My very first cruise was in March of this year – a seven-night Mexican Riviera cruise departing from San Diego, with stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, and Cabo San Lucas. I’d never been on a boat for such a long time, so I didn’t know what to expect – though I did have an idea of what struggles I might endure, since I was traveling with my mom and my sister. They’re not the best travel companions, and I was a little apprehensive about the trip. It’s hard to be stuck on a boat with people you don’t always mesh with, but if you’re going to do it, let it be a big boat.
We sailed on Holland America’s ms Veendam, a smaller cruise ship with a capacity of 1350 passengers and 580 crew. It had all the cruise basics: a dining room, casual buffet, basketball and tennis courts, spa and fitness center, showroom, bars, casino, pool, and multiple hot tubs.
STATEROOM Our oceanview stateroom was a triple and felt spacious. It was clean and comfortable, and we slept very peacefully on their plush beds. We had a large window and a full bathroom with a bathtub. My mom, our resident cruise expert (having been on two cruises to our zero), was doubly impressed because she’d only had a small shower on her past cruises, and the beds weren’t half as comfortable as this one. But as we all know, you can’t spend too much time in your room on a cruise.
PORTS OF CALL The ship’s only swimming pool wasn’t big enough to do proper laps, so all we really wanted to do in port was go to the beach. Fortunately, a beach was walkable from all three ports. It wasn’t the best swimming – in Cabo, boats were coming in and out of the shore, bringing with them an unpleasant fuel odor. In Puerto Vallarta, we encountered a lot of debris in the ocean. But the water in March was slightly on the cool side, and very refreshing. Parasailing in Puerto Vallarta was a lot of fun, and we spent more time exploring the city than at the beach in quieter Mazatlán. Overall, all three were good destinations, with my favorite being Cabo San Lucas.
SPA This was a vacation, so we treated ourselves to passes for the thermal suite at the Greenhouse Spa. It featured a steam room, mineral bath, and heated ceramic loungers. We paid about $250 for the three of us to access the suite for the entirety of the cruise, which I thought was a good deal. I think we got our money’s worth, going once or twice each day. It was very relaxing, and I loved those heated loungers. I went into spa withdrawal when I got back!
DINING We had plenty of options aboard the Veendam: the Rotterdam Dining room for fine dining, the Lido restaurant for casual buffet options, Slice for afternoon and evening pizza, and Dive-in with poolside burgers, hot dogs, and a great taco bar. For those looking for more intimacy and higher quality, the Canaletto and Pinnacle restaurants were available at additional cost.
Holland America (HAL) is known for serving better food than most of its competitors, and I was largely impressed. Though not everything we ate was a winner, I stuffed myself with some really delicious food throughout the week. There was always something new to try, and I loved that the kitchen staff cooked up a lot of Asian flavors. Many of them are from Indonesia, and we were treated to late night Indonesian comfort foods, and an Indonesian-themed afternoon tea service.
For me, fine dining was the highlight of the cruise. Waiter service and a three-course meal in the dining room was always enjoyable, though slow-paced. We often made it a four (or more!) course meal by ordering two appetizers…or entrees or desserts.
As seafood lovers, we anxiously awaited the night lobster would be served, and were not let down. It was served with filet mignon – and who doesn’t like surf and turf? Plus, the ever-changing dessert menu allowed me to try a wonderful balsamic strawberry dessert as well as a variety of my favorite fancy dessert: soufflés.
SERVICE The first time I went to shoot hoops, I checked out a basketball from the front office and hit the court. Apparently, I had the only ball on the whole ship and ended up sharing with a 14-year-old and a 20-year-old. I thought it was so crazy that the ship advertised a basketball court but had only one ball. Should I have brought my own? I mentioned it to the front office, and I was basically told that’s how it is, because the average age of HAL’s passengers is 70. They don’t play basketball, so the cruise only needs one.
I hated hearing that, because walking around the ship, there were people of all ages. Young couples, families with children of all ages, teenagers, older people, and most importantly, me. I think it’s obvious that the staff should have prepared for such a wide age range of passengers. But we ran into a few problems like that. There was a recurring issue with our security photos, and one of the ladies at the shore excursions desk was quite rude to us. I was increasingly concerned, because I’d heard so much about how Holland America had the best service, but it wasn’t showing.
I talked to a front office clerk about the issues we had, and she was much more helpful than the unkind shore excursions lady. She gave us the information we were seeking, and told me that while they normally have 3 basketballs, two were lost in some sort of incidents (i.e., thrown overboard by a kid). When we returned to the room that night, chocolate strawberries and a courteous apology card were waiting for us.
I felt better about the service after that. The restaurant staff and room attendants were all very hardworking and nice. After dinner, it was nice to come back to a turned-down room, with chocolates on the bed and a new towel animal each night. The dining room servers stood out the most, which seems only natural, since they have the most personal service out of anybody else. I don’t have any other experience to compare it to, but I think HAL’s reputation for great service is well-deserved.
ENTERTAINMENT I went to every big show on the cruise. The ship had a decent size showroom, and they’d have singing and dancing or something of the sort every night. Despite the small stage, they were quite good quality, entertaining shows, and I was impressed. From Bob Mackie’s Broadway to Kevin Jordan’s comedy show to the “Dancing with the Stars at Sea” program, I enjoyed myself.
Daily movie programming allowed me to catch up on then-recent movies like Interstellar and The Theory of Everything, but the real treat was live music around the ship, including contemporary, classical, and ballroom. There were also small shows, karaoke, trivia events, contests, and raffles. Cruise Director John Mann did a great job hosting and just being a friendly, helpful presence around the ship.
A unique feature of HAL cruises are their onboard art auctions. It doesn’t seem like they sell a lot, but it’s an interesting, artsy experience all the same. We went to the first “Champagne Art Auction” for fun, but I pledged to skip anything art-related henceforth, because they promised us champagne and “ran out” before I got any.
CONCLUSION I’m not going to lie: I got into a fight with my sister, and my mom grated my nerves a bit, but I think that would have happened on any ship. The Veendam really had everything we needed for a good time. Though it was a smaller ship, it was large enough that we could all spread out and have our own space – and we could all recharge in the spa’s thermal suite.
I’d like to try a bigger ship for my second cruise, but must concede that smaller ships have several advantages for the seasoned cruiser: the service is more personal, public areas are less crowded, and it’s easier to get on and off the ship. All in all, I don’t think anyone would have a bad time on Holland America’s ms Veendam.