Holland America Line's Westerdam, part of its Vista class of ships, reminds me of what the cruise line does best. In its restaurants, onboard programs, larger-than-average staterooms, and, most of all, in the service of its crew, Westerdam very deftly balances its commitment to honoring cruise traditions with adding just enough contemporary amenities to keep things fresh.
It's a line that, in this era of casual cruising, celebrates formal nights -- and yet its dining rooms offer a choice of traditional seating scenarios as well as open, more flexible ones. You can still learn how to mix a martini or create a flower arrangement, but you can also take computer classes that range from an introduction to e-mail to editing digital photography. You can watch a chef, ranging from the ship's own to a guest expert from Holland America Line's Food & Wine Magazine partnership, demonstrate a recipe, or you can take part in small group clusters that actually get to make the food at the fabulous Food Network-like Culinary Arts Center kitchen.
Ironically, where there were weaknesses onboard Westerdam, it was in the few areas that have not balanced past and present as carefully. With the immense variety of itineraries around the world that Holland America offers, there's no reason why shore excursions in ports of call couldn't offer more of a selection of offbeat experiences in addition to more typical choices (though applause is due for incorporating recreational options, like cycling and kayaking, where possible). Along those same lines, it was puzzling that, despite creating "On the Map," a new program that aims to offer more immersion of destinations into the cruise experience, there was no meaty series of onboard enrichment lectures. The ship's "travel guide" rarely could answer a reasonable in-port question.
Beyond these quibbles, Westerdam, not to mention Vista-class siblings such as Zuiderdam, Oosterdam and Noordam, has carved itself a unique niche in cruising: It's a ship that hasn't forgotten, in this era of cruise innovation, that the tenets of the tradition -- most notably hospitality, warm service from its crew, delicious meals all over the ship and a cozy ambience that encourages social interaction -- are still what makes a cruise a most satisfying travel experience.
Explorations Cafe, which was added to this ship after it was built, occupies half of the top-of-ship Crow's Nest area and is truly the heart of Westerdam. At any given time, from morning until late evening, passengers are clustered here, playing board games, putting puzzles together, reading books from one of the best library selections at sea, sipping coffee while reclining in comfortable chairs (occasionally sleeping) and beavering away at Internet terminals.
Next door -- there's no wall separating the two -- is the Crow's Nest Bar, the ship's observations space. Activity from Explorations, particularly during the daytime, tends to spread into this venue.
Otherwise, public rooms are primarily located in one two-deck grouping on Decks 2 and 3.
You can't miss the vast shopping area, which includes boutique-like stores for the usual range of cruise line merchandise, from duty-free alcohol and cigarettes to logo wear and evening clothing. Sometimes, apparel was an odd mix of logo wear and elegant; I can't imagine anyone wearing a crystal-bedecked formal night blouse that was emblazoned with a Holland America Line logo but it was there. There's a small corner for necessities (such as toiletries and, oddly enough, junk food such as Pringles potato chips and a range of candy offerings). The many jewelry shops -- from relatively upscale to trinkets -- really consumed the shopping area.
A small passenger services area is located on Deck 1, at the foot of the atrium. Here's where you'll find the pursers desk, shore excursions and future cruise booking. There's also a small bar.
Westerdam's cabin apportionment reflects the industry-wide trend toward more verandahs, especially at lower price points. Deluxe Verandah Outsides are the smallest category of balcony cabins, measuring 200 square feet with 54-square-foot balconies (sufficiently large for comfortable mesh-and-metal chairs and a small teak pedestal table). Superior Verandah Suites measure 298 square feet (with 100-square-foot balconies) and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities.
All staterooms have "Eurotop" mattresses, high-thread-count Egyptian cotton bed linens, bathrobes, premium massaging showerheads, magnifying lighted makeup mirrors, powerful hair dryers, direct-dial phones with voicemail, flat-screen televisions, mini-bars and safes. I love the fairly recent addition of DVD players to all cabins; movies can be borrowed from the onboard lending library in the Explorations Cafe.
Our cabin, a deluxe verandah stateroom, was cozy for two, but comfortable, too. There was plenty of storage space (particularly under the bed), a loveseat (we seemed to use that more for storage than to sit on) and a vanity/desk. The bed was supremely comfortable. The bathroom had a tub/shower combination. The only downside was our location; try to avoid Deck 5 as verandahs there look out onto the tops of the lifeboats. The sun's reflection on the roofs of the tenders can make this a hotspot.
In a nice -- and increasingly rare -- touch, on Westerdam (and its Vista-class siblings), all staterooms above inside categories have tubs with showers. At the suite levels, the tubs are whirlpools, and a separate shower stall is added, along with dual sinks.
The smallest cabins on the ship are standard insides at 170 square feet (though some measure 200); standard outsides come in at 185. Twenty-eight cabins are specially designated for passengers with disabilities.
For those wanting more space -- and services -- the ship offers larger suites. Deluxe Verandah Suites increase to 380 square feet (with 130-square-foot balconies), and the beds are kings rather than queens. The largest accommodations are the 1,000-square-foot Penthouse Verandah Suites (with 318-square-foot balconies). Verandahs are large enough to hold chaise lounges and dining-sized tables -- a real plus!
One nice amenity for suite passengers is the Neptune Lounge, a private room with comfortable seating areas, large flat-screen television, reading materials and a concierge, which serves various snacks (from light breakfast fare in the mornings to hors d'oeuvres at cocktail hour). The concierge can book dinner reservations and shore tours, and handle purser's desk requests, as well.
The Culinary Arts Center, housed in the Queens Lounge, the ship's secondary theater venue, and featuring a fully operational demonstration kitchen, is the highlight of Westerdam's daytime programming. Here, you'll find cooking demonstrations from both ship chefs and guest chefs onboard for limited sailings. On our trip, both were superb; I particularly enjoyed Chicago chef Bruce Sherman's demo on how to make a zucchini and mozzarella tartelette. It wasn't necessarily the actual recipe that appealed but his down-to-earth humor and pragmatic approach. For instance, he made his puff pastry from scratch but scoffed at the need to do so at home. "Just buy it at the grocery store, though do thaw it carefully."
On sea days, the Culinary Arts Center hosts wine tastings (of varying degrees of complexity) and a martini mixology class. Expect to pay fees for these; a reasonably advanced "cellar master's navigator wine tasting," which focused on meritages and cabernet sauvginon, cost $15; the martini class was $12.
The ship's "party planner" also led a variety of workshops on entertaining that ranged from creating interesting tabletops to making soup for groups.
Another enrichment-oriented area in which Holland America excels is in computer education, through its Digital Workshop, a partnership with Microsoft. The dedicated computer lab offers classes that range from basics, such as an introduction to Windows and instruction on computer safety and maintenance, to increasingly progressive classes in digital photography and editing. The ship's "techspert" is also available for individual guidance at designated times. All programs are free of charge.
Less successful is Westerdam's "On the Map" focus, which was meant to offer in-depth information on the ports we visited. Its dedicated "travel guide" hardly ever had any interesting information to impart on the itinerary and rarely was able to answer the most basic of passenger questions.
If in most cases Westerdam's daytime offerings are genuinely superb and are best-at-sea, in some cases I was disappointed in its nighttime entertainment. There's nothing wrong with the variety on offer -- classical music the Explorer's Lounge, a pop tune sing-along in the Piano Bar, line dancing in the Queens Lounge, and the Ocean Bar's bizarrely up-tempo cheek-to-cheek dance band -- but none of these staples really performed at the standard that I'm used to on Holland America.
The choice of a solo guitarist, playing pop music in the Crow's Nest, was a head scratcher; this is a venue where people enjoy conversation against a backdrop of soft background music. The guitarist was intrusive.
Ironically, the D.J. at the Northern Lights disco was superb but that venue really doesn't appeal to the majority of Westerdam's passengers. In fact, you'll see more officers and staff there at late hours.
Part of the challenge is that on this vessel, as on its Vista-class siblings, the entertainment venues are not ideally designed. If you're one of the dozen or so who can occupy a seat right around the piano in the Piano Bar, it's a fun experience; otherwise the seats in the rest of the lounge are too spread out to create any kind of ambience. The Ocean Bar, the ship's destination for low-lit, romantic dancing, is oddly interrupted by a major corridor.
In other instances, the music performances simply weren't up to Holland America Line's usual snuff. In the Ocean Bar, the music was weirdly chirpy, making it almost impossible to dance. The classical quartet that presided in the Explorer's Lounge, usually my favorite spot on a HAL ship, was simply lukewarm; short, banal introductions to each composition took away from the music rather than contributed to it.
The ship's evening offerings are by no means limited to music; the casino, on Deck 2, is vast and offers a full range of slot machines (these accept no cash, only your ship card) and table games, such as poker and roulette. And the Vista Lounge, the ship's three-deck main theater, always had an interesting program; on one night, while in Scotland, there was a local music show. On others, you'd find the ship's singers and dancers performing in a traditional cruise ship big production, a game show, a featured performer (in our case the entertainer offered a tribute to Lionel Richie), and even a juggler. Not to be missed in the Vista is its crew shows; there are two per cruise (one's a Phillipine crew show, the other's Indonesian).
The Queen's Lounge (by day the Culinary Arts Center) is a terrific forum for low-key dance music and films.
After enrichment programs and nightly diversions, cruising's third pillar of entertainment -- shore excursions -- was amply represented on Westerdam with at least one active, recreationally oriented tour available in most ports. However, despite the fact that Holland America's ships regularly cruise to nearly every corner of the world, the tour menu itself was pretty much standard fare -- the same offerings you see on most cruise lines. If you want genuinely unique experiences, you'll want to either plan your own excursions or book a private car and guide through the tour office.
Holland America Line automatically adds $11.50 per person, per day, to onboard accounts; this 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 tacked onto bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.
While some cruise lines beef up kids' programs to attract business, Club HAL, Holland America's program for youngsters, is directly related to demand and season. The line says that for every 30 children in the age range of 3 - 17, a counselor is provided. KidZone is an area devoted to the youngest guests, while The Loft is a teen dance, video and movie area.
The programs are adequate, but Holland America does not really promote Westerdam as a family ship.
As with other cruise lines, Holland America is expanding its traditional passenger base outside the North American market, so some cruises, like our Rotterdam-based voyage around the British Isles and Ireland, may attract English speakers from the U.K., South Africa and Australia, as well as Europeans. (Especially in keeping with HAL's roots, there were many from Holland.) Regardless of language spoken, most passengers do fit into a particular demographic: traditionally 50-plus, well traveled and upscale.
Depending on the itinerary, the ship will offer two to three formal nights, and passengers really do dress up. Though the casually attired can avoid the main restaurant on those nights, you may feel under-dressed in entertainment venues before and after dinner. Resort casual is otherwise the mainstay, though passengers tend to dress pretty informally during the day.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Westerdam, like its Vista-class siblings, has gorgeous pool areas. The main pool, housed under a sliding glass magradome roof that can open on sunny days, is elegantly designed, with a sculpture of leaping dolphins and wicker-like lounges with plush, padded cushions. There are three whirlpools.
The aft pool is a lovely retreat. Adults-only, it's got great views off the ship's aft, colorful tiles, plenty of deck chairs and lots of deck space. There are two whirlpools in this pool area.
Another Holland America distinction is its promenade deck, which goes all the way around the ship. It's host to walkers and joggers and also the once-a-cruise On Deck for the Cure event, in which participants make a $15 contribution to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and undertake a 5K walk -- complete with music, a pink lemonade party at the conclusion and a terrific sense of communal support.
There's a basketball court (it replaces the tennis court that's found on older HAL ships).
The Greenhouse Spa and Salon is the heart of the ship's spa, fitness and recreation offerings. Operated by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure, which helms spas on most cruise lines, it occupies the forward area beyond the main pool.
The salon covers the basics, from hair styling to manicures and pedicures, and its wall-to-wall windows, overlooking the sea (or in port, various vistas), offer a pleasant ambience. At the spa, a host of treatments range from usual (Swedish massage and facials) to intriguing options like the hot stones massage (great for easing aches and pains). On our port-intensive itinerary, the spa was very creative in offering specials and packages that were hard to resist; $89 for a 50-minute "twilight massage," held during dinnertime, typically a slow time in the spa, was a bargain as was "the unwinder," a 1.5-hour facial/massage/pedicure treatment for $109.
The highlight of the spa facility is the ship's hydrotherapy pool. Located inside (one glass wall looks out to the main pool area but the view is obscured, both inside and out, by rather dreary-colored shades), it's got bubbling warm water and various sprinklers and showers that gently pummel your body. A separate steam area melts away stress with heated mosaic loungers, scented showers and a steam room. Entrance to these two facilities can be pricey at $15 per person per day. The areas are also not available free of charge to passengers pre- or post-spa treatment, which seems stingy. But look out for occasional port day promotions that offer discounts or include a free visit with treatment.
The fitness facility is well equipped and was always busy, but never seemed overwhelmingly so. Classes in aerobics are available on a complimentary basis. Yoga and Pilates workouts cost $11 per session.
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