What I learned from my first Holland America cruise

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I am always excited each time I try a new or different cruise line.
In November 2017 my husband and I took a 10-day cruise from Ft Lauderdale to Panama and back. We have sailed on several different lines, but this was our first with Holland America (HAL). As far as ships go, it’s extremely similar to other large ships of its class. I will give my list of the good and not so good from this particular voyage. And I will also list a couple of ship tips I have learned.

Bird in Curacao

Good:
This is the first time we have tried open seating as opposed to a set dining time. We like having a table for 2 and this worked for the most part, but we also timed it right and kept our fingers crossed. Open seating is like walking up to a busy restaurant and asking for a table for 2. This all depends on table availability and you may have to wait. If you don’t mind sitting with others being seated without a wait is usually never a problem.
Holland America has a private Caribbean island called Half Moon Caye, and I really enjoyed this. It’s nice to get off ship and have a private uncrowded beach for swimming. On a cruise you forget that just because you are at sea for a week, you never get to swim in the ocean unless you take an excursion or can find a public beach on your own while at port. The private beach included beach towels, lounge chairs, and a wonderful gigantic lunch buffet.
There was a great selection of on-board activities. Since the Holland America demographic is more of a mature crowd, the activities are more geared towards classes, presentations, and demonstrations. Yes, I can live without Belly Flop and Hairy Chest contests. Many of the classes on board are health and fitness presentations, America’s Test Kitchen cooking demonstrations, and my favorite -Microsoft computer classes.
Every afternoon, 4-5 pm, was happy hour, with 2 for 1 drinks

Holland America Zuiderdam Pool

The not so good…. because nothing was bad this trip:
Air conditioning…. Yikes! The a/c in public areas seemed to be turned up higher than I ever remember on a cruise. I tried to look for a cozy quiet lounge area to read, but I always had to have on some pants and a heavy sweater. I remember sitting in a computer class with a sweater on and still shivering.
The buffet was always crowded, especially breakfast. It was such a chore hunting for a table. One thing I noticed that seemed to be different from other ship buffets was how much of the food needed to be served from behind glass. If I wanted a bowl of oatmeal I’d have to stand in line behind people ordering eggs and pancakes. Why can’t I scoop out my own bowl of oatmeal? Same with the salad bar–you had to instruct someone how to make your salad… am I wrong?  But most people like to build their own salad on a salad bar!
Cruise Tips:
Having dinner in the specialty restaurants costs about $20-$35 per person. We found that you can have lunch in the same restaurants for $10 pp.
Avoid the crowded buffet at lunch and have an elegant, non-hurried, sit-down lunch by eating in the big dining room. Just know that the menu is limited to about 10 items, and the dining room hours are 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm.

Cruisers watch as we pass through the locks, Panama Canal

Below are some street scene photos of Panama City

Ice cream shop in Panama City
Street Scene in Panama City
Painted Bus, Panama City

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Pickwick’s cruising tips

Since I have cruising on the brain these days (3 days and counting until my next cruise), I have decided to compile my list of cruise tips. These are things I’ve either tried, read about, learned in seminars, or have heard fellow cruisers suggest.
Booking a cruise
Transatlantic/Re-positioning cruises sell fast.  Book these many months ahead for best cabin selection.
Prices during holidays and spring break are sky-high, and, yes, people cruise over Christmas.
Check the air prices before booking the cruise. So often people find really good cruise prices and later, while looking at airfare, they have a heart attack when the airfare is higher than the cruise. I’ve seen this often with Ft Lauderdale.
Be careful choosing a cabin. As a travel agent, I always look at the deck plans to make sure you’re not above or below the disco.
Dining
“Anytime Dining” (or the equivalent) is a good option if the early dining is full and you don’t want to eat at 8:30pm. As part of the “Anytime Dining,” did you know you can usually make reservations online for each night you sail before you board? Some cruise lines require that you pre-pay gratuities with the cruise deposit if you choose the “Anytime Dining” option.
Have an early morning excursion? Use room service for breakfast instead of tackling the crowded buffet. It doesn’t cost anything extra.
Sometimes you can choose your dining table size. My suggestion is that you choose either a 2-top if you like eating by yourselves (although there’s no guarantee one will be available) or at least a 6 or 8-top. If you end up at a table for 4 with another couple with whom you have absolutely nothing in common, it’s going to be a really long week. At least with a large table of people there is more variety in personalities.
Life on-board
Finding each other, ugh! I have seen families use walkie-talkie’s. With groups, I suggest  having a designated hang-out location.
Most cruise lines allow you to bring on a bottle or two (wine/champagne) at embarkation.  However, while on the cruise, you are not usually allowed to bring liquor/wine on board to your cabin. When visiting ports you can buy and bring it on, but the cruise line holds it until final day at disembarkation. The same thing happens if you buy it in the ship’s liquor store.  Sometimes in the ship souvenir shop they sell variety packs with 6 little bottles of flavored vodka and they will  allow you to take them to your cabin.
***The points mentioned above are generally true.  Please remember that all cruise lines are different and have different policies and regulations.
And the No. 1 tip — Use a travel agent!
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Happy Sailing!