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.