Our October-November 2011 cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam was our second transatlantic crossing and probably our last. The reality of a major storm on top of day after day of rough seas is sufficient to convince us that there's a good reason for the discounted pricing on these repositioning cruises.
We left Venice on a beautiful, sunny day and had great weather in Dubrovnik, Corfu, Sicily, and Rome. We hired our own guides in these ports and had very good tours with plenty of time to shop and dine. I am always amazed at people who pay hugely inflated prices to go on cruise line excursions on big buses with no say in your itinerary when it is so easy to book a private tour before you leave home via the Internet or simply hire a driver at the port. We were 7 adults traveling together and were therefore able to secure a very good tour for about 25% of the HAL tour fares.
Embarkation in Venice was very slow. It took 2.5 hours to get from the water taxi to our cabin. I heard that the ship had arrived late because of fog so that would explain the delays in boarding. Our aft-facing cabin was clean, spacious and tended by a wonderful steward with 14 years experience. No lunch in the main dining room was available so we ate with the mob in the Lido. Our first dinner was lovely and we secured a fine table for 7 at 8 pm every night in the anytime dining area. This arrangement worked out well as we knew our waiters and wine steward well before the 17-day cruise ended.
Food was sometimes good, often only average with very good salads. Most dishes were overly salty and otherwise unremarkable. Wine was of the grocery store variety priced at roughly 4 times above what you would pay at home. We brought 6 bottles of very good wine we had purchased in Umbria and simply paid the corkage fee of $18 to drink it with dinner. Dinner was slow and leisurely; we finished by 10 pm in time for the late show.
The entertainment was uneven in quality; the string quartet was the best. The big show performers were about what you would expect on a cruise line. The piano bar man was simply awful. That said, he was a good conversationalist and really schmoozed it up with the people sitting on bar stools around the piano. These folks seemed to love him. His playing was adequate; his singing was not. As he said himself the first night, "I know I suck!" The piano trio in the main lounge was hardly any better. The pianist was an older gentleman who looked like he felt awful every night. He never smiled, never made eye contact with the audience or the other musicians. They were a young drummer and a young bass player. None of these folks showed any enjoyment at all for their jobs. In 17 days I never saw them speak to each other or do anything more than phone it in.
The cruise director was the youngest I have ever sailed with. He was just okay with little personality. Trivia games were bland with very little banter or laughter. Interviews with the captain and crew members in the mornings were well done and very interesting. Two lecturers gave talks each day that were so-so. Boy I wish HAL had given these guys a PowerPoint 101 class before they signed them on.
The speciality restaurants were good, especially the Pinnacle Grill. The Tamarind was interesting but almost empty each time we dined there. The Silk Den across from the Tamarind was the best spot on the boat and never crowded. Service there was fine with complimentary sushi accompanying cocktails. It was a lovely place to watch the few sunsets we experienced.
On the first Sunday of the cruise we attended a large Meet and Greet of CC posters. It was nice with tea and cookies and held in the Crow's Nest. But that was also the location where the travel guide on board was giving commentary on the Stromboli volcano as we sailed past. The meet and greet guests, about 250 people, of course made noise visiting and the folks there to hear about the volcano could not hear a word. Many complaints and justified ones. Why hold the two activities in the same place on such a big ship?
Now to the storm. The captain warned us on Wednesday night, Nov. 2, that we were going to sail into a major storm in 24 hours. The system was so large we could not avoid it. On Thursday we stopped at Cadiz, Spain. We left early and headed into the Atlantic. We went south toward Africa to avoid the biggest waves due west, but we still sailed into a massive storm on Thursday night. As the captain explained, winds were just below hurricane level. Wow, it was something with flying objects, banging doors, rolling waves. The next morning the captain addresses the passengers in the Crow's Nest and said it was the worst storm he had experienced in his entire, long career. While he spoke, a rouge wave hit the Lido deck, toppling the entire food line on port side into the tables, breaking hundreds of dishes and the lamps across the room.
Below on 2, the kitchen suffered a fallen wall cabinet, also breaking massive amounts of glassware and dishes. Cabinet doors in the bars flew open and more glasses and broken bottles across the halls. All bars, the spa, and the lido deck were closed for the day. I do think the Lido reopened for dinner. Our waiter told us at dinner that hundreds of crew members were very seasick as many had never done a transatlantic crossing or experienced that sort of storm. We missed our last stop at Madeira although we anchored offshore there to remove injured folks to a hospital. This was a small number including a passenger who had a heart attack. The storm was over by Sunday but the skies were cloudy and rainy, although warm, and the seas rough for the next 6 days. On day 7 of the after-storm trip, the sun shined, much to the joy of a thousand bored, seasick passengers. (The ship holds just over 2,000 passengers but was not full.)
After disembarking in Ft. Lauderdale, we evaluated the crossing and decided our captain and crew were heroic and brave and got us through a very bad situation with few serious injuries. One passenger succumbed to a stroke, but who can say if it was storm related? But we also cancelled a crossing on another line next fall from Rome to Rio. My husband is 76 years old and decided he could not do another trip of so many sea days with the possibility of storms and the reality of not enough to keep us occupied all those days. We did walk 2 miles a day and read some great new novels on our kindles, but we do not gamble and thought the spa treatments were overpriced and full of hokum. Electric shock for cellulite removal? Oh please. The funniest cruise moment was riding the elevator with an employee of the photo shop. "I am so bored I could scream," she told me. "What is there to do on my day off on this big, boring ship?" Ditto. We will cruise again, but perhaps the South Pacific islands with no crossing next time.
It was indeed the weather that spoiled this cruise. But a higher level of entertainment and better activities with more talented crew in the entertainment department would have made the experience less tedious by the last, long week. Still, huge kudos to Captain John Mercer and his crew who suffered seasickness, damage to a beautiful new ship and other unpleasantness to keep the passengers safe.