DW and I flew to Florida very early as I had a business meeting. We stayed four nights at the Embassy Suites Deerfield Beach. This is a wonderful hotel, but rather far from the port for a normal pre-cruise stay. A little about us -- two couples, mid 50's. About 15 and 30 cruises of experience. DW and I generally prefer Holland with Celebrity in close second place.
The hotel arranged a car through Coastal Car Service to take us to the port. We arrived at the port about 11:15 and it was very crowded. Three buses had just arrived and apparently the prior sailing returned a little late so there were still people waiting to be picked up.
It took about 20 minutes to clear the security line, and another 10 minutes to be checked in. We were given number 17 and waited 30 minutes for our number to be called. But that was not the end of the wait; it took another 15 minutes to clear the photographers, making it 75 minutes from curb to onboard.
We had booked cabin 7021, an inside on deck 7, the Rotterdam deck. The bathroom appeared to be recently redone (or very well maintained). The room is certainly adequate, with a bit less space (no short couch for example) that we have enjoyed on other HAL ships in various cabins. We booked a forward cabin on this deck specifically to avoid reported reoccurring issues with aft lower deck cabins.
We found our traveling friends and found our way to the Mariner's lunch in the dining room. Certainly a nice way to begin our cruise. We wandered the ship a bit and were disappointed to find that the Spa was charging $299 for this 10 day cruise for the hydro-pool package. As much as we enjoy this pool and heated loungers, that is a 14 night type of price and beyond what we were willing to pay for what is really 9 days of use. The muster drill seemed early at 3:15. Attend we did but we could not get out of the sun, and this was the one time we didn't bring our hats.
We have early dining (5:30!!!) at table 37, a four top on the starboard windows. Our wait team is "Lucky" and "Eddie." Dinner and dessert were both very good. I don't know why so many report that HAL's desserts are "Tasteless," we find them to be very good.
We checked out the Adagio duet (no longer a quartet) and did not enjoy what they were playing, so we went to the Ocean Bar to find the Halcats playing. Five of them, and they are quite good, but what happened to the Neptunes? While we were there over an hour, we found nothing to dance to.
We attended the opening show "Listen to the Music." I have to admit I nodded off once the lights were dimmed. We had a nice towel creation in our room to bid us goodnight.
Saturday morning the TV said that sea conditions were "6 -- Very rough." Even so, we arrived at Half Moon Cay on schedule at 8:00 AM. We enjoyed breakfast in the Lido. Waffles with blueberries and a ham omelet started my day. The raisin bread is fabulous.
Zuiderdam was the only ship at Half Moon Cay today. We thought it strange there were no instructions in the Explorer regarding tender tickets. They were not needed. The two super-tenders based on the island began ferrying people and the large glass bottom tour boat also joined in the ferry process. Half Moon is a really nice private island. The sand is incredible. This was our third visit there and the first time there were any waves breaking on the beach. This resulted in low underwater visibility so the snorkeling was not very good today. The boat based snorkel tours were (wisely) canceled.
We headed back to Zuiderdam about 11:00 and enjoyed the hot tubs and the lido pool. After freshening up, we went to the Lido for lunch. I sat in on two of the digital workshop sessions. One on "Windows RC" showed the progress on tablet functionality.
Sunday was a relaxing sea day. I attended a windows class on creative photo editing and that was very good. We had lunch in the dining room. We found that on this entire sea day there is no music at the pool at any time. Sunday is the first formal night. We found that dinner seemed to take forever, with all tables around us served before we were, despite that we arrived at the same time. Lucky apologized for the Kitchen hold up. Before the end of the meal we chatted with the dining room manager who assured us that our table ticket would be expedited the rest of the cruise.
Before dinner, the HalCats were playing in the Ocean bar and finally, something we could dance to. After dinner we listened to the HalCats until they took a break, and went to listen to the guitar player, Matt Murphy, in the crow's nest. When he went on break we headed to the Piano bar -- a very popular place. Finally, we went to the late Captain's welcome and production show. Left the production show about half through as we were tired and the show didn't capture our attention.
Monday we enjoyed a sea day type of morning as we were not scheduled to dock in Aruba until 1:00 PM. I should add here that normally we plan, plan, and plan our shore time, often arranging private tours, etc. This cruise came up rather quickly and due to business demands, we had little time to plan. The things we found beforehand were completely booked so we were "Winging it" on several of the shore stops, Aruba being one of them.
We arrived right on time and found our way off the ship. We like to snorkel but knew with the sea state of "6-Very rough" as the ship says, beach snorkeling was not going to be an option. In the terminal is an information desk and they directed us to a beach. The four of us got in a cab and the driver said he would certainly take us to that beach, but suggested an alternate of DeKalb beach. He said it is public, on the hotel strip, and all concessions are readily available. We went with his suggestion and are glad we did. There was even a Dunkin Donuts. That may not seem like a big deal but for some longing for really good coffee, it was very welcome.
The beach was great and for $20 we secured four loungers under a thatched structure. Gorgeous warm water with just a little roll coming in. Lots of activity, and we witnessed a number of ship's tours coming to the pier here to leave on catamaran and glass bottom boat sightseeing tours.
At about 4:30 we had enough and hopped in a cab to head back to the Zuiderdam. We enjoyed dinner in the Vista dining room and headed into town to see what we could see. It was dark and most shops were closed. Near the port it seems every store is a high-end jewelry store. The local market was pretty much closed down. We walked through the mall attached to a casino and found nothing of interest, so back on board after about an hour's stroll.
Tuesday we docked in Willemstad, Curacao. Zuiderdam docked right in town, and the famous swinging bridge opened to let us in. We had reserved a car through Avis and the process seemed very slow, but we were on the road before 9:00 AM. For some reason, all aboard is 3:30 so it's really a rather short day. We drove out towards Westpunt and Shete Boca National Park. We enjoyed watching the huge waves crash against the rocks along the north shore, often creating large batches of mist and sometimes rainbows. From there, we headed toward Grote Knip beach, and the only good snorkeling of our cruise. Knip beach is a lovely crescent of sand between two rock walls on the leeward side just a few miles from Westpunt. Along the rocks there were a lot of fish, some large, and also some coral. But this is a great beach just to enjoy swimming in the lovely clear water if that is your preference.
We left the beach about 12:30 and found the Flamingo area in the salt flats on the way back to the Zuiderdam. We returned the car before 2:00 PM, walked some of the local vendor stalls, and boarded Zuiderdam quite tired. A burger from the Terrace Grill and a little time in the hot tub helped revitalize us. We had a nice sail away with a band playing poolside. One disappointment of this cruise was the almost complete absence of live music near the pool. Towards the end of the cruise, we asked JT Watters, the cruise director, about this. His response was that with the pool roof mostly closed, the bands would be too loud. Sorry JT, but we really don't buy that explanation. Sound levels can be adjusted...
Tuesday evening the one really good show of the cruise was presented. "Island Magic," a four piece steel drum band from Trinidad and Tobago gave an incredible concert. They received a well-deserved standing ovation. They were selling their CD on board, but after getting home I found it is available as an MP3 download from Amazon.
Wednesday was a sea day heading towards Panama. Matt Murphy, the guitarist on his "Final cruise -- ever," played poolside for 45 minutes at noon. The roof was mostly open as we were sailing with the wind resulting in very pleasant conditions. Today is the day we discovered there are two separate performing groups on board -- both called the "HalCats." They are both 5 members. One is overall younger, with an outstanding Saxophone player. The other is mostly older, and prefers to play jazz tunes. As the cruise went on this became ever more frustrating as we were looking for good dance music. The younger HalCats often played good dance tunes, while the older ones rarely did. There is no group called "The Neptune's" as the Ocean bar band has historically been identified.
Wednesday was our second formal night. The young HalCats were in the Ocean bar before dinner and we were able to dance. After dinner, the older HalCats were there and only played jazz numbers.
Thursday was an early morning as we approached the Panama Canal. We were very pleased to see the forward deck doors were open on the Rotterdam deck. In fact, all decks with forward viewing platforms were opened. Thank you Captain!
About midway through the Gatun locks I went down to the bow and acquired a plateful of Panama Buns to bring back to deck 7. They were much enjoyed. While this is our second time to the canal, it is truly marvelous to see and we had perfect weather conditions.
Once in Gatun Lake, we tendered off the Zuiderdam as we were booked on the well-reviewed excursion to the Embera Indian village. We ended up seated in the front of the canoe and ended up being "Well splashed" en route. It's a good thing it was 85 degrees and a sunny day! The provided ponchos kept our main body dry but arms and legs were soaked, as was my wallet. We very much enjoyed the visit and found the Embrea to be a warm and welcoming people. We also were able to see more of Panama than can be viewed during a canal transit.
We arrived at the Colon port at about 4:30. We walked around just a little before reboarding the ship and getting ready for dinner.
Friday we called on Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. We ended up doing the ship's tour to the Tayutic Hacienda. My wife really enjoyed the Hacienda visit, where we were shown how they process Sugar Cane, Macadamia Nuts, and Coffee. I thought it was interesting but really could have cut the visit by a half hour as some of the demonstrations seemed prolonged just to fill the time. The nice lunch on an open deck patio with a view was very nice. This was a very long day, however. Meeting time was 6:50 AM and we returned to the ship at 3:28PM for a 3:30 "All aboard." We did not even get inside the port building where our friends were able to obtain some very nice local products.
There was a comedian for the show tonight and he was horrible. In his opening act he fell onto the floor as part of his routine and we left the showroom.
Saturday was the first of two sea days heading back to Florida. We found the schedule of activities in the Explorer somewhat lacking, with little that attracted our attention. We enjoyed the relaxation and used the gym, had lunch near the pool, and enjoyed a lazy day at sea before the final formal night. Dinner was very good this evening with most people ordering the surf and turf. Full filets and lobster tails, cooked to order, made for a very appetizing meal.
Sunday, our final day, was also Super Bowl Sunday. We were invited to the Mariner's lunch. If there is one thing that Holland really doesn't have right -- it's the Mariner's lunch. At a time they as a company should be putting forth their best to thank their repeat customers; they present the hands-down worst meal of the cruise. After being served the nearly inedible main courses, the four of us left the dining room, picked up our mariner's tiles, changed into swimwear, and headed to the poolside area. Then we enjoyed the fresh air, got some good food from the Lido or Terrace grill, and enjoyed the afternoon.
During the afternoon we discussed our evening plans. Mostly due to curiosity, the men decided they wanted to see the game in the main showroom, and see what the ship did for the Super Bowl. A "Big Screen movie" (Hope Springs) was presented in the Queen's lounge as the ladies alternative. Our wives decided to try the movie. (They hated the movie.)
We were impressed with the decorations, buffet of stadium foods, and excellent right to your seat beverage service. I'm sure the ship did well this evening with the bar bills! We enjoyed the game up until the extended power outage, at which time it was getting late and tomorrow is an early day.
Monday was disembarkation day. We met our friends in the lido for breakfast before 6:45. We were all carrying off our luggage "Expedited" disembarkation. Just as we were walking down the steps back to the room the "Ship is clear" announcement was made. We grabbed our luggage and were off the ship at 7:40, through customs by 7:55, and at the airport by 8:10. The security line at FLL was huge and took about an hour to clear (and this with only two small ships in port!). We were at our gate about 9:15, in plenty of time for our 10:40 flight.
Our cabin was okay but we wouldn't want to be in there much more than the ten days on this cruise. We experienced NONE of the issues widely reported on the Zuiderdam in recent months.
Food in general was very good; our traveling companions commented several times that it was consistently better than Celebrity (our last cruise together). While main dining room service was certainly not fast, it was faster than Celebrity. It still troubled us that the servers obviously have too many tables, and the smaller tables tend to get through their courses faster than larger ones.
One thing Holland could do better with is lido lunch during port days. Even when "All aboard" is in mid-afternoon, they end the full lunch service at 2:00. This results in lines at the Terrace Grill, pizza station, etc. Most people do not eat ashore. Have lunch available when most people are returning to the ship.
The lack of "Caribbean" music on what is essentially a deep Caribbean cruise was very noticeable. Virtually no live music by the pool on a Caribbean cruise? We had that every day last year on Eurodam.
We had excellent stateroom service. About seven of the ten mornings we had coffee/tea delivered by room service and only once was the order not correct (forgot the creamer!).
Would we sail the Zuiderdam again? Yes, but it would not be our first choice among the HAL fleet. Westerdam, Eurodam, and the smaller Ryndam were all better overall cruise experiences. Four stars out of five for this 10 day Panama Canal Sunfarer cruise.