Veendam: The 'Volvo' of HAL

New vessels, competing to be the biggest with the most, are making the ship the destination rather than just a means of transport. Some of the biggest are Princess's mega-beauties Star, Golden, and Crown; and Royal Caribbean's huge Adventurer of the Seas, which actually has parades down a promenade through the middle of the ship. These ships offer a wealth of activities like rock climbing, miniature golf, even ice-skating. Meanwhile, smaller ships like those of Seabourn and Silversea attract passengers with gourmet food and high-end pampering.

That seems to leave Holland America, for the moment (except for the Amsterdam), parked in a same-old-ships holding area; and except for its Grand Voyages, stuck in the same-old-ports mode.

On a recent Eastern Caribbean trip aboard Holland America's six-year-old Veendam, I tried to figure out what attracted passengers to this particular ship. At first glance, there is nothing special about the Veendam. She carries 1,266 passengers and 560 crew, and offers 29 suites, 126 cabins with verandas and 501 without. If you don't play bingo or Trivial Pursuit, or drink, there's not a lot to do. Yes, there is shuffleboard, a hardly-used basketball court, an empty paddle tennis court, and, of course, a casino. Given the choices, most passengers opted for drinking (which may explain the crowds at the art auction).

Our Main Deck cabin was standard in size, with basic furnishings and an adequate, but not out of the ordinary, bathroom. There was no mini-bar, and no TV channel from the bridge to tell us the outside temperature, but there were some gouges in the wall, stained blankets, and detritus from former passengers under the beds. Obviously the Veendam was not, in appearance and condition, competitive with the newer builds of Holland America's rivals.

Then why was the ship completely sold out?

Perhaps it was the prices. On our cruise, an inside cabin was going for $699, including port charges but not airfare, and minus a $25 promotional offer. This was from the Internet; a good cruise travel agent might have done better.

Then there were some special Veendam pricing packages, like unlimited Internet access for seven days at $99. Without the package, it costs 50 cents a minute (three hours and 20 minutes of time is the package's breakeven point), still well below the competition's price of 75 cents a minute. The ship's laundry offers unlimited package service for $45 per cabin, notwithstanding the self-service launderettes on the cabin decks at $3 a load. Unlimited pressing (dry cleaning not included) is $30 per cabin. So for a couple of bucks, packing becomes a breeze, and gravy stains are no threat.

Maybe it's those little Holland America touches--the Java bar has cappuccino, espresso, and regular coffees plus cookies and other goodies with no charge. There are three film showings a day in the adjacent theater, with free popcorn from an old-fashioned popcorn machine. Free ice cream is dispensed throughout the day, and hot pizza is available most of the afternoon, again at no extra charge. Holland America does not nickel-and-dime passengers to prime its profit pump.

It could well be the food. With more menu choices for dinner than you'll see on the typical premium cruise line, the ship's Rotterdam Dining Room offers five appetizers, three soups, two salads, eight entrees and a bunch of desserts. This, plus a complete vegetarian menu. And the food is, for the most part, very good. That is probably because Veendam has the good fortune to combine Jock Barelmann and Aaron Marie, arguably the best Executive Chef and Pastry Chef working for Holland America.

I suspect that for many passengers, adherence to traditional cruising is also an attraction. No "personal choice" here: You'll be served by the same waiter every night, and on Holland America, he will remember your name and dining whims after the first night. The wine steward will be attentive, and a dining room captain will be very visible, making sure that all you need to worry about is chewing and swallowing. What's more, the "no tipping required" policy on Holland America ships can be very enticing. I did tip, but it's nice not being ordered to tip, and then told exactly how much is acceptable.

And there were two formal nights on our cruise. For me, a formal night adds to the cruise experience, but only when most of the men wear a tux. (There is no more stupid feeling than being on a ship dressed in your tuxedo, and outnumbered by guys in T-shirts.) On the Veendam, many passengers were in their 30s and 40s -- and even some 20-somethings (not generally known for sartorial conformity)-- but most dressed for formal night. The women were stylish, and the 10 percent of the men not in black tie were in suits, except for the guy in the tweed sport jacket; but he was the one outnumbered.

So as Holland America goes kicking and screaming into the mega-ship scrimmage with the November arrival of the Zuiderdam (replete with outside elevators and a casual round the clock cafe), the older ships in its fleet keep filling up with people who know a Holland America cruise is like a Volvo: Safe, solid, and no surprises.

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