Our two previous cruises were both with Royal Caribbean. A friend told me that going from that to the Zuiderdam would be "like going from a Yugo to a Mercedes" (I swear she must have gotten those reversed) because the staff would be pure class, going overboard to please us. Admittedly, our expectations were pretty high after so many glowing reviews.
We flew into FLL & took a cab to the seaport, leaving the airport right at 11:00 so as to be among the first to check-in. We cleared the security & check-in at noon, then proceeded on board. At the top of the ramp we were hastily informed "Your staterooms aren't ready, we're sending you to the Lido for lunch" while being hurried into an elevator with a restaurant worker who made sure we went directly to the Lido and not to our rooms. The restaurant was crowded and incredibly hot & humid. I guess they were preparing us for the rain forest - which incidentally was more comfortable.
After getting tired of the holding cell, we started exploring the common areas of the ship. We found the decor of the ship to be as expected - dated & somewhat worn. While walking through one floor I saw a man holding his wife's head, so I approached & offered assistance. Shortly thereafter, a guest relations person arrived with a defibrillator. Although I believed the woman to have been overcome by the heat, she was somewhat symptomatic of a heart attack and her pulse was very weak. I calmly asked the GR rep to notify medical staff to expedite their response. A good 20 minutes or more went by before anyone arrived. I transferred patient care to him and we continued walking. Given what was known and (at least should have been) communicated to the medical officer, the delay in care was completely inexcusable. The GR person asked for my cabin number, presumably to send some sort of thank-you, but we never got anything.
Two hours after boarding the ship, an announcement was made that we could finally proceed to our cabins. It was a total of 3 1/2 hours after boarding that our luggage arrived on our floor. Fortunately I was among the passengers sitting in the elevator lobby waiting for luggage, so I took it to the room myself. I have to stop here and say that our booking was for the smallest interior room available (cat. N) because we are used to never being there except to sleep & shower. As they had overbooked, they bumped us up to a category J room, which I found out online was an almost $700 (total/cabin) upgrade. We were thrilled! We went from a 2-person maximum capacity room to a 4-person MC. And then we got in the room... I commented to my partner that, if this were a 4-person room, I wanted to know where the bunk beds were stored. You MIGHT be able to fit 4 members of the Lollipop Guild in this room, but it would be tight. I will give them kudos for one thing, however: storage! There were pull-out drawers under the bed, 2 closets with optional shelves that could be locked upright for hanging clothes (even full-length dresses if necessary), and a separate shelving unit.
While we were in the room, I looked at the Explorer daily newsletter and saw 3 group meetings scheduled for 5:00 (our departure time) and a spa raffle for 5:30pm. The walkways and windows are full of people watching the ship leave shore at those times, so why in the world would you set events to take place then?
That evening we arrived in the main dining room without reservations. When doing anytime dining on RCL, we could walk up and be seated within 2-3 minutes at most, so the thought of reservations didn't cross our mind. We were told there were no 2-tops available, so we waiting about 10 minutes, during which I saw 3 other parties of two come to the non-reservation stand (there was a separate line & stand marked for those with reservations) and be seated almost immediately. We were finally sat at about 8:15 and were brought water & menus. The wine steward visited the table to offer something from the bar, but other than him NO ONE came to our table until 8:45. After ordering & receiving our meal (and having to ask for items such as tea, sweeteners, bread, butter, etc. individually), we finished and were preparing for dessert. We asked for coffee twice and were eventually brought 2 empty coffee cups. They sat empty for the next 10-15 minutes until our dessert was served and we pointed out the spotless cups to our waiter. As soon as we finished our desserts we left the dining room, but it was 9:50 and the 9:30 show was well underway.
On or about day 3 we received a 5.5 x 8.5 folded comment card asking if there was any feedback they should prepare for in our end-of-cruise survey. I sent back 3 pages. Two days later we received a voice mail from the assistant DR manager and complimentary champagne & chocolate-covered strawberries delivered to our room. I noticed a marked improvement in our service. Let me jump ahead to day 9. An officer I had never met stopped me in the stairway and asked if things were "better." Puzzled, I said they were, and he asked if I had received something to our stateroom. I confirmed we had & asked how he knew. He identified himself as the DR manager who had sent them. I got to thinking about it after I walked away & realized he recognized me immediately. When I got comfortable with our DR steward, I asked in a round-about way if they ever got notified if a passenger complained. He smiled and said yes. I asked if they ever identified the passenger(s) to them, and got the same response. I persisted until he confirmed that they would pull up boarding pictures of the passenger(s) to identify them to the pertinent staff, and that he had been shown my (and my partner's) pictures and told "whatever it takes to make them happy - do it." Although I was a little uneasy finding out that there was basically an APB out on my partner & I among the hotel/DR staff, I must commend them for paying attention to the complaint and addressing the issue.
There were other incidents along the way, such as the casual dining area closing at different times on different days, and my partner being asked to leave the gym as soon as the spa manager finished her spin class (complete with unbearably loud music) because they needed to "sterilize the gym." It was 40 minutes until closing time, and they can't schedule sterilization for AFTER HOURS? Then, on day 7 and after visiting the gym at least 5 times, my partner started to enter on the starboard side because the port side entry was regularly blocked off and there was no signage either way. When the desk person saw him going by to the free area (translation: not a paying customer) she curtly announced "EXCUSE ME! The gym entrance is THAT WAY!" pointing to the port side. Really??? Seven days into a 10-day cruise there is a sudden change that passengers are supposed to intuitively know about? Also, the heat & humidity was no match for the Zuiderdam's A/C system, with condensation gathering on the ceiling above us until it literally rained back down - a couple times on us and on our food. Nasty.
As for the ports of call, they were the whole reason we selected this cruise and met or exceeded our expectations. We enjoyed Aruba (even though it was Sunday, so the shops by law could only remain open 4 hours at most). We thoroughly enjoyed Curacao, and the whole Panama Canal experience was very educational & amazing. We booked a zip-line tour in Costa Rica (also to give credit to HAL, they sold out of the two scheduled zip-line tours, but booked one more for passengers & then offered a fourth as a deeply-discounted crew benefit). If you get the chance, we HIGHLY recommend you do the zip-line. It was amazing and we bonded with new friends - one of whom was an on-board entertainment headliner. The on-board shops were a joke compared to RCL, and it annoyed the bejeezus out of me that virtually NOTHING was priced, except for HAL apparel, liquor, & cigarettes.
On-board entertainment was quite good, I must admit. Their show crew was good & you could tell that some REALLY put their heart & soul into it. It was also nice of HAL to allow their Filipino beverage staff to create and put on a show demonstrating their culture & individual talents. Who would have expected the upholsterer to sing better than many top-10 contestants on American Idol? The first paid entertainment was Barnaby, who incorporated the lack of audience enthusiasm (mostly because the average age was probably near 70) into his act and was hilarious. We also were very entertained by star of stage & screen Kevin Spirtas. Most people know him from Days of Our Lives, but I'm surprised he doesn't have an album out the way he sings. Lastly, comedian/magician Jeff Peterson and his "Magic dog Indy" were great, despite the same lack of enthusiasm from the audience.
I enter into this paragraph with some trepidation, knowing someone might think I'm being some sort of elitist, but it has to be said. As I mentioned, we were told to expect that all of the staff would be "pure class act." We had a substitute cruise director (the usual CD was on another ship trying to bring up their ratings) and - although a young, very nice guy - he had the stage presence of a street sign. There was no surprise when we found out that he had previously been a middle-school science teacher. Various things in his announcements and trivia games caused my partner & I to look at each other with that "WHAT did he just say???" look. For example the announcement that a certain event was going to start in 10 minutes on deck 12, even though the ship only had 10 decks. One of his staff members ran trivia for him one afternoon and presented a question about James Bond movies starring "Pierce BRONSON" (instead of Brosnan) not once, twice, or three times, but FOUR TIMES. Another of his staff members was the "Travel Guide" who usually gets you excited (and informed) about the ports of call. Every time he spoke, I felt as if I were in a geography class taught by Cliff Clayvin from 'Cheers.' Mostly useless facts delivered in a monotone voice, with every 2nd or 3rd sentence followed by "Right?" "...And there were 22,000 French lives lost while building the Panama Canal, mostly due to infectious diseases, right?..." The most engaging & socially adept crew member was the Captain, with the assistant DR manager & the casual DR manager being tied for second.
Disembarkation was uneventful, except for the stifling heat in most of the areas.
All in all, I don't expect we'll be on another HAL cruise any time soon. Perhaps we just got a bad apple, or perhaps this crew was exhausted. Regardless, this first impression is one we won't soon forget.