Background information - We are 'young', active 59 and 64 year olds. This was our 4th cruise with Holland America. Our reasons for choosing the NZ Discovery cruise were (1) It fit our available time slot (we had originally chosen the South Pacific cruise immediately before this one but the scheduling of a family wedding necessitated a change) but, more importantly, (2) it gave us a chance to see all of the eastern side of New Zealand and (3) it was a round trip cruise from Sydney, eliminating extra flights.
Hotel information (if any) - Having stayed at the Sydney Sofitel for a conference in 2013, we chose to make our own hotel arrangements and stayed at the Intercontinental in a Club room prior to the cruiseOur room had a view of the city towards the inner harbour to the west and a tiny slice of view of Circular Quay. But we also had access to the Club Lounge on the 31st floor with 360° views of the Opera House, Harbour and Bridge. The view, together with breakfast, all day snacks and 'happy hour' drinks and cold and hot nibbles included, certainly justified the additional cost over the Sofitel with no views, no breakfast and a smaller room.
Ship information - The Oosterdam is the largest ship we have sailed on. Part of the reason we chose this cruise was that it was a 'try out' to see if we would enjoy a cruise on a significantly larger ship farther away from home. In short, the answer is no. Even on day 13 I was still not able to tell whether I was going forward or aft without looking out the windows at which way the water was flowing. However, even with the additional deck of balcony staterooms, she doesn't have the ungainly, 'apartment block' look of many of the larger cruise ships. Like all HAL ships, the blue hull, raked bow, white superstructure and teak decking combine to make her look like a real cruise ship, rather than a party boat. Inside, the decorations are a bit over the top and the colours are BRIGHT but, aside from the Lido buffet, it never felt crowded to us and, as it was the last NZ cruise of the season, the ship was full. We really enjoyed the glass elevator as it was right outside our stateroom but, as it reduced the number of stairs we climbed, it probably wasn't a good thing. Internet is an issue - slow, expensive and non-existent above Deck 3 when one of the modems went out on Day 5.
Now, about the miracle upgrade. Originally, we had booked Signature Suite (category SS), as the cost was comparable to our Ocean View stateroom on our 14 day Alaska cruise on the Amsterdam in 2012. We wanted to try a verandah stateroom as we have always had an ocean view and the SS category is approximately 30% bigger than a standard verandah. We booked on the port side as the cruise was going counter-clockwise and we anticipated we would see more land that way. We had 3 invitations to upgrade to a Pinnacle (Penthouse) Suite at varying amounts of additional cost, which we chose to ignore, and then, on the Tuesday (Australian time) before the cruise received notice that we had received a complimentary upgrade to a Neptune (Deluxe Verandah) Suite with all the Neptune perks! Although we moved to starboard, we still saw plenty of land while coming in to ports and enjoyed our miracle upgrade very much! Although I still don't know whether the extra room in the SS suites is all that much more desirable than the standard verandah, because we were never inside one.
Activities - We didn't do a lot - no trivia, casino, cooking classes, movie nights or shows. We did one wine-tasting (and were reminded why we generally don't drink in the day time!), walked the Promenade, used the Spa several times and had our photographs taken by Black and White. Other than that, we spent our 'at sea' days roaming the ship or on our balcony so my husband, a keen photographer, could take photos. I did craft work and we both read.
Service - Generally, it was excellent. Arnold and Carla in the Neptune Lounge were personable, helpful with dinner reservations and alert to any and all opportunities to assist. They provided nibbles and afternoon tea on several occasions when we had other guests back to our stateroom and the two of them managed to surprise me with balloons, a card and handmade chocolates on my birthday! Our stateroom attendants were most efficient at looking after our stateroom, most of the time without even being seen by us. They did make sure that we knew that they had 21 staterooms to look after but, as they accompanied that statement with a request to know when it would be most convenient for us for them to service our room, I didn't find the comment inappropriate. The wine stewards were run off their feet and it was obvious. But they always tried to provide the very best service they could.
Port & shore excursions - We booked all our shore excursions prior to the cruise through HAL and found them all excellent. We could easily have been more active if more active shore excursions were on offer. Nevertheless, since what we were looking for was a taste of places and experiences in NZ that we hadn't had previously, they all met their brief. My husband particularly enjoyed the opportunities to see and photograph wildlife, the Art Deco aspect of Napier has long been an interest of mine and we both enjoyed the Hobbiton movie set very much.
Travel to embarkation Port - We flew to and from Sydney from our home in Melbourne on QANTAS, a quick and comfortable 1.5 hour flight each way.
Cabin - Our stateroom was clean, spacious and comfortable. The assortment of soft, medium and firm pillows was much appreciated, as was the extensive closet space and drawers and the lighted dressing table outside the bathroom. Having both the standing shower and the shower over the tub was not necessary for us but a nice idea. The verandah was twice the size of the standard one and we enjoyed breakfast or afternoon tea out there on a number of days. I don't think we will ever go back to an ocean view cabin, at least not on a warm weather cruise.
Dining - We ate breakfast either in the Neptune Lounge or ordered room service and ate on our verandah. Lunch was in the MDR for set functions - Mariners embarkation lunch and Mariners brunch - or from the Terrace Grill or the taco/Mexican bar set up on the pool deck. Neither of us are fond of buffets and avoided the Lido as a result. We ate 3 times in the Pinnacle Grill - 2 standard dinners and the Le Cirque night - and once in Canaletto. We found the Pinnacle Grill menu delicious but just a little bit limited, as compared to our previous cruises. We enjoyed Le Cirque much more this time than we had on our Sydney to Singapore cruise in 2011. Beautiful, delicately flavoured food and much less 'show'. Canaletto's new menu philosophy of 'sharing' suited us much better than their previous menu and we were sorry we waited until our last night to try it! We ate in the MDR all other nights and the food ranged from good to excellent. The prime rib was tasty, even if I did have to cut fat and gristle off, salads were nice, the bread was always excellent and desserts were yum - to my will power's cost! Food was never HOT but it never tasted too cool to me. As mentioned above, the wine stewards in all restaurant venues were very busy and sometimes hard to catch but they were always pleasant and knowledgeable. At the end of the cruise season, you should expect that some vintages would be running low and they were, but suggested substitutes were acceptable and, in some cases, an even better bottle than what they were replacing.
Children's clubs - Not relevant to us and the one part of the ship I have never seen.
Entertainment - I went to the Maori Polynesian show (guest artists who came aboard in Napier) and it was excellent. The crew shows are presented too late at night for us and we skipped the other main shows, preferring to enjoy a leisurely dinner instead. We enjoyed the violin and piano duo and Gaither, the solo guitarist. We also enjoyed the Jazz Band and vocalist on the dock in Napier. Lots of fun.
Disembarkation - Unfortunately, this is really the only part of the cruise that didn't go smoothly but it was mostly my own fault. We had booked a HAL airport transfer prior to the cruise and were ready well and truly before time. We got up early in order to see our transit through the Heads and up the harbour. Although it was dark, this was very worthwhile. We ordered room service breakfast but it didn't arrive. Consequently, when our room attendants arrived and asked if they could begin stripping our room, we took our carry-on and went to the Neptune Lounge for breakfast. We went from there to disembarkation without returning to our stateroom and I didn't complete that 'final walk-around' I usually do in a hotel to make sure I haven't left anything behind. It wasn't until I was unpacking at home and couldn't find my husband's electric shaver, our battery-operated toothbrushes, his brand new bottle of after shave etc. that I realised that I must have left them in the bathroom. I have contacted HAL guest relations to see if any of our bits and pieces have been turned in to Lost and Found but have yet to hear anything from them, other than an acknowledgement of my email. Sigh.
Summary - This was a very enjoyable 14 day cruise made extra special by an upgrade to a Neptune Suite and the celebration of my birthday. Although we have decided that we prefer the smaller HAL ships and have booked a Panama Canal cruise next year on Amsterdam, HAL is still a winner in my book.