This was a back-to-back, with friends who did the first half; these were my 13th and 14th cruises, my 2nd and 3rd on the Zuiderdam.
The flight down from Ottawa, Canada to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale was uneventful except for flying down the 'wrong' side of Florida (the Gulf side), in the wake of tropical storm Noel. Embarkation in Fort Lauderdale was very short, largely because one of the friends I was with, had filled in all of the on-line forms prior to departure, meaning far less paperwork than any time previously. (We did carry print duplicates in case of computer crashes, etc.) Being temporarily off the ship as an 'in transit' passenger at Ft. Lauderdale on the 10th was also very quick, as was the final disembarkation on the 17th,, whence I proceeded straight to the airport on leaving the ship.
Since the itinerary was the same with both trips, I have covered each port of call only once. One advantage is that there are lots of things to do in each port of call, so one can do things the second time around that one missed the first.
Because of Tropical Storm Noel (which later became a hurricane North of Florida in the Atlantic), the seas were rough during the first week until we hit Tortola.
Grand Turk Cruise Terminal, south of Cockburn Town, Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos, British West Indies -- We traveled overnight and full day at sea, before docking the next morning at the new Grand Turk Cruise terminal, built by Carnival a couple of years ago. Grand Turk has been under colonial administration since the late 1760s, passing between various maritime powers, mostly Britain; at present most of its internal affairs are run by an elected Legislative Assembly but it remains a British colony. It is more laid back than the Bahamas, illustrated by the fact that although independence was agreed to in 1976(?) for "sometime in 1982", this was never followed up after a change in the locally elected government! Grand Turk is the most easterly of the islands of the Turks & Caicos group and is both southerly and easterly of the Bahamas and North of the western end of the Dominican Republic. It is only seven miles long, and has a large number of thorny miniature Acacia trees. These islands have not been often frequented by large cruise ships, since there were no sizeable port facilities, but have long been used by the yachting community.
Cockburn Town has old houses dating from the 18th and 19th century, close to the architecture found in Bermuda rather than resembling that of the Bahamas. I do not recommend bothering with the old 19th century prison in the town, used until very recently, however you should not miss the National Museum on Front Street: The reefs around many of the islands comprising the Turks and Caicos group and especially Grand Turk resulted in many ships being lost and a lot of artifacts have been brought up and are on display, such as the Molasses Reef Wreck dating from the early 1500s. Like most Caribbean islands, Grand Turk also has its supposed Columbus landing site, with the obligatory plaque, and elsewhere there is a plaque marking where US astronaut John Glenn first set foot on land after his sea landing in 1962! In the North of the island is a protected ecological park where there sits a still functioning lighthouse (now electrified) which was built when the U.S. threatened to cancel all trade because of the dangerous reefs; the lighthouse was landed on the beach in 1852, in segments and re-assembled as a typical example of Victorian enterprise (the original lenses and light system are on display at the National Museum). It is beside a former US Naval station which played a role during the Cuban missile crisis; there are also the remains of a satellite tracking station on the island, necessary in NASA's early days before technology made earth to satellite trackers obsolete.
For those interested in expeditions, there are beaches, and from December until the spring, there is whale watching. There are several reefs for scuba diving trips, and catch and release fishing is available. Most of HAL's expeditions involve water sports, but there are also buses which drive around the island from which one can get on and off. Grand Turk lacks a lot of infrastructure (except for the airfield), and Cockburn Town is quite untidy, but has its charm. Salt ponds are still everywhere on the island, since salt production used to be one of the important industries here, primarily run out of Bermuda in the earliest days. The local beer (brewed in nearby Providenciales) is Turks Head; the local punch is good. For a bar, try the Sandbar on Duke Street, downtown Cockburn Town, frequented by Yachtees. I do not recommend the Margaritaville built in the Cruise Terminal; there are 3 to 5 employees per customer who have nothing to do and the drinks are watered down and are really over-priced; there is a swimming pool there which is huge and clean, but I am not sure what ecological sacrifices have been made to create it, since Grand Turk does not have much fresh water.
Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands, British West Indies -- The next stop was at Tortola, British Virgin Islands, also a British colony. Here there are tours sponsored by the ship, but if you are scheduled to be in port for the whole day you can make local arrangements just beside the pier for a lower price. Tortola is famous for its beaches and scuba diving. There are several land tours however, and most of them do lead up into the mountains (Sage Mountain), providing spectacular views over the BVI. The 3 of us went to sample the "Pusser's Painkiller" at Pusser's Landing (I recommend this place for eating as well as rum, it is on the waterfront). They sell souvenir mugs which are interesting. One of the ladies behind the bar has worked there for over 30 years! Clothing and such are expensive in the big stores, but the flea market just outside the cruise terminal has some good deals, particularly if you buy more than one thing. Do not miss the Sunny Caribbee Herb and Spice Co. and the Sunny Caribbee Art Gallery which sell local crafts, soaps, a very large variety of spices and chutneys, and teas (all of which can be brought back to North America with no customs problems); samples are often available, particularly of the chutneys and mango teas.
The old "Main Street" just off the waterfront is crammed into the side of the hill; the small lanes leading into it are very narrow but give some indication of the older Road Town, with its mixture of architectural styles from Bermuda villas to West Indian. The J.R. O'Neal Botanical Gardens are close to downtown on the Main Street extension, and are worth seeing; there is a miniature tropical rain forest, with orchids, tropical birds, and several red-legged tortoises not found elsewhere. If the cruise ship is there all day, you can take a day excursion to Virgin Gorda (1 hr to 1.5 hrs each way by ferry) or Jost van Dyke (45 minutes each way by ferry), two small islands nearby. There are ship-provided expeditions to both places, but they book up early.
Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands -- The next morning we stopped at nearby Charlotte-Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. On the first round, we were docked at a former US submarine base away from the main port at Crown Bay, where the shuttle buses are $3.00 each way (reasonable) and run all day. On the second round, the ship was closer to the downtown in the main docking area since the Carnival Victory was late into port owing to a medical emergency, and not only had to give up its spot, but also was anchored completely outside of the port (our ship provided some tenders to speed up the Victory's getting people ashore. The advantage of the main pier is that everything is in walking distance. The Green House, on the waterfront close to where all ship tenders drop people off from cruise ships stationed in the bay itself, is in the centre of the shopping district and is a good place for lunch and for margaritas. I obtained a gold tie-pin at Diamonds International which would have been at least 3 times more expensive at home. I suggest riding up the funicular, which is above the main dock; on top there is a restaurant, a look-out, and a few shops. There are several maps posted identifying the visible islands, the largest being St. Croix to the South, and on a very clear day you can see as far as Saba, one of 3 small islands of the Netherlands Antilles 'North' (the other 3 are near Venezuela). It is possible to get a one-way funicular ticket and to then walk down back to the main part of the town (or right back to the ship).
Other things to see are Fort Christian V whose construction began in 1660s (right by the shore not far from the main pier, it is the largest building in Charlotte-Amalie, having had many uses including as the local jail), it now houses a museum. There is also the Legislative Building near the main port area, the "99" steps up to Government Hill and 'Blackbeard's Castle' (which houses a small hotel).
Half-Moon Cay, Bahamas -- The last port of call after a day at sea was Half-Moon Cay, leased from the Bahamanian government by Holland America, but occasionally visited by Carnival ships. Situated between two slender elongated islands in the Bahamas, it is about 100+ miles southeast of Nassau. Its real name on the nautical charts and elsewhere is Little San–Salvador. I went to the ship's BBQ on both occasions, crowded but good. The second round I walked up to the western tip of the island a way beyond where the horseback riding takes place. On a clear day, both nearby islands are visible, the southern tip of Eleuthera to the West, and, from a higher vantage point, to the East, the northern end of Cat Island. We were fortunate in only having our own ship at Half-Moon Cay, since it can get too filled with people when any more HAL ships are anchored off the facilities. If the opportunity presents itself, you should go ashore; HAL/Carnival has provided extra-size tenders which remain based on the island, rather than using the ship's tenders, which means that even on a larger ship, the tendering process is fast. If the seas are too rough, you miss the call there, as I have done on at least one previous occasion. Drinks are the same price as on the ship, unlike some cruise islands which charge you more. Aside from water sports, there is horse-back riding. Bring insect repellent, water and sunscreen.
I write about one or two features on any given ship
The Pinnacle Grill and a new way to open a Champagne bottle -- The Pinnacle Grill was excellent. We went once, for dinner. Steaks. Filet minion. Mmm.
This is also where the gourmet wine tastings are situated. The wine tasting included a good variety of wines as well as the opening of Champagne (1) using a sabre-cut or sabrage decapitation, and (2) by similarly executing it using a wine glass to hit the same precise spot. It is not advisable to do this at home, you should watch the pros do it. Champagne bottles are under considerable pressure, the bottles have to be specially made, with a seam connecting the two halves lengthwise and another below the lower annulus (the lower lip of the cork-mount). The secret of Champagne bottle beheading (with a "sabre" or a heavy cooking knife, or glass) is to chill the bottle entirely, including the neck, so do not use an ice-bucket. The muselet, or wire basket over the cork, the foil, and the metal caplet over the top of the cork, are removed gently. Find one of the two seams along the side of the bottle moving up the neck nearest to the lower annulus using the fingers; there should also be a seam there; clear the foil along the seam along the neck for a smoother slide. Drape the bottle with a towel for safety reasons, hold it as you would carry a small Dachshund, neck UP, about 40 degrees off the horizontal and not aiming in the direction of anyone or anything like a window or mirror. Lay the sabre or knife flat along the seam and slide it firmly against the protruding lip at its joint with the bottle; you may use the sharp edge of a sabre or knife or the blunt one. No passengers or crew were injured, sprayed with Champagne, or showered with glass during this exercise. Opening a Champagne bottle with a wineglass is a similar process, only the Assistant somelier went through 3 glasses to do it (they are too light-weight to do this properly and then you have to get rid of the broken glassware).
Vista Dining Room -- I was at the late seating at a table for 4 for the 3 of us on the first trip, lower level. The food is good but sometimes lacking in variety. For the second trip, I was at a table for 6, second-last seating, upper level, the people with whom I was seated were interesting and I discovered that one of them is going in May on the same cruise as friends and I.
The Lido, Lido Grill -- The Lido for Breakfast and Lunch is difficult to navigate if with more than 2 people, since someone has to guard the seats. On the smaller HAL ships this is not a problem. I frequently had breakfast and lunch in the Lido when alone. The Lido has a lot of variety, for breakfast and lunch, the dining room less so. For less formal things (i.e. before a shore expedition or after one), the Pool Grill (near the Lido bar -- often called the Dolphin bar on HAL ships because of the chairs being molded dolphin tails) has been expanded a little to go beyond hamburgers & hotdogs. It should not be ignored since there were Mexican and other things available with more variety than in the past.
General Comments About the Ship -- The ship was built in 2002, and has had several upgrades, such as improvements to the linens, and the beds are very comfortable. The TVs are hard to work and, unfortunately, are of the old type, hung from the wall. I gather these will all be changed for flat screens with a simpler operating system fairly soon, the sooner the better. Since rugs in high-frequency areas are changed frequently, there is little sign of wear and tear for a ship which, over 255 voyages, has carried over 471,250 passengers.
The acknowledgement of HAL alumni (Mariners' Society) was done differently. Instead of having everyone in the Vista Lounge, where a few drinks are served to too many people, and a lot of names are read out for many, many who do not show up at these things, there were two separate parties (depending on dinner seating times) for those with under 100 days, followed by the Captain's party for the relatively few of us with 100 days or more or for those who were to receive the 100 day medallion (or more). This was followed by advance-seating by those with 100 days, at an early lunch which included all of the alumni, with complimentary wine and the gift of a ceramic tile. This is a much better way to do it.
The daily quiz is still available, but was not advertised in the daily program, a mistake, and the events for which one wins 'Dam dollars' which are redeemable at the end of the cruise were not as numerous as they used to be.
I had the same cabin to myself for both trips, close to amidships, starboard side, upper promenade deck (4103), while for the first leg, the friends I was with had a deluxe verandah on the Rotterdam deck (7087), also starboard and slightly more aft. My cabin was spacious, but if shared, there is something of a lack of drawer and storage space. The friends I was with chose a cabin which was odd shaped, at a bend of the ship where that particular deck narrows, meaning the suite was larger albeit oddly shaped, and had much more than average the verandah space.
It should be noted that after April 2008, there will be some changes on several decks, since the deck plans on HAL's website give plans for before and after that time.
My Past Cruises
1st-(Old) Noordam, 1998 (retired Nov. 2004); 2nd-Statendam, 1999; 3rd-Zaandam, 2000; 4th–Statendam, 2001; 5th/6th-Ryndam, 2002 (same ship); 7th-Zuiderdam, 2003+; 8th-Veendam, 2003; 9th -Volendam, 2004; 10th/11th-Westerdam, 2006-01; 12th-Amsterdam, 2006-11; 13th/14th-Zuiderdam, 2007