Introduction of poster: This was our 20th cruise and 4th on Holland America. We started cruising in 1979 aboard the Volendam. We are in our 60s and retired. Obviously by our post name, we are from Texas.
Pre embarkation: We had booked an early morning flight leaving Dallas a day before the cruise to avoid any winter weather complications, therefore arriving in San Diego at 9 AM. Our overnight reservation was for Holiday Inn on the Bay overlooking the cruise terminal. Be careful if booking HI that you reserve the one at 1355 North Harbor Drive, as there are two Holiday Inns on North Harbor Drive. When we arrived at the airport, we called HI for complimentary shuttle and were advised that the van was 25-30 minutes away on a run, to take a cab and they would reimburse us for the fare (nice touch #1). Since we had a great deal of luggage, the taxi coordinator found a handicap van that had a roll up ramp for our bags. We arrived at HI at about 10 AM, knowing check in was much later, but we were allowed to go to our room immediately (nice touch #2). After getting up at 2:30 AM (CST) at home, an afternoon nap was very appreciated. Our Cruise Critic group had an informal gathering at the Elephant and Castle Pub inside the Holiday Inn. Some had supper, some just drinks, then an early turn-in for most after a long travel day and big day tomorrow. At 8 AM, sailing day, we went to the concierge to arrange a free shuttle to the dock (nice touch #3). (Be sure to arrange asap, as it books up early.) The bellman arranged a time to come to our room, pick up our numerous and heavy bags (nice touch #4) and told us to arrange a late check out (nice touch #5) and stay in our room until our transfer was ready. With our morning at leisure, we walked the 2 blocks west from the HI to the Rite Aid drug store. Oh, my! If you need to buy wine, booze, sundry drugs or travel items, here is the place! Don't bother transporting wine on the airplane as the prices here are as good as home !
Embarkation: We were a few minutes late (8:30 AM) arranging for HI transfer to the ship and were only offered a 1:30 PM time. So, we walked two blocks north from HI and ate lunch at Jack-in-the-Box. At 1:15 PM the bellman appeared at our room to pick up our bags and we were escorted down to the lobby and then to the van. The parking lot at the pier was empty and the inside check in desks were empty of passengers. We were able to proceed without as much as one person in line ahead of us and then onto the ship. A leisure morning was nice and no hassle boarding. Also, the stewards were able to get us to our room without delay. We did miss the Mariner's lunch, but lunch was still available in the lido.
Cruise Critic Activities: Meet and Greet: Our first M & G was 1st day at sea at 2 PM in the Crow's Nest. It was attended by about 30-40 people. Ten of the officers and two of the Executive chefs attended! The Captain spoke and welcomed us and stayed a while for questions. The cruise director Glenn Barry spoke, as did several of the others. We then had about 10 minutes to mingle with them. After they left, our M & G coordinator spoke, our tour coordinator for pre-arranged private tours ask that we stay after the meeting for discussion and a list for a cabin crawl was announced. We were served tea and cookies. Cabin Crawl: We did not have an overwhelming response to our cabin crawl call. But, the dozen or so lookers that visited 5 cabins saw a nice variety of sideways configuration, handicap, outside with no verandah and two with verandahs (one with wraparound on fantail). A good time was enjoyed by those that did participate. It was held on day 16 after our stop at Fanning Island--a sea day. Our 2nd M & G was scheduled for next to last sailing day and conflicted with the talk given by the cruise director concerning disembarkation, so we were not able to attend. Private booked group tours: Probably one of the outstanding advantages of Cruise Critic is the ability to learn in advance of quality tours independent of the ship's excursions. Often the length, price and quality that can be negotiated is outstanding. Our CC group booked 5 private tours prior to boarding. We participated in 4 of them, as reported below. (See Port of Calls)
Entertainment: The entertainment was mediocre and my personal opinion is that HAL has cut back on their entertainment budget. There was only 2 dancers that basically posed and 4 singers. They didn't utilize them as they did in the past. Out of 30 days, there were probably only a few that I would qualify as great. One night a movie was offered as "the entertainment". The show times were changed to 7PM and 9 PM to satisfy the 1% that complained. The shows were well attended. BTW, on past ships the sound level was so loud that we had to use ear plugs to attend the shows--on the Rotterdam it has been very tolerable with only occasional loudness. The pianist on board "Stryker" is phenomenal! He plays and sings a wide variety of songs in the evenings in the MIX bar area. In Oahu and Papeete, he played on the back deck in the Retreat under the stars with the lights of the cities. On the Sundays at sea, he had a gospel hour of songs and sing-a-long. It was wonderful ! Culinary classes: Several offered daily 30 minutes to 1 hour. No problem getting seats if arrived a couple minutes ahead of time. Some of the classes included: making ensemadas, Le Cirque dishes, wine tasting, cocktail recipes, scallops, food trivia contest, recipe exchange (bring your favorite for chef to choose), HA version of "Chopped" with chef competition. Three times during the cruise, they offer "Hands on" classes with the chef that cost $29. First one was chicken/pineapple kabobs, citrus shrimp and coconut rice. Upon completion, we took our plates into the Pinnacle Grill, ate and they served wine. The other two classes were cancelled due to Code Red.
Computer Classes: Trevor is one of the most patient teachers I've ever had. He keeps it simple for the most tech-challenged person. He repeats a 10 series lecture class multiple times so that everyone has a chance to sit at one of the 16 computers. Classes include camera basics, photo editing, transferring photos, making movies, pc security, sharing photos, pc buying, Windows 7, creative photo editing, staying connected and even a one on one time with him. If you're thinking about bringing your computer/lap top/ipad, etc, DO! Download and play ahead of time with www.download.live.com and install Windows Life Photo Gallery, Live Mail and Movie Maker. He will make it so much fun and show you tricks that will amaze. I was able to create a movie of our trip on the sea days back to San Diego.
Photography Classes: With only one island left to visit, David Smith began a series of photography classes. A little late for this trip, but knowledge to be applied to future ones. I think his classes would have been more appropriate for the days from San Diego to Hawaii.
Food Service There were good menu choices and all of our meals except one were very good (I was offered an alternate but declined). The soups were outstanding and I often had the cold fruit soup for dessert. We had "Dine as you please", so we had the opportunity to sit at different tables, different areas of the dining room, different diners, as well as different wait staff. We usually arrived between 5:30 and 6 and found that reservations were not necessary. We had marginal service, at best. Other diners have experienced the same disappointing service. Another area we felt that HAL was cutting back. Apparently, wait staff is assigned too many tables. Water glasses go unfilled, ice must be requested and re-requested as it melts, empty plates linger 20-30 minutes in front of diners, ladies are served at random-not first, sat with our menus in our lap for 25 minutes before our order was taken. : MDR - in the morning, service in the MDR was extremely slow. Breakfast should not take 2 + hours. Another person at the table ask if the waiter had died, lunch-changed waiters mid meal, another time at dinner- didn't want entree-waiter said "What am I suppose to do with it, then?" Caneletto Restaurant-small Italian venue. There is no extra charge. Menu never varies. Limited choices. Located on Lido deck beside the Lido buffets. Noise and traffic from the buffet is distracting. Doesn't feel intimate. There is no romantic/ soft music. Service is good and more attentive than MDR. Pinnacle Grill-small gourmet venue. Lunch extra charge is $10. Dinner is $25. Intimate and elegant. Menu varies. Offers a Le Cirque night.
Day 17 to Day 25 we had a breakout of GI illness and went into "Code Red". Code Red is declared when 6 or more people (out of 1400) are sick and continues until there has been no new outbreaks for 48 hours! Only staff can serving bread, butter, sugar, cream, salt/ pepper in the MDR and no self service in the Lido. The library basically shuts down, with only the librarian able to handle books and returned paperbacks quarantined for 30 days, limited Times newspaper and Sudoku, no self service laundry, no flower vases on tables, no hot tub but we did notice that the casino continued to operate --apparently they figured out how to sanitize chips, cards, tables, etc, the bars continued to take the room card keys and serve drinks, menus in the MDR passed around from person to person and gift shops open with guest handling merchandise--a real inconsistent application of policy.
State room service: Room stewards- As we unpacked on boarding day, we noticed items left in the state room by the previous guest--a necklace hanging on a hanger, plastic zipper storage bag in the closet and minor items in the drawer. During the first week, we noted Issues of not emptying the trash in the bathroom or cleaning the hand soap dish for the entire week! After that, it did get better. Our stateroom is never cleaned before 1 PM ! At night, it was never tidied or turned back before 9PM. (In fact, on our cabin crawl scheduled for 1 PM, one of the cabins to be view had not been cleaned by 1:30PM. I thought it was just our floor or steward, but apparently HAL is cutting back on staff here as well). We used room service each and every morning for coffee. On tender or tour mornings, we ordered breakfast rather than take the time to dine in the Lido or MDR. We found them to deliver it at the time requested and the meal hot.
Weather: The temperature in San Diego was beautiful with clear skies and upper 60's. Upon leaving there, it became cool, windy and over cast with occasional showers. Most people stayed inside or at least off of the windy decks. The pool was unsafe with the wave action. The seas became rough as soon as we left the breakwater in San Diego and lasted 3 days. Then as we neared Hawaii they changed to just swells. The four days we spent in Hawaii at Oahu, Maui and Hilo were beautiful with temperature in the 70's. The seas from Hawaii to Fanning were fairly calm with minor swells. The seas and weather were very cooperative and we were able to journey ashore at Fanning Island. From Fanning Island to Rarotonga were not too rough, but very windy. At Rarotonga, the captain was very hesitant to allow tendering. In the end, he did and we were allowed to go ashore and take our planned tours. The tender back to the ship from the island in the afternoon was very rough and took twice as long as the trip over in the morning and getting from the tender to the ship was risky for all, especially those with mobility challenges. Weather on the ensuing days was perfect and we couldn't have ask for better seas. On the voyage from Nuku Hiva to San Diego was calm but windy. All in all, we couldn't have ask for better weather or seas.
General: The temperature of the indoor venues has been most comfortable. On past cruises/ ships a jacket or coat was necessary in dining rooms, lounges, library, etc. Items to pack that we have found helpful are a plug strip with long cord to plug in a clock , fan or white noise machine(to cover creaking), extra coat hangers, pop up hamper, 100% sun block, wide brim hat (bought at Walmart in Hawaii-as too much trouble to pack), personal snorkel and mask, water shoes, underwater camera. Don't bring any movie DVD's. The ship offers hundreds for free to borrow and return. The list is in a book in the room. (Don't know if they are available during "Code Red")
Washing machines (self service) are on floors 2,3 and 6 forward. Washers are $2 in quarters, Dryers $1. The front desk will make change. Note: wasn't available during "Code Red", but they did finally reduce the laundry bag to $10.
Ports of Call: Honolulu-if you don't have tours planned, or want to go on your own--there are several museums, etc near the dock. FYI-the Aloha Tower Marketplace, most of the stores have closed-apparently due to the economy. Not sure, but not worth the visit. Walmart runs a free shuttle until 4 PM. Hilo Hatties has a free shuttle to their store AND from there offers a free shuttle to the Ala Moana Shopping Center (big mall with stores like home), the International Market Place ( open air with souveniers, jewelry, handicrafts-$5 baseball caps), Waikiki Beach and half a dozen hotels. Some drivers give a running commentary as they drive. Maui-a tender port-plenty of water activities on the dock. Whale watching in January and February is ideal. We saw plenty of whales and one came up to our boat. We booked with Ultimate Whale Watch.com that only takes up to 18 people in a zodiac type boat. Some others take 100 in big boats. We were able to put our underwater camera in the water from the zodiac and take pictures of the whales as they swam near. For a historical walking tour, visit the Lahaina Visitor Center in the Old Lahaina Courthouse right as you get off the tender. Self guided tour of sites throughout town as you shop. Hilo-rented a car from Harper Rental. Compact cost $34.95 prepaid with taxes 12.51 due at rental. Their representative was waiting for us as we exited the dock and we drove the 1/4 mile to their office. They were very friendly and most accommodating. We drove 175 miles up the coast to Wiamea and back through the Saddle Road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea to Hilo and then to the coast south of Hilo and beaches. Stocked up for the next 3 weeks at Walmart on the way back to the car rental return. Worth a visit In town is the Tsunami Museum.
Fanning Island- we had brought a plastic tub of school supplies (ie. Notebooks, crayons, pencils, scissors, chalk), minor medical supplies (ie triple antibiotic ointment, bandaids, elastic bandages, alcohol, gauze pads), fishing line and hooks, Bibles, needles and thread, sisal rope, balloons, toothpaste and toothbrushes. The cruise staff was most cooperative to place a large container by the pool the afternoon before arriving, for anyone to contribute items. The staff was adding things to our contributions and taking care of getting the container ashore. The ship is adrift (not anchored) so tendering is very weather dependent. We were lucky, as it was calm and beautiful. The locals were set up at the dock to sell necklaces, baskets, handmade knives, tiki ornaments. (Take a lot of $1 bills). Groups of singers and dancers, adults and children were performing for contributions. A truck holding about 10 people did tours down the main road and back ($10). We chose to walk and talk with the locals. Stopped at the primary school and talked with the teacher of the second grade, saw her "home" and her lunch cooking over an open fire. She was most interesting and we gave her a package of balloons to give her students tomorrow. We gave all the children we saw balloons and they were most courteous and thanked us in their best English. Others brought small rubber balls to give and Frisbees. All in all, it was most interesting to see their life and lifestyle. Spam is a real delicacy !
Rarotonga: Our Cruise Critic group of 29 were allowed to go on one of the first tenders over (see weather above). We had booked with Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruises (www.captaintamas.com) . The bus pickup at the dock was not there and we waited about 45 minutes but were able to shop at the vendors near the pier while we waited. Then about a 30 minute drive to the eastern side of the island brought us to Muir Lagoon where we boarded a thatch covered glass bottom boat. (BTW, we were able to pay by credit card, NZ $, USD -$50). We were taken to a reef area where we snorkeled about 30-40 minutes. A step down ladder into and out of the water was very convenient. We had our own snorkel equipment , which I highly recommend. There was a bathroom to change on shore before boarding if needed. After snorkeling, we were taken to a beach across the lagoon where we were served a lunch of fish, potato salad, slaw, pineapple, mango and cooked bananas. The tour guide told us a little about life on the island and gave a parea demonstration. (FYI, another tour operated had similar boats, trip and picnic right next to ours--www.kokalagooncruises.co.ck I'm not sure how much they were, but might be worth checking. The comparable ship's tour was 3 Hrs for $99 per person.
Raiatea / Tahaa -- Our Cruise Critic group of 13 had booked Bruno's Excursion Blue (www.tahaa.net). We had all reserved it with a $20 deposit with balance due of $120 per person on the dock. He met us around the corner from the dock at the Shell station, collected the money, we boarded the out rigger type power boat (with shade canopy) and headed to Tahaa and the first stop- the pearl farm. The ride was about 30 minutes and we docked and had a demonstration of pearl production-quite interesting about how time and labor intensive it is. More to it than one would imagine. Then the lady that owned the farm showed us the different grades and sizes. She had numerous loose pearls, necklaces, pendants, rings, even grade B studs(!)--beautiful work, nice quality, but quite expensive for my taste. Then we reboarded the boat and headed to the coral garden--another 45 minute boat ride with beautiful water and views of the island. We landed near a shore and walked down the rocky beach about 100 yards to the mouth of the inlet, got into the water to drift snorkel back to the boat. It became very apparent that the water level was too low to float above the coral (it must have been low tide). It was very difficult to maneuver around the coral heads without getting scrapped, scratched, touching or stepping on the spiny sea urchins. Several people got nasty stings by the urchins. That said, the coral garden spot was very, very beautiful with an amazing amount of coral, fish-large and small, anemones, colorful clams and sea urchins. Recommend: a good fitting mask, your personal snorkel, beach shoes (not sandals or flip flops), light weight gloves and lots of sunscreen. After the snorkeling, we had another 45 minute-1 hour boat ride to a restaurant on one of the many islands (motus). The motus, water colors of different depths, the mountains on Tahaa made for beautiful photos opportunities. Lunch included: chicken, fish, pineapple bread, fish, ceviche, fruit, several things I have no idea, wine and Tahiti rum punch (Yum!) We were so hungry by then I think we would have eaten almost anything. At the restaurant, in fish pens were eels, ray and different kinds of fish. After lunch, we retraced our route a little way to the vanilla farm. A walk of about 100 yards to the place where they showed the vanilla bean growing and explained the production of vanilla, the beans, drying, etc. Then it was back to the dock for the departure about 45 minutes later. It was an all day adventure. The comparable ship's tour was 3 hours, no lunch or stops at pearl farm or vanilla farm for $129.
Bora Bora- Our Cruise Critic group had 3 boats with 32people, booked with Patrick's tour (www.maohinui.net) from 9:30 to 2:30 PM the cost was $135 per person. He was at the dock waiting when we tendered off the ship. Then, we were off to encircle the island with the first stop being the feeding, feeling and being wowed by the sting rays. We were able to stand up in the clear water and sandy bottom to observe the gentle giants. Patrick chummed the water with fish to attract the black tip sharks that were about 2 -5' long. They were shy and didn't approach too close, but close enough to observe-amazing, but not scary at all. Then, the next stop was a 15-20 minute boat ride to the coral garden. He provided life jackets for those that wanted additional flotation. Getting in and out of the boats was relatively easy and the boat was shaded for those that didn't swim. The coral was in clear 15-30' deep water with a bit of current taking you away from the boat. The coral was large with amazing colors in the clams and fish. We stayed about 30-40 minutes. There was no need for gloves or protection from the coral or urchins because of the depth. Then, we motored to Patrick's family motu for lunch-a beautiful spot with stunning views of the island. We ate under the tree, in the water or under a thatched hut a banquet of suckling pig, chicken with spinach, barbequed fish, lobster, manioc, plantain bananas 2 ways, bread fruit, ceviche salad with coconut milk and a dessert of unusual consistency, but tasty. We ate on plates made of palm branches and with our fingers !! Our napkins were the water to wash our fingers. Patrick showed us how to make the palm plates-a neat idea to take home. We boarded the boats and finished circumnavigating the island back to the dock taking more pictures. He serenaded us on the ukelele on the return. BTW, he wears the traditional native outfit !!! Very brief and very buff !! A great time was had by all with a beautiful, albeit warm day in paradise! The comparable ship's tour was actually 2 tours-$154 for 3 hrs and $149 for 3 hrs.
Papeete- Seven of our Cruise Critic group had booked with Arnaud at Natura Exploration (www._______) who met us as we got off the ship. The price was 40,000 per vehicle which worked out for the 7 of us to be $90 per person US for all day (9AM-4:30PM). His 4 x 4 Land Rover truck sat one in front and the other 6 on padded benches in back. We departed through town to the outskirts and stopped at his friend's house to view their garden and bathroom break before heading into the interior of the island. The road quickly turned a bit rough and continued to narrow with steep grades (15-20%) both up and down. The scenery grew more spectacular with each turn and the waterfalls grew more numerous. At one point, we stopped to swim in a cool, but refreshing stream (so wear swim suit and bring towels). Further up we stopped for lunch at a camp with archaeological remnants of the past inhabitants of the valley. A thunder storm grew closer and soon the rain came down to cool us. It came at the perfect time as we enjoyed a lunch of pineapple, taro, sweet potatoes, little pancakes, tapioca, coconut milk, cream, flakes and candy. As we climbed up the crater, the rain continued and we reached the end of the road, turned around and started back down stopping to take pictures of the waterfalls, ferns, snails and flowers. The sun and rain alternated with Arnaud patiently stopping to raise and lower the side curtains and even positioned the vehicle during the rain so we could take pictures without getting out. We were blessed with a beautiful day of changing weather (humid, then cool, wet, then dry) and Arnaud told us that it had rained for the last two weeks which created an abundance of beautiful waterfalls. Back down into the city, we stopped at a scenic outlook for pictures of the city. We encountered rush hour as we returned to the dock and downtown area. We found that most of the stores, shops, museums, etc had closed by the time we returned (4 PM). We walked around a bit in town and on the dock and felt quite safe. The comparable ship's tour was 4 hrs and no lunch $109.
Moorea- Just 15 miles from Papeete is PARADISE ! We shared a car with fellow passengers, drove up to Belvedere look out where you can view both bays, around the island with a stop at the Lagoonarium (www.lagomoorea.com) . A definite slice of heaven and what you dream about experiencing on a tropical island. A motor boat takes you from shore to a little island with "A" frame huts for changing. We got there in time for the feeding of the rays and fish. Oh, my !! They have ropes that line the reef so you don't have to fight the current and you just move at your own pace to watch the fish, rays, sharks and coral. Then we continued the easy drive around the rest of the island. We couldn't have ask for a more perfect day ! They had to drag me back on the tender--I had found my "Eden"!
Rangiroa- not more than 3 feet high and a ribbon of coral. We took the water taxi over to the other "town" ($10 RT). It had one handicraft shop. There was more shopping at the tender pier. There is no infrastructure to accommodate 1400 people. If you don't book a ship's tour, then consider it a beach day. The palms, the water and coral can be enjoyed right there. Otherwise, not much to offer. The view from the ship is quite amazing, in that you can see both sides of the island for miles. The lagoon is so large that you can't see the other side. I think we were on the "business" side.
Nuku Hiva-after one sea day, we arrived at this rugged, mountainous island. We chose not to sign up for Claude's tour based on previous cruisers and trip advisor opinions. We found it to be quite expensive for what was offered. I will let those that went on his tour give their opinions and report. We walked around the town, up the small hill overlooking the town, bay and ship. Then walking down the street paralleling the bay. The black sand beach, lava rocks and sparse vegetation makes for a non-tropical feel to the island, whereas Into the interior of the island seemed to be quite rugged and greener. We heard later that the walk to the church was well worth the visit. There are a few shops, post office, internet place and vendors set up under tents and in a building. They would barter if you were buying multiple items only, Since it was our final island, Nuku Hiva was the last opportunity to buy souvenirs, take pictures and experience French Polynesia.
Disembarkation: We were held up by one of the non-US citizens, but US citizens did NOT have to appear before immigration on the ship. We only had to clear customs on the dock, which was a breeze. We chose to tote our own luggage so we could disembark early, catch a taxi to the airport for a 11:30 AM flight. We made it with plenty of time, but know that things start backing up (lines at customs, the taxi stands and luggage drop offs at the airport). We were able to have room service breakfast and coffee and wait in our room for announcement to get off. Other cruise lines usually kick you out of the room to wait in a lounge.
Final thoughts: In reflection of the last 30 days, even with the challenges of Code Red, slow service and tendering problems, it has been the journey of a life-time. If you are thinking about signing up for this itinerary--DO IT !! We have travelled to over 65 countries, but never experienced such natural beauty, friendly islanders and underwater adventures. We couldn't have ask for better weather--albiet hot and humid at times, it was the tropics !! What else could you expect? The ship is merely a vehicle to take you to PARADISE. So, all that considered, I am so glad we went and would recommend it to anyone.