Our March '05 Zaandam cruise was fabulous. We'd had plans to go skiing, which fell through suddenly, so we went online, typed in "last minute travel", and booked 2 Verandah Suites (6212 & 6218) for our family of 5 - less than a week before sailing. My in-laws decided it sounded pleasant, and came along too. We're in our mid 30s, with 3 kids ages 8-12. My wife and I played with the kids, relaxed, and had twosome dates. The kids played, rested, watched movies, swam, and enjoyed ClubHAL. My college-professor father in-law graded papers and swam with the kids, while my mother in-law, read, took cooking classes with my wife, and enjoyed the beaches. Our week on Zaandam provided a perfect mix of different activities for all of us to do together and in various pairings.
The Ship & crowd. Zaandam is big enough to provide plenty of space and things to do and to handle the ocean well. It's clean and classy, but not stuffy. A previous cruise on RCCL was more like a week at a giant indoor outlet mall during the Thanksgiving sales (crowds, lines, noise, commotion - this is fun?), while Zaandam offered a comfortable, refined atmosphere - without the chaos. Our fellow passengers were pleasant to be around, with the average age "energetic 50s". Furthermore, they were gracious to our children, often lending a hand if one of the kids needed it.
Cabins. Our 2 suites were simply lovely. Quiet, comfortable, perfect temp control, lots of storage. Fresh flowers were a welcome touch. Flat screen TV and DVD/CD player were a real plus, especially with the kids (satellite TV with cartoon network; plus 945 DVDs in the library). I appreciated the comfort of the bed - think Westin or Ritz Carlton. Every evening the sofa in the kids' room was converted to a bed, which my daughter thought was cozy. The verandahs were really pleasant; clean, quiet, not windy - definitely worth the extra money. Our room steward, Laode, was incredible - always greeting us with a warm smile, keeping our rooms neat, replenishing our fruit, and making a special point to fuss over the kids. Requests were never an inconvenience, and his follow through was 100%. I'm convinced he was genuinely glad to have us as his guests.
Dining. Steak, escargot, venison, duck, perch, lobster, crab, chicken, salmon, pasta, shrimp, lamb - and that's what my kids ate! We were flat out spoiled all week. We took our breakfasts from the Lido restaurant out to the aft deck and up one flight to a quiet table (actually, a server helped carry the kids' trays). Perfect. You name it, you can have it for breakfast. Personally, I went for omelets, lots of mango, mueslix, and glasses full of fresh squeezed OJ. It doesn't get any better. Lunches were casual in the Lido or by the pool. The 2 times we ordered room service we were impressed. One was a late night snack of fruit plates and glasses of milk: 6 minutes. The other was when we ordered Dutch High Tea for on our verandah one afternoon (15 minutes). Simply lovely. Dinner was at 5:45 at a window table overlooking the stern. Our waiter, Mr. Yodiarta, was attentive and on the ball! He addressed the children by name, treated them as if they were the #1 VIPs on board, and when he sensed one of us couldn't decide which dessert to choose, he brought both. One evening our oldest son wasn't keen on the appetizer selection and said that what he'd really like was some mango. Presto. In 5 minutes a plate of golden slices was sitting before him. For our last night, we requested a special Filippina family meal, and the Philippine galley staff went all out with the most delicious platters you can imagine.
Kids. If your kids are polite, and know how to behave in a 5 star resort environment, by all means, bring them. There's plenty to do, it's safe, and the crew could not have been kinder. Summer greeted my 3 (8, 10, 12) as we stepped aboard and she invited them to a Club HAL orientation after the life boat drill. At the orientation, they were given wrist bands identifying our lifeboat #, and lanyards with water-proof pouches to carry their key cards. My kids chose to remove the pouches and ask the front desk to punch holes in their cards so they could wear them on the lanyards. Club HAL is organized in 3 age groups (Kids, Tweens, and Teens). Kids under 8 need an adult to sign them in/out, with 8 & up free to come & go as they please - if their parents approve. We're fairly conservative, and very deliberate about our kids' whereabouts; at no time did we ever feel concerned. They did tie-dye shirts, candy bar bingo, free-play on arcade games, scavenger hunts, mini Olympics, Cranium and more. The Club HAL facilities are great, with 10 Play Station 2s, and even a special deck with hammocks for Teens. One morning my 12 year old took his book to the Crow's Nest to read quietly, ordering a bitter lemon soda to drink. When he and I went back to play a game later in the afternoon, the server addressed my son by name and asked if he'd like another bitter lemon! By the way, not 10 minutes later we watched a pod of porpoises race the ship, jumping in the air.
Ports. We visited Tortola, St Thomas, and Half Moon Cay. At Tortola we left the ship early, and walked 12 minutes to the local ferry terminal where we boarded a high speed ferry for Virgin Gorda, and took a taxi to the Baths. We hiked past all the tourists and found our own private beach - loved it. Great snorkeling, but watch out for the strong current. St. Thomas is an over-touristed, jewelry selling, t-shirt hawking, booze distribution island to which we do not need to return - at least not when there are 6 other ships in port. But if you find yourself there charter a boat over to St John (our original plan until the kids were too tired from Tortola), or take a cab 5 minutes to Brewer's Bay. We learned of Brewer's Bay from the immigration officer who recommended it as a local's beach with calm clear water, great shells, and NO facilities. It lived up to all of his description, and was perfect for our needs. Half Moon Cay is the tropical isle you've dreamed of. More than a mile of powdery white sand, clear, shallow water for snorkeling, hammocks, and a really cool water park for playing. Skip the excursions - we lost 2 hours waiting around at various points for the sting ray swim & feed. Just go way down the beach, snag that last hammock you see, and forget what day of the week it is. We took our own snorkel masks & gear for the family to use and were glad we did. It filled a canvas LLBean bag, but gave us tremendous flexibility to go wherever and do whatever we wanted. We also took along cold water bottles which you can buy as you leave the ship.
Embark/Debark/Luggage. In a word: EASY. Boarding was a simple. Porters took all our luggage and had it in our rooms within 2 hours. Check-in had no lines and took 15 minutes. At the end of the cruise, we had breakfast in the Lido, then waited in our suite until we were called to disembark. Our bags were waiting for us and easily sorted by colored tags. A porter took all 10 of them to the curb for us.
Holland America and the Zaandam staff outdid themselves to provide a wonderful week for our family. If I had to pick one thing that made the week, I'd say it was the service. It was always personal and sincere. Never aloof, never indifferent, always sincere. We've taken the kids all over the world, staying in many fine hotels and resorts, and I travel heavily for work. We have a lot to compare Zaandam to. Zaandam nailed it, and we can't wait to go back.