We took the Feb 15, 2010 Circle Hawaii cruise on Holland America's ship Zaandam. This is my 6th cruise on HAL, also 6 on Princess and 1 each on RCI, Oceania and Cunard. We had been on a Baltic cruise on the Rotterdam just last June, so this near identical twin ship was very familiar. We flew from the east coast of Canada to San Diego the day before the cruise. Great flights on United, changing in Chicago. We checked into the Holiday Inn on the Bay, right across from the cruise terminal. We had noticed its convenient location the last time we were in San Diego sailing on the Oosterdam. Despite some less than enthusiastic reviews I had read about this hotel, I have to say we were completely satisfied. We upgraded to a Bayview room, which is highly recommended if you like to see your ship arrive in the morning and watch the passengers disembark.
At 11.30 am, we checked out of the hotel and rolled our bags across the street and checked in. We were on the ship at 11:55. I have a couple of criticisms of the check in- first the luggage handlers damaged both of our suitcases (they were fine when we handed them over, and whether the damage occurred by the shore staff or on the ship we will never know) and secondly there are not enough seats in the waiting area prior to boarding the vessel. Also, Mariner Society members are supposed to have an "Embarkation Brunch" - where is it? We were never told about it at check-in and were directed to the Lido by the ship's staff as we boarded. We got to see our cabin at 1:25 - it was on the Navigation deck just across from the access to the aft elevators and stairs. Great location - just one flight of stairs up to the Lido and two down to the upper level of the Dining room.
We had booked a BC Verandah guarantee and were delighted with the upgrade to an AA. The cabin had a few minor maintenance problems but these were quickly fixed by either the staff or myself (stopping squeaks with wadded up cardboard). The ship had recently been in drydock and many carpets in public areas and chairs in the Dining Room and elsewhere had been replaced. New chairs/pads on our Verandah as well. At the Cruise Critic Meet and Greet, the Hotel Manager, in response to my question "what was done in the drydock?" said "Not enough!". He was especially disappointed that the chairs in the Lido restaurant had not been replaced. At first he blamed it on running out of time, but later in the cruise he said it was a cost issue. The public areas were all in great shape. It was obvious the hull above the water line was not painted in the drydock and was quite rusty in places, also the overhang of the Lido above our verandah. But generally the white paint all looked fresh and the ship overall was in very good condition (exception-the elevators, two of which in the forward group have not been working since the drydock).
This cruise and ship had three great things going for it - one was the Captain, Darin Bowlind, a Canadian who lives in my part of the country when not on the ship. He was a fantastic communicator - by far the best of any Master I have encountered. He was not so great in the one-on-one encounters, which I will attribute to shyness or being overly focused on the job. Second was the Hotel Manager, Fermin. He was everywhere, which I have never seen before. He was funny and you could tell his employees were happy. He is a former chef and did a very entertaining cooking demonstration in the Culinary Arts Center. Finally, the Travel Guide Kainoa, a native Hawaiian. He gave lectures twice a day on all matters Hawaiian and was absolutely fascinating. A tremendous communicator. He was also available on shore in each port to answer questions and offer suggestions. I should also mention the Cruise Director, Anthony Choice. He has only been a CD for three months, and had not worked in the cruise industry at all for some time. I thought he was very good and exceeded my expectations, due to some negative comments about him from the previous Hawaii cruise participants.
We ate mostly in the Dining Room, occasionally in the Lido. We did not eat in the Canaletto or in the Pinnacle this cruise. Most of the meals were excellent, especially in flavor. We found breakfast very slow in the dining room, if you arrived right at opening time. It took 40 to 45 minutes for the "Breakfast Specials" to arrive at your table after ordering. If you went later in the 90 minute window for breakfast, it was faster. In the evening, we had a Table for 2 at the early sitting in the upper dining room. Service by our waiter Edy and assistant Randy was excellent and friendly. Service by our Room Stewards Luki and Hasan was also very efficient and all requests were promptly attended to. I have to say I have never found a more friendly crew overall on any ship - I think this indicates there was good morale aboard, as noted above.
The entertainment exceeded my expectations. I have been critical of HAL in the past for mediocre entertainment, but this was definitely a big improvement. The Production shows (4) were all good, although I would agree that 2 of the four singers were a bit challenged. The other performers they brought on board were all fantastic, with the exception of a comedian, who I think offended a few people and was not very funny. The funniest guy was actually billed as a juggler - Thien Fu - he had the best one-liners I have heard in a long time. The "Divas of Motown" were also fantastic. It looks to me like HAL is making a real effort to beef up their entertainment and it is working, at least on this ship. The HALcats, the band that plays on the pool deck, the Crowsnest and elsewhere, also is the orchestra for guest musicians, and they filled both roles very well, except when they were joined by vocalist "Jenny", who is not that great, and tries to overcome it by singing too loud.
I have commented on the ports and excursions below.
Disembarkation on the last day was efficiently done. We opted for Express disembarkation, which meant we took our own bags off. We were in a taxi on the way to the airport by 8:45 am. I was especially glad I had chosen to carry my own bags off after I witnessed one unfortunate passenger's bag fall into the San Diego harbor while being offloaded from the ship by the forklift. This was the fault of the ship's crew, who had piled bags way too high on the cages, as others were toppling off on the pier.The stevedores eventually succeeded in fishing the now soaked bag out of the water with a long pole. Overall, this was a fantastic cruise. Just about everything that was under the control of the ship's staff was excellent. The seas were very rough coming and going, which the Captain said was very unusual except for this winter, but they cannot control that. The ship, admitted the Captain, did not handle the rough seas as well as a larger vessel would. I will certainly continue to pick HAL as my favourite cruise line. I think the service and food are better than on Princess, which still is a very good choice as well. We always cruise in February, and I am disappointed I cannot find a suitable length cruise on HAL for next year at this time that would be something new for us.