Cruising has been a great vacation choice for my family, and so when the idea of a vacation came up again the choice to cruise was an easy one. We have cruised four other times. Three of those were on Carnival, and one was on Norwegian. Neither of those lines has done anything that makes us particularly loyal, so when I began to research cruises there were really three factors that went into the choice. The first was itinerary. I wanted a cruise that went to ports that we had not visited previously. Since the four prior cruises had been east and west Caribbean itineraries, I decided to look for a southern Caribbean route. The second factor I was looking for was the embarkation place and date. I wanted a port that was easy and relatively inexpensive to get to. My wife and I are owners of a small winery, and the best time for us to leave is the first week in January when the shop is slow. That also happens to be a good time for my kids and their school schedules. The last consideration as I researched cruises was an interest in trying Holland America Lines (HAL). My wife had heard some years ago that HAL has a tradition of having a Catholic priest on board every ship, and that they provide mass times every day for those that are interested. Since she attends mass most days when at home, the idea of being able to attend mass on the cruise appealed to her greatly.
Things fell together when I discovered there was a HAL cruise leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Florida on January 3. This was a seven day cruise that went to southern Caribbean destinations that we had never visited before. Fort Lauderdale is easy to get to from our home in Columbus, Ohio, a sail date of January 3 was perfect for our schedule, and since we had wanted to try HAL anyway, it seemed like a perfect fit. The ship was called the Westerdam, a smaller ship, (around 1800 passengers), that started service in 2004. The itinerary went to Half Moon Cay, (HAL's private island in the Bahamas), Aruba, and to Curacao, three places we had never been before. My research on the Westerdam turned up a lot of very good reviews, and so I decided that this was the cruise for us.
Booking the ship was an interesting adventure through a couple of cruise travel agencies. My wife and I have two sons still at home, and so I wanted to have a cabin for ourselves and a cabin for them. I also invited two of our older sons, one of whom is married, to cruise with us. That meant I needed a total of three cabins.
I had a credit card that had been collecting cruise credits, and started the process by using those credits to book a cabin for my wife and I. We have always booked balcony cabins on past cruises, and wanted to continue that trend this time. After researching the cabins on the Westerdam, I decided on a category SS "Superior Verandah Suite". HAL handles its "suite" cabins a little differently. The SS category is not a full suite, and so does not get all the amenities of a suite. The next level up, the "Deluxe Verandah Suites, and the categories above, do get full suite amenities, but also run about $600 per person more. The SS cabin we chose was a little more expensive than our usual for a balcony cabin, but with the cruise credits from our credit card, it was within our price range. I usually book guarantee cabins with the hope of having the upgrade fairy smile on me, but in this case after reviewing some of the cabins and finding some I was really not interested in because of location and lack of privacy, I booked cabin 8052. I will provide cabin details later in this review. I almost booked one of the aft cabins that have large balconies, but decided not to because on the deck plans it looked like you could look down from the lido deck right onto the balconies below and I wanted more privacy than that. After being on board I can tell you that is true for the aft cabins on decks 7 and 8, but below that they are pretty private. Even the deck 7 and 8 aft cabin balconies are not completely visible from the decks above.
For the other cabins I put a bid request on a cruise bid website. If you have never used this site I highly recommend it. You basically find the cruise you are interested in, and then add a request for bids on the website. You get back offers from several travel agencies. The best bid I received was from an on-line agency. Their cabin price was in line with the best I could find, and they offered a $150 on-board cabin credit with the booking. I quickly discovered that because I needed a cabin for three HAL would not allow a guarantee booking, and that there were no inside cabins available that would hold three people. I finally ended up booking a category D "Large Ocean-view" cabin, cabin 1016, for the three boys, mainly because that was the most inexpensive cabin that would hold the three of them. I booked a guarantee category K "Large or Standard Interior" cabin for my son and his wife to keep their expenses down but still have the opportunity for an upgrade.
As soon as the cabins were booked I quickly made my way to cruisecritic.com and found the roll call for the Westerdam and the week we were sailing. I found the best group of people I have ever met via Cruise Critic. By the time we sailed the group had over 1000 posts, had scheduled a pre-cruise meeting at a local hotel, and a "wine crawl" during our sailing. (More on the wine crawl later). The boards on Cruise Critic are just a great resource. Not only did I get to meet a wonderful group of people that were sailing with me, but the information on HAL, (a new cruise line for us), and the information on ports of call that we had never visited before helped to make this one of our best cruises ever. Thank you to everyone who runs Cruise Critic, it is a great resource!
I always like to arrive at least a day before the cruise, particularly for a winter cruise when there is a greater chance for weather that can cause delays. No use risking flying in the morning of the cruise, getting delayed, and missing the ship. As I researched airlines I found that Airtran airlines had flights from Columbus to Fort Lauderdale at a very good price. I also found that it was significantly cheaper to fly out January 1, two days before the cruise, and fly back the day of the cruise. For that cheaper airfare to be worth it I needed to find a good, inexpensive hotel where we could spend the two nights before the cruise. If I could not find an inexpensive hotel then the savings in airfare would not be worth the extra time in Florida. I also wanted a hotel with free shuttles from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the port so that I could save on the cost of taxis. I love to use Hotwire and Priceline to find quality hotels at a good price. I always get very significant cost savings over booking directly. The down side is because you don't know which hotels you will be getting until after you have booked you can not be sure that things like shuttles will be available. To solve that problem I use a site called betterbedding.com. I won't spend too much time explaining how to use betterbidding.com in this review. The site does take some time to learn. Betterbidding.com gives you two very important pieces of information to make sure you get the most value from Hotwire or Priceline. First, you can see what bids have won for hotels in the area you are interested in. This allows you to make a bid that is low but is still likely to win. Second, it helps to identify the properties you are bidding on before you bid. This allows you to know which properties to choose that have the things that you need.
Between Hotwire and betterbidding.com, I ended up getting the Hyatt Place in Fort Lauderdale for $89 per night. That price is significantly less than the $150 per night that you can get from the Hyatt Place website (if you are lucky). I really like this hotel. It is only a couple of miles from the both the airport and the cruise port, includes a free shuttle to and from both, the rooms are large and very nice, and it also includes a free continental breakfast. My wife and I ended up with a room on the top floor that overlooked the cruise port, and my son's ended up with a handicap accessible room. This was the only thing that I was not happy about. I had called a couple of weeks before to make sure that the room for my sons would hold the three of them. Unfortunately the handicap room only had a double bed (as opposed to a king size) and a pullout sofa. One of the boys ended up on the floor. That being said it was still a great hotel for a pre-cruise stay.
With the cruise booked and travel plans in place it was now time to begin to look at excursions and other items for the cruise. I was impressed by how easy the HAL website makes it to choose and book excursions and gifts pre-cruise. I almost never book excursions through the cruise line though, and this time was no exception. I did look at the excursions available from HAL, but both the price and selection did not attract me. More on excursions as I talk about each island. I did rent three "clam shell" shelters for Half Moon Cay, (HAL's private island in the Bahamas), through the HAL website. I also purchase soda cards for each of my son's. The cards are good for 20 sodas, can be used at any bar and at dinner, and are a pretty good deal. Note that you get your sodas in a glass with ice, and what you really get is about a half a can. Still, it is cheaper than purchasing soda on the ship one at a time. I also purchased a deep tissue massage for my wife from the spa that she really enjoyed. HAL also has made arrangements with a site that allows you to rent tuxedos for the formal nights. I rented a tuxedo for myself from that site. I had to go and get my measurements done at a local formal shop, (they were happy to do it for me), and submit the measurements with my order. The cost was $85 for a black tuxedo, two wing collar shirts, studs, bow tie, and cummerbund.
January 1 finally arrived, and we were on our way! The Airtran flight I had chosen left Columbus at about 5:00pm, and after a layover in Atlanta was supposed to arrive in Fort Lauderdale at about 11:00pm. The flight was delayed in Columbus by about two hours, and so when we finally arrived in Fort Lauderdale we had just 20 minutes to get to our next gate. We just barely made it, but did get to the second leg of our flight and arrived in Fort Lauderdale on time. A quick word here about Airtran Airlines. Yes, the fares are good. It was only $89 a person from Columbus to Fort Lauderdale, and $79 per person back. These rates are only good if booked on the web, are non-refundable, and require booking very early. It cost another $6 per person to get seat assignments, (which I paid so that I was sure we would all be sitting together), and there is a $75 fee to make any changes to the reservation. It costs $15 per bag per person for checked luggage, and $25 per bag for a second checked bag which means I ended up paying almost $100 for our bags at the check-in counter. I also think this is the most crowded I have ever been on a jet. It may just be my perception, but it sure seems like they are trying to squeeze more and more passengers on board, and that the leg room gets less and less. I am not worried about the flight delay out of Columbus, that happens, but we had a 45 minute wait for luggage in Fort Lauderdale was just ridiculous and almost cost us our free shuttle from the airport to the hotel. I am not sure I will use Airtran again. The cost of baggage and the uncomfortable seating are enough to have me consider paying a little higher price for a better experience.
Once in Fort Lauderdale airport, the rest of the family went to collect luggage, I made my way to the courtesy phone to call the hotel and get the shuttle to pick us up. I had to call three times before someone at the hotel picked up, but finally got an answer and they said the shuttle would be right over. The latest the shuttle from the Hyatt Place is supposed to run is midnight, and the delay in getting our bags meant we were in serious jeopardy of missing the shuttle and having to take a cab to the hotel. All credit to the Hyatt Place, they kept the shuttle running and even though it was well after midnight before we got our luggage they did transport us to the hotel.
We slept in the next morning and took advantage of the free breakfast offered by the hotel. It was actually very nice and included bagels, pastries cereal, fresh fruit, milk, coffee, and juice. The hotel is in a great location and is within walking distance of shopping and other activities. We walked to a local drugstore to pick up some items we had forgotten, and then did a little exploring. The boys went off on their own for awhile and my wife found a place nearby to get a pedicure. We then went to the Total Wine store that was only a block or so away from the hotel to pick up some wine for our trip.
Holland America has a very liberal wine policy that I really appreciated. Many cruise lines will not let you bring any alcohol on board at all, and many that do allow wine will charge a "corking fee" as you board. HAL will allow you to bring on as much wine (and beer) as you like, and will only charge you a fee if you want to drink it in a restaurant or bar. That is really a wonderful policy, although they don't follow it exactly as is written on their website, (I will discuss that in more detail later in the review). I did take some rum and cognac on board for myself. Most cruise lines, including HAL, do not allow you to bring your own liquor on board. I almost always do because I find the drink prices on board to be ridiculous. I use a product from a company called rumrunnerflasks.com to bring my own liquor on board. These are tough plastic bags with screw caps that are not visible on scanner machines. You pour your liquor from the bottle into the bag and pack it in your luggage. I have used them before and they worked great again this time. No worrying about bottles breaking or showing up on the baggage scans. Brilliant!
Total Wine is a wonderful store for wine lovers! Hundreds of different kinds of wines from all over the world that range from inexpensive to very expensive. We are really wine lovers and decided to purchase twelve bottles for our seven day cruise. We also purchase a couple of wine bags from Total Wine that each held six bottles of wine to make getting the wine on board the ship a little easier.
In the same plaza as Total Wine is a small restaurant called the Grumpy Gator where we decided to have lunch. It was a good choice. The food was reasonably priced, it was good, and they even have a couple of alligator meat entrees available. A good number of our Cruise Critic roll call group was in town that night and staying near by, so we decided to have a quick pre-cruise get together that evening. We met at the Embassy Suites hotel that was a short walk away from the Hyatt Place. We had a great time meeting some of our group.
For dinner we decided on the Outback Steakhouse that was just a block or so from the Hyatt Place. There is nothing special about this chain, but the food is good, reasonably priced, and everyone was in the mood for steak.
The next morning we were ready to get to the port to board our ship! After a quick breakfast we got in line for the free hotel shuttle to the port. The ship does not start boarding until 11:30am, (assuming there were no problems getting people off the ship from the last cruise), and the hotel to port shuttle starts running at 11:00am. We got in line at about 10:30am and were on the first shuttle to the port. The ride from the Hyatt Place to the port is only a couple of minutes, and they dropped us off right next to the ship and the entrance to the embarkation building. The porters were right there and they took our bags from us as we got off the shuttle. Very convenient! We ended up being the first people in line at the port. After a wait of about 15 minutes, the doors opened and we started the embarkation process.
My hat is off to HAL, this has to be the best embarkation we have ever been through! Once you are through the front doors your bags go onto the security scanner. Being first in line we had no wait, but I heard from others farther back that it went very quickly for them also. Once through security you go to the check-in desk. The "Express Docs" pre-registration process at the HAL website allows you to give them all your information and then provides a "Preferred Boarding Pass" and luggage tags that you are supposed to print and take to the port with you. If you don't have your luggage tags don't worry, the porters have some right there at the port that you can attach. We had attached our luggage tags back at the hotel, and had our pre-printed boarding pass, but found that we really did not need it. They never even asked us for the boarding pass at check in. Basically we just gave them our passports, they checked to make sure we had pre-registered, and we were all set. They printed our room key-cards, gave us colored cards that had our boarding group number, and sent us upstairs to another waiting area. It took about 30 minutes in the boarding area before they called our number, we had our obligatory boarding photo, and then we were on board! Embarkation was a very easy process.
We also got a very big surprise during embarkation. My wife and I already knew our cabin number. We had found out several weeks before the cruise that my son and daughter in law had received a nice upgrade from their inside guarantee to a large ocean-view stateroom on deck 1. When we had booked the room for the other three boys we had booked a specific outside cabin on deck 1. To our surprise they were upgraded to a veranda cabin on deck 8, the same deck my wife and I were on! This was a huge upgrade on a non-guarantee cabin. I have no idea why the upgrade happened, but it sure made our day!
The cabins are not ready for guests until about 1:30pm, so we made our way to the Lido deck (Deck 9) to get lunch. As was true for the rest of the trip, the food was great, and we had a good time exploring what food was available, and walking around the Lido getting used to the ship. At 1:30pm an announcement was made that the rooms were ready and we went to see what our homes for the next week were going to be like. Don't bother trying to get to your room early, there were crew members at each passageway turning people away until the rooms were ready.
As an aside, if you have trouble remembering which side is port and which side is starboard, here is an easy trick. Face the front of the ship. Port is always on the left, and you can remember that because "port" and "left" have the same number of letters. The other side is the starboard.
As I said, our cabin was 8052 on the Navigation deck, deck 8, just below the Lido deck. What a great cabin! 8052 is on the port (left) side just in front of the mid-ship elevators. When you first walk in you are in a short hallway that has three full length closets to the left and the bathroom door to the right. The bathroom is huge for a cruise cabin. It features the two sinks, two good size cabinets, a whirl pool tub with shower, a separate additional shower stall, and a toilet. There is plenty of room for two to move around the bathroom. Back to the hallway, once you pass the closets, there is a desk/dressing table with mirror and makeup mirror to the left, and the room opens up to the bed and two nightstands on the right. The bed is an almost king size bed that can be split into two singles. On the bed are three pillows that a little card on the night stand says they are firm, soft, and very soft. Past the dressing table on the left is the couch that can be folded out to a full size bed. This area is big enough that there are also two chairs and a small table. If you fold out the bed these would have to be moved, I am not sure what they do with them, we did not use the fold out bed. On the right past the bed is an area that includes the desk with a window above it, a shelving unit, the TV, and the refrigerator. Just past the couch is the door to the balcony which is huge! There is a table with three normal chairs, another small table with two more casual chairs and a foot rest. This is by far the largest nicest balcony I have ever had. The beds were comfortable but a little firm for me. I have heard many people rave about the HAL bedding, I thought it was just OK.
The three boys ended up in cabin 8019, a balcony cabin on the starboard side closer to the front of the ship. This is a category VA "Deluxe Verandah Outside" cabin, and as I said, was a huge upgrade from the deck 1 outside that we had booked. The cabin was quite a bit smaller than ours. As you walk into the cabin there is one full length closet to your right and the bathroom to your left. The bathroom is a decent size with a shower/tub combination and one sink. Past the closet is the main queen size bed that can be converted into two twin size beds. Just beyond that is the couch that can be opened up to a double bed. Past the couch is the balcony that includes a small table and two chairs. There is only a couple of feet between the end of the bed and the wall, so this cabin can be a little cramped when the couch bed is extended, but is still a good size cabin that easily accommodated three people.
The last cabin we had was 1109, a category D "Large Ocean-view" cabin that was a great upgrade from the inside guarantee that we had booked. The cabin is towards the rear of the ship on the starboard side. This is a really good size cabin with a big window, two full-length closets, a convertible couch with table and chairs, a queen size bed that can be split into doubles, and a decent size bathroom with tub/shower combination. I was impressed with the size of this cabin, and it worked well for two.
The TV's are all flat screen so they do not take up too much room and had a decent number of channels available the entire trip. There are two channels that feature cameras that point out the front and back of the ship. There is also a channel that shows the current position of the ship, the intended course, where the ship has already been, and gives information on temperature, wave height, wind direction and speed, and ship speed. All the cabins include a DVD player.
All in all the cabin my wife and I were in was one of the best cabins we have ever had on any cruise ship. We had some issues the first night when the ship was rocking due to waves and things were banging around the cabin. Once we figured out how to lock down the balcony door, (three turns of the key in the lock), and got the hangers to quit banging around in the closets, (take them down), it was fine. The other thing I noticed, and that might bother some people, is that there were some noises coming from the Lido deck right above. 8052 is under the portion of the Lido deck that includes the mid-deck pool, and there are tables and chairs right above the cabin. During the day you could hear it every time someone dragged one of those chairs across the deck. I could also here it if someone went running over with heavy footsteps. I would not say the noise was really loud, and it never kept me from being able to take a nap in the afternoon, but I could see how this might be irritating to some people. At night when no one was on the Lido deck it was fine, and I never remember being disturbed in any way as we were getting ready for dinner or sleeping. The noise is much louder on the balcony where the roof over the balcony is basically the floor of the lido and there is no insulation between. Any chairs being moved above were definitely loud out there, but the noise from the sea generally made it manageable. We never had any music from the Lido band that came through, but they were on the other side of the deck. My sons, who were also in a cabin just below the Lido, never heard any noise, but they were more forward and where under more of the spa area and not the open deck. The noise was not enough to make me hesitate to book this cabin again.
The Westerdam is a wonderful ship. She is a nice size, well laid out, and easy to get around. There are three sets of elevators front, middle, and back. The middle elevators include two sets of glass elevators that run along the sides of the ship and allow you to see outside when you are in them. Stairs are also available at the same place as the elevators. The ship is tastefully decorated and is not as garish as some of the other ships I have been on. There is artwork all over the ship including sculptures and paintings. Some of the art is a little strange, but nothing seems really out of place.
The top deck, deck 11 or the Sports Deck, is very small and can only be reached by stairs from deck 10. Towards the front of the ship is the Observation deck that is a good size deck with lounge chairs. This deck would have the potential to be very, very windy, but there are windbreaks in front that allow you to be there even when the wind is very high (as long as you are careful on the steps leading up to it). Towards the back of the ship is another area that has basketball and volleyball courts.
Deck 10 is called the Observation Deck. In the front is an enclosed area that includes the Crows Nest, and the Explorations Cafe. The Crows nest has a bar and in the evenings featured a singer/guitar player that was really quite good. My son, who missed his guitar greatly, made friends with him, and was even allowed to play and sing a little. The Explorations Cafe includes a coffee bar and library with many books and DVD's that can be borrowed during the cruise at no cost. Just back from the enclosed area is an area partially covered with canvas that has teakwood furniture including lounges, chairs, and tables. This is a very nice area to relax and read outside but still be shaded. There is also a spiral staircase that leads down to the Lido deck. Further back are two small decks that go around the opening that looks down to the Lido deck and to another enclosed area that include Club Hal (the kid's area) and the video arcade. The kids I saw in Club Hal seemed to be having a good time. The deck continues back around some mechanical areas that then opens up to look down on the back part of the Lido deck. Windbreaks are all along this deck so you can walk it even when the wind is up.
Deck 9, the Lido deck, has the main outdoor features of the Westerdam and the Lido Restaurant. Starting from the front you find the enclosed Fitness Center and Greenhouse Spa and Salon. The fitness center is what you would expect with the normal exercise equipment. My wife had a deep tissue massage in the spa which she really enjoyed. We did not take advantage of any other services. Just back from the spa area is the mid-ship Lido pool, lido bar, and seating area. There is a cover which can be slid in place to cover the Lido pool in case of rain. On the port side is the Lido bar, and on the starboard side is a buffet station that during meal hours always had Mexican style food for tacos, fajitas, and nachos. Right by this buffet area is a window that is called the Terrace Grill. The Terrace Grill is hidden away a little, (it took us awhile to find it), and has really good burgers, hot dogs, brats, and french fries that are available during meal times. Still further back is a covered area called the Lido Restaurant. This is a buffet style dining area. Some stations always have the same food, and some that have different food every day. The buffets run both sides of the center of the Lido Restaurant. Both sides are open during main meal times, but only one side is open other times. You can always find pizza and pasta on one side, and sushi and Asian food on the other. Next is a station that has a variety of ice cream and toppings, cakes, pie, and other deserts. Back a little further is a station that in the morning has a variety of breakfast foods, and in the evening serves in a buffet style what ever is being served in the main dining room (except on formal nights). The last station has made to omelets in the morning and salads during the afternoon and evening. There are also stations that hold various finger foods all day including fruit, cheese, juice, ice tea, water, and other offerings. There is a lot of seating here, and the only time we had any problem find a table was on the day we boarded, and that was only because everyone was headed to the Lido to eat while waiting for their cabin. Past the Lido restaurant at the very back of the ship is the Sea View Pool. This is an adult only pool and hot tub area that also has a bar. To be clear, this is an adult only pool, but it is not a "topless" area. The Westerdam does not include any "clothing optional" decks.
Deck 8, the Navigation deck, is all cabins. Below that, deck 7 is the Rotterdam deck, which is all cabins but also includes the Neptune Lounge that is exclusively for those in full suites. Our category was one down from the full suite, so we did not have access. Deck Six is the Upper Veranda deck and is all cabins. Deck 5, the Verandah deck, and deck 4, the Upper Promenade, are also all cabins.
Deck 3, the Promenade deck, is one of the main activity decks on the ship. There is a walking/running deck that goes all the way around the ship on this deck, and there are some teakwood loungers that are nice and usually out of the sun. This is also where all the lifeboat stations are. At the front of the Promenade deck is the Balcony of the Vista Lounge where the shows and other entertainment are. Back from the Vista is the shop area. Mid ship is the upper part of the Atrium and the Ocean bar. Back a little further is the Photo Gallery, and back from that is the upper part of the Vista Dining Room that is for those with fixed meal times.
Deck 2, the Lower Promenade, is also dedicated to ship activities. At the front is access to the balcony of the Vista Lounge. Just back from the Vista Lounge is the Piano Bar, the Sports Bar, and the Casino. I did not spend any time in these areas, but the casino was a good size and seemed to be busy. The sounds I heard coming from the piano bar led me to believe that people were enjoying themselves, and the Sports Bar was always full during game times. Back from this is the Queen's Lounge and Culinary Arts Center. The Culinary Arts center includes a stage outfitted with a full kitchen where they give cooking demonstrations and is pretty unique for cruise ships in my experience. This is also where they do the wine tasting. Back a little further is the Pinnacle Grill which is where they do the fancy, cover charge meals, and the Pinnacle Bar. Back a little further is the Explorer's lounge where you can sometimes find a string quartet playing. Last, at the rear of the ship, is the Lower Vista Dining, the part of the main dining room where those that are on non-fixed meal times. Both the upper and lower dining rooms are very nice.
Deck 1, the Main Deck, is all cabins except for the main floor of the Vista Lounge and the Atrium where the Front Office and the Excursion Desk are located. The Vista is a great place to see a show. We always got to the shows about a half hour early and were always in the front couple of rows for seating. There are a few pillars to deal with on the upper deck, but even though the ship was at capacity for this sailing, the Vista was never completely full, and I did not see that anyone had to sit behind a pillar. We did not use the Excursion Desk, but worked with the crew at the Main Office several times. They were always friendly and helpful.
One thing that was a little different about the food on the Westerdam was that none of the restaurants served food 24 hours a day. Some food was always available late, but not all night. Room service, however, is available 24 hours. We had breakfast delivered to our cabin a few days and I was very impressed. The room service food was always fresh, always on time, and very good. My wife and I had room service for lunch one day, and my boys got it several times throughout the day all week. Again, very good stuff, I was impressed.
In general I really enjoyed the food while on board. The Lido Deck Restaurant had a good variety, always seemed fresh, (much of it made to order), and was always the appropriate temperature. I really enjoyed the sushi and the Asian food. The pizza was good, and the toppings varied from day to day. I also enjoyed the Mexican style food at the buffet by the Lido pool. There was a seafood stuffed avocado available a couple of days that was really good. The bread pudding, available at the ice cream station, was to die for! At breakfast the waffles and omelets were also very good. The Lido is available as an alternative to the main dining room if you need it.
I was also very impressed with the food in the main dining room. We were on the flexible seating plan which meant we could eat whenever we wanted between 5:30 and 9:30pm every night. This worked very well for us for the most part. I have to admit I was a little worried when on the second night we went to get a table for seven for the family and were told there would be a 45 minute wait. The wait was every bit of 45 minutes. I went to dinner the next night and the dining room manager remembered who I was and had already reserved a table for our party. I appreciated that greatly and the extra effort made me feel much better about the dining room service. We were seated right away every other night. The menu in the main dining room was varied every night, and always had a wide variety of food including pasta, beef, fish, and vegetarian offerings. Dress for dinner is "resort casual" which means no jeans and collared shirts for men, nice cloths for women. Most people in the main dining room followed the dress code. There were two formal nights, and our family had a good time getting dressed up for dinner. There were a few tuxes on formal night, but also a good number of jackets and ties. All in all the dining experience on the Westerdam was very, very good. I had absolutely no complaints. My wife and I decided not to try the upscale Pinnacle Grill while on board. There is a $20 cover to eat at the Pinnacle, and the food and service is supposed to be a little more upscale than the main dining room. We have eaten at these kinds of restaurants on past cruises, but decided not to this time. There were two reasons for that decision. First, we looked at the menu, (which we were told does not change from night to night), and decided that the cuisine was not worth the extra cover charge. Second, since our family was along, we opted to eat together in the main dining room so we could dine as a family. We did talk to people who raved about the food and the service in the Pinnacle, so all indications are it is very good.
The entertainment on the Westerdam is also very good. During the day there are a variety of programs going on including games, presentations, and talks. At night the bars had lots of different entertainment including the piano bar, a guitar player, and the string quartet. Shows in the Vista Lounge were as good as any I have seen. The first night included some games on stage that my family was asked to be involved in which was a lot of fun. We won "Dam" logo mugs for participating. The Westerdam singers and dancers were very good, as was the "HAL cats" band. The comedian on board was very funny, there was a singer who did Elton John tunes that put on a good show, and we even had a ventriloquist that we enjoyed very much. All the entertainment was at least on par with anything we had seen on previous cruises.
Service all over the ship was very good. The staff was always friendly and smiling and I thought they did a very good job. The crew is not as international as some of the other cruises I have been on. Apparently HAL has a school somewhere where they train the crew, so most of the crew is from that area, I think Indonesia.
There was only one experience with a crew member that I was very disappointed about. As I said earlier, we had a great Cruise Critic roll call group that had been chatting for months before the cruise. During our chats we discovered that most of us had a common love of wine, and that discovery developed into us making plans for what we called the "Wine Crawl". Basically we all planned on bringing a bottle or two of wine to a meeting on the ship where we would all share the wine and have a good time. We decided to meet on Lido deck near the adult pool area after our stop at Half Moon Cay. One person in our group actually went to the point of designing t-shirts for our wine crawly that we all bought and wore to the event! There was some concern as we were discussing our plans that HAL might not allow us to do the crawl, or that they might want to charge us a corking fee because we were on deck. I went to the HAL website and looked up the policy. To quote the HAL website, "A corkage fee of US$18.00 applies to wine and champagne brought to the restaurants or bars for consumption". It says specifically that the corking fees would only be charged in restaurants or bar areas. We were not in a restaurant, and choose a spot on deck well away from any bar area, and thought we should be fine. As soon as we stated to open bottles one of the crew came up and said we could not open wine there unless we paid the corkage fee. When we pointed out that the policy said only bars and restaurants, he said it would be OK. A little while later we were visited by a man who was dressed in what looked like an officer's uniform. Later at a wine tasting I found out he was the main wine steward, but we did not know that at the time. He stated that he had talked to the "beverage manager", (a title that is non-existent as far as I can discover), and that he was going to have to charge us a corking fee for six of our bottles. I again pointed out that the website specifically said that that the corkage charge only applied to the restaurants and bars, and that we were clearly in neither. He said he was sorry, but that he was only the messenger, that he was only doing what the beverage manger had told him he had to do. I suggested that he ask the beverage manager to come down and discuss it with us. His answer was that the beverage manager was "on break", but he had been told that he had to do it, and again stated that he was only the messenger. I again told him I thought the situation was unacceptable, and that the website clearly said that the corkage fee only applied to bars and restaurants. I was then told that the entire deck was a bar, and so the policy applied, and that he was trying to provide good customer service by only charging for the six bottles of wine, not for all, and that maybe he should just charge a corkage fee for all the bottles. I told him I appreciated his attempt at "good customer service", but that if he really wanted to provide good customer service, he would get cheese and crackers and wine glasses for us and leave us alone. At that point as a group we realized we were getting nowhere, and one person in our group volunteered to allow us to use their cabin. All 20 of us squeezed into the cabin and had a great party. We really had a good time. I found out later, the man who gave us a hard time was the head wine steward, and I think he was really just upset that we had not purchased the wine from him. I don't believe that he really had a beverage manager telling him what to do, and I believe that the statement that the manager was "on break" was not true, as was his "I am just the messenger" statement. I think he was the person who made the decision, and just did not want to admit it. In any case, we solved the problem by going to the cabin where they could not charge us a corkage fee. I was very disappointed in how this was handled, and was my one major disappointment in the service provided on the Westerdam.
The wine selections available on board were mediocre at best. I considered one of the wine packages that are available to purchase pre-cruise from the HAL website, but was not impressed by the wine that was a part of those packages. My wife and I did attend one of the wine tasting events. The wine was just OK, but I was disappointed by the knowledge of the Head Wine Steward who ran the tasting. (Yes, this was the same person who gave us a hard time on deck during our wine crawl). He was fairly knowledgeable about wine, but some of his comments during the tasting were in my opinion way off base, and just plain not correct. We looked at the wine being offered during the second, more expensive tasting that was supposed to include some higher end wines, but decided that between the wines offered and the knowledge of the wine steward, it was not worth the money.
We did attend the cooking demonstration in the Culinary Arts area. The cost was $29 per person, was only open to 12 people. I had read about the cooking demonstration on Cruise Critic, and it looked like a lot of fun. We signed up first thing when we got on board just to make sure we did not get shut out. If you want to do this activity I highly recommend getting signed up early. My opinion was that the demonstration was just OK. The session was run by the head chef of the Pinnacle restaurant. As a part of the session we each got special Culinary Arts logo aprons that we were allowed to keep, and when the food was ready we were allowed to sit in the Pinnacle restaurant and eat the results (which were very good). I was a little disappointed that the demonstration was not more hands-on. I expected to actually prepare the dish, but we basically watched the chef do the cooking. We did learn some good things, it was interesting to watch him, but I am not sure I would go to the expense of doing it again.
I really enjoyed the ports of call on this itinerary. The first stop was HAL's private island called Half Moon Cay. "Cay" is pronounced "key", by the way. If you are looking for this island on a map, try looking on Google Maps for Little San Salvador Island, Bahamas. There is no dock at the island, so you have to tender in, but the tender is quick and no problem. Unfortunately it was chilly and a little rainy the day we were anchored at Half Moon Cay. The Bahamas in January are a crap shoot from a weather perspective, and we knew that, so we just dealt with it. I had rented what are called "Clam shells" from the HAL website before our cruise, and I do recommend them. Our day was not sunny, but if it was, these would have made great shelters from the sun. They are big enough to fit two lounge chairs and provide a good cover. Some people have told me they get really hot, (they are a dark blue color, so I believe it), but if you prop up the back of the shell off the ground you can get good ventilation. For us they were a shelter from the drizzle that was coming down when we first got to the island. There were several excursions offered by HAL while on the island, but we choose just to spend the day on the beach. The island is laid out really well. The main area that you enter when you get off the tender includes a few shops and a bar. There is a walking trail available that my wife and son enjoyed. There is also a big food where they do a barbeque for lunch that was really quite good. What I was most impressed about the layout of the common areas, particularly the tables for eating lunch. All the common areas are surrounded by dense vegetation that separates them and makes each area feel kind of intimate. You never get the feeling that you are on an island with 1000 other people. The beaches on Half Moon Cay are long, wide, and beautiful! The sand is some of the cleanest, finest, powdered-sugar sand that I have ever seen. The water is clear, and although it was too chilly to do any real snorkeling, I think it could have been nice. The boys did some swimming and enjoyed themselves. All in all I enjoyed Half Moon Cay, and would like to visit again when it was warm and sunny!
The next port was Aruba. We were delayed about an hour getting to Aruba because of a problem with one of the engines that slowed us down a little. There were several other ships already in port, and so we had to dock at an area that I don't think was meant for cruise ships. This meant we had about a quarter of a mile walk from where we docked to where the taxis and other transportation were waiting. The walk was not really a big deal for us, but there were some older people who had a hard time. In reading the Cruise Critic boards on Aruba, I found an excursion from a group called Jolly Pirates that looked interesting. Jolly Pirates has a large sail boat that goes to a couple of nice snorkel areas and then to a place where you can use the rope swing that was on board. The cost was right, $30 a person, it fit within our schedule, and I thought the swing would be fun for the boys, so I booked the trip. We had to take a taxi to where the excursion left, (just $10 to the hotel area). Getting a taxi was easy, but because the ship had been late getting to Aruba they almost left without us. When I first saw the Jolly Pirate boat I was a little disappointed at how crowded it was, but once we got on and settled it was fine. They offered drinks, (rum punch that seemed a little watered down and soda), and all the snorkel gear was available on the boat. The first snorkel spot was over a sunken World War II era ship. I had heard the snorkeling here was good, but the wind was up, and the seas were so rough it was really hard to enjoy the spot. The next spot was closer to the beach and so was much easier to snorkel, but there was not a lot to see here. The next spot was in a sheltered area where the broke out the rope swing and allowed everyone to give it a try. That was a lot of fun, and the crew of the ship had an opportunity to show off their rope swing skills. All in all I would recommend the Jolly Pirate's excursion at Aruba. It was inexpensive, easy to get to, and a lot of fun. We did have a little trouble finding a taxi after the excursion was over. We waited by the main gate near the Jolly Pirate office for quite a while as the security guard tried to get us a taxi. We finally gave up on him and walked over to the front of the Holiday Inn that is right next to the beach. Part of our group finally hailed a taxi back to the ship, but we could not all fit. We had a hard time finding an empty taxi for the rest of the group, so we finally just got on a local bus. Not all of the public busses are big, full size busses. There are a few small vans that also run as public transportation. You can tell if they are an official bus because there is a "B" as the first character in the license plate number. We got on a van, and for $5, five people were transported to a stop near the port.
The next day our port was Curacao, (pronounced cur-a-sow), and this was definitely my favorite spot. We docked right at what I think is the main dock which is near the downtown area. There is another dock that is called the "Mega Pier" and would not have been as convenient, I am glad we got to dock before the cruise ship that ended up there. When ships come into this channel they have to move what is called the "Floating bridge" to allow the ship in. The floating bridge is exactly what it sounds like. It is a walking bridge that goes across the channel and floats on several pontoons. When they want to move it one end of the bridge pivots and the bridge moves out of the way. Once the ship has passed the channel the bridge pivots back into place for foot traffic. The architecture in Curacao is very interesting. Tall, thin buildings are painted in pastel colors and the effect is beautiful. In Curacao I booked an excursion through shoretrips.com, a website I have used to book excursions at other ports in the past. I found an excursion called "The Aquatour Boat Safari and Snorkeling". It was a little expensive at $90 per person, but the excursion included transportation to the excursion site, and provided the use of something called "aqua boats" to tour the area and do some snorkeling. Aqua boats are basically jet skis that have an outboard engine. They are pretty powerful, and were a lot of fun to ride. I purchased one aqua boat for each of the boys, and one for my wife and I to ride together. The tour was actually provided by a business called "Adrenaline Adventures". The tour started out in a bay, but we soon left the sheltered bay for the open ocean on our way to tour another bay nearby. The open ocean was very rough, but the boys had a great time riding the waves and having fun on the aqua boats. Once inside the second bay we did some sightseeing while riding the aqua boats around the bay. After riding for awhile, our guide took us to a snorkeling spot where we tethered the boats and used the provided snorkel equipment to have a look around. I was a little disappointed that they did not offer flippers, just a mask and snorkel, but the area was well sheltered and calm, and the best snorkeling was near by, so it was OK. The snorkeling area was above a sunken tug boat, and I have to say was some of the best snorkeling I have done anywhere in the Caribbean. The number and variety of fish was outstanding! We snorkeled for quite awhile, and when we were done, we went back to the origination point where they had watermelon cut and waiting as a snack. They also had soda and water available throughout the tour. My sons wanted to try the jet skis, and so for a very reasonable price they rented jet skis from the tour operator for a half hour of riding. We had a lot of fun with Adrenaline Adventures, and I would highly recommend this excursion. Once we were done, the provided transportation took us back to the port. The boys explored the downtown Curacao area and said it was very nice and clean. My wife was not feeling well so we opted to go back and relax on the ship.
Our trip back to Fort Lauderdale took two days, and was pretty uneventful. The ship had some activities setup for the sea days, but I have to say there was nowhere near the energy level or number of activities I have seen on other cruise lines. The average age of the passengers on the Westerdam was a little higher than I have seen on other cruises, and from what I read, this is true of most of the HAL ships. One of our fellow cruisers even went so far as to say this was the first time she had ever been bored on a cruise. I could see her point. If you were looking for activities to be scheduled every minute of every day you could be disappointed. It was OK for me, I was just looking to relax, read, and enjoy the day. Unfortunately the weather on the way back was cloudy, and as we got farther north it got more and more chilly. Florida was in the grip of some of their coldest weather in a number of years, and by the time we got to port in Fort Lauderdale the air temperature was in the 30's! It was quite a shock to get off the ship that morning. I do give the captain credit. It appeared as though we were a little ahead of schedule on our way back, and that he steered the ship westward over Cuba instead of heading further north. I think that spared us some of the more chilly temperatures, and let us enjoy the last day a little more.
Getting off the ship was very, very easy. I will say again that I am really impressed with HAL's embarkation and debarkation process. We were given luggage tags that had a number and color. Each number and color represented a debarkation time. I had to call the front office to get our son's tags to be the same color as ours so we could all leave at the same time, but the office was very helpful and provided the tags with no problem. The luggage had to be tagged and in the hallway by 1:00am the night before we docked at Fort Lauderdale. They use a mostly silent debarkation process, which means they are not constantly calling colors and times, they expect the passengers to watch the clock and start off the ship at the right time. Our luggage tags were grey with the number 2, and that meant that we were to leave the ship between 9:15 and 9:30 am. That was great for us since we had a 2:00pm flight and it allowed us plenty of time in the morning to get some breakfast before getting off the ship. We went up to the Lido deck for breakfast, and then came back down to our cabin for the final time to relax before leaving the Westerdam. Once it was our debarkation time, we made our way down to the correct deck and waited in a very short line to get to the gangway. Our luggage was arranged by color in the security area and was very easy to find. Once past immigration we caught a taxi to the airport and were on our way home.
The Fort Lauderdale airport is one of the worst, in my opinion. I never have a good experience in this airport. The lines are always long, it is always crowded, and just not a great experience. Regardless the trip home was for the most part uneventful.
Just a couple of other notes.
As on all cruise lines, there was a lifeboat drill just before we sailed away. The lifeboat drill has always been a hassle, but one you have to put up with. Good news! At least on HAL, the do not require you to wear, or carry, your life jacket with you to the lifeboat drill any more! Your muster station number is right on your cabin key card, so you just make your way to the right muster station, stand there for a few minutes, and you are done! A great improvement over the cattle calls in a lumpy life jacket we have done in the past.
Like all cruises, there was a daily program of events that was delivered to each cabin every evening. The program lists that place and time of all the events happening for that day, and is worth a review. There were several days that the program was wrong, and that was a little confusing, but for the most part it is a good way to plan your day.
We had some rough seas a couple of the days, particularly the first night out of Fort Lauderdale and on the open sea between Curacao and Cuba. The Westerdam does not seem to handle these seas very well, and the boat was rocking quite a bit. That does not bother me personally, I kind of like it, but some other passengers were getting a little queasy from being seasick. If you are susceptible to seasickness you may want to make sure you have some remedy with you.
On the fourth day, (at least on or seven day cruise), they will provide you with a copy of your charges while on board to that point. You will get another copy of the charges the last day just before you leave. Go over these very carefully. We did not have any problems, but there were some others that had to have some charges corrected.
On Deck 10 in the Crows Nest there are some great leather lounge chairs surrounded by large windows that face the front of the ship. If you want to get out of the heat and sun check out this area of the Crows Nest. It is a very nice place to relax, read, or take a nap, but still be able to see the ocean.
If you are planning on buying t-shirts, or really anything else, from the ships stores, wait until late in the cruise. They almost always have some kind of sale or sales in the shops and you may be able to save some money.
Like all cruise lines Holland America is constantly taking pictures during the cruise, and those pictures are available to purchase in the picture gallery. The picture gallery is typical from my experience, but I was disappointed that the prices are a little higher than what I have experienced in the past. The portraits were no better for the extra cost.
Religious services were held every day, and were very well attended from what my wife told me. There were at least 40 or 50 people every day. The times varied from day to day, so watch the daily program for times.
Service on the Westerdam was mostly very, very good, with the notable exception of the wine steward and the corkage situation noted above. Our room steward, (one of the most critical crew members to help make an enjoyable cruise in my opinion), was very good. He introduced himself the first day, was there to help us whenever we needed him, but was out of the way most of the time. He very quickly figured out our schedule, and snuck into the room to do his job while we were away. The wait staff in the main dining room was for the most part good. We sat at a different table every night, and some waiters were better than others, but no one was bad. There were always lots of crew members around the Lido Restaurant ready to get you something to drink, to take used dishes, and just to be helpful whenever they could. There were lots of smiles, and I really appreciated the crew overall.
Again, like all cruises, they are trying to sell you stuff. I have to admit that the sales pitches on the Westerdam were not the full-court-press I have seen on some other ships, but the same art auctions, seminars that are really sales opportunities, and way over priced drinks-of-the-day are the rule. Just go with the flow, and feel free to walk out if that seminar on weight loss turns out to really be a sales pitch for some spa treatment if you want.
How would I rate the cruise overall? I would say it was among the best we have been on. The Westerdam is much more laid back than some other cruises we have taken. If you are looking for excitement and lots of activities, this may not be the ship for you. The ship is comfortable, the itinerary is nice, and the crew was great. The people we met on the Cruise Critic roll call were among the best yet, and helped to make this cruise a lot of fun. All in all I would recommend this ship and this itinerary. Was it great enough to make me a life long HAL passenger? No, I don't think so. This really does not say anything bad about HAL or the Westerdam. I am not a life long cruiser on the other lines I have been on either. But I would also not hesitate to cruise on HAL again for the right price and itinerary. Good job, HAL, and kudos to the Westerdam and her crew.