The great service and relaxed atmosphere that I found on my recent 14-day Holland America cruise from Hong Kong to Osaka made this sailing one of my best ever. From the time our luggage arrived -- three minutes after we walked into our stateroom on Holland America's Statendam -- until the last latte was served on our final day, the service was first-rate. I was known as "Mr. Mike" by at least 10 members of the crew within two days -- and I had never purchased a drink or shown my cabin card to most of them.
Holland America traditionally has a high percentage of Philippine crew as well as a high retention rate for its service staff. I had the honor of being seated at the Captain's table for this cruise, and on two of the three formal nights I had the pleasure of dining with the Hotel Manager, Dietrich Van Regemorter. He told me that while the average years of experience among the service staff has dropped (because of the large number of newly built ships joining the fleet), the company's emphasis on training and its commitment to the customer is still the number one priority for the staff.
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This was evident on the first formal evening. My wife and I went to the Crow's Nest bar to finish our evening with a nightcap. A number of officers and members of the Cruise Director's staff were there interacting with the passengers, making sure they were enjoying themselves and also dancing and conversing with them. They also bought a number of drinks for people. I know that more than a few people felt pretty special that night.
The bar staff, while not as forward in trying to sell you a drink as those on many lines, was still ready to satisfy any request, and was always on hand in the bars and the pool and lido areas. My favorite place was the Explorations Café coffee bar. The lattes there were as good as any you can buy at Starbucks, and only $2 for a very large size. Allen, the coffee bar barista, became one of my favorite staff members.
Chinese Port Difficulties
Overall, the staff excelled beyond that of any other cruise I had sailed on. The only segment that seemed less than excellent was the port staff. The port information they provided was less than adequate. Granted there were problems with the Chinese government and immigration officials that were beyond the control of the Captain and Holland America, but information on the ports and docking areas that we received was either wrong or sorely lacking, indicating that little or no advance information was provided to the shore excursion team or the port lecturer.
Also, many people going ashore -- both on the ship's tours and traveling independently --had problems checking into hotels and obtaining Chinese currency because they lacked passports. A copy of a passport was not accepted at banks, and Chinese currency was unavailable on the ship. In Beijing, I had no problem because I used a registered Chinese tour agency that had made our reservations and prepaid our hotel; I used an ATM card for cash, and the Crown Plaza Hotel in Beijing accepted the copy of our passport and visa without question.
The ship itself is in great shape considering it is almost 17 years old. The Statendam recently went through a three-week dry dock to be upgraded to Holland America's new Signature of Excellence program, including the addition of new beds, flat panel TVs, down bedding and a new Internet Café called the Explorations Café.
The ship does have a bit of a vibration in the stern when at idle, and because of its size you can feel the motion of the ocean. But it handled some relatively heavy seas with little problem. The Explorations Café provided a good Internet connection with a wireless interface that was available on most of the main decks and Lido area, plus the computers in the café itself. Wireless access time was available for blocks of time ranging from 55 to 75 cents per minute (the more minutes purchased, the less the per-minute charge). Overall the connection was very good except for the last days of the cruise, when the satellite signal was blocked because of the terrain of the Japan Strait. My last 18 unused minutes were refunded without my having to ask. A few people with laptops complained of slow connection speeds, but overall the speed was very good for me. For those who take their own laptop, I recommend disabling virus-scanning updates and outgoing email scanning while using a pay-per-minute connection.
In my conversations with Hotel Manager Regemorter, he did clear up one important question about Holland America's tipping policy. I asked him if the staffers are allowed to keep cash tips given to them directly by passengers. He said they are if the passenger has not removed himself from the automatic tipping program. If he has, then the staffers must turn the money back into the pool to be shared by the entire staff. If the passenger had not removed himself from the program, the staff member is free to keep the money. So they keep a list of all people who remove themselves from the program, and it is posted in the dining area and the cabin and bar staff areas. Holland America's automatic tipping policy also apportions a small share of gratuities to staffers you don't see, ensuring that behind-the-scenes workers such as cleaning, laundry and galley staff are also fairly remunerated.
I noticed that the Hotel Manager always referred to the ship's staff as family and he truly seemed to mean it. They are a family, and they do feel they need to provide for their customers -- even someone like Mr. Mike.