From the get-go, Holland America's Vista Class has suffered a bit of an identity crisis. This is not unexpected from a design intended to bridge the gap between Holland America's venerable passengers and younger couples and families.
My first experience with the class was with Westerdam, the third in the series of four. To my taste the emphasis had shifted too far toward the youthful energy extreme, what with atrium barstools upholstered in day-glo purples and yellows.
My recent sailing on the second ship in the series, Oosterdam, confirmed to me that the path to the proper balance of refinement and exuberance is a swinging pendulum, not a straight arrow trajectory. On Oosterdam, the bones of a typical Holland America interior are draped in a much bolder color palette than in the past. Big, bright red, orange and gold hues abound in the public rooms, most noticeably in the three-deck tall Vista Show Lounge. Blue and aquamarine carpets provide a colorful counterpoint throughout the ship. However, some elements are, to my eye, not youthful, but simply tacky, as for example, the cast plaster benches with painted pseudo-classical sculpted backs and gold lame cushions that grace the midships main elevator lobbies, along with false columns and escutcheons spray-painted in gold.
Adding to the energy level -- in a good way -- are the four glass elevators mounted on the outside of the hull, providing a dramatic shifting perspective for those traversing the 11 passenger decks.
Given the fact that the Vista Class ships are meant not to abandon the Holland America legacy of refined elegance but rather to add to those core qualities, it's important to note here that, at least on the sailing we reviewed, the gentle, accommodating service afforded by the Indonesian and Filipino stewards was still front and center.
In 2009, Oosterdam went through a "Signature of Excellence" dry dock. Structural changes included the addition of 34 new staterooms and the development of a new Pinnacle Bar, available both as a pre-prandial watering hole for those dining in that Holland America signature alternative dining venue, and, for the first time, to all other passengers as well. Also added were a new library-cum-coffee bar-cum Internet Café, a new alternative Italian eatery, new intimate screening room, and dedicated enrichment facilities -- all of which will be discussed in detail in the body of this review.
Nowhere is Oosterdam's position as a bridge between Holland America's past and future more evident than in its public rooms. Long time HAL fans will find the Ocean Bar and Explorer's Lounge comfortingly familiar, though half of the Explorer's Lounge has been appropriated for Park West's art auction operation. The vertically truncated atrium (at three decks) topped by a large, rotating Waterford crystal globe is understated and elegant.
One change that has both positive and negative repercussions is the restructuring of the shopping area on Deck 3. Shopping areas have been a major bottleneck on most HAL ships, as they span the full width of the ships' sprawling midway between the show lounge and dining room, capitalizing on the most heavily traveled walkway onboard. On Oosterdam, walls have been taken down and the whole area is far more open. That's great, and traffic now moves much more smoothly and quickly between bow and stern. The problem is that this restructuring comes off looking like a joint venture between Little Switzerland, WalMart and Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. It is tough to tell where one shop ends and the next begins, and shop identities are muddled, with the exception of the priciest emporia, which still maintain their separate, closed-off identities.
We found the casino was roomy enough horizontally, but the low ceiling, coupled with the designation of the entire venue as a smoking-permitted room, created an unpleasant ambiance. Choices for the serious gamer were limited as well, with only 11 tables to 130 slot machines, including many penny slots.
Adjacent to the casino is the sports bar, and Holland America has blended the identities of the two rooms by having video poker machines built into the bar itself and installing one of those computer-operated multi-player Texas Hold-'Em tables in the center of the room. This makes the entire center-ship gaming operation more reminiscent of land-based gambling resorts, which, no doubt, strikes the correct chord with those for whom the pursuit of the big win is a high vacation priority.
Far and away our favorite new public space -- and a big hit with all the passengers we encountered there -- is Explorations Cafe, a combination Internet cafe, library, coffee bar and quiet activities area (jigsaw puzzles, crosswords and board games). Holland America carved out space for this facility -- operated in partnership with the New York Times -- by splitting the Crow's Nest (the ship's uppermost observation lounge) down the middle. The large amount of window exposure provides ample natural light for comfortable reading conditions. The shelves are stacked with a variety of books, including a number of sections keyed to the Times' sponsorship (e.g., a unit devoted to New York Times bestsellers and one given over to books published by the Times' publishing arm). Two tables have giant printouts of New York Times crossword puzzles across their entire surfaces, which are covered with clear plexiglass. Felt tip pens are distributed by the librarian, allowing passengers to fill in one or all of the words on the plexiglass.
Here, 18 computers are plugged into the Internet through a fast, dependable satellite link, and Wi-Fi access is available throughout the ship. The Windstar Cafe -- the coffee bar in Oosterdam's original configuration -- has been moved upstairs to be part of the Explorations Cafe grouping. In addition to hot and cold coffee concoctions (with or without alcohol), the bar serves tea, chai and smoothies. Charges for non-alcoholic beverages range from $1.20 to $4.45, and from $5.50 to $5.75 for drinks containing alcohol.
Once sporting a cuisine that could be charitably dubbed an ode to bland, Holland America now features a variety and quality of menu offerings that improve with every year. Under the culinary design and supervision of master chef Rudi Sodamin, Oosterdam's cuisine includes spicier, more palate-challenging choices (New York strip steak with spicy pear salsa); entrees and appetizers keyed to the local cuisine of the itinerary's port calls -- in our case, Mexico (Chicken Mole, Duck and black bean quesadilla); and the fusion of that local cuisine with others (Southwestern-style manicotti, tuna carpaccio with jicama chips and papaya-ginger relish).
Oosterdam continues Holland America's innovative "As You Wish" dining plan. Recognizing that open and set seating formats have relatively equal number of proponents, HAL offers both. Oosterdam's Vista dining room is a two-deck affair at the aft end of the ship. One deck is allocated for those choosing conventional fixed-seating dining (5:45 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and the other for open seating nightly between 5:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. Open-seating passengers can either make reservations or simply walk into the Vista. For those who wish to be seated at particularly small (two-top) or large (more than six) tables should avail themselves of the reservation system. Those who are happy either dining alone or joining a table of strangers, depending on availability, need not. The Vista also serves breakfast and lunch on a daily basis, even on port days.
The room, though large and lavish, is, at the same time, warm and welcoming, thanks in part to the ample use of reds and golds, and to the predominance of curved rather than geometric angles. The sculpted ceiling cuts down the noise level, even when the room is full, so acoustics are excellent. Rosenthal china reinforces the restaurant's stylish, upscale ambience.
Typical dinner menus include four items each in the Appetizer and Soups and Salad categories, and seven entrees. One item in each of the menu categories is identified as "Greenhouse Spa Cuisine" (Greenhouse Spa is the Steiner-operated spa and fitness facility). The spa items are all vegetarian, and there was a second vegetarian entrée most evenings. The menu also includes an unchanging list of plainer standbys: onion soup, Caesar salad, salmon, chicken or steak. A separate dessert menu offers four dessert choices (of which one always included chocolate and one was sugar-free) as well as sliced fruit and assorted cheese plates. One drawback, to our thinking, was that the wine list was a bit thinly populated. The Vista also serves afternoon tea daily, a Holland America tradition.
Vista also offers 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 Pinnacle Grill, a Holland America standard, is a popular alternative. But with only 144 seats for a passenger complement of 1,916, getting reservations early -- like right after embarkation -- is a must, especially since most passengers we talked to felt there were enough desirable items on the menu to warrant a second visit. Formal nights are the most popular. (Hint: the reservationists establish a station outside the Lido Restaurant, which is usually everyone's first stop once getting aboard, and is a lot less jammed than going to the maitre d's podium at the restaurant, itself.)
Fleetwide, the Pinnacle has created an image -- Pacific Northwest Cuisine -- that translates essentially to a steak and chop house with seafood options (think Morton's). The seafood, in this case, has the Northeastern Pacific Ocean as its provenance: rock lobster, king salmon and black cod. New to the menu are skewers, including red meat, poultry, seafood and veggies-only. There is a $20 cover charge to dine in the Pinnacle. On sea days, the Pinnacle is also open for a reservations-only lunch, featuring lighter fare -- more seafood, soups and salads. I particularly enjoyed a Pacific Rim beef salad featuring Thai-spiced sliced flank steak over a melange of mixed greens. Cover charge for lunch is $10.
The Lido Restaurant is, to our thinking, the weakest link in the ship's food chain. A buffet venue on a ship of nearly 2,000 passengers should be able to sport a hefty variety of choices, especially for breakfast. There is ample room and enough stations set up to support such a variety, but by and large the choices were conventional. There were no international choices (no British, Asian, etc.) unless you include Belgian waffles and French toast as international. The one unique effort was a made-to-order Eggs Benedict station whose chefs would prepare a dozen or so variations on the poached egg on English muffin theme.
Lunch choices were marginally better with Asian/sushi, sandwich and pizza stations, though we found salad choices limited and uninspired. There are plenty of seating options in terms of table size, seating type -- chairs or banquettes -- and interior versus window placement. Stewards can usually be found to help a passenger transport their dishes to the table. The Lido also serves a casual alternative dinner and late-night snacks nightly.
Canaletto, a tiny (54-seat) Italian eatery, has been carved out of a corner of the Lido Restaurant and is open for dinner only. There is no charge for eating at Canaletto, but reservations are required. There are the expected primi choices (antipasti and pastas) but we felt the secondi entree choices really shined. I especially enjoyed a cod putanesca.
As an adjunct to the Lido Restaurant, there is an outdoor grill that makes excellent burgers and fries -- among other choices -- as well as a do-it-yourself taco bar.
Twenty-four hour room service is available gratis, and the menu is fairly extensive, which is a blessing, since room service does not include the night's dinner menu from the Vista Dining Room.
On paper Oosterdam's accommodation scheme seems like a cruiser's dream come true. Six hundred thirty-nine (66.7 percent) of the total complement of cabins have balconies (79.5 percent of outsides). The least expensive of these cabins (Deluxe Verandah Outside) measures a seemingly spacious 254 square feet (the balcony accounting for 54 square feet).
If space is important, at the upper end are the two top-of-the-line Penthouse Verandah Suites (measuring 1,000 square feet plus 318-square-foot balconies). Deluxe and Superior Verandah Suites range from 398 square feet to 700 square feet, balcony footage included. All suites have dressing rooms, sofa beds, whirlpool tubs, separate shower stalls and dual vanities. The balconies are equipped with a table that's suitable for dining.
Suite passengers have access to the private Neptune Lounge, though, ironically, with a capacity of only 25, the lounge will accommodate less than 8 percent of the double occupancy capacity of the suite-level staterooms. Though there is a concierge in the Neptune Lounge, there are no butlers for passengers residing in these accommodations.
At the other end of the spectrum are 154 Standard Inside cabins (measuring from 170 - 200 square feet) and 165 Standard Outsides (measuring a slim 185 square feet). Twenty-eight cabins are designated wheelchair accessible.
All classes of stateroom benefit from the line's "Signature of Excellence" campaign, most notably the exceedingly comfy "Euro-top" beds, high thread-count linens and Egyptian cotton towels. Other cabin amenities include waffle/terry-cloth robes, flat-panel TVs, DVD players, makeup mirrors, hair dryers, direct dial phones with voicemail (inoperative on our cruise), minibars (tended to manually by cabin stewards) and programmable safes. DVDs can be checked out from the Explorations Library. Bathroom amenities -- provided by Steiner offshoot, Elemis -- include two types of soap, bath and shower gel, conditioner, and shampoo. All non-suite staterooms except inside cabins have tub/shower combinations, a Holland America tradition that gets a big thumbs-up from us.
We don't look quite so kindly on some of the other attributes of our Deluxe Verandah Outside stateroom. Holland America championed spacious accommodations back in the days when the mantra was: "Who needs a big cabin? You only go there to sleep, shower and change clothes." Now, all the other players in the Premium category seem to have jumped on the spaciousness bandwagon and, in fact, many have leapt ahead.
Our accommodations felt more crowded than we would have expected out of a 200-square-foot interior. The room felt narrow, and portions of it were difficult for two people to navigate simultaneously. Likewise, storage space was limited, especially drawer space, although a couple of days into the cruise, we found a hidden set of deep drawers under the bed (though one of the two drawers was appropriated by the cabin steward for bedspread and extra blanket). The desk was virtually unusable, except, perhaps, for putting on makeup. Switching out the old CRT TV for the new flat-screen, wall-mounted set during the 2009 dry dock helped a bit, but the TV's position in the farthest corner of the narrow room made viewing in bed awkward. And the desk had barely enough room for a small laptop.
The most serious problem with the in-cabin television, however, was software rather than hardware. Unlike those of most modern ships, Oosterdam's TV system totally lacked interactivity -- no ability to access one's onboard account, book restaurant reservations or shore excursions, order from room service, or view dining room menus. And non-interactive programming was limited as well, offering only a handful of cable channels (CNN, ESPN, TNT and the Cartoon Network on our cruise), plus a closed-circuit movie channel and "ship commercial" channels for shore excursions, onboard shopping and "official" off-ship shopping.
Lastly, our balcony was sufficiently large enough to accommodate more than the plastic faux rattan verandah furniture -- a chair, hassock and tiny table too small for any serious usage.
The ship automatically charges $11.50 per person, per night, to passengers' shipboard accounts. Bar personnel are tipped by an automatic 15 percent gratuity tacked onto bar bills.
We give Oosterdam high marks in the Entertainment category. We especially liked two permanent enrichment facilities, each operated in partnership with onshore heavy hitters in their fields of expertise, and each physically designed for their enrichment specialty. The Queen's Lounge, an alternative lounge/theater standby on Vista Class ships, has had a makeover to become -- at least during daytime hours -- The Culinary Arts Center, with permanent cooking, preparation and viewing equipment to ideally instruct attendees on the preparation of various dishes. A general purpose meeting/conference/seminar room has become Digital Workshop, a dedicated computing education facility, with two rows of eight computers fronting a large, wall-mounted flat-screen monitor hooked into the instructor's computer, to graphically demonstrate each program step as students follow along on their own workstations.
The Culinary Arts Center is operated in partnership with Food & Wine magazine. Offerings include wine tastings ($15 fee required), cocktail tastings and mixology classes, cooking, cake decorating, flower arranging, and garnishing classes.
The Digital Workshop is powered by Microsoft, which provides both the software and the instructors, dubbed "techsperts." The curriculum in the digital workshop concentrates heavily on processing and editing digital photos and videos, blogging, and Internet publishing. In addition to class time, one-on-one time with the techsperts is available daily.
Other daytime entertainment and enrichment activities include language classes, bingo, cruise staff-conducted trivia and sports (ping pong, putting and chipping, etc.) competitions, movie screenings in the new screening room (with freshly popped popcorn), art auctions and casino tournaments.
The main nighttime showroom is the three-deck Vista Lounge. It is a beautiful room done in rich reds and golds. Seating is, for the most part, in plush, conventional theater seats. Usable tables are few and far between, and the chair arms do not have drink holders. But the biggest shortcoming -- and, in our view a major Vista-Class deficiency -- is the physical architecture of the room. It is simply too tall and too compressed front-to-back. In an attempt to maximize capacity, the balcony extends forward over a huge percentage of the main floor. Not only is this claustrophobic for those seated under the overhang, but the design forces the placement of support columns far closer to the stage than in most showrooms. The result is that a large number of seats have blocked sightlines. To make matters worse, this design scheme fails to create sufficient seating for a ship of Oosterdam's size, accommodating only about 45 percent of the double-occupancy capacity of 1,916.
The events scheduled in the Vista are top-notch, however. On a one-week itinerary there are generally three production shows produced by super-pro Stiletto Entertainment, a Holland America exclusive. You can also expect magic, juggling, comedy and cruise staff/audience participation shows. On most cruises the Indonesian crew members put on a bang-up show, as well.
Other nighttime offerings include up-tempo dance bands, jazz combos, solo instrumentalists and a classical string quartet. A DJ holds forth in the Northern Lights Disco late nights. On tropical sailings, there is usually a Reggae/Soca pool band. One of the most popular -- and deservedly so, we think -- venues is the Piano Bar. On every Holland America ship I've sailed the Piano Bar performers have always wowed the crowds. On our sailing the room was about three-quarters full on the first two or three nights, after which it became impossible to get a seat around the piano unless you showed up a half-hour before the pianist did. On the same nights a stroll through the other music venues onboard showed ample empty seating.
The shore excursion department does a credible job, and the range of available tours has been expanded from the HAL older demographic of the past to include more eco-tourism and adventure activities from zip lining to scuba diving.
Judging from the modest amount of physical space devoted to Oosterdam's youth facilities and the limited extent and variety of kids' programs, it's difficult not to perceive a low prioritization for the family demographic. Kids' areas include a video arcade (open to adults as well), the Loft (teen club) and Club HAL, the main facility for children ages 3 through 12. Youngsters are broken into three groups based on age: Kids (3 - 7); Tweens (8 - 12); and Teens (13 - 17). Typical activities include board and video games, movies and TV show screenings, quizzes and game show-type competitions. Children under three are not admitted into the Club HAL program, though the children's cruise staff may, from time to time, schedule "toddler time" in the Club HAL playroom. Parents must stay with the toddlers during these sessions.
Kids' menus are available for both the Vista Dining Room and the Lido Buffet, and parents may request, in advance of sailing date, commercial baby food through HAL's Ship Services Department (additional fee charged).
Organized activities end nightly at 10 p.m. Nighttime group babysitting is available from 10 p.m. through midnight for a fee of $5 per hour per child. Limited private babysitting may be available through Reception at other times, and for children under three, at a rate of $8 per hour for the first child, and $5 per hour for each additional child.
The Vista Class ships, though paying lip service to catering to multi-generational travelers, clearly appeal mostly to Holland America's core demographic: mature, sophisticated, well-traveled couples, the majority of whom are HAL repeaters.
Casual is the universal daytime dress code, the only variations dictated by latitude (you certainly would dress differently for St. John, USVI, than for St. John's, Newfoundland), or by activity (as in going by motorcoach versus by motorbike). Two formal nights take place on seven-night sailings; three on sailings of 10 or more days. We found fewer gents going the full-on black tie route than we would have expected. Also, though the Holland America information pamphlet states that there would also be five "informal" -- sport jacket for men -- nights with only two "dressy casual" evenings, we found this not to be the case. On non-formal nights, dressy casual wear was the universal choice, with the exception of those taking dinner in the Pinnacle Grill, where jacket (with or without tie) was the rule.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The Greenhouse Spa, Oosterdam's spa and fitness facility, is operated by Steiner's Elemis brand, and a great deal of space and attention is devoted to the enterprise. The central pivot point for the operation is the Greenhouse Spa Retreat, a for-fee reserved area with a "thermal suite" featuring a full slate of heat treatments, dry saunas and steam rooms, with a large, seawater hydrotherapy pool, around which are arranged heated tiled chaises. Rates for admission to the facility run $199 for singles and $249 per couple for a seven-night sailing. Day passes are available at $40 per person.
The main spa offers facials and massages, including couples (or friends) massages and a whole menu of spa offerings keyed to kids, including mother-and-daughter and father-and-son side-by-side massages, non-tanning bronzing and anti-acne facials.
Other treatments include acupuncture, full hair and nail services (for men and women), and teeth whitening.
The commodious fitness center has plenty of machines for circuit training, aerobics, cardiovascular exercises, Pilates and spinning. Classes are offered for many of these regimens, but, alas, the days of onboard group fitness classes being offered gratis as a ship-provided amenity are long gone. A typical one-hour class (e.g., spinning, yoga, Pilates) runs $12.
There are two pool areas: the Lido Deck's central, main pool with its Holland America signature bronze sculpture at one end (in this case, cavorting penguins) is the family-oriented spot. The smaller aft pool -- a more laid-back area -- is designated adults only. Each area has an ample complement of very comfortable lounges, with additional ones one deck above on Observation Deck. The central pool area also features three whirlpools and a retractable Magradome.
Passengers can circumnavigate the ship on Promenade Deck (while soaking up the atmosphere of the golden age of the transatlantic steamers and strolling by the classic teak deck chaises.)
Oosterdam also features a volleyball court and a basketball half-court.
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