ZUIDERDAM OCT 3-20 PANAMA CANAL SAILING
The line had about 300 people as we arrived at the Long Beach Terminal around 11AM. We'd stayed the previous night aboard Queen Mary and the bellman was able to simply wheel our luggage on a cart over to the cruise terminal checkin. Quite convenient.
There was no separate line for Suite Check-in, although we were using the Carnival terminal which had a special section for the purpose. All those boarding used the same queue.
After boarding the ship, we moved to the Queen's Lounge where they confirmed that our onboard account was to be on credit card.
Boarding took about 40 minutes total. Staff was friendly and efficient.
Cabin: We were told cabins were ready, so we were escorted immediately to our SC Suite #6158. The cabin was large (not as large as the SA Suites, but more than acceptable for two people) with a great bathroom ... shower stall plus tub with shower. Two sinks! And plenty of storage space in closets and hidden nooks like drawers under the bed.
The balcony was magnificent. The side measured 6'x15' and the main portion was 14'x20'. We had a party during the Panama Canal transit and there were 28 people on the verandah ... with room to move around! Some of the deck furniture was pretty worn (drydock is scheduled for the Spring), but we had three loungers (including one wooden HAL chair), a table with 4 chairs, and two large chairs with ottomans. They barely made a dent in the size of the verandah.
We have posted pics of 6158 in another CC thread today.
The Ship: Zuiderdam is a great size for longer cruises like our 17 Day itinerary. There were areas we never even explored. The ship was clean and well-cared-for. There were areas that did not look brand new, but nothing was shabby (except our woven deck furniture that was approaching shabby status). From reading previous posts I expected the decks to have numerous holes, but we found only a few such places.
Also from reading posts, I expected the dEcor to be garish. In our opinion, it was not. There was lavish use of red in the Vista (main) lounge and in some elevators, and the carpets were brightly patterned, but we found the dEcor tasteful. One thing we really liked was the different color carpet used to mark Fore & Aft sections ... Fore was red, Aft was blue. Once you realized that, it became more difficult to get lost.
Dining: We had early seating, table for two, in the upper level of Vista Dining Room. Service was friendly, but s l o w. It took one hour for the entrEe to be delivered after we'd ordered, and DH decided that was too long, so we ate in the dining room only three of the 17 nights. The other nights we dined casually in Lido, or in our cabin, or at the Pinnacle Grill.
Lido: Lunchtime was crowded most days. The offerings were many, and there was never a time when I couldn't find something I liked. The salad bar was consistently good, and remained open till mid-afternoon, which was great after a shore excursion.
The Lido became more popular for dinner as the cruise progressed. The dinner entrees matched those of the dining room (maybe one less than the dining room had) and the separate stations for Asian, Deli, Italian, Sweets, Salads and the Main Buffet made it easier and quicker to be served. The stewards hustled to clean tables as soon as they were vacated, and we never had to wander around looking for a place to sit.
There were usually 2-3 selections of no-sugar-added (not sugar free) desserts. And if I asked, the ice cream man always had at least one tub of no-sugar added ice cream.
And cookies! Their cookies were WONDERFUL. Just right.
Pinnacle: I must admit: I love the Pinnacle Grill. The food and service are consistently superb. There were also a couple of nights with "specials" - the guest chef created a Caribbean Menu one evening, and another evening was Jamaican specialties. The Grill's Manager, Elvira, was unfailingly polite and excellent at her job. And our two favorite waiters, Raymond and Osman, were super waiters as well as making us laugh. There were at least two nights where dinner was $20/pp instead of $30/pp.
Usually DH chose the lamb chops, with an appetizer of crab cakes, but when he ordered the filet, he stated that it was quite possibly the best he'd ever eaten.
If you dine at the Pinnacle frequently, they will substitute a different amuse-bouche if you ask ... generally you receive the same three tasty little morsels, but after a few times the waiter asked if we'd like something different.
I substituted no-sugar-added ice cream for dessert at the Pinnacle most times, except for my one downfall into the spectacular Chocolate Volcano Cake. Amazing.
And remember, PS-SC guests are offered breakfast at the Pinnacle daily. The menu is no different than the dining room, but the atmosphere is so fabulous and is a great way to start the day.
Spa: All we had were a couple of facials and massages. They were very good. The Spa did not seem crowded whenever we were there.
We considered buying a hydro-therapy pool pass, but I'm pretty anal-retentive and on our tour we saw a hair floating in the pool. Certainly not a serious offense, but enough to keep me out.
Room Service: Excellent. Food was fast, at the proper temp, and delivered with unfailing smiles. Morning coffee was delivered on time, or even early! And dinner was served en suite upon request with a flourish of white linen and china.
Lecturer: We were fortunate to have Dr Jay Wolff aboard, who gave lectures on the Panama Canal and Caribbean. He's an amazing man who prefers the designation of "storyteller". He would speak for an hour at a time with no notes, and he never stumbled. Dates, names, facts all were included and we were amazed at his abilities. One day, when it unexpectedly rained and shore excursions were cancelled in the afternoon, Dr Wolff volunteered for an unexpected Question and Answer session, which was well-attended.
Suite Guests: Since it was a longish cruise, we had a Welcome and Farewell Reception in the Neptune Lounge, as well as a Suite Indonesian Luncheon in the Pinnacle Grill. We were honored to be seated at Captain von Donselaar's table, and he was a most charming host. We received a menu that listed and described the Indonesian specialties we were devouring, which was a good thing.
This is picky, but I missed the slippers I'd become used to when sailing in an HAL suite. We were told the ship was out of them. Little things mean a lot, though, esp when you don't have other slippers with you....
Laundry: We used the benefit of free laundry and dry cleaning offered to Suite guests. And I met the Head Housekeeper and asked her the age old question about hot water washing. Her reply: they read the clothing labels and use hot, warm or cold water as directed. If a garment says dry clean and the guest asks for it to be washed, they contact the guest before doing so. They do not officially do hand laundry, but the laundry chief on Zuiderdam WILL most times do it as required.
Bottom line: our blacks came back black, and our whites came back white. Most of the time: twice some laundry came back feeling "rough" and we sent them right back out again, and one time our whites came back with what looked like a green tinge. Had we been paying for the laundry, we would have made sure that we were not charged twice in those instances. One button popped off a shirt, but it wasn't a new shirt so that wasn't surprising.
I can speak with first hand experience only about the slot machines. They were quite friendly the first few days, then seemed to really tighten up. The last night of the cruise they were friendly again, and you heard the sound of winners cashing in frequently. I've found this to be the norm on most cruises, so I wasn't surprised.
The casino staff was very good, and Victor the Cashier made it a point to remember patrons' names, which was astounding.
One thing I did like was that there were 3 or 4 non-smoking nights in the casino over the 17-night cruise. And these non-smoking nights were enforced! I'd put on my Midway-Through-The-Cruise Comment Card that smoke was keeping me out of the casino as much as I'd like, and perhaps they listened. Or perhaps the non-smoking nights were already planned. Nonetheless, last year on our 7-night cruise there was only one non-smoking night, so the ratio has improved. And I, for one, am grateful.
Surprise: The second to last night of the cruise the fire alarm sounded. We were in the Lido, and staff having their meal there immediately stood and walked out very very quickly. The Officer of the Deck came on the PA announcing that a sensor had detected smoke midship on Deck 7 and that more info would be forthcoming shortly. The captain was immediately next on the PA saying that everything was under control. His next message was that an air conditioning unit on Deck 4 had overheated and smoke was circulating, but that there was no fire. About five minutes later he gave the All Clear and announced that fire teams could stand down.
In about 70 cruises I'd never had this happen. But Captain van Donselaar was very much in control and we felt safe and informed throughout the situation. We saw the Captain later that evening at a reception and he said it happened only 2-3 times a year.
Signature Express Baggage Service: We were extremely disappointed in this service. We requested it thru the Neptune Lounge concierge early in the cruise, and we met the requirements: flight out of Fort Lauderdale after 11:30AM and on Delta. The last day of the cruise we received official confirmation that we'd been accepted for the program and received barcoded luggage tags and our airline boarding passes. A sheet of instructions was attached, including our number (Green 3) … we were to wait onboard until Green 3 was called for disembarkation.
Being a veteran of many cruises, I should have known better and just disembarked when I thought we should … Green 3 wasn't called until 10:15AM, at the same time as "All Signature Express Baggage Service Participants" was called.
We did as requested and claimed our bags in the terminal and a porter took us out through Customs. As he asked about SEBS, a harried-looking rep brusquely said "TOO LATE". We asked what she meant and she irritatedly replied "You're too late for that service. Take the bags to the airport yourself." Needless to say, DH & I weren't pleased.
So we slammed the bags into a taxi (one on my lap) and made our way to curbside checkin at Delta, where the rep couldn't have been nicer. The problem was that he had to take our paperwork into the terminal to cancel the baggage tag #s and boarding passes HAL had arranged thru SEBS, and reissue us new ones. All this took some time, but we were still on time for our 12:23PM flight.
I guess the disappointment was fueled by the fact that we were now perspiring and stressed … NOT the way to end a wonderful 17-day vacation. Especially when we had anticipated the benefits of SEBS.
We emailed HAL on our return home so that our credit card could be reimbursed the $30 charge ($15/person) and have had no reply except a form email saying "We'll get back to you".
Zuiderdam Bug: Around Day 4-5 of the cruise I started developing a sore throat, accompanied by a dry cough. Since I carry a pharmacy with me, I began dosing myself so that the bug would not progress.
DH developed the same thing around three days later. Each of us spent one day in the cabin, drinking liquids and dosing with medications.
Turns out that nearly every person we came in contact with developed (or their spouse developed) the same bug during or after the cruise. Cough, hacking, sore throat, loss of voice. The cruise director even made a joke about it one night in his show! Staff members were not exempt … one of the Neptune Lounge concierges developed it as well. Hundreds of people ended up at the infirmary, and the ship's store quickly ran out of cough drops and cold medicine.
The bug was attributed to an airborne virus and since it wasn't spread by hands, no Code Red was called and buffets continued to operate as usual. One became used to hearing hacking coughs coming from behind closed cabin doors or from seats in the show lounges.
I think the ins & outs of the ports are covered thoroughly in other reviews, so here's my short opinions:
Cabo San Lucas: Ship's excursions were sold out by the time we boarded, so we just wandered around the port area. DH's gold neckchain had broken, so my fractured Spanish brought us to a local jeweler (NOT one frequented by tourists) and he replaced the clasp while we waited for US $10. An excellent deal, we think.
Puerto Vallarta: We took a big-bus ship's tour of the area and the guide, David, was excellent. There was a lot more walking than shown in the tour's writeup, and streets were cobblestone and sometimes hard to walk on safely. I feared for the elderly and/or disabled passengers who'd taken this tour thinking there was minimal walking.
Manzanillo: Another big-bus ship's tour, with a guide named Antonio. He showed us the beautiful architecture of the resorts in the area, and we had a cool drink in a shaded restaurant's patio. It was Sunday, so many of the stores were closed, but a jewelry and souvenir shop opened and we bought the obligatory t-shirts.
Acapulco: We did a private tour for 10, pre-arranged by one of our CC group members. The guide, Rosie, was wonderful and her English excellent. We saw the cliff divers (of course) as well as Johnny Weissmuller's "round house" at one of the resort hotels. DH & I bagged out of the tour early (I wasn't feeling entirely well) and Rosie insisted on driving us back to the ship while the other group members had a Mexican lunch.
One interesting fact: DH & I were looking for Oaxaca Black Pottery and there was a store in the Acapulco Cruise Terminal that had native artisan's work. We bought a fabulous Black Clay pot for US$19, and I saw it elsewhere for US$50 … apparently that store was government-operated and all proceeds went back to the artisans. Their prices were fantastic, and if I'd known HOW fantastic I would have purchased more. The store is near the street entrance to the Cruise Terminal and if I recall, it has bright green signage.
Huatulco: One of the highlights of our trip. We had a private guide, arranged through Xpert & Professional Travel, and he was wonderful. His English was almost accent-free and he really knew the area. There were only four of us in his van which seated at least eight, so he took us off the standard tour route and we saw how people in Santa Cruz Huatulco really live. We visited a Mezcal tasting room (oy!), a carpet weaving factory, and had time to shop for carved wooden souvenirs - Alebrijes ( brightly-colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical animal-like creatures.) The workmanship was excellent and the prices very fair, we thought.
Puerto Chiapas: DH went on an archaeological shore excursion to Tapachula City & Izapa. I remained aboard Zuiderdam nursing my upper respiratory bug. DH enjoyed the tour, although very little of the ruins have been unearthed so far. He says that in 5-10 years Puerto Chiapas will really be a wonderful destination.
It was the people of Puerto Chiapas who touched me. Although I didn't get off the ship, I looked down at the terminal area throughout the day. Dancers and musicians entertained outside and indoors when the rain started. And when we left, hundreds of people turned out to wave Bon Voyage. There was a wonderful fireworks display as we sailed away, and one ground-based display lighted up as FAREWELL. People on both sides of the channel were waving and yelling ADIOS, and Zuiderdam returned the salute with her whistles. It was a touching moment, and I'd love to return.
Puerto Caldera: There'd been rain for several days before our visit and Capt van Donselaar had told me at a reception the previous evening that it might be doubtful we could make our call there. But the rains stopped, temporarily, and the ship anchored in the harbor, about a 10-minute tender ride from shore. We did a ship-sponsored tour that included the Railway (narrow gauge) and a Mangrove Glide through a rainforest. Our guide, Daniel, was informative and we were fortunate to be the first bus out that morning. Roads were muddy and subsequent buses had difficulty on some of the hills.
There was a small artisan market set up at the tender pier with Costa Rican coffee, wood carvings and some wonderful pottery handmade by Yalila Ocon, who sold it at a very reasonable price. (You can already tell we love pottery, can't you….lol…)
The Canal: There are no words to describe it. Take what you've heard and magnify it 1000 times and you'll be close. We held a private party on our verandah during the Gailliard (Culebra) Cut portion and the views were spectacular. If you love to look at various cargo ships, this is the destination for you. Completely fascinating and awe-inspiring. We had a lecturer onboard for the entire transit, and he spoke about history of the Canal and what we were seeing. The broadcast came into public areas and was available on the TVs in staterooms ... so we turned our volume up loud while we were on the balcony.
Cartegena: I did an earlier review about our private (8 person) tour arranged by Lee Miles. It can be found by searching for posts from cp556.
Key West: Key West is Key West. Crowded, happy, touristy, and overall fun. We did the Trolley Tour which allows you to hop on & off the trolley all day for one price. We visited Ernest Hemingway's House (yes, we petted the 6-toed cats), the Lighthouse Museum, and drove all over the island craning our necks to see the sights. We're returning in February with friends so part of our goal was to mark where we'd like to return … and there's one glass shop on Duval Street that's going to get a visit from us. Read Less