All Holland America (HAL) cruise ships are characterised by their dark blue hull.
After that there are signature features and similarities across the brand, as well as differences. This starts with the different classes of build across the 14 ships in the fleet (soon to be 15 – with the launch of Nieuw Statendam in 2018). In the 15 year period 1993 – 2008, Holland America launched 10 new ships but since then have only built 3 (including Nieuw Statendam).
Whilst this is entirely understandable on many levels, it has left some of their ships, like Zuiderdam (launched 2002), in a bit of a time warp in terms of décor and features, in comparison with many newer ships from competitors who have significantly ‘upped the ante’ in terms of their interior design. Perhaps as a means of trying to counter some of these differences, HAL have partnered up with several branded entertainment companies in an attempt to offer unique musical performances at sea, which will be rolled out across all the ships over a period of time (see later).
HAL prides itself on sailing a fleet of more traditional mid-size ships offering destination intensive cruises to an international clientele, so my comments above are observational, rather than reflectional. Average occupancy levels are Prinsendam (835 passengers), Rotterdam Class (1400 passengers), Statendam Class (1350 passengers), Vista Class (1900 passengers), Signature Class (2100 passengers), creeping up to Pinnacle Class (2600 passengers).
In current cruise parlances, these are small to medium size ships and offer a good alternative for those guests who prefer the ambience of smaller vessels. Fellow passengers are mainly American (there were only 6 British guests on board the itinerary that called into Liverpool) but surprisingly there is often a wider than expected age range with many younger couples and families on board. Perversely, cruise lines like HAL (and Cunard) actually offer very respectable Kid’s Clubs, even though they are not especially geared towards children. Club HAL accommodates children from 3-17 years in 3 separate age groups.
Zuiderdam is the lead ship of HAL’s Vista Class vessels, all named after (Dutch) points of the compass and called ‘Vista’ due to the large amount of glass incorporated into the ship’s superstructure, including the 2 sets of panoramic glass lifts mid ships servicing decks 4 – 8. Unlike the Rotterdam Class of ships, the two funnels on Vista Class are placed close together and one in front of the other. This is because the ship has two engine rooms, one of which provides pod propulsion from a diesel electric system that cuts out all discernible engine vibration.
Zuiderdam has similar dimensions to some Carnival and Costa ships and in an elongated form has provided the template for both Queen Victoria and HAL’s Signature Class ships. She weighs in at 82,305 tonnes and carries 1,848 passengers (double occupancy). There are 924 cabins/staterooms, 85% of which have an ocean view and 67% a balcony. A feature I particularly like on HAL ships is the exterior teak promenade deck. Whilst it doesn’t go all the way round the ship on Zuiderdam, it’s long enough to walk off a few calories! The consistent naming of decks on HAL ships (apart from Koningsdam) continues on Zuiderdam and helps with ship orientation – with the likes of Promenade, Verandah, Navigation, Observation and Lido decks.
There are quite a lot of cabin grades within the different categories, mainly differentiated by their location on the ship, but the Statendam and Rotterdam Class ships and Prinsendam, do not have balcony cabins per se, just ocean views or Vista Suites (with a balcony). There is often quite a jump in price between these two grades. Most cabins (apart from inside cabins and a few ocean view grades) have a bath tub as well as a shower. I particularly like the Lanai Ocean View staterooms on the Statendam and Rotterdam Class ships, (apart from Amsterdam) which have sliding glass doors (with one way glass) that open directly onto the Lower Promenade deck – sadly absent on Zuiderdam.
Staterooms on HAL ships tend to be larger than the industry standard. On Zuiderdam expect measurements of 155 sq ft (leading inside cabin), 197 sq ft (large ocean view). 249 sq ft (deluxe verandah) right up to 1159 sq ft for one of the Pinnacle Suites on board.
The ships are quite spacious inside, although the Atrium on Zuiderdam is rather old school and a tad disappointing: it spans 3 decks, but feels quite cramped and enclosed. The 3m tall Waterford crystal sea horse at its centre is impressive and sets the standard for the rest of the art on board, both enhancing and enhanced by the HAL signature floral arrangements, also liberally dotted around the ship – although not all of them contain fresh flowers!
The art collection on Zuiderdam is valued at over $2million and includes Venetian themed figures at the time of Carnival in Venice, created by Daniel Ogier and displayed near the Explorers Lounge, pieces drawing on the heritage of the Dutch West India Company and Holland America’s own European heritage as well as more modern works like the painting of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, painted by Andy Warhol, medallions by Frank Lloyd Wright and a massive floral painting by Charles Ben. Even the lift doors are decked out in an art deco style reminiscent of the Chrysler Building in New York. The public areas on the ship flow well from one to the other, especially on the Promenade and Lower Promenade decks.
From the Ocean Bar on the top level of the Atrium (deck 3, Promenade deck) walking forward you pass through the shopping areas and the Stuyvesant, Half Moon and Hudson Lounges – mid sized, rather bland meeting rooms that are probably used intermittently for card games, crafts and other group sessions, but I suspect could be used in a more fullfilling way with a bit of thought! The 30 seat cinema – the Screening Room (featuring fresh popcorn) is also on this route, towards the Vista Lounge. This is the main show lounge on Zuiderdam, spanning 3 storeys it has seating for 867 guests. The revamped Photo Gallery is also on this deck, but towards the aft end and the Vista Dining Room. Take the stairs down past all the interesting plaques and trophies presented to Zuiderdam on maiden ports of call etc to the Lower Promenade deck.
Entertainment venues continue here in the form of the casino, the Northern Lights nightclub (has a bar and separate dance floor as well as banquette style seating), a Sports Bar (with TVs tuned to sports channels) and a Piano Bar (where the bar is actually moulded around the piano). Here you can find the Queens Lounge (also known as the Culinary Arts Centre), home of the BB King Blues Club: An 8 piece band playing funk, soul, fast and soulful in predominantly jam sessions nightly, bringing the best of Memphis music to guests on board.
They have featured on HAL ships for several years now. Over the years Holland America have quietly featured on board associations with different ventures and TV programmes – ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (very similar to ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ cruises on P&O ships) has only recently finished. Partnerships with ‘AFAR’ offer online guides to over 400 destinations and a plethora of activities are offered under the guise of ‘BBC Earth’. The latest venture is with the PBS cooking show ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ which unleashes the combined power of 50 scientists into a kitchen setting, aiming to create the best versions of popular recipes.
On board this will take the form of 45 minute complimentary demonstrations and 90 minute hands on workshops (8-12 people, where a small charge of $39 pp will apply). Real addicts can sit in their cabin and watch the dedicated channel running old ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ shows 24/7. Whilst I was on board Zuiderdam (August 2017), final preparations were being made to start running this show in the Queens Lounge.
Holland America is recognised for the live music on board its ships. The launch of Koningsdam, 2 years ago, brought with it the announcement of several new musical associations including an exclusive partnership with The Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. The Lincoln Center Stage is where you will be able to enjoy exclusive chamber music recitals on Zuiderdam, after its addition in November 2017.
There will be 3 complimentary programmes each night of approximately 50 minutes duration each on most evenings of a 7 night cruise and all featuring world class musicians. The second announcement was a partnership with Billboard, called ‘Billboard Onboard’, involving an interactive musical history experience with pianos rocking the house with 50 years of chart-topping, foot tapping, sing along hits. Again, this arena will be introduced onto Zuiderdam in November 2017 as part of the fleet wide roll out and with the BB King Blues Club completes the ‘Music Walk’ experience on board. Will the resident musicians - the HALcats playing in the Ocean Bar, the primary spot for dancing and the Adagio duo in the Explorer's Lounge, get a look in? I expect so, as HAL guests are reputedly incredibly loyal and these are two of the ships most popular acts!!
None of the HAL ships have open deck features like mini golf, rock climbing walls or outdoor movies: just main pools (2 on Zuiderdam) and Jacuzzi pools (5 on Zuiderdam). Again, this is testament to the more classical approach to cruising that Holland America offers. On the Lido deck is the Sea View pool which, with its tiered terracing behind it providing additional sun loungers, exudes a feeling of openness and space. You don’t have to move very far for an outdoor bistro style snack at The Dive In at the Terrace Grill (added during the 2015 refit) or the near 24 hour Lido Marketplace buffet style restaurant.
Slightly more upmarket than on other ships, proper cutlery, china plates and linen napkins are always available. This is also where you will find Canaletto – the fee paying Italian restaurant on Zuiderdam, only open in the evenings. The other pool on board is The Lido Pool (also on deck 9) which enjoys the benefit of a retractable roof and is guarded by a large white polar bear. There are plenty of loungers here and the area gives off a tranquil and restful air. Maybe this is because it is close to The Greenhouse Spa which has 11 massage and therapy rooms, thermal suites, a large hydrotherapy pool (18’ x 22’) and a gym/fitness centre.
If less organised exercise is your bag, it is also possible to walk around the whole ship on deck 10 – it may be a bit blowy as the deck is open to the elements!! Or you could nip into the Crow’s Nest at the front of the ship. This is a signature feature of all HAL ships, doubling as an observation lounge with 270 degree views and a club at night, with lots of seating arrangement and a bar. It flows very nicely into the Explorations Café, a multimedia lounge area powered by The New York Times. It is home to the library offering a large and wide selection of books in English, foreign languages and large print, internet and music listening stations, several jigsaws (the urge was strong to put a piece in the wrong puzzle!), a large chess set and even crosswords laid into the tables. Whilst you are there try a complimentary cake or pastry from the actual café area, drinks are charged extra.
To complete the dining venues already mentioned, are the speciality restaurant The Pinnacle Grill which specialises in Pacific Northwest cuisine served on Bulgari china, in Riedel glasses and with Frette linens, open for lunch and dinner. As part of HAL’s current campaign ‘Explore 4’ there is the opportunity to experience a complimentary meal here. This is one of the areas of the ship which was ‘contemporarised’ during Zuiderdam’s 2015 dry dock revamp.
To my mind it is a little bit too open for a fee paying restaurant, separated as it is from the walk through areas of deck 2 only by patterned glass. Nevertheless it gets rave reviews for its food ($35 pp) and during different voyages it will offer ‘pop up’ nights featuring ‘Sel de Mer’ (seafood menus created by HAL’s executive chef Rudi Sodamin) or ‘Le Cirque’ (classic dishes from Sirio Maccioni's New York restaurant), both at additional costs.
The main restaurant on Zuiderdam is the two deck Vista Dining room offering table views out over the back of the ship. In a nice touch during our ship visit we were offered tables here for lunch, so we were able to enjoy the comings and goings of the Manx ferry and the hustle and bustle of the Liverpool water front. It is a very pleasant, almost regal room and as it has a ceiling, noise does not travel between the levels. Similarly there are very few waiting stations next to tables which again contributes to a more restful and enjoyable eating experience. The restaurant is open for main meals as well as offering afternoon tea featuring a selection of teas including Indonesian and Royal Dutch and several flavours of bite size cupcakes.
Like most cruise lines HAL offer set dining (typically 5.30pm and 7.45pm) and ‘As You Wish’ (any time dining between 5.15pm and 9.00pm). Dinner is usually a 4 course affair and HAL signature dishes like French Onion soup, Caesar Salad, grilled salmon, roast chicken and New York strip loin, always available. Although there are 2 formal nights per 7 night cruise, these are no longer as formal as in times past – evening dress can be worn, but most guests opt for cocktail dresses (women) and jackets (men). Smart casual is the designated dress code the rest of the time with casual shirts for men and trousers and sweaters for women being de rigueur, in the evenings.
Although HAL does not have a reputation as being a ‘party cruise line’, to complete our ship visit we visited several other bars: the Pinnacle Bar (great for pre-dinner drinks before eating at The Pinnacle Grill) and the Explorer’s Lounge, complete with maps and globes and also serving post dinner coffee and liqueurs. On the other hand, if you fancy a martini, head to the Atrium Bar.
Holland America started out transporting Dutch immigrants to New York and ever since then, for nearly 140 years they have been recognised as a leader in cruising terms, taking guests to exotic destinations throughout the world and helping to create unique experiences through these itineraries, their on board activities and enrichment programmes. Their ships are geared to offering excellent cuisine, good service and a spacious and comfortable on board experience. When Zuiderdam was launched in 2002, she was deemed to be a ‘bit gaudy’ and bright – 15 years later, it is hard to see what the fuss was about and indeed, she has a slightly dated look about her, albeit not in an unpleasant way.
So if you are interested in a classic cruise experience, interesting itineraries and good service, Zuiderdam would be a good choice for you!