HAL's Nieuw Amsterdam Caribbean Cruise: A few improvements will make of it a great experience for the price
Nieuw Amsterdam Cruise Review to Caribbean - Eastern
In a Nutshell: The elegant MS Nieuw Amsterdam is a ship designed for this decade. It reflects how cruise ships have evolved from a medium of transportation to a hospitality vessel. The seven day Eastern Caribbean “holiday” cruise exceeded expectations. HAL is working hard to keep up with the competition, trying to appeal to the budget cruiser who is looking for a bargain. The food in the main dining room and specialty restaurants is of high quality. Most personnel is professional and courteous. HAL has focused in bringing aboard top-notch musicians. The company can make some minor improvements. Food servers at the Lido and the Tamarind are subpar compared to other restaurants. Bartenders across the ship – receive an automatic 15% tip on every purchase – are rude and inefficient (and especially at the Lido). And on a full ship, personnel can be overstretched. Guests can see them running around and working hard. But there is only so much their employees can do at one time. It seems that they don’t have enough employees in this big ship, and as a result, quality suffers at times.
Overall, sailing the MS Niuew Amsterdam is a vacation worth living. A ship for these times, made for different types of guests who want to be entertained and want to enjoy the pristine waters of the Caribbean (in this cruise). With a few improvements in customer service HAL could easily surpass other similar cruise companies within their category.
Embarkation at Port Everglades
Smooth as Caribbean waters. Embarkation went fine at 1:30 p.m. Not a long line and there were enough staffers to check in guests. Although, there are some negative reviews of Port Everglades, per my experience this is much better than other more crowded ports.
The 2100 plus passengers’ M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam is impressive in every sense. It was designed to be a cruise for a targeted public within the Carnival Corp. line. It is obvious that the corporation wants to focus their different brandings to reach several markets. Carnival, to start with, is for families and a younger crowd. Seaborn, on the other side of the spectrum, is geared towards more selected and wealthier customers. Then it is HAL. With the Nieuw Amsterdam, the corporation is trying to elevate the cruise experience to be more “luxurious,” but still affordable. They seem to want to eliminate the stigma of a cruise line for an older crowd and welcome more 30s-50s year’s old customers with above the average education and income – a demographic group that tends to spend more on vacations. This ship hits the target.
The ship has more verandahs compared with other similar vessels. The restaurants, part of their “excellence” program, are elegant and offer an international array of food (Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern...etc…) This is pretty much what you could find in a posh neighborhood in Manhattan, San Francisco, LA or Washington, DC. The entertainment venues include anything from BB King’s Blues Show to a classical music bar. Passengers can also find some peace away from the crowds in the Explorations Café and the Crow’s Nest on the 11th floor. Once again, these cafes are similar to an upscale Starbucks (if there is such) surrounded by computers and books.
The ship is elegantly decorated to “imitate” a Manhattan from the 50s or 60s. The Manhattan room, their main restaurant, is red and silver – a mixture of a modern type of art deco. Throughout the ship guests can find photos of New York City and of older ships, when HAL was actually owned and operated by the Dutch.
Hygiene was a top priority for HAL during the trip (as it should be). There were hand sanitizer dispensers in several key spots across the ship. The Lido area was cleaner compared to other ships from the same corporation. However, some of the public restrooms (especially restrooms for the handicap) were not cleaned frequently enough. At least one time one of these restrooms had a strong odor that could be felt from the hallway.
The stateroom (verandah, see below) was excellent. Not only was spacious, but the newly designed Neiuw Amsterdam maximizes the space. This ship has, perhaps, one of the best cost/benefit when it comes to staterooms.
For those first time cruisers, the Lido is the Lido. Guess what? The pool and the main informal restaurant are here. Yes, this is where everything happens, where everyone meets and where there is noise at all times. Thus, this Lido is not better than your Carnival or Royal Caribbean experience in the sense that guests might need to stand in line to get some buffet food and won’t be able to lunch in silence. But the adult only pool does make a difference for those who are in search of calmer waters. This pool is big enough to fit enough people at once. Before getting excited with the thought of getting your own deck chair, on full cruises there is the usual problem of overcrowding, albeit there were always regular chairs available. Another positive point is that the adult only Lido has less disruptions than other ships’ pools. During this cruise a metal drum was the staple. Noise control was a plus, for those travelers who don’t want to be disturbed by MTV – Spring Break type contests. The main problem at the Lido were the employees serving the buffet and at the bar (more below).
If you are looking into sliding into a water toboggan, climbing a rock, and an MTV like party, then this ship might not be the best bet (disclaimer, I previously cruised in Carnival and NCL, and after my experience, I will never step in those again.) But if you are looking into a more relaxing and upscale experience, with cafes, great food and a variety of talented musicians, then the Nieuw Amsterdam has it all.
In case you were wondering, I am an urban professional in my 30s and I traveled without any children. With that said, this HAL Eastern Caribbean cruise was, perhaps, one of the most diverse I have ever been at. Every single demographic group was represented in this cruise. There were many families, some with children, and others with teenagers. You could find passengers from Asia, Europe and Latin America, although most fellow cruisers were Americans. The passengers’ age varied from 5 years olds to 80 years old, but the average was between 30s and early 50s. Most passengers seemed to be working professionals (and in the case of the international passengers, more wealthy than the average).
In contrast to other cruise ships departing from a U.S. port, the diversity in this cruise made it exceptional. The fact that there were so many people from different backgrounds helped to improve the cruising experience, making it more interesting and “international.”
Smokers were not a problem in this cruise (I expected worst judging from other reviewers), but there were some people smoking in the Lido. I agree with other cruisers that HAL should restrict smoking to certain areas away from other passengers (if they want to compete with, say Celebrity, they should start from here).
Service first and above port excursions. Why? Because passengers spent most of their time dealing with cruises’ employees than in the port of call. The service was the difference in this HAL cruise – from the best in the industry to the worst.
I would book again my next cruise on HAL because of the service and I would not cruise again with HAL because of the service. The main problem is that service is not standard in all decks and restaurants. There are some places where service excels all expectations and others where it is very disappointing. Here are some examples:
The Manhattan Room (aka. main dining room) and the Pinnacle Room (also Le Cirque) both located in the second and third floors offered the best service. All the waiters were professional, gentle and courteous at all times. Even when they had to handle several tables at the same time, they personally took care of all customers. Both servers who handled my table during dinner were excellent to say the least. They were very well trained, and they could easily work in a top restaurant in Paris or Manhattan. Service during breakfast and lunch at the Manhattan Room was very good, depending on who served you. But overall they were all great.
Most of the stewardess who tended the staterooms were very efficient and courteous. My impression is that they always took care of all passengers. My stateroom was cleaned twice per day to perfection. Every time I encountered a stewardess in the hallway, he/she smiled back and greeted me. Excellent training from HAL.
However, the big disappointment comes from the Lido servers and bartenders, and most of the bartenders in the ship. I cannot affirm there is a direct correlation with the 15% tip that the company forcefully charges each passenger for every drink and the bad service. But I can assure that most bartenders (again especially in the Lido) are rude. While waiters in the Manhattan Room are nice and always willing to serve you, bartenders and buffet servers at the Lido seemed to hate their jobs. At one point a bartender in their private island (Half Moon Cay) who worked at the cruise, served me two drinks instead of one and started arguing and yelling. Not a customer friendly attitude, especially in the hospitality industry.
In addition, while the food at the Tamarind Asian restaurant was superb (see below), the service was subpar. The waiters/waitresses were not to the level of the other restaurants. The wine specialist won the price for the worst service ever in a cruise. This lady not only insulted my family by making discriminatory jokes, she was extremely rude.
I had to communicate these issues to the ship’s customer service manager, who handled the complaint very well, taking immediate action by notifying all other managers. Nevertheless, I recommend that HAL changes the practice of charging 15% tip and making it a voluntary contribution. HAL should also enhance oversight of their bartenders and retrain them or rehire other bartenders. Their attitude is not only unfair with the customers, but also with their colleagues in other restaurants who work so hard to make a good impression.
Overall, the ship’s mostly Indonesian crew was exceptional. HAL should make more to retain the good employees, giving them additional incentives for their good service. Also, the mostly Dutch officers and managers were excellent. They were active taking care of every single detail to make of this trip a very pleasant one.
Not all food is created equal. Not at least in the Nieuw Amsterdam. Not even in the Manhattan Room, where the daily menus varies. The food in the Manhattan Room could be excellent to average, all in the same menu. There are days when the menu presents such a variety of gourmet food that it is difficult to pick one item. There are other days when there is excellent food and mediocre food at once. For instance, you can get lamb with mint sauce (top of the line) or a mediocre roast beef in the menu. The Christmas menu was delicious, worth every single bite. The Manhattan Room, in short, serves high quality food.
Open seating at the Manhattan Room could present an inconvenience to those with fix dinner times. Apparently, there are nights when the restaurant is totally full, stretching out the limited personnel available. This results in higher waiting times to get the food and to eat. The problem are not the hard working servers who do everything they can to attend their guests. It is the lack of personnel during the busiest times. HAL can make adjustments to train and transfer personnel from less busy restaurants (dinner at the Lido) to take care of open seating at the Manhattan Room. Or they could just hire more people to rotate in the ship.
Le Cirque is something else. Offered once in every cruise at the Pinnacle Room, cooks work extensively to imitate the cuisine from the famous New York French restaurant. The price, at $50 per person, is too high for the food they serve. This would be a better experience if they lower the price to match the quality (although close to Le Cirque, it is not Le Cirque).
I never tried the Canaletto Italian restaurant. But the fact that it is within the Lido, it is not a good sign. A reviewer here complained about having formal dinner with people walking around with swimsuits. I agree.
The Lido food is the Lido food. That means that it is buffet food. Good and tasty buffet food, but that that’s it. Also, as I remarked above, the servers are not in their best mood. The Dive, serves excellent burgers, fries and hot dogs. The pizza is your average cruise pizza (no gourmet). A good alternative option is to eat lunch at the Manhattan Room, pay $10 for the Pinnacle, or a free lunch at the Tamarind, which is a paid restaurant in the evening (best secret in the cruise).
The Tamarind food is incredible. This is, without any doubt, one – if not – of the best Pan-Asian restaurants in cruise industry. The wantons are more than delicious. The only problem is the service – again—from average waiters, to rude wine specialists to a grouchy chef (a great but uncharismatic cook).
Breakfast delivered to the stateroom is a perk that is unmatched anywhere else. HAL elevates the cruising experience with this service. People who are looking into buying a cruise should look into the unique breakfast service. Nothing better that eating breakfast with an ocean view.
Mix drinks are horrible. Avoid them at all costs. For a little less than $7 you get a sugary drink without much alcohol. It seems that bartenders around the globe are in short supply, because HAL cannot find the right people. It’d be even acceptable if they were only rude, but they cannot prepare a Mojito at all. This is just not right, but it’s fixable (tip for HAL recruiters: search in bartending schools).
Ports of Call
This seven day Eastern Caribbean cruise had the following ports of call:
Grand Turk: The best was Governors Beach, just a short walk from the cruise port. The worst, the taxi service. It is very expensive. Avoid going to downtown, not worth the expense. While there are tours operators to take tourists, it is recommended to check the ship’s excursion.
San Juan, PR: The Old San Juan is worth walking. It is very small (in 2-3hrs people can see the entire old city). San Juan has, unfortunately, turned to a “cruise” tourist economy, meaning that there are less business for locals and more small shops selling souvenirs. For a real experience take a cab to La Placita de Santurce and dine in El Condado beach.
St. Thomas, VI: The stay here is too short to go to St. John’s VI National Park (Turks Bay), but just enough to go to crowded, but beautiful Magens Bay or Linquist Beach (just be careful of unreliable and expensive taxi cabs).
Half-Moon-Cay (Private Island): The disembarkation to the tender is very organized (like every single activity and movement in the ship). The private island is beautiful, like a postcard. The beach is outstanding. But with 3,000 plus people visiting (from two ships) it gets very crowded. The staff at the Captain Morgan Bar is extremely rude (they are the same people who bartend at the Lido). The BBQ is very crowded as well and it is served by the same servers at the Manhattan Room who try their best, but again seemed to be understaffed (try to eat earlier, rather than later).
HAL is trying to program activities that are more inclusive. From wine tasting to beer tasting, metal drum classes, to cooking exhibition and family activities, HAL’s staff does everything within their reach to keep their guests busy. On the downside they can always be “more creative.” Here are some of the shows they offer:
BB King Blues’ Club: Very talented musicians. They play everything from Santana to Matchbox 20 to Motown classics. That is everything, but blues. If you expect a trip to the Mississippi river, then think about it twice. But the band is excellent. They know how to animate the public. At the end of their performance everyone is standing and dancing. If they played more blues (and honor their name), it would be much better. Expect to dance those classics until late at night.
Classical music players: Both musicians were good, but not really good. For any classical music lover, this is a far cry from a good string-piano duo. They try hard, there are not just good enough.
Beer tasting: What a joke! Miller Light and Blue Moon? An insult to any beer lover. Why they don’t bring some good Belgians, German lagers, British Ales, and American IPA’s. They can do much better.
Sports: While they cruise ship has a basketball and a mini-tennis courts, the staff could do more to organize tournaments for different ages and groups.
Cuisine Exhibitions: It is more like watching Food TV while munching a small appetizer. Cero interaction. What about smaller classes where guests interact with the chefs? Maybe selling a package with a cooking class and a dinner at the Tamarind. There is goes….more imagination is needed to create more engaging activities.
Disembarkation was organized and smooth. This is the product of the methodological organization that is notable throughout the cruise. Cruise planers think of every single detail. Port Everglades do not have enough CBP officers to handle large ships as the Neiuw Amsterdam (2,000 plus passengers). Disembarkation times could improve with more CBP officers processing passengers. Outside the terminal ground transportation can be messy with several ships arriving at the same time and taxi drivers seizing the moment by charging exorbitant fees for short trips. An airport transfer might be ideal for some people.
The 7 day Western Caribbean holiday cruise aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam is a bargain for what it has to offer. HAL can make some adjustments (such as improving customer service, especially their security personnel, bar personnel, and service at the Tamarind) and could ramp up its entertainment activities. HAL managers might need to check how they can maximize their limited personnel to make sure that they can expand their operations more efficiency in order to attend all customers even in the busiest times.
The elegant ship, beautiful selected Caribbean beaches, the food and the overall experience, makes of this trip an unforgettable vacation. The only regret was not being able to stay in the ship longer for their 14 day Eastern-Western Caribbean cruise. I’ll be looking forward to sail with them again, and I do hope that next time, HAL improves their customer service at all levels. Total perfection is unachievable, but with a few adjustments, HAL’s Nieuw Amsterdam 7 day Caribbean cruise can be as close as it can get to a perfect vacation.
Food and Dining
Service and Staff
Cabin / Stateroom
Eat at the Manhattan Room all the meals. Specialty restaurants are too expensive for the food (Le Circ and Pinnacle). The Tamarind is great, must try, but service is poor. HAL needs to standarize service and training. Service in Manhattan is superb, but Lido is very bad (and crowded).