A cashless casino is strategically placed on Deck 2 en route to the Vista Lounge, the ship's main theater, featuring completely electronic slot machines (winnings tracked on your key card -- no more coins), the usual table games (roulette, blackjack, craps, Caribbean stud poker) and a dealer-less Texas Hold 'Em table with monitors at each seat for digital multi-player games.
Though many areas of the ship are quiet after dark -- more elderly passengers turn in early -- you'll always find action in the casino and surrounding lounges like the Sports Bar, which broadcasts major sporting events, but mostly features international games like European football (soccer); the Piano Bar, which offers live, themed music (like Beatles sing-alongs) each evening; and the Northern Lights disco (where the D.J. tried his hand at various genres, from 70's disco to recent club cuts).
Nightly performances included decent productions, variety shows and a hilarious comedian in the tiered Vista Lounge. The aforementioned crew talent show is a hit, but also not to be missed is the Zuiderdam Superstar competition, an "American Idol"-type talent show for those passengers not afraid to karaoke for a crowd. The 90-something-year-old man who sang "America the Beautiful" brought me patriotically to my feet but, sadly, did not make the top five. Don't worry about getting to the Vista Lounge early; there are always seats available on the upper level (particularly for the later shows), and as long as you avoid the obvious structural supports, the sightlines are fine from up above.
Even as the onboard experience has evolved over the years, there are some distinctive Holland America touches that have remained, including hot hors d'oeuvres in bars and lounges before dinner, fresh flowers throughout the ship's public spaces and (our favorite) lots of live music in the evenings. For example, a string quartet performs nightly in the stately Explorer's Lounge, where you can sip a cognac before or after dinner, and a pianist plays in the Ocean Bar, a hot spot at the top of the Atrium, for those who like to partake in a little pre-dinner dancing.
No matter the hour, the Crow's Nest is our favorite space on the ship, with friendly bartenders and armchairs facing the sea -- but the space is underutilized at night. There's no live music here as in other areas of the ship, and there's surprisingly little foot traffic after hours. The decision to quiet the Crow's Nest at night is deliberate. It is a peaceful retreat for those who want to stay up past their bedtimes, but who, at the same time, want to avoid the clanging in the casino or the thumping bass in Northern Lights. (Before HAL had nightclubs, dancing was found in the Crow's Nest.) Still, some low-key musicians would add to the ambience.
Daytime activities run the gamut from pool games (yes, even the hairy chest competition made its appearance) to flower-arranging. The Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine magazine, is outstanding. This Food Network-style show kitchen, set up in the secondary show space (the Queens Lounge), is used for cooking demonstrations (which are free) and hands-on cooking classes ($29 per person). The classes fill up quickly, so sign up early in the cruise if you'd like to participate; otherwise, the demonstrations are fun to attend, and overhead cameras and large monitors make it possible for everyone to see the action on the stove.
Holland America recently restructured the titles and responsibilities of its entertainment staff. Some, but not all, members of Holland America's new "Explorations Team" were rolled out onboard Zuiderdam for our November 2008 voyage: There's the Cruise Director, who seems to be in 10 places at once; a knowledgeable and personable Travel Guide, who presides over port lectures; and a party planner, who emcees in the Culinary Arts Center and handles events like martini-mixing.
Coming soon -- by April 2009, the target date for the program to roll out completely, fleetwide -- are a "techspert" (to offer computer and photography classes in conjunction with Microsoft) and a dance director (to run lessons and plan dance-related activities).
Zuiderdam Public Rooms
Most of the public rooms -- including the shops, casino, theaters and many bars and lounges -- are located on Decks 2 and 3 (Lower and Upper Promenade Decks, respectively), which makes it very easy to get your bearings. The open Atrium is the central point of the ship's lower decks, beginning on Deck 1 (Main Deck) as the location of the purser's and shore excursion desks. None of these areas ever felt particularly crowded.
The ship's "shopping arcade," redesigned during the refurbishment, is located on Deck 3; included now is Merabella, a designer jewelry boutique, first introduced on Amsterdam
. There's also a shop for fine jewelry and watches and another that sells souvenirs, liquor, clothing and sundries. Each day, a "sale" area rotates different items; one day, you might find tables of mid-range watches (Anne Klein, Kenneth Cole); the next, sweatshirts and tees. If you see something you like, snap it up, as it might not make another appearance!
There are also three small conference/meeting spaces; the new Screening Room, an intimate space with big plush chairs for a real movie theater experience; and, heading aft toward the Vista Dining Room, the ship's photo gallery. The art gallery is located one level down on Deck 2. (Auctions are held in the larger Ocean Bar.)
The Crow's Nest, Holland America's signature lounge at the top of the ship with floor-to-ceiling windows looking forward, is a central point for daytime activities, such as bingo and trivia. During the refurbishment, the starboard side of this lounge was transformed into the Explorations Cafe, a combination library, coffeehouse and Internet cafe. High-speed terminals are scattered around the library. (Wi-Fi is available in hot spots around the ship. Wired, in-cabin access is also offered, though our cabin was close enough to public spaces to pick up the Wi-Fi.) You can pay as you go for 75 cents a minute, buy 100 minutes for $55 (55 cents a minute) or buy 250 minutes for $100 (40 cents a minute).
At the Starbucks-style coffee bar, you can purchase lattes, cappuccinos and specialty hot and iced coffee beverages, starting from $2 and change; espresso and cappuccino are still complimentary in the main dining room.
Zuiderdam Spa & Fitness
The central pool onboard, the Lido Pool, is set on Deck 9 midship underneath the magrodome (or retractable roof). The serious sunbathers, however, vie for the chairs around the Sea View Pool, aft, open to the blue sky and blinding sun. Both the Lido and Sea View pools are flanked by hot tubs (three and two, respectively), and poolside activities are staggered between both, depending on the day. During peak times, it can be hard to snag a seat, but it's not impossible. There are always deck chairs available on the quieter (though oft windier) Observation Deck (10) just above.
The large, full-service Greenhouse Spa and Salon is operated by cruise conglomerate Steiner Leisure. Its bustling lobby, located forward on the Lido Deck between the covered pool and a stairwell/elevator bank, does not do the rest of the space justice; there are several tranquil treatment rooms, including a couple's massage room (with a private, jetted tub) and several rooms with windows overlooking the ocean so you don't feel like you're crammed into a closet that just happens to smell of essential oils. Treatments range from the standard facial or Swedish massage to hipper sessions like teeth whitening and acupuncture.
Prices felt above-average, and though special combo treatments are offered at decent prices on port days, there are no in-port discounts on regular menu items except on embarkation day. So if, for example, you want that full hot-stone massage (as I did), you'll have to shell out $195. (Even though the treatment was lovely, it was still more than I've paid for the same at high-end New York City spas.) Also, the product pitch -- really more of a major-league fastball -- is among the pushiest I've encountered. I slinked out of the treatment room, feeling guilty for not buying something, rather than feeling relaxed (which defeats the purpose of going to the spa).
There's also a private hydrotherapy area that includes an 18-by-22-foot hydro pool with strong jets to soothe sore muscles and a thermal suite with heated tile loungers and steam/sauna rooms. You have to pay to play: A pass for the duration of our 10-day cruise was $150 per person or $250 per couple. (You can share with a friend, if not your cabin mate.) You can also buy a day-pass for $40. Unlike some ships, which allow spa passengers to use the thallasotherapy pool on the same day they've booked a treatment, Zuiderdam's is only available to those with the separate pass.
The adjacent fitness center is quite spacious for a ship this size, offering more than enough gym equipment, from steppers and treadmills to biking and rowing machines, as well as free weights. There's also a space for aerobic and other organized classes; some are free and others (like yoga and Pilates) carry an $11 fee. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a forward view worth working up a sweat for.
A walking/jogging track is available on the Promenade deck; three laps around equal one mile. This is also the setting for On Deck for the Cure, a fundraising walk for breast cancer held once on each voyage aboard every ship in the fleet. Participants donate $15, a small portion of which covers a T-shirt and pink wristband that you can wear during the walk and then keep. The rest of the money goes to Komen for the Cure, via the Holland America Foundation.