Holland America - Westerdam


82,000-tons 951 feet in length 1,848 passengers Netherlands registry Dutch officers, Indonesian and Filipino crew Entered service: April, 2004

Quality Rating: 4 stars

Value Rating: 5 bucks +


Best for People Who Want: A combination of elegant surroundings with refined music, cognac and cigars next to raucous Karaoke and piano sing-along bars. Recent release movies, large and comfortable cabins in all categories.

Should Be Avoided by People Seeking: Mega-ship sports activities, to meet other single cruisers, the serene quiet of the "old Holland America."

Onboard Experience: The Westerdam is the third in the series of Vista-class ships that began with Zuiderdam (the four sister ships; Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and Noordam represent the four points of the compass in Dutch). Westerdam, however, is nothing like Zuiderdam except in structure. The main difference in this class is the number of decks adding additional cabins. One thing to watch out for is the upper promenade deck is now populated with cabins rather than public rooms, and if you get an oceanview cabin on that deck you may have people walking outside your window during all hours of the day & night, or your view will be fully obstructed by a lifeboat. There are verandah cabins on that deck with no structural problems.

With Westerdam, Holland America attempts the difficult trick of melding traditional elegance with modern pizzazz, and mostly succeeds. Because the ship's designers have filled it with intimate public areas that feel like private clubs or lounges, it's easy to forget you're aboard an 82,000-ton middle-liner, unless, that is, you venture into the casino, larger than on other Holland America ships and now with an active Texas-Hold'em table resting in the Sports Bar; behold the influence of Holland America's parent company, Carnival Corporation.

If you want to read a book and enjoy the sunshine, there are a great number of comfortable spots both inside, or even better on the line's signature teak and cushioned deck loungers on its open promenade deck. Service staff is always warm and near at hand, but very discreet.

Westerdam benefits from Holland America's "Signature of Excellence," a program of fleet-wide enhancements the company began in 2004. New features include tableside waiter service at dinner in the Lido, a new Culinary Arts Program with show kitchen for demonstrations and classes, expansion of spa and fitness facilities, upgraded Club HAL Kids' Centers, and new shore excursions. The Explorations Cafe is a combination library, Internet center, music listening area and sidewalk cafe. Staterooms now offer the best mattresses and duvets sold in Europe, and top level suites offer flat screen TVs and DVD players. There's early boarding and a choice of four dinner seatings.

The Explorations Cafe is a combination New York Times-powered library, Internet center, music listening area, and sidewalk cafe. Westerdam has the best crossword puzzle area ever glimpsed at sea. While there is an Internet center with typical cruise prices available ($70 for 100 minutes) the throughput speed can be so dismally slow that audible moans of frustration may be heard. Its better to wait for a port day and follow a crewmember to a nearby Internet cafe.

Décor: The Westerdam isn't about flashing neon lights or gaudy modern and contemporary art. Rather, the ship exudes understated elegance with its wood veneers, soft-colored fabrics, and cozy seating in lounges. The carpeting on the stairways features rich dark and light blues, with coral-colored semicircles at the bottom of each stairwell to more clearly define the landing; the effect is quite stunning. Paintings of famous Dutch ships and other historical artifacts add to the décor throughout the ship.

Public Rooms: The central atrium, only three decks high, would look right at home in the lobby of a small chic hotel. The attractively laid out Vista Lounge, for the most elaborate nighttime shows, is big enough to accommodate everyone aboard over two performances with tiered seating both upstairs and down and universally excellent sight lines.

The large (at least for HAL!) casino is next door to a sports bar with big-screen televisions on which to watch the big game. The sport's bar is also where you will find the Texas Hold'em Poker games. The casino has many slots and a vatirty of games including Blackjack, Let it Ride, Craps, Roulette and Caribbean Stud Poker.

The large Ocean Bar, with sea views by day and romantic lighting at night, is the most popular spot for pre- and post-dinner cocktails, not least because of the complimentary d'oeuvres it offers before dinner. The Queen' Lounge doubles as the movie theater and karaoke bar, but the Piano Bar, enlarged from earlier Holland America ships to accommodate more guests, is rather more popular. The Crows Nest observation lounge, with its 320-degree view, is the perfect place from which to watch your departure from port.

Westerdam separates smokers and nonsmokers as effectively as any ship at sea. In general, smoking areas are located "wherever there is an ashtray," which in most cases is in the corner of any given room. Smoking is not allowed in the Dining Room or Pinnacle Grill.

There's a variety of brightly lit shops onboard selling logo-wear, jewelry, knick-knacks and chocolate.

Cuisine: The beautifully presented, banquet-quality, Continental cuisine in the Vista Dining Room has improved in recent years as a result of more contemporary menu selections such as seared tuna and grilled rack of lamb. Gone are the bland entrees of a few years ago. Service in the dining rooms has taken a noticable leap forward, now that the expansion of the cruise line is no longer tapping the best service people for the newest ships. On a recent cruise, the waiter was not only efficient, but engaging and warm, remembering our preferences and never missing a beat. In fact, when it was pointed out to him that his badge had the all too typical misspelling "Dinning Room Steward" he actually had it corrected by the end of the cruise.

The lunch buffet on Lido Deck, along with the separate food stations for Italian and Asian cuisine, offers abundant variety and easy access. Lines are rare except at peak times. The Deli custom sandwich bar serves its phenomenal grilled BLT on a baguette; don't even consider not trying it, while the Poolside Grill offers hamburgers and hotdogs all day with hand-stirred mayo, mustard and ketchup. There's also a taco bar immediately forward of the Grill. Unlike many mass-market cruise lines, a request for an ice tea from a bar waiter outside will not be answered with "you can get those yourself inside." They will actually bring to your table for you - no charge.

The alternative Pinnacle Grill specializes in dishes featuring ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, an homage to Seattle, the home city of Holland America Line. There is a $20 per person surcharge. The food is cooked in a separate area of the main galley, and served piping hot. The desserts alone are worth the price of admission, especially the tri-flavored creme brulé sampler or the "Grand Marnier Chocolate Volcano Cake."

Restaurants: The two-level Vista Restaurant has spacious seating for two, four, six, eight and 10, and good soundproofing. The unusual central curved staircase between the two decks creates the feel of a much more intimate restaurant. The Murano glass ceiling is well worth looking up from your food to admire.

There are four assigned seatings -- 5:15, 6:15, 8 and 8:30 p.m. The idea was to improve service, but it may not have worked, as servers can seem harried, on the one hand, or bored, on the other. That said, a staff member will greet you every time you enter, be it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. From the Rosenthal china and Riedel glassware to linen tablecloths, dining is an elegant affair. Some evenings you will dine by candlelight, others to the accompaniment of a string quartet. The menu includes special "health-conscious," vegetarian, and low-salt items, as well as sugar-free desserts.

The Pinnacle Grill, Westerdam's alternate dining venue, offers cuisine (and wine) of the Pacific Northwest in an irresistibly elegant atmosphere. Reservations can be hard to come by, but the restaurant is open for lunch on some sea days (for only $10 per person) with a different, but comparably wonderful, menu.

The buffet-style Lido Restaurant is an attractive alternative to the main dining room. Breakfast and lunch are served on a tray that a staff member will carry to your table for you. In the evening, the Lido offers waiter service. There is ample seating both indoors and out. In addition to the large main line of hot entrees, there are separate stations for omelets in the morning and for pasta, salad, desserts (including HAL's famous bread pudding) at lunch. There's even a deli/sandwich bar, and a very popular ice-cream bar, with cups, cones or sundaes at no charge. Daily afternoon tea is served and late-night (usually around 11:30 p.m.) snacks are also available in the Lido Restaurant.

Another alternative is room service, available 24 hours a day at no additional charge. Holland America has one of the widest-ranging room service menus at sea. In fact, it is possible to order dining room meals from the evening's menu to be served in your cabin, but only if you order during the first 1/2 hour the dining room is open (6:00 on most cruises, but this can vary, call room service to verify when it is available).

Service: Westerdam's gracious, ever-attentive staff are some of the best at sea in the premium class due to the line's most organized system of grooming crewmembers. With schools in Indonesia and the Philipines feeding the crew for the fleet, the average crewmember has been on board for five years and really knows his/her stuff. They take pride in their jobs and seem to enjoy the passengers' company as much as their counterparts'. You never see them congregating and ignoring their duties.

Entertainment/Activities: Entertainment on Holland America used to be almost an embarrassment for such a quality line, but Westerdam's serves notice that things have changed. Instead of the usual four singers and dancers in the production shows, the Westerdam has more than a dozen, with much more elaborate sets and costumes designed by Bob Mackie. The ship's library is excellent (though book-borrowers, shockingly, are required to deposit $25 deposit on every book they borrow!). Daily activities include exercise and dance classes, bridge, bingo, Friends of Bill W meetings, guest lectures, and ice carving.

A highlight is the dessert buffet, presented late night sometime in the middle of each cruise. Picture taking is as good as the tempting delights, with the abundance of ice carvings, pastry statues, fruit carvings, and sugar and marzipan creations.

The new Culinary Arts Center, with overhead video monitors for those seated far from the action, is set up very much like a TV Food Channel set, and must be adjudged a marvelous addition. A number of demonstration classes are offered at no charge. Hands-on classes, limited to about a dozen students, charge modestly. As these classes are very popular, be sure to sign up early.

There is no dedicated onboard cinema, as on the S-class of Holland America ships, but the Ocean Bar is transformed into a movie theater at least twice daily and you can still find the free bags of popcorn, though they have gone from hot to lukewarm. The movie selection is surprisingly recent releases and refreshingly intelligent in content, favoring good plots over mindless action flicks.

An adjunct to the Internet center are the computer classes on a few basic topics mostly having to do with digital photography. There are two classes offered for free, with follow up classes for $20 per person for those who want to become advanced users.

Cabins: Westerdam's staterooms are larger than most mass-market cruise lines', with balcony cabins bigger still. Standard inside cabins are 182 sq. feet, outside staterooms 197 sq. feet, and standard balcony cabins 284 sq. ft. Balcony cabins have a spacious veranda with two chairs and a table. Be forewarned, though, that staterooms have few shelves and no drawers.

The verandahs on Holland America are quite adequate for two. The well-equipped staterooms offer wonderful new pillow-top beds, better pillows; fluffier towels; duvets and high-thread count sheets; a stocked mini-bar (with charges for all beverages consumed); hair-dryers; safes; functional storage space. Staterooms always feature fresh flowers; a filled ice bucket; and a bowl of fresh fruit that's replenished regularly.

Television service includes several stations, such as CNN, ESPN, television shows, shore excursion presentations, and shopping presentations. There's no self-service laundry, but several laundry packages are available, the $45 unlimited laundry package seems a good deal, though it doesn't include dry cleaning.

Suite passengers have access to the Neptune Lounge on Rotterdam Deck, a private room that serves various snacks (from light breakfast fare in the mornings to hors d'oeuvres at cocktail hour). The concierge therein can book dinner reservations and shore tours.

There's no self-service laundry on this ship, although several laundry packages are available through your room steward.

Fitness/Spa: Westerdam has one of the most spacious gyms on the high seas, with cardio equipment and weight machines arranged in tiers, and a large hot tub in the center. The Greenhouse Spa and Salon's reception area is situated in the midst of a hallway between the main pool and an elevator bank, making the fitness center purposely difficult to locate. Despite the name, it's still run Steiner's, which means that its treatments are somewhat pricey, though the staff is not quite so relentless about sales.

An nice alternative to a massage is a day pass to either the thelasotherapy pool with extremely strong water jets to soothe your muscles ($20/day), or you can go to the steam and aromatherapy center and relax on heated loungers and take steambaths infused with essentail oils. Day passes to this are also $20/day. Or you can buy a weekly pass to both for $250 unlimited.

The Westerdam has two outdoor swimming pools, one with a Magrodome roof that can be closed in case of inclement weather. There are also several hot tubs available at no charge. The large gym has state-of-the-art strengthening and aerobic equipment, and there's a jogging track on one of the upper decks. There's a nominal charge for some of the exercise classes.

Children: Club HAL now includes kids and teens three to 17, whereas previously you had to be at least five for them to take any notice. Dedicated youth coordinators run full days of events for each age group. New teen areas The Loft lounge and The Oasis have sundecks with their own waterfalls, hammocks and covered snack areas.

On Caribbean cruises, the private island Half Moon Cay is without a doubt one of the best in cruisedom. Activities offered; horseback riding including a horseback swim in the ocean, bicycle tours, parasailing, rental of snorkle and scuba-diving gear, deep sea fishing, and an excellent alternative to Grand Cayman for swimming with stingrays. Instead of a 90 minute jaunt by bus and boat to the middle of bay packed with tourists, you can walk down a set of steps and right into the welcoming fins of the sleek creatures. The same experience without the delays and boredom.

Group babysitting is available in the Club HAL facilities from 10 p.m. to midnight at a charge of $5 per child per hour. Limited private babysitting is available through the Front Office for ages 3 to 12.

Attire: On the two weekly formal nights, half the men opt for a dark suit rather than renting a tuxedo. Casual on these ships means comfortable, but T-shirts, jeans, swimsuits, tank tops and shorts are all forbidden in the dining rooms and public areas. It isn't allowed, but also not unusual for people to change back to casual after dinner on formal nights. As long as you stick to the deck areas or casino, no one will frown at you.

Tipping: For years Holland America was known for its no-tipping policy, but today gratuities of $10.00 per person (including children) are automatically added daily to the shipboard account for dining and stateroom service. Visit the front desk to adjust that amount. There is also a 15 percent service charge automatically added to bar bills.

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