We have cruised on 7 previous occasions, all with Holland America Line (HAL). We have enjoyed every one so much we have not managed to leave HAL for someone else, yet. However, after a cruise in the Caribbean last year we did think about it as we found the process of flying to the East coast of USA and then having to deal with the rude and unhelpful people we encountered there something we did not want to do again. Please note we are not saying that everyone who lives on the East coast is that way just the ones we met in the process of going on a cruise. Anyway, a deal came up for a back to back from San Diego to the Mexican Rivera and then on to Vancouver.
We flew to San Diego and stayed in the Holiday Inn at the Bay the night before we were due to depart. The hotel is, literally, across the street from the dock and we could see the Amsterdam from our window on the day we arrived and the Oosterdam the following morning. As we were a day early we spent the afternoon walking around the centre o f the town and we very pleasantly surprised by the whole experience. The people we encountered were friendly and courteous, the architecture was delightful and worth seeing and it was very quiet. I have never been in a city which was so quiet. We visited the Maritime Museum which was educational and generally most enjoyable. Well worth a visit. The following morning we did not need a shuttle as we could walk to the dock. We were able to progress from the gate to the luggage drop off to the check in desk in under 10 minutes. We did have to wait for over one hour to board the ship but that was as a result of some problem with US Customs. Security was swift and efficient and we were on the ship.
As we have cruised with HAL before and have sailed on the Vista class ships we do not feel that they are in any way unusual so we do not experience the sense of unfamiliarity which one might. That said we do feel the excitement of the experience every time we board. We were met by the Indonesian crew who will escort you to the lifts and direct you to the Lido until your room is ready. We heard a great deal of complaining about staterooms not being ready for the new passengers and, perhaps, understanding how and why this happens will help new cruisers relax. Most of the ships dock at the terminus at about 7am. Disembarkation begins at about 8am and embarkation begins at about 11am, roughly. As HAL do not turn you out of your cabin at some ungodly hour, the cabins are not all available to the cabin staff for cleaning and remaking. This means that they have to turn around all 924 cabins in about 3hours. This simple is not possible, so they ask the embarking passengers to wait in the Lido until the job is done properly. This is nary a hardship as there is food a plenty and it is quite safe wander off and explore the ship. You can be fairly sure that when you are told that your cabin is ready it will have been prepared for you to the highest standard.
As we were sailing on a Vista ship we booked a Balcony room and we were on the Upper Promenade deck. The balcony was not private as we were overlooked from one side and above, due to those balconies being set at angles, and on the other side were the life boats which seemed to require a steady stream of maintained people. They would suddenly appear from no where on the walkway by our balcony. However, the facility of being able to sit on ones own balcony is appreciated. The Vista class ships are a fairly recent addition to the HAL fleet and they are larger than the previous classes. We feel, having sailed on a number of the ships, that the general feel of the Vista class ships is not one we like as much as the smaller ships. I feel that the Vistas lack the personal touch which one would find on the Volendam or even Statendam class. Due to the large number of passengers the crew do not have the time to spend with each passenger and so, I feel, the service suffers, however, not to the extent that it no longer exists. HAL prided itself on the quality of service and the Indonesian crew certainly do provide service with a smile. I think that the Vistas are better suited for families and those who are happier in a larger crowd.
During our cruise HAL had their top chef aboard the Oosterdam and we felt that the food was better then usual, although we think the food is pretty good at the best of times. We really like the varied selection for lunch in the Lido and find the Wok provides some tasty and lower fat options. The last time we sailed on a Vista class ship they were trying out a new idea of buying, in advance, one glass of wine per night with dinner. We thought it was a wonderful idea as we do not want a bottle every night. That didnt take on it seems. This time they were trying out a more varied seating arrangement for dinner. If your table was for 5:45 or 6:15 you could arrive at the dining room any time from 5:45 until 6:30 and if you were booked for the later seatings you could turn up from 7:30 until 9pm. The advantage was that you had a little more flexibility but the disadvantage was that you may not be sitting at YOUR table. In order to accommodate everyone they often had to make up table parties as they went along.
All the HAL ships have plenty to do and the two pools, spa, gym and casino are soon all in operation. We called at the ports of Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta on consecutive days. We have visited Cabo before and did not really care for it. It seemed to us to be a small village ravaged by commerce but with no real improvements to the village itself. We knew where to go to get internet access and where to use a phone to call home so we set off to walk about the town and attend to these things. It was hot and humid on the day we were there.
Mazatlan was a complete surprise to us. I have a friend who owns a resort there and she told me that Mazatlan was a dreadful place, so we were expecting to take a quick peek and return to the ship. We rarely book tours as they are so expensive and spending the day on a bus with heaps of other people is not our idea of a good day out. We prefer to walk and see the places in which we are docked for ourselves. Of course, this is not always possible or advisable but when we can we do. We walked around the Old Town of Mazatlan, for over 4 hours in 93º heat and were charmed by all that we saw. I am sure there were other areas which were less attractive but the Old Town was full of character and well worth walking around. It was also quite safe.
The third of our port days saw us in Puerto Vallarta which, again, we expected to be very commercialised and modern. We shared a taxi, from the dock to the Hard Rock Cafe, with people from a Princess ship and then walked all over the Old Town. The street right on the front was just one long shop. Everything your heart could wish to buy was there and the bay was on the other side of the street. If shopping is all you cruise for then Puerto Vallarta would send you in to raptures as you can have some pleasing scenery and the shops all at once. However, if you want to see something of Mexico you only have to go one street back and you have architecture and quaintness that may as well have been under a rock for all some people saw of it. With each street back that you venture it gets more beautiful. Again we spent over 4 hours in the heat walking up and down hills and sets of stairs being drawn into the old town and never going near a shop. In the evening we met people who were horrified at the amount of walking we did and that we did not buy anything. They, they said, had had a wonderful day buying all sorts of stuff and hardly had to walk anywhere. I am glad they enjoyed their day but I also think How sad.
After our three ports in a row we had a day at sea to relax. I love the sea days but I can never relax as I find there is so much to see. I am not interested in the casino or the bingo or anything else they organise I just love to people watch and to view the scenery from the decks. Simply being at sea is, for me, a thrill. For those who hate the days at sea because there is nothing to do the companies keep activities going day and night, so really there is no excuse for having time you can not fill, should you so wish.
Our last port of call on the 1st leg was San Diego. We have so much enjoyed our first visit there a week earlier that we were looking forward to returning. We decided to spend part of the day walking (yes, we walked again) around the town centre and the other part of the day aboard the retired aircraft carrier Midway I found it interesting, my husband found it fascinating. Not being Americans we found the hype rather too much, but being aboard the ship, seeing how it operated was worthwhile. I spent some time in the Royal Naval Cadets and being on the Midway certainly brought back memories. It was quite an amazing thing to view the Midway from the dock and think how enormous it is and then to see the Oosterdam from the Midway and experience the sudden shrinkage of the Midway. The Midways displacement is nearly 60,000 tones and the Oosterdam is nearly 82,000. Of course, the shape is different but the over all size of the Oosterdam in comparison was remarkable. Sailing out of San Diego we felt like old hands as we viewed the city from the water for the second time.
The only stop on our four day 2nd leg was San Francisco. We were told that we would sail under the Golden Gate Bridge in the early hours of the morning and that it would be strung with lights. My husband and I decided that we would sleep through this and see it in the daylight instead. As it so happened I awoke and looked out of our cabin window as we were just beginning our passage under the bridge. I woke my husband who leaped out of bed and was on the veranda before he knew why he was there. The view was rather disappointing from the strung with lights point of view and we thought that it was a sight, certainly, but not really greater than the Lions Gate in Vancouver. This opinion was reaffirmed later in the day when we sailed out of the bay in day light and totally shattered when we sailed into Vancouver 3 days later. It is astounding the tricks ones mind can play and how difficult it is to retain certain information, such as colour and size, accurately. We still love sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge but we have to concede that the Golden Gate Bridge is considerably the larger and more impressive.
You will never guess what we did in San Francisco! No, we walked. We walked along the water front visited Fishermans Wharf where we caught a cable car to China town. From there we walked around the streets looking at the shops, it reminded us of Victorias china town, which like San Franciscos was the largest in its country at one point in history. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill afforded us a wonderful view of the bay and the murals were worth seeing even if the outside view had not been available. In Cheimanus on Vancouver Island there are murals on many of the buildings, but here they were all inside on the walls. They depict the life of the working man of the 1930s and are completely fee to view, although one must pay to climb to the top of the tower. We viewed Lombardi Street from both ends (I though it would have been longer) and we strained our necks looking up at the wonderful Art Deco buildings. Do remember to look up in San Francisco. The time we had to see San Francisco was all too short as we only had a half day but we will certainly return. The weather had been hot and sunny but as we began to prepare for the sail away it was getting windy.
The wind increased in strength as we sailed out of the bay and we were concerned that it may get quite choppy before the day was out. Captain Mercer told us that is was necessary, in order to arrive in Vancouver on time, to maintain full speed from here on and that we were due in Vancouver at 7 am the day after tomorrow. The following day Captain Mercer informed us that for our comfort and safety he had reduced speed to half and that we would now be arriving in Vancouver at 4pm. For those interested in such things we had been, were currently and would be for some time to come, sailing in a force 11 Gale. For those not au fait with the Beauford Scale a force 11 is described as a violent storm Winds can reach between 62 and 74 miles per hour and ships can be lost to sight in the waves for a time. The next level up, which is, incidentally, the last, is Hurricane force (12) where winds are measured at between 73 and 83 miles per hour. The Beauford Scale has been used by mariners since 1805 and is regarded to be as accurate to day as it was then. Captain Mercers decision, along with the design of the Oosterdam which made her remarkable stable in such conditions, saved many from misery and harm, but to hear the complaints you would have thought that it was a force 1 and that he was being unreasonable.
Naturally people missed flights and were in need of rearranged travel arrangements. HAL, like all the other major lines are not exactly stupid, they knew this and their staff, on board and in Seattle worked tirelessly to re-arrange flights and buses for everyone who needed them. What they could not do was rearrange the lives of passengers who had foolishly regarded a cruise as a boating trip on the local pond.
A word to the wise here. DO NOT arrange the most important business meeting of your career for the day after you are due home form a cruise. DO NOT assume that if Granny is looking after your kids that she can go home the day you are due to return. Make arrangements to extend your holiday by one day to cover this kind of eventuality. If Captain Mercer had held full speed we may have made it to Vancouver on time, I do not know, but, having been in a force 12 in the Bay of Biscay I can tell you, there would have been many sick and injured on board by the time we did reach port. What is it in the American psyche that causes so many to find fault at all times? The captain deserved praise and gratitude not attack.
For us the added advantage of being late (along with the comfort factor) was that we got to sail through the Straits of Jan de Fuca and Georgia in daylight. The scenery as we rounded the tip of Washington and passed through the channel between that State and Vancouver Island, the Strait of Jan De Fuca, was wonderful. We saw Victoria from the sea and watched Mount Baker loom from the dark into view and appear to move from directly ahead to our starboard side. The later arrival was, for us, a real bonus and we would like to see more cruises through this stunning area in day light hours. We actually arrived at about 2pm and we swiftly processed to disembark. As always the service was professional and the terminal staff must be some of the best in the world for their courtesy and efficiency.
Before we really knew it we were once more aboard a ship for the final journey home. We sailed from Tsawwassen to Duke Point on the slow ferry as the sun was setting in the Howe Sound. What a day for scenery!