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Jill French

Age: 52

Occupation:Corporate Recruiter

Number of Cruises: 5

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Zaandam

Sailing Date: October 19, 2002

Itinerary: Coastal


Bill and I began cruising five years ago and consider it the most relaxing and romantic way to spend vacation days, which are considered “gold” in our “work-a-day” lives. Prior to this cruise we have been aboard RCCL (3) and Carnival (1). Years ago, on a trip to Vancouver, we saw a Holland America ship docked at Canada Place and Bill said, “We have to do one of those ships.” Well, we finally did!

BOOKING

We had originally planned on running away to the Mexican Riviera for Thanksgiving as I still suffer from Post Traumatic Turkey Syndrome brought on by too many years of doing “the bird”. All was set with deposits until I came across a Five Day Flash and discovered Holland America was “portioning” a twenty-one day Panama Canal reposition cruise and one of the available segments was Vancouver to San Diego (five nights). Though it did not fall into any Thanksgiving schedule, Vancouver and San Diego are two of our favorite places on earth and there were also two days at sea. WE LOVE DAYS AT SEA! So, I quickly called my travel agent and cancelled Mexico and Booked the Zaandam for a guarantee B (outside mini verandah suite). About a month before the cruise our documents arrived. These were unlike any we had ever received as they were in substantial leather tri-fold wallets with all your cruise tickets and a special place for your passport. What a classy presentation and they proved to be an excellent way of keeping everything very organized and easily retrievable. We were assigned cabin 000 since we were on a guarantee, but with the advise of a Cruise Critic post I began to access my booking information via the Shore Excursion section of HAL’s website. About fifteen days before the cruise we suddenly became a Category A #6177 mini suite. Things were going about as smoothly as we could have imagined and the anticipation was pretty much pervading my consciousness. Then again, we believe that looking forward to the cruise is at LEAST as wonderful as the cruise itself.

PRE EMBARKATION

We live in Prescott, Arizona, which is about one hundred miles from the Phoenix airport. I had made separate air and pre cruise hotel reservations as I could find a far better rate than Holland America was offering. We have discovered a Days Inn close to the airport where you can park your car for free up to a week if you stay there one night. Their rates are very reasonable and we don’t have to stress about potential traffic problems and missing our morning flights. This worked out well again and we were able to get to the airport with time to spare and enjoyed an uneventful flight from Phoenix to Vancouver. The customs situation in Vancouver can be long and tedious, but this time things weren’t as bad as last September. The fact that we were the second to last ship leaving port at the closing of the Alaska cruise season helped keep numbers down.

We had booked a package at the Hotel Listel on Robson Street for the night before embarkation. This unique, boutique hotel is on the Rodeo Drive of Vancouver and is a top- notch operation. Our Deluxe Gallery Package (US $132 + tax) included an upgraded gallery room complete with original artwork by a prominent Canadian artist, a seventy- five dollar dinner credit at O’Doul’s Restaurant, French Press coffee and news paper delivery in the morning and full menu breakfast at O’Doul’s. We arrived in blustery Fall weather which was a welcomed relief from the seemingly endless drought we have experienced in the Southwest. The gray skies and mist were a perfect background for the vibrant Fall leaves and damp streets. Our room had a view of Robson Street and we could actually see a bit of the harbor. I can’t say enough about the quality of this hotel; artwork, furnishings, concierge service, dining and overall atmosphere are primo.

We were very hungry since we flew through lunch and it was mid afternoon. The international dining opportunities in Vancouver rival New York and San Francisco. The Robson area is a Mecca for food enthusiasts. We had dinner planned at O’Doul’s, o we didn’t want to overly indulge. We found a casual Sushi restaurant a few doors down from the hotel. Two Miso soups, tea and about thirty five pieces of assorted sushi came out to about eleven dollars US. We were blown away!

The light rain had subsided so we decided to do a bit of roaming along Robson. This is a wonderfully eclectic place with lots of people and extraordinary shopping variety. We sort of wandered about, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the diversity. The rain began to pick up and we went back to the Listel to cuddle up and enjoy the warmth prior to our dinner at seven thirty. Bill napped as I cuddled on our window seat watching the locals bundled in wool coats and knee high boots scurry about their after-work business. Ahhh yes, we weren’t in “Kansas” anymore.

Dinner was absolutely grand. O’Doul’s is known for wonderful food and live jazz. Bill had salmon and I had this wonderful chicken stuffed with Gorgonzola, spinach and apricot in a wine reduction that was to die for. The live music was an added treat and the whole affair was a perfect precursor for the adventure that awaited us the next day.

EMBARKATION

We planned a wake up call about seven so we could go for a walk down to Canada Place and see our Zaandam. She had been in dry dock the previous week and we knew she’d be a sight to behold. Lord, it’s dark in Vancouver at seven A.M! Our French Press Coffee was delivered and it rivaled the best we have ever had at coffee houses. Fueled with a caffeine “jump start” we ventured out about eight and headed for the harbor.

She was there in all her glory as starched and pressed as one could ever imagine a ship to be. I was breathless and wanted to hop ship then and there. We watched as they brought pallet after pallet of provisions for the coming week. What an operation! Cranes and forklifts choreographed in a ballet of stocking the Zaandam with anything and everything we could possibly need on our voyage.

Check in takes place on the lowest level of Canada Place, under the convention center. We headed down to get a sort of “lay of the land” and plan our strategy to board as early as possible. We had heard of folks boarding as early as eleven thirty or as late as one thirty on Cruise Critic boards. The crew was boarding at that point and we learned that they would begin with passengers about eleven thirty. We walked back to the hotel stopping along the way to grab a couple of Vancouver T-shirts and settled into O’Doul’s to enjoy the best Eggs Benedict I’ve ever eaten.

Bill headed out to get some Echinacea/Zinc tabs (we both felt colds coming on) and I did last minute packing and tagging of our bags. A quick call to the bellman resulted in a luggage loaded taxi in less than five minutes. It took no time at all before we were handing our bags over to the Holland America porters and were standing in line waiting for our carry-on bags to be scanned. We struck up a conversation with Al and Patricia from Carlsbad, California and about eleven forty five the line began to move. We quickly got through security, were given a boarding number and exchanged our paper ticket for our cruise ID card/room key/onboard charge card. One card covers all these necessities, which is very convenient. We were directed to a seating area and were kept informed as to what to expect next. All that prevented us from boarding the ship was getting through U.S. immigration and until they arrived, we stayed put.

In the mean time, the onboard Spa staff set up a table and booked appointments. The wine stewards were selling prepaid wine packages and a vendor sold soft drinks and snack items. Folks read, chatted, paced and a few became impatient. This wasn’t a reflection on HAL; they were also at the mercy of U.S. Immigration’s arrival.

At about one fifteen a handful of men and women in official looking uniforms arrived to an ovation from the crowd. The holding area was now standing room only and we were all ready to show our passports and get on with embarkation. It seemed like forever as they booted up their computers. Since 911 they no longer just look at your ID or passport; they now have to cross-reference you with their computer records. The wheelchair and cane folks were first to board and then on to the “masses”. We were in the first group and it went quite quickly. Soon we were being directed toward a gangway!!!!! Our “Day One” had finally come and we were about to board the ship of our dreams and experience the reality.

DAY ONE Port of Vancouver

Each step up that gangway was a delight. I felt like a little child walking through the gates of Disneyland for the first time. As advertised, a bevy of Holland America staff was there to greet us and, to my joy, there was no obnoxious photographer insisting we pose behind an oversized life preserver. There was an embarkation photo area that one could go to if they desired a picture. Very nicely done. We were formally welcomed aboard and a white gloved steward directed us to our cabin on the sixth deck, mid ship, starboard side.

Cabin #6177
I think cabins and food are the most discussed subjects on cruise boards and a review of either is a very personal issue. Some folks book minimum cabins because they don’t expect to spend much time there and would rather allot their cruise dollar elsewhere. Others must have some natural light in the form of windows or portholes. Some must have space and balconies. Bill and I have done outside picture windows and on our last cruise experienced our first balcony (Alaska 2001). Alas, the first balcony has resulted in our last picture window. We love the outdoor space and keeping the door open at night in order to fall asleep with the sound of the ocean is now a BillnJill priority.

Our Category A mini suite was lovely. Upon entering there was a bathroom on the left that was plenty roomy and had a Jacuzzi tub and excellent water pressure. A standard size medicine cabinet was more than adequate for two people and there was additional space under the sink for curling irons, blow dryers, shaving kits, hair spray, etc. The embroidered Holland America towels were fluffy and absorbent. I have very long thick hair and though I brought my own hairdryer, I was interested in the one provided as I had read they were not very good at all. It’s the darndest looking thing I’ve ever seen (kind of an albatross from the seventies). It took me three days to discover there was an outlet hidden behind a flap in the front of it. Drying my hair took awhile and the plastic handle did get very hot by the time the dryer could actually do its’ job. This can be corrected by wrapping a washcloth around the part you hold. Not great, but with the insulation of the washcloth you will be able to dry your hair in time. At the very least, it’s a terrific mirror defogger. The amenities included larger sized bar soap, shampoo, conditioner and body lotion. There was absolutely NO sewage or foul odor at any time on our trip. So, the bathroom gets “a thumbs up” overall and a special plus for that great water pressure.

On the right wall of the entry hall you will find four closet spaces with shelves in some and hanging bars in others. Some are adjustable and for our short trip the available hanging space was adequate. There is a full length mirror on one closet door, a safe and the life preservers are stored on one shelf of another closet. I would say for an extremely long voyage with many formal nights, hanging space would be at a premium and probably used for gowns, cocktail dresses, suits, etc. I’d gear my casual clothes toward the foldable sort. We were also provided waffle weave bathrobes that were comfy, roomy and perfect for intercepting that early room service coffee or middle of the night weather checks on the balcony.

Upon entering the main part of the stateroom you will find either two twins or one large queen if you have requested the beds put together. The bed linens are of the finest quality I have ever encountered on a ship and the mattresses were firm and the thickness of a home mattress….not the thin stuff we’ve had on RCCL and Carnival. There are lights over the beds, light controls and a radio built into the wall above the bed. A large mirror adds light and spaciousness to the feeling of the room. There is a curtain that divides the sleeping area from the sitting area that has a full sized couch, an end table with mini refrigerator below and a telescoping table for cocktail or dining adjustment. A desk/wall unit with nine drawers, tv and vcr, and stocked mini bar is across from the couch and also sports another mirror unit. Floor to ceiling windows with a door to the balcony are at the end of the sitting room. Both heavy and sheer drapes allow for light control and decorative ambiance. The balcony has a lounge chair, small table and deck chair and plenty of room to move about. It’s a delightful place for morning coffee, afternoon cocktails, port arrivals/departures and weather/sea checks.

The condition of the stateroom was meticulous………….no stains, no worn carpet or
upholstery and the cabin steward kept everything in perfect order. If you are looking for towel animals, you won’t find them on Holland America and thank God they don’t get into your personal clothing and make sculptures out of them; RCCL did this and it was not appreciated. So, thumbs up to the stateroom including the fruit bowl and personalized stationary!

As we were checking out every nook and cranny of our mini suite, our luggage began to arrive. I think we’d been aboard less than twenty minutes. We didn’t want to take time to unpack as I had my “first things first” checklist to address. We stashed our valuables in the safe and headed down to the Marco Polo alternative dining room to book our anniversary dinner for the following Wednesday evening. We expected a line, but there was none. Next we went to the dining room to check out our table. We were waitlisted for early, ended up getting it and were at a table for six on the upper balcony. Perfect! Our final stop was to check out the line at the Purser’s Desk and see if it was a good time to register our credit card to our onboard account. Amazingly, there was no line there either. All that was left was to get up to the Lido for the Welcome Aboard Luncheon. Ah Ha! We discovered where everyone was!

Though crowded, the line moved along quite well. An attendant hands you your tray with napkin and utensils and down the road of decadence you go attempting to choose from salads, soups, shrimp cocktails, main courses, side dishes, breads and beverages. The dessert stations and salad bar are located on their own “islands” and offer a wide selection. I found the Lido on the Zaandam nicer than the other buffet venues we have experienced on ships. The attention to carpet, upholstery, seating, drapes, etc gave it a more formal feeling than the cafeteria atmosphere we’ve had in the past. I will address the actual food later on in this review.

We returned to the cabin and unpacked prior to the lifeboat drill. The gathering at our muster station went according to Hoyle and in a decent time frame we were depositing our vests back in the cabin and venturing up to the Lido Deck for the sail away party.

It was cloudy and cool in Vancouver, so the retractable roof was closed over the Lido swimming pool area. There were sail away drinks and chips, salza and guacamole to enjoy. Due to the closed roof the band was very loud and we decided to escape up to the forward Sky Deck that turned out to be a perfect spot to marvel at the beauty of Stanley Park, Fall Foliage and the Lion’s Gate Bridge.

At dinner we were thrilled to find out that Al and Patricia (our check in linemates) were also our tablemates! Bob and Sheila arrived soon after and we all found we were on the five night itinerary. We had a marvelous time over the next days exchanging tidbits about our lives, kids, previous travels, plans for this current cruise, etc. What a stroke of luck to get such a compatible group since we were all part of a last minute, wait list shuffle.

After dinner we explored the ship and went to the Welcome Aboard show. I wasn’t anticipating anything amazing as previous reviews stated HAL is not known for their entertainment. I would concur and though not terrible, we knew that the evening shows would be a careful “pick and choose” activity.

Tired from all the boarding excitement we retired to our stateroom after another bit of exploration. We were in the Straits of Georgia so the water was very calm and after cracking the door open we fell asleep to the gentle motion of the ship and the sounds of the Zaandam’s foghorn. Only on a ship…….


AND THE REST OF THE STORY…..(Day two through six)

I will now break from the chronological organization of this review and divide the remainder into specific experience areas such as ports of call, onboard activities, entertainment, dining, service and the ship itself.

Most of you reading this will be taking an itinerary different than our rare Pacific Coastal sailing, so this will be a brief overview of our Ports of Call and Days at Sea.

The second morning we awoke to clouds, drizzle and the beautiful skyline of Seattle. Pier 66 is perfectly located just blocks from the famed Pike Street Market and close to various public forms of transportation that can take you throughout the downtown area. We were meeting Bill’s sister who lives nearby and taking the Seattle Underground Tour at Pioneer Square. This was such a great way to learn about the city’s early history, see some great architecture and have a unique experience in the bowels of old Seattle. For eight bucks (AAA rate) this is a deal! We ventured on to the Pike Street Market and enjoyed a wonderful lunch upstairs overlooking table upon table of gorgeous produce in the marketplace below. After watching the fish throwing extravaganza, listening to a very talented street musician and buying a lovely bouquet of flowers for the stateroom we said our goodbyes to Penny and returned to the ship. The previous evening’s Sail Away rum punch glass became my vase for the flowers and our suite was now truly resplendent. We mixed a couple of cocktails and went out on our balcony for the departure from Seattle. Our next door neighbors were also out and we learned they had come all the way from Nova Scotia and were doing the complete Panama Canal trip. As we left port heading for the Pacific Ocean and Astoria we were accompanied by a pod of dolphin and a bit of sun peeking through the clouds. Only on a ship…….

Day three brought us to the picturesque town of Astoria which lies about fifteen miles up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. It is known for its’ amazing bridge that connects Oregon to Washington and completed the Coast Highway 101 from Mexico to Canada when built. This town pulled out all the stops for our arrival since they only get the Zaandam in twice a year; once on the Fall Canal reposition and once again on the reverse reposition. There was a craft show set up by the dock, a open air tent with live folk bands playing throughout the day, school buses ferried folks from the dock to the quaint downtown shopping area and tour buses and boats provided excursions to Lewis and Clark themed locations. We were made to feel like a boat full of dignitaries and it was utterly delightful. They even bussed in the diminutive high school marching band to serenade us for a half hour before we sailed away. Astoria was a charming contrast to the huge, modern ports of Vancouver, Seattle and San Diego.

We sailed toward the Pacific and soon would be “at sea” without the protection of the inside passages we had been sailing. We knew right when we hit the ocean. At eleven o’clock that night we began to roll a bit and for the next couple of days were in seas that swelled to about twelve feet. Some folks got queasy, but we found it just delightful to feel the boat and the ocean moving together.

Days Four and Five the Zaandam was at sea traveling from Northern Oregon to Southern California. Until we docked in San Diego the morning of day six we had the boat to explore and enjoy to the fullest.

SO, WHAT’S THERE TO DO ON THOSE ‘ DAM SHIPS?

We love our Days at Sea and still get up early because we don’t want to waste time sleeping. Each morning we would have coffee and juice delivered to the room about six AM before Bill would take off to work out in the gym. The Ocean Spa workout area has huge windows overlooking the bow of the ship and is a lovely place to tread, step or bike away those wonderful calories being served all over the boat. The staff is excellent and is more than happy to assist any passenger desiring help or activities. There were organized aerobics classes and they were doing personal fitness evaluations that would be rather helpful to those who were taking the full three week trek through the canal. I, on the other hand, am a walker so I’d spend those early mornings exploring the ship, trying to find ways to get to places and try to remember how to do it again later. Our weather was still overcast and blustery so any jogging on the sports deck was a risky proposition, though the Promenade Deck was popular with the morning walkers. The salon was busy with massages, facials, pedicures, manicures and the like. They even had this odd capsule they would put folks in, turn a few knobs and it would vibrate/massage with heat and aromatherapy thrown in on the side. At a dollar a minute, they were selling time in it as a cheaper alternative to a standard massage.

By nine o’clock we were ready for our breakfast we generally enjoyed in the Rotterdamn Dining Room. Days at sea are relaxed and the pace of breakfast in the main dining room suits that end perfectly. Enjoying a cappuccino while watching the ocean through floor to ceiling windows just doesn’t get much better.

By ten AM the ship is settling into all sorts of activity. This being an older crowd (as is the norm on long cruises), we found the card room and library to be bustling. We generally headed to the Internet Center and had no problem finding an open computer, which is not the case on ships with younger passengers. Snow Ball Bingo is announced morning and afternoon. We never participated, so I have no idea how popular that activity was. We enjoyed the casino a few times and left our share of nickels there. The movie theater shows two different movies each day at 10, 2, 8 and 10. We enjoyed being in a real movie theater at sea. At least until I dragged Bill to the Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. I lost him there and he’ll never let me live that one down. (Hey, I loved it. He just doesn’t get character flicks.)

By late morning the Java Café is calling. This dandy spot on the ship serves up complimentary espressos, lattés, cappuccinos, gourmet teas and an assortment of cookies and little dessert cakes every day. (Bill figured out how to get to any spot on the ship by traversing the Java.) Throughout the day there are Bridge Lessons, galley tours, cooking demonstrations, makeup clinics and gambling tutorials. We didn’t do any of that since we just never seemed to find the time. Lunch, again, is a leisurely atmosphere on sea days and an afternoon nap for Bill and a good book for Jill filled out our days. Only on a ship…..

ENTERTAINMENT

There are numerous lounges on the Zaandam that provide a cross section of music that is appealing to baby boomers on up. No Hip Hop on the Zaan and Karaoke just isn’t an option. During the after dinner hours there are ensembles that appeal to mature musical tastes and later in the Crow’s Nest things loosen up with more of a disco flare. A piano bar offers nice background music and though we missed it, the “Murder Mystery Through Music” evening in that bar sounded like a great deal of fun.

As for the shows in the main lounge, we found them disappointing. This was a rather odd cruise during our five night segment. Folks were boarding and disembarking the first three days and then two hundred of us were leaving the morning of the sixth day. Maybe they were gearing up the production numbers for the meat of the cruise once they left San Diego with the official passenger roster for the Canal crossing. I’m not big into magicians or comedians. There was a woman soloist one night and a guy playing a guitar another. The first formal night they did have These Three Tenors who did a magnificent show, though the Zaandam “orchestra” was not up to par with their level of talent. I didn’t come on the ship expecting Las Vegas extravaganzas, so there was no real disappointment. One night we went up to the Crow’s Nest for a nightcap and the resident ensemble was very good. It wasn’t time for the disco stuff yet, but the band did a terrific cross section of tunes Baby Boomers love to remember.

Our favorite entertainment was each other………….exploring, going out on deck and
watching the white caps and the seas, holding hands and walking the promenade, debating whether or not the swells were really 8.0 to 12 feet. Escaping back to our private enclave and standing bundled on our verandah in the mist while listening to the drone of the Zaandam’s foghorn. Now That’s Entertainment! Only on a ship……

DINING
We found the food in the Rotterdam Dining Room to be quite inconsistent. The king crab on night one was fantastic, the veal medallions on night two were so tough I might have well been eating an aged bull. Appetizers were fairly good with the escargot bringing in very high marks. Breads were plentiful, but boring and salads, unmemorable. The soups were consistently a delight, though the desserts were akin to those being served on the buffet line in the Lido. The Lido for alternative casual dining was excellent and they even dressed the tables with linens, sliver and glassware. It gave a formal touch to the informal venue. The Hands Down winner for dining excellence was the Marco Polo Restaurant. Food, service and ambiance were five star and should not be missed. Breakfast and lunch in either the Rotterdam or Lido is a personal choice. Neither is really stellar, though the Rotterdam provides a leisurely and elegant pace to enjoy.

FORMAL DRESS
This is another area of debate so I spent a good deal of time on formal night “tux watching.” On the Zaandam we had far more men in dark suits and blazer/dress pants than tuxes. It appeared to be age related with the older crowd sporting more formal wear and the middle agers opting for suits. The age group on this trip was fifty plus and the tuxes were worn predominantly by those over seventy. I thought all the men looked great and no one looked out of place, though some of the “tuxers” looked a bit uncomfortable.

SERVICE

One of Holland America’s hallmarks is their commitment to service and they don’t disappoint at all. From the moment you begin the check in process the HAL folks are terrific. We didn’t have any complaints, so I can’t really tell you how that end of the program works, but we thoroughly enjoyed the attentive service and the extraordinary ability of the staff to remember all the guest’s names.

Our waiter and assistant waiter were very funny and had genuine warmth that made it a sad occasion when we had to say goodbye. Enrico did not realize we were dining at the Marco Polo for our anniversary and had a cake waiting for us in the main dining room. He left his post and rushed it downstairs so we would have it for our dessert. Our room steward was so “on the ball” that we never had to ask for anything above and beyond what he was already doing. The staff throughout the Zaandam was personable, helpful and a delight to interact with.

The Holland America Experience is very unique when compared to other cruise lines we have traveled.

THE SHIP
The Zaandam is downright beautiful. From the teak decks, the wood railings, the forever polished brass…..the artwork, the flowers, the carpets, and upholstery. Everywhere you go on the ship you are taken away by her beauty and intimacy.

I, too, haven’t quite figured out the organ in the atrium, but I love the rest of that ‘dam ship. She’s a ship that invites you to slow down and “smell the roses”. One morning I was on the Sports Deck after an overnight rain…..my goodness, the color of those teak decks when wet is a sight to behold. The highly varnished wood benches on the Promenade Deck transported us to the great ships of the past.

FINAL THOUGHTS
And as the sea moved, so did the Zaandam and we too moved in unison. We lived on the Zaandam for five days and began to feel her as our own, wanting to preserve that beauty, that experience, that feeling, that connection. Only on a ship…….

J. French

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