Review of the Volendam
The Holland America Line
Southern Caribbean and Panama Canal Cruise
November 3-13, 2007
The Holland America Line's ms Volendam is a lovely cruise ship which has been in service for 8 years. Some consider her old, others consider her small ... I consider her "just right." I have cruised board her twice before, once to the Caribbean in 2002 and once to Alaska in 2003, and I enjoyed both cruises. This cruise was no different in that respect -- I had a blast aboard her for this 10-day Southern Caribbean and Panama Canal Cruise. I was aboard with several Cruise-Critic friends this time, and that is always a plus because it's a joy to share one's cruises with others. Some say that the Holland America Line is not for people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, but I disagree: there are many ways to have fun, and if one enjoys interacting with people and the refined, classic atmosphere of a traditional ocean voyage, one will have a blast on Holland America. There was plenty to do every day aboard ship ... indeed, there were not enough hours in the day to do all the things I would have liked to have done during the course of what turned into a very "fast" 10-day cruise.
Condition of Ship:
Considering her age and the basic realities regarding a ship that is in continuous service for an average of ~355 days a year, the Volendam is in excellent condition. The Holland America Line has long had the moniker of "The Spotless Fleet," and they certainly do earn it with the Volendam. She is a very clean ship, even if there are many signs of wear and usage. She is being constantly cleaned, vacuumed, swept, mopped, polished, and straightened ... the crew does their very best to keep the ship white-glove clean. Even still, she is in need of her scheduled April 2008 extensive dry-docking. There are many indications of hard usage by passengers; damaged tables, chairs, windows, elevator doors, walls, carpet, light fixtures, etc. But, please don't interpret this as meaning that she's in shabby-condition; quite the contrary, she's anything but shabby! Nevertheless, she is "well-used" ... and sometimes even "abused" ... by some passengers. The air-conditioning was sometimes spotty throughout the ship and certainly inconsistent, and the vacuum toilet system was occasionally being taken off-line in some areas for repairs and the clearing of the lines of foreign objects added by unthinking passengers (why would anybody think they could flush a washcloth and it not clog up the line??). Indeed, significant plumbing and vacuum toilet work was being done on this cruise, with engineers being visible on many decks during the port days and late evening hours. This maintenance keeps the ship going, but she is in need of much more extensive work.
Wear and tear is normal, and to be expected, on a operational ship-at-sea; however, much of it is not the kind of damage that can be easily repaired by the crew in-transit but, rather, must be taken care of in wet or dry-dockings. Among the many problems observed: one of the coffee makers in the Lido was out of service the entire cruise, but there are 3 others operational and there was never a shortage of hot-coffee. The elevators seemed to be operational most of the time, but the elevator alert tones were not working on any of the midship elevators on deck 2 and the touch-sensor up-call button on the port side on deck 2 didn't work half the time. There is some nasty external damage on the port side amidships, where the vessel has slammed up against something hard (like a dock, perhaps?). The layers of paint on her exterior are showing signs of serious wear. There are cracks in some windows on the starboard side upper-level of the Main Dining room. There is clear evidence of stop-gap repairs of certain AC vents in the Main Dining room -- i.e, black electrician's tape. It was reported that some cabins had inconsistent or just barely acceptable AC throughout the course of the cruise, and that the Penthouse Suite lacked adequate AC as well! There are many bumps and scuffs and signs of damage to walls and corners and carpet in passenger accommodation corridors. From time to time the lock mechanism on my cabin door wouldn't function properly, and would fail to lock the door. I showed this to the cabin steward and, within minutes, a ship's tech was there to service it.
Her Signature of Excellence upgrades, completed last year, have really improved her general condition with the addition of the Explorations Cafe/Lounge. This is a major improvement on the old Internet Center and Library, and is a wonderful place to go to "reconnect" to the world through the world-wide-web. Be aware, however, that while they market the service as "high-speed-intenet," it is anything but high-speed. It is a very slow connection, and sometimes it is an inconsistent connection. But, it is better than nothing. And, they now have hotspots throughout passenger quarters country, meaning that one can usually use one's laptop in one's own cabin rather than having to seek out a public hot spot in one of the lounges. This is a very nice addition. Also, each cabin now has flat screen TVs and DVD/CD players; and, there is a DVD collection in the Exploration's Lounge that one can check out.
Another very nice upgrade can be found in the Culinary Arts Center, which is a conversion of the Wajang Theater. They still hold Catholic Mass there, and sometimes other lectures, and they still show movies there in the evenings, but it's a very nice place to do cooking demonstrations. I didn't attend any, so I'll let those who did speak to that.
For a while, from late-2001 through mid-2006, it was the general consensus of many on the Cruise Critic HAL board that the service in the Main Dining room and the Pinnacle Grill had been suffering due to severe staffing cuts. Repeatedly, cruise after cruise, it appeared that the ships were simply under-staffed; the crew tried their best, but there were not enough of them to adequately serve the number of tables and passengers assigned. However, beginning with late 2006 I've begun to observe a marked improvement in the quality of service that I have received. This was particularly noticeable on the Noordam this past January, and now on the Volendam in November. Indeed, some of the very best service I have ever experienced on Holland America was found on this cruise. In the main dining room the orders were taken correctly, the service was prompt, there didn't appear to be much of a lag or sluggishness in pace of service, and when a mistake was made it was often due to our inability to clearly express our wishes and, more importantly, it was almost always QUICKLY addressed. I must really commend our waiters, they were exemplary. Likewise, in the Pinnacle Grill the service was both excellent and acceptably paced, unlike prior visits on other ships (the Noordam) when dinner became a 3 hour affair (ugh!). Our cabin steward was also fantastic. He had 14 years experience, and it really showed in the quality of his work. Likewise, the Lido Stewards were always keeping tables cleared and were very helpful with carrying trays for those who needed help, getting refills on water, tea, and coffee, and even taking time to chat. The Beverage staff was usually quite good; there were a few hiccups in the service in the Ocean Bar during the busy hours on a couple of Formal Nights -- to the consternation of several -- but that does sometimes happen.
Overall, the Volendam's crew is marvelous ... simply marvelous. However, with a couple of exceptions the officers of the ship left something to be desired. The captain was rarely seen out-and-about among the passengers, and while the Hotel Manager was more evident around the ship and at certain receptions -- and the chief of security was an absolute DELIGHT -- that about sums it up for the officers that were observed "fraternizing with the passengers." None of them made an appearance at the Black and White Ball (the night before an early morning arrival at the Panama Canal), and they were thin around the ship on all formal evenings but the last. The Hotel Manager, Chief Steward, and one or two other officers did make an appearance at the Cruise Critic get-together on our first Sea Day, and the Captain and several more were present at a Captain's VIP reception on the evening after departure from Curacao, but the Captain didn't stay long -- just long enough to greet us -- and even the Hotel manager didn't really mingle during that reception (though a few of the lower-ranked officers and Ship's Cast did). Now, I am not one who really thinks it is important to be able to share cocktails and conversation with the Captain ... however, I do appreciate him at least showing his face, from time time time, in the lounges during the evening hours. He did this only once ... on the last Formal Night ... and, then, only for about half an hour.
While opinions about the quality and taste of food are, indeed, highly subjective, in my opinion the food aboard the Volendam this cruise was superb. The lamb, veal, and beef dishes were all excellent, and when I had steak it was cooked perfectly every time. The chicken dishes were, likewise, outstanding: my favorite -- the Parmesan Crusted Chicken Breast -- was wonderful. The presentation of the food was also excellent, and the variety of dishes, while a bit limited each evening, never left me with wanting something more or else to eat.
The Menu has been revised quite a bit since I was last aboard a damnship in March 2007. No longer is it a single-page card; it is now two lovely pages in a classy menu-type folder. VERY NICE. The menu is divided into 4 segments:
Starters -- at least three appetizers, two soups, and a salad or two
Entrees -- often a large Entree Salad and at least 5 other dishes
Chef's Suggestions -- a starter, a soup, and an entree
Available Every Night -- French Onion Soup, Caesar Salad, a fish dish, Grilled Chicken, A New York Steak, and a Vegetarian Dish)
From these divisions it was easy to put together a very nice and varied 4-course meal. This area of HAL's service had taken a beating over the previous few years, especially as selections became more limited, but it would appear that things are improving again.
In my opinion, the two areas where HAL really needs to do some work -- at least aboard the Volendam -- is in the quality and variety of their desserts and the quality and variety of their salads. I love ice cream, and they certainly had several options each evening on the menu, however they need to work on their cakes and pies; their cakes tended to be dry and their pies always seemed to be too much the same thing every night. Additionally, while I love Caesar Salads, I do sometimes want just a simple mixed greens salad, not some fancy thing filled with all sorts of strange leaves and vegetables that can be hard to identify.
The Dress Code and it's Violations:
Holland America Line has a Posted and Published Dress Code, so I won't bother going in-depth into its stipulations, nor will I debate the issue of wether or not "jacket and tie" is really "required" for men on Formal Night. However, there is an area of the code which is entirely unambiguous:
"T-shirts, swimsuits, tank tops and shorts are not allowed in the restaurants or public areas during the evening hours." (emphasis added)
This statement should not be difficult to understand, nor is its standard that difficult to obey. However, on this particular sailing of the Volendam a huge number of passengers either were not aware of this particular Dress Code stipulation, or if they were they simply chose to ignore it. Many dozens of Men and women could be observed throughout the ship during the evening hours, both in the lounges and in the Main Dining room, dressed in shorts, t-shirts, muscle shirts, "wife-beater shirts," swim suits, work-out shorts, and sweats. This form of clothing was to be found not just on "Smart Casual" evenings, but even in large numbers on the three Formal Nights. While a majority of the passengers still abided by the dress code, and there were even many Tuxedos to be seen among the gentlemen on the three Formal Nights, the numbers who were far too casually attired reached a critical mass when -- by visual count on the first Formal Night -- more than half of those in the Ocean Bar and in the Crows Nest were dressed in shorts and golf or t-shirts.
This is unfortunate. A handful of people who refuse to "play along" with the Dress Code is never a real problem. Most HAL traditionalists can tolerate (or ignore) the few who just simply refuse to put on a coat and tie on Formal Night, but who will still wear trousers and a nice shirt; they tend to disappear on most cruises due to the fact that most people -- 85 - 90% or better -- do follow the code in its minimal stipulations. However, there are cruises where large numbers of passengers not only disregard the code for Formal Night but even go so far as to fail to dress to the "Smart Casual" standard! When this happens -- as it happened on this sailing of the Volendam -- it does tend to drag down the ambiance and create something less than the "elegantly formal evening" that HAL's code is trying to engender throughout the ship. Many people cruise HAL specifically for this kind of formal, traditional, elegant ambiance; those who do not "play along" to the extreme above-described do tend to negatively impact the experience of those of us who do. We are often asked "did it ruin your cruise?" as if such is the issue. It's not, and no, it did not "ruin" my cruise to see somewhere between 200 - 300 people not attired according to the code on Formal Night. However, it is nevertheless the case that, in my opinion, the atmosphere in many of the lounges and in some areas of the Main dining room was negatively impacted by those who simply refused to "play along." If HAL is going to bother having any kind of a Dress Code, they really need to either enforce it or make it clear when something is not acceptable. One would think that the language "not allowed" would be sufficient, but apparently on this cruise it wasn't.
This was my first opportunity to experience the new format for the Mariner's Reception. Already being a 100+ day medal holder myself, I attended a reception in the Explorers' Lounge for about 55 people at which 7 new Medal awardees were recognized. The Mariner with the most number of days on HAL (our own Longtimecruiser!!) -- 560 days -- was recognized, and the Captain spoke with us for a few minutes about the fleet, the ships, and the mariner program. We had complementary wine and the "good nuts" were put out for us, as well as a nice assortment of appetizers!! We then went into the Main Dining Room where we had a very nice brunch. Mariners were grouped together according to their number of days, so we got to meet a few more in the process. The table I sat at was headed by the Hotel Manager, and the conversation proved to be very informative as he filled us in on some of the details pertaining to the introduction of AYWD, which would be happening aboard the Volendam on the very next cruise. He also outlined a few of the changes and new perks that would be coming to the Mariner's Program, though he couldn't speak specifically to more than just a few of them and what he did say was officially "off the record" ... as it were.
The Itinerary / Ports of Call:
This cruise had an excellent ballance of sea days and port days. It was a 10-day round trip out of Fort Lauderdale, with stops at Half Moon Cay, Aruba, Curacao, The Panama Canal, and Costa Rica -- 5 ports (not counting Ft. Lauderdale) and 4 sea days. VERY nice indeed.
Half Moon Cay is in lovely shape, even though she had just taken a battering from Tropical Storm Noel. There were clear signs of some beach erosion, but otherwise the vegetation and other facilities have made a full recovery from the massive damage caused by the Hurricanes in 2005.
Curacao and Aruba -- two of the Dutch Antilles -- were, as always, lovely ports to visit. We found some excellent shopping at both ports, but since I had been to Curacao before I decided to not bother with any shore excursions this time.
The Panama Canal was an amazing work of engineering brilliance, and passing through its locks, staying in Lake Gatun for a couple of hours, then passing back out, is always fun.
Costa Rica had been experiencing torrential rains since Tuesday (we arrived on a Saturday), and hence many of the shore excursions had been cancelled or severely impacted by flooding. I did a wild-life short excursion there which I enjoyed but which was something of an ordeal due to the flood conditions. And, yes, we got wet.
But really wonderful, as always, were the 4 days at sea. The first was between Half Moon Cay and Aruba. The second was between Curacao and the Panama Canal. And the third and fourth were between Costa Rica and Fort Lauderdale. This distribution of Sea days makes for a very nice itinerary, indeed, and one that I will look forward to repeating in the not-too-distant future.
Overall, I had a very enjoyable 10-day cruise aboard the Volendam. It was a journey made with good Cruise Critic friends, on a ship that I love, to ports I find interesting, and with 4 lovely sea-days to relax and enjoy. What more could one ask for on a 10-day vacation?