Holland America Offers a Truly Grand Experience

by Andy Vladimir on July 1, 2008 - 1:44pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 4

I lost count a long time ago of the number of cruises I’ve been on. But it’s a lot. I’ve written three books on the cruise line industry, which means countless days working at sea. But when I wanted to take a cruise for the sheer joy of being on the ocean, I decided on a Holland America cruise on the Westerdam.

People invariably write and ask me to rank cruises by awarding them stars. I don’t generally do that, but if I did, I’d give the Westerdam a solid 5+. With the exception of poor accessibility for water activities, the Holland America line is one of the best around for people with mobility challenges.

On many ships today, all of the accessible cabins are down below, or inside. Few lines go to the extent of Holland America to see that everyone can get exactly the cabin they want, where they want it. Most of the cabins have balconies and 30 of them are accessible in just about every category (such as bathrooms, beds and room size). Indeed, I found the ship accessible all over, including the show theater where there is a special section in the front to park wheelchairs and enjoy drink service. Many ships put persons with disabilities in the back of the balcony, so the Westerdam was a pleasant surprise.

The secret to a great cruise

I picked a seven-day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale with only three ports — Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, Oranjestad Aruba, and Willemstad, Curacao — leaving four more glorious days at sea. In case you weren’t aware of it, this is a longtime closely kept secret among cruisers — the more days at sea, the better the cruise. On cruises that visit a port a day, there’s little time to enjoy the vessel itself. You’re rushed around from one destination to another with just a few hours in the evening to enjoy the ship.

A dolphin sculptures adores the swimming pool.

But on this cruise we had time for the shows, the duty-free shopping, the library, the first-run movies, the children’s camps, the private cooking and mixology classes at the Culinary Arts Center presented by Food & Wine magazine, the spa, the exquisite on-board art collection, the gracious Indonesian service, and more.

The Westerdam is a relatively new ship, and a small one at that — just 82,000 tons. That’s just half the size of some of the new Royal Caribbean and Cunard ships. Nevertheless she’s sleek and fast, with a maximum speed of 23 knots; more than enough to whisk us down to the Dutch islands and back. The decor is elegantly nautical, with passageways lined with etchings and detailed models of old Dutch sailing schooners.

However, when I decided to take a swim, or at least cool off by getting in the pool, I was disappointed to find that there was no access to the water at all — the pool had no lift and when I asked if there were staff to help me get in, I was given a flat “no,” even after one of the crew members had seen me eying the Jacuzzi wistfully and had offered to lift me in it. I spoke to the guest services manager about this, and was told Holland America has plans to install pool lifts on some of its ships in the future.

Ahhh, the food!

While Holland America didn’t meet my expectations in water activities, it went over the top in the dining room. Holland America serves some of the best food I’ve ever had aboard a premium cruise anywhere. The line recently spent $225 million making major enhancements on all of its ships, which they call "Signature of Excellence." Everything from the cabin décor highlighted by flat-panel TVs, to the "Euro-top Mariners Dream Beds," to the entertainment, and especially the food, has an inspired feel to it.

I was especially impressed by their new As You Wish dining program, rolled out this year, which allows guests to choose from traditional preset seating and dining times, or a completely flexible dining schedule. In flexible seating, we were able to make reservations daily up to 4 p.m. for that evening, or simply walk up during regular dining hours and ask to be seated.

Just about every new cruise ship offers an "alternative" or "specialty" restaurant these days. There’s usually an extra charge to eat in this dining room. What you get are higher quality appetizers, soups, entrees, and deserts prepared a la minute, literally when you order them, rather than in advance for a couple thousand people at a time.

On the Westerdam, the Pinnacle Grill serves this purpose and the charge is $30 per person. You need to make a reservation, often days in advance. The Pinnacle has a Northwest theme, and features fresh seafood and wines from the region served on linen table cloths and Bvlgari china. Entrees included pan-seared rosemary chicken with cranberry chutney, grilled sea scallops with marjoram pomodoro coulis, served on curried Hollandaise spinach with fried capers, and lamb rack chops with drizzled mint sauce. There’s also a selection of Delmonico and Porterhouse steaks in various sizes. For dessert you can have warm Gran Marnier chocolate volcano cake, or not-so-classic baked Alaska.

During our cruise we met a couple on their first cruise who walked into the Pinnacle on the first night without a reservation. To their surprise, at the end of their dinner they were presented with a bill for $60. They told us that while they thought it was free, they didn’t mind the bill at all because it was "worth every penny!"

Our first stop was at Half Moon Cay, a private enclave in the Bahamas developed exclusively for Holland America’s use. I should say “undeveloped,” because in fact it’s an uninhabited island with a one-mile crescent beach, crystal clear waters, soft white powder sand, and just enough amenities to provide visitors with parasailing, snorkeling, kayaking and even horseback riding. There are paved pathways, lots of lounge chairs and umbrellas to use on the beach and a barbeque is served at lunchtime. Access from the ship is via tender.

Next was Oranjestad, Aruba. This small island is best known for its lovely beaches. It’s also known for its huge oil refinery, which they try to keep out of sight of tourists. Unless you just want to shop, there’s nothing else to do but take a tour. A simple three-hour tour around the island costs $49, while for $84 per person, there’s an off-road Jeep adventure showcasing various rock formations. These tours require transferring into a Jeep or regular bus, which I can’t do, so I hired a van for $75, and the driver and my aide Mario lifted me in, as well as my wheelchair. We did our own version of these two tours combined.

Unmentioned by the cruise director, Aruba is one of the few Caribbean islands where prostitution is legal and carefully regulated by the government. My van driver assured me that some of the brothels were "real fancy."

Our final stop was Willemstad, Curacao. This charming settlement, established in 1634 and reminiscent of Holland, has been named a World Heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It features some interesting restored mansions dating back to the 1700s, which aren’t open to the public. The port is accessed through a pontoon bridge that divides the city in half, and opens and closes more than 20 times a day to accommodate marine traffic. One of the most popular attractions in Willemstad is the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest Jewish temple in the Americas, with original carved columns and a sand floor, built to remind the Jews of their flight across the desert.

All things considered, I loved this cruise, and if space allowed could easily write another 1,000 words about it! I took this cruise thanks to Holland America line’s excellent history of hosting people of all abilities, and to experience its Signature of Excellence amenities, and I certainly was not disappointed.

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