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Zaandam - Holland America Line  
November 2001
Caribbean "Seafarer"

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 "outside" cabin.

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 choreography.

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 spend anywhere.

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 disappointed.

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 them.

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.

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