Background: After a 2017 made somewhat horrifying by having to confront a potentially life-threatening health crisis, I wanted to give myself something to look forward to, and planned it far enough in advance-- nearly a year out-- that ... Read More
Background: After a 2017 made somewhat horrifying by having to confront a potentially life-threatening health crisis, I wanted to give myself something to look forward to, and planned it far enough in advance-- nearly a year out-- that even if I'd needed to endure a long operation to have the offending organ yanked out, I would still have had sufficient time to recover to make the trip. Fortunately, it didn't come to that, and the trip was fantastic-- real "bucket list" stuff, and all places I'd long wanted to visit but never had.
Two friends from my area-- the mother in her mid-eighties, and her daughter, mid-fifties-- joined me in this adventure. (Because they made their arrangements much later, they wound up at different hotels and on different flights than the ones I'd booked, but we made it work, and spent most of our time together.) I will get to the ship a bit later, and start with...
We began with a few days in Belgium-- Brussels, plus a day trip to Bruges. (We're all fans of the dark humor of writer Martin McDonagh and his 2008 film "In Bruges", too!) Belgium is of course a chocolate fiend's delight, and we brought back plenty-- in my case, several boxes of the same gianduja (creamy hazelnut chocolate) my late mother had brought back for friends and family when she had visited Brussels in 2003. We also enjoyed a particularly wonderful dinner at Restaurant De l'Ogenblik, just north of the spectacular medieval / renaissance Grand Place.
We next transferred to Amsterdam for a few days. (In both Holland and Belgium, trains between major towns and cities are so frequent-- sometimes at intervals of as little as ten minutes-- that there's no need for reservations; just show up at the station and catch the next one, as you would a commuter train. Just one caveat-- if you want to use the ticket machines rather than wait for a clerk, you'll need a credit card for which you know the PIN. Tickets on the high-speed Thalys express cost no more than the slower ordinary trains if you order a few weeks in advance, so that's what we did for the longer Brussels-to-Amsterdam leg of our trip. On about a third of the journey, north of Antwerp, the Thalys has its own dedicated track, and rockets along at close to 200 mph-- and yet with vastly less noise and vibration than Amtrak gives you when going about 75. Makes me feel like our rail infrastructure is downright third-world by comparison-- will we ever catch up? But I digress...)
In Amsterdam, we had all pre-ordered the 72-hour version of the I-Amsterdam card-- $100. We were thus able to enjoy unlimited public transportation and museum admissions (the Anne Frank House being the only major exception) during our visit, and loved the convenience. In addition to the most famed attractions, (Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House) we also got to some less frequently visited ones, such as the Old and New churches; Rembrandt's house; the Willets-Holthuysen mansion; "Our Lord In the Attic" (a townhouse with a small Catholic church hidden in the upper stories); the dramatically cantilevered EYE museum of film (a free ferry ride across the river from Centraal Station); the Gothic-style former post office, converted over twenty years ago into a spectacular shopping venue; the Amsterdam History Museum; the Poezenboot floating cat shelter; and the beautiful Vondelpark. My friends took a day trip to nearby Haarlem, the home town of Frans Hals, a painter from Holland's "golden age". Culinary highlights included dinner at Olivar, a high-quality Spanish restaurant near our hotels, and another at Kartika, a superb place for authentic Indonesian rijstafel just north of Vondelpark-- highest recommendation!
The night before the cruise, a quick train ride brought us to Rotterdam, where we enjoyed another outstanding dinner at New York Basement, in the Hotel New York, the Art Nouveau-era landmark that was once the headquarters of Holland America Line. And, liner geek that I am, I spent the night aboard a vessel I'd visited back in the early 1970's during her working glory-- the 1959-vintage SS Rotterdam, now preserved as a floating hotel and conference center. She's a splendid 1950's time capsule, and one of only a handful of classic passenger ships to escape being broken up for scrap.
We boarded the newer (vintage 1997) Rotterdam the following morning, then I made a quick wine run to a nearby Gall & Gall liquor store (supplementing a couple of favorite reds I'd brought from home.) Embarkation was very quick and painless.
Operating in Europe is more expensive for cruise lines than the Caribbean, particularly so in Scandinavia. So it wasn't a big surprise that the shore excursions were the priciest I'd ever seen. Accordingly, we looked for privately arranged options on the internet, and were able to save a bundle.
In Eidfjord, an excursion from gofjords.com (about $50 per person) took us to a nearby "Nature Center", which featured a sod roof with goats grazing on it, then inside, a vertigo-inducing film on the landscapes and wildlife of Norway on a giant screen; we then proceeded up to about 2000 ft to view one of the country's premiere attractions, the falls of Voringfossen, which drop nearly 500 feet in all.
In Alesund, my friends took a private (Viator) all-day bus excursion including something called "The Troll Road", and lots of other fantastic scenery; I think it ran them $164 apiece. In addition to lots of walking around on my own, visiting the Jugendstil Center museum, and snapping photos of the local Art Nouveau architecture, I devoted some time in the middle of the day to the one HAL excursion I wound up booking (about $105, as I recall, and handled very well for passengers who spoke a variety of languages.) It divided its roughly three hours between some touring of the town, and a run out to the fine nearby aquarium, where the highlight was watching a diver--through a giant acrylic window wall about a foot thick-- send the various species in the tank into a happy feeding frenzy with a ten-kilo bag of shrimp bits. After our return to town, I decided to be dropped off atop the Byrampen overlook, which is about 100 m / 330 ft up, and then stroll back down through the park and into the city before returning to the ship for dinner.
In Geiranger, Sarah and I were driven all around in a car rented by a Dutch passenger (familiar with the area from previous visits) and his son; I had linked up with them via the Roll Call for our sailing some months prior. (Sarah's mom took a HAL excursion, and visited a few of the same spectacular spots.)
And last but not least, in beautiful Bergen, we had again arranged for an economical (about $30 apiece) privately arranged bus excursion out to the suburbs for us three music lovers to visit Troldhaugen. The property features the home, composing hut, and final resting place of Norway's favorite musical son Edvard Grieg. A piano recital by an exceptional native player is included; the striking sod-roofed concert hall overlooks the water and the composer's hut. (Lunch is not included, but there's a nice cafeteria in the visitors' center for anyone who wants to have a quick bite to eat.) The 11:30 to 2:20 excursion also offered plenty of time before and after to wander around the old heart of the city, soak in its lovely historic architecture, and browse the shops and galleries; we also made time to enjoy the funicular ride up to the thousand-foot-high Floyen viewpoint overlooking the city before returning to the ship. (Crowded because it's so popular, but the spectacular views were very much worth it!)
After a final day at sea, we returned to the port of Rotterdam on the morning of June 9th. Rather than simply hop a train to Schipol airport, I had decided to spend a day and night in Delft, just a ten-minute train ride north of Rotterdam, largely on the recommendation of an architect friend who'd spent some time in Holland. The two friends I was traveling with were very pleased with this decision-- we all absolutely loved this pretty little town, and agreed that it was the perfect calming way to finish up our trip. Once again, there were beautiful churches, quiet streets, nice restaurants, the Vermeer Center, and the Delftware factory about a mile north of the historic center. (We all visited the Vermeer Center, even though it contains no actual Vermeer paintings-- they're all in major museums around the world. But Delft was his home town, and the Center helps visitors learn a lot about his phenomenal talent and techniques, and his still somewhat mysterious life. As for the Delftware factory, I did not accompany my friends to that one, but they enjoyed it very much, and found it a better place to purchase an actual Delftware souvenir than the tourist-oriented shops in the center.)
And now I will talk about THE SHIP...
I thought a few criticisms were in order. I first sailed with HAL more than a decade ago. Some slippage of standards, which I realize are common to all the major mainstream cruise lines over the same period, was evident. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, which had once been served without charge at the Lido breakfast buffet, is now available only for a fee. And where I recall a nice classical quartet playing on a Nieuw Amsterdam cruise in 2011, it's now down to a duo-- and the violinist frequently sent forth flat notes that were downright wince-inducing. Any promising Julliard student would surely have done better; I know there are multiple European equivalents of that American institution.
Buffet desserts were often lacking in flavor. And while I love how HAL always features a section of the Lido Market lunch that offers dishes of a different Asian cuisine each day-- curry and beer is my recipe for lunch happiness!-- I was sometimes a little disappointed in the end result. (Of course, to be fair, it would have been hard for any shipboard buffet to live up to that fantastic Indonesian meal we'd feasted on in Amsterdam!)
I thought it was just great that you could go to the front desk and request one of more than 1,000 DVD movies of all sorts on loan...but the execution was REALLY lacking here, at least for me. I could never get the attached DVD player in my cabin to work-- in fact, it wouldn't even play the music CD's I'd brought along. I reported this to the front desk as I returned the movie, just minutes after having picked it up, but no offer of repair or replacement was forthcoming. (My friends, in a deck 6 balcony cabin, were able to view one movie, but told me they'd also had a lot of trouble with the gadgetry.) So, what should be a wonderful amenity becomes a moot point if passengers can't take advantage of it.
Overall, though, I want to stress that our impression of the vessel, and its food and service, were very positive. For one thing, the Rotterdam is just the right size for us-- big enough to handle weather well, and to offer a variety of entertainment and dining venues, but small enough to be easy to get to know and find your way around quickly. And the ship was looking great after her drydock refurbishment a few months prior to our cruise. My friends were very pleased with their spacious balcony cabin on deck 6. Mine was forward on deck 3, and despite looking out on the wraparound teak promenade, (another much-loved feature of Holland's ships!) the only persistent noise that came into the cabin was a bit of bass boom from the theater upstairs when shows were being performed. I saw a small leak begin to emerge from the lobby ceiling of deck 3 one afternoon, and alerted the front desk that they'd want to deploy a bucket or two-- but hey, the ship is 21 years old, and is going to have the odd plumbing issue here or there, drydock notwithstanding. (Thankfully, no such plumbing issues affected either of our cabins!)
As usual, apart from trivia, (our team, including that Dutch dad and son, won some beautiful Rudi Sodamin cookbooks toward the end!) I didn't spend much time in the theater watching the big production shows, but I spoke to many passengers who enjoyed them. What's more, my older friend developed a crush on the flamboyant piano lounge entertainer known as Sir Stryker, and left the ship having bought one of his CD's, which she has been playing in her car ever since!
We felt no need to pay extra for dinner at Pinnacle Grill-- the main dining room did very good work, and the mostly vegetarian diet of one of our party was easily accommodated. In addition to the two bottles of wine I'd brought from home, there were five in all brought aboard with the additional purchases made on sailing day; all of those were consumed in the dining room, and thus subject to the $18 corkage fee. This is quite reasonable in comparison to most restaurants ashore, however, and it was more than worth it to have wines I knew we'd like.
I found the front desk staff all very friendly and accommodating as well, even though I know they must contend with some chronically cranky passengers.
The Bottom Line: I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the ship, the line, and this gorgeous itinerary to friends & family. Read Less