This review is based on two cruises taken back to back on two ships. The first cruise was aboard the Caribbean Princess December 9 to 16, 2007. The second cruise was aboard Holland America Westerdam December 16 to 23, 2007. In an effort to be as fair as possible the variables of the two cruises were kept to a minimum. We stayed in comparably priced balcony cabins on both ships, and even declined an upgrade to keep objectivity. Similar meals were ordered when possible, and the seven day itineraries of both ships were similar. All my comments are made from the extensive notes taken during the two weeks.
After spending the night in Fort Lauderdale we took a cab to Port Everglades to board the Caribbean Princess at 11:00am and arrived about 11:20. Processing was very fast and efficient. Platinum and Elite were done first followed by all others. After received our room keys we waited in an upstairs room till 12:00 boarding time. Here things slowed down considerably, because of photos for both the ship and the ever present Photo Gallery, but we were in our cabin by 12:10 and friends traveling with us on their first Princess cruise were just minutes behind us.
Upon leaving the Caribbean Princess on December 16 we made our way to Holland America Westerdam for embarkation there. We arrived about 11:20 and were immediately processed and onboard within 12 minutes. Our picture was taken at the check in desk rather than onboard and helped to speed up the process. The rooms were not available till 1:30pm.
My conclusion is that while both processes were quite fast and boarding time was a minimum, a slight edge goes to Holland America. Their facility was much nicer and the staff a bit friendlier. You are probably wondering why I gave HAL better marks in light of having to wait to get to our room. Please see the section on disembarkation for a better understanding of the process.
Life boat Drill
Princess is unique in their life boat or Muster drill. All passengers on Princess cruises report to their muster station which is a lounge or inside area of the ship carrying your life vest. After a message from the captain concerning safety and the drill a demonstration of the proper use of the life vest, each passenger puts on their life vest. Once this is completed you remove your vest and return it to your cabin and you are done.
Holland America requires you to wear your life vest as you make your way to your muster station. Because one must navigate stairs and the life vests are bulky you are unable to see where you are going. I felt this was quite dangerous and an accident waiting to happen. Muster stations on Holland America are outside on open decks. You are lined up side by side in columns in very close quarters. The weather was great when we did it but I can only imagine doing this in a pouring rain with 15 mile per hour winds.
Since both processes require about the same time I must give the nod to the Princess process due to the comfort and safety factors involved.
Dining in the Dining Room
Our dining with Princess was Anytime Dining and because HAL is just starting their version of Anytime called As You Wish Dining we were unable to get it and choose Late Seating.
We choose the Coral dining room for dinner the first night since it is the larger of the two anytime dining rooms. We were a party of 6 and had to wait 35 minutes for a table. Having cruised with Princess many times before, I was shocked at the poor service and low food quality. A tablemate who prefers very well done prime rib ordered an end cut that was not just pink but very red when served. At various times proper silver was not presented with dishes and service was very slow. Yes it was our first night but it was not the dining room staffs first night. On subsequent nights we dined in the Palm dining room and the service improved remarkably. We found a good selection of dishes and portions were suitable.
Holland America Westerdam has one very large two story dining room with four seating's. Early dining in the upper section is 5:30 and lower section is 6:00. Late seating upper is 8:00 and late lower is 8:30. Holland America is rolling out their version of Anytime Dining called As You Wish Dining and should be fleet wide soon. We were seated at a table of eight. Dinner the first evening was a bit slow but food was good.
There were other dining room differences I noted over the course of a week on each ship. Princess portions were considerably larger and never required an order for seconds. The portions on Holland America were quite small and several times a majority at our table ordered additional servings. On the plus side this may cut down on waste, but the drawback is that it can slow down the service as additional servings are brought out. Quality of the food was pretty much the same on both ships and the presentation was very similar. I did find Holland America lacking in dinner selections. There were several evenings I had a difficult time finding something appealing on the menu. On one occasion we opted to go to the BBQ on deck rather than the dining room. That move was a huge mistake. For the BBQ everything but the steaks and burgers was cooked in the galley and brought up on deck. They quickly ran out of popular items like ribs and the food was not served hot but just warm at best. The dining room and the food are very subjective and people on the same cruise will all have different opinions, so I will not say one was better than the other but leave it for you to decide.
Other Dining Venues
Both the Caribbean Princess and the Westerdam have very nice buffet type restaurants on their Lido or pool deck. Holland America calls it the Lido Restaurant and Princess calls it the Horizon Court. Both were well laid out with lots of tables and the selection and quality of food as well as the service was good on both ships.
There are two major differences that need to be noted. First the layout of the stations on the Westerdam was unique. For each meal you could get different dishes from each station. For example you could go to the Italian station and get pizza and pasta dishes, or go to the Bistro station for meals of sliced ham or beef with potatoes and side dishes and other specialty dishes. You could go to the sandwich station and create your own sandwich on a variety of breads. You could go to the Oriental station for sushi as well as various Chinese dishes. There is a separate desert station and includes had dipped ice cream all day long at no additional charge.
The second major difference is hours of operation. If you are a night person and want to go for a little snack after the show or late night you will have a hard time on the Westerdam. The only thing open late is a place to get some cookies and maybe a few deserts. You will not be able to throw together a sandwich or grab a burger or anything else. To be blunt the 24 hour buffet does not exist on the Westerdam.
Caribbean Princess has two additional charge alternative restaurants, and the Westerdam has one. We only dined at Sterling Steak house on Princess but the opinions of others show food and service to be comparable on both ships. The cost on the Westerdam was considerably higher and we did not feel it worth the price. It should be noted that Caribbean Princess also had a separate pizza restaurant and a separate grill for hamburgers, chicken and hot dogs/sausages. The Westerdam also had a separate outside grill for hamburgers, hot dogs and sausage, as well as a Mexican Taco station to build your own tacos.
Room Service - We are among the growing majority that rarely uses room service. It is interesting to note that Princess has cut back on room service while Holland America still has not. Room service breakfast on Princess is the standard continental breakfast consists of rolls, coffee, toast and juice and fruit. The breakfast room service on Holland America still allows you to order eggs and omelets as you like them as well as bacon, ham or sausage and hash browns, or even pancakes or waffles, in addition to the standard continental breakfast items.
When it comes to other dining venues Princess gets a big thumbs up, but for room service the thumbs go up for Holland America.
A quick word on coffee from one who loves a good cup of the brew. Coffee in the dining rooms and buffet area on Princess is made from a syrup mixture and is consistently bad. Get a Coffee card when you first board and enjoy fresh brewed coffee in all the bars. Coffee on Holland America is much better and is actually brewed coffee throughout the ship. I learned from the beverage manager that the coffee makers are contracted through another company and are the only equipment HAL does not own or maintain.
I must tell you I do not particularly enjoy production shows and avoid them as much as I can. I attended most of the production shows this trip but still spent most of the time nodding off. I am going to have to give the nod here to Holland America, but not because the dancers or the music was any better but because of their state of the art stage in the theater. Parts of the stage rotated, popped up and disappeared from time to time making for spectacular production values. While I have seen this in land based theaters, it is a first for a cruise ship. I also had a problem with the size of the main theater on the Caribbean Princess. The ship carries over 3,000 passengers and the theater holds around 900. Considering two shows each evening there is no way you will fit everyone in there. I can only conclude that the designers never learned basic math or as some have suggested we are slowly loosing non-revenue producing space to revenue producing venues.
Additional entertainers on the Caribbean Princess consisted of "Sarge" a comedian, a comedy magician named John Ferrentino, and a hypnotist.. Sarge was great and did two shows on two different nights to standing room only crowds. The magician was not too bad and the hypnotist was a major flop. Due to rough seas caused by Tropical Storm Olga, one evenings production show was cancelled. An additional variety program was also cancelled due to the death of one of the entertainers.
Additional entertainers on the Westerdam consisted of a comedian named Philadelphia, a concert pianist named Howard Hill, and illusionist Leo Ward. The comedian was great but be aware a lot of his material is not suitable for children. The pianist was fair. The illusionist or magician was the best I have seen in a long time. He did things you would not believe could be done on a small stage on a cruise ship.
Princess provides alternative evening entertainment in some of their smaller show lounges so if the main show is not of interest you have something else to do. Holland America does not have more than one program going on at a time so if the show or performer does not appeal to you, then you are out of luck. I prefer having a choice and so I give extra entertainment points to Princess.
Spa, Photo Gallery, Art Auction and Casino.
I have lumped all these together since not everyone uses all of them and they are mostly money producing activities for the cruise lines. If you enjoy spending your sea days in the spa a cruise will give you as good a spa experience as you will get on land. If you love to pull on the slot machines or play the table games then a cruise ship casino is just as good as Las Vegas at emptying your wallet. The art auctions are great for those that know what they are doing and wonderful cheap entertainment for those that do not. Where else can you get free cheap champagne and maybe learn a bit about some of our great artists.
The spas are the revenue producing areas that seem to be taking over the ships of all lines. On both ships these areas have taken over from one third to one half of one deck and are big money makers for the cruise lines. I personally do not use these areas but I thank those of you who do because you help to keep the cost of my cruise down. The photographers are everywhere but they seem to be less intrusive than they used to be. I suppose with high quality yet low priced digital cameras there is less need for them onboard. I personally spend little time in the casinos only because they smell so bad. I like the art auction on Holland America better, only because it is Park West Galleries a local trusted gallery here in Michigan. Princess has their own art program and they buy and manage their own art. I also prefer the more knowledgeable auctioneers of Park West.
The Private Islands
The Princess private island stop is known as Princess Cays and is on the southwest side of Eulethera island in the Bahamas. Tendering is done with the ships life boats and is quite efficient. The island is well developed with plenty of open sunny areas as well as lots of shady spots to relax. The beach area is divided into sections. There are beaches for kids and families, a beach and pier for the snorkelers, and a quiet adults only beach. Everything is well laid out and the paved paths make getting around easy for all. There are many activities to spend additional money on including jet skis and banana boat rides. You can also rent Cabanas or Clam shells for shade. The cabanas have become quite expensive and recommended only if you have money to throw away. The Clam shells are really not necessary here as there are plenty of mature trees as well as thatch shelters that provide shade.
Holland America island stop is called Half Moon Cay and is located on the Little Salvadore Island of the Bahamas. Tendering here is done using large tenders that are based on the island, rather than ships life boats. Tendering was not a quick as Princess but it was not excessively long either. This island is well landscaped and somewhat difficult to get around. There are winding paths all over with high shrubs that make it difficult to tell where you are. A map is provided and you may need it if you plan to explore. I got the impression that everything is very spread out and difficult to get to. Thankfully there is a tram to take you from the main area to the dining pavilion. There are also very few mature trees providing shade so if you want shade you better rent one of the Clam shells here. The beach has one area roped off for kids with the rest of it open. There are also plenty of opportunities to spend money here and the Cabanas here are a bit less expensive than on Princess Cays. Because of the size and how everything is spread out they use lots of motorized vehicles on Half Moon Cay, from small 4 wheel Gators to large trucks. They are constantly running all over the place and tend to destroy the quiet secluded island atmosphere you would like to have.
I have to give my vote for the best private island stop to Princess for now. I do believe that as trees mature and more improvements are made Holland America's Half Moon Cay island stop may become much better.
The staterooms we choose were similar priced balcony accommodations on both ships. Balconies for both cabins were very close in size. Princess measured 8'10"X 4'8" and the Holland America was 9'2"X 4'6". Princess has a sliding door and Holland America was a swing open door that could be difficult in windy conditions. The balcony door also was a problem if you used adjoining cabins and wanted the divider on the balcony open. Closet space was about the same but configured different. I preferred the Holland America layout of three separate areas of closet and shelves to be easier to work with. The Princess closet was one big long closet with a single shelf up top and small shelves in the safe area at the end. Both cabins provided plenty of storage for hanging and folded clothing.
The hallway outside the cabin was close to the same width on both ships but because room stewards on Holland America did not use the big carts that they did on Princess it was much easier to get around in the halls. The big carts that Princess stewards used sometimes made the halls seem like obstacle courses.
The biggest difference in the two staterooms was evident in the bathroom. The bathroom on the Westerdam measured almost 8 square feet larger than the Caribbean Princess. The shower on the Caribbean Princess is only 2'6"X 2'1" and the Westerdam had a full tub with shower that measured 4'4"X 2'4" When you took a shower you had room to actually bend over and pick up the soap if you dropped it. The counter top space and enclosed medicine cabinet with shelves was a vast improvement over the open shelving that was on the Caribbean Princess.
The Caribbean Princess stateroom was equipped with a barrel lounge chair and desk with small chair as well as a refrigerator, television, and a single outlet on the desk. The Holland America Westerdam stateroom had a love seat that could be made into another bed a desk with chair a large flat panel widescreen television and a DVD player. DVD's can be rented onboard for $3. The desk had two outlets and there was additional storage in a cabinet above the love seat.
The beds were quite comfortable in each cabin. We requested the egg crate mattress on Princess and the Holland America bed had a pillow top mattress cover. Princess uses the duvet which made it impossible for me to remain comfortable during the night. I sometimes like a sheet and blanket and other times just a sheet but with the Princess system it was all or nothing. Holland America uses a blanket sandwiched between two sheets so you can adjust your covering easily during the night. I also noted the beds on Holland America were 4 to 6 inches higher off the floor making it incredibly easy to store your suitcases under the bed. The Holland America beds also had two very large drawers at the foot of the bed for additional storage.
There is no doubt that both rooms were well maintained and quite comfortable and sufficient for a week long cruise but the little extras and the few extra inches of space made the Westerdam stateroom a far better value and hands down the winner between the two.
All the public areas of both ships were well maintained and quite well decorated for the holiday season. I do think the lounges were a bit more inviting on the Caribbean Princess, yet the seating was more comfortable on the Westerdam. Bar service was adequate yet non invasive on both ships and drink prices were ridiculously high on both. There is plenty of open deck space on both ships. Both ships have adequate pools and hot tubs and I did not see any of them over crowded.
The dreaded end to that wonderful week of fun and sun finally arrives and the way we are treated as we leave is just as important as the treatment we get when we arrive. I always group embarkation and disembarkation together because they are so similar and positioned at the beginning and end like the bread that holds a sandwich together they hold the cruise experience together.
I have been on cruise ships where I felt like a used up mop being discarded. Some have the attitude of thanks for coming now get the heck off my boat, and others actually make you believe they are sad to see you go. Princess disembarkation is somewhere in the middle. There is no sadness to see you leave nor a happy to have you gone just a simple clinical cleansing. Disembarkation on Princess is now quite structured. Breakfast is from 6:00 to 8:00 no exceptions no room service. Leave your room as soon as you can and get to your assigned lounge. Each person is assigned a colored tag and lounge to go to. All disembarkation announcements are made there and only there. If you are not in your proper lounge you will not know when to leave. The process is fast, efficient and quite clinical.
Since we were only going from the Caribbean Princess to the Westerdam just down the street we did not rush to get off. We lingered over coffee in the Horizon as I checked email on my computer until we were told we had to leave the Horizon for cleaning. We then waited around in the main lobby till we heard last call to leave the ship. Last call came about 9:30 am. There was only a hand full of people and luggage as we exited the terminal.
Holland America on the other hand made us feel like they really did not want us to leave and wanted us to be as comfortable as possible till the time did come. Breakfast was much more leisurely with extended dining times and you could even get full menu service from room service delivered to your stateroom. We were allowed to relax in our cabins or on the balcony as colors were called over the public address system. The cabin steward did not ask you to leave but encouraged you to relax and enjoy till it was time. The staff was at the gangway greeting you and shaking your hand as you left just as they were when you boarded the ship a week before.
So our lounging around till we were called is the reason cabins were not available till 1:30 in the afternoon when we boarded the ship. The small inconvenience of waiting for and hour and a half for our cabin when boarding, was more than worth the spectacular treatment we received as we left the Westerdam. And now you know why I give Holland America top honors for both boarding and disembarkation.
Some final words
You have all heard it said many times before "a bad day on a cruise is still better than a good day at work". We all find it easy to find the faults with anything including a cruise vacation and perhaps those bad things stand out more in our minds, but ask yourself "was that one incident so bad that it ruined my entire vacation?"
So now you ask, which was better overall? My friends there is no clear winner. There is nothing that happened on either ship that would keep me from sailing her again and there was nothing about either cruise that stands out so strong as to compel me to return soon. Both ships are magnificent in their own way and each line is unique in its own way. Yes they were different cruises on different ships but that is what makes the world go round. If everything was the same with both cruise lines neither of them would succeed.
I would return to either ship and either line in a heartbeat. I would recommend either ship or line too. My intent here was to give you all the facts with a couple of opinions thrown in so you could make up your own mind. Decide what is important to you and what is best for you and go for it. The main thing is to enjoy and have fun.
Till we meet again may all your days at sea be good and full of joy and a Bon Voyage to you all.