Westerdam blends quality sailing, low fares

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The parade of spectacular new cruise ships has tended to overshadow a number of still-active vessels that, in the early 1990s, were the quality leaders of the cruise industry.

Although these ships lack the balcony cabins, spectacular atriums and alternative restaurants of new ships, they offer a sample of the lines' products at what are often low fares.

One such vessel is Holland America Line's Westerdam. Built by Home Lines at Germany's Meyer Werft shipyard in 1986, the ship became part of HAL's fleet in 1988.

We sailed on a seven-day eastern Caribbean tour departing from and returning to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., just before the ship's transition to five- and eight-day itineraries.

The Westerdam was "stretched" in 1988 and emerged from the yard 798 feet long with a then-impressive gross tonnage of 53,872.

In 2001, Westerdam offers HAL's traditional services: Alaska in the summer and the Caribbean during the balance of the year, with trans-Panama Canal positioning voyages in between.

The promenade deck aboard Holland America Line's Westerdam.New to its 2001 schedule are five- and eight-day Bahamas and Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Westerdam's seven-day Alaska sailings depart roundtrip from Vancouver. Segments of these cruises also are featured in connection with land tours.

Westerdam is one of a kind in the HAL fleet. The public areas of the newer 130-foot midsection evoke HAL's recent ships. The rest of the ship is a mixture of Home Lines (traditional layout and lighting fixtures) and HAL (new furnishings).

Walking aft through the ship's showroom, one passes through the traditional Queen's Lounge. Then, entering the new section, after making a left turn to avoid walking into Maerton de Vos's "The Marriage," circa 1600, one comes to the Ocean Bar, the Explorer's Lounge and a library and card room, all familiar to passengers aboard the newest HAL ships.

The decor is fresh throughout. The overall impression is of a traditional passenger ship, comparatively long and narrow, a good, easy-riding ship when the waves are high.

There are teak decks in most outdoor areas. A popular fresh-air venue is the walk-around promenade deck.

A highlight of the original Home Lines section is the dining room with its huge glass-and-wood dome.

The Westerdam in Port Everglades, Fla.There is also a large traditional theater located, oddly, high up and forward in lieu of the Crow's Nest Bar found aboard all other HAL vessels. The location is a plus for movie devotees, however.

Cabins are attractive but somewhat smaller than those aboard HAL's new ships. Standard outside units measure 130 square feet and inside rooms, 153. There is, however, more than adequate storage space for cruises of one week's length.

HAL has made the longer Westerdam itineraries as port-intensive as the route permits.

Eight-day sailings call at Nassau, Bahamas; San Juan, Puerto Rico (full day); St. Maarten, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (with excursions to St. John), and Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island. Five-day sailings offer Key West, Fla., Half Moon Cay, and Nassau.

Eight-day sailings offer two-and-one-half days at sea; five-day trips have a single sea day.

We sampled three shore excursions, two of them appropriate for the more active clients. These were a four-hour tour to Puerto Rico's El Yunque Rainforest, including a two-hour walk through the woods. The other tour was a nature walk on Half Moon Cay, not at all strenuous and a good introduction to the flora and fauna of the Bahamas as well as to the local culture.

Our third excursion was in St. Thomas via submarine. We found the equipment for this close-in look at the coral reefs to be upgraded and greatly improved from several years ago. It is currently a very attractive St. Thomas option.

Back on the ship, food in both the Amsterdam Dining Room and the two buffet restaurants was good to excellent -- typical Holland America fare.

On the two days at sea, passengers had the lunch choice of the Amsterdam Dining Room or one of the two casual dining areas, the Lido Restaurant or the more attractive Veranda Restaurant. The latter, in the new section of the ship, is similar to such areas in other HAL vessels but smaller. A casual dinner alternative is available here from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. every evening but the final one.

Service throughout the ship varied from excellent to perhaps overly casual. Service provided by cabin stewards and dining room service staff (after a glitch early in the cruise) fell into the "excellent" category.

That of the bar stewards varied between effusive and invisible during the cocktail hour, and seemed to depend on whether or not private receptions were being held elsewhere on the ship.

Most entertainment took place in the Admiral's Lounge, all the way forward. The venue features good sightlines, and good seats are always available.

Passengers seemed enthusiastic about the cabaret-style entertainment and revues, which were not as spectacular in scale or execution compared with those on cruising's megaships.

One of Westerdam's most pleasant evening destinations is the Explorer's Lounge, at which coffee, liqueurs and chocolates were offered after dinner. A trio played light classical music as an elegant backdrop to the surroundings and service.

This compensated for two lackluster groups offering cocktail music in the Ocean Bar and Queen's Lounge.

Although the Westerdam does not offer the world- or extended-cruise version of the HAL on-board formula, it does offer a refined and traditional shipboard experience that will please a wide spectrum of passengers.

At current cruise rates, this modern, attractive and well-kept vessel is one of the best travel buys afloat.

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