Embarking Westerdam for a Voyage to the Mexican Riviera

Holland America Line’s 2004-built Westerdam glistens at anchor off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico later in our voyage. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

I managed to spot Holland America Line’s 1,916-passenger Westerdam at her berth in San Diego as my Boeing 737-700 touched down at San Diego International Airport. If you’ve never been before, the airport is so close to the cruise pier that you could almost reach out and touch it. It’s slightly too far to walk, but it’s a quick five-minute cab ride away.

Arriving at the San Diego B-Street pier at 11:27 am, I found the terminal employees helpful and kind, and security lines and checks didn’t take much time at all. This was a huge improvement over cruises I’ve taken this year out of other U.S. ports of call, with Baltimore taking the prize of “worst embarkation ever.”

Once through security, you’re asked to fill out the now-standard health questionnaire before joining the check-in line. Since I’d checked in on-line with Holland America for my cruise, there was no need to do anything more than take my photo, verify my passport, and collect my stateroom keycard.

By Noon, I was stepping through the Deck 2 shell door, and onto the beautiful ms Westerdam.

Welcome aboard! Holland America was just in the process of decking out Westerdam for the holidays as I embarked. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Westerdam’s gorgeous three-story atrium is bookended by the Atrium Bar on Deck 1 (bottom right), and the Ocean Bar on Deck 3 (top left). Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The third of Holland America’s Vista Class ships, Westerdam was built in 2004 and has been placed on West Coast runs for the last few years. She is a graceful and elegant ship that holds far fewer guests than many other ships of her size. At 935 feet in length, she is big enough to offer plenty of amenities (say hello to 10 bars and lounges, two outdoor swimming pools, eight entertainment venues and six different restaurants and cafes), while still managing to be small enough to not feel overbearing.

Elevator bank, Deck 5 forward. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Spread out across 11 passenger decks, Westerdam’s public rooms are bright and vibrant – so much so that the vast array of colours can be a little bit overwhelming upon first entry. That’s slowly changing: Holland America is in the process of replacing much of the earlier carpeting and soft furnishings with more toned-down varieties, which look particularly stunning. I’ll admit to being something of a ship purist – I love the original colour scheme of this vessel dearly – but I also have to admit that the new carpet patterns and wall treatments, rolling out slowly over the vessel in advance of her Spring 2017 drydock, really do give the ship a much more refined feel.

Forward staircase, Deck 5. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Some of Westerdam’s corridors feature new dark-brown paneling on the lower third of the walls. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

My home for the next week is a Category VC Verandah stateroom on Verandah Deck 5. This is arguably my favorite kind of balcony stateroom on the Vista Class ships, and I have booked this category many times in the past, long before I ever started writing about my cruises professionally.

My home for the next week…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…a Category VC Verandah Stateroom on Deck 5, forward. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The reason I like these Deck 5 Cat VC rooms so much is that they’re located at the forward and aft ends of the ship. They typically offer views that look straight down over the ocean, and aren’t in the recessed part of the vessel that looks down onto the ship’s lifeboats (though those rooms are great, too, because of their midships location). In fact, except for their physical location and price, not much differentiates the Category VA-VH Verandah Staterooms. It is, however, worth noting that Category VF and VH rooms on Deck 4, numbers 4001 to 4042, have steel balcony railings instead of plexiglass ones, but make up for it by having slightly larger verandahs.

Category VC Verandah staterooms feature the same layout and amenities as other Verandah category staterooms aboard Westerdam. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

My Category VC Verandah Stateroom is classically designed, with a queen-sized bed that can convert to two twins; a small writing desk; a sitting area with a couch and chair; a flat-panel television set and DVD player; three sets of full-length closets; and a bathroom that features a full-sized tub/shower combo. With the exception of Inside Staterooms, nearly all cabins aboard Westerdam feature this tub/shower arrangement.

What’s happening onboard? The Daily Navigator – placed in your cabin – tells you all you need to know, and is a huge improvement over Holland America’s past daily program designs. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Bathrooms feature Elemis toiletries, as they have for years. I love these, and I’m glad Holland America still features them onboard – though I do miss the individual bottles of soap and shampoo of the days of old. Today, a pump-style dispenser is mounted to the shower, but that’s pretty much how things go these days unless you’re river cruising or on a luxury line.

Bathrooms feature Elemis toiletries…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and most stateroom bathrooms aboard Westerdam have shower/tub combinations. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Some improvements since I last sailed with the line include new keycards that can be digitally scanned, a new Daily Program look and layout, and brand-new literature in the cabin explaining features of the stateroom and the ship. With its bright-orange cover this “Welcome Aboard” booklet is hard to miss – and it’s a welcome addition to the stateroom that’s choked full of great information.

More improvements: internet access onboard has been substantially improved. The old “pay-per-minute” billing scheme is gone, replaced with three packages that allow for unlimited access:

  • The Social Plan: $14.99 per day; $69.99 per 7-day voyage
  • The Enhanced Plan: $24.99 per day; $99.99 per 7-day voyage
  • The Premiere Plan: $29.99 per day; $139.99 per 7-day voyage.

Each plan allows different levels of access. The Social Plan, for example, allows access to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and the like. The Enhanced Plan provides access to most websites but blocks Skype access and music streaming, while the Premiere Plan allows Skype and music streaming sites. A disclaimer at the bottom of the form notes that adult websites, video streaming sites, and online gaming sites are blocked due to high bandwidth, but presumably also due to content.

If you’re looking for these plans on embarkation day and don’t see them, wait until you set sail. Packages tend to become available for purchase after dinner.

One of the first things I did today was to make a beeline for the Greenhouse Spa & Salon on Deck 9 to purchase a Thermal Suite Pass.

You’re Going To Want This. Definitely splurge on the Thermal Suite pass, which includes admission to the Greenhouse Spa’s soothing Hydrotherapy Pool on Deck 9. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Available for $149 per person, or $249 per couple for the voyage, this pass allows access to the Greenhouse Spa’s Hydrotherapy Pool and Thermal Suite. The former is a thalassotherapy pool that features jets of water that rise up from underneath a metal grate that you can lay on, or stand in a center column while jets massage you from every angle. I got hooked on this from some guests I met 11 years ago aboard Westerdam’s sister-ship Oosterdam, and I’ve become a huge Hydro pool enthusiast ever since. It’s one of the few things that I’ll pay for right off the bat.

The Thermal Suite features heated ceramic loungers facing banks of floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Thermal Suite is also impressive, with six heated ceramic tile loungers arranged in a crescent shape, facing a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. I’ve seen bigger and more elaborate Thermal Suites on other ships, but none with the kind of views that are available here. A water fountain provides some soothing ambiance, and a series of aromatic steam rooms can be enjoyed here as well.

The ultimate relaxation. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

So why do I buy a pass here on embarkation day? Passes are limited to prevent crowding in the pool and thermal suite, and I don’t want to risk having it sell out, which occasionally does happen. And I feel it adds to my overall Holland America cruise experience. Since I look forward to this extra-cost feature, I just budget for it on every voyage I take with the line.

After the mandatory Muster Drill at 3:15 pm, I went up on-deck to watch as we sailed away from San Diego promptly at 4:00pm.

Out by the Sea View Pool all the way aft on Deck 9, freshly-made Margaritas were being served up in logo-brand souvenir glasses, along with ice-cold Corona’s, accompanied by the prerequisite slice of lime. Our onboard Mexican Ambassadors performed a variety of local and authentic dances for us, while Mexican appetizers and small-bites were passed around by smartly-dressed waiters roving the pool deck.

Westerdam slowly pulls away from the pier…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and leaves San Diego behind. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Up on the stern on Deck 9…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…the party gets underway. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

You know you want one. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Ice-cold Corona’s complement…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

our Mexican Ambassadors…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

…and some authentic Mexican sailaway treats. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

And I looked out over the stern, with the setting sun illuminating San Diego and our propellers churning up a frothy wake behind us. In the background, I only heard music, laughter, and the clinking of glasses.

With over 140 years of experience, Holland America still knows how to put on one heck of a good sail-away. And that’s not a bad way to start a cruise.

A sailaway martini in the Ocean Bar, Deck 3. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Our Live Voyage Report aboard Holland America Line’s Westerdam continues with our embarkation in San Diego, California! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

Westerdam - Mexican Riviera

Saturday, December 3, 2016San Diego, CaliforniaEmbark Westerdam1600
Sunday, December 4At Sea
Monday, December 5Cabo San Lucas, Mexico11001900
Tuesday, December 6Mazatlan, Mexico08001800
Wednesday, December 7Puerto Vallarta, Mexico08001700
Thursday, December 8At Sea
Friday, December 9At Sea
Saturday, December 10San Diego, California0700Disembark

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