In today's cruise market, the Statendam is a classic

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In an industry obsessed with all things new, a cruise ship like Holland America Line's Statendam is a breath of old-fashioned air. In today's market, the ship, built in 1993, is practically a classic. At a cozy 55,451 tons, it's one-third the size of today's biggest vessels.

And there are few things more appealing on a ship than a sleek, dark hull, tiered aft decks and a long, sweeping foredeck. The Statendam's is covered in teak, and it was the perfect spot to view the passing scenery of New Zealand and Australia on a recent two-week cruise from Auckland to Sydney. When the captain edged the ship about 50 meters from the soaring Sterling Falls in New Zealand's Milford Sound, it was as good as being on a small expedition vessel.

In many ways, the Statendam is a throwback to a more elegant time, from the white-gloved high tea to the hot and cold canapes before dinner.

The average age of passengers hovered somewhere between 50 and 70, and there was no shortage of walkers and wheelchairs. But this was a feisty, friendly crowd, in part because the ship's intimate size fostered familiarity. An easy camaraderie formed between passengers and with crew members.

But the ship is still large enough to offer plenty to do and to eat. The benefactor of HAL's Signature of Excellence upgrades in 2005, Statendam manages to be both New and Old World. On the new side, Explorations Cafe, the trendiest spot on the ship, pairs a well-stocked library and Internet center with a coffee bar with ocean views.

A buzzing hub of activity, the cafe has 12 computer stations as well as several plug-ins for those going wireless with their own laptops. Five leather chaise lounges partnered with CD players and headphone stations face floor-to-ceiling windows.

In terms of daytime activities, cruise standards such as bingo, line-dancing lessons and art auctions were offered as well as an impressive lecture series. Historian Gavin McLean, a New Zealand native, gave four in-depth talks about the history and culture of the two countries.

The ship's new culinary arts center, built into the Wajang Theater, was the venue for well-attended cooking demonstrations. The theater also hosted movies, a seminar on flower arranging, and a behind-the-scenes video and Q&A on HAL's environmental policies and shipboard waste-management protocols.

At night, the typical cruise-ship repertory included Broadway-style song and dance shows, which were mediocre at best with weak lead vocals. Better acts included two well-received comedians, Yacov Noy and Geraldine Doyle.

Other guest performers included a talented violinist and piano player. Two separate crew shows, one Filipino and one Indonesian version, were also crowd pleasers. When the ship was in port late in Wellington, a troupe of Maori performers came onboard to do a traditional war dance.

The Statendam's two-week cruises generally attract an early-to-bed crowd, but an exception was the Black and White Party in the Crow's Nest lounge, when officers were on hand to dance with guests. During most evenings, a dedicated after-dinner crowd, along with two or three of the ship's gentleman hosts, gathered in the Ocean Bar to take a turn on the dance floor.  

Few families take children on such long cruises, except on long holidays. Besides my two 4-year-olds, there were only a handful of children on board. HAL offers a two-tiered Club HAL program when fewer than 30 kids are on a sailing, with children ages 3 to 12 in one group and teens in another, with limited hours.

On cruises with more children, activities are offered for three or more age groups and for longer periods. Private, in-cabin baby-sitting is usually available at an hourly rate.

In the bright and cheerful, but compact, playroom, activities for the young kids include arts and crafts projects, board games and story time. An adjacent video arcade has a foosball table and a third indoor space for teens has a music system and computers. Most impressive is the teens-only Oasis club perched up on deck, with chaise lounges, a wading pool and hammocks.

Overall, the food was fine, although hardly memorable. The ship's three restaurants include the new Pinnacle Grill, a 60-seat alternative venue offering a menu of mostly steaks and seafood. Service there was like a high-end restaurant compared with the hubbub of the main dining room, where an appetizer might arrive before the wine steward gets to the table.

The highlight of the Rotterdam restaurant was its glamorous, two-level design and views through full-length windows. With the sun setting as late as 9 p.m., scenery and sea were part of dinner.

Complementing the itinerary were local fish, meats and wines brought aboard in various ports, giving diners a context to the cruising region -- which isn't typically the case on most cruises, due to quality-control issues. The butterfish and John Dory were very tasty, as were the New Zealand and Australian wines, including a New Zealand Fernleaf Sauvignon Blanc ($25 a bottle).

Most of the Statendam's crew hails from Indonesia and the Philippines. On a ship that carries 1,200 passengers, it's feasible for the staff to offer a more personalized level of service than the bigger ships can.

Some HAL old-timers say the line has changed, from the automatic $10-per-day tipping policy to the pushing of drink specials, but there is still a certain gentility about a Holland America cruise.

"We're flexible," said Tervor Millar, the Statendam's cruise director, with a smile on his face. "Ask, and we can add it to the schedule."

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "Things to do while in port."

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