For over 40 years I have traveled the world and taken many cruises, but never on a Holland America Lines ship. With the expansion of our latest online publication IMPress, I felt it was important to broaden our coverage and be a bit more inclusive in the reviews I was writing for IPA. My wife called me about a great promotion on the Nieuw Amsterdam and we decided to take a six night western caribbean cruise on the pride of the HAL line. It would be great to visit my son and his family in Florida, spend New Year’s Eve with them and the next day board the ship for the cruise. On our return we would then spend some time with the our one year old granddaugter at my son’s home.
Booking The Cruise
Since my wife is a travel agency owner for over 30 years at times is offered attractive travel opportunities. As president of IPA, Editor-In Chief of our online publications and a working photojournalist, I too have offers to review travel destinations and cruises, so we are a great working team. She books the travel and takes care of the details and I contact the resorts or cruise lines to arrange for our visit and subsequent reviews. This team effort enables us to cover many resorts and travel itinereries that only the larger publications can cover. Since we generally pay our way, we can pick only those destinations we really want to experience and places we feel we can offer the time and effort in producing a video and writing a review. It takes weeks to produce the finished product, so it doesn’t make sense unless we know before we go, it will be worth our money, time and efforts.
My first contact at Holland American Lines was their public relations office. I spoke to Mellissa Medford their PR coordinator and introduced myself and told her a bit about IPA and IMPress. After she had the opportunity to review my work and review our websites, she gave me the green light to do the review. She arranged for us to meet the ships guest relations manager, Joya De Leon, who then arranged for our interviews on board the ship. Mark Zeller the ships hotel manager was our first appointment followed by Jonathan Lewis their manager of culinary operations. I usually try for the triple play on my ship reviews, but the captain was not available for an interview, but we did get a chance to meet him when we attended the Captain’s Cocktail Party one evening.
Preparation For The Trip • My Gear
Since this was a first for us on an HAL ship, we weren’t sure what to expect. I decided to pack heavy and take all of my gear so I would be able me to cover this ship from top to bottom properly. For this article and video I wanted to shoot in full 1080 HD video and shoot high resolution images. I packed my Nikon D7000 DSLR and my new Nikon Coolpix DW100, which is a great back up and special application camera. I knew I would use it when we hit Jamaica and our pre-arranged Chukka Tours Zip Line and River Tube Tours.
I also packed my Tamron lenses to include their: wide angle SP 10-24MM F/3.5-4.5 Di II LD Aspherical zoom lens and their new AF18-270MM F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD all in one zoom lens. I also took my Nikkor f1.8, 50mm lens which I like to use for some of my food and portrait shots. This inexpensive lens offers great results in low light situations and beautiful Bokeh on many of my close-up food and portraits images.
I also wanted to test out my new Manfrotto 057 Carbon Fiber tripod with their very hot new 057 RC4 Magnesium Ball Head. This tripod/head combination weighs much less then comparable tripods so it is easy to take on these assignments. The quality and workmanship in their products is second to none. This tripod and head combo was selected for my still photography and
static video work but this head is not a video head. I still need a head that will allow me to pan and tilt the way a true video head does. Waiting for a new video head to arrive any day so I can take it to the upcoming NAB show in Las Vegas, my next assignment.
I use a nice RØDE VideoMic which is a directional on-camera microphone, a professional grade 1/2″ condenser shotgun microphone designed for use with consumer video cameras and personal audio recorders. This mic is great and improves the sound quality especially in locations with a lot of background or ambient noise. This mic concentrates on the sound coming from sources directly in front of the microphone. Great for noisy locations that I shoot like trade shows and other events. Of course I had my Nikon Speedlight SB-800 a Maxima 84 LED movie light, three Kata camera bags.
Arriving On The Ship
We arrived in Fort Lauderdale from our base in West Palm Beach were we were staying before and after the cruise ended. I was excited to see this beautiful ship and happy to see our spacious stateroom with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a nice bottle of sparkling wine waiting for us, compliments of HAL. We also had a notice that they arranged for us to dine at three of their specialty restaurants, the Pinnacle Grill, Tamarind Asian Restaurant and Le Cirque’ which is offered one night during the cruise in the Pinnacle Grill restaurant.
The ship is almost new (launched July 4, 2010) everything was sparkling and fresh. The decor is understated and very elegant and lacks all the flash and neon one would expect to see on the other cruise lines. You see HAL is an upscale cruise line that caters to the older clientele who prefer a more sophisticated decor. This doesn’t mean that they don’t attract the younger customer or families, it does mean however that you will find a nice cross section of guests. We noticed a lot of physically fit passengers, both young and old. We did not see those that might enjoy entering a “Belly Flop” contest, entertainment that we have seen on other “fun” ships. What you will see, is a nice selection of passengers who came from many different countries. We met people from Brazil, Australia and lots of Canadian families because they were still on Holiday vacation from their schools.
This ship can accommodate 2100 passengers and over 900 crew members. They boast 1053 staterooms that breakdown into 2 Penthouse Suites, 50 Superior Suites, 62 Deluxe Verandah Staterooms, 150 inside cabins and the remainder are the Verandah Staterooms with balconies. Sixty-seven percent of their staterooms have balconies, so there is plenty of light in most of them.
The beds in our stateroom were king sized and oh so comfortable. Their beds and linens assure guests that they will enjoy a good nights sleep. The bathrooms have a full bath with a shower, unlike so many ships that only have a tight stall shower.
One other feature unique to this ship is the availability of private cabana’s that are located around the main pool and in one of the decks above overlooking the pool. In our interview with Mark Zeller you will see that they are the only ship that offers this wonderful amenity and you can book the cabana’s by the day or week. It is perfect for a small family, especially with young children or those that want the comfort, privacy and added attention that cabana patrons enjoy. Be warned should you think about booking one on your next cruise, they are limited and go fast, so you should reserve yours when you book your cruise.
The Ship & The Staff
The ship is decorated beautifully and is meant to offer their passengers a luxurious and relaxing cruise. They are dedicated to their guests positive cruising experience and do everything in their power to make it just that. The ship has so much going on during the day from cooking classes to computer classes and all included at no extra charge. They have a huge library stacked with loads of books and current magazines and one of the nicest spots to read them, the Crow’s Nest. If you still want to be in touch they offer a full computer center with loads of computers and slow but available internet access. If you have children, don’t worry, plenty for the young ones and the teens as well. Club Hal is the place for the little ones and they also have activities for young teens too. The spa and health club had tons of machines and classes from Yoga to Pilates too. Plenty of lounge chairs around the pools and upper decks, so no need to get up at 6 AM to reserve chairs. Two pools one for all ages and one for adults only. Not many people were in the adult pool, but the family pool had lots of activity with the kids, moms and dads all having a great time.
The staff on board the ship are from Indonesia and the Phillipines and this holds true for all the other HAL ships. This custom of hiring crews from these countries, goes back many years. They have found that having these wonderful, warm and friendly people serve their passengers helps them offer that positive cruise experience. I found out that it is easier for a ships staff to function better as a team on their ships because they share a culture, language and work ethic. Other ships crews we have met came from a number of countries and most wear a name tag that shows their name and the country they come from. I can tell you that this in itself is a problem for many guests and the crew itself. Not only are their language problems, but it is more difficult for them to work as a cohesive team because of these differences, not so on HAL. Some of the people you will see in our video have been with HAL for many years and they all greeted us with a smile and a great deal of warmth.
I originally thought I would keep my article short, because I would tell the story in my photos and videos, but that became hard to do as I sat down to write my story. I would let those on the ship meet my readers and tell you a bit about their jobs and the ship and that would be the best way to show you what we experienced, but alas I did have to guide you through the videos and give you some foundation to help you understand what you will see. You will see each person in my video introduce themselves and tell you a little about what they do and in some cases how long they have worked for HAL. Watch their faces and listen to how they tell you a little about themselves, I am sure you will see for yourselves they are happy to work on the ship and be with a company like Holland America Lines.
You will also meet some of the guests we met and interviewed on the cruise. One thing you will hear from all of them…the food is exceptional and the ship is warm, inviting and very comfortable. Not many spoke about the shore excursions, which we will talk about in the next few paragraphs, but it was all about a relaxing cruise, one where they could spend quality time with family and one where they were able to make new friends. I love to interview the guests when I do a travel review because they are the same people that read these articles. People that are thinking of taking a cruise and want to know more from others. Isn’t this the reason we spend hours reading reviews people write about products and services before we make a decision to buy a product? I know I do and in many cases will make my decision on the many reviews I will read. I actually did the same prior to taking this cruise and I found that the reviews were quite telling and accurate.
Entertainment On The Ship
Each night their was entertainment on the ship. You could go to the Piano Bar and have some fun with Jimmy Maddox who if more fun then singer. You will see him get the crowd to sway to the tunes of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline even if he forgot some of the lyrics. If you wanted to simply relax in one of the other lounges like the Explorer’s Lounge with friends and have some great conversation you could do this too and also listen to the Adagio Strings a wonderful string quartet that plays the classics beautifully.
If you are looking for that big ship extravaganza type show, you may be a bit disappointed if you try to compare them to a Broadway show or a multi-million dollar production the super ships offer. The comments we either read in passenger reviews and heard from people we spoke to on the ship were luke warm when describing some of the shows in the Showroom At Sea. Our opinion was the same. We know we are a bit jaded, after all we go to Broadway shows living in the New York area. We have traveled and cruised extensively, so we wanted to be objective, so we read and talked to others. The consensus was that these “production shows” were not as entertaining or offered the high production values we might experience on some of the other ships. Most felt this was an attempt to copy a big production show with a much smaller budget, not necessarily the right direction for this ship.
After viewing three nights of shows, my recommendations to HAL is not try to compete with the mega ship shows, they really don’t need to do this. They had Craig Diamond billed as “A master magician and funny guy”. When he first took the stage we thought we were in for a typical magic act, but soon found ourselves laughing at his antics. Although the magic might not have been mind boggling or extravagent, he was so funny that the magic was simply the vehicle for his funny antics. No big budget or big production numbers, but we enjoyed the evenings entertainment.
Let me digress for a moment…Back in the 1950’s to 1960’s we didn’t vacation on cruise ships and international vacations were for the rich. Our family would spend our summers away the sweltering streets of New York and spend a good part of the summer in the Borscht Belt also known as the Jewish Alps. It was strewn with hotels, bungalow colonies, summer camps and was located in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Many comedians got their start working the Catskills, names like Phyllis Diller, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Zero Mostel, The Three Stooges and many others. Singers and dancers also got their start there and you might see Tony Martin, Neil Sedaka, Dinah Shore, Benny Goodman, Carole King and some of the best in the entertainment world, all of them started their careers in the Catskills.
Now the cruise lines are this generations Catskill mountains. We enjoyed all you can eat traditional european cooking, they had three meals each day and snacks at night. Pools and lakes to keep us cool in the summer and entertainment of some form at night including gambling. You would find the hot poker or gin rummy games for the husbands when they came up on the week-ends. You would find the ladies playing majong and canasta almost every night. So why did I digress to tell you this story? Because things haven’t changed that much over the years. Today new talent is discovered in many places. Television and the internet have become some of those places but cruise ships that have a constant need to entertain their guests have become another. The cruise ship industry probably hires more new entertainment talent then any other industry and the competition to find the best talent is heating up.
They have learned how to tap into this talent and in my mind HAL might be wiser to put their money to better use in discovering new talent and being a bit more contemporary, keeping up with todays tastes in entertainment. Why not replace these old production numbers, where we see the same twelve singers and dancers in various outfits and poor fitting wigs each night with fresh faces? We want to see great singers, really funny, but haven’t made it yet comedians, couples that do exhibition type dancing and by all means, lets throw in some great specialty acts that we all love to watch. Not sure what the public wants? Then watch America’s Got Talent and find out. Now if that isn’t enough and the budget is still too thin, than throw in a couple of those fun nights where the audience becomes the show. Heck, you can never go wrong with some version of the newlywed game. I know ships have a logistics and travel issue and have to pick up talent at various ports, but their has to be a way to solve that problem.
Shore Excursions and Visits To The Islands
This cruise promised three days on shore and we were to visit Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, Falmouth, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman. Unfortunately poor weather made our first port of call Half Moon Cay impossible and we spent an extra day at sea. Frankly for us, it was just fine, since another day in the sun on a beach in an island that was filled with tee-shirt and duty free liquor and jewelry shops was something I didn’t miss. They also refunded some fees we paid to dock in the Bahamas which we put to use on some on board spending.
The good part of missing the Bahamas was another great day on the ship where we could enjoy some of the other activities going on. We decided to see a cooking demonstration in their very cool Culinary Arts Center which was set up like a Food Channel Cooking Kitchen. We had a great time eating at the Lido for lunch and even tried some of their wonderful Asian cuisine. While my wife sat by the poolside reading her book, I went to the movies in the ships movie theater. It was great and they even served warm pop corn and the seats were certainly not the ones you find in the average theater, these were the soft reclining ones with soft leather and a place to put your cup of soda or bottle of water.
Falmouth Jamaica was our stop for the fourth day of the cruise and I had arranged to meet the nice folks at Chukka Tours. I had met them in New York at a travel show and their owner invited me to take some of their “experiences” if I was ever to come down. In the past I tried to do this when in Jamaica, but was never able to make it happen, until this trip. I met their Caribbean Brand Manager, Georgette McCullum who arranged for us to take their Chukka ZipLine Canopy & River Tubing Combo. They were both great as you will see in the video and she was so much fun. You can see her doing her little “commercial” in the video and it was done in one take, amazing. So much fun and you will even hear my wife screaming Ya Man as she started her decent on the first leg of the Zip Line adventure. Great people and great excursions, you must be sure to book a Chukka Tour in the Caribbean, these guys really own this business and I believe are the largest company in the islands.
The following day we landed in the Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman. We have been there before and although for us, we decided to take it easy and simply do some snorkeling and then hit the public beach, no excursions planned for the day. Now you can book many fun excursions right on the ship or even before you get to the ship, but we are old time travelers and tend to like to do it ourselves and try not to plan these things in advance unless we intend to write about them in our reviews.
We walked out to the main street and walked about two blocks and came upon a little retail store called Beach Bum Water Sports located at 23 N. Church St. They rent snorkeling gear so we went in and met the owner Tami Keyes who you will meet in the video too. Tami was great and comes from the United States, decided to pick up, start a little business in the island and make a go of it, which she has. She runs some of the tours for the cruise lines including HAL and also works directly with travelers. You can email her for more info at: [email protected], tell her Len at IPA sent you.
I just had to let her talk about her operation on our video, after all she let me snorkel in the back of her building where you will see some underwater video I shot with my little point and shoot Nikon Coolpix AW100. It is a very cool camera, good to 33 feet underwater, shockproof if dropped up to 5′, impervious to damage from rain, snow, sand or other elements and had the best LCD rear display that enables one to shoot full 1080p HD videos and amazing 180 to 360 degree panoramic photos. But this article is not about all the great gear I used, but I simply had to tell you about this wonderful little camera.
Getting back to our trip…So I snorkeled for awhile and got some cool shots of the big ships anchored at sea from the ocean view, got some fish, some kyacks coming at me in the water and burned off a few calories. Then we decided to hit the public beach about two miles from where the ships dock. We caught the public bus and for $2 each it took us to the beautiful white sand beach. You can rent chairs there, other water gear and even grab something to eat, very nice, clean beach and great crystal clear water.
We took one of the ships tenders back to the ship and a had something light to eat to hold us until dinner. Tonight we were going to dine at the Pinnacle Grill again, but it was t
he Le Cirque’ Night and we couldn’t wait to enjoy the fine dining experience. We knew the food would wonderful, after all it was the menu from New Yorks’s Le Cirque’ Restaurant. I am not going to say another word, or what we ate, you will have to watch the video and see for yourself. Now if this glorious meal wasn’t enough, we discovered that the ship has something special planned at the Lido Poolside. The Dessert Extravaganza at 10:30 PM is just that, an extravagant display of desserts from chocolate covered apples to the wildest and most tasty dessert creations. It takes their team four full days to prepare for this party and at the end, it is all eaten. Just when I thought I didn’t have any room left in my tummy after the meal at Le Cirque’ I somehow found a couple of spots that were still empty. It was a crazy party as you will see in the video. Next time, light meal for dinner, big time at the Extravaganza.
As I mentioned before, we had set up interviews with both Mark Zeller the Hotel Manager who was a warm, friendly, intelligent, and as my wife put it a “very good looking” man. As Mark will tell you, he is the youngest hotel manager at HAL and was honored when they assigned him the newest and largest ship in the fleet the Nieuw Amsterdam. Watch the video now on YouTube and see Mark answer some of my questions about his role as hotel manager, challenges for the future for HAL and the cruise industry and how HAL differs from the other cruise lines.
My second interview was with Jonathan Lewis the Manager of Culinary Services on the ship. I loved both of these men, they were great fun to interview and Jonathan even arranged a private tour of the ships kitchens for us, where we met some of his staff and saw how they handle the many challenges of feeding thousands of people each day. This is one interview you must see Click Here to view this interview
Summary & Recommendations
I always like to summarize my reviews and make my personal recommendations. If you haven’t figured it out by now, let me be clear. My wife and I both loved this cruise and considering we never sailed with HAL before we were pleasantly surprised. We were convinced they couldn’t compete with the mega ships that we have reviewed in the past, but were wrong, they can. Although this was our first HAL cruise I hope it will not be our last and hopefully you will plan a cruise on the Nieuw Amsterdam too. The cost of this six night cruise during their promotional period was less then staying at home and eating three meals a day even at our local restaurants.
If you aren’t a beer guzzling, love to yell and scream party animal and are looking to meet some nice people from many countries and make new friends then by all means take yourself and the family on this wonderful vacation. You will find the cost, less then it might cost at a decent resort and the experience will be unique and not soon forgotten.
Should you happen to meet Mark Zeller, Joya De Leon or Jonathan Lewis on your cruise, be sure to say you saw our review and wanted to meet them in person. We won’t soon forget this wonderful cruise and hope to once again sail on another HAL ship.
Sit back now and relax and enjoy our video. Be sure you see our interviews too.