There are more and more cruise lines catering to families these days. For good reason, a cruise with kids has many perks for all ages and interests. Which leads to the next question: Which cruise line is best for your family?
I can’t answer this question as that would require trying all of them and we have yet to do that on Ciao Bambino, although we do have a new Cruise Vacations landing page filled with cruising tips, advice, experiences, and photos! After my recent Western Caribbean cruise on Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam, I have more excellent cruise insight to share.
In short, she’s beautiful. Built three years ago, the ms Nieuw Amsterdam is Holland America’s newest ship. The design is modern with traditional elements fitting with Holland America’s deep European maritime roots. A wide variety of colorful both contemporary and traditional artwork paired with historic photos create warmth and interest.
For a ship that holds 2,106 passengers, it’s cozy inside with a plethora of nooks and crannies for loitering. I always felt like I could find a place without crowds, even on the long sea days. From the Crow’s Nest Bar to lounge chairs on the Promenade Deck, to the social Lido Deck Pool, you can move around all day and have very different lounge experiences.
The Nieuw Amsterdam is unbelievably immaculate. After a day on the ship it’s clear why: the staff is cleaning every inch of it around the clock. I was waiting for a moldy moment at some point given the hours logged at sea, but I never had one.
We stayed in a Verandah ocean view stateroom; this category includes a 213-379 square ft deck with chairs. I’m spoiled for life now as I can’t imagine staying on a ship without this wonderful, private access to sea sounds and views. I didn’t get the chance to inspect every room category, but the beds are comfortable, rooms are well-furnished, and the bathrooms are decent. Suite stateroom categories have full-sized whirlpool tubs — decadent!
Food quality (and quantity) is a big deal on cruise lines. Going into the experience, this is the area that had the most uncertainty for me as there are so many horror stories out there around overindulgence and poor quality meals. I discovered food is a big differentiator for Holland America and they take their programming very seriously.
The diligence pays off — I loved the food experience on the Nieuw Amsterdam. In addition to the all-inclusive buffet on the Lido Deck, the Nieuw Amsterdam offers premium dining experiences in a variety of outlets. Holland America runs a Culinary Council comprised of chefs from around the world with the purpose of enhancing the shipboard dining experience. It works. We tried all the different outlets are were continually amazed by the consistent presentation, variety, and quality of the food options.
Favorite experiences during our week included:
> The evening at Le Cirque at the Pinnacle Grill where both this gourmet landmark’s food and ambiance are re-created at sea. The price to dine is $39 per adult, which as far as I’m concerned, is a huge bargain for this exclusive culinary experience.
> Tamarind Restaurant is the Asia food outlet. From Indonesian Satays to fresh Sushi to Szechuan Shrimp with Thai Basil, the food here is exceptional, as is the service and soft-lit ambiance. We truly felt like we had entered an entirely different venue, not just accessed a different menu.
> Canaletto is the Italian restaurant and, although it is the least interesting from an ambiance perspective, as it’s in an open area near the buffet, the food is fresh, tasty, and could easily be a family staple for a cruise.
> I am a coffee snob and found myself at the coffee bar ordering lattes every morning. It wasn’t free like the regular coffee — but it’s nice to have sophisticated coffee options available.
After all of the good food, an expansive fitness center is key and the Nieuw Amsterdam has a wonderful facility staffed with energetic personal trainers. A variety of daily classes are offered including spinning and yoga; they also offer personal and group healthy lifestyle consulting. Although the gym was popular on our sailing, it was never over-crowded and I adored the fitness classes.
There’s a full service spa offering everything from facials to full body treatments. I indulged in a scrub followed by a hydrating massage. Spa services are extra but they offer daily packages and specials that are a great value. The Hydro Pool is a ship favorite as the hyper-strong jets and bubbles massage every muscle at once. You leave the pool a wet noodle and then find additional bliss on the thermal ceramic chairs in the relaxation room. Heavenly.
The entertainment and nightlife is a ship highlight. There are a variety of enjoyable options with zero logistics. Every evening there’s live music, dancing, a production in the Theater at Sea, a lively sing-a-long piano bar, and a late-night disco. The entertainment caters to ship’s older guests in terms of the music and show content, but our 30 and 40-something group had no trouble having fun. There’s a popular onboard Casino, Microsoft sponsored “tech” classes, art auctions, cooking demonstrations in a multi-million dollar culinary center, bingo, games and more. Dancing with the Stars at Sea was the hit of our sailing. In short, all remnants of daily life are shelved and you quite simply move from one joyful activity to another. It’s virtually impossible not to relax.
Our sailing was not during a school holiday period so my offspring was not in tow. That said, I have a solid feel for Nieuw Amsterdam’s kids’ programming. Families love the Lido Deck Pool and are there throughout each day. The roof is retractable so it’s possible to swim in any conditions. The Lido Deck is loud and social, so there is no worry about children making noise.
Otherwise, kids’ central is Club HAL, offering supervised care for ages 3-7 (kids must be potty trained) and ages 8-12. There are scheduled activities for ages 13 to 17. Each group has their own room with age-appropriate activities and decorations.
The main club for ages 8-12 is filled with New York memorabilia, including a life-size NYC yellow cab. The club is free, and there is evening programming too so parents can have date-night in one of the fine dining venues. Despite the fact that the ship has a finite amount of open space, the kids have no shortage of places to romp thanks to a sports court on top of the ship. There is some screen time, but the staff assured me it’s limited.
There’s a huge list of shore excursions offered at every port, including family-focused options. The reality is that other than the night(s) where the ship docks late in port, time feels limited in any one destination and you definitely feel pressed to make smart decisions about the best activity for that location.
We opted to snorkel in Grand Cayman and swam with dolphins in Cozumel as our structured excursions. The activities are well-organized, not an easy feat given the sheer number of people that disembark at the same time.
TIP: I strongly recommend researching the excursions ahead of time. Cruise feedback is all over the Web, and resources like Cruise Critic have very active forums with specific details on what to do at the different ports of call. There is a Shore Excursion Desk on the ship providing information, but we didn’t find that they could really drill down on the nitty gritty details given the sheer number of offers.
Without-a-doubt the staff is a Holland America ship highlight. The staff works tirelessly, is unbelievably friendly, and is motivated to ensure that each and every guest has a great time. There’s a big Filipino contingent and they provide wonderful service at every turn on the ship.
My only negative is the constant up-selling at any point in time (from drinks to services). My understanding is that this is a cruise staple (any line, not just Holland America) and the business side of me understands that it’s required to make the numbers work as the base cruise cost is very low for what you get. Up-selling or no up-selling, Holland America is an unbelievable value for the quality.
Interesting in booking a cruise with kids? Our Family Vacation Consultants can help! Request assistance on our Connect with a Travel Advisor page.
Editorial Note: Ciao Bambino was part of a media trip to experience the Nieuw Amsterdam. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy
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