I booked the Zuiderdam Eastern Caribbean itinerary. I had never cruised on a Holland America ship prior to our cruise this past September. I had always shied away from Holland America due to the reputation that it had catering only to older guests and not families. As background information, I have taken 70 plus cruises in the last 40 years. I was accompanied on this cruise by my wife and my six year old daughter.
My wife and I decided to book a category S suite on the upper verandah deck. This was a special treat for us since we had never booked a suite before. Unfortunately, our September 28th sailing was interrupted by Hurricane Jeanne and instead of a 7 day cruise we wound up with a 5 day cruise.
Embarkation was a breeze, due in part to only 1,180 passengers being on board for the sailing vs. regular capacity of 1,800. As suite passengers we enjoyed our own private dedicated check in area. Check in was very quick and before we realized it we were on board the ship. As soon as we boarded the ship we proceeded tothe Neptune Lounge to meet the concierge staff and catch up with my cousin and her husband who were also traveling with us. We found the Neptune Lounge to be a quiet and elegant retreat from the ship's activities. It ended up being a place that we spent considerable time in. A great spot for a cappuccino and a snack.
Due to the cancellations my cousin was able to move the location of her S suite to one adjoining our cabin. Once the cabins were ready for passengers we immediately went to the cabin to check it out. The cabin steward was coincidentally there and he was nice enough to open the balconies between both cabins. My wife and I were impressed with the spaciousness of the cabin and the amenities. The closet space was great!
We also were surprised to find a great stereo system (JVC) with a CD and a DVD player. My wife brought CD's for her own entertainment and DVD's for my daughter to watch. The interior space of the cabin, as well as the balcony space made spending time in the cabin a "treat". The amenities made the stay even more enjoyable. I would give the accommodations an A rating. It is for this reason that we spent the majority of the time in the cabin.
The cabin steward that we had assigned was great! He anticipated our every need and was as unobtrusive as possible. I think the cabin service on the Zuiderdam also deserves an A rating.
The first evening we had dinner in the main dinning room. We found the service to be sub-par. It was not what it should be for a premium cruise line. We found the cuisine in the main dinning room to be about average. The food tasted bland, was unimaginative in presentation and was not up to the quality I would expect from Holland America.
Due to our experience the first night in the main dinning room we dined in the Pinnacle Grill (A la carte) dinning room the remainder of the cruise. The food and service in the Pinnacle was excellent, except for the last evening when it was just "good".
Since we had our adjoining suites and we were traveling with children we only attended one evening show. On the second from last evening we went to the Vista Lounge for the Broadway show. The show was a disappointment based on my experiences on other cruise lines such as Celebrity, Princess and Royal Caribbean. In retrospect I am glad that we did not attend any of the other shows.
The children's program was also a disappointment. The program was only available for selected short hours on a daily basis. Even though Holland America has made an effort to cater to families, they still have a long way to go to provide a quality children's program. The children's program does not compare to other cruise lines that cater to families.
The Lido food and service were excellent. The variety of food offered was beyond what anyone would expect. The hours of operation were also very accommodating. My daughter especially liked the pizza available each day.
We did enjoy the cruise, but unfortunately it was too short. The ship is elegant, without being glitzy with a friendly and attentive crew that always tries to please. I would again travel with Holland America if the price and accommodations were right.
We just returned from a shortened 5 day cruise on the Zuiderdam. Holland America was very fair in their adjustments as a result of Hurricane Jeanne.
This was our seventh cruise and the second on Holland America. It was clear from the decorations that HAL is going after a younger crowd, more on that later.
The service was excellent. In the tradition of HAL, it is a much more reserved style of service than on some other lines.
The buffet food was above average, their main dining room dinner food was very good and their upscale restaurant was worth the extra $20.
The entertainment was weak and there were no alternates to the main evening show for the early dinner crowd. There were no bands playing in any of the lounges until after the main show for the early seating was over.
For a line trying to attract a younger crowd it was very strange that they closed the Lido pool and hot tubs at 7PM and the main pool and hot tubs at 10. Forget about a late evening swim or relaxing in a hot tub.
Over all I would compare this shipfavorable to others we have been on.
If Elton John designed a ship and then everything shiny was covered with coal dust and then he ran out of money to decorate the passenger hallways, you would have the Zuiderdam. We booked a room in the 'S' category- the only better room was the owner' suite. Our room was beautifully decorated with a huge wrap around balcony on the aft port side. The food was great as well as the service and entertainment.
We reserved two nights at the Pinnacle restaurant but cancelled the second night. The restaurant was supposed to specialize in steaks. I had to send my steak back three times to get it cooked medium, they over cooked each time. The service was poor. We were not interested in the itinerary as we did not plan go get off the ship at any of the ports. We had to skip between tropical storms and got an extra day at sea. Most people were over 50 and the bar scene was boring.
Overall we had a great cruise, but we never got used to the wierd decor. We will cruise this ship again.
We had a fabulous time on our cruise, even with the hurricane dodging! I was disappointed that St Thomas had to be skipped, as was Half Moon Cay. We will now just have to look forward to seeing them on our next Caribbean cruise, which I truly hope won't be too far in the future! The crew were really fabulous and treated us with such respect and concern. They knew our names and what we drank after the first day! That was amazing to me.
The rooms were just impeccable and spacious. Fresh fruit and chocolates. What a nice touch! Our veranda got a lot of use. We had our breakfast there most days. The view couldn't be beat! What luxury...sitting in your pj's with that plush robe on, eating breakfast as you watch the sea go by. Oh my..I have only been home several days and I miss it already. I can't wait to go on another cruise and it will definitely be with Holland America.
This was my 9th cruise, 1st on Holland. I had read many reveiws about the Zuiderdam on the net, most of which were negative, and I was hoping for the best. My first disappointment was the ship itself. The decor is so tacky, looks like they just threw some colors together nothing matched. I was very disappointed with the atrium, very small. The ship just has no pizzaz to it at all, very boring.
The service was terrible, took us 30 min just to get a menu on the first night. They had saran wrap on the ceiling aboove us in the dining room, said they got complaints about it being to cold, haw tacky is that. The cabin was nice, we had a deluxe veranda. The entertainment was noting to rave about. I have to say that I will never cruise Holland again, was a terrible experience.
7th Cruise 2nd on Holland America
Quick "Important" Issues Hot (eggs, bacon etc.) Breakfast Room Service. Can order bottles of Liquor to room (approx. $25/bottle) Casinos/Discos/Bars open until at least 2AM Access to the bow "Real" promenande (wood deck chairs, beverage service nearby)
For cruisers who know what they want, Holland America is still the choice for those who will appreciate decent cabins and decor, decent service, and a restrained level of service (cruisers who want their "luxery" service without paying for it or towel animals need not apply).
No paper or plastic (always glass or ceramic/china) and unobtrusive service is always evident. The food is mediocre (what do you expect for around $100/day) but the Pinnacle Grille did serve good beef.
Subduded passengers, not many children, but much younger (average age maybe 45) than Holland America is known for.
My husband and I booked our own air and flew from CA to Ft. Lauderdale. We stayed overnight at the Amerisuites on 17th street. This is an excellent location as the Outback Steak House and a good Mexican Resturant are just across the parking lot. The hotel provides a free shuttle from Airport to Hotel, and Hotel to the pier. Around 10:45 we hopped on the shuttle to take us to the beautiful Zuiderdam.
Be sure to go to the middle of the terminal not the two ends. The sign in front said they would open at 11:30 however, they opened the doors at 11:10 and we paraded in. At the dock/reception area we were ECTASTIC to find out we had been upgraded from a category AA to a category S full suite room 6084 next to the glass elevators mid ship. Perfect location. We had originally booked a BB balcony, then 5 days before sail we got bumped up to the AA, then finally the suite. I give all the credit to my FABULOUS TA, that pushed the cruise lines every single day to get us upgraded as far aspossible. This guy is has the worlds best customer service, & competitive pricing. Please send me an e-mail @ email@example.com for his contact info if interested.
We dined the 1st night in the Odessey/Pinnacle since it is a 2 for 1 on the 1st night. Call HAL and book your reservation before you get on the ship. We thought the food was worth $10 each but not worth $20 p/p + tip. Food in the Lido and regular dining room is very good. My husband especially loved the hot soups, and I enjoyed the cold ones. The cheesecake is heavenly.
Service was excellent and the crew aimed to please. Nice!
Key West - We walked around the corner from the dock and saw the sign for the Conch Train. Cost $22 each for 1.5 hours. It is great, and they show you the whole island. The ship charges $24 p/p.
Cozumel: We grabbed a taxi with another fun couple we met and headed for Chaakanub (spelling ?) park. $10 per taxi NOT P/P + tip. Chaakanub is a beautiful park. It is $12 p/p to get in. Rental of mask, snorkel and fins was a total of $6 p/p. The snorkeling is excellent. We lounged in the chairs under the grass huts. Paradise. Everything is sparkeling clean, and there are no beggars. Including cab, park entrance fee, snorkel equipment we paid $20.50 each. Ship charges $49 p/p.
Grand Cayman: I pre-booked a trip to Stingray City, and Coral Reefs through NativeWays Sports. Their rep Sharon Eubanks met us in the North Terminal which is where the tenders dock. Great lady. Since we had a later excursion she kindly offered to take us to 7 mile beach, then picked us up later. We went to the dock where we boarded a small boat, and had refreshments. Richard & Michael the 2 crewman were excellent. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND Nativeways. Cost was $30 p/p for stingray city and 2 snorkel sites, for 2.5 hours. Ship charges $49 for Stingray City alone.
Half Moon Cay: Very pretty island. It was super windy when we were there. We got a clamshell which I would recommend if you are pasty white, or don't want to get too much sun. The snorkeling from the beach is NOT GOOD, so if you want to snorkel take the boat trip. We had a delicous barbeque there.
Cruise-Critics: There were about 35 people who I corresponded with via e-mail before the trip. About 20 or so showed up for our get together the day of sail. I want to thank Sandy and Peter from Australia who we pal'd around with and made our trip so much fun.
Bottom line. OUTSTANDING CRUISE, gorgeous ship, great food, excellent service.
This was our 12th cruise but first on HAL. I won't bore you with all the HAL flight arrangements and so forth. Transfer from Miami airport to Fort Lauderdale was smooth after being greeted at the airport by very courteous HAL staff.
We arrived at the pier just before noon and remained on the bus while luggage was off loaded. Once inside embarkation was the fastest we have ever experienced. An incredible eight minutes from walking into the terminal to walking on the ship.
Perhaps our expectations were set too high due to all the reviews we have read about other HAL ships. Everything about the cruise was great but overall not noticeably better than our previous cruises on RCCL, Princess, Costa and Carnival.
We booked a BC balcony guarantee and received an A balcony cabin on Navigation deck forward. This is a great location. The view from the glass elevators into other balconies was a concern for me and I observed that these balconies are not private.
I found this cabin to be slightly smaller than our last balcony cabin on the Carnival Victory but the balcony was larger. I never sawour cabin steward but the cabin was always tidy.
We changed out table assignment due to an awful location and ended up by the rear windows in the lower dining room. There is a definite vibration and rumble here but I know I'm on a ship so it was not a concern. We had great table mates so we did not try the Odyssey Restaurant. Food was generally very good and the service was excellent.
This cruise was Western Caribbean, Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and the private island Half Moon Cay. We did not book any ship's tours and pre-arranged snorkeling tours on the internet prior to leaving. Half Moon Key is very nice but comparable to the other cruise lines' private islands.
The entertainment in the main show lounge was average cruise ship fare including the usual singing and dancing routines. Some of the lounge bands have some very talented musicians.
A very nice touch was the hors d'ourves available in all lounges prior to the dinner hours. Room service was usually very fast with an large selection. On the second sea day a Dutch dessert buffet was presented at 3:00 p.m. I skipped lunch to attend and it was excellent. A much more agreeable time here than midnight on most other ships.
The cruise director and her staff tried very hard to get a party atmosphere started on several occasions when sailing out of ports but there did not appear to be much passenger participation. It was rather comical on our first day when there were announcements for the first sail out party from Fort Lauderdale. The sail away party began at 5:00 p.m. with music and activities. Four other ships were leaving the port, horns blowing and crowds cheering. For what ever reason the Zuiderdam did not move. The crowd finally dispersed by 6:00 p.m. when all other ships were out of sight. We didn't set sail until after 8:00 p.m.
We found the main public room decks confusing and very winding. Many public rooms have very low ceilings. The center atrium is small and not very impressive.
On this and other boards a great deal has been written about what is acceptable attire, especially at formal dinners. I was expecting more formality on HAL but this was not the case. Tuxedoes were in the minority and I observed many women on formal nights with bare legs, flip flop style beach shoes and wearing dresses more suitable for a trip to the supermarket. I am personally not a big fan of formal nights but dressed in a dark suit out of respect for the dress code. From what I saw here passengers on some Carnival cruises were better dressed.
Overall the cruise was very good with great service. We will probably not take another cruise on the Vista class ships since we do not care for the design.
This is a review of my cruise on the HAL Zuiderdam on 3/13/04. I was traveling with my 10 year old daughter. This was an Eastern Caribbean cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale. Embarkation was a breeze. The lines looked long, but we were processed and on board the ship in under a half an hour. We boarded about noon and headed up to the Lido dining room to grab a bite of lunch. First impressions of the Lido were very good.rather than one long buffet line, there were several "stations" offering Chinese, Italian, a deli, and a "Bistro" line for the other food. This worked quite well to keep crowds to a minimum, however, as the cruise progressed, I did notice some room for improvements. More on that later. We ate on the aft deck by the pool. Although it was a bit windy, it made for a very relaxing start to the trip. The lifeboat drill was much more thorough than the one we experienced on Celebrity. HAL also had a wristband (or ankle band) for kids under 13 to wear that would identify their lifeboat stations so thatthey could be reunited with their parents in the event of an emergency. While I thought this was kind of a nice thought, my daughter thought otherwise, since she was the one having to wear the band.
The ship - I didn't know what to expect - but I found that the colors were quite nice. The ship was large, but pretty easy to navigate. The directory posted at most elevators (all except the outside elevators) made finding things easy. The elevators (with the exception of the midship center elevators) were quick to respond and very fast between floors. The interiors of most elevators had a suede type of fabric that many seemed to enjoy writing things on. Unfortunately on a couple of elevators, someone decided to leave a more "permanent" mark by scratching the fabric. The outside promenade deck was very nice to walk - 3 times around the ship was a mile, and you were somewhat protected by the winds. The observation deck was okay, but often times rather windy.
The cabin - It seems like everybody writes about the suite or verandah room that they had. This is a report from one in "steerage" - a main deck inside stateroom. I have to say that I was impressed. I was in a category K stateroom - main deck aft. The room was remarkably roomy, with two beds, a writing desk, a sofa and a nice sized bathroom. Noise was not a problem at all.and I was somewhat concerned because of the vibration stories I heard. This room was quiet - and motion was barely noticeable (we had a couple of days with "rough" seas).
Dining - There were 2 early seatings and two late seatings in the main dining room, we were in the second early seating (6:15). This worked out well for us. Originally, my mother and sister were to join us on this trip, but my mother was taken ill a week before the cruise and the doctor orders were "no travel". So they cancelled. There were still two empty seats at our table for them. The second night, when going to the dining room, we noticed that a completely different group was sitting at our table, so I spoke to the maitre'd about this. Apparently, they received the notice that my sister (who shares my daughters name) had cancelled. So they thought it was us. We were given a new table rather quickly, and the maitre'd seemed to be servicing our table a bit more than the others. All in all, this "mistake" was handled very well. I can only compare service to my only other cruise, on Celebrity - the nod for food and service has to go to Celebrity in this case. While the food was good, I did not feel that it measured up to what we were served on Celebrity. Service also seemed to be a step behind Celebrity, although good, there were enough "little things", like the waiter remembering your name, that stood out. With one big exception.there was a waiter who worked the breakfast buffet line named Imam, or as most cruisers called him, "hunky dory". This gentleman made it a point to ask the names of everyone who came through his line. After that, he never missed addressing you by name whenever he saw you. He was given the moniker "hunky dory" because he'd wish everyone a "hunky dory day". Even in the main dining room, while having a cup of coffee with a friend at his table (neither of us had Imam as our waiter), he asked "Can I get you another cup of coffee, Joe?". HAL should realize what a jewel they have in this man. A note here about vibrations in the dining room. Some other posts indicated a "horrible" vibration in the main dining room. While I did notice a slight vibration, "horrid" is not the word I would use to describe it. It was noticeable, but not overwhelming.
Club HAL - My daughter can be a bit shy at first, but I coaxed her up to Club HAL Sunday evening. She asked me to come get her in a half an hour. When I returned, she asked me to come back later. From that point on, I had a rough time keeping track of her.she was having the time of her life. The Club HAL staff was great - she met about 10 new friends her age, and they kept busy. Club HAL allows you to either have your child to come and go on their own (which I did), or they require that someone sign them in and out. They provide a "CD" packet with activities for the childs age group - kids 5 to 9, "tweens" from 10 to 13, and teens from 14-17. It was VERY well organized, and my daughter looked forward to "planning" her days on the Club HAL activities.
Shows - We attended shows four of the seven nights. All were quite enjoyable, and suitable for adults and kids.
Miscellaneous - There were bars everywhere, and the only thing that bothered me was that HAL didn't include a 15% gratuity for the wait staff. I don't carry cash with me on the ship and I felt bad that I couldn't give the waiter a tip on my room charge. From what I read, HAL will be changing this in May. It's for the better, in my opinion.
Room for Improvement - I found only two areas that I felt had any need for improvement . First, the Lido for breakfast. I am an early riser, so these weren't problems for me - but my daughter woke at about 10:00 on our at sea days, and one half of the Lido was closed down - making for a rather long line on the other side to get breakfast. They should leave both sides open for a little longer. The second area was with the "Baked Alaska Parade". I had the "late-early" seating (6:15) in the main dining room. "parade" began about 6:45.the upper restaurant diners were most likely finished, but those of us in the later seating were still working on salads or entrees.certainly nowhere near finished eating, when the lights were dimmed and we were encouraged to clap along to the music as the baked Alaska was paraded. I'd suggest combining the seatings for that night - it just felt out of place to be doing this while many guests were still eating.
All in all, this was a great cruise. The ship is very nice, the service was good, the itinerary was wonderful. I am sorely tempted to take this ship again in the near future. Out of 5 stars, I'd give it 4 and a half.
Previous cruises: multiple, including Holland America, Celebrity, Princess, Cunard, and Carnival.
There have been quite a few reviews written about the Zuiderdam, Holland America's first "Vista" class ship launched in December 2002. This review will add my (and some of my wife's) impressions of this cruise and will provide what we hope are useful hints for pre-cruise, ports of call, and post-cruise arrangements for the budget-minded traveler.
Because this is an extensive review, we will highlight each section with a KEY PHRASE, so that the reader can scan down to specific areas of interest. Please be aware that the world of travel is constantly changing, so that some of the content of this review may have outdated since it was written. My apologies for any resulting inconvenience.
THE BOTTOM LINE is that this was a very enjoyable cruise on a beautiful new ship at a price that was an astoundingly GOOD VALUE. We would recommend it for anyone who enjoys the relaxation and luxury of shipboard life with occasional mainstream (sometimes crowded) ports of call.
PRO'S: Numerous balcony cabins at reasonable prices; improved cuisine, now second to none; first-rate musicians and production shows; the kindest diningand cabin stewards anywhere; the best powder-sand beach in the Caribbean (Half Moon Cay).
CON'S: An itinerary crowded with other cruise ships and passengers (St. Martin, St. Thomas, Nassau); unnecessarily high prices for internet access, photographs, and liquor; lack of self-service laundry; lack of bathrobes in most cabins.
HOLLAND AMERICA has a reputation for attracting older cruisers, and we found that most passengers on our cruise were in their 60's or 70's. One might think that this cruise would be a turn-off for younger couples and families with children, but one gentleman told me that his children were enjoying this cruise and Club HAL (the children's program) much more than their previous cruise on the Disney Magic. His children felt special on HAL, but were just part of the overwhelming crowd of (sometimes unruly and unhappy) children on Disney.
My guess is that HAL attracts an older crowd because in years past they did little discounting until too late, selling leftover cabins at the last minute to Florida retirees. (Floridians apparently get price concessions from cruise lines). On my first HAL cruise a few years ago I was unhappy to learn that we had paid $1,000 more for our inside cabin than two of our tablemates had paid for their inside cabin, and $200 more than two other tablemates had paid for their outside cabin. It was a while before I was willing to trust HAL again, but those days are now past.
Fortunately, HAL is now using capacity-controlled pricing much the same as other cruise lines (and airlines) are, resulting in some great bargains, especially during the shoulder season before Christmas. Price shopping using internet cruise sites (there are several good cruise-bargain newsletters) or a large-volume cruise agency (more about this later) is very worthwhile.
THE ZUIDERDAM is at the large end of medium-sized cruise ship spectrum, at 82,000 gross tons. She carries 1,800 passengers with almost one crewmember for each pair of passengers. As a Vista class ship, she is very similar to the Millennium class ships of Celebrity Cruises –- the hull is wide and somewhat boxy (just narrow enough to squeeze through the Panama Canal), but the superstructure is narrower and tall enough to provide a relative abundance of balcony cabins.
MODERN CRUISE SHIPS seem to be categorized into small (20-50,000 tons), medium (60-90,000 tons), and mega (100-150,000 tons). The small ships tend to be either old, with wonderfully exotic itineraries (but idiosyncrasies such as occasional tiny cabins or port holes) or ultra-luxurious (with amenities and prices to match). The mega ships tend to be moving cities with an emphasis on large shopping malls, exotic activities (do you really want to go cruising to ice skate or rock climb?), and of course large masses of people. As you can guess, the mid-sized ships are our favorite, especially the newer ones like the Zuiderdam.
Much has been written about the INTERIOR DECORATION of the Zuiderdam. It is a departure to see combinations of red, orange, purple, and turquoise on a HAL ship (HAL is known for a more conservative, nautical style), but it is all top quality and surprisingly attractive. There are quite a few small, uniquely decorated public areas, most non-smoking, so it is easy to find a quiet retreat day or night. There is not as much emphasis on artwork as on some other HAL ships, but there is something for every taste from museum-quality serious to Las Vegas whimsical. Fresh flowers are a hallmark of HAL ships, but they seemed less grand than on previous cruises. Still, most public areas had a nice arrangement or two of exotic blooms tucked away here and there.
Surprisingly, the public area CHAIRS provided some of the most unique art experiences on the ship. These chairs were uniformly very heavy, very expensive, and interesting to look at, but almost always less than completely comfortable (poor low back support). Still, the chairs (and all of the décor) have great entertainment value if you keep your eyes open. Unfortunately there was no art and architecture tour of the ship – it would make a good option during a day at sea.
THE CABINS are pleasantly decorated with warm colors and easy-to-appreciate lithographs. Even the inside cabins are a reasonable size, so no one will suffer the surprise we had a few years ago on another (highly regarded but old) cruise ship when we found our cabin had two bunk beds, one desk, and an ottoman squeezed into a less than 7 by 9 foot space (the renovated bathroom added another 4 by 6 feet).
The Zuiderdam's numerous BALCONIES vary in size. Ours was a category BB (the least expensive) on deck 5 amidships, and it was quite shallow (room for two chairs and an ottoman but no table to enjoy breakfast al fresco) because of the adjacent lifeboat hardware. In this category the lifeboats block the view downward to the water (but not outward to the horizon), so you may want to avoid this category if that is important to you. My wife loves the privacy and fresh air of a balcony, and this ship is one where balcony pricing is quite reasonable.
Our cabin was provided with a mini-refrigerator, television (with the usual movies, cable news, weather cams, and music channels, but surprisingly no classical music, just pop), a mini-safe, and more than adequate closet space (but only a dozen coat hangers and open shelves rather than drawers in the closet). Bring a few extra plastic hangers with you (more about this later). If you cannot find that extra blanket, try looking inside that ottoman under the vanity.
Inside the door of each cabin is a small slot to hold the do-not-disturb sign. This makes a great place to leave your key-card whenever you return to your cabin. Searching pockets for missing cards can be a thing of the past.
Balcony cabins (and I believe most outside cabins) have the luxury of a bathtub rather than a shower, but do not expect a plush terry bathrobe to wear after your hot bath. Bathrobes are now only supplied to the highest category cabins (suites). Personally I think this is a false economy that will have negative returns. Cruise lines are beginning to offer two standards of service, sometimes with designations such as "concierge class". Only the future will tell if snobbism sells. Fortunately, most of the upgraded amenities offered on the Zuiderdam are available to all. Nothing in our past cruises was a greater turn-off than the three-class system we encountered on the QE2. We thought class distinctions went down with the Titanic, but apparently they will live on with the QM2.
One thing you definitely will not find on HAL's new Vista class ships is a LAUNDERETTE or ironing board –- they still exist on older HAL ships, but on the Zuiderdam (and its newer sister-ship the Oosterdam, which sailed alongside us on our final day) you either wash clothes in your sink or you pay very high prices ($12 per small bag) to have the crew do it for you. A clothes-pressing package deal is also available. Again, we think eliminating self-service launderettes will backfire and will alienate mainstream passengers.
One thing you may not find easily is a RESTROOM in each public area. Actually there are more restrooms than one thinks, they are just discreetly hidden. If you need a restroom, look up as you search, since most have lighted ceiling signs in the adjacent hallway. However, some areas truly have no convenient restroom –- men dining on the upper level of the main dining room will have to go up or down one deck to find the nearest restroom.
Besides the extra balconies of the Zuiderdam, the greatest improvement since our previous HAL cruises was in the DINING ROOM. The food served in the main dining room is better than ever in variety, presentation, and flavor. Mealtime became an entertaining experience on this cruise. In years past, Celebrity Cruise Lines seemed to set the standard in dining, but based on our experience on this cruise, HAL has risen to meet the challenge.
The main dining room is on two levels with a central atrium rather than horseshoe-shaped balcony. This decreases the conversation noise, but previous reports of engine noise and vibration in the stern portion of the lower level are too true. The daytime views from this area are fantastic,
and hopefully when the ship returns from dry dock in early December 2003, this problem will have been solved.
The main dining room is an elegant dark red, with unusual-looking but surprisingly comfortable chairs, upgraded china, and a relative abundance of well-situated tables for two. The linens are now white (rather than gold), making it a more formal experience. The dining room staff is Indonesian and is as skillful as ever. Music is provided by the always-enjoyable Rosario trio, who thankfully seem to be present in some incarnation on every HAL cruise.
The FOOD throughout the ship is uniformly top notch, which is quite an accomplishment considering the wide variety of dining venues and cuisine styles. The BUFFET line has been divided into multiple areas, each with a specific theme or purpose. This is diagramed on maps provided with the deck plans at the beginning of the cruise. This increases the variety of food stations and decreases the length of lines, although some cruisers who are used to the standard single cafeteria line approach seemed to have difficulty adapting to the flexible layout. Dining is available at almost any hour -- we especially enjoyed the fantastic pastries in the mid-afternoon and had pizza with cocktails on our balcony in the evening. (As an alternative, complimentary hors d'oeuvres are now served with evening drinks in the lounges). The poolside grill and Mexican buffet were also enjoyable diversions.
ALTERNATIVE DINING (at a surcharge of $20 per person) is provided by the Odyssey Restaurant (AKA Pinnacle Grill) adjacent to the central atrium. We ate there once and found the steak and rack of lamb better prepared than any we had eaten before (and we come from a state that produces both). When I asked the chef later in the cruise how he made the wonderful and intensely flavored sun-dried tomato and beef stock reduction that came with my steak, I learned that the process required two days of slow cooking with multiple herbs. It was a reminder (as is the entertaining galley tour) of how much work goes into the food preparation. The Odyssey never seemed to be full, and obtaining reservations was no problem. I think that the main dining room is so good that the Odyssey has stiff competition.
The wines (and drinks in general throughout the ship) are expensive (by our standards). If you are a heavy drinker of sodas, consider buying a soda card at the beginning of the cruise – it will probably save you money and is good any time throughout the ship.
The CREW throughout the ship was topnotch, as on previous HAL cruises. The officers are Dutch. We have always been impressed by their attention to details, especially safety, having watched them life raft-drill the crew on a previous cruise. The boat drill at the beginning of the cruise is taken very seriously. Too bad some cruisers always seem to chatter during this most important ten minutes of the cruise.
The remainder of the crew is largely Indonesian and Filipino. It is this crew which makes HAL stand out among the cruise lines we have experienced. We have found no gentler, kinder, more thoughtful stewards than these. On this cruise it seemed that the proportion of Indonesians has decreased relative to Filipinos, perhaps because of recent American xenophobia towards Muslim nations. I feel so sorry that these Indonesians may be the victims of ethnic profiling, making U.S. visas and work permits more difficult for some nationalities to obtain. They have always welcomed us on our travels to Bali and Java, and I hope that we can do the same for them.
ENTERTAINMENT also has improved since our previous HAL cruises. To be honest, we do not often attend Broadway or Las Vegas style musical productions, but the ones we saw on this cruise were top quality. The main theater has a dozen pillars which obstruct the view from some seats, so go a bit early to get a prime sight line. All of the singers had great voices and the dancers had excellent choreography and impressive costumes. The only fault I could find was the excessive amplification –- one could feel the music in one's gut, it was sometimes so loud. That has been the case on almost every previous cruise ship, so now I simply bring along a pair of ear plugs -– they bring the volume down to an ideal (for me) level.
The MUSICIANS elsewhere on the ship were also the best we have heard on any cruise. The Crossover Band played classic dance numbers perfectly, and their singer was stylish and always in tune –- she sounded like a recording in the best sense of that word. The piano trio in the Ocean lounge improvised with great skill and good humor. The evening musical scene in general was an embarrassment of riches.
The one thing that was lacking in the way of entertainment was a series of EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS or ENRICHMENT LECTURES (there was a single interesting talk on digital photography for beginners). Some of the high-end cruise lines are adding these options, and I hope HAL and other cruise lines follow their lead. In the meantime, the LIBRARY is well stocked with recent books –- it was no problem to find several that I had always intended to read when I got the time (but ended up only reading two on this cruise, since there were so many other things to do).
The INTERNET room is beautifully appointed with the latest in flat screen monitors and reasonably rapid response times. The prices, however, are unnecessarily high ($3.75 just to open an account and $.75 per minute thereafter). This may be the reason that I never saw anyone but the technical assistant in the room any time I visited it. There are internet package deals, but no great concessions like those on Princess cruise ships, for example, which allow unlimited free internet use to its regular (more than 5 cruises) clients.
The GYM and SPA were well equipped. The layout is unusual. The saunas are across the ship and down the corridor from the changing rooms, and as a result were rarely used. Unfortunately the sauna area can be locked from the inside and may not be available if someone wants to monopolize it.
The indoor and outdoor SWIMMING POOLS were filled with frigid water –- great if the weather is sunny, but little used on our blustery cruise. Unfortunately both pool decks are smoking areas (no port and starboard separation of smokers and non-smokers). This could be a problem if you want to take your buffet meal to one of the outdoor tables near the pools.
The onboard SHOPS had a good mixture of logo souvenirs and convenience items. Sale prices seemed fictitious, but were not exorbitant.
The CASINO was terra incognita to both my wife and myself. I once cruised with a friend whose casino tab ended up greater than the cost of the cruise itself. Perhaps we should be grateful that casino losers subsidize the rest of us cruisers.
The CRUISE ITINERARY begins with a short day on HAL's private island, HALF MOON CAY. This is a beach paradise that can get crowded near the tender dock but always has footprint free sand at the far end of the beach. We prefer to skip the beach picnic and take a mid-day break from the sun by having lunch in the main dining room, returning to the beach for an afternoon swim. The first passenger tender leaves about an hour after anchoring, because the early tenders are taken up by crew transporting food and beach gear. Avoid the last return tender if you can, because stragglers can delay it, and you make have to wait for a while.
After a day at sea, there is a half-day at Phillipsburg, ST. MARTIN. One can walk 15 minutes into town along a new sidewalk or take a short $3 taxi ride. There is a new man-made beach along the waterfront, but non-shoppers usually opt for Grand Cas or Orient Beach (both topless) on the French side of the island. The $2.50 public mini-bus ride to Grand Cas (via a change of buses in the French side capital of Marigot) takes 1-2 hours each way depending on traffic (St. Martin is subject to gridlock just like St. Thomas). Minibuses leave from westbound Back Street, just flag one down. Grand Cas is not a great beach (there are buildings along its entire length) but the ride there is fun for the adventuresome, and it has some nice views. Tour buses cover the same route with greater comfort and speed. Orient Beach is not reachable by public transport other than taxi.
The next port is a full day at Charlotte Amalie, ST. THOMAS. This shoppers' orgy is a major turn-off for me (and thankfully for my wife too). We have been to the USVI nearly a dozen times by air and by sea, and Charlotte is always the low point. Magens Bay on the north side is a reasonable taxi ride and entry fee away. It is a beautiful beach, the far west end of which is not too crowded. If we are docked at Havensight, we sometimes take a short taxi ride to the Frenchman's Bay beach of the Marriott Hotel. It is a small beach, but safe and usually uncrowded. If we really want to get away, we visit friends on nearby Water Island.
On this cruise, the Zuiderdam anchored and tendered passengers to the center of the Charlotte waterfront, very near the St. John's ferry (tempting, but there really is not enough time to go there and get back for the last tender). What time was lost by tendering was made up by the convenience of not needing a taxi from the Havensight pier into town. Passport clearance at St. Thomas begins onboard around 0645 for the lower deck cabins and ends around 0815 for the upper deck cabins. The first tenders leave soon thereafter.
After another day at sea, the final port of call is NASSAU, on Providence Island in the Bahamas. This is another shoppers' orgy, which we usually avoid. We either take a taxi to Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island (for about $5 per person), or we take a public bus for $1, east along the waterfront to the base of the old (southbound) bridge. It is a 10-minute walk over the bridge to Paradise Island (the north end of the bridge is adjacent to the ferry dock). Once on the island, we walk another 10 minutes toward the Sheraton hotel (straight ahead). Public beach access is just to the right of the hotel. There are no restrooms on the beach, but chair, umbrella, parasail, and wave-runner rentals are readily available. We usually walk another 10 minutes east along the beach to avoid any crowds from the nearby Atlantis Hotel complex (which is an interesting sight in itself if you have the time).
That sums up our impressions of the cruise. What follows is a series of SUGGESTIONS ABOUT PRE-CRUISE, PORTS OF CALL, AND POST-CRUISE ARRANGEMENTS (and cruising in general) aimed at the budget-conscious traveler. These ideas have worked for us, but feel free not to follow them if they are not your style.
AIR TRAVEL to the cruise port can be problematic in the winter. We have found that making our own reservations is less expensive than booking through the cruise lines, but one loses the cruise line protection if there is a delay or cancellation. We fly into Fort Lauderdale (FLL) the day before the cruise, and usually plan a return flight in the afternoon of the last cruise day, to allow for disembarkation and airport delays.
TAXIS from the cruise port to the FLL airport are about $10 plus tip, making this less expensive (and faster) than the cruise transfers. Except for some previous cruises when we were last off the ship, we have never had to wait for a taxi. On this cruise, HAL kindly put us in the first group (disembarking about 8:30 am) since we had an early return flight. The bonus is that airport security lines are shorter early in the day, before most cruise passengers get there. Again, if possible book your return flight for noon or later to be certain you arrive in time (once after a previous cruise we did not clear airport security until 1 pm even without checked bags, the airport lines were so long, but that seems to have improved recently). If you arrive at FLL early and have no checked bags, you can always standby for an earlier flight.
In Ft. Lauderdale we usually stay at one of the several chain HOTELS on 17th Street, which are only minutes away from the airport and cruise port. Most of these hotels provide free shuttle service to and from the airport and cruise port. Nice rooms should be available for less than $100 by using any of the internet discount booking engines or sometimes by booking through the hotels directly. If hotel prices are too high, we rent a car for 24 hours and drive to a motel a few miles from the port (check your AAA guide for options). The price difference more than pays for the car rental, and shoppers can use the car for a visit to Sawgrass Mills Outlet Mall, one of the largest in the country, located about 30 minutes west of town (they have great, relatively inexpensive men's and women's formal wear shops if you need some additional elegance).
Amerisuites, Embassy Suites, Marriott, and Holiday Inn all have properties on 17th Street. There is a large Publix grocery and liquor store within walking distance for any last minute purchases, and there are many restaurants and food outlets nearby. There are even a few upscale clothing stores catering to the yachters in the nearby marinas. The water taxi-tour boat stops (hourly on weekdays, half-hourly on week-ends) at the Marriott marina, which is within walking distance of most other 17th Street hotels. In good weather the water taxi is a great, inexpensive ($5 for the entire day) way to see some very fancy homes and boats, and one can hop on and hop off at any of the numerous stops to see Ft. Lauderdale's sights.
LUGGAGE is often a problem when cruising because most people pack far too much. This suggestion is not for everyone, but my wife and I each travel with only a regulation-size (21x13x8 inch) airline carry-on, even when going around the world or on cruises. A micro fiber black suit, one dress shirt, two casual shirts, two slacks, two shorts, and two T-shirts with three sets of underwear do fine for me. Add a Gore-Tex rain jacket, swim trunks, a pair of Teva-style sandals, a daypack, a wash-kit, and a light sweater, and I am ready for anything. My wife substitutes a micro fiber black dress with fancy jacket and jewelry, plus additional items analogous to my own, and she is ready too.
TRAVELING LIGHT is the greatest skill we have learned in our years of travel. To be honest, most cruisers are so concerned about their own appearance that they do not care what you are wearing anyway. One of our favorite evening activities on formal nights is to sit near the photographers' stations and watch the fashion parade. If you are a compulsive shopper and short on luggage space, pack a duffel bag for the return home.
LAUNDRY can be a problem, especially on ships like the Zuiderdam which offer no self-service launderette. We have found that one can hand-wash almost anything (no jeans please), roll it in a dry bath towel for several minutes, and then hang it (it does not drip) from the air conditioning vents overnight and it will be ready to wear the next morning (gauche, but no one, not even your cabin steward or hotel chambermaid, need know). We carry two or three plastic hangers for just this purpose, and use paper clips as adapters if the hangers are too thick. Never, never, never hang anything from the sprinkler heads in your cabin or hotel room.
EMBARKATION in the FLL cruise port is very efficient. The lines may be long, but they move quickly. One can be on the ship by late morning and enjoy lunch at the buffet while the cabins are being cleaned (cabins are usually available by 1pm). DISEMBARKATION is equally simple. HAL is now generous enough to allow passengers to wait in their cabins until their disembarkation group is called. On this cruise, HAL kindly put us in the first group (disembarking about 8:30 am) since we had an early return flight. With no suitcases to claim, we just walked right through US customs to the head of the taxi line and were at the airport in less than 15 minutes.
ROUGH WEATHER is always a possibility, although it is rare after the summer/fall hurricane season. New cruise ships have such a relatively high profile and shallow draft (about 25 feet) that they tend to list or rock in high winds. Take some meclizine tablets or scopolamine patches if you are a fair weather sailor. I hate the hung-over feeling I get from either, and have found that my wife's over-the-counter anti-reflux medication works like a charm for me, with no side effects.
WHINY CRUISERS are the greatest disappointment on the seas. Some people just seem to enjoy being unhappy about not being royalty. The crew is amazingly patient with these folks – the crew deserves our admiration dealing with trivial complaints when their own families at home may be lucky to have basic food and shelter. Don't get caught up in whiny cruisers' games and don't be impressed by their princess-and-the pea attitudes. Just walk away and be glad they are not your neighbors (if they are at your table, ask the maitre d' to relocate you).
GLUTTONOUS CRUISERS are the second greatest disappointment. It is sad to see the excessive consumption and waste of food on every cruise, especially when the culprits are sometimes morbidly obese. Don't get caught in the same cycle. The main dining room offers a portion-controlled refuge if your self-control weakens. I must admit HAL's dense-and-chewy raisin bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice (not out of the dispenser, but on the nearby shelves), and wafer-thin-crisp-as-can-be-bacon made me think each morning that I had died and gone to heaven, but I was careful to enjoy smaller portions during the rest of the day.
SMOKERS deserve our sympathy because very few drugs are as highly addictive as nicotine. That being said, I was glad to be protected from smoke in the dining room and most public areas. Unfortunately, the open decks and enclosed pool area are open to smokers without the usual portside smoking/starboard side no-smoking split. Mea culpa, I apologize to the kindly gentleman who wanted to join me for breakfast on deck. When I learned he was a smoker, I suggested I would meet with him later in the day but needed a non-smoking table to eat. I still feel guilty about being so blunt, but after years of seeing people die of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other smoking-related illnesses, I have become more an anti-smoker than non-smoker.
SECURITY has never been a problem for us on HAL, but we did once have a bag and cashmere sweater stolen on another (highly regarded) cruise line. On the same cruise line a fellow passenger's passport was stolen from a shelf in her cabin. She and her infant daughter spent three extra days in London getting a new one. Another passenger's (one of that cruise line's gentleman hosts) wallet was stolen from his bedside table. The moral is keep your passport and all other valuables in your room safe all of the time. Take your driver's license ashore for those ports which require a photo id (most say they do, but we rarely needed more than our cruise key card for identification).
HEALTH CONCERNS have gotten a lot of press recently, ever since the Norwalk virus and other nasty critters started cruising. Most disease outbreaks are due to fomites (commonly touched items such as door-knobs, buffet serving tongs, friendly handshakes especially in reception lines) rather than aerosols (sneezes, air-conditioning). Few people wash their hands immediately before eating on cruises, but restrooms are almost always nearby. This is especially important when in self-service buffets. The risk of illness from touching one person is minimal compared with the risk of serving tongs that may have been touched by hundreds before you.
HAL has been very conscientious in having most food served by crew wearing disposable gloves and by keeping silverware individually wrapped at the tables rather than in the usual self-serve racks, but communal serving tongs will never be completely eliminated on any cruise ship. Similarly, HAL serves cocktail nuts in narrow neck flasks and has "Yum-yum Guys" dispense after-dinner mints so that no one's hands dip into communal serving dishes. They also provide mini-towels to dry hands and open the restroom door when finished (just toss it back into the used towel hamper as you exit).
If you think about it, the close quarters of cruise ships increase the risk of disease spread, but countering this is the fact that scant public hardware (door knobs, railings, elevator buttons, etc.) are as thoroughly cleaned as on cruise ships. If hand washing is too much bother, at least buy and use a bottle of the alcohol-based disinfectant hand gels which are now widely available for travelers. You, and your fellow passengers, will be glad you did.
TIPPING is always problematic on HAL cruises, since they currently have a tipping-not-required policy. Personally, I think this policy is unfair to the cruise staff and confusing for the cruise passengers. I hear that HAL may change this policy and conform with other cruise lines, on which tipping is not mandatory but is expected, and tipping guidelines are freely given. A few cruise lines automatically charge standard tips (about $10 to $15 per passenger per day) to shipboard accounts. I think this is acceptable only if clearly stated before the cruise is booked, and should be reversible if the passenger prefers to tip directly. Ship crews work so hard and depend so much on tips that spending money on bingo, casino games, liquor, souvenirs, or whatever and then stiffing the crew is inexcusable.
Finally, the subject every reviewer seems to avoid – CRUISE PRICES. During the pre-Christmas lull, cruise prices can be the greatest bargain in travel. Through the kind services of Pat Webb (whose Galaxsea agency is one of the largest and who has a useful e-mail newsletter of cruise bargains), we were able to obtain a balcony cabin on this cruise for less than $700 per person for the week, including port charges, taxes, and a shipboard credit. An inside cabin would have been proportionally less.
Who could ask for a better, more enjoyable travel value?