My wife and I just returned from a 7-night New Year's cruise aboard Holland America's (HAL) Vista Class ship Oosterdam. We are in our late 30's and have 2 children ages 7 and 9 who also accompanied us. As a point of reference all of us have cruised extensively - this was my 40th cruise.
This was our 2nd voyage in just over one year on the Oosterdam. Our first cruise on this vessel was October, 2005 again on the 7-night Mexican Riviera itinerary out of San Diego. During our first sailing on Oosterdam about 80 percent of the ship was chartered for a group of very large alternative lifestyle biker men who call themselves Chumley Bears (look them up on the web). We were never advised in advance by Holland America of this very large group. Being the minority on a ship where the majority was a special interest group who pre-reserved much of the ship for private functions was frustrating to say the least. Not only were we disappointed in HAL for not advising us of this special interest group and giving us the option to cancel or reschedule, but the cruise itself was mediocre at best and not consistent with our other HAL experiences. So here we are again giving the Oosterdam another chance for the New Year - what a mistake; never again!
Embarkation in San Diego was very smooth and efficient. The HAL representatives were very courteous and well organized. My advice to anybody sailing HAL out of San Diego is to have ALL of your documentation filled out and available in advance as a document check is necessary before being directed to the check-in counter. I would highly recommend registering online and printing the forms to bring with you. In addition to these registration forms you will need your passports, tickets, and on board charge form. Upon arrival at the pier a HAL employee will have you fill out a form to indicate if you have recently or are currently suffering from a gastrointestinal illness.
Ship DEcor/Layout is similar to the other 3 Vista Class vessels. In fact, this same hull design has been used for multiple Carnival and Costa ships. HAL was very concerned about introducing the Vista Class ships to their fleet as they felt ships of 80,000 tons carrying 1,800 passengers would be overwhelming and not received well by their loyal passenger base that are set in their ways and creatures of habit. Subsequently, HAL instructed the ships interior designers to make the Vista Class ships sport the feel of smaller more intimate ships. Unfortunately, the result is a drab, depressing, and poorly laid out ship. The flow in public areas is awful and bottlenecks often. The dEcor can be perceived as offensively obnoxious. For example, the Lido Cafe is adorned with bright red and canary yellow Formica which resembles the colors of McDonalds as opposed to a fine ship. Public rooms are not well ventilated. One smoker quickly fills a room with a cloud a smoke. On a positive note, the promenade deck on Vista Class vessels are amongst the nicest at sea being lined in real teak wood and sporting old fashioned steamer chairs with very comfortable cushions. The Promenade is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable places to sit and watch the sea.
Cabins on Holland America are some of the best and biggest at sea. However, the colors schemes and furniture selections leaves a lot to be desired. We splurged for an SA Suite which comes with access to the Neptune Lounge and other amenities including priority embarkation, complimentary laundry and dry-cleaning (multiple items lost), upgraded bathroom amenities by Elemis, a stocked bar (no host), a bathroom with dual sinks, whirlpool bath with shower, separate stall shower, dressing area, large balcony, waffle type spa bathrobes, priority tender service, champagne on embarkation, breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill, full menu room service and a special welcome aboard reception as well as a farewell lunch the last day at sea. Other amenities available in all cabin categories include incredible beds with high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, flat screen televisions, magnified bathroom make-up mirrors, and fruit baskets replenished daily. Our suite was immaculately maintained and appeared as if we were the first guests to ever occupy it. Hats off to our room stewards. Unfortunately, the smell of sewage frequently was present in our suite and despite multiple complaints the engineers were unable to figure out the source.
Food on board was a terrible disappointment. Menu choices were strange and lacked taste, quality and any type of creative presentation which would appeal to the senses. Most disappointing was one breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill where we were served molded cream cheese and stale bagels after literally begging to be served despite being only 1 of 2 tables occupying this room. This was after being verbally assaulted by one of the waiters and demoralized in front of my son. There were only about 6 guests in the Pinnacle on this day and we watched the 4 waiters huddled in a corner laughing while ignoring the guests in a passive aggressive manner. It was a struggle to get our order taken. The manager of this venue seemed indifferent to our bringing these issues to her attention. The main dining room is a disastrous design example of how the interior designers ruined this ship. Certainly, entering this strangely designed room is enough to take anyones appetite away. This room is dark and dilapidated with shades of red, gold, and dark wood tones which simply are depressing and poorly coordinated. The center of the two story room is decorated with some really strange Star Wars like fixtures with tiny blue lights sparkling as if they were meant to be stars. We were waiting for Scotty to beam us up! Unfortunately, I cannot report that we had one meal in either the Pinnacle or Vista (main) Dining Room which could be considered anything better than mediocre. The same can be said of the Lido Buffet for breakfast and lunch. Perhaps the best food on board could be had from room service a turkey club sandwich that is if they could get your order right! Lastly, HAL only spends about $10 per person per day on food. By comparison Seabourn spends just over $20 and provides one of the best culinary experiences on land or sea. If HAL increased the per person per day food budget by only $5 and passed this cost along to the passengers that translates to only $35 for a week long cruise! Perhaps the perception is that cheaper is better and thats what people want. Not on HAL. I'm confident that HAL passengers would gladly pay a slight premium to ensure a higher end culinary experience.
Room Service was always a disaster. Orders were never correct and delivery always took more than an hour. In fact, we received a memo on the second day of our cruise to be patient with room service on our port days as they are frequently overwhelmed and delivery times would be delayed. This is shameful! If the ship can't handle room service they should not offer it. I blame the language barrier which was responsible for many of the botched orders. It does not seem unreasonable that a ship which caters to American English speaking passengers employ staff which is proficient in the English language. As an example we like to feed our kids through room service and then take them to Club HAL while my wife and I eat in the dining room. This is a win-win as our kids don't want to sit through a 2 hour meal and it allows my wife and I to have some quality time together. On several occasions after waiting in excess of 1 hour for my children's meals they arrived only to be the wrong orders. This would not be such a big deal if room service would simply apologize for such errors and correct them immediately. Both times we were told by room service that they should have the correct meals delivered in about an hour! When an order is screwed up that you already waited an hour for the correction should be almost immediate. There was no evidence at any time of anybody being accountable.
Service and attitude of the ship staff is the worst I have experienced on any vessel! However, with all due respect, I must give kudos to housekeeping, Club HAL, and the Neptune Concierges all were wonderful! The staffs in all other departments were clearly unhappy and many times rude and miserable. It was obvious that most of the ship's employees did not enjoy their jobs or want to be there. In addition to poor, indifferent, and rude attitudes the language barrier was always a struggle. One morning while getting my breakfast from the Lido buffet a steward literally pushed me out of the way as the cook was preparing my plate of eggs and they started to drop the curtains on my head which cover the buffet as it was closing time. One of my more frustrating moments was when my daughter became violently ill with vomiting at 5am one morning which we believe was due to food poisoning. At this point I called the guest relations desk to send a steward with towels as we exhausted all we had cleaning up the mess. Additionally, we needed our carpets cleaned. I was left on hold for over 20 minutes until I got a hold of guest relations! She was rude and said it took so long to answer the phone because she was doing paperwork!
Noro Virus seems to be alive well and flourish on board cruise ships. It is no wonder to me that Oosterdam has had its share of Noro Virus problems. The ship is absolutely filthy with staff frequently demonstrating dirty habits and no regard for cleanliness. On many occasions the public restrooms were out of soap and paper towels and dirty food trays were frequently left for hours at a time. By the pool sticky umbrella drinks and sodas were often spilled on the floor and when my wife brought these tripping hazards to the attention of deck staff nothing was done and she was told not to worry that they wash down the decks every night! One afternoon during lunch at the Lido Buffet I witnessed a server blowing his nose into a rag and then proceeding to serve guests. Unbelievable!!! That's not to say that this type of thing does not happen at land based restaurants, but one would think there would be a heightened awareness of disease on a ship given the publicity given to Noro Virus over the last few years.
Diapers in the pools are clearly not allowed per the signage poolside. However, many parents insist on ignoring these signs and bringing their diapered children in the pools and Jacuzzis. It is a health hazard to have adults or children defecating and /or urinating in the ships swimming holes with or without diapers. I wish that that a policy requiring fecal and urinary continence was a requirement for swimming on board and was enforced for the protection of all passengers. HAL was in no way proactive in helping to prevent this health hazard. Certainly, I do place blame on the irresponsible parents who ignored the sign as well, but HAL should have enforced its own policy.
Other passengers tended to be mostly older with the average age being well above 75. Wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and walkers were as commonplace as would be expected while visiting Aunt Millie at the nursing home. I felt as if I spent my week at an assisted living facility. 4 passengers were removed from the ship for medical reasons before we even sailed from San Diego which delayed our departure. In fact, one lady died tumbling down the stairs shortly after embarkation. Holland America claims they have tried to attract a younger and more active clientele in recent years, but to date has failed. If HAL can't attract a younger crowd or families on a holiday sailing there is no hope. Fellow passengers tended to be fussy, easily agitated, and downright rude.
The broken Azipod meant that we could only spend 6 hours in Cabo San Lucas and our stays in Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta were also shortened. Incidentally, my wife and I chose this cruise out of San Diego versus a similar one out of Los Angeles due to the extra port time in Cabo when sailing from San Diego. Being that we live in Los Angeles it would have been much easier to sail from San Pedro. It was rather strange to look off the back of the ship and see a wake from only the starboard Azipod. There was no other consequence of the broken Azipod. Most disturbing is that unless one was savvy enough to read Cruise Critic posts or know a passenger on a recent Oosterdam sailing the broken Azipod would come as a surprise upon embarkation. HAL has known about this for months, but up until this point decided it would be best to fail to notify passengers in advance of this problem. I called the toll free HAL number just for kicks before the cruise for an update and was told the problem was fixed and not to worry! Many passengers were complaining as they made plans on their own for the whole day in Cabo San Lucas (golf, etc.) which had to be cancelled. Some passengers even complained of non-refundable deposits they made for tours which they would not be able to make. Shame on HAL for being purposefully negligent and failing to advise passengers in advance of this issue. Forewarned is forearmed and I'm sure many passengers would have appreciated advance notification. In fact, I'm willing to bet that very few if any passengers would have cancelled due to this issue, but it would have been courteous to be in the know. HAL's intentional cover up of this issue speaks volumes about the lack of integrity of this company, their disregard for honesty and lack of respect for its loyal passengers the very people whose success of the company can be attributed. Hats off to Hotel Manager James Deering who finally convinced corporate that covering up this problem is not the proper way to handle the situation. As of last week, HAL is now notifying passengers and travel agents in advance of the Azipod issue and the expected impact on their sailing.
The Late Arrival in San Diego was attributed to the inclement weather. We arrived after 10AM on Saturday, January 6th. The captain actually had the nerve to advise passengers that the strong winds and high seas delayed us. This was yet another lie to hide the truth. The truth is that we did have 35 knot winds, but only steaming forward on one Azipod made it impossible to overcome these conditions. The Diamond Princess left Cabo San Lucas the same time the Oosterdam did, but was bound for Los Angeles where she tied up dockside at 0630am on Saturday, January 6th. Keep in mind that Los Angeles is 100+ miles north of San Diego! Passengers on the Oosterdam were angry as they felt they were deceived and wanted only the truth. Many passengers had independent air arrangements which HAL said they were not accountable for changing. There was a lot of bad will and angry passengers on this ship.
Club HAL (the children's program) remains one of the best programs at sea according to my children. We usually feed my kids early at the Lido and then drop them for a few hours at Club HAL as they have no desire to sit through a 2 hour meal in the dining room. Quite frankly, it is the only time of day that my wife and I have time alone to ourselves and we value this time. Unfortunately, Club HAL does not open until 8pm making it difficult if not impossible to have any time for a before dinner drink or trip to the casino, shops, etc. Nonetheless, the counselors do a wonderful job and keep the children engaged. Hats off to this terrific program which my children rate a perfect 10!
The Neptune Lounge serves its purpose and provides suite passengers with a retreat whereby one can avoid the lines of the front desk as most shipboard passenger business can be taken care of here. The concierges were wonderful and very accommodating (Jun and Louise). However, the concierges are merely glorified front office staff who rotate and have little authority or power to make anything happen. The food and beverage presentations which are changed multiple times a day in the Neptune Lounge are a nice touch, but are merely fluff and pretty to look at. The best part of this lounge was the cappuccino/coffee machine which always provides a delicious cup of java.
Disembarkation was the most disorganized disaster we have ever experienced. I will leave it at that.
In summary, Holland America claims that they strive to provide passengers with A Tradition of Excellence. Unfortunately, the poor attitude of this ship's staff, pathetic and often non-existent service, deceptive practices, and horrible quality and presentation of the food made this Oosterdam cruise far less than excellent. My kids now refer to this ship as the Sewerdam. I would not recommend this ship. Twice now, Oosterdam does not fairly reflect our experiences on the other ships in the HAL fleet. I'm not sure what has gone wrong with Oosterdam, but she is definitely broken and I'm not just referring to the Azipod. Additionally, the upper management of HAL is clearly sleeping on the job. If HAL does not begin ingratiating their product to a younger generation they will find that their passenger base will quickly become extinct as these are passengers who became loyal many years ago when HAL was a different product. HAL is doing nothing progressive to win over my generation of cruise passengers. Royal Viking Line had a similar management philosophy and management drove that line into bankruptcy