HAL's Amsterdam blends 127 years of tradition, cutting-edge tech

TWcrossroads.com managing editor Michael Nassaur and his wife, Heather, sailed on a 10-day Panama Canal voyage aboard Holland America's Amsterdam. His report follows:

PUERTO CALDERA, Costa Rica -- A new ship for any cruise line brings with it high expectations for cutting-edge technology.

But when that ship's line has more than 127 years of sailing history, there's a certain level of tradition it must live up to, as well.

Holland America's Amsterdam blends both admirably.

The third vessel in HAL's history to carry the Amsterdam moniker, this ship maintains the feel of a classic ocean liner, with rich mahogany tones and shiny brass fixtures as far as the eye can see.

The promenade is decked in teak and graced with rows of wooden lounge chairs -- throwbacks to an earlier time.

But despite these nods to the past, Amsterdam is every bit a modern cruise ship.

The first of HAL's new builds to feature an Azipod propulsion system, Amsterdam can cut through the waves at a top speed of 24.5 knots -- more than enough power to reach faraway ports during its scheduled 99-day world cruise in 2002.

The three-deck centerpiece of Amsterdam's atrium is the Astrolabe clock, which has four different faces. But there are technological enhancements that don't involve transportation.

Amsterdam's Internet [email protected] features seven terminals with 24-hour Internet access.

The fee for going on line is 75 cents per minute, and it's $3.95 for each e-mail sent using the ship's CruisE-mail account ($4.95 for a 15- to 20-second video e-mail). Passengers can avoid the $3.95 charge by sending messages from Internet-based services like America Online, Hotmail or Yahoo!

One caveat: The system doesn't allow users to connect to e-mail servers employing secure socket layers (SSL) with an https:// designation. It automatically adds an http:// to any address entered in the Web search box.

This could be a problem for a client expecting to access office e-mail while away, since many companies employ SSL technology for accessing e-mail from the Internet.

If clients must stay in touch with the office, advise them to make arrangements to have e-mail forwarded to an Internet-based service.

An interesting on-board item is a scientific module installed as part of HAL's participation in an oceanic monitoring program with the International Seakeepers Society.

The module gathers information about ocean and weather conditions and transmits the data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Amsterdam, however, is a bit more comfortable than your average research vessel. Staterooms range from 182 square feet for a large inside double to a whopping 1,126 square feet in each of the ship's two penthouse suites.

We stayed in one of the 50 suites on board, and if not for the view from the balcony, it would have been easy to think we were in a luxury hotel on land.

Suites come equipped with a king-size bed, a sitting area with a leather-upholstered sofa bed, a dressing area, a minibar, a TV and VCR. The balcony is twice as big as those offered in the minisuites one deck below.

Another suite feature is the Neptune Lounge, a room set aside for suite passengers only.

The lounge offers concierge services; a big-screen TV; magazines, newspapers and books; a well-stocked video library, and a place to gather for coffee, cappuccino and snacks.

But when it's time for some real eating, the hot spots are the Lido buffet, the La Fontaine dining room and the Odyssey restaurant.

The Lido is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as an alternative option.

To keep lines moving, the Lido is equipped with two service stations separate from the main line. The stations offer made-to-order omelettes in the morning. In the afternoon, one station offers made-to-order deli sandwiches, while the other is set up for a different selection each day, from an oriental stir-fry to a curry bar.

A separate ice cream station scoops out frosty treats three times during the day and evening. Out by the Lido pool at the Terrace Grill, hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and a taco bar are available for those seeking a quick bite.

Dinnertime is when chef Robert Hendrix and his staff really shine. Menus for the La Fontaine offer five appetizers, three soups, two salads, five regular entrees, one vegetarian choice, and if somehow the diner can't find anything appealing, there is always a selection of two grilled items.

But with selections like broiled grouper steak, baked mahi mahi, beef tenderloin chateaubriand, loin of lamb and parmesian crusted turkey, there is little chance of that.

For something a little different, everyone should try the Odyssey restaurant at least once during the cruise.

Reservations can be made for dinner on any night of the cruise. The restaurant also is open for lunch during sea days.

Odyssey's three-course dinner offers a wide selection of Italian specialties, including appetizers such as bruschetta, carpaccio and calamari. Entree choices include veal scaloppine, grilled veal chop, chicken rustico, pan-roasted lamb, filet mignon with mushroom and red wine sauce and osso buco.

The assortment of desserts includes tiramisu, chocolate mousse, hazelnut custard and a fabulous zabaione.

After all that food, however, some might find it tough to fit into the formal night's clothes. But there is hope for those trying to avoid returning home with more than fond memories.

Amsterdam offers a well-appointed gym with treadmills, stationary bikes, weights and and its own aerobics area -- so no more step classes by the pool at 6 a.m. For those seeking more interactive options, there are volleyball and paddle tennis on the sports deck.

For those seeking a slower pace, Amsterdam offers several lounges and bars, including the Explorer's Lounge -- a feature on every ship in the fleet, but each with its own flavor and flair.

Amsterdam's version of this HAL hallmark is done in deep red and metallic hues. While some might find the decor to be a bit dark, overall the effect is a reflection of the warmth embodied in many of the ship's design elements.

Previous Explorer's lounges on HAL ships are known to have one central piece of art. Amsterdam's is no exception.

The piece here is a massive oil-on-aluminum painting by Peter J. Sterkenberg titled "Ships in Front of 17th Century Amsterdam." The painting depicts dozens of tall-masted vessels and evokes Holland's strong sailing history.

Amsterdam's art gallery is located along the same corridor and features Chinese artifacts and sculptures from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

It's not difficult to imagine some of Sterkenberg's ships returning from the Far East with similar items.

But when it comes to art, not much on board can compare in sheer size with the Astrolabe clock. The three-deck centerpiece of Amsterdam's atrium has four different faces -- an astrolabe, a world clock, a planetary clock and an astrological clock.

In many ways, the clock is symbolic of the Amsterdam. Both are firmly planted in modern times, yet their many faces reflect the past.

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