The Culinary Arts Center, housed in the Queens Lounge, the ship's secondary theater venue, and featuring a fully operational demonstration kitchen, is the highlight of Westerdam's daytime programming. Here, you'll find cooking demonstrations from both ship chefs and guest chefs onboard for limited sailings. On our trip, both were superb; I particularly enjoyed Chicago chef Bruce Sherman's demo on how to make a zucchini and mozzarella tartelette. It wasn't necessarily the actual recipe that appealed but his down-to-earth humor and pragmatic approach. For instance, he made his puff pastry from scratch but scoffed at the need to do so at home. "Just buy it at the grocery store, though do thaw it carefully."
On sea days, the Culinary Arts Center hosts wine tastings (of varying degrees of complexity) and a martini mixology class. Expect to pay fees for these; a reasonably advanced "cellar master's navigator wine tasting," which focused on meritages and cabernet sauvginon, cost $15; the martini class was $12.
The ship's "party planner" also led a variety of workshops on entertaining that ranged from creating interesting tabletops to making soup for groups.
Another enrichment-oriented area in which Holland America excels is in computer education, through its Digital Workshop, a partnership with Microsoft. The dedicated computer lab offers classes that range from basics, such as an introduction to Windows and instruction on computer safety and maintenance, to increasingly progressive classes in digital photography and editing. The ship's "techspert" is also available for individual guidance at designated times. All programs are free of charge.
Less successful is Westerdam's "On the Map" focus, which was meant to offer in-depth information on the ports we visited. Its dedicated "travel guide" hardly ever had any interesting information to impart on the itinerary and rarely was able to answer the most basic of passenger questions.
If in most cases Westerdam's daytime offerings are genuinely superb and are best-at-sea, in some cases I was disappointed in its nighttime entertainment. There's nothing wrong with the variety on offer -- classical music the Explorer's Lounge, a pop tune sing-along in the Piano Bar, line dancing in the Queens Lounge, and the Ocean Bar's bizarrely up-tempo cheek-to-cheek dance band -- but none of these staples really performed at the standard that I'm used to on Holland America.
The choice of a solo guitarist, playing pop music in the Crow's Nest, was a head scratcher; this is a venue where people enjoy conversation against a backdrop of soft background music. The guitarist was intrusive.
Ironically, the D.J. at the Northern Lights disco was superb but that venue really doesn't appeal to the majority of Westerdam's passengers. In fact, you'll see more officers and staff there at late hours.
Part of the challenge is that on this vessel, as on its Vista-class siblings, the entertainment venues are not ideally designed. If you're one of the dozen or so who can occupy a seat right around the piano in the Piano Bar, it's a fun experience; otherwise the seats in the rest of the lounge are too spread out to create any kind of ambience. The Ocean Bar, the ship's destination for low-lit, romantic dancing, is oddly interrupted by a major corridor.
In other instances, the music performances simply weren't up to Holland America Line's usual snuff. In the Ocean Bar, the music was weirdly chirpy, making it almost impossible to dance. The classical quartet that presided in the Explorer's Lounge, usually my favorite spot on a HAL ship, was simply lukewarm; short, banal introductions to each composition took away from the music rather than contributed to it.
The ship's evening offerings are by no means limited to music; the casino, on Deck 2, is vast and offers a full range of slot machines (these accept no cash, only your ship card) and table games, such as poker and roulette. And the Vista Lounge, the ship's three-deck main theater, always had an interesting program; on one night, while in Scotland, there was a local music show. On others, you'd find the ship's singers and dancers performing in a traditional cruise ship big production, a game show, a featured performer (in our case the entertainer offered a tribute to Lionel Richie), and even a juggler. Not to be missed in the Vista is its crew shows; there are two per cruise (one's a Phillipine crew show, the other's Indonesian).
The Queen's Lounge (by day the Culinary Arts Center) is a terrific forum for low-key dance music and films.
After enrichment programs and nightly diversions, cruising's third pillar of entertainment -- shore excursions -- was amply represented on Westerdam with at least one active, recreationally oriented tour available in most ports. However, despite the fact that Holland America's ships regularly cruise to nearly every corner of the world, the tour menu itself was pretty much standard fare -- the same offerings you see on most cruise lines. If you want genuinely unique experiences, you'll want to either plan your own excursions or book a private car and guide through the tour office.
Westerdam Public Rooms
Explorations Cafe, which was added to this ship after it was built, occupies half of the top-of-ship Crow's Nest area and is truly the heart of Westerdam. At any given time, from morning until late evening, passengers are clustered here, playing board games, putting puzzles together, reading books from one of the best library selections at sea, sipping coffee while reclining in comfortable chairs (occasionally sleeping) and beavering away at Internet terminals.
Next door -- there's no wall separating the two -- is the Crow's Nest Bar, the ship's observations space. Activity from Explorations, particularly during the daytime, tends to spread into this venue.
Otherwise, public rooms are primarily located in one two-deck grouping on Decks 2 and 3.
You can't miss the vast shopping area, which includes boutique-like stores for the usual range of cruise line merchandise, from duty-free alcohol and cigarettes to logo wear and evening clothing. Sometimes, apparel was an odd mix of logo wear and elegant; I can't imagine anyone wearing a crystal-bedecked formal night blouse that was emblazoned with a Holland America Line logo but it was there. There's a small corner for necessities (such as toiletries and, oddly enough, junk food such as Pringles potato chips and a range of candy offerings). The many jewelry shops -- from relatively upscale to trinkets -- really consumed the shopping area.
A small passenger services area is located on Deck 1, at the foot of the atrium. Here's where you'll find the pursers desk, shore excursions and future cruise booking. There's also a small bar.
Westerdam Spa & Fitness
Westerdam, like its Vista-class siblings, has gorgeous pool areas. The main pool, housed under a sliding glass magradome roof that can open on sunny days, is elegantly designed, with a sculpture of leaping dolphins and wicker-like lounges with plush, padded cushions. There are three whirlpools.
The aft pool is a lovely retreat. Adults-only, it's got great views off the ship's aft, colorful tiles, plenty of deck chairs and lots of deck space. There are two whirlpools in this pool area.
Another Holland America distinction is its promenade deck, which goes all the way around the ship. It's host to walkers and joggers and also the once-a-cruise On Deck for the Cure event, in which participants make a $15 contribution to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and undertake a 5K walk -- complete with music, a pink lemonade party at the conclusion and a terrific sense of communal support.
There's a basketball court (it replaces the tennis court that's found on older HAL ships).
The Greenhouse Spa and Salon is the heart of the ship's spa, fitness and recreation offerings. Operated by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure, which helms spas on most cruise lines, it occupies the forward area beyond the main pool.
The salon covers the basics, from hair styling to manicures and pedicures, and its wall-to-wall windows, overlooking the sea (or in port, various vistas), offer a pleasant ambience. At the spa, a host of treatments range from usual (Swedish massage and facials) to intriguing options like the hot stones massage (great for easing aches and pains). On our port-intensive itinerary, the spa was very creative in offering specials and packages that were hard to resist; $89 for a 50-minute "twilight massage," held during dinnertime, typically a slow time in the spa, was a bargain as was "the unwinder," a 1.5-hour facial/massage/pedicure treatment for $109.
The highlight of the spa facility is the ship's hydrotherapy pool. Located inside (one glass wall looks out to the main pool area but the view is obscured, both inside and out, by rather dreary-colored shades), it's got bubbling warm water and various sprinklers and showers that gently pummel your body. A separate steam area melts away stress with heated mosaic loungers, scented showers and a steam room. Entrance to these two facilities can be pricey at $15 per person per day. The areas are also not available free of charge to passengers pre- or post-spa treatment, which seems stingy. But look out for occasional port day promotions that offer discounts or include a free visit with treatment.
The fitness facility is well equipped and was always busy, but never seemed overwhelmingly so. Classes in aerobics are available on a complimentary basis. Yoga and Pilates workouts cost $11 per session.