On February 11, 2008, we embarked on our first Holland America cruise. This ten day vacation was excellent with only some minor problems. There is no doubt that it was expensive, but part of that included the Panama Canal fee. As a contrast to some of the bad reviews provided on this board, we feel that perfection is impossible to attain. It is important to put the overall experience into proper perspective.
The embarkation process was fast and smooth. A porter took our luggage, we parked in the concrete garage, passed through the screening process and boarded the ship in less than one hour. The luggage was delivered to the rooms very quickly. The Lido was crowded for lunch on the first day, but that is expected and normal.
We like fixed seating at 8:00 P.M., but were assigned AYWD. After a quick trip to see the maître d', this was resolved to our satisfaction. He gave us a great table for two, fixed at 8:00 P.M., in a very good location. After the second night, we received a letter from the officer in charge of the dining rooms telling us that our "request for a table change had been denied". Our maître d' ignored this and we had our table available on most days for breakfast and lunch and always for dinner. He continued to provide us with superior, personalized service and we demonstrated our gratitude at the end of the cruise.
There have been many comments about the air conditioning, condition of the ship and the operation of the toilets. The air conditioner in our room was fine. We found the ship to be cool and comfortable in all areas, except the gym. The instructor in the gym deliberately kept the temperature high because he believed that heavy sweating is good for you. I've been working out in gyms in Florida for over twenty years and I like a 75 degree environment. We did see the minor wear on carpets, furniture and in the elevators, but it was really not bad. At the time of our sailing, we did not see any cracked windows. There was a small leak under some stairs between Desk 2 and Deck 1.
The ship was very elegant and classic. After dinner, we enjoyed strolling the deck or listening to the string quartet. The only real disappointment I had was that no dark beers were served in any of the bars. I think I can overlook that inadequacy. To be fair, much of what we found was geared for the older crowd, i.e., people aged 60 to 80. I would estimate that the average age of the passengers on this cruise was about 70. This we did not mind and noted that the number of children and teens on this ship could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
As with other HAL cruises this season, the ship did not stop at Half Moon Cay because of windy conditions and high seas. We did not mind and the ship arrived at Aruba earlier. This island was not beautiful, nor were the people particularly pleasant. However, the shopping was excellent and we got some nice bargains. Curacao was wonderful and we had a great time. Rather than taking an excursion, we shared a taxi (van) with two ladies, aged about 80 or so, who were just delightful. They had more energy than we did! For not a lot of money, our driver gave us an excellent, narrated tour of the island. He explained the history, lore and culture of the people and took us to many beautiful and interesting places.
The Panama Canal was remarkable. We stood on Deck 9 and used a platform that passengers shared to take pictures. My traveling companion took the excursion to Panama City, but he was disappointed. Because it was a Sunday, the driver took the passengers to both the old city and the new. [The trip normally only includes only the old city, as the traffic congestion during the week makes a visit to the new city nearly impossible.] My traveling companion said that there was only one non-commercial stop in the old city. The rest of the stops were at tourist traps. It was obvious that the tour company had an arrangement with these merchants. Instead of souvenir shops, time should have been spent visiting historical sites. He did ask the driver to stop at some churches or museums, but the driver refused. Casco Viejo (old city) has many beautiful buildings (some undergoing restoration), however there is wrenching poverty. Some poor people were dancing on the streets for money or trying to sell items to the tourists. The contrast between rich and poor in this country is striking and very sad.
Costa Rica was the high point of the trip. As in Curacao, we hired a taxi. We had a guide and a driver and it was not terribly expensive. They asked us what we were interested in seeing and our approximate time frame. We photographed beautiful vistas from mountain sides, exotic and rare palms and lovely beaches. One stop was particularly interesting and fun. This was a facility run by a woman recognized by the State for protecting the fauna of Costa Rica. She nursed injured animals, raised beautiful and exotic birds from eggs and was very knowledgeable about their habits and needs. We held a large scarlet macaw and a toucan. The toucan was very tame and would fly away and come back as the spirit moved him. His feathers were soft, his body was quite warm and his long beak was light green with orange.
The Indonesian crew of the Volendam is friendly, helpful, well-trained and responsive. There were some minor slip-ups and communication problems as the crew should spend a bit more time studying English. At one point, an elderly passenger was stricken on deck. The crew member present simply did not understand the seriousness of the situation and the medical response time was delayed. It took several of us to convince him to call 911 (used on the ship, as on land) immediately. The crew in the Spa/Gym were sub-standard. They seemed to be under the impression that they were superior to just about everyone. Requests were met with blank stares and a lack of willingness to serve. They directed me to other locations of the ship or to other crew members to fulfill minor requests. I did have to visit sick bay at one point and a female Canadian nurse was abrupt and even rude.
There is one point that I must make about this voyage. The seas were very rough during the first 4 days. The movement of the ship was excessive for a modern vessel (1999) and a number of the passengers and even crew members got seasick. There were a few extreme cases. I later learned from a member of the crew that the stabilizers had been damaged in a storm earlier in the year and were not functional. I think this was unfair to everybody on board and did, at one point, make the sailing less than pleasant. While I realize that time is money (they only spend a matter of hours in port between cruises), I think that this problem should have been addressed. Overall though, it was a wonderful vacation.