Number of Cruises: 4
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: December 30th, 2006
Itinerary: Eastern Caribbean
This was our fourth family cruise in the past five years. Last year we made a New Year’s resolution to spend every New Year’s Eve at sea on a family cruise. We are now on our third cruise line having previously tried and enjoyed Carnival (Paradise) and Royal Caribbean (Navigator of the Seas). Now that we have several cruise experiences to compare, I find that every ship has its own strengths and weaknesses. I would probably call the Zuiderdam the best cruise (so far), but like all the others there are things that are memorable and things we would just as soon forget.
I used the HAL website and called the direct HAL reservation number. I seemed to get all the information from the website that a travel agent would provide, including the location, category and cost for each specific cabin that was available. The HAL operator was friendly and helpful. He even gave us a discount for being repeat customers of Carnival (which apparently also owns HAL). I have now booked cruises with and without the assistance of a travel agent, and can’t tell any difference. Since we drive to the port, the arrangements do not include airfare, hotels and shuttles which makes the whole thing a lot simpler.
What went well: 1) convenient baggage drop - I drove up to the terminal and parked the car just a few feet away. There was plenty of room and we could take as much time as we needed to unload the trunk and organize our stuff. With five people, this is a big deal. Also, covered parking was just steps away. Better than Miami, IMO. 2) short lines - I mean really short. Zuiderdam is the smallest ship we’ve sailed in terms of passenger capacity and one place where it’s very noticeable is at check-in. Virtually every service (registration, security, photo) was ready as soon as we walked up.
Not so well: 1) HAL terminal greeters - my family was treated like they were in the way during the registration despite the fact that each one of them has to personally present themselves to the registration agent to verify their identification. In my view, the problem was not that they were in the way, but that HAL didn’t really provide enough space to handle a five-person family registration. Not a big deal, but not the best first impression for a line known for its hospitality and service. 2) HAL on-board greeters - strangely, there was really no noticeable welcome as we first walked onto the ship. This probably sticks out because RCCL does this so well. Last year, the RCCL staff was dressed to the nines, pouring champagne, passing out goodies, etc. This may be unique to the New Year’s cruise, but this was HAL’s New Year’s cruise too.
What went well: 1) staterooms - the best we have seen so far. Very big, particularly in the bathrooms which have a shower and a tub. Our cabin steward removed the divider between our balconies so we each had extra lounging space. Also, the new beds are the best I have ever slept on at sea. We also had bathrobes and towels without the threat of being charged $20 if they are lost on board (a pet peeve I have against Carnival and RCCL). 2) Zuiderdam Culinary Center - very cool and unique. A stage set in the Queen’s Lounge for live cooking demonstrations during the cruise (more on this below). Large TV monitors frame the stage and overhead cameras can zoom and pan around the work area as the chef moves from place to place. It felt like being on the set of a Food Network show. 3) The gym - high quality workout equipment, all relatively new and in excellent working condition. 4) Lido Pool - it has a retractable roof which can be quickly opened or closed depending on the weather. Also, the pool is a fresh water pool - a first for us. 5) External Glass Elevators - again a very clever and innovative idea. When the elevator drops below about the third deck the glass exterior gives way to painted panels of underwater scenes. 6) Cigar room - very quiet and comfortable. Excellent bar service and good ventilation. Not tucked away in some remote corner, but on deck 10 next to a popular lounge.
Not so well: 1) Zuiderdam’s promenade - pales in comparison to other ships. Meandering and narrow, it splits in multiple directions and dissolves into other spaces (like the casino) without helpful signage. I wouldn’t call it a true promenade. Even after 7 days on the ship it was still confusing to use. 2) Atrium - small, uninspiring. I think the atrium and the promenade were sacrificed by the ship’s designers to make other spaces bigger. Probably a fair trade, but a visual and aesthetic disappointment.
What went well: 1) Main Dining - excellent variety and creativity in the dishes. In combination, our family has a lot of food allergies to deal with, but we had no trouble finding enough on the menu to satisfy everyone. The best tasting food of any cruise we have been on. The highlight was the desserts. It was not at all uncommon for us to have 8-10 dessert plates on our table. 2) Pinnacle Grill - noticeably upscale dishes in comparison to the Main Dining Room. Intended for the adventurous and open minded. Very creative dishes and flashy presentations (the wife’s Flambé burned for several minutes before she could start eating it). It succeeds admirably. If you’re just looking for a thicker steak, it’s there too. Also, the Pinnacle is beautifully decorated and, when in a port, excellent views are available out the windows. 3) Lido deck food - again delicious and bountiful. I only ate there for breakfast which was an absolute feast every morning. There are many stations where the staff will cook a hot dish to order, including omelet's, waffles, French toast, fried eggs, ham steaks, etc. The rest of the family says the all day taco bar was the highlight of the Lido food and should be mandatory on all ships.
No so well: nothing really. My only comment here is that I do not understand why every cruise ship makes such a big fuss about baked Alaska. The Zuiderdam had the best baked Alaska of all the ships we’ve been on (Carnival - blecch), but no other dessert was available and we preferred the variety of a full dessert menu.
What went well: 1) cabin stewards - the best. Always working, but never in our way. Unbelievably responsive and often anticipated our needs. The kids’ cabin got service that was every bit as good, if not better. I was quite impressed.
No so well: 1) wine steward - a pretty big disappointment given how much I had heard about the dining room staff in other reviews. Despite the fact that we ordered a bottle of wine every night, I had to repeatedly ask our “waiter” to find the wine steward and send him to our table. Often we would not see the wine until after food had been served. 2) table steward - Our waiter was also not as attentive as I would have expected. I doubt he ever learned our names or knew any of our preferences despite the fact that the whole family ate in the dining room every night (except one night for the wife and I at the Pinnacle). Nothing terrible happened, but service was often slow and frequently the orders were confused. I hope he was just having a bad week. It was a huge contrast to our prior RCCL cruise where we loved our table steward. On the other hand, we were pleased that there was less of that goofy serenading and dancing than the other cruise lines.
What went well: 1) Dancing - the wife and I enjoy ballroom style dancing and the Zuiderdam provided a great five piece band (C-Winds) and a couple fine dancing spaces. The band played most nights from about 6:00 pm to midnight. The dance floor was often full of ballroom dancers and the atmosphere was just very friendly and open. The band leader even let a few of the guests take the mike for an occasional song (including the wife). If you have any interest in ballroom dancing, this is your ship. 2) Culinary Classes - Zuiderdam’s executive chef taught two 90 minute classes in the Culinary Institute. What a blast! Three dishes were made each time and recipe cards were passed out to all the attendees. The cruise director hosted a playful and often hilarious Q/A session while Chef Raymond walked us through the preparation of each dish. At the end of each show, some servers came out with samples of the dishes, many of which were also being served at the Pinnacle Grill. Seats went quickly for each session, so get there early if you’re interested.
Not so well: 1) Aerobics - the fitness classes (as opposed to the toning or yoga classes) were only offered at very unusual times like 7:00am. One was cancelled even though the wife got up early to attend. It seemed like the spa ladies didn’t want to tech the classes at all and were trying to find a way to avoid the work. Later we discovered why - neither of the “instructors” had any clue about how to lead an aerobics class. 2) Show Staff (Dancers and Singers) - As background, let me mention that we are big city people (Chicago) who often see professional shows and musicians. We are undoubtedly spoiled to some degree by the opportunities available to us on a regular basis where we live. Still, I thought the performers were almost universally poor with the exception of the magician. I would say that most small colleges provide a similar level of talent. Too many young female singers sacrifice both pitch and tone for style and theatrics, and this group was no exception.
Our Fellow Passengers
I am not exaggerating when I say that the average age of the Zuiderdam cruiser is about 68. One night in the casino I played blackjack with a man who was 97. Another player was 82 (we called him “junior”). We didn’t see a lot of people our age (low to mid 40s) or our kids’ ages. Still, there were enough young people on board for our 13 year old to make friends and have a group of kids (about a dozen tweens) to hang out with. I’m not sure why I’m mentioning this except that it is very noticeable.
Ports and Excursions
What went well: 1) Half Moon Cay - this is HAL’s private island. Normally, I resist these places, preferring destinations that have local color and “real” social structure. But I have to admit that Half Moon Cay was beautiful and relaxing. It had everything you could possibly want without any crowds or hassles. Our 18 year olds sailed their own 12 foot Hobie, the others had a horseback riding excursion (on land and in the sea). I just sat on the beach with some of the softest sand I have ever seen. 2) St. Thomas - we love it for shopping. Even though it is getting harder to spot jewelry bargains, we have recently noticed that the perfumes are an absolute steal here. The wife’s hard to find fragrance was at least 50% cheaper here than at home. 3) Nassau - if you like history, the Pirate Museum is a must see. It doesn’t get as much publicity as it should. It has a Disney style presentation including a very entertaining pirate greeter at the entrance. Your kids will love him - and the museum. Only $12, two blocks off the main shopping street (near the Haagen-Daas store). It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to slowly work through the exhibits.
Not so well: 1) Tortola - billed as unusually warm and friendly, it was the opposite. Also boring, and shops were a little on the pricey side. Maybe three years from now it will be better. I saw a lot of new construction. 2) Dolphin swim on Tortola - If you want the dolphin swim, do it at Nassua, not Tortola. You get better service and more interaction with the dolphins. 3) U.S. Customs at St. Thomas - miserable. Every single passenger on the ship had to be awake (at 8:00 am) and presented to US Customs officials in the Queens Lounge (with passport) before any passenger could disembark. It’s stupid and accomplishes nothing in terms of added security. Of course it’s not HAL’s fault.
The weather was sunny and in the mid 80's most of the time. There was a 15 minute rain on St. Thomas and Tortola, otherwise the weather was beautiful. We had just one day with high winds and choppy seas. I was the only one in our group who needed a Bonine pill (which worked almost immediately).
Tipping was the most low key we have ever seen. No tip lines on the bar bills, no little envelopes delivered to the cabin on the last night, no recommendation that you tip the dining room manager. Of course tipping is appreciated, but absolutely no one is pushy about it. A refreshing change.
There is a weird “no-ironing in the stateroom” policy. Either you use the ship’s pressing service or you wear wrinkled clothes all week. Really, are travel irons that dangerous?
Joel may have been the weakest cruise director we have seen. He was on the young side and obviously not yet comfortable with the position. Also, I don’t care much for cruise directors who demand a roar of approval from the crowd (Joel: I can’t hear you .. I said are you excited? Us : Rah.) If you want a group to be excited then do something to excite them; don’t berate them when they fail to give you a big cheer for doing nothing. Joel is not the only cruise director who does this, but it’s getting really old.
Yes - go and sail the Zuiderdam. It’s great. Rah ... no, make that WAHOO!!!