HAL Veendam Review-12/15-12/22, Southern Caribbean.
Background: This was our 15th cruise, having sailed on NCL(2), RCI (2), Celebrity(8), Carnival (1), and Premier (1). This sailing was our first time on Holland America. We chose the Veendam as the dates worked, we would be on St. Maarten for our 20th anniversary and the price for the suite was outstanding.
We departed Lincoln, NE on 12/14, TWA running just a bit late. We scrambled to board the connecting flight for San Juan then proceeded to sit on the ground for 1.5 hours. Nasty lunch on board, some sort of meatloaf thing swimming in mystery sauces. Landed in San Juan and met up with limo driver in baggage claim. What a nice way to go from airport to hotel.
Arrival: We had booked a day ahead at the Wyndam Old San Juan and upon checking into our room it was not what it was billed to be. Changed rooms to a suite with a view of the port. We took off on foot in Old San Juan in search of a Pueblo (grocery store), and picked up soda for the cruise. We then wandered until we found an Italian place, Al Dente, which had a great menu. We shared an appetizer and entree that was really wonderful. Headed back to hotel, I for the casino, Bruce for the TV. Casino ended up being a donation and the TV wasn't much better. Went to bed knowing our ship would be in port the next day. I awoke at 5am, checked the docks and spotted the pilot boat heading out, but no ships in yet. Woke again at 7am and both the Veendam and Nordic Empress were berthed.
We had the buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room, then returned to the room to watch the ships disgorge their passengers. By about 10am it was mostly all over. We checked out just before noon and Bruce walked our two big pieces of luggage over to the ship. It is just a short walk across the street. Really no need for a taxi. I sat in one of the hotel lounges and Bruce went out and about Old San Juan. I had figured we would be ok if we headed over to the ship about 1:30pm. Arrived at embarkation about that time, no lines, no waiting. Walked right in, made massage appointment in embarkation area, had photo and were in our room by 1:50pm.
General impressions: We try very hard to sail when the potential for children is at a minimum. It appears many grandparents and parents took their little darlings out of school early for this sailing. Several very little one's were allowed to leave the table at second seating and just play on the staircases, running up and down, crashing into people. Others allowed their little monsters to play ball in the companionways and run amuck in the Lido. Several very small babies were heard squalling in the dining room with no attempts by the parents to take them out to calm them. Why have children or babies on second seating, which is way past their bedtime?
This ship likes to rock and roll, although we did have a few nights of rough seas. Captain Harris would apologize, but there was not much he could do. Yes, we were up on a high deck so the motion is more noticeable. I loved the motion as she did deep side to side rolls and even pitched a few times. I was a bit nervous though when she seemed to pitch and roll at the same time, sort of a corkscrew effect, but the pitching stopped quickly. Weather was pretty good, warm sunny days, a few showers thrown in for good measure. Ship was clean, nicely decorated for Christmas. Staff dropped many of the lifeboats at one port and ran them around. Too bad I missed the lifeboat regatta. Boat drill was held in the afternoon prior to leaving and was well organized. Too bad there were so many sniveling passengers who couldn't shut up or do things right. Boat drills are quite simple if one follow directions and everyone is done all the faster. Captain Peter Harris was a sheer delight. He was funny, personable, interacted with the passengers and kept us apprised of our arrivals and departures. We departed late a few times from ports. Once we were waiting for a staff member who had been taken to the hospital for tests and the staff member was determined to be ok after a sonogram and returned to the ship. Another time we were already backing out of St. Thomas when we stopped, dead in the water just a bit sideways from the dock. Evidently four people who couldn't tell time came late and almost missed the ship. A lifeboat was lowered, picked them up and we were gone within 30 minutes.
Cabin: We had suite 004 and it was fabulous! King bed, dressing room, seating area with large sofa, table and two chairs, thick towels, robes, bath with whirlpool tub, sofa, two chairs, more drawer and closet space than we could hope to fill. The balcony was huge! Large round table with four chairs and two lounge chairs. Those who say one spends so little time in a cabin the balcony is a waste, pooh! We lived on our balcony. Breakfast every day, reading, watching goings-on, napping. Oh, napping. That was wonderful. Only downside was we could hear both neighbors very clearly. The upside, Bruce is convinced it is the only way to go. He loved having all the space in the cabin and the balcony.
Our cabin steward was quite good and seemed to take care of us quite well, except for not replenishing the soap and shampoo, until the last morning. We make it a habit to stay in our cabin until our number is called and it was shortly after 9am and our number was next. Our steward came in, surprised at our being there, and proceeded to begin cleaning, explaining that people can get on at 11am and all must be ready or he gets into trouble. We moved out into the hall and a few short minutes later were off the ship by 9:30am. The Penthouse suite was directly across from us and was open so I wandered though there. Quite, quite nice. Bruce then became a tour guide as people peaked in our room, saying, "Have you seen the Penthouse Suite?" Folks did the tour and we teased about charging a dollar per visit.
Suite amenities: Our suite came with certain amenities, but some were more evident than others. The VCR, which we only used once, the deluxe fruit in a silver bowl was actually a small fruit selection in a silver painted basket. Each evening's menus are provided in the morning. Tea and hors d'oeuvres that had to be ordered each day through room service (no way to do a standing order for each day all at once) then they brought enough for an army! On Celebrity the butler just brings both tea in the afternoon and evening hors d'oeuvres without being called or asked in advance. The cocktail party with the Captain and Hotel manager was very strange. The Hotel manager disappeared when the Captain showed up and there were travel agents and others mixed in with the suite passengers. We didn't stay long, but long enough to have one travel agent tell us she has been in business for 15 years, selling cruises and land options, but this was her first cruise! We made liberal use of the free laundry and dry cleaning, which was well done and showed up in our cabin the following day. There was no separate invitation to the bridge; we simply signed up with everyone else. Overall it was quite nice, but the comparisons to Celebrity's butlers often came to mind.
I'll not do a blow by blow description of the ship, and only lightly touch on the ports. The ship has great art and is done in the Art Deco style. I used the library for books, which I thought was disorganized and not very well stocked. I guess it depends on what you are looking for and it may or may not be there. Whoever reshelves the books needs to learn the alphabet.
Ports: We visited Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Martinique, St Maarten and St. Thomas, with one day at sea. Santo Domingo was new for us and we thought we would walk downtown and just poke about a bit. It turned out to be the most stressful of our port stops. Beggars everywhere in your face, people wanting to guide you to the monuments or churches or guide you to a store, all for a fee, of course. We felt besieged and headed back to the ship very quickly. Barbados we had done exhaustively the last time we were there so we just poked through the port shops. Martinique is always fun just walking around. St. Maarten was a surprise as we were able to dock at the new dock. Taxis into town are $3/pp. We usually go to Dawn Beach, but opted for Simpson Bay this time. Trying to find someone willing to take us there, rather than Orient Beach, which the taxi drivers all think we wish to go to, was interesting. When we finally found someone he drove 5mph the whole way then told us he wouldn't be able to come back for us and we should just stand on the side of the road and flag another one down.
Hence, I failed to enjoy the beach being too worried about getting back to the ship. When we left we stopped at the beach bar and they said to flag down the bus and we'd be fine. We found a bus stop not far and several people were waiting so we took the bus back to Philipsburg for $2pp. That turned out to be fun. People just holler, "Stop here" and the minivan (bus) stops right there, no matter where it is or how much traffic. We shopped a bit then headed back. In St. Thomas we hit the bookstore, the music store, the stationers and a few other favorites shops at Havensight then went back to the ship. Been there too many times.
Ships in port with us: In Barbados we had the Mistral of Fiesta Lines and the Sunbird of Sun Lines. I could easily see the Sunbird was an ex-RCCL ship, but it to us walking over to it and squinting really hard to read the Song of America under the new paint. In Martinique we had sister ship the Zaandam and we were able to visit. I preferred the Veendam decoration far better. I didn't see much difference in the two ships. In St. Maarten we had the Costa Romantica, and the Century. In St. Thomas we had sister ship, Maasdam (no visits) and Carnivals Victory.
Dining: As stated, all but one morning we had breakfast on the balcony. Either put the card out or call in the morning, it usually takes room service about 30 minutes. Suites can order full breakfasts. One morning we went to the Lido and that was fine too. Other room service seemed to be good. The chocolate cake is very good! All lunches were taken in the Lido. There are several options including the buffet line, separate salad bar, outdoor burger bar, taco bar and a station that had different items each day such as pasta, curry, etc. Dessert table, free ice cream bar and bread pudding are inside. We found the food to be good, with plenty of options. The ice cream was wonderful, the bread pudding good (not a big fan), desserts often showed up from previous evenings dinner. I love hamburgers on the open deck, but must admit these weren't very good. But, we never starved, in fact, unlike Bruce; I tried hard not to overeat which one has a tendency to do when presented with all that food. Bruce made a brave attempt to eat his way through all the smoked salmon in the ship stores.
Dining room: The Rotterdam Dining Room is very pretty despite it being done in red. It is not overwhelming and tables have more than adequate separation between them. We had a table for two in a very nice area of the second level. Since we already had seen the evening's menu we had made our selections quickly. The menus have the typical several appetizers, two uninspired salad choices, three soups, and about 5 entrees. The cruise started off with bang, as the first few days I often ordered three appetizers, no salad or soup and had trouble choosing an entree, as they all looked so good. Alas, it was not to continue. Dutch night, with the obligatory hats, the whole menu was difficult for me. I was wishing I could have ordered crab legs again. The last night was also difficult as by then I'd had three beef dishes and all were mediocre at best and I didn't want more beef. But only two nights out of the seven was unremarkable. Otherwise the fish was always good, the crab legs and lobster tails were excellent and most desserts were fine. Our waiter, Punji and assistant waiter, Bambang, were for the most part great. The evening of lobster tails was also the evening of baked Alaska which we have universally, across all ships and lines, noted a severe decline in dining service as they are rushed to get the dessert and parade singing. Our waiter never checked back at all and when he finally caught my eye (guess I could have tackled him) I asked for another lobster tail. He looked panicked and went to the head water who took him downstairs and he returned with two more lobster tails. Evidently the kitchen was closing. Hummm, wasn't aware that any ships kitchen was ever closed. On Celebrity I would often order another entree or dinner vegetables for dessert and it was never a problem.
Most evenings the Headwaiter did a flambé, bananas foster, pear flambé, etc. Not tableside, but in a central area and then the waiter brought it to your table. None of them were very good. I was so looking forward to cherries jubilee as it is my favorite dessert and the headwaiter said it accompanied the baked Alaska. I don't eat baked Alaska so just wanted the Cherries jubilee. Well, I sure enjoyed those THREE cherries!
Overall, the menus could use a bit of work. Salads and dressings are standard fare. Iceberg lettuce, typical dressings found in Denny's. Food was flavorful for the most part, but beef dishes are either swimming in a sauce that is beyond description (mystery meat) or overdone. Most pasta appetizers were excellent and one Indian appetizer was quite excellent, great flavor and quite spicy. There was always the ability to dine casually at the Lido each night excepting the last, but we prefer the dining room. In hindsight we should have gone to the casual dining for Dutch night since we already had the dining room menu, but I just didn't think of it as an option even though it was. When cruising we believe in eating in the dining room for dinner.
There were two formal nights, two informal nights and three casuals. Casual ranged mostly to tee shirts and jeans, informal was barely better. The first formal night there was about 50% tuxes, the second formal night we were lucky to get dress pants and maybe a coat. The only effort to adhere to the dress code was in the Lido where the Food and Beverage Manager asked a young woman in a bathing suit to put on a cover-up. Otherwise, many people tore out of their clothes after dinner and put on shorts and tops. Although not the only one's to be sure, I was determined to dress for dinner each evening. To us, it is a treat to get dressed up for dinner on a ship no even though we dress for our office each day. What was interesting was the last night when there was no casual dining option. Folks we hadn't seen all week, with their children showed up, dined and dashed.
Special day: On our favorite island, St. Maarten, and on our 20th anniversary, we renewed our vows on the ship. There is a nice ceremony, you repeat vows and get your picture with the Captain. There were 5 couples renewing and several honeymooners also at the ceremony. It just happened to be scheduled on our anniversary, as that was the only day it was done. A very nice book with the certificate and pictures was delivered to our cabin. The photographer only takes one shot of the couple with the Captain and I had my eyes closed! One would think this would be one occasion where they would take two shots. That evening at dinner there was a cake for us and as we don't like the singing at the table quickly said we would take it back to our cabin. That worked very well as we had cake for snacks and cake for breakfast. HAL does very flavorful cakes.
Casino: Quite small compared to some of the mega ships. I donated every dang night until the last when I hit a jackpot and got most of my money back. Typical slots for $1, .25 and .10 and the standard tables. It was hard to get a drink in there, despite there being a bar right there.
Entertainment: We rarely attend any of the shows, but had been told the Crew show on HAL is not to be missed. Well, after an hour of singing and essentially the same dances, we left. The Rosario Strings play in the dining room for 45 minutes each evening. Vangie is the piano player and around the second night at dinner I started watching her. This young woman is not only very talented, but was having a ball! She really enjoyed paying the piano! It was fun just watching her enthusiasm. We didn't spend any time in the lounges to speak of so I can not speak to the other entertainment.
Disappointments: Just a few. Having to pre-order tea or hors d'oeuvres each day when they are a suite amenity strikes me as lazy on their part. Bridge tours and engine room tours were offered to the general public in the first day's bulletin. Both had to be signed up for at the front desk. The engine room tour was only available if you wrote a note requesting it from the Chief Engineer. We did so and dropped the note off on the second day. We never heard a word back, which I thought was quite rude. If he had sent his regrets I would have been disappointed, but to not send any note was inexcusable. Stained bed linens and furniture. The bedspread was disgustingly stained; pillowcases were clean, but very stained. The chairs and sofa were also stained. They did shampoo the stained carpet the day we were in St. Thomas, but not the furniture. I kept throwing the pillow with the stained case on the floor and it kept showing up back on the bed. We finally pointed out to our cabin steward that one of the balcony lounge chairs had a big tear when one puts one's derrière. He said he reported it two weeks ago and it hadn't been replaced. A few hours later, to his credit, he brought a new one.
Although we don't partake of the formal pictures we did look for our other pictures in the photo area. Bruce pointed out something I found horrific. There are several backgrounds one can pick for the formal portraits. Sunsets, ships, etc. Bruce pointed out a background of the famous staircase of the Titanic!! I was appalled and thought it was cheap and in very poor taste. What are these people going to say when showing their pictures? That they were on the Titanic? Goulish.
What did I forget to take? Clothespins. They are great for drapes in hotel rooms or cabins that just don't close completely, but didn't need them this trip. Didn't need the shoe hanging thingie either, as there was so much closet and drawer space.
Return: We had time for lunch in the San Juan airport and the plane took off a bit late. We were honored to be flying with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Women's Basketball Team who had just played in San Juan. Flight from St. Louis to Lincoln also was a bit late, but arrived home in plenty of time to have dinner out. We did suffer a 70-degree drop in temperature from San Juan to Lincoln and then the indignity of having the well pump switch go out resulting in no water.
In summary: We did have a wonderful time. It is a very nice, comfortable ship and is easy to find your way around. We relaxed, read, napped and in general had a great time. It was hard not to compare things with Celebrity, such as the food and butlers in the suites, but it really was a very pleasant cruise. Will we sail HAL again? You bet! I understand though that the Veendam is not going to continue to homeport at San Juan. Too many folks missing the ship, luggage, etc. I guess she will move to Ft Lauderdale, but I don't know if she will maintain her S. Caribbean itinerary. We highly recommend splurging on a suite as it is worth the money and we will highly recommend sailing Holland America. I'll be happy to answer any questions.