I do my own cruise planning and read a lot of reviews of that specific cruise on that specific ship before purchasing a cruise. I observed that Niew Amsterdam and HAL in general get very mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some ... Read More
I do my own cruise planning and read a lot of reviews of that specific cruise on that specific ship before purchasing a cruise. I observed that Niew Amsterdam and HAL in general get very mixed reviews. Some people loved it, some did not for various reasons. It is my opinion that a lot of complaints are probably from people who didn’t do their homework and perhaps booked the wrong cruise for their tastes. This is often on them, not necessarily on the cruise line. Every new customer should know HAL is known as the “senior citizen” line and be OK with being left alone to read a book or entertain yourself at least a little bit. If you need someone else to entertain you constantly, pick another cruise line. My wife and I have done ten cruises on five different cruise lines (Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Holland America). This was our first cruise on HAL. I have never not enjoyed a cruise, even the worst one. Full disclosure: I am not a complainer, generally. I don’t expect everything to be perfectly to my liking anywhere where 2,100 passengers are being served. If I complain, it is going to be a legitimate complaint, not a small annoyance that passes. It is imperative to have a good time and complaining detracts from my own experience. Ratings are as much about expectations as they are about the actual experience, just like a marriage.
This cruise was the last Alaska cruise of the season for Niew Amsterdam. I chose that one so we could stay on the ship for its next cruise, a 5 day repositioning cruise from Vancouver to San Diego, avoiding a flight. Then we rented a car at the airport and did a 1 ½ hour drive home to Orange County and turned the car in at John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Santa Ana.
The Signature Suite price was not all that much more than a Verandah on this last cruise of the season, so for the first time we booked a Suite. We switched to a Verandah for the second repositioning cruise, which was serious cheap ($499), so got a back-to-back Suite vs Verandah comparison on HAL. See my review of Sept 30, 2017 repositioning cruise to San Diego for the cabin comparison.
We engaged in these sparingly. Went to a BBC screening that was interesting. Went to two of the Americas Test Kitchen live classes on “Meatless Mondays” and on different ways to prepare salmon which my wife was interested in. There were a lot of Microsoft Windows 10 classes. I went to the one on Windows “One Drive” and would have gone to more but was doing other things at the time. These were good to fill in those occasional gaps in the schedule when we had some spare time. Because these offerings were available I didn’t make any progress on the book I was reading on my Kindle, like I thought I would.
This was an unmitigated disaster! It was because 3 ships departed the same afternoon (about 10,000 passengers) and US customs was swamped. This inconvenience was not HAL fault, but US Customs and Vancouver facility limitations. However, HAL instructions were to “please arrive at least 3 hours prior to the ship’s departure time.” That would be 1:45 for 4:45 departure. That would put you in the heart of the customs logjam. Bad advice. On page 1 of the boarding pass document they said the embarkation process starts at noon. Since they gave us that instruction, we assumed it was not possible to arrive sooner, perhaps the HAL check-in desks might not yet be open and the ship had not yet been cleaned and prepped and we might have a long wait to get started (this happened to us in San Francisco once with a different cruise line). More bad advice. So we left our hotel around 11:30 for what the hotel clerk said should be about a 25 minute cab ride (the clerk used to work for a cruise line). Guess again, we arrived at 12:45 into a sea of humanity. A porter took our suitcases. We got on the ship at 4:00, over 3 hours not including the cab ride. Be sure to bring water. We were exhausted. We had a similar experience in 2012 when 3 ships were departing Vancouver. They have made one significant improvement since then. They have added three large seating areas so that when you have a very long wait, you are issued a sequence number and at least you can wait in a padded seat with a restroom nearby until your group number is called. Not so in 2012. First line was security check of all carry-on items, second line was HAL check-in, and third line was for US Customs. Customs was the problem. We talked to passengers onboard who arrived around 10AM and breezed through in an hour or so. Wish we had ignored HAL instructions and done that. But it would have been a risk as HAL check-in might not be open. If I ever cruise out of Vancouver again I will check how many ships are departing the same day and never again book a cruise with 3 ships departing the same afternoon. Or else arrive at 10AM. Might consider Seattle or another port. On the second leg of this trip, the repositioning cruise to San Diego, we were the only ship in port in Vancouver this time and customs clearance was a breeze. Yes, they made us get off the boat and go back through customs to re-board, but they escorted us with a crew member pass so it was pretty quick. They left our bags on the ship.
The ship was nice and in good condition. Public rooms were nicely appointed.
Our first suite experience (SS-6087) was appreciated. We loved the extra space and we filled it up easily. The bed was the best we have had on a cruise. We both have achy hips and a hard or bad mattress causes us to wake up repeatedly during the night to turn over to relieve hip pain. If an old person has to take Advil because of a mattress, that is a bad mattress. No Advil required. I’m not saying it was great, definitely not as good as our sleep number bed with a pillow top at home, but acceptable and the best on a cruise ship we have experienced. Normally when we first get to a room we look for the cabin attendant and request an egg crate foam layer be placed on top of the mattress as a pillow top. This is the first time we didn’t think that was necessary. Often the ships keep some of these egg crate foam pads and give them to the complainers, but they run out so it is imperative to complain early. The leather couch (sleeper) is the most uncomfortable piece of furniture I have ever sat on. Too deep and back straight up. It was necessary to pile pillows a certain way to be able to sit on it. Our biggest complaint about our Signature Suite is that the couch was right under the large wall mounted flat screen TV, so you could not watch TV from a comfortable (or uncomfortable) seating position. Only from bed or a desk chair just like an interior room. Lots of closet space. The bathroom had 2 sinks, a full size tub with Jacuzzi jets and shower head, and a separate shower stall. Suite!
Generally service was very good. There was only a couple of times when someone told me I couldn’t do what I want and delivered the message a little tersely, forgetting their training. Most went out of their way to be polite and friendly. Many of this ships employees were from Indonesia. The gals in the Tamarind were especially friendly. I think the dining room servers are friendlier for the fixed dining when you get the same servers every night and a mini-bond is formed. No bond with the server of the day.
Value for Money
Being the last Alaska cruise of the season the price was significantly lower than midsummer and the Signature Suite was not that much more than a Verandah on this cruise, which is why we went for it. We payed $2099 each for the 7 day cruise which is the most we have ever payed for 7 days, but we got to try a suite to see how the other half lives. Cruising in the fall is our secret for success. Few kids, lower prices, cooler weather and with HAL you avoid the frat party crowd puking over the balcony railing like they do on Carnival. We live in a desert so we have no aversion to foggy drizzly weather. Value for money was OK.
Main Dining Room
We requested fixed early dining which has always been our preference, but were wait listed and assigned open dining instead. On this cruise we started to like the open dining because of the flexibility, and we could still request to sit at a table for 6 to meet other passengers. They would accept reservations one day ahead, so we learned to figure out our evening itinerary, browse the menus, and book a reservation a day ahead. Then the wait to get seated was minimal. We figured if something came up and we didn’t show up it wouldn’t matter anyway, but that never happened. The food was generally good. Not the best we’ve experienced (Celebrity), but not the worst (Norwegian). Good, but no wow factor. The first night the meat was tough and I thought Oh Oh. But it was a one-off and the prime rib later in the cruise was surprisingly tender and juicy and things got better.
We had lunch and dinner here occasionally, never breakfast. Again, good. Not everything was great, but there was enough variety that if one was picky you could choose the dish you like and pass on the others. Keep pecking and you will find gold. Tip: The menu in all restaurants is shown on the TV daily, so we learned to see what was being served in the dining room and the Lido and then make a choice.
We only used room service for breakfast, but just a continental breakfast to get us started mornings. Just coffee and toast, and occasionally danish or fruit or yogurt. The full breakfast is not the way to go on room service unless you like overcooked scrambled eggs, which is the only way they serve them (true for every cruise we have been on). The breakfast was much better in the dining room; eggs cooked to order, pancakes & waffles etc. Much better for big breakfast eaters. Of course room service was no extra charge.
Poolside burgers, dogs and chicken sandwiches. I liked them, my wife was less enthusiastic.
New York Pizza
Back of the boat on the Lido deck. They will make your pizza to order and have a couple of decent salads. Covered outdoor seating next to a bar. If you want to take it to your room they will put it in a pizza box, just like delivery at home except the delivery boy is you. The pizza was – you guessed it – good.
Specialty Asian dining for $25 extra fee. The Indonesian servers were quite good and friendly. The food was good with some creative and unusual selections. For me it was not an extra $25 better than the main dining room so we didn’t return on the second cruise.
I had high expectations because of the $35 extra fee. Our experience was OK, it was a good meal but not worth the extra fee so we wouldn’t have considered going back.
I knew from pre-cruise reviews that this is where HAL and Niew Amsterdam get panned a lot. Accordingly we went in eyes wide open with low expectations in this area. There was good entertainment available at times, but I have to admit that compared to the other cruises we have done it didn’t measure up. But since this was not a priority for us we didn’t care that much. There were a couple of main stage shows that were enjoyable. The impressionist Tyler Bryce was extremely talented and funny and this was the best stage show. The comedian Mark Pitta was OK. Both were relatively clean, thankfully. There were no musical headliners like we had on almost every other cruise, so the other main stage shows were production number stuff. The performers sang and danced their hearts out for us but it’s a little underwhelming. In the lounges, BB King’s Blues Club were the only exceptional performances and this saved Niew Amsterdam’s entertainment rating as far as we were concerned. We went there about 7 out of the 12 nights (2 cruises back-to-back) to the point that I was actually getting tired of an exceptional group. It was the same group on both cruises. To their credit, each night they had new material and only started repeating numbers late in the cruise. The other lounge acts were just OK. Here is the skinny on in-room TV. There is a wide selection of on-demand movies. You can start anytime, pause, rewind, etc. The only live TV channels were BBC World News, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, ESPN and ESPN 2. Tip: If you put the TV on the front facing ship’s camera (up on the bridge) you can hear the ship’s announcements clearly on TV. Otherwise you can’t hear announcements with your cabin door shut.
Juneau - we went to our old haunt, Tracy’s Crab Shack and gorged on king crab legs fresh out of the Bering Sea, washed down with a cold Alaskan beer. We consider this pilgrimage as a shore excursion, making the $122 price tag for two seem cheap! The bucket was 3 ½ pounds of legs. Tracy’s has been in a different location the three times we have partaken, now it is front and center near the cruise terminal, seen easily from the ship. Souvenir shops in town discounted 50% because this was their final week of the season.
Skagway – We did an 8 hour tour that started in a big comfortable bus with a toilet in the rear. It drove us on a very scenic trip through wilderness across the border into Canada, the Yukon. We stopped for a nice BBQ chicken lunch with fresh made donuts and visited a sled dog operation. Some people took a sled dog ride using a sled with wheels, since there was no snow yet. We petted the little sled dog puppies. Then we drove back to a train station and boarded the White Pass Railway for a winding trip back to Skagway. Very nice scenery, and we enjoyed the day.
Ketchikan - We did an internet search a couple of months before the cruise and found a local that does private SUV tours. She is a native, born and raised in Ketchikan. She will drive you around town to see whatever is there to see at that time. We told her we were most interested in wildlife, spawning salmon and bears if available, not so much totem poles, log rolling lumberjacks or museums. We had her for about 3 hours, and she delivered on the spawning salmon and we saw a bear come out of the woods, snatch a salmon and haul it back into the woods. Late September is late season for the spawning salmon so we saw them at the end of their long journey, beat up, dying, and dead. It was $240, so cheaper than any shore excursion and it was flexible to current conditions. We’re glad we did it that way this time.
Our overall experience was good. We may do HAL again, if we are looking for a relaxing, rather quiet cruise, not lusting after the Wow factor, and we are very enthusiastic about the ports visited. On these types of cruises we can get more into the shore activities than some of the more active glitzy cruise lines where there is more excitement onboard. Sometimes you need a rest after a day on shore, and sometimes you need to get off the boat to rest, but not on HAL. Read Less