My husband and I rather impetuously decided to sail on Holland America’s Statendam 45 day combined Hawaii, French Polynesian and Panama Canal cruise departing from San Diego on Dec. 16, 2013. He has cruised many times, including voyages taken with HAL several decades ago. The sum of our combined recent cruise experience (over the past ten years) was a total of 20 days of "free-styling" around the Caribbean; and so we had no recent experience with HAL or any basis of comparison for this class of ship. Since this was going to be a “once in a lifetime experience,” we decided to go for broke (literally) and booked a Neptune Suite on the 10th deck. This afforded us access to the Neptune Lounge and other amenities. What was really appealing was the fact that the Neptune Lounge was advertised as a WIFI hotspot. (More on this important “convenience” later.) Other than that, we had no knowledge of the current HAL and, therefore we were not aware of the Mariner Program which awards passengers Dam Stars for each cruise and for the amount of dollars spent on board. Despite our status as a “Suite Guest”, we quickly realized that we were in the unenviable category of “No Dam Stars”. It was during my first visit to the lounge when I realized that I had No Dam Stars, because some of the other suite guests were wearing their pins and medals and were actively engaged in what turned out to be a thirty-day competitive “I Can Out Dam You” conversation. The Neptune Lounge was a lovely, convenient amenity and the front desk crew members who staffed it were superlative.
On a daily basis the captain got on the PA (and with a sole exception), he referred to the ship as the "Elegant Statendam." In all honesty, that is a bit of a stretch. Without question, the ship is immaculately clean, but it is worn and tired. The best description I heard was from a passenger who had earned a lot of Dam Stars was that the ship masquerades as "Mutton dressed up as Lamb." Putting a positive spin on it, the Statendam could be charitably described as “shabby chic” or “gently used.” One couldn’t help but notice the frayed carpet or the holes in the 8th deck Ocean Club lampshades, along with many other signs of wear in public venues, as well as in our cabin.
Like I said, “elegant” cruising was a new experience for me; so I had no idea that the problems on the Statendam were not cruise customary. A few examples:
Our cabin was located under the spa. Actually, we booked so late that it was the only available choice. Even so, I reasoned this would be a good location, since a legitimate massage overhead shouldn't be too noisy. True enough, but the spa renovations that went on for three weeks on port days were a deafening surprise. I'm talking about major hammering related to retiling the massage rooms, necessitated by a broken pipe behind said walls. Eardrum damaging noise from 9am to 4pm. I do understand that a ship is constantly undergoing renovations, but perhaps management should focus on the bigger issues - like the ship’s HVAC, plumbing and electronics – basic operational necessities.
I personally think some of the repetitive issues had to do with the blackout we experienced at 10:15pm one night midway between San Diego and Hawaii. The “sound” of no engines for 45 minutes can be a bit disconcerting, but since we're from the Northeastern part of the United States and experienced with power failures, I had my trusty flashlight at the ready. The Captain promptly reported that an “oil mist sensor” in the engine room had shut us down. It must have also shut down the ship's air conditioning/temperature sensors, because from that point forward, the stateroom thermostats became useless. Here we were in a Neptune suite, being very careful to keep the curtains drawn in order to avoid extreme cabin heat. At least we could get access to fresh air; and I did sleep a night or two out on the balcony. At other times the cabin was frigid but we were afraid to make it warmer since we didn't want to risk roasting again.
The bathroom was interesting. It took me a while to ignore the sink and bathtub gurgling and belching. I was concerned that the toilet geyser issue on the fifth deck might work its way up to the tenth deck. It actually did, but not in our cabin. The lovely couple in the cabin next to us suffered through a double whammy, and I have to say they displayed the patience of saints since they were displaced for almost three days due to a broken pipe resulting in sopping wet carpet. They finally got dried out from what turned out to be a ceiling leak, only to have a toilet gusher re-flood the cabin. As a matter of fact, the ship experienced a number of water-related issues as in: “No Dam Water.” “No Dam Hot Water.” “No Dam Cold Water.” “Really Dam Brown Water.” all followed by a scheduled shutdown of all potable water, which may or may not have had something to do with “another sensor” that caused both swimming pools to drain. The captain reported that this pool-draining action aided in the "survivability" of the ship in the case of a true emergency. I didn't quite get that connection, because I was busy trying to navigate the bathtub. Bathtubs that require an expertise in pole vaulting in order to get into and out of, with hand holds on the side away from the shower head and not wide enough to fit a shower chair for those of us who are not exactly comfortable showering while the ship is rocking and rolling. A number of passengers used the Spa to shower, but I was in a Neptune Suite, Dam it, and I didn’t really want to go traipsing to and from the Spa to shower.
My husband and I actually lucked out. At the end of the 45 days, we were one of the few cabins on the Starboard side of the Navigation Deck that had avoided flooding. The cabin flooding was continuously interesting, as were the ever-present loud blowers placed strategically in both cabins and hallways. I have some great photos of the buckets used to catch the hallway ceiling drips. For the first two weeks, we endured the scent of Eau de Latrine towards aft on our deck, so we were thrilled when the maintenance guys finally got that leak plugged up. When the ship completed the Hawaii/Tahiti leg, virtually all of the passengers disembarked in San Diego and new folks boarded for the Central America/Panama Canal portion. I actually felt for the new occupants on our deck. Here they were, happy as Larry, but within a day or two, the same cabins that had flooded before and dried out, flooded again. Even the Penthouse took a hit. The explanations for these problems kept morphing. First the captain said the water was from a combination of a mighty squall combined with a sudden heeling of the ship. I'm not too sure about this because this heeling event took place during the sail away party heading off towards Tahiti (weeks earlier) and the three dancers on the aft deck didn't tilt at all. Then we were told that the Lido pool on the deck above us had a broken pipe beneath it. Ultimately we heard (confidentially from an impeccable source) that these leaks on the Starboard side of deck ten had been going on for months and were scheduled for real renovation "soon." I somehow doubt that HAL is going to pass on potential revenue from booking these cabins in order to fix the problems once and for all for the benefit of future passengers and/or the unfortunate crew members, who have to deal with repetitive irate passengers. I have no way of knowing, but I couldn't help but wonder what color of mold is growing beneath these carpets that are periodically soaked and dried out
One of the selling points of the Neptune Lounge is the claim that it is an Internet hotspot, where wireless and Internet access is always available for "a small additional charge." When pigs fly. We embarked on this journey with a breezy message to friends and family stating that we would be only an email away. Accordingly, we had a laptop and tablet with us - as did the majority of other passengers. From the get-go, the Elegant Statendam "lost" it satellite. For the first three weeks, the Internet access was iffy at best, if available at all. Over the course of our six week voyage, we ended up purchasing 1800 minutes, and I was only trying to post a little blog. On one occasion it took 38 minutes to upload five photos. Heard a bunch of completely illogical reasons for us “losing” our satellite but finally got the real scoop. HAL corporate management decided to switch providers, which required a transition period of two weeks. Unbelievably, the IT folks on board just couldn't understand why the company they had terminated was not being responsive regarding server conflicts during the transition. Ultimately, on January 20, the Internet speed did improve and all was well, with the exception of a total inability to upload photos to Wordpress. That little problem was to be fixed by February 14th. Too bad for passengers until then which, of course, included us. Then there is the little problem of the ship’s antenna. The one they have is good but extremely sensitive to weather and position, or so they told me. Not to worry, they are getting a second antenna. Soon. In March. Maybe. OK. I'm just a passenger who was trying to post a personal blog. Other frustrated passengers were actually trying to conduct business. Worse, can you imagine being a member of the crew, away from home (for maybe 10 months), and the only link you have to your family is the Excellent Elegant Statendam's Internet Service? A service, by the way, that they too have to pay for! Trust me. If you need to communicate with loved ones when aboard this ship, follow the crew when you get to port. They know the location of every Internet café, everywhere. (The same holds true if you need to find a Walmart.)
But using shore time to access the internet would mean that you wouldn't be able to avail yourself of the Excellent Elegant Statendam's excursions. If anyone ever deserved an award for creative writing, it would be the excursion folks. It isn’t that their descriptions of offered excursions are misrepresentative, per se. It is just that their rosy descriptions are not quite reality. Since we had No Dam Stars, we didn’t realize we could independently book identical excursions and save the ship’s upcharge (which on one occasion amounted to over $100 per person). Interested in snorkeling off a white sand beach that you may simply walk into? Not disclosed is the fact that to access the beach, you either have to navigate a concrete beachhead or traverse the side of a cliff with lots of steps and no handrails. It was not until I learned that the excursion folks earn their keep based on commissioned sales that I got it. Buyer beware. Having said that, the local folks who conduct these tours are fantastic (Costa Rica specifically not included) and make every effort to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. The fact that they can’t provide what you thought you signed up for is not their fault. Specifically, as to Costa Rica’s Red Macaw Sanctuary and Cruise through the Mangroves, skip it. Go to your local zoo if you want to see birds in cages. Further, if you want to see Central America’s exotic indigenous birds, wait until you dock in Cartagena, Colombia. They are right there. FOR FREE! As for cruising through the mangroves in Costa Rica, make sure the tide is in or make sure you have your binoculars with you.
Given our cruise history (my husband’s dated and mine limited) we were a tad overwhelmed by the aggressive sales activity aboard the Elegant Statendam. I am not referring to aggressive crew persons but rather to HAL’s opportunist policies. We expected to pay for libations and photos but were a bit surprised to find an upcharge for enjoying a cappuccino after dinner, or for a bottle of water in the casino. The casino was pleasant, staffed with experienced, friendly dealers who were oppressively watched like hawks by the “suits”. What I found amazing was that it was a) difficult to get something to drink since there were few or no waiters circulating and b) if one was lucky enough to snag a waiter, there was a charge for a beverage – even water. This was a first for me. In my experience, casinos want customers to enjoy a beverage while playing. The “happier” the player, the greater likelihood that caution will be tossed overboard to the casino’s benefit, right? Nope. HAL makes every effort to ensure that all passengers know they should stay hydrated while in port and they are quite willing to provide a bottle of water upon exiting the ship, and they are happy to put that charge on your account. Quite a few of our fellow passengers commented on feeling like they were being “nickeled and dimed” in general, and we would have to agree. My husband refused to order after dinner cappuccino as a matter of principle.
So what is right about the Elegant Statendam? Plenty. Some examples:
The Excellent Elegant Statendam’s Laundry Service. We did not appreciate the significance of great laundry service. Free for Neptune Suite guests, and free for holders of sufficient “Dam Stars”, laundry and dry cleaning reappears within twenty-four hours, neatly wrapped with tissue paper. Certainly a shrunken sock or tee shirt now and then doesn’t matter. I’ve been known to do that at home. If we had known in advance about the efficiency of this amenity, we could have boarded with one suitcase each instead of the five overstuffed cases we brought with us.
The food was good and there was always something for everyone’s taste. We generally enjoyed our dinners in the Rotterdam Dining Room. We really enjoyed our meals at the Pinnacle and since we were Dam Suite Guests, we were able to have leisurely breakfast there as well. We loved the two evenings that the Pinnacle converted into Le Cirque and really, really raved about the Cellar Master’s Wine Pairing Dinner. Maybe that had something to do with the seven different types of wine served, but the food was outstanding and beautifully presented. We found service in all dining facilities outstanding, and consistent.
Germs - or the lack thereof. Aside from whatever is lurking beneath the repeatedly flooded cabin carpets, the Statendam is fanatical about germ eradication. The first 48 hours constitute a "you may not serve yourself" blackout period. Not even a glass of water. The crew has a no-touch, will-not-shake-hands, policy. Every eating venue has a person standing there squirting hand sanitizer. Get off the ship, you get squirted. Get on the ship, you get squirted. In Central America they even give you FREE hand sanitizer and that is saying something because they don't give anything away for free. Even so, passengers still got sick. I contracted the upper respiratory cruise crud that seems to pop up despite the squirting efforts. My medical history is rather complex and my husband and I had one of our five suitcases stuffed with medications, so I was a bit wary of visiting the ship’s Medical Department. What a relief when I realized that the doctor on board knew her stuff and had experience with my specific medical complexities. The nursing staff was wonderful and I was diagnosed, treated and hacked no more.
The entertainment and activities on board also afforded something for everyone. We don’t play bingo but did avail ourselves of the team trivia challenge which was not only fun but also happened to coincide with happy hour. The shows that we saw were professional and enjoyable, but of all of the shows we saw, we most enjoyed the three that were performed by the crew. The Christmas Crew Show, the Filipino Crew Show and the Indonesian Crew Show. Which brings me to the most valuable asset that HAL has in the Elegant Statendam. The crew. I am specifically referring to the “grunts” – the working blokes – and this crew is awesome. I know that I was a No Dam Stars person but I spent my working career in the service sector and I was seriously impressed by every encounter. These folks work long hours housed in spartan accommodations, dealing with somewhat demanding passengers. And they do it with smiles on their faces. The crew is made up of three distinct groups. Filipinos, Indonesians and “all others” who are mostly the “non-grunts”. We met crew members who were counting the days, hours and minutes until their contracts were over. Each and every one of them was there because they were trying to make a better life for their families back home. The "all others" had a different life on board. They had cabins with showers and refrigerators and had privileges in the above-deck restaurants. Some even had a Dam porthole. Tough being a grunt on the Statendam. It was also tough returning to reality at home where people are grumpy. The general passenger consensus was we were really spoiled by this crew with one notable exception.
The Excellent Captain of the Elegant Statendam needs a personality transplant. Really. The Captain’s resume includes a lot of years in cargo transport and a stint in commercial aviation. No great interpersonal skills needed there. The man blew off the “crossing the equator crew hazing” and in a final crazy event, blew off some Dam Stars passengers. One couple from London got rather annoyed that the Captain was a rarer sighting than the elusive Mexican Mot Mot trailer-park bird. They fired off an email to corporate in Seattle. They got a prompt email response, but not from corporate! From the Captain himself! The man couldn't get off his butt to go knock on their cabin door? Maybe it was because he was doing the friends and family thing. His wife was on board. They wined and dined together and rarely interacted with passengers. In his email response to the British passengers he actually said that (paraphrasing) a Captain’s life is much different today than in past years, not-so-subtly implying that he was too busy to mingle with passengers. My husband comments that this is not like old time cruising, although I did read on this very site, that other Dam HAL Captains do actually dine with their passengers. Collectively, as passengers, we had no such opportunity to chat with the Captain other than superfluous encounters at staged events. He didn’t even stay for the special luncheon held for Dam Suite Guests that we were invited to in his name. He stood at the door, said hello to each arrival and booked out of there.
So, the bottom line? We had an absolutely great time and the days flew by. I would have stowed away for a re-do if I could have, especially since I have now been elevated to a three Dam Star veteran. We met passengers that have become dear friends. We met the most incredible crew members from dishwashers, to waiters and waitresses, to cabin attendants, to front office folk, to photographers, to performers and to officers. We would sail with HAL again in a heartbeat but not on the “not-so-Elegant” Statendam. Despite its age and dated atmosphere, the ship combined with the current remarkable crew could be a winning combination, if the powers-that-be would put passengers before profits and put the ship into dry dock for a thorough re-hab. Until they to attend to the very real problems they have been experiencing on a recurring basis - problems which cannot be addressed on an ad hoc basis – another Dam might be a better choice. What a Dam shame.