Review of our Holland America Cruise on the Amsterdam from Dec. 2 to Dec. 23, 2009:
I will use a 1 to 6 star rating system to match the ratings generally used in the industry. Typically, 5 stars are assigned to premium cruise lines and 6 stars are reserved for the luxury cruise lines.
Food in the Main Dining Room (5 stars for the food, not the service); Executive Chef (Andreas Bruennet). Ingredients were excellent. Cooking: generally excellent. Fish dishes were superb; meats were generally tender. Sauces were varied and flavorful. Chef Bruennet was clearly very much on top of quality control in his kitchen.
Service in the Main Dining Room (3 stars). Quality of service was highly varied. Some waiters were quite friendly and attentive, whereas others were extremely slow and almost appeared to be serving us grudgingly. The primarily elderly passengers of HAL prefer to dine very early, starting at 5 PM. So, the lower floor of the main dining room, reserved for "As You Wish" diners, tended to be only 1/3 full by 8:30 PM. For diners such as ourselves who attended the 7 PM show and began dining at 8 PM, the dining atmosphere in the main dining room left much to be desired. Waiters were busy clearing tables and preparing to close up -- not a very hospitable atmosphere for the diners who were left behind. This "efficient," though ungracious behavior of waiters was also evident during lunch hours and gave the appearance that they simply could not wait to get out of there. At lunch, waiters would commence cleaning and clearing up the dining room around 1:15 PM and appeared not to care about diners who wanted to converse and enjoy a leisurely lunch. I think these attitudes of the wait staff are emblematic of HAL service culture that I would describe as first and foremost efficient and economical and only secondarily guest oriented.
Food, Buffet (2 stars): This was substantially inferior to the food in the main dining room. I would rate it as bordering on the inedible. I am not a fan of buffet fare, anyway, and skipped the main dishes and focused on salads. Salad ingredients were good; dressings were passable. Holland America needs to spend more money on ingredients and preparation of their buffet dishes, because they use port days as an excuse to close down the main dining room and the Pinnacle Grill for lunch, thus, leaving passengers very little choice of places for lunch. Once again, I would attribute the latter dining room/Pinnacle Grill closing policies of HAL on port days to their service culture that emphasizes efficiency and economy (including minimizing expenses), while sacrificing gracious and generous guest service.
Specialty Restaurant -- the Pinnacle Grill (4 stars): Pinnacle Chef Shawn McKerness prided himself on his excessive uses of butter, cream, and oils. He made this clear at one of his cooking demonstrations. Additionally, he claims he can taste differences among salts and consistently and grotesquely over-salted his foods. I was amazed to find a chef in this day and age to be so woefully obtuse regarding health considerations in cooking. For example, my carrot/ginger soup was 2/3 cream; my mushroom soup was 3/4 cream. My steaks were so over-salted I could not eat them. In essence Chef McKerness has taken the very fine, standardized recipes of the Pinnacle Grill (that we have enjoyed repeatedly on various HAL ships) and wrecked them. HAL needs to really get on top of this situation. Times are changing and the well-informed segments of the public require high quality cuisine without undue reliance on oils, butter, cream or salts.
Fellow Passengers (3 stars): I'd rate the socioeconomic standing of passengers as middle-class to upper-middle-class and somewhat lower than those we have encountered on Oceania, Azamara, or even Celebrity. Passengers on HAL tend to be elderly and probably have a mean (and median) age in excess of 70. From a practical standpoint, this means progress through the hallways or various travel lanes or waiting lines can be excruciatingly slow. However, we did meet quite a range and diversity of fellow passengers and tended to enjoy our interactions with them. The less healthy composition of elderly passengers may have contributed to an epidemic of GI virus on board the ship. During the last week of the cruise we were witness to, and unwilling recepients of, draconian measures by crew and staff who were trying to control this virus epidemic on board.
Entertainment (5 stars): The resident orchestra and the Rotterdam Singers and Dancers were outstanding. Lounge performers were of average quality (3.5 stars). Dance music supplied at the Oceans Bar was almost depressing in tempo and selections.
Excursions (3 stars): Pricy. One can easily do much better independently. Plus, in line with the HAL business- and money-oriented ethic, given a choice of ports, HAL will select the less attractive one within a radius of 20 miles to save on port charges and, quite possibly, to induce passengers to use their excursions to get out of these remote and inhospitable ports.
The closing of the main dining room and Pinnacle Grill for lunch on all port days is a very serious limitation. This is getting to be a trend with cruise lines (I suppose as part of their cost-saving efforts) and is a real negative for us. If you don't go ashore on a port day or choose to go off in the afternoon, there is little to do anyway on the ship and the buffet leaves much to be desired. When you write your comment cards, please be sure to request that at least a small portion of the main dining room be kept open for lunch on port days. Cruise lines do respond when passengers consistently state their preferences. If passengers begin demanding (via their comment cards), more options for food at lunch time, or more varied activities throughout the cruise, some of those demands will eventually be met.
Overall (4 stars), I think HAL is a good, but not a very good, cruise line. We now have cruised four times with HAL on four different ships. To use an alternative rating system, I'd give our first cruise with HAL on the Ryndam to Mexico a C+, our second cruise on the Zaandam to Hawaii a C, our third cruise on the Volendam an A (the high rating being largely due to an unusually warm and communicative captain and the itinerary on the Seattle to Auckland trip), and our fourth cruise on the Amsterdam a C+.
Value (4.5 stars): Value is the overall rating in the preceding paragraph divided by cost. I think HAL provides above average value.