I apologize for the rather belated timing of this review. Computer problems and subsequent attempts at info recoveries left it buried in both my and my computer's memories. But I spent a bunch of time with it and Holland America is still running the same itinerary with the same ship so it may help somebody.
Make no mistake about it. This one spectacular, educational, stimulating yet relaxing cruise combined everything positive that we look for in a vacation. It went beyond our expectations in almost every department. We can not recommend it highly enough. The length and detail of what follows is a result of our excitement, expectations and enthusiasm and we hope it helps others dodge a few pitfalls and make their own decisions... and maybe build some anticipation, but... the review got longer than I had anticipated so here's an abridged version for those in a hurry... or those possessing a short attention span like me.
We loved the cruise. It was very relaxing with a great mix of action and quiet time but it's not really a party boat. It is also not new but the ship is not as 'worn out' and beat up as some on these boards would have you believe. Our Superior Suite was spacious and nicely appointed with a generous balcony. We liked the Vista restaurant. Food quality was good in the Lido but rude crowds cause indigestion. The Pinnacle was worth far more than we paid.
Costa Rica was a rainy, eye-popping place especially including our recommended Rainforest Aerial Tram tour.
The Panama Canal was a historical and technical marvel and should be on everybody's list of things to see. Photos and videos do not do it justice. Pass on the Standard Car Railway excursion as by bussing you off to some Panama City strip mall, it does little to illuminate the reason you came here and with the fogged train car windows, actually makes the canal harder to see. If you want to try a train, you might opt for the Dome Car as that excursion will take you to the Miraflores locks and canal museum. (Don't know the visibility through the windows on that one, though.)
Curacao is a great, cosmopolitan little island with a very European feel. Scuba diving (with an outside vendor) was spectacular.
In Aruba we took a rushed HAL dive excursion on a great wreck but which didn't leave us enough time to see really see Oranjestad.
Was very disappointed in the lack of Scuba on Half Moon Cay and the paucity of good, shore-side snorkel sites sent us back to the ship early. Though having taken the glass bottom eco tour and the kayak eco tour in the past, I can recommend them.
During a sea day we took an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the ship with a very small group that is not to be missed if you have any questions at all about how monster cruise ships operate and handle all those people aboard.
Did not see the production shows but don't miss comedic magician Jeff Peterson in the Vista Lounge showroom.
That's the highest of the high and the lowest of the low. Now for the in-depth low-down for the detail researchers among you;
This is our third time on the Zuiderdam, which provided our first voyage in 2003 to the Western Caribbean and a follow-up in 2004 to the Eastern side. We were bowled over with the amenities and service Holland America, and particularly the crew of the Zuiderdam, provided us back then and on a subsequent Alaska Inside Passage on the Oosterdam in 2006. Since, due to different itinerary needs, we have tried several other lines but with the Panama Canal in our sights, we were excited to be back on our first ship with Holland America.
However, scoping out some of the cruiser reviews led us to hold our breath a little before we actually boarded, anticipating a rag-worn, vestige of its former glory with supposed worn fabrics, broken chairs, holey carpets and a diminished cruise quality.
Didn't find it much.
Not even close to the degree the boards and posts led us to believe. Yes, we had a couple of problems but I don't want to bury the lead.
And the lead is that we had a great time, a spectacular vacation and still find Holland America provides a superior experience. As to the clientele, it is generally an older crowd and probably not the cruise line for Party-All-Nighters. We certainly fit in the former category but we are also very active, extremely curious and generally non-stop. This was our first cruise with back-to-back sea days and that took some adjustment. The ship doesn't have zip lines, climbing walls, simulated surfing, etc. But if you aim to ease up and relax, enjoy learning about unusual things, savoring quality food and capable of enjoying more introspective pursuits, I can wholeheartedly endorse Holland America, the Zuiderdam and especially this itinerary. Though one could hardly call 1900+ people cruising along with you intimate, compared with 4,000 or 5,000 in an only marginally larger ship, the experience does seem much less crowded.
And with careful shopping, it's hard to beat the price to experience one of the greatest engineering feats and most important but under-recognized turning points of American history. Combined with a tour of the rainforest in Costa Rica, which gives you some perspective into what they were facing in Panama, it is just spectacularly eye-opening.
My wife and I drove from NC to Ft. Lauderdale and visited with Mom for a couple of days before she dropped us off at Port Everglades on Sunday. Not knowing what to expect from local traffic and with eight ships in port, three from Holland America alone, we left early. Traffic was better than expected so we got there about 10:45. The directions to the appropriate terminal within the port boundaries were explicit. However, once we got to Terminal 21, signage about where to drop our baggage and where to enter were non-existent.
Once we found a porter and our way in, we had no trouble at check-in though I don't understand the purpose for holding passengers within the terminal in groups before being released to board. No big deal but the anticipation as we sat, the hull of the ship looming outside the picture windows we were facing, was excruciating. The check-in line seemed backwards though, as arriving, unchecked passengers crossed the room from the entrance on one side, to the check-in desk in front of the windows on the far wall. Then checked-in passengers looped to the left, away from the boarding area, to a limited number of chairs at the back. At the direction of HAL, the assemblage jumped up and crossed the incoming line, in order to head to the gangway out the right side of the room. Loopy.
Being on board early, we headed to the Vista dining room for the Mariner-only lunch, beginning our plan to avoid the press of the Lido restaurant throughout this cruise as much as possible. It was a quiet, delicious start to our cruise. We then began to reacquaint ourselves with the ship, toting our carry-ons with us, and marveled at the site of the teeming port, including the astoundingly immense Allure of the Seas at the opposite dock, until the ship-wide announcement about the availability of our staterooms.
Our home for the next ten days was to be Superior Suite #6062. It was clean and well-made-up with a spacious balcony equipped with a full-size table and chairs and two lounges but devoid of our luggage. We immediately noticed that the shock absorber on the bathroom door was broken and reported it to our concierge. It remained untended for the duration. In that little detail lies hidden the only real complaint about the cruise that we had.
Having been overwhelmed and astounded with Holland America's service in the past, now separated by several years, we believe we detect a general slip in the quality of service, at least on this ship. It is still very high and you can see the great efforts of the majority of the crew but there is something missing that used to be there. We think there may be several reasons.
Reason 1; when we cruised with HAL in the past they had a tipping policy which basically stated that the crew worked for your approval and enjoyment. If you wanted to tip they would provide envelopes so that you could distribute however much you wanted to the folks who provided the services. Now they have folded an $11 a day per person charge into your on-board account with the explanation that they will distribute the resulting fund to the crew in predetermined percentages so that everyone who contributes to your experience, including some of those behind the scenes, will get something. There is a stipulation that you can change it, if you wish, before check out. This is becoming an industry standard for handling the post-cruise tips.
The rub for us, goes beyond the tacky $22 per day added on to our cruise cost (10 day cruise = $220 extra.) Please be advised, we tipped generously in the past, usually exceeding the published standards but we did it based on the service in which we were involved. With all tips going into a general fund, the purpose for tipping has lost its effect. It has become just another check to cash that subsidizes their HAL paycheck with no direct connection to performance. We think HAL employees recognize the personal disconnect now between the service provided and the institutional tip. And because the tip is covered automatically, it removes responsibility, and serious consideration by the passengers, of the services rendered and by whom. In addition, surprise charges like this make the customer feel abused and misled. The crew should get a paycheck from HAL that reflects their true worth, rather than expecting passengers universally to subsidize the line.
What if I 'adjust' the tip amount at the desk? Does the crewmember know that? And which crewmember am I trying to affect? Rather than nailing the customer institutionally, voluntary tips should be the standard and handled behind the scenes between the crew like a shore-side restaurant where those receiving tips are required to divide a percentage among the support staff. The current policy leads to some crew members "coasting" knowing they will get however much they will get regardless of the level of service they personally provide. While many tried very hard to please like the old days, including our cabin steward, many were just doing what they needed to get by.
Which leads to Reason 2; the problem was never more apparent than in the dining room. While unstructured dining looks good on paper since you can dine in the Vista at your reasonable leisure, without tips to incentivize the serving staff's performance, after the initial serving round, dining stewards were hard to come by. Refills, corrections or just about anything after the initial course service were rare as the staff moved on to more recently seated tables. It was really memorable when, in the old days, your steward knew your name and your preferences and you got a chance to know him or her, as well. With flexible dining, you never got the same steward twice.
They went to the trouble of giving the wait staff a ticket with our name on it but I can only remember a single time when we were personally addressed at our table. Then we had to deal with the question of how do we reward this isolated attempt at superior service? Another solution to the service problem needs to be found.
Finally, Reason 3; a final question arises as to whether they have reduced staffing in light of the recession and whether an over-reduction has had the deleterious effect that we noticed in the service.
And that brings us back to moving into our cabin. After another length of time exploring the ship, later in the afternoon we returned to our room to find no luggage. Leaving again, we just happened to head to the forward elevators and there were our bags, mixed with a good bunch of other luggage spread around the foyer and into the passageways with no ship representation as passengers stepped over and through the pile. Having a good bit of expensive Scuba gear laying out where anybody could grab it or any of our other stuff and wheel it off was the impetus for us to grab it instead and take it to the room. No questions were asked nor our tags checked as we shuttled back and forth to retrieve the several bags.
So how about the dining? Our cruise purchase having been made in the waning weeks before the sail date we were assigned the 'As You Wish' dining program because the structured seatings on the upper floor of the Vista were already assigned, so we went with it. The flexibility was nice, too, so we have no objections to the format. Most of our meals were taken in the Vista dining room and we had no problems with waiting times. As usual we generally found the dishes to be properly done, nicely plated and delicious as we tried the range of menu items through the cruise.
We felt sorry for everybody in the dining and kitchen staff on the final night of the cruise when they had their 'Master Chef' dinner. It was the only night where there were 5:30 and 8:30 seatings like the upstairs and was an attempt at making the night special. It began once the diners were seated with no napkins and proceeded with the 'Napkin Dance' as the waitstaff distributed them while prancing around the room. The staff appeared somewhat uncomfortable as they congregated at specified times throughout the dinner and then paraded around the room dancing, singing and even doing some juggling and acrobatics. However, this meant an interruption between courses, which meant serving the current course had to be completed before they all gathered... and it wasn't. It all came to a head at the desert course when the star of the show, the baked Alaska, arrived at our table after it had been apparently out for a while. It was already drooping and by the time they got finished with the performance, it was well and truly down for the count. (the remains were, however, still quite yummy.)
We did a couple of breakfasts and lunches in the Lido and liked being served for the first few days of the cruise, a sensible nod to discouraging an outbreak of norovirus. Food quality was reasonable but somehow those buffets bring out the worst in some folk. In spite of not spending a bunch of time there, still got elbowed out of the way as some people lunged for food like it was the last they would get for the duration of the cruise. Jeez, simply ask if you can grab something if I'm in the way and I'll gladly and politely move aside.
Food quality was exceptional for a buffet and there was always plenty of it, and different cuisine stations as well, during dining hours. My wife and I especially appreciated the poached egg and hot oatmeal breakfast station getting both our needs filled without the rush of the main line. You could order your eggs sitting atop meats and fishes of many different types in addition to your English muffin and you could top it all with several varieties of hollandaise. We felt the salad station was a little weak on selection but as I said, we didn't spend much time in the Lido. The desserts were exceptional, though there also seemed to be a somewhat limited selection. I really liked the small servings, though, as I could try a couple in each outing without too much guilt.
Speaking of guilt, leave it locked in the stateroom for the Dessert Extravaganza. The show starts at 10:30pm as a presentation of delicious desserts of every type are displayed and consumed under the sliding roof around the Lido Pool. Self control is not my strong suit but after a big meal in the Vista and then enjoying the Variety Show, I could only try a couple before I knew I was overfilled. It was a most impressive presentation. Maybe I should have planned a lighter dinner?
We consumed most of our lunches on board relaxing as the staff served us in the Vista dining room. It is a great hide-a-way as most seem to wrestle their way through the lines at the Lido. Good for them. Good for us.
Late in the cruise sailing through the Windward Passage my wife and I sat enjoying lunch as the usual noon announcement by Captain, Werner Timmers began. He was very entertaining and detailed in his heavily accented explanations throughout the voyage as to where we were, where we were headed, how fast and usually a bit of sailing history about the area before he turned the mic over to Cruise Director Gene Young who would then list the afternoon's activities.
On this day his explanations included a short history of an island the United States had taken over to mine guano. "Guano. B.S.," he said. "Not the kind of B.S. you hear in a conversation, but the real kind; bird s***." I looked at my wife, disbelieving and then scanning the room I saw heads popping up from their soup everywhere. "Yes, bird s***!" he stated, emphatically, his accent never as clear as that moment. Smiles and laughter erupted from passengers and crew alike as he went on to explain, still explicitly, its value as a fertilizer and the limited success the company had mining it before abandoning the island.
He then handed the mic off to Young who sealed the deal with "Thank you Captain, for proving that when you are Captain, you can say anything you want!" to a roar of laughter and applause that I'm sure was duplicated throughout the entire vessel. Another memorable moment, but, I digress.
One lovely, leisurely dinner at the Pinnacle lived up to all expectations and was certainly worth the surcharge. We never seem to eat there enough and it is always very special from the food to the service.
They have partitioned a corner of the Lido into a non-surcharge alternative Italian restaurant called Canaletto but we managed to forget about trying it until it was too late.
Our on-board experience was enhanced by a series of free Digital Workshops spotlighting a range of photography and computer skills and knowledge presented in cooperation with Microsoft Windows. We also attended presentations on the workings of the ship and the mandatory tour through the galley. Very much enjoyed an introduction by percussionist Rick of the HALcats to those steel drums you see and hear at virtually every Caribbean stop. Being heated and hammered from the ubiquitous 55-gallon oil drum, I would never have guessed they cost so much and were so delicate. These onboard pursuits were the only place that felt crowded. I guess I like things that others like too, but everywhere I turned up, if I didn't get there way before the allotted time, I was at the back of the room, standing or left out completely.
Didn't shop much although my wife did find a pair of inexpensive earrings she liked.
Upon our arrival onboard we noticed a notation in the ship's daily bulletin, the Explorer, about a Behind-the-Scenes ship tour and jumped at the chance. The cost was $150 pp and the capacity was a mere 12 people so we ran to the Front Office desk and signed up. On our final sea day we gathered at 1:30 pm with the Manager of Onboard Marketing, Tunde Kosa. She led us on a three-hour tour through the Main Galley, Backstage of the Vista Lounge showroom, down to the Main Laundry, over to the Engine Control Room, through the Provisions areas, into the Waste Management area, up into the Bridge and then to a cocktail- and appetizer-fueled question and answer session. What a wondrous machine! An astounding, jaw-dropping education about how this machinery and the people who run it take care of the needs of those on board while moving this behemoth around the oceans! It gives you a great deal of respect, for not only these tremendous ships and their crews but insight into who and how those same things are done in your own hometown.
They gave us each a HAL gift bag containing a folder with a capsule description of the tour, the cruise's daily menus autographed by the Executive Chef, a stat sheet from the Chief Engineer, a photo of the ship and one copy each of the line's books, 'Towel Creations' and HAL Master Chef Rudi Sodamin's 'A Taste of Excellence Cookbook.' A photo of all the participants posed on the bridge with the captain and Chief Officer Michiel Willems, as well as Kosa, was later delivered to our stateroom.
We are not much for taking in the shows but two we did see were brightened considerably by the comedic presentations of magician Jeff Peterson. He's made a big thing of his dog, Indy, but it was really Jeff's polished showmanship that I appreciated. It was a very entertaining show and far too short. I heard good things about the production shows but didn't attend one as early dinners and busy days found us usually peacefully walking off our dinner on the promenade and relaxing in the room before heading to dreamland.
After two days rounding the western edge of Cuba and racing across the Caribbean Sea, we arrived at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, and boarded a bus for the Rainforest Aerial Tram Tour. It was raining (Rainforest... Duh!) but a great tour beginning with the lengthy, well-narrated bus ride past banana and pineapple plantations, shipping centers and villages, terminating at the entranceway to Rainforest Adventures, Costa Rica Atlantic. A little confusion in the transfer from the big busses to the little ones necessary to get into the facility, apparently caused by the rain, though being in a rainforest, one would think they would get plenty of practice. Tourists trying to get out of the rain filled up the few covered areas pretty quickly. The rain never let up but we had our raingear and the ride was magnificent as our tram's tour guide pointed out plants, flowers, fruits and birds and had a story to tell about it all. The tram was fitted with a canvas overhead but there was still the opportunity... make that the likelihood of getting wet as the tram headed out mid-canopy and returned at a higher elevation for the approximately one-hour cable car ride.
Lunch of Costa Rican specialties was good and after a few minutes browsing the souvenir shop we headed back to the pickup area to be hauled back to the large busses. Again, a bit of a bottle-neck here and limited cover from the rain but it didn't detract from the overall experience as far as we were concerned. Remember, though, it's a rainforest. Plan for rain.
Then it was off to the Panama Canal. As I said already, this is a spectacular experience when placed in the context of man's achievements and U.S. History. We began on the bow as the ship approached the canal entrance. Though the announced access to the bow was 6 am, we headed down at 5:45 to be at the front of the line. By then the bow was already open and there was already a substantial group in place on the rail. But no mind, cruising through the first cut toward the lighted Gatun locks as the sun rose was a voyage of wonder. Nothing prepares you for watching the huge, hulking freighter in front of you rising in front of your eyes and then move toward the next chamber in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of all the attendant machinery. It is just jaw dropping when you consider all of the details that must go into each transect and how technologically advanced this must have been when it was first begun in 1904. Even the size of the chambers shows the advanced thinking. As I recall the largest ship in the world in 1912, eight years after beginning canal construction, was the Titanic and it was only 92 feet wide and 883 feet long and most ships were much smaller than that. The lock chambers of the Panama Canal are 110.0 feet wide and 1,050 feet long. Even viewed from this jaded age of boundless scientific and engineering marvels in which man has all too often overrun the natural world with little thought to the consequences, this is still an astounding accomplishment.
After experiencing the first lock from the bow we began chasing all over the ship for more views and found more than we could look at no matter which direction we peered. Could write for days on what we saw but our lock experience was over too soon and we headed over to anchor and begin ferrying Shore Excursion passengers to the Yacht Club where busses awaited. Ours took us to the Panama Canal Railway Standard Car tour. My mistake. DO NOT TAKE THIS TOUR unless you just want a way to get from Colon to a small strip mall on a peninsula opposite a bay from Panama City to sample ice cream.
Unfortunately, this is a very distressing incident for me. I have never been this disappointed with a Holland America shore excursion or any shore excursion for that matter. My wife and I have always prided ourselves on finding the fun parts and making the most of them. But BE ADVISED, this tour DOES NOT go where the Dome Car tour does and that most of the canal side viewing windows WILL BE FOGGED to the point of merely letting light into the car. THERE IS NO LUNCH and no opportunity to get one (although all the way over the guide will repeatedly talk about the various restaurants which have opened in Panama.) They provide a very small snack box during the train ride and try to sell you other snacks and drinks. The guide droned on repetitively with no depth to her explanations. No canal history. No canal experience at the end, mainly just a ride on a train and a bus to a brief stop at an uninteresting, limited strip mall that one could find most anywhere. We saw the hi-rises of Panama City in the distance and were treated to a couple of historic points along the bus route but on the whole, not worth the money. HAL refunded 15% of the fee but forget the money, it felt like mostly a waste of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about the focus of the cruise.
This after calling HAL in advance of our purchase to inquire about the difference between the Dome Car and Standard Car tours and getting a reply that they both had the same terminus and that the only difference was the viewing dome. Between the poor windows and not getting to the Miraflores Locks and museum, my disappointment was great.
And be careful of Colon. A congested, scary, dangerous looking place that made us shiver even though we went from the bus directly into the Colon 2000 cruise terminal. Buried in Fodor's evaluation of the place is this Illuminating statement; "All of Colon is considered a high crime area and pickpockets have been known to strike even in the seemingly secure areas of the cruise-ship terminals." Additionally, "For the most part, the city is a giant slum..." And later this note, "Travelers who explore Colon on foot are simply asking to be mugged." Having seen and experienced the place, I'm a believer.
What a contrast Willemstad, Curacao presents. An inviting place with a decidedly European feel that encouraged a walk from the Otrabanda area, next to which we were docked, over the Queen Anne (swiveling) Bridge and deep into the Punda side of town. With a reputation as one of the great Scuba diving areas in the world but nothing offered by HAL, we reserved a two-tank dive directly with a company called The Dive Bus on their 'house' reef. Super inexpensive and everyone there was happy to see us and to assist us in any way possible. If you are interested in diving while here, please consider them highly recommended as they were two relaxed, very enjoyable dives.
The contrast to a relaxed diving experience was the dive we booked through HAL with Unique Sports at Aruba. We rushed from the ship to the dive shop on Palm Beach then jumped on board a rather cramped boat and hurriedly assembled our own gear to be ready as soon as they had tied up to the dive buoy marking the wreck, Antilla. Enjoyed the dive as we figure-8ed the wreck but would like to have taken more time as there was plenty to see sitting upon and hiding among the steel. The safety monitor in me was a little put off by the glass-bottom tour boat constantly running back and forth 40 feet over our heads. Dive flags are to warn motor boats away. If anybody had to make an emergency ascent, there was certainly a danger of hitting or being hit by that thing. Dive op was truly pumping the divers through and everything about the experience seemed rushed but the dive, itself. Upon returning to the boat, the pace picked up another notch or two in a rush to get back to the dock and take on the next boatload. Dive personnel were engaged in their own missions of the moment and none of those included preparing or disassembling any dive gear or otherwise assisting the customers. There was assistance at the ladder. Don't know if there were any facilities to shower or rinse gear as we were hustled from the boat back to gear check-in and into a van for the return to the cruise dock with the admonition that if we did not take that van, we would have to arrange our own way back. But the dive was worth it all.
And our last stop was Half Moon Cay. As we have expanded our cruise horizons, I have grown less enamored of cruise lines' private hide-a-ways when we could be seeing a real piece of cultural real estate that is foreign to us and fun to explore. But we like to dive and the last time we set foot on Half Moon Cay, there was a one tank dive available... but not now. So we thought we'd try snorkeling but we had done HAL's Snorkling Shore Excursion on the island before so we thought, since we had not been there for years that we would try it off the beach. Bad Choice. Good snorkeling requires fish or other creatures or plant life or both. Those organisms require homes. Those homes come from rock or coral or sunken ships or other protuberance above the beautiful, pink sand. Unfortunately, viewing the beautifully crystal clear water from the vantage points of the ship, the top of the new, three story, pirate-themed bar or the shore, there was no such nothing in the areas in which they would let us snorkel. And that indicated there would be no more than a very few, very plain fish. We're not sun worshipers so we gave it up and returned our snorkel gear to the ship where we had a quiet, uncrowded lunch in the Lido and began to pack our bags for disembarking the next day.
Disembarkation on Wednesday morning was by invitation, only. And not being one of those who needed to rush off to find a flight out of chilly Ft. Lauderdale or one of those who could carry their own stuff off without two trips, we received late disembarkation tags. It was fine with us as it gave us time to have a leisurely final breakfast in the Vista and peruse the very empty port. We were not in a rush to finish our vacation, anyway, and I watched while longshoremen on fork lifts moved baggage off the ship and hustled replenishments for the next cruise back on. When we were finally called to the gangway it was still too soon but we went, anyway and had little trouble rounding up our baggage, a porter, then slipping through customs and heading outside to meet Mom.
Without a doubt, the ship is showing some age. But it is constantly being maintained. There were some teak handrails missing from some areas but along with deck chairs, they were being repaired and re-varnished in the forward anchor room and by the time you read this they probably are back in service. Sanding, cleaning and painting maintenance was going on in several places but you had better expect that with any ship and we can't say it cost us any enjoyment, at all.
Yes, we had a broken door shock on our bathroom door and the privacy curtain track pulled loose of the ceiling allowing the curtain to droop, rendering it useless. Both were reported to our personal concierge by four days in. Neither was repaired by cruise end six days later. We also found some broken glass in a portside corner of the exposed Lido foredeck in front of the Greenhouse Spa workout room. Despite reporting to our personal concierge, the glass shards were not swept up for three days until we found a steward with a broom and personally sent him there. I think these problems hark back to the possibility of understaffing. But we've probably beat that horse more than she deserved, because...
We enjoyed it. It was a fantastic experience that we can enthusiastically recommend to others. And now, despite a few glitches, another great vacation begins to recede into the rear view mirror. Well, not quite. Now I have to edit all those great images.