Trying Out HAL's 'Excellence' Upgrades

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

When I boarded the recently refurbished Ryndam in San Diego, I was happy to see the historic maps and antiques still in place alongside the ship's new designer touches. "Are you keeping the dinner gong?" I asked Rick Meadows, Holland America's Senior VP of Marketing and Sales. "Yes," he said, "we're keeping the traditional features that characterize Holland America -- but there's a fine line between being traditional and being out of date."

That's what the Signature of Excellence program is about: transforming the line so it answers the needs of the modern traveler while continuing to uphold the nautical traditions of the past.

As a company, Holland America Line dates back to 1873; it offered its first pleasure cruise in 1895. Along with the dinner gong, antiques and historic memorabilia, its ships are also known for wide, teak promenade decks with padded wooden deck chairs; heavy silverware reminiscent of the grand transatlantic liners; fresh floral arrangements throughout the ship; elegant afternoon teas; bellboys in traditional uniform; and gracious service by the Indonesian and Filipino crew -- the number one reason Holland America has an enormous following of past passengers.

Time for Change

Crow's Nest Pink

However, repeaters are now coming aboard with their children and grandchildren. Officials said that on Zuideram's Caribbean sailings, the median age of passengers is now 44, down from 57 in years past -- and in Alaska it is not unusual to have 200 children onboard Oosterdam. The Signature of Excellence changes are aimed at satisfying the expectations of these multi-generational travelers mostly baby boomers and their families. This means updating public rooms and entertainment options, increasing dining choices and enhancing stateroom amenities.

The mammoth task is an ongoing project fleet-wide, which HAL execs plan to complete by the end of 2006. In discussing the changes, company officials use words like "evolving," "process" and "fine tuning," as every aspect of the cruise experience is studied.

The price tag for the line's reinvention has been cited as $225 million, but the actual cost is higher, as many changes have not been included in that estimate -- like new crew uniforms, new signage around the ship, the re-design of the daily program, adding more channels to staterooms TV including ESPN, installing flat-screen technology in public areas, upgrading laundry facilities to handle the new linens and soft goods, and reorganization of the culinary department at HAL headquarters.

Early Deployment

Wall Mural
The first elements of Signature of Excellence were deployed in 2003, so several major aspects of the program are already in effect fleet-wide, including early boarding from 11:30 a.m., four dining times (two early, two late, except on Prinsendam), addition of the Pinnacle Grill specialty restaurants and the automatic addition of tips to the passenger's shipboard account. Now the ships are starting to be physically refurbished during lengthy drydocks; Ryndam was the first to be completed.

Following a 19-day drydock in Victoria, B.C, Ryndam now sports a host of new public rooms and stateroom enhancements. The vessel required a class inspection prior to re-entering service, and HAL had a shipload of mattresses and TVs to donate to charity as all had been replaced.

Ryndam's new look includes bright colors -- notably in the Crow's Nest, where a shocking pink seating area definitely gets noticed. The designer look of many areas, like the gourmet shop and wine tasting area, is similar to that of the newer Oosterdam. The dramatic changes brighten up the vessel and are described as "elegant" by many repeat passengers, who appreciate the fact that the trappings of nautical history are still represented alongside the new features things like historic paintings, displays of books, ship models, antiques and a couple of cannons.

Cabin Improvements

New Beds
The stateroom look has been altered with the addition of very comfortable euro-top mattresses in all cabin categories. HAL's colorful bedspreads do not fit the new mattresses, so they have been replaced with a lighter half-cover and a display of pillows, a plainer and more modern look for HAL. All staterooms and suites now feature upgraded bed linens, towels and terry robes, LG flat screen TVs with DVD players, massage showerheads, and lighted magnifying mirrors.

Public room changes are many, including the introduction of the New York Times' Explorations Café, a combination library, Internet center, music listening area and coffee bar; the new Culinary Arts Center, wine tasting area and gourmet shop; addition of dedicated kids and teens facilities; a re-design of the Crow's Nest lounge and disco; addition of the private Neptune Lounge for suite passengers; and expansion of spa facilities. Details on these rooms and new programs onboard can be found in the summary at the end of this article.

Dining Delights

Dinner Gong
Changes to the dining and food onboard form a major part of the Signature of Excellence. HAL's new culinary advisor, Master Chef Rudi Sodamin, has been with the line for only a few months. He emphasizes that quality ingredients and creative presentation are key to his vision for the line, and he remarked that HAL has been eager to implement his ideas fully.

A number of Chef Sodamin's signature dishes are on the menu, and more changes will be steadily introduced. Cuisine and ingredients from the regions visited during the cruise will figure more prominently in the future. Overall, I found the food to be very good throughout the cruise (and improved over my Prinsendam cruise last year). The seven entrees at dinner each night include a good variety - seafood, beef, pasta, American 'comfort food,' Asian, Indian, spicy and low carb with a list of daily alternatives. At both lunch and dinner, a parade of very imaginatively presented dishes was seen in the dining room, including salad in a martini glass, carved vegetable displays and a range of artistic desserts.

Chef Sodamin has also been instrumental in developing the ships' new Culinary Arts Centers and instructional programs, which are proving to be very popular with passengers. The state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen is used for cooking classes. "Mixology" classes, wine tasting, and a gourmet shop are part of the program. (More details are listed at the end of this article.)

The Flagship Forum lecture series is being expanded, so I was disappointed there was no naturalist or destinations lecturer onboard my one-week Sea of Cortez cruise. Unfortunately, with the exception of Alaska cruises, there will be no guest lecturers on one-week cruises. The gentlemen hosts who dance with single ladies and escort them at dinner are also only aboard longer sailings. Holland America offers many unique itineraries longer than a week, and is one of the few cruise lines to sail a three-month world cruise every year.

Many of the new features come at a surcharge, but this no longer seems to dismay anyone. When the Pinnacle Grill specialty restaurant was introduced last year, most passengers weren't willing to pay the $20 charge and the restaurant was often empty. Now it is sold out most nights and is open for lunch. Culinary classes and wine tastings are also selling out, and the Torrefazione coffee bar is steadily busy. Generally passengers are welcoming the new options, and realize that if they don't want to pay extra, there are still plenty of things to do and certainly enough places to eat.

Talking with passengers during my cruise, I found that first-time HAL cruisers were surprised by the quality and value of the experience, and by the outstanding service, even if they felt Ryndam was too sedate for them. The lack of a dedicated jogging track and limited sports facilities were the major complaints among newcomers, and they would welcome a fitness program not attached to the spa.

On the whole, past passengers who remained loyal to HAL are seasoned travelers who are taking the transformation in stride. There were 700 repeaters on my cruise, with experience ranging from seven to more than 1,800 days with the line. Grace from New Mexico, a veteran of 500 days with HAL since 1973, said she loves the new look aboard Ryndam and thinks the ship is much more elegant now. She said she always appreciates the outstanding service by the Indonesian and Filipino crew, and commented on how hard they work to please everyone.

Onboard to relax, get away from it all and enjoy the food, many experienced cruisers are unimpressed with the transformation but one such repeater added: "I have no complaints." Despite the new TV channels, Internet and flat screens, one can still rest in a deck chair on promenade deck, watch the horizon and leave life on land behind.

One thing repeaters do miss is the smaller ships of decades past; many won't try the newer Vista-class vessels because they find they are just too big to get around.

By May next year, Prinsendam, Zaandam, Rotterdam, Westerdam and Statendam will be transformed for the Signature of Excellence program. Prinsendam will be ready in time for the World Cruise in January; however, she will continue to offer two dining times, the culinary center will be portable, and there is no plan to add Club HAL facilities, since this ship's long itineraries do not attract families.

Beyond May, the drydock schedule is undecided. There will be a lot of differences between ships in the fleet until the refits are complete in 2006.

While I was aboard Ryndam, the 1984-built Noordam left HAL without fanfare. As Noordam (the smallest, oldest ship in the fleet) departed, Ryndam, the first vessel refitted for Signature of Excellence, sailed to Mexico. It was a changing of the guard signaling the start of a new era for Holland America as the line moves forward. New public rooms and programs aboard the refitted Ryndam:

Culinary Arts Center

Culinary Arts Kitchen

The Wajang Theater houses the new Culinary Arts Center, a state-of-the-art show kitchen where culinary demonstrations and cooking classes take place. The one-hour demonstrations by executive or guest chefs are held free of charge. The daily classes, limited to 12 participants sharing six cooking stations, are selling out. During the one-and-a-half class, an appetizer, entrée and dessert are prepared. The charge is currently $19 (this will increase to $39 in the future), which includes a set of recipes plus a 10 percent discount at the Pinnacle Grill restaurant or complimentary admission to a wine tasting event.

A camera over the countertop transmits to four plasma screens in the theater so the audience gets a close-up view of the procedure. The demonstrations can also be broadcast to stateroom TVs.

The Wajang Theater lost two rows of seats in the construction of the permanent culinary center as the stage and curtains had to be moved forward. This venue is still multi-functional, serving as the movie theater, lecture hall and center for religious services.

Gourmet Shop, Wine Tasting and Mixology Classes

Gourmet Shop
Across from the Wajang Theater, where the Java Café used to be situated, is the designer chic Gourmet Shop and wine tasting area, where for $2.95 you can try the featured red and white wines of the day. Buy a bottle and get your money back plus a 10 percent discount off your purchase. This is also proving popular with passengers. While the Gourmet Shop was not ready to make a sale on my cruise, culinary items including china and silverware from the Pinnacle Grill and Rudi Sodamin's cook books will be available in the future.

Mixology classes are something new for Holland America. Participants learn to mix a number of cocktails under the direction of experienced bartenders. The trial classes have been so popular, they will be increased to several each week fleet-wide.

The Lido Restaurant and Pinnacle Grill

Pinnacle Grill
The Lido Restaurant has been reconfigured into food stations, an improvement over the old cafeteria design. Again the variety is good with the Asian station very popular at lunchtime. Entrées from the dining room are served as part of the casual dinner option -- a handy alternative after a busy day ashore.

The Pinnacle Grill was added last year to Ryndam, replacing the private King's Room off the main dining room on Promenade Deck 8. Sterling Beef is now the major drawing card for this venue, where you can choose your cut from the display tray, including a 20 oz. Porterhouse steak. The food here is superbly prepared, presented and served. A new menu is under development for the Pinnacle Grill and lunch is now served here. Reservations are required, and the charge is $10 for lunch $20 for dinner.

Explorations Cafe

Explorations Cafe
This brand new area on Upper Promenade Deck 8 contains the 2,000-book library, puzzle corner, Internet center, new music listening stations, DVD library and Torrefazione coffee bar. (It takes over the old card room, which moved down the hall to the former Queen's Room section of the dining room.) Designed with the comfort of a living room, it is operated in cooperation with The New York Times. Explorations has New York Times crossword puzzle tables with write-on, wipe-off tops and cases of memorabilia from the New York Times archives. The electronic edition of The New York Times is downloaded to the computers in Explorations. The daily quiz and New York Times crossword puzzle can be picked up at the desk. The area also includes a huge globe, educational programs on interactive flat screens and Discovery Times Channel programming on a larger screen.

Internet access ranges from 40 to 70 cents a minute depending on the package you purchase and wireless hotspots are located in various lounges around the ship for use with your own laptop.

There's a DVD library in the Explorations Cafe where passengers can choose from 1,000 titles for $3 per day or $5 for two days (no charge for those in suites).

The best coffee onboard is found at the coffee bar that serves Torrefazione, Starbucks' premium brand. A free snack is included with the purchase of a drink, which ranged from $1.35 for an espresso, $1.50 for a cappuccino, caffe latte or hot chocolate to $2.25 for specialty sodas.

Crow's Nest Lounge & Disco

Crow's Nest
The new Ryndam had the liveliest nightlife of any Holland America cruise I have taken, thanks largely to the redesigned Crow's Nest lounge and disco. The formerly sedate observation lounge now features bold colors and private seating areas cordoned off by soft curtaining as well as high-back leather lounge chairs for daytime viewing. There's a striking new bar of backlit-onyx, new disco lights, dance floor and a high-tech video wall system with the capability to show dancers on the big screen.

Greenhouse Spa

Thermal Suite
Operated by Steiner of the U.K., the spa has been expanded to include a thermal suite with hydrotherapy pool, steam and aromatic room, and heated ceramic loungers. There is a new relaxation room and manicure/pedicure and massage chairs. The hair salon has actually been made smaller while additional spa treatment rooms, including couples' massage rooms, have been added, reflecting a change in the demands of today's passengers.

Neptune Lounge

A concierge to assist with appointments and information is available for passengers in suites, while the new and very comfortable Neptune Lounge on Deck 10, complete with its own library, TV, bar and appetizers, is for the private use of Penthouse and Deluxe suite passengers only. Club HAL, The Loft, The Oasis for Kids and Teens

Club HAL room for ages 3 to 7
Behind the sports courts on Deck 12 are new Club HAL facilities. The children's program has been expanded to include kids from age 3 to 17. (Older teens are welcome to use the facilities, as are younger toddlers accompanied by a parent.) While the two rooms loaded with games and toys for ages three to seven looked small, they do accommodate 20 children each, with additional areas available should there be more in the program. For age eight to 12, entertainment includes Sony Playstations, Internet access, arcade games and karaoke. Teens have their own areas, which are supervised but no adults are allowed. The Loft lounge has a dance floor, lights, music videos and DVDs. Upstairs is the teens' private sun deck area, The Oasis, complete with its own waterfall, hammocks and covered snack areas.


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