Recently returned from a 21 day Panama Canal cruise on the Veendam with Holland America. For those of you who have not sailed through the Panama Canal, I heartily encourage you to do so. I read David McCullough's book on the canal before I cruised, along with a couple of other books about the canal, so I knew the remarkable history of the canal beforehand, and I encourage you to do that, also. It will definitely increase your enjoyment on the day you pass through the canal if you can appreciate the challenge, for example, that was presented by the Culebra Cut, by doing some advance work.
Let me begin my review by stating what I've said in previous reviews: true wine and food devotees simply don't feed these passions by cruising. Why not? Because cruise ships have to prepare massive amounts of food for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of passengers multiple times during the day. Do you really believe that the chef is waiting for your order to come to him before he starts to prepare your lamb chop? I think not. If you really want to have food specially prepared for you as you order it on HAL cruises, you will need to eat nightly at the Pinnacle Grill or the Canneletto--and that will cost you $25 pp or $10 pp extra respectively. SO: I accept that eating in the Rotterdam Dining Room means that I will be getting food that is prepared in advance based on historical expectations of how many of each entree will probably be ordered. Having said that, I must say I found the food to be very good and only occasionally (when ordering a vegetarian option) found an entree I didn't like, but only because I like spicier food, and not because the food was overcooked or underdone. Indeed, I found some truly delightful meals, particularly their pasta dishes, like the one with figs and bacon--delicious! So, dinner for me was very enjoyable. Because I enjoy a good meal, though, I also splurged and had dinner at the Canneletto (twice), Pinnacle Grill (once) and LeCirque (1). Canneletto was delicious, so was Pinnacle, despite the fact that they no longer flambe the Steak Diane tableside. I had chateaubriand at LeCirque which was delicious, but I don't think I will splurge for the extra $39pp for this option any longer. I just don't think LeCirque is that much better than the regular dining room fare.
I used room service many times for breakfast as I enjoyed eating in a quiet location without having to chase down my meal, then my coffee, then my juice. I found my room service meals hot and delicious, every time, and served at precisely the time I requested them. SO: Meals on the Veendam? A big success for me. I might add I love to cook and think I'm a pretty good cook, too.
This ship: I am very familiar with the Veendam as I have traveled on this ship to Bermuda several times with HAL. Quite honestly, I was afraid the ship would be too confining for a 21 day trip, but I was wrong. I WAS disappointed that the pool was closed for several days for repairs when we boarded in Boston (apparently, the pool had been closed for at least a week before this when the 28 day Panama Canal cruise started in Quebec). I find this unacceptable on a ship that only has one pool. Additionally, HAL, take note, I love the teak loungers on the lower promenade deck, but the cushions are well past their life expectancy and need replacing. They just look gross and unclean. Time for new ones.
The rest of the ship was very clean though.
My cabin was an outside cabin on deck six, which was plenty spacious for a single cruiser. I had no issues whatsoever with temperature in the stateroom. Or with extraneous noise, even though I was right next to doors leading to the outside promenade deck.
Entertainment: I enjoyed all the shows I saw. The comedians were funny (Julie Barr--you and your pink hair cracked me up!) and an edgy black ventriloquist. Went to the Indonesian crew show and enjoyed that too, had fun commenting to crew members later that week that I enjoyed seeing them in the show and seeing them blush with pleasure. Heard from many people who went to other shows that they enjoyed them. The guitar player at the Lido Pool was fabulous. The Adagio Strings were great. The band leader from the Neptunes is a lecherous old man to be avoided at all costs, though, if you are a woman traveling alone. Women, beware.
They had a geologist onboard from Minnesota who gave wonderful lectures on the Panama Canal, the effect of a huge asteroid when it hit in Mexico, a discussion of global warming, the effects of population on natural resources, and the gold rush in California (which, btw, was partially responsible for the urge to build a canal through Central America in the first place). Enjoyed the lectures very much.
Ports of call: In Florida, I rented a car in Cape Canaveral and drove to Merritt Island National Refuge. Only about 30 miles away and fabulous! In Ft. Lauderdale, rented a car and went to the beach at Hollywood, next time I'll just use a taxi, it's close enough to not make it worthwhile to rent the car. The beach at Hollywood is clean and very nice. In Key West, rented a bike and went all over the island, snorkeled, and just had fun.
Cayman Islands: Rented a car and drove to the Cayman Islands national seashore area and never saw another person there. Had the whole place to ourselves. If you go there, you must bring water shoes, though, because of some shore plants with thorns.
Cartegena, Colombia--did a private tour and next time, would just rent a taxi, as our tour guide indicated that taxis are very reasonable. Found a beach that I would park myself at and swim where I felt entirely safe. Did a historical tour of the walled city and also went to the top of the hill where there was a spectacular view of the city but you can see that Cartegena has a way to go before all of its citizens have running water and sewage. But I learned a lot on the tour.
Panama Canal: EPIC! Loved it! Everyone should do this at least once! I will do it again.
Costa Rica: My favorite part of this tour was the riverboat tour on the Tarcoles River. Fascinating! And the meal provided afterwards was authentic and delicious, beer was cold and cheap ($2).
Nicaragua: Went to Leon. Hated the city. Dirty, felt unsafe walking around by myself. Had a taxi driver warn me that two men following me on a motorcycle were up to no good. But I learned a lot about the political history of the area from our tour guide who explained why he was a Sandinista. But next time, I won't leave the port area. I will take a taxi to the local beach that looked lovely.
Guatamala: Took a taxi with three other people to a local public beach and swam all day in warm water with HUGE waves. Had fun and always felt safe. The taxi cost $5 pp and the cabana was $2 for all four of us. We shared it with two other families (all Guatamalans) and in fact were the only gringoes on the beach, but never a problem.
Three ports of call in Mexico:
Puerto Chiapas: Took a private tour that included a folklore center (very nice!), an area of Mayan ruins (a waste of time, no one there who knew anything about it, and the ruins don't even begin to compare with Mayan ruins on the Eastern coast of Mexico) and then the city of Chiapas. My advice? Take a taxi and have them take you around the bay to the beach area instead.
Hualtalco: LOVED IT. Coming back. Going to find someone who will take us to one of the nearby bays where the beaches are sandy and there are NO roads, so the only way to get there is by boat, to snorkel and swim. Cleanest water I ever saw, sea turtles everywhere. Loved this port of call.
Puerto Vallerta: Took a HAL excursion to the former estate of director John Huston, loved it, would do it again, even if pricey at $105, included meals, drinks (alcohol, too) use of snorkel gear, kayaks, etc. I paid extra $50 to dive (my first ever, did a PADI) and I am hooked. Will definitely repeat this HAL excursion.
San Diego: disembarking were effortless.
Crew and staff: I had a pleasant time with most crew members. I've already mentioned the Neptune bandleader to be avoided. Service in the Crow's Nest, where you would find me almost every afternoon from 4-5 for happy hour, was slow--you would think they would staff it better as there was always a crowd!!--and some of the staff there was at times a bit snippy. But loved Imade, my dining steward. He took very good care of our table of 6. I rarely saw my room steward but I knew he'd been there because my room was always clean and he kept me in wine glasses for the wine we brought on board and the ice bucket was always filled.
Most of the people on this cruise were considerably older than me. In fact, I think I met only 4 people who were younger (I'm in my late 50's). Almost everyone was also retired (not me). So, if you are looking for a crowd that was dancing and up late, this is not the cruise for you. On the other hand, never had to worry about finding a lounger by the pool or at the back of the boat, or on the lower promenade, and found some interesting people to listen to.
The ship offered a morning stretch class and an "abs" class that I took every morning that was free. I also had two massage treatments that were pricey but I loved them. I only cruise about once a year, and if I can't splurge then, what's the point?
To sum up, I will absolutely do this exact same cruise again, maybe in a year or so. I learned a lot about Central America, had some delightful ports of call, came to appreciate what my taxes in the US pay for (clean water, septic, stop lights, safe streets, paved roads, animal control!!) and next time might do some of the ports of call a little differently. But I came away both invigorated and also refreshed. What more can you ask of when you are finished with your cruise vacation??!!