This was our second cruise on HAL and our first on a Vista-class ship. Both cruises lived up to HAL's stated mission of creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience, every time, and the two experiences make for complementary observations. Points of comparison:
** The R-class Zaandam provides self-serve laundries. The Vista class ships do not, but do offer several laundry options. Midway through the cruise we availed ourselves of the "all you can cram into a blue fabric bag for 20 bucks" deal, and, as others have noted, it is amazing how much that bag will hold. Although I would expect that midweek must be point of highest demand, the turnaround was amazing. Our underwear and socks were neatly folded, the bundles were wrapped in tissue paper, and the slacks, knit shirts, and t-shirts were all arranged on hangers. It's a small point, but on the whole I would rather have the option of a self-serve launderette.
** I much prefer the dEcor of the Oosterdam. The music/instrument theme of the Zaandam grows tiresome. The ersatz pipe organ in the atrium is a monstrosity. And what's the deal with the Escher etchings in the stairways? For anyone at all prone to motion seasickness, a ship is already a sufficiently unsettling environment that one doesn't need the further disorientation of Escher's spatial anomalies.
** The Explorations Cafe is one of my favorite spots on board a HAL ship. On the Zaandam it is situated on the Upper Promenade deck directly across from the Explorer's Lounge. It is a destination in its own right. As of the Oosterdam's recent drydock, the Explorations Cafe is now part of the Observation deck, where, to my mind, it seems cramped and comes across as an appendage to the Crow's Nest.
** While speaking of the Explorer's Lounge, I must mention how much DW and I appreciate relaxing there and especially enjoying the music of the Adagio Strings (a quartet consisting of two violins, one viola, and one cello). But once again, in our private head-to-head comparison, Zaandam came out ahead. The musicians on our Zaandam cruise were Filipino. Those on the Oosterdam were Polish. Shame on me for indulging a preconception that Europeans would be superior musicians! That prejudice is wrong all by itself, but in this case it was decidedly not true. My recollection of the Zaandam complement is that they engaged their audience, and played enthusiastically and with verve. They had a broad repertoire ranging from classics, to light classics, to show tunes and movie themes and popular tunes (including one especially delightful rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's El Condor Pasa). Their Oosterdam counterparts, by sorry contrast, seemed to unsteady in their command of the English language to engage with the audience, spent long periods of "dead" time deciding what number to play next, and spent inordinate time on breaks. It may just have been our bad luck, but they seemed to be in a pattern of 30 minutes performing (including the long intervals just noted) alternated with 30 minutes on break. They played, at least in our hearing, no show tunes and no popular music, sticking with the old masters peppered with occasional light classics. Considering the nature of their repertoire, heavily weighted toward the classics, I was amazed that they could not perform on request Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, especially given that this is the centennial of Barber's birth and that they perform under the name Adagio Strings.
** The most disappointing point of comparison is with the Thermal Suites. The cost is considerably higher on the Oosterdam. This is no doubt due to the Hydro-Therapy Pool, which Zaandam lacks. I was unimpressed; the Hydro-Therapy Pool looks snazzy but delivers less than a regular Jacuzzi or hot tub. The ceramic loungers are a major attraction, and DW and I spent many blissful hours basking in their radiant heat on the Zaandam but, strangely, they seemed to be under-powered and underwhelming on the Oosterdam. Another factor contributing to the disappointment is their relative placement. The Oosterdam's Thermal Suite faces out a bank of windows on the starboard side. On the Zaandam, the windows wrap around thus affording a spectacular view looking forward, directly under the starboard side of the Crow's Nest. Plus, the Zaandam's Thermal Suite has a door leading outside to a small deck. Even though we were plying our way up and down the Alaska coast, it was glorious to step out, wrapped in the quilted, terry-cloth bathrobe, onto the deck and feel the cool air and smell the sea breeze. If I had it to do over, I would have saved the $249 (thanks to a $50 discount owing to the unavailability of a sauna) on the Oosterdam. In the future we are unlikely to sign up for this option on another Vista-class ship but so long as HAL retains the current configuration of spa facilities on the R-class ships. I will consider the Thermal Suites a great use of my vacation dollars.
Other observations, in more or less random order:
** Shore accommodations: Like many cruisers, we are unlikely to book our flights to arrive at the port on the date of embarkation. Given the likelihood of weather delays and other interruptions, we book overnight accommodations. In this case, because of the vagaries of frequent flyer miles, we could not find a return flight until the day after debarkation. So, we had two overnights bookending our cruise. In this case we stayed at the Holiday Inn On the Bay, directly across the street from the cruise terminal. One can't beat it for location. It maintains a continual shuttle service between the Inn and the airport, a scant three miles away. Unfortunately, it is one of approximately 4 Holiday Inns that do so, none of which services the guests of any other. Owing to the high volume of airline crew and cruise pax who frequent the Holiday Inn On the Bay, the shuttle had to skip over our little group waiting with growing impatience at our appointed place, and we stood there 40 minutes while other shuttle buses completed two or even three circuits. The front desk personnel were without exception cordial, pleasant, and helpful. Even though we arrived shortly after 1 o'clock, we were issued a room right away. Upon debarkation we were even earlier at the front desk, but were greeted as if we were old friends and given a room immediately. On the trip in, we were placed in the south tower. It is old and tired. Both in the common areas and in the room it shows a lot of wear and tear. The east tower, where we lodged on the homebound end, was a much different story; not only were the common areas sprucer than the south tower but our room was fresher and more commodious too.
** Embarkation: The Holiday Inn we stayed at is right across the street from the cruise terminal. One of the complimentary services it offers is a curb-to-curb shuttle, which sounds like a major benefit. In actuality, however, it ended up beside the point. Starting in the early morning, the concierge booked timeslots, at 15-minute intervals, on a first-come-first-served basis for any guests who wished to be shuttled across the street. The plan soon went awry, as terminal authorities started turning shuttle buses away from unloading their passengers at the entry to terminal. A long line had formed stretching far down the street, and passengers were told to schlep their stuff to the back of the line. As a result, the Holiday Inn suspended its shuttle service for several hours. DW and I were fortunate to claim a bench in the shaded area in front of the hotel, and watched the slow progress of the line. At about 1:30 in the afternoon, we gave up on the prospect of a shuttle ride, gathered up our gear, and walked over - the equivalent of maybe two city blocks. The line was no longer stretching along the street. We presented our passports and boarding documents at the iron grill that serves as entryway. After passing that inspection, we walked another city block to drop our baggage (two roll-a-boards and one folded up garment bag) with the handlers (whom I tipped $10). A Celebrity ship was onboarding at the same time. We followed the arrows pointing us in the direction of the Oosterdam and were herded (word chosen advisedly and with deliberation) into stalls consisting of two rows of benches facing each other antiphonal style. As these stall would fill up, an official would remove the tape barriers and shepherd us toward the metal detectors, where our persons and carry-on luggage were inspected. At that point we had a Disney World experience. Remember how after waiting and waiting outside for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction you triumphantly turned the corner only to find another maze of stanchions you had to snake your way through? We were given our health questionnaires to fill out, and wended our way through the maze for another 45 minutes until we got to the Promised Land where our passports were scanned, our boarding documents validated, and our keycards issued. The studios photos of the passengers taken at the point of embarkation show that the ordeal took the bloom off the rose for most. We made it to our cabin by 2:30 p.m., which, blessedly, was absolutely ship-shape. I don't remember that the process of embarkation was so protracted and difficult when we boarded the Zaandam in Seattle, but that may be one of the differences with the larger Vista-class vessels.
** Cruise Critic Meet & Greet: Although we got off to a rocky start (the original poster identified our sailing date as March 20, 2009 instead of 2010), our CC roll call became a particularly active one. I think that some enduring friendships will come of it. One of our stalwarts made the necessary arrangements both shoreside and with the Hotel Manager to get the renowned banner out of storage and proudly unfurled for the "traditional" webcam wave at 3 o'clock on embarkation day. (Anyone interested in seeing a webcam screenshot of our wave can check page 16 of our roll call thread at http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1098106&page=16.) The following day, at 11 o'clock Sunday morning, we had a CC meet 'n greet in the Captain's Corner of the Crow's Nest. Many thanks to Jocelyn Larson at HAL Corporate for handling the arrangements for us. We had a full house, with well over 30 people in attendance. It was great fun to meet people we had been openly corresponding with for weeks and even months. It was a little awkward at first to attach real/genuine names to people we knew only under the message board "handles." I'm glad I brought nametags and Sharpies and encouraged everyone to put not only their real names on the tags but also their handles. I have heard reports that it frequently happens that officers join the meet 'n greet; in our case the only staff member to appear was Michael the Future Cruise Consultant. In the future I will organize (or suggest to whoever is organizing the event) a second meet 'n greet for the tail end of the cruise. It would have been great to share experiences and thoughts with each other again at the end. The connection we already felt with each other from the roll call made for an instant community. Even in the congenial precincts of a cruise ship, it's nice to come across familiar faces.
** Special kudos to J.T., our esteemed Cruise Director. He is a fine specimen of a rare breed. Ubiquitous, unflappable, charming and in no way patronizing. Our CC gang formed our own team for the daily trivia challenge in the Crow's Nest, right before Happy Hour. If J.T. had awarded prizes for second place, we would have done well. As it was, we had to find our consolations elsewhere. While we're on the topic of fellow passengers, it's worth noting that this was a spring break cruise. DW and I were sailing at this time because it was spring break week at the university where she teaches. Many others we met were also teachers, at any level, on spring break. And the average age was much lower than on other cruises. Many college-age cruisers were among us, and DW and I enjoyed their company without exception. Finally, I must mention the large number of children on this cruise. I did not encounter or observe any who were obnoxious or obstreperous or insolent or running amok or any of those other things people complain about on the Cruise Critic boards. After an extraordinary evening session of trivia, our team was hanging around in the Queen's Lounge for a bit when the teen youth director came in looking haggard and advised us that the precincts were soon to be overridden with adolescents with their throttles in the full open position. Pleased to heed her warning, we beat a hasty retreat.
** One of the aspects of HAL I appreciate most is that they still accommodate the religious needs of the passengers by offering free passage to a chaplain. In our case the padre was Father Tom Mills, a priest of the Diocese of Halifax in Nova Scotia. He was both a congenial table companion and a first-rate minister of the Gospel. A surprisingly large number of cruisers came together for worship not only on Sunday but also for daily Mass - which made for further community with fellow passengers.
** As You Wish Dining: DW and I prefer open seating. We always instruct the maitre d' to seat us with others. For us the variety of mealtime companions is a major attraction. Not once did we encounter "difficult" tablemates. Conversation flows easily and smoothly (Where are you from? Have you cruised before? Is this your first with Holland America? Tell me about your family.) and it's not difficult to get people to share parts of their story. We are fairly adventurous eaters, but don't have particularly well developed palates. The regular fare in the Lido and the MDR is adequate for our needs and tastes. We appreciate that the MDR chefs maintain the sense of portion control. The portions served in most U.S. restaurants nowadays have gotten grotesque, and have done deadly damage to our sense of what is a regular portion. For the most part we enjoyed the leisurely pace of meals in the MDR. Entertainment: The few shows we attended in the Vista Lounge were pleasantly diverting. The room looks opulent but whole sections of seating are rendered superfluous because pillars obstruct what should be normal sight lines. I would gladly have enjoyed the Adagio Strings more, but I discuss them above. We have no complaints, however, with the prodigious artistry and showmanship of the man starring in the Piano Bar. His repertoire is vast, so much so that requests for the old standards/favorites, even when granted, are greeted with sighs of exasperation. But the teasing is given and generally taken all in good fun. Rarely was there an empty seat in the Piano Bar while he was holding forth. Maintenance and overall condition: To my relatively untrained eye, except for the Thermal Suites (see above), the ship was in fine condition and order. I am always impressed to observe how crew members are forever scrubbing, swabbing, varnishing, painting, and polishing. We spent far more of our waking hours on the ship than in port, and rarely if ever did I observe anything amiss from a housekeeping and maintenance standpoint.
** I credit the cabin stewards with doing an amazing job under trying conditions. Ours were amply up to snuff on both the major services (replenishing towels, refilling the ice bucket, replenishing the fruit bowl, cleaning the glassware, making the bed, etc.) and on the small special touches (chocolates, towel animals, as notable examples). It leaves us thoroughly befuddled therefore why the top sheet was never tucked in. The amazingly comfortable beds are one of the elements that distinguish Holland America from the competition, and lovely though the blanket and duvet certainly are, I like the feel of a topsheet directly on top of me - but (alas!) not so much that I would remake the bed myself.
As I stated at the beginning, on the two cruises where we have enjoyed Holland America's hospitality, HAL achieved its mission of creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences for DW and me. With the single exception of the Oosterdam Thermal Suites, we got good value for the money we invested. As others have noted before, a ship has a sort of character and personality all its own. Based on