This was my 10th cruise overall and my 2nd HAL cruise. On this cruise I was traveling with a group of 31, ages ranging from 16-58 years. I selected the Zuiderdam because it met my selection criteria; i.e. new ship, reliable line (having cruised HAL before on the Zaandam, I had experienced relatively high quality and service), medium passenger load (around the 2000+/-0 is about right) and reasonable cost.
Boarding: Most of my party arrived at about noon, we followed the “Mariner” signs, but the lines where no longer than the ones at the non-mariner area. My pre-printed US immigration form downloaded from the web was ready and this sped everything along, the entire process took about ½ hr. Your luggage is left at the luggage drop off with the baggage handlers – Note: there are signs clearly posted that they are salaried and tips are not necessary. For this process I give HAL overall 3 out of 5 stars, nothing great or out of the ordinary. Note that a cab ride from the Fort Lauderdale airport is about 10 minutes and the cost is about $10 per person.
Cabins: My past experience with HAL was that most of the cabins are about the same square footage (unless you are in the premium ones i.e., veranda, suite etc.) and they are relatively large in size compared to other lines. However, on the Zuiderdam it appeared that room size was related to category, cabins for our group ranged from a category “N” (lowest) to an “AA”. I was in a category “G”, an outside cabin with obstructed view (you had a full floor to ceiling view of a life boat – but this was not an issue as I spent very little time in my cabin). Room size was about 185 sq ft, but the arrangement was poor. Storage cabins beneath the bed were awkward, some drawers with locks were very hard to open and the hair dryer (which automatically turned off when it got a bit hot) was in the small sitting area vs. the bathroom. Room colors were not lively and considering how new the ship was, it looked worn. I visited a category ‘N” cabin and it was SMALL! Additionally, prior to this sailing I had read about problems with the ship toilets and I did encounter a toilet leak on the first day of the cruise and another member of our party complained that her toilet did not work and that there was an awful smell the entire trip in many of the public areas. Additionally, we were on level 4 and could hear the LOUD noise from the shows and the bands until the wee hours on the morning. I will give HAL 2 out of 5 stars in this category.
Food/Dining Room: Food on this ship was very good, but the dining experience was lacking. One of the big events during every cruise is dinner with all my family members present at once, at the same table (9 adults). We are aware that this is hard to coordinate and try every time to book a table with our TA, but we always go directly to the maitre d’ once on board to arrange the seating as our table has only been booked ONCE by our TA correctly. Note that we always request the earlier and less crowded seating for this reason. However, the table they seated us at was clearly for 7, not 9 adults and seating was VERY cramped throughout the cruise. Even after repeatedly voicing our request for a larger table, nothing changed, making dinner a little less than desirable. Our “solution” was to be given chairs without arms to make more room at the table. Additionally, we noticed that tables for 10 had numerous small children and some tables were even empty through out the cruise – why could they not have moved some people…?!! To add fire to the fact, the dining room had a very low ceiling and is located on the second level above the engines and also this makes for a very noisy dining room. I read about the noise and vibration prior to the cruise and it was real- not something I experienced on any previous cruise. There were times that you had to shout to be heard. Air conditioning throughout the dinning room was also very inconsistent, some areas were cold and some were hot. I also observed a number of areas, which had plastic covering taped to the ceiling. The waiter and busboy provided good service, but appeared tired and overworked. I am very mixed about giving a grade here as I thoroughly enjoyed the food and it deserved 4 stars, but the atmosphere really detracted from the experience, so I would give HAL 3 stars here.
Entertainment: In the evening, you will find music at a variety of locations throughout the ship. HAL is trying to break away from the big band era and cater more to the growing baby boomer population. However, they seem to be having an identity crisis as they are trying to do too many different things to please everyone. The Disco in the Northern Lights was great, but there were only 8-9 booths to sit in, therefore people were standing everywhere. Plus it caters towards the 40 year old crowd, so the younger folks have nowhere to go. The disco/theme night was moved to the Crows’ Nest and it was a huge success because there was plenty of room and the younger crowd had the disco to themselves. The Crows Nest was a very nice but underutilized lounge. They had a piano player vice a nice band. One negative for me personally was that this was also the first cruise (and only ever to date) I have ever taken where there was NO karaoke (apparently HAL is phasing it out)! The nighttime shows at the Vista lounge were below par, I usually attend almost every show, but on this ship I walked out on three occasions. Except for the juggler and one variety show, the overall quality was terrible. 2.5 stars here, it could be 3.5 if they moved some of the activities to different lounges.
Activities: Most daytime activities were well planned but the ship’s main areas of activity were decks 2 and 3 and the flow of traffic was a nightmare. It was always crowded, smelly, and you could never find anything. 2.5 stars.
Excursions: I rarely take the ship excursions as I find them too expensive and can usually do my own excursions, and save quite a bit of cash. However, for this sailing I made an exception for the “America’s Cup” excursion (you cannot do this on your own as the ship reserves this company for their excursions and there is no alternative). All I can say is that this excursion was one of the best things about this cruise (you need to be stopping at St Maarten to do this), it is a MUST! Be forewarned that this was a very active excursion and if you are prone to seasickness or not in shape, look elsewhere! Note: sign up on the HAL website 2+ weeks before sailing for your excursions, this avoids the lines on the boat and also prevents from being told that the tour is “sold out”. Note: Upon docking at St Thomas, ALL passengers were required to wake up by 7AM and proceed in person to US immigration with their passport. Even though the process was painless and takes less than 3 minutes, having everybody get up at 7AM while you are on vacation for a three minute procedure even though you can’t get off the ship for another 3 hours seemed like poor planning. Every person I encountered complained about the early hour. Once again poor planning by HAL, as the ship could have easily docked at a more reasonable hour or done the process differently.
Tipping: The HAL policy of “Tipping not required” just ads more confusion with all the envelopes and separate cash you have to carry. Also, if you order drinks at any of the bars, you might want to carry a few dollars for tips since HAL does not add 15%.
Front desk/purser: I had to include this category since on most ships you rarely get good service and the lines are always long. The Zuiderdam was no different. The desk area was always fully staffed but the staff did not have many right answers. Some questions got the usual “I can find out” or “you need to..,” “ perhaps” All I can say is HAL needs training and work in this department.
Disembarkation: This is a hassle. You have to be out of your cabin by 7AM and sit in a hallway and wait for your number to be called. You’re hungry, tired and you just spent thousands of dollars – what a way to say goodbye. O stars.
Overall: I have tried to be as objective as possible in hopes of giving you an overall big picture. I want to be very clear that I had a very nice time, as cruising is always great, but this is a review. Even though this was a new ship, I was amazed at the number of problems I encountered from the awful smell, to the poor layout of the ship, to the air conditioning and small public spaces and staterooms. Additionally, the officers seemed aloof and were not up to my past HAL experience. Employees seemed overworked and did not smile often. My other HAL experience seemed to be a world away from this one. With so many problems, and so many other ships at sea, I would not recommend this ship and will probably never sail on HAL again.