A recent trip on Zaandam, my first with Holland America since the line rolled out its "Signature of Excellence" program fleet-wide, gave me an opportunity to see if HAL was maintaining its reputation of providing the high level of comfort and service that has evolved gracefully over the years.
For passengers who have traveled on any of Holland America's Statendam-class or Rotterdam-class ships, the Zaandam (launched in 2000 and named after a town in Holland) will seem familiar. The atrium is filled with a signature sculpture. The restaurant is on two levels aft. The Lower Promenade Deck is wraparound. Most public rooms are located on three decks. And there are three banks of elevators (two on Statendam-class vessels). The deck plan is similar to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but Zaandam and Volendam, its sister ship, lack the horsepower (and the twin funnels) of the co-flagships of the line.
And that's why, from the moment I stepped aboard Zaandam, I felt at home. Having traveled on other Holland America Line ships, I expected to see Dutch antiques from the line's extensive collection, a sculpted centerpiece in the atrium (in Zaandam's case, a working organ with mechanical figures), paintings of Holland America ships in the stairwells by Stephen Card, and some public rooms decorated in a gracious Dutch colonial motif. And so I did. I also expected floral displays and familiarly named public rooms like the Crow's Nest, the Rotterdam Dining Room, the Wajang Theatre, the Ocean Bar and the Explorers' Lounge. As such, it took me no time at all to find my bearings.
Uniquely, Zaandam was originally intended to serve as Holland America's bid to attract younger passengers. The ship's godmothers are the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, known to television viewers of the late 80's and early 90's from "Full House" and to moviegoers in the years since. Zaandam sports a collection of rock 'n' roll memorabilia that would do credit to a Hard Rock Cafe: e.g., a guitar signed by the Rolling Stones. But the memorabilia is displayed so discreetly in display cases (this is, after all, a Holland America ship), that they might as well be Japanese fans or Flemish etchings, so little does this decorative conceit influence the on board ambience.
Not all was smooth, however. Zaandam has been retrofitted with the enhancements Holland America calls its Signature of Excellence -- such as new pillow-top mattresses and high thread count sheets, duvets and pillow cases, flat-screen televisions with DVD players and high-volume shower heads. These are indeed lovely additions. But while Holland America has always prided itself on consistency in areas such as service, quality and cuisine, my experience of Zaandam was highly inconsistent.
My towels were thick and fluffy, another passenger's were thin and threadbare. I had two hair dryers: the old pre-Signature of Excellence built-in one (not removed in the renovation) and the new one, hidden in a vanity drawer. Another passenger had only the old one. I had terrycloth robes in my cabin and fresh fruit replenished every day, while another passenger had to ask for both. One waiter in the dining room had no trouble providing decaf cappuccino, while another seemed put out to be asked.
As pleasant and familiar as the ship was, what ultimately disappointed me was that the line seems to be coasting on its reputation. I found constant reminders that Holland America relies on income from profit centers onboard its ships like jarring loudspeaker announcements of activities: art auctions, bingo, casino contests, spa services, sales in shops and shore excursions. Gone are the days of free sail-away drinks and announcements for navigational purposes only. The quiet, up-market ambience has been shattered. Holland America used to provide a refined product that appealed primarily to older, experienced cruisers. To keep its increasingly larger ships full (and profitable) it has diluted its reputation.