BACKGROUND This spring I embarked on my ninth cruise with Holland America, my fifth HAL big band cruise. I chose it specifically for the big band theme and was pleased to see HAL resume big band cruises, after not scheduling any in 2007. It was my second experience with a HAL Vista Class ship, the first having been on the ms Noordam, the newest ship of this class, in the fall of 2006. The Zuiderdam was the first, and therefore is the oldest, Vista. Like the Noordam, it never seems crowded.
This was Zuiderdam's last cruise before her April dry docking, with a major refit planned - more about that later.
PRE CRUISE The booking process started on a somewhat sour note. I booked quite early - approximately 8-1/2 months out - Category H outside, obstructed-view cabin (no. 4106) on the Upper Promenade Deck and requested second seating dinner. About ten days later HAL announced their new "As You Wish Dining" (AYWD) concept, to take effect on my particular Zuiderdam cruise. The subject is discussed in extensive detail on several threads of the HAL message boards, but suffice it to say that it purportedly offers a choice of open seating in the lower dining room and traditional assigned seating in the upper dining room. I say "purportedly" because what actually happened was that most if not all requests for traditional dining were wait listed, together with a notation on the HAL website that dining assignments would be made on board after embarkation.
Although I understand HAL's offering their passengers a choice, open seating was not an acceptable option for me as a solo traveler - I certainly didn't want to face the prospect of a different table, different wait staff, and different table mates for 18 nights, plus having to make reservations every day if I wanted a particular dining time.
My efforts to obtain confirmation of traditional dining encountered some roadblocks, with HAL refusing to talk to me directly because I had booked through a travel agent and urging my travel agent to encourage me to accept open seating. I finally reached the point where I was ready to cancel if I didn't get dining confirmation by the final payment due date. However, because I really wanted to do the cruise, I wrote to HAL's Executive VP for Guest Programs, with a copy to the President and CEO, as a last resort. Less than two weeks later I received both a phone call and e-mail confirming my requested dining!
So, you might ask, "What is he complaining about? He got what he wanted." True, but my point is that I should not have incurred this aggravation to receive confirmation of "As I Wished", not "As HAL Wished" Dining!. There continued to be a few CC message board reports of passengers with confirmed conventional dining being switched to open seating without notice, so it came as a relief to find at embarkation that I really did have a table assignment for traditional dining.
Having made my own flight arrangements I followed my usual practice of flying to Ft. Lauderdale a day early - it's pretty hard to catch up with a ship that has departed on a transatlantic crossing. My AirTran flight from Boston to FLL was uneventful, although fairly full, with several high school and college girls' athletic teams heading for spring break tournaments. Nice bunch of kids.
I don't think there is any such thing as an inexpensive hotel in Ft Lauderdale during the high season, but was able to book a room at the not-too-expensive Comfort Suits. This is a comfortable hotel with large rooms, located within walking distance of many restaurants and a major shopping center. The hotel provides complimentary shuttle to and from both the airport and the port.
EMBARKATION Embarkation was the most painless I have ever experienced for a large ship. I had obtained a Signature Preferred Boarding Pass on line and there were no lines in the terminal. Check-in consisted of filling out a brief health questionnaire, presenting my credit card, having my picture taken for the ship ID/key card, and boarding the ship immediately. I doubt that it was more than 20 minutes between the time I handed my baggage to the baggage handlers, along with the obligatory bribe, oops, I mean tip, and the time I was having lunch on board. When it was announced that cabins were now available, I found that my luggage had already been delivered, so I was mostly unpacked before the life boat drill and sail-away party.
THE SHIP The Vista Class ships have been extensively reviewed by others, so I'll confine my remarks to observations particular to this ship and how the Zuiderdam differs from my experience on the Noordam.
As usual with HAL I found the ship spotlessly clean, with an even greater emphasis on sanitation than I had seen previously. Hand disinfectant dispensers are everywhere, and even in early morning crew could be seen wiping down handrails and keeping everything polished. The carpeting and wall finishes in my cabin were in like-new condition
On the other hand, as reported by several message board posters, the ship was showing a few condition problems, not unexpected just before a scheduled dry docking. Most of the scuffed finishes are normal wear and tear, but it was disturbing to see some obvious vandalism in several of the elevators. There seemed to be a few examples of deferred maintenance, such as a broken bar stool in the Piano Bar, and the often- reported "pot holes" in carpeted public areas are very evident. These are the obvious result of failure of carpet underlayment, and I assume that all of these condition problems have been dealt with during dry docking.
As on the Noordam, I find dance floor areas small for ships of this size, particularly for the number of dancers attracted by a big band. However, unlike the Noordam, the Zuiderdam's Queen's Lounge is set up for dancing, making a lot more floor space available, with the big band or the HALCats providing music every evening. Also, the Ocean Bar dance floor layout on the Zuiderdam makes it seem larger than the Noordam's, although this may be an optical illusion. Its tile surface is not, however, ideal for dancing - it would be nice if it were replaced with hardwood or laminate.
The Crow's Nest dance floor was adequate for most occasions and was easily enlarged by moving out some of the furniture for big band sets. Unfortunately, during dry docking the Crow's Nest was to lose roughly half its area to the Explorations Café, similar to the Westerdam. Although the dance floor area was reportedly to remain the same, the seating area will obviously be reduced substantially. The hardwood dance floor is rough in spots and hopefully was either refinished or replaced during dry dock. I doubt that the Crow's Nest will be practical for future big band performances.
I know there are those who disagree, but I continue to find the Noordam and Zuiderdam Lido layouts the best I have seen on a ship, with individual "stations" for various types of food, i.e. Asian, pizza/pasta, sandwiches, salad bar, etc.
The addition of cabins during dry docking will obviously increase the seating requirements for the Vista Dining Room, so I assume that the mezzanine previously used by the string quartet at dinnertime will be converted to dining area, as on the other Vista ships, so no more live string quartets during dinner. Too bad.
At the Cruise Critic reception on the first sea day (March 17th, with green champagne provided by the ship!) the Hotel Manager definitely stated that one of the public room changes would be that the Queen's Lounge would no longer be used for movies and that a separate "Screening Room" would be created. However, some HAL regulars have disputed this, pointing out correctly that no such room is shown on the latest deck plans and that none was installed on the Westerdam during a similar re-fit. Guess we'll have to wait and see. I for one hope the Hotel Manager was right, as the dedicated movie theaters of the non Vista ships are missed by many, and the Queen's lounge doesn't work very well for movies. I guess the popcorn machines are gone for good, along with the free specialty coffees in the old Java Cafes.
As on all of the Vista Class ships, there is no self-service laundry, but the laundry's fixed-price package is a good alternative. Not sure why the cost was $25 per bag on Noordam, but only $12 on Zuiderdam for the same size bag.
CABIN Similar to the Noordam, my cabin was nicely laid out with pleasant décor. But as on the Noordam, I found drawer space to be seriously lacking, with just two small drawers in each night stand; not even a shallow drawer in the desk/dressing table in which to keep small items. The larger drawers at the foot of each bed are hard to get to and useful mainly to store items probably not needed until the end of the cruise. I was told that there are also drawers under the love seats, but I couldn't find them; either not all the love seats are the same or I am slowly losing my mind.
Interestingly, I have seen several complaints about lack of drawer space on Cunard's new Queen Victoria, a Vista-based ship built by the same Italian yard as the HAL ships. Penny pinching, perhaps? Drawers are certainly more expensive to build and maintain than shelves.
Bathrooms are basic, similar to Noordam, but the Zuiderdam corner cabinets seem larger. There was plenty of hot water and the cabin thermostat was fairly effective in maintaining the desired room temperature.
DINING As noted earlier, this cruise marked the introduction of AYWD on the Zuiderdam. With my problems in getting confirmation of traditional dining out of the way, all went well. I was assigned to a table for eight - all solo travelers, 3 women and 5 men. A friendly and diverse group and we had lots of interesting conversations..
I have seen some recent reports of poor table service, but we were fortunate to have excellent service throughout the cruise. Could still do without the baked Alaska parade which effectively brings conversation and dining room service to a halt!
Several Cruise Critics have expressed dissatisfaction with dining room food quality on this cruise. I would describe it as somewhat inconsistent. Soups were always excellent. I also found the beef, poultry and lamb to be of high quality, but on the two occasions I ordered pork it was quite tough and overcooked. I did have a problem in getting really rare beef - it was usually medium by the time it was served, but I suppose this is the inevitable result of cooking for a large number of people.
I seldom order seafood on ships - as a New Englander I'm spoiled by the availability of fresh fish. I did order fish and chips at lunch a couple of times and it was pretty good. Can't comment on deserts, since I seldom order anything other than sherbet or ice cream. As always, the ice cream served in the Lido is first rate. Let us hope that HAL doesn't start to charge extra for it as I have heard sister company Princess is doing.
I had many breakfasts and lunches in the Vista Dining Room, and the service was always excellent, with wait staff usually placing me at table with others who had just arrived.
One change since my last HAL cruise was replacement of the Mariners reception with several brunches with the senior officers. I preferred the old receptions, where you could circulate and talk with ship's officers and fellow Mariners, but I suppose it is no longer practical, especially on a cruise where probably three quarters of the passengers were Mariners.
The gentleman hosts also hosted several lunches for singles on sea days. I'm not sure what HAL will do in the future, as the hosts reportedly will be eliminated from all except the long cruises. I wonder how this will affect future bookings by solo ladies, many of whom cruise mainly to dance.
I also had occasional breakfasts and lunches in the Lido and found that the previously mentioned Lido layout worked very well, particularly when I only wanted a salad, sandwich, or a slice of pizza. I also liked the availability of two different stir fries every noon at the Wok serving line.
I purchased a wine card for the first time on HAL - the cards are a fairly well-kept secret. The only place I know of that they are mentioned on the website is on the gifts for passengers pages. I learned about them by word of mouth, and I believe that they can only be purchased in the Ocean Bar. The cost per glass for a 20-glass card works out to about $3.90 including 15% gratuity, not bad. The house red that I usually ordered was a decent Cabernet. The card's advantage over ordering a bottle and having the wine steward keep it for you is that the card can be used in all the bars as well as the restaurant.
I can't comment on the open seating experience under AYWD - fellow passengers who had requested open seating seemed to like it, but others who had been forced to accept it instead of traditional dining were not happy.
PROGRAM AND ENTERTAINMENT HAL has introduced a relatively new entertainment schedule, with shows in the Vista Lounge at 7:00 and 9:00 PM; I have subsequently heard that this is fleet wide. Therefore, late diners have to choose: before-dinner cocktails and dancing or the 7 o'clock show. As a result I missed several performances I otherwise might have attended. I much preferred the old schedule with a late second show for second seating diners.
The Zuiderdam Singers and Dancers performed two productions. I enjoyed the one I attended, but was disappointed that there was no live orchestra accompaniment, and most of the vocals also seemed to be pre-recorded, with only a couple of lead singers miked. Most if not all shipboard productions on other lines utilize recorded backup (click tracks in the trade), but I don't recall productions on other lines with no live orchestra. As usual, staging, special effects and costuming were spectacular. I found choreography and music competent but not particularly memorable.
There was an excellent variety of solo performers, and I particularly enjoyed vocalist Robin Fellows, "Harry The Piano", banjo player Doug Mattocks, and "The Three Tenors."
One of my favorite entertainers, on this and previous HAL cruises, is piano man Randall Powell, who performed nightly in the Piano Bar. This was to be Randall's last cruise, as he moves on to pursue his first love, musical theater, with upcoming rolls in The Producers, Chicago, and several others. He will be missed by his HAL fans.
The featured big band was the Harry James Orchestra, led by Fred Radke. Fred is one of several band members who actually played with Harry James during the later years of the band.
Scheduling of big band performances was somewhat erratic - different times and venues almost every night. On the plus side, many sets were in the Queens Lounge, and the dance floor was only crowded early in the evening. On the negative side, the band finished at 11 o'clock several evenings, so there was only about an hour of music and dancing for late diners
The band also played for HAL's traditional Officers' Black and White Ball, (not Black and White Officers" ball as listed in the program). A major improvement over my previous experience on Noodam, where ball was in the Crow's Nest, was holding the ball in the Vista Lounge, with a good-size area in front of the stage cleared for dancing.
The ship's combos, "Marisha & The HALCats" and "Blue Seas" provided danceable alternatives to the Harry James Orchestra every evening.
A UNIQUE MUSICAL EXPERIENCE... Shortly after we started the transatlantic crossing, several musicians began to hold impromptu late-night jam sessions in the Ocean Bar. A core group of members of the Harry James Orchestra, the HALCats, solo performers and passenger-musicians was joined by a small but dedicated group of a dozen or two jazz fans willing to stay up until 2 or 3 AM to listen to great music, and a number of other musicians also sat in from time to time.
I won't list all the participants here, but if anybody would like a roster of the group, dubbed the "Zuiderjammers" e-mail me.
Briefly stated, what soon developed was the most exciting jazz I have ever heard on a ship and some of the best I've heard on land or sea . For a brief clip of the music check out the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7zZ6cC7bTY Nothing beats a group of talented musicians playing strictly for the fun of it - not just my opinion, as confirmed by several performers' subsequent e-mail messages to the Zuiderjammers:
"Chick" Singer Robin Fellows: "...truly one of the most creative and musically satisfying times I've ever experienced at sea." Harry The Piano (Paul Harris) "Thanks to all of you - fellow entertainers, musicians, passengers, dancers, lovers, grave-diggers etc for making that last cruise such a genius one! That jazz jam was a real thing of beauty while it lasted, I can't ever remember having such a good time on a ship."
Paul English, Harry James Band pianist and jam organizer: "Thanks to all for a very unusual experience - great music and a great bunch of new friends"
...AND THEN A BIG LETDOWN A day or two before our scheduled Funchal port call we started to hear rumblings that the jam sessions might be curtailed. I immediately let the cruise director how unhappy this would make a lot of us, but he said he knew nothing about it.
Sure enough, the jam sessions came to an abrupt halt when we left Funchal. To add insult to injury, when asked why, the musicians could only reply "No comment." Obviously they were under some sort of gag order.
I was annoyed enough to write a letter of protest to Hotel Manager Mark Pells. To his credit, and somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Pells responded in writing, stating, "The reason the jams had ended was that several of the guest entertainers that had put it together and were doing it have disembarked the vessel."
Although I don't doubt that Mr. Pells was told this by his staff, it simply wasn't true. Entertainers Robin Fellows and Paul Harris, who disembarked in Madeira, were enthusiastic and active participants in the sessions, but the original session organizer was Paul English, and there were certainly plenty of remaining musicians and dedicated fans for the sessions to continue.
So why did the sessions end? We'll probably never know. One reason mentioned was complaints about noise, but I doubt this, as my cabin was directly over the Ocean Bar and I never heard a sound from there day or night. Also, if noise were a problem, why is the noise emanating from the night club (I won't dignify it by calling it music) allowed to go on to the wee hours of the morning?
My personal opinion is that we were seeing the "not invented here" syndrome in action. As I said in my letter to Mr. Pells, "After all, you can't run a tight ship if you allow a bunch of flaky musicians and jazz fans to stage impromptu events." Pardon my cynicism.
I was ready to make the Cruise Director the villain, but learned later from one of the performers that he had been supportive of the sessions. So, my apologies for having evil thoughts about Travis's roll. I also learned later that the sessions had not actually been banned, just had so many restrictions imposed that the musicians didn't think it was worth the trouble to go on.
THE CRUISE This cruise is actually like two back-to-back cruises, one being an 11-day crossing with lots of sea days and only two port calls (Half Moon Cay and Funchal) and the second a typical Mediterranean cruise with port calls almost every day.
The weather for the crossing was generally good, sunny to partly cloudy, neither hot nor cold. The only daytime rain I recall was a brief shower in Funchal.
Captain Timmers had announced that we would be following a more southerly course than usual to avoid a large North Atlantic low pressure area. The low produced an appreciable swell from the north for several days after leaving Half Moon Cay and the ship did roll some, perhaps 10 degrees. However, it had no noticeable effect on shipboard activities or dining room attendance, probably because so many of the passengers on transatlantic crossings are experienced sailors who enjoy the sea days.
Ports of call in the Mediterranean were Lisbon, Cadiz, Casablanca, Barcelona, Monte Carlo, and Livorno. Since I have visited all of them several times, at most ports I just went ashore and walked around. Therefore, there's not much I can add to what has been said many times before, both on Cruise Critic and in other reviews.
I considered disembarking at Casablanca and explore the old city a bit, as I haven't been there for a few years, but was overtaken by an attack of laziness and just relaxed on board.
I did take two ship's excursions to areas I hadn't visited before, outside the port cities. The first was a relaxing half-day trip to the medieval walled city of Obidos outside Lisbon.
The second was an excursion to the mountain-top Montserrat monastery, about a 1-1/2 hour drive from Barcelona. Spectacular scenery and, since it was a Sunday, the Catholics in the group were able to attend noon mass. Mass was followed by a short performance by the boys' choir Montserrat is famous for.
THE LONG TRIP HOME We arrived in Civitavecchia on schedule and disembarkation went relatively smoothly, although we were at a temporary terminal, a large tent, causing some minor confusion in finding one's baggage. I could have easily made a flight home that day, but rather than having to rush, had booked my return flight on Swiss International, Rome-Zurich-Boston, the next day. So, I booked a moderate hotel in the village of Fiumicino, not far from the airport, and spent a pleasant afternoon there. Unlike nearby Ostia, Fiumicino has largely retained its fishing village character and has several good seafood restaurants.
My April 3rd flights were uneventful; I was getting a little concerned by a Rome gate hold, but made my Zurich connection with 20 minutes to spare and arrived in Boston a few minutes early, with plenty of time to catch the last express bus back to New Hampshire. All in all, my flights to and from the cruise were about the least stressful of any for several years!
ODDS AND ENDS * I don't like the way HAL's dress code continues to go down hill, although a larger percentage of passengers were well dressed on this cruise than on some past HAL cruises. The types of attire have been reduced to two, "Formal" and "Smart Casual", with "Informal" having disappeared. "Formal" now means only a jacket and tie for gentlemen. * The Noordam and Zuiderdam and, I assume, other Vista Class ships, have curved stairways in the atrium. The one on the Noordam has glass treads and is very attractive, but cannot used at sea because of safety concerns. The one on the Zuiderdam is less attractive (carpeted) but can be used in most sea conditions. * On each of my big band cruises I have requested or suggested that the ship provide a roster of the big band, including their instruments. It hasn't happened, so I've usually prepared my own with the help of band members. HAL obviously doesn't understand that dedicated big band fans want to know who the band members are. * This is probably a lost cause, but it would be nice to have a passenger list published by the ship. Crystal does it on all cruises, as does Cunard on world cruises, with passengers having the opportunity to opt out if they wish. Perhaps this would be too much trouble on short cruises, but surely the front office could prepare a list on long cruises like the 18-day transatlantic
CONCLUSIONS All-in-all, a good cruise with a pleasant group of fellow passengers and the great Harry James Orchestra. However, I found daytime activities, particularly the lecture schedule, quite limited, although there were more than enough sessions sponsored by various shipboard revenue centers trying to sell something. I was disappointed that for my second big band cruise in a row HAL did not include a lecturer on the big band era.
I also find it frustrating that HAL makes it difficult to learn of the themes of their cruises far enough in advance for long-term cruise planning. For example, the fact that this cruise and the Noordam's fall '08 transatlantic were big band cruises is not mentioned in any brochure I have seen, nor in any of the many mailings I have received, and I only learned about them through correspondence with a number of big band and dance fans with whom I regularly correspond. Also, I met several people who didn't learn it was a big band cruise until embarkation.
Furthermore, if there is a way to search for cruise themes on HAL's website, I haven't discovered it. HAL could learn a lesson from Crystal's and MLC's websites, both of which have search-by-theme capabilities. Both of these lines have already posted their '09 themes.
I have just received HAL's 2009 Europe brochure, which shows a number of interesting east and west-bound crossings, but no mention as to whether any of them will have a big band theme. I find it hard to understand why HAL would go to the considerable expense of hiring a big band for 18 days and then not publicize it widely!
So, will I be cruising with HAL again in the near future? Probably not unless they (a) do a better job of publicizing cruise themes and (b) are willing and able to confirm my dining choice (traditional) at time of booking.