This was our 2nd cruise (both on Holland America), our first on the Zuiderdam, and the last time we will book anything other than a Deluxe Veranda Suite, because if the room is nice, you WILL spend time in it, no matter what anybody else says!
EMBARKATION - Several days before our cruise, our travel agent informed us of the opportunity of upgrading from a Superior Verandah Suite to a Deluxe Verandah Suite at a fairly substantial discount over previously advertised rates. We jumped on the opportunity, since this was a 10-day cruise and we wanted to take full advantage of the larger room size and the special services provided at that level. As a suite-holder, you are also whisked right to the front of the line for registration, so if you don't like the feeling of being part of a large crowd, it's a great benefit.
CABIN – We were assigned to Stateroom 7084 on the Port side, aft of mid-ship. The room size did not disappoint (our prior cruise was in a standard Verandah Stateroom) and there was more storage than two people would ever use. There was a full sized sofa (my husband reports that it was great for napping), a separate dressing room, full size bathroom with dual sinks and two medicine cabinets and a full-size tub/shower and 2nd shower compartment (which seemed a little redundant). The king-size bed had every pillow type imaginable, and the robes and slippers provided were comfy.
The room also contained a large writing desk, small (but adequate) flat screen TV, a DVD Player and a separate CD Player (although I always travel with our iPod and docking station. Wouldn't it be nice if these Suites were equipped with Bose Docking Stations in the future?) Other amenities for our cabin class were an umbrella (did not use) and a pair of binoculars. The Deluxe Verandah Suite also gave us access to the Neptune Lounge, which was great for bypassing lines at the Front Desk (they took care of EVERYTHING!) as well as a quick place to grab a snack or refill a coffee cup.
Our Cabin Stewards, Frank and Hydy, never seemed to take a break and were always at our service. They cheerfully fulfilled my request to remove some of the standard desk chairs on our Verandah and replaced it with a reclining, padded lounger (which was MY preferred place for a cat nap!)
FOOD – We have several favorites . . . the Lido Deck for breakfast (thank you to Joanne at the Omelet station!) and the Pinnacle Grill for dinner (we are not big fans of the dining room, preferring the more intimate setting of the Pinnacle for dinner. We tried the Pinnacle once for breakfast, since it's available to Suite holders, but don't need that level of civility over breakfast, so typically grabbed breakfast at the Lido, instead.
We are early risers and never experienced crowds at the Lido, but I understand that by 8:30 or 9 a.m. it can get pretty busy. Breakfast and lunch at the Lido are quick and efficient, and I never experienced a bad meal for either. Another great option for Lunch is the Terrace Grille, with made to order burgers (including pretty great veggie burgers). Maybe it was just our timing again, but I never had to wait for more than a few minutes. And sometimes, if you just don't want fancy schmantzy, a tuna melt is the perfect thing for lunch. We never visited the main dining room for lunch (other than our embarkation day) or breakfast.
Favoring the Pinnacle Grill (four evenings) over the Main Dining Room (two evenings), we were very happy with the service at the Pinnacle, the quality of the dishes, and the ambiance. I had taken part in two Cooking Classes in the Culinary Arts Center (sponsored by Food & Wine Magazine) and got to meet the Pinnacle Chef, John Soares, who graciously made our final evening at the Pinnacle Grille very special by making us two dishes from his hometown of Mumbai that were not on the menu. The care he puts into his cooking is evident.
The quality of the food at the main dining room was also good, but for our money, the Pinnacle is the way to go if you like to avoid dining with up to 700 other people at once.
I also have to comment that the Suite member luncheon served up some of the finest food we have ever experienced. The staff chef (which is comprised of many people from Indonesia) cooked our lunch that day and I can only rave about the quality of the food. (Next time, I would like to sneak into the staff mess hall, just for another taste of the Beef Sumatra and Nasi Goring (fried rice).
Room service is available 24 hours a day and is an excellent way to enjoy the view as you come into port from your own Verandah.
STAFF/SERVICE – Clearly the hardest working group of people at sea! We were happy to meet the Captain, Werner Timmers, the Hotel Manager David and Cruise Director Patty on the first evening in the Neptune Lounge. Everyone was relaxed and cordial . . . they had their hands full the very next day when they needed to declare Code Red due to suspected gastro-intestinal virus, which remained in effect for the duration of the cruise.
The staff appeared to take this in stride and didn't appear to be affected by the long extra hours that they needed to spend to disinfect every surface on the ship each night after their normal working day was over. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them; not only for the dedication, but the fact that they continued to do everything in their power to take care of the passengers on the ship. It was a minor inconvenience compared to what they went through, or compared to getting ill and being quarantined to your cabin.
SHIP – Although the Zuiderdam shows signs of age (over the much newer Eurodam), it is still a comfortable ship. I loved walking the Promenade Deck for exercise, and there were plenty of areas to grab some sunshine or watch a sunset in private. We very rarely felt like we were part of a large crowd. Deck chairs and towels were generally ample, and the staff ensured that tables were cleaned in a timely manner, so there was never a feeling of clutter.
ENTERTAINMENT – The String Quartet that played nightly in the Explorer's Lounge each evening was superb. The only other entertainment venue we took advantage of was the stand-up comic. He was entertaining, current, and pretty darned hysterical.
PRESENTATIONS - As stated earlier, I took advantage of two hands-on cooking classes in the Culinary Arts Center, and met other like-minded foodies. For a nominal fee ($29 per class) we all picked up some great cooking tips from Chef John Soares and dined on our own creations at the Pinnacle Grille over lunch, with complimentary wine to pair with our meals. Recipes were provided to take home, and I am excited to be making the Caribbean Menu this evening for friends for dinner (Jicama & Mango Salad, and Coconut Crusted Caribbean Chicken stuffed with Prosciutto & Banana enhanced with an Avocado Tequila jalapeño sauce ... Yum!) I also took advantage of some cooking demonstrations (again, co-presented by Chef John and Party Planner Michele McDowell, a wonderful and friendly Vancouver, Canada native with an endless amount of energy!) Once again, recipes were provided and even without hands-on or tasting, we all took away some great tips and fabulous menu ideas.
The Celebrity Cook-off with the Captain, Hotel Manager and Cruise Director turned into most a Q&A session, but it was a terrific way to see the playful side of the staff and it's clear that they like and respect each other. Captain Timmers, if this "ship Captain-thing" gets old, you should consider a career as a stand-up comic.
SPA/GYM – Clean, un-crowded, and best of all, a nice-quality Stott Pilates table, which I took advantage of nine of the ten days on board ship. There are classes available (some complimentary, some $12) as well as private instruction if you need it. Having done pilates for over four years, I didn't need the instruction or a class and I enjoyed working out on my own. The gym is fully stocked with everything including bikes, treadmills, rowing, weights and ellipticals. Something for just about everyone, although I could live without the dance music at 6 a.m. Bring an iPod for an undisturbed workout. We both took advantage of spa services. I am still a skeptic of a service that promises to remove inches and cellulite, but at sea, it's a good time to try something you wouldn't normally do on land (and no, I don't believe that I lost 8 inches from my abdomen . . . I just don't). We also took advantage of the Thermal Suite package, but sadly, only got to use that terrific pool (with a waterfall that feels like a fire hose on your back and neck) before they emptied the pool due to Code Red (money was refunded).
FELLOW CRUISERS - Perhaps the destination (Panama Canal) or length of cruise (10 days) brought out a much older crowd, but we both prefer this to a cruise ship filled with children. However, I must say that I personally witnessed several instances of guests treating the staff like servants, and was embarrassed to witness it. To the fellow standing to my right barking bagel his order to the Lido cook on the last day of the cruise and then snidely remarking under his breath about it being "the last day . . . it's about TIME they understood English", I say, "Shame on you." (You know who you are). To the cook, who smiled and said, Yes, Sir, coming right up,", what I would have LOVED for you to say is, "Sorry Sir, my English is a little weak. Would you prefer that I speak to you in the other five languages in which I am fluent?" Now THAT would have made my day!
OVERALL - We loved our experience. We felt pampered and spoiled, and have already paid a down-payment on a future cruise, which we hope to be in the Mediterranean in 2010. The only room for improvement is to create more "As you Wish" dining options (like the Eurodam) for people who don't want to feel part of a herd.