My husband and I had decided a couple of years ago to take a cruise through the Panama Canal. After extensive homework, we settled on Holland America's Zuiderdam for this adventure mainly because of the itinerary and frequent port visits. We had never sailed on Holland America but were happy to give it a try. Two days prior to boarding the cruise we arrived into Fort Lauderdale and stayed at the Crowne Plaza Port Everglades. It is a very nice, non smoking only hotel offering a shuttle to the port.
Embarkation: There was quite an extensive line up to get on the ship which we had never really encountered with other cruise lines we had travelled with. We had to wait out in the sun for about 30 minutes before actually entering into the cruise terminal building. Check in went fairly smoothly except for when we were handed our stateroom key cards. It was printed on them that we were booked in for early dining. We had specifically asked for any time dining which was on our boarding passes and had been confirmed with us on several occasions. When I pointed this out to the check in clerk, she said there was nothing she could do, we would have to take care of it on board the ship. So we board the Zuiderdam knowing that all is not going very smoothly.
When we got to our stateroom we were happy to see it was nicely set out with a mid sized bathtub/shower which we had never had on any previous cruises. Our excursions tickets were waiting for us but where was the beverage card we had pre-ordered and paid for? Down to the Front Desk we go to enquire about the dining mistake and to find out about the beverage card. Of course, a long line up awaits us and we patiently wait our turn. Nothing can be done for the dining error at the front desk. You must see the maitre'd in of all places - the bar. As for the beverage card, they are not sure why it is not in the room as it should be. Please wait a little while and it should be delivered shortly. We managed to get the dining arrangements settled with the maitre'd and set out to explore the ship all the while awaiting the delivery of the beverage card so we could partake in the cocktail of the day. Needless to say, we never did have the cocktail of the day as we waited and waited for the arrival of the beverage card only to find out that the printer was broken and no card could be produced. The card did arrive as we were heading to bed on Day 1.
Ports:We did enjoy most of the ports of call. We did not do organised activities at the majority of them...just went out on our own and found our way. The weather was great for the entire journey. Not one day of rain or trying to figure out what to do. We really enjoyed Half Moon Cay(lounging around on the beach)Aruba(shopping and talking to the locals)and Costa Rica(lovely beach side market at the port and friendly, English speaking locals) Although Willemstad, Curacao is very pretty, we did not feel very safe there. The same can be said for Corinto, Nicaragua. We did join an organised tour in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala which took us to Antigua (beautiful,historic cobblestoned town with lots of culture)and in Puerto Chiapas, Mexico (had a great day exploring the Maya ruins and having a tour of the local museum). We also did an organised tour while in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico which was terrible to say the least. It was titled "Highlights of Puerto Vallarta" by Holland America. If going to shops and a restaurant is seeing the "highlights" then the tour did it's job. But in my book these are not "highlights" and needless to say we were extremely disappointed in this tour as we found out there were some great things to been seen in Puerto Vallarta and we had not seen any of them. On the day we were in Grand Turk,it was announced that the air-conditioning was going to be turned off starting early in the morning so that maintainence could take place. We are not sure why this was not done while in port in Fort Lauderdale as it was much cooler in temperature in Florida than the Turks and Caicos. By the time we left the island the air con was still not on and when it did finally get turned back on it took hours before the ship was cool again. Needless to say our dinner at the Italian restaurant that night was extremely sweaty. We felt sorry for the crew members serving us as they were in long sleeved shirts.
Food: We can't say that there was anything spectacular served on this cruise. The food was OK but nothing that we can rave about. We found it strange about the serving of food at the buffet for the first 48 hours of the cruise. Not sure about their thinking that this can decrease the amount of cross contamination and sickness. What about for the rest of the cruise then? Also, when we go to a buffet you can choose whatever you want and however much you want of a particular food item. Not at this buffet. The only items that were of a true buffet nature was the salad bar. Everything else was set up bainmare style (steam table behind glass, someone serves you). We both found this annoying as you lined up and told the server what you wanted. I would always ask for an extra piece of meat as I don't eat potato, pasta etc. and I would always get the same look that I was asking for too much. Not a very nice feeling.We only ate a couple of times in the main dining room. It was fine but too stuffy for us.
Entertainment: Each night we did go to the Vista Lounge to see what was on. We were the lucky ones who had the time to go early and get a good seat that had a perfect view of stage without a pillar being in the way. It is a nice theatre but having the balcony means that there are extremely large pillars all around blocking the view. The on board singers and dancers were fine but not as good as other troupes from other cruise lines. There was two nights of good entertainment, several nights of OK entertainment and then a few nights of terrible entertainment where a lot of the audience walked out. The comedian from Toronto was border line racist which is not very nice to have to sit through and the Matinee Idols where not good at all.
Disembarking: Like other cruises we have been on, we received a letter fairly early in the cruise telling us about disembarking and asking what time etc we would like to leave the ship. Since we had an early afternoon flight to catch in San Diego, we decided there was no big rush for us to leave the ship and we chose the 9am disembarking schedule. Four nights before we reached San Diego, we got another disembarking letter stating that "as per normal protocol in San Diego, all non-USA citizens would have to clear customs first (whether they were disembarking or not) prior to anyone being allowed to exit the ship." So, why did we receive the initial letter if Holland America knew full well that no one was leaving the ship until all non-USA citizens had cleared customs? This turned out to be a huge problem for many passengers including ourselves since we would not be getting off the ship until every single non-USA citizen had cleared customs. Estimated disembarking time now became unknown. On the day, we did finally get off the ship around 11:15am, having to carry our own luggage. There were many angry passengers leaving the ship that day to try and catch flights and others who remained on the cruise were not impressed either as their day trip plans for San Diego were cancelled. Not a good way to end a cruise with Holland America.
Aside from the negative aspects of the cruise, we did have a nice time. The average age was around 70, so that made me one of the youngest there which doesn't really matter. The only thing I must comment on in this regard is that the manners of the older generation were terrible. They were extremely demanding of the crew and on several occasions I saw crew members being treated almost like servants to passengers. Also, if the elevator doors open in front of someone then those people should be the first ones on, not someone who is standing at the back of the line. "Please" and "Thank You" should be packed along with your swimsuit and formal wear.
We would definitely think twice before cruising with Holland America again. Although there were many positives (lovely crew, nice stateroom, sitting on our balcony watching the dolphins and flying fish) there were too many items on the downside to make it level out. We go on a cruise for a holiday and relaxation. This cruise started off with us being stressed and having to run around the ship to organise things that were suppose to be already organised and it ended on a bad note with disembarking. Holland America, we expected better from you.