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Holland America, a classy cruise line for mature travelers

SmarterTravel

At 8:00 p.m., the ms Westerdam feels like Grand Central Station at rush hour. Well-dressed guests sashay to and from the Vista Dining Room and Lounge. The bars buzz with the clinking of martini glasses and the small talk of new friends. Out on the Ocean Bar’s dance floor, long-married couples dust off their ballroom moves.

By midnight, the ship is a ghost town. A few stragglers linger in the bars, and the DJ at the Northern Lights disco plays to an empty house. The only people left in the casino are the dealers packing up their cards and dice.

Is this lack of nightlife due to a busy schedule at tomorrow’s next European port-of-call, or is it because the Westerdam‘s passenger roster has so few guests under the age of 65?

It certainly isn’t the fault of the elegant public areas or their resident musicians. After spending 10 nights cruising the western Mediterranean on the Westerdam, I’ve decided [% 9823 | | Holland America %] and its classy ship cater to a certain kind of traveler—one used to a distinctly different pace than I am. It’s clear that misfits like me need to adapt or end up wandering the empty halls in the wee hours looking for a kindred spirit.

The ideal Holland America guest

Although Holland America will tell you its target audience is the baby boomer generation, in reality it caters to guests in their 70s and 80s. On my May sailing, I was hard pressed to find 50 guests younger than my 30 years of age (out of 1,893 onboard). Youth Director Kira Sabin assured me that families would start cruising Europe in June, with summer highs reaching 300 or so kids onboard. In Alaska, she said, the ships carry up to 500 kids per sailing. On these family-oriented cruises, the ship has a completely different atmosphere than during the rest of the year. But sail in the fall, winter, or spring, I’m told, and the demographic will be even older than on my late-spring voyage.

If you fall into the senior category and are looking for an easy way to see the sights of the world while staying in comfortable surroundings, Holland America is fantastic. Everyone commented on the staff’s fine level of service—how the buffet workers would help guests with their trays and room stewards would bring everything a guest might need. The ship itself, newly out of dry dock, is noticeably more upscale than other mainstream and premium ships I’ve been on. The deck chairs are wicker with soft cushions, rather than white plastic, and the buffet restaurant is appointed quite nicely with white cloths on the tables during the evenings.

Active, young, and independent travelers, on the other hand, should think twice before plunking down a deposit. The ship’s fitness area is not quite as modern as on other ships, and there are few “active” onboard activities. Tours cater to travelers not used to being on their own in a foreign country, and nightlife means drinks from 9:00 to 10:00 p.m. If you’re cruising with your parents or grandparents, you’ll enjoy spending time with them, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the line for young honeymooning couples.

Private and public spaces

Cruise personality aside, I’m generally a fan of the Westerdam. My deluxe outside stateroom with verandah doesn’t strike me as bigger or smaller than the same category cabin on other lines, but it does make excellent use of its tight quarters. The room provides a great deal of storage with three closets as well as shelves above the pull-out love seat and drawers under the bed. The beds are blissfully comfortable, and the verandah, like the pool deck, has nice wicker patio furniture rather than cheap plastic chairs.

The bathroom, with a bathtub/shower combo and lots of bathroom storage space, is quite spacious for a cruise ship. The only drawback is the funny angle of the toilet and the fact that no matter what I did, I drenched the floor while showering.

The Westerdam has quite a few bars and lounges, mostly on decks two and three. They are quite inviting, with pleasing decor and comfortable chairs and banquettes. The Crow’s Nest on Deck 10 offers panoramic views from its floor-to-ceiling windows. The Vista Lounge doesn’t have the best sight lines for watching the production shows and other acts, so arriving early is key. The casino is surprisingly easy to walk through and has a mix of slot machines and gaming tables. A new Explorations Café next to the Crow’s Nest serves up espressos and cappuccinos, while the Internet stations drain your wallet at up to 75 cents per minute to connect.

The spa is quite large with separate salon, treatment rooms, thalassotherapy room, and thermal suite. The fitness center offers a stretch area, cardio and weight machines, and free weights. Two pools, one midship and one aft, give guests choices of where to lay out on pool days, while the deck above is rumored to have the best areas for quiet relaxation in the Mediterranean sun.

Wining and dining

Holland America is a line for people who like quantity over quality of food. The meals in the Vista Dining Room are adequate, sometimes good, sometimes less so. The desserts are routinely disappointing, and I discovered that it’s not wise to order tuna (a fish usually served on the rarer side) on the last night of a 10-night trip. The Lido Restaurant’s buffet has many choices, but with equally mixed results. I tended to avoid it, except to get breakfast, salads, and ice cream. The best bets there are probably the made-to-order sandwich, omelet, and pasta stations.

Room service isn’t bad if you don’t order during rush times and have to wait an hour for your food. I dined on several yummy sandwiches on nights that I couldn’t bear a long dinner. Guests can also order items from the Vista Dining Room menu to be delivered to their cabins during dinner hours.

The best food, by leaps and bounds, is found in the Pinnacle Grill for an extra $30 per person for dinner or $15 for lunch (on the rare occasions it’s open midday). The decor is whimsical, and the tables are spaced farther apart than in the Vista Dining Room, so you don’t feel like your neighbors are breathing down your neck. The meal begins with a show-and-tell—the waiter wheels out a cart with the various cuts of meat on it and introduces guests to their potential entree. The salmon and the lamb got rave reviews when I was there (my tablemates weren’t a steak-eating bunch, I guess), and the desserts were exquisite. In addition to the tray of truffles brought for the table to share, the chocolate volcano and trio of crèmes brûlées were to die for. The meal was worth every penny, and better yet, the restaurant was never full, making reservations easy to come by.

Late-night snackers can choose from regional cuisine each night between 11:00 p.m. and midnight. As I finished dinner at 10:00 p.m. regularly, I rarely needed to dine again after an hour, though I did put in an appearance at the late-night dessert extravaganza. My professional opinion is that the display looked better than it tasted.

On the wining side, I heard from other passengers that bottle prices were high, though you could sign up for a wine package, starting at three bottles for $89. Holland America does let guests bring wine onboard, but not hard liquor. So feel free to buy those Italian, French, and Spanish wines and sip them out on the verandah. Bring them to dinner, though, and you’ll most likely incur a corkage fee.

Entertainment

The best entertainment on the ship is not to be found in the show lounge. The real finds are the lounge singer Crystal, Halcats band, and Gloria Strings classical quartet, each of whom play in the smaller bars and lounges in the evenings. They’re fun to listen to and create a nice atmosphere for having a pre- or post-dinner drink.

The headliners are mostly unimpressive, with a few notable exceptions. My friend dragged me to the illusionist, who put on the best show of the entire trip. Another surprise winner was the oboist who played rock, jazz, classical, and calypso music on her reed instrument. The one production show we did see put us off all others—it was very cheesy and only one of the four leads had a stellar voice. Other performances included a Catskills-esque comedian, a backup singer playing diva, and a pianist who emulated Liberace more than Chopin. Supposedly, the crew show is also very good but I fell asleep before showtime.

The casino is a big draw in the evenings and continues to hop even when the bars begin to empty out. The dealers are actually quite forgiving to beginners and gave my friend blackjack tips rather than cashing in on her first-timer mistakes. Holland America ships also have Culinary Arts Centers with show kitchens, and the cooking demonstration on our second sea day was both funny and informative. With only one demo on our cruise, this theater/lounge was used mostly to show movies (which were the same flicks United Airlines was playing on my plane rides to and from Europe).

Better with age

I may not have been Holland America’s ideal guest, but with 65 percent of the passengers on my itinerary repeat Holland America cruisers, you know the cruise line has found its niche. If you’re picky about your creature comforts but less picky about the quality of your food and entertainment, Holland America does a really nice job with its ships. If you’re retired or close to it and want to sail with like-minded guests, you may have hit the jackpot with this line. The Westerdam offers an upscale environment for regular Joes and Jills looking to splurge a little on a European vacation. I didn’t encounter any snooty millionaires or too-sophisticated-for-you types on this cruise at all.

As for me, I learned to get on the dance floor even if no one else was there, and to happily get in bed with a book at 11:00, knowing that my tour departed at 8:15 the next morning. I befriended bewildered 20-somethings and chatted easily with grandparents about what it’s like to be young on this ship. I may not be ready for Holland America now, but give me 50 years and I too may be signing up for back-to-back Mediterranean cruises on the ms Westerdam.

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