About us. My wife and I are a very young age 53 and 56. She power walks 4 miles a day and I run 10K a day. She's a Personal Shopper at Bloomingdale's and I'm a trial lawyer. We live in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All year we eat a healthy, low-fat, low-calorie diet, except when we cruise, and then we eat everything not nailed down, usually in multiples of at least two. An August 2005 cruise we had booked in August 2004 on board Celebrity's Century was cancelled in December 2004, so we sailed instead on Holland America's Zuiderdam to the eastern Caribbean from August 6, 2005 to August 13, 2005. Our companions were a slightly older local couple and a slightly younger couple from Wisconsin. Both couples had cruised with us before on the Century. All of us like to cruise and love to laugh.
Before sailing. I had read a number of Internet reviews complaining that the Zuiderdam's loud and powerful engines caused some sections of the lower level in the Vista Dining Room to shake and smell from fuel, which at least in my mind do not create a desirable dining ambiance. I had therefore requested a table for six for dinner in the upper level of the Vista, "main" seating ("early dinner" seating on board the Zuiderdam is more like "late lunch"). Because we had made our cruise reservations and paid our deposits at least six months before sailing, you would think that Holland America would have no problem satisfying my request. But you'd be wrong. It took months of telephone and e-mail contacts with Holland America and a final exchange of unpleasantries just a few weeks before sailing until Holland America said yes to my request. I believe it was my dogged determination that saved the day, when instead it should have been the incomparable tradition of unsurpassed service which Holland America proudly, and at least in this case, falsely advertised. By the way, during my cruise I took the time to personally verify that those complaints about the noise and vibrations on the lower level of the Vista were in fact true and accurate.
The ship. Some Internet reviewers complained about the decor and appearance of the Zuiderdam. I tell you that they should have their eyes examined. Less than 3 years old, the Zuiderdam is, in three words, a beautiful ship. Artwork is everywhere, sometimes even in the shape of lamps, bar stools, elevator doors, and wall and floor surfaces. Glass elevators run along the sides of the ship, offering a panoramic view of the sea. The atrium is not as majestic as, say, Celebrity's Century, but is still impressive. Most of the cabins have verandahs of various sizes, and they are worth the price. Our cabin on Verandah deck 5 was comfortable and more than adequate for our needs, which included mooning other cruise ships. As avid exercisers, my wife and I appreciated and took advantage of the excellent gym on Lido deck 9 and the running track on Promenade deck 3. A beautiful ship does not however make a perfect ship. There were no shaded areas for lounge chairs by the swimming pools - an astonishing omission for a cruise ship - and those of us who listen to our dermatologists about the dangers of the sun were forced to seek shade elsewhere. (By contrast, the Century had plenty of shaded areas by the pools for lounge chairs.) In the otherwise splendid Zuiderdam theatre, posts obstructed the views from some seats. For a big ship like the Zuiderdam, though, with a passenger capacity of nearly 1,800, there was rarely any congestion; attributed either to superior design, or to the group of 500 Evangelical Christian passengers on board our cruise who arranged for their own entertainment and stayed clear of the bars, nightclubs and casino.
Embarkation. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and, I imagine, several other cruise lines, have calypso bands playing on deck when their ships leave port for the tropics. For the crew, of course, it's just another work day; but for the passengers it's the exciting beginning of an exotic adventure, and the music makes the occasion festive and fun. But when the Zuiderdam left Ft. Lauderdale, no band was playing on deck, few people were even on deck, and except for some minor activity on the aft deck, the ship was strangely silent as we set sail. It was almost as if we were sneaking out of port. Holland America has a reputation for being the cruise line of the elderly, so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many young people on board, but no one will ever mistake the Zuiderdam for being a Party Boat.
Entertainment. I don't choose a cruise line for the quality of the entertainment, but you won't hear me complain if the entertainment is good, and on the Zuiderdam the entertainment was exceptionally good. The shows were sophisticated with high production values and talented performers. The costumes, staging, lighting and music were what you might see on a slightly grander scale on Broadway. In addition, there was a comedian on board who was hilarious and a magician who was amazing.
The ports. Like many cruise lines, Holland America owns an island and makes it a port of call. The day we dropped anchor there, the sun was too hot for me to handle, but my wife and some of our friends raved about the beach, the surf, and the lunch which the Zuiderdam served on shore. We also stopped at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, a port so dull our comedian joked that the only activities on the island were happening on board our ship. In retrospect, I realize that he wasn't making a joke. The remaining ports of St. Thomas and Nassau are standard for most cruise lines.
The service. One of the two criteria which make or break a cruise for me. In a nutshell, the Holland America service was not as good as Celebrity, which in my opinion sets the standard for the industry, but it was still good, and regarding our cabin steward, very, very good. Our cabin steward was named Mohammed Ali, and no, it's not who you're thinking. Our Mr. Ali, who like most of the crew came from Indonesia, was a young man with a big smile and an even bigger heart. He was always available, although I never saw him work with an assistant. Especially in the evenings, he arranged our bed sheets so beautifully it was almost criminal to sleep on them. Our dining room waiter was also from Indonesia and the first night at dinner we presented him with a challenge. Shrimp cocktails for all six of us every night, we told him. Even if they aren't on the menu. He had no problem bringing them or bringing us a multitude of other dishes or multiple dishes. As on the Century, our drinks from the bar were waiting for us on our table in the dining room as we had requested. However, on the Century, our waiter was there to greet us each evening and to hold our chairs for us. Then he explained each item on the menu. When we ordered lobster tails, he shelled them. On the Zuiderdam, occasionally our waiter's assistant would hold our chairs for us, but the menu was never explained and we shelled the lobster tails ourselves: an example of the difference between a good cruise line and a great one. Also, in the Zuiderdam's Lido restaurant, a buffet where we ate breakfast and lunch, there were usually several waiters standing around, but they rarely offered to carry our trays to the tables unless we asked them. But why should we have to ask them?
Which brings me to the delicate topic of tipping. Years ago, Holland America was noted for a "no tipping required" policy. That this cruise line would discourage tips to its employees for working so hard seems heartless, and the rationale that Holland America offered was ridiculous. Our staff, they claimed, loved working for you so much that money was not even a consideration. I frankly never understood how an Indonesian I had never met before and would never see again would enjoy a week as my slave, and I suppose that this enigma finally occurred to Holland America. Today the policy is to automatically charge $10 per passenger per day as tips to spread equally throughout the staff on the ship, which is unfair to those like Mr. Ali and our dining room waiter who deserved to be compensated for their exceptional service. So at the end of the cruise, and at Holland America's invitation, we simply gave Mr. Ali and our dining room waiter (and his assistants) some extra cash just for themselves and not to share with anyone.
The food. The primary reason I cruise and my main criterion for choosing a cruise line. Except for the Zuiderdam's superior Lido buffet, I regret to report that the quality of food was not quite as good as Celebrity's. As for the superb Lido, the breakfast selections were limited only by your imagination, and at lunch there were several stations to satisfy almost any taste: Salads, Soups, Sandwiches, Sweets, Hot Dishes, Asian, Italian, and probably others I can't recall offhand. The grill just outside by the pool produced hamburgers, hot dogs, vegetarian burgers, chicken, tacos, fries and other items. However, unlike the burgers on board the Century which tasted like ground filet mignon, I'm told that the Zuiderdam's just tasted like, well, burgers. The vegetarian burger was nothing special either. Dinner in the Vista Dining Room was good, but not great. Although there was still plenty to eat, the Zuiderdam's menu - from the bread on the tables to the appetizers, entrees and desserts - was adequate but less extensive than Celebrity's, and while the food was tasty, not "as" tasty. There were no midnight buffets, although pizza, ice cream and other desserts were served in the Lido restaurant until after midnight. A Dutch Chocolate midnight buffet that I remember seeing advertised in the Holland America brochure never materialized. On the afternoon of the second formal night, there was a Dessert Buffet in the dining room, which was a poor imitation of the spectacular Midnight Grand Buffet on board Celebrity's ships. Furthermore, as far as the timing was concerned, offering us a dining room full of desserts a few hours before serving lobster tail and filet mignon at the formal Farewell Dinner was, in my opinion, idiotic.
Which brings me to a final paradox. The Holland America brochures loudly proclaim that master chefs prepare only the finest cuisine for their passengers, and that every meal is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. But it's not true. At best the food we're served in the Vista Dining Room and the Lido restaurant is second best, because on board the Zuiderdam there is a "special" restaurant called "The Pinnacle Grill at the Odyssey". Now, I don't know where the Odyssey "is" that the Pinnacle Grill is supposedly located "at", but dropping the pretense, this restaurant is located on Lower Promenade deck 2 along the atrium. Truthfully speaking, the Pinnacle Grill is a beautiful room, and passengers can eat there for an additional $20 per person. Unlike in the Vista Dining Room and the Lido restaurant, guests are limited to just one entree, but the food is supposed to be superior. I am frankly offended that for all the money I paid, I must pay even more at The Pinnacle or be served second best in the Vista Dining Room and the Lido, although I suspect that it's just a gimmick to extort extra cash from passengers duped into believing that the food is better there. I wound up canceling the dinner reservations I had made at The Pinnacle for the last night of the cruise, because I had a vision of the staff snickering as yet another sucker handed them $40 dollars to eat essentially the same food. I simply didn't want to be that sucker, and the two portions of roast beef I enjoyed in the Vista Dining Room were delicious enough.
The bottom line. Having been spoiled by a verandah cabin on board the Zuiderdam, we will never cruise again on Celebrity's Century or any other ship without that affordable option. However, the newer ships on most cruise lines, including Celebrity, all have plenty of available verandah cabins like the Zuiderdam. Factoring in the verandah, and assuming that Celebrity and Holland America both offered cruises at the same time of year and to similar ports of call, we would choose Celebrity. If, however, Celebrity did not offer convenient times or attractive venues, we would sail Holland America again, but not before giving another popular and prestigious cruise line like Princess a try.