Usually, when we get off a cruise, we wonder how we will endure everyday life without a room steward or all those wonderful meals that magically appear. After this cruise, 14 days on Holland America’s Volendam from Hong Kong to ... Read More
Usually, when we get off a cruise, we wonder how we will endure everyday life without a room steward or all those wonderful meals that magically appear. After this cruise, 14 days on Holland America’s Volendam from Hong Kong to Singapore, we didn’t find the transition back to day-to-day life difficult. For the most part, we found nearly everything okay on the cruise along with a few glitches. Today okay isn’t enough for us and especially for the experienced cruisers we met on the Volendam. The whole time we were onboard, we couldn’t help but remember Holland America’s history and the high standards set in years gone by. Those glory days are gone and Holland America’s standards are different now, perhaps because the cruise line is now part of Carnival Corporation.
We boarded the ship in Hong Kong after a seemingly never ending 17 hour flight from Los Angeles. Exhausted, once we boarded the ship we stumbled through the day and the mandatory safety drill. We quietly sailed out of Hong Kong harbor during dinner heading for ports in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a comforting feeling to know that tomorrow we had a leisurely day at sea and wouldn't set foot on land until our first port of call in two days.
The ship, despite its size, runs surprisingly quiet. Walking out on deck you hear the whoosh of the wind and the smack of the waves against the hull. After a while the sounds become a soothing white noise. Weather did not cooperate during the transit to our first port of call, Halong Bay, Vietnam. Through the cooler than normal temperatures, fog, rain and gale force winds, there weren’t the usual passengers on deck marveling at the area's dramatic beauty. Some hardier passengers wrapped themselves in blankets and relaxed on the deck chairs under cover on Lower Promenade deck.
On the five days at sea, passengers relaxed and enjoyed the comforts of our floating hotel. Our itinerary for most of the cruise was a day in port and then a day at sea. On the at-sea days, on-board activities ranged from tai chi, to trivia and karaoke challenges, to meetings of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Some of the activities that in days gone by were free now have a fee.
You could indulge at the Greenhouse Spa and Salon, a fully equipped gym, (covered) tennis and basketball courts, two pools (one with a retractable roof) and hot tubs, performances by a comedian, and range of singers and dancers, several bars, a nightclub, movie theatre, library, an internet cafe, casino and duty free shops.
Digital workshops on board help you learn about your computer and digital camera and software that would help you with both, while the Culinary Arts Centre featured cooking demonstrations which focused on the cuisines of our ports of call.
Children between the ages of 3 and 17 are cared for in Club HAL, which has three age-specific areas stocked with games, toys, movies and activities to amuse younger travelers for hours.
We tried to experience as much as we could - the seminar on folding towels into animals which the stateroom stewards do every night as part of the turn-down service was a highlight. Days at sea seem to revolve around the serious business of eating.
To get the full cruise ship experience, it was our mission to attend at least one tea time held in the afternoon at the Explorer’s Lounge. The day we attended, there was a boisterous drink tasting held next to the tea time location. The antics of the drink tasting infringed on what should have been a relaxing atmosphere. Some people left disappointed. Not only was there noise, there were not enough seats for all who wanted to attend. And since the turnout was larger than expected, getting tea or pastries took much longer than it should.
That experience isn’t the end of the world. But it shows the difference between Holland America in years gone by and today. Maybe that is why passenger loyalty isn’t what it used to be. Speaking with passengers, many who sailed on Holland America frequently, the reason they chose this cruise was the itinerary and price. For many cruisers, there no longer seems to be a loyalty to brand. To us it seemed that Holland America doesn’t give past passengers much incentive to sail on the cruise line again.
On port days, there’s a range of excursions at a variety of costs or you can venture out on your own.
Due to our size, we could only sail in the South China Sea. The ship was too large to dock in the heart of the cities of Da Nang, Nha Trang, Phu My, Sihanoukville and Bangkok. Instead we docked at commercial ports among cranes unloading cargo ships and trucks picking up containers. Not seeing lovely towns or the scenic countryside while in port was disappointing but not a deal-breaker. One down side was that in most of the ports you had to pay for a shuttle or bus fare into town which for the longer trips was pricey. The bus trip could take two hours or more one-way to get to Bangkok or Hanoi, which used up a big chunk of port time.
The cost of shore excursions was one of the biggest complaints we heard from fellow passengers. Since many were seasoned cruisers, here are a few of their ideas and strategies.
1. Avoid shore excursions that include a meal as there is usually a big price premium for the meal and the meal is mediocre at best. For instance, the Halong Bay cruise tour with lunch was $99.95 per person. Without lunch, the tour was $64.95 per person.
2. Check the cruise boards, such as Cruise Critic, and ask past passengers for independent tour recommendations. This needs to be done as early as possible. Our passenger informer booked all her tours online a month or two before the cruise and had several great tour experiences for half the price.
3. The three-day Angkor Watt and Saigon excursion was a whopping $2,899 per person (you can buy an eight-day land tour with airfare for half that cost). A savvy cruiser made his own arrangements for his group of fellow travelers. His travel agent arranged the same tour at the end of the cruise. In Singapore, the group flew into Siem Rep and stayed at a local hotel. Their Angkor Watt excursion cost them one-third of what Holland America charged for the excursion.
4. Wing it on your own. At many ports there are tour representatives roaming the docks. Just make sure you have plenty of time to get back onto the ship in case a bus or car breaks down or encounters traffic snarls.
Little things seem to irritate long time cruisers. A number of passengers commented that Holland America now charges for things that were previously included. For instances, some classes in the fitness center now have a charge as do specialty coffees such as lattes and cappuccinos. In fact the Explorations Cafe by the computer center offers pastries and coffees, all at an extra charge. Not to mention the upcharge premium restaurants, the Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto Restaurant.
Another irritant for long time cruisers is comparing what your cruise line offers compared to another cruise. At Koh Samui, Thailand, the Volendam and a Princess Cruises ship both were in port the same day. Both ships had a covered waiting area at the pier so passengers can wait for the next tender. Holland America passengers noticed and commented that at the pier waiting area they were offered water and lemonade. Princess Cruises offered their passengers water, ice tea, lemonade and snacks such as cupcakes, fresh pineapple and coconut water.
Dinner time was always a chance to try new foods or relish tried-and-true favorites. On the Voldendam, the two level Rotterdam Dining Room offers two dining options: dine “As you Wish” on the lower level any time from 5:15 to 9:00 p.m. Here you can choose to dine alone or with other passengers – your choice. The upper level offers the two traditional sittings at 5:45 or 8 p.m. at assigned tables. We selected a table for eight on the upper level and were lucky to be seated with six delightful table mates. We still keep in contact long after the cruise.
Evening shows in the Frans Hals showroom are timed to the two sittings in the main dining room. Other dining options include the Lido Deck restaurant, which also serves breakfast and lunch and for-a-fee alternative restaurants such as the Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto.
For the most part, we found the 600-plus staff, largely made up of Filipinos and Indonesians, patient and friendly. Our dining room service for dinner was on the mark and consistently good. But breakfast and lunch service in the main dining room was inconsistent and disappointing.
The staff in the main dining area ran around distracted as if they were unsure what to do. At times they simply disappeared. Servers came to our table and refilled the men’s coffee cups but completely ignored the women. This happened on several occasions. We were told many new servers came onboard when we did in Hong Kong. Maybe they had communication problems, or they didn’t know their duties or were tired from the long hours. Whatever the reason, we spoke with many people who left the main dining room after breakfast or lunch complaining and rethinking sailing on Holland America again.
Breakfast in the Lido Restaurant wasn’t much better. It wasn’t the food, it was the staff and set-up. During breakfast, staff served and/or prepared the hot food for the Lido buffet. It was typical for long lines to form waiting for food and waiting for a table to open up. Waits of 10 to 15 minutes for food were common. Plus, there was no designation of where the line started. On several occasions, rude people cut in at the front of the line and arguments ensued. If you forgot something or wanted seconds, you had to face standing in line again. Things were particularly bad when the ship was in port and many people wanted to eat breakfast at the same time because they were heading out on excursions. The best solution was to order room service the night before.
In tribute to the Southeast Asia itinerary by the covered pool on Lido deck, the area was transformed into an Asian food stall market for lunch and dinner one day. Even though we were at sea, it felt as if we were eating street food in Bangkok or Saigon sampling pha, exotic fruits, noodles, and Pad Thai. If you aren’t into Asian food, the Dive-In Restaurant still served burgers during lunch and the Rotterdam dining room offered a regular menu with a couple Asian specialties.
Most of the people onboard won’t be youthful. These mature people were well- traveled and had lots of interesting travel insights to share. Everyone wasn’t a senior citizen. There were younger couples, singles and families on board: several couples with a toddler kids, a families with elementary school age kids and a number of families with teen age kids.
Our room steward was attentive but the cabin had some short falls. We were assigned a handicapped accessible cabin on the lowest deck, Dolphin Deck – not our choice or request. The difference is that a wheelchair can wheel into the bathroom and shower. The cabin had two twin beds. If you wanted the beds placed together to form a queen bed, a wheel chair had trouble getting by the dresser and getting to one of the wardrobes. It wasn’t the best thought out design for a handicapped accessible cabin.
Although the bathroom had a good amount of space because a wheel chair had to roll into it, there was little space on the bathroom vanity for toiletries. The medicine cabinet by the vanity offered little storage (poor design).
The two wardrobes in the cabin had doors, rather than open space. One of the wardrobes was in the same space as access the bathroom. That meant if you had the wardrobe door open you couldn’t get into the bathroom. And if you opened the wardrobe door when someone was in the bathroom, they were trapped.
A fridge was not available in the room, although an ice bucket was provided.
There wasn’t a light stand on the bedside cabinets but a light was positioned above the bed. The design of the light switches over the bed made the controls difficult to find at night. And we accidently pushed the button for the front desk more than once.
Since the Volendam is an older ship, launched in 1999 and most recently refurbished in 2014, in the next refurbishing go-round, it would be beneficial if more outlets are added in public rooms and cabins. We are in an electronic age where people travel with laptops, tablets, smart phones and cameras – all devices that must be recharged. Our cabin had one receptacle located near the dresser. There was a receptacle built into a non-functioning wall mounted hair dryer, but neither the receptacle or hair dryer worked. The dresser location was convenient to recharge electronics but an awkward place to plug in a hairdryer. Every day, we did the co-ordination dance, timing when our laptops, smart phones and cameras had to be charged.
Lower Promenade deck cabins with large windows or sliding glass doors onto the deck are some of the more expensive cabins. We found that people who paid the premium price for those cabins did not get the full benefit due to their location. The Lower Promenade deck is the only deck that lets you walk completely around the ship on the outside. That means people are continuously walking around the deck as 3 ½ laps equaled a mile. Many passengers got their exercise by walking. The passengers who paid a premium for promenade deck cabins kept their curtains down and drawn shut as privacy and noise was an ongoing issue.
A number of passengers seemed frustrated with the self-service laundry and commented that it was purposely ill-conceived so you use the expensive on-board laundry service. The main complaint was there was no change machine. Instead you must go to the Purser’s desk for change where there was usually a wait. Additionally, the washers and dryers were small and would only fit several pieces of clothes. What you thought would be one load turned out to be two loads. The laundry was also a source for conflict as some passengers put their clothes in the washers and/or dryers and left. On their return, they discovered waiting passengers took their completed loads of clothes out and placed them in laundry baskets because the owners were not around. This led to heated discussions on several occasions.
The Voldendam can use some refreshing. A few areas on the ship are looking old and worn. Hallways walls in some places were scraped and gouged. Carpets were worn in several areas. During our cruise, the carpets were being replaced on some of the stair wells. Regardless the public rooms throughout the ship were still comfortable, with hidden nooks ideal for quiet reading time or intimate conversation.
Holland America today can’t compare with Holland America of yesteryear. Even with the cons we experienced sailing on the Volendam, the cruise was pleasant and the routine was low-key and casual. All in all okay. But not the luxurious, pampering experience of years gone by. Your best strategy may be what many of the passengers did - wait until Holland America runs one of their deal promotions. Read Less