenty of choice, but the buffet seating remained quite crowded and we usually ended up eating by the pool. We found that the lunch service finished quite early and there wasn't much choice if you came back if you came back to the ship for a late lunch.
We ate dinner in the La Fontaine dining room every night. We had a fixed table assignment for the 8 PM sitting and ended up at a table for six, on the top deck of the dining room, right in the middle, at the back and by a window. This was a great table! The food was usually very good, but sometimes failed to meet our expectations. On the second formal night, however, it was outstanding.
Some of our group took part in the dancing with the stars ballroom classes and all of our group took part in the quizzes. Both of these activities were thoroughly enjoyable. Other than that, we also played ping-pong on the lido deck, tennis on one of the upper decks and made good use of the pool and hot tubs. Other games such as chess and shuffleboard were also available but we didn't use those. I found the aft pool area rather strange for this kind of itinerary. It is essentially a wading pool with loungers in it and only usable in hot weather. This is one of the areas where smokers congregate.
There were no children in our group and relatively few children on the cruise so there isn't much we can say about this. Those children that we did encounter though, seemed to be having a good time.
We chose this cruise partly because of its Rotterdam departure. This meant that we could drive from home to the port in less than two hours. We knew that a Fjords cruise was all about the scenery. You also have to be very lucky with the weather, which fortunately we were. In fact, we were told that they rarely get weather that good. The scenic cruising from Stavanger is truly beautiful but the scenic cruising from Flåm absolutely takes your breath away! Do not miss these.
In Oslo we were taken around by one of our group who knew the town. We visited the marina area, the Nobel peace centre, the fort and the Opera house. We thoroughly enjoyed our walk on top of the Opera house roof.
In Kristiansand we walked around all the little beaches and marinas, to the fort and through the town, which is very small. We enjoyed visiting the cathedral and had a pleasant cup of coffee in a cafe nearby.
In Stavanger, We visited the area of the town which is made up of picturesque old wooden houses. We passed by the canning Museum, after which we made our way into the centre of town. We visited the Cathedral and walked down into the marina area by the Petroleum Museum. After that we took a coffee break and strolled around the shops.
For Flåm, we had elected to take the excursion on the train. People may find it useful to know that there is a tour sold to Dutch-speaking passengers which is just the train tickets with out the cakes and guide and which is considerably cheaper than the trip offered to non-Dutch speaking guess. The train ride itself is wonderful with spectacular views. Commentary is provided in Norwegian, English, German and Dutch. The train was packed full and it was very very crowded on the platform at the waterfall. Also, the stop here is very short so you really need to rush if you're going to take a picture. For some reason they play music here and there is a strange dance by a woman up on the rocks. On reflection, if we were to do this again we would probably do so independently.
Overall, we found the prices for the excursions offered by HAL to be very high. These are probably aimed at a US (i.e. captive) market.
The ship is older and smaller than what most of us were used to. But nevertheless we found her to be very pleasant. As with all HAL ships and there is constant painting and cleaning going on. Some areas were showing wear and tear however, such as our balcony furniture and some of the sofas in the explorations cafe. There also always seemed to be at least one aft elevator out of action.
As always, we received some great attention from the crew of the ship. This was in particular true of our stateroom attendant, assistant waiter and wine waitress. The service is more low key than on some of the bigger ships though. Those expecting to see the senior officers out and about and talk with them will be disappointed. We didn't see the captain until the last day of the cruise when we shuffled past him at the Mariners' lunch, and the only officers we saw around the ship were hotel staff.
The theatre on the ship is very small and thus gives limited scope for big performances. The ship's singers and dancers gave good performances but are rather limited in number. The guest artists were variable. Bob, the pianist, gave an excellent performance but the so-called champion ballroom dancers were a massive disappointment. The Frank Sinatra impersonator sang well but treated the audience in what we felt was a condescending manner.
The guitarist and singer were not so good but we really enjoyed the HAL cats and Adagio strings.
None of the films on offer were of interest to me, but the room in which they were shown was very nice indeed.
I have left the best till last. Michael Langley is an outstanding cruise director and an asset to the company. He switches effortlessly between English and Dutch and manages to keep the audience with him at all times. This is no mean feat. On top of this he is of a bright and cheerful disposition, ever present and always happy to be approached by passengers. We always came away from our encounters with him with a smile on our faces. We wish him a long and happy career with HAL and hope to bump into him again in the future.
All in all a thoroughly enjoyable cruise enjoyed by every member of our group whether new to cruising or an old hand. I think we would all be happy to sail on her again. Maybe the Baltics
or even Indonesia where she has a really wonderful looking 14 day itinerary coming up.