Number of Cruises: 10
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: May 29th, 2004
Itinerary: Western Caribbean
My partner and I enjoyed a relaxing week on the 7-day Western Caribbean on the Zuiderdam, May 29 - June 5. We got a terrific price on a Category AA verandah cabin. This was our first cruise on HAL, and we had high expectations based on what we'd read on the HAL boards and heard from friends. Although we had some minor disappointments described below, we enjoyed ourselves and will certainly consider HAL again, especially if we see such a great value. To give you a sense of our cruise experience, we had previously cruised on Celebrity (five times) Princess (three times) NCL (once) and RCCL (once). We’ve enjoyed every cruise we’ve taken, including this one. We're a childless gay couple in our early 40's, and we put a lot of importance on the quality of service and the food on a cruise. We cruise to relax, so the destination is less important to us than the on-board experience.
Pre-cruise - The cruise departs from Ft. Lauderdale, but we flew in to Miami the day before as it's the only non-stop flight from San Francisco on United airlines (we were using miles). I think the 40-minute, $70 cab ride up to Ft. Lauderdale is worth it to avoid the hassles of changing planes and the chance for delay, etc. We stayed at the Marriott Marina on the 17th Street Causeway overnight, enjoying a nice dinner in the waterfront restaurant. We spent the dinner admiring the gigantic, 100+ foot long, four story yacht owned by someone who has too much money that was parked in front of the restaurant's windows. The next morning we worked out in the fitness center, had room service breakfast, and got ready to leave. I called downstairs about 11 a.m. to check about the free shuttle to the cruiseport, and found out that they take reservations on a first-come, first-served basis. The first open spot would be at 2:30 that afternoon. Next time, we'll know to put our name on the list the night before. Instead, we took a taxi for under $10 and were over at the ship in ten minutes.
Embarkation - We gave our bags to a porter when we arrived (tip these guys - they work hard!), then got in line. There was a big line outside the terminal when we arrived (11:30-ish) which snaked into the building and back out again. It was probably a full hour from when we got in line until we got up to the desk inside. We saw special (shorter) lines for suite guests, but not for Mariner's Society members. We're Captain's Club members on Celebrity, and they always have special counters for their frequent cruisers in addition to suite guests. Also unlike embarking with Celebrity, there was no place to sit down, nor any refreshments, and we were tired after standing for an hour even though we're both pretty spry for 40!
After getting our key cards, we went through the security check, boarding photo, and on board very quickly. There was a lineup of crew as soon as we got on board, and we were directed to follow one of the stewards. No champagne greeting like on Celebrity! We were expecting to be escorted to our cabin, but instead were kind of waved toward the elevator lobby. When we asked we were told that the cabins aren't available until 1 p.m. but that we could enjoy the buffet. We weren't hungry so we explored a little bit until we heard an announcement that we could go to our cabin. We found our cabin easily, #6123, a Category AA verandah cabin right by the rear elevator bank. We had booked an AA guarantee for a terrific price only a month before the cruise, so we didn't have any choice as to its location. We were a little worried about the location, but never had any trouble with noise from the elevator lobby.
Cabin: This was one of the highlights for us. For a "standard" verandah cabin, we were very impressed by the size, layout and furnishings of the cabin. At almost 200 square feet with a balcony of 48 square feet, the cabin was larger and nicer than any other we've been in that wasn’t a suite. The bathroom with a mini-tub was well laid out, the water pressure and temperature control was great, and we had enough storage space for our stuff in a little medicine chest and a shelf under the sink. The closets and shelves were just large enough, and had real wooden hangers that could be removed. There is a wooden shelf in the middle of the closets that can be folded up to allow longer items to hang on top. When this shelf is folded up the hangers on the top don’t quite fit and the clothes get scrunched when the door closes. There are also drawers in the bedside tables, and (surprise!) under the beds and the sofa. The bed drawers have the extra coverlets stored in them, but the sofa drawers are empty and are pretty spacious.
There are several "special" touches in the cabin that we appreciated: the height of the cocktail table can be adjusted from cocktail to dining table, a feature we used to eat room service in the room. The mini-bar is stocked, rather than being just an empty refrigerator (I know some prefer an empty refrigerator, but we like the convenience of sodas, beer, wine and cocktails available anytime). The verandah furniture was a comfortable armchair with cushion, ottoman, and a straight-backed chair with cushion, all made out of an imitation rattan that looked great all week. There is also a tiny, round cocktail table, just big enough for two glasses or two coffee cups. The door to the verandah was hinged rather than sliding, which made it much easier (and quieter) to go in and out. The complimentary bathrobes are a comfortable combination of waffle and terry cloth.
Our cabin steward (Akmed) was fine but not great. He didn’t introduce himself the first day (on Celebrity the cabin stewards make a point of searching you out and introducing themselves on the first day and asking about your schedule and your preferences, and telling you how to find them); and on several days our cabin wasn’t made up until after noon. We also didn’t have several items in our room at first (stationary, a pen, breakfast order cards) and I ended up breaking into the stewards’ storage room one night to find them. I’m probably now featured on the cruise video!
Public rooms: There are a lot of strong opinions about the Zuiderdam’s decoration. Usually, they fall into two categories: HAL regulars comment on how bright the colors are (“garish” comes up a lot); and non-HAL regulars comment on how dark the ship is. We fall into the second category. We did think that there were many beautiful and/or elegant spots on the ship, and we appreciated the sprinkling of artwork around the ship. We thought there were several spaces on the ship that are made to feel smaller and more “intimate” (a.k.a.: claustrophobic) than necessary, such as the atrium, the dining room, the lido pool, and the staircases (are those narrow staircases really up to code?) but other spaces that worked wonderfully: the Erasmus Library and the internet room next to it; the buffet area, and the Crows’ Nest.
Dining: Vista Dining Room: Any reviewers’ comments about the dining experience on any cruiseline need to be taken with HUGE grains of salt: always consider whether you have the same tastes as the reviewer. As I noted above, we enjoy a fine dining experience with professional service, a wide choice of excellent food with good presentation, and professional wine service. We expect such a dinner to take upwards of two hours; we feel rushed if it takes less. By this standard, our experience on the Zuiderdam was not great. Good, but not great.
Other reviewers have commented that the dining room on Zuiderdam is crowded and that the servers are clearly overworked and are serving too many tables with too few people. I can confirm that is true. Our Waiter, Ali, was certainly friendly and capable, and the Assistant Maitre d’ for our area, Ferry, stopped by each night. Ferry even helped out in serving, pouring water or removing plates occasionally. Our wine steward(ess), (name?) was friendly and very efficient after the first night when she was a little overwhelmed. Our assistant waiter, Surya (sp?) was a problem, and was clearly unhappy about being there. The second evening he disappeared for an hour – our tablemates even joked that they hoped he’d quit and at least we’d get better service. But then he came back…
The menus had a good selection of choices, always several meats, two fish, one pasta dish, and one vegetarian option. My partner is vegetarian so we noticed the limited choices for him – Celebrity has a whole separate vegetarian menu that changes every night, and Princess always has several choices and can make up any kind of pasta. Our waiters never offered him anything other than what was on the menu. Chicken, steak and salmon were always available. The plating and presentation were well done, although the portions were a little large for our taste (see comment about different tastes, above). The china, crystal and silverware are of a good quality.
So what didn’t we like? As noted, the servers were rushed, and there was little of the daily chatting and joking with the servers we have enjoyed on other cruises. The courses were brought out rapid-fire, so that the table wasn’t synched up: one person had their appetizer while another had salad, etc. The ladies weren’t served first; the plates weren’t centered when they were placed on the table; the table was never crumbed all week; the silverware was never arranged for the next course. The several times that our table companions asked to change their order or asked for a second portion it was clearly a problem. Once a gentleman at our table asked the assistant waiter if he could have a second portion and he got a stare, then Surya said “I’ll have to check with Ali.” I’ve never heard that before on a cruise! The wine service was good, and the selection was interesting even at the lower end of the price range, with moderate quality Chilean, Australian, and French wines.
Lido Restaurant (a.k.a.: the Buffet): a real bright spot! The room is very well designed, as there are six or eight stations each of which has something different: deli sandwiches; pizza and pasta; sushi and stir-fry; carved meats; salads, deserts; and regular buffet foot. Therefore, you could select the kind of food you wanted and stand in a shorter line than on other cruise ships. Although you have to get your own plastic tray with no linen place mat, at least the servers cover the hot dishes with a lid – a nice extra. The tables are cleared quickly, and a rolled-up linen napkin with silverware inside is placed on a clean table so you know it’s available (and so you don’t have to carry the silverware around with you). The Lido is between the mid and rear elevator banks so there is easy access from both ends and good traffic flow, and you can take your food out on the back deck to eat al fresco. Bar servers circulate frequently so you can get wine, beer, or soda easily. Servers also circulate with carts of iced tea, lemonade and water in case you forgot to get them from the dispenser or if you want a refill. We only ate there for lunch so cannot speak to the breakfast service.
Room service: When we’re on a cruise, we order breakfast in our room every day. Zuiderdam has door hangers with a good selection of continental style breakfast, along with eggs any style and breakfast meats. If you order a hot breakfast the plate arrives on a warmer that keeps it at the right temperature – a very nice touch. They use the same elegant china as in the dining room, and the silverware is rolled in a linen napkin as in the Lido. You order in ½ hour ranges, and our breakfast arrived within five to ten minutes of the beginning of the period every day. They also provided room service on the last day, unlike some other cruiselines, so you didn’t have to leave your room and eat with all your belongings in tow. Several days we ordered room service lunch when it was late or we wanted to eat on the balcony and read – orders were delivered in less than ½ hour and very well presented.
Specialty dining: We enjoyed our table mates so much that we didn’t try the Odyssey Restaurant during the week. The space looked very interesting, including tables overlooking the atrium and tables by large windows on the sea. The menu looked pretty meat-heavy, like a steakhouse, rather than the Pacific Northwest cuisine we thought it was supposed to be.
Fitness center/Spa: We generally work out every morning, so the gym equipment and design is important to us. The gym on the Zuiderdam was well equipped and well designed for a ship-board gym. There is a good circuit of selectorized machines on one side of the room, plenty of cardio equipment including treadmills, bikes (both upright and recumbent), elliptical trainers, and “striders” facing a curved wall of windows across the front of the ship, and three benches (flat, decline, and adjustable) with a rack of dumbbells up to 40 lbs. The gym is located at the top of the ship above the bridge and below the Crows Nest, looking forward. There is a wood-floored area for classes in the middle, which included aerobics, yoga (fee) and spinning (fee). Although signup was required for the classes, they didn’t look that full.
I used the Hydrotherapy pool every afternoon, as I have a bad back. The charge is $15 per day or $80 for the week, and was well worth it for me – the doors have a card-access system to make sure no one sneaks in. The pool is very similar to the Thallassotherapy pools on Celebrity’s Century class ships, and the space includes a large skylight and lounge chairs to relax, and there are showers to rinse off. The spa also includes a “Thermal Spa” with steam and sauna that I didn’t even visit, although I paid for access – the Hydro pool was enough for me! There is a small men’s locker room with showers and facilities, and presumably a comparable locker room for ladies. My partner got a haircut during the week, but we otherwise didn’t use any of the spa facilities for massage, etc.
Entertainment: We enjoyed the entertainment on this cruise more than any other we’ve been on. The two production shows (“Under the Boardwalk” with music from the 50’s and 60’s and another show with music from movies) were very professional and enjoyable, and the singers and dancers had great talents. There was also an Elton John impersonator (surprisingly good) and a juggler who we didn’t see. The Vista Lounge is an intimate theater with one balcony, and the sightlines are good if you’re not behind a column. There are no cocktail tables for your drinks unless you sit up front on the banquettes. Also, what’s with passing off Korbel for champagne?!? We were not impressed by the selection of drinks or wine either in the Vista Lounge or in other lounges. We found the jazz trio in the Ocean bar early on, and tried to stop in each evening to have a nightcap and enjoy their music. Frequently, we were the only people in the bar at 11:30 or midnight to appreciate this wonderful group.
Lounges/public spaces: Many evenings we stopped at the Crows Nest for a drink before dinner and to watch the couples dancing. The views from the front of the ship are pretty spectacular. As mentioned, we also liked the Ocean Bar for the live jazz. Most afternoons would find us in the Windstar Café having a Latte while playing Scrabble – we have a tradition of playing Scrabble on our cruises, so we bring our own board. We were surprised that for a cruiseline as supposedly upscale as HAL, they insisted on serving coffee in paper cups. We had to ask every time to have our coffee in a china cup and saucer. There is also no table service in the Windstar: you have to stand in line, even though it was never crowded. The Explorers’ Lounge is along one side of the passage from the Windstar back to the Dining Room, and is a lovely room. Unfortunately, they pull the curtains before dinner, making an already dark room oppressive. There is a talented three-piece group that played right after dinner while they offered after-dinner liquors. The Piano bar off the Casino was a nice space but we didn’t quite warm to the piano player so didn’t spend any time there all week.
The Casino: We normally spend some time in the casino every evening after dinner or after the show, or both. We each came out about even playing the slots, and we enjoyed watching others lose money on roulette and craps. The dealers and other casino staff were friendly.
Ports: Key West – we got off the ship about 10 a.m. and were back on about noon, eating lunch. It was so humid in the town that we really couldn’t take it – we’re wimps out here in California! For our dose of “cul-chuh,” we visited the Oldest House in Key West, a state monument, and spent about an hour touring the house and outbuildings. We also walked down Duval Street and browsed in some of the shops.
Cozumel – we took a ship’s tour in the morning that included both kayaking in clear, acrylic kayaks, followed by snorkeling in the same general area. We also had about an hour after snorkeling to relax at a beach with drinks, a pool, and some shade. We had never seen the clear kayaks before and they were more than just a novelty: you could see the coral heads and schools of fish through the bottom and sides of the kayak! The snorkeling was also quite nice, and we were allowed to relax in the shade for a while before returning to the ship.
Grand Cayman – This was our first tender port, and it does add 45 minutes to an hour to go on shore. As anyone who’s visited Grand Cayman knows, the small port area can get very crowded and a little confusing. We were there with a Princess and a Carnival ship; HAL probably handled the crowds better than either of them did. Upon returning, we were able to walk aboard a tender to the Zuiderdam with no waiting, whereas the line for the Carnival ship snaked down the block and into a nearby parking lot. We had booked a trip to Stingray City with Native Ways on the web; although it was a smaller group on the boat than the huge catamaran used by the ship’s tour, we wouldn’t recommend them – the boat broke down on the way back to harbor, and the crew clearly didn’t know what to do. We had a wonderful time with the stingrays, and we also made a stop to snorkel that was fabulous, but that would be true with any operator.
Half Moon Cay – everything you hear about how beautiful HMC is, is true! Light blue water, powder soft white sand, beautiful set up. For beach lovers, this is heaven! HAL has the perfect set up there, and very organized tendering, nice buildings and pathways, freshwater showers, clean bathrooms, etc. We didn’t rent a cabana, but we did rent a “clamshell” a tent-like structure that gives shade for two lounge chairs. We lasted about a hour, reading in the shade with an occasional swim in the warm water. By that point, we were panting in the heat, and decided to head back to the ship rather than having lunch on shore. We enjoyed the empty ship, and had one last game of Scrabble that afternoon.
Departure – HAL allows you to stay in your cabin on departure day, and calls you by tag color. We had room service breakfast, and relaxed while waiting to be called. Very civilized! We were off around 9:00 a.m., found our bags in the hall, got a taxi and were at the airport in 20 minutes. Our flight wasn’t until 11:30, and we just got a paper and sat, as there was no Red Carpet Lounge for United frequent flyers at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.
Final thoughts – Overall, this was a great, mindless, vacation. For tropical beach lovers, the stops would be perfect. Sunbathing, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, windsurfing, sailing; they were all available. We’re not beach lovers, and we like at least a modicum of culture with our vacations, so we didn’t fully appreciate the ports. We could have done without the frequent, intrusive announcements on board, the “party hearty” games and music by the pool, or the paper “to go” cups for coffee. HAL service was fine, certainly better than Princess, RCCL and especially NCL, but not up to the standards we’re used to on Celebrity. That said, we love certain HAL touches: the larger cabins; hot bites with hors d'oeuvres; the quality entertainment. We do understand from our research that the Zuiderdam is not typical of HAL ships and we are interested in trying other ships in their fleet that might be better examples of their level of service. We loved getting to know our table mates during the week, and we generally found our own fun. We hope that everyone finds a cruiseline that’s “right” for them and enjoys their time on board – it’s your vacation, you deserve to enjoy it!