We initially booked this cruise with Priceline.com a month or so before our March 19th embarkation date. Big mistake. We will always book directly with the cruiseline from here on out simply because our " great price" dropped another $200 each within a week of booking. Priceline couldn't help us with the price difference; there were lots of phonecalls back and forth and unkept promises on their part. Luckily, once we flew into Ft Lauderdale, however, everything changed for the better.
We stayed at the Hampton Inn Airport North in FLL, yes, the one with the plastic flamingos sticking out of the roof on their free airport shuttle. Even though we got in after 1 am, there was no problem calling their front desk and getting the flamingomobile to pick us up at the United concourse. It was just a short drive to the hotel and the room was clean and adequate for what we needed. The bed was comfy and breakfast was typical of any Hampton Inn---the earlier you wake up the better the breakfast experience is. We had signed up for the 11 am shuttle when we checked in so we had enough time to walk next door to pick up a few things we forgot at home and also chose an assortment of a dozen bottles of champagne and wine to bring onboard with us. Also, we brought on a case of bottled water and a case of Pepsi. We taped our cruise baggage tags on them and then were off to the Zuiderdam. Our driver, Arkim, was quite funny and an interesting person to talk to, and Pierre and Sheila, a Canadian couple who also rode with us, became our friends and we were thrilled each time we'd see them during the next eleven days.
The whole process of both boarding and disembarking the ship went well. HAL certainly has it all figured out. Our last experience was with RCCL's Liberty of the Seas and either RCCL hasn't got a clue or the size of the ship turns both of these processes into a nightmare. Both my husband and myself with so pleasantly surprised with how painless both arriving and leaving the ship were with Holland America.
The ship isn't a new one and it doesn't have a rockclimbing wall or an iceskating rink or even a Starbucks but... The service was exceptional, the rooms neat and tidy, and not even once did either of us see an employee that wasn't smiling. Our veranda stateroom on the Deck 6 was roomy enough for us and that's a big plus, being residents of Wyoming. We don't do crowds very well and we like our space. All of our luggage made it safely to the room (including our wine) within about three hours. We had eaten a leisurely lunch in the Vista Dining Room and had a chance to stroll the decks and met some great employees (Aisling at the spa gave us a great little tour! Such a bubbly, happy girl!). Unfortunately the really nice large whirlpool right off the spa has a surcharge, I think it was around $100 a person for the duration of the cruise. They throw in the use of the steamroom and sauna for that price. Midway through the cruise, they reduced the rate and I really wish we would have paid the extra. The other whirlpool tubs were relatively small and not very hot at all. Both pool areas were quite busy during the days, especially the ones at sea, so be sure to stake your claim on the lounge chairs mid-morning if you want to spend your time there.
The dining options were good, although we pretty much stayed with our late dining option at the Vista Dining Room One of the couples at our table enjoyed eating at the Italian restaurant, Canaletto, one night. They said that the food was great and there wasn't a surcharge. It's hard to get reservations there towards the end of the cruise but you'll be happy if you're smart enough to do this in advance. The other couple did a le Cirque French dinner at the Pinnacle Grill and said it was well worth the price. I think they paid $39 apiece, still a bit pricey for Brad and me. The food was good and there were always plenty of options to choose from. We normally ate cheeseburgers and fries at the little grill by one of the pools for lunch. We ate two breakfasts in the Vista Dining Room and were so impressed by the extensive breakfast menu. We sat at large tables each time and met some pretty awesome people that way. The other days, we had breakfast delivered to the room and just ate on our little balcony. The folks in the kitchen were great at filling any special requests we had for breakfast. One of the days, we requested the Panama rolls and, voila, there they were on the tray as we entered the Panama Canal. It really paid to have a veranda stateroom that day. We ate our breakfast that morning and sipped on mimosas and watched all of the action from our balcony while others fought the crowds and the rain on the decks. There were 3 formal nights on this cruise and that was asking quite alot of my handsome, bluejean-wearing husband. Luckily for us, we were seated each evening with a couple who had been upgraded to the penthouse suite and they invited those who were seated at their table to eat with them in their suite on the third formal night. I think they call it "Black and White Night" but we referred to it as "Defiance Night." I wore my black and white checkered shorts and and favorite T-shirt to dinner and Brad didn't have to wear his uncomfortable suit. We had the best time! We had our own waiter up there and the escargot and lobster were out of this world! Great company, lots of white wine, and more laughs than I can ever remember. Thank you, Mark and George, for such a special ending to such a spectacular vacation!
The late seating in the dining room always works so much better for us because we can spend a little more time cleaning up after a busy day in all of the ports. I also like to ask ahead of time to sit at a table of 8 or 10 because after all, cruising isn't just about the ports and the ship itself. It's about broadening your horizons and meeting people and striking up new friendships. If you're open to sitting with "strangers" you never know how wonderful those "strangers" can be and it can really make (or break) your trip. (I'm pretty sure that you can change your dining preferences the 2nd night if your tablemates aren't to your liking. Just ask your dining room manager.)
We brought our own snorkels and masks from home so on the first four stops we did our own thing, snorkeling at the ABC islands and Half Moon Cay. It was so much cheaper to just hop on a bus to a beach once we got into port. At Half Moon Cay, we rented a catamaran for an hour an had a wonderful afternoon just playing in the water and enjoying the picnic lunch that Holland America prepared on the island that day. In Aruba we did more snorkeling and found the Hard Rock Cafe there for a good, healthy Cobb salad lunch. The next day we stopped in Kralendjik, Bonaire, which was my favorite port. About a block or two away from where the ship docked we caught a water taxi ride to Klein Bonaire. We found the "taxi" right across from the Del Sol shop (also a fun place, such fun little souvenirs for grandchildren and color-changing nail polish for all the women on my souvenir list). The boat driver was a real dreamboat, an 18 yr old kid from Madrid with tight long curls in a ponytail down is back. Anyway, back to the story (Whew! I was getting a little carried away there!), it cost us each $15 roundtrip to Klein Bonaire and we stayed there all afternoon! It was the very best snorkeling that either of us has ever experienced. And yes, we DID tip the taxidriver! In Curacao, I ended up winning about $100 at one of the casinos we walked to from the ship. Again, it was just a short walk from where we docked that day. After that, we caught a city bus to Blue Bay Beach, a private beach that serves drinks and lunch in addition to the $8/ person fee. The bus ride was very lengthy and required a crazy long walk from where the driver left us on the road. We had another glorious day of, you guessed it, more snorkeling and caught a cab ride back to the Zuiderdam. The two excursions that we booked with HAL were the one to the Embera Indian tribe in Colon, Panama and the Adrenaline Zipline Adventure in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. Both involved two hour long bus rides each way in air-conditioned tour buses with large windows and informative tourguides. Each one cost us $99 apiece and we feel that it was a fair price to pay, especially considering how much fun we had doing things we wouldn't have ever dreamed of doing on our own. There are youtube videos out there of both of these excursions so be sure to check them out before you board the ship. The day in the rainforest doing the Adrenaline was another one of those adventure-of-a-lifetime days. There wasn't nearly as much walking as I expected and we aren't in tiptop physical condition either. We did fit into their weight guidelines however and weren't quite sure ahead of time if we were going to be able to handle it. Let me reassure though that it's not nearly as "physical" as the little writeup in the shore excursion pamphlet suggests. To those who aren't sure, just go ahead, DO IT!! You won't be disappointed, I promise...
In fact, NOTHING on this cruise disappointed me. We had such a wonderful time and I thank the Holland America crew for that. How can a person have a lousy time when everywhere you turn there is someone who is smiling and telling you to have a great day? And they aren't just empty words either; these guys really do mean it. Thanks Luis and Andre and Vanda for such excellent service in the dining room each night, and you too, Bali boy (who waited on us hand and foot that night in the guys' suite on our Defiance Night). Also thanks go out to Putu and Heri who kept us comfortable and happy in our sparkling clean stateroom, as well as all of the kitchen, laundry, and bar staff. And to Captain Christopher Turner and his navigation staff, an even bigger thank you for getting us in and out of ports so effortlessly and back to Ft Lauderdale safe and sound. For those of you who have booked already or are just thinking of booking this trip, it's a good one. Go with a "glass is half full" instead it being "half empty" frame of mind. Be ready to "go with the flow" and make every wonderful moment last as long as you possibly can. I think you will be like me, still dreaming of it all a month after you're home. I rate this cruise 10 out of 10 stars in every category and it's the eleven days of my life that I would have running on a continuous loop if I could! Bon Voyage, my friends!