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Recent Complaints of Note
Holland America - A Floating Bazaar!
Holland America Line - Nieuw Amsterdam
by: Bob Braban - Editor -

Last night I slept in my own bed for the first time in nearly a fortnight. It was pure bliss! For the previous 12 nights we were cruising aboard the Holland America Lines ‘Nieuw Amsterdam’ sailing out of Venice and returning to the same port after visiting a number of destinations in the Adriatic and beyond, with Istanbul the furthest extent of the journey.

For several years we have really heard nothing but praise for Holland America, whose passengers are predominantly American, supplemented by a few stragglers from Australia and New Zealand and even fewer from Britain. With 2100 passengers, this is a large ship and is luxuriously appointed, with excellent cabins/staterooms, superb dining facilities and entertainment venues and, most importantly to Holland America, a thousand and one ways of separating the passenger from his/her money. As I ate my breakfast this morning I realised that I had been out of bed for almost an hour and for the first time in two weeks, I had not been attacked with a sales pitch.

We would rate the three most important assets of any cruise ship as: Accommodation, Food and Entertainment, but not necessarily in that order. The accommodation on this ship is of a very good standard. Cabins are reasonably spacious and equipped with mini-bar, TV, CD Player and iPod dock, although on a fine weather cruise with few days at sea, they get very little use. Wifi is available, but at more than the price of gold. The beds are of a good size and comfortable and there is more than adequate wardrobe space. Finally, bathrooms are modern and, for a cruise ship, spacious. Unfortunately, information about the general operation of the ship and passenger facilities is poor, probably reflecting the commercial imperatives driving the operation. However, despite having an inside cabin, we did get timely notification and an apology for any inconvenience that would be caused when they came to clean our balcony!

Not Nieuw Amsterdam wares, the quality is too high!

On a ship of this size one would expect very good standards of entertainment, but Nieuw Amsterdam fails woefully in this regard. Experienced cruisers will recognise that if you have a lacklustre Cruise Director you are likely to have lacklustre entertainment. This was certainly the case on this cruise with John Mann starring as a cruise director whose focus was directed at achieving sales rather than quality entertainment. He was described in one piece of literature as a Timpanist who had made (wait for it) 'the natural progression to Cruise Director'. Strangely enough, our garbage collector is on the same ladder, but still on the first rung. He's actually funnier so if there is any justice in this world he should be on the Queen Mary by Christmas!

Our first visit to the show theatre was to see ‘Cantaré’, described as ‘The Power of Voice’. This group turned out to be what can best be described as and ageing boy band without instruments. My immediate thought was that they must be strong swimmers on the premise that they must have been thrown overboard and made it back to the ship on several occasions! Never mind, perhaps they will get off at the next stop and inflict themselves on another audience. No such luck! They were recycled almost every evening in some guise or other and the very low standard they set was only surpassed on three occasions: by the Indonesian Crew Show, by English Comedian Martin Beaumont and Flautist Tara Whittaker. ‘Cantaré’ proved beyond doubt that when you dress very average singers in shiny suits and teach them a few dance steps, they remain very average singers. Their agent must be brilliant and should be booked to do marketing lectures.

A ‘Nickel and Dime’ operation was how one American passenger described Nieuw Amsterdam and there really is something quite objectionable about the constant hard sell. Drinks stewards are on commission and are almost as intrusive as the ‘looky looky’ man on the beach at Cannes,

patrolling the poolside in a never-ending stream, touting their wares. Equally objectionable are the ship’s photographers who could well have been trained by the Paparazzi as they try to maximise profits by photographing the passengers every move. One gets the impression that to Holland America a romantic couple is me, you, and the photographer.

Making a frequent appearance around the swimming pool is the Nieuw Amsterdam Bazaar, where much of the available space is taken up by tables displaying what can best be described as ‘tat’. These wares comprise cheap watches, Tee Shirts and other ‘made in China’ junk relevant to the local ports of call and various items of low quality jewellery that can be purchased to inflict on relatives, friends and acquaintances when one returns home. Our suggestion would be that you give them only to people you dislike or are never likely to meet again. As the cruise progresses, the pressure to meet sales targets is racked up and passage through the shop to get to the dining room becomes ever more difficult as display tables are pushed closer together. Transit through the area becomes a challenge as passengers are forced to take an increasingly circuitous route through the displayed wares. Situated in a tiny corner of this shop is a small area where domestic necessities are sold and this is where the enterprise achieves a real profit margin, with my 6 Fl Oz bottle of Vicks Cough Linctus costing a massive $17.95, against an average sale price in the USA of around $5. I’m sure that if a passenger died on board they would quickly come up with a coffin from their stock.

Istanbul, probably the only place in the world where 'GO AWAY!' means, 'I want to buy a carpet'.

One of the most regular moans about cruising is the cost of gratuities that effectively pay a living wage to a crew that would otherwise receive only a pittance. The Holland America recommendation that is practically a requirement is that passengers each have $11 per day gratuities added to their shipboard account. Even the mathematically challenged can work out that a gratuity contribution of $23,000 per day or $320,000 per cruise amounts to a very substantial contribution to the salaries/wages of the services staff on the ship. Shore excursions always form a major element of the income of a cruise liner and Holland America is no exception. On this cruise there was perhaps one excursion where the ship’s offering was not replicated several fold by local quayside operators at a much lower price. Our advice remains that passengers will always get a better deal, mostly at a fraction of the price, by using local services that are geared up to provide for tourists. They are always a fraction of the price. The ‘Nieuw Amsterdam get away with these outrageous charges because they have many inexperienced American travellers who do not have the knowledge or confidence to go it alone. A classic on Nieuw Amsterdam was the taxi transfer from Venice to Marco Polo airport at $100 per passenger. We took 4 passengers on the same taxi journey from the same departure point for $48 or $12 each.

Perhaps the most screaming example of the commercial imperatives of this operation came on the last few days of the cruise. As a travel writer I often get invitations to look around the ship to see how smoothly the operation runs. Holland America offer this opportunity to look at the catering facilities, laundry etc. They charge a massive $150 for the privilege!! They do offer lunch thrown in, forgetting that you get the same lunch anyway. Perhaps this best describes Holland America. Overall this cruise offered very poor value for money and stacks up badly against the other cruise lines with whom we have travelled. The food was certainly the best we have experienced, but we are really comparing different grades of superb. At the other end of the scale the entertainment was by far the worst we have experienced and the constant sales pitch was completely alien to the required environment on a leisure cruise. Will they continue to be successful? Of course they will! If you look at the totality of the package you get an Americanised travel environment, with exceptional food, wines from the Napa Valley and the ability to buy local souvenirs and gifts without ever leaving the ship. If you want foreign travel without exposure to anything foreign, this fits the bill. There are a lot of American tourists who want just that.



Our society distributes itself into Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace; and America is just ourselves, with the Barbarians quite left out and the Populace nearly.

Matthew Arnold (1822 - 1888)