A Five Day Caribbean Cruise – Our Experience on Holland America

A Five Day Caribbean Cruise - Our Experience with Holland America

In December 2022 we embarked on a five day cruise, having a blast sailing the Caribbean and spending New Years at sea.  The cruise left from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and had stops in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic.  In this article, we share our review of a five day Holland America Caribbean Cruise, including our port adventures as well as detailed information and tips.

To preface, we are not cruisers by nature – this was actually our first cruise.  We generally prefer to do land based trips, immersing ourselves in the destination.  However, back in 2020, our spring break plans were to take us on a cruise to the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and a trip through the Panama Canal.  Of course that 2020 cruise didn’t happen.  We have been hanging on to this soon-to-expire cruise credit from Holland America and finally decided to book a New Years cruise!

About the Ship

The ship we sailed is Holland America’s Ms. Zuiderdam.  It hosts up to 1964 guests, something we preferred, as a smaller ship was more appealing to us.  We found the ship to be in great condition.

Our ship, Holland America’s Ms. Zuiderdam

Our route started in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We had one day at sea until we arrived at our first stop, Amber Cove, Dominican Republic.  From there, we had another day at sea before arriving at the final port, Half Moon Cay, Bahamas.  The next day we were back in Fort Lauderdale.  We found the length of time to be perfect, just enough to get a taste of cruising while enjoying some sun and the sea.

Below, we review the ship, rate the restaurants, and share about our experience at both of the ports.  Now let’s get to it!

Dining on Board

On the Zuiderdam there are six restaurants as well as the ability to order room service 24 hours a day.  

Lido Market

Lido Market is the first place we ate when arriving on board.  Located on Deck 9, it is on the back of the ship with its doors opening up to the outdoors.

Lido Market is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a few other times for snack offerings.  The salad area is order-as-you-go but with limited options.  I would have really appreciated a bigger salad bar with more options, however.

Typical breakfast fare includes hash browns, bacon, sausage, omelet and waffle stations, deli meats and cheeses.  For lunch and dinner, there is the salad bar, pre-made sandwiches, carved meat, Indian food, and Chinese food.  During the snack periods, we enjoyed pasta, tacos, and various other foods.

The overall quality was good for the most part, some things better than others.  I rate this 8 out of 10 due to the amount of options.  Besides a bigger salad bar, I would have preferred this being opening for small bites continuously.  Lido Market was closed during certain hours, which left us with only room service as an option if we got hungry (which we only used for coffee in the morning).

Pinnacle Grill

This was by far our favorite dining experience on the ship, in fact we ate here twice! 

Pinnacle Grill, a fabulous dining experience

Dining here will incur an extra cost as it is not included in your cruise fare but well worth it in my opinion.  Reservations are mandatory.

“Clothes Line Bacon” | Pinnacle Grill

The service was top notch and the food excellent.  We were seated by the window both times and watched as the sun slowly set on the sea while enjoying this delectable meal.  Pinnacle Grill gets a 10 out of 10 from us.

The Dining Room

The main dining room is available during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  This is a notch above Lido Market as it is a sit down restaurant with consistently good quality food. 

When placing orders here, be ready to order everything at once:  starter, main course, and dessert.  The wait staff come around this one time to take the full order and bring the courses as they are ready.  The waiters and waitresses are hustling and are very busy, but we did have lengthy waits at all our meals here.  It was a little harder for my young nephews to be patient, but we did our best, understanding the staff was working hard.  Overall we give this an 8.5 out of 10.  While the food is good, the long wait times took it down a notch for us.

Dive-In

This is located near the pool and serves grab-and-go-fare such as hot dogs, burgers, and fries.  The kids tried it and said it was decent.  Based on their assessment I give it a 7.  The convenience trumps the quality here.

Explorations Cafe

This is located on Deck 10 at the very front of the ship.  Here are a plethora of tables, chairs, and lounging areas with games for passengers to use at their leisure.  In the center is a bar serving a variety of coffee drinks as well as those of the alcohol variety.  I either got a latte or an espresso martini, depending on the time of day!  Sometimes there are a few pastry options.  One time, I got a brownie and it was incredible, probably one of the best I had ever had!  It almost resembled a piece of fudge more than a crumbly brownie, which was delightful.  However, most of the time, the pastries were out.  This bar area was almost always backed up as well with long wait times for drinks.  Overall I give it 8.5 because the drinks were really well made and that brownie…!

Canaletto

Here you’ll find Italian cuisine, for an additional cost.  This was the one restaurant we didn’t try, so we cannot rate it.  However, with menu items such as cacciatore el forno and tiramisu, one can’t go wrong!

Room Service

At certain times of the day, this may be your only option to get food and it is available 24 hours a day.  Every night during turn-down, a card was left in our room where one can order breakfast, stating the requested time for delivery the following morning.  We ordered coffee to be delivered in the morning so we could have our first cup on the balcony.  This was a great start to the day!

About the Room

We had a veranda room, which is cruise lingo for a room with a balcony.  This definitely enhanced our experience as it gave us extra space as well as fresh air just by stepping outside our back door.

View from our balcony

The sleeping set up was two twins/one king, a pull out sofa for one person, and a pull down bed that was brought down during turn-down service, sort of a bunk above the main bed.  We found the beds very comfortable.  The room also had a large screen TV with television shows, movies, and my favorite:  a channel about our upcoming port destinations.  We would fall asleep every night while watching what was happening the next day.

In the bathroom, there was a tub/shower combo, toilet, vanity, and plenty of storage.  

Storage in the room was plentiful as well.  There was a large closet area along the wall, pull out drawers under the beds, and two nightstands with drawers.  Above the pull out sofa was a cabinet with additional storage.  The desk was also handy.

All About the Entertainment

We were never bored!  During the day, there are the pools and hot tubs, the deck to sunbathe on, and various classes or events going on.  The Sea View Pool is outdoors, near the back of the ship, with a bar nearby.  Tables are scattered about as are lounge chairs, especially nice to take advantage of on sea days.

The Lido Pool is located towards the front of the ship and mostly had the retractable roof closed, making it an indoor pool.  Occasionally it would be open, letting in the fresh, sea air. 

The Lido Pool, here the roof is open

A bar is located here as well as the Dive In restaurant.  There are also tables and chairs, several loungers, and ping pong tables.

Feel like playing sports?  Shuffleboard, corn hole, and a basketball court are all located outdoors on the upper deck of the ship.

At night, things got really fun!  We especially loved the Rolling Stones Lounge where some incredibly talented singers put on a nightly show.  We also listened to the piano lounge entertainment right next to the casino. 

In the casino, us ladies played the slots while the guys tried their hand at roulette.  In the back was a cozy bar and lounge area.  The guys also enjoyed hanging out here watching sports at various times.

The Casino

One of our favorite things we did was a mixology class. 

The mixology class was a lot of fun!

There is an additional charge for the mixology class, but it was well worth it.  This differs from traditional mixology classes as we didn’t actually make the drinks.  However, our mixologist, Marlon, explained the drink’s history and how he was making it.  The bartenders made it a lot of fun with some games in between making drinks.  Of course we got each drink poured to enjoy.  Highly recommend!

The mixologists having fun!

The Greenhouse Spa

Mike got a massage and I treated myself to a facial and we both rave about our experiences!  As for my facial, it was thorough, relaxing, and cleansing – a wonderful way to spend some time during a day at sea. 

The Greenhouse Spa 

Our New Year’s Experience

Being on the ship for New Year’s is what we were really looking forward to.  What an epic place to do so, cruising in the Caribbean Sea.

We started our evening with dinner in the Main Dining Room.  Festive hats were handed out which made it really fun. 

Ava and cousins at the New Year’s Eve dinner

After dinner, the kids went up to Explorations Cafe to play some games while us adults played at the casino for a bit.  After a bit of playing, it was time to grab a spot near the Lido Pool.  The area was being transformed to a New Year’s Eve party zone.  Several people had staked out seats while we sidled up to one of the few standing tables.  We listened to the band play, danced to the lively music, and had a great time!

The New Years Eve bash

Soon it was time to countdown to the New Year, and everyone was handed a flute of champagne (kids were given a sparkly drink of their own).  The countdown started, we all cheered, and enjoyed ourselves for a bit longer.  What a fun way to ring in the New Year!

Cheers to 2023!

About the Ports

Our ship made two port stops during our five day cruise.  We had been to the Bahamas before but hadn’t yet been to the Dominican Republic so we were excited to see a new country!

Amber Cove, Dominican Republic

We docked on the north coast of the Dominican Republic

We booked an excursion here which was a visit to Damajagua National Park.  Here, we would be hiking, jumping into a water-filled gorge, and slipping and sliding our way down waterfalls.  This was an absolute blast!

Our day started joining our group, filling out waivers, and getting bracelets.  We boarded a very nice coach bus with a guide that talked to us about the Dominican Republic and all that we were seeing as we drove to the park.  Soon, we arrived at Damajagua National Park with a whole crew waiting for us!

Braden at Damajagua National Park | Dominican Republic

Helmets, life jackets, and water sneakers are mandatory here.  All is provided, unless you want to bring your own water shoes.  We purchased these water sneakers and they are awesome!  They were very comfortable during the entire hike and kept our feet protected during the waterfall adventure.  

The guides took us across a bridge and then hiking up into the forest.  Small, thin trees provided natural fencing in some areas with aloe plants and various other fauna.  The hike took approximately 40 minutes until we were at the top. 

Once at the top, it was time to come down!  We started descending a couple flights of wooden stairs.  A ladder was next, although it ended about 8 feet above the water.  The water was notably beautiful – a lovely light blue color which contrasted against the large gray rock faces that created the cavern.  Our guides showed us how to do it:  go down the ladder facing it and at the end, just jump in!  It was exhilarating and cold but oh so much fun!

We swam to some larger rocks that we could then stand on.  We had several more waterfalls to go down.  Some were smaller and we just slid down the eroded rock, nature’s slide.  One in particular stood out:  It was a curved rock slide with a rushing waterfall flowing over it.  The guide grabbed your life jacket and pulled you abruptly to one side as you quickly slid to the other side as you went down.  As you plunged into the water below, you sank 8-10 feet under the water.  Bobbing up, I couldn’t believe this adventure!

After the waterfall adventure, we trekked through the jungle, making our way back to the beginning of the trail.  A large open-air bar area lured everyone to grab a massive beer to take back on the bus, which was well earned!

To read all about this excursion, check out our article, A Wet and Wild Adventure in Damajagua National Park.

The bar at Damajagua National Park | Dominican Republic

Mike and I back on the bus with a Dominican beer

NOTE: This excursion is listed as strenuous! The hike is mainly uphill however that is not the most difficult part. In order to safely do this excursion one has to be comfortable with the hike but also descending down a ladder and jumping into cold water, scrambling over rocks, and swiftly sliding down fast-moving waterfalls. We saw some older folks and people with mobility issues struggling. Be sure you know what you are getting yourself into before signing up for this adventure.

ABOUT TAKING PHOTOS:  It is stated that photos are not allowed at Damajagua National Park, both on the website and a posted sign at the park.  I didn’t bring my camera and am glad I didn’t as it definitely would not have survived this watery adventure!  However, another guest on the tour inquired if he could bring his phone in a waterproof case and he was allowed.  So, if you understand the risk that it could sink, go missing, or become waterlogged, it might be a risk you want to take.  We opted to purchase the photo package of our tour.  A photographer followed our group, taking videos and photos along the way.  I generally always take all my own photos, however this time it was worth the peace of mind to keep my own cameras safe.

Once we arrived back at the port, we had plenty of time before having to be back on the ship. 

The entrance to Amber Cove and a Nativity scene | Dominican Republic

We explored a few shops and finally made our way to the waterpark area.  There was a waterslide, restrooms, a restaurant, bar, and pool with a pool bar. 

The waterpark/pool area | Amber Cove, Dominican Republic

We had a great time relaxing after our wet and wild adventure!  

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Half Moon Cay is the cruise line’s private island, originally known as Little San Salvador Island. 

The location of Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas

This port involves a tender, meaning we boarded a smaller vessel that acted as a shuttle to take guests to and from the ship and the island.

The ship as seen from Half Moon Cay | The Bahamas

The island is gorgeous.  With the beautiful, clear turquoise water and white sand it is picture perfect.  We walked the full expanse of the beach, from the crowded section closest to the port area to the far end where it is peaceful and quiet.  

The crowded area near the port | Half Moon Cay, The Bahamas

But going in the other direction, you can have serenity – which would you prefer?

The beautiful, quiet expanse of beach away from the crowds | Half Moon Cay, The Bahamas

We had a great time swimming in the ocean and relaxing on our lounge chairs.  Ava, my sister, and my nephews also did a stingray adventure where they fed stingray, held (and kissed!) a sea cucumber, and watched as the animal popped out of a conch shell.  They really enjoyed this hour with marine life.

The stingray adventure | Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

TIP: If we end up at Half Moon Cay again someday we all agreed that being the first ones off the ship is best.  We were off early and were able to get a sunshade as well as enough chairs for our group.  Lunch is served BBQ buffet style at 11:30 and it was pretty packed.  We would prefer getting back to the ship and just dining on board.  As the day wore on, the island got more and more crowded as people made their way over.  Additionally, we wouldn’t rent a sunshade again.  There are trees that run along the perimeter of the beach and one can drag the chairs up into the shade of these trees, even though you will be further away from the amenities.

A few things to note

Your cruise fare covers your lodging and general dining and entertainment.  There are additional charges for several things including:

  1. Drinks – one can choose to pay a la carte per drink but that can add up quite quickly.  Instead, we purchased the beverage package.  We got each of the kids their own Coca Cola Package for unlimited sodas, which cost $8/person per day.  There is also the Quench Package, which includes sodas and also coffee drinks and mocktails.  For the over 21 crowd, there are two types of beverage packages.  The Elite Beverage Package gets you premium cocktails and drinks priced $15 and under.  This will cost you $59/person per day.  The Signature Beverage Package gets you drinks that are priced $11 and under for the cost of $54/person per day.  These packages also include everything in the Quench Package. 
  2. Laundry – There are not self-serve laundry facilities on board, however there is laundry service.  For $39 we purchased the unlimited package and sent things out a few times during our cruise.  You also have the option to pay a la carte for items to be laundered.
  3. Wi-fi – This was one of the biggest adjustments for the family as we are so used to being plugged in.  It is good to be unplugged for a bit but there were also times having internet access would have been handy.  At the hefty price tag of $150/room for unlimited wi-fi, we opted to pay just $99 for the one device, Mike’s, to be connected.  He needed to be connected for work purposes.  In hindsight, I would pay for the unlimited wi-fi, although would appreciate if that was just included in the cruise fare.

Overall Thoughts

Being our first cruise, we had a great time.  We enjoyed both ports, which were quite different from one another and we had great experiences in both places.  We like that the Holland America ships are smaller than the mega cruise ships, even if they have less offerings for kids.  Our kids kept busy reading, playing games and cards, and swimming.  As for us adults, we found the entertainment options great.  From Broadway revue style shows, to a rocking band, fun at the casino, and several classes and offerings we felt there was something for everyone.

We have a feeling we’ll be back!

Read more!

The cruise left from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  We spent the day before on an airboat adventure in Everglades National Park.  It was an absolute blast! You can read all about it here, An Airboat Adventure in Everglades National Park.

One of our excursions took place in Damajagua National Park while visiting Amber Cove, Dominican Republic.  For our full experience plus what to know before you, read that post here:  A Wet and Wild Adventure in Damajagua National Park.

Interested in visiting more of the Caribbean?  Read our full review of Beaches Turks & Caicos and our Beach Time in Grand Cayman.  

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