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ms Westerdam 7-night Southern Caribbean

Cruise Line: Holland America Line
Ship: ms Westerdam
Sailing Date:
January 11, 2009
Itinerary: Round-Trip
Fort Lauderdale, FL, to Southern Caribbean

 

I usually do my reviews chronologically, meaning my pre-cruise experience though my post, and everything in between.  However, this time I want to start with the primary reason I booked the cruise, the extremely rare itinerary.

 

Itinerary:

 

Sunday, embark Fort Lauderdale, sail at 5pm

Monday, Half Moon Cay, Bahamas 8a – 4p

Tuesday, At Sea

Wednesday, Oranjestad, Aruba NoonMidnight

Thursday, Willemstad, Curacao 8a – 5p

Friday & Saturday, At Sea

Sunday, disembark Fort Lauderdale 7am

 

This may not seem spectacular to the naked eye, but it was great to ME and here are the reasons why:  It is a Caribbean cruise with three sea days.  I love sea days, and Caribbean cruises are generally very port-intensive because the islands are so close together.  So, this is special to me.  (I have a tendency to go on the same old Caribbean cruises and not even get off the ship in some ports just so I can relax, read and go to the spa onboard.)  Second, it goes to the deep Southern Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale in 7 nights.  You might have sailed from Florida to the Southern Caribbean on a longer cruise.  And you might have sailed to the Southern Caribbean on a 7-night cruise from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  But 7-nights, from Florida round-trip is just unheard of.  That's what made it so great and so perfect for my vacation time pinched hubby, and me who loves the sea days.  (He didn't mind them, but he does love the ports so 3 sea and 3 ports is the perfect compromise for us.)  I also loved the round-trip Sunday departure.  We've done lots of Florida Saturday-departing cruises in the past, which cause us to fly from California on Friday and miss an extra day of work.  This was a really nice less stressful change.

 

Now that I've told you how rare it is, I want to express how infrequent it runs.  Holland has the Westerdam down in the Caribbean in the Winter doing a triple 7-night alternating schedule.  That means you could stay on for a back-to-back-to-back 21-day cruise and not repeat a port (except Fort Lauderdale of course, and maybe Half Moon Cay again).  She does Western, Southern and Eastern Caribbean cruises in rotation.  So, if you want to do this Southern I did, then you have only one shot every three weeks. 

 

This infrequent nature makes this rare itinerary extremely popular.  So much so that I booked it 3/24/08 and even in our extremely terrible economy, the price never dropped once and it was sold out / waitlisted really fast. 

 

And the only drawback of this itinerary was we did feel motion of the seas pretty well down close to Aruba.  In that open ocean of the Caribbean Sea, the swells were not tiny.  So, this effected us on the evening of the sea day down to Aruba as well as the morning reaching it.  And then departing Curacao and going back upwards on our first sea day.  I wore my motion bands to prevent a headache at night for sure, and a few times during the days.

 

 

Pre-Cruise, Fort Lauderdale:

 

We flew in the day prior and just did our typical "we're tired so we don't care where we stay" thing for Fort Lauderdale.  We have never once had a great beach hotel, although after this trip my husband might spring for something more fun the next time.

 

We stayed at the Westin Fort Lauderdale North.  This hotel is in an industrial area far north of the airport and pier with nothing interesting around it to do or see.  However, because I've always loved Westin's "Heavenly Bed", and their service, we tried it.  I also wanted to try it out as an agent, because this hotel is often offered as a pre-cruise hotel by the cruise lines.  If you want the convenience of a hotel plus pre and post cruise transfers, it doesn't matter much on the location, right?

 

Well, I'm giving this one a thumbs down.  The service was NOT good.  The check in staff was not friendly (to us or other HAL cruisers).  The concierge was more interested in his cell than helping us.  And the ONLY bright spot was the comfy bed.  The restaurant was overpriced, although the food and service we had for breakfast was good.

We did not book this hotel through the cruise line, even though it WAS one of their offered packages.  We took a taxi TO the hotel upon our arrival at Fort Lauderdale Airport, which was $40 because of it's location.  And on embarkation day we did arrange with Holland to transport us on their bus carrying their pre-cruise hotel package customers.  It was very easy once the Holland America rep got to the lobby around 11am, but stressful until she arrived since the concierge didn't seem to know anything.  Once she was there and we showed her our documents proving we were on the Westerdam though, she quickly had us set up with a $17 per person transfer charge.  It was supposed to go onto our onboard account, but we never did see it on our account printout.

 

Our prior experience at hotels in Fort Lauderdale is that a taxi is difficult to attain in the morning, because they're ALL at the pier or the airport.  If you don't have a pier transfer available from the hotel, you'd better pre-reserve a taxi pick up the night prior and pray it comes the next day.

 

 

Boarding the Westerdam:

 

Embarking was a breeze.  We arrived about 12:50pm and had our room key by 1:05 and were on the ship quickly after.  We had done our immigration information online in advance, and the "Signature Boarding Pass" made the process super fast.  Also, we lucked out to not arrive when a big busload of other guests did, which made it fast for us.  (Our hotel bus was only 13 people or something.)

 

Once you board you CAN NOT go to your cabin right away.  I know quite a few lines do this, but it irks me.  I hate having to haul my carry on around and have the hallways closed off with shut fire doors.  (This was way we were not in a huge rush to get to the ship at 11:30am like I usually do on Princess.)  So, we figured we'd get the 'all clear' announcement to have access to our cabin at 1:30 or 2:00pm so we just walked around the public areas a bit while we waited.  It was my husband's first time on this ship and line, so he had lots to look at.  I'd personally toured this ship in port in 2006, so I was somewhat familiar with it already.

 

Anyway, once we were able to get into our cabin we dumped off our carry on and headed up to the lunch buffet where everyone else was.  It was busy there, but honestly most folks went straight there when they boarded, and then went right to their room when the announcement was made that they were open.  So, it wasn't as bad as you'd expect.

 

The lifeboat drill on Holland America is a pain in the butt.  It was at 4pm our first day, and we had to go out on the deck, with our life jackets, and stand outside while they did a roll call.  The life jackets were the most complex I'd seen and I'm not sure I could get it on right in an emergency, what a pain.  And they had the women stand in the front, and men in the back of the group on the promenade.  Apparently, in the case of an actual emergency, they would split the families up and load women first.  I heard those that didn't attend got in big trouble and had to do it on their own later.  The whole roll call thing was silly though.  Why can one line figure out how to check cabins quickly for those that aren't present, but other lines still do the hassle of the roll call?  I'll never be able to figure that one out!

 

 

Dining:

 

My overall opinion of the food on the Westerdam was that it was good quality, it was presented well and tasted good.  My next comments though are going to tell you how inconvenient it was to attain it.  By reading this review, you'll be better prepared when you next sail on any Holland America ship.

 

Like most cruise ships, the Westerdam has three main dining options – the Lido casual buffet, the main dining room, and a pay-extra higher service higher food quality establishment.  Holland America's is called Pinnacle Grill.

 

I'll start with the best and say that if you cruise on HAL you MUST try the Pinnacle Grill at least once.  My clients have raved about it, and I feel the same.  The food and service and atmosphere were exceptional.  The steak on the first night simply melted in our mouths.  It was a fabulous choice for the first night when there is such total chaos in the main dining room (which I knew their would be).  The up-charge is $20 per person for dinner at Pinnacle, and $10 per person for lunch on sea days.  I'd say you should have a reservation in order to get into it, but on our cruise it was not packed on any night, ever.  I think most of the Florida seniors on our cruise much prefer to do the dining room every night without fail.  If you were on the Westerdam for one of her 7-night round-trip Seattle to Alaska cruises though, you'd get more of a cross-section of fellow passengers and that reservation would be required.  Pinnacle Grill is open 5:30p – 9:30p for dinner nightly, and noon – 1p for lunch.

 

The next thing I'll discuss is the main dining room.  This is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you want table service.  I didn't ever get to the dining room for breakfast or lunch, but many don't so I'll just skip right to dinner.

 

Holland has one huge dining room on most of their ships, including the Westerdam.  And they 'split' it in an interesting way.  In the past, Holland had only early and late traditional fixed-time, fixed-table seating.  Now, they offer traditional fixed-time dining on the upper level of the dining room accessed on Deck 3.  And they offer "As You Wish" dining on the lower level, accessed through Deck 2.

 

As You Wish is Holland's attempt to copy Princess' Personal Choice Dining.  So, if you're familiar with that, you'll already know about this.  I'm surprised that Holland doesn't do a bit better job of the As You Wish though, as they've offered it a year now and it still seems a bit chaotic.  Maybe the problem is their clientele who is resisting having to be flexible and would really prefer traditional.  Nothing can seem to make many of them happy.

 

First thing you need to know on any flexible dining scheme is that it's good to have a reservation.  There is a dining line direct on your phone (dial 88) which will allow you to make a reservation for that same day or the next evening.  Or, if you wish, you can just walk up.  If they have a table available, they'll seat you right away.  If they don't, they'll give you a buzzer like a restaurant at home and you can go to a bar or a seating area near the dining room and await your call.  The buzzer is the most obnoxious thing we've ever encountered though.  It not only buzzes and flashes but speaks!  Loudly, it says 'Your table is now ready'.  Over and over.  Youza.  We couldn't get to the dining room fast enough to shut it up.

 

Something to always keep in mind for flexible dining though, no matter the cruise line…. they need to 'turn' each table twice in a night.  So, your best bet is to show up very early in the dining time allotted, or late.  If you show up in the 7-8pm hour, you're right smack in the middle and you're most likely going to have to wait… even with a reservation.  What I thought was weird was that the apparently let a few folks MAKE a reservation during that hour.  Princess would never allow that.  If you want to eat then, you walk up reservationless and take your chances.  Open Dining / As You Wish is open 5:15pm – 9pm nightly.

 

Also pay attention to the signage.  At the doorway of the lower dining room, they actually had two maitre'd stands.  One for a lineup of those walking up without a reservation, and one for those WITH a reservation.  Apparently, not too many folks can read, as folks WITH a reservation were constantly in the 'no reservation' side.  (As I said, part of the problem with the As You Wish was the guests, not HAL, but having someone greet folks walking down the hallway and directing them to the correct line would be an improvement.)

 

OK, so even though I've given you lots of tips here, I really had an OK time with the As You Wish.  We ate there four nights out of the seven, avoiding the first night.  We had reservations twice and walked up twice.  We were seated immediately three of the four times.  And the one time we got the buzzer was when we walked up at exactly 7pm and getting the buzzer was expected.  But our wait was only fifteen minutes, so no problem.  We were flexible to 'sit with others' every time, and we were seated that way three of the four times, but got a table for ourselves one of the nights.  (We were seated alone at a table for 8, which was funny but worked fine.)   HAL doesn't have a lot of tables for two, so I think that many who complain heavily about wait times are likely asking for that.

 

Now that I'm done with that part, let's move on to casual Lido deck dining.  Again, the selection was excellent.  Salad bar, hot American food, Asian food, Italian, Deli, Desserts and drink stations inside.  And a hamburger, hot dog and taco stand outside by the main pool.

 

The challenges I had with the Lido were two-fold.  First, they took away all of the trays.  Can you imagine going through a buffet without a tray?  You had to carry just your one plate or bowl, and then grab your tea/coffee and head to a table.  You didn't have another hand to grab a hot food plate, or a roll, or anything else in one trip.  THEN, what if you were dining alone?  You'd lose your table going back for the main course.  Absolutely unforgivable.  The only reason we could figure out was they're doing this to cut costs and cut down on portions.  And this is further supported by the fact that they had folks serving you at many stations instead of you being able to put what you wanted on your own plate.  They always gave very small portions.  I COULD live with that, but being without a tray drops HAL from top service to bottom of the barrel.  Totally ridiculous.  If I could have had unlimited luggage, I would have taken a tray with me.  But, alas, flying put LOTS of limits on us.

 

The second thing that I had a problem with was the timing of thing being open… in all dining rooms, but especially the buffet which I expect to have LONGER hours than other venues.

 

Here are the hours for breakfast:  continental 6:30 – 11am, full buffet 7-10:30am, dining room 8-9:30am.

 

So, shoot me, but when vacationing I don't like to set an alarm, and I like to stay up late.  We constantly went to bed at 1 or 2am, and were up and ready for breakfast AFTER 10:30.  I was stuck with continental multiple days, and some days we barely made it by 11am.  Of course, room service is available, and we did the door hanger breakfast order for our room in Aruba, but only because we set our alarm for a specific time.  (Which was very prompt and good.)  On a regular sea day though, I'm not pre-planning room service because I don't know exactly when I want to get up.  This was a major gripe of mine.  And there was no room service menu in my cabin.  No 'everything you need to know' hotel-like book.  Just three pages of minimal additional information.  I thought that was weird.

 

Here are the hours for lunch: full buffet 11:30a – 2p, deli, salad and Asian 11:30-5p, pizza & pasta Italian 11:30a – 1am, burgers tacos on deck 11:30 – 5p, and dining room 12:30-1:30p.

 

Again, I'm bummed that if I want lunch at 3pm or a snack at 4pm after a shore trip I am stuck with sushi, pizza or a burger.  Main normal lunch shuts off before 2p.

 

Here are the hours for dinner: Full buffet 5:30-8:30pm, and late night snack 11p – midnight. 

 

Heaven forbid you want to have an early dinner and want a cookie at 10pm.  Tough!  I thought it was amazing the dinner buffet closed at 8:30pm as well.

 

One last thing on the food area – beverages.  At the buffet ONLY coffee, tea and water were offered complimentary all the time.  And the glasses and cups these were in were very small.  I think 6 oz.  At breakfast, during full breakfast time, they had various juices as well.  Nothing else was free. They did have beverage / bar stewards working the buffet areas though, so you could BUY a soda or other drink.  And they did have a good deal on sodas.  My husband bought a 'soda card' which gives 20 sodas for $18+change.  This was a good value.  But it's not unlimited drinks either.  And a soda is a glass of soda with ice.  A full can costs two punches on your card.  Once he figured that out, he usually bought a can, as one very iced glass doesn't cut it for a meal.    

 

Special event food – During my cruise they had an outdoor on the deck bar-b-que in Aruba.  It was fun, even though the food wasn't quite as good as inside.  They set this up by the aft pool on the deck, and cook bar-b-que meats right there, but have a buffet line of salads and accompaniments as well.  And a large dessert area.  We had this dinner and skipped out on our dining room reservation.

 

And on one of our last sea days there was a "Dessert Extravaganza" set up outside my the main pool.  This was a 'typical' fancy buffet with carved fruits and ice sculptures there were fun to take photos of, plus a few good desserts.  I ran up and got one slice of cake to take back to my room, plus snapped a few photos before going back to my poker game in the casino.

 

 

Entertainment:

 

The quality of the entertainment was good.  The downfall of it was in variety and, again, time.  The main show of every evening was offered at 7pm and 9pm.  This is before late dining and after early dining, and totally confusing with As You Wish.  We saw three shows out of seven, and skipped a few, but missed some we wanted to see just because it didn't work out with our schedule.  Frustrating.

 

The shining star of our trip was a Singer Impressionist called Paul Tanner.  He does a lot of Neil Diamond and Tom Jones but many others and he's just great.  A real entertainer.  If you see him on any ship, be sure not to miss his show.

I saw part of one production show (it was fine but not my style) and missed the second one.  And the comedian / magic show was pretty terrible.  Glad I missed that one.  We saw a bit of him on the farewell night where it was a combo show with Paul Tanner.

 

Other onboard 'entertainment' we enjoyed were movies on DVD and the casino.

 

All cabins on the Westerdam have a DVD player.  And in your cabin, on those scarce three pages, is a DVD listing.  However, it's best to just go up to the Signature Café and check the most updated binders and see the new releases and be able to ask the DVD librarian if what you want is in.  All movies are checked out with a return of 8pm the following day.  And the cose is $3 per movie, per day, unless you're in a mini-suite or above.  We WERE, so we rented three for free.

 

The casino is a typical one with lots of slots, some table games and craps, and Texas Hold'Em poker.  We played that every day and had a fun time.  On our cruise we had an actual table with a human dealer, but Westerdam is having the electronic PokerPro table installed for the very next cruise.  We had a great group of fun fellow players, some of whom we became friends with and shared our contact info with.  This is always our favorite pastime, so no news here!

 

This was the first time I've done slots in the new way of accounting where you can get funds straight from your onboard account into your slot machine and you use your room keycard as your bank.  Quite interesting.  So, what you do is you put your card in, establish a 4-digit PIN, and you ask for a debit from your onboard account to your "Player Bank".  The max is $100 per transaction, I think $1000 per day. (Not 100% sure.)  Then once you load it from your shipboard account, to your Player Bank, you choose what to load into the specific machine you're on. And when you're ready to stop, you debit it back to your Player Bank and out of the machine.

 

The debiting of funds from your onboard account to your Player Bank does NOT cost you any cash advance fees for slots.  However, if you wanted a cash advance to play a table game, you'd have to pay a 3% fee at the cashier.  So, my advice is to avoid the fee by getting the money into your Player Bank at the slot machines, and then cashing out your Player Bank for cash.  (They do NOT credit your Player Bank back to your onboard account.  You must go to the casino cashier and cash out your Player Bank for cash money before midnight of your last day.)

 

Other entertainment…. I'm used to other entertainment being offered on a ship, and this one didn't have a lot of great choices.  They had dancing in the Ocean Bar, but at weird hours.  Piano music in the Crow's Nest starting at 9pm.  But I was disappointed that if you just wanted to go somewhere and lounge a while in the evening between 7-9pm they ONLY had a string quartet in the Explorer's Lounge.  No other choices.  Other entertainment started later, as if you're actually going to go to that main show.  Just SO WEIRD!

 

 

Dress Code:

 

This 7-night sailing has two formal nights, and 5 smart casual.  We found that the formal nights were ignored a bit.  Some folks obviously dressed up, as we did.  However, there were a lot that chose not to participate.  It's a great time to go to the main dining room without a wait I'd guess, as we most certainly didn't have one.  And they had the best food of the entire cruise on the second formal night.  And we saw a lot of folks around the ship in casual clothes that night, so I'm taking a wild guess that the buffet was really packed.

 

We also noticed really casual clothes around the ship on the last night, clothes that were too casual for even the dining room.  We were guessing folks wanted to get to bed really early for the following day's arrival, and were too busy packing up their stuff to bother with the dressing.  I don't understand missing great service in the dining room, but whatever.  There was no wait at all when we walked up that night.

 

 

Cabin:

 

We had a Category SY – Superior Verandah Suite.  The translation of that for a normal person would be that we had a mini-suite.  The cabin was officially 389 sq ft, including the Verandah.  This was absolutely a highlight of the cruise.

 

Whereas on most cruise lines a mini-suite is simply longer (deeper front to back) with a sitting area added to the cabin, this cabin type is WIDER.  The differences were in a few main areas.  First, the bathroom was heavenly.  There was a long counter with double sinks, double medicine cabinets and a spacious open shelf all along the bathroom under the sinks.  Plenty of room for our bathroom stuff as well as our bathing suits and hand laundry and anything else we wanted to put down there.  Additionally, we had a shower AND a Jacuzzi bathtub with a shower!  After a shore excursion or when getting ready for dinner, we could both shower at the same time.  And when we were out of the showers, there was plenty of room for us to get ready in front of our own sinks.  Absolutely worth every penny on the upgrade to from a regular verandah.

 

The other benefit of it was the extra big verandah.  Of course, with a wide cabin, our verandah was wide.  We had rattan like chairs with foot stools and a small table, like everyone else.  But we ALSO had a larger round dining table and two chairs to have breakfast on the verandah.  And still ample space to move around.

 

And in our cabin area, we had a full sized sleeper couch, comfy for lounging.  Two desks, one vanity with hair dryer and another big desk just for sitting.  A flat-screen wide-screen TV about 36 inches that swivels, plus the DVD player I mentioned already. There were also a few chairs and a round vanity stool. And closets and drawers galore. More than I could fill.  Great spaces for any long trip.  And under the beds was a drawer even, but still room for our empty suitcases.  The only things I DIDN'T like was the hair dryer required a constant push with your thumb to blow, and the closets were in the hallway with the bathroom door straight across.  So, going in and out of the bathroom, while the other was in the closet, caused a few crashes.

 

We also enjoyed complimentary shoe shine service.  This is not something I've ever taken advantage of, but we did send out three pairs of shoes on this trip.  How fun to be shiny!

 

One of the things that is cool that you get is personalized stationary.  One of the things that is bad about HAL is they don't offer any kind of note pads to jot notes to friends on.  NONE.  So, if you like to write little notes to your friends, family, or room steward about things you're doing or want, take a pad with you.  I couldn't believe I was supposed to use the stationary to write a note to the steward to leave more soaps!  Give me a break. 

 

Our room steward was good.  It was his first day of a new contract.  When we arrived, our room wasn't vacuumed and was a bit unpleasant, but I'd attribute that to the departing person.  We told our new guy, and took care of it right away.  He also seemed to be skimpy with the soaps and lotions to start, but we asked him for more and then were content.  Why give us two sinks and two showers, but only one bar of hand soap and one set of shampoo and conditioner?  We didn't understand even having to ask that, but he took care of us the second day when we asked.  We had no desire to hoard it or even take it home, but just wanted to have enough to use our facilities.  And we had to ask repeatedly for laundry bags and slips to go with them.  We thought it was odd that these weren't automatically stocked, but I wasn't sending out laundry every single day, so it worked out in the end.  And we enjoyed towel animals with our turndown service at night.

 

 

The ms Westerdam:

 

I had toured the Westerdam in Seattle a few years ago, and since that time had wanted to sail on her or one of her sisters.  Her Vista-class nearly twin sisters are ms Oosterdam, ms Zuiderdam, and ms Noordam.  They're about 80K tons and hold about 1900 guests, double occupancy.

 

Holland prides itself on medium sized ships, so even though I would have used to say 80K tons is big, but today's standards it really is medium still.  Plenty of space for fun things to do, but not overbig.

 

Some of the best features are all HAL ships are it's teak wrap-around Promenade decks, and really wonderful teak loungers.  The Promenade area on the two sides of the ship are lined with loungers, and they're very well used every day.  A great place to lounge and look at the sea, or read a book, or simply nap in the fresh air.  During the day they have nice cushioned pads added to them.

 

The ship features I most wanted to see and try though, were items added during the fleet-wide "Signature of Excellence" improvements.  These included cabin improvements like more comfy beds and the flat-screen TV I mentioned, but also changes to public areas.  The main two I was excited about were the Food & Wine Culinary Arts Center, and the New York Times Explorations Café.

 

The Culinary Arts Center is a working demonstration kitchen, with TVs, added to the movie theater of nearly all the ships.  I did spend time on the sea days attending culinary demos there, and really enjoyed that as a different activity from the norm.  I don't have anything against art auctions or bingo, but I wanted something new.  I enjoyed watching the top chefs prepare stuff (and get samples of what they'd cooked).  FYI I am not a great cook.  I think it's a chore and not a pleasure most of the time, so I really enjoyed these as simply entertainment rather than others that really wanted to learn how to cook the dishes presented.

 

Another 'for a fee' activity that was offered was a hands-on cooking class with a sit down of the meal you prepared.  This cost $29 per person and was limited to only 10 individuals.  Also, you got wine with your meal, and got to keep the apron.  I signed up for one of these, but wasn't feeling up to going because of a motion headache at the time it was supposed to run.  That was a bummer, but they didn't charge me for not attending.  With such a small group, I could imagine that to be really fun.

 

The other thing I was really interested in seeing was that Explorations Café.  This is HAL's new version of a Starbuck's at sea.  They have a premium coffee bar, the library, DVD rentals and the internet café all in one area they call the Explorations Café.  (Cookies are free there, but mochas and lattes and such are a charge.)   On some smaller ships I'd toured I'd loved the amidships location on the Upper Promenade Deck.  Westerdam had hers added after I toured her and before I sailed though, and I hate the location.  They've turned 'half' of their Crow's Nest forward high viewing bar and nightclub into the Explorations Café.  It is open until 10:30pm, so I suppose if you did want exactly a cookie at 10pm, that would have been the place to go.  Didn't think of that during the cruise though, as I was concentrating on looking at the food & beverage listing and not other services of the daily program.

 

So, imagine if you will, a really neat library and internet area with comfy chairs connected onto a dance floor and public area where they sometimes hold bingo or dancing lessons and have a piano playing in the evening.  What a joke.  I attempted to read and enjoy some time up here one day only to have the country swing lessons start.  And my husband went up there when they were having bingo, and he said the bingo attendees were flooded over into the Explorations area taking up every seat.  FYI Explorations Café is on Deck 10 and you must take the amidships or forward elevators to reach that deck.  The aft elevators stop on 9 between the Lido Buffet and the pool.

 

And, meanwhile, the old library still sits all alone with a beautiful marble inlay table, and is used for overflow of the shopping area when they're having 'everything you don't need for $10' sales.  It seems odd to have such wasted space most of the time.

 

I did love the amidships glass elevators though.  Like Celebrity Millennium-class and Royal Caribbean's Radiance-class it's just really fun to ride up and down and see the sea.  The downfall was that the three banks of elevators at amidships ran on different calls, so if you wanted to press the glass ones starboard and port as well as the main center solid ones you had to run around and hit three different call buttons.  And then really run if you weren't standing hear the one that actually showed up!

 

 

Greenhouse Spa:

 

I feel compelled to mention the spa in it's own category on this cruise.  It's an Elemis spa, so it has many of the same features and services of other cruise lines.  However, there were a couple of quirky things that were so different from other lines I wanted to point them out.

 

First, a negative thing.  They have a "Thermal Suite" (heated stone loungers) and a Heated Mineral Pool in the spa area.  These require a day pass to use, which is common.  What was UNcommon is that they required you to buy pass even when you paid for a spa service like a massage.  In every land spa, and every other Elemis spa at sea, I've always been able to enjoy use of the additional saunas and whirlpools when paying for a spa service.  Not so here, which I thought was not acceptable.

 

Another odd positive thing, that totally reflects on the economy right now being low and folks going on cruises but not doing the 'extra' things was a silent auction for spa services.  Can you imagine being able to 'bid' for a spa treatment?  My guess was that every person who bid above a certain amount probably got to have a treatment for that reduced price.  I bid for a massage and a facial, both normally $119 services.  I didn't win for $55 bids, but heard others DID win for $70 bids.  So, keep that in mind.  For my bid, I was given a letter that said I was a 'runner up' and could come into the spa for 40% off any service.  That would have made it $71.40.  I never took the time on the final sea days.

 

Another deal offered was 20% off any spa service on port days.  This was nice.  It wasn't just a specific service, but a reduction of the whole spa menu.  We had a facial and a pedicure on our Half Moon Cay port day.  The facial was reduced in price, but the pedicure, being a salon and NOT spa service was not discounted.  And for our last sea day we got a notice in our cabin that spa services were being offered at in-port prices for that day only also.

 

Another interesting thing was they had no retail area for buying Elemis products like most other ships do.  You must purchase things from a person who works there.  I didn't realize this until I returned to the spa later in the cruise to buy some face cleanser that I like to use at home and had to flag down a worker to get it for me rather than just purchasing it off a shelf.  If I had known it worked that way, I would have asked for it from the nice gal that did my pedicure early in the cruise.

 

The treatments we got were good though.  Very enjoyable, so no complaints at all about the staff.  And they did NOT heavily push their products on you like they do on some lines.

 

 

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, port-of-call:

 

If you haven't been to one of the cruise lines' private beaches or private islands, I can't explain how wonderful they are.  This is my second one after Princess Cays and I just love these things.  It's so great to be at a pristine gorgeous beach with only your fellow cruisers and not have to worry about foreign currency, being solicited to buy stuff, or being worried about not getting a taxi back to the port on time.  These private beach experiences are really neat, except for the fact that you have to tender in rather than dock.

 

Anyway, Half Moon Cay (pronounced KEY) is one of the best of all of them based upon some of those recent Signature of Excellence improvements I mentioned before.  Not only do they have snorkeling, a great beach bar-b-que lunch, private cabanas, spa treatments, great kids' area, and parasailing.  But they recently added horses to the island and also a stingray encounter experience.  And they have wave runners and other motorized fun toys as well, although I am not sure if those are a new feature.  Anyway, great options!

 

We did the horseback ride by land and sea and it was AWESOME.  The horse handler / tour guide said their excursion was the highest rated in the Caribbean, and I believe it.  You check in for your tour at the information desk near the tender pier, and then you ride a tram truck down to the stables.  Once there, you don a helmet, stow your towel and you get assigned a horse and ride on some trails within the island including a nice high viewing area, and then on the beach a while and back to the original corrals.  After that, you strip off your jeans down to your swim suit and you get on another horse and you ride in the water.  It's REALLY fun.  The horse in the water mostly seems to trot, but also swims.  The only bad part is these horses that swim seem to be of a thinner breed with pointy back bones and only a small pad for you to sit on and it's not a comfortable seat by any means.  I was definitely achy the next few days, but it was worth it.

 

Also, we signed up for the 2pm ride, and had nearly a private tour.  Most folks did stuff earlier in the day and got back on the ship.  Our tour was more than an hour long, and we made literally the last tender back to the ship with some crew at 3:30pm!  The shore excursion manager lady knew exactly where we were though, and was waiting for us to get off the tram to confirm with security that we were on the way.

 

With regards to the horses at Half Moon Cay, they seemed to have stories to tell.  Retired racehorses and other mutts.   It was like a half way house for horses that needed love and still had a lot to give.  Kinda cool to be supporting them.  And the same company runs this horse operation as runs a similar 'horses swimming in water' activity near Ocho Rios, Jamiaca.  So, if you go there for vacation or a cruise, maybe give them a look.  http://www.chukkacaribbean.com/

 

 

Oranjestad, Aruba, port-of-call:

 

Aruba is the highlight of this trip for most passengers on our ship.  The beaches are absolutely gorgeous, and it's got great resorts for land vacations.  Beautiful, big, hotel casino resorts that comb the beach in front of their properties every day to remove anything sharp.

 

The downfall of Aruba is that it is constantly windy.  It is known for it's wind.  And it always blows in the same direction, and the Divi Divi trees are always pointing in the direction of the wind blowing.  Because of the wind, Aruba is where world class wind surfing competitions are held.  My husband has a co-worker that wind surfs and absolutely insisted that he try this activity on our Aruba day.  So, he did.   And he loved it, although he says he fell off the board 100 times in the two hour lesson, he had a great time.  He raved about the beauty of the water and the white sandy beaches.  He used this company:  http://www.arubawindsurfing.com/ and pre-arranged his lesson before he arrived.

 

The only downfall of HIS day was that the windsurf place is a bit desolate and there was no taxi service to get him back.  He had to walk 1/4 mile on the beach down to the Marriott to grab a taxi back to the ship.

 

I personally did the "Town & Countryside Tour".  This seemed like the most basic 'learn about Aruba' tour, and it was.  However, as much as I did enjoy some tidbits of their island and culture, it was really not a great way to spend a day in Aruba.  One of the stop was an Aloe factory, where we saw NO aloe being processed.  Very much a waste to of time.  And another stop was a 'Natural Bridge' rock formation area, but the bridge is just a fallen pile of rubble as it collapsed some time ago.

 

After my tour, I did a tiny bit of shopping before heading to the ship.  There is a big pink shopping area right near the pier, and this houses my favorite store Del Sol.  I love the color-changing t-shirts.  And I had to collect a magnet for my fridge from Aruba too.

 

Should you go to Aruba, I suggest some kind of beach activity, or just take yourself to one of those pretty resorts and hang out for the day.  In the evening there are lots of casinos to visit, including the Crystal Casino which was walking distance from the pier.  We took a walk down to it after dinner, but were not wholly impressed and came back pretty quick.  (We didn't sail until midnight remember.)  The main street is safe to walk, but I'd not suggested venturing from that street into the side streets there.

 

Aruba is only 15 miles from the coast of Venezuela in South America!  Did you know it was that close?

 

Oranjestad is pronounced  O (roll the r) rang est ad

 

 

Willemstad, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, port-of-call:

 

My husband & I pre-arranged the "Ostrich Farm & Aloe Plantation" tour through HAL before I realized that there was a stop at an Aloe plant on my Aruba tour.  So, I now know more then I ever will want to know about Aloe after two days of it.  However, the Ostrich Farm was interesting.  We learned all about the big birds, got to see a baby coming out of it's egg, and others in various sizes of development.  And the Aloe Plantation in Curacao was much more interesting and educational than the Aruba one.  The aloe products are really overpriced there though.  If you want it after the tour, just buy yourself stuff at the local drugstore when you get home!

 

We had a bit of a disappointment with the Ostrich Farm tour because we felt it was oversold.  Unfortunately for us, we were the last two to load onto the 4WD vehicle for the Ostrich Farm tour and there were no real seats left.  Everyone else was sitting two by two on the benches, and I was stuck squeezing in with two unfriendly ladies I didn't know, and my husband had to sit on the jump seat by the driver that didn't give him great views either.  Because of my location, I didn't get to feed the Ostriches like everyone else.  And I complained to HAL when I got back to the ship, but they wouldn't do anything about it.  I was extremely disappointed in that lack of customer service.  And all I can say for advice is that it really is a good tour, but don't dilly dally in getting on the tour vehicle!

 

After we returned to have lunch on the ship, Charles got off again and walked the floating bridge over to the main shopping and downtown area.  He said he enjoyed the walk, but it wasn't "all that".  There was a very nice yacht he wanted to take a better look at, and he just loves ports.  (Remember, I'm the sea person and he wants to be off ship the entire time we're in a port.)

 

So, something you probably didn't realize if you've been to a lot of tropical Caribbean places as both Aruba and Curacao are very arid / dry.  Cacti are the most common things you see.  And it was a bit windy in Curacao our day there, although they're not usually as windy as Aruba.

 

Curacao is pronounced CURE a sow (sow as in female pig)

 

 

Disembarkation:

 

I took my own advice on this cruise and booked a tour + transfer on disembarkation day.  We had a flight out of Miami at 3:40pm, and we didn't want to just be transferred down to Miami airport and be stuck there for the day.   

By booking a tour, we could haul our bags to locked compartments of a big coach, and then leave them securely underneath there during our tour without having to worry about them.

 

The only challenge of these disembarkation tours is that they need a certain number of participants to sign up before they can be run.  We had tried to get one of these off our Cunard cruise a few years back, but they didn't have enough participants.  On this HAL cruise they offered three or four tour + transfer choices on the listing, but only one actually ran.  We didn't originally pick the one we ended up with, but it was fine.  We had given the shore excursion lady advance permission to switch us should the need arise.

 

Anyway, our disembarkation went a little different than most folks'.  First, we got shore excursion tickets and disembarkation colored tags from the shore desk rather than typical ones.  And we met in the show lounge for our tour like any normal tour in a port, rather than hassling with a color or time.  We did hear from our tablemates the last evening though, that they thought it odd that rather than announcements they were instructed to go to the gangway at a particular time.  And until that time, they should stay in their cabins.  That sounds pretty smooth, even though I didn't get to experience it.

 

We met in the showroom at 8am or so, and then were lead by the tour manager in a group to disembark together.  Once off, we claimed our luggage on our own and did customs, but then were directed right to our bus.  (We were easy to spot with colored tour stickers on our shirts like most ship tours have.)  Our bus then left the Westerdam and went over to another Port Everglades cruise slip and picked up passengers from the Zuiderdam.  The Zuiderdam had filled more than one bus of folks that wanted this tour, so HAL combined them.  Some folks from Westerdam grumbled a bit, but really, if we weren't sitting there picking up more folks, we would have just gotten back to the airport earlier and had more time sitting around there.  What difference does it make?

 

Anyway, our tour was an airboat ride in the Everglades.  It was actually much more than that, which was nice.  Our tour of the Sawgrass Recreation Park started with an airport ride though.  All of us on the tour bus, about 30, were able to fit in one big airboat and we jetted around the Everglades for a while.  The purpose of this usually is to see Florida Alligators, but it was too cold out for them to be making an appearance.  They were all deep under the water trying to stay warm in the muck of dead vegetation underwater.  I'm sure some might have been disappointed, but we had done an Airboat ride on a prior trip to Florida and seen lots of animals, so we were fine.  The guide was a nice fellow who taught us lots of things along the way.  And it was a bit chilly, but not too terrible.

 

After that ride we were taken to a few other areas of the Park.  The first was an area where they have some fat and happy reptiles penned up.  We got a presentation about Gators and Crocs, and got to hold baby alligators.  (A highlight for me!)

 

After that section of the tour, we were taken to another area where an organization that saves wild animals had a display.  They gave us a presentation also, and then we were able to look at their Florida Panthers, wolves, raccoons and such.  All of these animals had been rescued in some way.

 

The last section of the tour at Sawgrass was a barnyard animal area, which was less than interesting, but included a video about the Seminole Indians about their history in the area.  That was educational for sure.  

 

All of this took about 2 1/2 hours, as we arrived at the park at 9am and left about 11:30am for the Fort Lauderdale airport.  We had three stops at the Fort Lauderdale airport for various terminals, and then we dropped our tour guide off back at the pier to get her car (if anyone had been sailing back to back on the Westerdam's next cruise they could have done this tour and been returned to the ship).  After that, those of us going on to Miami airport stayed on with the driver for the 45 minute trip down there and we were dropped off about 1pm.  Very smooth.  A lot more fun than sitting at the airport all day.  And a lot less stress because we didn't have to worry about our baggage or haul it around with us while we attempted to do something fun while we waited for our flight.

 

http://evergladestours.com/ for more on the Sawgrass Recreation Park

 

 

In Summary:

 

We enjoyed our Holland America cruise for it's unique itinerary, and the food and service were good.  And we loved our cabin, which we lounged in often with all that time at sea.  Our complaints were minor compared to the overall experience, even though we pointed them all out so you could learn from our experience.

 

We do think Holland America is geared too much towards early to bed early to rise folks, and those that like a strict schedule, which doesn't suit us personally. So we'd not pick it as a top choice for vacation in the future.  Should another itinerary arise that we feel is just to die for though, we'd not hesitate to go on it again.   We didn't hate it by any means, we just personally prefer the flexibility on Princess.

 

I'll add photos when I have a chance! 

 

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