First a little background. This was my eighth cruise, last cruises being on Princess and Disney. We picked HAL because everything we found about the line led us to believe it would be even better than those other two lines. We picked the Zuiderdam because I have been spoiled with the larger, newer ships around today, and the amenities they provide. It was myself and my husband, both in our mid to late thirties. We had a category A verandah cabin on the navigator deck.
Those of you loyal to HAL and thinking it can do no wrong, may want to just start flaming me now and get it over with. I don't know if maybe something has been lost in moving from the smaller ships to the larger, or if HAL is just cutting so many corners, that it is becoming obvious to passengers. Or maybe Mariners are just so loyal to HAL they don't experience the other lines and are not aware of how great things are on the "other side." Whatever it is, I left with a general feeling of bewilderment because many the reasons I chose HAL didn't seem to exist.
EMBARKATION: This was very uncomfortable. Many other lines do check-in while also allowing boarding simultaneously. I felt as if it were quite uncivilized to have huge crowds milling around waiting to get on board. It was like waiting on line at the deli for them to call my number. I assume part of the reason they do this is to allow for the personal escort to the cabin, but I would choose finding my own way over being treated like cattle. They did not begin boarding till close to 2:00.
THE ROOM: This was the best stateroom in this level of room that I have been in. The room truly was larger than the standard. The bed was large, long enough and very comfortable. The goose down pillows were a great creature comfort as was the excellent shower and larger size tub. When we arrived at our room, neither key worked. I went to the front desk and it was fixed immediately. Also, a hot water leak in the bathroom was fixed within a half hour or so once we reported it, and the desk told us our steward had put in a work order at 1:00. They followed up with a phone call and card to make sure things were taken care of. The balcony was also larger than the usual. We had a large "wicker" chair and ottoman, a smaller chair and table. We could easily move around the verandah and could have fit more or larger furniture. You could probably have at least six or seven people standing out there without it being too crowded.
THE DECOR: On other ships of this size and capacity, I have found that when you leave a public area and head into another, you pick up on a different ambiance or theme. (I don't in any way mean a Carnival like tacky theme.) The decor on this ship was in a word underwhelming. I expected more of an atrium, and more of a presence. The art and decorations were beautiful, but I really had to look hard to notice these things since they seemed to get lost. The Vista lounge was beautiful. I could tell a lot of thought went into decorating it with all the little touches and embellishments.
OUR ROOM STEWARD: It seems as if he did only the bare minimum. The bed was made and towels fresh, but the room was never by any means "spotless." He never left us "towel animals" as every other cruise I have been on had. If there was a used plate or glass in the room when he came in to do the second servicing and turn down, he left it there. One night we left the previous day's pillow chocolate out on the night stand. It made a return appearance on the pillow. That was just too tacky.
DINING ROOM STAFF: The dining room customer service experience started out wonderfully. Our team was efficient, pleasant and basically accommodating. by day four there was a complete turn around. Meals took excruciatingly long to arrive and mistakes were made. by day six and seven, we were spending so much time waiting between courses, we ended up giving up and leaving before finishing dessert so we would have time to get to the show. by the way, we were at a table for two and were always the first in our waiter's group to order.
CUSTOMER SERVICE IN GENERAL: I found that the customer service we received from many people we had contact with was not even close to the "five stars" HAL bills itself as being. While every staff member was friendly and had a smile and hello for us, I have never been told "no" or "I can't" so many times on a cruise. I had been under the impression that if the person you asked of couldn't or didn't know how to do whatever it was, they would find a way or another person to make any reasonable request happen. This was my experience in the past. Unfortunately that was not the case with this cruise.
My husband wanted to use his soda card at dinner and thinking that the assistant steward who handles drinks and such would be the one to do this asked him for a soda. He said "You have to ask the wine steward." That didn't make sense so we thought maybe he misunderstood and we asked the waiter. He also said "you have to ask the wine steward." A five star response to our query is "The wine steward handles all bar requests. I will send her over." We requested a basket of fruit from our room steward, and his reply was "I am not allowed to do that, you have to ask room service." A five star response would have been "I am not allowed to handle food items, but I will let room service know of your need." At "Royal Dutch High Tea" I requested cream instead of milk and was told, "we don't have cream." What? Isn't the correct, customer service oriented answer, "I have none in the dining room (odd an idea that may be) but I will go and get you some, so it may take a moment?" My husband noticed that on the nights shrimp cocktail was not on the menu, the waiters were still bringing them out by the tray full, so one night he tried to order it. He was told "no, you can't have it tonight, maybe tomorrow." That is just weird.
I think the language barrier we noticed would fall in the customer service category as well. I often found it difficult to get an answer about what an item was at the Lido late night snack buffet. During the day, there were accurate signs saying what was available, but in areas or at times the signs were not present, it was quite difficult to find out what the items where. In the dining room, making a special request such as no sauce or a different vegetable was met with confusion and usually the wrong item. I am not talking about ordering off the menu or anything like that. When I ordered the filet mignon without the fois gras sauce, I didn't get a vegetable or rice that night. It got to the point that I gave up on asking for anything because it was exhausting being told no so often or being misunderstood. I think the fact that supervisor positions in areas of high customer contact are not filled with English as a first language staff, makes this problem even worse.
FOOD: The food was delicious at most venues and at most times. The beef at dinner was always served the way we ordered it. The food tasted fresh and well seasoned. The chilled soups especially were great. I know a lot of people don't like "Dutch night," but that menu was one of my favorites. My husband enjoyed the authentic Indonesian noodle dish, and I enjoyed the vegetarian casserole in puff pastry. The pizza and pasta sauces were better than I expected, and it was nice having the option of sweets and a variety of ice creams available from early till late. Breakfast at the Lido was very comprehensive with an omelet station as well as eggs any way you like.
I felt at other times, the Lido's selection paled in comparison to what I have experienced on other line's ships of this size and capacity. The first day or so, the Lido was nice, but the food available was hardly different from day to day. There was no special pizza or burger of the day, and the deli always had the same variety of sandwiches available. Also, the hours the Lido is open is pretty poor compared to other Lido type buffets. I had gotten used to there being something to snack on other than a burger and fries throughout the day on other lines. But, the Lido was open only during meal times to a slightly extended degree. We got so tired of the variety that we decided to eat lunch in the dining room. The menu there was also pretty limited, and I often found myself having yet another burger for lack of something better to pick.
The dinner menu was limited as well when compared to other line's menus. On past cruises I often couldn't decide between a hot soup or cold and found myself ordering one entree and another as a side so I could have a taste of something different. I never experienced that on this cruise. There was some sort of fish or seafood, a beef and a chicken, and occasionally a pork or lamb dish, as well as a vegetarian entree. The day they had pork for dinner, we had already enjoyed it once at lunch. Other lines have a different game bird each night. Unless you are a true beef or steak lover, you may be disappointed. Chicken was the only poultry offered other than duck once or twice. The vegetables and garnishes were quite uninspired. I have often found other line's vegetables to be of such high quality that we would order a side of something that sounded interesting other than what came with our entree. The vegetables on the Zuiderdam were pretty much nonexistent. One night I got three asparagus spears and another night one broccoli floret. People used to side dishes and garnishes receiving the same care as the main course will be disappointed. The salad selection was limited to basically the house salad and an occasional Caesar salad. The dressings rarely changed and were nothing special.
Any of the desserts made with chocolate where quite a treat. It was obvious they used quality Dutch cocoa in those recipes. But, the desserts were all pretty much the same. You can only have some form of chocolate mousse so many times in a row before getting bored of it. I found it odd that we were on a Caribbean cruise yet there was a lack of fresh fruit availability. Other than breakfast time prunes and melon, finding a piece of fresh fruit was an extremely rare event.
PORTS: I won't go into this as so many other reviews do, but we did not get to go to Half Moon Cay as the seas were too rough to tender. We enjoyed a complementary glass of champagne at the second formal night due to this.
ENTERTAINMENT: I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the Vista shows. It was amazing that on a relatively small stage, shows with advanced choreography and lots of technical scene changes and moving sets were pulled off so well and professionally. I was surprised that the cast was always able to get to the right part of the stage at the right time without getting run over by a set or another cast member. The singers were talented, and the dances were engaging. When we found that this was only the first week on board for this particular cast, I was even more impressed. by the way, we found out that only the four principle singers are mic'ed and yes, the rest is track. But, the other cast members do sing during the productions even though we can't hear them. The non-production show entertainment was pretty good as well.
DISEMBARKMENT: I was surprised at how uncivilly this was handled. I can't imagine that it really can take six hours to turn over the rooms, yet we were ordered out of our rooms by seven. We were left to congregate in the public areas, and all were crowded. We didn't begin disembarkment till after 8:30, despite having docked early, prior to 6:30. I know that customs is probably more responsible for the delay in disembakment than HAL is, but kicking us out of the rooms and encouraging crowds of disgruntled passengers certainly didn't help matters. by the time the first group was called to disembark, the mentality of the crown had turned ugly. People didn't bother to show or wait for their numbers but just stormed off the ship. On a positive note, we asked to change to an earlier group so that we could try for an earlier flight, and that was one of the few "yes" answers we received.
SUMMARY: Unfortunately I went to HAL thinking it would be even better than the excellent experiences we had on Disney, Princess and other cruises, and my expectations were not met. I found many others onboard who felt the same way. I overheard our neighbors on both sides, both Mariners, discussing the decline of what they were used to. I spoke with highly traveled passengers new to HAL who were upset that they didn't receive the level of service they had been led to expect. I chatted with older passengers and younger familes, all of whom felt disillusioned with the whole experience. Many I spoke to said they would never travel HAL again. I don't know why my experience and what HAL described as what my experience would be differed so greatly. I don't know if they just can't get the bigger ship thing right, if this is a cost cutting thing, or if HAL really has begun to decline from the strong, quality oriented service that was its reputation. Maybe I was just on one of those unlucky cruises that we all hear about. But whatever the reason, my experience left so much to be disired as compared to my experience with similar classes of ship on other lines, that I would not consider another HAL cruise at this point.