HAL WITH KIDS FOR DUMMIES - Our cruise aboard the Niew Statendam
We are a family of 4, including 2 young children, and we just returned from a cruise aboard the Niew Statendam. It is because Holland America may not be the first cruise line that families with young children would consider for a cruise vacation the main reason why I wish to share our experience. When I was researching this cruise, it was at times a bit hard to find information that pertained to kids, so I hope that this thread is helpful to other families who may be considering a cruise on Holland America.
I'll start by giving a bit of information about us, simply to provide some perspective. Mom and Dad are in our 40’s and our kids are 8 and 10 year old. We got our kids (addicted to) cruising when they were still toddlers. Our daughter’s first cruise was actually on Holland America when she was 15 months old. Since then, they’ve cruise 11 times across 5 different cruise lines, from Alaska, to Cuba, to the Mediterranean, and to places in between.
Raising a young family, we’ve sailed mostly on family friendly cruise lines like Disney, Royal Caribbean, MSC and Carnival. We’ve tremendously enjoyed every cruise we’ve taken. Needless to say, those cruise lines cater heavily to an energetic, younger crowd, with tons of activities for children, even late into the evening. But when it was time to plan our next cruise during our kid’s mid-winter break, I came across this itinerary on Holland America and it automatically caught my attention.
First, I’d be visiting three ports that I hadn’t been to before; Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk, and Amber Cove, in addition to Key West (which I love). Second, this itinerary was aboard a brand new ship (which I’m a fool for). Third, it had a “kids sail free” promotion. After comparing pricing with other cruise lines, even more budget minded ones, we learned that cruising on the Niew Statendam would cost at least $1,000 less than the closest competitor. Even though I was a bit hesitant about sailing on a cruise line that’s not traditionally considered family friendly, I decided to book it and hope for the best.
We flew to Florida the afternoon before our cruise. After comparing airfare between FLL, MIA, and PBI, we realized that we could save considerably (both on airfare and hotel) by flying into PBI, so that was our choice. It was actually nice to fly into a fairly small and uncrowded airport, at least compared to the other 2 options. We spent the night at the Embassy Suites by the airport and then took the Brightline (soon to be Virgin) train down to Fort Lauderdale the following morning, which was an absolutely wonderful decision. Not only was it fun, but it took us 37 minutes to get there. From the moment you arrive at the train station, the entire experience is sleek and modern. A great way to begin our vacation.
Our ship was docked at Terminal 26 in Port Everglades, and we planned our arrival to coincide with the recommended time printed on our paperwork, which was 1:00pm. When we got there, the line was out the door, and once inside, it looked like a line at a Disney ride, exactly the type of experience we were trying to avoid by sailing on HAL! But the line moved very quickly, and within a few minutes we were at the front of the line. I did notice that we were the last people standing in line at that particular time, so it seems like we just happened to have bad timing with our arrival time within this batch of passengers. But overall, no complaints with the check in process. Everything went smoothly and efficiently at the hands of very courteous port employees. Our kids were given bright orange plastic wristbands with their muster stations printed on them.
Niew Statendam is indisputably a beautiful, tasteful, and well planned ship! I had read several reviews from many HAL loyal customers who didn’t like the direction that HAL has taken with the Pinnacle class of ships, but I personally considered it to be perfectly executed. It had the feel of a modern ship, while still maintaining HAL’s more traditional feel and ambiance. I considered this ship the perfect way to tie the HAL of the past with the HAL of the future, opening the door to a new generation of HAL cruisers like us. We loved the music theme throughout the ship, reflected in the various pieces of art. Contrary to our previous HAL cruise on the Westerdam, which we found gloomy, with garish art that left us scratching our heads, the Niew Statendam felt airy and tasteful, with cohesive and pleasing music themed art.
After a lot of consideration weighing the pros and cons, we booked stateroom 4135; a VH category obstructed view verandah stateroom on Beethoven deck. The pros? It was $800 cheaper than a fully unobstructed verandah. Because it was the first VH balcony on that section, we had a decent not fully obstructed view, the balcony was considerably larger and angled, and we had a midship location fairly close to elevators. The cons? It still had a partially blocked view, it had a connecting door (which means you can sometimes hear your neighbors) and the stateroom was located above public venues. But all the pros definitely outweighed the cons (some which turned out to be non-issues), so we were very satisfied with our decision. We didn’t have any noise issues (very quiet and well insulated), and even when the seas got a bit choppy, our midship location on a lower deck provided a smooth ride. We loved the larger, angled balcony which we used considerably, and we were still able to enjoy the views even with the partial obstruction. We considered our stateroom a hidden, more affordable gem.
Compared to other cruise lines we’ve sailed on, this balcony stateroom was small for a family of 4. With the upper bunk (over the bed) down, and the single sleeper sofa open, it was tight. My wife hit her head with the bunk getting up from the bed one morning which brought her to tears. But it was a beautiful, tastefully appointed stateroom. Large wall mounted flat screen TV, plenty of storage, and a bathroom with one of the best, most spacious and powerful showers I’ve had on any cruise. We just had to be very disciplined about keeping things stowed and tidy to avoid feeling too cluttered. Elemis toiletries were provided which smelled wonderfully.
The interactive TV packed a lot of content. Free movies (including a selection for kids), live TV, information about dining venues including menus, daily programming for Club HAL, port information, and the ability to check our onboard statement.
We downloaded the navigator app on our phones, which basically replaces the paper When & Where. It was neat to click on favorites and have a condensed list of activities only containing our favorites. It was also neat to look ahead and basically plan all activities for the entire week. We liked getting alerts a few minutes prior to selected favorite activities.
We also liked the chat function which works like texting and which allowed family members to keep in touch. Only drawback is that it doesn’t give you any type of alert when you’ve received a message, so you have to periodically check your phone. The lack of alerts is not something that’s specific to HAL. That’s how the system works on all cruise lines we’ve sailed on with this feature. Main difference is that the chat is free on HAL, while other cruise lines charge you for its use.
A DIFFERENT SAIL AWAY
When we’ve sailed on other cruise lines, we are usually out on deck during sail away. It’s usually loud, with thumping music, the entertainment team with microphones, urging everyone to dance, there’s some sort of performance on stage, sometimes with the cruise line’s mascot or characters, and waiters are handing out “drink of the day on souvenir cups” to unsuspecting passengers who grab them before realizing that they are not free.
It’s not the same on Holland America. The main pool deck was, most of the time, blissfully quiet and serene. So on this particular sailing, we did something quite different. We learned that religious services (Catholic mass) would be performed by the onboard priest right at 5:00pm on this Sunday. So that’s what we did during sail away. We were at mass as the ship started moving, and it felt right to begin the cruise this way. It set the tone for the rest of the week. A second non-denominational service was performed following mass.
CLUB HAL AND OTHER KID FRIENDLY ACTIVITIES
After sail away, we decided to check out the Club HAL facilites, and figure out once and for all what our children could truly expect. On this ship, there wouldn’t be water slides, surf simulators, children’s pools, cartoon characters doing meet and greets, children parades throughout the ship, children themed stage entertainment, character breakfasts, or children facilities spanning half the length of the ship.
What we encountered were modern, nicely appointed and welcoming facilities tucked away on deck 10, with large TV’s, gaming consoles, and foosball tables. Needless to say, the facilities were considerably smaller than on other cruise lines, but for the number of children that sail on Holland America, they were more than adequate.
Hours varied slightly from port days and sea days, but typically they’d be open from 8:00am to 11:30am, then from 1:00pm to 4:00pm and finally between 7:00pm to 11:00pm. Hours and activities for each day could be accessed from the interactive TV in our stateroom. Even though the club closed at 11:00pm, counselors encouraged us to pick our kids up by 10:00pm, as the last hour was usually more of a “wind down, quiet” hour. Quite different from previous cruises like Disney, where you could go to the kids club at midnight and the club would still be jam packed with kids completely wired.
Check in is done “the old fashioned” way, by signing them in and out on a piece of paper. No computerized systems or wristband tracking devices like on other lines.
There were 3 counselors staffing the kids club. From them, we learned that on our particular sailing, there were only 110 passsengers aged 3-17 onboard (out of 2,600 passengers). We also learned that this number was actually high, and that there are weeks when the number of kids onboard is in the single digits (depending on itinerary, time of year, and if kids are out of school).
Our kids were in the 7-12 age group, and it seemed to be the group with the “most” kids in attendance. We never saw any teens 13-17 use the adjoining teen facilities. Every night, the same 15-20 kids in the 7-12 age group would be at the club, which meant that all of them became fast friends. This turned out to be an unexpected plus, and a definite advantage over other cruise lines. Normally, on lines like Disney, Royal and Carnival, there are SO many kids onboard (sometimes measured in the thousands), that it makes it chaotic, overcrowded, as well as harder to make friends when there are so many kids congregated in these facilities. On a particular sailing on Carnival during a school break that we cruised on, there were so many kids onboard that they had to use conference rooms as overflow space, and even then, they were tightly packed. Not remotely the case on this HAL cruise!
On the Niew Statendam, our kids begged to go to the club every night specifically because they wanted to hang out with their new friends. They created their own play dates, agreed on meeting times, they’d run into each other ashore and get excited, and at the end of the cruise, they hugged and exchanged information with promises to stay in touch. That alone was more valuable than anything that an oversized kid program could ever provide. They had a chance to make real friends.
One observation that my wife and I made is that overall, children on this sailing were considerably better behaved, educated, and well mannered than what we’ve encountered on other cruise lines, when sometimes it’s a free for all, with hordes of children roaming the ship unattended and terrorizing other passengers. On this sailing, we never saw children unattended, and most seemed to be traveling with parents and grandparents, all adjusting well to the more adult atmosphere.
Outside of the kids club, there weren’t many (if any) activities that were children specific. But that didn’t mean that children didn’t have anything to do. The sports court on deck 11 was a second favorite place for them to frequent, and this is where we saw some of the teenagers, playing an impromptu game of basketball.
The main pool with a retractable roof and three large hot tubs was also popular with families onboard, but the only time when I found it to be truly crowded was during prime hours on our 2 sea days.
We also took our children to a few performances at Lincoln Center Stage during the day which they enjoyed more than I expected, and which piqued their interest in classical music and even raised the possibility of learning to play a music instrument.
In our stateroom, we had a large selection of free movies, including a children’s movie category. Normally we wouldn’t spend much time in our stateroom, but without feeling the pressure of too many activities, we actually spent some afternoons just watching a movie as a family and relaxing, which felt amazing.
The main theatre on this ship is The World Stage; an interesting, high-tech semi-circular theatre with floor to ceiling LED screens covering 270 degrees of the theatre, and with excellent acoustics. It’s not what people who prefer a traditional theatre setting would like, but I personally loved it.
Unfortunately, I found the actual entertainment lacking. I may have become biased in favor of far more elaborate, mesmerizing, professional, and high tech performances now found on cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and MSC which include aquatic and ice shows, partnerships with companies like Cirque du Soleil, and full Broadway productions. On the Niew Statendam, the main entertainment on 3 nights consisted of either a (rather bland) magic show, a comedy show, or a combination of both. On other nights, the main show was simply a BBC Planet Earth movie (which was impressive when played on the LED screens, but it was not a live performance show). A woman in front of me exited the theatre irate, huffing and complaining to her husband that she couldn’t believe that the show for the night was a 30 minute movie about sea animals.
That left 2 nights for performances by the Step One Dance Company, one called Humanity and one called Resonance. The group consisted of 6 contemporary dancers, performing assisted by multi-media, high tech LED screens and recorded music. We first saw Humanity, which my wife and I attended while the kids were at the kids club. We actually LOVED this show. The dancing was good, but when combined with the upbeat music and mind boggling visuals, it created an amazing show. It showcased the strengths of the World Stage. It was good enough for a standing ovation from the packed theatre, something that I don’t see too often after a cruise ship performance. We enjoyed it so much that we took our kids to see the second show that same night after we picked them up from the kids club, and they loved it as well.
Unfortunately, the second show, Resonance, wasn’t nearly as good. In fact, it was painful to watch. At some point, we noticed that people were actually getting up and leaving the theatre. We tried to finish watching the entire show, hoping that it would get better, but we gave up as well. We quietly exited the theatre in between songs. Thankfully we were seated towards the back.
The main source of entertainment on this ship outside of the Word Stage is located along Music Walk, with various types of music. Lincoln Center Stage, BB Kings Blues, Rolling Stones Rock Room, and Billboard. As mentioned before, we attended several Lincoln Center Stage performances and they were absolutely phenomenal. Unfortunately, we only enjoyed the music at the others venues in passing, but what we witnessed was great as well. The Rolling Stones Rock room seemed to attract the largest crowds.
There’s also a smallish casino, which allows smoking. We didn’t use it, but we didn’t find the smoke smell to be too overpowering when we had to cross through it to get to the World Stage.
We also attended an “Ask the Captain” meet at the World Stage which we thoroughly enjoyed. Captain Neil O’Driscoll narrated while he played a slide show on the LED screens of various behind the scenes aspects of this ship. I must say that he’s one of the most charismatic and well spoken Captains I’ve ever encountered. The presentation was very enjoyable, and when the time came for actual questions, he truly engaged with each person, paying special attention to the children who asked rather intelligent and well thought out questions.
We purchased a week pass for the Greenhouse Spa which gave us access to the Thalassotherapy pool, relaxation area with heated tile loungers, and various thermal rooms. We paid $219 for a couples pass by purchasing it online before the cruise, which was the right choice because it was being sold onboard for $299.
We thoroughly enjoyed these facilities. They were never too crowded, and we could always find an open tiled lounger. The previous time that we had access to a thermal area was the previous year aboard the MSC Meraviglia which had wonderful facilities at their Aurea Spa, but which was way too crowded most of the time, hindering our enjoyment when we couldn’t even find where to sit. Not the case on the Niew Statendam. At certain times during the day we had the place all to ourselves. It was truly relaxing to spend some time there, specially after a long day ashore.
Overall, we considered the cuisine on this ship to be far superior to the cuisine on any other cruise line that we’ve recently sailed on. Very little to complain about, and we never encountered anything that we didn’t like. HAL’s Culinary Council of renowned chefs definitely delivered.
We ate at the Dining Room on 3 nights, including the Gala Night. In addition to the food, we found this restaurant to be very eye pleasing and classy. We had open time dining, and upon learning that reservations were recommended, we figured out too late that our only options were either 5:00pm or 8:30pm. We just went as early as possible and were accommodated right away at a table for 4.
For breakfast and lunch, we ate mostly at the Lido buffet. Normally we are not big fans of buffets, partly because the food tends to be mediocre and partly because we hate the chaos, with passengers (some with questionable hygiene practices) touching all the serving utensils, but on the Niew Statendam, we found the lido food to be very enjoyable. We were also pleased to see that most food is served by the lido staff, rather than having passengers self-serve which was not only more hygienic, but it also controlled the amount of food served, which many times ends up wasted when people over serve themselves.
We also purchased a dinner package which included Canaletto and Pinnacle Grill. We brought the kids with us to Canaletto as a special treat since it was my daughter’s birthday. Our daughter ordered from the kids menu which is free, and our son ordered from the regular menu, which we were told would cost 1/2 the adult price, but they never charged us for his meal. We had an enjoyable dinner, although the service was a bit lacking. My main complaint about Canaletto was its location. It shares space with the lido buffet, which makes it feel less special, and it’s also loud with people entering and exiting the area, as well as clanging metal from kitchen equipment nearby.
One night we decided to have dinner at the New York Deli and Pizza. We ordered Caesar salads, sandwiches, and pizzas. Everything is made to order so they give you a pager while you wait. We truly enjoyed having a super casual evening sitting at our table overlooking the pool area. Very relaxing.
For our last night onboard, my wife and I attended the Pinnacle Grill. This meal was, without a doubt, the highlight of the cruise, and the perfect way to finish our vacation. The ambiance was perfect, our waiter was very attentive, and the food was superb. Both of us ordered the 10oz filet mignon, paired with bernaise sauce, and it was truly one of the best, most succulent steaks I’ve enjoyed in recent memory. We both had the key lime pie for dessert, and we both agreed that it was the best dessert we had all week.
PORTS OF CALL
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, a big deciding factor to take this cruise was the itinerary. We’d never visited 3 out of the 4 ports visited, so here’s what we did:
- Half Moon Cay: We’d read many times that this port of call has one of the most beautiful beaches of all the private islands in the Bahamas, and it truly lived up to the hype. Not only was it beautiful, but it was unspoiled and uncrowded. People do tend to congregate closer to the beginning of the strip, but by walking a couple extra hundred feet, we had the beach to ourselves. We rented a clamshell but I think we would’ve been OK without it. There was enough shade. We had some drinks at the pirate ship shaped bar which also had great views from its upper deck. We decided not to eat at the buffet provided ashore so I can’t comment on that. Overall, we had a relaxing and blissful day at Half Moon Cay.
- Grand Turk: I looked hard at excursions and what to do in Grand Turk, and I just couldn’t find anything that truly appealed to me, so we decided to reserve a Margaritaville pool cabana for the day and just relax at the Welcome Center. It was nice to have a place where to be, and to have food and drinks delivered to us while the kids enjoyed the pool. Overall, the entire welcome center and pool area didn’t look or feel crowded. It was pretty relaxed, and only 3 pool cabanas had been rented out. Our waiter was very courteous, attentive and friendly, and since he attended to us all day, after a while we started chatting about our personal lives and life in Grand Turk in general. I asked him how different this place was with one Holland America ship visiting vs when there are multiple ships from other cruise lines. He said that it’s a completely different experience, and that we should be glad that we got to experience Grand Turk the way we did, aboard Holland America. Not surprisingly, he said that when they have two ships (from more family friendly lines) visiting at the same time, the welcome center is absolutely insane. The pool is packed, and the atmosphere is chaotic and raucous. So I’m glad that I had the opportunity to experience this place the way we did. They also had a Flowrider (surf simulator), and our son begged to participate. For $39, he could get a 90 minute shared session with 6 participants. When I realized that most of the other people who had signed up for a session were the friends he’d met at Club HAL, I felt that the right thing to do was to let him join in the fun. He thoroughly enjoyed it, and watching these kids cheer each other on as each one took his turn was worth every single dollar .
- Amber Cove: We were in port with the Carnival Conquest this day. Similar to Grand Turk, Amber Cove has a welcome center, but the list of activities and excursions in the area is considerably more extensive. We decided to book a 2 hour Panoramic Puerto Plata excursion that would be easy for the children. It was indeed a very easy excursion. As we drove to the city of Puerto Plata, our tour guide provided tidbits of information about life in the Dominican Republic. Our first stop was the city’s town square, where the San Felipe Cathedral is located. We were funneled with other tours into a souvenir store for about 20 minutes, and then we walked around the town square and proceeded inside the Cathedral afterwards. We then boarded the bus and drove along the beach. Even by the driver’s own admission, it wasn’t the prettiest beach, but then he announced that we would be making another “photo” stop there. When the bus stopped, we realized that we were about to be dropped off at a bunch of tables along the beach, selling more of the same souvenirs that we’d seen before, so nobody got off the bus. It was actually a bit comical. We kept going to our final stop, the San Felipe Fortress, for a quick photo op. The Fort wasn’t very large or impressive (at least compared to Spanish fortifications at other locations like San Juan), but it was still much more interesting than the souvenir stops. I just wish that they’d given us a bit more than 10 minutes to explore rather than wasting time trying to sell us souvenirs prior to this stop. But overall, it was an enjoyable tour and it fulfilled its intended purpose. We were back at the Amber Cove welcome center by 11:00am. We returned to the ship to have lunch, and then my wife and daughter decided to stay on the ship to rest while my son and I ventured back out to explore the welcome center. With two ships in town, it was pretty packed, and it had the chaotic “tourist trap” feel that our waiter at Grand Turk had described to us the day before. We went down the water slides a few times and then returned to the ship.
- Our final stop was Key West, which I have visited many times and which I truly enjoy. We were in port with two other ships, the Viking Sky and the Norwegian Sky. In addition to that, there was a festival happening on this day, so it was pretty crowded. We didn’t plan a thing for Key West, and decided to go with the flow. We docked at the Navy Pier, so we were bussed into town. Once there, we had lunch at El Meson de Pepe which is my “go to” restaurant for Cuban food when I’m in Key West for work. After that, I took the kids to the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum, while my wife did a little bit of window shopping. We made a stop at Crocs for new shoes, we then had some ice cream, and returned to the ship.
Our return flight was at 12:30pm from FLL, so we weren’t in much of a rush to get off the ship. We enjoyed breakfast one final time at the lido buffet and then walked off the ship at 9:00am. Unlike other cruise lines where they literally force you out of your room before 8:00am and then you have to wait in a public area, on this cruise we were told that we could wait in our stateroom until our luggage color was called. This made for a much more leisurely and enjoyable last morning onboard.
One thing that helped expedite debarkation was the fact that we had gone through US customs the day before in Key West. Everybody was required to proceed to the World Stage with their passports before proceeding ashore in Key West. Cards were scanned and then a hole was punched in them after meeting with US Customs. When we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale the next morning, US Customs agents were present, but they just waved everybody through as we exited the terminal. No need for additional screening.
We took an Uber to the airport ($14), and we were through security and at our gate with over 2 hours to spare.
Our cruise aboard the Niew Statendam was absolutely wonderful. Not only did it meet expectations, but it far exceeded them. None of my concerns about bringing small children became a reality. If anything, we learned that Holland America provided a much more enjoyable cruise for our family than what we’ve experienced on family-friendly cruise lines. We learned that we don’t need Disney characters jumping up and down on stage, or elaborate kids clubs, or incessant kids music, or Dr. Seuss parades through the ship to keep our children entertained. They truly loved the experience on the Niew Statendam. I asked my 10 year old son to rank the 11 cruises that he’s been on, and he placed the Niew Statendam second (first place went to the MSC Meraviglia in the Mediterranean which was rightfully a wonderful cruise, and also one of my personal favorites).
With that said, I know that Holland America may not be a good choice for many families that do enjoy that kind of energetic experience that family friendly cruise lines provide. So I’d be careful about blindly recommending Holland America to any family. I believe that you must be someone who does appreciate the more relaxed and upscale type of experience that Holland America provides in order to enjoy sailing on this cruise line. For example, we have friends who exclusively sail on Disney (they actually sailed aboard Disney Magic the same week we sailed on Niew Statendam). When we came home, we compared notes, and they said that they would’ve been miserable on our cruise (but probably not as miserable as we would’ve been on theirs!)
We went on the Niew Statendam looking for relaxation and a nicer experience, and Holland America definitely delivered!