The Basics: My wife and I cruised on the Holland America Cruise Line's ship, the Zaandam, round trip from Port Canaveral, Florida, stopping in St. Maarten's, Tortola, and Half Moon Cay. This was a Christmas cruise, Dec. 20-27, 2003. The ship is 63,000 tons (780 feet long, 10 passenger decks) and was launched in May 2000. She carries 1440 passengers and a crew of 561. The service crew is primarily Indonesian, the officers primarily Dutch. We booked at standard outside cabin, category "C", on the Lower Promenade Deck (Deck "3" on some lines).
Embarcation We wanted to check out HAL's new embarcation times but, unfortunately, did not arrive until 2 pm. Unfortunately, due to heightened security, we could not pull up to the cruise terminal, but HAL had excellent baggage handling at the satellite facility. We pulled up, unloaded, and a porter immediately took the bags right off the asphalt. The walk to the terminal was covered and perhaps 100 yards away. Parking was very close and easy, although it was outside and cost $70 in advance ($10 per day). I have to say, this was as close as you can get to hassle-free parking and baggage drop-off, and I got a parking space only 50 yards from the drop-off facility.
Once in the terminal, boarding was better than average. It took us perhaps 15 minutes to clear the boarding area and get on board. Cabins were open when we got onboard, and our baggage was delivered before departure at 5 pm.
THE CABIN Our cabin seemed a bit spartan after our last cruise on the Celebrity Constellation. At 195 square feet it was just about the minimum for full comfort, but it was entirely satisfactory in terms of space. The decor was beige and a bit drab, really, although (as was true throughout the ship) the artwork was excellent. The bathroom was typical HAL: just large enough to function fully without an ounce of wasted space. On the left wall were four closet spaces with adjustable shelves in some and hanging bars in others. A credit-card safe (which is a pain in the neck -- I much prefer programmable safes, so you don't have to carry your credit card around and two people don't have to share one credit card to get in) is in the closet. There was additional drawer space near the desk unit and in the beside tables. Three large suitcases fit perfectly under the bed. We found the space to be ample. There was also enough leg room to actually sit on the love seat. The television in this cabin class is quite small -- the mini-suites (which are really just large verandah cabins) have a larger t.v. with a VHS player. The bed is hard and reasonably comfortable. The bedcovers and sitting areas were getting old and somewhat shabby, and are ready for replacement/recovering as of December 2003. The bolster pillows, bedspread and blankets were really close to unsatisfactory, actually.
THE SHIP The Zaandam (like all HAL ships, named after a town in Holland) is a slightly larger version of the beloved Statendam class of HAL ships, and has all the advantages and disadvantages of that class. I really cannot tell the difference except that the Zaandam seems to have a bit more space, but also more vibration problems. Let me just say, in my personal opinion, that this is my personal favorite ship among all the mass-market ships I have sailed, seen, or heard about. The deck space is the best of any mass market ship afloat. There is a full promenade deck (actually it is the Lower Promenade) that completely circles the ship, and it is 100% teak. There is a full bow deck, and a number of smaller and easily accessible side and aft decks -- most of them are teak, except the huge bow deck. The really special thing about HAL ships in general, and the Zaandam in particular, is the artwork. The theme of the Zaandam is musical instruments. There is a three story pipe organ in the atrium, and throughout the ship are scattered displays of ancient musical instruments. For example, there is a 17th century harpsicord, with some ornate formal clothing from the era displayed beside it. There are also some interesting modern instruments, such as a saxaphone signed by Bill Clinton (!) and a guitar signed by many guitar greats (Eric Clapton, BB King, etc.). Outside the library is a blown up photograph of the excavation of King Tut's tomb, and surrounding it are a number of precious original artifacts from his period of Egyptian history, including a full royal sarcophagus. To top it off, there is a huge modern sculpture of the lower half of a face (mostly chin and lips) which, you come to realize, is the lower half of the face of Tutankamen himself. No HAL ship would be complete without extensive nautical memorabilia, and the Zaandam has a number of excellent ship models, lithographs, and paintings. My favorite was a 30-inch model of J. Pierpont Morgan's magnificent steam/sail yacht, the Corsair, located in the Crow's Nest. People who enjoy museums could easily spend hours enjoying the artwork, or simply use it as a constant diversion when ambling from place to place. The atrium is less spectacular than many ships but is very pretty and to my taste. The ship is standard HAL fare, attractive without getting too intrusive. There is a nice sports bar with a large-screen t.v. The smallish library is beautiful, with a number of writing desks facing windows. The main dining room, theater, and specialty restaurant are all conservative but colorful enough to maintain one's interest. Pools on these ships consist of a main pool which is freshwater and has a retractable roof, and is located midships on the Lido Deck (top full deck), and a small open pool with teak decking behind the Lido on the same deck. Hamburgers, pizzas, and ice cream are served until 5 pm just behind the main pool. The Wajang Theater shows second-run features (i.e. movies out several months, but not yet released on video/DVD) which were quite good. As always, HAL is very good about not nickle-and-diming the patrons, and the movies have free popcorn, popped a little before the movies begin. The coffee bar serves decent cappucino, with delicious cakes and cookies, all morning and afternoon, all without charge. The downside to the "stretch" from the Statendam class is a noisy ship. In moderate seas, the Zaandam creaks and groans like a haunted house. She has good stabilizers and the roll is very well controlled (we had 18 foot swells and gale force winds in the Atlantic, which she handled very adeptly), but the noise bothered a lot of people. Personally I found it comforting, as it felt like I was on a ship rather than in a hotel, but some people did not agree. Also, Zaandam has a lot of vibration in turns and manuevers, which also does not bother me much but does bother some.
FOOD Holland America food is quite good. The food on the buffet line (called the Lido, as it is on many ships) was not as good as the dining room food (also true of most ship's food). Food quality varies quite a bit. The breakfast meats were the worst thing -- really rather awful, the only bad food I had on the entire cruise. The coffee is not very good, either. Eggs were quite good, and most of the lunch selections were tasty. Soups were outstanding as were some of the daily dishes. Bagels (which I eat toasted with cream cheese, smoked salmon and maybe a garnish) were excellent. Fruit was excellent, and you can get a full glass of any juice you want. The custom-cooked omelets were good but nothing great. And so on. The dining room food -- well, you have to learn how to order in any ship's dining room. The daily specials were excellent, and the beef orders (steak/prime rib) were very good. I am still smacking my lips over the "Peking style duck". The breads are very good. Soups are outstanding. Salads are good but rather basic. Desserts are excellent. I don't know whether to say this here or somewhere else, and maybe I'll say it twice. Every cruise line should send spies and simply copy what HAL does in the dining room. The service and, for want of a better word, the "system" of service, is head and shoulders above any other mass market cruise line, resort, or anything else. HAL's head stewards (a.k.a. captains or ass't maitre d') actually work. The waiter and assitant waiter were nearly invisible -- all one sees is a well-planned flow of food, with a quiet attempt to remember every guest's preferences. I never felt hurried, and there were never long periods of time when I felt like I was sitting waiting for food. If you need to eat in an hour and a half, you can, and if you want to linger, you can do that, too. I remember with great disappointment the long periods of sitting on other cruises, waiters who must waste everyone's time giving lengthy oral recitations of the menu which nobody can hear (Celebrity is very bad about this), etc. And the personnel really seem to love their job. The food in the specialty restaurant, the Marco Polo, was simply excellent, as was the service and decor. It is really worth the extra $20 if you want a gourmet experience.
SERVICE Service on the Zaandam is the best. A++. The staff, from the guy sweeping the carpet to the front desk (front desk personnel are often the poorest on a ship in my experience -- I have wanted to strangle some of them on other cruises), to the stewards and waiters -- are genuinely friendly, seem to like their jobs (remarkable considering how extremely hard they work), and have "people skills" -- they will chat with you if you want it, but won't force themselves on you. The staff is almost entirely Indonesian on the Zaandam. I learned how to say "good morning", "thank you" and a few other phrases in Indonesian on my first HAL cruise, and the staff really appreciate the effort and interest. They do give Indonesian shows and offer some Indonesian cuisine. HAL has announced that it is changing its tipping policy, I think in response to customer input, and it's high time. The old "no tipping required" policy was well-intended (to add to the "no nickel and dime" atmosphere) but it didn't work. It merely confused the passengers and probably hurt the staff's pocketbooks. At some point in the near future, HAL is apparently going to adopt a more mainline policy, with tipping guidelines and the ability to put tips on the onboard accounts. HAL has started putting fresh fruit in the cabins again, which is something I missed and am glad to see reinstated. Now THAT is a great example of a little free touch I enjoy. Higher categories of cabins also get fresh flowers.
ENTERTAINMENT -- I don't want to spend a lot of time on entertainment, which is not HAL's strongest suit. The shows I saw were good and entertaining, but nothing too special. I skipped the inevitable "Songs of the 60's", or whatever, staff productions.
ACTIVITIES -- excellent. Good library and they give prizes for the daily quiz. I like to play trivia, which was extremely well-run on the Zaandam, with two good "name that tune" contests. The athletic activities can't compare to say RCCL's, but were well-run and fun, especially the putting contest in heavy seas (which made volleyball, basketball etc. impossible). Fitness classes were good, and the spa is good. Walking is excellent, due to the full teak promenade deck. There were not many enrichment seminars, but then, there were no "shopping" talks and the art auction was minimally invasive. One thing HAL has -- you can always find a quiet corner to curl up with your free cappucino and read a book. I frequently dislike cruise directors, but the CD on this cruise (sorry I can't remember his name, but he was Australian) was genuine, funny, and very nice. The people running the small children's program seemed to do an outstanding job, also.
GAMBLING -- Unfortunately, HAL has put in automatic continuous shuffling machines on the blackjack tables. I am a veteran blackjack player and I simply don't like this. The house rules are good on the standard table games, comparable to Las Vegas. For those who want to lose their money faster, there are lots of "fun" games (gag) and slot machines with no payout information. The croupiers were polite and friendly, which is generally the biggest benefit of cruise gambling. My wife, by the way, won the Snowball Bingo jackpot :) We do well on cruises, as I have won the blackjack tournament on my last two cruises, but my $500 contributions pale beside her $3910 bingo win. People would stop her all over the ship and ask her "aren't you the woman who won the bingo?"
DESTINATIONS: 1) St. Maarten's - our first stop is a favorite of mine. Smart visitors know to rent a car immediately upon landing and get the dickens out of Phillipsburg (the town where you dock), a shabby and somewhat smaller version of such hellholes as Charlotte Amalie. St. Maarten's, for those who don't know, is half Dutch and half French. The Dutch side is drab and touristy; while the French side (called St. Martin's) is quaint, thriving, and fun. The main French town of Marigot has pleasant shopping, excellent dining, and is fairly scenic, with a nice marina in the middle of town. There are over a dozen excellent beaches all over the island, from the crowded and developed Orient Beach (famous as a nude beach) to utterly secluded hamlets like Guana Point (which is worth a drive just to see).
2) Tortola - this was my first visit to Tortola except a brief stop in my college years. Tortola is a beautiful island. It is only moderately developed and the little town does not have much to see, although there are several nice shops. It is a huge sailing center and has nice beaches. The best favorite, for a quick visitor, is to catch the ferry from downtown to Virgin Gorda (home of the famous Rockefeller resort) and make your way to The Baths, a spectacular beach.
3) Half Moon Cay - this is HAL's private island and is politically part of the Bahamas. It is just lovely. I would wonder why someone who didn't like Half Moon Cay would want to take a Caribbean cruise in the first place, as I would rather go somewhere else unless I wanted to go to the beach or go snorkeling or something. The water is sparkling blue and calm; the beach is pure powdery sand, as soft on your feet as flour. There is a post office, food, and a wide range of water sports (which are expensive, but for your money you get HAL's assurance of safety and hygiene, which is not perfect but a lot better than some unknown Caribbean operator). There is some music if you want, free use of beach towels and beach chairs. The only downside to Half Moon is that, with two ships in port, the beach gets quite crowded. You have to walk around to the far side to get single-deep towels and chairs, which are three-deep near the tender dock.
AMBIENCE Ships have personalities; even two nearly identical sister ships, run by the same cruise line, can be quite different. On this score, I give the Zaandam high marks. The ambience of the ship is wonderful. Kudos to the Zaandam staff.