In 1999, my wife and I realized a long-time dream when we sailed around the world on Holland American's Rotterdam, so we were excited about trying out her recently-launched sister ship, the Amsterdam, on an 11-day transcanal trip from Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica to Fort Lauderdale. My initial impression: Although Amsterdam is the Rotterdam's sister ship, she has a look all her own. Indeed, if the Ritz-Carlton hotel company owned a ship, it would look like the Amsterdam. With museum-quality art at every turn, this is a mahogany mansion at sea. And if Volvo designed a cruise, it would be exactly what I experienced--solid, no glitz, but dependable, and with care to detail.
Our transfer from San Jose airport to our hotel was handled seamlessly by HAL representatives. Our hotel stay was comfortable, and the next day's two-hour bus trip to the port was a breeze. Amsterdam check-in was the fastest and smoothest I have encountered in 30 years of cruising.
On our 1999 cruise, the Rotterdam had only one computer, for e-mail only. The Amsterdam boasts a seven-terminal Internet cafe. However, to make room for the Internet cafe, the Amsterdam's designers replaced a good hunk of one of the great gathering places on the Rotterdam: the cappuccino/espresso free coffee bar still functions, but space to sit around with fellow passengers is limited. Also missing in this general area is the traditional red popcorn cart that normally sits outside the movie theatre, with full popcorn bags ready before each film showing. The popcorn was still there, but served grudgingly by an uninterested attendant. Still, she was the only staff person on our trip who was not enthusiastic, eager, and effusive in their offers to help. Even with an Indonesian and Filipino crew, there were no communication problems. All crew members that I encountered spoke English well.
CABINS The Amsterdam's cabins are lovely and well-appointed. A large inside double
The Neptune Lounge offers snacks, goodies, and specialty coffees all day. Complementary hot and cold hors d'oeuvres can be ordered for cabin consumption, and the night's dinner menu is delivered each day, so you can decide where you want to dine. Amenities also include a special dinner in the Odyssey Italian restaurant, corsage and boutonniere on the first formal evening, exclusive breakfast and lunch service in the King's Room adjacent to the main dining room, and even high tea served en suite if desired. Moreover, laundry and dry cleaning are complimentary! This will be especially enticing for those taking the World Cruise.
ENTERTAINMENT The Amsterdam offers typical cruise fare-Broadway-style revues, comedians, magicians, and concert artists. The bad news, for me: The Queen's Lounge showroom may be the last remaining bastion of harmonica music. Sometimes I am amazed at what will pass as entertainment, and yet every show was packed; cheers, laughter, and applause were the rule. I think that since the crowd on this ship tends to be older, they were just happy they didn't have to struggle with a VCR to be entertained.
Holland America claims the average age of its passengers is dropping, but that was not evident on this trip: The Amsterdam crowd was elderly. At the beginning of our cruise, the music mix on deck, repeated every couple of hours, was from the 40s and early 50s. By day three, I was hearing "How Much is That Doggy In the Window?" in my sleep. It was a relief when, after a few days, the mix changed. Some New Age background music seeped in, a bit of guitar jazz, and memories of WWII started to fade.
Actually, it is the cruise staff that is getting younger. The ship's cruise director is 22 years old, and our cruise was his first time in that job. He was in way over his head, and seemed almost afraid to talk when I said hello to him at the Lido buffet.
CUISINE The food in La Fontaine, the main dining room, was very good. Each night, our menu touted five appetizers, three soups, salads, six entrees (including a vegetarian dish), and desserts that kept my wife attached to the treadmill throughout the cruise. This is one of the few ships where the kitchen will cook your fish to order (I like mine rare). Just ask your waiter, who (as on every Holland America cruise we have taken) will learn and remember your dining preferences and peculiarities after the first night.
The centerpiece of La Fontaine is a 1,500 square foot stained glass ceiling featuring flowers in shades of green, orange, blue and yellow. Most passengers will not be aware of the complicated engineering required to install such a massive stained glass ceiling on a ship. In fact, many passengers won't even see its full lighting effect unless they are on time for dinner. The ceiling pours too much light into the dining room for sophisticated dining, so shortly after most are seated, the lights behind the glass go off. A dimmer (at a cost rumored to be $150,000 dollars) will reportedly be installed when the Amsterdam goes into her first dry-dock.
As good as the food is in La Fontaine, make sure you try the alternative Italian restaurant, Odyssey. Unlike most alternative restaurants in the cruise industry, the Odyssey is open for both lunch and dinner, and there is no surcharge for dining there. There is not even a mention of tipping, although the overall experience here motivated me in that direction. Signature dishes are Costoletta di Vitello al Carbone, sage and rosemary broiled veal chop, served on sauted eggplant and peppers with roasted red potatoes; Petto de Pollo Rustico, grilled chicken breast with mushroom, tomato concasee and gorgonzola, served on penne pasta; and Osso Buco alla Milanese, braised veal shank in rich red wine sauce with saffron risotto and asparagus. Be sure to make reservations early in your cruise!
I can't talk about food without mentioning the Lido breakfast and luncheon buffets, where Holland America outshines some of the best in the cruise industry. Along with the tons of choices offered at both mealtimes, the Lido's breakfast service included fresh-squeezed orange juice and omelets cooked to order; lunch featured stir-fry, pasta and deli stations. Free ice cream is available most of the day, as is pizza by the Lido pool. Deck service around both pools is frequent; Jacuzzi patrons can get lemonade while they bubble. On the other hand, I usually do my sunning away from the pool areas, and there, I found deck service to be nonexistent.
ACTIVITIES The Amsterdam is quietly busy. Bingo, lectures, art tours, Trivial Pursuit team competitions, bingo, art auctions, golf putting contests, volleyball and sunbathing occupy most of the passengers. I like this. I am on board to vacate, not to participate, so I appreciated the less frenetic pace of the Amsterdam, Snowball Jackpot notwithstanding.
LASTING IMPRESSION Lee Kliman, who has sailed on all the major premium lines, but never before with Holland America, summed it up this way: "This is the best overall cruise experience we have ever had!."
For me, he wasn't far from wrong.
The Amsterdam will summer in Europe, spend the fall in New England and Canada, then resume her Panama Canal duties until she heads around the world in January of 2002.