Holland America Line
The Line in a Nutshell
In business since 1873, Holland America Line (HAL) has managed to hang on to more of its seafaring history and tradition than any line today except Cunard. It offers a moderately priced, classic, and casual yet refined cruise experience. Sails to: Caribbean, Panama Canal, Alaska, Mexico, Hawaii, Canada/New England (plus Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, South America, Africa).
Holland America is a classy operation, providing all-around appealing cruises with a touch of old-world elegance and such cushy amenities as plush bedding and flat-panel TVs with DVD players in all cabins. Though the line has been retooling itself to attract younger passengers and families, it still caters mostly to older folks, and so generally offers a more sedate and stately experience than other mainstream lines, plus excellent service for the money. Its fleet, which until a few years ago consisted of midsize, classically styled ships, is in the process of becoming supersize (relatively speaking), and the new Eurodam and recent Vista-class megaships are a bit bolder in their color palettes. New or old, the vessels are all well maintained and have excellent (and remarkably similar) layouts that ease passenger movement. Throughout the ships' public areas, you'll see flowers that testify to Holland's place in the floral trade, Indonesian touches that evoke Holland's relationship with its former colony, and seafaring memorabilia that often hearkens back to HAL's own history.
For years, HAL was known for catering to an almost exclusively older crowd, with most passengers in their 70s on up. Today, following intense efforts to attract younger passengers, about 25% of the line's guests are under age 55 (with the average age being 57), with a few young families peppering the mix, especially in summers and during holiday weeks. While the average age skews a bit lower on the newer Signature-class and Vista-class ships, HAL just isn't Carnival or Disney, and its older ships especially were designed with older folks in mind. On cruises longer than a week, there's no shortage of canes, walkers, and wheelchairs.
Passengers tend to be amiable, low key, and amenable to dressing up -- you'll see lots of tuxedos and evening gowns on formal nights. Though you'll see some people walking laps on the Promenade Deck, others taking advantage of the ships' gyms, and some taking athletic or semiadventurous shore excursions, these aren't terribly active cruises, and passengers overall tend to be sedentary. HAL has a very high repeat-passenger rate, so many of the people you'll see aboard will have sailed with the line before.
Parties for solo travelers (only 30-40 of whom tend to be on any particular cruise) encourage mixing, and you can ask to be seated with other solo passengers at dinner. On cruises of 10 nights or longer, gentlemen hosts sail aboard to provide company for single women, joining them at dinner as well as serving as dance partners.
One of the most famous shipping companies in the world, Holland America Line was founded in 1873 as the Nederlandsch-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart Maatschappij (Netherlands-American Steamship Company). Its first ocean liner, the original Rotterdam, took her maiden, 15-day voyage from the Netherlands to New York City in 1872. By the early 1900s, the company had been renamed Holland America and was one of the major lines transporting immigrants from Europe to the United States, as well as providing passenger/cargo service between Holland and the Dutch East Indies via the Suez Canal. During World War II, the company's headquarters moved from Nazi-occupied Holland to Dutch-owned Curaçao, then the site of a strategic oil refinery, and after the war the company forged strong links with North American interests. The line continued regular transatlantic crossings up until 1971, and then turned to offering cruises full time. In 1989, it was acquired by Carnival Corporation, which improved the line's entertainment and cuisine while maintaining its overall character and sense of history. Today, most of HAL's vessels are named for other classic vessels in the line's history -- Rotterdam, for example, is the sixth HAL ship to bear that name -- and striking paintings of classic HAL ships by maritime artist Stephen Card appear in the stairways on every ship. But HAL isn't just about history: Over the past few years, it's upgraded its ships with what it called the Signature of Excellence initiative. All staterooms now have DVD players and flat-panel plasma TVs, extrafluffy towels, terry-cloth bathrobes, massage shower heads, lighted magnifying makeup mirrors, salon-quality hair dryers, triple-sheeted mattresses, and 100% Egyptian cotton bed linens. Each ship also got a demonstration kitchen for interactive programs about food and wine; a combo lounge, library, coffee shop, and Internet cafe called the Explorations Café; and enhanced spa and kids' facilities.
Though Holland America offers cruises in every major region covered in this book, it's particularly strong in Alaska, where it operates one of the state's most extensive land-tour operations.
Holland America's 2,104-passenger, 86,000-ton Eurodam launched in July 2008 as the first vessel in the line's new Signature class. Nieuw Amsterdam, a second Signature-class sister was built at Italy's Fincantieri shipyards and was set to launch in July 2010 just as this book went to press.
Much improved over the years, Holland America's cuisine is fine, but hardly memorable. On a recent cruise, meals in the main restaurant were hit-and-miss, ranging from so-so to pretty good. The line is making a push to serve more regional dishes to match the area where a given ship is sailing: salmon and other wild local seafood on Alaska cruises; chicken mole or guava-stuffed chicken on Mexico cruises; and jerk chicken or West Indian lassi soup in the Caribbean, plus local produce like chayote, breadfruit, and guava. The nonadventurous can still order menu standards such as New York strip steak and Caesar salad.
Traditional -- In the line's lovely formal restaurants, appetizers may include prawns in spicy wasabi cocktail sauce, deep-fried hazelnut brie, and escargot; the soup-and-salad course always involves several options, from a plain house salad and minestrone to a chilled raspberry bisque and spicy two-bean soup; and main courses are heavy on traditional favorites such as broiled lobster tail, grilled salmon, beef tenderloin, roast turkey, seared tuna steak, grilled pork chop, and filet mignon, along with a regional specialty or two.
Those wanting something less substantial can opt for lighter dishes such as grilled fish or chicken, and fresh fruit medley. A few entrees on most dinner menus are marked as signature dishes recommended by master chef Rudi Sodamin, and include the likes of a salmon tartare with avocado appetizer and, as a main course, chicken cordon bleu. Some vegetarian entrees are available on the main menu, but you can also ask for a full vegetarian menu, with a half-dozen entrees and an equal number of appetizers, soups, and salads. (Don't miss the tofu Stroganoff and celery-and-Stilton soup if they're offered -- yum.) Children can enjoy tried-and-true staples such as pizza, hot dogs, burgers with fries, chicken fingers, and tacos, plus chef's specials such as pasta and fish and chips.
A few years back, Holland America introduced its As You Wish Dining program, similar to Princess's Personal Choice program. At booking, passengers are asked to choose either traditional early- or late-seating dining (at the same table nightly, served on one level of the ship's main restaurant) or a completely flexible schedule (offered from 5:15 to 9pm nightly on the restaurant's other level). Guests opting for flexible dining can make reservations during the day or just show up whenever they like.
Specialty -- Aboard every vessel, the intimate Pinnacle Grill restaurant offers a menu of mostly steaks, chops, and fish. Options may include such dishes as Dungeness crab cakes, pan-seared rosemary chicken with cranberry chutney, wild-mushroom ravioli with pesto cream sauce, or lamb rack chops with drizzled mint sauce, plus premium beef cuts. All entrees are complemented with regional wines from Château Ste. Michelle, Canoe Ridge, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and others. The cover charge is $20 per person for dinner and $15 for lunch. On a recent Statendam outing, the service was top-rate and the food exceeded our expectations. Don't miss the opportunity to dine here at least once per cruise. Make reservations as early as possible when you come aboard. In addition to dinners, alternative restaurants may be open for lunch on sea days.
The new Eurodam and Niuew Amsterdam have further opened up the dining choices, with the really outstanding Pan-Asian Tamarind ($15 at dinner; no charge for dim sum at lunch) and Italian Canaletto (no extra cost), which takes over a portion of the buffet each evening and is also being added to the rest of the fleet. Slice, the pair's 24-hour pizzeria, makes custom pizzas with toppings ranging from mussels to eggplant, on standard or whole-wheat crust. The ships also offer flexible cross-ordering; for example, guests dining in the buffet can order selections from the dining room during dinner service. In addition, the new spa staterooms come with special healthy room service menus and the new cabanas with light breakfast and lunch selections.
Casual -- As has become industry standard, casual dining is available each night in the ships' buffet-style Lido restaurants, which also serve breakfast and lunch. Fleetwide, a casual Italian restaurant called Canaletto has been carved out of part of the Lido buffet. There's also a new upscale pizzeria called Slice near the aft Pool Deck aboard Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Veendam, and Rotterdam; on the Veendam and Rotterdam, Slice is adjacent to a large new LED movie screen as well. Overall, Holland American has some of the best-laid-out buffets at sea, with separate stations for salads, desserts, drinks, and so on, keeping lines and crowding to a minimum. Diners here enjoy open seating from about 6 to 8pm. Tables are set with linens and a pianist may provide background music, but service is buffet-style, with waiters on hand to serve beverages. Most main dishes are similar to what you'll find in the main restaurant that evening. At lunch, the buffet restaurants offer pasta, salads, stir-fry, burgers, and usually an ethnic option, such as an Indian shrimp curry, sushi, or Dutch crepes. Pizza and ice cream stations are open until late afternoon. Out on the Lido Deck, by the pool, a grill serves hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie and turkey burgers, and pizza, between about 11:30am and 6pm. A taco bar nearby has all the fixings for tacos or nachos, and it's generally open about the same hours. Once a week, the Lido also hosts a barbecue buffet dinner.
Snacks & Extras -- Once per cruise, a special Royal Dutch High Tea features teatime snacks and music provided by the ships' string trio, making it one of the most truly "high" among the generally pretty low teas served on mainstream lines. A new Indonesian Tea and Coffee Ceremony is also being held once per cruise and features such goodies as spring rolls, sweet rice balls, and coconut. There's also a new Cupcake Tea that's especially popular with families with kids, which includes plates of delicious mini-cupcakes with your tea. On other days, a more standard afternoon tea has white-gloved waiters passing around teeny sandwiches, scones, and cookies in the dining room or one of the main lounges. Pizza, soft ice cream, and frozen yogurt round out the afternoon snacks.
Free hot canapés are served in some of the bars/lounges during the cocktail hour, and free iced tea is served on deck, one of many thoughtful touches provided at frequent intervals by the well-trained staff. The Explorations Café has a specialty coffee bar.
Each evening around midnight, a spread of snacks is available in the Lido restaurant, and at least once during each cruise, the dessert chefs go wild with a midnight Dessert Extravaganza. Cakes are decorated with humorous themes, marzipan animals guard towering chocolate castles, and trays are heavy with chocolate-covered strawberries, truffles, cream puffs, and other sinful treats.
Room service is available 24 hours a day and is typically efficient and gracious. As a plus, the breakfast options include eggs and meats, not just pastries and cereals as on most mainstream ships. You can also order room service on the final morning of the cruise, another rarity.
Holland America is one of the few cruise lines that maintains a real training school (a land-based school in Indonesia known in HAL circles as "ms Nieuw Jakarta") for the selection and training of staffers, resulting in service that's efficient, attentive, and genteel. The soft-spoken, primarily Indonesian and Filipino staffers smile more often than not and will frequently remember your name after only one introduction, though they struggle occasionally with their English. (Be cool about it: Remember, you probably can't speak even a word of Bahasa Indonesia or Tagalog.) During lunch, a uniformed employee may hold open the door of a buffet, and at dinnertime, stewards who look like vintage hotel pages walk through the public rooms ringing a chime to formally announce the dinner seatings.
Like many other lines these days, HAL now automatically adds gratuities to passengers' shipboard accounts, at the rate of $11 per day, adjustable up or down at your discretion. A 15% service charge is automatically added to bar bills and dining room wine accounts.
Only the Vista-class ships (and the Prinsendam) come with minifridges in standard cabins. On the other vessels, they can be rented for a few bucks a day (inquire before your cruise if you're interested) if staying in a standard cabin; suites do have fridges. All cabins have complimentary fruit baskets on embarkation day. An early-boarding program allows guests to get aboard in the port of embarkation as early as 11:30am, when some lounges and facilities will be open for their use, although cabins generally won't be ready until 1pm. All suite guests have access to a one-touch 24-hour concierge service and concierge lounge.
Onboard services on every ship in the fleet include laundry and dry cleaning. Each ship -- except the new Signature- and Vista-class ships, oddly enough -- also maintains several self-service laundry rooms with irons.
Though varied and fun, HAL's onboard activities tend to be low-key. You can take ballroom dance lessons; take an informal class in photography; play bingo or bridge; sit in on a trivia game or Pictionary tournament; participate in Ping-Pong, golf-putting, basketball free-throw, or volleyball tournaments; take a gaming lesson in the casino or an aerobics class at the gym; take a self-guided iPod tour of the ship's art collection or a backstage theater tour; go high-toned at a wine tasting; or go low-toned at the goofy games poolside or in a lounge. During the Seaquest game on a 14-night cruise, we watched as a group of mostly senior passengers enthusiastically slipped off their bras and dropped their drawers in the name of friendly competition -- the team that deposited more undergarments on the show lounge stage won. The place was a sea of geriatric goofballs tottering around in their boxers and briefs, crumbled trousers in hand. Some cruises also feature model shipbuilding contests in which you can use only junk you find around the ship, with seaworthiness tested in one of the ship's hot tubs.
Each ship has a great Explorations Café, which is a combo Internet center, coffee bar, and library. Comfy lounge chairs come equipped with music stations and headphones. Generous shelves of books (Holland American has the most extensive libraries after Cunard), DVDs, and games line the walls, and a magazine stand holds current issues of popular magazines, plus the latest editions of various newspapers, when the ship can get them. If you're a crossword buff, you can tackle the New York Times crossword puzzles embedded under glass in the room's cafe tables (wax pencils are provided). Explorations also functions as the Internet cafe, but passengers toting their Wi-Fi-enabled laptops can take advantage of wireless hot spots here and throughout the ship. The ships' Culinary Arts Centers give free cooking demos and more intimate, hands-on cooking classes (available for a charge). The center is also used for other demos, such as flower arranging. Cooking demos usually happen twice per 7-day cruise; go early to get a front-row seat, or sit in the back and watch the food preparation on the flat-panel TVs around the room.
On 7-night Alaska cruises, Native artists demonstrate traditional arts such as ivory and soapstone carving, basket weaving, and mask making as part of the line's Artists in Residence Program, created under the auspices of Anchorage's Alaska Native Heritage Center. For another program during visits to Glacier Bay, a member of the Huna tribe comes aboard to talk about the land the Huna have called home for centuries. In Hawaii and Mexico, cultural dancers perform for passengers.
Don't expect HAL's shows to knock your socks off, but hey, at least they're trying. Each ship features small-scale Vegas-style shows, with laser lights and lots of glimmer and shimmer. Overall, though, you'll find better-quality entertainment from the soloists, trios, and quartets playing jazz, pop, and light-classical standards around the ship.
Recent-release movies are shown an average of twice a day in an onboard cinema and also up on deck via a new, large LED screen on the ships' aft deck (part of a new concept at the ships' stern called the Retreat which also includes a new pool bar and pizzeria). There's free popcorn available for the full movie effect. There's also a crew talent show once a week in which crewmembers (Indonesians one week, Filipinos the next) present songs and dances from their home countries. Passenger-participation shows are a different animal, with the crowd-pleasing American Idolstyle contest called Superstar featuring passenger crooners being critiqued by a staff of judges.
Aboard each ship, one of the lounges becomes a disco in the evening, with a small live band generally playing before dinner and a DJ taking over for after-dinner dancing. The new Signature-class and Vista-class ships have dedicated discos; on the other ships, the Crow's Nest lounge goes disco in the evenings.
Holland America isn't Disney, but the line is trying harder to cater to families with children. If there are more than about 30 kids aboard, activities are programmed for three age brackets (3-7, 8-12, and 13-17), and there's always at least one counselor on board every sailing, and more when demand warrants. You'll find the most children on cruises during summers and holiday weeks. At these times, there may be as many as 300 to 400 kids aboard the line's newer ships, especially in the Caribbean, though around 100 to 200 is typical overall. When there are fewer than 20 or 30 kids, a two-tiered Club HAL program is offered -- children ages 3 to 12 in one group, teens in another -- on a limited basis, generally about 6 hours on sea days and even fewer hours on port days. On cruises with more children, activities are offered for three or more age groupings and for much longer hours. Typically, each evening kids receive a program detailing the next day's activities, which may include arts and crafts, cooking classes, youth sports tournaments, movies and videos, scavenger hunts, PlayStations, disco for teens, storytelling for younger kids, miniature golf, charades, bingo, Ping-Pong, and pizza, ice-cream, and pajama parties. The playrooms typically operate on a limited schedule on port days, and in the Caribbean, the line offers kids' activities on its private beach, Half Moon Cay.
All the ships have dedicated playrooms with toys, games, arts and crafts, foosball, air hockey, PlayStations, and more. Fleetwide, you'll find a separate teen center called the Loft with video screens and a dance floor; most ships also have a totally cool outdoor space sequestered away on a top deck for teens called the Oasis, a beachlike setting complete with a waterfall and chaise longues. Otherwise, the playrooms are bright and cheerful, though they lack the ball jumps, padded climbing and crawling areas, and fanciful decor that make kids' facilities aboard Disney, Royal Caribbean, Princess, NCL, and Celebrity so compelling.
Families traveling with HAL tend to be multigenerational, and the line emphasizes activities for the whole family rather than kids only. Many onboard activities are geared for family fun or competition, especially in the Caribbean.
Group babysitting in the playroom is offered between 10pm and midnight for $5 per hour per child for kids ages 3 to 12. In-cabin babysitting is also offered, assuming a crewmember is available. The cost is $8 an hour for the first child (minimum age 12 weeks), and $5 per hour for additional kids. Inquire at the guest services desk.
Children must be 12 weeks or older to sail aboard.