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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ship Review - MS Veendam

MS Veendam

The Veendam is a medium-sized cruise ship only in relation to the massive floating casinos that are the megaships. She is a comfortable size for extended cruises, and has quite a few areas available to escape the "madding crowd". She is an older vessel as cruise ships are measured,  launched in 1996 with a complete refit in 2011. We were told by several people on our cruise that she's headed for dry dock in April this year.

Ship - 
Tendering in the Cayman Islands

As might be expected the ship shows a little bit of age, particularly in the infrastructure.
Externally and in the public areas she's well maintained. The look and feel of the vessel is of casual elegance, with more than a nod to a maritime past with cabin passageways decorated with photographs and paintings with an overall nautical theme. Each deck's motif is a little different.

Embarkation and disembarkation at the various ports of call was smooth and uneventful, with none of the cattle call lines snaking back down the corridors as we've experienced with larger vessels.

The passenger makeup on our trip was an older crowd, primarily late fifties on up. Very few children, and only a handful of people in their thirties. (The number of children could be counted on one and a half hands, even though the ship has Club HAL, an area specifically designed for them.)

There were several technical issues with the ship during our cruise, mainly to do with the plumbing. Commented upon below. All other features were excellent.

Our itinerary was a 14 day repositioning voyage down the west coast of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal and north through the Caribbean.


The Crow's Nest
The Veendam features quite a few nice facilities with which to avail your free time. On either side of the funnel, on the 12th (Sports) deck are a tennis court on the port side, and a basketball court on the starboard. A circular walking/jogging track is amidships and curls itself around the massive opening roof of the Lido Deck pool just below. Forward is the Crow's Nest lounge, which is a perfect site for just sitting and watching the sea go by. (Above the Crow's Nest is the forward observation deck, an excellent location for watching ship maneuvers during port arrivals and departures.)
Outdoor Sports Deck

Restrooms are sprinkled across all public decks, though can become crowded immediately after an event, show or meal.

Elevators in the aft section of the ship seemed to periodically go offline, with three of the four shafts having problems at some point. Nothing terribly inconvenient, but notable nonetheless. 

Lido deck pool area


The stateroom is nicely laid out and large for a cruise ship. Ours was an outside window room on Deck 5, aft starboard side. Our traveling companions were five deck up on 10 in balcony staterooms which, oddly enough, felt more cramped than ours despite the larger interior and obvious addition of the balcony. I think it was the furniture layout more than physical size of the room.

We experienced several technical glitches presumably relating to the age of the ship. The air conditioning failed in our section of the ship, and given our southerly path the sun was on our side of the ship, making the room uncomfortably warm during the daytime hours of our first two full days on board. This was finally corrected, but throughout the voyage turning the thermostat down all the way to "sub-arctic" yielded only cool temps, leaving sunny afternoons still a bit on the warm side.

On day eight we suddenly were aware of a strong odor, suggesting a failure in the sewage system. Several people in our section of the ship also reported it, they the smell had dissipated by the time ship's staff responded to our call to the front desk. The staff followed up on each concern and ensured each were addressed to our satisfaction.


Rotterdam dining room
We dined at the Rotterdam for roughly 80% of our onboard meals. The quality of the food was excellent, though a few recipe misfires along the way. It happens in the best of restaurants. Service was excellent except for breakfast, when too many passengers converged on too few crew, leaving us with empty coffee cups, water glasses unrefilled, and on at least one occasion no toast delivered to the table despite being an element of half the meals we ordered.

Dinner and lunch were far better service-wise. Top notch.

We did not avail ourselves of the specialty restaurants, with the exception of an evening in the makeshift Canaletto Italian restaurant created out of a portin of the Lido buffet after hours. The food was excellent, though when the waiter suggests it's a lot of food, believe him. Well worth the surcharge.

Lido Restaurant
The quality of the food in the Lido Restaurant is a step below the Rotterdam. We found the majority of choices to be okay but not great quality-wise. Service is buffet style. As such we generally avoided the Lido in favor of the Rotterdam, with one side trip each to the pizza counter, aft, and to the hot dog/hamburger counter next to the pool.


Matt, Luciana and Liz in a cooking demonstration
In this area the Veendam stands out. Everyone we met was friendly, positive and helpful. Our stateroom attendants Putu and Regnam were terrific, leaving us a clean and organized room no matter how much it was in disarray when we left for the day. And always with a smile and genuine greeting. The room was checked twice daily, with a towel-animal each evening on the bed with a pair of chocolates and the next day's itinerary.

The ship's activities staff was equally impressive, with Cruise Director Jude Day as a standout. In what must be a frustrating and at-times mind-numbing job, Jude managed to always have a smile, always interacting with everyone who approached her, and making sure every passenger felt welcome. (And yes, every evening she was brought on stage eliciting an enthusiastic "Hey, Jude" from the crowd.)

As noted, we had a few problems with the room's temperature, and a strong odor of a sewage kind which affected our entire hallway (when we smelled it I went into the passageway to check if that was the origin, and several other passenger doors opened nearly simultaneously with the sMe complaint). Though it took some time for an official response, both issues were addressed and followed up upon by the staff. In fact, when they were unable to reach us regarding the final results of the odor, a nice note card and plate of chocolates were left in our room. That is the detailed response of a fine hotel.


Cruise Director Jude and company put together very sophisticated schedules daily, giving the passenger a large number of optional activities from which to choose. The options range from full culinary classes, "Behind the Scenes" tours and Crew/Expert Q&A sessions -- to academic lectures from experts on relevant subjects (such as the construction of the Panama Canal or the history of the MesoAmerican cultures, both of which were offered on our Panama Canal trip). Games, seminars and plenty of quiet places give the passengers a wide range of options. 

Eric, Liz and Mike teach Mixology
One of our favorite activities was the six-part Mixology seminar at MIX in which bartender Mike, with Culinary Host Liz and fellow bartender Dallas/Eric (sorry, inside joke relating to Eric's name tag one day) taught ten or so regular patrons/students the making of a variety of cocktail techniques to make world-class Cosmos, martinis and other mixed drinks. The testament to the fun here us that every session brought several new people to the table as the cruise went on.

Showroom Entertainment

I was honestly quite startled by the very high quality of entertainment on board. Nearly every night the Show Room was filled to capacity for an energetic show from the ship's very talented singers, dancers and musicians, or special guests who nightly provided top notch performances ranging from stand up comedy to wonderful musical concerts. Top marks to their booking agent. 

Flexibility was the byword for the ship's entertainment staff. 

There were five core singers, including the amazing Dustin and Courtney Cunningham -- they both have two of the best classically trained voices I've heard in this sort of venue. On or off the ship. This is no disrespect to the other singers, each of whom display a versatility and talent you rarely encounter on a cruise ship. Dancing accompanied most of the shows, and the quality of the talent and choreography was superb. The backing band, who double as Darryl and the HALCats in the after hours Crow's Nest lounge, also had a terrific range, switching from supporting Broadway musicals and opera, to backing semi-country and Rock and roll numbers at other times.


Much like the Show Room presentations, the musicians in the various lounges were also top notch. We spent a fair amount of time in the Ocean Bar with The Neptunes (playing a variable musical set, usually oriented towards ballroom and swing dancing) and in The MIX sipping at our cocktails while sitting around the piano with Justin Aames, a talented singer/songwriter harking not too far from our hometown of Long Beach. 

(My only real complaint with the ship's entertainment was a technical one. I handle sound and mixing for my wife, a professional singer. I found myself constantly frustrated by the balance and mix in the Show Room -- oftentimes the volume of several of the back-up instruments would drown out vocalists or solo performances instead of complementing them. Likewise the microphones in the lounges seem to be low volume and rather muddy, making the vocals and spoken words difficult to understand. As a fan of vocal performances it took some effort for me not to ask for access to the mixing boards. Given that this sort of setting impacted multiple venues I have to conclude this is more ship's policy than poor audio mixing skills. Not sure why they would do this.)


Overall the Veendam is a very good cruise experience, with lots of amenities, an excellent crew and of a size that is negotiable rather than overwhelming. In addition to the above there is a good sampling of shops, a decent casino, and the omnipresent Park West Galleries, all of which are happy to accept your money.

Despite some creakiness around the edges, and few specific issues, the Veendam is a great way to explore and still have a degree of individuality on a comfortable scale.

Four of five stars.

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