There was a group of 20 of us on this cruise, ages from late 20's to early 70's.
We arrived in Venice on the overnight train from Paris with LOTS of luggage in tow. As you arrive on the train on the causeway, you will see all of the ships in port so you already have an idea as to where you're actually going.
Some of the group split off, and walked over the 3 bridges with their luggage, and the rest of us bought the 24 hour water-taxi ticket for the short ride down to Piazza Roma for the free shuttle to the ship. Note: YES, you can walk this even with luggage as long as you're in decent shape and don't mind sweating a wee bit!
Luggage dropoff was in a little tent to the side, and overall embarkation went very smoothly in Venice. We were on board in our cabins within 45 minutes total, even after a very long walk from the check-in building outside to the actual location of the ship.
We were booked in an ocean-view on Main Deck #1, aft. The cabin was adequate size for 4, and it was nice to see that all of our luggage actually disappeared under the beds and out of the way, even after hanging up the clothes. Note that there are 2 very large drawers at the end of the beds. It's easy to overlook, as you might assume it's only part of the frame! Across the hall, some of our group had the inside cabins. BIG NOTE HERE::: The inside staterooms on deck 1 are much larger than the other decks! We noted the scale on the ships layout by the elevators, and peeked into some other inside rooms... so that's a point to remember if you're wanting to save some money AND have more space! Yes, they are actually larger than the outside cabins right across the hall.
Unfortunately, a few hours later after dinner, 3 of the cabins were still very warm. Calls were made, and we were told that "we'll look into it". The next morning, still about 80-82 degrees F! Maintenance came down, looked things over and made some notes. That night, STILL hot in the rooms! Back to the front desk in person, and apologies yet again, but no way to move rooms/etc. The next morning, as we were disembarking, one of the group ran into the front-desk hotel manager and he let him know about the situation. We returned back yet again to the hot cabins. This time, when we went to the front desk, we were issued credits for each of the 3 days with the heat. Apparently a master thermostat was not functioning in our area. Finally we had cool air.
The ship itself does seem to be more akin to it's Carnival cousins than most of the HAL ships I've sailed on. I caught myself looking at different chairs/fixtures/decor, and wondering aloud, 'what is this doing in here?' If you're looking for the overall nautical and old-world HAL ships, this one ain't for you! I don't think a specific theme ever caught on when the Z was laid out.
The Greenhouse Spa/Gym area is a puzzle. You have a separated area for the sauna / thermal suites / hydrotherapy pool / showers & changing rooms / gym. When I mean separated, you have to walk back outside, and in some cases to opposite side of the ship! Additionally, this is across the forward staircase landing. You are quickly reminded that you're not in a true gym/spa... only some rooms that are thrown together that claim to be one. Poor layout here for sure!
HAL did a good job around the pools/deck area though. Plenty of space, and they do keep the sliding glass roof open during the daytime for sun and fresh air. There was no problem getting a deckchair, even on the prime sea days.
Food quality was good, everywhere we ate. The Lido layout was good, and the lines usually didn't have more than 6-7 people standing in one station. I noticed that the servers were glad to help carry trays for anyone that even seemed like they would need assistance to a seat.
Now for the dining room experience. First I'll say that 2 days before we left for Venice, we received a phone call from our travel agent stating we had been confirmed as a group for 2nd seating dinner @ 815pm. This proved to be a fateful call! The first dinner, we had been seated for about 15 minutes, when the wine steward came over to take our drink order. We looked puzzled, and said that we haven't seen the wine list. He pointed a blue sheet of paper in the middle of the table and said that those were the special wines. We said we want to see the full wine list. He rolled his eyes, and said, "so you're not ready to order?" (!!!!) This rude behavior was duly noted.
The dining staff didn't seem to have it together at our tables. We seemed to wait for 5 minutes or more to pass before the plates were cleared for the next course, which always seems to drag dinner down even longer. The sad saga of getting iced-tea refills began the first day as well. We're a tea-guzzling bunch, which I admit. But only getting 2 glasses of tea in 1.45 dinner is not acceptable. CONSTANTLY, WE WERE ASKING FOR ANOTHER GLASS OF TEA, PLEASE? Still, nightly we only seemed to get a total of 2 or 3 maximum total. I spoke to the area supervisor and told him the problem. I suggested that if the servers were too busy, just to leave a pitcher on the table, and we'll serve ourselves. He said, I don't think that's appropriate, and I quickly responded that I didn't think that waiting for 1 hour for a refill was appropriate either. He said he'd have a conversation and briefing on this "service issue" to resolve the problem.
The next night, no tea refills yet again. I had enough. I got up, walked over to the waiters station, and took the pitcher of tea myself, and refilled our glasses. THAT got the attention of the supervisor yet again... who came running over. He asked if there was a problem, and I reminded him of our conversation last night. I told him thank you for your help last evening, but I would no longer require his services anymore... and that the tea pitcher would be staying on our table regardless of how appropriate and "how it looked". From that night forward, things got better AND when we arrived there was a full pitcher of tea sitting there.
Sadly that wasn't all... normally when you say "Thank you" to someone, you get an acknowledgement. Our waiter didn't grasp this concept. It was noted that 7 people in a row said "thanks" to him for various things, and we did get one "grunt" out of him. We didn't know if he was having a bad week, or what the problem was? We were left feeling like that we were the ones being rude for talking to him. Sad.
The 2nd day, we heard the cruise director asking for people to please not go to At-Your-Request dining at 800pm, due to the long lines. The 3rd day, he was pleading for people not to go at 8! The 4th day, he said that 300 people cannot show up and expect to eat at 8pm! I walked down to deck 2 to watch the line and the shouting match for everyone trying to get in to eat at the same time... and it wasn't pretty. I am now in the camp of AYR dining isn't working on Holland America. It's time to say 'goodbye' on the Zuiderdam at least! I cannot fathom trying to get a group of 20, or even a large family in together to eat like that.
I'm not going to talk about the ports, other than to say that yes you can do most every European port on your own. The ship's shore consultant was a God-send! Tom had papers on how to get to the trains, costs, and overall helpful information. He told me that he was there primarily for the independent traveller... and he was very knowledgeable and helpful to us.
Disembarkation was a breeze in Barcelona, primarily due to arriving the afternoon prior. We actually walked off the ship before general disembarkation even began around 715am, and we were in the cab to the airport 15 minutes later.
This was my 5th cruise on HAL, and my 38th total cruise. The Zuiderdam was a puzzle to me. Good things, bad things. Excellent things, horrible things. I got my money's worth, but I'd think twice about sailing on her again. Cheers.