There was a lot to like on this cruise, starting with the selection of ports. With only one exception, the Maasdam docked near the center of each town and so avoided the delay and inconvenience of tendering. The weather was perfect for the first half of the cruise, but after that, dense fog set in during the evening; much worse, Hurricane Arthur was projected to hit the New England coast just a few hours before our scheduled arrival in Boston. The final afternoon of the cruise saw the crew tying down or removing deck furniture and a number of passengers decided to disembark at Bar Harbor rather than stay on board and ride out the storm. Fortunately, Captain Ryan was able to steer a course well to the west of Arthur, so the sea turned out to be calmer than expected.
As this was our first cruise with the Holland America Line, we couldn’t help comparing the Maasdam with the newer and larger ships we had previously been on. One noticeable difference was the strong vibration throughout our cabin, especially in the bathroom. This apparently was nothing out of the ordinary for experienced HAL hands but was an unwelcome surprise for us. Another negative was the daily 8 a.m. wakeup call in the form of the cruise director’s cheery announcements, all of which were of a routine nature. We were told that this is a company policy that caters to the interests of HAL’s elderly base clientele. But for light or late sleepers, it’s an annoyance that other lines avoid by keeping the early morning in-room announcements to a minimum.
The food ranged from good to excellent, though service in the main dining hall was so slow that we began taking all of our meals in the self-service restaurant, which offered most of the same appetizers, entrees, and desserts but was less crowded and more casual, as well as quicker. The dining room waiters were in constant motion, so it seems that the problem was due to understaffing.
This cruise offered a wide range of entertainment, both in the nightly shows in the theater and in the various lounges on Deck 8. A classical duo drew small but appreciative audiences in one lounge and then ably filled in when the expected high seas led to the cancellation of the dance contest scheduled for the final night. There was also a different movie each day, plus nightclub-type activities in a gorgeous room called the Crow’s Nest and lots of talks, contests, and other diversions offered mainly during the daytime. But the local entertainers that had been promised never materialized, which is a shame considering that Canada’s maritime provinces are home to a large and well-regarded community of Celtic musicians and dancers. One event that we hadn’t seen on previous cruises was a shipboard 5K walk to benefit cancer research. This is a really nice idea that with just a little tweaking could be on a par with similar events run by experienced race organizers (e.g., providing on-course water stations during and after the event, and waiting for the last walkers to finish before the organizers pack up and move on to their next activity).
We signed up for only one excursion, skipping the others mostly because the prices seemed too high. In Charlottetown, for example, we found an excellent one-hour bus tour that cost $17.25 per person. HAL offered a similar tour via a horse-drawn trolley for $49.95 each. On the other hand, we found out in Halifax that the Gray Line tour of that city actually cost less to Maasdam passengers than to those on the Queen Mary 2, which was also docked there, or to non-cruisers. So what’s not clear is how much of the high cost of excursion tickets goes to the local operators and how much to the cruise lines.
Another mystery is why HAL and most (but not all) of the other major cruise lines are still unwilling to provide free WiFi. The packages available through the ship’s high-tech library were, again, quite expensive, and judging by the large numbers of passengers (and crew) taking advantage of the free WiFi in the terminal of every port we visited, it’s hard to imagine that the current arrangement is a money-maker for the cruise companies. HAL is also behind the times technologically in that it requires passengers to speak with someone in the business office to check account balances rather than doing so on-line.
There are a number of other small things that could have been done better, but on the whole this cruise was a positive experience and we would be willing to consider signing up for future voyages with Holland America. The key, of course, was the itinerary: Every port was worth seeing and we were totally taken with Charlottetown and Halifax, in particular. HAL also gets high grades for the embarkation: Our cabin was ready when we stepped aboard and the luggage arrived shortly thereafter. Likewise, the disembarkation and airport transfer in Boston were prompt and orderly. Finally, in light of the reported outbreak of disease on another cruise ship, we appreciated the additional hygienic measures taken by the Maasdam, such as the ban on self-service at the buffets during the cruise’s first 48 hours.
We happened to arrive on a day when Charlottetown was celebrating not only a big national holiday (Canada Day) but also the 150th anniversary of the conference that led to the formation of Canada several years later. With only a few hours in port, we maximized our time by taking a Gray Line tour that covered the highlights of this small but charming provincial capital in about 65 minutes. The guide was a native who seemed thoroughly informed about local history and culture; at a cost of $17.25 each, this tour was a terrific bargain. Afterwards, we dropped in on several of the holiday celebrations and also visited some of the permanent attractions: St. Dunstan's basilica and the shops along Victoria Row. For city of only 30,000, there's a lot to do here.
At $49.95 per person for 90 minutes, this was at the high end for what we'd normally pay for a city tour. But it was well worth the money. The guide was a retired railroad official who provided a steady stream of facts and stories about the city. Highlights included seeing the vast amount of green space that Halifax has preserved for public use, and visiting the site of the 1917 explosion that killed 2000 residents and destroyed much of the city.
Compared to the other ports, Sydney might seem to have been added to cruise itineraries mainly as an alternative to a sea day. And while it doesn't match up with Quebec, Halifax, or even little Charlottetown, there are some things worth seeing. One surprise was the pavilion housing the passenger terminal, which, on days when a ship is docked, houses dozens of local vendors. Be sure to visit the museum on the second floor, which is small but of high quality, to learn more about the entire Cape Breton area.