As would-be first time cruisers, my husband and I debated for several weeks whether or not we should even take a cruise vacation. Weighing concerns over claustrophobia (a red herring worry) and seasickness (ditto, except for some weird feelings of suspended equilibrium the first night) and the feeling that we would be big losers not to take a cool vacation for once in a long time, we finally decided to give it a shot. But then, next big decision! Where to go, what cruise line, when, how long? Our nearest embarkation port was Jacksonville, serviced primarily by Carnival. After a little research on this website and others, we decided that Carnival was not the way to go for us. We are thirty-something professional types with no kids, but being the party animals at our age when we weren't at 21 is not our idea of a fun way to spend a vacation. Visions of dressing up for dinner and "adult" music and beautiful public areas kept popping up in our head. In all fairness, we have not cruised with Carnival, so it may be the place for you, but from what we researched, it would not have suited us. We looked farther afield, and discovered that the selection was much bigger in Port Canaveral. Disney, Carnival, RC (we think), and Holland America (HAL) all sail from there, and to boot, the port was only a four-hour straight shot from us down I-95. Again, the Internet was very helpful, and HAL emerged as the victor. We liked the fact that all the reviews raved about the good food and classy interiors, and we appreciated the fact that while some complained about a slower night life and social calendar, that was just our speed. OK, feeling very proud of ourselves for completing two of the four requirements for booking a cruise -- port and line -- we then narrowed it down to Thanksgiving week so we wouldn't have to take as many vacation days off from work. The only route available from HAL for that week was Western Caribbean (Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, HAL's private island). So far, so good. Of course, our only frame of reference was prior to last Saturday the Internet reviews and the experiences of friends and family on other cruise lines. When we finally turned off of I-95 last Saturday afternoon, and came to the cruise terminal, we yelped with joy. How beautiful! How majestic! The signs for HAL's terminal were clearly marked, and it was a piece of cake to get there. The shore baggage handling functions similarly to outside check-in at the airport, but we were not happy with the surly guy taking our luggage. I doubt he's a direct HAL E/E but probably an independent K/R type. Once we parked the car in the lot ($10 a day prepaid and very easy), we went inside the HAL terminal where we waited in a LONG line for about 50 minutes to check in and show our ID credentials. My only complaint -- provide some water or lemonade for us while we wait. The HAL folks were very nice and courteous (as was our experience throughout the entire cruise). Onward to the gangplank -- watch out for the photographers unless you really want a picture to purchase. We found out later it wasn't required; our mom had taken a cruise with Norwegian, and had to take a photo for her ID card, not so with HAL. The interiors of the Zaandam are very understated in a very hip European manner with lots of interesting unexpected but quite tasteful color and texture combinations. I'm told the ship is not as large of some others, but I wouldn't have known. Tucked away are lots of little lounges with great places to chat with new friends or read a book. But more about the interiors later. Our room (#3308) was off by itself in the middle of the Lower Promenade deck close to the front of the ship. We were concerned about vibration, which as landlubbers were experienced the first night, but we got used to it, and would probably take the same room again. Oh, don't worry about getting an outside window unless you are farther up in the ship -- the windows on the Promenade deck were always curtained b/c everyone walks past them and peers in on their exercise circuits around the deck. We had a windowless inside room, so no worries on that count. The room was arranged with conservation and maximization of space in mind, and we had plenty of space for our things. A word about our cabin steward. I wish I could take him home. Our room was spotless the first day and throughout our entire cruise. Saephul is a quiet and diligent young man who obviously takes a great deal of pride in his work. It shows. Any time we needed new towels, we'd leave them to be picked up, and we'd return a few hours later for new ones (this was several times a day if we went swimming and then changed for dinner). The bathroom was immaculate at any time of the day, and our beds were turned down at night with chocolates on the pillows. (I agree with other reviewers -- bring sodas b/c they are $1.75 a pop on the ship -- $2.00 for mineral water. We brought a six pack of Sprites with screw on caps and made liberal use of the ice bucket and glasses. Next time, I'd bring more.) Saephul got an extra tip for his performance above and beyond the call of duty. Food. When you first get on board, don't make the mistake I did as a newbie cruiser, and think that the only food available is at the Lido Pool (tacos, burgers, hot dogs). Wrong! Continue to go aft, and you will run smack dap in the middle of buffet heaven -- the Lido! Yum! The Lido ended up being our breakfast stop (great European muesli and chocolate croissants), and our sometimes lunch place (the main Rotterdam dining room was a little slow if you came back to eat during a port of call day). PLEASE, PLEASE eat in the dining room for your evening meal. My husband and I felt like a king and queen each night with "Budi" and Wheni. Elegance, refinement, sophistication. The food and atmosphere in and of themselves were well worth the price of our ticket. That kind of meal would have cost us easily $100 to $150 in a local upmarket restaurant. The soups were excellent, as were any appetizer you cared to mention. My husband had the best lobster of his life, and I dearly loved the desserts (especially the mango-based ones). All I can say is "Baked Alaska" -- you'll see what I mean if you sail on the Zaandam. Only item that we had to work around was our late seating (8:30 p.m.), but you get used to it; we just went to the late shows and took a nap or rested in the afternoon.) Also, try to make the afternoon teas (around 3-3:30 p.m.) -- the pastry chefs throw out all the stops, and you pretend you are in a movie with Helena Bonham-Carter or Kate Winslet. The food again is extraordinary (and my husband and I are tough culinary customers). We don't care a thing about gambling -- can't really comment on the casino except to say it was always busy when it was open. Zelda in the gift shop is a dear, and was never without a smile or kind word --a beautiful person inside and out. Lots of opportunities for formal pictures (there are two formal nights in the dining room -- about 30% tuxedos and the rest nice suits and ties with some evening gowns and mostly ultra nice dresses) -- the photographers are nice guys from the former Yugoslavia. The evening shows were pretty good -- my husband is more the one for Vegas style shows. I prefer classical music and old ballads, so the Atlantis Strings (the Zaandam chamber group) were really FANTASTIC. Some nights after the older passengers had gone to bed (10:30 p.m. or so), they played to an empty room. But don't believe other reviews that there's absolutely NO night life on HAL ships -- just go to the Crow's Nest or the Piano Bar. Karaoke night was loads of fun, and as shy as I am about singing in public, I actually participated! (It's nice and sweet to have your better half cheering you on!) Ports of call. If you speak Spanish and you've been to Mexico before, Cozumel can be lots of fun. If you don't, and you're scared to haggle, you might be overwhelmed. Juan, our taxi driver to San Miguel from Puerto Maya was very friendly, and pleased that we spoke conversational Spanish with him. There's a set rate of $6 to take you to San Miguel, the main town, but Juan let us have it for $5 after we had a big conversation with him all the way to town in Spanish. Most of the stores have the same tourist kitsch in Cozumel -- T-shirts, beach knickknacks -- and more valuable jewelry (diamonds, etc.) than I would ever need or want. We highly recommend the Museo del Cozumel -- it was very well done with modern exhibits. Don't miss the Maya Casita in the courtyard of the museum -- the explanations were really fantastic if you are near fluent in Spanish, but not bad just in English. The exhibits have dual language explanations with good English translations. Also stop by the Church of San Miguel -- the first Mass in Mexico was celebrated on that spot in 1519 by Cortez's priests. I regret that I did not go to the "local" grocery store (I love doing that in foreign countries) and buying some Mexican vanilla. I will next time. I heard from others that snorkeling on your own at Chankannab park was great. Grand Cayman -- lots of lingering hurricane damage and clean up. We were restricted to George Town as a result because 75% of the island was closed to tourists, and walked around to the shops a lot. I got bored just looking at jewelry so I went to observe a court proceeding at the Grand Cayman courthouse; make sure you are dressed appropriately (no shorts or jeans), and they will let you in if the trial or proceeding is open to the public. Same good behavior is expected there as it would be in the States; it was fascinating to me because they follow English common law as a British possession. We wanted to go to Pedro St. James, but that was also off limits. Ocho Rios, Jamaica -- what an experience. Within 15 minutes of walking from the Reynolds pier (next to the bauxite factory and about a ten minute walk from the main town), my husband was offered marijuana and prostitutes (female and male). EVERYONE wanted a tip for some minor act -- no problem, mon. We took our only shore excursion of the trip, a van ride to the "Enchanted Gardens." In reality, the gardens were the grounds for the now defunct Shaw Park Hotel (which our singing guide Anne told us is owned by a former Jamaican prime minister...ahem). Lovely and strikingly verdant but a little run down. I had never been in a tropical rain forest before, so I enjoyed it. What I did not enjoy was the guilt trip our tour videographer (Anne's sidekick) gave us to buy her video (at $25) -- nice girl, but again, it's that Jamaican tip thing. Quite frankly, I was glad to have taken a shore excursion in Ocho Rios (see comments about my tall and strong husband's experiences above), but at $29 a head, I think it was a bit much, considering the Lonely Planet Jamaica guide in the ship's library quoted $4 a head for entrance to the gardens. Granted, we were paying for a van, too, but gee whiz. Also disturbing to me was the fire eating man that our driver just happened to come across on our way to the gardens. Of course he ate fire and rubbed it across his hands, but ramming it down his shorts was too much for me. It repulsed and saddened me. If I never go to Jamaica again, I would be OK. Hopefully, though, "Ochee" is not like the rest of Jamaica. Half Moon Cay is the most pristine beach I have ever been to -- we had a little delay in getting there because of the weather, but I'm glad I hung in there. My husband, the trooper, walked the Columbus trail to the coral reef, and saw lots of cool natural scenes, including cranky crabs, and lots of fish and birds; 80% plus of the island is a dedicated natural preserve. We had a beach BBQ there that was very organized and tasty. The water is GORGEOUS, and so CLEAR!!! Wished we could have stayed MUCH longer. We sailed back through the Bahamas and saw the lights of Freeport and Nassau, and made it to Port Canaveral on time. We got off later because we were driving home and didn't have a plane to catch. Only complaint about disembarkation was the lack of any carts or porters at the luggage pick-up point before we got to the customs desk. A number of quite elderly passengers were struggling with several suitcases, and no one was there to help them. (Even we younger folks were straining a little bit.) One very nice surprise and plus to HAL is the type of fellow passenger that it tends to attract. We met in the last week some of the most urbane, intellectual, exciting, and NICE people we have met in a very long time. International passengers as well as those from all over the US are not few and far between, and being able to dine with them or just strike up a conversation with them on the promenade was a great pleasure and bonus. The fact that HAL takes the trouble to deliver a mini daily newspaper in your language, suited to your nationality (NY Times for Americans; London Times for UK citizens, etc.) says a lot about HAL's outlook. The little extras that HAL offers are wonderful -- a java bar with unlimited speciality coffee drinks, popcorn with movies, and star gazing with the navigation officer. Try HAL, you won't be disappointed. We are already looking for our next trip with them!

Zaandam - Western Caribbean

Zaandam Cruise Review by Ramona

Trip Details
As would-be first time cruisers, my husband and I debated for several weeks whether or not we should even take a cruise vacation. Weighing concerns over claustrophobia (a red herring worry) and seasickness (ditto, except for some weird feelings of suspended equilibrium the first night) and the feeling that we would be big losers not to take a cool vacation for once in a long time, we finally decided to give it a shot.
But then, next big decision! Where to go, what cruise line, when, how long? Our nearest embarkation port was Jacksonville, serviced primarily by Carnival. After a little research on this website and others, we decided that Carnival was not the way to go for us. We are thirty-something professional types with no kids, but being the party animals at our age when we weren't at 21 is not our idea of a fun way to spend a vacation. Visions of dressing up for dinner and "adult" music and beautiful public areas kept popping up in our head. In all fairness, we have not cruised with Carnival, so it may be the place for you, but from what we researched, it would not have suited us.
We looked farther afield, and discovered that the selection was much bigger in Port Canaveral. Disney, Carnival, RC (we think), and Holland America (HAL) all sail from there, and to boot, the port was only a four-hour straight shot from us down I-95. Again, the Internet was very helpful, and HAL emerged as the victor. We liked the fact that all the reviews raved about the good food and classy interiors, and we appreciated the fact that while some complained about a slower night life and social calendar, that was just our speed.
OK, feeling very proud of ourselves for completing two of the four requirements for booking a cruise -- port and line -- we then narrowed it down to Thanksgiving week so we wouldn't have to take as many vacation days off from work. The only route available from HAL for that week was Western Caribbean (Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, HAL's private island).
So far, so good. Of course, our only frame of reference was prior to last Saturday the Internet reviews and the experiences of friends and family on other cruise lines.
When we finally turned off of I-95 last Saturday afternoon, and came to the cruise terminal, we yelped with joy. How beautiful! How majestic! The signs for HAL's terminal were clearly marked, and it was a piece of cake to get there. The shore baggage handling functions similarly to outside check-in at the airport, but we were not happy with the surly guy taking our luggage. I doubt he's a direct HAL E/E but probably an independent K/R type.
Once we parked the car in the lot ($10 a day prepaid and very easy), we went inside the HAL terminal where we waited in a LONG line for about 50 minutes to check in and show our ID credentials. My only complaint -- provide some water or lemonade for us while we wait. The HAL folks were very nice and courteous (as was our experience throughout the entire cruise).
Onward to the gangplank -- watch out for the photographers unless you really want a picture to purchase. We found out later it wasn't required; our mom had taken a cruise with Norwegian, and had to take a photo for her ID card, not so with HAL.
The interiors of the Zaandam are very understated in a very hip European manner with lots of interesting unexpected but quite tasteful color and texture combinations. I'm told the ship is not as large of some others, but I wouldn't have known. Tucked away are lots of little lounges with great places to chat with new friends or read a book. But more about the interiors later.
Our room (#3308) was off by itself in the middle of the Lower Promenade deck close to the front of the ship. We were concerned about vibration, which as landlubbers were experienced the first night, but we got used to it, and would probably take the same room again. Oh, don't worry about getting an outside window unless you are farther up in the ship -- the windows on the Promenade deck were always curtained b/c everyone walks past them and peers in on their exercise circuits around the deck. We had a windowless inside room, so no worries on that count. The room was arranged with conservation and maximization of space in mind, and we had plenty of space for our things.
A word about our cabin steward. I wish I could take him home. Our room was spotless the first day and throughout our entire cruise. Saephul is a quiet and diligent young man who obviously takes a great deal of pride in his work. It shows. Any time we needed new towels, we'd leave them to be picked up, and we'd return a few hours later for new ones (this was several times a day if we went swimming and then changed for dinner). The bathroom was immaculate at any time of the day, and our beds were turned down at night with chocolates on the pillows. (I agree with other reviewers -- bring sodas b/c they are $1.75 a pop on the ship -- $2.00 for mineral water. We brought a six pack of Sprites with screw on caps and made liberal use of the ice bucket and glasses. Next time, I'd bring more.) Saephul got an extra tip for his performance above and beyond the call of duty.
Food. When you first get on board, don't make the mistake I did as a newbie cruiser, and think that the only food available is at the Lido Pool (tacos, burgers, hot dogs). Wrong! Continue to go aft, and you will run smack dap in the middle of buffet heaven -- the Lido! Yum! The Lido ended up being our breakfast stop (great European muesli and chocolate croissants), and our sometimes lunch place (the main Rotterdam dining room was a little slow if you came back to eat during a port of call day).
PLEASE, PLEASE eat in the dining room for your evening meal. My husband and I felt like a king and queen each night with "Budi" and Wheni. Elegance, refinement, sophistication. The food and atmosphere in and of themselves were well worth the price of our ticket. That kind of meal would have cost us easily $100 to $150 in a local upmarket restaurant. The soups were excellent, as were any appetizer you cared to mention. My husband had the best lobster of his life, and I dearly loved the desserts (especially the mango-based ones). All I can say is "Baked Alaska" -- you'll see what I mean if you sail on the Zaandam. Only item that we had to work around was our late seating (8:30 p.m.), but you get used to it; we just went to the late shows and took a nap or rested in the afternoon.)
Also, try to make the afternoon teas (around 3-3:30 p.m.) -- the pastry chefs throw out all the stops, and you pretend you are in a movie with Helena Bonham-Carter or Kate Winslet. The food again is extraordinary (and my husband and I are tough culinary customers).
We don't care a thing about gambling -- can't really comment on the casino except to say it was always busy when it was open. Zelda in the gift shop is a dear, and was never without a smile or kind word --a beautiful person inside and out. Lots of opportunities for formal pictures (there are two formal nights in the dining room -- about 30% tuxedos and the rest nice suits and ties with some evening gowns and mostly ultra nice dresses) -- the photographers are nice guys from the former Yugoslavia.
The evening shows were pretty good -- my husband is more the one for Vegas style shows. I prefer classical music and old ballads, so the Atlantis Strings (the Zaandam chamber group) were really FANTASTIC. Some nights after the older passengers had gone to bed (10:30 p.m. or so), they played to an empty room. But don't believe other reviews that there's absolutely NO night life on HAL ships -- just go to the Crow's Nest or the Piano Bar. Karaoke night was loads of fun, and as shy as I am about singing in public, I actually participated! (It's nice and sweet to have your better half cheering you on!)
Ports of call. If you speak Spanish and you've been to Mexico before, Cozumel can be lots of fun. If you don't, and you're scared to haggle, you might be overwhelmed. Juan, our taxi driver to San Miguel from Puerto Maya was very friendly, and pleased that we spoke conversational Spanish with him. There's a set rate of $6 to take you to San Miguel, the main town, but Juan let us have it for $5 after we had a big conversation with him all the way to town in Spanish. Most of the stores have the same tourist kitsch in Cozumel -- T-shirts, beach knickknacks -- and more valuable jewelry (diamonds, etc.) than I would ever need or want. We highly recommend the Museo del Cozumel -- it was very well done with modern exhibits. Don't miss the Maya Casita in the courtyard of the museum -- the explanations were really fantastic if you are near fluent in Spanish, but not bad just in English. The exhibits have dual language explanations with good English translations. Also stop by the Church of San Miguel -- the first Mass in Mexico was celebrated on that spot in 1519 by Cortez's priests. I regret that I did not go to the "local" grocery store (I love doing that in foreign countries) and buying some Mexican vanilla. I will next time. I heard from others that snorkeling on your own at Chankannab park was great.
Grand Cayman -- lots of lingering hurricane damage and clean up. We were restricted to George Town as a result because 75% of the island was closed to tourists, and walked around to the shops a lot. I got bored just looking at jewelry so I went to observe a court proceeding at the Grand Cayman courthouse; make sure you are dressed appropriately (no shorts or jeans), and they will let you in if the trial or proceeding is open to the public. Same good behavior is expected there as it would be in the States; it was fascinating to me because they follow English common law as a British possession. We wanted to go to Pedro St. James, but that was also off limits.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica -- what an experience. Within 15 minutes of walking from the Reynolds pier (next to the bauxite factory and about a ten minute walk from the main town), my husband was offered marijuana and prostitutes (female and male). EVERYONE wanted a tip for some minor act -- no problem, mon. We took our only shore excursion of the trip, a van ride to the "Enchanted Gardens." In reality, the gardens were the grounds for the now defunct Shaw Park Hotel (which our singing guide Anne told us is owned by a former Jamaican prime minister...ahem). Lovely and strikingly verdant but a little run down. I had never been in a tropical rain forest before, so I enjoyed it. What I did not enjoy was the guilt trip our tour videographer (Anne's sidekick) gave us to buy her video (at $25) -- nice girl, but again, it's that Jamaican tip thing. Quite frankly, I was glad to have taken a shore excursion in Ocho Rios (see comments about my tall and strong husband's experiences above), but at $29 a head, I think it was a bit much, considering the Lonely Planet Jamaica guide in the ship's library quoted $4 a head for entrance to the gardens. Granted, we were paying for a van, too, but gee whiz. Also disturbing to me was the fire eating man that our driver just happened to come across on our way to the gardens. Of course he ate fire and rubbed it across his hands, but ramming it down his shorts was too much for me. It repulsed and saddened me. If I never go to Jamaica again, I would be OK. Hopefully, though, "Ochee" is not like the rest of Jamaica.
Half Moon Cay is the most pristine beach I have ever been to -- we had a little delay in getting there because of the weather, but I'm glad I hung in there. My husband, the trooper, walked the Columbus trail to the coral reef, and saw lots of cool natural scenes, including cranky crabs, and lots of fish and birds; 80% plus of the island is a dedicated natural preserve. We had a beach BBQ there that was very organized and tasty. The water is GORGEOUS, and so CLEAR!!! Wished we could have stayed MUCH longer.
We sailed back through the Bahamas and saw the lights of Freeport and Nassau, and made it to Port Canaveral on time. We got off later because we were driving home and didn't have a plane to catch. Only complaint about disembarkation was the lack of any carts or porters at the luggage pick-up point before we got to the customs desk. A number of quite elderly passengers were struggling with several suitcases, and no one was there to help them. (Even we younger folks were straining a little bit.)
One very nice surprise and plus to HAL is the type of fellow passenger that it tends to attract. We met in the last week some of the most urbane, intellectual, exciting, and NICE people we have met in a very long time. International passengers as well as those from all over the US are not few and far between, and being able to dine with them or just strike up a conversation with them on the promenade was a great pleasure and bonus. The fact that HAL takes the trouble to deliver a mini daily newspaper in your language, suited to your nationality (NY Times for Americans; London Times for UK citizens, etc.) says a lot about HAL's outlook. The little extras that HAL offers are wonderful -- a java bar with unlimited speciality coffee drinks, popcorn with movies, and star gazing with the navigation officer.
Try HAL, you won't be disappointed. We are already looking for our next trip with them!
Ramona’s Full Rating Summary
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