We cruise often, and usually during the holidays. We're all 3-star HAL Mariners, even our 9 year old. We're in our 40's; husband's parents in their 60's. We've also cruised Celebrity 3 times, and ... Read More
We cruise often, and usually during the holidays. We're all 3-star HAL Mariners, even our 9 year old. We're in our 40's; husband's parents in their 60's. We've also cruised Celebrity 3 times, and Princess 3 times (in-laws have cruised Princess 5-6 times) and RCCL a few times as well. But most of our cruising is with Holland America. We prefer mid-size/smaller ships. We booked this cruise VERY last minute, directly with HAL, therefore we were wait-listed for everything: dining, upgrades and even getting a cabin on the ship in the first place. We ended up with a Cat. B Vista Suite and my in-laws got the smaller Cat VQ Spa Verandah, both on Deck 9, Verandah Deck.
(I will be making a lot of comparisons to Princess in the review because we have cruised most recently with Princess. We were considering switching from HAL to Princess as our preferred cruise line after we had a disappointing experience with HAL, not with an actual cruise, but with how a future cruise deposit was mishandled by the corporate office. HAL eventually made us whole on the issue, and we weren't completely swept off our feet with our Princess experiences, therefore we'll cruise either line now depending on price & itinerary)
Embarkation and disembarkation in San Diego was easy, quick and efficient. We live in Los Angeles, and we drove down on the morning of embarkation, parked (pre-paid parking online) at the Wyndham (formerly a Holiday Inn) across the street from terminal for $65 for the entire week. My in-laws had flown in from Canada a day or so earlier and had stayed at that same hotel. They were very pleased with their room there. I think we were on the ship by 11am, well in time for the Mariner's Welcome Lunch in the dining room.
This is our 2nd time on the Veendam. We did a Bermuda cruise on this ship, summer 2010. We really enjoyed that cruise, and thought the ship was in good shape then, but they've spiffed up the soft goods (carpet, upholstery, window treatments, etc.) even since that cruise. They also improved the one thing we didn't like about the ship in 2010 -- that silly "retreat" thing. Remember when HAL had that really bad, and thankfully short-lived idea to replace all of the aft pools with that retreat concept? Which was basically some loungers standing in 3 inches of water and some other poorly executed water features? I think they were trying to compete with RCCL's H20 zone, and HAL really missed the mark on that one. Anyway, it is still called "the retreat" on the Veendam but it is now two large hot-tubs and two plunge pools. We'd still prefer another pool, but this is much, much better than their first retreat concept. At first, I thought I was confusing the Veendam with another ship, but I pulled up our Bermuda cruise pix on my Flickr account, and sure enough, the Veendam aft "retreat" in summer 2010 looked entirely different, even the tiling is a different color. The outdoor teen Oasis area above the kids club appeared to be closed for the entire cruise. We have a tween, therefore this really didn't affect us, but if she were a teen, she would have been really disappointed. She has cruised HAL many times, and is really looking forward to the day she is able to use the Oasis. Our cabins were forward, but I noticed a slight sewer smell on the stateroom decks towards the rear of the ship. They placed long auxiliary dining tables perpendicular to one side of the pool on embarkation day; we've seen that before but usually it's temporary for embarkation dining or later on in the cruise for a BBQ. But they remained there for the entire cruise, and that not only displaced loungers by the ship's only real pool, but it also compromised the ambiance of the pool area. But the ship was in amazing shape, especially for an 18 year old ship!
We had B123, which is a Vista Suite forward. Our cabin was almost perfect, except that it was rather creaky while sailing. That was the ONLY thing in the entire cruise that revealed the ship's age. The first night was really noisy and kept us awake. But then we either got used to it, or it wasn't as noisy later on in the cruise. The cabin was spotless, and the carpet and other soft goods in the room looked brand new. Our steward was very pleasant and took good care of us. Plenty of room and storage for the three of us. Although my daughter, who has slept in many cruise ship sofa beds, said this sofa bed was the most uncomfortable one. We really like the verandahs on HAL much better than Princess. HAL's teak flooring looks more upscale than the blue rubber matting on Princess. But what really makes a difference is that HAL's decks are far more private than what we have experienced on Princess. My in-laws had the smaller VQ Spa Verandah, room 106. They had a recurring problem with brown water coming out of the sink, shower and tub. This happened several times throughout the cruise, and they never seemed to get it fixed. We had smokers next to us who smoked on their verandah often, as they are allowed to do on HAL. In theory, smoking in not allowed on Princess verandahs, but they do it anyway.
The food in general was better than we have experienced on our most recent HAL cruises. We try to take as many meals as possible in the dining room, including breakfast lunch. We like set dining, late, but since we booked the cruise last minute, we got "any time" dining, which we do not like at all. At the Mariner's Welcome lunch on embarkation day, my mother-in-law asked the maitre d' about providing us with a standing reservation at the same table around 8pm, but he said he couldn't do it. Later on, I happened to stumble upon Fauzi, who was at the pool and taking dinner reservations. I really think Fauzi made this cruise for us and restored our faith and loyalty in HAL. I explained to him that we liked traditional, set dining, with the same table and waiters every night, and this was very important to our family's overall cruise experience. And he made it happen! (With the exception of one night, which was partly our fault because we were late) He was also our waiter, along with his assistant Yo and Madonna the sommelier, and those three really made this cruise for us. We enjoyed everything we ate in the dining room. It's not Michelin star-rated cuisine, but it is really good. Also, we did have a few meals in the Lido, and the pastas were the best and the sushi isn't bad for a cruise ship. We had one lunch in the Pinnacle, and it was very good. I had the crab cakes.
Our 9 year old daughter went to the Kids Club every night and enjoyed it very much. She is a seasoned cruiser, and gives Princess a slight edge on Kids Club, but she really enjoyed the activities on the Veendam. This was her first HAL cruise in the tweens program. Also, HAL had no children's books in the library (Princess has a nice selection of books for young readers.) We were told that the kids books were in the Kids Club, but my daughter said it was baby books and Harry Potter and nothing else. Not a big deal; we'll just remember to bring more books for her on our next cruise. We're an interfaith family, and we appreciated that HAL had both Christmas and Hanukkah services/activities onboard. We even had a Rabbi to lead services. Santa visited the Showroom on Xmas Day. As I mentioned previously, the teen outdoor Oasis was closed for the entire cruise, but they did have their indoor Loft space.
Overall, very good entertainment on this ship. There were more actual vocalists in the cast than I was expecting for a ship this small. The first night was a short show that gave us a preview of all of the entertainment around the ship. Second night was the Bob Mackie Broadway tribute which we've seen on other HAL ships, but it holds up. Third night was a magician that was just OK. One night was there was a show called (I think) Encore, which primarily features just two of the vocalists and it was AMAZING. We usually had our pre-dinner cocktails in the Ocean Bar or Explorer's Lounge around 7:45pm, and it seemed that our timing was bad as the entertainers always went on dinner break shortly after we arrived. However, what we did hear in the Ocean Bar was good and the Adagio (classical violin and piano) duo on the Explorer's Lounge was exceptional.
This was our 3rd Mexican Riviera cruise, and I have been reluctant to get off the ship (except in Cabo) because of all of the reports of incidents with cruise passengers in the other Mexican ports. My husband doesn't share my feelings and always gets off the ship and usually schedules his own private surfing or diving excursions. This year, I vowed to my family that I would make an effort to get off at every port. We did our usual in Cabo: Tender into the marina, then take a water taxi over to Mendano Beach, walk down the beach past the loud party spots and post up in front of the Pueblo Bonita resort. It's just a day at the beach, and that's fine with us. Mazatlan was a delightful surprise. There's a huge ex-pat (Americans, Canadians) community there who have organized as a volunteer group with the goal of making cruisers and other tourists feel welcome, informed and safe. They greet the cruise ships passengers with maps and are available to answer questions. We walked from the ship to the town center that was very charming, and then walked out to the beach area where the cliff divers are. In Puerto Vallarta, my husband went surfing and my daughter, my in-laws and I took a taxi into town. We walked around, went into a few shops and also visited the Cathedral. We ended up at a restaurant (The Blue Shrimp) on the Playa de Los Muertos for some beers, snacks and wi-fi. I feel a lot better about ports in Mexico now, and I'm also inspired to brush up on my Spanish.
I think service, in general, was better on this ship than our most recent HAL cruises. However, if you needed anything, you have to go to the front desk where there was never a line and everything was dealt with efficiently and satisfactorily. But they never, ever answered the phone extension # that is for service or questions.
I purchased the thermal chair package for my husband and me ($149) during open house on embarkation day. Because there are only 5 chairs, and the ship was completely sold out, I was skeptical about being able to actually use them. The spa manager assured me that I wouldn't have any problems with availability since they sold only 20 "passes" per cruise. Technically that may be true, but you also have to account for the people who are having spa services done at any given time as they have access to the thermal chair suite and there are other types of packages that include access. And then there are those tacky passengers who buy one pass but then let their entire family in and camp out there for hours on end. The first time I tried to use the thermal chairs, the suite was packed. A family of 4, who were very open about the fact that they were sharing just one pass between them, was reserving all of the chairs, even if one of them went into the steam room for 20 minutes or so. HAL cannot prevent this behavior, of course, but they need to better about policing it. One of the steam rooms wasn't working. And the water jets in the hot tub NEVER worked for the entire cruise. When I asked, I was told it was just a hot tub, not a Jacuzzi. So why did it have the water jets? To be fair, every time my husband went, he had no problem getting a chair and I was also able to get a chair on subsequent visits, and the steam room was eventually repaired. My husband went every day and I went 3-4 times. I got a massage that was very good. Meant to go back for the hot stone massage but never got around to it. In summary, the spa is lovely and has a lot to offer but was understaffed. They needed more than one person on the front desk, checking people in, booking appts, etc. And they need to have some one checking in on the thermal suite to make sure everyone is in compliance with the rules.
I have been on nearly 20 cruises and never gotten seasick until this cruise. The weather wasn't bad (have sailed much rougher waters) but I got a mild case of nausea on our last (at sea) day. My mother-in-law, who is prone to seasickness, was violently ill for the last 30-36 hours SOLID of the cruise. Not sure why. Our cabins were pretty far forward, and we usually try to get aft or mid-ship. Not sure if that had anything to do with it. But it was definitely seasickness, as opposed to something viral, because we all felt better when we reached San Diego. Very limited on board duty free shopping in terms of cosmetics and fragrance but costume jewelry for days! Never a line at the Explorations Cafe for coffee, but it was more expensive than Princess' International Cafe, even with my 3-star Mariner discount. BE CAREFUL when signing up for the internet package. It's easy to accidentally sign up for a $250 plan when you didn't really mean to. They took it off of our bill and said that it happens a lot since they've switched platforms. I was impressed with the depth of the cruise director's staff for such a small ship. The Veendam has a full time librarian, a future cruise consultant, a port shopping expert, a port/location expert and others. And they always seemed to be available. And make sure you don't get the ship's little blue fabric laundry bag mixed up in your things and accidentally bring it home with you because they will charge you $15 just like it says on the bag. Believe me, a used dirty laundry bag from a cruise ship was not an intentional souvenir on our part! The captain was approachable and very visible.
We cruise often and none of these minor shortcomings I mentioned here had a significant impact on our overall enjoyment of the cruise. The crew on this ship really had it together both in service and operations. Ran like a top. It was a lovely cruise, and we're definitely keeping HAL in our future cruising options.