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Cruise Line Review

Holland America Line - Cruise Line Review provided by Cruise Critic

About

If you had to pick one word to describe the Holland America Line, that word would be "venerable." The line is arguably the most historic and tradition-laden on the seas today. Its first ship, the 1,684-ton Rotterdam, set sail on a voyage between Holland and New York in 1873 and today HAL ships sail all around the globe.

The line originally was named The Netherlands-America Steamship Company, but soon became known as the Holland America Line because it carried great numbers of immigrants from Holland to America. The company concentrated on the trans-Atlantic passenger trade, as well as the commercial freight shipping business until the 1970s. Its first purpose-built passenger ship was built in 1973, and since then, the line has concentrated on cruise vacation travel. In 1978, Holland America moved its headquarters from Rotterdam to Stamford, Connecticut. The company's headquarters then moved to Seattle, Washington in 1983, in order to consolidate operations with an Alaska tour company, Westours (Holland America had purchased a controlling interest in Westours in the early 1970's). In 1988, Holland America purchased Windstar Cruises, operator of four- and five-masted computer-guided sailing ships.

A year later, the behemoth Carnival Corporation acquired the Holland America Line, which remains headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

Holland America may now be a U.S.-based cruise line, but it continues to maintain strong ties with its Netherlands heritage. Ships in its fleet -- since the 1890s and continuing today -- bear the suffix "dam." Most of the names are inspired by actual dams that traverse the rivers of the Netherlands. In other cases, such as with its Vista-class of ships, the names represent points of the compass (Oosterdam is East, Westerdam is West, Noordam is North, etc.). Many of the names are in their fourth, fifth, or sixth incarnations. Eurodam , HAL's newest offering, will come online in June 2008, the first in the line's new Signature Class.

Another nice traditional touch: In the summer of 2003, Holland America celebrated its 130th anniversary in Rotterdam, its founding city. It was a royalty-studded gala in which the townspeople lined the docks to celebrate their most famous homegrown enterprise. The celebration had another purpose: to inaugurate the 85,000-ton, 1,848-passenger Oosterdam. The Oosterdam is the second in the line's Vista-class ships, the largest vessels in Holland America's history. The third Vista-class ship, the Westerdam, was launched in April 2004; the fourth and final, Noordam, debuted in March 2006.

The Vista-class ships are not the only news from the line of late. At the end of 2003, Holland America announced a new initiative, known as the "Signature of Excellence." Under the initiative, completed in early 2006, the line has spent over $225 million to enhance its fleet in areas of guest accommodations, public rooms, dining, service, and enrichment programs.

HAL's Ryndam , which underwent an extensive dry docking in summer 2003, was the first ship in the fleet to emerge with the full "Signature of Excellence" refurbishment; Noordam was built with enhancements in its architecture.

Some of the changes include an early embarkation program that allows guests to board as early as 11am; a new Culinary Arts Center for cooking demonstrations and classes; table-side waiter service in the ships' casual dining venue, Lido Restaurant; exclusive "Medallion Shore Excursions" at its exotic destinations, such as Asia and Africa; an expanded "Speakers Program"; new Greenhouse Spas on all ships, offering exclusive treatments in thermal suites and hydro pools; the "Explorations Cafe" to serve as a multidimensional venue for onboard programming; 24-hour concierge service for suite guests; and more extensive youth programs.

The Fleet

While Holland America offers many consistent features across the fleet, its 13 ships do offer varied onboard ambiances.

First up is the company's ultra-contemporary Vista-class of vessels. The first in the 85,000-ton, 1,848-passenger group of ships was the Zuiderdam , which entered service in 2003. The Oosterdam debuted in 2003, followed by Westerdam in April 2004, and Noordam in March 2006.

Highlights of the Vista-class ships include ocean views in 85 percent of the staterooms, and verandahs in 67 percent of the staterooms; each stateroom is also equipped with a data port connection. The ships feature nifty, glass-walled exterior elevators that ascend up 10 decks and provide fabulous panoramic views. The alternative restaurant, spa, entertainment lounge, penthouse verandah suites and Internet cafe on the Vista-class ships are the largest in the Holland America fleet. There are extensive Club HAL children's play facilities on all Vista-class ships.

Almost as contemporary are the 60,000-ton, 1,440-passenger sister ships Zaandam and Volendam . The ships debuted in 1999 and 2000, sandwiched in between the launch of the line's Rotterdam and Statendam classes of ships. Zaandam and Volendam feature a convenient third staircase for easier access to public rooms, a very spacious and well-equipped gym facility, and more of the popular "verandah suites" (168) than any other Holland America ship.

The Rotterdam-class vessels consist of the line's two flagships, the 1,316-passenger Rotterdam and the 1,380-passenger Amsterdam , built in 1997 and 2000, respectively. As flagships, the Rotterdam and Amsterdam were designed to show off Holland America at its best -- and most opulent. They are the most posh ships in the line, decorated with a lot of dark woods, ornate dining facilities, elaborate atriums, and the impressive original artworks that are the line's hallmark. Constructed for longer voyages, the ships carried passengers on the Grand World Voyages from 1997 - 2001.

The Statendam-class ships include Statendam, Maasdam , Ryndam, and Veendam . The four vessels entered service between 1993 and 1996. The ships were ordered not long after Carnival Corporation bought Holland America. Since Carnival didn't want the Holland America ships to compete in size with its own Carnival Cruise Lines, the Statendam ships were kept to a more modest size: 55,000 tons, 720-feet long, with a passenger capacity of approximately 1,260.

The eight older ships have now been upgraded with Signature of Excellence enhancements, and all boast the Explorations Cafe, Culinary Arts Center, Eurotop mattresses, upscale bedding, massage showerheads, lighted make-up mirrors, salon-style hairdryers, and expanded children's and teen centers found on the newer Vista-class ships.

Holland America purchased the 793-passenger Prinsendam in 2002. Built in 1988, the ship was originally called the Royal Viking Sun, and then became the Seabourn Sun. Holland America dubbed the ship its "Elegant Explorer," and is now utilizing it primarily for longer sailings, such as the Grand World Voyage. Although Holland America updated the ship when it purchased it, the Prinsdendam still has an old-world feel, with lots of dark woods and brass accents. But it also has plenty of modern amenities, including a nicely equipped Internet cafe with wireless access in hot spots throughout the ship and a small but lovely Pinnacle Grill Restaurant. The Prinsendam's promenade deck, with its unobstructed views, is one of the nicest on the seas.

Onboard Atmosphere

One of the nice things about Holland America's onboard ambiance is that its arty, colorful ships, though all carrying an individual decorating theme, have a pleasant consistency. Holland America ships have numerous traditions that are consistent throughout the fleet, such as afternoon tea, gentlemen hosts for dancing on cruises over 10 days, and a quaint "chime ringing" to announce dinner.

The line distinguishes itself with an eclectic, yet thoughtful, collection of artworks onboard, and art tours are definitely worthwhile. New self-guided tours are being loaded into iPods, which will be available to borrow from each ship's Explorations Cafe.

Holland America offers some special-touch services not found on other cruise lines. If you're on a warm weather itinerary, you'll find waiters roaming the decks with tall glasses of ice tea or lemonade. In Alaska, you'll warm up on the outside decks with mugs of delicious Dutch pea soup.

The line was a pioneer in introducing the alternative restaurant concept, with the Odyssey Restaurant onboard the Rotterdam.These days, the concept has evolved and the line's signature restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, is in place fleet-wide as the alternative dining venue. The Pinnacle Grill is a reservations-only venue with a $15 cover charge for lunch (sea days only) and $30 for dinner. The atmosphere is elegant, and the cuisine features meat and seafood dishes with a Pacific Northwest theme.

Holland America has long been one of the more traditional cruise lines when it comes to main restaurant dining. On every ship but Prinsendam, Holland America has offered four seatings: 5:45 p.m. (first upper); 6:15 p.m. (first lower); 8 p.m. (main upper); and 8:30 p.m. (main lower). But that's changing as the line begins to incorporate As You Wish dining onto its ships. Via As You Wish, passengers can opt for pre-set seating and dining time -- or take advantage of a new, flexible option at dinner time (breakfast and lunch are already open seating).

The program, tested on Noordam, enables passengers to, during the booking phase, request either option. One level of the ships' two-deck-high dining rooms will be dedicated to traditional "early or main seating" while the other will be open from 5:15 - 9 p.m. daily. Passengers opting for the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.

As You Wish will be phased in gradually. In fall/winter 2007, look for its introduction on Noordam, Ryndam and Volendam. Statendam, Oosterdam, Rotterdam, and Zaandam will introduce it in winter 2008. And Westerdam, Zuiderdam, Veendam, Maasdam, Amsterdam, and Prinsendam will incorporate As You Wish in spring and early summer. HAL's new Eurodam will debut in July with As You Wish in place.

Evening entertainment, consistent with the Holland America experience, is fairly understated, with pre-dinner cocktails generally being the liveliest time. However, there are numerous entertainment options, from disco-style dancing in the Crow's Nest to flicks in the cinema to Vegas-style revues in the main theater. Every voyage features a crew show, alternating from cruise to cruise between Indonesian and Filipino, where crew members sing and dance -- always wonderful.

Itineraries

Holland America offers one of cruising's most varied fleet schedules -- each year, its ships sail to over 280 ports of call on all seven continents. Its itineraries are more diverse than most cruise lines, because they sail from so many different home ports (25 in 2006). New ports for 2006 include Benghazi, Libya; Pearl Island, Panama; South Georgia Island in the sub-Antarctic islands; and Narvik, Norway.

Holland America was one of the first companies to offer Alaskan cruises, and it's an area where the line stands out in a crowded field. With eight ships in Alaska, the line offers an array of seven-day cruises, as well as extended cruisetours to Denali National Park or Canada's Kluane National Park. Cruisetour passengers travel on new "McKinley Explorer" railcars, the largest domed railcars ever built.

Holland America also offers a yearly world cruise, called the "Grand World Voyage" on Prinsendam. In 2009, Prinsendam will offer a 68-day Grand South American and Antarctica Voyage, as well as a 50-day Grand Mediterranean and Black Sea Voyage. Both cruises will be offered in their entirety or for booking as shorter segments of the full itineraries (passengers can stay onboard as few as 11 nights of the South American and Antarctica cruise and 23 nights of the Mediterranean and Black Sea sailing).

Fellow Passengers

Holland America has long had a reputation for catering to a well-heeled but somewhat tradition-minded crowd. Perhaps that's due to the line's insistence on maintaining its traditions, with set-seating dining, elegant afternoon tea, ballroom dancing, and on-ship tennis courts. But Holland America is also making an effort to entice a younger, hipper customer by integrating some of cruising's most important new features, such as Internet cafes with wireless access, boutique alternative restaurants, concierge service for upper level accommodations, and indoor-outdoor pools for year-round use. Camp HAL has also been upgraded to meet the needs of younger families with children--especially during summer sailings to Alaska and the Caribbean, and on weeklong (as opposed to two-week-plus) voyages. Although Holland America is not likely to rival Disney for breadth and depth of its programs, most of the ships offer "Club HAL" children's programming, particularly during summer and other school holiday periods. Highlights include, for instance, a "Just for Kids" Alaska shore excursion that emphasizes more active endeavors.

The "Club HAL" programs are divided into three age groups: 3 - 5, 5 - 8 and 9 - 12. All of the ships now have expanded children's facilities and dedicated teen lounges, "parent-free zones" with computers, conversation areas and gaming stations. Teens between the ages of 13 and 17 can take advantage of these spaces, which bear names such as The Loft, Oasis, and Wave Runner, with themes to match.

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