Our 32-day Inca Explorer cruise from San Diego to Lima and return was a mixed bag of pleasure and frustration. The M/S Amsterdam, one of Holland America’s older, smaller ships, is generally well maintained and quite attractive. Built before balcony cabins were the vogue, she has many inside and outside cabins, most small but sufficient in size, and, I believe, most all with actual bathtubs, and quite large closet spaces. She is used primarily for extended voyages, and her 1200-passenger capacity is appropriate for such voyages.
Previous reviews of the Amsterdam have highlighted the spotty dining room service and unexceptional food quality. Our experience suggested that these criticisms were generally valid, although a few dinners were excellent.
While our waiter and busboy were attentive, caring and hardworking, there was little doubt that Holland America has purposely understaffed their main dining room: the wait staff had too many tables to serve properly, and the food when finally delivered was frequently not hot. Since dinner commences at specific times, there is no escaping the bottlenecks of essentially all guests at any one of the two seatings arriving, being seated, being handed their menus and then ordering, each activity occurring at the same time. Our small group of six friends travelling together frequently waited as long as 15 minutes after ordering before our appetizers were served. One evening, my wife and I dined alone while our friends went to the Pinnacle Grille. We were the (lucky) first of our waiter’s responsibilities to be given our menus, first to have our orders taken, and first to be served each course. Our service that evening was prompt and our food served at appropriate temperatures, indicating that our assumption that the wait staff was overburdened was a correct one.
The inadequate wait-staffing in the main dining room was evidenced also in connection with the ordering and serving of alcoholic beverages. Wine stewards – no sommeliers here – were scarce: only two for our upper-level floor of the Fontaine Dining Room. While we were ultimately served, and with gracious smiles and helpful suggestions from the just-OK wine list, service was slow.
The specialty restaurants, however, were excellent, the three times we tried them. The Pinnacle Grille is quiet and dignified without being stuffy. The food, and the food and beverage service were superb. Their menu also does not stint; at the $29 per person surcharge, this is a bargain. The wine list is reasonable, both in price and quality, though they claimed not to have a low-cost but excellent Shiraz, which was readily available in the main dining room. The Canaletto dining room is Italian, as one would expect, and provides good food and good service; another bargain a $10.00 per person.
Contrasting the spotty and, in our opinion, deficient, service in the dining room, the room steward and his assistant were exceptional. Our room was always spotless, and our request for ice to maintain my wife’s medication found a plentiful supply in our ice bucket at all times. Any special request was promptly complied with, and invariably with a smile. Our friends reported similar service, although one of the rooms experienced plumbing and air conditioning problems that defied permanent correction for several days – certainly not attributable to the room steward.
Breakfast service in the main dining room was inexplicably slow. On one occasion, when my wife was scheduled for a shore excursion departing 45 minutes from our being seated for breakfast, I requested expedited service. The maître d’ said OK, but cautioned against ordering anything hot, as “anything that must be cooked will take a lot of time.” Again, (it happened each time we ate there) when breakfast arrived, the supposedly freshly cooked items were just warm, suggesting that the main dining room venue was not a good idea for breakfast.
Service at most bars and cocktail lounges was good to excellent, at least in the venues we tried. Our favorite (my wife is most tolerant of my fascination with sports) was in the Sports Bar, where we were greeted by name after the first day, and where our beverage preferences were known and offered immediately as we arrived. Prices are reasonable, in my opinion, and I don’t begrudge the 15% service charge for all beverages.
Service in the Lido dining area – the buffet-like eatery common to almost all cruise ships – was good to excellent. Though the choices offered were mundane and repetitious from day to day, they were almost always of good quality, served graciously and always with a smile. The offerings were numerous in every category, an indication to me of Holland America’s desire to please their guests’ tastes and wants. That said, I have a personal dislike for their breakfast offerings of eggs (any style) and their pork-based breakfast meats: I found the scrambled or fried eggs and omelets to be inedible, and my suspicion is that this is a product of the oil that is used instead of butter. The poached eggs (as simply poached or as Eggs Benedict) were frequently overcooked – hard – as the server scrambled to get the English muffin toasted and the Canadian bacon grilled while the pre-poached eggs were heating. The bacon was either greasy or overcooked and crumbly – rarely was there a happy medium. The sausage links were never served hot and were almost always overdone, while the sausage patties were invariably greasy and not very tasty. I’d rather Holland America offer fewer choices cooked and served properly.
My experience with the ship-provided Internet service paralleled that of virtually every review I’ve read: simply horrible. Internet speed is ridiculously slow, so coupled with the exorbitant charges all cruise lines make for this service, it must be a prime source of income to the cruise lines, as well as being as aggravating as baggage charges are to airline passengers. With today’s technology, there is little excuse for the turtle-like slowness of Internet up- and down-loading speeds, but also little incentive for the cruise lines to address this irksome problem.
In my case, I wanted to return a group of books to Amazon from my Kindle Unlimited account, and download replacements. I purchased a block of 100 minutes of Internet time for $55.00 ($0.55/minute), then used 37 minutes to connect to Amazon and “return” 10 books while ordering 8 replacements. Since the shipboard system will not permit two devices using a single account to be logged on at the same time, I logged out, then attempted to log in using my Kindle Paperwhite: a frustrating experience, as the system and my Kindle said I was logged in, but the books I had “returned” still resided on the Kindle and none of the new books I had chosen were showing on the device. After struggling with this aberrant condition for some time, I gave up. I went to the ship’s Front Office to discuss my frustration, without receiving anything but commiseration: any unused Internet minutes are not refundable, and this was made quite clear when purchasing the service.
A day later, I decided to visit the ship’s Guest Relations Manager, to whom I related my Internet problem as well as advising of our discontent with the dining room service. My wife made clear our recognition that no corrective action could alleviate the dining room service issue, as Holland America’s ship’s dining room staff was fixed and unalterable at least for this cruise. However, we did want the line to understand that the service deficiency was noticeable and objectionable. The Guest Relations Manager was not just sympathetic, but took extensive notes about our two issues. A day later, I received a call in our stateroom, in which the Front Office person, after restating the “no refund” Internet policy, said that I would receive a 30% credit against my Internet charge, as the ship’s Internet service did not accommodate the Kindle Paperwhite or earlier Kindle models, but only the Kindle ‘Fire.’ I agreed to discontinue use of my remaining Internet minutes, and was at least partially satisfied that they took some responsibility for the problem.
At the same time, I must applaud the work and staff of the Front Office. On other cruise ships, the line of folks awaiting service was usually long, and waiting time stretched often to 30 minutes. Not so on the Amsterdam: rarely were there more than two people ahead of us, and the Front Office desk was staffed by no less than 2, and sometimes 3 or 4 people – all of whom were concerned, friendly and helpful in all but one case, as described above.
The entertainment aboard this smaller ship was excellent, in our opinion. The musicians were almost all universally superb – with but a single exception. The evening programs were varied, with marvelous dancers, talented singers, funny comedians and a truly exceptional musical group. Kudos go to and are deserved by the persons booking these acts and the shipboard musicians.
The itinerary was a bit puzzling: while one of the attributes of the M/S Amsterdam (and the Prinsendam, as well) is their ability to visit smaller ports than the larger ships require, a few of the ports left one wondering “why?” Only one port required tendering – a great relief – but the attractions at several are questionable in terms of general interest. At least this was our opinion. The 3-day visit to Lima was principally done to accommodate those wishing to visit Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but it also facilitated tours of the city and its wonderful museums.
One of the lesser-known facets of extended voyages on Holland America is their laundry and pressing “packages.” The $20/bag laundry service enables one to stuff a ship-provided pillowcase-like laundry bag with as much as it will hold, rather than paying a per-piece charge. When the laundry is returned, one can utilize the “unlimited pressing” service ($96 for the 32-day cruise) to have virtually anything pressed, including dress shirts, suits, tuxedos, dresses, etc. These packages are not widely advertised, and indeed, I found them only by perusing the Cruise Critic reviews of earlier M/S Amsterdam cruises. We found them to be convenient and money-saving services.
Value? We paid a little more than $100/day per person ($200+/day/couple) for our “larger” outside cabin. (Government taxes added about $400 per person, and third-party insurance added another $800 in total.) That provided about 216 sq.ft. of total living space in terms of accommodations, all the food one can eat, gym facilities, entertainment, numerous cocktail and sitting lounges, a well-stocked and spacious library, an Internet room, no-cost lectures, swimming and hot tub pools, sundecks and chaise lounges, and the ambiance of 4-star (my personal rating) living. Our friends elected to have balcony cabins, essentially the same size but with a small balcony (I’m not certain if the balcony reduced or added to the “living space” cabin size), for just over double the per-person cost. In addition, a “service fee” of $11.50 per day per person for the inside, outside and standard balcony cabins add significantly to the cost ($23/day or $700+ in total in our case). This fee provides tips for the room stewards (35%) and dining service personnel (35%), other service staff (30%), and has been increased as of December 1st by Holland America. Counting all these charges, our total cost for our 32-day cruise amounted to $7,724, or $241/day, or about 20% more than the advertised “stateroom” price. And, of course, that was before the optional extra costs of beverages, shore excursions, specialty dining, spa and salon services, etc., which are controlled by each guest’s personal taste and pocketbook.
A word about travel insurance: virtually all cruise lines offer travel insurance. Its purpose, of course, is to prevent significant loss resulting from such calamities as missed flights to the port of embarkation or medical conditions preventing a paid-for cruise from being taken. As with any other form of insurance, it pays to understand what coverage is being provided, as well as what reimbursement will be made in case of a covered loss. Some cruise lines will offer only replacement cruises instead of monetary compensation, which in many cases is insufficient to cover the actual monetary loss, and, of course, an unwanted burden for many. Several of the cruise-specific websites offer policies that do a far better job of protecting against monetary loss. It’s this writer’s experience that it really proved worthwhile and beneficial to have such a policy on a booked and paid-for cruise (not this one) when our airline cancelled its flight causing us to have to purchase next-day airline tickets at a substantially greater fare.
Almost all cruise lines make a significant amount of money from a number of ancillary and optional services and products. All, excepting those marketing the considerably more expensive truly all-inclusive fares, impose beverage charges for everything except water, tea or coffee, accompanied by a mandatory 15% service charge again ostensibly for bartender and service personnel tips. Significant charges also are made for spa and salon services, optional “specialty” dining rooms, shore excursions (more about that later), and shipboard store and art sales, not to mention the ubiquitous casino slots and games. Yes, many – even most, perhaps – of these services were in demand by a very large percentage of our shipmates, and that’s been our experience on the more than 20 cruises we have taken over the years. (The all-inclusive cruises fares offered by Seabourn, Silversea or Crystal are many times those of the “mid-range” lines such as Holland America, Princess or Celebrity, averaging about $400 to $500 per day per person. Those fares on those lines provide superior food, beverages and service, as should be expected.)
So, the question of value is in my estimation up to the individual. If one is accustomed to having wine with dinner, or a drink or two each day at cocktail hour, one will engender a substantial bill by cruise end for beverages. If a drink – or two – by the pool is de rigeur for a vacation experience, that bill will be greater. Spa services are expensive, more so than on land except for some of their specials or sales, and pampering has never been inexpensive. But, a cruise must be looked upon as a vacation, and vacation expenses are customarily greater – and are more easily accepted in my view – than daily living expenses at home.
Shore excursions are a separate matter, and one where significant savings can be obtained with a bit of pre-cruise work. The cruise lines all offer shore excursions – the all-inclusive lines sometimes including them in their expensive fares. For all the others, consider that most shore excursions can be purchased at discounts approximating 50% by using independent services. Note that these are all in the caveat emptor class: you are neither guaranteed quality nor punctuality. If you are late returning to the ship, it will almost certainly not wait for you. Given those facts, one can almost always find services that have received good reviews or recommendations, that will provide less expensive and just as rewarding experiences. The Internet abounds with websites offering such services, and, considering what cruise lines charge for the packages they offer, one can save considerable amounts of money.
In the cruise lines’ defense, they spend significant sums on finding, contracting and supporting the shore excursions they offer. Their brochures, the personnel to handle reservations and those charged with accompanying tours (even though these are additional duties for existing staff), and the myriad details involved in managing that business are all expensive and justify some recompense. In my view, however, the add-on margin is excessive. I suspect, however, that the popularity of these tours assures that these higher-than-necessary charges will continue, reflecting the desires of the customers for convenience; having someone else handle the details, and, as a consequence of the ship’s threatening message that it will not wait for tardy returnees.
Note that the average age of the guests on this cruise was an unsurprising 75+ (in our estimate). Very few families with children, and those with school-age kids were homeschooling them (I think 2 such families). We do wonder how the severely handicapped would fare in an emergency, but the ship's staff is supposedly well trained to cope wit such an issue.
Would we do this cruise again? This is the crux of the matter, of course, but I’m a bit ambivalent about giving a simple yes or no answer. It has been fun traveling with friends. We’ve done it before and would like to do it again. (If one can remain friends with the same people with whom you have met and dined for 32 days, they must be compatible!) The itinerary, as stated, left a bit to be desired, but cannot be considered a real negative. The food and dining room service could – and should – have been better (but we were forewarned about this by previous M/S Amsterdam reviews). The cost was moderate – fair, in my opinion – and certainly not a negative. So, my answer is a qualified yes, I would do it again. Having said that, I would definitely look at other offers, considering itinerary, cost and reviews, before re-booking the Amsterdam.
Good closet space, good bathroom (with tub!), excellent cabin stewards an cleanliness. Could have been a little bit more spacious.
Ports were good to average to "why?" in our opinion.
We separately booked a deep sea fishing trip which was excellent: great valu using Star Fleet!