We are still relatively new to cruising, but this marked our fifth cruise (all with Holland America) in the last four years. It is difficult for us to judge Holland America against other lines, as we have no experience, but so far we have been happy with the experience and see no reason to switch. We live on the West Coast, so arriving at Fort Lauderdale a day early (at least)is highly recommended. We chose the Cambria Suites in Dania Beach, very close to the Fort Lauderdale airport and the cruiseport, based on TripAdvisor reviews and the fact they had an airport and a cruiseport shuttle included. We were picked up by their friendly shuttle driver within 10 minutes of calling from the airport. We would definitely stay at this hotel again - very comfortable mini-suites and there is a restaurant/bar/coffee bar downstairs off the lobby. Everyone at the hotel was very friendly and accomodating.
We had signed up for the 10am shuttle to the cruiseport, and while we were picked up promptly, the shuttle serves several properties so we made a couple stops en route to the pier. This day, there was one other cruise ship in port, but as they were immediately adjacent to each other, the dropoff area was rather hectic. Once inside the terminal building, there was a sizable lineup for check-in but it moved quickly, and the check-in staff was as friendly as any we have dealt with. We waited only 20 minutes after check-in before we were allowed to begin boarding the ship.
I was a bit apprehensive after reading several negative reviews on Cruise Critic and also speaking with a co-worker who had taken this cruise about a month prior. I am happy to report we were very happy with the overall condition of the ship and the crew and staff were the usual friendly Holland America standard that keeps us coming back for more. I had to really look hard to find any "deferred maintenance" type issues. The bracket that holds up the showerhead in our stateroom broke partway through the cruise and was fixed when we reported it. Other than that, plumbing worked as it should and the AC was troublefree. In fact, this cabin was the most comfortable, temperature-wise we have encountered on any Holland America ship. As our cabin was on the main deck, our window had some salt streaks but that is to be expected this close to waterline. It did not impact our enjoyment of the view. Other than hearing some faint noises from below in the mornings (including, what sounded like a crew member singing!), our cabin was very quiet and we would be happy with it again. That being said, this is a cruise worthy of splurging on a verandah, and if we were taking it again, we would. While we found plenty of places on public decks to sit outside and watch the view, or the canal transit, it would have been nice to have had that private retreat, or a door close at hand when the view changed. Also, temperatures on this cruise (consistently in the 80s) were perfect for having a verandah.
We typically eat most of our dinners in the Main Dining Room (late fixed seating) and we were very happy with our dining room stewards. Interestingly, instead of one main steward and one assistant, they both seemed to share duties equally. In fact, we found the "assistant" to be our favorite - he surprised my wife with incredible origami creations on several nights. The food quality was what we have come to expect - no complaints, everything came as ordered and advertised. We are happy they are no longer doing the silly "Master Chef's Dinner" although one night the menu retains some of the Master Chef items, just without the song and dance. I gather the dining room staff appreciates that change, too. It was refreshing to have a helpful wine steward who did not try to push the wine package or upsell us to something we really didn't want. There are some familiar items on the menu (scallop ceviche, for instance) but a number of new items. I noticed more change in the menu on this cruise than I have on prior ones; kudos to Holland America for changing things up a bit.
We never made it to the Pinnacle Grill but heard glowing reviews from fellow passengers who did go. One night we ate in Canaletto and were very pleased with the experience. In fact, this was probably the best Canaletto dinner we have had in the 3 cruises where we have eaten there. No, it's not going to be the best Italian food you've ever eaten, but it is definitely a nice change from the dining room and is certainly better than anything we could fix at home ourselves. The staff really goes out of its way to see you have a memorable evening.
Breakfast and lunch were in the lido or Terrace Grill. Again, no surprises. Nothing really outstanding but all quite good. The staff in both locations seemed friendlier than I am used to. In the past, the servers in these venues seemed rather indifferent.
We did not participate in any of the shipboard activities this cruise other than a mixology class but that was loads of fun and we would highly recommend it. If you're a drinker, you would likely be spending that much on the drinks anyway. Also, it's a nice opportunity to meet fellow cruisers. We did spend several evenings in the Crow's Nest listening to a great guitarist, Charlie Jourdan. It was a shame more people did not show up - they missed a great show. He also performed out by the pools several times and in the Capt. Morgan's bar at Half Moon Cay. We appreciate that the Crow's Nest on this ship is a nonsmoking venue (although smokers may go outside on the same deck to find a smoking area by the tables and chairs under the canopy). Smokers and the loud disco music are relocated to the Northern Lights, down on deck 2 by the casino. Speaking of which, the casino allows smoking, as does the Sports bar, which is also in the same area. This creates a large concentrated area of cigarette smoke that can be very bothersome or easier to avoid, depending on your take of it. Smoking is also allowed on the starboard side aft pool deck by the Sea View bar. There were quite a few smokers in this area but the breezes usually did a good job of clearing the smoke.
Half Moon Cay was our first port, and our absolute favorite. We shared the island with the Noordam this day, and while some areas were a little crowded it wasn't that bad. Do yourself a favor and book a clamshade rental well before your cruise, as they fill up fast. It is only $15 and covers two lounge chairs. Only hitch is you need to get there early to claim it, even if you have it booked as they were going to give them away after 10 am. We also went parasailing here and had a blast! Even the boat ride while you wait your turn is worth it. So much fun, we cannot wait to go again. The water here is beautifully clear and the sand is so soft it's like powder. Also, the sand does not get hot. Several bars are interspersed around the area to meet your beverage needs and a BBQ lunch, all served up by folks you may recognize from your ship. A really fun day and we wish they would offer cruises that had a longer stop here, or multiple stops. There is so much to do and yet laying on the beach in the shade wouldn't be a bad way to spend the day either.
Next port was Aruba and this was probably our least favorite. It seems like a nice place, though the good beaches are a taxi ride away (by the resort area). The area around the dock is full of the high end jewelry stores that the shopping ambassador on board will try to steer you toward. We walked around a bit then came back to the ship to freshen up before going out again for the sunset catamaran cruise. While we did not really see much, it was a fun evening and the sunset views from the water are spectacular. They have an open bar (limited choices) and snacks but they make some mean drinks and by the time you're back in port most everyone is feeling very happy. Nice view of the cruise ship all lit up, too.
Our next port was Bonaire and we loved the low-key quality of this place. More beautiful crystal clear water (you can see all the way to the bottom where the ship is berthed) and a charming little town that is very walkable. There was a craft market set up by the pier that we browsed through, and then walked through the town and on the seaside promenade. Several other passengers derided this port for the lack of nice beaches but we found it very enjoyable. Refreshingly, no Diamonds Internationsl in sight! We are not divers but heard this is the place to do that if that interests you. Judging from the clear water with fish visible right by the dock, I can see why.
Curacao is the next port and the biggest of the three in the ABC islands. We had booked the dolphin encounter so did not get enough time to wander around on our own. A shame, as it looked like a nice place. The ride to and from the Dolphin Academy took us through neighborhoods and over the high bridge that spans the waterway accessing the more industrial part of the port. Great views and a fun way to see some of the city. We loved the dolphin encounter and think we made the right choice by not choosing the "swim". That excursion was basically the same as ours but you got to actually swim with dolphins and the price was twice the amount. Our time in the water with the dolphins was about the same, and those of us not doing the swim seemed to get more "up close" time with them. They really push the photos but how many times are you going to do this? Highly recommended. The excursion gives you admission to the aquarium but there is not much time left after you are done with the dolphins to do much other than a little browsing.
One sea day later and the ship arrives at the Panama Canal early in the morning. Watching the whole process, complete with an onboard narrator, is simply awe-inspiring. You can also see where they are working feverishly to build a new, larger set of locks as many modern ships are now too big for the current set. The ship anchors in Gatun Lake to disembark passengers via tenders for excursions but we elected to stay on the ship and watch the process of exiting - this provided an even better view than the passage in the morning. So many people disembarked for tours that there was plenty of room at the bow, or railing to view the entire process. After exiting the locks, the ship docks in Colon, which is a big industrial port. There was a rather new looking area of shops and a casino right off the ship, but we did not check it out.
The last port on this cruise is Puerto Limon, in Costa Rica. Like Colon, it's another industrial port, and unless you get away from the area where the ship docks, it doesn't look like much. I did the zip-line canopy tour, which was about a 30 minute bus ride away. On the way to the eco-park where the tour is operated, you see a very poor looking country. Lots of trash by the roadside, barbed wire and ramshackle homes. The people here are very friendly, however. The zip-line place is very lush and we saw plenty of wildlife (big spiders, sloths, poison frogs, toucans) along the ride up to where the zip lines start. Everyone on this tour seemed to have a blast riding the zip lines through the trees. 12 different lines of varying length and steepness deliver you back down the mountain to where the buses park. There is a small cafe/bar here where you can have a snack or drink and take more pictures before the tour ends. Another highly recommended excursion. Certainly made me forget about all the trash back by the port.
Following Costa Rica, it is two whole sea days to get back to Fort Lauderdale. Bear in mind there are four time changes on this cruise, all of them in the latter part of the trip. This can make things interesting, especially if you fly out of Fort Lauderdale to another time zone the day of disembarkation. We did and I think to do it again, we would add in another day or two at the end of the cruise. In spite of that, we would take this cruise again in a heartbeat. Disembarkation went off without a hitch and we were off the ship and outside within 15 minutes. We took advantage of their luggage direct program and although we were a bit apprehensive about it due to a plane change en route, all of our bags made it home safe and sound.
On this cruis, we got to see so much and experience a lot of diversity that it felt like a much longer cruise. The Zuiderdam is in fine shape and her crew is some of the best we have experienced on Holland America. If you go looking to nitpick stuff, you're going to find problems, no matter where you go. We really thought this was the perfect vacation.