Now that I've teased you with my headline, let me give you some details of our fabulous Western Caribbean cruise aboard Holland America's newest ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam. Wanting to celebrate our 31st anniversary in a special way, my wife and I decided a cruise to the Caribbean would the way to do it, and we were not disappointed. A vacation in the Caribbean would definitely be special, seeing how I won the cruise in a community fundraiser raffle a month before Christmas. After researching the various itineraries, we decided on the Western Caribbean itinerary as we had a desire to see the Mayan ruins located in Costa Maya, Mexico, one of the ports on this cruise.
TRAVEL TO PORT OF EMBARKATION: Due to the 11:00am embarkation time, we decided to take the red eye out of Los Angeles the night before, rather than flying in a day ahead of time and staying in a hotel. This was based on two factors: 1. I am a small business owner and taking extra time off is difficult and 2. The extra cost involved in staying in a hotel the night before. On hindsight, I wish we would have gone in the day before as we landed in Ft. Lauderdale at 5:30am and basically had to kill 5 to 6 hours of time hanging out in the airport. No fun. The only thing that made the wait bearable was anticipating that in just a few short hours we would be aboard one of the most beautiful cruise ships on the sea heading out to some of the most beautiful places in the world.
EMBARKATION: Once we arrived at the cruise terminal, we spent about 15 minutes outside in a line waiting to get into the terminal. It was quite crowded, but the line moved steadily and before long we were receiving our room keys and heading up the gangway onto the ship. Time from arrival until we walked into our stateroom was approximately 30 minutes. I'm sure the wait time would be shorter if we boarded after noon or 1:00pm.
STATEROOM: We booked a guaranteed Deluxe Verandah Ocean View, minimum category VF which would have placed us on either deck 4 or 5. Two weeks before departure, I received an e-mail from reservations with our cabin assignment - 8025 on the eighth deck, the Navigation deck. After checking the ship's deck plan, I realized disappointingly that we were assigned a handicapped room. Before calling HAL to ask for a re-assignment, I checked with the boards here on Cruise Critic and was pleased to find out that handicapped rooms actually offered some benefits that other cabins don't such as - more square footage, a larger bathroom with a big walk-in shower, and a larger balcony. On the Nieuw Amsterdam, the handicapped rooms are located where the ship 'bends' in, and in addition to the balcony being larger than standard, it offered three distinct views - looking back, looking straight out, and looking forward. Our room was very nice, including an incredibly comfortable bed. The only complaint I had about our room was that the shower head - the removable hand-held type - wouldn't stay in the upright position; it kept drooping down. Rather than notifying our cabin steward, I solved the problem myself by wedging a washcloth between it and the pipe. We especially enjoyed the Elemis shower products wall mounted in dispensers. The shower itself was very large, especially compared to other cruise line showers we have had. The ventilation system kept the room as cool or as warm as we wanted but there was always the audible drone of the fan present. It took me a day or two to get used to it as I am accustomed to sleeping in total silence. No other issues with the room.
SHIP INFO: The ship itself is beautiful and sparkling clean. We enjoyed the decor in every public place or room. The hallways and elevator/stair areas are more subdued in decor compared to the Showroom at Sea, Manhattan Dining Room, and the Lido Buffet. Those are much more colorful with lots of red and chrome. We liked it. Both pool areas are beautiful with plenty of chairs and lounge chairs for everyone. The Lido pool has a retractable glass canopy which makes for a very nice evening at the pool. It was also nice to see some entertainment poolside during the sea days featuring the HAL Cats band or the solo acoustic guitarist. We enjoyed many morning walks around the Promenade Deck 3 outside walking track. Three times around completes a mile and it is a beautiful walk indeed, especially at the stern watching the ship's wake. When not taking the stairs, we loved the glass elevators located mid-ship. The atrium was much smaller than expected and while strikingly beautiful, it lacked the Wow! factor that many other cruise lines atrium's exhibit. The most beautiful and glamorous atrium we ever saw was on the Carnival Elation which is considered antiquated by today's standards. We discovered a little jewel on this ship - the Explorations Cafe and Crow's Nest located on the top deck. This is where the internet cafe is located along with the library which was fully stocked with wonderful books and magazines along with many board games for your enjoyment. The Crow's Nest offered a fantastic panorama view above the bow and was never crowded, especially at night. The ship's captain, Jonathan Mercer, gave daily updates as to our location and any other info we needed to make our time both enjoyable and informative.
FELLOW PASSENGERS: From my research on various blogs and web sites, it appears that Holland America caters to the older generation and this cruise typified that. From what we saw, 70 to 80% of the passengers were 70+ years young and mostly from New England and Canada. Being from Southern California, I had always heard about 'Snowbirds' but this was the first time seeing it for myself. Talking with the many new friends we made, they all seemed to have left temperatures back home that were freezing and below, so who could blame them for wanting to escape to the Caribbean! I don't know what the passenger count was, but I doubt that we were at full passenger capacity seeing how we hardly ever bumped into folks in the hallways, stairways, or elevators going to and from dining, shows, shopping, etc.
DINING: HAL is known for its fine dining and we were not disappointed one bit. We ate breakfast every morning in the Lido Buffet and there was something for everyone. We stayed mostly with the omelets (very fun omelet chef, by the way) and other bacon and eggs entrees. The omelet line was a bit slow, but that is to be expected and it moved along at an acceptable pace. The coffee could only be obtained at one of the central stations located mid-way in the Lido and it was not self-serve; one of the servers had to pour you your cup. It would have been nice to have some of the wait staff walk around with carafes to refill cups, but we didn't see any of them doing that. Most lunches we ate on shore at our ports including a fantastic HAL BBQ lunch buffet provided on Half Moon Cay, their private Bahamian Island. We ate one lunch in the Lido during an 'at sea' day, and were pleased with the variety available, including my grilled Panini sandwich and we had one other lunch in the MDR which was equally enjoyable. As far as dinner goes, we tried all four venues, including the three specialty restaurants. We ate in the MDR on three of the nights. We opted for the anytime seating and despite arriving between 6:00pm and 6:30pm; we were seated promptly each night. We sat with other guests at tables set for 6 or 8 and enjoyed sharing a meal with them and recounting the various activities we experienced earlier in the day. The varieties of choices in the MDR were very good, including appetizers, salads, soups, entrees and desserts. The food was delivered in a timely manner and the items were cooked to perfection save one chicken dish my wife had which was overcooked and dry. My only minor complaint was that the plates we were finished with stayed a bit too long on the table; they should have been bussed much quicker than they were. Canaletto: This is the Italian themed restaurant which is located in a cordoned off section in the Lido buffet. It was very good, and we especially liked the plate of antipasto which was served table-side. We both chose fish for our entrees and both were very tasty and satisfying. And, when was the last time we ever had a plate of green cotton candy delivered with dessert? Pinnacle Grille: This dinner was a high point of the cruise. Food was excellent and service attentive. My porterhouse steak was cooked to perfection and was quite possibly the best steak I have ever had. My wife had the salmon and she was equally impressed with the preparation and taste of it. If you plan on eating in the PG, be prepared to budget about 2 to 2 1/2 hours of your evening from start to finish. It is well worth the $20.00 per person surcharge. Tamarind: Our experience in the Tamarind was certainly one of the highlights of the week. From its secluded, out of the way location to the serene atmosphere and ambiance coupled with the uniqueness of the food, it is a dining experience that should not be missed. We experienced flavors we had never tasted before and each new dish was not only delightful to our palette but also appealing to our eyes in its presentation. At $15.00 per person, it was easily the best bargain of the dinner choices. Desiring to stay casual on the last night of the cruise, we decided to eat dinner in the Lido buffet. What a pleasant surprise! The selection of food was incredible and the preparation and taste was tops. I sampled both the New York steak and the lamb rib chops and both were cooked to perfection and tasted delicious. There was an incredible variety of salads, sides, and desserts; all in all very impressive for a buffet. A note on the two formal nights. I own a tuxedo and brought it along fully expecting other men to dress likewise. To my dismay, I was the only man dressed in a tux on the first formal night, but saw about four or five other men in tuxes on the second formal night. To HAL's credit, I saw them turn away a gentleman at the MDR who was dressed in only slacks and a short sleeved shirt with no tie. That would be fine on any other night, but not the formal night. Most men were dressed in suits and the ladies in evening gowns or sophisticated pant outfits. The overall dress code for the week seemed to be lower than what I had anticipated. I enjoyed wearing a long sleeved dress shirt and tie to the evening dinners, but I was definitely in the minority.
SERVICE: The overall service we received from the staff was excellent. Our cabin steward, Toto, met us the first evening and asked us our names. From that point on, he addressed us by our first names each and every time we saw him. Very impressive! Our room was made up twice each day with cute and fun towel decorations greeting us on our bed in the evenings. By choosing the anytime dinner option, we missed out on having one server and their assistant for the week who we could get to know and vice versa. Each and every employee we encountered was very friendly and courteous, exemplary of the HAL reputation that is well-known throughout the cruise industry.
ENTERTAINMENT: Being in the performing arts industry myself, I am somewhat critical watching others sing, dance, and act. I was very impressed with the quality of shows and overall level of talent seen on the Nieuw Amstersdam. Cantare was wonderful and all the nightly shows we saw were very well rehearsed and executed. Even from a technical standpoint, every mic worked fine and the lights didn't miss a cue. My favorite show was Garage Band as it featured songs I was most familiar with and it was high energy from start to finish. The singers and dancers performed flawlessly in each and every performance. The mid-week show featuring the comedian/magician was spellbinding as well as funny from start to end. Speaking of the ending, I am still dumbfounded by his final trick, the sewing needles in his mouth which ended up being tied to a long piece of thread. Jini and the HAL Cats entertained us poolside during the week and I even got to sing Karaoke with them one night in the Queen's Lounge. We took a liking to the music of Matt Murphy, the solo acoustic guitarist who entertained guests both poolside and nightly up in the Crow's Nest. He engaged the audience in his music and everyone enjoyed hearing him play and sing. I was a bit disappointed with Adagio, the string quartet, not with their talent, but how they were employed throughout the ship. They mostly played prior to dinner time in the Explorer's Lounge and seemed to just provide quiet, background music rather than being showcased as a talented quartet of musicians who had some well-rehearsed musical melodies to share. Cruise director Gene Young was friendly and engaging and did his job just fine.
PORTS AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: Our first port, Half Moon Cay, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Being a private island, the passengers from the Nieuw Amsterdam were the only ones on the island along with the crew. The most beautiful water and sand we have ever seen, and I grew up on the beach in So. Calif. We spent the day on the beach in a rented clam-shell and were treated to a special BBQ lunch by the wait staff. At the next port we visited, Grand Turk, we decided to just take it easy and hung out at Jack's Shack, a local watering and eating spot located on the beach 500 yards from the terminal. Delicious chicken lunch and a cute sand-digging dog to entertain us. Walked back through Margaritaville and saw all the excitement there. Beautiful gift and clothing shops located at the terminal and that's where we decided to buy our souvenirs. The third port on the itinerary was Grand Cayman and we took a snorkeling and swimming with the sting rays with Moby Dick Tours. One of the neatest adventures we've ever participated in and would recommend it as a Must-See attraction. Our last port was Costa Maya, Mexico, and we took a Mayan Adventure Tour with The Native Choice. It also is a Must-Do excursion and included an authentic Mayan lunch prepared by some very gracious Mayan ladies in a nearby village.
DISEMBARKATION: This day came too soon as we were fully enjoying each and every moment on board the ship. The Nieuw Amsterdam offered a service with Luggage Direct which would pick up your luggage outside your stateroom door on the final night and the next time you see it will be when you pick it up and your final destination airport. At $19 for each piece of our two pieces of luggage, it was the best $38 we spent all week. By signing up for the service, we were also assigned to the earliest disembarking group and we were quickly off the ship and headed to the airport in one of the waiting taxis. It was the quickest and smoothest disembarkation we've experienced.
IN SUMMARY: We had a fantastic week aboard a beautiful ship and will probably never sail with another cruise line but HAL. I highly recommend them for their first class service and overall attention to customer satisfaction and comfort.