In this age of giant white cruise ships lumbering into popular ports already swamped with other giant white cruise ships, the 1,266-passenger Statendam is a refreshingly intimate, agile and handsome looking vessel. Holland America's 55,451 grt Statendam is cozy at one-third the size of the today's biggest megas, and relatively speaking, a classic at the age of 14. Décor is a subdued scheme of earthy tones and traditional art works. And, there's hardly anything more appealing about a ship than a sleek hull with a dark paint job, tiered aft decks and a long sweeping foredeck -- this one covered in teak and offering passengers a great place to view the scenery of New Zealand and Australia. On a recent two-week cruise from Auckland to Sydney, when Captain Wieger van der Zee edged the ship within about 50 meters of the beautiful Sterling Falls in New Zealand's Milford Sound, it was as good as being on a small expedition vessel.
In many ways the ship is a throwback to more elegant times. From the silverware in the restaurants to daily white-glove high tea, complementary hot and cold canapés in lounges before dinner and early 11:30am boarding on embarkation day, guests are pampered a bit more than on comparatively priced cruises. Other cut-above perks include a room service menu offering eggs and breakfast meats (not just pastries and cereal); and better yet, orders can be placed on the morning of disembarkation. Unlike with other mass-market lines, guests are not pressured to vacate their cabins at the crack of dawn on the last morning of the cruise.
Elegant touches aside, don't get the wrong impression. Though the average age on my recent cruise hovered in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and walkers, canes and wheelchairs were ubiquitous, there were plenty of live wires. During one frisky relay race-like team game called Seaquest, I was taken aback -- in a good way -- at how many 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 goof balls tottering around in their boxer shorts or (yikes!) briefs, crumbled trousers in hand. It was riot.
Though a full moon may have been a factor, it seems likely that the ship's intimate size fostered such familiarity. Unlike on the 3,000-passenger ships where it's unlikely you'll run into that nice couple from dinner last night ever again, the Statendam is small and intimate enough to foster an easy camaraderie between passengers and with crew members. On my recent cruise, more than one crew member remarked how they preferred working on a smaller ship like the Statendam because the environment was more family-like. Still, the ship is large enough to offer plenty to do and eat. The benefactor of HAL's Signature of Excellence upgrades in May of 2005, Statendam manages to be both new and Old World.
The trendiest spot is the Explorations Café, a well-stocked library and Internet center with a coffee bar and ocean views. A buzzing hub of activity, there are 12 computer stations and several plug points for those going wireless with laptops. Five leather chaise lounges partnered with CD players and headphone stations face the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows, while other clusters of couches and chairs are set amongst the generous shelves of periodicals and books, which include everything from travel to fiction, science, history, gardening and reference titles.
By day, mixed in with the standard bingo, line dancing lessons, art auctions and galley tour, was a very impressive lecture series. Historian Gavin McLean, a New Zealand native, gave four very in-depth slide show talks about the history and culture of the two countries. In the ship's new culinary arts center, built into the Wajang theater, cooking demonstrations were well attended and other activities offered there included movies, a seminar on flower arranging, and an interesting behind the scenes video and Q&A on HAL's environmental policies and shipboard waste management protocols. Some passengers made a pastime of strolling the wraparound teak promenade deck, another throwback, or spent time in the gym, spa or indoor lido pool.
Evenings, the typical cruise-ship repertory included Broadway-style song and dance shows, which were mediocre at best with weak lead vocals, to more interesting acts that included a pair of well-received comedians, Yacov Noy and Geraldine Doyle. Other guest performers included a talented violinist and piano player. Two separate crew shows, a Filipino and Indonesia version, were also crowd pleasers. When the ship was in port late in Wellington, a troupe of Maori performers came on board to do a traditional, and very authentic, war dance. Though generally the Statendam's 2-week plus cruises attract an early-to-bed crowd, one exception was the night of the Black and White party up in the Crow's Nest lounge, when officers were on hand to dance with guests. Most evenings a dedicated after dinner crowd, along with two or three of the ship's gentleman hosts, gathered in the Ocean bar to take a turn or two on the dance floor.
Not counting holiday periods like Thanksgiving and Christmas, few families with children waltz onto a two-week or longer cruise like this. Besides my two 4 year olds, there were only a handful of other children on board. When there are fewer than 20 or 30 kids, a two-tired Club HAL program is offered -- children 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. Private in-cabin babysitting is also usually available at an hourly rate.
Though compact in size, the playroom is bright and cheerful, with a fun theme that included paint-can style stools and table tops designed like palettes. Activities for the younger age groups included endless arts and crafts projects; in no time crowns, necklaces, water colorings, frames and more piled up in our cabin. An adjacent video arcade includes a foosball table and a third indoor space for teens has a music system, comfy seating and computers. Most impressive, is the teens-only Oasis club sequestered high on a top deck. Though the few teens on my sailing didn't make use of it, the roomy area sported chaise lounges, wading pool, water fall and even hammocks.
When the rest of us need a nap, the cabin of course is the best spot. Added as part of HAL's Signature of Excellence enhancements, each sports ultra plush triple-sheeted beds -- the most comfortable cruise ship beds I have ever slept on. Other new amenities include the flat screen television and DVD player and a salon-style hair dryer. Among the roomiest standard cabins of the mainstream lines, the 182-square-foot and larger inside, outside and balcony cabins are well laid out with lots of closet and drawer space and a sofa. Fruit baskets and bathrobes are provided in all cabins.
The ship's three restaurants included the new Pinnacle Grill, a 60-seat alternative venue offering a menu of mostly steaks and seafood. Service here is more like a high-end restaurant compared to the hubbub of the main dining room, where your appetizer might arrive before the wine steward has had a chance to make it to your table. Overall, food was fine, though hardly memorable; the high point of the Rotterdam restaurant was it's glam two-level design and the views through full-length windows. The sun was only setting around 8:30 or 9pm, so the scenery and sea were part of dinner. In the spirit of keeping things fun, the waiters and cruise staff worked some tom foolery into dinner one night with a goofy song and dance routine while serving the salad.
The Lido buffet was a well-run operation, with a good variety of selections at each meal, from a shrimp curry at lunch to everything from steaks, fish and shrimp cocktail at dinner, including a made-to-order pasta station and meat carving section. A pizza and burger grill, along with a taco bar, is open from 11:30 to 6pm daily.
A nice complement to the itinerary was the local fish, meats and wines brought aboard in various ports, giving diners a context to the cruising region (which isn't typically the case due to quality control issues). The butterfish and John Dory were very tasty as were the New Zealand and Australian wines, including a very reasonably priced New Zealand Fernleaf Sauvignon Blanc at $25 a bottle.
When it comes to crew, two thirds of the Statendam's complement is from Indonesia and the Philippines. Though some HAL old timers say the line has changed -- from the automatic $10 a day tipping policy to a more blatant focus on selling drinks -- for the most part there's still a certain gentility about a Holland America cruise. On a ship that carries just 1,200 passengers, it's logistically feasible for the staff to offer a more personalized level of service than the bigger ships can.
"We're flexible," says Statendam Cruise Director Tervor Millar with a smile on his face, "ask and we can add it to the schedule."
A Sea of Worthwhile Ports
It seems most cruises have at least one or two dud ports, where maybe the closest attraction is hours away or there isn't much to do, or maybe the place is just too crowded. On the New Zealand and Australia run, every single port was worthwhile, not to mention convenient to local sights.
The weather, on the other hand, has the potential to dampen things. We heard repeatedly from crew during our cruise that we were lucky with the weather. The previous two cruises had been rough, with rain nearly every day and heavy winds kept the ship from getting into the fjords in the southern part of the New Zealand's South Island. We were fortunate to have mostly sunny days on our November 24 cruise, though even in good weather, the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand, is known to be one of the roughest crossings in the world. The first day of our two-day crossing was very bumpy.
Of a total of eight ports of call (the 12-night Sapphire Princess cruises, on the other hand, calls on just five ports; next year, Celebrity's Mercury will be doing 14 nighters with six or seven ports), six were in New Zealand. One of the world's most picturesque countries, it's especially conducive to travel by ship because ports are so close to one another affording long visits of about 10 hours a piece. About five to 10 organized excursions were offered in each port, though all could be easily and safely explored solo for those turned off by groups. Though driving is on the left in both countries, the roads are good and rarely crowded, and the locals tend to be friendly.
Tauranga. Rent a car (there's a Budget car rental office about 5 minutes by taxi from the docks) and do the scenic hour's drive past sheep farms and rolling hills to Rotorua. The town is the home of zorbing, one of many pointless (but fun) Kiwi inventions. This one entails rolling down a grassy hill inside a giant plastic ball just for the fun of it ($31). Nearby, take a cable car up the side of Mt. Ngongotaha for panoramic views of Rotorua Lake, before heading back down on a luge, a zippy 3-wheel cart ($20). Next door is the Kiwi Encounter Hatchery (www.kiwiencounter.co.nz) ($18) and the Rainbow Springs Nature Park (www.rainbowsprings.co.nz), where you can see kiwi, rainbow trout and iguana-like tuataras ($16)
Napier. From Napier, a pretty towns that claims the world's largest concentration of art deco buildings, the ship's Hawkes Bay Wineries tour ($72) is palette pleasing, though to throw some exercise into the mix, arrange a10-km bike tour with On Yer Bike Winery Tours (www.onyerbikehb.co.nz) and peddle through picturesque farmland to the Ngatarawa and Trinity Hill wineries before finishing off with an al fresco lunch and more tasting at the Te Awa winery ($35, not including lunch).
Wellington. Ship tours include a pub crawl ($63) and a tour to several Lord of the Rings movie locations ($207), though Wellington is also a good place to go it alone. We opted to hop in a taxi ($16) for the 10-minute drive to the Te Papa National Museum (www.tepapa.govt.nz), an exceptional tribute to New Zealand's native Maori culture. Nearby, we hopped in the cable car for the steep, but short climb to the Botanic Gardens (including a beautiful rose section) at the top of Mount Victoria.
Picton. Excellent excursions include a trip to three wineries in the Marlborough region ($75) and a wine tasting and garden tour ($97). For something more active, we opted for the Queen Charlotte Sound Kayaking ($199). Though not cheap, it is a chance to soak up the gorgeous mountain scenery and raw New Zealand elements -- be prepared for wind and rain.
Christchurch. Popular ship tours from this very English town include the Tranz Alpine Express train ride across the island and back ($255), a great opportunity to see New Zealand's beautiful hinterland, from its sheep farms to the snow-capped Southern Alps. Considering Christchurch's historic role as a gateway for Antarctica expeditions, including Ernest Shackleton's in 1907, an interesting option is a tour of the International Antarctic Center ($69), which includes a ride on a real Hagglund, the all-terrain amphibian vehicle used on expeditions.
Dunedin. A university town with a strong Scottish heritage, great sightseeing options include a tour of the Cadbury chocolate factory in town (www.cadburyworld.co.nz) and a visit to Penguin Place (http://www.penguinplace.co.nz), a unique family-run refuge for Yellow Eyed penguins set up on farm land that stretches dramatically to the ocean. A drive along the High Cliff Road is a must for stunning views of rolling sheep pastures framed by the sea. Add on a one-hour cruise aboard a classic little motor vessel called the Monarch (www.wildlife.co.nz) to try and spot Albatross (if it's windy enough) and in the least, see the beautiful cliffs of Taiaroa Head up close.
Burnie. Located on the northern coast of Tasmania, Australia, the area's red earth and craggily trees cast a prehistoric feel to the place. Most everything of note is about an hour's drive away, including Cradle Mountain national park, a World Heritage site, where you can hike trails and possibly encounter a wombat or wallaby if you're lucky. The ship's 9-hour tour is $164. For something more customized, hook up with local tour operator Thylacine Expeditions (www.thylacineexpeditions.com.au), and visit the devils@cradle Tasmanian devil refuge to see and touch the critters up close. Then, at the park, have lunch and visit the spa at the Cradle Mountain Lodge (the spa's treatment rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows facing the mountains!).
Melbourne. A tram line runs within yards of the docks and whisks passengers right into the heart of the city within minutes. Known for its gardens and parks and named one of the world's most livable cities, Melbourne is a great place to stroll. In town, hop on the historic City Circle Tram for a free narrated one-hour loop of central Melbourne. To venture out of the city, ship excursions include the "In the Wild! Kangaroos and Koalas" tour to see the animals in the wild ($89).
All prices above have been converted into U.S. dollars.