This was my fourth cruise (third on HAL), and by far my best overall cruise experience. I chose this itinerary and ship based mainly on the low single supplement for an inside guarantee cabin.
My trip began the day before when I flew into Orlando, the closest large airport to Port Canaveral. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport, and then took the hotel shuttle back to the airport the next day to catch the Holland America ship transfer. The cruise line reps were friendly, as well as knowledgeable. The trip over to the port is a boring 45 minute drive through swampland, so either bring a good book or use it as an opportunity to chat with your fellow passengers, if they're so inclined.
With multiple buses arriving at the terminal simultaneously, the check-in and embarkation process could be categorized as organized chaos. Lines were long, but kept moving, albeit slowly. My cabin was ready by the time I finally boarded the ship, and I was personally escorted to it by a uniformed steward wearing white gloves. After checking out my room and freshening up a bit, I proceeded to the Lido deck for lunch and then did a self-guided tour of the ship before the muster drill and sail away party. My luggage arrived an hour or two later and I was able to unpack before dinner.
The Zaandam is a beautiful cruise ship, and a cut above the Statendam and Maasdam that I cruised on previously. My inside aft cabin on the Dolphin Deck was clean and quiet, and my room steward Agus was attentive and friendly. The new mattresses and sheets that are part of HAL's Signature of Excellence upgrade program are absolutely heavenly. A couple of observations...of the 3 HAL cruises I've done, this one had the widest range of ages and "types" of people. I'd say the average age was 60, but the 20's, 30's and 40's were well represented. Out of a total of 1,440 passengers, only 40 were children. Another plus to cruising during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
There was a large group of secular humanists onboard that held seminars and meetings every day. My encounters with them were always pleasant and enjoyable. They in no way monopolized or took over areas of the ship. Their organized activities were pretty much limited to the Half Moon room.
The Zaandam's captain, Master Olav van der Waard, is young, handsome and personable. If I could meet an attractive, well-spoken, sophisticated man like him, I would definitely consider changing my marital status.
Food and service were superior, with only a few minor misses. My favorite meal of the entire cruise was dinner in the dining room on the last night. I chose hot crab and artichoke dip, conch chowder, Greek salad, osso bucco (braised veal shanks Italian style) over mushroom risotto and key lime pie for dessert.
Two lobster tails were featured as an entrEe on the second formal night. Our waiters offered on more than one occasion to bring us additional appetizers and entrees. Dutch Night, a HAL tradition, is gone but Nasi Goreng (Indonesian rice dish with a variety of grilled, spiced meats) was on the menu one night. My dining companions were totally enjoyable, and made dinner really something to look forward to. I was at a table for 6, but only 5 of us showed up. We had the 8:00 seating which was perfect for me -- not too early and not too late.
Besides the dishes I just mentioned, I also enjoyed the Caribbean paella, Oysters Rockefeller and steamed mussels (appetizers), and the filet mignon with BEarnaise sauce and a crab cake and asparagus bundle. I ate lunch in the dining room when I could, and especially enjoyed the wiener schnitzel and the beef short ribs. While I'm on the subject of the dining room, the breakfast and lunch hours were very limited. Most days it was 8-9:30 a.m. for breakfast and noon until 1 p.m. for lunch. I wish the Rotterdam was open at least 2 hours for both breakfast and lunch.
One day I tried lunch in the Pinnacle Grill for $10. It was OK, but the food and service was as good, or better, in the regular dining room. I had gingered carrot soup as an appetizer in the Pinnacle, and it tasted like cold Gerber's strained carrots to me!
The worst thing I ate was the scrambled eggs. They were terrible. I tried them in the Lido, in the dining room and through room service. The venue didn't seem to matter. I ended up having to reorder eggs over medium.
I did ship-sponsored shore excursions at our 3 ports of call -- Tortola, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay. As a single woman, I feel more secure on a group tour rather than going off on my own in an unfamiliar place. Plus shore excursions are a great way to meet other people. The ship's shore excursions were poorly organized for Tortola. Everyone met in the Mondrian Lounge and only one staff member was present to hand out stickers and give directions. For St. Thomas, they simply let us off the ship, and then we located the appropriate sign for our tour on the pier. Much simpler and less aggravating.
Tortola was rather interesting, with cows, goats, pigs and chickens roaming freely. I hope it's able to maintain its native island charm, and not become another crowded, overly commercialized island like St. Thomas. I couldn't wait to get back to the ship from downtown Charlotte Amalie. It was hot, humid and crowded, with the much touted duty free shops offering little more than overpriced trinkets and junk. Sitting in a massive traffic jam inhaling exhaust fumes is not my idea of a vacation. With 7 ships in port that day, it was just too much for the city to handle. In contrast, my first visit to Half Moon Cay was like being in paradise. I'm not a sun and sand person, so for me to be impressed with a beach, it has to be something special. As far as onboard activities, I played Bingo, watched some movies in my cabin, took a bartending class, attended the Rock 'n' Roldies show, went to most of the late night cast shows and the Indonesian crew show, sampled the offerings at the dessert extravaganza and Dutch High Tea, had wine and hors d'oeuvres at the Mariner's reception and just plain relaxed.
It was nice being able to stay in my stateroom until my disembarkation number was called. I've never enjoyed being herded into one of the public areas and then waiting hours to get off the ship.
With the exception of a few very minor glitches, this ship and its crew are winners. If you're interested in a relaxed, sedate and more refined cruise experience, Holland America's Zaandam may be what you're looking for.