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Cruise Ship Review

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

The last of Holland America's Statendam-class ships, Veendam has always had a strong traditional flavor, but its major upgrade in 2009 has transformed the ship into a trendsetter for its class. Now measuring 57,092 tons and carrying 1,350 passengers (up from 1,266), Veendam's enhancements include new lanai and spa cabin categories, a more contemporary look in public areas and cabins, additional dining options and a revamped theater experience. The overhaul has given new energy to this little ship, even while the service kinks were being worked out on my June 2009 cruise.

So what's new?

Cabins: Balcony cabins have been added to the back of the ship, some with larger aft-facing verandahs -- a welcome addition to a ship built before balconies became a must-have. Lanai cabins, with sliding-glass doors that lead to the outdoor promenade deck, are an innovative way to give additional cabins access to fresh air and outdoor spaces. Other new additions are the spa cabins (picking up on the wellness trend), which offer a more earthy decor, as well as spa privileges and amenities. And, in all staterooms, fresh color schemes and soft goods offer a more contemporary look.

Dining: Two new dining venues have been added. The Canaletto Restaurant takes over a section of the Lido Restaurant each night to offer an intimate, alternative Italian dining experience -- with no extra charge. And the Slice pizza parlor is great for a quick lunch or midday snack, especially when lines get long in the Lido buffet.

Relaxing: The Deck 10 aft pool has been replaced with cabins, and now Deck 11 is home to the Retreat, a resort-style pool area. In addition to Slices and a bar, this deck area features a hot tub, lounge chairs arranged in a wading pool of water and a large screen for showing movies and nature films. It's already a popular spot for al fresco dining, laying out in the sun and gazing at the passing scenery.

Entertainment: Veendam's show lounge has been transformed into the "Showroom at Sea," which aims to create a more intimate theater experience with simpler shows that highlight talented performers fresh from Broadway. The Deck 8 entertainment area has also been opened up (walls have literally been knocked down) to create a better flow between shops, bars and the casino. In addition, two distinct bars have been combined to create Mix, sporting adjoining bar sections and trendy decor.

The look and flow of the ship may now be changed, but Veendam still retains its traditional strengths. Veendam's signature has been its intimate atmosphere and multitude of retreats, where passengers can enjoy a quiet moment or a book. You can still carve out a private space -- whether in one of the blissfully comfortable window-facing lounge chairs in the Explorations Cafe, a corner of the Crow's Nest or Explorer's Lounge, a padded deck chair on the Deck 6 promenade or one of the many slices of outer decks stepped up the bow of the ship. The only time you really feel the crowds is when you are queuing up for dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room or the Lido Restaurant.

The ship's $2 million art collection keeps the overall feel elegant and traditional with magnificent antique Delft, marble busts, armor and paintings of old Holland America ships on display. Even nightlife -- one of Holland America's weak points -- has been improved by the refurb; the open plan of Deck 8 creates a better vibe in the evenings when the energy of the casino spills over into the bar areas, and shoppers in the boutiques get lured across the walkway to the piano bar when they hear a favorite tune.

In fact, the only real negative to the refurbishments is that service could be slow, especially in the Lido, in Explorations coffee shop and during room service, all of which perennially seemed under-staffed. If Veendam's crew can smooth out service, this ship will be a wonderful mix of a classy mid-sized ship with a more modern, 21st-century ambience.

Dining

Veendam offers Holland America's As You Wish dining program, which means passengers can opt for pre-set seating and dining times at dinner (at 5:45 p.m. and 8 p.m.) or choose the open-seating option and arrive at the dining room anytime from 5:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are always open-seating. Passengers must request either option during the booking phase. One level of the ship's two-deck-high dining room is dedicated to traditional "early or main seating" (Deck 8 on my cruise), while the other is reserved for anytime dining (the larger Deck 7). Passengers opting for the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.

The Rotterdam Dining Room is striking. Instead of the usual neutral colors, the decor is rich red and gold, with three-dimensional flowers hanging from the ceiling and ornate lanterns on the railings. The dining room has two levels, and there is enough room between tables for private conversation and easy movement. Service in the main dining room is universally good and warmly attentive; the wine steward is knowledgeable and pleasant with both novices and experts. Dinner menus offer appetizers, soups and salads, entrees, two salmon options each night on Alaska cruises (which were consistently excellent, even toward the end of the cruise) and a few other options, which are offered every night (French onion soup, Caesar salad, grilled chicken breast and New York strip steak). One item per course is marked as the healthier Greenhouse Spa option, and one entree is always vegetarian. I never had a bad dish on my three nights dining in the Rotterdam, and food seemed improved from when I sailed with Holland America in 2007.

Editor's Note: Here's a caveat about the flexible dining plan. If you don't make a reservation for your preferred dinner time and table size each night, you take your chances in the dining room. One night I walked in at 6:30 p.m., and only four tables were open, all of which were large (though only two other diners were placed with us). On our trip, a week-long Alaska cruise, 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. tended to be the busiest times; some passengers who arrived then told us they waited more than an hour for a table.

Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room (though Rotterdam is sometimes closed for lunch -- on those days, the Pinnacle Grill serves a sit-down lunch), as is afternoon tea on sea days. Breakfast specialties include kippered herring, omelets, Belgian waffles and Eggs Benedict. The lunch menu offers a selection of three appetizers; a hot soup, a chilled soup or a salad; and several entrees. (There's no dedicated vegetarian lunch entree, though there's often a pasta dish.) A Royal Dutch Tea and an Indonesian Coffee Service were served on two of the sea days from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The Lido Restaurant serves breakfast from 6 a.m to 11 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., snacks from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a late-night snack from 11 p.m. to midnight. Although the restaurant is set up buffet-style, most of the hot food is not self-service. On my cruise, the serving lines never seemed to be fully staffed, which often led to waits.

Breakfast has the typical cereals, fruit, breakfast pastries, eggs (including a made-to-order omelet station), oatmeal, pancakes/French toast and breakfast meats. Tea, coffee and a selection of juices are available. Lunch is set up in multiple stations (salad and soup, cheese, hot entrees, carving dish, Italian, Asian, sandwich bar, dessert). Don't miss the fabulous chocolate-chip cookies. Dinner in the Lido typically features many of the same dishes as are being served in the Rotterdam but with some omissions and additions. Late-night snacks are themed -- All American, Indonesian, Dutch, Italian, etc. The most touted is the Dessert Extravaganza, where bread is made to look like animals, watermelons are carved with faces, and edible mice sit atop a cheesecake.

Post dry dock, one section of the Lido has been outfitted with a slightly different decor, and at dinner (served from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.), this area becomes Canaletto, an alternative Italian dining experience. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ups are accepted on a space-available basis. There is no fee to dine there, and the menu is the same each night. The area can seat 60 people at one time and serves about 90 diners in the course of an evening.

The menu starts with antipasti -- choose from grilled veggies, balls of mozzarella cheese and Italian deli meats. Next is a choice of appetizers (salad, minestrone soup or seafood soup), and entrees include assorted pasta dishes, Veal Milanese, Chicken Marsala Scaloppini and Cod Putanesca. At the end of the meal, every table receives a dish of cotton candy to share, in addition to a choice of desserts.

The food and experience is quite good for a no-fee onboard eatery, and I definitely felt like I was far away from the hustle and bustle of the Lido's buffet section. The waitstaff, all Asian, good-naturedly wear gondolier-inspired outfits and wish you "buona sera" (good evening in Italian). More oddly, they're given Italian nicknames. One waiter even made origami butterflies out of old menus for the ladies. It was a fun dinner -- partly because the waiters made a point to interact with the diners and partly because it was a low-key atmosphere without the pressure of fine dining for an extra fee.

The Terrace Grill is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves up hamburgers, veggie burgers, grilled chicken, hot dogs and sausage. The poolside area just opposite the Grill is also used for stations offering Mexican and Indonesian food and sometimes pasta. Also open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. is the new Slice pizza counter in the Retreat (though its hours may be extended in warmer cruising regions). When the lines are long in the Lido and I just wanted a quick lunch, the pizzeria was a godsend. The pizza is tasty too!

Hands down, the best food on Veendam can be found at the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's alternative dining venue with a steakhouse and Pacific Northwest seafood theme. It has a $20 per person surcharge, and dinners routinely take 2.5 hours. It also serves lunch on most days of the cruise for a $10 per person surcharge.

The decor is subtle with lots of brown wood and brown chairs, but the real showstopper is the food. Waiters make a show of presenting cuts of uncooked meat in a wheeled showcase. Appetizers include lobster bisque, Dungeness crab cakes and beefsteak tomato salad. Entrees are split between meats (multiple types of steak, as well as lamb, veal and chicken) and fish (salmon, lobster, cod), with a few crossovers (a surf-n-turf featuring filet mignon and jumbo prawns or lobster macaroni and cheese). Each diner gets a choice of traditional steakhouse sides like creamed spinach and potatoes. All of the food is fabulous -- no complaints at my table of eight -- but the dish that got the best reviews was the lobster macaroni and cheese (and it is flagged as the chef's favorite). And, although the waiters talk up the chocolate and vanilla velvet souffle, the chocolate volcano cake is worth trying, too.

Finally, room service is available 'round the clock. Breakfast options include juices, fruit, yogurt, breads, cereals, eggs and meats. (You can get simple omelets but not pancakes or oatmeal.) The regular menu features sandwiches (tuna melt, club), salads, milk and cookies and everyone's late-night favorite -- the cheeseburger. I was not impressed by room service delivery. The first day, our breakfast arrived without any beverages; the second, it came 15 minutes before our selected time. (I was still in bed.) Ironically, our dinner order was the only one without a hitch, though I did think it odd that they gave two people a plate of three cookies.

Public Rooms

Many of the public rooms are close to the three-story atrium with its multi-story glass sculpture that looks like DNA (though it's called "Jacob's Ladder"). The Deck 6 atrium is an open space where representatives of group tours or charters hold office hours. The Deck 7 atrium area houses the front desk, shore excursions desk and a brochure rack. Directly opposite is the photo gallery. Heading aft from the atrium, you'll find the art auction desk and two meeting rooms -- the Hudson and Half Moon rooms.

The Deck 8 atrium has two shops, selling logowear, destination-related souvenirs and duty-free goods like liquor and perfume. Opposite Mix, an open-plan store sells jewelry (everything from costume pieces to Tanzanite), as well as purses, ties, pashminas and more expensive souvenirs. Next door, the Merabella Luxury Collection Shop was created out of an under-used portion of the Explorer's Lounge. It sells very upscale, designer jewelry pieces.

Also on Deck 8, the Explorations Cafe is Veendam's library/coffee bar/Internet cafe. Wonderfully comfortable leather chairs and couches line the windows, with several tables and chairs for reading, puzzling, chatting over coffee and working on personal laptops. Twelve computer terminals are available to guests, and the ship is also wired for Wi-Fi. Wireless was not available in the cabins (though the Internet information sheet says that opening your door might help) and has the best signal in the Explorations Cafe and Explorer's Lounge. Internet pricing is 75 cents per minute, or you can buy packages of 100 minutes for $55 or 250 minutes for $100. A $3.95 activation fee applies on the first login, and printing is available at 25 cents per print job.

Service at the coffee bar was incredibly slow on my cruise. Hot coffee drinks range from $1.20 to $3.05 and iced drinks from $1.60 to $2.85. A drink of the day costs $3.95 or $4.45, depending on size, and specialty waters and sodas cost $2.75. Alcoholic coffee beverages are also available for higher prices; pastries and finger sandwiches are available for free.

Self-service launderettes can be found on Decks 5, 6 and 9. Washers and dryers are available for use ($2 per wash, $1 per dry, only quarters accepted), and detergent is provided. Irons and boards are free. The laundry rooms are open 24/7; please be courteous of guests sleeping across the hall, and keep the door closed or voices low if you choose to do laundry after 10 p.m. or before 8 a.m. (I had the room across from the Deck 6 launderette, and quite a party took place there at 6:30 a.m. on sea days.)

The Medical Center is located on Deck 4.

Cabins

Veendam may not offer as extensive a selection of cabin types as larger Holland America ships, but its 2009 refurbishment added several new cabin categories to help round out the selection. In addition, new decor, carpeting and soft goods give the cabins a more modern feel, with dark browns, reds and earth tones replacing the old bright red and blue cabin color schemes.

Veendam has 138 standard inside cabins, measuring 182 square feet each, and 306 outside cabins at 197 square feet. Beds can be arranged as two singles or one queen. Each cabin features a love seat with table and extra chair; small vanity/desk with flat-screen TV, DVD player and makeup mirror; bathrobes hanging on wall hooks; and a closet with a punch-code safe and a hair dryer. A nice touch is that closets have fold-down shelves and can be configured to have more room for hanging clothes or folded items, as you wish. An oddity is that, instead of a mini-bar, sodas and waters for sale are placed on the desk, taking up much-needed space. The stool at the desk/vanity is hollow for extra storage, though drawers under the bed are already filled with extra linens. Of the 537 cabins with windows, 43 percent (that's 231 cabins) have balconies. Of those, 164 are verandah suites, each measuring 238 square feet with a 54-square-foot balcony. The decor and amenities are similar to those in standard cabins, just with larger desk areas. Balconies are furnished with wicker loungers and chairs, each with a padded cushion, and small tables. New aft balcony cabins have larger-than-average verandahs that look out over the ship's wake.

Two new cabin categories feature interesting modifications to the basic inside, outside and verandah cabins. Twelve cabins near the spa have received new balconies and, along with three inside cabins, form a group of spa cabins. These cabins have a lighter decor than the standard staterooms, with more beige, olive green and light blue colors. They also come with extra amenities, such as priority spa bookings on embarkation day, spa concierge service, turn-down gifts each evening, an enhanced mini-bar setup (Vitamin Water and Voss, rather than Evian and Coke), organic bathrobes and slippers, a "distinctive shower head," wooden bathmats, iPod docking stations, water features, yoga mats, pedometers and fitness DVDs. In addition, spa cabin guests can book Spa Stateroom Rituals, spa treatments exclusive to these passengers. A spa breakfast menu is a healthier take on the typical room service menu, offering items like healthy cereals (no Frosted Flakes), egg selections made with egg beaters or egg whites, and fresh-fruit smoothies.

In addition, former outside cabins and offices on Deck 6 have been transformed into 38 lanai cabins. These cabins have the same decor as spa cabins (minus all the extra amenities) and are the same size as standard outsides. The difference is that, instead of an outer wall with a picture window, each has floor-to-ceiling windows with a sliding glass door leading to the Promenade Deck. Two deck chairs outside are reserved per cabin, though signage on my trip was not clear, and often I'd find other people sitting in my chairs. The back door is opened from the inside with a push button; to get back, you must swipe a special key against a pad to unlock the door. It would be more useful if your cruise card had that functionality so you didn't have to remember two cards. Also, in order to have access out the sliding door, the cabin furniture is arranged like a balcony cabin, but as there's not as much floor space, and the desks in lanai cabins are smaller than in other cabins and have no drawers. All cabins on the Promenade Decks (both outside and lanai cabins) have special glass, so the interiors of the staterooms cannot be seen by day from deck. (At night, draw the curtains.)

The lanai cabins are great for people who want easy access to the outdoors and the wraparound Promenade Deck -- I found this particularly useful in Alaska. Whale sighting? You can be outside in two ticks. But, having access to a public deck is nothing like having your own balcony -- no place for al fresco breakfasts in your PJ's, no private space to relax and gaze at sea. A lanai cabin should not be equated to a balcony cabin when choosing which stateroom to book.

Editor's note: Lanai windows are washed at 5:30 a.m. each morning. Be prepared -- it could wake you up.

Bathrooms in all of the aforementioned cabin categories have tubs with curtains (except for shower-only inside cabins). They come with individual travel-size bottles of Elemis shampoo, conditioner, body wash and lotion, as well as two types of soap. Storage space by the sink is limited to two small glass shelves – there's no mirror that opens up to reveal a vanity cabinet.

For a splurge, Veendam offers two deluxe suite categories. The 28 Deluxe Verandah Suites measure 376 square feet with 180-square-foot balconies and are each essentially one enormous room with a king-size bed, large sitting area with two chairs and a sofa bed that sleeps two, a large drawer unit, a bathroom with a separate dressing room, a bar area with fridge, floor-to-ceiling windows and a verandah big enough to hold two lounge chairs and an outdoor dining table with four chairs. The king of cabins, one 979-square-foot Penthouse Verandah Suite has a bedroom with a king-size bed, living room with a sofa bed that sleeps two, a dining room that seats eight, its own kitchen (with a fridge and microwave), a master bath with whirlpool tub and separate shower, a guest toilet, dressing area with vault-like walk-in closet and a desk that looks out on the 180-square-foot verandah. The decor is palatial with antiques for decoration.

Deluxe and Penthouse Suite guests have exclusive access to the Neptune Lounge on Deck 10 and its concierge services. In addition, passengers booked in these suites get special perks, such as complimentary laundry service, binoculars to use during the cruise, priority tendering and exclusive cocktail parties and lunches.

Entertainment

Veendam is one of the first ships to employ HAL's new activities program. This is broken down into Explorations (presentations on destinations -- including culture, shopping, wildlife and history -- led by the Travel Guide), Culinary Arts (such as cooking demos, classes on entertaining and wine tastings, hosted by the Party Planner), Microsoft Digital Workshops (courses on photo editing, blogging and creating Web pages, hosted by the Techspert) and Mind-Body-Spirit (fitness classes, lectures on wellness and trivia, hosted by the Lifestylist). Other daytime activities include bingo and bridge play, as well as the ubiquitous Park West art auctions. The computer classes get rave reviews from technology novices (classes are very basic), and one-on-one coaching is available during "Techspert Time." The Tai Chi sessions also get a great turnout of nearly 30 to 40 people each day on my cruise.

However, many of the wellness and entertaining classes seemed very fluffy to me. ("The Tao of Mr. Magoo" -- really?) For example, I stopped by a class on "Totally Tea," an interesting topic to cruisers of any age who are interested in wellness (and to me, an avid tea-drinker). However, the presentation, which was billed as outlining the types, preparation and health benefits of tea, was unstructured and very simplistic. ("Some people like their tea weak, while others steep it for a long time to make it stronger.") It ultimately devolved into a monologue from one audience member who owned a tea shop discussing which types of tea were popular with his customers. I felt the presentation could have been better structured to provide more useful information.

In general, the new program, which is aimed at the more mature traveler, has a terrific premise -- using the cruise to improve travelers' lives by giving them new skills in areas like technology, exercise and diet, rather than serving merely as a week of over-indulging in food and bingo. However, I'd like to see the wellness classes (which have the air of being quickly researched on Wikipedia, rather than drawing from any expert advice) come up to the standards of Holland America's excellent technology classes, which are turning technophobes into Web site creators, cruise after cruise.

The 210-seat Wajang Theater and Culinary Arts Center is a double-duty venue on Deck 7. It houses a show kitchen where culinary demonstrations and private cooking classes (for a fee) take place. Demonstrations on our cruise included a "Fresh Ketch" class on preparing Alaskan seafood and workshops on making artistic bread and marzipan creations. Private cooking classes are taught by the Pinnacle Grill's chef, the ship's executive chef or a guest chef, and topics range from kids' cooking workshops (apple pizza, s'more cookies, etc.) to Pacific Northwest specialties (Pacific Rim beef salad, cedar-planked salmon) and desserts (Grand Marnier Chocolate Volcano Cake, creme brulee trio). The space also serves as a movie theater, which offers three showings of a different film each day, complete with popcorn.

Veendam's Showroom at Sea is a new twist on both theater seating and the productions themselves. The theater, decorated in reds and golds, now offers tiered seating with the front rows by the stage populated with cabaret-style chairs and small tables. Changing decorative touches play up the theme of each show. A Philly-themed doo wop show had waiters serving soft pretzels, and the cabaret tables were decked out in checkered tablecloths with ketchup and mustard bottles on top, while mannequins wearing sparkle-studded costumes lined the entranceways during a tribute to Bob Mackie's Broadway. The showroom really does have a terrific atmosphere, but sightlines from the balcony aren't great, and the cabaret tables are set a little too close to the stage, so the audience tends to avoid them.

The shows themselves have also changed. Gone are the Vegas-style, large-scale production shows that didn't work on Veendam's small stage. They've been replaced by more intimate shows, featuring an onstage orchestra, minimalist sets and a cast of singers (all of whom have previously performed on Broadway) and dancers. The idea is to present higher-quality productions that don't need to rely on the wow factor of crazy sets, costumes and technological tricks. In actuality, while the singers are clearly more talented and experienced than many cruise-ship performers, the shows themselves have stilted dialogue and often force the singers out of their vocal comfort (such as the operatic tenor attempting to sing Broadway and doo wop with little success). Plus, with such high-caliber vocalists, the superfluous and often awkward dancers stand out for performing at a much more amateurish level.

Other performances included a guest magician/comedian whose patter was quite tired and the Veendam Orchestra playing big-band and ballroom dance music for guests to dance to (a really nice alternative use of the theater). Holland America's signature Indonesian Crew Show features traditional songs and dances from many crewmembers' home country.

Deck 8 is Veendam's entertainment hub. The Neptunes play old favorites and dance music in the Ocean Bar, which is a fun place to strut your stuff or watch your fancy-footed fellow cruisers. The casino has 97 slot machines, stud poker, Three-Card poker, a roulette table and five blackjack tables. In general, nobody had to wait to play. Smoking is allowed in the casino.

Directly opposite the casino, Mix is Veendam's new-in-2009 primary bar area. Walls were actually removed from the former sports and piano bars to create a more free-flowing atmosphere. The three bars in Mix are the Spirits & Ales bar, with a big-screen TV, interactive game tables (try Tiles -- it's addictive) and live guitar music in the early evening; the Martini Bar, with its purple decor, crushed-velvet couches and stools surrounding the piano for sing-alongs with the Piano Man in residence; and the Champagne Bar, more of an upscale kiosk since there are no bar stools or dedicated bartender for this part of Mix. The updated look of Mix is very contemporary and possibly hipper than most of Veendam's guests, but most people seemed pleased with the change, and the area was well used -- though it was pretty quiet by midnight.

Just down the hall, the Explorer's Lounge is almost more of a daytime hangout -- passengers would camp out on a couch or comfy chair with a book or to watch the scenery glide by through the large windows -- though a classical quartet plays there in the evening with drink service available. Perhaps it would attract a larger crowd if it had its own bar or focal point, but in the evening, it had the feel of a waiting room for Pinnacle Grill diners.

The Crow's Nest is the latest of the late-night venues, hosting interactive events like the Marriage Game, karaoke and Super Star Singing Competition around 9 p.m., as well as D.J. music into the wee hours. Two enormous flat-screens show live TV and are the site of occasional Wii competitions (though the video system is not available for general use at other times). The Crow's Nest was buzzing long after I was, and the room was shared by drinkers, dancers, chatters and even some late-night card- and game-players.

Shore excursions on my Alaska cruise were pricey, but no more expensive than other lines' tours in Alaska. Veendam offered about 30 excursion choices per port and had a good mix of trips catering to all activity levels and multiple interests. I was especially pleased to see a rack of brochures and pamphlets giving a little more detail on some of the trips than the one-sentence overviews in the excursions booklet. This addition lets guests peruse the choices on their own before booking, which may cut down on lines at the shore excursions desk.

Fitness and Recreation

The Greenhouse Spa, operated by London-based Steiner Leisure, the ubiquitous cruise spa company, offers a pretty standard range of treatments, such as massages, facials and body wraps. One room has a float bed; another is used for the Ionithermie Cellulite Reduction Program (lose up to eight inches before you eat those inches back at dinner!). You can also get your teeth whitened onboard. The spa features men's and women's changing rooms with dry saunas, a relaxation room with a juice bar and a salon/barber shop. A thermal suite offers five heated loungers, a Turkish steam room, an aromatherapy room, a hot tub and showers. Passes cost $89 for a single cruise pass, $150 for a couple's cruise pass, $20 for a day pass and $10 for a day pass when booked in conjunction with a spa treatment. (Sorry, folks -- no free thermal time when you book a regular treatment.)

The spa's beauty salon provides services that include hair cutting and styling, as well as manicures and pedicures.

The fully equipped gym is dominated by treadmills, but it also has elliptical trainers, stair-steppers and stationary bikes. A variety of weight machines and free weights is available, as are exercise balls and yoga mats. On my cruise, the cardio machines were constantly in use, and some were broken, making getting your machine of choice a bit difficult. An aerobics area is kitted out with bikes for spin classes ($11); Pilates (also $11), step and body-conditioning classes are also held there. Yoga, Tai Chi and aqua aerobics are held elsewhere as part of Holland America's wellness program and are free of charge.

Deck 12 is used as a jogging track, though there's no marked track or shock-absorbent flooring. Basketball and tennis courts on the same deck are only available for use after lunch hours because the sound carries down to the Lido Restaurant. Ping-Pong tables are located by the main pool, and the Lower Promenade deck is the favorite place for walkers. (Four laps is a mile, and the morning hours are the busiest.)

The main pool on Deck 11 is covered by a retractable roof, so it can be used in inclement weather. One pool and two hot tubs are flanked by wicker lounge chairs with blue striped pads, as well as tables and chairs for alfresco dining or card-playing. At the edge of the pool, a cute -- yet quirky -- addition is two colorful loungers that look like reclining humans. Guests can essentially sit in their laps to lay out poolside. A small bandstand is nearby.

On the aft end of Deck 11, through the Lido Restaurant, is the Retreat resort pool area, new to Veendam after its 2009 dry dock. It's a wonderful area for lying out while keeping cool, dining al fresco or simply taking in the scenery. Specially shaped lounge chairs that lift up on either end (so you can recline facing either direction without rotating the entire lounger) sit in a three-inch-deep pool of water. In the middle of this Retreat pool is a wading area with red-tiled benches and a hot tub. Surrounding the pool are regular plastic loungers, tables and chairs, a bar and Slice Pizza. A movie screen is hung above the pizzeria and bar, but on my cruise, it was only showing nature scenes, due to restrictions in Alaska. In other destinations, movies will be shown in the evening. The Retreat is not an adults-only venue.

Editor's Note: The one logistical issue with the Retreat is that it's on the other side of the Lido from the main pool. So, if you've gone swimming in the main pool and then want to lie out in the Retreat, you either have to dry off, put clothes on and walk through the Lido or -- if you don't want to change -- go up to Deck 12, cut through the basketball court, and then take the stairs down to Deck 11, aft.

Family

Veendam can have more than 100 children onboard per cruise during the summer months, although numbers can be much smaller, depending on the sailing date. The ship actually has some very nice youth lounges tucked away behind the basketball and tennis courts on Deck 12. Four separate rooms include Club HAL for younger kids, ages 3 to 7; a separate play area for tweens, ages 8 to 12; a video arcade and the Loft, full of crushed-velvet couches and comfy chairs for loafing teenagers, ages 13 to 17. Steps lead from the Loft to the Deck 13 Oasis, a private sun deck for teens. The Oasis has a pirate chic feel with hammocks, splash pools with waterfalls, and tables and chairs made to look like wine barrels. Parents aren't allowed, although the area is supervised by the ship's youth counselors.

The great thing about Veendam's kids' lounges is that they're situated in out-of-the-way areas of the ship. The kids feel they have their own enclaves, and HAL guests without kids don't feel the presence of so many children. Kids are technically not allowed in the Crow's Nest and Mix at night, unless supervised by an adult, but these rules are relaxed when there aren't very many children onboard.

Counselors meet at the beginning of the cruise with parents and guardians, who must personally drop off and pick up each younger child. Structured programs are scheduled for all age levels. Kids, ages 3 to 7, can participate in activities like kids Olympics, tie-dying T-shirts, candy bar bingo, arts and crafts, pajama parties and storytelling. The 8 to 12 set has a schedule of dodgeball, swim parties and video-game play. Teens can hang out and play video games or take part in Ping-Pong competitions, karaoke and teen discos. Age-appropriate movies are shown in Club HAL, and kid-friendly cooking classes take place in the Culinary Arts Center. After-hours babysitting is available on a limited basis for an extra fee.

A children's menu is available in the Rotterdam Dining Room, Lido Restaurant and Terrace Grill, offering smaller portions of dishes like spaghetti, hamburgers, tacos and chicken fingers. Women who will be 24 or more weeks pregnant by the last day of the cruise are not accepted as passengers. Neither are infants younger than 6 months old. For older babies, passengers can arrange for baby food, diapers and refrigerators for an extra fee; high chairs, booster seats and cribs are available for free. Parents can play with kids younger than 3 in the children's facilities at specific times.

Fellow Passengers

There is a good sprinkling of international passengers from Latin America, Asia, Australia and Europe, but the overwhelming majority is North American. Many guests are retirees, with younger travelers often part of multi-generational groups, and the ship's programming is definitely geared to baby boomers and older travelers.

Dress Code

Evening dress is either formal or smart casual. Formal attire is technically a jacket and tie, dark suit or tuxedo for men and dress suit, cocktail dress or gown for women. Most men stick to suits, though I saw a smattering of tuxes and even a kilt on formal night. There are typically two formal nights per week. On casual nights, the range of acceptable attire is quite large -- anything from casual pants (like khakis) with a shirt or sweater to sundresses and skirts for ladies and button-down shirts for men. On my Alaska cruise, I saw many guests wearing jeans in the dining room; bending dress-code rules is more tolerated in this casual destination but may be less appropriate in other cruise regions.

Gratuity

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 Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor

Gratuity

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.

Gratuity

The line automatically adds $11.50 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.The last of Holland America's Statendam-class ships, Veendam blends a modicum of hipness with the strong traditional flavor that HAL's known for. The 57,092-ton, 1,350-passenger ship went under the knife in 2009, gaining new lanai and spa cabin categories, a more contemporary look in public areas and cabins, additional dining options and a revamped theater experience.

Here's what was added in 2009:

Cabins: Balcony cabins have been added to the back of the ship, some with larger aft-facing verandahs -- a welcome addition to a ship built before balconies became a must-have. Lanai cabins, with sliding-glass doors that lead to the outdoor promenade deck, are an innovative way to give additional cabins access to fresh air and outdoor spaces. Other new additions are the spa cabins (picking up on the wellness trend), which offer a more earthy decor, as well as spa privileges and amenities. And, in all staterooms, fresh color schemes and soft goods offer a more contemporary look.

Dining: Two new dining venues have been added. The Canaletto Restaurant takes over a section of the Lido Restaurant each night to offer an intimate, alternative Italian dining experience -- with no extra charge. And the Slice pizza parlor is great for a quick lunch or midday snack, especially when lines get long in the Lido buffet.

Relaxing: The Deck 10 aft pool has been replaced with cabins, and now Deck 11 is home to the Retreat, a resort-style pool area. In addition to Slices and a bar, this deck area features a hot tub, lounge chairs arranged in a wading pool of water and a large screen for showing movies and nature films. It's already a popular spot for al fresco dining, laying out in the sun and gazing at the passing scenery.

Entertainment: Veendam's show lounge has been transformed into the "Showroom at Sea," which aims to create a more intimate theater experience with simpler shows that highlight talented performers fresh from Broadway. The Deck 8 entertainment area has also been opened up (walls have literally been knocked down) to create a better flow between shops, bars and the casino. In addition, two distinct bars have been combined to create Mix, sporting adjoining bar sections and trendy decor.

The look and flow of the ship may now be changed, but Veendam still retains its traditional strengths. Veendam's signature has been its intimate atmosphere and multitude of retreats, where passengers can enjoy a quiet moment or a book. You can still carve out a private space -- whether in one of the blissfully comfortable window-facing lounge chairs in the Explorations Cafe, a corner of the Crow's Nest or Explorer's Lounge, a padded deck chair on the Deck 6 promenade or one of the many slices of outer decks stepped up the bow of the ship. The only time you really feel the crowds is when you are queuing up for dinner in the Rotterdam Dining Room or the Lido Restaurant.

The ship's $2 million art collection keeps the overall feel elegant and traditional with magnificent antique Delft, marble busts, armor and paintings of old Holland America ships on display. Even nightlife -- one of Holland America's weak points -- has been improved by the refurb; the open plan of Deck 8 creates a better vibe in the evenings when the energy of the casino spills over into the bar areas, and shoppers in the boutiques get lured across the walkway to the piano bar when they hear a favorite tune.

Dining

Veendam offers Holland America's As You Wish dining program, which means passengers can opt for pre-set seating and dining times at dinner (at 5:45 p.m. and 8 p.m.) or choose the open-seating option and arrive at the dining room anytime from 5:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. Breakfast and lunch are always open-seating. Passengers must request either option during the booking phase. One level of the ship's two-deck-high dining room is dedicated to traditional "early or main seating" (Deck 8 on my cruise), while the other is reserved for anytime dining (the larger Deck 7). Passengers opting for the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.

The Rotterdam Dining Room is striking. Instead of the usual neutral colors, the decor is rich red and gold, with three-dimensional flowers hanging from the ceiling and ornate lanterns on the railings. The dining room has two levels, and there is enough room between tables for private conversation and easy movement. Service in the main dining room is universally good and warmly attentive; the wine steward is knowledgeable and pleasant with both novices and experts. Dinner menus offer appetizers, soups and salads, entrees, two salmon options each night on Alaska cruises (which were consistently excellent, even toward the end of the cruise) and a few other options, which are offered every night (French onion soup, Caesar salad, grilled chicken breast and New York strip steak). One item per course is marked as the healthier Greenhouse Spa option, and one appetizer, soup, salad and entree is always vegetarian. I never had a bad dish on my three nights dining in the Rotterdam, and food seemed improved from when I sailed with Holland America in 2007.

The Rotterdam 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.

Editor's Note: Here's a caveat about the flexible dining plan. If you don't make a reservation for your preferred dinner time and table size each night, you take your chances in the dining room. One night I walked in at 6:30 p.m., and only four tables were open, all of which were large (though only two other diners were placed with us). On our trip, a week-long Alaska cruise, 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. tended to be the busiest times; some passengers who arrived then told us they waited more than an hour for a table.

Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room (though Rotterdam is sometimes closed for lunch -- on those days, the Pinnacle Grill serves a sit-down lunch), as is afternoon tea on sea days. Breakfast specialties include kippered herring, omelets, Belgian waffles and Eggs Benedict. The lunch menu offers a selection of three appetizers; a hot soup, a chilled soup or a salad; and several entrees. (There's no dedicated vegetarian lunch entree, though there's often a pasta dish.) A Royal Dutch Tea and an Indonesian Coffee Service were served on two of the sea days from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The Lido Restaurant serves breakfast from 6 a.m to 11 a.m., lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., snacks from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and a late-night snack from 11 p.m. to midnight. Although the restaurant is set up buffet-style, most of the hot food is not self-service. On my cruise, the serving lines never seemed to be fully staffed, which often led to waits.

Breakfast has the typical cereals, fruit, breakfast pastries, eggs (including a made-to-order omelet station), oatmeal, pancakes/French toast and breakfast meats. Tea, coffee and a selection of juices are available. Lunch is set up in multiple stations (salad and soup, cheese, hot entrees, carving dish, Italian, Asian, sandwich bar, dessert). Don't miss the fabulous chocolate-chip cookies. Dinner in the Lido typically features many of the same dishes as are being served in the Rotterdam but with some omissions and additions. Late-night snacks are themed -- All American, Indonesian, Dutch, Italian, etc. The most touted is the Dessert Extravaganza, where bread is made to look like animals, watermelons are carved with faces, and edible mice sit atop a cheesecake.

Post dry dock, one section of the Lido has been outfitted with a slightly different decor, and at dinner (served from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.), this area becomes Canaletto, an alternative Italian dining experience. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ups are accepted on a space-available basis. There is no fee to dine there, and the menu is the same each night. The area can seat 60 people at one time and serves about 90 diners in the course of an evening.

The menu starts with antipasti -- choose from grilled veggies, balls of mozzarella cheese and Italian deli meats. Next is a choice of appetizers (salad, minestrone soup or seafood soup), and entrees include assorted pasta dishes, Veal Milanese, Chicken Marsala Scaloppini and Cod Putanesca. At the end of the meal, every table receives a dish of cotton candy to share, in addition to a choice of desserts.

The food and experience is quite good for a no-fee onboard eatery, and I definitely felt like I was far away from the hustle and bustle of the Lido's buffet section. The waitstaff, all Asian, good-naturedly wear gondolier-inspired outfits and wish you "buona sera" (good evening in Italian). More oddly, they're given Italian nicknames. One waiter even made origami butterflies out of old menus for the ladies. It was a fun dinner -- partly because the waiters made a point to interact with the diners and partly because it was a low-key atmosphere without the pressure of fine dining for an extra fee.

The Terrace Grill is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and serves up hamburgers, veggie burgers, grilled chicken, hot dogs and sausage. The poolside area just opposite the Grill is also used for stations offering Mexican and Indonesian food and sometimes pasta. Also open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. is the new Slice pizza counter in the Retreat (though its hours may be extended in warmer cruising regions). When the lines are long in the Lido and I just wanted a quick lunch, the pizzeria was a godsend. The pizza is tasty too!

Hands down, the best food on Veendam can be found at the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America's alternative dining venue with a steakhouse and Pacific Northwest seafood theme. It has a $20 per person surcharge, and dinners routinely take 2.5 hours. It also serves lunch on most days of the cruise for a $10 per person surcharge.

The decor is subtle with lots of brown wood and brown chairs, but the real showstopper is the food. Waiters make a show of presenting cuts of uncooked meat in a wheeled showcase. Appetizers include lobster bisque, Dungeness crab cakes and beefsteak tomato salad. Entrees are split between meats (multiple types of steak, as well as lamb, veal and chicken) and fish (salmon, lobster, cod), with a few crossovers (a surf-n-turf featuring filet mignon and jumbo prawns or lobster macaroni and cheese). Each diner gets a choice of traditional steakhouse sides like creamed spinach and potatoes. All of the food is fabulous -- no complaints at my table of eight -- but the dish that got the best reviews was the lobster macaroni and cheese (and it is flagged as the chef's favorite). And, although the waiters talk up the chocolate and vanilla velvet souffle, the chocolate volcano cake is worth trying, too.

Finally, room service is available 'round the clock. Breakfast options include juices, fruit, yogurt, breads, cereals, eggs and meats. (You can get simple omelets but not pancakes or oatmeal.) The regular menu features sandwiches (tuna melt, club), salads, milk and cookies and everyone's late-night favorite -- the cheeseburger. I was not impressed by room service delivery. The first day, our breakfast arrived without any beverages; the second, it came 15 minutes before our selected time. (I was still in bed.) Ironically, our dinner order was the only one without a hitch, though I did think it odd that they gave two people a plate of three cookies.

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