There's nothing wrong with a classic. And in an era where cruise lines keep adding a dizzying array of features (Skydiving! Bumper cars! Zip lines!), Holland America's Zuiderdam maintains the line's reputation for offering a satisfying and enjoyable, although not particularly surprising, experience at sea.
When Zuiderdam came out in 2002 as the first ship in the Vista class, HAL loyalists cringed at the bright colors and "gaudy" decor; 12 years later, it's hard to see what the fuss was about. The ship does feel a tad dated -- while the three-story atrium is anchored by a gorgeous Waterford seahorse chandelier, the space feels cramped and closed compared to newer vessels. We also noticed some places where the ship seemed worn (although this will be addressed when Zuiderdam goes into dry dock in April 2015).
And we'd never say that Zuiderdam is stuck in time. When HAL does add new features to the ship, such as its fabulous Dive In at the Terrace Grill burger shack and the B.B. King Blues Club, which transforms the Queen's Lounge into the renowned Memphis club.
HAL passengers are slow to embrace change, we're told, and thus Zuiderdam contains the line's popular touchstones. The HALCats, Holland America's house band, draw a crowd wherever they play, the signature Pinnacle Grill is usually booked full for dinner and an Indonesian tea is held at least once a cruise. Normally, as we traverse a cruise ship, we hear our share of muttered complaints; on our Alaskan voyage, these grumblings seemed entirely absent.
That's probably because HAL excels on familiar itineraries, particularly when it comes to logistics. For example, our time on the ship was part of an Alaskan cruisetour, and passengers both embarked and disembarked in Skagway. Zuiderdam staff had the process down to a science; our room was ready when we boarded the ship and luggage arrived promptly. While we noticed that wait and bar staff weren't always as friendly, the cruise ship staff clearly have their act together for such an operation to run so smoothly. And it's that consistency that makes a cruise on Zuiderdam a fail-safe proposition.
HAL has a reputation for attracting a more mature crowd, and our cruise on Zuiderdam confirmed this. On Zuiderdam on a late August Alaska cruise, the bulk of the 2,022 passengers were ages 51 to 74; there were 174 children under the age of 17. During longer cruises through the Panama Canal and Caribbean, the number of children drops to less than a dozen. The number of passengers who are repeat HAL customers also increases on these trips.
HAL draws a fair number of international passengers. On our cruise, Canadians outnumbered Americans, and there were sizable numbers of Australian, Chinese and British passengers. From within the U.S., most people we met seemed to be from the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and the South; there were few East Coasters, a trend that that is typical across the line.