For our honeymoon, my husband and I were on Celebrity (Galaxy). We had a great time, and because we instantly became Captain's Club members (based on my previous sailings), we planned to sail only Celebrity in the future. However, when it came time for our 5-year anniversary and we wanted to do a Panama Canal sailing very late in the season, there were no Celebrity ships available. Therefore, we decided to choose Holland America, as we had heard the line was very comparable to Celebrity. We chose a 14-day sailing leaving from Ft. Lauderdale on April 27, 2008 and arriving in Los Angeles on May 11, 2008. The highlight of this trip was the full Panama Canal transit on May 1st, and our ports included Cartagena, Columbia; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Puerta Chiapas, Mexico, Huatulco, Mexico; Acapulco, Mexico; and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
EMBARKATION We arrived at the port by car (had flown in the day before and stayed with relatives) right around 11 a.m. The ship was not yet boarding at that time. Of note is the fact that Amsterdam had recently finished a 100+ day world cruise in New York just prior to coming to Ft. Lauderdale, so some of the passengers getting off the ship were leftover from the world tour. We just had a seat on a bench and waited; after about 20-30 minutes, someone told us where we could leave our luggage, and we were allowed to enter the terminal building. There we went through the mental detectors and then entered a waiting room; we waited only 5-10 minutes before being checked in and receiving our ID cards. We then waited another 20-30 minutes or so to board; I would say that we were on the ship by around 12:30 p.m. We had lunch in the Lido (we checked the dining room first, but it wasn't open), and when we checked our room at 1:30, it was ready.
THE SHIP Amsterdam is an absolutely beautiful ship! The artwork is amazing; even after being on the ship for two weeks, I don't think we saw all of it (a self-guided iPod tour is available though). There are plenty of special touches, such as fresh flowers everywhere; personally, I loved that the mats in the elevators changed daily to show what day it was. My husband and I also loved the classic look of this ship, from the teak decks to the solid blue exterior color scheme (we're not big fans of the more colorful Carnival or RCL lines).
PASSENGERS I turned 40 the day before sailing, and DH and I clearly stood out as the youngest couple on the ship! I would rate the AVERAGE age of the passengers as about 72-74, keeping in mind that this was a longer cruise (14 nights) and that the ship was recent coming off the world cruise with some continuing passengers. There were a total of TWO children on board, both boys aged around 8-10 years old, and there was one young woman who looked to be about college age (traveling with her mother), but other than that, DH and I enjoyed our young status. :)
CABIN Our outside cabin on the Dolphin deck was at a very good location midway between the forward and midship elevators; it was both quiet and convenient. We found that the cabin had tons of closet and storage space for two people, and we were very pleased. The only thing it lacked was a clock!
PUBLIC ROOMS I had read before I said her that Amsterdam has lots of "nooks and crannies," and I definitely found this to be the case. In addition to the larger rooms such as the elegant Queen's Lounge and the comfy Crow's Nest, Amsterdam has small seating areas around virtually every corner. My husband and I especially loved the Explorers Lounge and Cafe, where you could read the newspaper (sometimes several days behind) or a magazine, borrow a book or DVD (for a small fee), have a specialty coffee (again for a fee), play games, listen to music, go online...so many options! We even claimed a small couch in the Amstel Cafe (piano bar) as our own.
DINING We were very satisfied with the food overall. We ate virtually all of our breakfasts and lunches in the Lido, which offered a wonderful variety of options. For breakfast, they had a wonderful Swiss Muesli that I ate many times, whereas my husband enjoyed smoked salmon daily. Each day there was a featured type of pancake and french toast (eg, apple pancakes, zucchini french toast); plain were always available as well, but the specialty ones were delicious! There were specialty or make your own omelettes as well. They also had great muffins and other breakfast bread, and I enjoyed trying to decipher the foreign language yogurt choices! ;)
Lunch in the Lido was just as varied. Each day brought several different yummy appetizers, things like seafood pate and chicken salad in avocado slices. There were several Asian food options that were always delicious, several Italian choices, and then many different hot foods. The foregoing parts of the lunch buffet were generally only available until 2 p.m., but there were also sandwich and salad bars that were open to 5 p.m. The sandwich bars offered 3 featured sandwiches daily, including a wrap, but make-your-own was always an option. The salad bar had Cesar fixings daily, a different nut choice daily, and a wonderful selection of cold salads--eg, different types of seafood salads, cole slaws, and Italian salads. A wide selection of desserts was available at lunch, although the selection diminished if you got there later. Bread pudding (both chocolate and vanilla, with vanilla sauce) was available all day, as was an ice cream bar with fixing. On a few days, we grabbed burgers by the pool, which also offered a taco bar (HAL makes wonderful guacamole, too!), but we never had lunch (or breakfast) in the dining room.
We had dinner in the dining room every night. I wouldn't say that the food was top notch, but overall we were generally pleased. I had several fish selections that were delicious (our waiter warned me off the fish one night when the early seating didn't like it), and my husband said his lobster tail was perfectly cooked. I thought the salads, breads, and potatoes were all things that were particular well-done. DH and I also I liked how HAL offered certain staples at dinner every single night (eg, French Onion soup, Cesear salad, NY Strip Steak, salmon), so you always had alternative options if you didn't like what was on the regular menu. One entree was often a "spa" selection--generally a salad--and one entree was often vegetarian. Most desserts were very good; the custard-like desserts in particular were excellent. I noticed that HAL didn't offer many chocolate desserts, and when they did, I thought those were just average (their chocolate mousse tended to taste more like chocolate pudding). One quaint note: dinner was announced by a bell-ringer who walked through the deck striking the bells. After dinner, this same smiling staff member (he seemed to be always happy!) was at the exit of the dining room offering mints or fruits.
We did not order room service, and we did not attend any of the late night buffets. We also did not eat in the Pinnacle Grill (specialty dining room).
CREW We were blown away by HAL's Indonesian/Filipino crew; we received excellent service by everyone. On other ships I've been on, the crew is sometimes overly solicitous to the point that you feel uncomfortable, but I didn't find this to be the case on Amsterdam at all. Everyone was friendly and helpful, but it seemed warm and genuine, not overdone.
ENTERTAINMENT This is the one area that I found only average. My husband and I did enjoy the 4-part Panama Canal lecture series. Overall, however, the daytime activities seemed to lack variety, and the activities that were offered seemed to be at inconvenient times. Given that HAL ships feature a Culinary Arts Center, I can't understand why more events aren't offered there: it seemed like there were only about 4 cooking shows during our 2-week cruise! I also would've liked to have seen more activities around the pool such as ice carvings, drink demonstrations, etc. (these were few and far between). There were daily exercises classes available for a fee; I had some interest in these, but again, the times never seemed to be convenient. With respect to evening activities, we didn't attend any of the production shows. We went to both comedians; one was decent, the other was average at best. We also went to the part of the comedian/magician, who was pretty good. The trivia and music events were better: we enjoyed the TV trivia and both "Dancing through the Decades" and "80s Retro Night" in the Crows Nest.
PORTS/EXCURSIONS With the exception of Puerto Chiapas, we did a HAL-sponsored excursion in every port. They were probably a bit over-priced, but we were very happy with all of them.
Cartagena, Columbia This is a old Spanish city with beautiful architecture. We took a tour of the old city and enjoyed our visit, but we would've preferred a Caribbean island port to this one.
Panama Canal This wasn't an actual port but an all-day Canal transit that included an onboard historian (who wasn't very good, IMHO). The Canal crossing is an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone; the locks are fascinating, and cruising through Gatun Lake is surprisingly tranquil and peaceful.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica The day before our landing in Costa Rica, we cruised Costa Rica's Golfo Dulce, which was beautifully scenic. In Puntarenas, we went to Turu Ba Ri, a nature park that includes an aerial tram and many other different options. We had a wonderful time; my only disappointment was that we didn't see any of the beautiful native bird specials (although we did catch some howler monkeys in trees on the return bus ride).
Puerto Chiapas, Mexico We could've done without this stop. The natives have obviously worked hard to make the small port area very clean, welcoming and attractive, but other than a few small shops, there's just nothing there. There are plenty of taxis available to go to nearby towns and beaches, so maybe we would've enjoyed this port more if we would've taken advantage of these, but the excursions offered by HAL didn't sound very interesting.
Huatulco, Mexico This is another small port, but compared to Puerto Chiapas, there was a lot more going on right at the port, which featured a very pretty marina area lined with many shops and a few restaurants. Hualulco is known for its nine bays, and we went on a catamaran tour, to five of them; very beautiful and a nice way to spend our visit.
Acapulco, Mexico Here we choose a beach day to the Fairmont Pierre Marquis Hotel; this turned out to be our favorite! The hotel was absolutely gorgeous, and we practically had it to ourselves. It was right on the ocean (actually a little bay); beautiful to swim in and pleasantly warm in early May. The hotel also had two pools--one with a waterfall and one huge one designated as the "quiet" pool--and we swam in both of these as well. We were served a buffet lunch and just had a great time.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico We had the option of another catamaran tour but instead took a scenic tour that included a stop for a drink overlooking the harbor (beautiful!), a stop at nearby San Jose del Cabo for shopping, a stop at Cacti Mundo cactus garden (amazing!), and a stop at a glass-blowing factory. The only disappointment was that our ship was sailing earlier (3 p.m.), so we had no additional time for shopping in port.
DISEMBARKATION This was the only snag on an otherwise wonderful cruise. We were told that our immigration check would be at 6:30 a.m., maybe earlier, so we awoke at 6 a.m., quickly got dressed, and awaited further instructions. For the next THREE hours, we simply sat in our cabin and waited. During that time, there were only TWO announcements with updates. The first said only that we had arrived in LA a little late, and the second mentioned only that passengers who were going on excursions in LA (LA was not the final destination for all passengers) could leave the ship. We decided on our own to get in line for immigration, and while we were in line, our deck was finally called. As in turns out, we were off the ship about an hour after that, and we made it to our gate at LAX by 11:45 a.m., plenty of time for our 1:45 p.m. flight. However, I'm sure those with earlier flights were extremely anxious, and I find no excuse for HAL's lack of updates or apologies. We later heard that there were 2 medical emergencies that morning (someone else suggested that the slow-down was related to all of the Canadian passengers on board), but some type of explanation would've been greatly appreciated. The only good thing is that it seemed this was clearly out of the ordinary.
SPECIAL TOUCHES After now having sailed on both HAL and Celebrity, I would agree that the two lines are quite comparable. However, I think I would give HAL a slight edge just for the overall elegance and quality of the experience the line offers. To reiterate, here are a few things we thought made HAL really shine: *The Amazing Crew *The general cleanliness and condition of the ship *The artwork and fresh flowers throughout *On Deck for the Cure (5k walk on deck) *The Explorers Lounge and Cafe *The quality and variety of food in the Lido
SUMMARY Overall, we had a wonderful trip and definitely would not hesitate to sail Amsterdam again!