Itinerary: Ft. Lauderdale, FL -- Nassau, Bahamas -- Philipsburg, St. Maarten -- Road Town, Tortola -- Half Moon Cay, Bahamas -- Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Accommodations: Cabin: 1006, Main Deck, Cabin Category DD Dining: Early Lower, Table M
Overview: This cruise was my fifth on Holland America, my first on the new Vista Class of ships. I have to say that the Vista Class is too large a ship for my taste. The cruise was, on the whole, everything I expect of Holland America, from service to atmosphere onboard. It was a relaxing cruise and one I would consider taking again, though not on a Vista Class.
Specifics: Cabin: I always book a standard outside cabin on the lowest passenger deck, port-side if possible. I book this particular cabin because I find it to be not as affected by ship motion and I love to awake to the noises when docking or anchoring. I have been upgraded to both a mini-suite and a suite and I still prefer the outside cabins low down and forward. I particularly like being able to open the curtains and peer out at the passing ocean overnight. I found this cabin was smaller than similar ones on the S-Class vessels. I did like the shower stall in the bathroom; the sides of the tubs too high for comfort and the tub overall too narrow for comfortable use. So the shower was a nice surprise, however it was lacking in enough space to hold shower supplies -- shampoo, conditioner, and soap, as well as washcloths and all the other sundries one needs for bathing.
Space overall was limited in the cabin. Closet space was decent, though much less than on the S-Class. The third closet was narrower than the other two, to allow for the door to open into the cabin, resulting in a tight fit for hangers in that closet. I would have moved the safe to that one, leaving the two larger closets free for hanging. The cabin itself was narrow and it was a tight squeeze on the sides of the bed, no matter which configuration they used. I did not like the lack of a sheer curtain layer. I was used to having the sheers as well as the room darkening curtains, most often using only the sheers. The lack of sheers made the room dark when dressing in the mornings in port. Compounding that was the act that lighting in the cabin was poor I could not figure out why the room lights were arranged in a way to make it impossible to leave the entry area light on without also having lights on over the beds.
The lighting at the desk area is woefully inadequate. I do not wear make-up so the addition of the make-up mirror is not at all worthwhile. I have yet to determine the purpose of the bronze-tinted mirror at the desk. My cabin-mate suggested that maybe it was to make you feel as though you had gotten an excellent tan while sleeping. The addition of a mini bar -- which I did not use -- did not make up for the loss of drawer space. However the under-desk cabinet did come in handy for getting shoes out of the middle of the floor. So on the whole, the cabin was adequate, but not up to HAL standards. I would be remiss without a word for my excellent cabin steward, Pudji. He expertly made up my room twice daily, despite the obstacle course created by drying dive gear and an always-in-the-way dive gear duffel bag. My only complaint was that Pudji refused to go against "cabin-steward" training to make up the room when my cabin-mate was sleeping -- my cabin mate can, and has, sleep through bombs going off, so the cabin steward would not have disturbed him in the least. I was disappointed, but not unexpectedly so, by the refusal to make up the cabin while it was occupied.
Dining: The food in the dining room was excellent. Service was superb. The Vista Dining Room was what I expected on Holland America. After the third meal, my waiter had learned to announce his presence behind me, and had taken to beginning with the opposite side of the table so as to not surprise me. The Lido was equally up to HAL standards. I especially liked the addition of the pasta station. I found the food at the Wok station to be rather bland, edible and certainly not bad, but lacking in spice and flavor. The taco station was excellent and the fries from the Terrace Grill were some of the best I have ever had. Also, do not miss schnitzel when they have it in the Lido. It is one of the reasons I book HAL cruises!
Service in the Lido was excellent as usual. Tables were often at a premium, but that did not affect the service; in fact, if anything, I think the busy-ness of the Lido made the service a bit better. I particularly liked the roving coffee and tea service during breakfast hours. The one thing I did not like was the casual dinner in the Lido. On previous cruises with this option, dinner service in the Lido had different choices than in the dining room. I often chose the Lido dinner service option because none of the dining room choices were appetizing. I was disappointed to find that on this cruise the dinner options in the Lido were exactly the same as the choices in the main dining room. I would have preferred other options. I know that is a struggle for the kitchen staff, but more often than not, my choice to eat in the Lido was precipitated by a menu choice and not a dislike of dressing according to the dress code for the day. My last complaint is the fact that deserts in the Lido are rather bland. The rice pudding was wonderful and the ice cream and cookies are not to be missed, but the remaining desserts are all rather tasteless. Dessert in the doing room, however, were superb. It was always a struggle to choose just one dessert.
Ship: The Vista Class ships are too large. They carry too many passengers. And too much public space has been sacrificed for verandah cabin space. The ship is tastefully decorated and kept immaculate, as expected of any Holland America vessel, but the public rooms are too small, too awkwardly arranged and too chopped to be useful. The outside deck space is practically non-existent and what is there is filled to brimming over with deck chairs and tables, which passengers insist on moving in such a pattern as to make walking from one side of the ship to the other impossible. I have never spent so much time in my cabin as I have on this cruise. That was partly because the overwhelming number of passengers made finding space in public rooms difficult, but also because the two groups on board has many public rooms reserved for seminars. Discounting the seminars, I found the public rooms to be awkwardly arranged and the furniture singularly uncomfortable and not at all conducive to reading or relaxing. Even conversation was difficult at most times. Don't misunderstand: the ship is tastefully decorated and the public rooms are beautiful; it is simply not well laid out, making it neither comfortable nor welcoming. The onboard shops are awkward, and in the middle of busy forward to aft passageways. Some public rooms are nearly hidden and others are split by walkways.
I found the bars narrow and awkward; but bar service was excellent. The atrium, a hallmark of beauty on the S-Class vessels, was dark and cold-feeling. The atrium stairs are practically unusable due to width and location. There is a completely pointless staircase in the middle of the forward elevator lobby between decks 2 and 3, causing this area to be unnecessarily congested. The flow of the ship, both forward to aft, and port to starboard is complicated and must have been laid out by drunken traffic control engineers. The hallway on deck 2 between the Windstar Cafe and the Vista Dining Room has to be called the Black Hole by the crew, it is so dark. That made walking incredibly difficult, even on the calm days -- I did not even attempt to negotiate that area during the 24 hours of extremely rough seas we experienced.
On the whole, I find the Vista Class ships poorly laid out and designed solely to afford the maximum amount of space to Verandahs. If that was the goal, they should have cut public space totally and had only Verandah cabins. Another big disappointment with this ship was that I found a class division distinctly noticeable on this ship. The separation between the haves (the verandah cabins) and the have-nots (standard outside/inside cabins) was only and over-emphasized by the fact that public space was limited to the bottommost and topmost three decks. Everything in between was devoted to verandah cabins. This is not the feeling I get on most other HAL ships. On most ships, where your cabin is does not affect how you are treated. On the Ossterdam, the class difference was palpable. I felt it especially when using the mid-ship glass elevators. If the elevator happened to stop on one of the (many) exclusive verandah cabin floors, I could feel the snubs of the verandah-dwellers when they got on with me. It was almost as thought I had no business riding above deck 3.
That said, I would like to point out that the Captain was excellent. The opportunity to sail with him again was one of the main reasons I booked this cruise. His ships are always having fun. The staff and crew always look happy and interested in the passengers. None of them are ever too busy to stop to chat, and they all seem so approachable for passenger questions and concerns. And the Captain's noon reports from the bridge are a highlight of any day, not just the days at sea. And I would be doing them a vast disservice not to mention the staff of the front office on this ship were the most helpful and most interested of any of my cruises. Normally I find the Front Office staff aloof and disturbed when I have questions or concerns, but that was not the case this time around -- much to my relieved surprise!
Ports: Nassau is not worth the effort. I did not book a tour -- the ship was only in port for 4 hours. After hearing others' comments, I feel I didn't miss much. There was the ubiquitous Caribbean gems/jewelry shopping, as well as cheap t-shirt vendors and "get-the-same-thing-everywhere" kind of shops. The streets were crowded with tourists and locals; the weather was hot and steamy and on the whole it was just not worth going ashore. Next time I may book a tour of the Atlantis Resort, or perhaps a semi-submersible tour -- the fish don't seem to care if you throw money their way -- but more than likely if I ever go back I'll just stay on the ship, enjoying a book in the quiet.
In Philipsburg, I took the Butterfly Farm and Marigot tour and enjoyed that immensely. The tour guide was wonderful and very informative. And the island was very nice. I got a very nice deal on some perfume/cologne for my mother and brother's Christmas presents. That alone made the stop worth it. Marigot was nice, if crowded. Three other ships were in port with us. That is the problem with most Caribbean ports of call. Too many people all wanting exactly the same things at exactly the same time. I often wonder why the arrival/departure times of cruise ships are not staggered at the busy Caribbean ports. The Caribbean is over-cruised and over-populated as far as I can tell. The sheer numbers of invaders daily give most islands, and St. Maarten/S. Martin is no different, a discarded, throw-away appearance -- as though the actual location does not matter; almost as though you could be docked at "Anywhere, Caribbean." I dislike that sameness to my ports. I am glad I went to St. Maarten, but I see no need to go back, especially since it is interchangeable with most other Caribbean ports.
Road Town: This stop made the cruise. It was clean, picturesque and full of helpful and happy residents. I took the North Shore and Pusser's Landing Tour. The tour guide was adequate, but the scenery more than made up for any shortcomings in that area. It was a tropical island just out of a Hollywood portrayal. The morning began overcast, with a heavy cloud layer and misty rain -- a perfect beginning to a day as far as I am concerned. As the morning wore on and the tour came down the mountain, the temperature warmed up and the skies cleared. But the idyllic setting did not change a bit. Shopping on the island is limited, but that's not such a bad thing. So many other Caribbean islands specialize in separating all-too-willing tourists from their cash that there is no need for Road Town to do the same. The lack of shopping only made the stop more genuine and enticing. If I take this cruise again, this will be the only stop where I get off the ship. It was simply fantastic. On every cruise I have been on, there has been one port that far surpassed the others and made me want to go back to spend a long land vacation there. Road Town was that stop in this cruise. Do not miss the opportunity to go if you ever get it.
Half Moon Cay: I am reserving judgment on this port. The island may not have had much structural damage from the recent hurricanes, but damage to vegetation was sorely evident. I had booked an Eco-Lagoon Kayak adventure, but it was just too hot to even consider. The island was hot and humid -- a standard sweltering tropical morning, as far as I can tell. Some people may like that kind of weather, but when you get it for 10 months out the year at home, it gets really old, really fast, and on vacation I prefer a change of climate to go with the change of scenery. There was not even any shade in sight for relief -- so much of the vegetation had been devastated by salt-water intrusion that Holland America's private island paradise was broaching on becoming a Caribbean desert. I stayed ashore long enough to buy two postcards and mail them from the island post office. All told I must have been on the island for less than half an hour, and given prevailing conditions, that was half an hour too long. I can say that the situation on the island was not improved by having two ships in port. (I did, however, get some excellent pictures of the MS Rotterdam sailing away). Two ships in port overwhelms the resources of the island and were I HAL, I would consider that a situation to be avoided at all costs. I will have to go back to make a final decision on this port. I know I did not see it at its best.
Embarkation: The smoothest I have ever experienced. The shore-side passenger check-in process was smooth. The lines were long, but they moved quickly and I was through the process and in the upstairs lounge waiting to board in just under half an hour. It was a very nice surprise to be able to board the ship as soon as check in was complete.
Disembarkation: Disembarkation was very smooth and organized ship-board; the usual chaos once off in the terminal building. That is the one area where improvement needs to be made. I do not know what to suggest, but there has to be a better way to get that many people off the ship, pick up their luggage and shuttled off to other destinations more quickly and more effectively. However, being able to remain in your cabin until your disembarkation number was called seems to have eliminated the crowding of the stairwells and gangway area.
Final Thoughts: This was another good cruise. The disadvantages of the Vista class ships were sorely evident throughout the cruise. But overall it was a relaxing vacation and an enjoyable trip. So much so that I cannot wait for the next one -- an already-booked 15-day roundtrip Hawaii adventure aboard the ms Amsterdam in December 2005.