A recent trip on Zaandam, my first with Holland America since the line rolled out its "Signature of Excellence" program fleet-wide, gave me an opportunity to see if HAL was maintaining its reputation of providing the high level of comfort and service that has evolved gracefully over the years.
For passengers who have traveled on any of Holland America's Statendam-class or Rotterdam-class ships, the Zaandam (launched in 2000 and named after a town in Holland) will seem familiar. The atrium is filled with a signature sculpture. The restaurant is on two levels aft. The Lower Promenade Deck is wraparound. Most public rooms are located on three decks. And there are three banks of elevators (two on Statendam-class vessels). The deck plan is similar to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but Zaandam and Volendam, its sister ship, lack the horsepower (and the twin funnels) of the co-flagships of the line.
And that's why, from the moment I stepped aboard Zaandam, I felt at home. Having traveled on other Holland America Line ships, I expected to see Dutch antiques from the line's extensive collection, a sculpted centerpiece in the atrium (in Zaandam's case, a working organ with mechanical figures), paintings of Holland America ships in the stairwells by Stephen Card, and some public rooms decorated in a gracious Dutch colonial motif. And so I did. I also expected floral displays and familiarly named public rooms like the Crow's Nest, the Rotterdam Dining Room, the Wajang Theatre, the Ocean Bar and the Explorers' Lounge. As such, it took me no time at all to find my bearings.
Uniquely, Zaandam was originally intended to serve as Holland America's bid to attract younger passengers. The ship's godmothers are the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, known to television viewers of the late 80's and early 90's from "Full House" and to moviegoers in the years since. Zaandam sports a collection of rock 'n' roll memorabilia that would do credit to a Hard Rock Cafe: e.g., a guitar signed by the Rolling Stones. But the memorabilia is displayed so discreetly in display cases (this is, after all, a Holland America ship), that they might as well be Japanese fans or Flemish etchings, so little does this decorative conceit influence the on board ambience.
Not all was smooth, however. Zaandam has been retrofitted with the enhancements Holland America calls its Signature of Excellence -- such as new pillow-top mattresses and high thread count sheets, duvets and pillow cases, flat-screen televisions with DVD players and high-volume shower heads. These are indeed lovely additions. But while Holland America has always prided itself on consistency in areas such as service, quality and cuisine, my experience of Zaandam was highly inconsistent.
My towels were thick and fluffy, another passenger's were thin and threadbare. I had two hair dryers: the old pre-Signature of Excellence built-in one (not removed in the renovation) and the new one, hidden in a vanity drawer. Another passenger had only the old one. I had terrycloth robes in my cabin and fresh fruit replenished every day, while another passenger had to ask for both. One waiter in the dining room had no trouble providing decaf cappuccino, while another seemed put out to be asked.
As pleasant and familiar as the ship was, what ultimately disappointed me was that the line seems to be coasting on its reputation. I found constant reminders that Holland America relies on income from profit centers onboard its ships like jarring loudspeaker announcements of activities: art auctions, bingo, casino contests, spa services, sales in shops and shore excursions. Gone are the days of free sail-away drinks and announcements for navigational purposes only. The quiet, up-market ambience has been shattered. Holland America used to provide a refined product that appealed primarily to older, experienced cruisers. To keep its increasingly larger ships full (and profitable) it has diluted its reputation.
Among the changes introduced with the Signature of Excellence updates was retrofitting the library into The Explorations Café and Library. This enhanced space has become a center of shipboard life. There are numerous stations for computer use. Time is sold in units at prices ranging from 75 cent to 40 cents per minute. The default page is the New York Times (the room's sponsor), so it is possible to keep up with the world's news online. (A cheaper way is to read the Times Digest, which is delivered daily to each cabin.) All the ship's public rooms have hotspots for wireless Internet, so passengers can access the ship's Internet services with their laptops. Explorations also has a coffee/tea bar, where most specialty offerings are under $2, and a large and well stocked library of books, games and DVD's.
Most public rooms are located on Decks 4 and 5. On Deck 5 from fore to aft are the Mondriaan Lounge (upper level), the Explorers' Lounge and Explorations Cafe and the Rotterdam Dining Room (upper level). On Deck 4 from fore to aft are the Montriaan Lounge (lower level), the Photo Gallery, the Purser's Office, the Wajang Theatre and Culinary Arts Center, and the Pinnacle Grill and the Rotterdam Dining Room (main level). As on other Holland America Line Ships, the kitchens block access to the dining room on Deck 4, so you must go up or down one deck to the rear stairway to reach the main level of the dining room.
The ship's shops are four: a perfume shop, a jewelry shop (with some clothing), a logo shop and a liquor store (with some sundries). There are the usual daily specials: designer watches or inch of gold, for example. The shops could be on just about any other line's ship. (Won't some line please hire a decent buyer?) The greatest bargain on the ship is liquor. You can buy liquor by the bottle and take it to your cabin to consume onboard, unlike on most ships where liquor purchased onboard is held until the last day. Liquor prices really are duty free. A liter of Absolut is $9.95; a liter of Johnny Walker Red is $15.95.
The main dining venue is the Rotterdam Dining Room (Decks 4 and 5), a two story aft-facing room with windows on three sides. The room is decorated in red and purple and has vaguely Moorish decor. Like the other public rooms on this ship, the decoration here is inoffensive and undistinguished, rather like a corporate headquarters or chain hotel. This dining room serves three meals each day: an open seating breakfast from 8 - 9:30 a.m.; open seating lunch from noon to 1 p.m.; and dinner.
In the evening, Holland America Line's As You Wish Dining enables passengers on Zaandam (and all other Holland America ships) to opt for pre-set seating and dining time -- or take advantage of a new, flexible option (breakfast and lunch are already open seating). One level of the ship's two-deck-high dining rooms will be dedicated to traditional "early or main seating" (usually 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. though times could vary based on itineraries) while the other will be open from 5:15 - 9 p.m. daily. Passengers who choose the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.
The Rotterdam Dining Room has many tables for two, four and six and also a number of larger tables. At dinner, the menu offers starters, soups and salads, and entrees. There are vegetarian and some healthy items, but they are not separated on the menu. A separate menu lists desserts, some of which are sugar and/or fat free. Coffee, decaffeinated coffee and tea are served at the table, as are espresso and cappuccino (regular and decaffeinated). Portions are moderate, so diners can expect to order several courses.
The Rotterdam also boasts a 22-dish, vegetarian-only menu for lunch and dinner; it consists of appetizers, salads, soups and entrees. Options include dishes like portobello mushroom and chipotle quesadillas, Vietnamese vegetable spring rolls or spicy lentil and garbanzo salad.
The preparation is well executed and the food attractively presented. Service depends on your server -- some are better than others -- and there are some problems communicating with stewards whose native language is not English.
At breakfast, on the other hand, service was excellent, the table sparkled and the food came freshly prepared. Breakfast is open seating.
There is a Lido Restaurant (Deck 8) that serves coffee and tea 24 hours a day and is open for meals: breakfast from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. (Continental only from 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. and after 10 a.m.); lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (entrees only until 2 p.m.); and dinner from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Lido Restaurant. There are serving stations to cut down on lines, and these include Asian and Italian stations, along with a sandwich bar. Desserts and a salad bar are separated from other courses. At the end of the buffet line stands a steward to take the tray and seat the diner. Roving bar waiters take drink orders.
At breakfast there are separate egg and waffle stations. Juices, fruit and cereal are separated from other courses. The breakfast offerings are more plentiful than room service.
At dinner I discovered most of the other passengers did not speak English as a native language. Had they dined in the Lido to avoid having to order in English and converse with fellow diners? Obligingly, the line had demonstration plates at the buffet, so passengers had only to point to the combination of food they wanted. (When I visit Japan, this is a service of which I avail myself.)
There is an outdoor cafe called the Terrace Grill (Deck 8), open from 11:30 A.M. to 5 P.M. with tacos, hamburgers, hotdogs, veggie burgers and grilled chicken.
The Pinnacle Grill (Deck 4) is the ship's extra tariff restaurant. Open for lunch and dinner ($15 service charge for lunch, $30 for dinner), it offers a Northwest menu with Pacific Rim appetizers and salads, grilled aged beef, lamb, salmon and chicken and comfort food desserts.
I ate lunch and dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. The restaurant is an interior space with views of passengers walking past and peering in. It is not attractive. Service is mechanical. At dinner I ordered a delicious Thai soup and a small filet mignon, which was excellent and cooked just as I'd ordered it (rare). Alas, these were the high points.
For instance, I ordered cheese, which arrived plated and stone cold. When I mentioned to the restaurant captain that the cheese should be room temperature, she took note. She returned later to say the chef agreed with me (how affirming for me!), but United States Public Health required that the cheese be kept in the refrigerator. I told her Cunard Line (another Carnival Corporation company) managed to have cheese trolleys at room temperature. She smiled disbelievingly.
Most wines on the Pinnacle Grill list hewed to its theme and were from Washington -- but there was a separate list of very expensive wines ($100 to over $500/bottle) that included choices from California and France.
On another day I sampled lunch at the Pinnacle Grill. The food and presentation were excellent (and there's a dedicated lunch menu), but conversation was difficult over the ship's announcements of upcoming activities and a private group's amplified speeches from within the restaurant.
On my sailing, availability of seating in the Pinnacle Grill was limited, because a tour group had pre-booked most lunches and dinners. My experience of the Pinnacle Grill on other Holland America Line ships was better than this one, so if you want to try it, book early in the voyage.
There is free 24-hour room service with sandwiches, salads and simple desserts available all the time and breakfast and dinner entrees during restaurant meal times. Passengers wanting to order room service breakfast place a card on their door, indicating a half-hour window during which they want it delivered. The menu features hot and cold items, and my experience was good: Everything I ordered was on the tray, and it arrived on time.
Like other ships that are built with modular cabins, Zaandam's standard outside and standard balcony cabins are identical. They are large by industry standards, beginning at 182 square ft. and going to 197 square ft., and finished in a blond wood tone. Standard cabins have twin beds that are convertible to a queen, two nightstands with lockable drawers and individual reading lamps. Each cabin has a loveseat with end table, ottoman, reading lamp, desk with a lighted vanity mirror, chair and three drawers. Even the smallest cabin has multiple closets, some with shelves, others with wooden hangers.
All cabins have a flat-screen TV with a DVD player. (These were added during the Signature of Excellence refit.) Unlike other lines that offer free DVD's only to suite passengers, Holland America offers them to all passengers (pick up in the Explorations Cafe). There are nineteen television channels, two of which show three movies in rotation per day. Four of the stations play music only. There are many cable channels like CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network and ESPN. The television is not interactive.
Other additions during the refit were pillow-top mattresses, high thread count linens, multiple pillows and the furnishing of fine toiletries by Elemis.
Bathrooms in standard cabins are compact, but the large outside cabins have tubs, as well as showers. While there's still an impotent hair dryer on the wall, the good news is you don't have to use it -- check your desk drawer for one with much more power.
Other cabin features include a 220/110 volt outlet in the bathroom for electric shavers and another on the desk for cell phone, iPod dock or laptop. There's a safe in the closet; it's operated by swiping your credit card (no charge, though).
Stewards service the cabin twice daily and replenish ice. Evening turndown service includes a chocolate. The ship services notebook includes note paper and postcards. (Additional free postcards are available in the Explorations Café/Library.)
Stepping up from the basic cabin, you can reserve a Verandah Suite, which is 292 square ft. The difference in size between a large outside cabin and a Verandah Suite is the balcony and a larger bathroom. At this level you receive a refrigerator with mini-bar and a whirlpool bath. The balcony is furnished with two chairs and a table.
Deluxe Verandah Suites are a large 556 square ft. (These "suites," like the Verandah Suites, are not true suites -- they have only one room -- just large cabins.) The balcony has four chairs and a table, and two sun loungers. A sectional sofa and occasional chairs provide a seating area for entertaining. Deluxe Verandah Suites include a small dressing room.
At the top of the stateroom pecking order are the Penthouse Verandah Suites, which are a whopping 1,159 square ft. These are true suites, comprised of a bedroom, a dining room that seats eight, a living room, a full bathroom with separate toilet/bidet room, a separate shower stall and bathtub, and a powder room.
Passengers who book Deluxe Verandah Suites and Penthouse Verandah Suites have exclusive use of the Neptune Lounge, staffed by an attendant who will book spa treatments and restaurant reservations for which suite guests have priority. The lounge is stocked with free soft drinks and snacks, and Continental breakfast is available here each morning.
Holland America, which many years ago maintained a "no tipping necessary" policy, is now more in-line with other mainstream cruise lines. The line automatically adds $11 per person, per day to onboard accounts, which is then shared among waiters, stewards and other service personnel. That amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the front desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills; note that gratuities are not automatically tacked on to spa treatments.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Among my favorite features of this ship is its wraparound teak promenade deck (Deck 3) with wooden deck chairs (four times around equals one mile). Fitness staff organize a mile walk each morning at sea. (Warning: Don't book an outside cabin on Deck 2!) For the more active passengers, the ship provides basketball and paddle tennis courts. Traditional shipboard games like shuffleboard and Ping-Pong are also available.
There are two outdoor swimming pools (one with a retractable magrodome for inclement weather) and two hot tubs. Fitness trainers offer yoga, aerobics, spinning and Pilates (some for a fee). An ample number of plastic sun loungers surround the pools. (Pool towels are supplied poolside).
The gymnasium (Deck 8) has a splendid location overlooking the bow. It is very well equipped with exercise cycles, spinning cycles, ski machines, treadmills, weight training machines and free weights. The machines are all of the Cybex brand. There is a mat area for free-standing exercising.
The Greenhouse Spa (Deck 8), run by Steiner, the London salon and spa people, is accessible to passengers who have booked treatments or with a day pass. Day passes are available for $20 (discounts for multiple days are given). Located within the spa, the Greenhouse Retreat consists of a grotto of wet and dry heated spaces with mists, sauna and steam room with ceramic loungers, a heated salt water pool with added salts and a hydrotherapy pool with water jets.
Elemis health and beauty treatments include a variety of facials, wraps, manicures, pedicures and massages; if you plan to partake of more than one or two, ask about packages, which can save you a bit. Also, typically the biggest discounts for treatments occur during port days, so booking when in port is another way to save. Speaking of saving money, do beware that Steiner staffers are required to offer health and beauty products for sale. You are not required to buy -- and if the therapist is too pushy, you should file a complaint.
The minimum age for using the spa is 18, but some services (pedicures, for example) are available to younger passengers who are at least 13 and accompanied by an adult. There are also hair salon services for women and men.
Because my cruise was over a holiday, there were quite a few children and teenagers onboard. Children and teens have separate public rooms on Deck 9. Club HAL Kids is for children ages 3 - 7 and Club HAL Tweens is for kids ages 8 -½ 12. The Loft is for teenagers ages 13 - 17. Signs limit access to these areas of the ship to the appropriately aged passengers.
Club HAL activities are scheduled at sea from 9 a.m. to noon and from 2 to 5 p.m. Activities resume at 8 p.m. and last until 10. From 10 p.m. to midnight there is group babysitting for $5 per child, per hour. (Personal babysitting may be available at a mutually negotiated rate after midnight.)
To participate in Club HAL children must be potty trained. Younger children must be signed in and out of the program by their parents; older children and teens may come and go as they please. The teen program is not as organized as the program for younger children, which is broken up into half-hour activities. The teen area is more for "hanging out" and self entertaining with video games, karaoke, videos and music. In the evening there is a party for teens in the Loft. When in port, the ship's company provides all-day activities for children, including lunch. On sea days children are expected to lunch and dine with their parents.
On Deck 10 there is outdoor space for children, a veritable fort with wooden palisades for climbing and defending. On my cruise, the children's and teen areas were well patronized, and there was adequate supervision of activities. When I visited, I was accompanied the whole time I was in the Club HAL space, a good sign that children are protected.
Holland America traditionally attracts one of cruising's more senior demographics, but interestingly, on my trip -- a short repositioning cruise on the West Coast during a school holiday period, there were many more younger families with children than I have seen on other Holland America ships. Most passengers hail from North America, but there was a significant representation of passengers from Europe and Asia.
On Holland America first and last nights are casual, as are nights in port. Casual means long trousers for men, collared shirts and no sneakers; and for women, neat trousers or skirt with a top, no bare midriff or exercise clothing. There are usually two formal nights per week (suit or tuxedo, gown or cocktail dress). Other nights are informal: jacket with or without tie for men and dress or dressy pants and top for women.
Another of Holland America's Signature of Excellence enhancements was the installation of a demonstration kitchen in the Wajang Theater. The program is offered in conjunction with Food & Wine magazine and often, though not always, guest chefs from restaurants around the U.S. are onboard to give demonstrations and workshops. If no "celebrity" chef is onboard, the ship's own chefs host classes. Some are free and open to all, but the more intimate and hands-on classes must be reserved (and are not free of charge). The Wajang Theatre also screens a movie three times each day.
The Mondriaan Lounge is the venue for production shows, specialty acts and enrichment lectures. I found the one production show presented on my cruise to be startlingly amateurish. The taped sound track was enhanced by live musicians.
New to Zaandam in early 2009 is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.
Surprisingly, there were no bridge experts, and bridge players organized their own play.
There is music throughout the ship. A dance trio plays in the Ocean Bar. A pianist plays standards in the Piano Bar. A combo plays easy listening rock in the Crow's Nest. A string quartet plays light pre-dinner classical music in the Atrium, and after dinner in the Explorers' Lounge. There is a DJ for late night disco in the Crow's Nest. (Ballroom dancers, please make note: The dance floors are very small.) Bar drinks are fairly priced at about $5.50 for a standard drink. (Polish vodka, for some reason, is priced at $9.50, while Russian is $5.50.) There's a drink of the day, which is discounted. Wine by the glass starts at $5.
Affinity group meeting times (e.g., Friends of Bill W., Friends of Dorothy) are posted in the daily program. A crafts instructor helps passengers make a project each day at sea.
The cruise staff hosts bingo, trivia quizzes and line dancing. Zaandam offers self-guided tours of the artwork decorating the ship by iPod. There are art auctions conducted by Parke West Galleries. The casino has the usual table games (Texas Hold 'Em, Caribbean stud, blackjack), roulette and slot machines from 1 cent to $1.
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