We have about a dozen cruises...eight of which have been on Holland America...three of which have been 30-day cruises. We are inveterate researchers and try to get the most out of each port opportunity. We had not previously been through the Panama Canal...but had been to about half of the South America ports we visited.
We had not previously sailed on MS Zaandam and she had just come out of dry dock the day before our sail date. There was still a large group of dry dock workers who sailed with us on the first half of this "connector cruise" (from Ft Lauderdale to Valparaiso), continuing to work on the ship as we sailed. As one would (or should) expect...there were some "growing pains" as the first days of the trip were essentially a shakedown cruise for the repairs and also for the crew...many of whom were new on the ship. This condition was most noticeable in many air conditioning/heating glitches reported, plumbing difficulties, and service snafus. However, things smoothed out as the cruise continued and both the ship and the crew "got in the groove". The Zaandam is certainly starting to show her age, though still a pleasant enough décor and ambiance. We are particular fans of the Exploration Café/Lounge and the library on HAL ships. It is a great place to hangout, and the library is well-stocked for a long cruise. Like the ship, the demographics of the guests on board were also skewed dramatically toward the mature side...more so than we have experienced on previous cruises. This demographic tends to influence the feeling of all functions and activities on and off the ship.
Activities on this cruise were very typical of those of all the Holland America cruises we have taken...they are focused toward a more mature crowd. This includes the HAL Cats, the Adagio Strings, the Neptunes, and the piano player. We are fans of the Culinary Arts Center feature of HAL ships. Most activities are low key...including the "Olympics". There are lots of participants in the variety of trivia contests that take place nearly daily.
Service was sporadic at first (see comments about ramp up coming out of dry dock), but settled into a nice routine. The crew and staff were uniformly enthusiastic and friendly and committed to doing their best to satisfy the needs and desires of the guests. This was especially true of the Lido restaurant staff, which one of the best groups we have seen. Our room stewards did a good job, but they were SWAMPED!! Our pair had over thirty rooms to maintain. It is impossible to maintain the formerly experienced personalized service with this kind of work load.
We always book cruises based upon itinerary...rather than cruise line or ship. This was no exception. We were amazed by the engineering feat of the Panama Canal and spent nearly the entire day on exterior decks trying to take in as much of passage as we could. As mentioned earlier, we are extensive researchers and tend to book independent excursions as we try as often as we can to book "private" tours--with just two people. We were a little surprised by the amount of grumbling at the South American ports...primarily because almost all of the ports were "closed" ports (usually dual use--cargo and passenger), so one could not "walk off" the pier--but rather had to take a shuttle bus to the pier entrance. This led to a lot of confusion and griping--and Holland America did not handle the situation well in the first few ports. However, the complaints got through and they did a better job on the last several ports. I was also surprised by the large number of guests who apparently had done NO prior research or investigation into the ports of call and therefore had no idea what to expect or do in any given port. Several of the ports we visited were particularly uninviting from the ship/pier...with little or nothing to do pier side and were uninviting visually (stark and deserted). However, we were able to find several options at each port that intrigued us...though it was necessary to make arrangements in advance, as in several of the ports it was virtually impossible to book any kind of an excursion pier side. We made highly unexpected discoveries in Manta, Ecuador; Trujillo, Peru, and Arica, Chile that were in many ways the high points of our cruise.
Our cabin was 3353 on the Lower Promenade (walking deck). We enjoy walking on the promenade deck and often select cabins on this deck. Our cabin was typical of others, slightly smaller than some other ocean view cabins on other decks because of the promenade. However, it had plenty of space for us including ample closet and storage space. We always like having both a shower and a bathtub. Other than some initial air conditioning issues (apparently a factor from the dry dock), we had no problems or issues with our cabin.
We elected "open dining" as we prefer to meet a variety of people on the cruise and this is a good way to do that. The dining room food was uniformly excellent and well presented. I am always amazed at how they can serve this quality of food on this scale under the extremely cramped conditions aboard ship. The dining room stewards did not seem to be up to the standards of our previous cruises and I am not sure if it was a product of lack or training/experience or also impacted by the dry dock layoff. We were disappointed by the service of the wine stewards and sommelier (as we enjoy wine). The service (and personality) of the stewards and sommelier were distinctly lower than previous experiences and made a noticeable impact on our enjoyment of the dining experience.
Entertainment was about the standard we have experienced on previous cruises. We are ambivalent about attending the entertainment events (which could be a reflection on the quality). HOWEVER, the HAL Singer and Dancers that performed the Broadway style stage productions on board were without a doubt the best we have seen in any of our prior cruises. There were no weak links in the group and we looked forward to attending each of their productions. Good job.
Disembarkation in Buenos Aires was a drawn out affair because of the need to bus passengers from the ship to the terminal building--and as "independent" travelers we were some of the last to debark. As in most cases, patience goes a long ways in these situations and everything went very smoothly once our group was called.
In summary, we had a great cruise with only minor hiccups along the way. HAL maintained their steady performance of providing a somewhat upscale experience at a reasonable price. We were able to visit some remote and largely unknown ports of call, which added to the experience. If you want to do something a little out of the ordinary with unique experiences possible (if you take the initiative to arrange them)--this is the cruise for you.