We just returned from a 7-day cruise on the HAL Zaandam and wanted to post our review of the trip and itinerary. For general information, this was our tenth cruise so we are by no means experts, but we have cruised enough to be able to make general comparisons based on our personal experiences. Prior cruises have been on the Carnival Inspiration - Southern Caribbean, HAL Veendam - Western Caribbean, HAL Veendam - Alaska Inside Passage, Sea Princess - Western Caribbean, RCI Radiance of the Seas - Pacific Coast, Celebrity Millennium - Eastern Caribbean, Sun Princess - Mexican Riviera, RCI Enchantment of the Seas - Eastern Caribbean and HAL Rotterdam - Southern Caribbean and Panama Canal. This was our fourth cruise on HAL and our second this year, having been on the Rotterdam in January. We had previously cruised the same itinerary four years ago on the HAL Veendam, but this was a family cruise with parents and brothers. My parents selected the cruise. I prefer the Caribbean, but Alaska is also enjoyable.
We always fly in a day early, but we love Vancouver, so we flew in two days early to give us more time there. We were able to get a great rate of $69 per night on Priceline for the Downtown Hyatt Regency. I had called the hotel directly to request a room with a view of the port and they put us on the 17th floor with a great view. We booked the cruise through our travel agent but booked our own air. We flew on American and had no problem with our connection at DFW and arrived in Vancouver by 1:00 p.m. I should note that there was a long, long line to get through Canadian Customs. In fact, it took us almost 45 minutes to get through this. It seemed like a lot of planes were landing at the same time and this could be formidable for anyone who is uncomfortable standing in line. My mother had requested a wheel chair and was able to go out through another area and avoid the wait. If you have any concerns, you should definitely go that route. It was a $25 (w/tip) cab ride from the airport to our hotel and we spent the afternoon in Gastown and Robson Street. Weather was warm and sunny so we were really able to get out and enjoy the city. On Friday we spent the entire day exploring Stanley Park. We went to the aquarium, which was a bit disappointing. They have a great beluga whale show, but other than that it consists of one dolphin, one sea lion and a bunch of aquariums. I would not do it again. We then hiked around the park on the sea wall. This is a very enjoyable walk, but will take a couple of hours. The park is beautiful and they have a nice totem pole exhibit. Views of the city and port are incredible. That night we enjoyed dinner in Gastown at the Spaghetti Warehouse with my parents and brothers.
Saturday morning I got up early and walked down to Canada Place to get pictures of the Zaandam. It was a beautiful day and we were looking forward to the cruise. At 11:30 a.m. we took a short cab-ride from the hotel over to the port terminal. Bags were dropped off to the porters and then on to check-in. The entire check-in process took 20-30 minutes and we were on the ship with very little waiting and no standing in line. It had previously helped that we had pre-registered on the HAL website, but there were no lines anyway, so it really didn't matter. The staterooms weren't ready but they let you check your carry-on in the Half Moon Room so you wouldn't have to lug it around with you. This was a nice touch. Cabins were available at about 2:00 pm. I always enjoy getting as many pictures of the ship as possible before the crowds arrive so we started at the top and work our way down getting familiar with the ship layout and where things are. Of course, once we hit the Lido, we stopped to eat and enjoyed lunch with my parents and brothers.
As most of you know, all the HAL ships have a similar layout, with the Zaandam being slightly larger, like the Rotterdam, than the Veendam. The ship is obviously well maintained and is in good shape with only some signs of wear and tear, especially on the outside. The interior of the ship was very clean and there was an ongoing effort by ship's staff to keep things polished and clean. We noticed a lot of crew members constantly wiping down hand rails and door knobs to help prevent the spread of bacteria. They also give you antiseptic hand wipes each time you come back on the ship from shore excursions and new this time, they also gave you antiseptic hand wipes in the Lido dining room before giving you the tray. There were several announcements regarding the need to avoid transmitting viruses, so HAL is really on top of this.
The public areas, including lounges, Atrium, Mondriaan Lounge, Ocean Bar and Explorer's Lounge are in great shape. There are several shops but we did not find the staff as friendly or as helpful as on previous cruises. There were no real bargains so I would do your shopping off the ship. They have an internet room, but we didn't use it because it was grossly overpriced - $.75 per minute. (Your best option here is to hit the internet cafes in port.) The casino is small and fortunately there were not many smokers on this cruise so it didn't get as smoky as other cruises. Slots seemed really tight and we saw few winners on this cruise. We're not big gamers but people seemed to be having a good time. My favorite place on the HAL ships is their outside Promenade Deck, but this was Alaska, so it didn't get as much use as normal. The deck goes all the way around the ship and the lounge chairs are padded. We also enjoyed the Aft Lido Pool in the back of the ship with its comfortable deck chairs. Nice thing about Alaska is you never have any problem finding a deck chair outside, even on warm days, of which we had plenty. And HAL still provides unlimited pool towels on deck and on the Promenade. It is so nice not to have to worry about keeping track of your towel.
We booked an Inside Cabin Guarantee and were given 2855 on the Main Deck. As everyone knows, HAL has the best cabins on the seas. The cabins are much larger than we've had on Celebrity, Carnival, Princess or RCI. We've had a mini-suite (1), balcony cabin (1), and outside cabins (3), but we prefer an inside cabin for cost and convenience. We actually sleep better in an inside cabin and since we spend so little time in there, we probably will keep booking them. The safes on the Zaandam require a credit card or other card with a magnetic strip. We prefer the numeric keypad safes on Princess. There is one electrical outlet in the room and also one in the bathroom. There is a hairdryer in the bathroom and a lighted makeup mirror in the cabin. Soap, shampoo and hand lotion are all provided. Excellent storage space everywhere. Our cabin steward was friendly and did a good job, but we hardly ever saw him. The important thing is that he did a great job. Again, with HAL you probably won't see any towel animals, but you will get great service. Since we had an inside cabin, we did not have a bath, but only a shower. I actually prefer this because the small HAL tubs are just a nuisance to get in and out of. We only shower anyway. Easily the best feature of these cabins is the new beds and linens that are part of the overall HAL upgrade. The mattresses are terrific and the beds stand higher than normal cruise ship beds, so there is more room for storing underneath. The pillows and high thread-count sheets are also similar to what you would find in a 5* hotel. HAL has really raised the standard with these improvements. It will be interesting to see if other cruise lines follow. You will sleep better than you've ever slept at sea in these beds. They're good enough to bring home.
The on-board entertainment was reasonably good. In my opinion, we've seen better singers on other ships, but the shows are very energetic and the cast makes a real effort to provide an excellent show. Again, it is obvious that the featured singers sing live but there appears to be a "sweetener" track so that the dancers are just lip-synching. We noticed this first on the Rotterdam, so I'm assuming it is the same on all HAL ships. Our Cruise Director was Michelle Rickert and she did a good job. Her support staff was also good.
Day 1 - we had a short presentation by the cruise cast and then comedian, Danny Storts. The comedian was only okay, but the cast introduction was good. Day 2 the cruise cast presented a tribute to Broadway - Ultimate Broadway. Day 3 - was a comedian/juggler, Max Winfrey. He was very good and worth the attendance. Day 4 - was a singer/entertainer, Steve Hites. He is a local and is probably more interesting for his tales of Alaska. Later that night was the Indonesian Crew Show. Also very good. Day 5 - was Bruce Block, a magician and comedian. He did a great job, but his rabbit stole the show. When you see it, you'll know what I mean. Day 6 - the ship's cast presented "Party Gras" a salute to world cultures and traditions. Day 7 - was a real disappointment as the ship had no entertainment show other than the movie, Seabuscuit. This was the first time this has happened to us on a cruise. Usually, the last night is a very enjoyable show and farewell. We were disappointed.
There were also two different movies shown on a daily basis in the Wajang Theatre throughout the cruise.
We ate all of our breakfast and lunch meals in the Lido or at the grill by the Lido pool, so I can't tell you about breakfast and lunch in the dining room. At breakfast you can expect the normal cereals, fruit, eggs cooked to order, pancakes, waffles and French toast. They also have an omelet bar, which was hardly ever busy. At lunch they will have heavy buffet meals but also offer alternating pasta bar, deli bar, and stir-fry bar. Around the back-side of the Lido restaurant is a salad bar which was excellent. And don't forget the ice cream station, which is open much of the afternoon and early evening. We have enjoyed the Lido in the past, but I found their food a bit lacking on this cruise. I was most disappointed in their dessert offerings in the Lido. The great Bread Pudding is still there, but the other dessert selections were not up to par with what we've experienced on other ships, including HAL. Decent burgers, hotdogs and Mexican fare are available out by the pool grill. For dinner, we were scheduled for the Main Seating and asked for a large table so our family could be together. I would classify the food in the dining room as simply good. Again, we didn't feel it measured up to the food we've had on Princess or Celebrity, or for that matter even our previous HAL cruises. Selections were not always that good, there were no cold fruit soup offerings, and the desserts were unimaginative and mediocre. Our table service however was excellent. In fact, service continues to shine as a strong HAL characteristic. We did not eat in the alternative restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, but we heard many good things about it. We never saw this restaurant busy, so getting reservations shouldn't be a problem.
After using the spa facilities on the RCI Radiance of the Seas and the Celebrity Millennium, these facilities looked a little small but they certainly accommodated the number on board. I never saw this area crowded and there were always available treadmills and weight machines. One of the nice things we've noticed on HAL is that this area doesn't seem to get very busy. Treatment rooms were nice but very small and I had a great massage from Dee on board. There is a sauna and steam room in the men's changing room and the area was never crowded. The steam rooms are great on HAL and I enjoyed this area almost every day. They have lockers, towels and showers in the changing area. Staff was very nice.
We enjoyed incredible weather and record warm temperatures on our cruise. We didn't even see a cloud until our last day coming home when it got foggy. Every port was warm, really too warm. We're probably not the best to offer opinions on ports because we tend to avoid the ship excursions and do mostly things on our own, but here's my take. :
Juneau - we booked a whale watching excursion on our own with Captain Larry at Orca Enterprises. We did this on our last trip to Alaska and we loved it. We couldn't wait to do it again, and we were not disappointed. It was almost 90 in Juneau, so we didn't get around in town as much as we normally do. There is plenty of shopping and in my opinion this is the best place to get your souvenirs. Easily the best prices and best selection.
Skagway - here we booked the White Pass Railway trip through the ship. This is a popular excursion and there were four other ships in port, so if you want to do this book early. We had also done this on our earlier cruise, but the whole family wanted to do this and we certainly enjoyed it. Beautiful scenery and worth the trip. Because of the warm weather though, it was a very warm ride. The train did provide bottled water for the trip which was very nice, and much needed. Since we didn't leave on the train until noon, we hiked through town to the cemetery. This is worth the effort, because there is a beautiful water falls just above the cemetery. It is Turner Falls, and it is a wonderful place to take pictures. Don't miss this hike.
Glacier Bay - obviously, there are no excursions here, but I did want to offer some advice to those who want to view the glacier from the comfort of their stateroom balcony. Book a room on the port side of the ship. Yes the cruise ship turns around so that both sides get a view of the glacier, but the port side definitely had the longer look. We were out on deck so it didn't matter, but this might be important to some. Again, we had a beautiful, warm and sunny day in Glacier Bay. Shorts and a sweatshirt was needed only in the shade. The sun was very warm.
Ketchikan - an unbelievably perfect sunny day. Temperatures in the low 70's and not a cloud in the sky. We did our own walking (and unfortunately shopping) tour here after making a quick stop at the internet café. $5 for one hour. Hard to beat that. You can get a great map at the tourist information office and we walked all through town and up to the Totem Park and Fish Hatchery. Don't miss Creek Street. This is one of the great areas of Ketchikan and it's just outside of the immediate port area. We regretted not signing up for the kayaking tour of this area. You can walk up some stairs at the end of Creek Street to an area just above downtown for some nice views. Ketchikan was our favorite stop; it was unfortunate that we were here for such a short time.
Disembarkation was a breeze and easily the best we've seen. HAL let's you wait in your cabin until your number or letter is called. Our letter was called at 8:30 a.m. and we walked right out of our cabin and off the ship with no lines and no delays. We easily found our bags and walked right through customs and right into a cab that was waiting. Not a single line anywhere. Unbelievable! And after a quick taxi ride to the Vancouver airport, we walked right up to the American counter and checked in. Again, no line. Now how unbelievable is that. By the way, they didn't weigh our bags in Vancouver, so you might not have to worry about the weight restrictions. Even better, they have US Customs right there, so you get cleared before leaving Vancouver. When you arrive at your US destination, you don't have to re-claim your bags and go through customs. From the time the taxi dropped us off, if was less than fifteen minutes and we had received our boarding passes, cleared customs, checked our bags and arrived at our gate. AA even put us on an earlier flight. We were scheduled to leave at 1:25 p.m., but they put us on a 10:45 a.m. flight. Needless to say, we connected through DFW and there were many delays and overbooked flights there, so we didn't get home until 11:00 p.m. We really can't complain though, because it could have been worse.
This was a great trip and even though it was our second trip to Alaska, we had a wonderful time. If you've not done Alaska, do it.
1. Any cruise is a great cruise and HAL provides a good product. Great cabins and excellent service. 2. Many have commented on the noticeable age of passengers on HAL and I would guess that at least 90% of our passengers were in their late 60's and up. We are in our 40's and love to cruise with this older generation. We find them gracious, engaging and excellent conversationalists. 3. We love the size of these smaller ships with plenty of room, but fewer passengers. We felt that we got to know a lot more people and the lines moved quickly. We could always find a seat in the Mondriaan Lounge and a deck chair at the Lido Pools, (not to mention the unlimited supply of pool towels). 4. I said it before, and I'll say it again: The Promenade Decks on HAL ships are simply the best place in the world to read a good book and catch a quick nap. I could spend every day out there. (My wife won't let me, but I could do it.) Padded deck chairs are a real luxury. 5. The HAL steam room (just wish it opened earlier). What a life! 6. The new beds and bedding. Best sleep on the seas!
1. HAL ships are usually a bit more formal than many other cruise lines; although we thought this was a very casual crowd for HAL. On formal night, we saw very few tuxedos, but most men were wearing dark suits. Several however wore sport coats or no coat at all. Semi-formal night is also a "jacket required" night but there were several who appeared to ignore this dress code. I'm more of a casual wear kind of guy and while I observe a cruise lines dress code, I am more comfortable with the Princess or RCI standard. This was the most casual HAL cruise we've ever been on, so I guess for us this was actually a positive. 2. Food was disappointing on this cruise compared to what we've experienced on other ships, including HAL. Lido food and desserts were the biggest disappointments. They are definitely cutting back in this area. 3. Spa prices are still way too high, but the staff in this area was exceptionally friendly and I couldn't believe how quickly they learned my name and remembered it throughout the cruise. This ship has an exceptional spa director, so that should be listed as a positive. And though the steam room opened at 8:00 a.m., that is also the time they turn it on, so it doesn't really warm up until about an hour later. 4. There really are limited eating options on this ship. By that I mean that there are times during the day when there is no place to get something to eat. For example, the Lido closes from 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm. We boarded late in Ketchikan at 8:30 p.m. and there was simply no place to eat except room service. We were hot, tired and hungry and I didn't want to have to sit in my room and eat dinner. I love the fact that on Princess and RCI, I can find pizza or a late night dessert at almost any time of the day and show up as I am. 5. No outdoor whirlpool tubs other than those in the covered Lido Pool area. Worse, the pools don't open until 10:00 a.m. This is just plain stupid. We love the outdoor whirlpools up on deck in the cool air for sunrise, and how about an early morning swim. 6. All in all, the schedule for venues and activities on this ship is very regimented and is a bit restrictive. On Thursday, they announced an exciting and fun filled day for our Friday Sea Day; all beginning at 10:00 a.m. In my opinion, this is a late start and there really wasn't much going on. I prefer a more active and flexible approach to vacationing.
And finally, for what its worth, some updated comparisons (based on our own impressions): HAL can be a great cruising experience, but RCI and Princess may be more in line with my casual and flexible vacation lifestyle. Princess and Celebrity provide a better dining experience, but the service on HAL and RCI is much better. RCI, Celebrity and Princess have the most beautiful ships. Entertainment on HAL is equal to or better than anything we've seen on RCI, Princess or Celebrity. In my opinion the friendliest people cruise HAL, Princess and RCI. Based on our experiences, I would rate these lines: 1) Princess, 2) RCI, 3) HAL, 4) Celebrity and 5) Carnival. Now we're looking forward to our next Caribbean cruise in January, 2005. We will be looking at Princess or RCI.
I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.