The ship's condition upon embarkation was probably our first ominous sign. Despite a recent refurbishment before heading to Europe, general maintenance seemed lacking. Filthy windows everywhere, from our first walk into our verandah cabin to the floor-to-ceiling Crow's Nest vistas - cloudy and spotted windows (some looking like tar) just showed negligence. While a norovirus outbreak on the previous cruise might have distracted crew from some exterior ship maintenance on transition day, I could not see why cleaning efforts later in the 12 day itinerary could not be undertaken. I will say that the stateroom cleanliness (windows and other issues) were quickly addressed by the stateroom staff. Also our stateroom air conditioner problem (a unit seemingly set to "permafrost" despite the warmest thermostat setting) was handled and corrected by the engineering staff with concern and expertise.
In terms of daily onboard experiences it just felt like the ship was short on staff. No cruise director until day 9 (we had an "emcee" in his place), the Executive Chef seating patrons in the dining room, and a basically absentee cruise staff all contributed to a feeling of neglect by those in charge. Frequently we heard this was the last cruise before a charter of the Westerdam to South Africa for the World Cup. Did this account for the scarce staffing? Or was staff being re-routed to a new HAL ship coming on-line shortly? Both? Who knows? But the mere fact that Holland America does not seem to try to provide a top-notch experience for EVERY cruise says a lot in my opinion. This was no discount cruise. This was not a repositioning cruise. But it had the feeling of "let's just get through this one."
The historically much enjoyed Ship Info channel (with weather conditions and global positioning) was not working the entire cruise. The first few days the channel was on but continued to show the ship's position back in Venice, along with outdated info on the previous cruise itinerary. All the weather conditions were "N/A". Not much help there for passengers interested in this extended itinerary with a variety of fascinating and diverse ports. Very disappointing to not have this information resource. Other alternatives or efforts to share this information in another way were not offered.
Like the ship info channel, the whole cruise never seemed to hit the "reset" button in a variety of areas. Selection in the shops was poor and limited, and the sales staff was frequently surly or looked downright bored out of their minds. In need of a new digital camera due to a malfunction in Venice, we were told the ship was completely "out of stock". Again, mention of the charter came up as the reasoning (since the ship will be docked permanently for a month or so I can understand that shopping will be prohibited, but must it affect the cruises leading up to the charter?).
Both service and food in the dining room have slipped in the four years since our last HAL vacation. Initially I thought it might be related to our choice of open seating dining versus traditional, but when crowding in the lower level caused us to be seated upstairs amongst the Traditional diners on a few occasions, there was no discernable difference there either. Little supervision was evident and a lack of the usual team effort between waiter and busperson seemed the culprit, although behind it all was a lack of the traditional Holland America service training. I can count on one hand how many times I was asked how my food was or whether a waiter introduced himself to the diners at the table (there were cards on the tables with their names but that seemed impersonal).
Alternatively I need the hands of a large crowd to count the minutes I would sit with a drained water glass or have a waiter reach in front of me to serve someone else. The delivery of the courses themselves was punctual, perhaps too punctual since most meals felt rushed (again a symptom of open seating?). No major complaints about the food although the desserts were pretty tasteless. The more flowery the description on the menu, the more I grew to mistrust the choice. There was no variety in the bread basket choices each evening - very tiresome and not at all creative for a fan of pre-dinner nibbling.
I won't belabor other details - I am the first to admit vacationing is very subjective and what is important to one is immaterial to another. While this is my first public review after cruising for many years, my motivation is to advise seasoned travelers of a potential diminishment in the HAL experience for the traditional cruiser. Many issues in my opinion reflected a lack of attention to traditional Holland America detail I had grown to expect. The poor presentation and preparation for the Mariners "sit yourself wherever" Luncheon confirmed for me that the traditions of HAL from years past are gone and their repeat passenger clientele are not that well regarded. Premium bedding and a Signature of Excellence program focusing on dEcor are nice, but I feel they need to focus on their Excellence of Service a bit more. Maybe they do smaller ships better than large ones - previous Ryndam and Maasdam experiences were top notch. But I am disappointed that HAL is no longer in my top three of cruise lines and I won't be sailing anytime soon with this line.