When you cruise, the ship is your bedroom, dining room, bar, and entertainment center. During the days at port, you can explore the world outside, but in the evenings and during at-sea days, the ship is all you’ve got.
Here’s a glance at what life is like on a cruise ship–Holland America’s MS Zuiderdam.
This ship was built in 2002, but was renovated in 2015. Inside staterooms range from 151-233 square feet (small, but more spacious than our other European cruise ship, Norwegian Jade, whose max dimensions are 143 square feet). Besides the bed and the bathroom, the stateroom includes a little sitting area with a couch and coffee table.
We really appreciated the extra space! It’s easy to get “cabin fever” on a cruise ship, and being in such tight quarters with another person can be wearing. A lot of the time, David preferred to be elsewhere on the ship–his favorite haunt was the Crow’s Nest, a lounge/coffee bar at the very top of the ship. That was just fine by me, since I enjoyed reading in the room, away from people. So we would arrange to meet somewhere on the ship at a certain time.
The MS Zuiderdam has quite a few bars and lounges, typically one on every floor (except for those floors that just have staterooms). My favorite was the blue-and-green themed Neptune Lounge. We spent some time in the Atrium Bar as well, but absolutely avoided the Sports Bar (we’re not huge on sports). I’ve already mentioned the Crow’s Nest.
Due to space constraints, these lounges and bars are usually open, tacked along the side of a walkway, and can hold at most two dozen people. However, it’s nice to be able to just walk around the ship and peek into a lounge here, a bar there, and see if you like the vibe enough to stay.
Here’s something clever that Holland America does–during the cruise, there’s a happy hour everyday at a specific spot. Happy hour means buy a drink, get the exact same drink for a dollar. So even if your drink is $10, 2 for $11 is a good deal! David and I spent more on onboard drinks than we otherwise would have.
There are lots of ways to entertain oneself on a cruise ship. On any given day there are a variety of performers aboard the ship, ready to create a show for the guests, all for free.
The Zuiderdam has a Piano Bar, with a pianist who played a variety of themed tunes every night. He was pretty good. The Northern Lights Nightclub had a DJ and great bartenders, but we’re not huge clubbers in general, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. There’s also a casino, which we mostly just passed through on our way to somewhere else, but was one of the few places one could smoke onboard (another reason we avoided it).
There was also BB King’s Jazz Club, where the BB King Band got people dancing and clapping along during late night shows. Our favorite place for entertainment was the Explorer’s Lounge, where a duo played classical music on the violin and piano right before dinner.
The Zuiderdam’s main performance hall is the Vista Show Lounge, where a featured guest or group holds two performances every evening. During our cruise, there was a comedian, a concert pianist, a comic magician, and a flutist. The ship also had its own resident group of singers and dancers. Some of the guests were good (notably the comic magician, the pianist, and the flutist) but the Zuiderdam performers were not that great (they did a lot of showtunes and variety shows) and we skipped all their shows after the first one.
During the cruise they also held an apparently popular ballroom dancing competition called Dancing with the Stars at Sea (yes, based on the show), and the final night of the cruise was the awards night. It was entertaining enough.
On one evening, some of the ship’s mostly Indonesian crew also held a cultural performance.
In general, we found the entertainment on the Zuiderdam rather flat. Compared with the Norwegian Jade’s performers, it just wasn’t our cup of tea. Holland America’s clientele tends to be older, so the entertainment was geared more to that kind of crowd.
Throughout the day and particularly on at-sea days, there are a wealth of activities on the ship. Bartenders held paid mixology classes (but you got to drink what you make), there were a couple of art auctions (you could just watch and get some champagne even if you don’t intend to buy), and there were live cooking shows in the theater. Bingo is a staple, as well as trivia contests. We also attended an art history lesson at the gallery (and almost won a Fauvist painting, glad we didn’t though!).
Every evening, our cabin attendant dropped off an agenda for the next day. This sheet had the schedule of all the activities happening throughout the ship, where happy hour would be, and who’s performing that evening. This agenda was our guide to deciding the days activities–would we want to be back on the ship earlier, so we could make it to a class? What would we do on our at-sea day? What time should we have dinner?
And now we come to another major topic: food! Typically your breakfast and dinner will be on the ship. So what was the food like?
On the Norwegian Jade, there is a formal dining room that we hardly ever visited. We preferred the variety and ease of the Lido Deck. On the Zuiderdam, we found the opposite to be true.
While it’s indeed easier and there’s some variety to be had with the food at Lido, the formal dining room provided a vastly superior experience. This is mostly because of the difference in quality. When your food is cooked to order, you may have to wait a little bit, but it’s worth it. We even enjoyed breakfast at the main dining room, though we still went to the Lido when we felt like something nice, quick, and light–muesli, or cooked-to-order omelettes or waffles.
An observation we made: on the Zuiderdam, dishes with a European background tended to be better. Things like veal, steak, and prime rib tended to be more successful than beef tataki, lemongrass curry, or Japanese breakfasts. I suppose this isn’t too surprising given it’s Holland America, but it was still a good thing to learn.
We chose not to set a time for our dinners when we booked the cruise, preferring to show up as we were ready. We found this to be the right choice for us since we sometimes needed to work around performances, or going to bed earlier to prepare for a long day. It was easy enough to show up at the dining room and inform the maitre d’ if we wanted our own table or were okay sitting with others. And meeting other people on the ship can be fun! We had more than a few nights with excellent conversation. A lot of people use these opportunities too to plan things for the next day–perhaps sharing a private cab for a day tour or getting some tips from those who had been to the port before.
On the day we were in Ephesus, we returned to a Turkish BBQ on the pool deck… this was by far the best food of the trip.
All that said, I enjoyed our time on the Zuiderdam, but I think David and I would likely not sail with Holland America again unless the itinerary was the best we could find. This is definitely an older, more conservative crowd, and everything from the food to the entertainment is focused on that. We enjoyed Norwegian’s brand of freestyle cruising a little bit better.
We’re likely going to try Royal Caribbean next though: rock walls and ziplines, award-winning shows, and a partnership with Dreamworks… looks like they’re definitely targeting a crowd that’s more our speed. When we do go, I’ll for sure share the experience with you all!