MS Zuiderdam

Background

Cruiser: David Presley, age 40-something. I've been on several other cruises: Premier's Seabreeze on a 7-day Western Caribbean route in February 2000; the Big Red Boat on a short jaunt over to Nassau in October 1999; the Dawn Princess on a 7-day Southern Caribbean route in November 1998; Carnival’s Jubilee on the 7-day Pacific coast swing in April 1997; Carnival’s Ecstasy on a 3-night New Year’s Bahamas cruise in December 1995; the Big Red Boat again in August 1994 (in conjunction with a Walt Disney World vacation); and a 4-night Bahamas cruise as a High School Graduation present back in May 1974. 

But for this time, my friends Brad & Nancy Bussard - and a contingent of about two dozen of their friends from New Orleans - sailed an Eastern Caribbean Itinerary:

Itinerary for the May 28 sailing of HAL's Zuiderdam

 

Friday, May 27, 2005 - En Route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I knocked-off work about 3pm and made the 2.5 hour drive across Alligator Alley to Fort Lauderdale without event... and savoring how much easier it was to drive than fly, what with heightened security and those hassles.  I had used priceline.com to secure a room at the Marriott Renaissance (just outside of Port Everglades on SE 17th Street) for $85 - and what a pleasant surprise it was (as in serious bang-for-the-buck)!  An hour-or-so after checking-in I got a call from my friend Brad, saying everyone had arrived at the Ramada Airport / Cruiseport - so I drove over there for introductions and the charter-bus trip to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

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As is always the case with Ruth's Chris, the food was impeccable!  I had escargot to begin, then a rare full-size filet with asparagus and hollandaise on the side.  And, in a strangely fun twist, directly across the street from the restaurant was a Skyline Chili - and since a few of us were fans, we got several chili/cheese hotdogs to suffice as our evening's dessert... yeah, I know - a gross-out to some - but we enjoyed it!  Once back to the Ramada (chosen not just for the competitive price but the ability to book everyone into the same place... a facility yet to be developed for priceline.com) I bid everyone adieu and drove the 10min back to my hotel to conclude the evening.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2005 - Embarkation & Sailing

The excitement on the morning of embarkation is really second-to-none.  Despite last night's late bedtime I awoke a bit after 630 and decided to go walk-off some of the previous night's food - and hope for a camera opportunity-or-two in the process.  I wasn't disappointed... a stellar morning, weather-wise, and my walk across the 17th Street Causeway gave a wonderful view of the Zuiderdam berthed at Pier 26 as well as the other port activities.  Returning to my room for a shower and check-out, I grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby McDonalds, stopped at a nearby Publix for a couple more last-minute items, stopped at a SunTrust to rob my account of a couple hundred more dollars (smart move, in retrospect), then entered Port Everglades near the Renaissance just after 11.  Couldn't have been easier - about a 2min security wait, 3min drive, drop my two bags curbside with the porter, then park across the street in the secure garage.  Check-in took a whopping 7minutes; another 10-12min wait followed with a photo, and I found myself on the mid-Lido sipping a margarita rocks and chatting on my cell phone with Brad by 11:45am.  Only constraint with that early of a boarding was that we couldn't go to our cabins until 1:30pm... no worries.  Once there, while I dubbed it "the walk-in closet" cabin 7018 (on the Rotterdam deck, port and forward) was ample for my needs as a single.

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I quickly unpacked and settled-myself-in, then decided the four margaritas had made me drowsy-enough that a short nap was in order(for all the people coming-and-going the ship was surprisingly quiet). During this time the rest of my cohorts embarked, but I soon discovered that my cell phone (Verizon) wouldn't work within the interior cabin (not seeing the two voicemail messages from Brad until I wandered-back-up onto deck). I did find it strange that I had yet to meet Evan, my Cabin Steward... turns-out I never actually would get a formal introduction from him (eh, perhaps he's shy?).  Participated in the Muster Drill at 4:15pm - Holland America seems to take these a bit more seriously than other cruiselines, requiring both a headcount and verification of cabin number printed on the life jacket.  Sailaway was planned for 5pm, but an indication of mechanical trouble delayed us just over 90min... that delay, combined with intermittent light rain, put the kabosh on the planned sailaway party.  Regardless, the weather cleared nicely, and commencing with our 6:32pm pushback had a lovely departure.

The first evening's dinner is casual; just prior to our meal I stopped-off in the bar above the Pinnacle Grill to listen to the band - but their cheesy brand of jazz didn't appeal, so I meandered to the Dining Room.  Once there I quickly discovered they'd assigned me to the same table as all the kids (well, young adults) on the voyage - and was happy when some of the older set invited me to a place at their table (throughout the voyage we'd alternate seats over our 3-1/2 tables so everyone could sit with everybody).  My dining choices this evening included Salmon Tartaré, Broadway Basil Tomato Soup (which I enjoyed enough to order a second portion), Grilled Mahi Mahi (I skipped tonight's salad course), Lemon Sorbet, and an Expresso Martini (the first of many) to close.  

That evening the program showed a demonstration of the Golf Center - but it never seemed to be open (I discovered near the end of the cruise that it's to be permanently closed and the space used to expand the children's play area).  At 10:30pm we attended the Welcome Aboard Showtime in the Vista Lounge - first with the comedy of Julie Barr (which wasn't so comedic this evening), followed-by a sample of what was to come from "The Zuiderdam Cast" (their mini-production reminded me of the concluding stage scene from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show")... on that first night, nobody in my group was overly impressed with the entertainment offerings. From there I headed-down to the Piano Bar and met Rhonda Cryan, the resident pianist.  Nice lady, with a wonderful enthusiasm and an immense song library... but with some vocals that caused a couple of others in my group to give me a cockeyed look and hastily exit to the Casino (no worries... it's a singalong bar, where you need boisterous fun not perfect pitch... besides, I'm not much of a gambler so the Casino held little-to-no interest to me).   On this first night, things seemed to go pretty much dead after midnight, so I decided to end my first day aboard around 12:20am.

 

Sunday, May 29, 2005 - HAL's Private Island: Half Moon Cay

Before turning-in I decided I'd give Room Service a try for this morning's breakfast - I had ordered a cheese omelette that arrived with no cheese; two sausage links and three strips of bacon that arrived as one-and-two; and black coffee (which was fine).  Not an auspicious start, but it served the function of filling-me-up.  Still hadn't met my Cabin Steward, but at least he did follow my written instruction from the previous day - to clean-out the minibar so I could keep my cans of diet coke cold throughout the voyage.

We arrived and anchored just off Half Moon Cay just before 8am.  I headed to the Queen's Lounge just before 9am for Tender Tickets; after only a 10min wait we departed for "A" Deck, and boarded a tender for the short ride to Half Moon Cay.  While one from my group had secured one of the big wooden cabins for the group, my only goal ashore was to do the one tank SCUBA diving as a warm-up to the other ports to be dived this trip.  It was a wonderful surprise to find a very large, new dive boat; two friendly, competent divemasters; only five other divers (including one of the crew I later found to be the Hotel Beverage Manager - Harry Ter Horst); and a MUCH better than expected reef that included beautiful swim-throughs and abundant coral and fish life.  With 45min of Bottom Time at a max depth of 43feet, it was much more than I'd hoped!

Meeting-up with the rest of the group about 12:30pm we lunched on cheeseburgers, pasta/potato salad, and beer (picnic-quality... not great but edible). From there I stored my dive gear and got in the water for awhile to just relax and snap a few pics.

Many in our group remarked that they wished we could've stayed longer at HMC - or that we could've returned there again later in the voyage.  I've also read this same comment online and now understand why - it's a wonderful, relaxing experience - Holland America has done an excellent job creating and maintaining it!

I returned to the ship about 3pm, so I could get cleaned-up for the planned 4:30pm get-together in The Crow's Nest for posters fromcruisecritic.com's forums sailing on this itinerary. Attending our little soiree was Joe & Anne (beancounter30019 and anners); Mark & Dale (sparklingseas); Celeste & Mike (cccm); Patty, Sheldon, & Lois (showdog).  It's also customary to have one of the ship's crew to briefly make an appearance - on the prior sailing the much larger group saw the Hotel Manager drop-by to say "hello".  Ours was no different - a gentleman with several stripes on his jacket appeared, and on introduction we discovered that none other than the Master of the Zuiderdam - Captain John Scott - was making an appearance.  I'm sure all of us had mouths hanging open in disbelief - my surprise indicated by my forgetting that I'd brought a camera (and therefore not shooting any pics with him).  We already knew that Holland America takes those boards very seriously; and while Capt. Scott admitted that they were still kind of new to him he recognized all of our screen names - and at one point inquired "Where is CanadianMAG?" (Michelle & Michael - you REALLY should've been there!)  At any rate, he had to depart after about 15-20min - with our copious thank yous as a goodbye - then the rest of us remained until a bit after 6pm.  Nice folks that I enjoyed seeing throughout the remainder of the trip.

Sunday night's dinner was again casual; this evening I ordered two helpings of Oysters Rockefeller (for a total of six), Vichyssoise, Salad, Caribbean-style Paella (shrimp, pork chunks, chorizo sausage - it was a little on the dry side but tasty), a raspberry sorbet (I'm not usually a fan of sorbet, but very little on the Zuiderdam's dessert menus appealed to me), and (what was becoming my usual after-dinner drink) an expresso martini.  Never seeing any midnight dessert offerings - and based on the desserts sampled so far - we were all coming to the conclusion that (for whatever reason) desserts weren't the forté... or for that matter, emphasized much at all... on this ship.

I managed to miss this evening show in the Vista Lounge, opting to watch some of Zuiderdam Superstar (kind of an American Idol version of karaoke - the kid who attempted "Bohemian Rhapsody" was hysterical!) then hang somemore in the Piano Bar.  It was also becoming apparent that most of the people on this ship seem to poop-out 10-ish, based on the lack of things to do as the clock ticked towards midnight.  This actually had been a fear when the folks who put-together this trip for our group chose Holland America; at least in that regard it wasn't a surprise.  Buzzed from too many expresso martinis I called it a night about 12:30am.

 

Monday, May 30, 2005 - A Day at Sea

Clearly, David was not in full drinking form, as evidenced by having to spend the better part of our Sea Day nursing a hangover!  I wandered-up to the Lido for a light Continental Breakfast, then went back to my cabin for a mid-morning nap.  I awoke still feeling badly so I opted to skip lunch - wandered a bit, then went back 2-ish for yet another nap! :(  At least when I awoke this time I was feeling somewhat functional... little did I realize the longer-lasting effects that would have consequence the next day (more on that below).

About 5pm I wandered-up to the Crow's Nest where a fellow in a beret named Jim was entertaining on the piano.  Of all the musicians on this trip, he was hands-down my favorite - with musical taste similar to my own.  I was one of about a half-dozen who stayed to listen(with that kind of participation it's no wonder they don't run more entertainment more often), enjoying very tasty appetizers and one drink(hair-of-the-dog DOES help!)... before needing to depart about 6:15pm to get cleaned-up for the evening's Formal activities.

Formal as in formal-wear... as in tuxes.  At 7pm I attended the Captain's Cocktail Reception in the Vista Lounge (where I was stunned to not only find the very first Captain who remembered me but invite me for a drink later in the voyage). After obligatory photography...

...along with a class of champagne and some appetizers, I (along with most of my group) walked aft for our 8pm main dinner seating.  Tonight's fare included Iced Andalouse-style Gazpacho (having pigged-out on appetizers at the reception I opted against any with my meal), salad (with a lovely bacon dressing), Sesame Crusted Salmon Fillet, Vanilla Crème Brulee (two servings), and... yup... another expresso martini (I HAVE to figure-out how to make these things once back home... but, with challenging diving the next day at least I was sensible-enough to limit myself to only one!).  Also because of that early day I chose to retire early (as in 11-ish).  Got a good night's sleep too (which is kinda odd for me).

 

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 - Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands

With docking underway as I awoke just after 7am, I headed-up to the Lido for a Continental Breakfast... feeling thankful that my ministrations from the prior day had me feeling good for today's diving.  To that end, I exited the Zuiderdam and was at the end of the pier just after 8am to meet the folks from Dive Tortola.  With just five of us, we arrived at their offices for check-in, then departed 8:45ish for the 30min ride to the Wreck of The Rhone.  Suited-up and entered with no difficulty, but about 3-4min into my dive I aborted - feeling lightheaded, unable to catch my breath (causing increasingly rapid breathing), and no doubt mild-to-moderately panicked).  Donna (the divemaster) accompanied me to the surface, where Sean (the other divemaster) jumped-in to help swim me back to the boat.  That's never happened before - once the anger at myself subsided I chalked it up to lingering hangover effects - but with several days reflection, and feeling a little bit of the lightheadedness now (as I type this) I'm wondering if a fairly recent change to my blood pressure medication is producing the effect.  Regardless, I was eager to do the second dive - and, except for sucking air more quickly than I'd otherwise have hoped (no doubt due to tension from the abort) it was both beautiful and uneventful (I also rubbed the porthole, where legend has it you will return to do the dive again... I hope so... it still bothers me that I missed the first-half).  BTW, I do plan on phoning my doctor first thing Monday to discuss this with them.

We returned to the ship about 11:45am; after a rinse of my gear and a shower I made way up to the lido for a quick Italian lunch of Penne with meat sauce & alfredo (on side), garlic bread, two slices of pizza, and some lemonade.  From there I walked the short distance to town to Pusser's for hot sauces and a painkiller (drink); then to Little Denmark to buy a dozen assorted Cuban cigars to bring back home (successfully!).  I also stopped at Aquaventure's before reboarding to buy myself a "Wreck of The Rhone" tee-shirt.  Back on board by 2:30pm I took a 90min nap (further evidence - at least to me - that my meds aren't quite right at the moment... I don't normally sleep this much), then made way up to the Observation Deck for sailaway (where the ship's stern turned to port, then motored away from the setting sun) then down to one of the deluxe suites to visit with everyone and discuss their day's activities.

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On this evening, we opted to skip the meal in the Dining Room in favor of the mid-Lido BBQ - which included babyback ribs, chicken breasts, potato salad, cole slaw, and baked beans.  All very credible.  At 9:00pm most of us headed aft on the Lido for The Five Seasons (dubbed Sergei and The Cosmonauts by one of my travel buddies) - they played a wide variety of pretty well-executed music, but after the first break the party just died (I came back later that evening and about the only remaining attendees were staff... kinda sad, but - again - not wholly unexpected with the HAL demographic).  I wandered the ship til about 11pm - but with no shows, no Piano Bar(found out later that Rhonda was under the weather), no Crow's Nest entertainment, etc., I called it an early night... and was quite shocked to return to find that Evan (the Cabin Steward) forgot to prep my cabin - first time THAT has ever happened to me on a cruise!

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Wednesday, June 1, 2005 - Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

We were the first of only two ships to arrive at Havensight... what a pleasant surprise!  Custom inspections began at about 715am (when your deck number is called you have to go to the Queen's Lounge to present your passport so an official can nod at you - what a bureaucratic joke!) but once you were cleared you got a little green card that would let you off the boat before the entire boat was cleared.  Once back on land, I headed to the end of the dock where you find a gaggle of every water tour (it seems) congregated.  I saw the dive boats arranged for HAL and RCCL (the Mariner of the Seas arrived shortly after we did) - and, as I'd read online, they WERE cattleboat operations... I'm SOOOO glad I booked independently!

Our booking (through Blue Island Divers) was only 6 pax, including a couple of last minute additions.  They were able to come alongside the dock just after 9am; from there we headed to their offices in Crown Bay to get the new people geared-up, then it was out to Flat Rock Cay - north side for Dive #1, south side for Dive #2.  Because one of the two additions was a junior diver we stayed shallow for both dives - but that was fine... we got in 75min on the first, and 55min on the second (only reduced because of current rivaling what you see in Cozumel).  Divemaster Bethany was a treat - besides being both competent and personable, she went to college at Emory (in Atlanta, where I'm from) but has lived in paradise for the past sixteen years.  I hope to return and dive with her(and her company) again one day... I can't recommend them highly enough (and what a relief that on this day I had two normal, completely uneventful dives)!

I returned to ship 130ish; dropped/washed gear, then quickly headed to A.H. Riise in Havensight to buy my booze for this trip (going a bit over the duty-free allowance, but what the hey!  even with duty the pricing is still SO much better than what you get stateside!).  I then took the tram to Paradise Point for a phish burger + wasabi aioli and a couple of bushwhacker cocktails while enjoying the gorgeous view.  After a bit of shopping (and lots of picture-taking) I headed back down to Havensight - visiting the ATM on the way to be sure I had sufficient cash to complete the trip - then was back on board 3:30ish... where I found a voicemail waiting asking me to join the rest of the gang in one of the deluxe suites.  Which I did, where several were watching "Meet The Fockers" on DVD (I'd not seen it before - funny flick, tho I think I still prefer the original).  I returned to my cabin afterwards for a 30min doze, then headed-up to the Observation deck for sailaway and some borderline night photography.

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Back to my cabin for a much-needed shower & shave, I then headed down and aft to the Dining Room for the evening's informal dinner - which, for me, included Seared Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio, Creme of Four Mushroom soup (very tasty!), and Grilled Double Venison Loin Medallions (I again skipped an unappetizing-looking salad).  Tonight's dessert menu was just terrible - those that tried a few items only took one bite and stopped - so I again took a pass in favor of my new love: the expresso martini.

Unlike previous evenings, Wednesday night is a very busy night on the boat - James Cielen began by performing FLAWLESS illusions in the Vista Lounge; 10min after conclusion we hurried down to the Queen's Lounge to watch Julie Barr's Adult Comedy - she was MUCH better than on the first night.  Turned-in a bit after 1am, with several of my comrades still betting merrily-away in the Casino

 

Thursday, June 2, 2005 - A Day at Sea

Ah, if I could only (regularly) sleep late... I awoke just after 7am, got cleaned-up, and still was early for the Lido's 7:30am start of breakfast.  Waiting just a few minutes I enjoyed a custom omelette, some fruit, and coffee.  I returned to my cabin where I watched the movie "Ray", then attended the disembarkation talk is in the Vista Lounge at 10:30am - which ran about 45min and included a nice farewell song from the entire crew.  30min later I attended the Mariner's Reception - I'm still clueless as to why I got an invitation (since I've never previously cruised on Holland America), but I did so I went (for some nice champagne and appetizers).  The champion on this cruise had 500+ days... quick calculation showed that to be about 72 of these voyages... I just don't see how somebody racks-up that kind of cruise mileage, let alone with just one company!

That afternoon I worked on my tan a bit (before the rays got seriously killer - although now that I'm back home a couple of neighbors are surprised I don't have more of a tan than I do), then enjoyed a GREAT toasted turkey club in the Lido (possibly one of the best sandwiches I've ever had).  As seemed my pattern this trip I snoozed for a little while that afternoon, then enjoyed cigars and drinks in one of the big cabins late that day.

Tonight was the second Formal Night, with photos taken of our group (of 28) on the Atrium stairs just before dinner.

Once seated, I enjoyed Escargots Bourguignonne (twice, for a total of twelve - not the best I've ever had but still yummy), dos frijoles soup (basically a glorified black bean soup), a salad with blue cheese dressing, and the Surf N'Turf - a rare petitie filet with three lobster tails.  Concluding the meal was the usual Baked Alaska procession and dessert.  Best Dining Room meal of the week, but still nothing stellar or otherwise memorable.

At 10:30pm we attended The Zuiderdam Cast's "Stage & Screen" show in the Vista - would arguably rate it as the best production I've seen at sea, helped substantively by good song selection and the Bob Mackey costuming.  Went to the Piano Bar afterwards(1130ish) for Name That Tune (I did shockingly badly!) then was coaxed into performing a couple of songs on the piano (for those who attended and are curious - the first was Mead Lux Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train Blues", while the second was Keith Emerson's live medley - including improvisitation - of "Jeremy Bender / The Sheriff").

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My performance certainly wasn't flawless (alcohol in the system does put a crimp on accurate fingering) but everyone seemed to enjoy it.  From there, several of us went to Northern Lights which we closed-down the place at about 3am... not so much because the music was great (it wasn't) but simply because we wanted to stay-up and it was our only option.

 

Friday, June 3, 2005 - Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas

We didn't arrive at the dock until noon, so I was able to sleep until 9am (first time I've done that in MONTHS!), sorted clothes, completed my Immigration form - basically just getting ready for the next day's disembarkation and return home.  By the time I got up to the Lido breakfast was over - but there were enough rolls left to finagle myself a continental breakfast.  From there I just hung-out on deck watching the docking process in Nassau.

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Once we'd cleared Bahamas Customs I grabbed my dive bag and departed the ship about 12:15pm - there were a gaggle of people for Stuart Cove's operation, but that was expected: they cater not only to divers but to snorkelers and personal sub folks as well.  They corralled the bunch and we finally got underway about 12:45pm (for a 40min trip to the other side of the island - made longer this day due to a parade and holiday).  It was shortly thereafter where things began to slowly unravel (not going to recap the details here - suffice to say that with the comedy of errors that ensued we're lucky that nobody died that day... I will NEVER again use Stuart Cove!).  

The divers returned to the Z just before 6pm (which tells you how wrong everything went - we should've been back at 5:30pm after having made two dives) -  and all thirteen of us went en masse to the Shore Excursion desk to complain.  Unknown to us, one of our fellow divers was the ship's dentist - as soon as the desk opened they whisked him behind closed doors for a couple of minutes; afterwards the manager emerged - apologetic, and offering a complete refund.  I found-out later that night that the ShoreEx people were discussing at length whether they would sever ties with Stuart Cove and book diving elsewhere... based on our experience that day, they should - we're lucky one of the newer divers wasn't hurt or killed due to the staff ineptitude and equipment malfunctions.  Which is sad... I dove with Stuart's operation in June 2004 and at that time couldn't praise them highly enough; dunno what's gone wrong with them since then (we speculate they've just gotten too big) but no way would I ever consider diving with them again!

The last night's casual dinner consisted of  Crab/Artichoke dip, Bahamian Clam Chowder (spicier than I would've expected on this ship - very good!), grilled Tuna Steak (yup, I skipped yet another bland salad); for dessert I tried the Key Lime pie (ugh - after one taste I stopped - it tasted store bought, or worse, made of Roses' Lime), so I instead opted for double expresso (no martini this night - time to start sobering-up).  Went to visit Rhonda afterwards in the Piano Bar - the entire ship (including there) was dead as the proverbial doornail... I guess everyone was busy packing - but why miss-out on the final few hours of the cruise just to pack?  Most of my gang arrived just before 11pm and had me take-over for about a half-dozen songs... mostly Billy Joel fare this evening plus a few requests(saying our goodbyes Rhonda made me promise I'd try to again do it professionally... I said I would, but with a kid about to start college it may not get acted-upon in the immediate future).  Hugged her goodbye, then wandered a bit more only to discover nothing going-on(one of my fundamental complaints about Holland America).  Went to my cabin a bit after midnight to (first) pack my dive bag, and (then)my suitcase; stayed-up until about 1:30am watching some CNN to try to reacclimate myself to the goings-on in the real world, then called it a night.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2005 - Disembarkation and Return Home to Cape Coral, Florida

My phone's wake-up call came at 6:40am (glad I set it!); room service arrived shortly thereafter where I enjoyed a bit more food (a ham and cheese omelette - at least this time they actually used a little (but not much) cheese, along with an extra strip of bacon and sausage).  Showered & changed, then headed-down to the Library to settle-up with Customs (as mentioned above, I'd purchased more than the duty-free allowance - but caught a really nice agent who waived duty on my overage - we're not talking more than a couple of dollars, but it was a little thing that put a big smile on my face!).

Returned to the cabin and packed the last of my carry-off items (mostly bottles of liquor plus sleeping garments and some toiletries), then just mindlessly watched TV until my color and number was called (they survey early in the week to see your departure plans - since I was a local driving home I was one of the last off the boat) about 9:50am.  Was able to exit the boat in under two minutes, and had my suitcase been easier to spot (a generic black 26" rolling-tote with no other identifying characteristics) I could've been out of the baggage area almost as quickly.  Coincidentally, the same agent who waived my duty also greeted me - I thanked her again, then made way to my car.  All told, time from my cabin to starting my car was under 10 minutes - WOW!

The drive back to Cape Coral was (thankfully) uneventful... I word it that way because the President and Governor were less than a mile away and security was intense (I felt sorry for those arriving - the lines into Port were 4x-5x worse than the prior Saturday).  Was greeted about 12:15pm by two very excited dogs (who'd done just fine in their week with the dogsitter) and a yard that needs cutting(despite wonderful weather en route of the cruise, my neighbors say it's rained nonstop since I left).

 

Summary

Okay, here's where I summarize what I liked, what I didn't, and whether I'd sail this vessel / company again.  So here goes:

POSITIVES

The Ship and its Layout.  Lots of people criticize both the layout and color scheme in the Zuiderdam, but I'm the opposite - the quirky color schemes were nowhere near as gaudy / tacky as I'd been lead to believe from reading online (of course, I don't have an aversion to red - which is good because there's quite a lot of it), and the meandering asymmetric hallways and room placements always gives you the feeling that the boat just isn't as full of people as it actually is (the one exception is the photo gallery area, especially just before an evening meal - where it is very difficult to make-way through the gaggle of passengers).

The Captain and his Crew.  It all started-off on a good foot when Captain John Scott arrived in the Crow's Nest to greet our little group from cruisecritic.com - from that point-on he seemed to remember me throughout the cruise, even chasing me down right after having our formal portrait made to inquire if I'd have a drink with him one evening (I would have loved-to, but it never happened).  And what they say about the crew being friendly at all levels is no lie... this is the first cruise I've been on where EVERYBODY - from Cabin Stewards you don't know, to Deck Stewards, to Maintenance Guys - every single one of them looks you in the eye, smiles, and says "how are you?" or similar.  I was impressed... but especially with Hunky Dory (a Lido greeter who somehow manages to remember everyone's name who goes through his line that week... stand quietly and listen to him say, "hello Marion... hi Bob... good afternoon Janet... hello William... good day Helen..."  Damndest thing I've ever seen!)

Half Moon Cay.  Damn.  Just damn.  I would seriously consider taking another Holland America cruise that arrived at HMC for Day #2; went at sea for Day #3; returned to HMC for Day #4; went back to sea for Day #5; came back one last time for Day #6; then returned to FLL on Day #7 (of course, I would guess those sailing other Caribbean itineraries might not be too thrilled with my monopoly idea).  It's everything I'd read about online and then some (although I did hear one diver proclaim that she liked Princess Cays better... but of that I have no direct knowledge).

Embarkation/Disembarkation.  Easily the fastest / smoothest I've experienced.  Other cruise lines should take note.

NEUTRALS

The Entertainment.  I have mixed feelings here - James Cielen is the best illusionist I've seen in person (and I'm a bit of a magic buff, having attended shows of many of the world's best... having seen him it's clear how he has won his many awards from his peers).  His technique is flawless - even illusions where I knew the trick held me in rapt amazement watching his execution.  I said above that the Zuiderdam Cast's "Stage and Screen" show was the best I'd seen on ship - but that glow is tempered with a poor mix on both supporting cast microphones (I think they're better singers than we were allowed to hear) and not particularly caring for the lead male's diction (nice timbre, but his singing style is as though his jaw is wired-shut from some kind of accident).  Julie Barr was inconsistent; I'd seen her previously on both TV and live and was disappointed with her work on the first night... but she redeemed herself by putting tears in my eyes on adult night.  I developed a fondness for Rhonda Cryan, resident pianist, who has an immense song library from which to choose and an infectious enthusiasm; but her vocals sometimes ranged from sweet to scary (causing me to rethink when I tell people that I can't sing).  My favorite keyboardist of the cruise was a fellow in a beret named Jim - but I found it difficult to figure-out where and when to catch him playing.  And while I liked the musicianship of The Five Seasons, don't plan on singing-along unless you really know the words well - it's obvious that English isn't their first (or even their second or perhaps third) language. ;-)

The Food.  This one is strange... I had no problem keeping my weight in check this week, and the only reason I'm listing here rather than negatives is the Lido - this is the first cruise I've taken where the food in the Lido is better than in the Dining Room... which makes no sense at all.  Honestly, it's not that the food in the Dining Room is bad - it tasted fine - it's just that there was nothing memorable or remarkable.  I'd illustrate it this way: on the second formal night my friends and I were discussing how disappointing we found the food - but no one could put their finger on a specific complaint to address.  I asked several of them "what was your dinner entree two nights ago?" and nobody (including myself) could remember (my recap here is courtesy of written notes to myself throughout the cruise).  But complaints we could identify?  This is also the first cruise I've sailed where you only have one salad choice at dinner - I skipped a few of them just because I got tired of the only meaningful change being the dressing you select.  Similarly, while I don't really have that much of a sweet tooth, this is the first time I've actually found nothing appealing on the dessert menu on repeated evenings- opting several nights to either skip for an after-dinner drink or go with the sorbet.  The chocoholics in our group made similar pronouncements about their orders - desserts that ranged from "bland" to "dietetic-tasting" - and if my experience with the key lime pie is any indication, I believe them.

NEGATIVES

HAL's Passenger Demographic.  While I knew about this issue in advance, I had hoped to come-away without it being a negative.  No joy.  Holland America has a reputation of being geared to, uh, how best to put this?  "Seasoned" cruisers?  And while I was surprised that the passenger complement wasn't as geriatric as I had expected, the cruise itself is clearly geared to that demographic.  An example?  Why do they have one dessert extravaganza for the entire week at 3pm instead of every evening at midnight? Our only conclusion was that most of HAL's guests just can't stay awake that late.  This would also account for why - on more than one evening - there was nothing to do onboard after about 11pm except gamble in the Casino or listen to disco music in Northern Lights (neither of which I find very appealing).  As I wrote on my "Additional Comments", they desperately need more late night options.

Bobbling some details that should otherwise be givens.  An example?  While I wrote that I loved the crew, this is the first cruise where the Cabin Steward made no effort to introduce himself on the first day (I only saw who he was late on the second day when he saw me leaving my cabin and said "Good Evening, Mr. Presley" from afar - yet never actually introducing himself).  Similarly, this was the first time the Room Steward has forgotten to prep my cabin for the evening - returning home one evening to find it as I left it early that afternoon was kind of a jarring surprise.  Overall, I can't fault how he otherwise maintained things... but can't help but wonder if the automated tip makes some of the crew a little lax with the intros and follow-up.

Please note that I do not hold the experience with Stuart Cove against Holland America - in fact, the pace with which they gave each of us a satisfactory resolution and apologized profusely left a very nice taste (at least in my mouth).  The same cannot be said for Stuart himself, who couldn't even find it within himself to tell us "I'm sorry".  As I wrote elsewhere, never again...

 

Conclusion

Would I sail Holland America again?  Just as I've given a mixed review I have mixed feelings... I had fun - had this been my first cruise, where I had no expectations, I would say a definite "yes".  But, having sampled other lines - and developed some expectations - my inclination is to say "no".  This sentiment was echoed by most in my group - towards the end of the cruise, discussion about the next group vacation seemed to be centering on a land-based Caribbean all-inclusive, or perhaps either Princess or Celebrity.  I also found similar reactions from others whom I met while scuba diving and in the various bars and public areas (which means I or my friends aren't the only ones having these thoughts).  For those who are reading this recap and now questioning your decision to go, please don't.  As I say, it was nice and you'll have a good time - but the reaction I (and most of my friends) repeated was along the lines of "I just don't see what all the hubub is about!".  You'll likely have a good time - but if you're like us, you won't rank it as one of your most memorable cruise experiences.

   
 

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