This was our fifth cruise after two South Pacific cruises on the Superstar Leo, a Mediterranean cruise on the Diamond Princess and an Alaskan Cruise on the Sun Princess (and my first review on cruise critic).
The Volendam is quite a bit smaller and older than the newer Princess mega-ships. In general the finishings were not as nice as we had previously experienced – more like a 3.5 to 4 star hotel than the 5 star luxury we had previously experienced. Certainly no areas to make you go “wow”. But it was all perfectly acceptable and wouldn't describe it as tired. Fresh flowers appeared every single day all around the ship and gave it a fresh, friendly, feel.
Pre-cruise documentation was lousy, with no clear start time or finish time for embarkation, a bug in their on-line check-in, and the wrong number of formal nights on the limited documentation that we got. But embarkation itself was quick and painless.
We were in an outside triple cabin near the aft elevator on the 2nd deck. The room was reasonably sized and would have almost have been spacious by cruise ship standards if it didn't contain the third bed. The sofa-bed, once converted to a bed, couldn't go back to being a bed for the duration of the cruise. The bathroom actually had a bath in it and was quite a good size. There were massive amounts of storage. The only annoyance was that the DVD player only played US region DVD's, but there was a massive DVD library on the ship.
Being a smaller ship made it very easy to get around. It was less than two minutes for us to get to the furthest room on the ship. It took at least double that on the Diamond Princess. There were lots of little public rooms and it usually wasn't too hard to find a nice spot. The only odd thing was the so-called promenade deck on level 4. Despite being called promenade, it was the only deck that was blocked so you couldn't walk the length of the ship. It and the upper promenade were also the only two decks with no outdoor area. So as long as your promenade didn't involve walking around the ship or going outside, you were fine.
One tip for cruisers – at the aft of most levels were nice little seating areas which were great for watching the ocean and usually deserted. The official access was a bit hard to find and could only be done by going upstairs from the rear of the actual promenade (deck three) or down from deck 8, but you also go through the doors at the aft of each level.
Our 8 year old loved the kids club and strongly preferred it to spending time with his parents. The swimming pools were a bit small, but the kids loved them. The gym was very good.
Food and Drink
Overall the food was reasonable, especially once you learnt what they were good at (most eggs, red meat, soups), and what they weren't, (fish, coffee, fresh fruit, hamburgers, cheese), and worked out where to find everything. It wasn't fine dining, but it was enjoyable.
We didn't make it to the dining room for breakfast but there were some excellent elements including an eggs benedict bar with eight different types of eggs benedict cooked to order, a waffle bar and freshly squeezed orange juice (much better on the days when you could see them actually squeezing oranges.) One trap was that they didn't necessarily have the same things on both sides of the room so you had to look around. Fresh fruit was lousy by Australian standards –on most days only three times of melon plus grape fruit. But they found room for 5 types of doughnut and a total of 19 different sweet pastries. They also appeared to have boiled the “English” bacon and it was inedible. Other eggs were freshly fried or poached to order, and with the exception of the omelettes (which were slow as well as bland) excellent.
Lunch was acceptable in both the dining room and the buffet. Strangely the dining room closed at 1 pm for lunch, which on the 1st day was 12p.m for those with stomachs still on Sydney time and on the second day 11a.m. Lots of people were turned away surprised and disappointed.
Lunches could also always be had from the sandwich bar (open until 5pm), and the taco/enchilada/nacho bar (open until 6pm). There was also usually a themed buffet lunch in a corner
of the buffet dining room. All of these things took me a few days to discover, and I enjoyed lunch a lot more after that.
Dinner was generally quite acceptable. The buffet was excellent as it had exactly the same appetisers delivered to the buffet as the dining room, so the quality was just as good. The meat was grilled on a hot plate behind the buffet and so it was fresh and usually perfectly cooked. I tried fish dishes a few times and was always disappointed, but was always impressed by the lamb or beef.
The were a selection of fourteen cheeses on the dinner menu. None of them looked particularly appealing. The first night I ordered the four most likely, but they were all incredibly bland (although given that the Stilton came out orange, I suspect they made a mistake).
The biggest problem was the drink service in the open seating dining room. The were two drink stewards for each section of the dining room which meant they each covered around 40 tables. It was rare to be offered a drink within 15 minutes of sitting down, and impossible to get one before at least one and usually two courses had been eaten. It was also impossible to get a second glass of wine. To top it all off you had you get their attention again to pay. Plenty of people were left waiting after their dining companions had left while they tried to pay, while one night we gave up after half an hour and just left.
We ate twice at the Pinnacle Grill and enjoyed the more peaceful ambience. I ordered the rib eye on the bone both times, (which strangely came without a bone), but apart from that were as good as any steak I have eaten, (and I have eaten plenty of fancy $60 steaks). The rest of the food was not much better than the dining room, but we thought it was worth the money for a more peaceful, relaxed meal.
The only other thing that needs commenting on is the coffee. It was both badly made and had an unpleasant taste – almost certainly the worst coffee I have ever had. Ridiculous American size cups, which even half full were very weak. The expresso shot was thin and weakly extracted, yet still managed to leave an unpleasant aftertaste an hour after the cup was finished. The barista was clueless about the milk, making no attempt to aerate/texture the milk, but instead just jamming the steam wand into the jug ensuring that what came out was half overheated milk and half lukewarm froth. Just terrible.
The entertainers in each of the bars all added to the occasion, although they all had their flaws as well. The entertainment in the main showroom was mediocre at best and the dancing in particular downright awful at times. Overall it was clearly a substantially lower standard than all our previous cruises. It would hard to imagine any of the performers getting jobs where people actually paid to see them.
Each day on board you were given a daily newsletter that had details on the day ahead. On day one this included times for each of the ports. We didn't notice it until later, but for every port except for one, the times were different to those advertised for the cruise including those on the custom itinerary printed off the morning of embarkation. This was particularly annoying as we had planned each day quite carefully and many days we would have planned differently if we knew the correct times. The was also a near disaster in Wellington (more details below). I made a formal complaint but was told it was the port's fault, which clearly wasn't true.
These were all stunning and the highlight of the cruise. Get outside where you can see both sides of the ship and enjoy it. The Volendam allows access to to very front of the boat which was an excellent viewing area.
It rains 330 days a year on Stewart Island and we didn't miss out. Oban is a bit over a 1km walk away over a steep hill. We walked the first km until we could see the village and decided it wasn't worth walking the last 200m.
We did a Pelagic bird cruise organised by the ship and loved it. At one point 24 albatrosses were within 3m of the boat fighting over fish scraps that were being thrown in. We also we to Ulva Island via a water taxi that was running once an hour. It is promoted as a bird sanctuary but we were there for two hours and saw 12 birds – less than anywhere else in NZ. On the other hand, it was a beautiful rainforest walk. People who went for the birds were very disappointed.
Loved Dunedin. One highlight was getting up as we were coming into port and discovering about a hundred sea-birds following the pilot boat (best viewing spot out the back of the ship). We did an organised tour (not through the ship, but through Back to Nature tours) that went to Penguin Place, the Albatross centre and Larnach castle. The penguins and albatross places were excellent, but do their own tours, so we could have driven there ourselves and got the same tour. The rest of the tour including the castle was not as described in the brochure and disappointing. We would have been better off hiring a car.
We had a fantastic day in Christchurch catching a public bus to the Gondola (good hi speed internet on top of the mountain) and then into the city. We loved punting on the Avon (use the stop that goes past the botanic gardens, not the city stop) but the tram was a waste of money. Saw a kiwi in the modest aquarium.
Sadly when we got back to the ship, we were told by the captain that a crew member had drowned while performing “routine maintenance” on one of the lifeboats. We weren't given too many details but it did sound like the ship might have been at fault. For a number of the following days our departures were delayed by a couple of hours while insurance assessors inspected the ship.
Wellington was a disappointment. We were wait-listed for a ship's tour, but didn't get on, as for some reason the ship's excursion people put us on a different tour and took us off the wait-list. We got our money back for the tour we didn't want, but missed out on the one we did. We hired a car which was harder to organise than we expected (although the i-site did it in the end), but didn't really see anything exciting until we came back to the city and went to Te Papa museum which was great.
Another problem came at the end of the day. The ships running sheet told us that shuttle buses would be running until 4pm for a 5 pm departure. We got back to the i-site bus stop around ten past three. As the queue started building, an i-site staff member came out out and asked what we were all doing. When we said waiting for a bus, he told us that the last one went at 3pm and we would need to work out our own way of getting back to the boat. But by the time 20 people were waiting he decided that he would try to get one of the shuttle bus drivers to come back to work and take us all back. Luckily he found somebody prepared to do it, as including the other stop in the city, there were about 100 stranded passengers.
Then when we got back to the port I tried to hire one of the internet terminal that were there, only to be told that they had all been turned off because our ship was about to leave at 4pm. I told them that it wasn't leaving until five, but they assured me I was wrong as the official port record said 4pm and the tugs were on their way and about to move the boat (and refused to turn the internet on). I boarded the ship and sure enough the tugs arrived – and had to turn around in circles for an hour until we left.
The original cruise schedule we were given had a 4pm departure for Wellington, so it seems clear that when the ship decided to stay the extra hour, they forgot to tell the port. They also didn't officially tell us either (you had to notice on the daily running sheet), which was pretty annoying as we would have planned our time differently. This was also why the shuttle buses (that were put on by the port), stopped at three. I asked the ship what was happened, but they said it wasn't the ship's fault.
Napier itself is pretty but very small. We did the ship's Arch of the Ancestors tour and enjoyed it and the drive through the countryside. I expect that a wine tour would have been good as well.
Tauranga was excellent and well set up for ships with lots of hire cars available directly on the dock. It also looked like a lovely seaside town to spend a day. We did a full day tour to Rotorua with Mount Classics tours which was fantastic. It included Wai o Tapu which is a bit further from Tauranga, but worth the effort. The tour moved at a brisk pace, but we probably saw twice as much as the ship's tour.
Auckland was interesting, as we woke up, opened our curtains, and were staring straight into the window of a hotel. We thought we were parked on land, but in fact it was the Hilton hotel which shares the port with the passenger ship terminal. It really is in the middle of down-town Auckland.
We did a ships tour to a stunning black sandy beach called Piha about 45 minutes away on the west coast of NZ. It was followed by a walk in a nearby forest that included a chance to see “majestic kauri trees”. Well there were kauri trees, except they were all relatively young as the entire kauri forest was milled around 100 years ago, so there were no large kauri trees left. We enjoyed the tour, but hiring a car would have been just as good and about a third the price (for the three of us).
We then caught a free shuttle to Kelly Tarlton's acquarium. Warning – the shuttle bus is small, runs once an hour, and stops picking up once it has 21 passengers. The majority of the queue at the second (Sky Tower) stop wasn't able to get on. We loved the aquarium, especially the penguins. However since then we have been to Melbourne Aquarium which we thought was even better again, thanks largely to 30 penguins that they purchased from Kelly Tarltons.
We then enjoyed the view from the Sky Tower, which took three times as long to get to using the free city shuttle bus than it did to walk back. We finally checked out the mega yachts that were berthed very close to the ship. Quite amazing.
Unfortunately our sailaway party was again delayed past sunset because of the crew member's death, but the desert buffet had to be seen to be believed.
Bay of Islands
Our last stop was Waitangi in the Bay of Islands – changed from Russell about three weeks before we arrived. However this changed wasn't recognised on the daily sheet or the notices on the dock – more evidence of poor organisation. Sorry to keep going on about this, but we did wonder with this lack of attention to detail was also responsible for the crewmembers death which put such a dampener on the cruise.
Waitangi was beautiful but unfortunately we did a fairly mediocre Glow Worm cave tour that did a couple of unexpected stops and went for 6 hours rather that the advertised 3 ¾ hours. They day started with an announcement over the PA that the had forgotten to allow for the fact it was a tender port when putting the time on the tour tickets, and so could we arrive at the meeting place 20 minutes before the time on the tickets. We promptly left our breakfast unfinished and missed seeing the dolphins alongside the ship to get there when requested – only to wait half an hour until 10 minutes after the time on the ticket. The tour started with a stop at the North Mission House that didn't get a mention in the tour description. It turned out to be the second oldest building in NZ. It had a few mildly interesting historical exhibits, but it was hardly worth an hour. Next was a stop at a small town to look at their public toilet! No mention of this 40 minute stop at all on the description. It was actually a fascinating toilet, with free wi-fi, plus a very enjoyable small town, and even included a steam train going down the middle of main street while we were there. It was actually well worth a stop – but not as advertised. It was made worse by us all spending 20 minutes on the bus while some incredibly rude family wandered up and down the street after we had all been told to return to the bus. Finally we got to the glow-worm tour of a cave. After saying there could be no more than 20 in a group, they promptly created a group of 30 and sent us off. Only the front 20 had any light and the last ten were left stumbling in the dark and unable to hear anything. In the second glow-worm viewing area (and there are only two) the last ten of us couldn't even fit in to the area and weren't even aware that there were glow-worms there. When we asked why we had stopped for five minutes we were told not to worry about it and keep on walking (no apology or anything). In the end we refused to move and waited for the next group to catch up so we could find out what was going on. The glow-worms were beautiful but the caves nothing special.
The tour would have been acceptable (just) if it had kept to the scheduled time, but we wished we had stayed in town and/or done a dolphin cruise that left from the Paihia pier (free shuttle provided from the Waitangi wharf) instead.
One final warning. In the one hour we had left in town after the tour ran so far over time, we thought we would have a glass of wine and a bite to eat at a restaurant on the Paihia pier. The experience was great, but we made the mistake of ordering a dozen Bay of Islands oysters. The oysters are literally six times the size of a normal oyster. I like my oysters, but these were just too big to eat and enjoy. Between the three of us we only finished ten of them and we really struggled with the last three. Avoid unless you really, really love the taste of oyster.
We disembarked in Sydney. Maybe it was because we were locals, but we were off the boat, through customs and in a taxi within 15 minutes of the scheduled time for our section to start disembarking. No queues or delays at any stage. And if you haven't visited Sydney before – it is a great place to visit.
In the end, we had a very enjoyable cruise, once we knew what to expect and how to make the most of the ship. The customer satisfaction survey asked whether your main priority for cruising was to enjoy the ship/entertainment/dining as a destination, to simply have a relaxed holiday, or to enjoy the ports you visit. We found the Volendam excellent for the last two of these, but no good at all for the first. We would happily travel on her again if the price was right. Not a premium cruising experience, but definitely a ship where you can have an enjoyable holiday.