Normally I book a cruise a year or more out, but I was seeing some great deals back in January and decided to do something more spur of the moment. Having sailed once before from San Diego, I knew what a great city it is and an easy port to cruise out of. It also helped that I had a free ticket on Southwest and enough points for a free hotel room.
I was getting a little tired of the Caribbean and thought a Mexican itinerary would be a nice change of pace, although I was a little apprehensive that the ports - Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta - might resemble Tijuana.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn on the Pacific Highway, and highly recommend it - centrally located, clean and modern, and shuttle service to and from the airport and cruise terminal. The hotel is such a short distance from the terminal that I didn't bother with the shuttle and just walked over. It was easy to navigate my way there, even while schlepping two suitcases.
Embarkation: Boarding the ship through the San Diego cruise terminal was quick and easy. The cabins weren't ready, so we were directed to the Lido for lunch. I hit the salad bar, and then proceeded to try to find somewhere to sit. There were no empty tables to be found. Since I was sailing solo, I proceeded to ask people if I could join them. The reactions I got led me to believe I may be suffering from leprosy or the plague, or at the very least, using the wrong deodorant.
In desperation, I went outside to the aft pool area and found an empty table with a dirty tray on it. One of the wait staff came right over and cleared it for me. Right after this, a young man wearing a staff nametag asked if he could join me for lunch. After what I'd been through myself, I urged him to have a seat. We had an enjoyable conversation, during which he told me he was from Belarus, and worked in the shipboard shop that sold alcohol and cigarettes.
Ship: This was my first time on a Vista class ship, having previous sailed several of HAL's R and S class ships - Statendam, Maasdam, Zaandam, Veendam, and Volendam. Since I'd heard and read so much about the Vistas, I was looking forward to finally being able to sail on one of them. Quite frankly, I was a little letdown and disappointed. I was expecting something with a modern, brighter appearance. Instead, the Oosterdam's color scheme is dark blues, turquoises, and purples.
The steps between decks are "short" and carpeted in navy blue, making it difficult to see them. I went up and down them very slowly, since I wasn't sure of my footing. I noticed that the bottom steps had an orange strip affixed to them. This needs to be done to all the steps, or carpet every other step with a lighter color or pattern. When using the stairs, many of the decks are indistinguishable from one another, making it difficult to know where you are. The decks aren't labeled near the staircases, only in the elevator lobby. More than one deck had the same "Ode to a Grecian Urn" loveseat near the elevators.
The wrap around teak promenade is narrower on the Oosterdam, compared to the R and S class ships, and has some odd angles and turns that make walking difficult. What really bothered me was that the outside promenade is placed on the same deck as the Vista Dining Room. Having sweaty passengers in exercise togs circle the dining room as we ate detracted from the dining ambience.
Another thing I didn't care for was the layout of the Lido with its various stations instead of a cafeteria type line. Every time I ate there I felt like I was running around trying to find things. The next to the last day I realized there was an Eggs Benedict station...who knew? That same day, I found a fruit and cold meat and cheese breakfast bar outside in the pool area. I had been "scavenging" at various stations trying to assemble my breakfast, when what I was looking for was all in one place.
Although the Vistas carry more passengers, I never had the feeling that there were 400-600 more bodies onboard. Nor did I think the distance from one end of the ship to the other was noticeably longer.
Cabin: I received an upgrade from an inside cabin to an unobstructed ocean view. This was my least favorite cabin in terms of layout and amenities. There were no drawers under the desk/vanity in which to place items like underwear and folded clothing. In place of the drawers was a mini-bar/refrigerator which I didn't use. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom was placed at an odd angle that didn't provide much in the way of usable storage space. The shelf to the right of the sink was also small. The light around the make-up mirror was dim, making it unusable unless I turned on several other lights in the cabin.
A few days into my cruise, I discovered two drawers at the foot of the bed under the bedspread and dust ruffle. There were also drawers in the bottom of the loveseat, but you had to move the heavy table in front of the loveseat in order to get to them. In other words, there was technically plenty of drawer storage space, but none of it convenient or accessible.
Things I DID like about the room included the safe that uses a code instead of a magnetic card, and the lower bathtub that was easier to get in and out of.Ports and Shore Excursions: My apprehension about the ports was unfounded. All of them contained beautiful sights and plenty to do, and were cleaner than many of the ports in the Caribbean. I booked three excursions through the ship, and all three exceeded my expectations, especially the walk through Old Mazatlan.
In Cabo San Lucas I went on the Land's End Boat Tour & Scenic Drive. We rode in a catamaran around Land's End, which is where the Sea of Cortez joins the Pacific Ocean at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. From the boat we saw Los Arcos, a rock formation that juts out of the sea. There's a "key hole" through which you can see from either side. The water was pretty choppy, and I was glad I wasn't in one of the kayaks being tossed around by the waves.
After the boat ride, we got in a van and rode through downtown Cabo to the Sunset Da Giorgio's Restaurant that sits on a hill overlooking the bay. We relaxed on the restaurant's patio and admired the view while sipping ice cold bottles of Pacifico beer.
In Mazatlan I signed up for the Old Mazatlan Walking Tour that lasted over four hours. The tour started at the walkway that extends for nine miles along the beachfront. We watched some local cliff divers, and then continued on to the heart of the old downtown area where we visited restored homes, stores, and hotels, along with a museum and an opera house. Near the town plaza, we stopped at a cafe for a beer and chips with homemade salsa. The area around Mazatlan is known for its tomatoes, and the salsa was the best I've ever tasted. After visiting the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the tour ended at the city market where we caught a bus back to the ship.
Next it was on to Puerto Vallarta for the Puerto Vallarta Overview. Our bus took us to Old Town where we got out and watched some Native Indians hang upside down from the top of a pole, and then make a circular descent while chanting and playing instruments. From there we walked by City Hall on our way to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Back on the bus we rode out to an upscale residential area called Conchas Chinas and saw where the movie "Night of the Iguana" was filmed. I declined to have my picture taken with a live iguana perched on my shoulder.
On the way back to the ship we passed through Gringo Gulch where Elizabeth Taylor and the late Richard Burton have a home. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant and had a beer and tacos. The corn tortillas were made right there in front of us, and they were the best tortillas I've ever eaten.
Service: As always, the service on HAL was friendly and attentive. I had great dining room servers and a wonderful room steward. My dealings with the front desk were always a good experience. I would pass by there several times a day on my way to and from my cabin, and the people who work there have to have the patience of Job to deal with some of the passengers and problems they're confronted with.
The onboard cruise consultant was helpful and informative, as well as available. He had a very soft sell approach. I ended up putting $100 down on a Southern Caribbean cruise on the Westerdam for December, 2009. The deposit can "float" for up to four years, which means I can transfer it to another cruise. Plus I got some onboard credit ($25), so it was a no brainer to go ahead and book while I was onboard.
I've never stayed on a deck that had a bar, but the Olive Pit in the atrium on Main Deck became my pre-dinner hangout. How fortuitous that martinis are my favorite adult beverage. I enjoyed talking with the bartender as well as the other wait staff.
Food: Much better than my last HAL cruise on the Volendam. Some of my favorite dishes included the butternut squash and apple soup, Dover Sole, Osso Buco, rack of lamb, and the salmon salad Nicoise. I found the dinner menus on formal nights to not be very inspired. On one formal night, I amazed the waiter and my tablemates when I ordered the vegetarian entree. It was a sauteed patty made of chopped vegetables seasoned with Indian spices, accompanied by chickpeas in a spicy tomato sauce and stir fried bok choy splashed with soy sauce. Very tasty and a nice change of pace.
The Master Chef's Dinner, not one of my favorite things, was somewhat toned down from what I experienced on the Volendam. Apparently this is something new HAL is trying on the Oosterdam. There is only one "parade" of food, and ship's staff other than the dining room staff participates.Anytime Dining: Since I usually cruise solo, having a set table with the same dining companions each evening is very important to me. I was so relieved when I found out I got my request for Fixed Dining, as opposed to the newly instituted "As You Wish" Dining option. I wasn't interested in eating by myself at dinner, or having to try to round up dinner mates each evening. Worse yet was the thought of walking into the dining room and asking to be seated with others, only to be turned down by tables as an unacceptable addition.
Unfortunately, fixed dining wasn't a very pleasant experience for me on this particular cruise. The first night only I and another lady showed up at our table for seven. At the end of the meal, one of the assistant dining room managers came over and told us the other five passengers wouldn't be joining us for the rest of the week. He offered to move us to another table of two in the same situation. After our meal, we went over to the new table so that we could introduce ourselves. The reception we got was rather cold. The next evening the four of us were joined by another couple, so a table of six was cobbled together. Quite frankly, the general attitude at the table was condescending. I had nothing in common with these people and almost left dinner in tears.
I gave serious consideration to just eating by myself in the Lido each evening, or asking to be switched to "As You Like It" Dining (I changed the name to give it a more Shakespearean flair). I had spoken to a few people that day who, although they were cruising with their spouse or a friend or family member, had asked to be seated with others in the Anytime Dining Room. They had only good things to say about their experience, so I thought about giving it a try. However, I made the decision to tough it out at my table one more night.
The next night was formal night, and one of the ship's officers and his wife joined us for dinner. They were an extremely pleasant couple and helped to improve the general mood at the table. At the end of dinner, they asked if they could join us again for the next formal night. I was so relieved that there would be at least one more night without a lot of tension at dinner. The next two nights we didn't have a full table as each of the couples (separately) opted for the alternative Pinnacle Grill. Not having a good dinner table really detracted from the cruise experience for me.
Activities: I found the onboard activities to be rather lacking. I generally sail solo, and look forward to playing bingo and participating in games like trivia and name that tune. Puerto Vallarta was a long port day, and there was little to do onboard in the afternoon for those who chose to come back onboard after their shore excursions. No bingo whatsoever that day, no craft class, and no tournament games. Not even an afternoon movie. Puerto Vallarta was followed by two sea days, and it was more of the same. One can only walk around the deck and workout in the gym so much. Reading gets boring after a while. I wasn't interested in paying $11 for a spinning class or attending an art auction.
I did win bingo twice, which helped to offset my martini bill. Bingo was well attended, and was held in the Crow's Nest. Not the best venue, but the Lounge was off limits during the day due to the new song and dance troupe holding rehearsals. The disc jockey who called bingo was funny, but too chatty. Calling the numbers almost seemed like an afterthought to him.
I noticed that the Dutch High Tea was scaled back (no hot items like Chicken a la King served over puff pasty), but I did enjoy the Mariner's Lunch for past passengers. On prior cruises there was the Mariner's Cocktail Reception. We had a great Cruise Critic "Meet and Greet", followed by a lunch in the dining room on the last day. Everyone I met from our online roll call was friendly and outgoing. I had the opportunity throughout the week to share drinks, meals, and shore excursions with many of them.
Disembarkation: My flight home wasn't until 3 pm, so I decided to take the ship's transfer that included a tour of San Diego. It was pricey - $71 - but it sure beat sitting in an airport for 5 or 6 hours. We saw quite a bit - Old Town, Balboa Park, La Jolla, Coronado Island, etc. - so it was worth it to me.
Summary: All in all it was a very enjoyable, relaxing cruise, minus the strange dining experience. Although the Vista class ships aren't my favorite, if the price and itinerary are what I'm looking for, I'll go for it.