The ms Veendam is a Holland America Line ship of the Statendam class built in an Italian shipyard and staffed by British officers with Indonesian and Filipino support staff. Why these ships are continually named after Dutch ships is anyone's guess. Why HAL continues to hand out those passenger comment forms at the end of their cruises is also beyond me, since they don't seem to be at all interested in making corrections or improvements, and the main thrust of any change at all for them seems to be the almighty dollar. Why am I not surprised?
Forgive me. I'm ranting already, and I don't mean to. Not yet, anyway.
As always, some introductory information first: The Veendam is 55,451 gross tons (24,000 net registered tons), is 720 feet long and 101 feet wide. Draft is 24 feet 6 inches. She carries 1498 passengers and a crew of 604. Hans and I sailed with a small group from the Steamship Historical Society of America, World Ship Society, joined by the National Maritime Historical Society, Ocean Liner Museum members, Maritime Industry Museum members, and the John A. Noble Society. We were delighted to be sailing again with senior naval architect Stephen Payne, accompanied by his parents, Michael and Pauline Payne, as well as Bermudian maritime artist Stephen Card. We all left New York on a rainy Friday and headed north to Newport, R.I., for our first port of call, then on to Halifax, Nova Scotia and next to Boston before turning South and heading for Bermuda. The itinerary left room for a number of interesting ports, as well as three full sea days. I had previously been to all the places above; however, in Halifax we had the chance to visit both the Maritime Museum, as well as the cemetery where many of the Titanic victims were buried.
On a dark, rainy morning we all walked amoungst the tombstones, some still with no identifying names, only that date in April, 1912. Very poignant was the story of a young blond male child... one of the very first victims pulled from the ocean by Halifax rescuers sent to the scene ... who was, at first, unknown but later identified as one of the children of a Scandinavian woman coming to the West with her four children to be with her husband, their father. Only he, already in this country, survived his entire family's demise on Titanic. The young mother and wife was coincidentally buried at the head of this young child before it was discovered that he was, indeed, her son.
Down a few yards was a stone embellished with flowers. SSHSA Long Island Chapter president Tom Cassidy and I both wondered aloud almost at the same time what this was all about and then, I secretly betted it was the headstone of J. Dawson, a man who was a Titanic victim and who also shares a surname and first initial with the fictitious Jack Dawson of Jim Cameron's blockbuster movie. I was right. The grave is no doubt regularly visited by young female movie-goers who apparently mistakenly believe Leonardo De Capria's movie character is actually there. While in Halifax, we also got a chance to visit National Geographic Society's H.M.Bark Endeavor, an exact replica of James Cook's 1768 research and exploration vessel, as well as a Canadian corvette, the H.M.C.S. Sackville.
The port call to Boston a few days later gave us the chance to visit the Titanic artifacts exhibit at the World Trade Center sponsored by The Discovery Channel in cooperation with Ken Marschall, which is traveling the country and has been in Florida as well as Memphis, Tennessee. It truly was a Titanic week for me, as I got the chance to actually touch with my hand the recently recovered piece of starboard hull. It stands upright, complete with portholes, with plain tap water running down all sides to help neutralize some of the corrosive effects of certain elements in salt water in preparation for restoration efforts to begin in earnest. What an astounding afternoon that was!
Bermuda, our last port of call, was as always, beautiful. I fall in love with this place a little bit more every time I visit, and this was the eighth time for us, all via cruise ship. Stephen Card was represented in an international exhibition at Heritage House in Hamilton, Bermuda on our first day there. Our ship was at the Naval Dockyard, and the Bermuda Jazz Festival sponsored by Conde Naste Traveler was going on that weekend right outside our portholes, as it were.
Now, for the meat and potatoes of this review, the ship itself.
I must begin by admitting that I should really have sailed a Statendam class HAL ship before I sailed on the Rotterdam VI. I had visited some of the earlier newbuilds, but had never sailed on one before Rotterdam VI in April, 1998. It may have helped me understand Rotterdam VI a bit more, although it would not have changed my over-all opinion of that ship. In fact, in looking back, I dislike Rotterdam VI even more now than I did initially, but we're here to discuss MS Veendam, so here goes. Forgive me if I fall back on comparisons of the two ships every now and again, though. I found myself doing that many times over the ten days I spent onboard the Veendam. I also wanted very badly to have Veendam win it's way into my cold, cruel heart.
The Veendam is a smaller and cozier ship. I found her easy to get around, and this is perhaps a good thing for folks who like continuity and familiarity. Booking aboard HAL's "S" class ships or the "N" ships would be convenient and logical, as well as reassuring, for the folks who like this kind of emotional comfort while on vacation. The Rotterdam VI had more public spaces, but that only gave the interior designers more room to fill with nonsense, ie clay Chinese warriors. The Veendam's interiors seemed to have more purpose to them, and their designs are not as ambitious as Rotterdam VI's which is a Good Thing, as Martha Stewart would say. Although there are certainly some faux pax in this ship's interiors, the entire ship doesn't give the impression that it's trying too hard. On the other hand, some of the very things that are not successful on this ship were also not successful on Rotterdam VI, and it is disheartening to know that they will be repeated over and over again in this series of ships without being corrected even though they are generally known to be mistakes. It costs money to correct them now, and The Boss is just not willing, it seems.
There are some very uncomfortable places onboard Veendam. The Rubens show lounge has some of the most uncomfortable seats at sea, with the backs of just about every configuration of chair too short to support an average sized person through an evening show after dinner. The upholstery in the Wajang theater is a mass of navy swirls on yellow, much too busy for a place that should be visually calming when the lights are low. The Ocean Bar has what appears to be a huge, salmon-colored tablecloth, soaked in varnish and stuck on the ceiling with tension-producing little points aimed straight at imbibers' heads as they sit and enjoy their beverages. Whoever thought that would be a creative way to decorate a ceiling was a sadist. It's also an old idea that never really worked before, straight from Interior Design Summer Camp. On the other hand, in the main dining room on Veendam there are lovely clusters of inverted petaled glass instead of those awful bits of loudly colored glass encircled on the main restaurant's ceiling onboard Rotterdam VI.
We spent much time onboard in the evenings in the Explorers Lounge, unlike the room of the same name on Rotterdam VI which was wildly underused. This room has an orchestra playing (the Rosario Strings) after dinner, and although they were very good and a pleasure to listen to, this particular public room was obviously being used by most there as a place to get together and talk. The orchestra made this impossible to do. I guess American cruisers are not thought to have the capacity for conversation by the interior organizers of these ships. This really needs to be a quiet place, especially since there are alternatives for music and dancing in other venues onboard; for example, the Crow's Nest, the Piano Bar, the Ocean Bar. Speaking of the Piano Bar, this room should immediately be extrapolated and placed onboard Rotterdam VI as the Tropic Bar. The colors and the arrangement are perfect for a festive, bright, high-spirited place. In fact, this public room seemed to be so perfect and all-around "right", I wondered if the persons involved with designing the rest of the ship had anything at all to do with this room, it was just that different in temperament.
The age range on this ship on this particular voyage would make my 82 year old mother feel like a kid again. Because this was a ten day sailing taking place during school months, we saw only one or two children onboard, but many wheelchairs and walkers. This was not the cha-cha set, but more the triple bypass/hip replacement set. If HAL has been successful recently at expanding into the younger Baby Boomer-Generation X set, it was not evident on this trip.
And now, the food. I was a bit disappointed with this area of the trip on Rotterdam VI, but my disappointment turned to a desire to throw the head chef overboard on Veendam. In talking with other passengers, I think we could have formed a kitchen mutiny, as I was not alone in my thinking. Food service is slipping quickly, like so many Jack Dawsons from the aft of the Titanic back into the sea. HAL has fussed with their menus and come away lacking. The selections are brutally limited. What worked in the past has not been left alone, but tinkered with until it doesn't exist anymore. Their famous bread pudding had to be hunted down, and is now only served at lunch for a period of about one hour on the Lido. The famous chilled soups, always an unspoken staple of any HAL dinner menu, was no place to be found on any night. Usually, one day of any HAL cruise is devoted to Indonesian food, so Hans and I ordered the gado gado at lunch, which is steamed veggies with a peanut sauce. The vegetables were cooked to mush and the peanut sauce had so much corn starch in it that it was inedible, almost like school paste. Hans requested some bami (a spicey Indonesian garnish much like our American mustard or ketchup) for his nasi goreng, but our young Indonesian waiter didn't know what that was. I guess there are too many Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chickens overseas now. Thankfully, another waiter knew what Hans meant and it was brought tableside.
The jalapeno cheesy-poofs that were offered as one type of hors doervers at the HAL repeaters party before noon one day were discovered on the menu downstairs in the dining room for lunch an hour later. The baked Alaska, certainly the subject of much discussion by any group of cruisers anywhere, was covered with a meringue an iridescent color blue that I have never before seen in Nature. For dinner one evening, my entree included rice; however, that lump of rice was at once mushy on the inside, chewy on the outside and sticky all over. Even *I* know how to make rice, and believe me ladies and gentlemen, I am no cook. At lunch one day, my turkey burger came with what was supposed to be avocado, but looked like the bottom of a Birkenstock sandal and tasted like cream of wheat.
I guess I've gotten spoiled at tea time in the afternoons, what with QE2's scones, jam and cream, and little cucumber sandwiches or Crystal Symphony's six different types of tea to choose from, including a variety of herbals. Afternoon teas onboard Veendam offered up only bland gelatinous "stuff" of different colours with indifferent tea. I wonder what Veendam's British Captain Jonathan Mercer thought of that.
Speaking of the Captain and the crew onboard Veendam, I have not experienced sailing with a warmer and more wonderful group of folks in their respective fields. Captain Mercer is one of the most charming captains I have had the pleasure of meeting, and Barbara Davis is a calming, resourceful sweetie of a Cruise Director. I had the chance to talk to Captain Mercer during a cocktail party given by him for a small group of passengers, and I told him about all of the positive feedback posted on the Internet regarding the Swiss Air crash and his involvement as Captain of the Veendam, which was called upon to help with any rescue attempts, as the ship was in the area. He discussed this incident in a very modest way, as if there was only one thing to do and that was the right thing ... to help out, if he could. Sadly, there were no survivors, and the cruise carried on after this tragedy in the Veendam's back yard, so to speak. Since he's online whenever he can and he'll be off on a vacation at his home in Florida soon, we swapped e-mail addresses, and I'll be sending out some of those posts for him to read.
Also onboard again (he was also on Rotterdam VI in April, 1998) was Joe L'Episcopo of the shore excursions office. He gives the best port talks, packed with relevant and helpful information. On this trip, he gave an updated presentation of his Titanic discussion, giving an extremely interesting and fact-filled lecture with a question and answer session afterward.
During this trip, I also had the pleasure of finally meeting a young man named Jason De Leo I first knew from an e-mailing list about liners and steamships. Jason has more fun at work (as part of the cruise staff headed by Barbara Davis) than anyone I know.
Hans had the opportunity of touring both the bridge and the engine room. He came away thrilled with the chance to ask questions of staff who were only more than happy to give answers to all of his mechanically inclined inquiries. He was delighted that they spent time with those anxious to know more about the innards of the ship and how it runs. Hans also felt the chief engineer genuinely cared about the performance of the ship and in keeping it running soundly.
Our dining room staff was very good, as well, including our server, our waiter and our wine steward.
Other things besides the food didn't work at all well, namely the remote control on the TV in our cabin. The internal phone system seems to be inadequate and overloaded, and wouldn't work if you needed it to call cabin-to-cabin. Hans reported the problem, it was fixed in a day and then became "unfixed" once again. Also, one day we returned to our cabin to find a plumber on the floor in our bathroom, replacing something on the toilet. We had not reported anything amiss, so we asked about this. Either we didn't understand him or he didn't understand us, but he fixed whatever the problem was in just enough time for us to have to rush to get ready for a reception ashore while in Bermuda.
I must add something here that I found to be a bit unsettling on this trip. There are Filipino and Indonesian staff onboard HAL ships and most are fluent enough to be able to carry on business with the passengers, BUT I kept thinking about a sign I had seen in a "staff only" area while waiting to visit the bridge onboard the Grand Princess last month. It was posted to remind the muli-national staff onboard Princess ships to speak English amoungst themselves when they are within earshot of passengers. The small group I was with at the time on Grand Princess commented about what a good idea that was. That certainly would have helped me out when I was sitting on Lower Promenade deck one afternoon and two staff members came by, picking up deck chairs and gabbing to each other. I didn't know what was going on, but got up and moved anyway, along with everyone else on deck. Later, we found out staff wanted to swab the deck! Here's a simple adage: If I book a cruise to be on or near the ocean, don't swab the deck on my time and money. Do it at a time when I and other passengers won't want to be out enjoying the sea, which is why we're there in the first place. Oh, and don't decide to varnish the deck rails just before ‘sail away' time from a port when everyone's out and about. Putting a small "wet paint" sign up doesn't help an 93 year old with cataracts and a walker. Other passengers, some in suites, were repeatedly asked if staff could take a few hours to shampoo the carpets in their cabins! Not on my dime, I say.
Hans and I had a regular outside cabin on Main Deck this time, which we found to be roomy and well-maintained. Twin beds convert easily to a queen, and there is a large sofa opposite a vanity- type counter with drawer space, plus a TV. The closets are again, as on Rotterdam VI, opposite the bathroom door, and it is impossible to have more than half a person at a time in this area. Bathroom facilities were more than adequate with a shower and tub, as well as plenty of storage space. The bane of these "S" class ships, however, seems to be the mirrored vanities in the bathrooms. More than a handful of women onboard both the Rotterdam VI and the Veendam complained about them, as the doors neither open or close well . They simply flap in the breeze all night as the ship rocks or as one tries to use them to shave (Hans) or put on make up (me).
We had the opportunity to view the penthouse suite, as a fellow SSHSA member hosted a cocktail party pre-dinner one evening. It was not quite as nice as I would expect it would be, with plenty of room but not space well-used. That seems to be the theme running through these "S" class ships. Our hostess showed us the water spout in the main bath, a large lion's head "vomiting water" as she mockingly said. It capsulized that decorative splash (forgive the pun) of garishness present throughout the ship. On another evening, we were invited to another SSHSA member's suite on Navigation Deck, which I preferred. It was a smaller space, but better used and nicely done.
The outer ship I will not comment on. Modern cruise ships these days are ugly, big and monolithic. This one was no different. It deserves no comment. Someone onboard this trip repeated a comment that, when designing a ship, any naval architect found with a ruler in his hands should have his wrists slapped with it. I concur. But sadly, shear costs money.
In conclusion, I don't think we'll be sailing with HAL again for a very long time. I'd like to try Princess, perhaps Celebrity again and some of the old classics before they're pulled from service. During an onboard enrichment lecture last week on the history of Holland America Line given by ship historian Vincent Messina, he said that HAL has changed over the years, for the good and the not-so-good, just like everything else does. He's right, of course. There are so many cruise companies out there and so many ships in particular I'd like to try that it would be a waste of time and money going back again to HAL. My last three trips onboard HAL ships have been progressively sadder and sadder. Even though I had a good time on all three, what I came to love about this line has slipped into oblivion until it is no longer recognizable. As I wrote in my first paragraph, the paradox of a ship named Veendam built in an Italian shipyard, owned by a large corporation with British officers, continuing with Indonesian and Filipino support staff is not a Dutch ship no matter how you slice it.
I don't care how often I hear that Carnival Corporation has nothing to do with the running of Holland America Line, I will never, ever believe it. If I was the chief stockholder of ANY corporation and saw that one part of it was slipping so badly with it's product, I would be ashamed of myself for allowing it to be repeated over and over again that "Carnival has nothing to do with Holland America" or any of Carnival's other cruise ship divisions. I would make damned sure I would have something to do with Holland America Line...if I cared about anything but making money off duping my customers, that is.
I'll be lighting a candle nightly for Cunard.