Zuiderdam Cruise Review by shipnc
We wanted to try out the new class of Holland America ships, particularly since we had just sailed on RCI's newest, Brilliance of the Seas, and our cruise prior to that was on the then-newest HAL ship Volendam. So, we thought it would be an interesting comparison. Additionally, the cruise stopped at St. Kitts, a port we had not been to before, so this was a plus. We wanted to sail later in the month, but the ship was chartered (by a gay-lesbian group, we were to find out later!) for the week of Feb. 22, so we booked for the week of Feb. 15.
This cruise did not have a typical HAL clientele, in my experience. As I was to subsequently learn, this week was a winter break for schools in the northeast, so there were more families, children and younger people aboard than had been on previous HAL cruises I had been on. Not surprisingly, many of the people on board were from New York and the northeast - not that there's anything wrong with that - but the geographic diversity typical of most cruises was less apparent on this one.
GETTING TO THE SHIP
In the post 9/11 world, flying to your cruise port is easily the worst part of the trip. Our trip started with a heightened "threat level" that caused airport police to stop every car inbound to the airport to search trunks. So, on one of the busiest days of the travel season, the waiting started driving into the airport, followed by the wait to check bags, followed by the wait to go through security screening, followed by the wait to get on the aircraft. We navigated this gauntlet of frustration (and futility?) successfully, and departed Charlotte, NC for Miami. For reasons too complicated to explain here, my companion, Barbara, and I flew separate airlines into Miami about an hour apart, but rendezvoused successfully and took the HAL bus from the Miami airport to the Port Everglades Piers. We considered renting a car or taking the Super Shuttle, but the HAL shuttle bus at $24 a person turned out to be the most convenient and quickest. Whatever way you go however, it's a lot easier to fly into the airport your cruise ship leaves from, and cheaper to get to the piers, so even if the airfare costs a little more, I'd recommend it. Once at the piers in Fort Lauderdale, we were assigned a boarding group number, and after about a 40 minute wait, we were onboard the ship. Interestingly, HAL had no special lines or expedited check in procedures for their repeat cruises, the "mariner society."
MS Zuiderdam is the newest HAL ship in its newest class of liners. She is an attractive ship with more size, space and verandah cabins than previous "dam" ships. One major improvement in general layout is the absence of "outside" cabins that look directly onto the promenade deck. The tradeoff is that some outside cabins on the Upper Promenade Deck have obstructed views due to lifeboats and other apparatus, but I think overall that this is a much better arrangement. The number of verandah cabins available also makes them more affordable, so we made this out first verandah splurge - room 8071 - on the Navigation Deck. More about cabins later.
Overall, I would say we were a bit disappointed by the interior decoration of the ship. Call me jaded if you will, but after Brilliance of the Seas, Volendam and Vision of the Seas, the public spaces appeared somewhat dull and relatively unattractive. There were a lot of funky sculptures and decorations around the ship that, to my taste, added little. Is HAL trying to be avant-garde with its furnishings to attract a younger crowd? One sofa, in the shape of oversize lips (the Mick Jagger sofa, as one comedian called it), was typical. (See photo in photo gallery.) The Explorer's lounge was pleasant and the dining room was attractive, but overall, the interior was less attractive to me than the previous ships we had been on.
There has been a lot of discussion on web site chatrooms about odors and vibrations aboard Zuiderdam. Despite extensive sniffing around, I could find absolutely no trace of sewage odors. The vibration, on the other hand, took no searching to find. It was very real on those days when the ship needed to steam at close to top speed. It was most noticeable in the dining room, and I imagine the lower decks must have felt it, too. It's hard to imagine that it was a major mechanical problem since the ship's speed and maneuverability were not affected, but it was not something you would expect from a new, state of the art ship. Interesting Holland America chose to stay with the conventional diesel-electric powerplant harnessed to the azipod propulsion system, while the new Royal Caribbean ships opted for the gas turbine engines. Having just been on the Brilliance of the Seas, the difference was gigantic. The gas turbines were silky smooth with virtually no vibration. Sometimes it was hard to tell the ship was under power. Not so with the Zuiderdam. On the other hand, if you like some gentle shaking and rocking to lull you to sleep, HAL's approach is the way to go.
On the positive side, Holland America is to be commended for staying with the traditional wide promenade deck that circles the ship entirely. This semi-sheltered deck is perfect for walking, running, reading or snoozing on the real wood, cushioned deck chairs. Many of the new ship designs have abandoned this feature in exchange for more balcony cabins, and this, to me, is a big loss.
Our cabin, 8071, was located as close to the middle of the ship as possible, where we like it. The location was convenient to most activities and was just one deck below the Lido Dining room, meaning that the first cup of coffee in the morning was literally 3 minutes away! The room itself was fine with ample storage (closets can be set up to accommodate hanging clothes or shelf storage), a refrigerator and safe. The bathrooms are larger than normal with a real bathtub and conventional shower that provided more room than the semi-circular designs favored by Royal Caribbean. Barbara complained about the lack of light at the makeup table, the only location to use the hairdryer since there wasn't an outlet in the bathroom. The floor to ceiling sliding windows allowed excellent ocean views, and the verandah, although small, was pleasant. I was a little concerned booking this room because it was right next to the outside elevator and the main mid-ships elevators, and I worried that the DING-DONG chime announcing car arrival or machinery noises would be bothersome. This was not the case, but we did discover that the outside elevator had a great view of our verandah as it went by! A similar lack of privacy existed in all the aft ship cabins with balconies. These large spaces were completely exposed to viewing from the Lido Deck aft pool area. So, if privacy is important to you, check your cabin location carefully.
The rooms on the Upper Promenade Deck that are labeled partially or completely obstructed are, indeed, obstructed. Sometimes in this category you can find a bargain cabin with a decent outside view between lifeboats. Such was not the case here. If the lifeboat didn't completely block the view, machinery and other equipment pretty much obscured the water. These rooms are probably better than an inside room, but not by much.
FOOD AND DINING
We had a table for 6 at the second seating in the lower dining room. The upper level in this two-deck dining room was clearly better. There were fewer tables, less serving station clutter and an overall better atmosphere. I don't know if it was just luck of the draw if you got a table there, but I suspect that suite owners and perhaps multiple repeat customers were given priority. If you are sailing on this ship, request the upper level with your TA when booking the cruise and see if you can get it. Or, check with the Maitre 'd when you get onboard.
The food was very good with ample variety and consistent quality. The service was good but not quite up to the standards we usually experience. At the Captain's Dinner, food delivery was extremely slow, and we did not get out of the dining room until well after the evening show had started (2 hours and 15 minutes). I don't know if the problem was the waiter, the food preparation or what, but this was the one night when most everyone seemed to show up at the main dining room. Other nights the service was quicker and better, coinciding with a number of people eating at the other dining rooms. It also occurred to me that the "tipping not required" policy that HAL has may be taking its toll on the service level. We tipped as customary, but discussion with others aboard led us to believe that they took the "tipping not required" literally. We did not eat at the specialty restaurant, which had a $20 surcharge.
The Lido dining room, the buffet style alternative restaurant, had a different layout than earlier HAL ships. Instead of two service lines offering the same food, there were different "stations" that offered different types of food. This cut down on lines but since the stations were on opposite sides of the ship, it was hard to reconnoiter all the offerings before choosing. Don't you hate it when you finish dinner and then see something you really wanted but didn't see until you were on the way out! By contrast, the serving stations in Brilliance of the Seas were all in one central location, making it easier to case all the food offerings before final selection.
Other than that, the food in the Lido was fine, with custom egg, omelet and toast/bread options in the morning. As with every other ship afloat, finding a seat is a problem at certain times. The person who solves this problem will be in the same exalted category as the one that thought of the on-board credit cards!
The entertainment was top-notch, among the best I have experienced. There was a great comedian, Tom Drake, an entertaining magician/comedian, Bob Brock, and a talented pianist, Paul Pappas. Even the production shows, of which I am not a great fan, were enjoyable. Interestingly, that old time honored cruise activity, horse racing, was absent from this cruise, its place taken by seemingly endless rounds of bingo. Could it be that bingo is a bigger source of onboard revenue?
Half Moon Cay was as pretty as ever, although the tendering process was slow on both ends. St Kitts, our only new port, was enjoyable. There isn't much in the downtown area where the ship docks, but we took a cab to Brimstone Hill Fort which is a well restored fort set high on a hill with dramatic views of the island and nearby waters. We stopped at Romney Mansion on the way back, but unless you are into Batik, there isn't much there. Our taxi ride cost about $50, with tip, - half of the cruise excursion rate - plus we got to spend more time at the fort and beat the crowd there. Other passengers enjoyed the narrow-gauge train trip around the island.
We did the Trunk Bay snorkeling/beach excursion in St. Thomas, and shopped a little in downtown Charlotte Amalie in the afternoon. I brought my GPS with me, so if you've ever wondered, the walk from the Havensight ship piers to downtown Charlotte Amalie, it is 1.35 miles.
Our final port was Nassau. We took the water taxi to Paradise Island where we toured the Atlantis Hotel complex. This is well worth seeing. It is a combination of Las Vegas and Disneyworld, set in a beautiful tropical environment. You can tour the hotel for free, but access to the grounds is supposed to cost $25 per person. We greased the palm of one of the hotel "guards" and toured the grounds for considerably less, enjoying the beautiful plants, shrubs, pools and aquarium. Atlantis is well worth seeing, but do it on your own rather than take the ship excursion.
We were the 4th of 7 mega cruise ships to dock in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning. We were off the ship by 9:30 even though our flight from MIA didn't leave until late in the afternoon. The disembarkation numbers were not called in sequence, and we left the ship before many, even with our late departure time. We took a cab to a nearby Budget car rental outlet (not serving the airport) to pick up our one-way rental car to Miami. This was a good idea since the cost was comparable to other transport methods to Miami while it afforded the flexibility to spend time in more enjoyable ways than stuck in the airport terminal. Unfortunately, the small shopping center location did not have a big stock of cars, and we had to wait quite a while to get a car. Once in the car we toured the Las Olas area of Fort Lauderdale, stopped at the Marriott Marina to look at the yachts and then drove to Miami via Miami Beach and the MacArthur Expressway, where we could see the Miami based cruise ships. After lunch at Bayside (and an $8.50 parking bill for 1-½ hours) we were off to the airport for our flight home, arriving in Charlotte about 8 pm. It was a long day but at least the airport was considerably less congested than it would have been around 11 - 12. I can only imagine how bad Fort Lauderdale airport must have been with the 7 ships disgorging their passengers simultaneously.
Item One: It seemed like we had to expend a great deal more energy on the logistics of getting to and from the ship on this trip than in the past. This could be due to increasing old age, but I prefer to believe it is due to the 9/11 flying environment, the increasing size of the ships and the number of ships that are now arriving and departing on the same days. This is a problem most of the cruise lines recognize, hence the number of new departure ports that are cropping up. In the meanwhile, I'll try to drive to the next cruise, and I can't imagine flying to a cruise for anything shorter than a 7-day cruise.
Item Two: Two years ago this month, we sailed on HAL's Volendam. In my review of that cruise, I made the comment that HAL was bucking the trend of onboard nickel- and -diming. Alas, I cannot say that anymore. HAL still had some nice extras such as fresh flowers, hot hors-deouvres before dinner and canvas tote bags, but increasingly they are joining the masses with onboard extras. Espresso coffee is now an extra expense, and there is a service fee to charge casino chips to your room account. Beyond that, there was an entire room, the hydrotherapy pool (a glorified hot tub), that charged $15 a day for access. I used to get upset about what I perceived to be an erosion of cruise ship traditions, but I have been reevaluating my position lately. Let's face it, the cruise lines have to make money, and with all the capacity that has been added to the industry lately, the low up front pricing and high onboard charges has been the formula that (apparently) has been working. Besides, prices for cruises have never been better! I paid about the same fare for this cruise, with a verandah cabin, as I did for an obstructed-view cabin on a western Caribbean cruise 6 years ago! On the other hand, I find the onboard charges annoying and a detriment to the overall cruise experience. I'd rather pay more upfront and less on board. And that seems to be the way the industry is evolving - the Carnival and Princess concepts against the Crystal and Silversea. It seems as if HAL is struggling to decide whether it is going to be a true premium product, with higher up front fares and more amenities, or is it going to join the fight with the masses to "get 'em onboard and then earn the money."
This was a good, relaxing cruise on a nice ship. I would not hesitate to recommend HAL or Zuideram, but I would suggest booking a week other than President's weekend, and I'd try to find a cruise that I could drive to rather than fly. Finally, I like Holland America and hope they choose to stay in the premium category rather than dropping into the realm of the ordinary.
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