When it emerged from a massive 12-day dry dock earlier this year, Westerdam became the first ship in the Holland America Line fleet to host the line's new Explorations Central concept, and the fourth to have the line's full complement of Music Walk venues. (It already had B.B. Kings but received Billboard Onboard and Lincoln Center Stage during the refurb.)
Cruise Critic is currently onboard for a piece of a 12-night sailing in the Mediterranean to test out some of the new spaces and check out a few of the other changes made during the dry dock.
Here are our hits and misses. (Actually we haven't found any misses, but there was one meh and two spaces the jury is still out on.)
Lincoln Center Stage
With a crowd that almost always spills out into the lounge behind the concert space, Lincoln Center Stage is an unqualified success. The string quartet with accompanying pianist typically performs three shows a night, starting at around 6:30 p.m. (varies by day, depending on port stays). Shows range from straight-up classical to themes that might include Latin sounds, jazz favorites, American composers, fresh perspectives (which included classical covers of Sting and Radiohead) and specific composers (on our sailing those included Schuman and Dvorak). If this unabashed poo-pooer of classical music can fall in love with the act, chances are most everyone else will too.
America's Test Kitchen
Another packed-to-the-gills venue is the America's Test Kitchen, which received a total makeover during the dry dock. The spiffy set allows the onboard ATK chef to show off her skills using both stovetop burners and ovens. Like the TV show, the cooking demos incorporate the science of cooking into the information presented, so not only do you get the steps to make a great meal, but you understand why certain ingredients act the way they do and how to prepare and cook them to get the most of them. The worst part of the entire experience? Afterward, you're left yearning for a taste but samples aren't on the menu. The best part? You can take home recipe cards so you can make your own version of the dishes when you get back to your kitchen.
The second piece of Music Walk added during the dry dock was Billboard Onboard, a bar and casual concert venue featuring all the Billboard hits from the 50s through to today sung by dueling pianists while the crowd claps and sings along. The crowd here tends to swell when theater shows let out. According to the ship's hotel director, Billboard Onboard is most popular with the 40 to 50-year-old set.
Yes, the cabanas are a bit of a splurge, but for passengers who want an exclusive, private experience in the midst of 2,000 other people, the cabanas, so we were told by a couple who rented one for their entire sailing, are priceless (in fact, they begged us not to mention them so they'd remain the ship's best-kept secret). Just $55 on a port day, the cabana for two experience includes free bottled water, a cabana snacks menu, dine-in lunching (the cabana butler will fetch food from the Lido Market or Dive-In burger counter), outlet charges, loungers and couches. Pricing on sea days is $85 for a cabana for two and $125 for a family cabana (accommodates up to eight people).
Almost everyone will appreciate the addition of USB chargers in all cabins. There are three of them -- one by the desk and one on each side of the bed. Need we say more?
Though the physical layout of the ship's buffet, the Lido Market, wasn't altered during dry dock, several other changes were made. Most noticeable, cruisers can no longer serve themselves except for a handful of pre-plated items. For everything else, you tell the folks behind the counter what you want and they'll spoon out a small portion for you -- you can ask for more than one scoop of whatever you want, but if you want multiple items from different stations, you'll need to make a second (or third or fourth) trip. (There are no more trays to carry multiple plates on.)
The new system cuts down on waste -- no more heaping piles of food on your plate that you might or might not eat -- and is more sanitary. Rather than offer a mishmash of food items, stations are now themed. You'll find a great salad bar at the Wild Harvest station; you tell the server what ingredients you want and he puts them in a bowl and adds the dressing for you. At the Distant Land stations, you'll find Italian on one side and Asian on the other, and the Bistro offers more American comfort food choices. Pre-plated grab-and-go desserts can be found at the Sweet Spot.
So why is this a meh? We honestly don't find it that different from a traditional cruise ship buffet and the more popular spots tend to require a short wait (never more than six or seven minutes). It's nothing special.
One of the most touted highlights of the ship's dry dock, Explorations Central at Crow's Nest, is a gorgeous space onboard with much to choose from. There are touch tables with information about some of the ports on the ship's current itinerary; there's an EXC desk for cruisers to book tours or get help planning self-directed tours; and there's a small library with books themed around maritime history and yet more information about ports. In addition, there is a New York Times tablet station with access to the latest issue of the newspaper; a presentation space for basic language lessons and lectures on topics like Mediterranean Herbs & Spices; digital displays mimicking what the captain sees on the bridge; and an interactive digital board with a new question every day (such as "which country could you visit over and over again?").
On top of all that, there are all the features that have always made the Crow's Nest so popular -- Explorations Cafe with its for-fee specialty coffee and bar drinks, oversized windows for nearly 360-degree views and lots of couches, chairs, tables and loungers to relax and socialize in.
So how are passengers reacting to this overhaul? To be fair, much of the space is being used, including all the seating and the cafe and we've seen people answering the question of the day. But we've also seen way more people using the touch screen tables to open up maps to discuss where they want to go, than actually interact with them. And, surprisingly, we've seen few people using the New York Times tablets or the small library. (People might not be using the NYT tablets in large part because they haven't been updated since July 23, though when we pointed it out we were assured it would be taken care of.) It's still early days for the space, having only been truly finished just about a month ago, so time will still tell if it's a true runaway success.
In its current state the onboard Rijksmuseum comprises a large screen on which oversized, digital copies of paintings from the Amsterdam museum are displayed; a wall of books and pamphlets about the museum and Dutch painters; and three walls of reproductions tracing the history of art from the 1100s through the end of the 19th century. Located in the immediate vicinity of the Guest Services desk, we saw very few people venture in the direction of any of these elements (though some people art scroll by while waitingto be helped).
It's hard to say whether the Rijksmuseum experience is a hit or miss yet, because the full program has yet to be rolled out on the ship. Though we were told a "tour" – where a person stands there and explains the paintings - and lectures would be offered on our sailing, in our six days on the ship (out of a total 12-day sailing), we never saw any mention of them. It's difficult to tell where the entire thing goes from here, though we're pretty sure lectures on famous Dutch painters would go over well with Holland America's passenger base.
--By Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor