In less than one year HAL won us with the Eurodam (April 2012) and lost us with the Zuiderdam (December 2012). If you have the time and inclination to read our comments below you should understand why.
Prior to boarding we knew that Zuiderdam had recently (Dec. 1-10, 2012) undergone dry dock repairs/improvements. However, we did not know about the complications and issues that affected the ship in the aftermath of those repairs/improvements. We only learned about those after heading back home and in hindsight these issues may explain part of our experience, but certainly do not justify it.
I'm not sure if carpets throughout common areas were replaced as part of dry dock work, but whatever the case the replacement was only partial. Funny, because there are two different shades of blue everywhere and it's really hard to tell new from old carpeting. All dark blue carpet on the ship looks really shabby in general. Other carpet areas (different colors) appear to be in much better shape. In highest traffic/impact areas (e.g. near elevator doors) a half moon cut is the classic tell-tale sign of a partial replacement, and they're now fraying at most junctions/seams. Tsc, tsc, tsc, why not replace the whole thing?
Food: average. Pinnacle Grill was good. Many items had run out when we asked form them (e.g. cheese at breakfast, shoyu and wasabi at the Asian food station at lunch, NY strip steak at dinner -- unbelievable). We never bothered trying Canaletto (being a Lido adaptation we did not care to try it) but truly missed Eurodam's Silk Den.
Sewage odors: we never felt anything inside our suite. The only time I smelled something odd was during one of the "at sea" days. I suspect the ship's external release of sewage is the culprit, not its internal plumbing system as some have suggested. We did not have any plumbing issues in our suite, period.
Elevators: I don't recall ever seeing all in service. There seemed to be a rotation, with 1-2 always with an X above the door indicating 'out of service'. I suspect this was done to cut back on electricity and therefore fuel consumption. There was a HAL document inside our cabin indicating that the company is actively working on reducing fuel consumption by 2% year-on-year from 2006 onward. In the absence of new technologies the reasonable conclusion is that these 'environmentally responsible' savings (a cruise ship is anything but) are coming from measures such as 'rolling black outs' on elevators and air conditioning. The A/C cutbacks were too obvious to be denied, especially in the Lido and on many deck hallways. Bonus remark on elevators: no day of the week on floor mats. It's a nice touch that we really missed.
Cleanliness: on every cruise I bring my own disinfecting wipes and use them constantly on our stateroom, especially on day one. I cannot start to describe the different colors that came off from furniture (especially the bed stand) in our Zuiderdam suite. Chairs and tables felt greasy and dirty almost everywhere. Chairs at the main restaurant have glitter deeply ingrained in the leather. Try as you please, the glitter will not come off. Ship's exterior: consistently dirty. Besides, four of the elevators are encased by glass, and it's hard to understand how not even those glass surfaces are kept reasonably clean.
Embarkation/Debarkation: both were uneventful. The new HAL terminal at Port Everglades (pier 26) is very spacious and well air-conditioned, but completely Spartan (white, not a single painting or color on the walls). It's better than the one it replaced (an old warehouse of sorts) but one would expect something slightly more sophisticated and less sterile.
I find it highly unlikely that we'll choose HAL again in the future.
- Our paid upgrade from VA to SA category saved the day. An SA suite is a completely different experience and well worth the prices difference in terms of space. The verandah was great but only had chairs (no recliners???). We received fresh fruit and flowers on the first three days.
- Brand new carpet on our suite. The color is brown, which is a nice departure from the screaming colors shown on HAL's website;
- The suite itself: very spacious, lots of storage, and a good bathroom;
- Neptune Lounge: an oasis of peace, especially for breakfast;
- Ship decor: the works, colors and features are more pleasant and better coordinated than what we saw on the Eurodam;
- Pool area: those annoying 'cabanas' have not yet arrived on the Zuiderdam; towels are ubiquitous and plentiful, without any need for cards, tokens, deposits and other maddening exchange arrangements that other cruise lines love to put in place;
- Pool drink service: the only place where I was greeted by name and waiters remembered what I enjoyed and would likely order. Remarkably good;
- Club HAL: once again, high marks to the staff and facilities, but the opening hours were maddening. Why close it every day between 4:00pm and 7:00pm, at a time when parents badly want the kids to be busy???
- Bathroom towels: long, fluffy and clean.
- Wi-Fi: worked flawlessly, and the connection was as fast as I typically get at any hotel;
- Holiday decor and activities: appropriate and in good measure. Really enjoyable.
- Zuiderdam still rolls & pitches, but not as much as Eurodam; we could not feel any of the noise and vibration (especially at docking) that woke us up several times on the Eurodam.
- Service, service, service: it was substantially worse that we received on the Eurodam in April 2012, especially at the restaurants where service is completely absent (Lido) or the prevailing answer is 'no' (Vista Main Dining room). We were dismayed to see the difference between our main dining room steward on Zuiderdam (who frowned upon almost any request) and his counterpart on the Eurodam (who was extremely kind, smiling, and provided absolutely outstanding service on his own initiative). Service at the Lido restaurant? There is none, period.
- Port schedule: a full day wasted in that dump of a place that is Curacao, and a mere four hours docked in Aruba. Can anyone provide a reasonable explanation for this type of scheduling???
- Wine rip-off part I: when traveling on the Eurodam it was a pleasant surprise to see that in fine Portuguese tradition Port wine is appropriately served on true Port glasses everywhere on board. On the Zuiderdam I ordered three different Port wines at Crow's Nest and each time they were served in cordial glasses (translation: a half serving). So I decided to try something different and ordered a "double port" and... bingo! it came on a true Port glass. This basically certified the rip off: all along I was paying for one full Port serving but only getting half of it by way of the cordial glass. To make matters worse, one day I decided to have my daily Port wine at the Casino bar and, to my complete surprise, a single shot of Port came... on a Port glass!
- Wine rip-off part II: there are two wine packages offered with your meals (in addition to a la carte wine): the Navigator's package for $249 (7 bottles) and the Admiral's for $299 (7 bottles). We chose the Admiral's, which means roughly $43/bottle. The wines were enjoyable but nothing to write home about. On the last day, after failing to consume all seven bottles, we received one to take home and leave a zero balance on the package. It was a bottle of Mark West California Pinot Noir 2010. Just Google this wine and you'll find it for $8.49, locally available at Costco. Nobody goes on a cruise expecting wine to be sold at cost, but a 400% mark up on a cheap wine can only be described as a TOTAL RIP OFF;
- Liquor rip off: just order any rum-based drink (e.g. Pina Colada) and the standard rum used is "Ron Carlos" (distilled in Florida?). And I thought Bacardi was cheap enough;
- Soda rip off: there is a great promotion going on during the first cruise day: buy a soda card worth $50 but pay only $25. What they fail to disclose is that the card is only valid for machine-dispensed soda. This means that half of it will be ice, and the other half will be diluted in ship's water. If you want a real soda (canned -- widely available on board, for good reason I suspect) then the soda card is not good for it;
- Pool area: too many tables, very few recliners. Arriving early will not solve this one: they were all occupied by human beings, not towels;
- Room service: long wait on the phone, long wait for the food, wrong items. Don't bother.
- Cloth towels at public restrooms: judging by their more than 50 shades of grey (pun intended) these were long overdue for replacement;
- Various other merchandising efforts, forceful and annoying, including spa packages, ship merchandise, shore excursions, specialty drinks, etc. The ship seems to be clearly managed as a profit center, with people savagely trying to improve both the top AND bottom lines;
- On Thursday we were invited to nothing less than three events featuring the ship's Captain: Mariner Society brunch, Concierge Level Indonesian Lunch, American Express Platinum/Centurion cocktail. The Captain had a nice smile on but stayed less than ten minutes at each event. One can argue that he was busy, but it's possible that he didn't really care for contact with passengers;
- "J.T. your cruise director", as he announces himself every now and then on the P.A. system. Annoying and greasy, playing to the crowds, but not doing anything to substantially improve the overall results of the cruise.