This long-awaited cruise was for a small group of loyal “CruiseCrazies.com” members who had been chatting for years and eager to meet and cruise together in person. It was also a retirement/40th anniversary cruise for my husband and I. David and I began our vacation with four fabulous days in London, followed by a 2-night pre-cruise stay in Amsterdam. Since this is primarily a cruise review, I’ll review London later.
Amsterdam and Doubletree Central Station: Pre-Cruise
Our group was booked at Doubletree Hilton Centraal Station pre-cruise. Being close to Centraal Station, the city trams, and the Port of Amsterdam, this hotel is popular with river and ocean cruisers. It’s clean, modern and situated on a canal, the perfect place to people watch. David and I arrived early afternoon, well before check-in time, greeted by friendly folks at the reception desk, and promptly given a room overlooking river boats and the Celebrity Solstice docked nearby. Rooms were average size, but nicely designed with a large window for lots of natural light. A tasty breakfast buffet was included with our stay, as well as free WIFI. The only downside we experienced was dinner in the evening. It was raining and we were tired from the day’s sightseeing, so chose to dine at the hotel restaurant. Service took a long time, and when the steak and burgers finally arrived, they were cold and undercooked. And it wasn’t cheap.
Amsterdam: This is a city of bicycles and scooters, and either one would be a great way to get around. In fact, we had never seen so many 2-wheelers parked in one place before, particularly in the vicinity of Centraal Station, and we discovered that pedestrians need to remember to look both ways, more for cyclists than cars. Otherwise, I highly recommend a day pass for public transit – or multi-day pass if staying longer. We bought the 24-hour pass and used it on trams to get around the city, plus it’s also good on city busses and canal ferries. There is so much to do in Amsterdam, and since we didn’t have much time, we focused on a just a few attractions.
Anne Frank Haus. Words can’t convey the emotion we felt on this tour. I was nervous about the steep and narrow stairs necessary to reach the hidden annex, but that was all but forgotten once we were inside, reflecting on what Anne and her family lived through during those years. All visitors are given an audio headset to hear stories and quotes from Anne Frank’s diary and for guidance through the many photos to the actual diary itself. It’s a heartbreaking look at this period of history, the 8 people who hid in the annex and those that helped them. I can’t stress enough the importance of securing tickets on line well in advance – as soon as they become available – to avoid the long afternoon queues.
Van Gogh Museum: Tickets are available on line in advance to avoid the long queues. We didn’t plan ahead, but arrived late morning to a very quick moving line, about 15 minutes. Once inside, the museum is well laid out and easy to navigate. Backpacks are not allowed inside, so either leave it behind or be prepared to spend some time in line checking it in or out at the desk.
Canal Cruise. One of the best ways to see Amsterdam is from its system of connecting waterways. There are many boats of various sizes cruising the canals, but we pre-arranged our own smaller vessel through a great company called “KINBoat” in order to give our group a 2-hour private canal tour of Amsterdam, complete with open bar and appetizers. Our skipper, Bob, expertly guided our 12-person boat through the various city neighborhoods, explaining the scenery along the way, and a great time was had by all!
Embarkation: I booked a mini-bus for our group ride from the hotel to the cruise port, which turned out to be a good thing, given the distance to the Waterlands industrial terminal, where we were to board Koningsdam, instead of the nearby Port of Amsterdam passenger terminal. Upon arrival, our luggage was whisked away, and we were directed to a quick moving queue and given the customary health form to complete. There was some confusion about when and where to present our passports, but once through registration, boarding was easy. Interestingly, we never had to show our pre-printed boarding passes.
First Impressions: Koningsdam is beautiful, inside and out. She appears modern, yet retains a classic appearance including a true promenade deck (though much of the view from the promenade was hindered by lifeboats). We were welcomed by many cheerful crew members, and by the time we boarded around 12:30 pm, our rooms were ready and waiting. The layout of the ship was a little confusing to this directionally-challenged writer (How I missed the fore & aft-swimming carpet fish from NCL!). Happily, there was a helpful crew member at every turn to direct us to our stateroom. The ship’s multi-level atrium is attractive but surprisingly small.
Stateroom: My husband and I had a balcony cabin on Mozart Deck (deck 6) toward the aft elevators. The bath is a good size and bright with a roomy shower, and more importantly, a raised bar to rest a foot upon when shaving legs (a much-appreciated convenience, as any lady will attest to). The cabin is well designed with plenty of closet and drawer space. There is a handy rack for flyers, newsletters, magazines and other papers that accumulate during a week’s cruise. The TV monitor is big and affixed to the wall directly opposite the bed. Our steward kept our room clean and tidy all week, leaving us with plenty of ice, chocolates by the pillow, and even the occasional towel animal. Download the HAL smartphone app once on board for daily events, WIFI and account access, as well as each day’s dining menus. The standard balcony was a good size and held a small table and 2 chairs. Interestingly, we stepped onto the balcony on arrival and discovered about 15 empty bottles of booze in the corner. We joked that the previous occupants must have wanted to catch up on their beverage package before their cruise was over! In any event, the steward (who was clearly embarrassed) promptly removed all the bottles and apologized profusely.
Main Dining Room: We chose late (8:15 pm) fixed dining in the main dining room. Waitstaff were friendly, helpful and eager to please. Service was on par each night, and we never felt rushed. The food was delicious, and we thoroughly enjoyed the company of our four other pre-arranged table companions.
Specialty Dining: Our group pre-booked a table at the Pinnacle Grill for the final evening of our cruise. Although the waitstaff seemed eager to serve, the food took a long time to come, particularly the dessert course, with over 2 hours to complete the meal. The meal was delicious, though I didn’t expect my sirloin to contain as much fatty gristle as it did. As a special after-dinner treat, my husband and I were presented with a small but delicious chocolate mousse cake for our 40th anniversary, thankfully without bad singing waiters. Just a cake with sincere words of wishes from the staff. In the end, the dinner proved to be a fitting and enjoyable way to bid farewell to our newfound friends! Note: None of the wine-by-the-glass offerings on the Pinnacle menu are within the price range of HAL’s beverage package. If you have the drink package, be sure to ask for a wine included with the drink package. Otherwise, you’ll pay full price for whatever they bring you.
Lido Market: This is the buffet located on Lido Deck. Unlike other cruise lines, it’s not a serve-yourself set up – the food is served by the dining crew, presumably HAL’s way of preventing norovirus. Having just come off a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise the week before, we did notice the absence of “washy-washy” crew at the door – no annoying spray bottles – just hand sanitizer stations throughout the public venues, trusting that guests will remember to use them. As far as food quality and variety in Lido Market, we were impressed with the flavor and choices, both breakfast and lunch (probably dinner, too, though we didn’t try their dinner menu), and HAL gets our vote for best buffet at sea. However, finding a table was sometimes difficult at peak breakfast and lunch times.
New York Pizza and Deli: Besides being the ONLY place open for a late night snack, this place served up some of the best sandwiches and pizza on the high seas. The pizza was particularly delicious and rivals our other favorite pizza found on the Princess ships. The deli sandwiches were delicious and equal to those you’d find anywhere in Manhattan.
Grand Dutch Cafe: This is a small, pleasant eatery featuring a limited selection of pastries, salad and quiche, as well as a variety of coffees. It’s a nice concept – a place to pick up a quick bite – but it doesn’t compare to the much larger International Cafe found on Princess ships.
Room Service: We ordered breakfast a few times throughout the cruise, and the food arrived on schedule and still warm. Pastries, coffee, juice, cereals, eggs, bacon and sausage are free. Omelets and such are an extra charge.
Music: This is where Holland America rises above all the rest. With B.B. King’s Blues Club and Lincoln Center Stage, they have a great thing going, and I hope they continue to add it to every ship in the line. B.B. King’s phenomenal All Stars band made the Club THE place to be in the evening, dancing and grooving to jazz, oldies, funk and Top 40. The young, talented performers that made up the piano quintet at Lincoln Center Stage were superb, playing a different program each day, including Schubert, Brahms, American and French composers, and even Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody thrown in for fun. Billboard Onboard completes the trio of venues that make up “Music Walk”, as well as the Queen’s Lounge and Ocean Bar with lighter fare – Beatles tunes, pop, and so on. We had several classically-trained musicians (affectionately called “music snobs’) in our group, and all seemed impressed with the quality of music offerings on board.
A Special Surprise!
Speaking of beautiful music, I had pre-arranged a special surprise on board, which took place in the Ocean Bar on our first day at sea. We were blessed with a young couple in our group – phenomenal classical pianists – who performed superb piano duets for us, as a surprise and special tribute to their parents. This proved to be a highlight of our week aboard Koningsdam. Thank you, Kevin and Grace, for the beautiful music!
World Stage Productions: The World Stage is Koningsdam’s big-show theatre. It’s an attractive space, and the seats are wider than normal, with more leg room than is customary, making it a comfortable and enjoyable night for a show or one of the feature films they show throughout the cruise. We didn’t catch all the shows, but here is what we did see:
“One World”: This was a solid, energetic production with talented singers and dancers. We loved the beautiful panoramic screen backdrop to the music and vocals.
BBC “Frozen Planet” Live: A beautiful nature film backed by live music provided by the aforementioned piano quintet. This was absolutely gorgeous and my favorite show of the week.
“Musicology”: This was very interesting and beautiful to watch, with dancers interpreting the pre-recorded melodies of various musical instruments.
Magician/Comedian: He was the weakest of the entertainers on board. His magic wasn’t particularly entertaining, he wasn’t very funny, and even the guy he pulled up on stage looked bored. I couldn’t stop yawning.
Pool (mid-ship): The pool area and surrounding deck space is surprisingly small on a ship of this size. I can imagine that if the ship were in the Caribbean or some other warm destination, it would be a problem for many sunbathers scrambling for lounge chairs. Still, with a retractable roof, the lido deck was a popular place to be, even on this cooler-climate cruise. Early birds may be lucky enough to score a lounger or one of the comfy small sofas and loungers situated in alcoves around the perimeter, making for a great place to relax.
Pool (aft): We didn’t really spend any time here, except at sailaway or as a vantage point to view the fjords.
Kids on Board
There were fewer kids on this cruise than you’d find on the other mainstream lines, but judging by the action at the pools, you wouldn’t know it. HAL needs to do a much better job of monitoring kids on Lido deck. Being my first time on a HAL ship, I’m not sure if it’s just Koningsdam or if it’s the whole line, but on several occasions throughout the cruise, both the main and aft pools and hot tubs were overrun with kids running, pushing, jumping, and dangerously diving into a 4-foot deep pool. No one supervised that I could tell – neither parents nor crew. I seriously hope HAL improves upon this in the future before someone gets hurt. Even better, let’s make the Aft pool and hot tubs available to adults only.
Eidfjord: Waterfalls & Waffle. We loved this excursion. The scenery was spectacular, the waffle delicious, and the guide informative. We did wish more time was spent at Voringfossen Waterfall because that was definitely the highlight of the tour, and the walk to the viewing area took some time.
Alesund: We didn’t book a tour and instead bought a ticket to the hop on-hop off bus, which we used to get us to the scenic overlook. Note: To avoid a massive line for the ho-ho, either get off the ship early or wait and buy tickets after lunch when the rush is over. The ho-ho has a number of stops around town, but we took it half way, getting off at the art and culture center and then walking back to the ship.
Geiranger: We chose HAL’s Mt. Dalsnibba and the Eagle Road excursion. After a needlessly complicated route from the meeting point in the show lounge to the tender boats, the tour went very smoothly, and we loved it. The scenery just got better with each viewpoint, and the icing on the cake awaited us at the very top of Mt. Dalsnibba. Locals say it rains a lot in Norway, but we lucked out with fabulous weather and, therefore, an exceptionally good view of the incredible landscape. Note: Book the first tour in advance, because the long and winding road up the mountain gets busier as the day gets older. It was amazing to see how the big busses negotiate those turns. Our guide was informative, we learned a lot about the fjord and Norway, and thanks to our driver’s expert skills, we made it up and back safely.
Bergen: We were conveniently docked at the main port close to town, so I got off the ship in the morning to explore the area on foot, including the waterfront, the fish market, and the famous Bryggen houses. If shopping is on your itinerary, save it for Bergen, where the shops are plentiful. After lunch, we did the ship’s tour of composer Edvard Grieg’s home and Museum, followed by a concert of his works. Our first stop was the stave church, which was an exact replica of those built by the vikings. Next, was the ride to Grieg’s house, which sits on a gorgeously landscaped piece of property overlooking the fjord. The concert hall is beautiful, and the stage with it’s beautiful grand piano features a large window with a view of the fjord. We enjoyed the concert, and the hall was not crowded as the guests on our bus were the only ones in attendance. However, the museum is rather small, as are the rooms on display inside the house, and are a challenge to enjoy when visiting with a bus load of people touring at the same time. There are two downhill paths to both his gravesite and the composer hut, which I didn’t do, as I chose to sit on a bench, rest my sore knees, and admire the scenery. Note: The walk from the bus to Grieg’s house is fairly easy on a level paved road. However, the gravel wooded, hilly path to the stave church was a challenge to a few folks on the tour.
In summary, Koningsdam is a beautiful, elegant and classy ship, and we would love to sail her again. The destination, though, was the highlight. As much as we love Alaska, Norway exceeds with its scenic villages, winding mountain roads, dramatic waterfalls, and majestic fjords! Thanks to all our Crazies who participated – Sunluva7, RayColey, AndiD, Miranda, and all our friends and family who joined us. It was great to meet you all, and I look forward to cruising together in the future – and bringing even more Crazies on board!
Photos to come!!!