REVIEW OF ZAANDAM: San Diego-Hawaii-San Diego February 27-March 13, 2011
Being from the Midwest, the best place to be in February is Not in the Midwest. Therefore we booked this cruise to paradise. We chose HAL principally because it left from San Diego, one of our most favorite cities.. We also decided to arrive a day early as San Diego was guaranteed to be warmer than where we were. We were lucky to escape from a seven-inch snowfall the day before we left. However, in San Diego we were greeted with rain, clouds, brisk winds, record snowfalls in the mountains above the town and unseasonably cold weather. We were glad we brought our sweaters and jackets from the North. On Sunday we boarded the ship. Now, at last, the good weather.
Not so fast. Departure was sunny but still chilly. Standing on the upper decks as the ship departed the bay was not a comfortable situation with wind gusts that echoed life in the snow belt. It did not get better for days. On the second full day at sea, 35 know winds, rough seas and high waves made the ship roll back and forth so much, the outside was declared off limits. Many fell sick; others just fell due to the high amount of rocking onboard; the movement just made us tired and we went to bed earlier than usual. By Wednesday first week, the worst was over. And by Thursday, the expected warm weather finally appeared for good.
The Zaandam is a relatively small ship compared to the giants out there now (70,000 tons and 1500 passengers). We enjoy the Navigator class from RCI which is double the size. One plus was the relatively small number of passengers, thus insuring you would see the same faces (new friends) often during the cruise. Some of the amenities we enjoyed on RCI were lacking (notably the promenade). Crew members were friendly and helpful but service often was absent when you most needed it (see below). It often seemed that if it were not their responsibility, they would comment they would pass the word to others and then as soon as they were out of eyesight, soon forget about you and go on their own business.
The Zaandam has a beautiful three story ornate pipe organ in the atrium of the ship. We heard it only once during the entire cruise (although I heard others indicate it played several times during the day). I would think HAL would have at least one if not several formal shows (playings) of the organ during the cruise; it has a great asset that is not being effectively utilized.
The embarkation was a breeze. Even though we arrived at 11am, before debarkation was all completed (the ship was several hours late arriving due to bad storms the night before), we were checked in and boarding before noon. Our luggage arrived by mid afternoon and we were totally unpacked before departure. Can't say much for Pier B and the old warehouse used as dock facilities by San Diego. But that was not HAL's fault.
For the first three days, all food was handled directly to the passengers by the staff and no self-service was available. This was a new policy to combat the ever present dangerous noroviruses. Seemed to work. Since I am an independent sort, I felt somewhat embarrassed to be waited on when I could just as easily do it myself but I understand the reasoning for the service.
We enjoyed the Canaletto, the specialty non-premium restaurant offered by HAL. More of these should be the norm in every ship: enriched variety between the MDR, the Buffet, and the premium extra-pay restaurants. Food was good but servings were too generous and we left food on the plate rather than stuff ourselves.
Kudos to Kainoa, the Hawaiian travel guide for the ship. A native Hawaiian, very knowledgeable, very friendly, helpful and accessible to all passengers. He made the trip so much easier and enjoyable. He was present dockside on all the Hawaiian ports, readily available to answer questions and direct you to where you wanted to go. Also kudos to Eric, cruise director, a very talented, funny individual who made the cruise more eventful with his one liners, his stories, and his Georgian accent.
The Culinary Arts center was a great hit. Not that we are great chefs or have the inclination to be so back home. It was fine entertainment, good learning, and just a good time was had by all. Paula, the party planner, was always a jovial, friendly, delightful, knowledgeable hostess whom we can't say enough good things about. We were especially delighted by the Executive Cook-Captain battle one day.
The Theatre seating was not typical movie theater hard seats but cushioned seats more of a cocktail lounge act seating. It made the ambiance of the theater better. Entertainment was good not great. Justin Miller, guitarist, was outstanding and played an afternoon matinee in addition to his night show (and substituted a second night when one of the regularly scheduled entertainers came down sick. That is above and beyond the call of duty!!). The singers and dancers were excellent. The comedian for two days was hilarious and played perfectly to the senior crowd. For the first time ever we saw an acrobatic act on a cruise ship stage and had to agree it was different and kept the crowd's attention throughout the show.
We were pleasantly pleased with the library and exploration (computer center) on the Zaandam. Very spacious, many volumes, well organized, quite a few comfortable chairs and tables and an onboard librarian. It would set a great example for other ships.
The Zaandam has a retractable roof that covers the 8th Lido deck pool area. Great for rainy/bad weather. But often they leave it up instead of opening it when weather is good. Nice feature though.
Afternoon Tea (3pm) was a daily stop for us. Light finger food and pastries with your choice of tea or coffee. A chance to reconnect with friends or make new friends. A midafternoon break. A delightful tradition that I would recommend all cruise lines partake in.
As usual the number one negative in my book was the high cost and inversely proportional low speed of the Internet. I make my living on the Internet and can cruise during off-season only by working while cruising. You would think that with current technology, reasonable speeds can be obtained. I hate paying the high rates for Internet and I hate it worst when I wait for minutes for a page to load, meanwhile watching the minute meter keep increasing without accomplishing anything. First cruise line that provides fast, inexpensive, reliable internet service will have us as lifetime loyal customers. Better yet, offer an unlimited internet rate and all the pressure and stress will disappear for us road warriors.
Food was adequate. Portions were large, too large and half portions should have been offered. Our goal for every cruise was to come back the same weight as we arrived. We sampled all the restaurants. Ample variety. Good but no better than other cruise lines we had been on (this comment we would remark many times during the duration of the cruise and hear others). We found the variety lacking (and found this seconded by other passengers with experiences from other lines) and assortment limited on the menus. As the cruise went on, the quality of the food decreased.
The Zaandam must have a new pastry chef; with the exception of large cookies and ice cream (which you can hardly mess up even if you tried), the special deserts lacked flavor and texture.
This is a petty concern of mine but I must express it: The Zaandam only offers water and tea as complementary beverages; other ships we have been on include Lemonade and Fruit Punch. These additional drinks add to the variety of the food offered.
We chose "anytime dining" as a means to be flexible. As I understood it, you could go to the Main Dining Room anytime during dinner hours (or make a reservation). The ship likes the flexibility as it provides some flattening of the usual dinner hour traffic jams. Well, as we learned much to our disappointment, a better name is "Anything but" dining. We tried most of the two weeks to make a reservation and the only time they had was 7:45 (if we wanted that late we would have chosen the 8pm seating). We also tried numerous times to show up and every time was told 7:45pm. Either offer it sincerely or do not offer it.
We had two room stewards. Why two? Not enough work for two and we did not see them for days. DW marked our sheets and they were not changed for several days. One night by nine, our room had yet to be serviced for the night. That is getting late in anyone's book.
We enjoy a few minutes in the jacuzzi before bedtime. The 'hot tub' was more accurately named "luke warm tub." It was the only hot tub I have ever been in that was at room temperature. DW tried to call the desk for 30 minutes (and then a further 30 minutes back in the room) without the phone being answered. DW also cornered four or five crew members (including one officer) and asked about the problem, "We will contact someone for you." Thirty minutes later no one had yet surfaced to assist us. For a premium line, we expected a hot Jacuzzi and prompt service, neither of which was forthcoming. After numerous phone calls, we were told they closed the Jacuzzi at 7pm. This is nonsense and idiotic. Do they roll up the streets at 6:30 too? I know the average age for HAL is in the seventies but there are some that want something to do after dinner. Oh and no towels on the pool deck; we dripped and dried ourselves all the way back to our room. To be quite honest, they did fix the situation and sent us an apology letter with a special food gift. But it did take them the better part of two days whereas it should never have occurred in the first place.
We also enjoy playing the penny slots. We were glad to see two-cent slots. However, upon closer examination the minimum bet one could play was 40 cents (twenty lines minimum at 2 cents). This, at the very least, was false and misleading advertising. Needless to say, we did not play the slots or the casino. What else, we wondered, were they misleading us on there?
The crew is mostly Filipino with Dutch officers. They were excellent and made every attempt to assist you when necessary. We did find their grasp of English to be substandard and it was hard at times to understand what they were trying to say.
Holland-America uses a negative check-off system (similar to that used by record/book companies when you must send back a card otherwise they send you the next selection). Tips are automatically charged to your unless you intentionally fill out a form at the Front office. And to make it more difficult, you can only do it the last night before debarking. They are obviously trying to make it as difficult as possible in the hopes you will forget or just give up. We believe in determining for ourselves the gratuities given staff. And feel insulted that HAL wants to force us into a system instead of letting us decide for ourselves.
We had an aft cabin that was only two cabins short of being on the stern of the ship. Often when we sat on the verandah (note not balcony, verandah), the smoke from the ship's smokestack could be seen in a downward spiral on our side of the ship. Often we could smell the fumes and had residue on the verandah occasionally. It did not make for a fitful sleep knowing fumes were nearby.
The ship needs a good overall and maintenance checkup. Rust could be seen throughout the ship. It was clearly showing its age. When we on the tender to/from Maui, the rust was clearly visible all along the waterline. Not a comforting sight to say the least.
We found service to be substandard. Not just us but others attempted to contact the Front Desk and Guest Relations and spent 30-40 minutes without anyone picking up the phone. The Front Desk was basically afraid of their own shadows and could not make decisions or make allowances to the guest. And the computer guru said to DW, "If you have any more problems, I am going to have to sever your connection." Not fix it, not assist it but eliminate the source and the problem will go away; she got my award for the Best effort to dissuade you from every returning to HAL. The room stewards did not have a direct extension; to contact them you had to phone the front desk (whom never did answer their phone so how do you communicate with them when you needed them? Still not certain how) Not exactly service oriented displays by a cruise line that portrays itself as a superior service line.
HAL considers itself a premium line (it is a legend in its own mind as the joke goes). It offers excellent service but at a considerable monetary premium to other lines. The question in our mind is whether the service and amenities offered are worth the premium paid to cruise with HAL. IMHO (and DW concurs), HAL is overrated and is not worthy of the premium prices paid (Not just us but many of those we spoke too had the same feeling including several who had cruised many times at HAL). Its service is no better and in many fashions worse than other lines. DW would not recommend them at half the price. We do like some of the innovative itineraries they have proposed (whereupon you leave and return to the same American port but get to visit Europe, South America or the South Pacific, thus eliminating the dreaded 9 hour cross Atlantic flights). But this is not enough to overcome their basic service problems. We have therefore scratched HAL from further consideration for our future cruises.