Compared to Princess (where we've taken several cruises), the staff on the Veendam were unremarkable. The cabin stewards were mostly not visible. When we needed something, we had to call the front desk, which often took more time (slow answering phone). Once the cabin stewards came to us, they were very helpful.
Accommodations: the beds were great, superior to Princess.
The air conditioning was terrible. It worked okay at more northern latitudes, but as the ship moved to hotter climes, the AC on the aft portion of deck 4 couldn't keep up with the heat. We complained and a technician "opened up the diffuser more" for us. This made a slight difference (blew more air, but the air it blew wasn't really colder). We and several of our neighbors kept our cabin doors open when we occupied them in order to get some cold air into the cabins.
Overall, the food quality was better than Princess, but worse than previous HAL cruises. We had one meal at the Pinnacle Grill. The steak dried out very quickly. The main dining room service needs more staff. We're used to diner taking one hour, but on this cruise diner always took at least an additional 30 minutes because the staff had too many tables to serve.
The Expressions Cafe (coffee) staff member was often overwhelmed in the morning. When I asked him if he could get some more help when busy, he just laughed me off. I was serious; he lost several customers because they wouldn't wait 10-15 minutes for a latte.
Room service food quality was average. Also, the room service food selection was very good. The hamburger and hot dog grill at the pool area had good food. We especially liked the hot dogs. The pizza served at the retreat area had to be the worst I've ever had. It was cold and tasteless.
We opted for the Thermal Suite at $75 per person for the week based on experiences we had in other ships' Thermal Suites. I expected it to be special with every item being the best it could be. It wasn't special. The other ships had more "rainforest scented showers" and more varied saunas. The Veendam's Thermal Suite has just hot beds, a whirlpool and two saunas. The beds were good. The whirlpool wasn't hot enough and the saunas had what I'd call a Goldilocks problem -- one was too cold and the other one was too hot. Our visits to the Thermal Suite were much shorter than I expected them to be.
We enjoyed the theater/culinary arts center, where we attended several movies and cooking presentations.
The seating on the upper floor of the main showroom is uncomfortable. The couch cushions are hard and the seat backs are too low.
Our main reason for taking this cruise was that it visited Mazatlan, Mexico. At Mazatlan, we wanted to take the excursion to the turtle sanctuary. We signed up for that tour prior to the cruise and were really looking forward to it. Then, HAL cancelled the excursion. This was the single most disappointing event of our cruise. We were told it was cancelled due to security concerns, not lack of interest or operational issues. Please, HAL, make this excursion work. There are no other excursions in Mexico that offer what the Turtle Sanctuary tour has.
Embarkation -- everything was going fine -- until we made it to the check-in desk. Then all of the computers went down (server issue?). Everything just stopped. We were still on time, so it wasn't too bad. But HAL needs to figure out a way to get your computer running again in less than 15 minutes.
Also, this is an area that can really be made more user-friendly. The cruise industry should be working on a check-in kiosk that verifies the passport, takes the customer's picture, and then creates and dispenses the cruise card. Laptop computers and Logitech web cameras are so 1990's!
**Advice to Holland America**
Do you really want to focus your attention on the 80+ year old crowd? Have an employee (who has an open mind) take a few cruises on other lines. Especially lines that cost about the same as HAL and compare them to your customer experience. You may come away believing, as I do, that HAL's product is getting stale.
Also, have a "secret shopper" go on HAL's ships and test them. Ask "why" -- as in why offer pizza if the product is as stiff as cardboard and has no flavor? Why are Thermal Suite customers not visiting the saunas? Why are your shipboard (internal) phones not being answered in say, four rings or less, by every department on the ship? On the good side, why does the hamburger/hot dog stand run out of hot dogs (because they are so good people are coming back for more! -- oh, and the homemade fries are great, too, when they are available!).
Finally, HAL has a reputation as not being a "nickle and dimer" cruise line. I mean, for example, Carnival will charge for absolutely every little thing. Those little pastries at the coffee stand -- Carnival charges for those. Carnival charges for EVERYTHING. I don't expect that on HAL. That's one reason why I expect to pay a little more for my fare on a HAL cruise. So, why is it that when I expect to have a refrigerator in my cabin, HAL just charged me $2 per day for one? I've been on Carnival, NCL, Princess and HAL. Until this cruise, every ships' cabins had refrigerators in them and no one charged for the appliance. The MS Veendam Front Desk staff blew me away when they charged my account $2 per day for a fridge. That is the definition of "nickel and diming" your customers.
After tendering to the Cabo pier, waited about 30 minutes for the mini-sub to arrive (prior tour was late getting back). You ride on top of the mini-sub when traveling to and from the Land's End area, then ride in the sub to see the marine life for 45 minutes or so. It was comfortable inside, cool and not crowded at all. We didn't see anything really special (wanted to see turtles), but the fish we did see were plentiful and beautiful. The tour guides were very knowledgeable and friendly. Bottled water included.
Double decker bus tour of downtown, historic district, lighthouse and cliff divers.
Our ship was the first to visit Mazatlan in over two years due to security concerns. We wanted to visit the Turtle Sanctuary, but it wasn't available. So, we settled on the Topless Bus Tour. Mazatlan is trying very hard to get the cruise ships back. There were tourist volunteers everywhere. Each one an English speaker who knows the city very well. For instance, our bus had a volunteer who has spent every winter in Mazatlan for the past 18 years. This is in addition to the paid tour guide who gives you the official history of the area. The three hour ride seemed to cover all of the main sites in town, along with a 30 minute stop at a shopping area near the beach. We bought a few trinkets.
The upper deck of the bus was dangerous at times. Not because of gun-toting criminals, but because of uncut tree branches and low-strung telephone wires. Heads up!
Everyone in town seemed to know we were back and wanted to let us know how happy they were to see us.