Zaandam - Holland America Line
by Armand Mantia
In November we embarked on the
Zaandam for a 10 day Seafarer cruise visiting Bonaire, Isla Margarita,
St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Thomas and Nassau with three days at sea in
between. Overall, this was an excellent cruise and I would recommend
it highly to those who want to see some "off the beaten
path" islands of the Caribbean.
We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale the day
before sailing. Security at Newark Airport was tight, but nothing like
Ft. Lauderdale, which looked like an armed fortress in comparison.
Because of a stupid mistake made by my travel agent, we were not able to stay at
the hotel I really prefer, the Amerisuites on 17th Street, but ended
up having to pay considerably more for the honor of staying much
further away at the Doubletree. In short, I was not impressed with
this hotel, with very small rooms, somewhat shabby appointments and no
real appeal, especially for the price paid. The following morning,
when we asked for a cab to the pier, the bell captain summoned a limo
instead, assuring us that it would be the same price as the taxi. It
was not, but that's another story.
Security at Port Everglades was also
very tight, with armed sentry stations at all road entrances to the
port area itself and armed national guardsmen in each terminal
building also. Coast Guard vessels were patrolling the harbor, and
each ship docked also had tenders in the water, patrolling until just
before sailing. It was both comforting and sad to see all this extra
protection in place at the beginning of a joyful holiday.
Check in was very simple, having
arrived quite early and there is plenty of room in the HAL terminal to
sit, or go outside until boarding. One happy fault of all the new
security is that since you need to show photo ID just before you get
on the gangplank, they (at least HAL) have moved the dreaded
embarkation photo to once you are actually onboard. This seemed to
move the line faster since the photographers had to fight the stewards
waiting to take you to the cabin.
The ship: Once onboard, it was
immediately obvious that the Zaandam is not your grandfather's Holland
America Line. For those who do not know me, HAL is easily my favorite
cruise line, although I have sailed many others. The Zaandam has
quickly become my favorite ship of my favorite cruise line. All of the
elegance and special touches that you expect from HAL are still there.
The fine fabrics, the use of wood veneers, the expensive antiques, the
sense of history and tradition, the super logical layout of the decks
and public areas are all still part and parcel of Zaandam. But in
addition, it is obvious that a fresh breeze was also blowing through
the mind of her designers and decorators. Zaandam and her sister
Volendam were supposed to be the ships that introduced a
"new" Holland America to, especially, younger people. Her
design theme is centered around music, and from the magnificent organ
in her atrium to the various instruments on display in cases
throughout the ship, to the Bach manuscript carefully woven into the
hallway panels, it is impossible to escape the theme. Not that you
would want to, for on this ship, the decorative scheme enhances the
overall experience, without knocking you senseless, as it could if
handled with less restraint.
The principal design difference between
this ship and the earlier Statendam-class has been an increase in
length. The extra few feet, and slightly rounder lines, has resulted
in a much sleeker exterior, and, more importantly, on the inside has
allowed for a much needed central stairtower and elevators. I know it
sounds trite, but this ship simply does not feel as big as she really
is. Anyone who has sailed on any HAL ship, will feel immediately at
home on Zaandam, including where all the cozy nooks and crannies are,
and there are many.
Cabins: One of the nice things
about being a repeater on any line, is that you get to know the
"secrets" of their various ships. On the HAL S-dam's and all
the later variations, the best values on the ship are the 8 (or so)
category "I" cabins on the Lower Promenade Deck. If you look
at the brochure, they are listed and priced very fairly as deluxe
insides. However, if you examine the deck plan closely, the ones on LP
deck (only!) are actually outside cabins with varying degrees of
obstructed views. In all ways, they are absolutely identical to the
much higher priced "outsides" located immediately next door
and, in many respects, are far superior to higher priced
"outsides" located elsewhere on the ship. We booked one of
these, but shortly before sailing were "upgraded" four
cabins down the hall to an absolutely identical, but formally listed
Regardless of location, the cabin was bright and cheery, with more
than enough room for two to move in. The bathroom was larger than on
many other ships, with a full bathtub. Environmentally conscious
amenities, soaps, shampoos, etc. were plentiful. Cabin service was
superb, although I must admit, and I put this on the comment sheet,
that over the years, the English proficiency of the Indonesian help
has actually gotten worse. Perhaps expanding the fleet too fast is
beginning to show?
Dining: No aspect of any
cruise experience is as intensely personal as the food and no company
gets such varying opinions as HAL. Some, including me, think their
food is superb, others, including some well known travel writers, find
it unimaginative, bland and dreadful. To each their own, so I will not
comment more here, other than to say that at our table of 8, which
included 4 first time cruisers, no one had a complaint about any
aspect of any course for the entire cruise. The Lido buffet was as
superb as always, including the famous bread pudding. New additions to
the Lido, made possible by the larger space, include a daily
"deli" area with fresh made sandwiches. The same space on
the opposite side of the ship rotated daily between a curry bar, a
pasta station, a stir fry station and sushi. At breakfast, this is
also the omelet area. Deck food includes the hamburger grill, with a
different hot dog/sausage daily, the taco bar and the pizza bar with
two different selections made fresh daily.
The Marco Polo is the alternative restaurant
onboard and is well worth the trouble it takes to get in here. The
food (northern Italian) and service were simply superb. It should be
noted that unlike other lines, there is NO cover charge to dine here.
Reservations, however, are not easy. They must be made in person
during very limited hours, and the fill very quickly. Although the
room seats far more, the maitre'd explained that to give the best
service, they limit admission to 20 people per sitting, with 3
sittings per evening, at 6, 7, and 8:00. By the 4th day, a sign was
posted that the room was fully booked for the remainder of the cruise.
Unfortunately, those turned away could walk past on any given night
and see empty tables, this because of the seating times and policy.
This did not sit well until the reason why was explained. Perhaps HAL
could do this a bit more publicly, and avoid some bad feelings.
Entertainment and cruise staff: To
put it kindly, those who choose to sail on HAL do not do so for the
quality of the entertainment, and, sadly, Zaandam more than lived up
to this tradition. I could never understand why a company like NCL,
which comes up short in so many areas, can have such wonderful evening
productions shows, while year after year, complaint after complaint
HAL lags woefully behind. The Zaandam cast tried their best, and HAL
is to be commended for still not allowing lip-synching, but, in spite
of it all, still came up rather empty, both in talent and in
We did have something unexpectedly
different one evening. After departing St. Thomas, the weather became
very nasty, and sea conditions deteriorated rapidly. The show for 2nd
sitting was cancelled, since the cast almost killed themselves during
the 1st sitting performance. However, for the benefit of those who
were already sitting in the showlounge, the cast, in full costume,
came out and held a very informal, and very honest, question and
answer session with the audience. Those who remained for it came away
with a much better idea of what the "glamourous life at sea"
is really like. It wouldn't be a bad idea to make something like this
a regular part of the activity schedule. I found it quite fascinating.
The cruise director was Frankie Ford,
a real veteran with HAL and one of the industries first female cruise
directors. She did a wonderful job and was very approachable. She
coordinates the "Rock and Rolldies" show for the entire HAL
fleet so needless to say, her personal version of it was truly
special. If you have not seen this show, I really can't explain it
here other than to have you imagine what the bastard child of MTV and
Geritol would look like. It is one of the funniest evenings you can
Because of her veteran status, she must be one of the directors you
"train under" because the remainder of the cruise staff was
painfully young; many of whom were on their first or second contracts
ever. You can already tell who has a long life ahead of them in the
industry and who does not. Regardless, she held them all to the same
high level of professionalism and service.
I must admit that there seemed to be
too few staff for the size of the ship. While they were all always
busy, there were times when there was simply not enough going on. I am
fully aware that you do not sail HAL if you enjoy a hyperactive cruise
experience, however, they really could have used more daytime
activities, especially on the sea days. If Holland is serious about
attracting a younger clientele, they really need to look at this.
There were blocks of 2 or 3 hours at a time, in the middle of the
afternoons, with absolutely nothing scheduled other than bridge games
or the dreaded art auctions.
Passengers: In years past, HAL
had the reputation of being God's waiting room. It was known for its
geriatric passengers and wheelchair races on the promenade decks.
Slowly and fortunately, things are changing. Now, don't get me wrong,
I have nothing against older passengers, in fact I plan on being one
some day, but it's nice to see younger faces enjoying this line. Our
sailing was 10 days in the off season, so the passenger list on the
ship skewed to the older side, as would be expected. BUT, there were a
good number of 30+s, and even a few families with children onboard as
well. On formal nights there was about a 40% tux ratio, and the always
informal lido dinner did much better business on those three evenings.
Itinerary: One of the things that
attracted me to this cruise was the itinerary. It featured a few
places I have never visited as well as some all time favorites.
Because we were a 10 day sailing, we hit some of these places on
"off" days, so we were frequently the only ship in port,
which made things lovely.
Bonaire is probably best known as one
of the diving paradises of the world, but even if you don't get wet (I
don't) it was still fascinating. The architecture is Dutch, just like
Aruba and Curacao, but everything is on a much smaller scale than on
those two more touristed islands. The island sightseeing drive was
well worth both the time and the price. This is not a shopping island,
so those who just got off the ship and wandered around town were
After stopping too many times, and
always being far less than impressed with Caracas, I did not hold out
much hope for Isla Margarita, another province of Venezuela. Wrong.
What a difference an island makes. The dock is in the middle of
nowhere, so you can't just simply get off and walk into town. Those
who took the complimentary shuttle, (40 minutes each way) were not
very happy, apparently the capital city is not very pretty or
welcoming. But those of us on tour got to see a very beautiful island
with a surprisingly low crime rate, very friendly people and gorgeous
beaches and water. Our chosen tour was advertised simply as a beach
transfer, but it included a 45 minute drive to the beach, the required
shopping stop, 2 hours at a wonderful beach, Playa Agua, including
shaded lounge chairs and umbrellas and refreshments. The return trip
was via another route, so we got to see a great deal of this lovely
spot. I'd gladly go back.
St. Lucia is one of my all-time favorite
places. We didn't do a tour here, just hired a cab to show off Marigot
Bay to some of our new friends, and they fell in love with the spot as
well. It has been some time since I was last here, so I was amazed at
the development which has taken place both in town, and all over the
island. How nice to finally see all the tourist money being put to use
to make an already nice place even nicer.
We shared St. Kitts, on a
blisteringly hot day, with the Holiday and the Norwegian Majesty. We
tendered here, which is the way to go, since the dock is 3 miles away
from town. The Holiday got the dock. I had never been here before, and
really have no need to go back. I don't think this is one of my favorite
islands, although it might have just been the heat that day
influencing me. We took the tour to Brimstone Hill Fortress, which
includes the required shopping stop at the Batik factory, and this was
fascinating. However, anyone planning to do this should be aware that
once you reach the parking area of the fortress, it is still another
70, or so, very steep stairs up to the actual buildings. I would love
to run an oxygen concession at the top. Those who make the climb are
greeted with the most unbelievable view. Any country who held this
fort controlled the entire north east corner of the Caribbean. St.
Maarten, St. Barts, Anguilla and on a very clear day Antigua are
visible from the top.
We were in St. Thomas on a Saturday,
with only the Galaxy docked ahead of us. The town and shops seemed
eerily empty, but it didn't stop anyone from buying. The same thing in
Nassau, with only the Disney Wonder along side of us. I'm not used to
being able to actually see the sidewalk.
Security: We're not in Kansas
anymore, Toto. To get on and off the ship at every port of call
required both your ships id AND a photo id, preferably a passport. All
shopping bags, beach bags and purses were searched before boarding the
ship in every port of call. In both St. Thomas and again in Ft.
Lauderdale, EVERY PASSENGER, going ashore or not, now has to clear
American immigration before the ship can be cleared. This was done by
decks, with the lowest deck being required to appear at 6:45 a.m. in
both ports. Naturally, at the end, a litany of names was called,
sometimes repeatedly, for those who thought the rules did not apply to
Overall: This was a superb
cruise, and the Zaandam is a wonderful ship. HAL provides, for my
tastes, the best cruise value that I can presently afford. I'm sorry
that they are switching her to 7 day itineraries next year, I don't
think that is enough time to sample her many charms.
Many HAL old-timers have complained
that the company isn't what it was in years past. My answer to this
is: "So what." In order to survive, companies, like people
need to change. Yes, there might have been a few more items on the
menu 10 or 20 years ago. Perhaps the drinks aren't as generous, or are
a bit more expensive. Yes, the ambience of the ship can be ruined with
the art auction pieces displayed all over the place. It is certainly
more difficult to communicate with some of the staff, and maybe some
areas in the newest ships are a bit too overdone, but the fact is that
this company is thriving and attracting record numbers of new, and
younger, passengers. As one who hopes to sail HAL long into the
future, and with the exception of the language issue, I don't (in my
far less than perfect opinion) think that this is such a bad thing.
America Line Reviews