I’ve never been on a cruise ship before, but I’ve done a fair bit of sailing. I went into this trip expecting to detest it, and I came away impressed albeit at a very steep price.
I’ve detailed elsewhere what a massive pain in the ass it is to deal with Holland America while buying a trip. They engage in tied selling (you must take a land tour if you want a certain grade of cabin) and extort considerable amounts from you if you want to guarantee a particular grade of cabin, or placement on the ship.
My advice to not get screwed like I did is to buy the cheapest cabin you can stand, and jump on the upgrade offers when they inevitably arrive. You’ll be spending most of your time out of your cabin.
Holland America is part of a giant cruise-ship conglomerate with over 100 ships, with perhaps over 150,000 revenue berths afloat. They market themselves to people with more disposable income than your average bear.
Everyone is of a certain age and economic status – retired teachers, retired-at-48 businessmen, well-off Texans, etc. There is nobody I feel I can relate to on sight, although the retired-at-48 businessman from Halifax seemed agreeable enough. A typical cruiser on the line would be 51 years old, from Texas with a nice job in the oil industry, overweight, with no kids travelling with them. A significant portion are so overweight as to be unable to move with a reasonable degree of nimbleness. There were a couple of wheelchair-bound individuals, an equal number of slightly surly teenagers, and absolutely nobody in their 20s or 30s. Half were retired, most early. In spirit, most were solidly middle-aged.
None of the travellers I met had any instincts for independent travel: they were amazed I would rent a bike in town, or rent a car and create my own tour. They were happy to be handled (and gouged) by the Holland America tour shepherds.
When I hear the broad American accent, I experience a horrible prejudice, certain that I am dealing with idiots. The people I met did a lot to dispel that, being naturally curious about travel – to Italy, to obscure corners of Africa, to Cuba, and aware of the US’s place in the world. I set out hoping to pick a fight with a Sarah Palin supporter but didn’t find a single one.
Extremely well-maintained, with nice fixtures, and pleasant if uninspiring art. They make a noticeable effort to fix burnt-out lightbulbs, clean routinely, and the staff are fanatical about wiping down work surfaces. There is an extensive program to fight illness, with alcohol sanitizers just about everywhere.
Traditions and senior staff
Holland America cheerfully and unironically engages in a variety of naval traditions. All shipboard crew have ranks; one yeoman was summoned, by name and rank, to report for immigration processing. On a maiden voyage, their ships are greeted by fire-boat salutes. The boat is organized and run according to typical naval traditions. The captain routinely seeks out guests of honour and treats them nicely. While perhaps a standard practice in the hospitality industry, Holland America manages to make this look unaffected and easy. Midafternoon tea service, whether Dutch Royal, or Indonesian, or English, was a given.
One puzzling thing: the ship’s senior crew rotate off routinely and are noticeably distant. Captain Jack van Coevorden, who provided barometer readings and course details every mornings, was otherwise invisible and was replaced at the end of the voyage. Bert van Mecklenbergh, the hotel manager, was on another ship last year, and has a clear talent for dancing, photography, and bitching about his guests to his colleagues while in the Crow’s Nest bar. It’s too bad they were so invisible, because they clearly have the most interesting stories.
Holland America lays claim to the high ground when it comes to cruising food. For the most part they delivered, with interesting and varied menus, capable presentation, good ingredients, and very uneven technique (dry meats, overcooked seafood, oversteamed vegetables). They offer complimentary room service. Every menu provides at least one vegetarian option, and though they have demonstrated competence with eggplant, though they neglected veggie-protein needs such as lentils or tofu. Their drinks are mixed by hand, well-done and usually stiff.
Staff and service
I’m not the sort of person who demands a high level of service out of anyone, but their predominantly Indonesian (Java, mostly) and Filipino crew were well-trained, genuinely cheerful, and bulldog-tenacious when faced with a problem whose resolution would make a customer happier. At one point we left my mother’s cane in a restaurant, and the busboy believed another guest’s claim to know who it belonged to. When I turned a moment later, he realized his error and immediately abandoned his duties during a busy dinner service to lead me on a half-hour tear around the ship looking for it. When I suggested we borrow one from the medical center, he made it happen.
Music and entertainment
The shipboard singers and dancers were singularly talented – most with Broadway experience and an obvious enthusiasm for the corny show-tune material.
The orchestra, over 10 performers typically scattered around the ship’s bars at night, may have been competent, but are hamstrung by their bland, middle-of-the-road list of approved tunes. At one point, the string section went off on a bright, east-coast style fiddle-driven tear, and for a brief moment there was life. Then it was gone. They need to put their synthesizer player into a wood chipper and let that drummer rock out.
There was a talent show for the crew that clearly showed the hand of corporate interference. The crew clearly have talents but the creative direction of the performance was insincere.
The nightlife was absolutely pathetic. If you are the sort of person who, at 10:30pm with sunlight still visible through the windows and no urge to sleep, thinks to visit the bar and see what’s up, be prepared to be one of the four barflies present.
I overpaid to get a guaranteed veranda deck.
The boat typically docked around 6am, with excursions starting between 7 and 8am. The sun comes up at 4:45am and set sometime around 11pm. It was rough, but part of the scenery.