Travel To Port of Embarkation - We left our hotel (Park Regis Sydney) at about 11:30am and arrived at Darling Habour's Pier 8 at about 12:00pm by subway and a little walk downhill to the port from the subway station (Taxi's are pretty expensive in Sydney) We arrived at the departure hall to drop our check-in luggage, after completing the health inspection we waited in line for about 15 minutes to pass security and another 10 minutes to check-in. Immigrations had some issues with my passport but everything worked out and we were on the ship by 12:45pm. I have to say that Darling Habour's Pier 8 is mainly used for conventions and meetings rather than for cruise ship and so some of the facilities are pretty primitive including the makeshift check-in desks and security equipment, but I have to say that the staff were pretty innovative in their use of the equipment and it made the long lines pass quickly.
Stateroom - While having our sailaway lunch up at the Lido Buffet, an announcement was made that our staterooms were ready at about 1:30pm. We made our way to find our stateroom which was originally an inside stateroom but we were pleased to find out that we had a last-minute upgrade to an oceanview stateroom and enjoyed the view thoroughly during the scenic cruisings in New Zealand. The stateroom was immaculate with crisp linens and everything was set-up for our cruise ahead. The ship's porters were also really efficient in changing our cabin numbers on our luggage tags and all our bags arrived within an hour. Although there were some signs of wear and tear, it was still very pleasant.
Ship Info - The Volendam was built in 1999 and it was reaching in 10th year in service, but despite her age it seems like the ship was only 3 or 4 years old thanks to the staff who cleans the ship daily making the restaurants to the toilets clean and immaculate. The ship was considered a mid-sized ship and even though it was filled to capacity during this cruise, there were many open spaces in the bars and open decks and no where on the ship felt crowded and we really enjoyed that.
Dining - I have to say that food was the highlight of this cruise, we had dinner at the dining room almost every night and because we requested for reserved fixed sitting we had the same dining room stewards every night and their great and efficient service made dinner every night an unforgettable event in itself. The food was really good from the appetizers to the entrées but I must say that some nights the deserts were a little weak. We ate at the Pinnacle Grill one night and the steaks were so juicy and tender and it was one of the most delicious steaks I've ever had. The lido buffet restaurant was where we had lunch and breakfast and the food selection was just overwhelming (in a positive way) from pastas to deserts everything tasted good except for the toasted breads in the morning which was always burnt. But the buffet was never filled to capacity and we always found a seat quickly. The terrace grill, taco station and ice cream bar was always a great hunger buster after exploring the ports and we really enjoyed that as well. The room service menu was rather small but it was great when we missed the dinner buffet when we arrived the ship at about 9:00pm in Tauranga and it was a convenient alternative if you missed the buffet or dining room service.
Activities - We did not participate in many activities but looking at the daily programme there were quite a number of activities but mainly for the adults and this was evident as the kids and teens on the ship were really restless due to the lack of activities for them. But we really enjoyed the culinary arts center which was really interesting as chefs from the pinnacle grill and guest chef Mary Dumont shared some tips on cooking methods to how to make some of the chef's signature dishes.
Service - The Service onboard this cruise was top-notch as there were only about 300 or so service staff to cater to 1500 passengers which made it a 5:1 ratio for the staff. But all of them worked hard to please every passenger and even though they could not be found on some occasions, they did try their best to please and serve you without any complain or show a lack of interest in their job (except for a couple of service staff). The staff were non-intrusive but were friendly and we really enjoyed the level of service on this cruise.
Entertainment - Although the entertainment was not as elaborate as the bigger ships, the singers and dancers of the Volendam made do with what they had and they danced and sang on 3 occasions on this cruise which I must say was very polished and professional which was something I enjoyed during this cruise. But there were other entertainers from broadway singers to magicians to a multi-instrumentalist (which could play 15 instruments!)was really fun and interesting to watch. The design and layout of the Frans Hals Lounge (Show Lounge)made it easy for people to get in and out of it but there was a lack in lights especially when the show begun resulting in some people falling during the show (Ouch!). The Champagne Strings violin group was also another highlight as they played beautiful tunes in their 5 man group and we usually listened to them after dinner just before returning to our stateroom almost every night.
Port & Shore Excursions: We did not take any shore excursions as it was pretty easy getting around from the port to the town/city and shore excursions were also really expensive which resulted in us going independent.
Here are the ports - Melbourne: Melbourne is a beautiful city with many victorian buildings and open spaces including the botanical gardens by the Yarra River. It was also really easy getting from the port to the city by Tram (AUD 6.00 pp return) and it took only about 15 minutes to get us to the city.
Burnie, Tasmania: The people of the charming and small city of Burnie including the Mayor and his Wife were at the port to welcome us and to give everyone souvenir pins which was a really nice feeling especially after a bumpy crossing the night before. There was a free shuttle bus taking us to the information center and the car rental companies in which we hired a car to go to Cradle Mountain National Park which was really stunning and I would recommend anyone going to Tasmania to visit this place.
Dunedin: We went on the public bus (NZD 2.00 pp one-way) to the city center and to get to the train station to catch the Taieri Gorge Railway which went through deep valleys cut naturally by rivers and streams millions of years ago which was beautiful to see from the comfort of our vintage train carriage.
Christchurch: Took a free shuttle bus to the city to hire a car from Hertz to drive to Arthur's Pass National Park. Although the park was not that impressive besides the entrance to the park borders, the journey to the park from Christchurch was amazing from mountains to gorges and valleys. Christchurch is a typical big city with many old colonial style buildings and the only highlight was Cathedral Square with many buskers and performances makes it a lively place to wait for the free shuttle.
Picton: The port is really close to the city center and so we walked to the yacht harbor to go on the Dolphin Watch Eco-Tour "Best of the Sounds Cruise" which brought us to see some dolphins, Captain Cook's Cove, a Bird Sanctuary Island and a Salmon Farm to see some seals. All-in-all it was a great experience with great value (NZD 90.00 pp) to see what a cruise ship can't see during the scenic cruising through Marlborough Sounds
Wellington: The Capital of New Zealand was bustling from office workers to lawyers. The Parliament tour which is free was very insightful into New Zealand's political system and how the government works. Te Papa Museum which is also free was a great museum as it housed everything from a giant squid to an earthquake simulation to Moari Cultures, it was a one-stop museum for any question one has on New Zealand's geology to its culture - it's highly recommended. We did not have time to go up the Cable Car due to the long queues and the short amount of time we had.
Napier: The Art Deco town of Napier was not as interesting as the other ports and the lack of infrastructure and logistics made it difficult for the shuttle service providers to get 1500 in and out of the city and long queues and the hot sun made many passengers upset and angry instead of enjoying themselves.
Tauranga: Tauranga was really busy when we arrived as the Celebrity Millennium was at the port as well and since we did not reserve any car from the car rental companies we went around town in a taxi looking for any car in which many cars were taken by the almost 4000 passengers in Tauranga that day. We eventually rented from Rent-A-Dent an old Camry in which we drove to the Waitomo & Ruakuri Caves which were spectacular and Rotorua to view Lake Rotorua and the Steaming Geysers and Mudpools at the city park.
Disembarkation - Since we were in the last group to disembark, we had a nice breakfast before disembarking. Disembarkation was a breeze even though there was a pretty long line but security and immigrations were very efficient and we left the port in about 10 minutes where we took a taxi to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Auckland where we stayed for 3 nights before returning home
Summary - All-in-all it was a great trip where we met new people and had a great time enjoying not only the ship but also the spectacular scenery and sights of Australia and New Zealand which summed up the whole experience. We look forward to travel on Holland America Line again for their great food, service and itineraries which visits ports other cruise lines don't visit such as Picton and Burnie.