Being a shorter than normal cruise, with an unique itinerary, I really was prepared for an experience that would not reach my usual HAL expectations. That proved not to be the case. Improvements in the cruising experience since 2003 have been made and, once again, HAL proved to be "the winner" when compared with Princess. (This is my opinion; some, I am sure, will not agree. That is OK with me. Different folks want/expect different things with their cruises.)
Improvements: Dining room menus were much more appealing. Food was well prepared and served at the appropriate temperatures. The Deli Sandwich area in the Lido now displays the breads from which to choose, rather than just a listing of what is available. Some SOE features were evident in the stateroom(i.e. magnifying make-up mirror, bathrobes, silver ice bucket with better quality glasses, etc.). Printed items(i.e. daily programs) are colorful and contain more information than before. Princess Patters include "ads", which make them more cluttered, I think. The Zuiderdam had their "ads, too, but they were on a separate page and not an actual part of the daily programs.
This was my first cruise since the adoption of the new gratuity policy. I saw absolutely no difference in crew service or attitude. They were as attentive and friendly as ever. My new standard for service excellence is what I experienced on Queen Mary 2 in November. And, each and every crew member with whom I had any contact met that standard! It appeared to me that the ship was properly staffed. There always seemed to be plenty of Stewards and Stewardesses in the lounges. The Dining Room Stewards were busy, but did not seem to be stressed. The Wine Steward provided my table of 8 with prompt and efficient service and frequently returned to the table to keep our wine glasses filled. All of our service was very competently supervised by Zain, our Head Waiter.
The production shows were excellent, better than 2003, I thought(and one was a repeat from then: Under the Boardwalk). The individual performers and the music groups(that I heard) all were enjoyable. Dane Butcher was our Cruise Director and he did a fine job.
Being a short cruise, there was no Captain's Welcome Aboard Party nor Mariner's Party. There was a VIP party held in the Oak Room and on the deck outside of the room that was extremely well done.
Being allowed to wait in one's stateroom until your number/color is called for disembarkation is a plus. And, room service for breakfast is now available on the morning of disembarkation.
Differences between Princess and HAL: Princess does a wonderful job in recognizing their past passengers continually during the cruise. A separate check-in area on the pier is available for Platinum/Elite Captain's Circle members and the room key/ship ID card is color coded to one's Captain's Circle status. A name tag outside one's Stateroom door also is color coded to your Captain's Circle status.
Princess is a more informal cruise experience. On Formal Nights, most were properly dressed; some were not. Shorts, T-shirts, and floppy sandals were seen on a few. There are no "informal nights"; only "Smart Casual" which translates into "Casual" on a HAL vessel. HAL provides a more classy and elegant cruise experience, IMO.
Entertainment was varied and good on Princess, with one of the best shows I have seen at sea. It had music ranging from the Ziegfield Follies to Jesus Christ Superstar and Miss Saigon. Food in the Dining Room was very good to excellent. But, their Horizon Court operation does not compare well with the Lido Restaurant. Service on Star Princess also met my "QM2 expectations".
I had booked comparable veranda staterooms on both ships and both staterooms were very comfortable and well furnished. The cabin on Star Princess was, I think, a bit larger, but the bathroom on the Zuiderdam is larger. Closets are enclosed on the Zuiderdam; the area where clothes are hanging is not enclosed on Star Princess(at least in my Baja Deck cabn). Cabin service on both ships was excellent.
I did try the Pinnacle Grill and would recommend it for a pleasant dining experience and a change from the regular Dining Room. I also tried for the first time the hydrotherapy pool in the Greenhouse Spa. I loved it! Next cruise, I will try more of the spa offerings. (I don't normally do so.)
And, I had absolutely delightful table companions for dinner: two ladies from Wales, 3 ladies from Canada, and a couple from Illinois. (If you are reading this, it was a pleasure to share the cruise and our dinners with all of you.)
For a short cruise--it was an excellent one!