Overall we very much enjoyed our recent cruise on the Zaandam. The food and service in general were extremely good, and we concluded that we received very fair value for our vacation dollar.
Embarkation in San Diego is easy. We stayed overnight at a small hotel in La Jolla and, on November 5, arrived at the pier just after noon. Check-in was efficient as we had used HAL's on-line process (keeping a hard copy of the form to show the agent, as is required). Our time with the agent was just long enough for her to snap our photos, and then we boarded.
Unfortunately, everyone was herded to the Lido buffet, and the lines were thus huge! We should have walked to the burger bar at the aft pool deck but instead went through the line and then shared a table with some folks--even though the room was crowded, the first meal was delicious! Off to a very good start.
By the time we were through lunch, at about 1:15, the announcement was made that cabins were now available. So, we headed to our mid-ship Verandah cabin on deck 6. The cabin was clean, comfortable and well prepared for its new guests.
Within five minutes of our getting to the cabin our steward knocked at the door and introduced himself. He asked how many bags we expected. We told him four. Within 30 minutes we had all the bags--this has never happened before on all our past cruises! We were fully unpacked before Lifeboat drill. There was ample closet and storage space, all our hanging goods and other items were put away and we did not even need to use the drawers at the end of the bed. The luggage went under the bed, forgotten for the next two weeks as we got used to our new "home".
We like the "verandah suite" category--its not as lavish as are the deluxe suites, but the price is reasonable and the service is fine. We found the "at your service" concierge, which we presume is a dedicated line to the front office, also very helpful to supplement the excellent service from our cabin steward.
The Zaandam is not a new ship, but the cabin was in very good shape: clean, carpeting fine, comfortable. The large bed, in particular, was very comfortable and we slept well most nights. The only problem was, for us, the a/c was not strong enough. Yet, we were aware that many of the passengers found the ship "too cold". It is not easy to please everyone! Still, the engineer came to our cabin and boosted the air-flow from the vent, which helped a lot.
The bathroom was quite nice, a whirlpool tub, not huge, but nice for baths for my wife, and a hand-held shower. Occasional fluctuations in water temperature during a shower was noticed, but not too often and not to extreme temperatures.
Food: the executive chef was a rather rolly-polly fellow whom we felt wanted us all to weigh about the same as he. In other words, the meals were generally excellent. We had room service many mornings, using the order card the prior night, and the meals arrived on time, as ordered, and were quite tasty. Occasional breakfast in the Lido was fine, and the line-ups were not too bad. Breakfast in the dining room was excellent, however, although on a vacation we did not always rouse ourselves to be there within the times.
Lunch was also very good no matter which option one chose. We enjoyed occasional room service lunch on our verandah, and the sandwiches or wraps, or burgers, etc., were all very good indeed. Lunch in the dining room was nice, and so was the Lido.
Dinners in the dining room were again excellent. HAL has changed its menu somewhat, but there remains lots of choice for dinner amongst various starters and main courses. Of course, for those who are more "gourmand" than "gourmet" (that would include me at times) one could have seconds of any dish--a treat when the jumbo shrimp cocktails were on the menu!
For a change of pace we went to the Pinnacle on two occasions: one regular dinner to celebrate our anniversary, and for the special wine-tasting dinner with a variety of wines organized by the cellar master. Both dinners were first-rate and well worth the price. The Cellar Master's wine tasting dinner had a unique menu, and the Pinnacle chef took great care with the food--it was excellent. The wines were lovely, and the quantities were not limited, perhaps because there was not a huge attendance at the tasting dinner. That was unfortunate because a better value on land likely could not be found.
A word on dress-code: HAL has "smart casual" most nights, and formal for four nights on this 15 day cruise. On formal nights I would estimate that at the 8:00 p.m. dinner sitting, a majority of the men made the effort and put on a tuxedo or dinner jacket. Others were dressed in dark suits, and the ladies matched their men-folk. No one stood out as ignoring the dress-code.
On the smart-casual nights, given the elasticity of this category, people ran the gamut from navy blazer and tie, to neat khakis and a sports shirt. As a guy who likes the ladies but who is clueless as to the nature of a formal versus informal dress or skirt, I will stick to how the guys dressed. On sea days, many men wore a sports jacket or blazer in the evening, sans tie, and with khakis or slacks. Some men wore sweaters, very few wore ties except on formal night. Personally, I like a jacket when going out for dinner and opted for that many nights (except port nights when in Hawaii when everyone was more to the "casual" end of "smart").
Dress at the Pinnacle was up a notch. On our two occasions there all men had on jackets, some ties, and we were there not on formal nights.
This is a longer cruise and, from recent past experience, I know that on a seven day cruise the spectrum tilts heavily to the casual end. This was also a somewhat older crowd (I am in my mid-40's and felt, comparatively, young--which is fine by me. We enjoy meeting and having a conversation with people a little older, who have had interesting life experiences).
Services in general: The service on the Zaandam was at the overall excellent level that we have come to expect from HAL. Our cabin steward was great, and responsive to all our requests. Our cabin was done in the morning and at night we found a different towel animal awaiting us.
The friendly staff in the Ocean Bar were particularly good at learning ones name, and drink preference, and delivering the order promptly and with a smile (and some snacks too!). The Piano bar was an equally pleasant hang-out for us, and Piano player Bob belted out the favorites and got us all singing along--many a night after dinner there was not a seat to be had at the Piano bar.
Shore excursions were fine and offered reasonable value in our view. The port lectures were long on shopping and diamonds, but weak on practical information (the cost of a cab in Honolulu, what about public transit, etc.).
Front office staff, whether by phone or in person, were always polite and helpful. Sometimes they had to get approval and could not answer right away, but they were ultimately helpful.
Activities: Other than sales-type of activities where one sat through a sales-pitch or an activity at a cost (and the ubiquitous bingo!), there was not a lot else to do, which suited us fine as we caught up on our reading, snoozing, enjoying the ocean views, etc., on the way to and from Hawaii. Others may have liked a better range of guest lecturers, although the anthropologist was somewhat interesting, as was the astronomer. Trivia games at 9:00 a.m., however, were a tad early for us! This was not a cruise for young children--there were hardly any on board, and one young fellow seemed, when I saw him on the ship, quite bored.
The showtime entertainment was pleasant. Some of the cast could actually sing well (they all could sing). Some of the other acts were quite good as a way to pass the time but nothing stands out as particularly memorable. The theatre ran good movies, a nice place to while away a sea day watching something current. TV's in the staterooms also showed the movies later that week after they played in the theatre.
The library area is large and comfortable, and one could sink into an easy chair and "sleep a book" while the ship sailed along. Or, one could do any manner of things. There were many at the computers but, having to use one as part of work, I avoided the computers for the entire 15 days.
Spa: The Steiner spa on this ship offered good quality services, as my wife and I each enjoyed a massage and other services. I had purchased a spa-pass for the length of the cruise--more on the spa itself later. When the ship unfortunately experienced a Norwalk outbreak at the last three days of the cruise and as a result all pools and the spa was closed, Steiner refused to refund the pro-rata amount of the spa-pass.
All I was offered were additional services, which I did not need at that point near the end of the cruise. Moreover, my wife (who by then had purchased two manicures, a pedicure and a massage but not the spa pass) was told she could not receive the services in lieu of me, but only I could have a service.
We felt the Steiner managers on the Zaandam was very inflexible, and that she delivered poor customer service. Happily, the ship's guest relations manager agreed that if, through no fault of ours, we could not use a facility for which we had paid we should get a pro-rata refund. So, she put a credit for that on my shipboard account. In my view this was an example of excellent customer service on the part of HAL, and puts Steiner to shame.
The spa itself on the Zaandam is not huge. It is nice enough but the Vista ships' spa is like a pool--far more elaborate. Still, it was nice to have the use of the spa for most of the cruise. This is one example of life being a series of trade-offs. We like the smaller, and older, HAL ships in some respects, but also enjoy the expanded amenities of the newer Vista ships that, for reasons of size, are not available on the older ships. I guess we just have to keep cruising on both types!
A note about Norwalk: this can happen in any confined space, not only on cruise ships. We have never contracted this, in over 13 cruises, probably because we wash our hands frequently, with hot water, and also use the hand-sanitizer that is around the ship. If everyone did that, outbreaks would become less frequent. While the ship was clean before, after the outbreak, the cleaning of the ship was even more visible!
Ports: Hawaii is lovely and other than Kauai we had plenty of time to do the tours, including a snorkel tour in Kona that was a highlight, that we had booked before departure, using the internet. Booking tours by internet prior to departure makes things a lot simpler on board, and allows one to avoid lining up. Still, we made some changes to some tours, adding some, deleting others, while on board--the shore excursion office was helpful if at times understaffed, given the line ups of people to do this. We went at "off-peak" times and in the main avoided lining up, which one should try to avoid as much as possible when on holidays!
We left Kauai at the early time of 2p.m., because the final port of the cruise on the last day was Ensenada, Mexico, arriving there at 8 p.m., just at dinner time, and after everyone has gone through the fuss of packing, etc. While a foreign flagged ship must call at a foreign port when traveling between two US ports, the ship need only stop for a short period. Very few people did get off but some fellow guests got off at Ensenada and reported that they were not impressed. In our view, rather than a four hour stop there, we could have enjoyed more time at Kauai.
Overall, this was an excellent cruise holiday and we would continue to cruise with HAL--the food and service impressed and we wish we were still on board! Read Less