Veendam is one of the first ships to employ HAL's new activities program. This is broken down into Explorations (presentations on destinations -- including culture, shopping, wildlife and history -- led by the Travel Guide), Culinary Arts (such as cooking demos, classes on entertaining and wine tastings, hosted by the Party Planner), Microsoft Digital Workshops (courses on photo editing, blogging and creating Web pages, hosted by the Techspert) and Mind-Body-Spirit (fitness classes, lectures on wellness and trivia, hosted by the Lifestylist). Other daytime activities include bingo and bridge play, as well as the ubiquitous Park West art auctions. The computer classes get rave reviews from technology novices (classes are very basic), and one-on-one coaching is available during "Techspert Time." The Tai Chi sessions also get a great turnout of nearly 30 to 40 people each day on my cruise.
However, many of the wellness and entertaining classes seemed very fluffy to me. ("The Tao of Mr. Magoo" -- really?) For example, I stopped by a class on "Totally Tea," an interesting topic to cruisers of any age who are interested in wellness (and to me, an avid tea-drinker). However, the presentation, which was billed as outlining the types, preparation and health benefits of tea, was unstructured and very simplistic. ("Some people like their tea weak, while others steep it for a long time to make it stronger.") It ultimately devolved into a monologue from one audience member who owned a tea shop discussing which types of tea were popular with his customers. I felt the presentation could have been better structured to provide more useful information.
In general, the new program, which is aimed at the more mature traveler, has a terrific premise -- using the cruise to improve travelers' lives by giving them new skills in areas like technology, exercise and diet, rather than serving merely as a week of over-indulging in food and bingo. However, I'd like to see the wellness classes (which have the air of being quickly researched on Wikipedia, rather than drawing from any expert advice) come up to the standards of Holland America's excellent technology classes, which are turning technophobes into Web site creators, cruise after cruise.
The 210-seat Wajang Theater and Culinary Arts Center is a double-duty venue on Deck 7. It houses a show kitchen where culinary demonstrations and private cooking classes (for a fee) take place. Demonstrations on our cruise included a "Fresh Ketch" class on preparing Alaskan seafood and workshops on making artistic bread and marzipan creations. Private cooking classes are taught by the Pinnacle Grill's chef, the ship's executive chef or a guest chef, and topics range from kids' cooking workshops (apple pizza, s'more cookies, etc.) to Pacific Northwest specialties (Pacific Rim beef salad, cedar-planked salmon) and desserts (Grand Marnier Chocolate Volcano Cake, creme brulee trio). The space also serves as a movie theater, which offers three showings of a different film each day, complete with popcorn.
Veendam's Showroom at Sea is a new twist on both theater seating and the productions themselves. The theater, decorated in reds and golds, now offers tiered seating with the front rows by the stage populated with cabaret-style chairs and small tables. Changing decorative touches play up the theme of each show. A Philly-themed doo wop show had waiters serving soft pretzels, and the cabaret tables were decked out in checkered tablecloths with ketchup and mustard bottles on top, while mannequins wearing sparkle-studded costumes lined the entranceways during a tribute to Bob Mackie's Broadway. The showroom really does have a terrific atmosphere, but sightlines from the balcony aren't great, and the cabaret tables are set a little too close to the stage, so the audience tends to avoid them.
The shows themselves have also changed. Gone are the Vegas-style, large-scale production shows that didn't work on Veendam's small stage. They've been replaced by more intimate shows, featuring an onstage orchestra, minimalist sets and a cast of singers (all of whom have previously performed on Broadway) and dancers. The idea is to present higher-quality productions that don't need to rely on the wow factor of crazy sets, costumes and technological tricks. In actuality, while the singers are clearly more talented and experienced than many cruise-ship performers, the shows themselves have stilted dialogue and often force the singers out of their vocal comfort (such as the operatic tenor attempting to sing Broadway and doo wop with little success). Plus, with such high-caliber vocalists, the superfluous and often awkward dancers stand out for performing at a much more amateurish level.
Other performances included a guest magician/comedian whose patter was quite tired and the Veendam Orchestra playing big-band and ballroom dance music for guests to dance to (a really nice alternative use of the theater). Holland America's signature Indonesian Crew Show features traditional songs and dances from many crewmembers' home country.
Deck 8 is Veendam's entertainment hub. The Neptunes play old favorites and dance music in the Ocean Bar, which is a fun place to strut your stuff or watch your fancy-footed fellow cruisers. The casino has 97 slot machines, stud poker, Three-Card poker, a roulette table and five blackjack tables. In general, nobody had to wait to play. Smoking is allowed in the casino.
Directly opposite the casino, Mix is Veendam's new-in-2009 primary bar area. Walls were actually removed from the former sports and piano bars to create a more free-flowing atmosphere. The three bars in Mix are the Spirits & Ales bar, with a big-screen TV, interactive game tables (try Tiles -- it's addictive) and live guitar music in the early evening; the Martini Bar, with its purple decor, crushed-velvet couches and stools surrounding the piano for sing-alongs with the Piano Man in residence; and the Champagne Bar, more of an upscale kiosk since there are no bar stools or dedicated bartender for this part of Mix. The updated look of Mix is very contemporary and possibly hipper than most of Veendam's guests, but most people seemed pleased with the change, and the area was well used -- though it was pretty quiet by midnight.
Just down the hall, the Explorer's Lounge is almost more of a daytime hangout -- passengers would camp out on a couch or comfy chair with a book or to watch the scenery glide by through the large windows -- though a classical quartet plays there in the evening with drink service available. Perhaps it would attract a larger crowd if it had its own bar or focal point, but in the evening, it had the feel of a waiting room for Pinnacle Grill diners.
The Crow's Nest is the latest of the late-night venues, hosting interactive events like the Marriage Game, karaoke and Super Star Singing Competition around 9 p.m., as well as D.J. music into the wee hours. Two enormous flat-screens show live TV and are the site of occasional Wii competitions (though the video system is not available for general use at other times). The Crow's Nest was buzzing long after I was, and the room was shared by drinkers, dancers, chatters and even some late-night card- and game-players.
Shore excursions on my Alaska cruise were pricey, but no more expensive than other lines' tours in Alaska. Veendam offered about 30 excursion choices per port and had a good mix of trips catering to all activity levels and multiple interests. I was especially pleased to see a rack of brochures and pamphlets giving a little more detail on some of the trips than the one-sentence overviews in the excursions booklet. This addition lets guests peruse the choices on their own before booking, which may cut down on lines at the shore excursions desk.
Veendam Public Rooms
Many of the public rooms are close to the three-story atrium with its multi-story glass sculpture that looks like DNA (though it's called "Jacob's Ladder"). The Deck 6 atrium is an open space where representatives of group tours or charters hold office hours. The Deck 7 atrium area houses the front desk, shore excursions desk and a brochure rack. Directly opposite is the photo gallery. Heading aft from the atrium, you'll find the art auction desk and two meeting rooms -- the Hudson and Half Moon rooms.
The Deck 8 atrium has two shops, selling logowear, destination-related souvenirs and duty-free goods like liquor and perfume. Opposite Mix, an open-plan store sells jewelry (everything from costume pieces to Tanzanite), as well as purses, ties, pashminas and more expensive souvenirs. Next door, the Merabella Luxury Collection Shop was created out of an under-used portion of the Explorer's Lounge. It sells very upscale, designer jewelry pieces.
Also on Deck 8, the Explorations Cafe is Veendam's library/coffee bar/Internet cafe. Wonderfully comfortable leather chairs and couches line the windows, with several tables and chairs for reading, puzzling, chatting over coffee and working on personal laptops. Twelve computer terminals are available to guests, and the ship is also wired for Wi-Fi. Wireless was not available in the cabins (though the Internet information sheet says that opening your door might help) and has the best signal in the Explorations Cafe and Explorer's Lounge. Internet pricing is 75 cents per minute, or you can buy packages of 100 minutes for $55 or 250 minutes for $100. A $3.95 activation fee applies on the first login, and printing is available at 25 cents per print job.
Service at the coffee bar was incredibly slow on my cruise. Hot coffee drinks range from $1.20 to $3.05 and iced drinks from $1.60 to $2.85. A drink of the day costs $3.95 or $4.45, depending on size, and specialty waters and sodas cost $2.75. Alcoholic coffee beverages are also available for higher prices; pastries and finger sandwiches are available for free.
Self-service launderettes can be found on Decks 5, 6 and 9. Washers and dryers are available for use ($2 per wash, $1 per dry, only quarters accepted), and detergent is provided. Irons and boards are free. The laundry rooms are open 24/7; please be courteous of guests sleeping across the hall, and keep the door closed or voices low if you choose to do laundry after 10 p.m. or before 8 a.m. (I had the room across from the Deck 6 launderette, and quite a party took place there at 6:30 a.m. on sea days.)
The Medical Center is located on Deck 4.
Veendam Spa & Fitness
The Greenhouse Spa, operated by London-based Steiner Leisure, the ubiquitous cruise spa company, offers a pretty standard range of treatments, such as massages, facials and body wraps. One room has a float bed; another is used for the Ionithermie Cellulite Reduction Program (lose up to eight inches before you eat those inches back at dinner!). You can also get your teeth whitened onboard. The spa features men's and women's changing rooms with dry saunas, a relaxation room with a juice bar and a salon/barber shop. A thermal suite offers five heated loungers, a Turkish steam room, an aromatherapy room, a hot tub and showers. Passes cost $89 for a single cruise pass, $150 for a couple's cruise pass, $20 for a day pass and $10 for a day pass when booked in conjunction with a spa treatment. (Sorry, folks -- no free thermal time when you book a regular treatment.)
The spa's beauty salon provides services that include hair cutting and styling, as well as manicures and pedicures.
The fully equipped gym is dominated by treadmills, but it also has elliptical trainers, stair-steppers and stationary bikes. A variety of weight machines and free weights is available, as are exercise balls and yoga mats. On my cruise, the cardio machines were constantly in use, and some were broken, making getting your machine of choice a bit difficult. An aerobics area is kitted out with bikes for spin classes ($11); Pilates (also $11), step and body-conditioning classes are also held there. Yoga, Tai Chi and aqua aerobics are held elsewhere as part of Holland America's wellness program and are free of charge.
Deck 12 is used as a jogging track, though there's no marked track or shock-absorbent flooring. Basketball and tennis courts on the same deck are only available for use after lunch hours because the sound carries down to the Lido Restaurant. Ping-Pong tables are located by the main pool, and the Lower Promenade deck is the favorite place for walkers. (Four laps is a mile, and the morning hours are the busiest.)
The main pool on Deck 11 is covered by a retractable roof, so it can be used in inclement weather. One pool and two hot tubs are flanked by wicker lounge chairs with blue striped pads, as well as tables and chairs for alfresco dining or card-playing. At the edge of the pool, a cute -- yet quirky -- addition is two colorful loungers that look like reclining humans. Guests can essentially sit in their laps to lay out poolside. A small bandstand is nearby.
On the aft end of Deck 11, through the Lido Restaurant, is the Retreat resort pool area, new to Veendam after its 2009 dry dock. It's a wonderful area for lying out while keeping cool, dining al fresco or simply taking in the scenery. Specially shaped lounge chairs that lift up on either end (so you can recline facing either direction without rotating the entire lounger) sit in a three-inch-deep pool of water. In the middle of this Retreat pool is a wading area with red-tiled benches and a hot tub. Surrounding the pool are regular plastic loungers, tables and chairs, a bar and Slice Pizza. A movie screen is hung above the pizzeria and bar, but on my cruise, it was only showing nature scenes, due to restrictions in Alaska. In other destinations, movies will be shown in the evening. The Retreat is not an adults-only venue.
Editor's Note: The one logistical issue with the Retreat is that it's on the other side of the Lido from the main pool. So, if you've gone swimming in the main pool and then want to lie out in the Retreat, you either have to dry off, put clothes on and walk through the Lido or -- if you don't want to change -- go up to Deck 12, cut through the basketball court, and then take the stairs down to Deck 11, aft.