This is a chronicle of back-to-back cruises on Holland America Line's ms Zuiderdam, the first of HAL's Vista Class ships.
Itineraries, Sept 6 - 20, 2003: Week One - Western Caribbean - Key West, Cozumel Mexico, Georgetown Grand Cayman, Half Moon Cay Bahamas. Week Two - Eastern Caribbean - Half Moon Cay, Philipsburg St Maarten, St Thomas USVI, Nassau Bahamas. Sea days were Monday and Thursday, both weeks. Ship's time equal to local at all ports. Zuiderdam sails on Saturday.
Precruise: I seem unable to find a travel agent versed in the cruise industry. I became so frustrated dealing with amateurs, that I decided to try out booking directly with HAL. The service was terrific, and the price was actually less than what I saw quoted on cruise agency web sites. The HAL reps were unfailingly courteous and helpful. During initial booking, the reservations representative steered me away from less desirable cabins. She sent my booking confirmation and invoice while we were on the phone by e-mail attachment (Adobe Acrobat). When I later discovered we were eligible for an AARP discount, it was quickly taken care of. The whole experience was so clean and efficient it would take a significant discount for me to return to booking with a travel agent. Of course you can book completely on-line, but I'd advise talking to a HAL rep who can provide assistance with cabin location. If you require a little hand holding, HAL will assign a personal "Cruise Consultant" to assist you so you'll be able to consistently deal with the same person.
We flew Continental out of Houston, TX (IAH) to Zuiderdam's homeport, Fort Lauderdale, FL (FLL) one day early. Stayed overnight at the Renaissance Hotel on 17th Street, approximately mid way between the airport and HAL's pier 26 at Port Everglades. The location, AAA's four diamond rating, and a low government rate made this a good stop over. Renaissance is a comfortable hotel with an excellent, but pricey, restaurant.
Boarding: Zuiderdam begins boarding to the ship's public areas at 11:30AM. Open and active are the pool and grill, Windstar Café (an Italian coffee bar with moderate charges for coffee and pastries), Internet café, art gallery, front office and most of the lounges. Luggage and coat storage is also available. The Lido buffet begins serving lunch at 12:00N. Cabins are ready for occupancy by 1:30PM. We arrived about 11:15AM and were aboard by noon. There were at least two-dozen HAL rep's in the terminal to process passengers. Our luggage was delivered soon after the cabins were open.
The Ship: Zuiderdam has eleven decks. Decks four thru eight and part of deck two are cabins. Two per cabin occupancy is 1,824 with 800 crewmembers. She weighs 82,000 tons and is 935 feet long so that three circuits around the continuous lower promenade deck approximates one mile. She is powered by five diesel engines and one gas turbine, and she is propelled by 25,000 bhp Azipod props (more about these later). The décor is appropriate to the itinerary. Zuiderdam was built and designed for year round Caribbean cruising and the interior motifs reflect this concept. Some areas offer a challenge to navigate; especially the central lounges adjoining the casino on deck two. There are nooks, crannies and small corridors to deal with, somewhat similar to what is occasionally found in the lounge areas of some land resort hotels. Maybe this is what the designers had in mind? The central atrium is smaller than on the S Class ships. This provides more space for the lounges and other public areas, but I miss the larger atrium which I often use as a reference point for navigation. The ship is impeccably clean and shows little signs of wear, a credit to the maintenance crew, her Hotel Manager Nick Burger, and Captain Johannes van Biljouw. Zuiderdam's condition and appearance is extraordinary considering that 1800 people tramp through her every week. Unlike the S Class ships, Zuiderdam does not have a passenger use laundry. Twice we used the $12 per 'full bag' laundry service. Both times delivery was next day.
The Lounges: The Best: Crow's Nest. Great viewing lounge with huge wraparound window located forward on deck ten. Cocktail piano, also theme night music such as 50s & 60s tunes by CD. Explorer's Lounge. Classical music by The Rosario Strings. This is also the venue for afternoon tea. Excellent snacks and a good selection of teas (save room for the scones!).
The Worst: Queen's Lounge. So poorly designed that it's useless for any function. That's too bad because The HAL Cats, a truly good band fronted by a first-rate vocal quartet, plays danceable music here most nights. Ocean Bar - Once again, poor design. This lounge is totally open to the atrium losing any identity as a lounge, and the dance floor is too small. For some incomprehensible reason, a divider is installed across the center of the seating area, disconnecting the rear of the lounge from the front. Music is by Meir & Rae Ann on drums and a piano. How eclectic is that? Music is mostly traditional dance: fox trot, waltz, tango, etc.
No Opinion: Northern Lights - Late night activity usually starting at 10PM, mostly disco and light rock. A DJ spinning CDs supplies music. Booth seating surrounds a largish dance floor. Design by Gateway.
There's also a Sports Bar. Since the signal is international, the TV schedules are mainly soccer. A WNBA game was showing on NFL Sunday afternoon! To be fair, they do pick up Sunday and Monday night NFL games.
The Vista Lounge, The main showroom is forward on decks one and two. This is an attractive room of good design with comfortable seating. Just don't sit behind one of the many pillars or in the rear of the upper section. Unfortunately, the quality of the shows does not match the setting. The production shows are LOUD. Who decided that loud is good? To paraphrase Shakespeare, let's kill all the soundmen, too! Following cruise ship tradition there are two production shows. The first was decent, but the second, a review of movie musicals, was near unbearable. Almost every number, including the romantic ballads, was programmed in a hyper, upbeat tempo, making all the tunes sound alike. The show was completely out of sync and boring. The music for the production shows is prerecorded. Did I mention that it is LOUD? The cast was excellent with talented dancers and singers, all completely wasted. We didn't repeat any shows during week two.
The Vista Dining Room: An attractive and well-constructed design. There are two levels located aft on decks two and three. Seating is well organized with comfortable chairs and some banquet tables. Best of all, each dining area has its own galley located immediately adjacent to the dining rooms. Instead of waiting for dumb waiters from a galley below, dishes are more directly served. This means hot dishes arrive hot and cold are offered cold. You do want to avoid seating the far aft section of the lower dining room. When cranked up the Azipod propulsion system delivers a significant vibration. The shaking is primarily felt on the back end of the lower deck. However, it's only a problem when the engines are pressed. The captain tries to maintain lower revs during dining hours, but there are times they must be turned up. When this happens the place settings won't dance off the tables, but it's definitely uncomfortable.
Our cabin: Since we were on for two weeks I upgraded us from our usual standard outside to a "superior verandah suite" located amidships on deck six. The SS cabin is @ 288sft, and the balcony 100sft. The room is well designed with two queen size beds, which we had put together, a restful full sized fold out sofa, three chairs (one too many), a glass top coffee table, a writing desk and the standard desk. There are plenty of drawers, shelves and closets. The bathroom is large, with a full size Jacuzzi tub, a separate shower stall, double sinks, two medicine chests and a long shelf running under the sinks. The standard outside cabins, as well as the inside (if you don't mind the dark), are more than adequate in size and design. DVD rentals are available from the front desk. There's a $25 deposit for each disk.
Dining: The Vista dining room offerings are equal to, and often exceed, Celebrity. The quality and presentation is far better than on the other HAL ships we've sailed on. Menu selections are extensive: two or three selections are available for each precourse and there are four primary and three "from the grill" optional entrees every night. Steaks and prime rib are delivered to order; however, note that medium rare is usually too rare for the distaff side. The Odyssey has to be the best alternative restaurant at sea. It even rivals the best upscale steak houses on land. Steaks, rib eye, tenderloin and two sizes of filet mignon are offered. The steaks are Prime Sterling beef and are cooked on a 1600 degree grill. It doesn't get any better than this. Although the menu features steak, the other entrees are superb, most notable is a seafood ravioli. The wait staff was recruiting out of Hungary, primarily Budapest. HAL obviously sought out the best servers among Budapest's world-class restaurants. They are smooth, attentive and prompt. With minimal delay between courses, we were in and out in less than an hour and a half. This whole staff was brought on board Saturday, the thirteenth. Some early patrons complained of uneven and clumsy service. However, we dined there on Wednesday evening, and it seemed they'd been serving there forever. It's a testament to their skills that they adapted in such a short time. These guys are good!
The Crew: The Indonesian dining stewards and The Philippine bar staffs were excellent as usual. Nearly all were up to HAL standards. Oddly enough, there were a few grumps, who even bordered on rude. I don't recall experiencing this on previous cruises with HAL. Oddly enough, one of the ice cream servers was a real grouch, which is totally out of character for that station. Fortunately, the grouches were fringe players and a very small minority. The dining room staff were prompt and, as you'd expect, well trained, cheerful and eager to serve. Our Head Steward, Alexander, was especially caring, very personable and always ready to lend a hand. My wife is originally from Japan. Wayan, our table steward for both weeks, spoke fluent Japanese providing my better half with a special feeling of welcome. We had two different cabin stewards each week, both efficient and in the best tradition of cabin stewards: always out when we were in, and in when we were out. Ridwan, our steward the first week, had completed his twelve-month contract. Saturday afternoon he flew home on leave before continuing on to Nice to help outfit Vista Class number three, ms Westerdam, which is scheduled to launch May 2004. The ship's officers seem friendlier than on other ships, always offering a greeting and a smile. It's amazing how the front office staff manages to maintain a cheerful and polite appearance in spite of the frequent rudeness and confrontational attitude of so many guests. For some reason, people seem to adopt an 'in your face' attitude with these gals who, after all, are really no more than desk clerks without any real authority to resolve disputes or provide managerial decisions. Despite this, all of the front desk people were consistently courteous and helpful. Guests ought to realize that only a supervisor or the guest relation's manager can resolve problems. Often, even they have to get instructions from Seattle to resolve a policy dispute.
The Passengers: A more diverse age mix than on other HAL cruises. The Zuiderdam is evidently appealing to the younger set. The dress code was universally observed in the main dining room. Formal night saw only a few out of uniform in the other public areas. Over the two weeks, four of our eight tablemates were from Florida, two from NYC and two from Canada. Naturally, there are lots of Floridians taking advantage of the "Florida Resident Discount". Speaking of discounts, midway of the first week a flyer was distributed offering the following week for $199 inside or $299 outside, a pretty good deal! I've never seen this before, nor was it repeated during the next cruise. I suspect Hurricane Isabel precipitated cancellations and HAL decided any revenue is better than none. After all, a major profit element is the money we spend while on board. As regards the small people, school was back in session so there was only a small number of toddlers and a couple of infants. On board is a dedicated kids area called Club HAL. It must have been nearly deserted.
Shore excursions I discovered snorkeling on our first cruise and became instantly captivated. As a result, I have very little first hand knowledge about above water activities on any of the islands. It was only due to a sore throat in the middle of week two that wifey and I did a land/water tour on St Maarten. Booked through the ship, it's titled "French Connection Sea & See". It's a bus transit around the island interrupted by a shopping stop in Marigot and tour of coral reefs at Grand Case's Creole rock. Creole Rock is purported to be the best snorkeling area around the island. I saw enough while on the glass bottom boat to suggest that snorkeling would be very marginal here. The bottom is mainly rocks with some coral and common fish such as Sergeant Majors and Wrasses. Lots of huge Uni, however, made my wife's taste buds tingle. This was aboard the "Seaworld Explorer', an underwater moving observatory. The tour was a good overview of the island, but the guide went around the island bassackward, stopping in Marigot first. Most of the stores in Marigot follow the French tradition of closing between one and two o'clock which is when we were there, resulting in a wasted forty-minute stop. That was too bad because there are some nice shops in Marigot. The wife, an avid casino connoisseur, took the "Discover Atlantis & Harbor Cruise" in Nassau. This is a gal who considers Las Vegas resorts 'quaint', but found Atlantis too gigantic. In the end, she simply made a small donation to the slot machine gods and returned to the ship. Now for the good stuff. The following snorkel trips are listed in order from best to least good; however, the least is still darned good.
Nassau: "Snorkel Bahamas Adventure" is a 5-½ hour trip operated by Stuart's Cove. On a previous excursion I went on the impressive Athol Island snorkel. This Stuart's Cove outing surpassed all of my previous experiences, including Athol Island. The boat trip is @ three hours, and visits Schoolhouse Reef, the spectacular Golden Key Reef and finally a "swim with the sharks" at 'The Wreck of the Bahama Mama'. I have never before witnessed such a number and variety of fish as at Golden Key. There are never-ending fish, large and small, singly and in large schools. The floor is decorated with huge, magnificent coral formations of all shapes and sizes. While there, a shark cruised past our group. He obviously thought this was his ocean and didn't know, nor care, that we weren't scheduled for a shark encounter until after Golden Key. Surprisingly, getting in with a dozen or so sharks is not frightening. I suspect we were too caught up with their grace and magnificence to be scared. The fact that the boat captain hadn't lost a diver in twelve years was also encouraging. This is a five star, gold medallion, prime trip, not to be missed!
Georgetown: I booked a two reef and stingray swim with Capt Marvin. This is again a three-hour boat trip with snorkel stops at Coral Gardens and the Barrier Reef, followed by a visit to Stingray City. The Barrier Reef extends for many miles and is near enough to the surface to be visible from above. There is abundant sea life, and of course, extensive coral. Here I saw my first Moray eel. As for Stingray City, there are just too many boats and people crowded together to enjoy it. I stumbled around among the crowd for a bit, then got back in the boat. The kids seem to enjoy it.
Key West: A catamaran trip to Sand Key Reef with the Fury Cat operation. Fury is found extensively through the Yucatan and Caribbean. Our trip was on a 65' catamaran with a small enough group so we were never crowded. Unfortunately, westerly winds from the recent tropical disturbance in The Gulf had stirred things up so that visibility was only about 15 - 20 feet. The reef, however, is marvelous. Did you know that the reef off Florida's coast is the third largest in the world? I didn't. We got enough of a taste to make me want to return. I can unreservedly recommend this trip.
Half Moon Cay: A surprisingly good snorkel trip. The coral garden area is only a ten-minute boat ride from the tender dock with lots of fish and coral. There's a very nice beach, but the bottom is too sandy for good snorkeling. Just relaxing on the beach and swimming is the most popular past time. There are lots of beach toys and other activities available for rent. Comfortable beach chairs are plentiful. There's also a pavilion with souvenir shops and a bar. A barbecue lunch is served at noontime. Half Moon Cay is perfect for kicking back and enjoying a restful day.
Cozumel: We went to Chankanaab Park for snorkeling and beach time. The park offers a sheltered beach area with palapas, a lagoon, a swim with the dolphins, a sea lion show, snuba and a number of boat trip operators who work from the beach area. There's also a full menu bar & grill. The conch ceviche was very good. There's probably lots of other stuff, too. Unfortunately, the beach was fly infested so we didn't stay long. The snorkeling from the beach is fair. Dzul Ha is much better, but you can experience some swift currents there. Chankanaab's waters are more sheltered, so it's a good alternative for marginal swimmers. I have previously boat snorkeled Columbia and Palancar reefs from Cozumel. The reefs here are world class and there are many good operators. Disembarkation: The procedure has greatly improved since our last visit. Immigration is held in the terminal, not on board. This greatly expedites clearance since we don't have to wait for the inevitable latecomers to clear before we can leave the ship. The preliminaries are routine: put luggage in hallway the night before, leave your cabin by 8:00AM and wait in a public area for your number/letter to be called. Both the Lido and main dining rooms are open for breakfast. We had a noon flight and were off the ship and at our boarding gate by 9:30. Of course, when all those ships return from Alaska things won't go so smoothly. I should mention that stuff happens. Disembarkation was delayed the previous Saturday due to a late departure the previous day from Half Moon Cay. However, even then we would likely have been at the airport by 10:30 or 11:00.
Final Thoughts: As devotees of HAL, we were concerned because of the numerous negative Zuiderdam reviews that appeared in the early months. Certainly Zuiderdam has some odd quirks, but the overall design is easily adapted to and becomes an ultimately user friendly floating resort. We found absolutely no evidence of unpleasant aromas in any area. The mechanical systems such as toilets, A/C, hot water, elevators, etc never failed. Fellow passengers were largely polite, friendly and in pursuit of a fun trip. We never witnessed one instance of rowdy or inappropriate behavior. We had a wonderful journey. My advice is go and enjoy. Following are some of the web sites I found useful researching our cruise: ms Zuiderdam: http://www.hollandamerica.com/fivestarfleet/zuiderdam.htm ms Zuiderdam Virtual Tour: http://www.virtualtoursusa.com/hollandzuiderdam.htm Port Everglades: http://www.co.broward.fl.us/port.htm Georgetown: http://www.edenrockdive.com/ http://www.captainmarvins.com/ http://www.caymanonline.com/info/watersports/snorkel/index.shtml Cozumel: http://www.cozumelinsider.com/ Key West: http://www.furycat.com/snorkel.htm Nassau: http://www.dive-bahamas.com/ Philipsburg: http://www.stmaarten-activities.com/trips.htm - Snorkelin St Thomas: http://www.vinow.com/ http://www.cokidive.com/ Travel Insurance: http://www.insuremytrip.com