Once an exclusive HAL frequent cruiser, I switched to Celebrity Cruises about seven years ago and have cruised with them for my past nine cruises. Since Celebrity pulled out of the South Pacific and Asia, HAL had the itinerary we wanted so we thought we would give them a try. We were not disappointed.
After the itinerary, food is the number one amenity I look for on a cruise. Having cruised multiple times with almost every major cruise line, the exception being Princes, we've concluded Celebrity offers the best overall dining experience. Their specialty restaurants are on par with Cunard while their dining room experience exceeded them.
After 14 meals on the Voldendam, I would rate their main dining room experience a notch above Celebrity, making them the best dining room food of the major lines. Unfortunately, their specialty restaurant fell short of equaling those of Cunard or Celebrity. The Pinnacle Grill is basically a steak house. If you are a steak lover, you are in luck. They offer about any cut of steak you want, done with almost any sauce or preparation. And they are excellent. Outside of steak, they don't do much else that's worth paying the extra $20 a person.
One thing we really enjoyed were the special theme dinners. On our cruise the offered two nights of "dining with the chef" and a special wine dinner which were both outstanding and a lot of fun. The cellar master, Ingo, had a lot to do with the "fun" aspect of the dinner, but more on him later. While they cost $65 to $80 a person, we felt they were worth the money and one of the highlights of our cruise.
Ingo, the head cellar master on our cruise, was especially knowledgeable about wine and a complete show himself. It's staff like Ingo that almost single handedly can make a 'nice' cruise into a memorable cruise that one will talk about for years to come. I don't know what HAL is paying him, but they would do well to treat him real good.
Some other food extras were cappuccino's after meals and fresh squeezed orange juice in the morning. One major complaint I've had with Celebrity, until they copped on a year ago, is the quality of their coffee. It's just miserable, which seems to be the standard of coffee at sea. One would think a machine could be developed that gave you the choice of a weak or strong cup of coffee. Unfortunately, even their coffee bar didn't really serve a good cappuccino. In similar fashion, our servers seemed convinced that 2% milk was cream. It took repeated requests and determination to actually get half-and-half in their dining rooms. If you want half-and-half in your coffee, your best bet is to go to the Lido.
Another weakness, and this isn't just HAL, was their wine prices. They were typically 3 to 4 times the retail price. Fortunately, HAL allows you to bring you own wine for an $18 corkage fee. This is a plus in my book. By bringing my own wine, I not only drank better wine than offered on the ship, but it was cheaper by 20% than ordering from the ship. I do hope they keep their corkage fees reasonable, as opposed to Celebrity that raised their corkage fees to $25. Drinking my own wine on vacation adds a level of enjoyment for me and is always a big consideration as to what line I'll cruise.
However, when you add up the pros and cons of the HAL dining experience, I put HAL on par with Celebrity, which in my books is an accomplishment.
I found the rooms standard and on par with any other major line. However, you need to understand I typically purchase the cheapest cabin on the ship and spend my savings on shore excursions and food! So, in my book, if you've seen one inside cabin, you've seen them all. We got a quad to sleep our family of four. I was a bit surprised that we did not get two bunk beds, but only one. They made the small couch into a fourth bed. This really cut down on our usable space. I will be a little more diligent about being sure a quad means two bunk beds in the future.
The big negative for us is that we got a smoking room. Since my family is non-smokers, this was rather unpleasant. Tried as hard as they could, they were unable to eradicate the smoke smell from our room. That was after shampooing the carpet, replacing the shower curtain, and washing the drapes. My advice is that if a non-smoking room is important to you, don't stay in cabin 2664. Better yet, get a clear understanding with HAL prior to the cruise that if you end up in a smoking room that you will be switched to another room or compensated. I'll be adding that to my booking request list for any line in the future.
One positive note was that their towels were heavy and fluffy. The stewards were pleasant and responsive.
Both my wife and I work out daily, so a good fitness center is important to us. Compared with other fitness centers, I would rate the Volendam's as sufficient. They had a minimal amount of cardio equipment and the basics of what's needed for a reasonable weigh workout. Probably the most notable feature was that all of their equipment was functional and working. This has not been our experience on other cruises, where it isn't unusual for up to ½ of the cardio machines to be in need of repair. Since the cruise was comprised of mostly older folks, you could generally use the equipment without waiting.
One note of caution, be careful using the triceps pulley machine. Rather than being held in place by pins, the pulley is held in place by a screw. This is fairly unusual with machines like this and makes them a bit unstable if the screw loosens a bit. I was changing weights, and without warning, it dropped six feet giving my wrist a pretty good blow. Holding my bruised wrist, I pointed out how dangerous this machine was to the staff person on duty, Carin. She decided it was certainly not the machine's fault but obviously something I had done incorrectly. I would suggest Carin needs a refresher in customer service.
The ship has a small dry sauna and a steam sauna. While the dry sauna is free, you must by a pass for the duration of the cruise to use the steam sauna. It's not available on a "per use" basis. I found this rather annoying, as we only had 4 sea days on our 14 day cruise. The amortized cost for using the steam sauna on the 4 sea days came to about $40 per visit, clearly not a reasonable deal.
Ports of Call
Our cruise started at Sydney, with two Australia stops in Melbourne and Bernie, and six in New Zealand at Milford Sound, Dunedin, Christchurch, Picton, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga, and Auckland.
We booked all our shore excursions online, or used public transportation, rather than using the ship's tours. We saved a bundle and in most cases we got a personalized tour. The savings was significant compared with the ship's excursion prices. I would guess we saved 1/3 to ½ on most tours by doing them online.
Bernie was a great stop. The locals were extraordinarily welcoming. We took a local tour to Wings Zoo, where we saw the Tasmanian Devils, and other creatures native to Tasmania. If you can, time your visit to arrive around 1 pm when they are feeding the little creatures. It's an interesting experience to watch.
Milford Sound and the Fjordlands was a bust for us only because the weather didn't cooperate. It was so foggy we hardly saw a thing the entire day. I've heard there are some majestic mountains in New Zealand, but I couldn't attest to that fact! We will have to return someday on a sunny day to see them for ourselves.
Dunedun was our favorite stop for wildlife. The highlight, and the best tour of the cruise, was a done by Elm Wildlife Tours. It was one of the best wildlife experiences we've ever had and something you will never experience using the ships tours. We were able to view rare yellow-eyed penguins in the wild and even came upon a fur seal pup just hours after it was born.
In Christchurch we did the Antarctic Experience and the Willowbank Animal Reserve, which we really liked. It was similar to Featherdale in Sydney. It was the only stop where we actually saw a Kiwi bird. The Antarctic Experience's highlight for us were seeing the penguins and taking the back stage tour to see them. However, this isn't cheap as it cost our family of four about $245NZ.
The Marlborough Sound was a beautiful area and who can beat a day of winery crawling tasting all those amazing Sauvignon Blancs. We especially liked Framingdale and Nautalis.
Wellington is New Zealand's largest city and the shuttle from the ship to town is $15US. Take the shuttle, as it is much too far to walk. We spent our day at the Te Papa Museum.
Why HAL spends only 6 hours in Napier and 12 in Tauranga is puzzling to us. Napier is a cute town with plenty of shops and eateries to explore. There is a lot to do in the surrounding area, not to mention all the Hawke's Bay wineries. The stop was just too short.
By comparison, Tauranga pales in comparison. The big attraction is Roturana which is an hour's drive from the port. We suggest you rent a car or book a tour and head to see New Zealand's answer to Yellowstone Park and learn more about the Mori culture. You can easily see all you need to see in 6 to 7 hours, making it puzzling why HAL gives you 12 hours here.
Everything considered, I was really pleased with my experience on the Volendam and will not hesitate in the future to sail with them again.