Sunday, February 27, 2011

Nieuw Amsterdam Cruise Review

There are many cruise products out there to choose from when it comes to planning a family vacation, and a few years ago a Holland America Line cruise might not be on the radar for parents to consider, however; within the last ten years more family amenities, features and programming have been integrated into their ships and is evident on the Nieuw Amsterdam. For nearly one hundred and forty years Holland America Line has established itself as a solid, reliable, classy company, starting out as a Dutch national passenger shipping line, operating trans-Atlantic crossings and world-wide itineraries mostly for transportation like most other shipping companies in the early nineteen hundreds through the fifties. Of course the passenger shipping industry faded as the jet aircraft took over the trans-Atlantic route, and a few of these “national” passenger shipping companies, like Britain’s Cunard Line, the United States Line and Holland America Line, shifted their services from transport roles to cruising. I recently took my family on a cruise aboard the fourth ship in Holland America Line’s history to bare the name Nieuw Amsterdam. Launched in July of 2010, the beautiful “vista-class” Nieuw Amsterdam is Holland America Line’s newest ship incorporating all of the “Signature of Excellence” amenities and features that first-time and return passengers have come to enjoy over the past several years. My wife Terri, and my nine-year-old son Jacob, accompanied me on the eastern Caribbean itinerary aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam with the great anticipation of enjoying a wonderful vacation together as a family.

As a Cruise Industry Journalist, I was very busy onboard throughout the whole cruise aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam gathering video and audio content for my Cruising Authority website at www.cruisetalkshow.com and admittedly, I didn’t relax as much as I should have. My wife helped me with getting the videos, so she worked extra hard on this “vacation” along with me. We did have our moments where we enjoyed time together as a family on shore excursions and some meal times. For us it was convenient to check our son into Club HAL while we worked on getting the video content together. Most passengers with children however; could use the “Club HAL time” away from their kids and enjoy the pool, the spa, or laying out on deck.

My son enjoyed Club HAL, which came as a surprise to me because they didn’t have the water slides and water parks like some other cruise ships. Club HAL has rooms onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam dedicated to certain age groups; there was a child care area for little kids then a “tween” room for kids up to about 12 years old then a teen area. The “tween” room is where my son hung out for various planned activities. This “Tween” room had an authentic New York Taxi Cab for the kids to play in and around. This cab allows for the kids to use their imagination and pretend to drive everywhere. These days, I guess if the kid’s facility has enough video games, that’s sufficient to entertain these younger passengers. I know Club HAL also had numerous other activities to keep the kids busy like Spy Night and Paper Airplane Night, and a Club HAL version of the Olympics as well as a pajama party. Even though there are no water slides, my son swam for hours in the Lido Pool area on Deck Nine midship. As a parent it made me happy that my son was having a good time on this cruise, and I could count on Club HAL to provide the activities for him to enjoy himself. Jacob is nine years old and was given the opportunity with our permission of course to check himself in and out of Club HAL. I think my son enjoyed that freedom and responsibility to be able to leave if he was bored and go to our stateroom. Boredom, however; was not in my son’s vocabulary during this cruise when he was engaged and plugged into Club HAL.

Dining onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was a treat for all of us as a family. Since we were on vacation, if my son wanted pizza, we gave him the freedom to go for it, and on Deck Nine aft there is a little pizza place called “Slice” where pizza was available throughout the day. I enjoyed the mornings as a family because we usually ate together in the Lido, and of course there was a plethora of options including, eggs, omelets, sausage, bacon, breakfast rolls, cereal, and my breakfast of choice in recent months, oatmeal. There were fruits and juices and pancakes, nearly any breakfast you can imagine was available in the Lido each morning. We also ate from the Terrace Grill at the Lido Pool area for lunches. I was impressed to be able to have a turkey dog or a salmon burger rather than the usual beef hotdog or hamburger. Our first night onboard, as a family we had reservations in the Tamarind Restaurant, which was delightful! Even my son enjoyed some of the unique options and he was adventurous enough to try a little caviar. The service, presentation and quality of the food in Tamarind was excellent and worth making reservations in advance to eat in this place. There is a charge to eat here, and it’s worth the extra few dollars to experience this Asian fusion dining. To truly go over-the-top and indulge in fine dining at it’s best, without question the Chef’s Table eight-course meal in the Pinnacle dining room was exceptional. We dined on the best Versace tableware, had the best wine sampling for each course, and I ate things I normally wouldn’t care for, because it was prepared with exquisite culinary skill and craftsmanship. Particularly delicious was the Frappe of Lobster and Porcini Bisque, wow, that was such a delightful and smooth taste! This evening at the Chef’s table was the first time I had ever indulged in the delicacy of Goose Liver and I was surprised there was not a “liver” taste to it. We also had Sea Bass with Caviar, Veal and completing the evening with the “Dialogue of Chocolate Seduction” which was seductive!

For the Manhattan Dining room I would recommend either first or second seating rather than the new “As You Wish” dining, because chances are you’ll have a different wait staff each visit who will not have the opportunity to know you and your general preferences. We elected to dine in the Manhattan Dining room twice with As You Wish reservations and I wouldn’t recommend it. The reasoning is because the wait staff has numerous tables at different levels and times of their course which may be somewhat challenging for the wait staff to accommodate the varying schedules efficiently. We felt that our waiter rushed us through our dinner and even brought out two courses at the same time, like for example our salad and entrĂ©e arrived at the same time. This may have been an isolated incident, however; we noticed that both of our experiences in the Manhattan Dining room were similar. Additionally, although the wait staff was very efficient, I felt that our waiters acted with more of a robotic precision rather than the more personable and friendly manner you would expect when enjoying a fine-dinning experience. Again, I think if we had a regular wait staff each night, we would get to know them and they would get to know us, and there would be a more personable exchange, which we felt we missed in the “As You Wish” dinning experience. One more observation about the Manhattan Dinning Room was the level of noise when the room was full. Wow, it got loud and difficult to carry on a conversation with someone across the table. I think part of the noise is from the design of the room, which acoustically allowed for sound to bounce all over the place because of the smooth surfaces. I think that perhaps if you are able to get a table away from the center two-level-high section of the room, in a corner, you may have a better experience with regard to the basic dinning room volume and maybe enjoy your conversations with your tablemates easier.

This voyage aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam took us to the Eastern Caribbean ports of Half Moon Cay, Holland America Line’s private island and beaches, St Maarten, San Juan and finally Grand Turk Island. I am convinced that Half Moon Cay is one of the top three private beaches owned by a cruise line with it’s soft, white, powdery beaches and beautifully colored water. Holland America Line has done a great job of building play areas for kids and families with a fun water park and now a new two-level high pirate ship bar. From the pirate ship’s top deck you can get a great view of the whole island. As a family we didn’t get off the ship in St Maarten and elected to hang out and swim in the Lido pool while most of the passengers took off for excursions. We did, however; go on the Rain Forest Drive while in San Juan. I had been to San Juan about fifty times but never visited the rain forest, so this was my opportunity to do something I had never experienced. I was a little concerned that my son would get bored, and in fact he didn’t want to go, but fortunately he found a friend his age on our bus and he had a great time exploring the observation tower and the lush trail through the forest. We stopped at a waterfall and climbed around together, which I think my son really enjoyed. The rain forest tour was a success! Finally, with our visit to Grand Turk, we decided to go on the horse back riding adventure and swim. This was my first time to Grand Turk and my son’s first time riding a horse. My son was so funny, as I tried to take video of him while he was riding the horse, and he kept telling me he cannot look back because he was concentrating on driving the horse. The tour was very organized and I got a kick out of the operators of the tour as we were all being assigned a horse to ride. I felt like I was in high school waiting to be chosen to play on a particular team, as the operator would size up the various people in our group and then select a horse they thought would be best for that person. I would guess that the children in our group were assigned horses that were more obedient and docile. I was told that these horses came from Jamaica and were retired race horses. After a ride along the beach to the lighthouse, we returned to the little coral so the saddles could be changed for riding in the ocean. The operators would take small groups to the beach on horseback, and into the ocean up to our knees. The horses would plow through the water and even run through the ocean which was quite exhilarating. If there was one moment during our cruise that I was glad we had travel insurance with Access America, this was it. You never know what could happen, and even though we were all safe and there were no accidents or injuries, I had peace of mind knowing that if there was a problem, we would have been taken care of.

While in Grand Turk, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to meet Winston Scott, who was one of the astronauts from the space shuttle program. We happened to be in Grand Turk during the grand opening of an exhibition celebrating the splash down of the John Glenn space capsule in 1962 just off the coast of Grand Turk Island. There was a mock-up of the John Glenn space capsule and some very informative placards explaining the history of the space program and how Grand Turk Island has been a pivotal place for NASA and the U.S Military.

Holland America Line has certainly evolved over the past ten years or so in order to gain a wider and more diverse demographic which includes a less elderly yield. The entertainment for example, appeals to more discerning passengers with a taste for higher quality and more professional entertainers. I think what Holland America Line has done with the entertainment is excellent. They are working with a shore-based entertainment company that provides top quality and talented musicians that have the flexibility to stand on their own as entertainers. As an example, there was a quartet of violinists that alone performed an entire concert in the Explorers Lounge, and their talent was also utilized in the bigger, combined shows with singers and dancers. The same can be said about the four-man group called Cantare, who were also utilized in a number of other shows during the cruise. I enjoyed the grand finale show where Sandy Patti’s “Love in Any Language” is sung as crew and staff from all over the ship come together to bid farewell.

Was I unhappy with any aspect of the cruise? Holland America Line creates such a comforting environment, it would truly be a challenge to find unhappy passengers, however; on our cruise there was a very small number of passengers who were experiencing gastro-intestinal issues or norovirus, so the crew had to work extra hard and longer hours to make sure the ship was sterilized and absolutely spotless. Hand sanitizer was used at the entrance to all the restaurant areas so it was mandatory for all passengers to sanitize their hands when entering the dining venues or entering the ship from shore. The buffet in the Lido was on lock-down so no passengers could help themselves to food, rather the food was served by the crew. No salt and pepper shakers were available on the tables, but individual packets were available upon request. The biggest disappointment for my wife and I was the fact that the spa with the thalassotherapy pool and the thermal beds and hot tubs were unavailable and closed throughout the duration of the cruise. This was a precautionary measure to minimize the risk of spreading this GI disease. I wouldn’t of course blame Holland America Line for this, because they were in fact taking extra stringent precautions to prevent further spreading of this highly contagious virus. After speaking with the Hotel Director, he informed me that their extra stringent measures were effective in preventing further issues, which overall, allows for more passengers to fully enjoy their cruise.

I think the new “Signature-Class” vessels, the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, both of which I have cruised on, are the maximum size of ship that Holland America Line should build. The cruise industry has plenty of larger ships, and Holland America Line maintains that “premium” standard, even with ships as large as the Nieuw Amsterdam. Both the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam are wonderful ships, well built, with classy interiors and with truly exceptional crew members. With ships of this size, however; there is a magnified “feeling” that this is a very large company and I think the more intimate, personalized, experience onboard is watered down a bit. Don’t get me wrong, the crew onboard do an excellent job and the ships never feel crowded, in fact I think Holland America Line has mastered the art of providing an excellent, comfortable, classy and “premium” vacation experience. It’s like the “feeling” you get when you live in a small town, compared to living in a larger metropolitan city. It’s that “small-town” feeling that causes passengers to become so loyal to Holland America Line. For the discerning vacationers, Holland America Line delivers. For families with children vacationing aboard any of the Holland America Line vessels, you can be assured that your kids will also enjoy a fun and memorable vacation.

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