Our Holland America Experience

By Carl and Jamie Dombek

After taking our first cruise in 2017, we were looking forward to comparing and contrasting that voyage to our experience aboard our hometown cruise line, Holland America.

Seemingly without even trying, Holland America won us over.

ms Zuiderdam in port

Our first impressions of the cruise line and our ship, the ms Zuiderdam, were very good. Lines at our Copenhagen check-in were short, the process was handled efficiently, and we were soon on board, enjoying our veranda suite.

Living area, Stateroom 5076

Things were about to get even better.

Arriving at our suite, we found it slightly smaller than our veranda suite on our previous sailing on Princess Cruise Lines’ Ruby Princess, but nonetheless very nice and quite adequate. The main living area was almost 15 by 9 feet, or 132 square feet. It was equipped with a king bed; a love seat; a desk with workspace and a mini-fridge; and flat-screen TV. The 9-foot by 4.5-foot veranda provided another 40+ square feet of living space.

Our suite's veranda

The bath was small, but well laid out, with enough counter space and storage. A magnifying mirror and hairdryer were also included.

Cozy but efficient bath

Walking around the ship after unpacking, we found ourselves at ease very quickly. The ship was laid out more logically than the Ruby Princess. The Zuiderdam had fewer “blind alleys,” and had hallways that went from bow to stern on almost all levels. In addition, the d├ęcor was more upmarket yet more understated, offering more elegance and less bling. “More refined, less Vegas,” was the way Jamie put it.

The passageways and hallways seldom seemed crowded. About the only times that were notably busy were during the pre-sailing drill, and getting off and on at the various ports of call.

As we explored the ship, we noticed some thoughtful touches. Floor mats on the elevators proclaimed the day of the week, and other carpets at the ends of the hallways pointed toward the bow and advised which side of the ship you were on, making it easier to find your room or suite.

Floor mats in the elevators proclaimed the day of the week

Hospitality on-board was top notch. Almost every crew member we met - whether passing in the hall, serving a meal or pouring our nightcaps – was pleasant, engaging and professional. Many remembered our names without looking at our room card, which always makes one feel valued.

The food

One of the most notable differences for us – as admitted foodies – was the food. Like most cruise ships, the Zuiderdam had both standard and specialty dining options, but even the Zuiderdam’s standard offerings were several notches above those we previously experienced.

Among the first things Jamie noted was that the tables felt less crowded than the Main Dining Room on the Ruby Princess.

The Zuiderdam's Main Dining Room offered several items that were available every day including a Caesar salad, French onion soup, oven-roasted chicken, New York Strip Steak and ginger-crusted salmon. It also offered rotating specials, often tied to the port of call the ship had just visited. As we were docked in St. Petersburg, Carl noted that the night’s specials included piroshky and borscht, among other items.

Traditional Japanese breakfast in the Main Dining Room

More important, however, was the quality of those offerings.

The Zuiderdam offered fine dining in the Main Dining Room and three specialty venues. The Pinnacle Grill (steak and seafood) and Canaletto (Italian) were available every day, while Rudi’s Sel de Mer is a seafood-focused pop-up that opened for a single night during our 10-day voyage.

On our previous cruise, we found the specialty venues a pleasant escape from the too-ordinary, occasionally mediocre, food in the standard restaurants, and from the crush of the crowds. On the Zuiderdam, however, we were so impressed by the quality and variety of food in the main dining room that we didn’t feel the need to try the other offerings. Over the 10-day cruise, Jamie enjoyed a different variety of seafood nearly every day, in addition to lamb and duck entrees.

Obviously, the culinary council of top chefs that Holland America has assembled is proving very effective. That council is made up of Rudi Sodamin, Jonnie Boer, David Burke, Jacque Torres, Ethan Stowell, and Andy Matsuda, some of whom are from the line’s hometown of Seattle.

A couple of facets worth noting about the Zuiderdam’s specialty venues. The Pinnacle Grill has its own discrete space as well as The Pinnacle Bar, but Canaletto is actually adjacent to, and during the day an extension of, the Lido Market, Zuiderdam’s buffet restaurant. That means constant foot traffic on the other side of a simple glass partition and, importantly, no way to keep the Market’s noise away from diners at Canaletto.

The Lido Market had the greatest selection of opening hours and food that was generally quite good with many items prepared to order. Jamie especially enjoyed the Asian station, offering Thai specialties, sushi, etc. Some items, however, seemed to be under-seasoned, which could be because of the average age of the traveler and associated concerns about keeping sodium intake to a minimum. About the only drawback was finding an open table, which was a challenge during the busier hours.

Another casual venue, the Dive-In, offered food poolside. While Jamie enjoyed a couple of hot dogs and fries over the course of the cruise, Carl thought his burger had too much brioche bun and too little meat.

The style of dining also played a part in our overall satisfaction.

We had selected “any-time” dining for our meals in the Main Dining Room, which meant at least three things. First, we obviously weren’t tied to a specific time; we could eat when we were hungry. Second, we could choose whether we wanted to dine alone or share a table with other passengers. Third, when we joined others, they were different folks than those we’d joined before.

After dinner, there were several on-board bars from which to choose. They ranged from small, casual outdoor affairs to those with a more intimate setting, including our personal favorite, The Gallery Bar, situated between the casino (which is only open while the ship is at sea) and a gallery room with paintings and photographs representing a variety of periods and styles.

The Promenade deck

All dressed up

Our 10-day Baltic cruise included two Gala Nights in the Main Dining Room. To our observation, a significantly larger percentage of our fellow passengers – mostly Baby Boomers and members of The Greatest Generation – got dressed to the nines and attended the festivities than on our previous cruise. Many of the passengers on the Ruby Princess were Gen-Xers and Millennials and may have considered the event something of an anachronism – a hold-over – from a bygone era. As Boomers, we found it absolutely charming.

The Zuiderdam offers plenty of activities and options for its passengers. It has the requisite pool, spa, sauna and retreat areas as well as The Main Stage and a smaller theater that served as America’s Test Kitchen by day (cooking demonstrations and we picked up some good tips) and B.B. King’s Blues Club by night. Other music venues included Billboard Onboard, which featured two musicians on piano playing the hits we all knew, and Lincoln Center Stage which offered live classical music concerts which were well attended by guests. Microsoft sponsored a digital workshop for those who wanted to learn or polish computer skills.

The pool on the Lido Deck

Of course, the ship has a cluster of small shops selling everything from basic sundries to high-end jewelry, but merchandise was presented without hype or hard sell. There were no racks of T-shirts set up in the atrium, making it look like an overstuffed department store, nor were there “sales” hawking unremarkable artwork from unknown artisans.

Photographs were taken upon boarding and were offered during the cruise as well, but Holland America spared its passengers the forced photographs that were a staple of our previous passage. On our last cruise, passengers weren’t allowed to disembark at a port of call until they’d had their picture taken with a crew member in costume, which we found pointless and rather annoying. We have no interest in a picture of us posing with a crew member dressed as a moose.

Like most cruises, ours had an almost overwhelming number of choices for shore excursions. We chose only two for our stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, because that country’s visa requirements are met by the blanket visa covering tour participants who have booked through Holland America or another authorized tour operator.

In other ports of call, we either opted for a private or free tour, or simply explored on our own. At those ports where the ship was not docked close to town, the cruise line offered complimentary shuttle bus service from the dock into town and back.

A seating area greets returning passengers

He said

All in all, the experience was well worth doing and repeating. The only drawback was that the time in port was barely enough to scratch the surface. On our Alaska cruise, five hours to explore Ketchikan was plenty. This time, we found ourselves wanting to know more about virtually every city we visited, and we are already making plans to spend more time exploring Stockholm.

She said

I agree. The Zuiderdam was more our taste than our previous sailing for two main reasons: the overall approach, which was more elegant and understated, and the smaller number of passengers. We never felt crowded and even the large groups leaving for shore excursions were handled very efficiently. But to be fair, we are comparing apples and oranges here; two different cruise lines, and two very different cruises, one in the U.S., and one in the Baltics.

Our Holland America experience was much more educational in nature, with lectures the evening before we arrived in our next foreign port, offering some history about the area, recommended local sights, and valuable information about getting around in the city. The cruise offered us a “taste” of places we had never visited, and that’s exactly why I wanted this cruise.

We said

The stars of the show were the Zuiderdam’s people. Everyone was outstanding, offering excellent and highly personalized service. As we’ve already mentioned, many remembered our name without looking at any reference; no small feat when a ship has more than 1,900 passengers.

It was also nice to get to know a bit about them as individuals. Like many crewmembers, Noel and Robert at the Gallery Bar hailed from the Philippines and were happy to share a bit about their families back at home. Our room attendants, Dodit and Andri, were always available and never failed to ask if we needed anything when they saw us in the hallways.

Many others are also deserving of praise, including Olivia who greeted guests morning and evening at the Main Dining Room. Dining room manager Hillman worked the room continually, making sure guests were happy. Prasad, the food and beverage manager, spent a fair bit of time chatting with us one evening and “talked shop” with Carl, who has tended bar and worked in the hospitality industry. And the ship’s captain, Wouter van Hoogdalem, even made appearances and chatted with passengers outside the official “Meet the Captain” events. At least once, he stood with other crew members as we passengers made our way off the ship for our day in port.

Placard from the shipyard where she was built

In general, Holland America’s passenger complement comprised older individuals than our previous cruise. Frankly, this is our preference. And the guests we met at dinner hailed from throughout the U.S., as well as Australia, Canada, Scotland, and the Dominican Republic.

There were a few young couples on board but only a handful of children, likely because most schools were still in session during the time of our early May cruise. And while Holland America’s ships all have a Club HAL for kids as well as pools and sport courts, things like water slides, surfing pools, zip lines and other such diversions are left for other lines.

Those seeking a more refined cruise experience than a vacation aboard a floating resort would do well to try Holland America. We are already making plans to return.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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