This venerable shipping company which bears a name that echoes its early days of transatlantic travel, has a long maritime history. Words: Caroline Gladstone.

Since its foundation in 1873 as the Dutch-America Steamship Company, Holland America Line (HAL) has operated 80 ships and its 81st and largest vessel, Nieuw Amsterdam, launches in July.

When describing HAL, the words venerable and dependable come to mind. More than a century of seafaring tradition is evident in the design and décor of its current 15-ship fleet.

The line’s vessels are mid-sized and elegant, largely devoid of the bells and whistles that characterise today’s mass-market cruise ships. They retain the classic features that veteran cruisers love, from signature teak wraparound promenade decks to dedicated cinemas and collections of valuable Dutch, American and nautical artworks and antiques.

Though steeped in tradition, Holland America Line has moved with the times. It has spent millions of dollars on a program of enhancements that includes the addition of full-scale demonstration kitchens, expansive internet cafes powered by The New York Times, and digital-photography workshops run by Microsoft.

Since 2004, HAL has spent more than US$525 million on its much-publicised Signature of Excellence program. This systematic ship-by-ship overhaul includes the upgrade of cabins and bathrooms and the introduction of two new styles of stateroom, along with cabana areas and extra themed speciality restaurants on its brand-new vessels.

Upgrades run the gamut from new plush mattresses and flat-screen TVs to the ‘lanai’ staterooms, each of which opens onto the lower promenade deck via sliding doors.

In 2009, the line embarked on a four-year program to upgrade its five oldest ships, beginning with Veendam, Rotterdam and Ryndam. Each has emerged with a resort-style pool area dubbed The Retreat, a casual Italian restaurant, Canaletto, a large outdoor movie screen, a new Showroom at Sea nightclub, extra verandah staterooms and, in the case of Veendam and Rotterdam, the addition of new lanai staterooms.

Statendam and Maasdam will be treated to near-identical makeovers over the next two years, while the cruise line has released a timetable of upgrades to keep its loyal passengers in the loop.

Nieuw Amsterdam, the line’s second Signature Class ship, sports the same features as her sister ship Eurodam, albeit with a New York theme to commemorate her namesake.

The new ship pays homage to Holland’s long history with the city – which it founded and christened Nieuw (new) Amsterdam in 1625 – through a series of Native American and early Dutch artefacts along with modern Manhattan artwork and sculpture.

At 86,700 tons, Nieuw Amsterdam (along with Eurodam) is the largest ship in HAL’s fleet, but is still a mid-sized ship in today’s world of mega-liners. She can carry up to 2,106 passengers and has 31 public rooms, including the pan-Asian Tamarind Restaurant and the Pinnacle Grill (dining at either will have a surcharge attached) as well as the new Canaletto Restaurant.

Passengers on the new ship can take advantage of HAL’s new ‘As You Wish’ dining concept: it allows guests to dine with whomever and whenever they choose on one level of the main restaurant or to opt for traditional ‘early’ or ‘late’ seating on the other level.

The line has followed the trend towards greater ‘exclusivity’ on cruise ships with the introduction of the Cabana Club, an outdoor oasis that has tented cabanas and an optional butler service that guests can reserve for an extra fee.

Teenagers’ hangout The Loft has been given a hip makeover with a New York theme: it now features graffiti murals, street signs, an authentic yellow taxi-cab and an old-fashioned hot-dog stand.

While Holland America Line has carved out a dedicated following through its high-end service and elegant ships, it is perhaps best known for its presence in Alaska. In February 1971, HAL bought a controlling interest in Alaskan tour company Westours and, four years later, launched its first Alaskan cruise program using the 452-passenger ship Prinsendam.

Over the next 35 years, the cruise line gradually increased its presence in the region, adding an extra ship in Alaska every few years. In 1983, it consolidated its business interests with Westours’ business and moved the new company to headquarters in Seattle.

This year, HAL will have eight ships in Alaska and will operate a total of 149 departures on four separate itineraries. Its new 14-day Alaskan Adventurer cruise will include maiden calls at Homer and Kodiak. The 2010 program also includes 250 optional shore tours.

Beyond Alaska, the line will boost its presence in Europe with a record six ships this year, and will also return to Bermuda after a 15-year absence. The new-look Veendam will operate a series of seven-night cruises between New York City and Bermuda from May to October.

Australians will also get a taste of the line’s premium cruising style when the
11-year-old Volendam returns in November. Based in Sydney, the 61,000-ton ship will cruise between Australia and New Zealand on 14-night itineraries and will make two voyages to the South Pacific. Passengers will also be able to buy sectors of the ship’s 73-night cruise from Vancouver to Sydney and her return cruise from Australia to Alaska, via Asia.

Like many cruise lines, HAL has chosen a consistent naming pattern for its fleet. The line has a history of replacing each ship with a vessel of the same name: its current Rotterdam, for example, is the sixth ship to carry the name.

Fourteen of the current fleet’s 15 ships were purpose-built for the line, and all launched between 1993 and 2010. The smallest ship, Prinsendam, was formerly the top-rating Royal Viking Sun, bought by the Seabourn Cruise Line in December 1988 and renamed Seabourn Sun. HAL acquired her in May 2002 and subsequently, she was given the Signature of Excellence makeover.

All HAL’s ships are classified four star by industry ‘bible’, the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships, and are mid-sized, ranging from 37,845 to 86,700 tons.

HAL’s fleet and dates launched:

  • Amsterdam, Oct 2000
  • Eurodam, July 2008
  • Maasdam, Dec 1993
  • Nieuw Amsterdam, July 4, 2010
  • Noordam, Feb 2006
  • Oosterdam,  Aug 2003
  • Prinsendam, Dec 1988/May 2002
  • Rotterdam, Dec 1997
  • Ryndam, Nov 1994
  • Statendam, Jan 1993
  • Veendam, May 1996
  • Volendam, Nov 1999
  • Westerdam, Apr 2004
  • Zaandam, May 2000
  • Zuiderdam, Dec 2002