Just for background and to put this review into context, I have sailed on Carnival, RCI, and Celebrity. This was my first Holland America Cruise and 7th cruise in general. I am 25 years old.
This cruise was what I expected. Honestly, I don't think you're going to have a hugely different cruise vacation by picking one mainstream cruise line over another, but regardless, here is what I found on HAL's Zuiderdam.
The embarkation and disembarkation procedures were by far the best I have ever seen. I arrived at the pier in Vancouver at about 11:10am and was on the ship eating lunch in the Lido before noon! I did use the online check-in, but I believe if you hadn't, it wouldn't have slowed you down too much. On the last day of the cruise, my family and I opted for the Express disembarkation. Basically, as long as you don't have any transfers booked with HAL and you can carry your own luggage off the ship, you are the first one off. We were called to get off the ship at about 7:30am. This was very easy, no crowds, and was actually opening up the door to my apartment (I live in downtown Vancouver a few blocks from the pier) at 8am. Wow! I strongly recommend the express disembarkation because you avoid the crowds that develop later in the morning.
The theatre on the ship (Vista Lounge) seems surprisingly small. It is still a 2 or 3 level high theatre, but it just feels smaller, more like a lounge. Still, there was no problem finding a seat, and it was a full ship. It was probably my least favorite theatre on any ship, but was adequate enough. That being said, the quality of the shows on the Zuiderdam were the best I have ever seen on any of my last 7 cruises. An illusionist, comedian, another comedian/ventriloquist, and 2 shows featuring the cruise ship singers and dancers. On a 7 day cruise, you usually get forced to watch way more than 2 nights of mediocre singers/dancers performing tired acts. The quality of the shows they put on though were surprisingly high. It was still a typical cruise ship performance, but was entertaining. The sets were more elaborate and all but one singer was actually quite good.
Automatic tipping added to your shipboard account of $10/day is convenient. Can be adjusted if you want.
During areas where there was scenic cruising to be seen, they opened up the bow of the ship and that was a nice touch. I don't remember being allowed up there on other cruise lines.
The ship itself is probably my least favorite. Nothing about it seems special. RCI seems to have more of a wow factor to their ships and on Celebrity ships seem to be made of more high quality materials. The design of this ship was boring. Nothing grand about it. It was dark, ugly colors, and the design was odd. It seemed cheap.
The thalasotherapy pool costs $20/day or $89/week I think. On Celebrity you get this for free on the M-class ships. The main pool was large with retractable dome, and nice to sit around, but if screaming kids will annoy you, you'll have to move. There is a smaller pool aft of the ship, but it's outside and it was too cold to sit around there.
The Lido buffet had really good selections of food. The dinning room also had a good selection and was typical of any cruise I've been on, so won't say too much. The one difference is besides normal meal times, it's hard to find something to eat besides room service on the ship. There is pasta and pizza always available, but nothing else really to snack on. I workout lots and try to eat every 2-3 hours, so this was a problem, but not a huge issue. A salad bar was adequate enough to have a snack between meals.
The gym on the ship is poor. Lots of treadmills, and cycles. No ellipticals or cross trainers. For weight lifting there are machines to cover 1 or 2 exercises per body part. If you like to use dumbbells, they only go up to about 25 lbs!
There were very few activities planned on the ship, even on sea days. Bring a good book or two to read.
Service (dinning room, wine steward, cabin steward) were all comparable to other cruises (which means very good). Yudi (table 173, 6pm seating in dining room) was our assistant dining steward and was the best member of the crew I encountered on the entire cruise. HAL should make sure they keep people like him. Very friendly and efficient at his job.
Stateroom accommodations were adequate. I had an inside stateroom, and it was fine. Maybe smaller than other cruises I've been on, but who really cares. My parents had a balcony, and it was fine. Again, it seemed maybe a bit smaller than other ships.
I probably won't sail on HAL again, but I did have a good vacation. It's hard not to! I think Celebrity is still my favorite cruise line. Besides what I mentioned at the beginning of my review, they do everything better than HAL. On any cruise, I always feel that the activities on the ship are lacking, and this was by far the worst. I still love cruising, but for people my age, I suggest finding a special interest group that charters the entire ship and takes care of their own entertainment, brings top end entertainers and DJ's. I'm going with Atlantis Events for my next two cruises which charters Royal Caribbean ships!