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Cruise Ship Review

ms Zuiderdamfont color=#C81D00 - Refurbished!/font - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

When Zuiderdam -- the first ship in Holland America's revolutionary Vista class -- was introduced back in 2002, it was much showier than its predecessors, with a flashy color scheme and younger sensibility, devised in an effort to attract a younger audience in a region that was, at that point, fairly uncharted for the line: the Caribbean. The vivid new look, from bright red elevators and hallways to bar and lounge seating in magenta, orange and yellow, raised more than a few eyebrows; in fact, the ships that followed reflected a return to a more conservative design style.

Interestingly, much of the ship's unusually bright decor was left untouched during the recent refit, part of the line's multi-million-dollar Signature of Excellence program. But, whether it is "gaudy" or "contemporary" really depends upon your personal style. After all, as more and more ship designers take risks with different shapes and colors, styles that felt loud in 2002 are more commonplace six years later. Perhaps the ship has just grown into its look.

One thing that's for certain is that Holland America, like many mainstream North American cruise lines, continues to invest money in its older ships via major renovation projects, aiming to bring modern amenities onboard and standardize experiences across the fleet. The Signature of Excellence initiative has been rolling out in phases since 2003. By 2006, every ship in the fleet -- including Zuiderdam -- had either received the first set of upgrades (from plush, new bedding to in-cabin DVD players) or was launched with them.

But a second round of changes was quickly announced, and Zuiderdam went under the knife again in 2008 for more updates. The major ones include:

The aft of the ship looks radically different. It used to be slanted at about a 45-degree angle; during the refit, however, the upper decks were extended outward to make room for more cabins, so the back of the ship is now a bit boxier. This structural change allowed for a total of 34 new verandah and inside staterooms, bringing the double occupancy capacity of the ship to 1,916.

Holland America's now-signature Explorations Cafe was brought to Zuiderdam during the 2008 refit, taking over the starboard side of the Crow's Nest, the top-of-ship lounge. The Pinnacle Grill, located on Deck 3, benefited from the elimination of the Windstar Cafe, which existed on that same deck. The cafe's old spot is now the location of the new Pinnacle Bar, popular for pre-dinner drinks among those dining at the alternative eatery. And because there's now a stand-alone bar, the one that was part of the restaurant was removed, allowing more seats to be added.

The library, too, was removed from Deck 3 (as it's now part of Explorations Cafe), which freed up space for additional shops and a cozy new movie theater, where films are screened throughout each cruise. "Sex and the City" and "Bottle Shock" were two that appeared on our itinerary.

Some areas could have used extra TLC during the dry dock, including some pesky "potholes" in passenger areas. (Watch out for the loose floorboards outside of the main dining room.) There were also chipped tubs and tiling in staterooms and, yes, even some of the bright carpeting was showing its age. But, in the long run, though we do appreciate the museum-quality art onboard -- from paintings of historic Dutch ships to a Waterford Crystal sculpture in the shape of a seahorse -- aesthetics aren't what the cruise experience is about.

For me, what set this cruise apart from other recent sailings was the crew onboard. While it's common for shipboard employees to have had a long history of work at sea, this is the first time I've met crewmember after crewmember with a long history of work, specifically with Holland America. They're loyal to the line, and in many cases, to this specific ship -- they come back, contract after contract.

I was also impressed with the way Holland America has encouraged its mostly Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers to make their cultures a part of the cruise experience on this and other ships in the fleet. There are special Indonesian afternoon teas offered, where crew wear native costumes and serve Indonesian teas and pastries. There is also a Filipino crew talent show held onboard. The cornerstone is local dance and music, but crewmembers also showcase more individual talents, from singing to guitar-playing. After a parody sketch, in which a group of obviously male colleagues pretended to be working in the rice paddies while dressed in drag -- inflated balloons stuffed into the fronts of shirts and backs of pants -- the hilarious emcee (a line cook at the lido grill by day) flashed a sweet smile and said, "I'm so proud of my country."

I couldn't tell you, without looking back at my photos, what color the couches in the Piano Bar are, but I won't forget that these hardworking men and women spent what little time off they do have rehearsing for the show.

Dining

The Vista Dining Room is Zuiderdam's two-deck main dining venue, offering open seating for breakfast and lunch, and two options for dinner: traditional, set tables and times (fixed dining) on the upper level or As You Wish (flexible dining) on the lower level. As You Wish guests are able to make reservations up until 4 p.m. each day for specific time slots (5:30, 5:45, 6, 8, 8:30, 9) or walk in anytime between 5:30 and 9:30 to request availability.

Though we opted for fixed dining, fellow passengers on this particular sailing shared positive feedback about the As You Wish program. One couple reported not having to wait once to be seated, even though they showed up at different times each night without reservations. It's a wonderful way to meet new people because you aren't tied to the same tablemates nightly. On the flip side, dining this way means having different servers every night, and for many cruisers, having a close rapport with a particular waiter or team is important.

Zuiderdam's alternative restaurant is the Pinnacle Grill, open for lunch most sea days at a charge of $10 per person or for dinner for $20 per person; reservations are required. The cuisine is Pacific Northwestern, with an emphasis on steaks. A new menu has debuted on the ship, but the overall concept remains the same -- cheeses, fruits and meats from the Northwest region. Standouts from my visit include a flavorful filet, available in two sizes, 7 and 10 ounces. (Go for the 10 -- you're on vacation!) The restaurant's Chocolate Volcano Cake, a warm and decadent dessert with a gooey center, was worth the cover charge. The wine list includes selections from Washington and Oregon.

Dinner was superb, both in the quality of selections and in service, but a lunchtime visit was slower, and I felt it didn't offer the same value-for-money as supper.

The ship's casual eatery is the Lido Restaurant, which is set up in a somewhat traditional cafeteria fashion -- though there are distinct stations (Italian, deli, bistro fare), they are lined up port and starboard, rather than scattered about, which results in some queuing at peak times.

At breakfast, you'll find scrambled eggs, pancakes or French toast, breakfast meats, cereals, pastries, breads and fruit, along with a station for made-to-order eggs, omelets and even eggs Benedict. Midday, the fare available is almost identical on either side, with one or two differences: For example, at lunch both sides featured the same hot dishes, ice cream and sandwich options, but the Asian station -- frankly, one of the best bets here, with flavorful daily selections and a choose-your-own stir-fry option -- was solely on the port side. Salad fixings and beverages (water, iced tea and juice) can be found in a central walkway between port and starboard.

The Lido is also open nightly for those who opt for a casual dinner, though there was nothing extraordinary about taking supper there. Aside from the Italian station, which always serves pasta and pizza, entrees often matched what was being served in the main dining room, but there were no tableside services, tablecloths or special place settings.

At the midship pool, the Terrace Grill serves up lunchtime burgers, hot dogs, wursts, grilled chicken and vegetarian burgers with fries and crisp onion rings; check out the toppings bar for other options, as well, including taco shells and fillings, and tortilla chips for making your own heaping plate of nachos.

Room service is available 24 hours a day. Breakfast can be ordered by placing a completed hanging card on your doorknob by 2 a.m. It goes beyond the Continental breakfast of muffins and jams to include omelets or scrambled eggs (Egg Beaters available), sausage and more. Otherwise, there are two menus from which you can order in-room meals. A round-the-clock menu features standard fare (hamburgers, triple-decker clubs), and a larger menu, including those items and more (tuna melts, penne primavera), is offered from noon until 10 p.m.

Dishes always arrived when promised and at the right temperature, and I'd suggest this option over the Lido for a night away from the crowds. The vegetarian wrap with a creamy, rich Thai-inspired coconut sauce was particularly memorable.

While there were no truly bum meals in the Vista Dining Room, like most lines, Holland America does a better job in some areas than in others. Ample portions of well-seasoned beef and lamb were always brought out at the temperature requested, and creative takes on fish had a prominent place on the nightly roster. Pasta, on the other hand, was consistently dry. (I learned to ask for extra sauce on the side.) Generally, we found service to be excellent in the main dining room and sporadic in areas like the Lido Buffet. (Purchasing a Diet Coke or asking for a refill on your coffee might prove difficult, though someone always seemed available to clear away trays and prep the table for the next passenger.)

Public Rooms

Most of the public rooms -- including the shops, casino, theaters and many bars and lounges -- are located on Decks 2 and 3 (Lower and Upper Promenade Decks, respectively), which makes it very easy to get your bearings. The open Atrium is the central point of the ship's lower decks, beginning on Deck 1 (Main Deck) as the location of the purser's and shore excursion desks. None of these areas ever felt particularly crowded.

The ship's "shopping arcade," redesigned during the refurbishment, is located on Deck 3; included now is Merabella, a designer jewelry boutique, first introduced on Amsterdam. There's also a shop for fine jewelry and watches and another that sells souvenirs, liquor, clothing and sundries. Each day, a "sale" area rotates different items; one day, you might find tables of mid-range watches (Anne Klein, Kenneth Cole); the next, sweatshirts and tees. If you see something you like, snap it up, as it might not make another appearance!

There are also three small conference/meeting spaces; the new Screening Room, an intimate space with big plush chairs for a real movie theater experience; and, heading aft toward the Vista Dining Room, the ship's photo gallery. The art gallery is located one level down on Deck 2. (Auctions are held in the larger Ocean Bar.)

The Crow's Nest, Holland America's signature lounge at the top of the ship with floor-to-ceiling windows looking forward, is a central point for daytime activities, such as bingo and trivia. During the refurbishment, the starboard side of this lounge was transformed into the Explorations Cafe, a combination library, coffeehouse and Internet cafe. High-speed terminals are scattered around the library. (Wi-Fi is available in hot spots around the ship. Wired, in-cabin access is also offered, though our cabin was close enough to public spaces to pick up the Wi-Fi.) You can pay as you go for 75 cents a minute, buy 100 minutes for $55 (55 cents a minute) or buy 250 minutes for $100 (40 cents a minute).

At the Starbucks-style coffee bar, you can purchase lattes, cappuccinos and specialty hot and iced coffee beverages, starting from $2 and change; espresso and cappuccino are still complimentary in the main dining room.

Cabins

Zuiderdam kicked off a new era for Holland America in being able to offer more outside cabins than ever before. More than 80 percent of all staterooms onboard are outsides, and more than 60 percent of all rooms feature private verandahs -- a large number for a mid-sized ship. Decor is mostly rusts and purples, muted compared to the rest of the ship.

Though the cabins themselves are showing some age, particularly in bathroom fixtures like tubs and tiling, the recent renovations have brought appreciated creature comforts to the mix, such as flat-screen TV's with DVD players in all staterooms, three-time magnifying mirrors and Mariner's Dream Bed mattresses (Euro-top Sealy Posturpedics) with cushy duvet coverings. We also love that unlike many other cruise ships, which are shower-only until you reach suite-level accommodations, most of the staterooms onboard Zuiderdam have tubs with shower heads; exceptions are the lowest level insides and a few random cabins in other categories (check the deck plan carefully).

Overall, staterooms aren't massively large -- standard insides start from just 143 square ft. -- but there is a great deal of cleverly hidden storage space, including cubbies under each of the beds. (Twins make up a queen.) Oceanview cabins start from 185 square ft. In the next step up, Deluxe Verandahs are 249 square ft. (including the balconies) and offer sitting areas. Superior Verandah Suites measure 389 square ft. and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities.

Deluxe Verandah Suites increase to 510 square ft., and the beds are kings rather than queens. The corner suites (category SB, under Deluxe Verandah Suites) on the aft of the ship offer spacious, wraparound verandahs. Finally, the two Penthouse Verandah Suites are 1,318 square ft.; perks include microwaves, guest bathrooms, hot tubs on the verandahs and private stereo systems.

Suite passengers also have access to a private space, the Neptune Lounge, where evening hors d'oeuvres and cocktails are served; the concierge can make spa and restaurant reservations.

Some 28 cabins in a variety of categories are handicap accessible.

Editor's note: All G-category staterooms have partial sea views. All GG-, H- and HH-category staterooms have fully obstructed views.

Entertainment

A cashless casino is strategically placed on Deck 2 en route to the Vista Lounge, the ship's main theater, featuring completely electronic slot machines (winnings tracked on your key card -- no more coins), the usual table games (roulette, blackjack, craps, Caribbean stud poker) and a dealer-less Texas Hold 'Em table with monitors at each seat for digital multi-player games.

Though many areas of the ship are quiet after dark -- more elderly passengers turn in early -- you'll always find action in the casino and surrounding lounges like the Sports Bar, which broadcasts major sporting events, but mostly features international games like European football (soccer); the Piano Bar, which offers live, themed music (like Beatles sing-alongs) each evening; and the Northern Lights disco (where the D.J. tried his hand at various genres, from 70's disco to recent club cuts).

Nightly performances included decent productions, variety shows and a hilarious comedian in the tiered Vista Lounge. The aforementioned crew talent show is a hit, but also not to be missed is the Zuiderdam Superstar competition, an "American Idol"-type talent show for those passengers not afraid to karaoke for a crowd. The 90-something-year-old man who sang "America the Beautiful" brought me patriotically to my feet but, sadly, did not make the top five. Don't worry about getting to the Vista Lounge early; there are always seats available on the upper level (particularly for the later shows), and as long as you avoid the obvious structural supports, the sightlines are fine from up above.

Even as the onboard experience has evolved over the years, there are some distinctive Holland America touches that have remained, including hot hors d'oeuvres in bars and lounges before dinner, fresh flowers throughout the ship's public spaces and (our favorite) lots of live music in the evenings. For example, a string quartet performs nightly in the stately Explorer's Lounge, where you can sip a cognac before or after dinner, and a pianist plays in the Ocean Bar, a hot spot at the top of the Atrium, for those who like to partake in a little pre-dinner dancing.

No matter the hour, the Crow's Nest is our favorite space on the ship, with friendly bartenders and armchairs facing the sea -- but the space is underutilized at night. There's no live music here as in other areas of the ship, and there's surprisingly little foot traffic after hours. The decision to quiet the Crow's Nest at night is deliberate. It is a peaceful retreat for those who want to stay up past their bedtimes, but who, at the same time, want to avoid the clanging in the casino or the thumping bass in Northern Lights. (Before HAL had nightclubs, dancing was found in the Crow's Nest.) Still, some low-key musicians would add to the ambience.

Daytime activities run the gamut from pool games (yes, even the hairy chest competition made its appearance) to flower-arranging. The Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine magazine, is outstanding. This Food Network-style show kitchen, set up in the secondary show space (the Queens Lounge), is used for cooking demonstrations (which are free) and hands-on cooking classes ($29 per person). The classes fill up quickly, so sign up early in the cruise if you'd like to participate; otherwise, the demonstrations are fun to attend, and overhead cameras and large monitors make it possible for everyone to see the action on the stove.

Holland America recently restructured the titles and responsibilities of its entertainment staff. Some, but not all, members of Holland America's new "Explorations Team" were rolled out onboard Zuiderdam for our November 2008 voyage: There's the Cruise Director, who seems to be in 10 places at once; a knowledgeable and personable Travel Guide, who presides over port lectures; and a party planner, who emcees in the Culinary Arts Center and handles events like martini-mixing.

Coming soon -- by April 2009, the target date for the program to roll out completely, fleetwide -- are a "techspert" (to offer computer and photography classes in conjunction with Microsoft) and a dance director (to run lessons and plan dance-related activities).

Fitness and Recreation

The central pool onboard, the Lido Pool, is set on Deck 9 midship underneath the magrodome (or retractable roof). The serious sunbathers, however, vie for the chairs around the Sea View Pool, aft, open to the blue sky and blinding sun. Both the Lido and Sea View pools are flanked by hot tubs (three and two, respectively), and poolside activities are staggered between both, depending on the day. During peak times, it can be hard to snag a seat, but it's not impossible. There are always deck chairs available on the quieter (though oft windier) Observation Deck (10) just above.

The large, full-service Greenhouse Spa and Salon is operated by cruise conglomerate Steiner Leisure. Its bustling lobby, located forward on the Lido Deck between the covered pool and a stairwell/elevator bank, does not do the rest of the space justice; there are several tranquil treatment rooms, including a couple's massage room (with a private, jetted tub) and several rooms with windows overlooking the ocean so you don't feel like you're crammed into a closet that just happens to smell of essential oils. Treatments range from the standard facial or Swedish massage to hipper sessions like teeth whitening and acupuncture.

Prices felt above-average, and though special combo treatments are offered at decent prices on port days, there are no in-port discounts on regular menu items except on embarkation day. So if, for example, you want that full hot-stone massage (as I did), you'll have to shell out $195. (Even though the treatment was lovely, it was still more than I've paid for the same at high-end New York City spas.) Also, the product pitch -- really more of a major-league fastball -- is among the pushiest I've encountered. I slinked out of the treatment room, feeling guilty for not buying something, rather than feeling relaxed (which defeats the purpose of going to the spa).

There's also a private hydrotherapy area that includes an 18-by-22-foot hydro pool with strong jets to soothe sore muscles and a thermal suite with heated tile loungers and steam/sauna rooms. You have to pay to play: A pass for the duration of our 10-day cruise was $150 per person or $250 per couple. (You can share with a friend, if not your cabin mate.) You can also buy a day-pass for $40. Unlike some ships, which allow spa passengers to use the thallasotherapy pool on the same day they've booked a treatment, Zuiderdam's is only available to those with the separate pass.

The adjacent fitness center is quite spacious for a ship this size, offering more than enough gym equipment, from steppers and treadmills to biking and rowing machines, as well as free weights. There's also a space for aerobic and other organized classes; some are free and others (like yoga and Pilates) carry an $11 fee. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a forward view worth working up a sweat for.

A walking/jogging track is available on the Promenade deck; three laps around equal one mile. This is also the setting for On Deck for the Cure, a fundraising walk for breast cancer held once on each voyage aboard every ship in the fleet. Participants donate $15, a small portion of which covers a T-shirt and pink wristband that you can wear during the walk and then keep. The rest of the money goes to Komen for the Cure, via the Holland America Foundation.

Family

Holland America's kids' program, Club HAL, is broken down into three tiers: Club HAL Kids (ages 3 to 7, must be potty trained), Club HAL Tweens (ages 8 to 12) and Teens (ages 13 to 17). The youngest set might participate in arts and crafts, storytelling or ice cream sundae parties, while the Tweens compete in on-deck sporting events like basketball or disco dance-offs. Teen activities include trivia contests, karaoke and card games.

On Zuiderdam, there's one Club HAL space to accommodate the younger age groups, and it's outfitted with a movie screening area and PlayStation consoles. Meanwhile, teens get their own space in the Loft, which features foosball, a jukebox and more PlayStation consoles. There isn't a kids-only pool, so children are encouraged to use the midship swimming area (the aft pool is technically adults-only, but kids are allowed if they're supervised). Activities are generally offered in the mornings, afternoons and evenings, and an After Hours program is available from 10 p.m. until midnight for $5 per child. In-cabin babysitting services are limited; check with the front desk.

It's important to note that the hours and extent of programming often depend on how many children are onboard. For example, youth staff will organize a HAL talent show for kids … when there are 100 or more onboard. There were only 15 children enrolled in the kid's club on our sailing. (There was one lone teen onboard, who opted not to participate in organized activities.) When I popped in early in the afternoon on the last day of the voyage, the program was already shutting down. But, the youth staff was quick to point out that, during the holiday season, the number of kids and teens onboard climbs to around 175.

We love that the Culinary Arts Center gears two special workshops toward younger cruises: ages 3 to 7 and ages 8 and older. These classes are complimentary and focus on cooking safety, cleanliness and measuring. Teenagers (15 and older) may participate in the adult classes.

Bottom line: Zuiderdam might not be the natural choice if you are planning a kid-centric vacation. But, there are ample facilities and activities to entertain young ones if you are also looking for a ship that's flexible enough to accommodate many age groups on a multigenerational family getaway or reunion -- particularly during peak family travel times like the holidays or spring break.

Fellow Passengers

Age ranges vary by cruise length and itinerary. For example, you're likely to find more young passengers on weeklong voyages to the Caribbean. But, in general, Holland America attracts a slightly older, more affluent clientele with the average ages in the mid-50's. HAL boasts a loyal passenger base, which means each cruise nets a high percentage of repeat passengers. Our sailing, a longer (10-day) trip that also did a partial Panama Canal transit, skewed even a bit older and was comprised mostly of North American travelers, though there were several Canadians and Brits onboard, too.

Dress Code

Our 10-day sailing through the Caribbean and Panama Canal featured two formal nights and one "optional" formal night (about half of the passengers onboard dressed up). On formal evenings, most men wear suits (a few were in tuxedos); women opt for gowns, cocktail dresses or nice pants suits. All other nights were smart casual. In general, T-shirts, jeans, swimsuits, tank tops and shorts should not be worn in public areas after 6 p.m. But, if you want to have a casual evening, you can certainly dress down for dinner in the Lido Buffet.

Gratuity

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.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor

Cabins

Zuiderdam kicked off a new era for Holland America in being able to offer more outside cabins than ever before. More than 80 percent of all staterooms onboard are outsides, and more than 60 percent of all rooms feature private verandahs -- a large number for a mid-sized ship. Decor is mostly rusts and purples, muted compared to the rest of the ship.

Though the cabins themselves are showing some age, particularly in bathroom fixtures like tubs and tiling, the recent renovations have brought appreciated creature comforts to the mix, such as flat-screen TV's with DVD players in all staterooms, three-time magnifying mirrors and Mariner's Dream Bed mattresses (Euro-top Sealy Posturpedics) with cushy duvet coverings. We also love that unlike many other cruise ships, which are shower-only until you reach suite-level accommodations, most of the staterooms onboard Zuiderdam have tubs with shower heads; exceptions are the lowest level insides and a few random cabins in other categories (check the deck plan carefully).

Overall, staterooms aren't massively large -- standard insides start from just 143 square ft. -- but there is a great deal of cleverly hidden storage space, including cubbies under each of the beds. (Twins make up a queen.) Oceanview cabins start from 185 square ft. In the next step up, Deluxe Verandahs are 200 square ft. (54-square-ft. balcony) and offer sitting areas. Superior Verandah Suites measure 298 square ft. (100-square-ft. balcony) and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities.

Deluxe Verandah Suites increase to 380 square ft. (130-square-ft. balcony), and the beds are kings rather than queens. The corner suites (category SB, under Deluxe Verandah Suites) on the aft of the ship offer spacious, wraparound verandahs. Finally, the two Penthouse Verandah Suites are 1,000 square ft. (318-square-ft. balcony); perks include microwaves, guest bathrooms, hot tubs on the verandahs and private stereo systems.

Suite passengers also have access to a private space, the Neptune Lounge, where evening hors d'oeuvres and cocktails are served; the concierge can make spa and restaurant reservations.

Some 28 cabins in a variety of categories are handicap accessible.

Editor's note: All G-category staterooms have partial sea views. All GG-, H- and HH-category staterooms have fully obstructed views.

Gratuity

Holland America Line automatically adds $11 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 on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor. Updated by Dan Askin, Associate Editor.

Cabins

Zuiderdam kicked off a new era for Holland America in being able to offer more outside cabins than ever before. More than 80 percent of all staterooms onboard are outsides, and more than 60 percent of all rooms feature private verandahs -- a large number for a mid-sized ship. Decor is mostly rusts and purples, muted compared to the rest of the ship.

Though the cabins themselves are showing some age, particularly in bathroom fixtures like tubs and tiling, the recent renovations have brought appreciated creature comforts to the mix, such as flat-screen TV's with DVD players in all staterooms, three-time magnifying mirrors and Mariner's Dream Bed mattresses (Euro-top Sealy Posturpedics) with cushy duvet coverings. We also love that unlike many other cruise ships, which are shower-only until you reach suite-level accommodations, most of the staterooms onboard Zuiderdam have tubs with shower heads; exceptions are the lowest level insides and a few random cabins in other categories (check the deck plan carefully).

Overall, staterooms aren't massively large -- standard insides start from just 143 square ft. -- but there is a great deal of cleverly hidden storage space, including cubbies under each of the beds. (Twins make up a queen.) Oceanview cabins start from 185 square ft. In the next step up, Deluxe Verandahs are 249 square ft. (including the balconies) and offer sitting areas. Superior Verandah Suites measure 389 square ft. and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities.

Deluxe Verandah Suites increase to 510 square ft., and the beds are kings rather than queens. The corner suites (category SB, under Deluxe Verandah Suites) on the aft of the ship offer spacious, wraparound verandahs. Finally, the two Penthouse Verandah Suites are 1,318 square ft.; perks include microwaves, guest bathrooms, hot tubs on the verandahs and private stereo systems.

Suite passengers also have access to a private space, the Neptune Lounge, where evening hors d'oeuvres and cocktails are served; the concierge can make spa and restaurant reservations.

Some 28 cabins in a variety of categories are handicap accessible.

Editor's note: All G-category staterooms have partial sea views. All GG-, H- and HH-category staterooms have fully obstructed views.

Gratuity

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.

--by Melissa Baldwin Paloti, Managing Editor

Cabins

Zuiderdam kicked off a new era for Holland America in being able to offer more outside cabins than ever before. More than 80 percent of all staterooms onboard are outsides, and more than 60 percent of all rooms feature private verandahs -- a large number for a mid-sized ship. Decor is mostly rusts and purples, muted compared to the rest of the ship.

Though the cabins themselves are showing some age, particularly in bathroom fixtures like tubs and tiling, the recent renovations have brought appreciated creature comforts to the mix, such as flat-screen TV's with DVD players in all staterooms, three-time magnifying mirrors and Mariner's Dream Bed mattresses (Euro-top Sealy Posturpedics) with cushy duvet coverings. We also love that unlike many other cruise ships, which are shower-only until you reach suite-level accommodations, most of the staterooms onboard Zuiderdam have tubs with shower heads; exceptions are the lowest level insides and a few random cabins in other categories (check the deck plan carefully).

Overall, staterooms aren't massively large -- standard insides start from just 143 square ft. -- but there is a great deal of cleverly hidden storage space, including cubbies under each of the beds. (Twins make up a queen.) Oceanview cabins start from 185 square ft. In the next step up, Deluxe Verandahs are 200 square ft. (54-square-ft. balcony) and offer sitting areas. Superior Verandah Suites measure 298 square ft. (100-square-ft. balcony) and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities.

Deluxe Verandah Suites increase to 380 square ft. (130-square-ft. balcony), and the beds are kings rather than queens. The corner suites (category SB, under Deluxe Verandah Suites) on the aft of the ship offer spacious, wraparound verandahs. Finally, the two Penthouse Verandah Suites are 1,000 square ft. (318-square-ft. balcony); perks include microwaves, guest bathrooms, hot tubs on the verandahs and private stereo systems.

Suite passengers also have access to a private space, the Neptune Lounge, where evening hors d'oeuvres and cocktails are served; the concierge can make spa and restaurant reservations.

Some 28 cabins in a variety of categories are handicap accessible.

Editor's note: All G-category staterooms have partial sea views. All GG-, H- and HH-category staterooms have fully obstructed views.

Gratuity

Holland America Line automatically adds $11 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 on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.

Gratuity

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 on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.

Dining

The Vista Dining Room is Zuiderdam's two-deck main dining venue, offering open seating for breakfast and lunch, and two options for dinner: traditional, set tables and times (fixed dining) on the upper level or As You Wish (flexible dining) on the lower level. As You Wish guests are able to make reservations up until 4 p.m. each day for specific time slots (5:30, 5:45, 6, 8, 8:30, 9) or walk in anytime between 5:30 and 9:30 to request availability.

Though we opted for fixed dining, fellow passengers on this particular sailing shared positive feedback about the As You Wish program. One couple reported not having to wait once to be seated, even though they showed up at different times each night without reservations. It's a wonderful way to meet new people because you aren't tied to the same tablemates nightly. On the flip side, dining this way means having different servers every night, and for many cruisers, having a close rapport with a particular waiter or team is important.

Zuiderdam's alternative restaurant is the Pinnacle Grill, open for lunch most sea days at a charge of $10 per person or for dinner for $20 per person; reservations are required. The cuisine is Pacific Northwestern, with an emphasis on steaks. A new menu has debuted on the ship, but the overall concept remains the same -- cheeses, fruits and meats from the Northwest region. Standouts from my visit include a flavorful filet, available in two sizes, 7 and 10 ounces. (Go for the 10 -- you're on vacation!) The restaurant's Chocolate Volcano Cake, a warm and decadent dessert with a gooey center, was worth the cover charge. The wine list includes selections from Washington and Oregon.

Dinner was superb, both in the quality of selections and in service, but a lunchtime visit was slower, and I felt it didn't offer the same value-for-money as supper.

The ship's casual eatery is the Lido Restaurant, which is set up in a somewhat traditional cafeteria fashion -- though there are distinct stations (Italian, deli, bistro fare), they are lined up port and starboard, rather than scattered about, which results in some queuing at peak times.

At breakfast, you'll find scrambled eggs, pancakes or French toast, breakfast meats, cereals, pastries, breads and fruit, along with a station for made-to-order eggs, omelets and even eggs Benedict. Midday, the fare available is almost identical on either side, with one or two differences: For example, at lunch both sides featured the same hot dishes, ice cream and sandwich options, but the Asian station -- frankly, one of the best bets here, with flavorful daily selections and a choose-your-own stir-fry option -- was solely on the port side. Salad fixings and beverages (water, iced tea and juice) can be found in a central walkway between port and starboard.

The Lido is also open nightly for those who opt for a casual dinner, though there was nothing extraordinary about taking supper there. Aside from the Italian station, which always serves pasta and pizza, entrees often matched what was being served in the main dining room, but there were no tableside services, tablecloths or special place settings.

At the midship pool, the Terrace Grill serves up lunchtime burgers, hot dogs, wursts, grilled chicken and vegetarian burgers with fries and crisp onion rings; check out the toppings bar for other options, as well, including taco shells and fillings, and tortilla chips for making your own heaping plate of nachos.

Room service is available 24 hours a day. Breakfast can be ordered by placing a completed hanging card on your doorknob by 2 a.m. It goes beyond the Continental breakfast of muffins and jams to include omelets or scrambled eggs (Egg Beaters available), sausage and more. Otherwise, there are two menus from which you can order in-room meals. A round-the-clock menu features standard fare (hamburgers, triple-decker clubs), and a larger menu, including those items and more (tuna melts, penne primavera), is offered from noon until 10 p.m.

Dishes always arrived when promised and at the right temperature, and I'd suggest this option over the Lido for a night away from the crowds. The vegetarian wrap with a creamy, rich Thai-inspired coconut sauce was particularly memorable.

While there were no truly bum meals in the Vista Dining Room, like most lines, Holland America does a better job in some areas than in others. Ample portions of well-seasoned beef and lamb were always brought out at the temperature requested, and creative takes on fish had a prominent place on the nightly roster. Pasta, on the other hand, was consistently dry. (I learned to ask for extra sauce on the side.) Generally, we found service to be excellent in the main dining room and sporadic in areas like the Lido Buffet. (Purchasing a Diet Coke or asking for a refill on your coffee might prove difficult, though someone always seemed available to clear away trays and prep the table for the next passenger.)Editor's note: Beginning December 8, 2014, Zuiderdam will offer world-class musical performances with the B.B. King's Blues Club experience, five nights a week in the Queen's Lounge.

When Zuiderdam -- the first ship in Holland America's revolutionary Vista class -- was introduced back in 2002, it was much showier than its predecessors, with a flashy color scheme and younger sensibility, devised in an effort to attract a younger audience in a region that was, at that point, fairly uncharted for the line: the Caribbean. The vivid new look, from bright red elevators and hallways to bar and lounge seating in magenta, orange and yellow, raised more than a few eyebrows; in fact, the ships that followed reflected a return to a more conservative design style.

Interestingly, much of the ship's unusually bright decor was left untouched during the recent refit, part of the line's multi-million-dollar Signature of Excellence program. But, whether it is "gaudy" or "contemporary" really depends upon your personal style. After all, as more and more ship designers take risks with different shapes and colors, styles that felt loud in 2002 are more commonplace six years later. Perhaps the ship has just grown into its look.

One thing that's for certain is that Holland America, like many mainstream North American cruise lines, continues to invest money in its older ships via major renovation projects, aiming to bring modern amenities onboard and standardize experiences across the fleet. The Signature of Excellence initiative has been rolling out in phases since 2003. By 2006, every ship in the fleet -- including Zuiderdam -- had either received the first set of upgrades (from plush, new bedding to in-cabin DVD players) or was launched with them.

But a second round of changes was quickly announced, and Zuiderdam went under the knife again in 2008 for more updates. The major ones include:

The aft of the ship looks radically different. It used to be slanted at about a 45-degree angle; during the refit, however, the upper decks were extended outward to make room for more cabins, so the back of the ship is now a bit boxier. This structural change allowed for a total of 34 new verandah and inside staterooms, bringing the double occupancy capacity of the ship to 1,916.

Holland America's now-signature Explorations Cafe was brought to Zuiderdam during the 2008 refit, taking over the starboard side of the Crow's Nest, the top-of-ship lounge. The Pinnacle Grill, located on Deck 3, benefited from the elimination of the Windstar Cafe, which existed on that same deck. The cafe's old spot is now the location of the new Pinnacle Bar, popular for pre-dinner drinks among those dining at the alternative eatery. And because there's now a stand-alone bar, the one that was part of the restaurant was removed, allowing more seats to be added.

The library, too, was removed from Deck 3 (as it's now part of Explorations Cafe), which freed up space for additional shops and a cozy new movie theater, where films are screened throughout each cruise. "Sex and the City" and "Bottle Shock" were two that appeared on our itinerary.

Some areas could have used extra TLC during the dry dock, including some pesky "potholes" in passenger areas. (Watch out for the loose floorboards outside of the main dining room.) There were also chipped tubs and tiling in staterooms and, yes, even some of the bright carpeting was showing its age. But, in the long run, though we do appreciate the museum-quality art onboard -- from paintings of historic Dutch ships to a Waterford Crystal sculpture in the shape of a seahorse -- aesthetics aren't what the cruise experience is about.

For me, what set this cruise apart from other recent sailings was the crew onboard. While it's common for shipboard employees to have had a long history of work at sea, this is the first time I've met crewmember after crewmember with a long history of work, specifically with Holland America. They're loyal to the line, and in many cases, to this specific ship -- they come back, contract after contract.

I was also impressed with the way Holland America has encouraged its mostly Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers to make their cultures a part of the cruise experience on this and other ships in the fleet. There are special Indonesian afternoon teas offered, where crew wear native costumes and serve Indonesian teas and pastries. There is also a Filipino crew talent show held onboard. The cornerstone is local dance and music, but crewmembers also showcase more individual talents, from singing to guitar-playing. After a parody sketch, in which a group of obviously male colleagues pretended to be working in the rice paddies while dressed in drag -- inflated balloons stuffed into the fronts of shirts and backs of pants -- the hilarious emcee (a line cook at the lido grill by day) flashed a sweet smile and said, "I'm so proud of my country."

I couldn't tell you, without looking back at my photos, what color the couches in the Piano Bar are, but I won't forget that these hardworking men and women spent what little time off they do have rehearsing for the show.

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