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Veendam
New York to Bermuda
July 2010

by Karen Segboer


My friend Norma once wanted very badly to go to a John Denver concert (which will illustrate how long ago that was). One of Denver’s signature songs, “Back Home Again”, kept going through my head last week as we made our way from New York City to Bermuda, a cruise we’ve done, in part, about eight or nine times in the past. HAL, you’ve won my heart all over again.

Quote overheard in a shared taxi on the way to Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda: “What ship are you on?” “The Vondeem.” (She was on our ship.)
Do people make these kinds of mistakes on land-based vacations? Do they ever confuse Brussels with Bulgaria?

We have not travelled on a Holland America Line ship since 1998, quite a long time in our own ship sailing history. We sailed on the ROTTERDAM VI in April of that year and on this same VEENDAM later in October. I remember that I was quite brutal in my analysis of my last HAL cruises, and I had to go back to try to remember why. I just re-read my VEENDAM review of 1998 and I was ranting by the second paragraph. What was I thinking? Maybe I was just post-cruise. Or maybe I was premenopausal. Anyway, we went away, not literally, but figuratively, off to look for new onboard experiences. Mostly, we sailed with Cunard, but also with RCI, Seven Seas and Silversea plus the now-gone Renaissance and Premier cruise lines. I still think it was time to leave HAL when we did, and it was time to come back home again when we did. The material for comparison was all there, a ship we had already sailed and a destination we already knew well.

Hans and I also had many life changes over the past five years. Between deciding to downsize to a new townhouse in a different state, being only children caring for elderly parents and the deaths of two of the three remaining ones plus two major schedule-changing back surgeries for me, we were busy with life. Then, we got a dog. Anybody who has ever tried to find responsible pet care while away on vacation knows what I’m talking about. Cats are a breeze. A dog is different.

So, this is not a cruise review of the general type, with lengthy paragraphs that go on and on about the size of the ship, how many passengers it holds, the sight lines in the show room, the difference of food quality in the specialty dining room or the availability of pizza on the pool deck. Indeed, this cruise was easy, port-wise. We embarked in New York City. We got off at two ports in Bermuda. Then we came back to New York a week later. Many reading this will have done this exact same trip.

Quote overheard in the Lido dining area: Middle-aged woman finishing up her breakfast coffee to friends at the table - “ The worst shore excursion Bernie and I ever took was a two hour bus ride to see a rock. TO SEE A ROCK!” (ie, Peggy’s Cove, Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Am I becoming blasť about an activity I’m very used to and maybe bored with? No, not at all. I’m just looking at things from a different perspective, a perspective that allows me to enjoy something in a fresh new way when I thought that maybe I couldn’t do that any longer. How many of us regular cruisers have been on trips that felt similar to the ones we took a year or two or five ago? This is how I approached this cruise, but came out feeling very different in the end.

This is a cruise that came up quite unexpectedly. We never take vacations during the summer months unless we’re traveling with a group and have no choice in the selection of dates and schedules. Our ship was full of kids, since this was the height of summer vacation from school. There were bands of roving unsupervised teens, five and six of them at a time, with cell phones gripped firmly in their young paws, trying to understand why they could not get reception in the middle of the North Atlantic and why their text messages were not going through. There was the Maryland Boys Choir traveling with us on this voyage (I kid you not). There were very young babies, too. I saw a few strollers with two toddlers and there was even a set or two (or three) of twins. There were also large informal groups sailing together. One was a bunch of Russians from Brooklyn, NY. Another group was from an over-55 active adult neighborhood in Pennsylvania.

What’s new: The use of hand sanitizer. It’s everywhere. The norovirus doesn’t stand a chance on this ship. I am completely sanitized! In fact, when I get back home again and want to relive my vacation, I’ll just apply Purell. But that’s a Good Thing, though. I understand the incidence of passenger-to-passenger gastrointestinal issues has decreased since cruise lines started getting tough on those little buggers. The upright containers full of sanitizer all over the ship, as well as staff waiting to pump your palm full of the stuff as you walk into the dining areas makes most passengers do the right thing and use it. It became like a right of passage to get food. Walk in smelling like an alcohol-based disinfectant, and you’ll get your dinner. But it also reminds all of us to be cautious, to be aware. And isn’t that what we’re all doing more of these days in every aspect of our lives? If we can beat a little virus, maybe we can conquer other things, too.

What’s also new: Flip-flops on formal night. I witnessed it. That’s just not right.

More news: Towel animals! Yes, now HAL’s cabin stewards make towel animals in the evenings at turn-down time. You still get your ‘nighty-night chocolate, too, as well as assorted invitations, tomorrow’s daily program and any other information you’ll need to start a new day at sea, so it’s all good.

The Rosario Strings are gone, but they were replaced on the VEENDAM run to Bermuda by the Adagio Strings ... and they were wonderful. All from the Ukraine, three fiddlers and a cellist, they played with both passion and precision. They gathered a big following nightly in the Explorers Lounge.

WiFi and Internet connectivity. In general, it’s far superior to the last ship I was on. I was remembering the days when marine artist Stephen Card and I almost had to beat up an internet manager on the SS NORWAY to get a package deal. There’s a Explorations Cafe close-by (I’m always thinking of where to get my next onboard nosh), the computer/Internet area is big and the WiFi is great. We brought my new iPad, plus Hans’ little netbook, and we were happy with the way the system worked for us, both in our cabin and around the ship.

What did HAL do wrong: They took away a very decent aft deck pool/lounge area and replaced it with prefab cabins. Now, there’s just the “Retreat” with a “pool” of sorts, which is about eighteen inches deep. I know times are tough and revenue is key, but the mid-ship pool on VEENDAM is just not enough, especially on a summer vacation with a ship loaded with kids. Most afternoons, that little Lido pool was shoulder-to-shoulder with children. The few adults I spotted were hanging on for dear life on the far edges of the pool, trying to get cool with a splash of water now and again. There’s a special spot, the Loft Club, for the young ones at the aft end of the ship, complete with waterfall, hammocks and deck chairs their size. On the occasion of our quick visit, there was no kids there, only one adult ... in a hammock.

What did HAL do right: They made their Wajang Theatre (a great place for almost-first run movies, incidentally) into a dual purpose public space. It’s now also a Culinary Arts Center with onboard demonstrations and discussions.

What’s not so new (and this is not HAL’s fault): Let me put it this way - If I see one more person out at the bow of the ship by the rail doing James Cameron’s “Titanic” ( “I can fly!”) thing, I think I may just go up to them and remind them that thousands of people lost their lives on that ship. As a long-time ocean liner aficionado, it bothers me still to see that. Maybe I’m just too sensitive. Plus, the movie was over a decade ago. I can’t even imagine what these same people do when they go to Pandora.

What remains the same is HAL’s dedication to its passengers having a good time, of taking care of them. I’d forgotten about how the Indonesian and Filipino staff present their best, week after week, and genuinely look like they’re enjoying themselves, too. Sure, their work is hard. Sure, the hours are long and they are away from family and friends for months on end. But it truly seems like they love their jobs and love their lives. It warms my heart to watch how they do what they do. They are not just faking it. They’ll share with you, take care of you, and it’s not just for the tips. One regrettable thing is that the current tipping policy onboard has their tip money taken out of passengers’ accounts instead of allowing the passenger to make it more personal, to say a proper goodbye at the end of the trip and express in person, face to face, how nice that particular person made their vacation cruise. Many passengers do it anyway. We did. In a short span of a week, staff and cruiser develop a working relationship that almost requires a more personal approach. It is here that I must say something special about our cabin steward, Kosh, who was probably the best we have ever had onboard any ship. He set the bar high, but also led the way in explaining just how good these folks are at what they do.

What also remains the same? The food. It’s even better than I remember, in all venues. Hurrah for the cold soups! I particularly enjoy HAL’s cold soups at dinner in the dining room nightly, a tradition that started with me on the WESTERDAM to Alaska back in 1990. Is it silly to like dinner rolls? I like HAL’s dinner rolls. So there, I said it. I miss the crudites with choice of dressing on the side available as an appetizer on the dinner menu.

Hans asked for sambal oelek, a spicy Asian condiment, for his fish dish one evening in the dining room. Our waiter ran to get it. Hans was delighted! On our last VEENDM cruise, this was not the case. No sambal. Nobody in the dining room knew anything about it.

I still enjoy a piece of ginger upon leaving the dining room after dinner. I’m thinking of implementing this tradition at home, but I don’t think it’s on NutriSystem.

More of what’s the same: The HAL Pavlovian-style dinner chimes calling the hungry from their bars and lounges of preference to yet another evening meal in the dining room. The young man in charge of these chimes on our cruise opted to play what sounded like a Christmas carol rather than the simple ping-pong-pang I’m used to. Anyway, it was still nice.

What I’m not sure about yet: Those Lanai cabins on Lower Promenade Deck. During one of the ship’s refurbishments, some cabins here were given sliding glass doors in place of the large porthole windows. Now, the occupants can step right onto the outdoor walkaround and have their own reserved deck chairs outside their cabin’s outer door. I think it’s one of those things that you either like very much or hate completely.

A long-time custom of mine when all is said and done and my trip is over is to ask myself if I would go on this ship or this line again in future. I’ve seen it done with other reviewers over recent years, so I guess it’s become a very good gauge of how things went. The truth is, I’m dying to get back onboard a Holland America ship. I’ve spent a considerable time since arriving back home again poring over HAL brochures while doing vacation laundry. We’ve already booked the ROTTERDAM for next year in Europe. I have my eye on the PRINSENDAM after eschewing for years the idea of a ship not HAL-built. Nobody has a bad thing to say about the PRINSENDAM, and now I’m anxious to know why.

So, would I do it again? Would I book a Holland America cruise again? In a heartbeat.


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