My wife, 5year old daughter and I are just back from the March 3 sailing of the Oosterdam from SD to the Mexican Riviera. We were looking for a week of relaxation, but I was skeptical of the quality of the ship as I have been spoiled by sailings on the SS France, QE2 and QM2. While nothing will likely ever match the service and food of the SS France, we found the Oosterdam to be on par and in some areas even better than the QM2.
Embarkation was fine. Security wouldn’t allow our cab into the actual terminal so we had to schlep our bags through the initial gate. If you have a lot of luggage, insist that your vehicle pull up to the luggage carts. We breezed through check-in. Another Holland America ship was undergoing a super thorough cleaning, so their embarkation was delayed until 4:30.
The ship is a class act. We are not huge ship people (that being said, the QM2, while large, never feels crowded) and so we were thrilled with the intimacy of the Oosterdam. Furnishings and décor are pleasing and overall elegant. The stateroom was comfortable and large enough for the three of us, with sufficient storage and closet space. The bathroom was excellent: large, with a tub(!) and lots of storage in the medicine chest and below the sink. This is the first time we have had a stateroom without a balcony, I was leery of my reaction to having no fresh air, but in truth, while the balcony would have been nice, it would not have been worth the extra $500. We were a few rooms forward of the aft elevators on the main deck, with a good view of the Pacific. By the way, the sound and vibration of the azipod (one was still unworkable on our sailing) were unnoticeable in our room. Our room steward did what was needed.
We dined in the main dining room every night, entering a few minutes after the 8PM start time, seldom waiting more than a minute to be seated. We also ate here for a few lunches and breakfasts. We had an excellent table alongside a window. Service here was extraordinary! The staff was knowledgeable and helpful with everything. The food was equally impressive. Let me make clear that we are food snobs; I was expecting quality and taste on par with maybe one of the chain restaurants one finds outside the mall, a step above say a Marie Callendar’s, but below that of a real restaurant. We were thrilled to discover that overall the dishes were diverse, pleasantly presented and pleasing to the palette. Highlights included a salmon and shrimp cake, lobster bisque, escargots, salmon tartare, broiled halibut in a beurre blanc, a perfectly cooked sirloin (available nightly), and several tasty vegetarian dishes. The Caesar salad is worth ordering as are other salads. Special requests were always granted (pairing a main course say, with the side dishes of a different entrée) and the few dishes that we did not enjoy were immediately replaced by something else. The desserts were overall less appealing, with the exception of the to-die-for apple strudel (NOT the no sugar version). Everyone raves about the bread pudding; I found it to be too eggy. We went with the lovely cheese plates most nights. The vibration of the azipod was highly noticeable and annoying in the rear of the dining room, especially downstairs, although where we were nearer the middle, it was a minor issue.
We ate in the Lido dining room for most our breakfasts and lunches. While not on par with the main dining room, it also impressed us. The décor was very attractive, with comfortable tables and chairs. The service staff were everywhere with extra linen napkins, beverages, clearing trays and plates, and the offer to carry trays to the table. While busy, the Lido had short lines and wait times for food, and special requests were granted as asked for. Compared to the QM2, we have to make the comparison to the vaunted Cunard brand (sorry, it’s not really the Cunard line anymore), the buffet style dining experience and the quality of food in both areas were far superior on the Oosterdam. Holland America served us good food while the QM2 created fancier and more complex dishes that quite frankly rarely tasted good. Oh. And lastly, the ice-cream bar that everyone raves about: come on, it’s just ice-cream, and not even of the highest quality.
The public rooms on the ship were more than adequate. The atrium is a fine performance space. The many other small spaces and bars are wonderful for reading, staring at the sea, or listening to string quartets and other musicians. The Windstar Café takes care of the latte fix, or for free one can order the same in the main dining room. The library is a cozy space with sufficient books and was rarely used. I wish they stocked more magazines and newspapers. My sense is that during the daytime, Holland America prefers that people spend money in the shops, on art, playing bingo, or in the casino, as many of the public spaces are devoted to these pursuits. Many, if not most of the passengers seem to be either in these spaces or eating. We, preferring more quiet and intimate settings, found plenty of these on the promenade deck or in a few seldom used rooms. The pools, both covered (when cool) and aft (windblown) and the four Jacuzzis were fine. Afternoon tea was pleasant and the Indonesian tea is worth attending.
I’ll say little about the ports, as we did no Holland America excursions and if we were going to explore Mexico we would do it ourselves over the course of a week or more. If going into Puerto Vallarta, skip a $12 cab ride. Walk out of the terminal, head south, change $5 into pesos at the super market (I bought a pack of gum) and take any bus heading towards “el Centro” for 5 pesos or .50 cents each. Do the same on your return.
Lastly, for our daughter, the Hal Club was the true low point. There were about 30 kids on our cruise, with only six in our daughter’s age group of 3-7 years old. We were provided with a schedule of the week’s activities; sometimes this schedule wasn’t followed and at times the replacement activities and even the regularly scheduled ones were inappropriate. Case in point, for a group of five kids ages 4 and 5, they gave them an hour in the video arcade, where all the games but one involved shooting at things. Another time they were given an hour on PS2 consoles. Two movies shown (one in place of a scheduled craft activity and games) were Hook and Nanny Mcphee; not my first choices for kids of that age (what’s wrong with a G-Rated film?), but more importantly why show the kids a film during the day at all? The woman staffing the Hal Club were gentle and kind and some of the activities were engaging, the pirate night was great fun, but overall the experience felt like average baby sitting rather than worthwhile activities.
And now the few other items needing improvement: There was mold on our shower curtain lining, scuff marks and pen on parts of our walls, and a noticeable and periodic smell of rotten eggs (sewage?) in a few of the hallways. The beer and wines by the glass selections were poor. The lamb, in all lamb dishes, was a bit gamy, and I love lamb. The music in the pool areas was awful, noisy covers (I guess Holland America doesn’t want to pay the royalties for real music); always on and always loud. Low quality lotions and soaps in the staterooms. I wish passengers dressed better at dinner. Even during the two formal nights there were a noticeable number of men not even in suits and the other five nights were casual. I like seeing everyone dressed up and dolled up at dinner time on a ship; it’s so 1920’s!
Again, the service, from top to bottom was consistently top notch. Our daughter was fawned upon by the crew. Unprompted, they made her an origami frog, brought her a Caesar salad every night after she discovered she liked it, and always served her a glass of milk with dessert. Wherever we went on the ship staff would ask her her name and then everyday after would say hello to her by name! We like to start dinner with a beer, so a chilled beer and beer steins were always waiting for us; my wife mentioned really liking a type of cracker served with the cheese plate, and for the next five nights the same crackers were on our table before we were seated.
Disembarkation was a breeze. Overall, the voyage was well worth the investment in money and time, both of which are actually limited in one’s lifetime. We came back totally rested and well fed, with happily only a few pounds gained, thanks to daily three mile runs around the promenade deck. Compared to the QM2? On the one hand, the much higher cost is hard to justify. On the other hand, a transatlantic crossing has its own magic—a sense of timelessness. The QM2 is more elegant and there was something special about the elegant and classy nature of the passengers, with three formal nights of mainly tuxedos and gowns and only one casual night. If money were not really an issue, we would try the QM2 again; otherwise, we would be happy with the Oosterdam.