Smooth Birthday Sailing on Westerdam - sans Premium
This 3/29-4/5 Western Caribbean cruise on HAL's Westerdam was almost a last minute booking some four weeks before the cruise at www.cruiseshopping.com. We booked guaranteed balcony VH and got VC on Deck 5 which was assigned approximately a week before sailing. It was nicely quiet, no disco above or below. This was the first cruise on a HAL ship for myself (turned 36 during the cruise) and DH (42). We have cruised before on NCL and Carnival. So, here's the scoop:
PARKING: Driving from Atlanta, GA, we made an online parking reservation through United Airport Parking for the low price of approx. $60, but paid dearly. Never ever again! The lot is in a neighborhood that looks like New Orleans right after Katrina. They are severely understaffed, don't have enough vans and drivers, rude service. Overall it took 2 hours (from 11:15 am - 1:15 pm) to get to the port from this lot which is just about a mile away from the port gates. As a woman I would be hesitant to walk around alone in that decrepit area in broad daylight. There were a lot of unsatisfied cruisers from previous cruises having been waiting for hours to be picked up at the port and then waiting some more at the parking facility to get their very own cars or be taken to the airport. Beware of this enterprise and flee it as fast as you can despite the lure of the cheap rate! Following the advice of some arriving cruisers from Celebrity Solstice, we decided to take a taxi and pay extra when we returned rather than wait for hours to (hopefully!) get to our car - if it was still there.
EMBARKATION: When we finally made it into the port around 1:30 pm, HAL's embarkation procedures were fast, efficient, courteous, and we were on board in less than 30 minutes.
FIRST IMPRESSION: The Lido buffet was extremely crowded. There were neither tables nor utensils readily available at that time. After the parking ordeal I was very hungry but it took a long time to find a table and finally get some food. The notorious trays that Cruise Critics have been discussing are indeed not there any more. The ship did not impress us as grand, there is just a miniature atrium. The color scheme borders on bland, the wear and tear on this ship shows rather visibly and in many places. The crew was cleaning the ship constantly and diligently but that cannot cover up what is simply worn out, scratched, stained beyond the capabilities of Windex etc. Strangely, it was Carnival Glory last year that greeted us with a classical string trio upon embarkation, not the Westerdam. The cabins were ready around 2pm.
STATEROOM: We had a VC port side balcony cabin on Deck 5. It had adequate storage for two people without mountains of luggage. The hair dryer is a cheap hotel type, practically useless if one really wants to style the hair not just blow-dry their crew cut. I brought my own, but the only socket where one can plug in a modern hairdryer is if you unplug the 22 inch flatscreen TV power cord behind the TV! The power sockets are of the old type and can't accommodate most of the contemporary bulky plugs such as hairdryers use. Same problem in the bathroom. I suggest bringing one's own powerstrip for recently made appliances just in case. This is one of the ways that Westerdam shows her age - already after five years. The bathroom has a miniature bath tub, shower with a massage head which would not stay in place but had to be held by hand. The bathroom looked like it had seen better days - discolorations, peeling paint and moldings, and overall the materials looked cheap as compared to NCL's newer ships. Of all the cruises this unfortunately was the one time when our cabin steward was cutting corners in the cleanliness department. I wanted to ask for a bottle of Windex a couple of times but then remembered that I'm on vacation... There was dust and dirt in the drawers as we entered the cabin, on the surfaces in cabin and bathroom, some unidentifiable stuff on the bathroom floor. I ended up reporting that to the front desk. This was the scruffiest cabin that I've ever cruised in. The bed is comfortable even for those with back problems like me, but the pillows were again worn out and practically useless. The blanket was one of those cheapo things that do not come close to NCL and Carnival. But we enjoyed the fairly large balcony (two chairs and one very small drinks table along with a larger foot rest) so much that all other problems with this cabin and its corner-cutting steward did not ruin our vacation.
FOOD: Overall good, but not vegetarian or really health-minded people friendly. Low fat does not simply equal healthy and in this department HAL needs to improve. We had As You Wish dining, which meant we had to make reservations each night or arrive at the dining room around 5:15 or 7:30 when they seemed to have tables for two. Once we shared the table with another party which was nice, but we still prefer a table for two. There were plenty of choices for those who eat meat (including poultry!), the presentation of food was really good, but the taste, especially for fish, sometimes left much to be desired. As a seafood eating and lactose intolerant vegetarian (pescatorian?), I had to do a little bit of thinking and asking questions before ordering. As before, I discovered that appetizers are often the best part of the meal. The overall impression is that HAL caters to older clientele with very traditionalist eating habits and preferences. Make no mistake, the food is good and we enjoyed it - but it is far from what I would call "premium" and even further from genuinely healthy with organic options for vegetables, meats, and fish. We did not dine in Pinnacle Grill - we would if it would offer organic cuisine! Then the extra cover charge would really be warranted, forget about that Bvlgari china. Both of us found that HAL's food is more or less like Carnival's food, somewhat to our surprise or is it an unexpected compliment to Carnival? There were interesting choices in the Lido buffet, especially the Asian station where I usually went for non-dairy vegetarian food, but an average Chinese takeout on shore will easily outperform the ship's offering by a large margin. The one time I ordered room service (which took some two hours since there are no room service menus in the cabin or our sluggish steward simply didn't bring it) I was very pleased with a Thai wrap which was one of the best meals on this cruise, and on our very own balcony! The service in dining room was usually hurried and impersonal, much more so than on NCL which has the Freestyle dining. But they did their job and that was fine with us. Waiters have to serve food, not socialize. We really appreciated the waiting staff not being forced into the singing and dancing stunts that Carnival does and really enjoyed the relaxed environment of the Vista dining room. At breakfast, Lido buffet seemed to be better than Vista dining room with more options and faster pace. I did not see any soymilk or other non-dairy stuff for those with lactose intolerance, which now, when many people have such problems, is not "premium" according to my book. Overall, the dining on the Westerdam was good but nowhere near "premium" unless Carnival now falls into that category too. As far as food is concerned, NCL is at least head, if not also shoulders, above.
BARS: We really loved Crow's Nest with those wonderful views and a very good bar staff. The reclining chairs adjacent to the library make this spot really cool and we again enjoyed the serene and relaxed pace of this place with an opportunity to gaze out to the sea while sipping a cocktail. The library is rather decent with good book offerings for a ship, and a very relaxation-friendly space around it, including the Internet cafe. One could read a book on Cuba while sighting the foggy outlines of Guantanamo as the ship passed through the Windward Passage. But our favorite place was the Explorations Lounge/Pinnacle Bar on Deck 2 aft with the ADAGIO string quartet from Romania (originally named Tempo) and the singing waiter Erwin. We went there every night when ADAGIO played and enjoyed a pre-or-post dinner drink with the captivating live classical music. Adagio quartet make this cruise really an affair to be remembered! Waiter Erwin was the star singer on the Filipino crew show and was singing better than some that got paid to do just that on other nights. Kudos to Adagio and Erwin! The bar on Lido deck offered drinks that were nowhere near the quality of those at Crow's Nest and Explorers'.
ENTERTAINMENT: ADAGIO quartet was our prime entertainment venue but the big shows were a bit boring so we did not linger there. HALCats without the singer were OK if they played in the background, and CounterPoint group in dance lounge sounded OK for dance music as well. Cruise director was pleasantly absent from loudspeaker most of the time and gave a decent disembarkation speech. We appreciated that HAL does not terrorize the passengers with countless sales announcements and cruise director definitely had more class than the tacky falsetto-screaming guys on other cruises.
PUBLIC SPACES: We do not gamble, but could not avoid Casino - one can already smell it from afar. I hope one day all cruise lines finally will limit smoking to enclosed spaces behind closed doors so that smoke can't drift into everyone's lungs and balconies. Casino and surrounding areas were very cold and we avoided those. All public rooms, even the massage room, were way too cold. On open decks, there was again some cigarette smoke. The maritime paintings with HAL's old ships and even the not-so-qualitative reproductions of the old Dutch masters in hallways seemed to be in the right place adding a nice touch.
ISLANDS: HMC was clean and beautiful. We walked the entire length of the beach. There were plenty of beach chairs with both Westerdam and Zuiderdam present, at least further away from the enclosed swimming area. We also climbed to the small ruins and walked the nature trails - that was beautiful. Our initial skepticism about the private islands gave way to appreciation of the beauty of nature. Still, we would rather go to new places where people actually live and work to experience other cultures and societies.
GRAND TURK - there is still an unbelievable amount of devastation after the hurricane two years ago. Children go to school in Unicef tents - that really made our stomachs turn. And that is two years after the hurricane and one wonders where is the British Crown looking??? We did the kayak eco-tour which was exciting. The bus driver/tourguide even gave the whole group an island tour while going to and from the kayak station. Alas, there is almost only carnage and sadness to be seen. At the cruise pier there is a small shopping complex and a typically gaudy Margaritaville - just another run-of-the-mill tourist trap.
GRAND CAYMAN - an opposite of GT with glamour, glitterati summer homes, banks, Porsches, private canals, numerous Diamonds International, etc.
COZUMEL - we went on the Tulum Mayan ruins shore excursion. It took approx. 8 hours and was really worth it. The ferry ride is approx. 30 minutes real travel time, it was a bit choppy. I can see that some folks might have sea-sickness problems. The bus ride from Playa del Carmen to Tulum is approx. 1 hour, but they make a really useless "pit stop" almost next to the ruins just to bring a busload of tourists into a souvenir place and then again into a "recommended" jewelry store right before the ruins. It these things would be eliminated, that same shore excursion would be at least 2 hours shorter and one would still see the same things in the ruins. Tulum is very impressive, simply so beautiful in its historic splendor! The tour guides were knowledgeable, fun, and proud descendants of Mayans, their buses were modern and comfortable, so I can recommend this excursion without reserve. On the ferry ride back to COZUMEL, there were a couple of local fellows selling allegedly "silver" trinkets so tenaciously that some passengers gave them money just to stop their onslaught. They really did not bother us, but if one shows any interest or just engages in conversation with these guys, they will haunt you until you step off the ferry. In general, shore excursion seems to be the only reasonable option on Grant Turk with all the post-hurricane bedlam and practically no infrastructure. Tulum was definitely well-organized and smooth tour, and Grand Cayman island tour was overpriced even though the turtles were nice. That notorious Hell on GC is a truly diabolical tourist trap, a waste of time. I'd rather see some comparatively more angelic stingrays or sip some remotely heavenly Caybrew.
SPA: We purchased a day pass for the spa - $40 pp per day. The pass for the week is $150 pp or $250 for two. The warm recliners overlooking the sea are superb,even though the soundtrack was some 40 minutes short and quickly started to sound like a broken record for all those with even a superficial familiarity with New Age and classical music. The hydropool is good but the dry sauna is outside the spa and can be visited without paying. It closes much earlier than the spa. Of the three steam rooms in the spa, not a single one worked properly on the say we were there. So, $40 is a rip-off in my judgment for what one gets. The changing rooms are in public areas. The whole set-up of this spa is illogical and makes one wander around in the open public areas to get dressed. Since it was my birthday, DH had already purchased a gift certificate for a massage. I got a deep tissue massage which was very good (Gloria from Philippines). There was also a nice acupuncturist on board who did seminars and presentations during the week. They also offered yoga and some Pilates classes for extra fees. During the week the massage specials were available for $ 89 for three 20 minute increments of various treatment options from massage to facial and pedicure. I don't think there was $89 offer for a full massage of any kind at any time. At the closing time of the spa at 10pm, the spa desk was unmanned for prolonged periods of time, so it took time to get our room keys back. I love ship spas but if we cruise again on HAL I won't be going back to this one for that price.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: There were a lot of senior citizens onboard, but it was not even close to the "MS Geritol sails again" version some CC had reported before. There were kids, teens, and people like us (30s-40s) as well. We were among the youngest adults, that's for sure, but did not at all feel like that was a problem. There were many Canadians as well as some folks from Germany, Holland, France, various Asian countries, etc. A pleasant crowd without the rowdiness of Carnival aficionados.
DISEMBARKATION: We chose the late 10 am independent option and got off the ship without any problems right at 10am. After much hassle DH got a taxi and I used all my charms and some serious cash to guide the horrified cab driver to that decrepit parking lot. The driver looked afraid to go there and said he'd never known there was a parking lot in that slum. Well, we got there in less than 10 minutes, and the car, thanks heaven, was still there in one piece. Forget about valet service for which we had paid, just found our car and off we went as fast as we could! Frugality does not always pay off... Overall PROS: quiet, relaxing life onboard without lots of loud sales pitches, there was always a way to get away from the noise and let the ocean waves soothe the soul and stressed-out bodies. Perhaps some, especially in our age group, would call it boring - it depends on individual taste and the level of overwork one does in their daily lives. We did not see loud and unsupervised children. Classical music quartet (salute you, Adagio/Tempo on the Westerdam!) will be a most important reason to consider cruising on HAL again (note, I just turned 36 and DH is 42 so it's not the geezers alone that allegedly like classical music)! We both still like NCL which has new and comfortable ships as well as more likeable dining options for our tastes, minus the lack of classical music onboard. We cruise to see new places and to get away from the fast paced and stressful working lives, so we really appreciated the serenity and relatively more peaceful Westerdam style. I'm not sure why HAL calls itself "premium" cruise line since neither food, nor service, nor spa, nor shore excursions, nor anything else really surpassed both Carnival and NCL in terms of overall quality. It is different, but not generally and tangibly better. We will cruise on HAL again, but only if the prices are like they are now - nearly at the rock bottom and on par with balcony prices on other cruise lines. If so, we will absolutely pick HAL over Carnival, but most likely look into NCL and particularly Celebrity and Princess. Overall CONS: Westerdam needs a refurbishment, especially in the cabins. More innovative, varied, and healthy food and more reasonable spa fees versus quality, please. We both loved the maritime theme in the artworks on the ship yet the whole color pattern and material choice on Fincantieri built ships - IMHO - is too dark, too shiny, too much cheap-looking plastic oriented especially in the cabins and cabin bathrooms. We both prefer the German Meyer Werft built ships... We had a bad apple as our cabin steward who didn't even deliver us the Comment cards at the end of the cruise, but even apart from that I can't see what "premium" service really means on HAL. Good it is, but not premium. TO SUM UP: The weather was wonderful throughout the cruise and the captain sailed the Westerdam as smoothly as humanly possible for which he and his crew deserves high praise. For what we paid in these remarkable discount times, this cruise vacation was a winner and we will cruise again as the busy schedules permit - perhaps on a HAL ship.