As Amsterdam pulled away to begin my seven-night cruise to Alaska, there was no better place to watch the downtown Seattle skyline fade away than from the comfort of one of the ship's classic teak lounge chairs, glass of Champagne in hand. After all, isn't sailing on Holland America, and Amsterdam to boot, all about reveling in the storied traditions of cruising?
From a perch on the lower promenade deck, as some of the more ambitious fellow passengers walk pre-dinner laps on the open-air deck, it was obvious that HAL's long-standing oceangoing traditions have been blended with modern amenities and services. As part of its Signature of Excellence program, Holland America has committed to pouring more than a half a billion dollars into its fleet of 13 ships since 2003, upgrading staterooms, public spaces and shore excursions. Amsterdam showcases how the line has fused the old with new.
Take the ship's multi-million-dollar art and antiques collection. It can now be explored with the help of an iPod audio tour. A pre-dinner drink in the Explorer's Lounge, made all the more sweet by the music of a classical quartet, can cap an afternoon spent getting a 75-minute hot stone massage at the Greenhouse Spa or watching a cooking demonstration at the Culinary Arts Center. That couple you passed on formal night decked out in their best black-tie attire? They spent part of the day learning to blog at an onboard digital workshop.
Along with newer amenities, Amsterdam has a certain regal note. Passengers on Holland America still have the option for a set-seating dining, though open-seating is also available. The ship maintains the tradition of serving mugs of warm Dutch pea soup on deck to bundled-up, glacier-gazing travelers. And the decor in many of the public spaces is anything but understated. An ornate clock in the three-level atrium is as much a towering piece of art as it is a way to get the current time around the world. It's one of the first features you'll glimpse on the ship, and as you pass by it during your trip, it's a reminder that Holland America hasn't forgotten its roots.
Size-wise, Amsterdam, which spends summers in Alaska and the remainder of the year sailing a world cruise and extended journeys in Australia and the South Pacific, is solidly in the middle of the Holland America fleet. Built in 2000, it's smaller than the line's Vista and Signature classes of ships and carries 700 fewer passengers than Eurodam, the largest ship in the lineup. Even on a full cruise, the ship rarely feels crowded, except for the lunch rush at the casual Lido Restaurant on sea days and the occasional, fast-moving line in the La Fontaine main dining room. The Sea View pool, aft of the Lido Deck, is a quiet retreat that feels like a private oasis. Sure, you won't exactly find swimsuit weather en route to Juneau, but staffers graciously offer the perfect Alaska sunbathing accessory: a red wool blanket.
Amsterdam continues to get small upgrades but is not, at this point, in line to receive the whole Signature of Excellence package. So, while it recently received Canaletto, Holland America's take on a casual Italian eatery, it will not be outfitted with spa cabins, an adults-only pool area or a new bar concept called Mix. That said, perhaps the ship doesn't even need these latest bells and whistles.
Built in 2000, Amsterdam does not have as many balcony staterooms as newer ships. There are 135 inside cabins, measuring 182 square ft., and 385 outside cabins with 197 square ft. of living space. Any stateroom with a balcony on Amsterdam is dubbed a suite. The smallest are the Verandah Suites, measuring 292 square ft., including the outdoor space. On newer ships, Holland America calls rooms of this size Deluxe Verandah Outside Staterooms instead of suites.
Premium accommodations include two 1,159-square-ft. Penthouse Verandah Suites and 50 Deluxe Verandah Suites that measure 556 square ft. Passengers in those rooms have access to the Neptune Lounge, which is staffed with a concierge who can book spa appointments and shore excursions and make reservations at the Pinnacle Grill. Twenty-three rooms on Amsterdam are wheelchair accessible.
Cabins, decked out in red and earth-tone color schemes, are warm and comfortable. The beds (a queen can convert into two twins in inside, outside and verandah suites) are cozy with a total of six pillows. Penthouse and Deluxe Verandah Suites are outfitted with king beds. All rooms have silver flat-screen LG televisions that swivel (so you can watch from the bed) and DVD players. All rooms also have plush bathrobes, and bathroom amenities are from Elemis. Every cabin also has its own temperature control.
The best value stateroom is one of the 120 Verandah Suites. Verandahs have one chaise lounge, a chair and a table that can double as a foot rest. All suites also have small refrigerators that are stocked with soda and a handful of spirits. Bathrooms have large showers, but most suites and outside staterooms have combination showers and bathtubs. Each sitting area, which can be divided from the rest of the room by a curtain, has a red leather couch, a small table and a wall console that does double-duty as a dresser and entertainment center. There is no shortage of storage space with nine drawers in the entertainment center, two night stands and two floor-to-ceiling closets.
My one complaint? The stateroom lighting is poor. The living area, complete with a large wall mirror and smaller makeup mirror, is clearly meant to serve as a second dressing area, but good luck trying to apply your mascara in such dim light.
As you make your way from your cabin to the various bars, restaurants and the ship's casino, you'll undoubtedly pass by the three-level atrium set with the imposing world clock. Directly off the atrium, you'll find the front desk, the shore excursion office and a store that sell passenger photos, taken throughout the week. There are also a handful of shops that offer souvenirs and jewelry. Sales heat up as the trip progresses, so if a shopping spree is on your agenda, hold off until the last days of the cruise.
One of the most inviting spaces on the ship is the Explorations Cafe. It is rarely crowded, though the cozy Eames-style lounge chairs lining the windows are the first seats to go. Those chairs are regularly filled with passengers engrossed in books and looking like they weren't going anywhere anytime soon. If you need some reading material, you can check out a book from the ship's library, or you can catch up on movie-watching by borrowing a DVD. (There's no charge for suite passengers; others pay $3 per DVD.)
The cafe also has 11 computer workstations, and there is rarely a wait for a computer. Internet access runs $.75 a minute, or you can buy a package of 30 minutes for $12 or 100 minutes for $55. Keep in mind that this is Internet access via satellite, so don't expect the speed of your home cable modem or DSL line.
Activities on Amsterdam kick off shortly after breakfast and continue through the evening hours. Twice a night, there are shows in the Queen's Lounge, and they range from campy versions of Vegas-style reviews (one show featured feather-heavy costumes by Bob Mackie) to sets by comedians and magicians. The two-level Queen's Lounge is equally as opulent as those Bob Mackie gowns with a red, purple and gold color scheme and a stage framed by two large female statues.
The various bars onboard have entertainment at different times. You might catch classical music in the Explorer's Lounge or singing in Rembrandt's Lounge. Both the Explorer's Lounge and the Ocean Bar are great places for pre- or post-dinner drinks (or anytime, for that matter), and you may find that other passengers are decked out in more formal attire for the evening. There is also a small wine-tasting bar tucked across from the Culinary Arts Center, but keep in mind that it has very limited hours, typically open just one hour during port days and about three hours during at-sea days. The Sports Bar, adjacent to the Casino, seemed lightly visited.
You'll undoubtedly also find yourself at the Crows Nest -- part-bar, part-lounge, part-nightclub -- high up on the Sports Deck. While it is open all day, it is busiest at night, with disc jockey-led dance parties and live music. The bar is bustling, but the real attraction is the incredible, panoramic view. Head there after dinner. Long Alaska days make the Crow's Nest a great place to watch the sun slowly set.
Before pre-dinner cocktailing or grabbing a nightcap, there are plenty of ways to fill your day onboard. The Culinary Arts Center, complete with nine rows of cushy, theater-style seats is home to cooking and drink-making demos. Demonstrations are quite popular -- one called Chocolate Lovers Indulge proved to be a standing-room-only crowd -- so plan on getting there at least ten minutes before the start time to ensure a seat.
The Center was packed with all ages (if you have kids, don't miss the awww-inducing, and non-food-related towel animal demonstration), and activities were always interactive. That said, some of the demonstrations seemed too short and a bit superficial. For example, it would have been nice to see something other than a chocolate martini made during the chocolate demo.
In addition to cooking demos, which include the opportunity to taste the chef's creations, there are a limited number of hands-on cooking classes for $29 and scrapbooking seminars for $12. The Culinary Center doubles as the Wajang Theater, where the ship showed a selection of relatively new Oscar-nominated movies, including Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Another popular activity is the Microsoft Digital Workshop. There are four or five different sessions held each day, covering everything from the basics of getting digital photos from camera to computer, as well as more intensive sessions on editing photos, setting up Web pages and creating home movies. All classes are offered free of charge.
Shore excursion options for our Alaska Explorer cruise were extensive. You'll get a 33-page document that runs through the options in port. Choices range from easy-on-the-feet guided city tours to thigh-burning, half-day hikes to thrill-inducing (and more expensive) helicopter and float-plane tours. Meeting points for excursions were well organized by the ship's staff, who were always happy to direct us to a restaurant or pub onshore that was a little off the beaten path and not overrun with other cruise ship passengers. It's worth noting that, as the Alaska cruise season heats up, ports can be quite busy.
On a recent seven-night Alaska Explorer cruise, the majority of passengers were in the 50-plus range. There were also a smattering of young families with small children as well as multi-generational groups of grown children traveling with one or both parents. According to a Holland American spokesman, passengers on Alaska cruises skew older than those on Caribbean itineraries.
Attire during the day is casual, and on a recent cruise to Alaska, jeans and khaki pants were standard. Days in port saw passengers in even more casual sportswear and hiking shoes. Two evenings were designated formal, and while some passengers donned cocktail dresses, gowns, tuxedos and suits, others chose to opt out of the evening code altogether and stick to jeans or khakis. The remaining evenings called for smart-casual attire. Translation: No jeans were allowed. Passengers in the Pinnacle Grill and main dining room abided by the guidelines, but more casual attire was seen in the Lido restaurant and Canaletto.
Holland America adds $11.50 per person, per day, to onboard accounts. The tips are shared among stewards, dining room staff and other service personnel. A 15 percent gratuity is added to bar bills. Tips for spa services, including group classes at the gym, are not included and are left up to the discretion of passengers.
As part of the Signature of Excellence initiative, Holland America revamped its kids' program with Club HAL. It caters to kids in three age groups with separate activities and even private, parent-free hangout zones for the teens. Onboard activities are free; charges are only incurred after 10 p.m. at an hourly rate of $5 per child. While Amsterdam certainly has activities (like Ping-Pong tournaments and a polar bear swim) for the younger set, the line doesn't seem to attract young families.
Club HAL Kids, for 3- to 7-year-olds, offers indoor games, puzzles and storytelling. Club HAL Tweens entertains kids, ages 8 to 12, with scavenger hunts, the ever-popular Ping-Pong matches and basketball.
Teens, ages 13 to 17, have access to The Loft, a lounge area on the Sports Deck adjacent to the basketball court. The Loft is stocked with games and computers, along with snacks and drinks. Teen-friendly activities include karaoke parties and trivia contests. There is also The Oasis, a teens' outdoor retreat, perched high on the Sky Deck and adorned with faux palm trees.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Greenhouse Spa and gym is tucked just off the Lido Pool at the front of the ship. The gym, stocked with the requisite treadmills, bikes and weights also has a Pilates reformer. There are several group classes, but be warned that these take place in a small corner of the gym, and you'll see and hear all the activity of the bustling space. If you are expecting to find that peaceful place in a yoga class, you'll be disappointed. On full days at sea, there are six group exercise classes. Some, including aerobics, circuit training and a stretch class, are free while cycling, yoga and Pilates mat classes cost $12 each. You can save a few bucks by paying $30 for a series of three classes held throughout the week. Personal training is also an option at $85 for an hour private session or $150 for two people.
The Greenhouse Spa has a wide range of treatments, ranging from standard 50-minute Swedish massages to more elaborate and expensive body treatments. Prices are in line with what you might find at a resort. A 50-minute deep tissue massage came in at $129, facials ranged from $119 to $145, and a 75-minute lime and ginger body scrub and massage carried a $199 price tag. And remember, these prices don't include gratuities. There are ways to save, however. Treatments were 20 percent off on the first day, as the spa seemed eager to get those passengers in on a day when most were focused on unpacking and getting their bearings onboard.
The spa also runs a series of seminars focused on health, weight-loss and acupuncture. A morning session on the benefits of hot-stone massages on the last day of the cruise offered a 30-percent discount on the $195 price for a same-day treatment. (Discount or not, I was sold after the therapist demonstrated the proper massage technique on my forearm.) There are also spa specials offered through the week, including a series of 20-minute mini-treatments (think scalp massage, facials and an abbreviated hot-stone treatment), starting at $99 for three services. Look at the daily program for details.
Though last-minute specials are a good way to trim the cost of treatments, it's a good idea to book treatments early, especially if you are trying to book two massages at the same time, in the case of a couple or group of friends.
If you've booked a treatment, arrive early to enjoy the relaxation room. Camped out on one of the cushioned lounge chairs there before your massage, and gaze out the window. The treatment rooms are serene as well, but the spa's proximity to other, more active areas of the ship can become evident. Jams from the Crow's Nest, located directly above the spa, may start to trickle into the room. The good news is that you'll be so blissed out, you won't care.
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