If you had to pick one word to describe the Holland America Line, that word would be "venerable." The line is arguably the most historic and tradition-laden on the seas. Its first ship, the 1,684-ton Rotterdam, set sail on a voyage between Holland and New York in 1873, and today, HAL ships sail all around the globe.
The line was originally named the Netherlands-America Steamship Company, but soon became known as the Holland America Line because it carried great numbers of immigrants from Holland to America. The company concentrated on the transatlantic passenger trade, as well as on commercial freight shipping until the 1970's. Its first purpose-built passenger ship was constructed in 1973, and since then, the line has concentrated on cruise vacation travel.
In 1978, Holland America moved its headquarters from Rotterdam to Stamford, Connecticut. The company's headquarters then moved to Seattle, Washington in 1983, in order to consolidate operations with Westours, an Alaska tour company in which Holland America purchased a controlling interest. In 1988, Holland America purchased Windstar Cruises, operator of four- and five-masted, computer-guided sailing ships. It ultimately sold Windstar to a smaller ship operator.
One year later, the behemoth Carnival Corporation acquired Holland America Line, which remains headquartered in Seattle.
Holland America may now be a U.S.-based cruise line, but it continues to maintain strong ties with its Netherlands heritage. Ships in its fleet -- since the 1890's and continuing today -- bear the suffix "dam." Most of the names are inspired by actual dams that traverse the rivers of the Netherlands. In other cases, such as with its Vista-class of ships, the names represent points of the compass, Oosterdam is East, Westerdam is West, Noordam is North, etc.). Many of the names are in their fourth, fifth or sixth incarnations. Eurodam was christened in Rotterdam in 2008 by none other than the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix. Nieuw Amsterdam, HAL's newest offering, was christened in 2010 by the Netherlands' Princess Maxima, marking the 11th time a member of the Dutch Royal family served as a HAL godmother.
While HAL has been committed to expanding its fleet with new tonnage, Nieuw Amsterdam is likely the last new-build launching for some time. That said, the line is committed to regularly updating and upgrading existing ships via its $525 million "Signature of Excellence" initiative, which focuses on enhancement in the areas of accommodations, public rooms, dining, service and enrichment programs.
Improvements have included an early embarkation program that allows guests to board as early as 11:30 a.m., new culinary arts centers for cooking demonstrations and classes, table-side waiter service in the ships' casual Lido Restaurant, exclusive "Medallion Shore Excursions" in exotic destinations like Asia and Africa, an expanded "Speakers Program," new Greenhouse Spas with exclusive treatments in thermal suites and hydro pools, the "Explorations Cafe" (which also serves as a multidimensional venue for onboard programming), 24-hour concierge service for suite passengers and more extensive youth programs.
Since early 2009, Veendam (March 2009), Rotterdam (November 2009), Ryndam (February 2010), Statendam (March 2010) and Maasdam (April 2011) have all undergone extensive dry docks as part of the program. New cabins -- including balcony cabins, spa staterooms large enough for in-room treatments and "lanai" rooms, which open directly onto the deck -- were added to each ship. The Retreat, an adults-only pool, was also added to each, along with a new lounge called Mix that is made up of three specialty bars.
The Holland America Experience
Private Island: Half Moon Cay
Classic cruising style with fabulous modern touches
Culinary Arts Centers host cooking demonstrations, classes
"Signature of Excellence" put $525 million into enhancing fleet
One of the nice things about Holland America's onboard ambience is that its arty, colorful ships, though all carrying an individual decorating theme, have a pleasant consistency. Holland America ships have numerous traditions -- such as afternoon tea, gentlemen hosts for dancing on cruises over 10 days and a quaint "chime ringing" to announce dinner -- that are consistent throughout the fleet.
The line distinguishes itself with an eclectic yet thoughtful collection of artwork onboard, and art tours are definitely worthwhile. Self-guided iPod tours are even available. The devices can be borrowed from each ship's Explorations Cafe.
Holland America offers some special-touch services not found on other cruise lines. If you're on a warm weather itinerary, you'll find waiters roaming the decks with tall glasses of iced tea or lemonade. In Alaska, you'll warm up on the outside decks with mugs of delicious Dutch pea soup.
The line was a pioneer in introducing the alternative restaurant concept with the introduction of Odyssey Restaurant onboard the Rotterdam. These days, the concept has evolved, and the line's signature restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill, is in place, fleetwide, as the alternative dining venue. The Pinnacle Grill is a reservations-only venue with a $10 cover charge for lunch and a $20 charge for dinner. The atmosphere is elegant, and the menu features meat and seafood dishes with a Pacific Northwest theme. The line's newest vessels, Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, introduced Tamarind, an Asian specialty restaurant featuring fee-free Dim sum and $15 dinner.
Holland America has long been one of the more traditional cruise lines when it comes to main restaurant dining, but it does now offer passengers more flexibility with "As You Wish" dining. It works like this: One level of the ships' two-deck-high dining rooms will be dedicated to traditional, early (5:45 p.m.) or main-seating (8 p.m.) while the other is open from 5:15 to 9 p.m. daily. (Breakfast and lunch are already open-seating.) Passengers opting for open-seating can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.
Evening entertainment, consistent with the Holland America experience, is fairly understated with pre-dinner cocktails generally being the liveliest time. However, there are numerous entertainment options, from disco-style dancing in the Crow's Nest and flicks in the cinema to Vegas-style revues in the main theater.
Holland America has long had a reputation for catering to a well-heeled but somewhat traditionally minded crowd. Perhaps that's due to the line's insistence on maintaining its traditions with set-seating dining, elegant afternoon tea, ballroom dancing and on-ship tennis courts. But Holland America is also making an effort to entice a younger, hipper customer base by integrating some of cruising's most important new features, such as Internet cafes with wireless access, alternative boutique restaurants, concierge service for upper-level accommodations and indoor-outdoor pools for year-round use. Camp HAL has also been upgraded to meet the needs of younger families with children -- especially during summer sailings to Alaska and the Caribbean and on weeklong (as opposed to two-week-plus) voyages. Although Holland America is not likely to rival Disney for the breadth and depth of its programs, most of the ships offer Club HAL children's programming, particularly during the summer and other school holiday periods.
The Club HAL programs are divided into three age groups: 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17. All of the ships now have expanded children's facilities, dedicated teen lounges and parent-free zones with computers, conversation areas and gaming stations. Teens can take advantage of these spaces, which bear names like The Loft and The Oasis and have themes to match.