This was our 16th cruise and first time on HAL. Although still a bargain, this was our most expensive cruise yet! We stayed at the Days Inn in Hollywood, since it offered free parking for our cruise duration and a free and very easy to use shuttle to the port.
Both embarkation and debarkation were fairly painless.
Once onboard, we finagled our way to our stateroom dropped off our bags headed to the Lido buffet for lunch. It seemed too chaotic, so we went down to the Vista Dining room and had lunch down there with only a few other passengers.
We booked a guaranteed inside cabin a couple of weeks before the cruise departed and were pleasantly surprised by the location. It was 6th deck, Aft, and very quiet. The room was comfortable and immaculate. Our room stewards were great and always very positive! I really enjoyed the Elemi toiletry products.
Compared to the other ships we have cruised on, the entertainment was lower key, but still very good. One of the entertainers named Barnaby, was advertised as a "Night of Unique Comedy". I told hubby as long as it is not juggling, it might be good. Our plan was to sit in the back just in case! We sat towards the back in the upper level. When Barnaby came out, all the lights went on real bright on the audience. That is when I spied the juggling balls. In a whispered panic, I told my husband "run...there is juggling balls", but there was no escape! For the ones that got up, Barnaby called them out on it, and in fact, that is what made the show. His interaction with the audience was downright hilarious! The lights never went low, so we could never escape if we wanted to without becoming part of the show. I'm really glad we stayed, it was a great show! Matt, the cruise director, was very personable. He got married on Half Moon Cay and we watched him and his beautiful bride walk down the beach, it was a really beautiful sight. We thought he did a great job!
A word of caution be careful with the internet when using your iphone. My husband purchased a plan and when it ran out, an option popped up to purchase another plan. He purchased another plan but was unable to see the minutes remaining and then when the time was up it just kept ticking away at 75 cents a minute without any type of warning. When he went to the front desk to inquire about the added charges, they said they were sorry, but it is in the fine print and basically he needed to time himself when using the internet.
As for the rough start, and our biggest complaint, it was the chaos in the Lido, the Canaletto, and Vista Dining Rooms the first 2 days. The ship was worried about a viral outbreak so the crew had to serve everything. The Lido consisted of long lines and much of the food was covered so you couldn't see what you were getting. In the Vista dining room, the service was terrible, with long waits between courses, our coffee served long after our dessert. The second night, we tried the Canaletto restaurant. We were bombarded by four staff members who gave us bread, an antipasto, took our order for just an entrEe each and we saw none of them again for over 45 minutes (there were only 2 other tables when we first sat down so it wasn't like they were overworked!). We finally asked if our entrEe was ready yet and five minutes later it was served (they had forgotten about us). I ordered some gelato for dessert, it never came either. We didn't eat up there again; the food wasn't anything special either.
We tried the Vista dining room again and this time had Paulus and his assistant Andre who were very efficient, delightful, and also remembered our names. They did a great job! The food in the dining was great. We had two lobster nights and a King crab night as well. My husband loved the steaks.
As for the Lido, it helped me not to think of this as a traditional buffet, it was more like a free food court at the mall. The food was very good. The lines at each station go fairly quickly, the workers themselves are very fast. It is the clientele in front of you that are making up their minds very slowly and then moving very slowly. For example, I waited in a 5-8 minute line for beef stroganoff, however if I wanted noodles with that I had to go to the other end of the Lido and get in yet another line, wait for the pasta to be heated, meanwhile my beef is now cold. It would be so much easier if they would just let us grab foods that are already cooked and wait in line for foods that needed to be special-ordered. Also, the cups for water and tea are TINY! My advice is to bring your own cups!
Other things I enjoyed about the Zuiderdam, included the room service menu and efficiency, not having to sign in and out beach towels, the culinary arts center classes, the free print out of the Times Digest, the dance classes, the afternoon teas, and the excellent seminar and commentary on the Panama Canal. Then of course there was the biggest surprise I have ever experienced on any cruise ship, and really the highlight of any cruise I have ever taken. We were given a surprise invitation to have drinks and dinner with Captain Turner at his table on one of the formal nights. The safety officer, Hajnalka Lukacs and three other really nice couples were also at his table and we had a really great time. CAPT Turner was extremely interesting and very personable. Definitely, we were very grateful for such an unforgettable experience!
We went on this particular cruise primarily for the Panama Canal and the other ports of call. All of the ports were incredible!
Half Moon Cay- Definitely an idyllic little beach paradise! We went on the first Stingray excursion and it was a blast! We were the only 2 on that excursion at that time, so we really got to spend some quality time with the stingrays and speaking with the guide. Afterwards, the BBQ on the beach was great and just swimming in the water was awesome, especially when it started to rain. Just magical!
Aruba- Favorite port on this cruise! We booked an ATV excursion through Rancho Diamari but 2 guides from Cheri Quad and Bike Rental picked us up and we immediately climbed aboard our 4-wheeler and headed off to Arikok National Park. We had joined a group of Colombian Tourists were really fun and just really nice. The guides were great too! It is a somewhat dangerous excursion with the conditions of the roads, but the guides seem to really look out for us. Our first stop after driving on a really crazy dirt road through a desert-like terrain was the Natural Pool. Small waves crashed over into the small swimming area which unfortunately had some floating trash in it. Next we drove to the Baby Natural Bridge for photos and then onto to the Bushiribana Gold Smelter ruins. Our last stop was at sunset at the California Lighthouse. An absolutely gorgeous ending to a wild and fun day!
Curacao- We walked aimlessly around Willemstad in the morning crossing the Queen Emma pontoon bridge down to the floating market. I walked around the fort shopping area and the just wandered narrow alleyways. In the afternoon we joined 3 other couples in a $15pp tour in a minivan around the island. A nice tour which included a drive around the beach, the downtown area, Scharlooweg, the Curacao liquor distillery, with a few photo stops at scenic viewpoints.
Panama - We went on the Embera Indian excursion. It was interesting. The motorized canoe ride was fun. The Embera Indians were really nice and performed some dances and served us some fish and plantains for lunch. However the time actually at their village was really short and the group we were with really too big. For the most part I felt as if I was being herded around like cattle. I did enjoy seeing the interesting countryside though!
Costa Rica- We booked a tour using Okey-Dokey Tours to go zip lining. I have used this company once before for this same tour so I knew it was going to be good. We had to wait an hour for the other group in our party to show up, but we were still able to make it to the zipline first thanks to our guides George and Staten. Zip-lining over the jungle was a blast, the views are amazing! Next we went on the Tortuguero Canal tour and saw lots of birds, sloths, and really enjoyed our enthusiastic guide named Rupert. Next was the beach restaurant for a delicious local chicken, beans and rice lunch, drinks included. After that we went on to see the Del Monte banana plantation which was very interesting thanks again to our guide George. We also stopped along the road to hold a sloth-really cool. And then George stopped at a fruit stand so I could try an organic local Banana. We also had a nice photo stop on the top of a very scenic hill. This tour was so great. George and Staten have lots great stories about life in Costa Rica and are just really nice. The last stop was a local grocery store so I could load up on some inexpensive coffee and other goodies.
All in all, this cruise was an amazing, over the top experience. We still can't believe all of the staff who could remember our names from Dewan at the Lido drink station who serves thousands of drinks a day, our room stewards, our dining room staff, and even CAPT Turner himself-we felt really special indeed! We can't wait to cruise on HAL again!