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Cruise Ship Review

ms Westerdam - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

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.Editor's note: Beginning November 8, 2014, Westerdam will offer world-class musical performances with the B.B. King's Blues Club experience, five nights a week in the Queen's Lounge.

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.

Dining

Dining on Westerdam is centered around the ship's two-tiered Vista Dining Room, its main restaurant. It serves breakfast and dinner daily. Lunch is offered on sea days and, occasionally, on port days as well.

Breakfast and lunch are always open seating. In the morning, regular menu offerings span a vast range, from healthy choices like yogurt and muesli to the decadently delicious and exotic (the zucchini bread French toast was superb). Lunch features a three-course scenario, with starters (soups and appetizers), entrees (choices always include salads) and dessert.

But it's the evening when the Vista really shines. Formal nights are particularly memorable, with chairs covered in linen and passengers all dolled up in finery. The kitchen really shines and makes an extra effort -- don't miss these evenings if you want lobster or chateaubriand.

There are two dining options for passengers. Those who prefer the traditional fixed-seating scenario can opt for set schedules and tablemates on Vista's deck 3 level; times can vary by itinerary. On our cruise the seatings were at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. We opted for the other choice: As You Wish dining. Deck 2 of the Vista is dedicated to a more restaurant-style scenario, in which tables are available, via walk-in or by reservation, from 5:15 – 9 p.m. We generally went the reservation route but only very occasionally was there a line for As You Wish dining.

Whether you choose traditional or As You Wish dining, tables are mostly in groups of six, eight and beyond; there are fewer set-ups for twos and fours. Flexible diners may be encouraged to dine with other passengers at larger tables. The difference between this and fixed seating is that you're not committed to the same folks at dinner each night.

Cuisine highlighted primarily traditional preparations. Vegan, kosher, low-sodium and other dietary needs can be easily met with advance notice. The menu always features a vegetarian item for each course and "available daily" items, such as a Caesar salad, French onion soup, grilled salmon or chicken, and a broiled steak. HAL's executive chef, Rudi Sodamin, features recommendations each night, and I found his selections to generally be the most intriguing on the menu.

The MDR 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.

Holland America's lido buffet venues are consistently among the most beautiful and well organized at sea, and Westerdam's didn't disappoint. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the room's jazzy colors are a mood-lifter (and don't forget that there's plenty of seating on the adjacent aft deck and even in the main pool area). Food is arranged in theme-based stations, serving up salads, sandwiches-to-order, pizza, sushi and hot fare, so you don't have to wait behind someone picking through the salad bar when you want to move on to the grill station.

Operating hours for the Lido are generous. A full buffet breakfast service begins at 6:30 a.m. and runs until 10:30 a.m. (a continental bar is available until 11 a.m.). Breakfast was particularly impressive -- while many lines offer pancake, waffle and omelet stations, I haven't come across another "eggs benedict-to-order" offering. There were numerous varieties of the dish, including "Scottish" eggs benedict (smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon) and "Eggs Stanley" (with crab meat). The cooks there would also simply prepare poached eggs upon request.

Lunch is from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. but food for noshing is available throughout the afternoon. And the choices really were superb. For instance, there'd be a pizza special, a pasta bar (with a variety of noodles and sauces), an Asian corner, sandwich specials (such as a reuben or Thai chicken wrap), a range of salads, fruits and pate, soups, and then bistro entrees (such as fried chicken or pan-seared salmon).

For passengers looking for a more casual dinner option, the Lido is a terrific spot; tables are covered in white linen and bar service is ample. Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. and closes down -- here's a quibble -- at a relatively early 8 p.m., even on port-intensive cruises like ours. Casual dinner would include breads, appetizers, a couple of soups and a range of salads, and entrees like halibut, lamb chops and game hen. The Lido reopens again for "late night snack," which could be themed, such as an Italian evening that featured pasta, salads and antipasto, and full-on entrees from lasagna to chicken.

Note: operating times in the lido can vary with the ship's schedule. If, for instance, a number of tours are returning back to the vessel after the traditional lunch hour, it'll stay open later.

In the main pool area is the Terrace Grill, and it was one of the few food-oriented weaknesses on Westerdam. The grill was understaffed, the cook was surly, and while there was a sign on the outside to list offerings, it was blank. You just had to guess ("do you have chicken burgers?"). Adjacent to that was a steam table with Mexican food for make-your-own-tacos, etc., that wasn't terribly appetizing. (There's nothing like congealed, overheated cheese to dampen the appetite.)

Beyond main dining venues, Westerdam has two specialty restaurants. Its best known is the elegant Pinnacle Grill, the fleet's Pacific Northwest-themed eatery. Well worth the $20 per-person cover, the ambience is hushed and elegant, featuring Bvlgari china and Riedel stemware. Highlights are steaks, lamb chops and lobster (and the lobster macaroni and cheese is insanely good though the dinner portion is a bit rich -- try a smaller portion as an appetizer). Save room for the dessert soufflé -- it's worth it.

The wine list has an excellent selection of Pacific Northwest bottles (along with other new and old world choices) though is a bit on the pricey side. If you're not in the mood for a huge splurge, ask for the dining room's more plebian wine list.

Reservations are required and can be tough to get so make plans as soon as you can. But here's a tip: The restaurant opens for lunch on some days (the fee is $10 per person) with a different menu. It's got one of the best burgers in the world along with a delicious tenderloin, and the experience was equally fabulous.

A newer concept dining venue -- which is equally popular -- is Canaletto. The food's nothing-fancy-Italian (I equate it with Olive Garden), tables are awfully close together, and the service was indifferent, but it's a break from fancier fare. It's open for dinner only and occupies a dedicated corner of the Lido cafe. There's no service fee and advance reservations are crucial.

We loved the handful of special culinary events onboard. A wonderful way to greet embarking passengers was a first night's BBQ out on the pool deck; grilled lobster was the absolute highlight!

And for serious food and wine enthusiasts, the chef's once-a-cruise five-course tasting menu extravaganza is a must; it was the most memorable meal we had on a cruise in which many meals were outstanding. The menu varies at this food and wine paired event, which costs $75 per person and is held in the Culinary Arts Center. On our trip, highlights were a venison carpaccio, a perfectly rare tuna and grilled lamb chops. The food was so substantial that you might think it impossible to fit in dessert -- a double chocolate cake -- but we managed. The wines paired on this occasion were mostly South African and so a new region for many of us; this will vary of course, depending on what's available onboard.

Availability is limited; inquire upon boarding about making a reservation.

For light fare, such as pastries in the morning and small sweets and sandwiches throughout the day, head up to the Explorations Cafe, the ship's coffee bar/Internet center/library/card room. Also, kudos to Holland America for being one of the last big ship lines to provide complimentary hot and cold hors d'oeuvres in lounges during pre-dinner cocktails.

In-cabin meal service is available around the clock and was prompt and efficient. There's a quite comprehensive list of snacks, salads and sandwiches. As well, you can order from dining menus during mealtimes. At breakfast, hot items are available. There's no fee to use the service but we encourage you to proffer a small tip to the delivery person.

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

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

Dress Code

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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

Family

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.

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.

Entertainment

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.

Cabins

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.

Public Rooms

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.

Dining

Dining on Westerdam is centered around the ship's two-tiered Vista Dining Room, its main restaurant. It serves breakfast and dinner daily. Lunch is offered on sea days and, occasionally, on port days as well.

Breakfast and lunch are always open seating. In the morning, regular menu offerings span a vast range, from healthy choices like yogurt and muesli to the decadently delicious and exotic (the zucchini bread French toast was superb). Lunch features a three-course scenario, with starters (soups and appetizers), entrees (choices always include salads) and dessert.

But it's the evening when the Vista really shines. Formal nights are particularly memorable, with chairs covered in linen and passengers all dolled up in finery. The kitchen really shines and makes an extra effort -- don't miss these evenings if you want lobster or chateaubriand.

There are two dining options for passengers. Those who prefer the traditional fixed-seating scenario can opt for set schedules and tablemates on Vista's deck 3 level; times can vary by itinerary. On our cruise the seatings were at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. We opted for the other choice: As You Wish dining. Deck 2 of the Vista is dedicated to a more restaurant-style scenario, in which tables are available, via walk-in or by reservation, from 5:15 – 9 p.m. We generally went the reservation route but only very occasionally was there a line for As You Wish dining.

Whether you choose traditional or As You Wish dining, tables are mostly in groups of six, eight and beyond; there are fewer set-ups for twos and fours. Flexible diners may be encouraged to dine with other passengers at larger tables. The difference between this and fixed seating is that you're not committed to the same folks at dinner each night.

Cuisine highlighted primarily traditional preparations. Vegan, kosher, low-sodium and other dietary needs can be easily met with advance notice. The menu always features a vegetarian item for each course and "available daily" items, such as a Caesar salad, French onion soup, grilled salmon or chicken, and a broiled steak. HAL's executive chef, Rudi Sodamin, features recommendations each night, and I found his selections to generally be the most intriguing on the menu.

Holland America's lido buffet venues are consistently among the most beautiful and well organized at sea, and Westerdam's didn't disappoint. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the room's jazzy colors are a mood-lifter (and don't forget that there's plenty of seating on the adjacent aft deck and even in the main pool area). Food is arranged in theme-based stations, serving up salads, sandwiches-to-order, pizza, sushi and hot fare, so you don't have to wait behind someone picking through the salad bar when you want to move on to the grill station.

Operating hours for the Lido are generous. A full buffet breakfast service begins at 6:30 a.m. and runs until 10:30 a.m. (a continental bar is available until 11 a.m.). Breakfast was particularly impressive -- while many lines offer pancake, waffle and omelet stations, I haven't come across another "eggs benedict-to-order" offering. There were numerous varieties of the dish, including "Scottish" eggs benedict (smoked salmon instead of Canadian bacon) and "Eggs Stanley" (with crab meat). The cooks there would also simply prepare poached eggs upon request.

Lunch is from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. but food for noshing is available throughout the afternoon. And the choices really were superb. For instance, there'd be a pizza special, a pasta bar (with a variety of noodles and sauces), an Asian corner, sandwich specials (such as a reuben or Thai chicken wrap), a range of salads, fruits and pate, soups, and then bistro entrees (such as fried chicken or pan-seared salmon).

For passengers looking for a more casual dinner option, the Lido is a terrific spot; tables are covered in white linen and bar service is ample. Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. and closes down -- here's a quibble -- at a relatively early 8 p.m., even on port-intensive cruises like ours. Casual dinner would include breads, appetizers, a couple of soups and a range of salads, and entrees like halibut, lamb chops and game hen. The Lido reopens again for "late night snack," which could be themed, such as an Italian evening that featured pasta, salads and antipasto, and full-on entrees from lasagna to chicken.

Note: operating times in the lido can vary with the ship's schedule. If, for instance, a number of tours are returning back to the vessel after the traditional lunch hour, it'll stay open later.

In the main pool area is the Terrace Grill, and it was one of the few food-oriented weaknesses on Westerdam. The grill was understaffed, the cook was surly, and while there was a sign on the outside to list offerings, it was blank. You just had to guess ("do you have chicken burgers?"). Adjacent to that was a steam table with Mexican food for make-your-own-tacos, etc., that wasn't terribly appetizing. (There's nothing like congealed, overheated cheese to dampen the appetite.)

Beyond main dining venues, Westerdam has two specialty restaurants. Its best known is the elegant Pinnacle Grill, the fleet's Pacific Northwest-themed eatery. Well worth the $20 per-person cover, the ambience is hushed and elegant, featuring Bvlgari china and Riedel stemware. Highlights are steaks, lamb chops and lobster (and the lobster macaroni and cheese is insanely good though the dinner portion is a bit rich -- try a smaller portion as an appetizer). Save room for the dessert soufflé -- it's worth it.

The wine list has an excellent selection of Pacific Northwest bottles (along with other new and old world choices) though is a bit on the pricey side. If you're not in the mood for a huge splurge, ask for the dining room's more plebian wine list.

Reservations are required and can be tough to get so make plans as soon as you can. But here's a tip: The restaurant opens for lunch on some days (the fee is $10 per person) with a different menu. It's got one of the best burgers in the world along with a delicious tenderloin, and the experience was equally fabulous.

A newer concept dining venue -- which is equally popular -- is Canaletto. The food's nothing-fancy-Italian (I equate it with Olive Garden), tables are awfully close together, and the service was indifferent, but it's a break from fancier fare. It's open for dinner only and occupies a dedicated corner of the Lido cafe. There's no service fee and advance reservations are crucial.

We loved the handful of special culinary events onboard. A wonderful way to greet embarking passengers was a first night's BBQ out on the pool deck; grilled lobster was the absolute highlight!

And for serious food and wine enthusiasts, the chef's once-a-cruise five-course tasting menu extravaganza is a must; it was the most memorable meal we had on a cruise in which many meals were outstanding. The menu varies at this food and wine paired event, which costs $75 per person and is held in the Culinary Arts Center. On our trip, highlights were a venison carpaccio, a perfectly rare tuna and grilled lamb chops. The food was so substantial that you might think it impossible to fit in dessert -- a double chocolate cake -- but we managed. The wines paired on this occasion were mostly South African and so a new region for many of us; this will vary of course, depending on what's available onboard.

Availability is limited; inquire upon boarding about making a reservation.

For light fare, such as pastries in the morning and small sweets and sandwiches throughout the day, head up to the Explorations Cafe, the ship's coffee bar/Internet center/library/card room. Also, kudos to Holland America for being one of the last big ship lines to provide complimentary hot and cold hors d'oeuvres in lounges during pre-dinner cocktails.

In-cabin meal service is available around the clock and was prompt and efficient. There's a quite comprehensive list of snacks, salads and sandwiches. As well, you can order from dining menus during mealtimes. At breakfast, hot items are available. There's no fee to use the service but we encourage you to proffer a small tip to the delivery person.With the launch of ms Westerdam, the third in Holland America's Vista-class series, the cruise line continues to issue itself a challenge: How to continue to appeal to traditional passengers, which in HAL's case is older, experienced travelers, while also attracting younger, more dynamic and often first-time cruisers (particularly with a family demographic).

As such, Westerdam offers today's contemporary facilities and options, from a gourmet alternative restaurant to expansive spa and from cabins upgraded with plusher furnishings to a concierge lounge for suite guests. Traditional HAL favorites, such as the Crow's Nest, an elegantly decorated main pool area, the upscale lido buffet and an elaborate casino, still have a place.

Still, we sensed that Holland America is definitely at a crossroads, particularly with this, its newest ship. It wants to offer something for everyone -- and in moderation, the ship succeeds on that front. Where it tended to fall apart was in excess. Club HAL is a nice enough childrens' facility but wasn't elaborate enough to keep 400 kids entertained. Service is usually a high point on Holland America; here, staffers, from pool deckhands to restaurant waiters in the main dining room seemed overwhelmed if not occasionally rude. And the pool area, with its artwork and sculptures, is, consistent with the rest of the fleet, one of the industry's most elegant -- but it was overwhelmed by out-of-control youngsters and a dangerously lax staff.

As a ship, Westerdam's efforts to offer programs and facilities to appeal to a myriad of tastes work pretty well. It balances traditional-style cruise dining in its main restaurant with a genuinely unique gourmet eatery (and its Lido buffet area is the most elegant afloat). In addition to the usual spa and fitness offerings, there's a hydrotherapy pool. Staterooms are plush and comfortable as a result of a "Signature of Excellence" upgrade.

While facilities may succeed by and large in courting a wide appeal of traveler, we're not at all sure that Holland America's traditional passengers -- or its staff and crew for that matter -- are up to the challenge. On our voyage, heavily marketed to families with young children, pool decks were overrun and posted policies were ignored (we, along with other passengers, were horrified to see children diving off the main pool's dolphin sculpture -- both sacrilegious and dangerous!). Service from staff and crew was uncharacteristically lackluster if not occasionally surly.

We also found aspects of the onboard ambience to be a bit jarring.

Holland America likes to claim that it is a premium cruise line; the fact that bingo and art auctions were continually announced over the ship-wide loudspeaker, and that the library charges passengers a $25 deposit to borrow a book (and they mean it, too; mine, though returned, wound up on my final bill), speaks otherwise. At one night's special barbecue buffet, which was billed as lasting until 8:30 p.m., crew members already had begun breaking down not only food stations, but also tables, as numerous folks were still finishing meals.

There certainly were highlights -- the Pinnacle Grill definitely rated wonderfully on numerous forays there. Ultimately, though, Westerdam's efforts to please everyone fell flat -- and we learned that we'd far prefer a smaller ship with fewer options, and more respect for all its passengers.

Dining

Editor's Note: Holland America has long been one of the more traditional cruise lines when it comes to main-restaurant dining. On every ship but Prinsendam, HAL 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 (breakfast and lunch are already open seating).

The program, tested on Noordam, enables passengers to request either option during the booking phase. 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.

The two-tiered Vista Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; each night's menu features a selection of five entrees. Service is broken into four assigned seatings -- 5:15, 6:15, 8 and 8:30 p.m. -- which is intended to improve service, though we found that to be the weak link in the dining experience. Servers alternately seemed rushed and bored (frequently chatting amongst themselves when they could be chatting up passengers -- or at least offering menus and filling water glasses). Cuisine highlighted primarily traditional preparations.

In contrast, and quite unexpectedly, we found The Lido Deck buffet to be a superb option at all meals (particularly at dinner, when tables in the elegant room were covered with white linen tablecloths). The lido was designed in a station format so that different specialties are hosted in different places, which cut down on lines. Breakfast offered the usual options, plus a made-to-order omelette station. At lunch, each of these stations offers a distinct menu: Italian, deli, salads, Asian stir-fry, etc. Dinners were our favorite time; offering a low-key, casual option to the Vista, the cuisine generally replicated its menus and items were made-to-order. Occasional late-night buffets are held here as well.

Our absolute favorite spot was the Pinnacle Grill, Westerdam's alternate dining venue. Well worth the $20 per-person cover, the ambience is hushed and elegant (without feeling pretentious), featuring Bvlgari china and Riedel stemware. The cuisine (and the excellent wine list) centers on a Pacific Northwest theme. Reservations are required and can be tough to get if you wait more than a day or two to book ahead. But here's a tip: The restaurant opens for lunch on some sea days (the fee is $10 per person) with a different menu -- and the experience was equally fabulous.

One new Vista-class addition is the nautically themed Windstar Cafe, which sells "designer" coffees (for a fee), and offers up complimentary pastries.

We also applaud Westerdam's 24-hour room service. Prompt and efficient, there's a quite comprehensive list of snacks, salads and sandwiches. As well, you can order from dining menus during mealtimes. At breakfast, hot items are available.

Public Rooms

Public rooms are located in one two-deck grouping below Deck 4 and another above Deck 8. The intervening decks are devoted to passenger accommodations, and run the full length of the ship, vertically truncating the central atrium to three decks, which is unusually modest. In fact, the atrium feels cozy, as if it were the lobby of a small boutique hotel.

While the upper public areas concentrate on spa, sport, sustenance and scenery, the lower areas will lure passengers itching to part with their money in the casino and in the ship's shops. Other features include the spacious and extremely well stocked Erasmus Library, as well as the ample Internet Cafe. Passengers who bring their own laptops are accommodated with Wi-Fi hotspots here, and with data ports in all the cabins (don't miss the interactive map that's across from the Internet Cafe -- it alerts you to the positions of all the ships in the fleet and was quite captivating).

There's a series of shops, rather uncomfortably dark and claustrophobic; the merchandise falls in the same-old category.

Cabins

Westerdam's cabin apportionment reflects the industry-wide trend toward more verandahs, especially at lower price points. Seventy-four percent of the outside cabins have balconies. The smallest measure 254 square ft.; 54 square ft. make up a verandah sufficiently large for comfortable rattan furniture and a small teak pedestal table. The smallest cabins on the ship are standard insides at 170 square ft. (though some measure 200); standard outsides come in at 185. The largest accommodations are the 1,318-square-ft. Penthouse Verandah Suites. Twenty-eight staterooms are specially designated for handicapped passengers.

All staterooms have "Eurotop" mattresses, high-thread-count bed linens; bathrobes; premium massaging showerheads; magnifying lighted makeup mirrors and powerful hair dryers; direct-dial phones with voicemail; televisions; mini-bars; and safes. Suites also include DVD players for which there is an onboard lending library.

All staterooms above inside categories have tubs with showers. At the suite levels the tubs are whirlpools, and an extra shower stall is added, along with dual sinks.

One nice amenity for suite passengers is the Neptune Lounge, a private room with 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, as well.

Entertainment

The three-deck Vista Lounge is the ship's main showroom, with seating for 867. Views are vertically unobstructed given the room's steep raking, though a few columns block sightlines from some of the seats off the centerline. On a typical sailing, entertainment includes production shows, the usual complement of variety performers and HAL's popular traditions -- the Filipino and Indonesian staff shows.

New to Westerdam in 2008 is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.

Bar and lounge entertainment includes a piano bar, classical music (and fabulous desserts) each evening in Explorer's Lounge, and a small combo in the charming Ocean Bar. On the Vista-class ships the Crow's Nest observation lounge's night club function is shared with the new Northern Lights Disco, which is worth a visit if only to check out the nifty motion-triggered lights that lead you down the long winding entryway, illuminating the floor ahead (and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portraits on the walls around you as you pass).

Fitness and Recreation

Westerdam -- and its siblings -- represents a quantum leap forward in serving the spa and fitness needs of cruise guests. The Greenhouse Spa & Salon definitely has more amenities than older ships in the fleet, including a hydrotherapy pool, but it is strangely designed so that the reception area stands in the midst of a hallway between the main pool and an elevator bank (conjuring an ambience akin to a bus station).

There's a salon that offers the usual beauty fare and a nice menu of spa treatments. The spa has a small "relaxation" room intended as a peaceful waiting area for folks undergoing treatments (alas, prior to our massage a lifestyle class took up the space and the instructor was none-too-polite in ordering me to return in 15 minutes).

The fitness facility is well equipped and was always busy -- but never seemed overwhelmingly so.

Two spa highlights -- the hydrotherapy pool and the steam area with heated mosaic tile loungers -- are for-fee.

We love the ship's full-round promenade deck (decked out with teak loungers, it's also one of the quieter spots to repose onboard). There's a tennis court which on our voyage was converted to basketball in response to the number of kids onboard. Westerdam also features a golf simulator which allows virtual play on any of 22 worldwide courses.

The main pool area, presided over by a lovely bronze sculpture of leaping dolphins, also includes three hot tubs. Though the aft pool area with its two hot tubs lacks some of the shade of the main area, it felt more spacious. There are plenty of lounges in both areas.

Family

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 (though that ratio did not apply on our cruise, in which some 400 children were onboard). KidZone is an area devoted to the youngest guests, while Wave Runner is a teen dance, video and movie area.

The ship is far better suited to younger kids rather than teens but even parents of children in the 4 - 11 age range were complaining that their offspring were bored by the program.

Fellow Passengers

Depending on the season and itinerary, fellow passengers may fall in the traditional HAL cruiser category (upscale, well-traveled and older) or a younger demographic (particularly families). Travelers in search of a more sedate experience should avoid school holiday periods.

Dress Code

Conventional. Two or three formal nights with the remainder split between informal and casual. With the addition of the Lido Restaurants as an alternative dinner venue, those wishing to avoid sartorial formality have an alternate choice.

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.With the launch of ms Westerdam, the third in Holland America's Vista-class series, the cruise line continues to issue itself a challenge: How to continue to appeal to traditional passengers, which in HAL's case is older, experienced travelers, while also attracting younger, more dynamic and often first-time cruisers (particularly with a family demographic).

As such, Westerdam offers today's contemporary facilities and options, from a gourmet alternative restaurant to expansive spa and from cabins upgraded with plusher furnishings to a concierge lounge for suite guests. Traditional HAL favorites, such as the Crow's Nest, an elegantly decorated main pool area, the upscale lido buffet and an elaborate casino, still have a place.

Still, we sensed that Holland America is definitely at a crossroads.

As a ship, Westerdam's efforts to offer programs and facilities to appeal to a myriad of tastes work pretty well. It balances traditional-style cruise dining in its main restaurant with a genuinely unique gourmet eatery (and its Lido buffet area is the most elegant afloat). In addition to the usual spa and fitness offerings, there's a hydrotherapy pool. Staterooms are plush and comfortable as a result of a "Signature of Excellence" upgrade.

While facilities may succeed by and large in courting a wide appeal of traveler, we're not at all sure that Holland America's traditional passengers -- or its staff and crew for that matter -- are up to the challenge. On our voyage, heavily marketed to families with young children, pool decks were overrun and posted policies were ignored (we, along with other passengers, were horrified to see children diving off the main pool's dolphin sculpture -- both sacrilegious and dangerous!). Service from staff and crew was uncharacteristically lackluster if not occasionally surly.

We also found aspects of the onboard ambience to be a bit jarring.

Holland America likes to claim that it is a premium cruise line; the fact that bingo and art auctions were continually announced over the ship-wide loudspeaker, and that the library charges passengers a $25 deposit to borrow a book (and they mean it, too; mine, though returned, wound up on my final bill), speaks otherwise. At one night's special barbecue buffet, which was billed as lasting until 8:30 p.m., crew members already had begun breaking down not only food stations, but also tables, as numerous folks were still finishing meals.

There certainly were highlights -- the Pinnacle Grill definitely rated wonderfully on numerous forays there. Ultimately, though, Westerdam's efforts to please everyone fell flat -- and we learned that we'd far prefer a smaller ship with fewer options, and more respect for all its passengers.

Dining

The two-tiered Vista Dining Room, Westerdam's main restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In the evening, Holland America Line's As You Wish Dining enables passengers on Westerdam (and all other Holland America ships) to opt for pre-set seating and dining time -- or take advantage of a new, flexible option (breakfast and lunch are already open seating). One level of the ship's two deck high dining rooms will be dedicated to traditional "early or main seating" (usually 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. though times could vary based on itineraries) while the other will be open from 5:15 - 9 p.m. daily. Passengers who choose the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.

Dining in the main restaurant on a Holland America ship is an elegant, classy affair, and it was no different on Westerdam though servers alternately seemed rushed and bored (frequently chatting amongst themselves when they could be chatting up passengers -- or at least offering menus and filling water glasses). Cuisine highlighted primarily traditional preparations. Vegetarian, Kosher, low-sodium and other dietary needs can be easily met with advance notice. Breakfast and lunch is open-seating; service tends to be slower than at dinner, but the ambiance is certainly more elegant than that of the Lido Cafe.

Though casual in contrast, and quite unexpectedly, we found The Lido Deck buffet to be a superb option at all meals (particularly at dinner, when tables in the elegant room were covered with white linen tablecloths). The lido was designed in a station format so that different specialties are hosted in different places, which cut down on lines. Breakfast offered the usual options, plus a made-to-order omelette station. At lunch, each of these stations offers a distinct menu: Italian, deli, salads, Asian stir-fry, etc. Dinners were our favorite time; offering a low-key, casual option to the Vista, the cuisine generally replicated its menus and items were made-to-order. Occasional late-night buffets are held here as well.

Our absolute favorite spot was the Pinnacle Grill, Westerdam's alternate dining venue. Well worth the $20 per-person cover, the ambience is hushed and elegant (without feeling pretentious), featuring Bvlgari china and Riedel stemware. The cuisine (and the excellent wine list) centers on a Pacific Northwest theme. Reservations are required and can be tough to get if you wait more than a day or two to book ahead. But here's a tip: The restaurant opens for lunch on some sea days (the fee is $10 per person) with a different menu -- and the experience was equally fabulous.

One new Vista-class addition is the nautically themed Windstar Cafe, which sells "designer" coffees (for a fee), and offers up complimentary pastries.

We also applaud Westerdam's 24-hour room service. Prompt and efficient, there's a quite comprehensive list of snacks, salads and sandwiches. As well, you can order from dining menus during mealtimes. At breakfast, hot items are available.

Cabins

Westerdam's cabin apportionment reflects the industry-wide trend toward more verandahs, especially at lower price points. Seventy-four percent of the outside cabins have balconies. The smallest, the Deluxe Verandah Outsides, are 200 square ft. with 54-square-ft. balconies (54 square ft. is sufficiently large for comfortable rattan furniture and a small teak pedestal table). 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 largest accommodations are the 1,000-square-ft. (318-square-ft. balcony) Penthouse Verandah Suites. Twenty-eight staterooms are specially designated for handicapped passengers.

The smallest cabins on the ship are standard insides at 170 square ft. (though some measure 200); standard outsides come in at 185.

All staterooms have "Eurotop" mattresses, high-thread-count bed linens; bathrobes; premium massaging showerheads; magnifying lighted makeup mirrors and powerful hair dryers; direct-dial phones with voicemail; televisions; mini-bars; and safes. Suites also include DVD players for which there is an onboard lending library.

All staterooms above inside categories have tubs with showers. At the suite levels the tubs are whirlpools, and an extra shower stall is added, along with dual sinks.

One nice amenity for suite passengers is the Neptune Lounge, a private room with 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, as well.

Entertainment

The three-deck Vista Lounge is the ship's main showroom, with seating for 867. Views are vertically unobstructed given the room's steep raking, though a few columns block sightlines from some of the seats off the centerline. On a typical sailing, entertainment includes production shows, the usual complement of variety performers and HAL's popular traditions -- the Filipino and Indonesian staff shows.

The Microsoft Digital Workshops program is comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.

Bar and lounge entertainment includes a piano bar, classical music (and fabulous desserts) each evening in Explorer's Lounge, and a small combo in the charming Ocean Bar. On the Vista-class ships the Crow's Nest observation lounge's night club function is shared with the new Northern Lights Disco, which is worth a visit if only to check out the nifty motion-triggered lights that lead you down the long winding entryway, illuminating the floor ahead (and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portraits on the walls around you as you pass).

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.

--Updated by Dan Askin, Associate EditorWith the launch of ms Westerdam, the third in Holland America's Vista-class series, the cruise line continues to issue itself a challenge: How to continue to appeal to traditional passengers, which in HAL's case is older, experienced travelers, while also attracting younger, more dynamic and often first-time cruisers (particularly with a family demographic).

As such, Westerdam offers today's contemporary facilities and options, from a gourmet alternative restaurant to expansive spa and from cabins upgraded with plusher furnishings to a concierge lounge for suite guests. Traditional HAL favorites, such as the Crow's Nest, an elegantly decorated main pool area, the upscale lido buffet and an elaborate casino, still have a place.

Still, we sensed that Holland America is definitely at a crossroads, particularly with this, its newest ship. It wants to offer something for everyone -- and in moderation, the ship succeeds on that front. Where it tended to fall apart was in excess. Club HAL is a nice enough childrens' facility but wasn't elaborate enough to keep 400 kids entertained. Service is usually a high point on Holland America; here, staffers, from pool deckhands to restaurant waiters in the main dining room seemed overwhelmed if not occasionally rude. And the pool area, with its artwork and sculptures, is, consistent with the rest of the fleet, one of the industry's most elegant -- but it was overwhelmed by out-of-control youngsters and a dangerously lax staff.

As a ship, Westerdam's efforts to offer programs and facilities to appeal to a myriad of tastes work pretty well. It balances traditional-style cruise dining in its main restaurant with a genuinely unique gourmet eatery (and its Lido buffet area is the most elegant afloat). In addition to the usual spa and fitness offerings, there's a hydrotherapy pool. Staterooms are plush and comfortable as a result of a "Signature of Excellence" upgrade.

While facilities may succeed by and large in courting a wide appeal of traveler, we're not at all sure that Holland America's traditional passengers -- or its staff and crew for that matter -- are up to the challenge. On our voyage, heavily marketed to families with young children, pool decks were overrun and posted policies were ignored (we, along with other passengers, were horrified to see children diving off the main pool's dolphin sculpture -- both sacrilegious and dangerous!). Service from staff and crew was uncharacteristically lackluster if not occasionally surly.

We also found aspects of the onboard ambience to be a bit jarring.

Holland America likes to claim that it is a premium cruise line; the fact that bingo and art auctions were continually announced over the ship-wide loudspeaker, and that the library charges passengers a $25 deposit to borrow a book (and they mean it, too; mine, though returned, wound up on my final bill), speaks otherwise. At one night's special barbecue buffet, which was billed as lasting until 8:30 p.m., crew members already had begun breaking down not only food stations, but also tables, as numerous folks were still finishing meals.

There certainly were highlights -- the Pinnacle Grill definitely rated wonderfully on numerous forays there. Ultimately, though, Westerdam's efforts to please everyone fell flat -- and we learned that we'd far prefer a smaller ship with fewer options, and more respect for all its passengers.

Dining

Editor's Note: Holland America has long been one of the more traditional cruise lines when it comes to main-restaurant dining. On every ship but Prinsendam, HAL 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 (breakfast and lunch are already open seating).

The program, tested on Noordam, enables passengers to request either option during the booking phase. 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.

The two-tiered Vista Dining Room serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; each night's menu features a selection of five entrees. Service is broken into four assigned seatings -- 5:15, 6:15, 8 and 8:30 p.m. -- which is intended to improve service, though we found that to be the weak link in the dining experience. Servers alternately seemed rushed and bored (frequently chatting amongst themselves when they could be chatting up passengers -- or at least offering menus and filling water glasses). Cuisine highlighted primarily traditional preparations.

In contrast, and quite unexpectedly, we found The Lido Deck buffet to be a superb option at all meals (particularly at dinner, when tables in the elegant room were covered with white linen tablecloths). The lido was designed in a station format so that different specialties are hosted in different places, which cut down on lines. Breakfast offered the usual options, plus a made-to-order omelette station. At lunch, each of these stations offers a distinct menu: Italian, deli, salads, Asian stir-fry, etc. Dinners were our favorite time; offering a low-key, casual option to the Vista, the cuisine generally replicated its menus and items were made-to-order. Occasional late-night buffets are held here as well.

Our absolute favorite spot was the Pinnacle Grill, Westerdam's alternate dining venue. Well worth the $20 per-person cover, the ambience is hushed and elegant (without feeling pretentious), featuring Bvlgari china and Riedel stemware. The cuisine (and the excellent wine list) centers on a Pacific Northwest theme. Reservations are required and can be tough to get if you wait more than a day or two to book ahead. But here's a tip: The restaurant opens for lunch on some sea days (the fee is $10 per person) with a different menu -- and the experience was equally fabulous.

One new Vista-class addition is the nautically themed Windstar Cafe, which sells "designer" coffees (for a fee), and offers up complimentary pastries.

We also applaud Westerdam's 24-hour room service. Prompt and efficient, there's a quite comprehensive list of snacks, salads and sandwiches. As well, you can order from dining menus during mealtimes. At breakfast, hot items are available.

Cabins

Westerdam's cabin apportionment reflects the industry-wide trend toward more verandahs, especially at lower price points. Seventy-four percent of the outside cabins have balconies. The smallest measure 254 square ft.; 54 square ft. make up a verandah sufficiently large for comfortable rattan furniture and a small teak pedestal table. The smallest cabins on the ship are standard insides at 170 square ft. (though some measure 200); standard outsides come in at 185. The largest accommodations are the 1,318-square-ft. Penthouse Verandah Suites. Twenty-eight staterooms are specially designated for handicapped passengers.

All staterooms have "Eurotop" mattresses, high-thread-count bed linens; bathrobes; premium massaging showerheads; magnifying lighted makeup mirrors and powerful hair dryers; direct-dial phones with voicemail; televisions; mini-bars; and safes. Suites also include DVD players for which there is an onboard lending library.

All staterooms above inside categories have tubs with showers. At the suite levels the tubs are whirlpools, and an extra shower stall is added, along with dual sinks.

One nice amenity for suite passengers is the Neptune Lounge, a private room with 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, as well.

Entertainment

The three-deck Vista Lounge is the ship's main showroom, with seating for 867. Views are vertically unobstructed given the room's steep raking, though a few columns block sightlines from some of the seats off the centerline. On a typical sailing, entertainment includes production shows, the usual complement of variety performers and HAL's popular traditions -- the Filipino and Indonesian staff shows.

New to Westerdam in 2008 is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.

Bar and lounge entertainment includes a piano bar, classical music (and fabulous desserts) each evening in Explorer's Lounge, and a small combo in the charming Ocean Bar. On the Vista-class ships the Crow's Nest observation lounge's night club function is shared with the new Northern Lights Disco, which is worth a visit if only to check out the nifty motion-triggered lights that lead you down the long winding entryway, illuminating the floor ahead (and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portraits on the walls around you as you pass).

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.

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