This cruise was the 10-day Sunfarer itinerary, which is a partial transit of the Panama canal with additional calls at: Half Moon Cay; Orenjestad, Aruba; Willemstad, Curacao; and Puerto Limon, Costa Rica.
I cruised with my sister; we are in our late 50s to mid 60s. Throughout this review, I will be comparing aspects of the cruise with Carnival, as this is the first HAL cruise for a habitual Carnival cruiser.
We flew in separately to Fort Lauderdale. I found HAL's pre and post cruise packages for airfare and hotel to be about twice as expensive as I could arrange myself. Pre and post-cruise, we stayed at the Rodeway Inn. (We stayed an extra day in the Fort Lauderdale area to visit with family.) The Rodeway is a nice, clean, no-frills hotel, which aims to accommodate the cruise passenger. Their check in procedure moves inexplicably slowly, for some reason, in spite of having 3 check in counters, but their rates are reasonable and they give an AARP discount. They are also the only hotel that provides a free shuttle to both the FLL airport and the cruise terminal. Their restaurant and bar and very good and somewhat of a local hangout. Think Lone Star, with a bar. Prices were decent. We caught the 10:30 shuttle to the pier the next morning. and arrived at 11:00. The embarkation at Fort Lauderdale was quick and flawless. The initial line moved very quickly, there were plenty of HAL employees checking passengers in, and there was plenty of seating for those checked in and waiting to board. HAL also served lemonade and cookies, a nice touch.
Once we boarded, we found numerous staff guiding passengers. We headed for the Lido Market for lunch and were pleasantly surprised to find it far less crowded than on Carnival. Also, as opposed to one giant open space, the Lido Market seating had all these little alcoves, which gave a further illusion of privacy and cut down on noise. The food was fantastic! We were especially thrilled with the caviar-encrused sushi and delicate, tiny, strawberry tarts. Again, a couple dozen notches above Carnival. (I'd like to interject, at this point, that I am not bashing Carnival. I like Carnival and I've cruised many times on that line. It's a excellent value and I am of the opinion that there's no such thing as a bad cruise, unless of course, you're talking about the Costa Concordia! But I think, for me, it might be HAL from now on.)
As we were finishing lunch, there was a ship wide announcement that all cabins were ready, so we proceeded to our balcony cabin, #4164. We instantly loved the big balcony and quickly unpacked. (The HAL balconies are deeper than Carnival's.) There was ample storage space for all our stuff.
I found the Zuiderdam to be beautiful and had a hard time relating what we saw to the description I've sometimes read on CC about her being a "rust bucket." Perhaps those reviews were written before the recent dry dock and, of course, any sea-going ship will have rust in some patches outside, but the crew were always cleaning, painting and maintaining her. Our cabin furniture looked new. All the carpeting on the ship looked new. She just sparkled! We loved the decor on the ship and found her to be accurately described as "a floating art museum." One of the things I had wanted to do, that I just never got around to was to check out the audio walking art tour of the ship. ( It's available from the Explorations Cafe.)
We found the service on the Zuiderdam to be wonderful! Our cabin stewards, Gani and Darry, immediately presented themselves. We requested fresh fruit and, due to my back issues, I requested a topper for the bed. Both were done before bedtime. These guys made the cruise for us. They were always greeting us in the halls, asking how we were doing, and if we needed anything. Every day, they replenished the fruit and ice, without further requests and we felt very cared for. Our waiter, Zwedana, was professional and also super friendly. His recommendations were always right on target. The matre d', Osmann, did us a huge favor by tracking down the recipe of a dessert (Snickers cake) we had eaten in the Lido Market a few days before. When I asked him about this, I never really thought we'd get the recipe, but he totally came through for us! It might be too complicated for my to actually accomplish, but I'm gonna give it a try!
In terms of the activities on the ship, I could not understand some of the criticisms I've read on CC about there being "nothing" to do. True, this is not an ideal ship for children, and we saw only a few. There is a kids' club, but it's rather small and there are no zip lines that traverse the length of the vessel, no water slides or "surfing" thingies. But, for an adult, there was so much to do that, on this 10-day cruise, I never got to do it all! I wanted to attend some of the computer classes, such as "How To Choose Your Next Device", but never got the chance because there was something I wanted to do more!
We particularly loved Alice and Raoul's cooking classes. The demonstration kitchen was great and they passed out recipes and generous samples. On the day after the canal transit, they gave a class on how to make the famous "Panama buns" that were so delicious. On the last day, Alice presented a complete set of all the recipes they had done that cruise. Of course, there were trivia contests, which are usually some of my favorite activities on a cruise. But again, I never got to do one, because there was always something more interesting to do instead. On the day before we reached the Panama canal, Simon, the cruise director gave a funny and informative talk about the history of the canal, with an excellent, comprehensive slide presentation. There were also 2 movies presented about the canal, which showed in the ship''s theater that day and on the room tvs throughout the cruise. One was the well-known Nova presentation, "A Man, A Plan, A Canal: Panama" and the other was a longer movie, whose name I cannot remember. Simon gave lots of informational talks and he always managed to make them funny as well.
A note about movies: Zuiderdam had a different movie every day and had at least 3 showings of it. They were very popular. The theater has lovely, huge, comfortable recliners with room for drinks, but is a small theater and there are not a lot of seats. Get there early and don't plan on saving seats.
We found HAL to provide many little amenities that, taken together, elevated the experience of the cruise immeasurably. For example: they give everyone a sturdy tote bag that you saw passengers carry around everywhere, there were real, small terry cloth hand towels rolled in a basket in every restroom, rather than paper towels, gratis cold towels and water outside the ship as you returned from an excursion, happy hour with free, gourmet appetizers every day, and so on, and so on. I don't know if this is the case on every HAL ship, since this was my first cruise with the line, but it just seemed to set HAL apart and made us feel quite pampered.
We never did see any of the evening entertainment. We had good intentions but, at the end of the day, we just seemed to prefer to sit on our balcony or in a lounge and talk. It had been a long time since we seen each other and we are happily best friends, as well as sisters. However, I did hear people comment favorably about the contortionist, Stryker, and BB King. Sorry that I can't give any firsthand feedback.
The food in the Vista (main) dining room was absolutely five star! It was varied, delicious, and the presentation was quite artistic. The service was prompt and we had the best time with our table companions, who were fantastic! We did go to the Pinnacle grill one night and it was fine. However, compared with specialty restaurants on other cruises, I found them to be understaffed, although the staff was very friendly. We had to wait a long time for service, and ask repeatedly for our water glasses to be refilled. In addition, neither of us thought the food was any better than in the main dining room. We did not try the Italian restaurant, Caneletto.
We loved our balcony, which expanded the functional size of the cabin significantly. As we love to do whenever we cruise, we generally had a room-service breakfast out there and spent lots of hours on the balcony talking and watching the ocean. On this cruise, we were fortunate to see a pod of dolphins racing the ship one morning! I also saw a shark fin one day and several instances of flying fish! So amazing!
Room service was quick and the selection was excellent! They have a sizable menu and you can also write in just about anything and they'll try to get it for you.
One of our favorite places on the ship was the Explorations Cafe on deck 10, which is provided in conjunction with the New York Times. It is a bright, roomy library, with lots of big windows looking out over the ocean, a wide selection of books, and complementary, abbreviated versions of the Times. There are game tables for chess,checkers and jigsaw puzzles. There is a specialty, for-fee coffee bar but all of the pastries and appetizers in the large display case are gratis. This was one of our favorite places to sit at the end of the day, look out at the sunset, talk and indulge in a little confectionary treat.
Unfortunately, the excursion I had booked for the Panama canal day, the "Canal Experience" was cancelled. It seems, although it's billed as a 5-6 hour excursion, they had been taking longer and longer (8-10 hours). In turn, the ship had to wait longer and longer for passengers to return and had trouble keeping on schedule. This was a disappointment to me, because one of the reasons I'd chosen this cruise over a full-transit was that I'd liked the other ports better on this one and, with the Canal Experience excursion, would actually be able to make a complete transit in a smaller boat. However, we did lots of other excellent excursions and this in no way ruined the cruise at all. We did several other shore excursions, purchased through HAL, and found each of them to be excellent. (These will be reviewed separately in the excursions section.)
Something HAL does, which I love, is offer daily mass. They have a priest on every sailing. Since I try to go to daily mass, this was very much appreciated and was the initial reason I booked a cruise with this line. They also offered a Jewish Sabbath service and a non-denominational Protestant Sunday service.
Once the cruise was (sadly) over, HAL somehow made the disembarkation process painless. For one thing, you can stay in your cabin while you wait for your group to be called. We found this infinitely more relaxing than congregating in a crowded lounge. We got up on that day, had a leisurely breakfast in the Vista dining room (which, again, was delicious!) and returned to our cabin to await our group's turn. When our color was called, we proceeded to disembark effortlessly. There was none of the cattle-herding type atmosphere we've come to associate with this process. Our luggage was easy to find and all together in one place. There was a wait to go through customs, but as there were 2 Royal Caribbean mega-ships that were also disembarking that morning, that was to be expected. Once we were out of the terminal, we were pleasantly surprised to find a final HAL representative asking if we needed any help finding transportation.
Yeah, I think it's HAL from now on for me.
A few criticisms: Okay, so nothing is perfect, right? Here are my only criticisms of this HAL cruise, and they all involve non-essential shopping:
1. It's my tradition, on a cruise, to get a piece of jewelry. While the sales people were quite friendly, I was disappointed that the 2 jewelry shops on the Zuiderdam were extravagantly overpriced. Here's an example. In November (2 months ago!) I had purchased an EFFY ring on a Carnival ship. They had the exact same ring on this ship, at over twice the price! The other jewelry store, Merabella, was so exclusive that they admit only one customer at a time, and draw a curtain so anyone else is prevented from entering the sanctum. Their prices are even more outrageous. And the Merabella does not indulge in the last-day sales. While some might find this exclusivity appealing, I did not. The last-day sales on other jewelry and souvenirs served to bring prices down to a level similar to what it would cost on land. Throughout the rest of the cruise, the general, souvenir-type store had prices that were somewhat overpriced, but not extravagantly so. They had sterling jewelry that was quite pretty and reasonably priced, especially at the last-day sale. They did a brisk business.
2. The photographers on the ship were pretty aggressive. The photos were overpriced and the sales people were not particularly friendly.
3. We went to the standard jewelry talk. I usually skip these, but my sister wanted to go because they promised free tanzanite earrings to everyone who attended. Well, it was the expected, fast-talking, high-pressure informercial on the "best" stores to get jewelry in each port. At the end of the talk, however, there were no earrings. Instead everyone was given a certificate for the promised earrings at a store in Aruba or Curacao. We felt deceived and, as we had shore excursions in Aruba, complained to the woman who presented the talk. She apologized and said she would deliver the earrings to our cabin. Next day, there was a note in our box that said she could not deliver them to us "for security reasons", but if we would come to the sales office for an hour on one of two days, we could get them then. Expecting another high-pressure sell, we elected to forfeit the opportunity.
These few, small, sour notes were not particularly important because, after all, no one is twisting your arm and forcing you to buy anything. Just something to note. Read Less