We selected the Holland America Westerdam for our Thanksgiving week cruise. My wife and I are in our early fifties and our son is 13. We were joined on the cruise by 10 other family members ranging in age from 13 to 83, occupying five cabins. We are an active family, and our previous four cruises have been on NCL, which we like. My father, who was on this cruise, is an experienced Holland America cruiser with over fifty five days on board. We decided to try Holland America because the timing worked for everybody, we hoped to make a step up in food and cabin quality, and we were curious about how Holland America would contrast with NCL.
We traveled to Port Everglades by US Air from DCA to FLL, which I arranged myself. I never use cruise line arranged air because if you have to cancel your cruise, you will forfeit all of the airfare, even any amount the airline may refund. The only protection is to buy travel insurance. This forfeiture has always seemed unfair to me, so I arrange my own air travel. The flight and airports were trouble free. A 10 minute and $15.00 cab ride had the three of us and our luggage at Port Everglades with no hassles. We generally use a cab for the airport transfer because it is less expensive for the three of us than shuttles which charge per person, not to mention the cab is faster.
We arrived at about noon. We happily tipped the porters to handle our heavy bags, and that was the last we saw of them until they appeared in our cabin around dinner time. Standing in a modest line outside of the building, a HAL representative checked our cabin number against a list, and directed us to follow the yellow line around the terminal building to what turned out to be priority check-in. We had a Superior Veranda (SY) cabin. Inside, another representative working the floor told us we should not have been sent there because our cabin was not on her magic list, but she told us to stay put and be seated to be called in order for check-in. After sitting there for a time while several parties who arrived after us were processed in front of us, I grew tired of waiting and we simply got up and went forward. The desk agent courteously checked us in and issued us our identification cards. That done, we headed for boarding. At the top of the stairs another agent whispered that we could bypass the long boarding queue if we did not want our pictures taken. We took her up on that, and we were quickly aboard.
I immediately headed aft to the Vista dining room to see about coordinating seating for the 13 of us. That was handled well. There was a waiting line, but sequence numbers were assigned, and the wait was in a comfortable lounge with refreshments. I was pleased to find HAL did a great job of getting us our requested 6:15 seating and all of us were seated at two adjacent tables...about as good as it gets. Note: no "as you wish" dining on this ship at the time of this sailing. We were then directed to the Lido, deck 9, where we could eat lunch and wait for our cabin to be ready.
Unlike NCL, everybody has to wait on deck 9 until called to go to your cabin. You cannot roam the ship. In a way this is good because it keeps people out of the way of those preparing the cabins. But it was bad in that we could not use the wait time to tour the ship, something we do on NCL. We were disappointed to find the Vista formal dining room closed for lunch. On NCL, a formal dining room is open for lunch on embarkation day, and it is a pleasant and uncrowded place to eat and get relaxed for the cruise. By contrast, the Lido buffet on the Westerdam was a zoo because it was the only option. We were fortunate to get a table by the pool overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. We enjoyed watching the boat traffic pass by while we ate lunch.
Our SY Superior Veranda cabin was terrific, and worth the premium over a standard veranda cabin if you need to sleep three. It was far roomier than any cabin we have had previously, and the space was very comfortable for the three of us. It's probably a bit excessive if there are just two in your party. Storage is copious. The large bed sits in an alcove which opens up floor space. Opposite the bed is a full size sofa that converts into a single bed. It is a clever design in that it flips up rather than out, so it uses no more floor space in bed mode than it does in sofa mode. Next to the sofa is a full size desk/make-up table with lighted magnifying mirror. Adjacent to the bed is a well designed built-in that houses the flat screen TV, DVD, refrigerator, shelves, drawers, and a large writing desk with it's own window. There are plenty of power outlets. The bath is huge. It has a double vanity which we really enjoyed. There is full size tub/shower with jets, and a separate small shower. I'm not sure what the appeal is for an in-room jetted tub when there are multiple hot tubs on board plus a hydrotherapy pool in the ship's spa. We would have preferred a more generous shower and a smaller tub, or no tub. We did, however, find the tub useful for washing out or snorkel gear. The veranda is large, with plenty of room for a dining table, two dining chairs, a small cocktail table, and two easy chairs with ottomans. This furniture is done in plastic wicker which we found comfortable and far nicer than the usual cheap plastic strap furniture that other lines use. The bed was very comfortable with quality linens. But we sorely missed sleeping under the sumptuous duvet that is standard on NCL. We suggest HAL consider installing a pull curtain between the bed alcove and the sleep sofa to give us parents a bit more privacy. My father had a regular veranda cabin, which we found to be comparable to the veranda cabins we have had on NCL, perhaps just a little nicer overall. Cabin cleanliness was comparable to NCL with just a couple of small problems on arrival. I am a stickler for cabin cleanliness, so this is not a big issue. Any problem is mostly because of the limited time stewards have to turn the cabins around. One steward we spoke with was responsible for fourteen cabins.
The layout pretty much follows the norm for modern cruise ships. The most popular public decks are deck 2 and deck 9. Deck 2 has the Vista Dining Room aft, Vista Lounge forward, and in the middle is a range of bars, the casino, and a smaller multipurpose show venue called the Queen's Lounge. Deck 9 has two pool areas, one mid-ship and one aft. The always busy Lido buffet dining room is in between these two areas. The Spa is forward. Deck 1 has the ship's office. Deck 3 has upper access to the Vista Lounge and Vista Dining Room, along with shops, photo gallery, dance floor, library, and promenade. Deck 10 has the Crows nest, a popular but uncrowded spot to relax and watch the world go by during the day, and decidedly unpopular disco by night.
The decorating is overall upscale and elegant. But to me it came across more like an older business hotel than a fun place to vacation. Many public rooms have muted colors and are dark. The Vista Lounge is nice, but it's not as nice as the one on NCL's Jewel. The art is diverse, but none was particularly memorable to us. The aft Lido pool area is a forgotten area with regard to design. It is devoid of decoration. The furniture looks like it belongs in a school cafeteria. On many sun decks, one will find classic wooden lounges with cushions. However, some of those lounges showed a lot of wear in the finish, and some cushions were stained. There are plenty of elevators. However, for some reason the stairs are unacceptably steep; much steeper than on NCL ships. Cleanliness in public areas was good, but not up to NCL's nearly obsessive level. We did not see the pools drained and power washed during the cruise, something regularly done on NCL. We found numbers of hand sanitizers out of order, and fewer of those around than on NCL. Overall, the ship was very nice, but it conveyed and old fashioned and muted impression that did not excite us.
We did not think the ship had a particularly good ride compared to the rock solid NCL Jewel, the last ship we were on. In moderate seas, there was some roll even with stabilizers. There were some strange vibrations on occasion that could be felt all the way up in the Lido. We were in higher seas on the Jewel with a more stable ride. The top speed is 22 knots, so she is hardly a rocket either.
We do not smoke and I am happy to report that we were less bothered by smoking than on any NCL cruise we have taken. I suppose that could be reason enough itself to choose HAL. There was smoking, but most of it seemed to be confined to the casino and sports bar. There seemed to be fewer smokers overall than on NCL cruises. Perhaps we were just lucky this time around, but we were not bothered by smoke from other verandas, something that has been a problem on NCL.
The ship's customer service at the front office was outstanding. We submitted one complaint about service at breakfast in the main dining room, and it was dealt with thoroughly and with great concern for our satisfaction. Any ship can make a mistake, it's how they react to it that defines them. We were impressed.
The crew is Indonesian. They are competent and pleasant, but there is a cultural gap that prevents conversations going much beyond pleasantries. We prefer the mixed predominantly eastern European crews on NCL. Our cabin steward did a fantastic job, and was nearly invisible. Our dining stewards we equally competent.
One problem we noted is that none of the verandas were cleaned during the cruise. On the Costa Fortuna docked opposite us at Grand Turk, the windows and railings were being cleaned. Ours were left to accumulate salt throughout the whole week. This is just one example of possible Carnival driven cost cutting we observed. My father observed that there seemed to be fewer workers on the floor in the lido buffet than he remembered on prior HAL cruises, and table clean-up service was often slow in the outside dining areas by the aft pool.
There were some bright spots, but overall we did not find the dining experience to be the step up from NCL that we had expected. First, the number of places to eat is limited compared to the NCL ships we have been on. Basically, it's the Vista Dining Room, the Lido Buffet, or room service. Yes, there is also the Pinnacle Grill restaurant, a steak house that costs a stiff $30 a head extra. We made reservations in the Pinnacle for the last night of our cruise, but canceled after we saw some red flags. The raw steaks they use were displayed on the kitchen tour, and frankly we did not think they were all that impressive. We noted that most nights the Pinnacle was nearly empty before 8:00. We heard few passengers raving about it. On NCL, the steakhouse is busy up until closing and people do rave. We decided it was not worth the risk especially considering the high surcharge, so we decided to keep our $30 each and us it to have have a nice dinner at Outback when we returned home.
In the main dining room, it was the entrees that disappointed. For example, New York strip steaks were the thin economy variety one sees at the supermarket. In fact, these same steaks were actually served as "minute steaks" at the barbecue on Half Moon Cay! Fish was overcooked and soggy. The Thanksgiving turkey dinner was rated as poor by those who had it. Prime rib I had was excellent, except the cut was only maybe ½" thick. One of the best entrees was the Pumpkin Ravioli, a special for Thanksgiving. On the brighter side, appetizers and desserts were excellent, often superb. The Austrian head chef seemed competent. I can see no other explanation for the dismal entrees other than Carnival cost cutting. Food was never served piping hot, a complaint we've also had in NCL's dining room. It simply takes them too long to get the food to the tables.
The Lido buffet offered generally good food, but it was hard to navigate. Food is set up by station, so you have to wait in lines at multiple stations to get a salad, entree, and dessert. While NCL also has stations in their buffet, they are more clever about what is offered at each so you typically do not have to go through so many lines to put together a meal. The Lido was almost always crowded. Unlike NCL, they did not have the capability to open multiple lines to speed things along. The same complaints about entrees persisted in the Lido. But the Asian food was pretty good. Sushi is available at no extra cost. However, it's pre-made and quality is lower than on NCL where the Sushi is made fresh to order, but costs a few dollars extra. Pizza was excellent. The ice cream bar was superb, offering a daily selection of hand dipped and soft serve throughout the day and evening. This was much better than on NCL, where they have a phobia about ice cream that causes them to ration hand dipped like it is gold when they have it at all, and what they have is often just soft serve. Our biggest complaint about the Westerdam's Lido dining is the crowding and poor organization of the lines that contributes to it. Some issues would be so easy to fix, like getting rid of the few tables that are set up opposite the entree and bistro lines. Those block the corridor during busy times.
Room service was right on. We learned room service has their own kitchen, just like the high end Pinnacle Grill. Delivery was always on schedule and quality was good. More people seemed to take advantage of room service on the Westerdam than on our NCL cruises. Perhaps this is because of frustration with the Lido cafe.
We enjoyed eating on our roomy veranda. In port in St. Maarten, docked opposite the huge Freedom of the Seas, I felt quite smug for a moment as I relaxed in my comfy wicker lounge eating a fresh dipped chocolate waffle cone while observing the Freedom's comparably tiny balconies with mismatched plastic furniture.
Special dining events included a Caribbean deck party, and the usual chocolate extravaganza seen on most ships. The food at the deck party compared poorly with similar parties on NCL, and NCL typically has more outdoor cookouts during a week's cruise. The chocolate extravaganza was inexplicably held around the pool, with the retractable roof closed. It was hot and humid. The ice sculptures suffered. NCL's is held in the buffet area, a much better location. NCL's is also larger and more impressive.
We were dismayed at the lack of dining choices in comparison to NCL. We did not get the step up in food quality that we had expected HAL to deliver. Overall, we prefer NCL for dining.
Entertainment was competent, but with some complaints. The Vista show lounge delivered good production shows, comedy, and magic. We truly enjoyed the change of pace offered by the string quartet that played nightly in the Explorer's lounge. The folks into dancing seemed to enjoy the dance band. The contemporary band, the Hellcats, was competent. But some of their shows were hampered by an awful singer. Some of the best entertainment was delivered by the passengers; the Karaoke competition was great. Now the complaints: Why were movies shown only in the afternoon and at dinner time when so many people could not attend? They have a great venue for movies in the Queen's Lounge, and they have a popcorn machine too. We would have loved to have had an evening movie or two, especially since NCL does not offer movies at all. But instead they wasted Queens Lounge time on poorly attended showings like football games when passengers love movies. Get with it! The other complaint is the ridiculous cost cutting in the form of the one man steel drum band they had at the pool. That's right, on the Westerdam which is suppose to be upscale, they had a one man steel drum band accompanied by recorded music. Steel drum karaoke. Yuck. NCL had a full steel drum band.
Pitiful. Most outdoor activities were uninteresting, poorly attended, poorly scheduled, and poorly run. The is not the right ship if you are looking for fun activities. Our teens complained mightily about the inept running of the teen activities and the teen area called the Loft. For example, the jukebox in the Loft was full of out of date songs. There was no way to plug an ipod into the sound system for dancing, something teens now expect. Most of the teens ended up abandoning the scheduled activities and making up their own. We observed an organized activity that involved blaring rap music on the aft pool deck where people were trying to eat lunch. Nobody showed up for it, I asked them to turn the music down (which they did), and finally they unplugged it, left, and the deck had no music at all. A soccer kick-off activity consisted of two kicks each against a target. A prize was awarded and the whole thing was over in less than 10 minutes! There were some good activities indoors. The kitchen tour was good. The cooking demonstration was pretty good. Exercise classes were good, but my wife was unhappy that most were extra cost.
The ports were good. Unfortunately the ship was late getting to two out of the four. We did not like the port scheduling, the usable time at Grand Turk and Tortola were too short compared to other cruises we have taken. We like to tour and get a lot out of our port visits. In retrospect, on this cruise it is probably better not to try to do much in port, and maybe just take an excursion. The excursions seemed reasonably priced, and we took advantage of one of them.
We liked this small lightly developed island. The cruise center pool and beach are fine in and of themselves. We took a cab to town and enjoyed walking around it. Cab rates are negotiable. Beautiful pastel blue water abounds. We also took the Ultimate Snorkeling Adventure tour. It was satisfying to snorkel at "The Wall", but it's not the best snorkeling we've seen, not even close. A great day here would be to walk the small town, and enjoy the beach and pool at the cruise center. That's about all there is time for.
We love Tortola. But the ship messed up our plans when it was an hour late docking, and that left us with only about four hours of daylight. We rented a car and toured parts of the island we have not seen before, but it was over way too soon due to nightfall. If you like, you can use the time up until the 10 PM departure to hang out in the lively bar at the nearby marina, which is an easy walk.
They have ruined fabulous Dawn Beach with development. Don't bother going there. Try Le Galion, Orient Beach (around its mid point), or maybe Pinnel Island. If you get a car and tour, go counterclockwise. Avoid the whole peninsula area around the airport from Simpson Bay to Nettle Bay. Traffic gets horrible there. There was some kind of incident and were were stuck on the road in that area for two hours. We don't like St. Maarten much anymore because of the crazy traffic on cruise ship days and the overdevelopment of its beaches. You might be better off just to take the water taxi into Philipsburg for a walk. On the day the Westerdam is in port, the immense Freedom of the Seas and two other ships are also there. It is quite crowded.
Half Moon Cay
What an awesome beach. The sand is bright white and like powder. Great facilities. Great beach party, except they need to offer trays for the meals. Snorkeling is mediocre compared to NCL's private island, but we did find a nice small reef out from the area along the beach where the horse stables are, before you get to the rocky area. The designated snorkeling area is a joke. You can also snorkel in the lagoon on the back side. But don't get close to the Stingray pen. They chased us away from there; I think they didn't want us to see the traps they had set to catch the little sharks that hang out in the lagoon.
Disembarkation was flawless. We had a pleasant breakfast, and waited for our number to be called. It was very simple. The staff placed a lot of emphasis on getting the comment cards back. Customs was hassle free, and we were on our way to our 11:00 flight with plenty of time to spare.
Our HAL cruise was enjoyable, but it did not match the way we felt about our prior cruises on NCL. Holland America has not moved us away from our loyalty to NCL that line has earned from our previous experiences on it, even though NCL is not perfect by any means. A smart cruise line could definitely sway us. But I can see why certain types of cruisers may like HAL just fine. In fact, who knows, we may enjoy another HAL cruise one day if we go to it with a different plan and expectations from what we usually do on a cruise. It's a good fit if your priorities are a nice cabin, sitting and relaxing, enjoying some evening entertainment, and you are not too focused on the quality of the food. The cabins are simply wonderful, especially the suites like we had. The ship has lot of comfortable areas to sit, relax, read, and enjoy. That may appeal to many who like a sedate environment. The dining is pretty good overall, but lack of quality entrees and inept organization in the Lido subtract from the experience. That disappointed us. Ship operations are good except for late port arrivals, and we immensely enjoyed the captain's informative reports. The entertainment is fine, but we were left with a sour taste because movies, which we and many other passengers like, were so poorly scheduled. As a whole, on board activities were subpar, and definitely left the youngsters on this school holiday cruise wanting more.
I fear HAL has painted itself into something of a corner with the Westerdam and her sister ships. Experienced HAL passengers told us the ship is too large and lacks the intimacy and the high quality dining they love about the older, smaller HAL ships. Yet it is somewhat old fashioned in design and not large enough to have the same range of amenities and multiple dining options found on larger competing ships. These are the things that attract families and younger cruisers.