Three bits of necessary background before I jump into the particulars of the Zuiderdam. First, despite having sailed on her previously (on a 10-night Sea of Cortez itinerary over Christmas in 2021), I still embarked on this second sailing not knowing how to pronounce her name. And then I disembarked another 7 nights later still not knowing how to pronounce her name. Zoy-der-dam? Zoo-der-dam? Zwee-der-dam? Zie-der-dam?
Second, in the spirit of full disclosure, I was invited on this cruise by Holland America as a member of the press (clearly Holland America’s definition of press is looser than the average first-grader’s two front teeth) and didn’t pay for my cruise fare. However, I’ll be reviewing Z…whatever… just as I would any other ship, highlighting both the things I loved about her and things that missed the mark for me.
Third, I brought along Mama Cruise as my plus one and we celebrated her 75th birthday onboard (it’s become a tradition for us to celebrate her birthday on a cruise). So I’ll be infusing this review with some of her perspectives as well.
ms Zuiderdam: Just the Facts (sort of)
One of four Vista-class Holland America ships, ms Zuiderdam’s maiden voyage was in 2002, making her just over 20 years old. That’s around 100 in cruise ship years which, as it happens, is also the average age of passengers onboard Holland America cruises (that’s both a joke and a deviation from the facts, if only a slight one). She did receive a facelift and a new wardrobe from Chico’s in 2017 (called a “refurbishment” in cruise lingo), so she looks a lot younger from a distance. Over video chat. With a poor connection. Again, I kid. She’s a gorgeous ship and has somehow managed to maintain her petite figure (with just 11 decks available to passengers, and a capacity of 2,272 guests and 842 crew) despite being fed multiple semi-trucks worth of food every week or so. Before I get into all the things I loved about her, here’s a complete ship tour (be sure to subscribe to my free YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of my Holland America content):
Things I Loved about the Zuiderdam
Ship Size and Layout
I consider ms Zuiderdam a medium sized ship. She’s not so small that you discover to your horror that the group of fellow passengers who caught you testing out a seasick bag only to discover it was not, in fact, large enough to contain the three martinis and six courses you consumed before you started feeling queasy represent 100% of your fellow passengers onboard and that every time one of them sees you, they ask how you’re feeling and make unsolicited dietary suggestions. AND she’s not so large as to essentially be the Mall of America set upon a hull and floated out to sea (my personal vision of hell, as it happens). No, she’s juuuuuust right. She’s also extremely easy to navigate with the exception of deck 10 which doesn’t extend over the entire length of the ship (it will take you a few days to figure out that the Crow’s Nest can only be accessed via the forward elevators/stairs and Club HAL can only be accessed via the mid-ship elevators/stairs).
My mom’s a former children’s librarian who has been a member of the same book club for approximately 75 of her 75 years. And I stayed in school for 9.5 years after high school so I could just read all day instead of getting a real job. So it should come as no surprise that we both love the new libraries that have popped up on HAL ships over the past year or so. The one on the Zuiderdam was a welcome addition since my first sailing on her in December of 2021. There was a huge selection of popular books in nearly every genre available (no checkout process necessary – just borrow them and return before debarkation) and the only challenging aspect of the whole experience for mom was culling her giant stack of initial selections down to something reasonable to get through in seven days. Kudos to HAL for adding libraries when so many lines have removed them.
Those who read my Westerdam review may recall a reference to the ankle weights I use to humiliate my kid at the grocery store. Well they made an appearance on the outdoor promenade deck on the Zuiderdam as I attempted to burn off .00000001% of the calories I consumed each day.
Sometimes I’d walk a leisurely lap around the wide, wraparound outdoor promenade deck slower than a sloth on sedatives and sometimes I’d just recline in one of the padded loungers and do two leg raises before the hypnotic ocean sounds and minimal exertion knocked me right out into blissful slumber. There’s probably an unsanctioned YouTube video out there taken by one of my shipmates depicting a middle-aged woman snoring up a lounger in unflattering ankle weights with caption: “Don’t believe what they say about Holland America cruises being boring.” If so, it’s definitely not me [insert Pinocchio emoji].
But seriously, I love a wide wraparound promenade deck with comfortable seating options for walking and relaxing close to the water and the one on the Zuiderdam can’t be beat!
POV: I do NOT associate the word “nest” with relaxation. I’m a mom. I built the nest. I birthed the creature living in there. And I ‘m constantly feeding it and trying to keep it alive until it learns to fly (or finally goes off to college) so I can surrender said nest to the wind and embark on b2b2b2b2b2death cruises. But boy oh boy, on the Zuiderdam I experienced what it’s like to be in the nest, having my every want and need catered to (of course my mother felt it necessary to remind me that I lived 18+ years of pampered life in the nest she build, but that was a loooong time ago).
Two hour nap in a comfy chair with my feet up between sipping cocktails while gazing out at the ocean? Done! Curling up with a good book? Done! Meeting up with a friend or loved one for a board game or to work on a puzzle together? Done! Having someone prepare my morning latte while I watch the sunrise? Done! This gorgeous and versatile space offered it all and was one of my favorite spots onboard.
Mom loved it too and regularly headed up there to relax while reflecting on the beauty of…karma (I was a strong-willed kid and now I have a strong-willed kid) and to speed read (seriously, I don’t know how she got through so many books on our sailing) her library books so she could make it through her towering stack before debarkation.
Special Little Touches
Did you initially book a Holland America cruise because you heard others comment about the “little touches” that distinguish Holland America from other lines? No? Just me? In any case, some of the special little touches I love on Holland America include the gorgeous fresh flowers, blue and white Royal Delft china used in the dining rooms, and complimentary Elemis bath products provided in every cabin category. And if you’re brave enough to use a cruise ship public restroom and smart enough to scrub your hands down to the subcutaneous fat layer after, you can wipe off the water and blood with the lovely little hand towels provided as an alternative to rough paper towels in every bathroom.
Some prefer to completely disconnect on a cruise, which I both understand and (often) envy. But many have family and work obligations that require they stay connected at sea. Or just demanding egos (gotta get those Instagram likes). And because I’m a Professor of Cruising and this was a press trip for me, I needed access to fast, reliable internet. I was “gifted” a multi-device internet plan which normally costs around $230 for a 7-night cruise. This is actually far less than what you’d pay for a similar plan on several other lines and it offered the fastest, most reliable internet I’ve ever experienced on a cruise ship. I was able to video chat and stream and post regularly to social media and my website. Super fast with no down time.
Zach and Emma, the piano bar entertainers at Billboard Onboard, were a highlight of our cruise. They were both gifted and highly trained vocalists and pianists and, as a couple in real life, it was fun to watch the chemistry between them. If nothing else, show up to see what Zach is wearing. He rocked some gorgeous vintage clothing, jewelry, and headbands. Seriously, if they’re still on the Zuiderdam when you cruise, don’t miss them! They offered three sets each night with the final set being all requests (although, as usual, they didn’t choose either of my equally depressing and obscure requests – Fake Empire by The National and Exhile by Bon Iver and Taylor Swift).
Overall Food Quality and Port to Table Options
Let’s talk food!
The food quality, especially in the main dining room, was superb and we really loved the EXC Port to Table options like the Prince Edward Island mussels available at dinner and the French crepes (available the morning we were in Quebec City) at breakfast. On our excursion in PEI, we actually saw where the mussels were grown and harvested and then were offered them to eat at dinner that night. How cool is that!?! Here are the main dining room menus for breakfast (HAL has the best breakfast menu at sea, by FAR), lunch, and dinner we enjoyed on our sailing:
Eight years from now, as soon as I pretend to be sad at sending my kid off to college, I’ll be embarking on my first world cruise. In the meantime, I ate my way around the world on the Zuiderdam. I started with the international section on the breakfast menu (where the aloo masala and egg bhurji was a favorite of mine and mom enjoyed the full English breakfast and European cold breakfast plate), hit Japan, China, India, and Vietnam at lunch for some Sushi, noodle dishes, and curry and Italy for some pizza and made-to-order pasta, and especially enjoyed the Chile Rellenos from Mexico at dinner one evening which I ordered through room service (from the MDR menu) to eat on my balcony. Speaking of room service…
There are some things in life that seem almost too good to be true, like cat cafes and free cruise ship room service in 2023. Nearly all non-luxury cruise lines have started charging an extra fee for most room service items, but not Holland America. An extensive room service menu is still offered AND for those new to Holland America, there are even “secret” room service menus in addition to the regular menu. See the Instagram reel I filmed about this on the Zuiderdam to find out about the secret menu options.
Breakfast Yogurt Bar
The yogurt bar located in the buffet at breakfast offered a delicious selection of yogurt, fruit purees, and toppings (nuts, seeds, dried and fresh fruit, oats). I made myself a custom yogurt parfait each morning after the gym as part of a pre-breakfast while I waited for my mom to get ready. Now should that last sentence leave you with the impression that I’m healthy and disciplined on a cruise, well, keep reading before you accuse me of being completely fruity and nuts (see what I did there).
Sure you could take a pan of these these warm sticky buns topped with caramel and sliced almonds from the breakfast buffet and stick them directly to your butt for practically the same long-term effect, but it’s so much more satisfying to eat two of them with a latte from the Crow’s Nest every morning. They, along with all the other pastries, are baked fresh and from scratch each morning.
Beecher’s Mac and Cheese
For comfort food, I went for something a little closer to home (like 2 blocks from my apartment in downtown Seattle): Beecher’s mac and cheese. Even though Beecher’s flagship store in Pike Place Market is within spitting (salivating) distance of my apartment, I love that Beecher’s cheese is featured on Holland America and, as usual, sought it out on the Zuiderdam. One of the best parts of Seattle, along for the ride (now if they’d just let me bring my dog, I’d never have a reason to go back home)!
While the name of the Zuiderdam’s complimentary fast casual burger restaurant is much easier to pronounce than the name of the ship herself, there’s some dispute as to the meaning behind the name. Is it called “Dive In” due to its close proximity to the main pool on the Lido deck? Or is it because your extra crispy French fries will practically leap off your tray to “dive in” to the signature “dive in” sauce? OR is it because you can order your meal from Dive In via the Navigator app as you’re re-boarding the ship at port and have your meal ready to “dive into” as soon as you’re done dropping your stuff off at your cabin? Regardless of the original inspiration behind the name, it’s by far the best burger joint at sea by my estimation. And new to my sailing on the Zuiderdam were pre-prepared “grab and go” burgers and fries as an option. You could still order at the counter or on the app, but the grab and go option reduced the line and was much faster for those who wanted one of the popular menu items without needing any modifications.
“Buffet” and “dessert” are my 2nd and 3rd favorite words in the English language. What’s my 1st favorite? Cruise, of course! Mainly BECAUSE of unlimited buffet desserts. But the quality of buffet dessert varies greatly depending on the cruise line and ship. Thankfully, the buffet desserts on the Zuiderdam were outstanding. Hard ice cream in waffle cones with a number of delicious toppings, homemade cookies, high-quality pre-plated cakes, cupcakes, pies, mousses, and fruit tarts.
And while the buffet on the Zuiderdam was missing one dessert I’ve enjoyed on other Vista class ships (more on that in a minute), one modified offering and one additional offering on the Zuiderdam more than made up for it. First, the signature bread pudding with vanilla sauce offered on all Holland America ships was self serve on the Zuiderdam (instead of being “by request” behind the ice cream counter) AND was nearly entirely void of raisins, the kryptonite of dessert (honestly, it’s one of the only things I can think of besides a hair or germy fingers to ruin a perfectly good buffet dessert). And second, there were warm fruit crisps served every day. Look (and I do mean look, they aren’t to be missed) for those two items near the Asian station (not with the rest of the buffet desserts) and be sure to top your fruit crisp with some vanilla ice cream!
Things I Didn’t Love about the Zuiderdam
Here are a few things I found disappointing on the Zuiderdam.
While we had a very port heavy itinerary with only one sea day, I was still surprised with the lack of quality daytime programming. No itinerary specific EXC talks, no movies, and no naturalist or local speakers brought on at port. All of those activities have been highlights of prior HAL cruises and their absence was both glaring and disappointing.
Main Theater Shows
Holland America falls short compared to other lines when it comes to evening shows in the main theater. On our sailing, 3 shows were performed by the Step One Dance Company (a six person contemporary dance company accompanied by pre-recorded music – no live vocalists or musicians), 2 shows by a guest comedian, and 2 shows performed by a guest pianist. Mom and I aren’t huge fans of comedy, so we skipped those two shows and while mom loved the pianist and we both found the Step One Dance Company talented and entertaining, the shows offered just didn’t provide enough variety or the quality we expect from evening cruise entertainment. And, once again, there was no Lincoln Center Stage performance (as was promised when HAL eliminated the smaller, intimate Lincoln Center Stage venue on all ships, including the Zuiderdam). This is one area I continually hear complaints about – even from the most loyal HAL cruisers.
Gym and Buffet Hours
These two are related. First, the gym on the Zuiderdam opened too late in the morning. There was always a huge line of people by the time it opened at 6am – which may seem pleeeenty early to those who shun, with equal intensity, cruise ship gyms and seeing anything but the back of their eyelids prior to 8am. But why close it at all? I’ve been on many ships with 24 hour gyms that can accommodate those who like to get their “workouts” (for me that means casually sitting on an exercise bike while watching Netflix on my iPad) over with early so they can arrive at the buffet exactly when it opens and stay until it closes, sadly, WAY too early at 8pm. Extending the hours at the gym and buffet would really go a long way in enabling my cruise overeating habit.
No Taco/Burrito Bar at Lunch
Two food related things were missing from the Zuiderdam that I’ve grown accustomed to on other ships in the same class. First, there was no self-serve taco/nacho bar located on the Lido deck near Dive In and second…
No Crepes at the Buffet
Crepes have been offered in the buffet on the two other Holland America ships of this same class I’ve sailed on (the Noordam and the Westerdam) AND they were offered on the Zuiderdam herself on my previous sailing. I looked back to my prior review to verify and sure enough:
But there was no giant round thing hot enough to cook dessert in under two minutes on our ship. Normally the sunburned buns asleep on the lido deck loungers can be used in a pinch, but the retractable roof was stuck in a closed position on our sailing, so no one really hung out lounging (sleeping) by the pool.
Other Changes to the Zuiderdam since my Last Sailing
Change is inevitable and sometimes it’s for the better (like the format of muster drills on Holland America post Covid), but sometimes it leaves us waxing nostalgic for the Lincoln Center Stage (gone from the Zuiderdam since my last sailing), the B.B. Kings Blues Club (gone from the Zuiderdam since my last sailing), and BBC Earth programming and concerts (gone from the Zuiderdam since my last sailing). While I was disappointed in these changes and didn’t love everything about the Zuiderdam, would they prevent me from sailing on her again?
Would I sail on ms Zuiderdam again?
They say the third time’s the charm, but I don’t plan on stopping at just three cruises onboard the beautiful, friendly, delicious, relaxing Zuiderdam. No ship is perfect, but the Zuiderdam is still one of the best dam ships at sea and I’ll continue to cruise on her every chance I get. And I hope many of those cruises will be with this gal…
whose actual 75th birthday is today (even though we celebrated early at Pinnacle Grill while we were together on the Zuiderdam). She’s the perfect cruise companion and for 75 years has been making the world a better place with her optimism, thoughtfulness, wisdom, humor, knowledge, listening ear, unconditional love, resilience, soft shoulder, and burps on command (made all the more delightful because you really don’t expect it from a decorous former librarian). I love you mom!
And with that…
Homework (10 points): Join me in wishing Mama Cruise a very happy 75th birthday and share your questions about or experiences with the Zuiderdam to the comments.
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