This review represents our personal perceptions and opinions of our Zuiderdam cruise over Thanksgiving.
This was the fifth 7-night Caribbean cruise for my husband and I within the past four years on a variety of ships: NCL Sky (2000), Celebrity Galaxy (2001), NCL S/S Norway (2003), HAL Maasdam (2003), and HAL Zuiderdam (2004). We are ages 30/32 and traveled alone. This was our second cruise on HAL, with both of our HAL cruises being Thanksgiving week. Passenger count: 2,072 according to the Cruise Log provided by HAL at the end of our cruise. Club HAL staff shared with us they had 350 for Club HAL. Booking was made almost six months in advance via an online agency for this Thanksgiving week cruise out of Fort Lauderdale.
As one person in our Messageboard group put it, "It's like my Nissan Altima. Nothing really wrong with it but nothing really special about it either." Compared to our HAL Maasdam cruise the previous Thanksgiving, this was not the same "wow" experience we experienced on Maasdam. Crazy colors, not as many fresh flowers everywhere, steward not as friendly or giving 110% like previously, no more java café for yummy hot chocolate, saw more jeans in the dining room for dinner as well as bellybutton rings (at least cover your belly for dinner!), more announcements that you can hear just fine while napping in your stateroom, etc. It was a good cruise and we loved our ports of call, but the ship layout/colors, steward, and multiple itinerary changes created by HAL just didn't have us walking away this time with that "wow, what a great cruise" feeling. However, this was the most friendly Captain we have ever had- Captain John Scott. We certainly enjoyed our conversations with him. Also, our dinner waiter, Nana, was the best ever! Every meal was fantastic, he always had a smile, greeted us by name, and was just awesome.
Would we book with HAL again?
Yes, provided the price is right.
The Mariner's Club benefits are not that great at all - at least NCL offers 20% off on drinks in one of their lounge areas onboard.
I made Pinnacle reservations over the phone with Ship Services for $10 pp the first night. I also asked if we could request a particular area of the dining room for our normal dining, and was told "no". That was interesting since others on various message boards have been able to make requests in the past, even for specific tables.
The port times were changing and not being advertised in advance for St Thomas and Tortola, so that caused some stress trying to get our private shore excursions straight (excursions not offered by HAL). We finally determined we would get there when we get there, which turned out exactly to be the case. The number one reason we booked this cruise was for the extended time in St Thomas so that we could return to our wedding beach on St John and not be rushed with the day - we wanted to fully enjoy an entire day on St John. The number two reason we booked this was a combination of price and our very positive experience on HAL Maasdam the previous Thanksgiving.
PreCruise Transportation and Lodging:
After terrific flights on Southwest Airlines, we stayed at the Renaissance on 17th one night before embarking on the Zuiderdam. No free shuttle was provided, but we paid approximately $10 for the taxi from FLL to the hotel and another $10 for the taxi to the cruiseport. Dinner was at a favorite of ours, Durty Harry's (near the Embassy Suites). The room was clean, comfortable, and in a good location. We picked up bottled water at Walgreens across the street and Curt went one block away to get breakfast for us at Einstein Bagels. The line was well out the door.
Wearing my digital watch, I tend to notice exact times (especially since I'm a fairly analytical person). We arrived at the port at 11:03, the porter took our bags, and we headed to the other end of the building to get at the end of the already long line. At about 11:15, it started moving. By 11:45 we were boarding the ship (no waiting after processing the paperwork). However, I was not wearing the Mariner buttons but had them in our leather wallet provided by HAL. I was told to just carry the leather HAL wallet through the metal detector, but it kept going off. I finally recalled those dam buttons and that solved the problem. Upon embarkation, we grabbed a table by the Lido pool midship and took turns grabbing lunch. The only thing that appealed to either of us was prime rib followed by ice cream at the ice cream bar.
We met our fellow Messageboards at the aft pool bar, where I enjoyed a Kahlua Colada. This was our first time to ever do sailaway from the aft of the ship. I don't recall hearing a band there.
Cabin 8049 (category I - inside):
At 203 square feet, this was the largest inside cabin we have ever had! Storage was plentiful and two electrical outlets were provided by the mirror at the foot of the bed. A large couch was firm, but we never sat on it to relax, nor did we sit in the sturdy chair. An electronic safe (4-digit code) was provided in the closet, and there were two drawers in the nightstand that locked with key (we didn't use it). There was a locked cabinet under the tv area that we finally asked about later in the week, and learned it was a minibar. I guess you had to ask for the key had you wanted to partake in that. However, having access to the fridge would have been nice. We could never hear our neighbors on the side, but did hear people going down the hall at all hours. One lady thought it would be good to teach her daughter the numbers on the cabin door 8 0 4 3 every single time they arrived - not matter what time of day or night it was. However, the cabin location was good - being between two sets of stairs/elevators and only one deck from the Lido deck. The cabin was attended to twice daily, with the focus primarily on the bed-making and bathroom. Our steward never greeted us by name on this cruise, which was totally different from our HAL Maasdam cruise one year prior.
One thing to note: On embarkation day, the carpet outside our cabin in the hallway was ripped up on both sides of our door. The crew was putting down some black tar-looking stuff, apparently to fill in "craters" in the floor. Close to lifeboat drill time, the carpet was tacked back down.
We were assigned table 77 for two along the rail for the 8:00 upstairs dining time. Our waiter, Nana, was the best waiter we have experienced on our five cruises. He always greeted us by name and was such a hard worker. Meals were always excellent for dinner. Breakfast and lunch were normally on the Lido deck and were just fine, but dinner was always excellent. Our dinner at the Pinnacle was well worth the $10 pp on embarkation night, and the volcano cake was even better this year than on Maasdam last year.
We attended only one show, the magician, and he was awesome! The other show we attended was the adult R-rated comedian in the Queen's Lounge. If you get jokes forwarded to you via email on the internet, you probably knew her punchlines as soon as she says the first sentence. What really surprised me was the number of children at this performance, even though it was rated "R" and advertised that way. Parents had their children next to them, and they were obviously children by their looks and Club HAL bracelets. One kid told her dad she felt bad, so he started walking her out (we were standing in the very back right behind them). Next thing we knew, she had fainted before making it to the door and was on the ground. I tapped the mother on the shoulder to ask if that had been her daughter, she said yes, so I let her know she had just fainted. She left to join them.
Beverages on board:
The one time we visited the Crow's Nest for predinner drinks, we were very disappointed in the lack of service. After waiting in chairs for half an hour around 5:00, I finally went to the bar to order a drink. I don't know if it is because of the new automatic tipping or what, but last year on Maasdam, as soon as we would sit down in the Crow's Nest we'd have someone taking our drink order and bringing hors d'vours. The Crow's Nest service this year on Zuiderdam was sorely lacking, and we did not return there for drinks. (It wasn't even crowded that afternoon). We did return three others times wanting to just sit and look out the windows, but it was reserved for various private functions.
The Ocean Bar was our Messageboard meeting point each night. Most of us would have one predinner cocktail. Service was much better here, but we were not sitting at the bar rather near the piano. The drinks of the day seemed to have no kick, especially for someone who goes night-night after just two drinks (I don't drink a lot at all). I usually notice it any time I have a drink, but the drinks on Zuiderdam just didn't have that punch. Others in our group noticed the same thing, and we had about a dozen who met nightly.
Our total bar bill came to $90 for the week, including the wines we had at dinner - so one can see this was not a big expense. Drinks of the day cost $3.75, Cosmos and other drinks cost $5.95, and wines by the glass varied. The corkage fee totaled $15.00 including the automatic 15% tip (brought a special bottle from home). The Cosmos were terrific and were mixed just right in my opinion.
Sea Day Activities:
Compared to NCL and Celebrity, HAL has less activities and more time to just relax. We participated in afternoon tea, aviator's meeting, various board game competitions in the piano bar, and one win-a-cruise Bingo ($10 for one game, $20 for three). The Bingo was the extent of our gambling, especially since we are headed to Bellagio the following month. We also enjoyed playing dominoes that we had brought from home and watching the shipbuilding trials. We did not watch any of the movies onboard. However, we played shuffleboard with the sounds of Madonna, Dave Matthews Band, and other 80s/90s/today music blaring from the nearby speakers (never heard that mix of music on Maasdam last year). Club HAL would lead the kids around the ship, and some kids thought the pucks on the shuffleboard were for kicking, but that was okay - Curt was beating me anyway and I could use a "startover". We enjoyed one afternoon in the aft hottubs but noticed that the aft pool did not enforce the adult swim time 3:00-5:00.
After taking the spa tour on embarkation day I inquired about the week pass they were selling for the hydrotherapy pool and thermal suite. They said they sell only 35 for the week and had only 6 left to sell. Since it was not even 4:00, they said they expected to sell out soon. If they sell out, then day passes are not offered.
Ironically, a few days later, I inquired about a day pass for my husband and I, and was told no problem. Either they didn't sell the 35 week passes or they didn't stick to the limit of only 35 total. We had 2072 passengers onboard.
The spa services were more pricey than the spas I use locally in Dallas (Four Seasons, Grand Spa, etc) so I opted not to utilize the spa services onboard the Zuiderdam. However, the daily specials, especially towards the end of the week for facials, looked appealing!
We were group number one (going standby for a 10:50 flight) and were called at 9:00. Before we even made it from the Lido to our cabin to grab our carryon in our cabin one deck below, they had already called groups 2, 3, 4, and 5. Of course when making it to the appropriate deck it was a madhouse of passengers waiting to get off. The man behind us said he was a Suite and gets to go to the front of the line. I thought they got priority disembarkation (which is why they called S very first) as opposed to cutting in the line of passengers who were also called. Since he had only twenty people ahead of him, I suggested it might just be easier to wait since we were all packed like sardines and nobody could hardly move anyway. I don't understand why HAL calls multiple groups at one time. That day, they were called S, 1, 2 and then 3, 4, 5 just a couple minutes later.
Regardless, we were at the airport by 9:40 in line (after a $10 cab ride) and received boarding passes at 10:03.
Of course you always have airport passengers complaining that the check-in line takes too long, but if someone expects an empty airport in Fort Lauderdale on the weekend after Thanksgiving, especially when all the cruiseship passengers arrive, they need to start using just a little common sense. Weekends in any airport near a cruiseport are hectic, not to mention the busiest travel weekend of the year (Thanksgiving weekend).
Half Moon Cay:
Sunday, scheduled 8:00-4:00
Disembarked around 8:25 (first nonsuite/nonexcursion group), all aboard by 3:30
We arrived in the Queen's Lounge at 7:35 to wait in line for tickets. Instead, they had us sit in chairs so when ticket distribution time came, it really didn't matter how long you were there because they were just randomly distributed. The lady working it seemed to have no clue, as she was part of Club HAL and said she was just helping out today. At 8:15, the cruise director came in wondering why nobody had been boarding except excursions and suites (who had priority). Apparently there had been a miscommunication so we all received tender tickets and proceeded to the gangway. We were all set up in our $9 clamshell by 9:00 near the last three cabanas.
We enjoyed a long walk to the end of the beach to the rocky area, where we saw debris that had not been cleaned up since the September hurricane. We also stopped to watch the horseback riding, which seemed to spend about five minutes in water. The vegetation was growing back from being damaged by the saltwater with the hurricane.
Upon returning to our clamshell, we relaxed in hammocks that were right there and did a little swimming. By lunch, the beach was filling up. A group of passengers arrived, squealing with delight that they had found hammocks. Of course they just threw their flipflops in the hammocks and left, and at the time we left later in the afternoon, they had never returned. Nice of them to be "hammock-hogs" just like "deckchair hogs" you see onboard. Zero consideration for other passengers who might want to enjoy the hammock during the hours they had them "reserved". We observed many passengers during the week onboard with this "me me me" attitude- much more than on previous cruises.
Tuesday, scheduled 8:00 AM-11:00 PM (changed in October to 8:00 AM - 9:00 PM)
Disembarked around 8:15 AM, all aboard by 8:30 PM
According to vinow.com we were to be at Crown Bay (five ships in port total). Upon Saturday's embarkation, we learned that we would be tendering. However, on Monday while at sea we learned we would indeed be at Crown Bay. Fortunately we did arrive on Tuesday (versus Wednesday) as several previous Zuiderdam had experienced unannounced port swapping with St Thomas and Tortola for Tuesday/Wednesday. After clearing immigration at 7:35, we dropped our passports off in our safe and proceeded to the gangway. We were told to go up a deck (a large group of us) to wait for the announcement. Every five minutes someone would go down the stairs to double-check. At 8:15, we noticed others were disembarking via elevators and it was indeed clear for everyone to get off the ship, but the dozens of us waiting up one deck at the top of the stairs as instructed he been neglected in being told. We disembarked and immediately found the taxi dispatcher to get transportation to Red Hook. After being moved to four different taxis (drivers don't like making this run) we were finally on the road at 8:25. We just barely made the 9:00 ferry. Remember: you are on island time. Things don't move as fast even if you have a ferry you are wanting to make. Taxi cost $9 each and ferry cost $3 each.
Upon arrival in Cruz Bay, we met Chef Mulcare on the dock to pick up our wedding cake (same cake but smaller version of the one we had in March 2003 for our St John wedding while on a cruise). We then turned right to walk along the beach to Noah's Dinghies, where we rented a twelve-foot bright yellow dinghy with a 15 hp motor for the day. This enabled us to visit our wedding beach (Hawksnest), snorkel at Waterlemon Cay, walk along Cinnamon beach, have lunch at Trunk Bay, and relax on Honeymoon beach before returning the dinghy later that afternoon. We did some quick window shopping (on a quest for earrings) but ended up making the second 5:00 ferry. Yes, there IS a rush hour in St John. We were amazed at the way people just walked to the front of the ferry line as if it didn't even exist. Once in Red Hook, we got a cab back to Crown Bay, going a different routing to get there due to traffic in the Havensight direction. The passengers already in the van were discontent that they had made the first 5:00 ferry but the driver refused to leave until the van was completely full, waiting on the second 5:00 ferry.
Although we had been told the shops in St Thomas stay open late when a ship is in port, we had called some that we knew we wanted to visit (such as the jewelry store where we had bought our wedding bands in 2002) and were told they were closing at 5:00. Therefore, we straight back to the ship for our 9:00 departure, opting not to have dinner in town.
Wednesday, scheduled 7:00-6:00 (embarkation day schedule now showed 7:00-5:00)
Disembarked around 8:25 (safely docked alongside 7:58 according to Cruise Log, announcement made we could disembark at 8:15), all aboard by 4:30
Having prebooked with Patouche charters, we were to check in between 8:30-8:45. We made it there at 8:55. I am not sure whey disembarkation was an hour late, but it certainly made for a rushed experience walking to Patouche (down past the ferry dock and hospital).
We had an absolutely wonderful day with Patouche on Shamwari. Shamwari is 48' and they take no more than 16 passengers. We snorkeled and toured the Baths and also snorkeled at Haulover Bay at a different island. Upon our return at 4:10, Julie hopped in her van to drive us back to make our all aboard time of 4:30. Again, knocking off an hour of each end of our day by HAL caused a rush with this charter. I wish HAL would have stuck to the original schedule advertised. I'm not sure why we arrived an hour late from St Thomas (it's not that far away) but at least we were given a heads-up on embarkation day that we would be leaving Tortola early. That allowed me the opportunity to use HAL's internet café and email Patouche to let them know if this change - and to re-verify we would definitely be back on time. The late arrival came as a surprise, but of course I realize a ship can change an itinerary at any time for any reason at all.
In port, there was one other HAL ship docked next to us. It was there when we arrived and it departed thirty minutes before we did.
Friday, scheduled 12:00-7:00
Disembarked around 12:20 (one of the first to disembark), all aboard by 6:30
We had booked the Dolphin Swim through Dolphin Encounters of Blue Lagoon independently. HAL did not offer the swim but only the encounter for Nassau, which I was not interested in. By booking independently, I was also able to book my husband as an observer for $20, enabling him to take over 100 digital pictures.
We took a cab to Paradise Ferry Terminal ($10 plus $1 toll) and checked in around 1:00. Our ferry was scheduled for 1:30 but ran a little late, so we all arrived just a little late for the 2:00 program (but we were all on the ferry).
After an introduction to the program, we put on wetsuits and lifejackets. We were placed on three platforms with ten participants each. The program consisted of two parts.
All participants in the water for several "swim bys", petting, kisses, hugs, and dancing.
The swim. Adults had two dolphins propelling them through the water while kids had just one. This was awesome and happened so fast!
After a warm shower, changing clothes, and purchasing a couple photographs (4x6 for $14, picture magnet for $8), we were on the 4:00 ferry back. The first ferry stop was at the ferry terminal, and cruiseship passengers were instructed to stay onboard, as the ferry would take us directly back to the cruiseship dock.
We did some quick powershopping and purchased the earrings we were after on this trip. This was the only day we had time to shop due to booking ourselves with excursions and times in port being shortened.