A little about us so you will understand our perspective:
This is our sixth cruise. Four have been with Royal Caribbean and one, our last in March 2008, was with Celebrity. We live in Texas, are both professionals, are in our mid and late 40s, have no children, like to ballroom dance, and like to read. While cruising we usually get up before sunrise and seldom stay up past midnight. We don't participate in pool games or other such activities and we think art auctions on board are annoying.
Pre-cruise travel and embarkation:
We booked our own air travel to Ft. Lauderdale and stayed at the Ft. Lauderdale Grande Hotel & Yacht Club the night before the cruise. This was our first stay at this recently remodeled hotel and we really enjoyed it. It will be our hotel of choice for future trips to Ft. Lauderdale. We had planned to meet fellow cruise critics for dinner, but our flight was delayed 3 hours. After checking into the hotel late, we ate a satisfying meal in the lobby bar.
After a short taxi ride on Sunday morning, embarkation went smoothly and we were onboard by 11:30 a.m. We joined friends in the Lido cafe and visited until our cabin was ready shortly after 1 p.m.
The Westerdam is an attractive ship and we found it to be in excellent condition. The outdoor public areas are a highlight. The indoor public areas are broken up into smaller spaces than previous ships we have been on. The smaller spaces combined with the single corridor through the public areas made it difficult to get our bearings at first, but by the end of the cruise we were able to navigate the ship without much trouble.
We originally booked an aft VA cabin on deck 7 for this trip, but were upgraded to a suite (SY) on deck 6 at a discounted rate. The cabin was absolutely fabulous. After having our room steward remove one of the three side chairs, the cabin's layout was extremely functional with more than enough room for two. We particularly liked the desk that had a window overlooking the balcony and the two sinks in the bathroom. The bathroom had both a full size tub and a shower stall, which came in handy one night when we were rushed getting ready for dinner. The shower stall was a bit cramped though, and we normally took showers in the tub. The balcony, though not as big as those on the stern, was deeper than the balconies on standard veranda cabins. There was ample room for a large dining table with two chairs, two chairs with ottomans, and a small side table. The balcony furniture was faux wicker and was much better than the furniture provided on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity. The partitions between balconies were also better than what we have seen on the other lines. They extended a bit further over the railing and had no seams that you could see through. Even without the discount that we received, the Superior Verandah Suites on the Vista class ships may be the best suite value at sea, and we will strongly consider upgrading from Deluxe Verandah cabins on future cruises. Our stateroom attendant was a bit late getting to our room on the first morning of the cruise, but after that our room was always ready when we would return to our room.
Westerdam gets major points for the outdoor public areas. The teak promenade deck wraps the whole ship and provides a fantastic view at the stern. The traditional steamer loungers and wood benches on the promenade deck gave it a very traditional seafaring feel. The promenade deck was a popular spot for walkers and loungers. The only complaint we had was that there seemed to be no designated non-smoking side of the ship (we saw ashtrays on both the port and starboard side). Another favorite spot was the aft Lido pool that provides fabulous views astern. There are also tables set up under a canopy for diners from the Lido restaurant. The only complaint we had was that one of the stairs up to Deck 10 from the aft Lido pool was closed for almost the entire cruise. I'm not sure why as I don't recall seeing any work in the area. The midship Lido pool has a sliding glass roof over it. I don't recall ever seeing the roof completely open, but one side usually was. Although there was the usual number of unattended chairs with passenger's belongings on them for extended periods of time, there were usually plenty of lounge chairs to choose from. I believe the port side of the Lido deck was supposed to be non-smoking, but I saw no signs indicating so. I did observe a crew member at the aft Lido pool tell one passenger with a cigarette in his hand that he could not smoke where he was sitting on the port side. I believe that was the first time I have ever observed a crew member on any ship enforcing non-smoking rules. The Observation Deck (10) was nice spot to enjoy the scenery while we were cruising through the Narrows on our approach to Tortola. The lounge chairs and other furniture on all the outdoor decks was the best we have seen on any ship so far.
We booked the cruise six months in advance, yet were unable to secure a spot with either of the two traditional dinner seatings so we were assigned open seating. This was our first experience with open (of free style) dinner seating. Although we can see how it would appeal to some cruisers, it was a major disappointment for us and detracted from our on board dining experience. One of the things we did not like was the fact that we had to make a decision about dinner each day. There is something comforting, at least to us, in the knowledge that you have a set time and place to eat. We found it more difficult to plan our evenings when we also had to make dinner plans. A small thing I realize, but one that we were not prepared for. The one positive to be said for open seating was that it allowed us to eat with friends on three of the nights we ate in the main dining room.
We had dinner in the main dining room four nights, the Pinnacle Grill twice, and the Lido restaurant once. We were able to obtain reservations in the main dining room twice. Once we arrived at the dining room without reservations, requested a table for four, and were seated within a few minutes. One night we requested a table for two and had to wait 40 minutes before being seated. We were provided a pager (think Outback) so we would know when our table was ready. We took the opportunity to get a drink and a dance to a couple of songs at the Ocean Bar. Once our pager went off, it took us a few minutes to navigate back to the dining room where it appeared they had almost given up on us. The service in the dining room was the worst we have had. We had to flag down a waiter on several occasions and the wine steward practically ignored us one night. I suspect the service was better in the upper dining room where the traditional seatings were. I should add that we did receive a plate of chocolates with a note apologizing for the 40 minute delay we experienced. I heard, but cannot confirm, that any wait over 20 minutes triggers the apology. The food quality in the main dining room was unremarkable. However, friends reported that it was very good, and I suspect that our disappointment with the open seating and service has skewed my memory of the food quality. The food quality was dramatically better in the Pinnacle Grill. The steaks were as good as any we've had on land or sea, and there was a variety of consistently good side dishes to choose from. The service was consistently good, but did not rise to the level of specialty restaurants we have dined at on Celebrity. We were also disappointed in what we thought was a somewhat limited wine list, though the wines we chose were very good. Dining in the Lido was typical of most cruise ships. We enjoyed the pasta station the most and also thought the selection of cheeses was good. The lack of trays to carry your food was a nuisance.
We enjoyed a light breakfast on our balcony each morning. The room service coffee was better than we had on our recent Celebrity cruise.
Entertainment and Lounges:
We enjoy ballroom dancing, and this cruise provided probably the best dancing opportunity we have had at sea. Counterpoint, a 4 piece combo, played for approximately 4 hours each evening in the Ocean Bar. They played lots of ballroom dance standards and mixed in a few contemporary songs when appropriate. They were very good. The dance floor was, as expected, small, but there was ample room for 5 or 6 couples to dance comfortably and room for several more for slow dances. We also enjoyed the Explorer's Lounge and the string trio that played there nightly. The Piano Bar appeared to be popular spot at night, as every time we walked by it seemed to be packed. The Martini Bar at the bottom of the Atrium looked like a nice spot, but we never made it there. The service in all the lounges was excellent.
We purchased a day pass ($40 pp) to the Hydro Pool and Thermal Suite in the spa one day. It was a highlight of the cruise, and we highly recommend it.
There were two sea days on this trip and they were well placed within the itinerary. We used the first, on the first day of the cruise, to explore and get familiar with the ship. The second was near the end of the cruise and we spent the time lounging and reading both at the midship Lido pool and on the Promenade deck.
Our first stop was Grand Turk. We spent a couple of hours shopping at the cruise center followed by a drink and appetizer at Margaritaville. Evidence of damage from Hurricane Ike was noticeable and we found locals more than willing to talk about the experience.
Next up was Road Town, Tortola. We had booked a Sage Mountain hiking excursion, but it was cancelled due to the recent heavy rains from hurricane Omar. We then decided to book a kayaking excursion to Peter Island, but that was cancelled as well. We took that as a sign and decided to just venture into town on our own. After a stop at Sunny Caribbee where we picked up some spices, a cookbook, and some local artwork, we make our way to the post office to mail postcards. We ended up on the charming Main Street. After mailing our post cards, we stopped at Pusser's Outpost for a drink before heading back to the ship.
Next up was Philipsburg, St. Maarten where we had signed up for the America's Cup Regatta. We were the last of four ships to arrive in port. We had a couple of hours before our excursion and we spent that shopping at the cruise pier complex. The America's Cup Regatta was an absolutely fantastic experience and we will likely do it again when we have the opportunity.
The last stop was Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island. Maasdam was there as well, but we did not find it to be crowded. This was our first experience with a cruise line private island, and we found it to be a very relaxing day. The only negative was that the beach bar was out of just about everything with two hours left in our stay. Debarkation and transfer to the airport:
Debarkation went very smoothly. Room service was available on the morning of debarkation, and we were allowed to remain in our cabin until our debarkation group was called at about 8:45 a.m. Both were pleasant surprises for us as neither option was available on our previous cruises. We had gathered our luggage, passed through customs, and were in a taxi headed to the airport by 9:30.
The passenger demographic seemed similar to that we saw on Celebrity earlier this year. A bit older and more sedate (in a good way) than passengers we saw on Royal Caribbean cruises. There were a few children among the passengers, but not many and the ones we saw were well behaved. There were fewer tuxedos than I would have expected on formal nights, but new baggage restrictions may have prompted some to leave their tuxes at home. We did see some passengers who did not abide with dress codes in the evening, but what else is new.
All in all we had a wonderful vacation. The weather was almost perfect. Our cabin was fabulous. We were able to get in some shopping, had a fabulous excursion at St. Maarten, and had a relaxing beach day at Half Moon Cay. The only negatives in our view were the open seating dining and a perceived lack of non-smoking areas, but we will definitely consider HAL on an equal basis with Celebrity when deciding on future cruises. I should note that we were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding smoking policies at the end of the cruise. It makes us think that HAL is considering implementing a more stringent non-smoking policy.