There can be little more memorable than watching large, sleek cruise ship at anchor in the clear azure water of a Caribbean inlet like Half Moon Cay. Unless it's looking up at that very ship from a tender as you make your way back from the pier at Monaco, the city climbing the ridge behind you. Or perhaps gazing out over the tiled rooftops of a small Spanish city like Almeria at that very same ship anchored in port beyond them. The Westerdam's Journey to the New World (transatlantic) cruise in October offered all those memories and more.
I am a 60-year-old single male who traveled solo on this cruise. I booked this cruise based on the itinerary not because of expectations for the cruise line or the cruise itself. My perceptions and opinions may be somewhat different from those of many considering Holland America Line (HAL), the Westerdam, or a similar itinerary and should be read as one viewpoint among the many that can be found at CruiseCritic. I have tried to touch on points not covered by other reviews rather than give my impression of ports of call and the like. As a result this is a somewhat longer review than many.
Precruise visit to Rome
I booked a short precruise visit to Rome and used HAL to reduce the potential for disruption and problems. If I were to do it again, I would have certainly used HAL for the air travel and transfer to the port, but not for the rest. The transfer to the hotel was poorly organized, slow, and chaotic. HAL's contractor for the transfer provided guides whose English left a lot to be desired, a problem that they compounded by providing little useful information. I believe I could easily have found a better-located hotel at a more reasonable price at this time of the year.
The hotel was the Parco Dei Principi, which was a good 20-minute walk from the central part of the city. While the Villa Borghese Park separating the hotel from the city is very pleasant and great for walks (and from all appearances very safe) the streets in the park are somewhat confusing and many of them did not appear on any of the four maps that I was using. The Galleria Borghese is within walking distance. I had no difficulty getting a ticket with an almost immediate entrance time late in the afternoon there. Hotel staff were efficient, responsive, and knowledgeable. I ate dinner in the dining room the night I arrived and the staff was very accommodating, going out of their way to make a single traveler feel comfortable. The food was so-so.
Many people have written reviews about visits to Rome and I will not duplicate what they have written. My only suggestions are definitely prebook a tour for the Vatican early and if you want to see the inside of the Coliseum, buy the combination ticket at Palatine Hill (allowing you to see both this fantastic ancient palace area and the Coliseum). The lines are much shorter there.
The Westerdam is a relatively new ship that was refurbished earlier this year. As part of that process the Lido restaurant was expanded, which was badly needed since it is still too small to accommodate all 1800 guests on sea days. Despite the fact that the ship was just in for updating there are noticeable signs of wear. As an example, the seating outside the dining room on Deck 2 is thread bare and worn through. Carpets in many areas are a monstrous riot of reds and blues that is discordant with the crystal, prints, and statues found in various parts of the ship. HAL advertises the quality of the "art" displayed around the ship. It is true that there were no velvet bullfighter pictures in gilt frames, but beyond that I'm not sure it rises to the level of 'art'.
I booked an inside cabin that was more than large enough for my needs. I didn't miss having a porthole or a verandah and in fact I found it much easier to sleep in the darkness that the interior cabin afforded. It was my plan to spend minimal time in the cabin and I elected to spend the money elsewhere (HAL cooperates with that by giving you lots of opportunities to spend, spend, spend).
There was plenty of storage in terms of closets for one person, although drawer space was quite limited. I can believe that a couple or a person with more "gear" (such as make up) might find the lack of counter space a severe limitation. There were several other problems as well. The lighting is quite good in the central part of the cabin, but the configuration was such that the closets were very dark and it was often hard to find things in them, especially in a hurry. Additionally, the walls are thin and I sometimes heard the people next to me (or their television).
HAL does provide toiletry items and a hair dryer; however the shampoo and body wash were quite thin and the hair conditioner was so thick that it was very difficult to get it out of the bottle. I would carry my own if these items are important. The hair dryer is mounted under the counter in the sleeping area and did not appear to be moveable. If using a hair dryer at the sink is important bring your own.
The Westerdam offers a range of television programming, including a wide selection of movies. Unfortunately its not possible (or at least I didn't figure out how to) tell what movie is being shown when. Some of the channels offer ship information (weather log, navigator log, and so forth) and information about ports of call. Others are pretty much a shill for HAL products and services. More information on ship activities as well as more detailed weather reporting would be helpful. HAL talks about flat screen televisions. I didn't see any.
One of the real attractions was Westerdam's exercise facility. The ship has a fairly large number of Cybex treadmills, stair steppers, a rowing machine, and weight machines as well as exercise classes (for a fee; always for a fee). Additionally there is a spa facility that offers a wide, wide range of services and packages. Incidental feed back about the spa was uniformly good. The promenade deck was a great place to walk (3 laps equals one mile) or to run, although casual walkers frequently had a problem making passing room (or understanding the courtesy involved in doing so) and were dangerous at times.
Westerdam's crew was professional, efficient, and responsive; however, I didn't notice the level of personalized customer care that others comment on here. Passengers were asked to complete comment cards by Saturday morning. Services and attitude both seemed to decline after that point.
Another interesting event occurred when HAL hosted an officer's reception. This event was attended by Westerdam ship's officers as well as other members of the crew (mainly those having to do with customer services). HAL provided free drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic) to its personnel, but charged passengers bar rates (which are quite steep) for the same products at the reception. I find this sort of behavior outrageous. At $2.00 US for a soda and $5 to $7 dollars for an alcoholic drink like wine or a cocktail HAL can easily afford to comp attendee drinks (at least nonalcoholic ones) rather than so blatantly treat their passengers like cash cows.
HAL's reputation is generally as a refuge for the pale and frail. The passengers on this cruise fit that profile with both its benefits and detriments. There were no loud parties or packs of drunken passengers coursing through the corridors in the middle of the night. On the other hand (setting aside some very clear exceptions) a significant percentage of the passengers were slower, more muddled, and more whiny than average. There is, in addition, an incredible sense of privilege, entitlement, and superiority in certain quarters. Piano Man Kory's parody of passenger behavior entitled "Get Out of MY Way" (sung to "I did it My Way") on the last night of the cruise highlighted this unattractive behavior among some passengers. If this behavior (the presumption of privilege, not the making fun of it) irritates rather than amuses you, then you would be well off to look at other cruise line alternatives.
Westerdam food was significantly better than I expected it to be, although it is far from gourmet. I am a diabetic and carefully watch what I eat, so I signed up for a healthy diet dinner selection; however, I found lots of diversity on the menu and decided to order from it instead. In addition to a range of dishes that varied from night-to-night plain fish, chicken, and steak alternatives were offered every day. These dishes were grilled and served with steamed vegetables. I had no problem keeping my glucose levels within target over the entire 16-day cruise.
I had lunch in the dining room only one day. The food was similar in type to that offered at dinner and was quite good. I visited the dining room once for breakfast, where I asked to be seated alone as I was planning to read. After waiting for 10 minutes for service I left and went to the Lido instead. As a rule, I found, HAL tolerates single travelers rather than welcomes them and this was one example of how HAL tends to make the single traveler feel like a burden.
Most of my lunches and breakfasts were eaten in the Lido. The Lido is organized as a series of buffet type stations, which helps keep the lines down, but on sea days the dining room was slow and crowded anyway. It offers healthy alternatives (baked fish and roasted meats along with healthy vegetable selections and sushi) as well as no sugar added deserts of several types. Sugar free pancake and waffle syrup is available, if you ask for it.
Westerdam offers free coffee and tea at the Lido. All other drinks (including coffees in the cafes) are on a cost basis. Soda, wine, and cocktail cards are available and are convenient, but not really a bargain. Unfortunately the ship ran out of most of the better wines long before the cruise ended (even in the house pour categories).
Since Westerdam operates on a cashless basis (all costs are charged to the cabin account) it is very easy to run up significant bills one soda at a time without realizing it. I checked my bill periodically to stay on top of charges and ended the cruise within budget.
I found that I enjoyed the entertainment thoroughly, much to my surprise. There were two acts that more or less fell to my expectation: a juggler and a magician. The others were much better. I especially enjoyed the oboist, the pianist (Amy Ambler, who has incredible energy) and the pianist/classical singer duo.
Other aspects of the entertainment program were well attended and I think enjoyed by most passengers. There were a couple of lecturers, one of whom was excellent; the other was less so. There were many and varied classes, meetings, and lessons.
The Westerdam offers a range of shops, especially selling watches and jewelry. There were continuing sales and specials that resulted in feeding frenzies of various levels of intensity. Prices are hefty and it would be wise to buy staples (motion sickness and cold pills and most types of clothes) before starting the cruise.
Shore Excursions and Visits
The Westerdam had an interesting itinerary as well as a five sea-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The Shore Excursion Office on Board is open several hours a day. In addition there is an electronic booking kiosk that can be used anytime. We visited the following ports:
Livorno/Florence Florence is a beautiful city with better prices and friendlier people than Rome. Tickets to the Uffizi and to the Accademia (home of Michelangelo's David as well as home to a Stradivarius violin) can be ordered via the Internet and will save you significant amounts of time (I used Florence Art) and doing it as early as humanly possible. I booked a couple of months out and had significant limitations on hours available. Getting into the Uffizi is time consuming and involves several lines and stops. It's well worth the effort. The Duomo and the Santa Croce church are both worth seeing. The Santa Croce houses the graves of a number of famous Florence citizens.
As in Rome sidewalks are narrow and crowded in Florence. It therefore takes longer to walk anywhere than you would normally expect. Also (as in Rome) the streets are twisty and often change names from one block to another. Bring more than one map and consult them frequently. Everyone knows you are a tourist and looking at a map won't make it any worse. Florence is definitely a more refined, pleasant, cleaner, and friendly Italian city than Rome (which is, after all Rome). I will definitely visit Florence again.
Monaco We tendered into Monaco, a very pleasant and well organized experience. I took the tour to Nice, Eze, and Monaco, which I thought was excellent and well run. While Eze is picturesque and lovely it is high on a hill and involves lots of walking.
Marseilles I took the tour to Arles and Le Baux, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Again the tour operated smoothly and on time. Le Baux, like Nice and Eze, is a great place to buy souvenirs of Provence. I have always found French people to be incredibly warm and friendly (especially if you try to speak a little French) and the people of southern France seemed even more so. I look forward to revisiting this area in the future.
Barcelona/Valencia I had a cold these two days and limited myself to short shore visits in both cities. Both Barcelona and Valencia are beautiful and clean cities (although pick pockets appear to be active in both places). I thought that Las Ramblas in Barcelona offered little beyond the very standard tourist fare.
Almeria This is a small city on, I believe, the Costa Del Sol. I visited the Abacazar, a restored Moorish citadel, which is well worth the climb and the visit (and its free!). The ship docks within walking distance of most sites, which is uncommon, but Almeria offers limited alternatives for tourists.
Ponta Delgada We visited Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island on a Sunday and little was open. I took a bus tour that allowed me to see much of the island, which is very lovely. The tour also visited Riberia Grande on the north coast. This is a small town with a lot of charm. Watch for the cows!
Half Moon Cay Half Moon Cay is privately owned by HAL and offers many water sports as well as horse back riding (which is not so widely advertised). There are also a few souvenir shops, a replica of a Caribbean village, a dining pavilion and several bars. After five days at sea, several of them quite rough (waves in the 12 foot range) being on dry land was a wonderful experience in and of itself. Visits to Half Moon Cay are also via tender; however these tenders are based at the Cay and the process worked far less effectively than Westerdam's visit to Monaco. Waiting for the tenders on Half Moon Cay can be a debilitating experience as chairs are provided in the hot sun and the wait can be 20 minutes to half an hour (HAL staff on duty at the embarkation point are given a tent fly for shade; passengers have no cover). Embarkation/Disembarkation Embarkation was incredibly smooth and fast. I registered online and there was literally no wait in CIVITAVECCHIA. My cabin was ready by the time I boarded (about 12:30) and luggage arrived shortly thereafter. The boat drill was very well managed and provided excellent preparation for emergencies.
Disembarkation was much less successful. Stewards began coming around at 7:30 trying to begin making up cabins. I felt we were herded into public rooms, where we waited until nearly 9 before disembarkation began. There was no water available and the ship was hot. The baggage area was chaotic and although luggage was sorted it was very difficult to locate (the signs weren't accurate). There reputedly were fights in the baggage area, which I can understand given the crowded conditions and the sense of entitlement some passengers held dear. While immigration and customs were well handled by the federal people there was practically no direction or assistance from HAL in boarding buses to the airport. Again, if I were to do it over I would handle that transfer myself and would probably carry my own luggage off (an option offered by HAL).
Security The Westerdam is a very secure facility. All boarders are screened at entry. Safes with electronic locks are available in all cabins. The ports that we visited are well known for pickpockets. I purchased a messenger bag from Travel Smith that was very secure (zippered pockets within zippered pockets and a steel cable in the strap, which was long enough to slip over my head). I was very careful to watch the street in all of the cities that we visited and to keep my bag close to my body. I also made sure to carry only a limited amount of cash and one credit card. I had one encounter with what I believe to have been a pick pocket team in Barcelona, which I circumvented by slipping around them.
In Conclusion I took this trip in order to visit the ports at which the Westerdam stopped and for the experience of sailing across the Atlantic rather than for the cruise experience itself. On that basis the ship was a delivery system for me that was cost effective (room and board are in US dollars not in far more expensive Euros) and pleasant. I would equate the "hotel" aspects of the Westerdam with those of a reasonably good hotel chain in the US. I would sail on a HAL vessel in the future if it "going my way" as it were.