When Zuiderdam -- the first ship in Holland America's revolutionary Vista class -- was introduced back in 2002, it was much showier than its predecessors, with a flashy color scheme and younger sensibility, devised in an effort to attract a younger audience in a region that was, at that point, fairly uncharted for the line: the Caribbean. The vivid new look, from bright red elevators and hallways to bar and lounge seating in magenta, orange and yellow, raised more than a few eyebrows; in fact, the ships that followed reflected a return to a more conservative design style.
Interestingly, much of the ship's unusually bright decor was left untouched during the recent refit, part of the line's multi-million-dollar Signature of Excellence program. But, whether it is "gaudy" or "contemporary" really depends upon your personal style. After all, as more and more ship designers take risks with different shapes and colors, styles that felt loud in 2002 are more commonplace six years later. Perhaps the ship has just grown into its look.
One thing that's for certain is that Holland America, like many mainstream North American cruise lines, continues to invest money in its older ships via major renovation projects, aiming to bring modern amenities onboard and standardize experiences across the fleet. The Signature of Excellence initiative has been rolling out in phases since 2003. By 2006, every ship in the fleet -- including Zuiderdam -- had either received the first set of upgrades (from plush, new bedding to in-cabin DVD players) or was launched with them.
But a second round of changes was quickly announced, and Zuiderdam went under the knife again in 2008 for more updates. The major ones include:
The aft of the ship looks radically different. It used to be slanted at about a 45-degree angle; during the refit, however, the upper decks were extended outward to make room for more cabins
, so the back of the ship is now a bit boxier. This structural change allowed for a total of 34 new verandah and inside staterooms, bringing the double occupancy capacity of the ship to 1,916.
Holland America's now-signature Explorations Cafe
was brought to Zuiderdam during the 2008 refit, taking over the starboard side of the Crow's Nest, the top-of-ship lounge. The Pinnacle Grill
, located on Deck 3, benefited from the elimination of the Windstar Cafe, which existed on that same deck. The cafe's old spot is now the location of the new Pinnacle Bar
, popular for pre-dinner drinks among those dining at the alternative eatery. And because there's now a stand-alone bar, the one that was part of the restaurant was removed, allowing more seats to be added.
The library, too, was removed from Deck 3 (as it's now part of Explorations Cafe), which freed up space for additional shops
and a cozy new movie theater
, where films are screened throughout each cruise. "Sex and the City" and "Bottle Shock" were two that appeared on our itinerary.
Some areas could have used extra TLC during the dry dock, including some pesky "potholes" in passenger areas. (Watch out for the loose floorboards outside of the main dining room.) There were also chipped tubs and tiling in staterooms and, yes, even some of the bright carpeting was showing its age. But, in the long run, though we do appreciate the museum-quality art onboard -- from paintings of historic Dutch ships to a Waterford Crystal sculpture in the shape of a seahorse -- aesthetics aren't what the cruise experience is about.
For me, what set this cruise apart from other recent sailings was the crew onboard. While it's common for shipboard employees to have had a long history of work at sea, this is the first time I've met crewmember after crewmember with a long history of work, specifically with Holland America. They're loyal to the line, and in many cases, to this specific ship -- they come back, contract after contract.
I was also impressed with the way Holland America has encouraged its mostly Indonesian and Filipino crewmembers to make their cultures a part of the cruise experience on this and other ships in the fleet. There are special Indonesian afternoon teas offered, where crew wear native costumes and serve Indonesian teas and pastries. There is also a Filipino crew talent show held onboard. The cornerstone is local dance and music, but crewmembers also showcase more individual talents, from singing to guitar-playing. After a parody sketch, in which a group of obviously male colleagues pretended to be working in the rice paddies while dressed in drag -- inflated balloons stuffed into the fronts of shirts and backs of pants -- the hilarious emcee (a line cook at the lido grill by day) flashed a sweet smile and said, "I'm so proud of my country."
I couldn't tell you, without looking back at my photos, what color the couches in the Piano Bar are, but I won't
forget that these hardworking men and women spent what little time off they do have rehearsing for the show.
Age ranges vary by cruise length and itinerary. For example, you're likely to find more young passengers on weeklong voyages to the Caribbean. But, in general, Holland America attracts a slightly older, more affluent clientele with the average ages in the mid-50's. HAL boasts a loyal passenger base, which means each cruise nets a high percentage of repeat passengers. Our sailing, a longer (10-day) trip that also did a partial Panama Canal transit, skewed even a bit older and was comprised mostly of North American travelers, though there were several Canadians and Brits onboard, too.
Our 10-day sailing through the Caribbean and Panama Canal featured two formal nights and one "optional" formal night (about half of the passengers onboard dressed up). On formal evenings, most men wear suits (a few were in tuxedos); women opt for gowns, cocktail dresses or nice pants suits. All other nights were smart casual. In general, T-shirts, jeans, swimsuits, tank tops and shorts should not be worn in public areas after 6 p.m. But, if you want to have a casual evening, you can certainly dress down for dinner in the Lido Buffet.
Holland America Line automatically adds $11.50 per person, per day, to onboard accounts; this is then shared among waiters, stewards and other service personnel. That amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the front desk. A 15 percent gratuity is tacked on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.