My husband and I are infrequent cruisers. The Canal was on his bucket list, and we needed to make our own holiday plans this year. The dates of this cruise really filled the bill, and the price was most attractive.
We own a second home in Los Angeles, so cannot speak to air travel or hotel accommodations getting to the Long Beach Port. The embarkation was the worst in my limited experience. The Amsterdam had been in drydock for a short week in San Francisco. Somehow, it was late in arriving in Long Beach; all the attendant staff trainings, etc. scheduled for the early AM of the departure day were set back, playing havoc with the schedule. Those of us checking in were forced to a LONG wait in a cold room with inadequate seating - port staff finally brought in folding chairs. I am aware that stuff happens; however, no announcement was ever made, either in the port or on the ship, explaining the significant delay. I heard many stories and scuttlebutt, from a small hole (leak) in the ship to awaiting connecting flights to dealing with union loading issues at the port. We were all left in the dark. There was no "sailaway" as scheduled; the emergency drill was held in the port. We finally disembarked without fanfare around 9 or 10 PM. It was announced the next day that the shore excursions for the first port (Cabo San Lucas on day 3) were cancelled. This was to accommodate our late arrival in Cabo (afternoon rather than the scheduled 7 AM) and to allow the ship to make up the lost time and get back on the schedule. It all seemed a little furtive - clear and frequent communication would have been nice.
We actually boarded the ship on a covered catwalk during a blinding sideways rainstorm. The staff member on the port side would not allow us to wait a few minutes until the rain let up. We were SOAKED from the knees down and had to visit the laundry room to use the clothes dryers immediately. Not the most auspicious beginning to our cruise.
SHIP: The Amsterdam is a lovely older ship with beautiful dark woods and an impressive art collection. It had obviously been recarpeted in public areas during the drydock (carpet was still "pilling") and was in tiptop shape (except for rooms cited below). There always seemed to be ample spaciousness, even in the buffets and during the canal passage. I am not a fan of the new,huge ships and thought it was lovely and classy. There did seem to be some issues with public restrooms and the percentage of stalls being out of order - this may have to do with the age of the ship. The OofO signs would be up for days. Ditto the washing machines. I think 20% were defunct before we sailed and that it is just not a priority to HAL. But on a 2-week cruise, this can become an issue. Other than that, no complaints about the physical ship.
STATEROOM: We booked with an out of town agent and had (unbeknownst to me) a guaranteed cabin that landed us on deck 1. Initially, I was unhappy. However, we experienced a good deal of roughness during our sea days, and the lower level was actually a blessing. There was more than adequate storage, and a generous window open to views all the time (wouldn't have been the case on Deck 3). The bed was quite comfortable. I was glad I had brought my own magnifying mirror for the bathroom. While there is one in the cabin, it is on the desk and the lighting there is inadequate. Lighting in bath is great. We had no issues with shower water temperature (many others did) or with room temperature. We were always comfortable. Our toilet did back up twice due to mis-use by some neighbors - an inconvenience that was handled well once and clumsily once. We appreciated the in-room robes and the bath products.
DINING: Let me just preface this by saying that my husband and I are avid cooks and foodies. I did realize that I should not compare the food on this cruise to the one I took on Azamara - a little like comparing apples and oranges. However, in addition to the embarkation, this would be my one complaint about this cruise. Specifically, the Dining Room (La Fontaine), its service and food. We heard so many complaints about this that it got to be a litany. Apparently, there were a lot of staff changes prior to this cruise. I do not fault the staff - they were incredibly ill-trained. Example: our first breakfast was in the dining room. It was about one-quarter full - there were many, many waitstaff all around (in santa hats, I might add.) I ordered eggs, toast, coffee and a fruit plate. My husband had bacon, eggs, hash browns, OJ and coffee. We never got the fruit plate. My scrambled eggs were from a carton and had a very funky texture (this was the case in the Lido Buffet as well. I saw them being defrosted and cooked. I never ordered scrambled eggs again). The food took forever to come. The coffee had been in the metal serving pots a long time and was not hot. We could NOT get the attention of any of the servers. They were always "looking away." We finally got up, went over and asked whether they could start over with some hot coffee. They did, but we had to stand on our heads to get it. On Christmas Eve, a tablemate's prime rib arrived looking like shoe leather - he had ordered rare, and coudn't get anyone's attention, either. He finally SHOUTED and got their (and everyone else') attention. These were not isolated incidents, indicative of the food and service issues throughout.
There seemed to be kitchen issues, as well. One night, the appetizer was a smoked salmon on fingerling potatoes with a couple other components. Four of our tablemates ordered it - it arrived with a piece of smoked salmon and a sprig of parsely. Period. They brought it to the server's attention and they expressed surprise and returned to have them re-plated. We were very late (8:30) diners on New Year's Eve; the entree was steak and lobster newburg. They must have run out of lobster at that point. I had the beef, a lobster shell full of newburg sauce with mushrooms but no lobster. They served baked alaska on the last evening and just let it sit in the dining room between services. I suppose it was frozen and firm for the 5 PM diners. SO, major quality control and training and supervision issues. I will say that it seemed to improve some over the course of the two-week cruise. HAL maintains an early seating, a late seating and anytime-dining. They don't seem to have it organized to combine these, yet. It just seems to be more than they can handle. We did the anytime-dining. It was possible to make a reservation, but they always kept some tables open, too. The sommelier service was very good. We brought our own wine (corkage is $18) and it was always well-handled. Table servers don't know how to do anything but a "bar pour", but we kept an eye on them and requested smaller "pours".
The food in the Lido Buffet was excellent, as good and varied as any I have had. There seemed to be adequate seating, even at breakfast. We had dinner in there one evening. They had servers (rather than self service) the first two days of the cruise for sanitation reasons. I really appreciated this, even though it slows things down. We went once to afternoon tea (delightful) and had lunch one time out on the deck (burgers, pizza, taco bar, etc.).
There are two specialty restaurants on the Amsterdam. One is Canaletto, Italian style dining for which there is no exta charge. It is adjacent to the Lido Buffet. It was good, but not great. There didn't seem to be much garlic or seasoning in the dishes. The meals were hot (an improvement over the dining room) and the service was prompt. We brought a bottle of our own wine. They neither charged us corkage nor poured it. Whatever. I would have been unhappy with the food had I paid a surcharge for it. As it was, it was a change of pace. The second specialty place is the Pinnacle Grill. I believe the surcharge was $20 each. It was very good, many steak and meat choices and a tremendous variety of salad, side, and desserts. I had a perfectly done veal chop and creamed spinach. Nice wine list, with a Northwest emphasis. The excellent service staff could teach the Dining Room folks a lesson. We attempted to return a second night but they were full up. IMHO, worth the surcharge for a special occasion night.
ACTIVITIES: This cruise was heavy on sea days, so we participated in some of the activities (as well as doing nothing at all on a deck chair). There are the standard trivia and other contests, in addition to interesting "classes" (I participated in an art tour and cooking demos,) workout activities, tech classes, bridge, etc. I listened to the Port info lectures on TV in the stateroom. All of the above is pretty standard cruise fare, with the cooking demos being a nice addition; I only attended the freebies, however. HAL did a marvelous job with special holiday activities. From a carol sing-a-long to special treats to holiday entertainments in the Queen's Lounge to decorations to interdenominational services to a visit from Santa Himself, it was all superb. The New Year's Eve party and celebrations were spectacular and we enjoyed them immensely.
KIDS: There were about 60 kids onboard, mostly with extended families having a holiday together. I cannot speak to the activities provided for them, though I was aware that there were some of those. I didn't appreciate having middle-school-age kids in the Crow's Nest Bar at 10:30 PM caterwauling in a karaoke contest. We went up there for a nightcap more than once and left due to this. Seems like it should be adults only after some time or other or maybe restrict them to a couple of Family Nights. That is, if they want the rest of us to buy alcohol.
SERVICE: Besides the aforementioned dining room service, we found the rest of the service to be quite good to excellent. Our cabin steward was thorough but unobtrusive. The buffet staff was excellent, also the bar staff. They did not get in your face for drink orders as we experienced on Royal Caribbean. The drinks guy in the nightclub seemed a little overwhelmed and could have used an assistant. In general, we were happy with the service.
ENTERTAINMENT: Pretty standard fare, but most enjoyable. There was the requisite in-house singer-dancer group who performed 4 or 5 times. The staging and costumes were magnificent. The singers were OK, and seemed to be lip-synching. We attended the early shows before late dinner. The room (Queen's Lounge) is a beautiful space. I thought the sightlines and audio and seating availability were very fine. I cannot speak to the late show. We heard only 3 of the guest performers. The sailaway/Crow's Nest band was OK, pretty much par for the course. The band in the Ocean Bar nightly, the Station Band, were superb. They had an endless repertoire and were quite skilled in figuring out what was appealing to the crowd at any given moment. We also enjoyed the piano bar player, (Debby Bacon) and the string quartet, who played during dining from the balcony and after dinner - rumor had it that they were USC music students. Fight on. They were a really nice touch.
PORTS AND EXCURSIONS: Our ports were Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Puerto Quetzal (Guatemala), Puerto Caldera (Costa Rica) and Cartagena (Colombia, and of course the Panama Canal passage. Adequate info was dispensed via lecture (and TV) about the ports. We only scheduled one ship's excursion, and that was "Antigua on Your Own" - a bus trip of an hour from the port into the old city and back. It was reasonably priced. I would not have set this up alone, for security reasons. Cabo was pretty boring as it was cut short (see above). All excursions were cancelled, it was Christmas Eve, it was too early in the year for whale watching, and we only had a 2-3 hours there. We just walked around. IMHO, there is not much there anyway except Americans, golf and tacky tourist shops. Scuba Diving would be great but was not an option due to cancellations. In Acapulco, we set up our own tour with Rudy's (found online) with another couple He did an excellent job for a very fair price. We enjoyed Costa Rica and Guatelmala very much. However, the ship docks at a very isolated port in each case. In order to go anywhere or do anything, one needs to have a private or ship's excursion set up. Old town Antigua is interesting but its street merchants and general populace regard tourists as walking dollar signs and are very "in your face" at a level I had only experienced in Tunisia previously. Be prepared. Costa Rica is beautiful and has much to offer. We did a private tour with 9 other people with Okey Dokey Tours that did not provide all that was promised for the price. We did some fun things, but "Charlie" was quite the fast talking con man. Be advised. Cartagena was a surprise, and my favorite of the lot. Cabbies congregate at the port and negotiate to guide you for the day. This is a great deal and a safe deal as well. The city has much to see and guides save you much time, wandering, and backtracking. Really an amazing place. The passage through the Panama canal was handled beautifully by HAL. We did not get off the ship here. The port provides an all-day "Narrator-Guide" who provides a steady commentary from the bridge that is most welcome and helpful. The Ship provided on-deck coffee and rolls in the early AM, and iced tea during the humidity of the day. It was beyond interesting and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
DISEMBARKATION: Unlike our embarkation, this was a breeze, and handled efficiently and in record time. Plenty of instruction was given, everything went as planned, we were off the ship with no shoving or waiting, found our bags, and went through customs just like that! We had scheduled a tour of the Everglades with our Travel Agent's group, who got us to the For Lauderdale airport afterwards without a hitch.
SUMMARY: This was a wonderful way to spend the holidays. There were enough sea days to relax and rest up between ports, the ship was beautiful and of a nice size, we met such nice, interesting people, and the weather was fine. The food was not as good as Azamara's, but I realized the difference in price and that this was a good value for the price. If they can get their dining room staff trained and their quality control issues in the dining room kitchen addressed, they will have a quality product.