About Us Jim (66) and I (61) have taken 24 cruises, mostly on HAL. We cruise with HAL largely because of the excellent service, but also to enjoy their generously appointed cabins. We love lazy sea days and usually sleep late and close the casino at night.
Overview This was our tenth cruise on our favorite ship; our first 10-day and our first Panama Canal. We hadn't been on a cruise since March, and this one was well-deserved. As the ship itself is our destination, we won't have any comments about shore excursions.
Service Service, as always, was exemplary. Captain van den Berg found us the calmest waters and even docked ahead of schedule a time or two.
Hotel Manager Mark Pells runs a fine hotel, and all services ran smoothly. Mr. Pells graciously attended our Meet 'n' Greet, which was held in a private section on the port side of the Crow's Nest. It was originally set up with a table for cookies and coffee, but Beverage Manager Mr. Daniela pulled it all out and they served champagne, Mimosas, Bloody Marys and juice, and walked around with trays of pastries, all courtesy of Mr. Pells. He filled us in on the itinerary and answered a few questions, then introduced the Panama Tour Guide Richard Ditrich, and Cruise Director Jesse. He is probably the most accessible Hotel Manager we've ever met, and it is clear that he is well respected by his dedicated and professional crew.
Most notable staff/crew:Captain Dirk van den Berg Hotel Manager Mark Pells Cruise Director Jesse "Yessie" Higley Concierges Kate and Bong DR Manager Mr. Sanjay Nariani DR Supervisor Arpad Plavecz DR Supervisor Mr. Leo
We found a few nice surprises! The physical changes to the ship are beautiful. At first I balked at the demise of our beautiful Oak Room, but once I experienced the Explorations Cafe, it grew on me. This combination library/internet center/coffee bar is beautifully designed to flow easily into what's left of the Crow's Nest. Every time I visited, it seemed to be better utilized than the old locations were. There is a sliding wooden panel which is pulled close to separate it from the Crow's Nest when in use for private functions. The old Internet Center is now a screening room; the old library is now Mirebella, an upscale gem boutique; the Windstar Cafe is now the new Pinnacle Lounge, a beautiful bar and comfortable seating area attended by the amiable Mark the Shark.
Embarkation I think HAL has the very best embarkation procedure of all. There are very short waits for check-in, and we were aboard in about 15 minutes.
Cabin We were upgraded from SS8099 to SA7061, a Deluxe Suite directly across from the Concierges in the Neptune Lounge. This is the best location we have ever had, and we did not hear any noise from the Lounge entrance at all. This suite was outstanding! Huge (510 total square feet), comfortable room, spacious veranda with two chairs and ottomans and a little dining table and 4 small chairs. Plenty for two. The bathroom had a jacuzzi tub, separate shower and double sink with two corner medicine cabinets and storage shelf below. A generous variety of Elemis products was provided, and refilled daily as needed. There was also an umbrella, laundry basket (service is free in full suites) and 2 fluffy cotton robes and slippers. The dressing room had a built-in dressing table with 3 drawers, hair dryer and lighted magnifying makeup mirror (1X/5X), 3 closets with mirrored doors and a safe (3 more closets are in the hall by the door). In the sitting area were a large couch, two occasional chairs and coffee table, desk with flat screen TV, cooler with loaded minibar and CD/DVD player, binoculars, data port, 2 telephones with voice mail and wake-up service, and a wall of mirrors behind the bed, making the room look much larger. Our cabin steward Muc served us well, working around our odd sleeping habits and provided plenty of ice and towels on request.
We found the usual bottle of champagne from Captain van den Berg and Hotel Manager Mark Pells, a packet from the Concierges with a list of the services they provide, our custom-printed letterhead, post cards & pen. We have stayed in this Cat suite many times, so were not surprised by the clean, well-kept and recently upgraded condition. The only change since our last cruise was the flat screen TV. Everything else seemed 'like home.'
Dining As You Wish Dining is here to stay. Although there is overwhelming support for Traditional (fixed) seating, HAL is holding on tightly to this more flexible dining plan. AYWD allows you to appear at the Vista Dining Room at any time and be seated either alone or with other passengers. I personally do not care to repeat the same cruise talk with new tablemates every night. I like having my iced tea or pretend wine waiting for me when I'm seated, refills without asking, or having my plate removed without waiting for everyone else to finish the course.
On the first night, when there is only one Showroom show, seating in AYWD is difficult to coordinate, so the wait may be longer than other nights. After that, the wait should be no more than a few minutes.
Don't misunderstand -- we had excellent service by all dining room attendants, but, except for the Supervisors, they were different every night. If you 'click' with a waiter at the beginning, you can make a standing reservation at his table for a certain time every night. We tried to ask for Hunky Dory's table, but he was so popular he was completely booked.
Ship's Facilities I have reviewed this ship many times before, so I will not write about everything.
Internet Café: I have no idea how I managed to use up 100 minutes of internet in 3 days. I frequently have many windows open, and even though I logged out of one, the others may have stayed connected. What I need is a (complimentary) unlimited plan.
Staff The Officers, Staff and Crew on this ship offer the highest level of service we have ever seen. They are professional, yet personable, and easily accessible.
Excursions This is my stock advice. I print it with every review. If you haven't already booked online, when you arrive at your cabin you will find a Shore Excursions brochure listing the various activities available shoreside. You may fill out the order form at your leisure and deposit it in the Express Drop Box at the Shore Excursions Desk. Please keep in mind that the most popular trips sell out very fast. If you are traveling with friends and want to go together, put all the tickets on one room card. One time we ordered separately and one couple got the tickets and one couple didn't.
Other Stuff Paul Tanner's show was SRO, and we were lucky to be able to stand up against the wall in the balcony. What a great singer!
At the Mariners' Award Ceremony we received our copper medallions. There were also some silvers and a platinum award. Cocktails and elaborate hors d'oeuvres were served, after which we proceeded to the Vista Dining Room for a lovely luncheon. There are so many Mariners now that the luncheon is divided into two separate seatings on different days.
The Panama Canal The Hotel Manager opened the bow and served Panama Rolls (yum) and offered Mimosas, Champagne and juices. Even though it was drizzling, we enjoyed Richard's history lesson over the PA while we entered the locks. Instead of Colon, we stopped on the dock at Cristobal, which seemed to go on forever. There were many booths with local handicrafts and a great band playing American hits in the local steel drum fashion. The half-naked native Panamanians kind of surprised me, but I guess it's part of the culture.
Thanksgiving Day was by far our BEST sea day ever! We spent a lazy morning getting ready for the sumptuous feast in the Pinnacle hosted by Hotel Manager Mark Pells. He served a lovely Champagne Luncheon with a special dessert -- ice cream in a crunchy shell, fresh strawberries and blueberries topped with strawberry sauce. Devine!
Our friends wanted to have dinner in the Lido, which was not nearly as special as the dining room. The food was the same as in the dining room, but although the service was faster, it was too casual for me. I missed the linen tablecloths, and the room just didn't 'feel' special. I spent the next hour tracking down my favorites to give them their 'above and beyond' tips, and take the last few photos of my vacation family.
Debarkation We had Pink/1 tags, and should have been first off after the wheelchair pax, but at 8:15 we went down to get in line. There were hundreds of people there, but the elevator left us at the head of the line, so we stayed there.
Someone came through and asked everybody ELSE to step aside so they could proceed, and it looked like the Red Sea parting. I think we got off at about 9:00 and found a porter right away who went all the way to the far corner to find our bags, and had us through Customs in about 5 minutes.
Once outside, they told us about the taxi strike, and a very aggressive East Indian van driver offered us a ride for $11 each, so we jumped in. At the airport, he left our bags at the curb, but not at the end of the curbside checkin line that already had 50+ people in it. We got another porter to take the bags inside, and the line there was even longer. I told him my flight was at 10:05, so he took the luggage to the head of the line for luggage tags and found the biggest one was 4 pounds overweight, so he had to charge me for that, and another charge for the 5th bag. I gave him $35 and he sent them through.
He then took us to the front of the Security line (jumping about 100 people) and we had to run to the gate. I paid for priority boarding, so we got right on the half-boarded plane, picked very good seats (first come, first served on Southwest) and departed on time. Whew! If it hadn't been for this wonderful porter, we never would have made that flight.
After we got to Jacksonville, we were so tired we checked back into the hotel and slept for 3 hours. Once on the road, the construction backed us up for about 1-1/2 hours, but we finally got home at about 8:00. We left the puppy at Doggy Sleepover Camp for one more night and made an admirable attempt at unpacking and laundry, but honestly we (I) took 2 days to finish.
Regarding the debarkation, it's annoying when SO many things go wrong. I'm just grateful it happened at the end of the cruise instead of the beginning. Since it was too late to mention this fiasco on our comment cards, I emailed this info to Mark, hoping they can make some adjustments to make certain the early fliers GET OFF EARLY!
Final Thoughts HAL's ms Zuiderdam, whenever she's in the Caribbean, is our ship of choice. We enjoy seeing our 'family' and spending time in her beautiful public areas and generous private accommodations. The passenger mix is right for us -- no uncontrolled children, no trouble finding a chaise at the pool, no pressure to drink all day. It's harder to sail the Zuiderdam now that she's not in the Caribbean in the summer, but we can be patient. One day we may even bite the bullet and actually try an Alaskan cruise.
See you around someday, maybe, on some "dam" ship!