From January 7-31, a friend and I spent 24 days aboard Holland America’s Westerdam on a Collectors Cruise to Mexico and Hawaii, followed, three land-days later, by a 15-day cruise through the Panama Canal aboard the Island Princess (February 3-18). Below are my thoughts about the two cruise lines.
It was apparent on all three cruises that, with the exception of some very weak and generally irrelevant lecturers (topics included the death of Marilyn Monroe and rich LA kids who killed their parents!!), both ships have virtually eliminated all their contracted passenger-activity providers (bridge directors, ballroom dance instructors, etc., even -- on the Princess -- religious personnel).
The difference between the two ships was that on Island Princess, Cruise Director Simone Smith and her highly visible and tireless staff (Greg, Hannah, DJ, in particular) made every effort to pick up the slack and provide activities for every fitness level. They offered Zumba, line dancing, ballroom dancing, martini-making demonstrations, sail-away parties, seemingly impromptu demonstrations, contests, and dancing in the Atrium, as well as many other passenger-participation activities.
On the Westerdam, on the other hand, the cruise director and her staff were not a highly visible presence on the ship. Physical activities for passengers were virtually non-existent. There was only one free exercise (abs) class a day -- at 7 am. In fact, there were very few activities that didn't either cost money (yoga, speed cycling, bingo) or were geared toward making money (the casino, art and jewelry sales). There were no sail-away parties to speak of. (Really? They can't start a 17-day cruise to Hawaii by handing out a few leis and offering a discounted tropical drink? There was neither live music nor a photographer nor a single member of the cruise director's staff on deck for the sail-away, although there were a few munchies.) In my opinion, the Westerdam staff consistently failed to engage the mentally and physically active 60-70 somethings (and younger) aboard the ship, most of whom probably preferred to balance the excessive eating and drinking on board with some actual physical activity. This was particularly inexcusable on the cruise to Hawaii, which included 10 cool and cloudy sea days that were not conducive to lying by the pool or swimming.
Island Princess formal entertainment was also terrific. The in-house shows were Broadway worthy, the in-house musicians were first rate, and the contracted musicians, magicians, comedians, etc. were excellent. Each of the contracted performers also performed one night in one of the lounges in addition to his/her performance in the main theater. This gave passengers who'd missed the first show a second chance to see the performer and also increased the nightly entertainment options. I'm not sure why every ship doesn't do that. Clearly, Island Princess has an exceptional entertainment director and staff as well!
Some other comparisons between the Westerdam and Island Princess:
The Westerdam had better tasting food in the dining room. Island Princess had a greater variety of dinner selections in the buffet. I loved the salad and taco bars and the burger shop on the Westerdam. The specialty restaurants on the Westerdam were much better than those on the Island Princess. Overall, the Westerdam won in the food categories, although both ships could benefit from offering true low-cal options.
The Westerdam room stewards knew our schedule our second day on board and took care of our rooms without us ever seeing them. Also we got the traditional towel animals along with our chocolates every night. Island Princess room stewards were very nice, but required us to put the Please Refresh Room card in the door when we left the cabin, morning and evening. They never did figure out our schedule. And no towel animals were left with our chocolates : ( Neither was a big deal, just worth noting the different attitude toward customer care.)
The dining staff on the Westerdam was better. Island Princess clearly required their dining staff to push purchases of specialty drinks and wine tastings, which often seemed intrusive. Also one evening on Island Princess, we were refused a new bottle of wine from our wine package because we had left our punch card in our cabin. (Did they think we were going to jump ship?) The Westerdam wine steward kept track of our wine packages in the dining room and didn't require us to carry a punch card. (Again a minor but telling difference in attitude toward passenger comfort.)
The gym on the Westerdam was much bigger and more attractive that the one on Island Princess (which is a good thing since the Westerdam provides few other options to stay fit on this 24-day eating and drinking binge). Island Princess also has blocked off the back of its Promenade Deck to offer more balcony cabins, which means the only way to actually "promenade" around the deck is to cut through the back of the ship. I don't know about the Westerdam's Promenade Deck. I used the treadmill in the gym on that ship.
Island Princess has a large movie screen over the outdoor pool, showing movies and concerts during the day, and fairly recent popular movies (with free popcorn!) around 9 pm every night. The Westerdam does not have a movie screen on deck – although it is due for an upgrade this spring. Not sure what that will entail.
So, the Westerdam actually beat out the Island Princess in several categories that may matter to you. (Although the differences in those categories were minimal.) But the bottom line for me is that I was bored to tears during the many sea days on the Westerdam and do not intend to ever again choose to cruise on HAL, which I believe is in danger of losing an entire generation of future passengers by catering exclusively to their current very elderly and sedentary passenger base. I had a great time on Island Princess because of the very hard work of the cruise director and her staff and the entertainment director and his staff. I'd be happy to sail on Princess again.