Holland America Gets Family Friendly

| October 1, 2007

The line's new children's facilities and programs are driving down the average age of passengers

Five to 10 years ago, I would not have considered taking my two children to Alaska on Holland America Line. We would have felt out of place among the older folks who used to make up Holland America's core passenger market -- especially in Alaska.

But things at HAL have changed considerably since then. The average age of passengers has dropped on all its cruises, and facilities for kids and teens have been added fleet-wide. By building youth and teen rooms on its ships -- part of its $225 million Signature of Excellence program -- and by lowering the starting age of the youth program from five years to three, Holland America is no longer just for seniors. According to a spokesperson for HAL, the line now carries 30 to 40 percent more children and teens than it did five years ago.

With that in mind, we decided to cruise on HAL's Noordam from Seattle to Alaska the week before Labor Day. My 13-year-old daughter and five-year-old son were among approximately 200 children and teens on board. (The cruise prior to ours had about 400 kids and teens. Our sailing was a bit lower since many Southern and Midwestern schools were already in session.)

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One of the many icebergs your kids will love   Kids love viewing waterfalls such as this one   Kids find whale sightings particularly exciting

The result? A wonderful cruise that both my son Ethan and daughter Alex truly enjoyed.

New for Families Holland America Line's "Club HAL" youth program is now in line with all the other year-round youth programs at sea since its starting age is three. As on many other lines, three year olds must be fully potty trained to participate.

When we sailed HAL's Zuiderdam in the Caribbean four-and-half-years earlier, kids had to be five years old to participate in the youth program, and many of the line's ships did not have dedicated youth or teen rooms. Now all of them have facilities for youth and teen activities. The facilities vary slightly by ship "class." Since the Noordam is a Vista-class ship, it has three separate rooms, for youngsters age three to seven, eight to 12, and 13-17, along with a games arcade next to the youth rooms. The Rotterdam-class and Statendam-class ships also have three dedicated youth rooms; a games arcade; and a Sony PlayStation room. (Zuiderdam is an exception; it has one very large youth room that can be divided into two.)

All ships except the Vista-class vessels have an Oasis outdoor teen accessible area via The Loft, the name of all the teen clubs on HAL ships. Although Noordam didn't have an Oasis, we docked right next to the Statendam and could see the thatched hut, palm trees, waterfall and lounge chairs that are part of this atmospheric, outdoor teen hangout.

HAL has also reached out to families on Caribbean cruises with its private island, Half Moon Cay, with its family-friendly Aqua Park. This fun spot includes many large water "toys" in the shapes of marine life such as sharks, dolphins, and crabs that kids like to climb on. There is also a pirate ship that sprays water from its cannons, and a large fountain that emits cooling raindrops.

During the Signature of Excellence renovations, all ships had an Explorations Café added. This spot -- with its dark leather chairs and couches, books, listening stations and catalogue of DVDs to rent -- was one of my family's favorite hang-out spots aboard Noordam. After dinner, we enjoyed going there and playing Scrabble or other board games. Since my five-year-old son is an early riser, he and I (along with his Gameboy) would go to the Explorations Café during the early morning and he'd play on a comfortable leather couch while I checked my email. All ships in the fleet now have an Explorations Café, which can be deemed the living room of HAL ships.

There's some new programming aboard HAL ships that is perfect for kids and families. Now that each ship has a "show kitchen" (also added during the Signature of Excellence), we enjoyed attending the Culinary Arts demonstrations with our teenage daughter. The demos include step-by-step instructions by a chef; distribution of recipe cards; and a taste of the final product. I also attended a "Kids in the Kitchen" event in the show kitchen. Children were given edible Playdough (and a recipe card) to make their own creations. Ethan enjoyed getting his hands dirty, literally!

Another new family activity is Make-A-Bear. Ethan and I were given a bear, placed its heart inside it, stuffed and dressed it in a Club HAL shirt. The bear cost $20 and the event was offered on the last day of the cruise.

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An excursion to a dog sled camp is sure to please   The kids may even get to ride the dog sled   Tracy Arm Fjord provides excellent family viewing opportunities

We found the new As You Wish Dining to be very conducive to families. With As You Wish Dining, passengers can go to dinner whenever it is convenient and not at a set dining time. We tended to go early (around 6 p.m.) and would finish just as the youth program was starting at 7:30 p.m. for Ethan to attend. Those who prefer to have the same waiter each night can opt for traditional fixed seating times: 5:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

What's the Same? Despite these family-friendly changes, the hallmarks of Holland America's premium product are still evident and welcomed. Even though tips are now automatically included in passengers' final bill, the line's predominantly Indonesian and Filipino staffers still believe in service with a smile. Our room steward, Eden, was friendly and efficient; and even though we didn't form a bond with a waiter since we partook in "Dine As You Wish," we still found the waiters to be gracious and hard working.

As on our past HAL cruises, the food aboard Noordam was a notch above mass-market cruise lines. We loved the various stations (pizza, pasta, Asian, sandwiches, grilled food) at the lunchtime buffet. We were also impressed with the quality of the made-to-order waffles and loved the fruit and whipped cream toppings. What really made the service and cuisine stand out was that even on disembarkation day, made-to-order waffles were still available with all the fixins'. On most mass-market ships, by comparison, the breakfast buffet on the last day is often bare-bones and always left a bit of a bad taste -- literally and figuratively -- in our mouths as we departed!

Like most HAL ships (except for the Zuiderdam, which is a bit flashier than traditional HAL vessels), the Noordam is classically decorated and very comfortable overall. Without a big, flashy atrium, the 1,118-passenger ship has a more intimate feel than most ships that size. The main pool area is not cantilevered and thus there's no loud music or noisy pool games that many big ships feature. Instead, there are plenty of rattan tables and chairs for dining poolside, and a roof over the pool so we could swim despite the Alaskan temperatures.

Lastly, HAL still offers families private babysitting and infant necessities that can be ordered ahead of time and delivered to your cabin. HAL is one of the few lines to offer private babysitting. This can be arranged through guest services; the fee is $8 per hour for the first child and $5 per hour for each additional child. To lessen the amount of diapers, baby food, and formula you have to drag aboard ship, you can order them ahead of time and pay through HAL. Request the Infant Supplies Form upon booking.

Youth Program Details Youth program hours on sea days are 9 a.m.-noon; 2-5 p.m.; and 7:30-10 p.m. On port days, the youth program opens at 8 a.m. and stays open until 5 p.m. That way, parents can go on shore excursions and leave kids in the youth program if they prefer. (Parents must sign up the night before to take advantage of the port youth programming.) From 10 p.m. to midnight, group babysitting is offered by the youth counselors and held in the youth rooms for $5 per hour per child. For teens, hours at The Loft are generally 11 a.m. to noon; 2 to 6 p.m.; and 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The youth program allows all children eight years and older to sign themselves in and out. That means if you don't feel comfortable allowing your eight-year-old child to wander off on their own, you will have to see if the youth counselors will hold your child until the session ends and you pick them up. However, when large numbers of kids are aboard, youth counselors are not often amenable to that. Alternatively, your eight-year-old might have to participate in the three to seven-year-old programming since the younger ones cannot leave without being signed out by a parent, grandparent or guardian. According to Nafeesa Sewell, Club HAL Supervisor, HAL is considering moving to an "eight year old optional" sign out system in the future, though.

While many cruise lines with year-round youth programs have evenings where children can dine with the counselors for dinner, allowing parents some quiet time, HAL does not offer that option. But parents can feed their children early at the buffet; bring them to the youth program at 7:30 p.m.; go to dinner alone; and pick up the kids by 10 p.m.

The two youth rooms and teen room on the Noordam are all accessible by the same hallway and are next to the games arcade. The room for kids aged three to seven includes a small stage with curtain; bleacher style seating in a semi-circle around the stage; tables and chairs for crafts; and large toys such as a pretend kitchen set, easel and many Lego sets in the shape of an alligator. The "tweens" room (ages eight to 12) has six Sony Playstations, tables and chairs for crafts, one guitar hero, and a plasma screen for movies and Karaoke.

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Kayaking with the kids is a great family fun activity   Kids will be fascinated by totems such as this

The Loft consists of beanbag chairs, large video wall, computer, guitar hero and Dance Dance Revolution.

Highlights of Youth Activities Alaska cruises have a few special activities that other HAL sailings do not, and these turned out to be ones that Ethan really enjoyed. One highlight was a National Park Service ranger coming aboard ship in Glacier Bay. The ranger, Janine Driscoll, explained to the children what she does as a park ranger and showed them her hat, badge and binoculars. She told them how she used to count harbor seals as they sat on glaciers, then recounted a story about a baby harbor seal. The children used hand gestures and seal noises at various points in her story, which made the storytelling endearing to watch, and helped keep the kids' interest. Ms. Driscoll then pulled out a string that was the length of a typical harbor seal. At the end of her story, she asked each child to stand next to her string to see if they were as big as a harbor seal. At the conclusion, the three to seven year olds received a Junior Park Ranger booklet and pin. The eight to 12 year olds received the Junior Park Ranger booklet too, but had to complete the activities in the booklet to receive their pin.

Another highlight was an appearance by a Native American interpreter from the local Huna tribe, who told the children a story with a Northwest Native American theme. My son Ethan enjoyed and remembered the story of Salmon Boy and Raven, and recounted it to us afterwards. The Huna interpreter spoke to the children the afternoon we were in Glacier Bay. This was quite welcome, since my son was not as fascinated as we were by watching the glaciers! Another day, the three to seven year olds colored pictures of animal faces that the counselors then helped glue on top of each other to resemble a totem pole, which are prolific in Southeast Alaska.

Other youth program highlights for the three to seven year olds include: rocks and logs, a game one of the park rangers taught the youth counselors and kids earlier in the Alaska season, where kids curl up as a rock or log and then the game begins; bandana bandits, in which children have to grab a bandana out of another child's pocket without touching them; dinosaur theme night, which included a hunt for dinosaur pictures around the room, making dinosaur eggs out of paper, dinosaur puzzles, and four corners game with dinosaurs; and pirate night, where kids went on a group scavenger hunt following clues around the ship, and were festooned with paper swords and faces painted like pirates. My son, a huge dinosaur fan, especially loved the dinosaur themed night. Overall, Ethan really enjoyed all the activities in the youth room.

For eight to 12 year olds, activities included: snowball fights, in which kids had to bunch up toilet paper into balls and throw it to the other teams' side (the team with the most balls at the end lost); making stained glass pictures using wax papers, markers and glitter glue; and the Noordam Ultimate Races, which included the pineapple game (kids were split into two teams and had to see how many words they could make from the word pineapple), categories (children had to keep saying a word on a topic without losing a beat), and a a true-or-false trivia game.

I liked that there were plenty of children for my son to play with in the youth program, but that the groups were small enough that counselors and kids got to know each other. This personal attention goes a long way. According to Nafeesa Sewell, Club HAL Supervisor, a goal of Club HAL is to increase staff even more during the holiday and high summer sailings so they can split the under-12-year-olds into three groups instead of two. Age groups would then be: three to five, six to eight, and nine to 12.

Ethan liked the youth counselors, and as a parent, I found them to be sweet yet have good command of the kids. What I would have liked to see is a youth program schedule filled with more activities. There was too much down time, especially when counselors were finishing up the little ones' projects (cutting and gluing them), thus leaving the children a lot of free play time. While kids have too much structure during the school year, there is only so much free time little ones can have in a small room before they start getting antsy.

In the eight to 12 year old program, youth counselors were equally nice and mainly oversaw group games. However, I would have liked to see some additional hands-on learning activities or other varied programming. This group also seemed to have a lot of free time, which worked better than with the little ones since there was a Karaoke machine that the older kids enjoyed using.

The teen program held in The Loft seemed to have a good balance of activities versus hanging out time. Since teens inherently like more down time than active little ones, the programming worked well.

Overall, my children thoroughly enjoyed their Noordam cruise, from the planned youth activities to the special Alaska highlights and the family programming, such as the Make A Bear and culinary workshops.

Some of our fondest memories, though, are playing a game of Scrabble in the lounge at night or photographing the kids on deck against spectacular Alaskan scenery. That said, would we recommend a Holland America Line cruise to our friends with kids? Absolutely!

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