My wife and I took the “Voyage of the Vikings” aboard the Veendam in July and August 2014, the full 35-day Boston-Amsterdam-Boston run. This is a once-a-year itinerary and we were unable to find reviews of the previous year’s cruise on Cruise Critic, so we resolved to post our impressions here. And those impressions are mostly favorable.
THE SHIP: From reading some reviews, you would think the Veendam was run down. We didn’t see it. I suppose if you look for imperfections you will find them, but the ship seemed well kept to us. The Veendam has all the familiar public spaces of the Holland America brand, including the Explorations Café (or the library, as everyone called it), which became a favorite spot. The Crow’s Nest was also a nice hangout, although the reclining lounge chairs along the windows that we enjoyed on other ships were not here. There are hot tubs (in lieu of an outdoor pool) on the aft deck.
One thing we did not like was that the Showroom at Sea was too small for the passenger capacity. If there was a lecture or presentation on ports or shore excursions, you had to get there 20 minutes early or you would not get a seat. (Fortunately these talks were taped and shown on the room TVs.) It was also a problem for the few evening shows that were one performance only, but not a problem when there were two performances.
THE CLIENTELE: Holland America passengers tend to trend older than other lines, but -- well, there’s no other way to say it – this cruise was absolutely geriatric. It attracts older folks who don’t like to fly, especially internationally, and there are more than a few who make this cruise an annual event. People who took shore excursions complained that it took forever to load and unload the buses at every stop. I know that getting an elevator could be very slow because just about everyone used them, and just one scooter takes up half the space in an elevator. There were also some attitudinal issues. Many of these passengers had 4 and 5 star status, and some were not shy about throwing their weight around. We saw some cringe-worthy moments of crew members being bullied. And sadly, there were a few people with obvious dementia who had attacks of panic in their unfamiliar surroundings, and across the hall from us, there was one couple traveling alone who just seemed not to understand where they were. Don’t get me wrong -- most people were lucid and pleasant enough, but there was enough of this weirdness around to make a difference in the overall atmosphere. I’ve got nothing against elderly people – I just turned 60 and hope to be enjoying nice vacations clear into my 80s – but if you are a relatively active person, you should know what you are signing on for.
THE CABIN: We had an outside cabin on the lower promenade deck, so we could see what the weather was like. There were people walking by, of course, but this didn’t bother us. It wasn’t like we spend hours gazing out the window. The ship also has “lanai” cabins available, with a sliding glass door onto the promenade deck, but I don’t think the steep price difference is worth it. There are so many exits to the deck that no cabin is very far from one of them (I think I am sold on Lower Promenade for future cruises because you can get outside so easily without the exorbitant price of a veranda). The lanai doors and cabin windows are all mirrored glass to ensure privacy, but I offer the following caution: under the right conditions (dark outside, all lights on inside) strollers on the promenade can get quite the little peek inside. So know when to use the curtains.
Our cabin was small, but just fine for a couple, with plenty of closet space and drawers, including under the bed. There was a loveseat and a vanity which became my computer desk. There was just one electrical outlet, but we brought a small power strip, so no problem. Our stewards, Rudy and Nazar, were just great throughout the voyage (Rudy had been assigned to our cabin on the Eurodam the previous year in Europe). There was a mix-up where we found twin beds instead of a queen when we embarked, and I said they could fix it the next day because I knew they were so busy on Day One. But when we came back after dinner, voila, one bed. We didn’t want the in-room liquor, and they took it out, no problem. The stewards got to know our routines and the room would be magically made up twice a day while we were out. The laundry service was excellent too, with clothes sometimes coming back on the same day they went out, and never later than the following day. One negative is that the television lost some channels, including CNN and both sports channels, after the first few days and they were never restored for the rest of the 35 days. Having Fox as your only news channel is cruel and unusual punishment.
DINING: Overall, we were pleased. We ordered wake-up coffee (using the doorknob hanger) at 6 a.m. daily, and they were always right on time. Then we would go for breakfast, usually in the main dining room, and service was always very good. The breakfast menu does not change, but there is quite a bit of variety and you can custom-order virtually anything. We always got a cup of berries, although those ran out a few times before ports where the ship re-stocked. No big deal. When we needed to be off the ship early, we went to the Lido, about which more below. We were usually off the ship during lunch, but on sea days we did the main dining room, the Lido, or the new “Dive In” hamburger and hot dog bar near the pool. We found the Dive In was pretty good. The burgers are more gourmet-ish, and instead of waiting in line, you have a staff member standing at the window. He takes your order and gives you a beeper, and you return when it’s ready. For dinner we usually went to the main dining room. I have read a lot of complaints about dinner, but I can’t echo most of them. We did the “as you wish” dining with no fixed time, usually showing up around 7 p.m., and the longest wait for a table was a few minutes (nothing like the 30-minute waits in the Caribbean on the Westerdam last winter). We were always willing to share a table with others because we like to meet people, so that probably made it speedier than waiting for a table for two. The quality of the food we found quite good. There were a few nights, maybe two or three, where service was slow, but generally it went very well. Some reviewers have complained about repetition of menu items, but I noticed a second appearance for only a few entrees, and on a 35-day cruise this didn’t bother us. We did the Pinnacle Grill once, because we got a freebie. It was pretty good, but I can’t say it is so much better than the main dining room that it justifies the extra cost.
The Lido, on the other hand, was not as satisfactory. I understand that in a buffet set-up the food is going to be warmed for longer periods than is desirable, but so many items – cuts of meat, especially – were dry. We like salads, but there was a “lettuce crisis” toward the end of the itinerary, and we were told the lettuce loaded in Amsterdam was substandard and did not keep well. At breakfast, you could quickly grab scrambled eggs, potatoes and meat, but it seemed like standard cafeteria fare. Pancakes, unless you asked for some made fresh, were tough and hard. You could wait in line to have an omelet prepared or over-easy eggs done, and these were quite good, but if there were more than 2 or 3 people in front of you and you had to get moving for an excursion, it wasn’t an option. We don’t use the Lido much anyway, and there was not enough quality there to compel us to change our habits.
LOUNGES: We don’t spend lots of time in the bars, but we’ll have a beer or cocktail (maybe two, if we’re feeling especially frisky) most days. We found the mixed drinks well prepared, and I was glad to see the happy hours on this cruise (not every itinerary has it). You can order two identical drinks for the price of one (service charge applied to both), but since neither of us is a two-fisted drinker, we just agreed to get the same thing for both of us. The Crow’s Nest, with its sweeping views, was our cabaret of choice, mostly in the afternoons, when it hosted trivia, and sometimes in the early evening. We got out of there before the disco got going (although given the age of this crowd, I doubt it kept going for long).
We were also in the Mix for their evening trivia, and that lounge was fine, but unfortunately we were exposed to a really awful performer in the adjacent piano bar, “Barry from Boston.” He had his fans, sure enough – they would swarm in after trivia to reserve their 10 stools around the piano – but we could not see the attraction in his crude humor and dumb jokes. The Ocean Lounge had an easy listening, jazz-tinged group most nights, and it was always busy with lots of dancing couples cutting up old-style (good for them). Bar service by the pool and outside by the hot tubs was fine. They do need to get extra cocktail servers in the showroom just before performances; I never saw more than two, and they were overwhelmed.
ENTERTAINMENT: This is purely a matter of personal taste, and every passenger would probably tell you that some was very good and some was awful – but they would not agree which was which. There was less of an emphasis on “production shows” than usual, which was fine by me, although we did see the exact same “Bob Mackie’s Broadway” show that ran on the Statendam in Alaska in 2012. And that show ran on two nights (I think only two shows were repeated in the 35 days). They brought aboard Celtic performers (two sisters) for the last leg from Newfoundland to Boston, and they were quite good. I really enjoyed the married comedy couple from Montreal, but their humor was quirky and strange, and I think many passengers didn’t connect with it (the cruise director mentioned that they would be putting on a different performance in a few nights, but it never happened). I was surprised that I enjoyed the Abba impersonators, who brought a lot of enthusiasm. I usually like the comedians, and the one who ended his show with an ironic twist on Elvis impersonation was quite good. The “mind-reader” was pretty entertaining too. But there was a stand-up comic named Derrick, who might be fine doing a “blue” show late at night, but the sanitized “blue hair” version went nowhere, and he was completely unfunny. Like I said, personal taste, and everyone will have a different view.
During the day, there were a few historians and naturalists who gave interesting talks (although, as mentioned above, the showroom was over-full and we wound up hearing the presentations on the stateroom TV). There was also a sportswriter named Wiener who lectured on things that had nothing to do with the cruise. Aside from the weak connection that we were going to Europe, what did a talk on the National Football League’s expansion plans for Europe have to do with this cruise? Or the history of the Olympics? His presence made no sense, and his lectures featured information most sports fans already know, plus a lot of name-dropping.
SANITATION: There was a respiratory bug that went around the ship – for me, it was a persistent, hacking cough, coupled with sniffles and fever, that rendered me useless in Norway and Amsterdam. My ribs were sore from the initial onslaught of coughing. People were coughing everywhere you turned, and this was no joke with so many elderly on board. I lay part of the blame on the fact that, for my first time on Holland America, crew members were not stationed with squirt bottles of hand sanitizer at the entrances to restaurants and the gangway. They had sanitizer dispensers set up in those places, but many people breezed right by. There were a few announcements about the need for frequent handwashing and the need to cover a cough, but I still saw lots of people coughing right into their hands. More aggressive reminders might not have been well received, but I think they would have been justified. I noticed a lot of wiping down of surfaces by the crew after the epidemic became apparent, but the horse was already out of the barn at that point.
PORTS: I’m not going to write a great deal about ports except to say that you should expect a lot of tenders (a problem for some elderly), because many of these places are small and seldom visited. I heard some people complaining about places like Red Bay, Labrador, because there was so little to do or see, but we enjoy visiting places that are really out of the way like this. Nanortalik, Greenland was terrific for its scenery and isolation (jagged mountains, icebergs all around); Qaqortoq was bigger and nowhere near as pretty. The absolute highlight was the daylong cruise through Prince Christian Sound in southern Greenland on the return leg. It was a sunny day and truly spectacular, but be warned: in some years the ships cannot get through because of ice, and sunny weather is very rare. The two days in Reykjavik were just long enough. The Faroe Islands were not as exotic as we had hoped. We did like the Invergordon, Scotland stop, and booked a nice private excursion there. St. John’s, Newfoundland is a great city we had visited by car twice before, but there is no good reason to stop on the other side of the island at Corner Brook.
SUMMING UP: It was a very nice time, but considering the repetitiveness of the annual itinerary, the relatively high price, and the fact that so many of the passengers were much older than us, I don’t think we will be doing this cruise again. We have few complaints about the fine service we have come to expect from Holland America, and that same standard was evident here. We will continue to use the line for other explorations, but for us, the Voyage of the Vikings now goes into the “been there, done that” pile. The Boston sailing sure is attractive for New Englanders like us, though.