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Westerdam Cruise Review
4.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating
1,099 Reviews

Great people but lacking educational component

Westerdam Cruise Review by TravelDreamer75

3 people found this helpful
Trip Details
  • Sail Date: Dec 2019
  • Destination: Asia
  • Cabin Type: Standard Interior Stateroom

This was my second HAL cruise, and I have to say from the top my biggest disappointment was that there were no Educational lectures like I had my first cruise. If this is not a regular HAL experience, I apologize, but my first cruise had college professors in Geology and History that packed the theater with their amazing quality. We also had short language classes before ports to practice how to say hello and thank you. I started to tell people that HAL was "cruising for smart people". I asked several HAL veterans on board and they told me that what I experienced the first time is the norm. When asking the crew on the Westerdam about this, I had several different responses. One was that "HAL has changed", another said, "We had professors booked but because of the holidays they cancelled". I was really disappointed to find out that I would not be learning much history or language basics which would have been awesome for this itinerary.

I was on the Westerdam for 28 nights- Hong Kong north to China/ Japan/ Taiwan then from Hong Kong to Singapore via Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. This itinerary is fascinating, though it became tiresome toward the end, mostly because these ports are often far from the main sites and involved a daily haggling with taxi drivers that is perpetually a pain in the butt. In the few ports that we could walk off the ship into an actual town, they became most people's favorites. Independence and simplicity leads to more exploration and happiness.

My favorite part of the ship would be the people. The "Cruise Director" now called "EXC something", was a very friendly and informative host named Jeremy who gave the port talks to a packed audience and was great at this. He also hosted a book club which was nice, but HAL has screwed this up by calling it "Oprah's Reading Room" which is not at all obvious that it is a book club discussion. My first 2 weeks I just happened to see it because I wanted a quiet place to read, and so I joined for the 2nd 2 weeks and only 2 passengers showed up for the discussion.

The other gem is Phil the "EXC Port Specialist". He does not sell tours, he knows nothing about them, but if you want to know the cost of a taxi, or the walking distance to a temple, this guy knows it all. He had a desk that people would gather around, and it was awesome just to stand around listening to the questions so you could make your own plans. Thanks to Jeremy and Phil, I did all of my port excursions on my own except for 1 tour (and that was a disappointment and waste of money).

Julie, was another stand out for me, I am not sure of her title, but she was there for each ports disembarkation and was the organizer and boss, I really liked someone taking control and making sure people were in the correct queue, had their ID ready. We needed that.

The captain, Vincent Smit was present in a good way- not just social but if there seemed to be a problem he made his presence made. One example I have- in Nga Trang we had to tender to our port. He was concerned about possible winds and made that very clear the day before, and he was by the tenders making sure of the weather. Unfortunately I was on the first tender to shore and the tide was low, making the departing step extremely high (imagine doing a lunge to the step and then limbo your head under the roof of the tender). Every person was able to make this step with assistance but because I have a disability, it seemed very dangerous for me to attempt it with crew who did not know my strength. I went back to ship, not angry because my disability always leaves a possibility for me to miss out, but when the captain saw I had returned he seemed upset and asked me what happened. He explained that the port is responsible for the dock and he has asked for a floating dock which would not change with the tides, but it has not happened. He then showed me the tidal charts and explained the best time to go (waiting 3 hours), but I decided not to risk it.

The entertainment for this cruise was just so-so. I think it is because there are not as many options in Asia and there isn't the chance of new blood at each port. We did have an amazing female pianist that was so good that I cried to think she was wasting her talent on cruise ships. But, we also had a "mentalist" so bad that I groaned when I saw he was returning another night! Overall, this is the first cruise I've been on that I skipped the theater a few nights- not just the poor entertainment but also the crowd who thought that heavy perfume and talking the entire show was acceptable. I know companies don't want to upset people, but for health reasons we could ban perfume just like public smoking. All that coughing in the theater would decrease.

I loved BB Blues Club- the talent on that stage was incredible. I guess if there was one complaint it was that the songs get repeated less- I went as often as I could in 28 days, and the same songs would repeat every 2 days or so. Loved Billboard's Dueling Pianos- super talented duo that put on a great show. The Lincoln Center was nice, but I was not overwhelmed with their talent. America's Test Kitchen I never went- seems like you could just watch food network with your time.

Food- the dining room was above and beyond for me. Great staff, lots of options, and quality. I am a foodie and was impressed, and also happy that it was not overly salted like some cruises. The burger place by the pool was also very good. The Lido was disappointing as far as quality and compared to my last Rotterdam experience, but it was fine because I rarely went, and must have been good enough for the general hoardes because it was often packed.

Tours. I took one and was not happy. First, the tour desk people were not very educated about what they were selling. They had not taken the tours themselves so they would call a guide for questions. I booked my one tour online, it was listed as "Easy", but later I happened to be at their desk and saw that the tour was listed as "moderate". When I asked, they said, "Oh, always look at the book, it is the most accurate." They then clarified with the guide that the tour was listed as moderate because it was 7 hours long (lots of bus time), and we would have to get on and off the bus 4 times, but the total walking was less than 1 mile. So, I went, but had 2 falls. I have been to Cambodia before and I am aware of the primitive conditions, but I did not expect a HAL tour to go into a market with uneven tiles that flipped when you walked on them or to walk us along the shoulder of a highway as trucks zoomed by inches away. The tour was chaotic with 1 guide for a bus load of people as we navigated the busy market and later a little village. We had a nice lunch but paid $270 for this day.

Holidays- this was a Christmas and NYE cruise and I was really impressed with these events. There was a Santa day for the kids, we sang Carols by the tree one day, decorations throughout the ship were very festive, and the dinners and special treats were great. I know one person here complained about New Years. NYE was a port day- overnight in Bangkok which a lot of people took advantage of. I was back on the ship for dinner- a very nice one- and I will admit that after dinner there was a slight lack of entertainment. But, that is all understandable given that the entire ship was involved in a show that started at 11 and went well into the early morning. Up on the top deck the BB King Blues Band played an excellent set. The captain, officers, and their families were there and the crew put a great effort into making an ice display, handed out free champagne, and there was a special buffet in the Lido. I was impressed! I expected a 1/2 glass of free champagne but was instead offered several refills. The music, the decor, the happiness of everyone around was very special. If anyone says there wasn't entertainment, it was because they went to bed early!

Overall the ship was nice, though a little old. My inside cabin was one of the smaller cabins I have been in for a while. But, the Westerdam makes it up with such pleasant crew and cleanliness. I know I made a choice in choosing the cheapest cabin, and I guess I have been a bit spoiled by getting upgraded by other cruise lines, so I can't complain.

Overall, I would choose this ship for sure- mostly because of the live music options. But, I would only choose HAL over other lines in the future if I am sure that the educational component is back.


TravelDreamer75's Full Rating Summary
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Cabin Review

Standard Interior Stateroom

Small compared to other ships I have been on. Besides the bed, there was a small desk where the TV is, and then a table in the corner without a chair. The closet space was more than abundant for me. Bathroom felt large though it had a shower curtain which I think adds space.

Noise was minimal in this cabin- only a few times did I hear people next door. The curtain by the closets kept hallway noise down really well.


Port & Shore Excursion Reviews

Hong Kong

I spent 5 days in Hong Kong prior to the cruise and I loved it. My favorite was the day spent at the Big Buddha, going up the Ngong Ping Cable Car. I did a 2 day HoHo bus that was decent and this included Victoria Peak which I recommend even though the mall-like setting at the top was disconcerting. The port itself is not well connected via public transportation which is a shame because the MRT is such a great way to get around. Because of the protests, taxis were hard to come by, so while I took an Uber to get to the port for embarkation, I did not end up leaving the port when we returned for 1 day.

Xiamen

Loved this port! I did not take an excursion, there was not even one offered for what I did. As soon as we docked, I disembarked, walked 2 minutes to the ferry desk and went to Gulangyu Island. It was a magical day of walking around in a lush beautiful place without cars. It was a little strange not having google maps to guide me (China) but the island is small enough to not get lost.

Shanghai

My disappointment was with the shuttle offered by HAL. The cost of it was just about the price of a taxi one way- so if you shared with others it was better to taxi. However, in Shanghai the taxis also tried to cheat you if leaving the port. Also, the HAL shuttle hours were ridiculous. We were there overnight, and the last shuttle was at 430pm. Which meant that people missed out on the colorful night time lighting of the Bund, which was a highlight for me. Without a tour I felt like I saw a lot and it was great not being in a large group. Walking the Bund in day and night was the best, then Yu Garden, then Shanghai Museum. Wandering little streets and eating dumplings with locals, that's the fun stuff!

Taipei (Keelung)

I loved that this port had a great location- just across the street was the train station that could take you to Taipei. Super easy, don't take a tour! I would have liked to go to Jeifun for the day, but there was no excursion there, and taxis were spendy. Taipei was interesting, I went to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and that was gorgeous. Otherwise I wandered into the old town of Taipei, used the easy metro to get around. The only hard part was making sure I got the correct train back to port, and the ship left early in the afternoon, which was disappointing.

Manila

I don't know, I think HAL could skip this port. They hype it up saying that most of the crew are coming here to visit their family and meet their babies, etc. That is nice, but for those of us getting off the ship it was not too pleasant. It was super hot, even as I was the first to walk off the ship, then the walk to the old town involved a dirty and uneven trip through the port, and then being harassed by beggers and tuk-tuks for the 30 minute walk to town. Locals were friendly, but persistent. Intramuros had some nice parts- I enjoyed the fort, but I didn't expect the rest of it to be jam packed full of beeping cars with no sidewalks. The old buildings were few and not too exciting (including the cathedral). The highlight for most of us, sadly, was "The Manila Hotel" which was an oasis of AC, pretty decor, decent food, and slow Wifi. I felt like the whole ship was there, including the crew. It was a bit too crowded honestly, with people slumped everywhere leaching wifi. But, I got a table with lunch and it was relaxing.

Halong Bay

I had been to Halong Bay before and took an overnight junk trip, so I had decided not to take a boat ride unless weather conditions were good. It was sprinkling a little when we docked, pretty cloudy so I decided to wait until afternoon to see how the weather changed. I took a taxi into the town of Hong Gai, across the bridge and I really enjoyed my time there. Went to the local wet market and since I beat the tour groups I wandered around looking at the interesting foods without crowds. Went to the adjacent mall for coffee, and then to the Provincial Museum. This museum was really nice except that it closed for lunch so I was a bit rushed. The historical parts upstairs were interesting, but I totally did not expect a lesson on coal mines and walk through a reproduction! The museum cafe was disappointing for lunch- my salad rolls included some still frozen meat so I sent it back and walked away. The port building itself is very nice with an awesome coffee shop run by a local who roasts his own beans and loved to teach people about Vietnamese coffee. Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that by noon, the afternoon boat trips were either sold out or maybe they cancelled some because of cloudy conditions, but after talking to other people, I think the sailing in and out of this port from the cruise ship was enough to catch the beauty of this area. Just get up early to do it!

Da Nang

I hired a local driver for this port. The first day we drove to Hue- 2.5 hours north- and he took me around to the historical sites. Hue was the capital of Vietnam in the past, and despite the destruction during the war, the citadel is really great to see. I think because it includes some nice gardens and the some of the buildings have a classic beauty, it made for a nice day, though I probably did not get as much as I could out of it without a guide. I also visited the "Royal tombs" which were basically nice parks to walk around in. In the evening I visited DaNang to see the Cathedral, market, and then river promenade where the Dragon Bridge is.

Day 2 I went to BaNa Hills, famous for the Golden Hands Bridge. The bridge is indeed spectacular, but I had no idea the rest of the place was a bizarre Korean theme park with most of it replicating famous French castles and buildings. There aren't that many rides for families, but if you want to walk through a fake Notre Dame, ride some very nice cable cars, and then just scratch your head at the bizzareness of this place... it was entertaining but eventually the fakeness and selfie-posers get to you.

I will say that I later returned to Danang to spend a few days and nights in Hoi An- this should be everyone's top pick. It is the cutest little place. If only it wasn't full of tourists...

and MyKhe beach- a pretty place, I spent a few nights here but the town itself was a strange ghost town, the restaurants and night life are better in DaNang.

Nha Trang

I could not get off of the tender boat because at low tide dock was 1 meter higher than the boat. It is a shame that this is now a tender port because of the construction of a cable car. I am sure most people were able to get off of the tender but I didn't want to take the risk especially since winds were an issue that day- the tendering was very slow in general- and huge lines later formed to get back to the ship. Our captain pointed out that the dock was the responsibility of the port, and he had asked them to build a floating one to avoid this issue. If you can limbo at the same time as stepping up 1 meter, you could get off during this time!

I will start by saying I love Cambodia, I have been several places in the country before, but this port should be knocked off the list until conditions change. The town of Sihanoukville is a construction zone that is unsafe and unappealing. It is being destroyed by Chinese casinos. I knew this and decided to take an excursion to Kep, I love the country side of Cambodia and wanted to see this. The roads in this part of the country are horrible- even outside of Sihanoukville. I enjoyed one stop at a local temple and school- very basic but it was nice to see the playing children and see what temple life is like for a few monks and elderly that stay there. Next we went to a market which was nice but it was so hard to keep an entire busload of people together and hear our guide without audiodevices. The condition of the ground at the market was horrible- broken tiles on top of rubble so one flipped over and I fell in the middle of the fishy muck. Our lunch nearby was very nice, sitting by the beach watching fisherman as we were given like 20 dishes to try- so amazing, and they seemed to somehow accomodate our busload of allergies and food preferences. The last part of the trip involved walking on the tiny shoulder of the highway as trucks zoomed past our heads inches away as we explored a fishing village. The amount of dried and decaying fish and shrimp was so overwhelming to the nose that I can't say anyone enjoyed it, I am just glad no one got injured on the road. Our guide was very friendly and you could see he loved his country and educated us as much as possible.

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Bangkok (Laem Chabang)

I had been to Bangkok recently, so I didn't want to take the trek there and be in a hurry. I had not been to Pattaya so I concentrated on this area. My big disappointment with this port was the location and transportation options. It took almost 2 hours to get to Pattaya the first day (it was New Years Eve, so maybe more traffic), and it was slow and painful. I took a bus that is sponsored by a mall, and it was 1/4 the price of HAL's shuttle which also came back to the ship really early for an overnight stay (last shuttle at 430). This bus wasn't so bad, it had AC and it placed us right in the middle of Pattaya's shopping and beach area. So, from there, I had ideas of going to the Sanctuary of Truth, to the Floating Market, to the Nong Nooch Gardens. I was on the first shuttle, then had to buy a SIM card, and after that I took a Grab taxi to the Sanctuary of Truth (bought a ticket on Klook and saved some money). This stop was amazing, I really enjoyed it. The staff there was super nice, they saw that I walked with a cane and had a driver take me down the hill to the temple and dropped me off right at the little temple elevator- which was super cute and made of wood. I didn't take a guided tour, but just walked around the temple inside and out, there were staff members that liked to point out things, educate me about the place. From the covered cafe I watched the poor elephants taking tourists around, and had some coffee. Then, I realized by checking taxi times, etc, that I really did not have time in the day to be able to see any other hot spots and then getting back to the shuttle in time (530 was the last mall shuttle). Traffic here is so bad, and the Grab price back to the ship was $50. So, i spent the rest of the afternoon walking the beach in Pattaya, looking at stores. The second day I just didn't feel I was up to the hassle of the shuttle then taxi plan. So, I guess if there is a place at this port you really want to go to, consider an excursion, or just don't set your heights too high on seeing much if you want to take the shuttle. Otherwise, if you have seen one Thai beach town, you have seen them all, Pattaya town could just be Phuket for all I could tell.

Koh Samui

by this point in the cruise, I was tired of negotiating taxis, public transport, and the idea of a giant bus excursion didn't sound nice.

So, I tendered to shore first thing possible and while the town was waking up I sat on a tiny beach next to the hectic port and watched the birds and little beach crabs for a while. Then I found a coffee shop to chill at. I walked through town past the usual "same-same" of souvenirs and clothing and did find a cute temple that I enjoyed. It was a Hainan shrine and interestingly, the local policemen came here to ask for protection. While sitting outside of the shrine watching a rooster and a cat taunt each other a local explained this to me.

I walked back through town and found a pleasant place to have some delicious mango sticky rice and a smoothie. Very laid back and chill, just what I needed for this day. To make me smile even more, when I got back to the tender port, the Westerdam crew was handing out ice cream to help us keep cool. Very sweet. I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon watching a storm pass over the tropical island.


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TravelDreamer75
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