INTRODUCTION: My HAL experience includes the old Westerdam, Ryndam, Amsterdam, Zuiderdam, Rotterdam, Zuiderdam again, Veendam and now this Westerdam. The other cruises were a Carnival cruise with sorority sisters almost 30 years ago, NCL's Norway in 1983 and 9 Disney Cruise Line cruises (1 with a teen, 8 with only adults). I'm 50, he's 51 and his only cruise experience was a 4-day Disney cruise with me a few years ago. Needless to say, now he knows what a cruise should be like!
My cruise line of choice is Holland America Line. I don't even consider the others, as HAL is a great fit for me and I look at the others and they pale in comparison. So, while I try to be objective and know HAL isn't always going to be perfect, I do have some bias towards this line.
ITINERARY: Sunday 2/08: Embark in Ft Lauderdale, Sail 5pm Monday 2/09: Sea Day, Formal Night Tuesday 2/10: Grand Turk, 7:00 am - 3:00 pm (actual sea day) Wednesday 2/11: San Juan, 10:00 am - 11:00 pm (actual 8am-9pm) Thursday 2/12: St Maarten, 8:00 - 5:00 pm (actual St Thomas 8-5) Friday 2/13: Sea Day, Breast Cancer Walk, Formal Night Saturday 2/14: Half Moon Cay, 8:00 am - 4:00 pm Sunday 2/15: Debark in Ft Lauderdale
EMBARKATION: We arrived at Port Everglades at 10:30 am on the dot, and parked in the parking garage across from terminal 26 after dropping off our luggage. A crowd was formed at the entrance to the terminal, so I cannot believe they don't let anyone into the port until 10:30! In any event, since we were in a category SA cabin we were taken in a side door without having to wait with everyone else. We had our own security screening room, then were taken upstairs to check in and then led upstairs again to the waiting area.
Once the embarkation photographers were set up, boarding could begin - and those of us in suites were the first ones allowed on board. In fact, we were the first 2 people to set food on the ship, followed by another couple who turned out to be on our Cruise Critic role call!
Upon entering the ship a steward directed us to the Lido, but mentioned the Neptune Lounge (concierge lounge for suites) and he quickly said "oh yes - deck 7". We had a light snack in the lounge and relaxed a few minutes. Several suite passengers left their carryon luggage in the lounge rather than carry it around. We only had a small bag with wheels so we kept it with us. From the Neptune Lounge we went to the Lido for the buffet, getting there before it got too crowded. The food was plentiful & tasty, and the cabins were ready around 1:30 pm.
SHIP: The Westerdam is a beautiful ship - 5 years old, but looking like new. Stewards were constantly cleaning, touching up, making minor maintenance repairs, etc. The fresh flowers and art gives the ship a sophisticated and comfortable feel. The public areas never seemed very crowded, although it wasn't generally possible to arrive for the show 5 minutes before it was due to start if you wanted a good seat. Not a problem for me, as I understand the concept of planning ahead!
The crew was overwhelmingly smiling & friendly, with the exception of 1 waiter at the Pinnacle Grill who must have been constipated for several days based on his demeanor. Fortunately this was at our breakfast, and our waiter for our Pinnacle dinner was just fine. The breakfast guy just came across too snooty - like he was doing us a favor bringing us our food, and sneering when we didn't want coffee. It really stood out because everyone else was so outstandingly terrific!
The Vista Lounge was a comfortable theater for the evening shows, but some seats do have obstructed views. This wasn't a problem for us, as I know not to arrive at the last minute. The Pinnacle Grill was very pretty, as was the Ocean Bar and Explorer's Lounge. I really like the Explorations Cafe being up in the Crow's Nest. I didn't expect to, but it works well there. Our cabin was midship, so I had to walk to the forward elevators to reach deck 10, or else I'd have to walk outside on deck 10 to get there.
The casino looked pretty big to me, but I'm not a gambler. The entire area stunk of cigarette smoke, so I wouldn't have been in there even if I did gamble. It was bad enough walking through to the theater a few times! That was really the only area I noticed smoke, thank goodness.
The promenade deck is one of my favorite spots, but since we had a suite this time I never used the promenade except for walking. Next cruise I'll be in an oceanview (solo trip), so I'll make use of the promenade deck for reading/relaxing in the afternoon. Any ship that doesn't have a promenade like HAL's should be ashamed to sail, in my opinion!
STATEROOM: Our cabin was right across from the Neptune Lounge, which was very convenient. We mostly used the glass elevators just down the hall, as they seemed to arrive faster than the traditional ones. Plus, they're so much more scenic! The cabin was 510 square feet with a large balcony that included a table & 4 chairs for dining plus 2 sitting chairs with ottomans and a cocktail table in between. We enjoyed meals out there and also just sitting watching the sea pass by. The inside was spacious, with a very comfortable king bed! In a deluxe verandah suite there's a clock on the wall and several electrical outlets - unlike in other cabins with 1 set of outlets and no clock. We had more than enough storage space, including 6 closets. My difficulty was finding stuff after I'd put it away, as I could never remember which closet or drawer I'd used! We never heard any ship noise or passenger noise from the hallway.
We enjoyed the many suite privileges, including free laundry & dry cleaning each day. Coming home with only a few pieces of dirty clothing was very nice! We also enjoyed the lounge, breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill, hors d'oeuvres delivered to the cabin before dinner, the VIP cocktail party, and priority embarkation/tendering/debarkation. I've seen reviews (including the one on Cruise Critic for the Zuiderdam) that claims cocktails are served in the Neptune Lounge at night, and that's entirely NOT true. It wasn't true back in 2002, either.
ENTERTAINMENT: The Westerdam cast performed 2 production shows. The first featured songs about Europe, and the first half was all songs I'd never heard before. There weren't many Europeans on the ship, so I didn't quite "get" that. However, everyone in this cast could sing!! They even sang on key and hit their notes, unlike the lead on my Veendam cruise last April. I enjoyed both shows, and my only criticism would be the female lead for whatever reason had to BELT every single song she sang. She has a beautiful voice, and the belting was unnecessary for some of the songs.
We had Joel Mason, who performed 2 shows and he was outstanding both times! I can't say enough about his music and sense of humor. The quality of his shows was so far above what you'd expect on a cruise ship, and I really hope he's on my ship again.
Jim Labriola was the comedian, and he was hysterical! He had a small part on Home Improvement for 5 years, but neither of us knew him from that. We went in without any expectations and were laughing ourselves silly for an hour.
One night there was no show, when we were in San Juan. They showed a movie that night, but it wasn't a movie I'd see so we skipped it (something with Mummy in the title).
ACTIVITIES: We really didn't do a lot of the activities. I thought there should have been more dam dollar events, and I never heard of dam dollars being given for doing trivia. We did the free throw basketball competition and a golf chipping - both were mobbed. After that we skipped them, but the times didn't really work for us anyway.
They had bingo daily - never attended, as I have no interest in that. Couldn't get near the casino, the stench was so bad. The few times I walked though (going from point A to point B) I never saw anyone with a cigarette, but the stink and smoke was overpowering! It's disgusting they let people smoke onboard (yes, I did fill out my survey before leaving ).
We didn't do the fitness classes, but I heard they were canceled due to the person missing the ship. We did use the gym, and it was pretty busy.
We did the On Deck for the Cure, and were disappointed that out of 1800-1900 passengers only 75 signed up! The event staff running it didn't do much to make it special - no banner, no group photo, no recognizing the survivors. We met in the Ocean Bar, did a few stretches, then walked 9 laps. They did have water & pink lemonade available, and held up a sign showing the # of laps left to go as we'd pass. It was a letdown compared to the one on the Veendam last year.
They showed a movie (Australia) in the Queens Lounge, but it was a lousy weather day and it was filled to standing room only even with extra folding chairs brought in. Needless to say, we did not stay.
We didn't do any of the wine tastings, kitchen tour, napkin folding classes, or other activities offered. I'm not much on the structured stuff - I like to be doing my own thing.
FOOD: The food overall was very good on this cruise, with few exceptions. Even the food in the Lido was better than expected. The burgers at the Terrace grill were a little disappointing, but the fries were excellent (as were the tacos). Most nights in the dining room brought a variation on chocolate lava cake and all were excellent! Hot food was hot, meats were cooked to the right degree, and service was efficient.
We had open seating for dinner, so we never got to know a pair of dining stewards, but we could have cared less about that. Our only expectation was to be served efficiently in a friendly manner, and that's exactly what we got. The wine stewards were prompt in arriving at the table, and service from them all was excellent. We ordered 3 room service breakfasts, a couple late-night snacks, and 2 dinners from the dining room - which we enjoyed eating at the table on our balcony. In every case the food was delivered on time (or a little earlier than expected) and the hot food was hot.
The snacks in the Neptune Lounge for the most part were excellent - I loved the chocolate dipped strawberries and he loved the little tea sandwiches. Some of the items were seen elsewhere on the ship, but some were seen only in the lounge.
I'd ordered a wine card online before the cruise, and used it for the house pinot grigio at dinner. It's an excellent value, and I've already ordered the wine card for my November cruise, just in case it's not available later. The only other drinks were purchased were a couple of pina coladas on Half Moon Cay - they were delicious.
The only disappointing food was the bbq on Half Moon Cay. The ribs were inedible, so I ate a hot dog. He enjoyed the chicken, but the pieces were very small - was it chicken or pigeon?? Next time I'd consider eating on the ship, but don't want to leave the island that early.
PORTS: The ports were supposed to be Grand Turk, San Juan, St Maarten and Half Moon Cay. The ports actually were San Juan, St Thomas and Half Moon Cay.
Grand Turk - It looked beautiful, and I was looking forward to a beach day here, but the winds were such that we were not able to dock. The captain tried for a good hour or so, then had to give up and we had a sea day instead since there's no other port close by.
San Juan - Very American and our cell phones work without roaming charges! We did the ATV Adventure in the El Yunque Rainforest (which is the only rainforest protected/supported by our federal government). The excursion was a lot of fun, and the ATVs carried 2 people and were pretty easy to operate. The scenery was pretty, too. The only negative was the tour took longer than advertised because the bus driver left us sitting at the tour place hoping people would eat/drink at the restaurant there. 6 of the 45 did - which of course aggravated the other 39 who just wanted to get back to the ship and town.
St Maarten - While we were in San Juan the captain announced that due to the gale force winds and high swells we'd be unable to visit St Maarten. Due to the # of ships in port we were scheduled to anchor offshore and tender in, and tendering would be impossible in those conditions. So, we were a last-minute addition to St Thomas and docked at Crown Bay Center, which is out in the boondocks. There's nothing here worth stopping for, so either do an excursion or stay on the ship. Taxis were available to get into town or to Havensight for $4 or $5 each way, but I wasn't interested in shopping. There is an internet cafe across the street, but it wasn't air conditioned! An hour costs $8 here, which is a lot cheaper than on the ship (just less convenient).
Half Moon Cay - This island is paradise! It's as gorgeous as ever, and being a suite passenger we were among the first off the ship and had no trouble finding lounge chairs in the row closest to the water. The sand is soft as powder, and the water is crystal clear. It was a little chilly at first, especially to us Floridians! But, a lot of the Canadians spent a good portion of the day in the water! The bbq lunch leaves a lot to be desired. The ribs were not edible at all.
DEBARKATION: HAL certainly does this right. As suite passengers we could have debarked whenever we felt like it, but we chose the early group. HAL sends everyone a questionnaire fairly early in the cruise asking for your desired debarkation time. Luggage needs to be in the hall by 1:00 a.m. (much better than the earlier time on other lines), although suite passengers have until 6:00 a.m.
The last full day of the cruise we received luggage tags and a letter giving us our debarkation window. For us it was 8:15 - 10:15. We could leave whenever we wanted within that window. I believe non-suite guests have a smaller window, perhaps 15 minutes or so. They also have a program for passengers willing to carry all their luggage off the ship - they could leave around 7:15. We opted to not drag our luggage all that way!
We left the ship at 8:15 and were driving out of the port before 8:30. Debarkation was a little easier knowing I'd already booked another cruise for November. While on that cruise, I'll book another one. That way I am never without a HAL cruise to look forward to!