Zuiderdam: The new face of Holland America

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin spent three nights aboard the Zuiderdam, the first ship in Holland America Line's new Vista-class series. Her report follows:

aybe it was the red, orange and purple carpeting. Or perhaps it was the sofa shaped like a giant pair of lips. Or maybe that faux ice sculpture in the disco got me thinking: Is this the new face of Holland America Line?

Well, yes -- and no. It is a Holland America ship: the Zuiderdam, the first of five, 85,000-ton Vista-class vessels. It has the HAL logo on the smokestack, the same high caliber of service, many of the familiar public rooms, lots of interior space and the "dam" suffix on the ship's name.

But in many ways, especially in the decor, the Zuiderdam is a departure from HAL tradition.

The Zuiderdam is bigger than any previous HAL ship. The hull design is the same as Carnival's Spirit class, which means the ship is long, but slim enough to fit through the Panama Canal (if needed). Its size puts the vessel in the same category as other modern mega-ships, and the exterior looks the same: Rows and rows of balcony cabins run along the ship's sides. On the Zuiderdam, two-thirds of the cabins have balconies.

But where the Carnival Spirit carries just under 2,200 guests, the Zuiderdam carries only 1,848.

The aft pool, complete with its pool lounger, attracts sun worshippers on Holland America Line's Zuiderdam. Even more noticeably, the Zuiderdam is bold and flashy. The stately, traditional decor of the other ships in the HAL fleet has given way to bright, contemporary shapes and colors such as purple, yellow and "bordello red." Guests sunbathing on the aft Lido deck are treated to contemporary pop and rhythm-and-blues tunes.

HAL executives said the new look and feel of the Zuiderdam were intentional, designed to attract a younger cruising set to its seven-day Caribbean itinerary and, ultimately, to the line overall.

HAL's average passenger age is 57, said Mark Kammerer, the line's vice president of worldwide marketing. Passengers on the seven-day summer Caribbean cruises average age 44.

The Zuiderdam is "not the Amsterdam," Kammerer told agents. "It's more contemporary. Tell [clients] it's different."

That was what at least one agent on board planned to do.

"I have lots of people booked," said Bea Hymiak, an agent at Cammarata's Travel in Lockport, N.Y. "Now I know what to tell them."

"It's going to be a real change," said Norma Peter Toya, an agent with Cruise Holidays in St. Augustine, Fla.

For loyal HAL vacationers, she said, "it will take an adjustment. But this should encourage younger people."

Hymiak added, "I think they'll be pleasantly surprised."

In part because the ship is different from the rest of the HAL fleet, the line took a little more time with its agent previews and invited three sets of agents and industry-watchers on board for three nights each.

"We were able to show the ship to a tremendous amount of agents," said David Giersdorf, the line's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "Have we seen an immediate spike in bookings on the Zuiderdam specifically? You bet.

"We've heard story after story of agents who've said it really opened their eyes," Giersdorf added. "I think we're going to see agents who haven't been doing much [HAL] business ... maybe doing more total."

Some agents and guests on the three-night preview cruise looked a little bug-eyed at first, especially when confronted with brightly painted Greco-Roman chairs in the elevator waiting areas.

Another attention-getter was the penthouse suite, 1,318-square feet of sumptuous decor, including three-foot-tall Roman statues flanking the bed and a lion's-head spout in the Jacuzzi (and yes, water does spout from the lion's mouth).

Overheard from one agent in the elevator: "Did Joe Farcus [Carnival Cruise Line's interior architect] personally sit in that room and design it?"

More than one guest invoked Carnival to describe the interiors. HAL brass strongly denied any design similarities with their "Fun-ship" sister line.

Frans Dingemans, HAL's chief designer, said people making the Carnival comparison "have a bad memory or have not been on a Carnival ship."

Unlike Farcus, who designs Carnival's ships according to loosely categorized themes, Dingemans said there is no central theme on the Zuiderdam.

"You might say the decor is more brilliant, but the rooms have the same feeling" as on other HAL ships, he said.

HAL devotees will find the line's traditional rooms here, such as the Explorer's Lounge, the Crow's Nest and the Ocean Bar.

These rooms have been updated with more modern lines, although places like the Explorer's Lounge still have a traditional feel. The Crow's Nest features some nifty loungers near the windows, perfect for guests to curl up with a book or just sit and daydream.

HAL's Wajang movie theater is absent from the Zuiderdam, although agents were promised movies and popcorn for their clients in the Queens Lounge.

It was HAL's disco, Northern Lights, that was the talk of the cruise. The dance floor is surrounded by comfortable banquettes -- covered in a black-and-white cowhide pattern. A giant sculpture resembling a block of ice separates the dance area from the bar.

During a tour of the vessel, Dingemans pointed out the Wave Runner teens area as a "hanging place for youngsters." Club HAL, the line's kids program, finds a larger-than-average home on Deck 11, another move to attract younger cruisers and families to the line.

Guests can sunbathe at the midship Lido pool, where two gigantic replicas of polar bears watch over the sunbathers, or at the aft pool, which features an outrageously colored lounger/throne placed in the center of the wading area.

One of the nicest areas on the ship is a collection of comfy wood and white-cushioned loungers outside the entrance to the Crow's Nest.

And you can hardly beat the balconies for relaxation -- they're large enough for two chairs and a table. Balconies on the aft cabins are even larger, although less private.

A new Deluxe Verandah Outside cabin created on the Vista-class ships is what HAL is touting as its "best value." They're about 254 square feet, including the balcony.

Some guests said the food on board was among the best they have eaten on HAL, and it was good, especially the fragrant chicken Thai soup and the crab cakes. The bilevel Vista dining room is stately, although guests on the upper level could be eating in the dark if they're seated along the edge of the room.

Clients also should be advised to book at least one evening at the Odyssey, the ship's alternative restaurant, which rings the ship's three-deck atrium.

Dingemans said the room was created so guests could people-watch as they dine. "You see who comes in; you don't miss a thing," he said.

Above the Odyssey is the Ocean Bar, which also opens up into the atrium and serves the pre- and post-dinner drinks crowd. Other watering holes include the piano bar and the sports bar, which open off the Lower Promenade's curvy main hall.

A watering hole of a different sort is the Windstar Cafe, a sunlit, comfortable coffee joint. Another coffee venue, the Java Corner, is used for the ship's meetings facilities, which are located near the Internet Cafe.

Overall, the reaction from agents was positive; Stein Kruse, the line's vice president of fleet operations, said the only complaint he heard was about the lack of public rest rooms on the Promenade decks. More were being installed, he said.

This year, the Zuiderdam will sail seven-day cruises from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and call in Nassau, Bahamas; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; St. Kitts; and Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island.

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