We tried the rest, time for the best. At least that was the plan. Seven cruises in the past six years, no two with the same company. Had been told that Holland America was our kind on cruise line. Low key, upscale, far from the madding crowd. My wife wanted a trip to St Thomas. A seven day cruise with balcony was less than a hotel/air package, so I booked.
Zaandam shares a terminal in Port Canaveral with RCI. No problem except parking can be a bit tight. If room runs out, not sure where they would put you. We entered to find ourselves in a serpentine line waiting for a spot at one of many check-in counters. We were given a card bearing the number of our boarding block. Arriving around eleven, we were to be number one.
The check in clerks were efficient but gave the impression they had been hired that morning. HAL is in Port Canaveral during the winter, summering in Alaska. Knowledgeable and I assume permanent staff roamed just behind so exasperation over the agent's blank stare would bring a quick response.
The terminal filled quickly and I took a look at the 1438 with whom I would be sharing this odyssey. No doubt they were doing the same. It seems that after I paid the full non refundable, nor adjustable fare, it was cut by nearly 50% to fill the ship. These were not the seasoned cruisers with whom the message boards of Cruisemates assured me I would be sailing. This was the "Glory be, look at us, we're goin' on that big ship" crowd. Conversation was just below a shriek. There were several doors from which it appeared we could board. Groups piled up in front of each, eyeing others suspiciously. The ominousness continued. My wife did her needlepoint and took it all in stride. This was going to be fun.
Boarding went smoothly. They asked everyone to remain seated until their number was called. Yeah, right. Like this bunch was going to wait for anyone. Holding the hallowed "1", we went first so I don't know what went on after we left. Our room was ready, dropped bags, off to the buffet, and we settled in.
Most life boat drills are either fun or a goat rope. This was neither, just another thing to do. The staff took it seriously and we stayed while names of the delinquent were paged. That left running around signing up for Marco Polo and mandatory spa treatments. Sailed later than normal, Zaandam being last in the elephant walk out the channel.
We chose the late seating, a little after eight. Thinking being the kids would eat early. There were no kids, or not many, so other like minded folks were scrambling to change to the six o'clock seating. Our Indonesian hotel and restaurant staff tried to accommodate so there was a lot of table hopping. An elegant setting, the dining room is aft with huge windows on three sides. Food and service were excellent. Diverse choices, served hot even though we were on the mezzanine. Our request to split a filet with our lobster tails was honored. We got our requested table for two, preferring to join a group for breakfast and lunch, but spending dinner alone. Good choice since we enjoyed the people with whom we found ourselves but would not have enjoyed an evening with the tables around us. Some people should get out more.
Speaking of kids, there were a group of early teen spring breakers who banded together, behaved themselves, acted appropriately in the dining room, but if you watched closely, were having a far better time together than I'm sure their parents intended. And there was the young(ish) couple at late seating with youngster and infant who screamed constantly. Parents couldn't be bothered because after all, they were on cruise, which left the waiters and table captains to tend them.
Formal night is more formal than other lines. Lot of people were comfortable in their finery but some looked like sophomores in rented tux. Majority of the men wore dark suits with the smattering of mavericks who wore what they damn well pleased. Most ships, no problem. This one, they stood out, not that they gave a rats.
The other dining option is the standard buffet aft the mid ships swimming pool with outside seating available by the aft pool. The handiest place to eat, it got crowded quickly and stayed that way. Both sides served the same fare, but each had additional serving stations such as a deli, pasta station, ice cream, salad bar and others I've forgotten. Point being you should check them all. Don't have to go through that particular line as everyone goes back and forth. Problem is that you might wander around with your tray looking for a place to sit. People tend to stay and stare (great visibility from huge windows) or read when finished, oblivious to the crowd. Watching the older passengers trying to manage their tray of food during the open ocean days was distressing. One of us would secure a table while the other went through the line. If you are going to cruise, might as well enjoy the service and ambiance of the dining room rather than the feeding trough environment of the buffet.
Dinner in the optional dining room was a very pleasant experience, well appointed and quiet. A Mediterranean/Italian theme, the food was excellent but no better than the dining room. Learned that it will be closed shortly and tuned into a pay extra steak house.
Our room was bed/sitting/balcony arrangement that seems standard. More than enough room and storage. Fridge and TV with tape player. A well stocked mini bar gathered dust after seeing the prices. Bath had a tub and again, plenty of room. Room steward kept out of sight but did his job well. Our room boasted bathrobes and "fluffy" towels as a perk. Not sure what the lessor rooms had. Probably just as fluffy. Looked in the inside rooms, just as large as ours. Doesn't look like you can go wrong no matter what you book.
The ship's layout is excellent and very convenient. The theme of the ship's decor is music, an exercise in understated elegance. See if you can find Bill Clinton's saxophone. The ship is not overwhelmed by a central atrium but a pipe organ does extend three decks. You can be very comfortable with the most modest stateroom, spending your time either on deck or in one of lounges or watering holes found everywhere. Lots of slots and electronic poker machines in the casino, tables didn't seem to get much action.
Unfortunately - - - - - a straight line from Port Canaveral to the Eastern Caribbean involves two days of open ocean. There was a storm somewhere north of us. Days were glorious except for a high, long term swell. The stabs did their job but the ship moved, a lot. We had the "Glory be, won't this damn thing ever settle down" crowd. You would have thought they were on a ride at Disney World. Didn't see anyone actually spit up but lots of high pitched whining. If you appeared to be in particular distress, the waiter would bring, with appropriate dignity, a green apple on a saucer. My wife said it actually worked. The aforementioned dining room is at the stern, I suppose for the view. Being a fairly short coupled ship, it has what is known in nautical parlance as a four corner wobble. Thirty some years at sea has left me with an iron stomach which my wife thought was insensitive to her distress. Dramamine was consumed like candy. My wife wasn't happy, the cruise suddenly became my idea, never mind St Thomas. The Captain reminded us the swells were waiting for us when we left the islands to return home.
St Maarten was a pleasant surprise. Heartily recommend the water taxi from the cruise pier to Philipsburg, a dusty little tourist trap. Three dollars one way or an all day pass for five. Much better than riding 10 in an eight passenger van. The island bears scars from the last hurricane, but is bouncing back. You have to go inland to get a feel for the island. We found the prices to be most reasonable. Five other ships joined us but the town didn't seem that crowded.
Zaandam drew the short straw in St Thomas and was berthed at the old Sub Base, now a commercial port and far removed from town. Long cab ride through a bad part of town, unpopular with the taxis. Not as many ships as St Maarten but the town was packed. But them, Charlotte Amalie is always packed. Fortunately, we did our shopping in St Maartin. Stay would have been much better had we berthed at Havenside. St Thomas had plenty of excursions for those who wanted to look around and get their face wet.
The ship used her lifeboat/tenders to get us to HAL's private island. Rotterdam anchored alongside but surprisingly, the island didn't seem particularly crowded. I went over for a look, everyone seemed to having a good time, lots to do, then returned to eat lunch without sand. Joined two couples who were taking the eastern/western cruises back to back. Intended to ask which they enjoyed most but never saw them again. They agreed that this was not the complement that usually found on a HAL ship
HAL has a no tipping required policy which seemed to throw most of the good folks who made up our boatload. I left a bit more than industry standard because the service was excellent, and obviously unappreciated. Sentiment of most of the others as voiced everywhere was "if they don't tell me what to tip, they ain't gettin' anything".
Since we left port last, we returned last. Disney and Carnival were securely tied up and off loading by the time we finally got alongside. We had been given forms listing options for leaving the area to determine debarking order. Ship's tours were first, followed by company arranged air, then firm flight times, etc. I said we had to retrieve our cat before noon or she would have to stay the weekend. Apparently they bought it because we left 23rd out of more than forty debarking blocks. Bags were where they said they would be and we were on our way shortly after ten, more than an hour later than the other ship's.
An elegant ship who knows how to take care of her guests. It's a shame the economy and fear of flying is dragging her down to the level of the cattle boats.