I am a veteran cruiser, and as a family, my parents and I have spent the past few holidays on various cruises. They are 3 star Mariners with Holland America and just shy of four star status. This was my third - and favorite - Holland America cruise thus far. Previously I've cruised with them aboard the Zuiderdam; this was their second cruise aboard the Statendam (but their first since its upgrade last year) and they have also cruised aboard the Volendam, the Veendam, Oosterdam and Westerdam.
I found this cruise particularly enjoyable because of the ships size. There really is a difference between 1200 and 1900 passengers on a full ship. Embarkation in San Diego was a breeze, I never encountered a line or a sense of crowding - even on days at sea when looking for a deck chair by the pool. This is a bit of a contrast with previous cruises on the Zuiderdam. It is a very nice ship, but I truly appreciated the smaller size. With older parents, only two elevator shafts versus three, meant shorter walks across the ship. I LOVED the newer, up to date decor in the Crow's Nest ... a quiet retreat any time of day, except when a trivia game or such had been scheduled. Dennis, one of the attendants in the Crows Nest, was the best! By the first day out of San Diego, he knew our names, preferences, and treated us as though we were his only customers.
As a designer (my land job!), I found the flow of the outdoor areas worked better with the aft pool on a separate deck from the midships pool. My dad's only complaint was the removal of the bar with stools at the aft pool - it has been replaced with a window where you can order drinks.
I have always preferred small ship cruising, but found the Statendam to be the right mix of small with big ship amenities. It made for a very friendly ship.
Our ports included Puerta Vallerta (we didn't take a tour, just a taxi to the boardwalk for some shopping and lunch overlooking the sea), Huatulco (took the ship's 5 Bay Catamaran Tour with a swim call at a beach - we felt it was priced appropriately at $49 - literature said cash bar, but all the drinks were complimentary); in Guatemala we took the shuttle up to Antigua - again, well worth the price. We didn't see a need to tour as I had been there before and we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of the colonial city by just walking around and having an AMAZING lunch on the roof of the El Serena Restaurant - I found it recommended in one of the guides in the ships library and it was the best recommendation of the trip! We had about 3.5 hours in Antigua - found about an hour of shopping, walking around the square, visiting the market and dodging hecklers to be enough - so to enter the oasis of El Serena, a very romantic mercantile home dating to the Spanish, with the best views of Antigua from its rooftop restaurant, to be a nice retreat.
In Corinto, Nicaragua we walked into the town, which is just outside the gates of the pier. If you are not on a tour, there isn't much reason to leave the ship. This was the only disappointing port. We had four days in a row in various ports and a break would have been better!
Costa Rica, of course, is a highlight. I have a friend whose brother is a guide and he picked us up at the dock and we had a wonderful day going off the beaten path. We had all been there on several previous trips and our only requests were to see some wildlife and have lunch at a nice restaurant with a nice view - all of which were accommodated.
The highlight for many is the passage through the Panama Canal - it IS an amazing feat, but as I have been through 9-10 times previously, I used it more like a day "at sea" ---
Our final port was Cartagena which was new for all of us. There is a new service provided by the port - they run big catamaran shuttles from the ship dock to the old town. It is $5 and good all day (so, basically, roundtrip per person $5 and you get to enter the Old City by boat). On the dock, just as you are about the pass the exit gates, there are a couple of shops, internet cafe and a dock - you buy the boat passes in the shop and the shuttles run every 1/2 hour in each direction. Be warned - if there are waves, it is possible you might get some heavy spray if you sit in the front!
HAL charges $49 pp for their horse carriage tours through the old town. The three of us bought the $5 shuttle passes and then found a carriage and driver who took us on the same hour long tour for $40... total (ie - not per person). We may have been slightly lucky because a tour representative at first told the driver he couldn't take us because he was reserved for the ships and they weren't "allowed" to take independent travelers because the cruise lines contract all of the horses and carriages ... not sure if that is true, but we didn't see ANY other empty carriages while we were touring or walking through town. Nonetheless, as soon as she walked away and we said we were on a cruise, he loaded us up - we asked how much and he said $40. As the hour drew to a close we started thinking it would be $40 per person but it wasn't - it was $40 total, so we tipped him generously.
This particular cruise wasn't so much about the ports for us - we were just looking for a relaxing boat ride over the holidays and that was exactly what we found. We are not big into shows and entertainment, but found the trivia contests fun and enjoyed participating in the daily quizzes posted in the library. The library, by the way, was one of the best I've seen at sea - it was a relaxing meeting place and heavily used for research, puzzles (at least two big tables always had 3-4 jigsaws going at a time), internet and just reading while watching the changing scenery out the big windows.
We alternated between the Canelleto Restaurant on the Lido Deck for dinner and the ship's dining room with one night in the restaurant where you pay an additional charge (the name escapes me as I write). We found tables nearer the entry to the dining room seemed to have better/more consistent service than those further from the kitchen/near the aft. Probably just our luck of the draw and we enjoyed all of our meals. I also appreciated that the buffet on the Lido had hours - it wasn't open 24 hours a day as on some ships. It would actually close up - prepare for the next meal and then re-open. I found it kept me from "grazing" if I happened to be passing through between meals! Much appreciated!
All in all a wonderful trip...our ONLY dissatisfaction was treatment with HAL Air/Sea arrangements - we paid extra for a non-stop flight from SFO to San Diego and were booked for about 6 months on a non-stop United flight. About 6 weeks prior, they said they would not honor that flight due to a contract change and re-booked us on a flight leaving at 6 AM from SFO with a FOUR HOUR layover in LA, waiting for a connecting flight to San Diego. Absolutely not! We were refunded the deviation fee in the form of an on board credit, but that was it. We ended up cancelling, losing the fare and rebooking the EXACT SAME United flight, non-stop out of SFO on our own since it was still relatively cheap. We NEVER use cruise line air arrangements but in this case we had a wedding in SFO the night before and could not fly to San Diego until the morning of embarkation (usually we arrive a day early and spend the night) so in this case we wanted HAL to be responsible if we had problems with our flights the days before Christmas and it backfired. Fortunately we ended up flying independently with no problems, so the gamble paid off but we would have saved about $400 had we started off taking the gamble and never involving HAL in the first place.
I would highly recommend the Statendam and its stellar crew to anyone looking for a relaxing holiday, and this itinerary for anyone looking for a nice combination of time at sea and visiting interesting ports.