We have talked about doing a Panama Canal cruise for a long time, wo we looked forward with great anticipation to our 17-day east to west transit aboard Holland America's Zaandam. I was just a little concerned about spending such a long time on one ship, but as it turns out, there is evidently no end to the amount of pampering I can put up with. Packing for such a long trip was tricky, however. This was our fourth cruise and the third with Holland America, having sailed on the Maasdam and Statendam before. We immediately felt very much at home on the Zaandam as it is a lot like the others we had been on. We like the smaller yet less crowded feel of that class of HAL ships.
Embarkation was complicated by some kind of computer malfunction, but passengers and staff alike remained cheerful. We were among the first passengers to board, so things may have gotten a little testy later on. Our room was not quite ready. Only one robe was available, and we suspect it was one left from the previous passenger. The famous little bowl of fruit was not there. We later found out from our room steward that there had been a changeover, and he was very apologetic for the lapses.
One major disappointment was finding that we had been assigned "Lower Main Seating" in the dining room at 8:30. We immediately went to speak to the Maitre D' and literally had to "take a number". When our turn came, he graciously assured us he would "do everything he could" to respect our request--the same thing he told dozens of other people. We booked five months in advance, and had just assumed we would get what we wanted! We've always eaten at an earlier seating before. Later we actually talked to several people who were at the earlier seating and had not requested it. Many people never eat in the dining room, and it seems wrong to have empty tables sitting there when there were so many who much preferred eating earlier. It was kind of amusing to hear everyone standing around grumbling about the late hour each evening right before the doors opened at 8:30. As it happens, there were a few advantages to eating later--including having a nice long afternoon to enjoy an ice cream cone by the pool and still having plenty of time to get dressed for dinner. And we were lucky to have very pleasant dinner companions. So we ended up eating in the dining room almost every night.
Since the complete transit of the Canal is not one of the more routine itineraries, I won't try to give a day-by-day critique, or even port-by-port. I will just say that every port was interesting and beautiful in its own way. And the day spent going through the Canal itself was fascinating from dawn to dusk.
A list of the "high points" would have to include the day at beautiful Half Moon Cay, HAL's "Private Island" in the Bahamas. The beach is just unbelievably clean and white and the water is that luminous turquoise color of the Caribbean. There were bright flowers everywhere, and a barbecue lunch was efficiently served in a pavilion just back a ways from the beach. We did our own thing in Puerto Rico and found much to see and do within short walking distance of the ship's dock. One of my favorite moments was standing on the deck as we sailed away from Puerto Rico at midnight, gliding past the lights of "Old Town" and the ancient El Morro fort.
Another memorable "sail away" was spent in the Crow's Nest Bar at sunset as the ship did a 380 degree turn leaving the harbor at Puntarenus, Costa Rica. A member of the Crow's Nest Band played soft "New Agey" music as we watched the panorama of shore and rocky islands go slowly past until we were turned to sail directly into the sunset.
We also often enjoyed having predinner drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the Explorer's Lounge listening to live strings and piano. To me, it's those "little moments" that make a cruise such a wonderful vacation.
I have read some critical comments about the shows on Holland America, but I have to say that we enjoyed each of all 17 evenings. The line-up included three "full-out" singing and dancing shows featuring a very talented group. Then the official on-board orchestra provided live back-up for a variety of other musicians as well as comedians, magicians and other performers.
The "Mondriaan Lounge" theater is, to me, the most beautiful of the three HAL ships we've been on. Almost every seat has a good view of the stage. Another small "advantage" of late seating in the dining room is that the lounge was almost never crowded for our shows.
We were a little disappointed with the piano bar on the Zaandam. The way it was laid out was kind of like a wide spot in the promenade--very open. And the pianist didn't seem to get much participation from the people around him, but rather was more of a "performer". I've been in piano bars on other ships that had more of a cozy, intimate feel where people could interact and sing along.
The food was almost always very good, with plenty of choices for each meal. My husband was a little critical of the lack of variety at the Asian station at the Lido for lunch. Service at the Lido Buffet was courteous and efficient, and lines didn't get too long. However, sometimes the people just ahead of us seemed awfully slow. But that's just the way buffet goes, I guess.
All in all, it was a wonderful cruise. Holland America is known for the little touches like fresh flowers everywhere. The wait staff is outstandingly pleasant and friendly, and everything is kept sparkling clean. We hope to sail with HAL again, soon, and wouldn't mind a bit if it was on the Zaandam.