Last July, the travel industry was so focused on the advent of Norwegian Cruise Line's edgy Norwegian Epic that the European debut of the classy, 86,273-ton Nieuw Amsterdam went largely overlooked.
The Holland America Line newbuild, fourth in a line of ships named for the Dutch settlement that ultimately became New York, has since crossed the Atlantic to begin its inaugural season of weekly Fort Lauderdale-based Caribbean cruises.
The Signature-class Nieuw Amsterdam instantly seems familiar because it is a twin of the 2008-built Eurodam, an enhanced, slightly larger version of the popular Vista-class foursome (Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and Noordam). In addition to everything the Vistas offer, the Signature sisters have an extra deck, a higher passenger capacity (2,106 vs. 1,924), more dining options and retreats with cabanas.
What the Nieuw Amsterdam lacks in trendy innovations, it more than makes up for in comfort, quality of food and entertainment. Leaving waterslides, ziplines and ice bars for the competition, this vessel exudes a homey, traditional elegance with subdued, silver-toned color schemes. An attractive art collection pays homage to New York and the ship's prior namesakes.
Seven categories of accommodations range from 170-square-foot inside cabins to 1,318-square-foot veranda suites. Of the 1,053 cabins, 156 are inside, 179 have a picture window and 718 have balconies. Staterooms feature HAL's Signature of Excellence premium amenities: plush Eurotop Mariner's Dream beds, terry cloth robes, Egyptian cotton towels, flat-panel TVs, makeup mirrors with halo lighting, massage showerheads, hair dryers, fresh flowers, fruit baskets and Elemis toiletries.
The Signature ships have the widest variety of dining options in the HAL fleet. Nieuw Amsterdam guests preferring assigned tables and wait staff can choose from two fixed dinner seatings, at 5:45 p.m. and 8 p.m., in the lower level of the 1,114-seat Manhattan Dining Room. There is also open seating between 5:15 p.m. and 9 p.m. in the room's upper level. The taste and presentation of almost every course was consistently excellent and included a variety of seafood, poultry, meats and vegetarian dishes.
In the casual Lido Restaurant, there are made-to-order omelettes, cereals, muesli, cold cuts and fresh fruits for breakfast as well as salads, a deli, hot entrees, pasta and Asian specialties for lunch. Nightly menus evolve with a variety of Mediterranean, French, Caribbean and Italian choices.
Extra-tariff eateries include the 112-seat Pinnacle Grill ($10 lunch/$20 dinner) featuring Pacific Northwest favorites like aged Sterling Silver beef, Dungeness crab cakes and king salmon.
The ship's culinary highlight is the 142-seat Tamarind ($10 dinner), with its panoramic setting, spectacular service and beautifully presented pan-Asian delights themed for the four elements of life: water (fish), fire (spicy), wood (served on or cooked with wood) and earth (vegetarian). On sea days, dim sum lunch is available for no charge.
Onboard activities range from shuffleboard contests and pool games to tai chi lessons at sunset, self-guided iPod art tours and culinary courses. Twice nightly, the 890-seat Showroom at Sea is the venue for Broadway-style shows with the ship's excellent cast, guest magicians, comedians and even an occasional game show.
The Eastern Caribbean itinerary is well-paced with a day at sea at either end of the week and a nice mix of ports, including St. Maarten, San Juan, Grand Turk and HAL's private Out Island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay. It can be combined with the Western Caribbean sailings visiting Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk, Grand Cayman and Costa Maya, Mexico.