Summary: Hands down our best cruising experience. Captain Chris Turner runs a tight ship, one which is focused on the passenger safety first, and relaxation and enjoyment second - as it should be. Ship is heading into refurbishment on 29 November, it will be spruced up and back in service in 2013 - we look forward to cruising again on the Zuiderdam.
Important points (from our own perspective when we read reviews).
Ambiance: The pace is designed for a 50+ (perhaps 70+ audience) we fit the 50+ demographic. Our manner is to enjoy each other's company and those of our fellow passengers, take in a show now-and-again, and take advantage of the live entertainment.
***** (five stars) to the entertainer Michael Lieber, who played/sang in the Crowsnest every evening. He not only is a crisp and clear guitarist, his vocals are always spot-on with the song.
***** (five stars) to the Zuiderdam's officers for their Black & White ball - this festive event was enjoyed by many passengers.
*** (three stars) The on-board internet is painful, but it is available - every port of call has internet (ask any of the crew for directions to the free or near-free locales)
***** (five stars) the on-board library is impressively stocked with books from every genre and arranged in an accessible and inviting manner - there were always passengers in the library area.
Enjoyed the Meet and Mingle organized by a fellow Cruise Critic passenger. About 30 in attendance, and ship's officers turn-out was great. A very nice ice-breaker.
Food: We choose HAL repeatedly because we enjoy the food and service. We asked for and received scheduled dining at the early seating (1745) it worked well for us. Our waiters Tobok/Ardian were extraordinary. The food was always flavorful, arrived hot and portions were properly sized, no overflowing plates. Testament to the correct sizing: We gain little/no weight throughout the cruise. We did take in a night at the Pinacle Grill, which I recommend if you wish to have a specific beef cut such as RibEye, Fillet, Porterhouse - the meat is of absolute high quality. We also took in the Evening of the Cirque, which I would pass on in the future - as we neither felt the menu was sufficiently extraordinary nor the ambiance shifted - the dinner in the Vista dining room was probably better. The in-room-dining was also excellent - breakfast EVERY day in the room, and a few late night snacks - all dishes arrived as requested.
SPA: It's not cheap, but the Spa on the Zuiderdam was the best run Spa on an cruise vessel we encountered.
Wine: Unique to HAL is the ability to carry on your own Wine/Champagne - upon embarkation we were asked by a number of passengers who saw us carrying wine totes, whether or not it is allowed to bring wine aboard. It is, and we did just that, paying the corkage (US$18) when we took a bottle out of our state room. Well worth the indulgence, as we are assured of drinking wine we know we enjoy with our meals, vice rolling the dice.
Neptune Lounge - a perk to the Suites - adroitly managed by Mia/Peter to of the most pleasant concierges in the HAL fleet, were excellent at anticipating needs and when requests were made, they did not hesitate to make suggestions on how to improve upon the request (e.g. May we order a cheese plate for four? Yes, how about we make it hot/cold canapes too?) - They were plagued with a water leak from above for two days, but recovered nicely.
Cabin - we originally booked an SC 4180 (rear-most cabin with the large sun deck). Three weeks prior to embarkation we received an email from HAL asking if we'd be interested in upgrading to the Penthouse for a per person fee. As this was a "bucket-list" cruise we opted to splurge - glad we did. Room 7045 was light in color, and as advertised. Everything worked, but oddly there is NO full-length mirror in the suite. We had been on HAL previously and knew that table cloths were never brought for in-room dining - we brought our own and it just made it a bit more comfortable for us. The outside *tub* is not a hot-tub, but rather a soaking bath w/air jets - still enjoyable. The large deck was perfect for the Panama Canal transit. We were delighted to have a place to visit and entertain new and old friends encountered on the cruise in our cabin.
Ports of Call (see individual entries - Port Reviews)
Pre-Cruise - we flew in on a red-eye from the west coast to Fort Lauderdale. Arranged a guaranteed day room at the Embassy Suites on 17th Ave by paying for the preceding evening - check out was at 12 noon so worked perfect for us.
Walking distance to Total Wine and Publix Grocery for any last minute items.
-- Family Limo service was used for ground transport - bus service also available, and taxis - you have many options.
Post-Cruise - ample taxis, bus services and again we opted for Family Limo. Quite pleased with their service.
In sum, best cruise we have had. The ship was in good condition, with the exception of a sofa in the Queen's lounge - it will be in great shape post refurbishment. The mark of quality in our mind isn't whether or not errors occur in service or delivery, but in how those errors or miscues are handled, in every instance we were more than satisfied with the service and responses received. We will watch the Zuiderdam's itineraries carefully as we plan our next cruise, so we can again come aboard!
PS: Remember with every review, your mileage may vary from our own.