HAL's Koningsdam - Transatlantic 2018
I like Holland America. Heck, my first cruise in 1967 was on the SS Rotterdam V. I was doomed for life from an unparalleled first impression. Today, HAL's authentic service, its Indonesian crew with their infectious smiles, and a 145+ year tradition of excellence lives on. This story is about a great ship, a great friend, and another memorable experience crossing the Atlantic, doing exactly what I love to do. Cruise. I am obsessed with ships and the oceans. The journey continues...
Sitting out on the aft deck on the morning of our first day at sea, someone yelled out my name...JOSHUA !!! It was Val, a fellow shipmate from the past. Val was returning to her home in Greece via the Atlantic Ocean. Her preference to sail, rather than fly, was an added, unplanned, yet welcome element to this voyage. As solo travelers on ships we agreed we are rarely alone. Thank you, Val, my Dutch treat !
My first introduction to Holland America’s Koningsdam (KDAM) was in November, 2016, on her North American inaugural cruise from Ft. Lauderdale. A five-day jaunt with a travel agent friend. We sailed to HAL’s private Island, Half Moon Cay, and Nassau. I was excited to join this cruise on the line’s newest entry. A defining moment in HAL's history based on its new Pinnacle Class creation of ships at 99,000 tons. While entirely new from an engineering standpoint, Pinnacle Class evolved from Signature Class which evolved from Vista Class - a platform and footprint conceived in the late 1990's and employed by most of Carnival Corps brands (Costa, P&O, Cunard.) Cunard's new-build will also be a Pinnacle Class variant, at least structurally.
Holland America took the company’s ongoing transformation to an unexpected level, which at first glance, didn’t work well for me. While cosmetically stunning, the ship's lounges, as we have come expect, had otherwise been transformed into open arenas of public space with undefined boundaries. With no clear separation between venues, as innovative as they are, the individuality they deserved was absent. My first thought was the designers were shooting darts - as if an open plan would work. Ultimately, of course, I was wrong. After spending fourteen days on on her 2018 Transatlantic crossing from Ft. Lauderdale to Italy, I've come to love and respect everything about the KDAM. Thank you HAL.
I am happy to report much of what Holland America stands for, including its Dutch heritage, product delivery, standard of service, and appeal, lives on, for the most part. For example, the spectacular floral arrangements are everywhere. The ships on-board florists are busy people. I pre-order an arrangement for my cabin every voyage I take and it lasted fourteen days. Perhaps most appreciated is the renowned warmth of the Indonesian crew, defined by their smiles; a relentless pursuit to satisfy each guest which elevates the line compared to others, where generic and mainstream has become the norm. Besides a chocolate on your bed at turn-down, a card is left asking you to share your thoughts - "what you like, what you don't like, and what not to change."
Change is in the air. HAL's on-board revered libraries are being replaced with techno-driven venues in their Explorations Cafes. However, when Carnival acquired HAL, it was written in stone that certain aspects of the HAL brand would live on forever. I'm happy. My first cruise was more than 50 years ago on HAL - elements of the company's roots carry on.
The eclectic menagerie of artwork, some of it indigenous to the company’s homeland, others featuring a broad collection of artists (and genres), add to the world-class ambiance throughout the fleet. HAL's cumulative art collection would fill a large, land-based, museum.
Having spent fourteen days crossing the Atlantic on KDAM, a refined impression and attitude evolved. At first glance (2016) the departure in design and concept from other HAL ships seemed awkward. I applaud HAL's new direction with this Pinnacle Class ship, now in the company of her new sister, Nieuw Statendam.
What also changed was how I was to spend the next fourteen days, and with whom. Meeting up with VAL from last years crossing was a real game changer. We travel SOLO – yet seemingly, never alone. VAL and I would share hours, days, chatting about life in general and the perennial shipboard gossip.
The Atrium / Lobby, features an inventive, circular, chrome-surround structure entitled "Harps" designed by Adam Tihany emulating the inside of a string instrument. The cost for this three deck high, 7.5 ton structure: $650,000. Here's where the ship's musical theme steps in. All of the decks are named after classical composers. The structure and concept evokes curiously - a perfect score. The adjacent Dutch Cafe, Front Desk and well placed seating offer a wonderful view from all angles.
The availability of my cabin choice would dictate whether or not I would sail on this cruise. The location had to be opportune for photography. On deck four, forward (and aft), cabins have balconies (with metal below the railing rather than glass) that are about 10 feet deep rather than the standard 4 feet of depth (from the door to the railing.) These extended balconies are the result of the hull design. My cabin, 4015, roughly 100 feet from the bow of the ship, satisfied the requirement and provided an ideal photographic advantage. The thrill (and images) from this vantage point, should we venture through heavy seas resembling those encountered earlier in the year on Cunard's Queen Victoria's (occupying the most forward balcony cabin on the ship - 4001) would be a blessing. On that QV crossing, we heaved through 25-30 foot seas for days. It was a roller-coaster ride and the shots were astonishing (below.). Shooting out on the balcony, I got soaked as waves flew over me, into the balcony, and half way up the ship. The seas on the KDAM crossing were no compare with that QV crossing. However, I did enjoy the sunning opportunities of the over-sized balcony.
As a solo guest, cabin space was ample. Holland America builds in more cabinetry and storage than most other lines. Also of note is the superior bedding, an enhanced TV system and screen, and finally, USB and power plugs everywhere. Do folks still use those circular, lit, makeup mirrors? Quality soft goods, strategically placed LED lighting, and a warm color pallet create an inviting, serene space. The lue features an exceptional shower (size and pressure), good storage, and a modest sink. Overall bathroom rating: 8 out of 10.
Let's eat...Enter the Main Dining Room, designed by the same genius that delivered the spectacular dining arrangement on Celebrity’s Solstice class ships (famed hospitality designer Adam D. Tihany.) It is bright, airy and fresh. I take advantage of anytime dining which works well never waitingfor more than ten minutes. The Maitre D , a real sweetheart and logistics pro, remembered my name from the second night out.
HAL's installation of a POS order entry system for table service works well. Food can be prepared on demand, rather than sitting under hot lamps. I have no complaint about the food on the KDAM, or any Holland America ship. The service, smiles, and atmosphere are as good as anyone should expect – perhaps a notch above the industry standard. Dishes are creative, at times inventive, and for the most part, served hot.
Speaking of food, HAL’s system of delivering buffet food (up in the LIDO) is the best in the business (in my opinion of course.) The line-staff plates up your choice of food quickly and proportionately. Thank God. No one in front of you picking out the capers from the fish, or tomatoes from the salad. No one to slow down the line – it’s an assemblage of pick and choose and walk away from the most efficient buffet operation in the business – bravo HAL. The diversity and presentation are also superior. The process is fleet-wide, even on the smaller Veendam, the same successful operation is executed superbly. Suggestion: save a table first, then grab your food.
HAL’s Asian fusion extra charge dining option, Tamaring, and Sel De Mer, the on-board French Brasserie are solid extra charge dining options. In Sel De Mer, I politely devoured (savored) one of the best fillet mignons at sea, or on land I've ever had. This particular dining experience was a gift from the adjacent Culinary Arts Center. My original reservation was cancelled unbeknownst to me - the venue had been reserved for a private function.
The ship's design team took a 180 degree approach to a show lounge: World Stage. An arena with a 300 degree circular video screen and surround sound system that brings back memories of a venue outside of Philadelphia from back in the eighties called Theater in the Round. The setting is minimalism, almost institutional, with some lighting elements carried over from the Atrium. This is show business but clearly designed by, and for, the next generation. The comfort level of the seats lasts about an hour, so get as cozy as you can, settle back, and watch the stars come out.
It didn't take long to recognize how how wrong I was with my initial impressions of this ship.
In the evenings, you wander through the hallways, arteries, and foyers of the ship's interior, immersing yourself into the aggregate of laughter, music, dance and conversation. Bartenders discretely entertain guests while the casino, misplaced in my opinion, rings of slot machines. On most HAL ships, the night is young and ends that way. Taking photos of empty lounges is an easy task on the line since after 11PM, many of the guests are sound asleep. This is where HAL's struggles continue to drive the company to almost aggressively evolve its brand. The passenger demographic (age) is not young. There's nothing more challenging than increasing market share with a diminishing client base. HAL is doing what Cadillac did - evolving the product for the next generation. On this ship, both sides win and the company's new direction, and focus, is a wonderful step in the right direction.
An evening stroll on the Promenade Deck is one setback for some HAL loyalists. Much of the deck is now occupied by low hanging lifeboats, a design change for the Pinnacle Class. Wide-open boulevards wrapping the ship are missing, but there is a deck and it does encircle the ship.
The two story lido pool with its movable dome, for a ship of this size, is clearly one of the KDAM's most appealing assets. HAL went all out. This dual level oasis provides a unique, inviting spot anytime during the day. Kudos to the design team, again. White gauze curtains waft in the breeze, as new age imagery flashes on the monster video screen. Plant life, yes a living olive tree and foliage, further complement the space as do the cushy Bali beds and loungers on the second level. The entire space has a club-like atmosphere, akin to a posh resort on the Mediterranean coast. Upstairs, the NY deli and pizza are not to be missed. Pizza, made from scratch is tailored to your own taste. Down below, while the pool is average size, is never crowded. You’ll also find the Gelato Bar and "Dive In", HAL’s version of a fast food burger joint. At night, feature films run under the stars – popcorn and all. While many ships offer these same amenities, the Koningsdam's lido pool complex is a destination that delivers a serene, almost spiritual, aura.
PRAI DA VITORIA, AZORES
After six sea days of relatively calm seas and cool weather, we arrive in, oops, Prai Da Vitoria? Not Horta, as originally planned. The scheduled stop in Horta didn’t happen. Evidently the result of HAL's operations unit failing to realize (when?) that only one tender at a time could unload passengers in the port. Seriously? The craziness of this mishap was beyond the scope of my imagination since I was in Prai Da Vitoria just a few months prior, thanks to another diversion on my Queen Victoria crossing. Our scheduled stop in Bermuda was scrubbed due to heavy seas. Finally, one month after the KDAM crossing, I would arrive in Prai Da Vitoria for the third time in less than six months on my NCL Jade crossing. Have you ever met anyone that’s been to Prai Da Vitoria three times in less than six months - on a cruise ship? You have now, and I’ve grown to love this little island. It’s a respite from the rest of the globe – a quiet, almost lonely kind-of-a place, but beautiful and peaceful, as the Azores are. Green rolling hills, farm animals, and friendly Portuguese people are encountered as I walk from the port into town – about 3 miles. I have a coffee, walk through town, pick up a few mementos, and stroll back to the ship. On my next visit to this dot in the Atlantic (I assure you there will be one), will include a tour of the island well beyond the port and town. I have heard too many stories about the unrelenting beauty that Pai Da Vitoria offers, well beyond walking distance of the pier.
As we made preparations to sail out of Prai Da Vitoria, the winds gusted and began to roar. Squalls were surrounding the island and you could see the white caps building off in the Atlantic. On my previous visit here on Queen Victoria, we had identical weather conditions delaying our departure by hours. The QV's thrusters were no match for the conditions until it let up just enough for us to push away from the pier and head out to sea. So here we were, again, with strenuous weather conditions. Happily, the KDAM’s engineering team beefed up the output of her maneuvering capabilities (newer build) and we slowly, very slowly, inched away from the dock. We left the port with not much space between us, the rocks on the jetty, and lighthouse.
We arrived as again, squalls took aim at the port. A scenario I believe any Ship's Master is challenged with when you're trying to dock a 99,000 ton ship (or any ship.) We safely docked though Oceana's Riviera, as seen below, did not. Her twin screws compared to our azipods were no match with the winds - unable to deliver enough momentum to safely berth her. Three times - back and forth, even with tug assistance, her passengers would have to settle for the next port call.
Ponte Delgada is the heart of the Azores where many cruise lines (and other ships) port on crossings. It’s beautiful. I’ve matured (politely speaking), and now participate in shore excursions at destinations I've never visited - a luxury of sorts, these port tours. On Ponte Delgada, the must-see is a venture up to its Green and Blue Lakes of the civil parish, Sete Cidades.
The weather was touch-and-go on our ride up to the lakes. The mountains, shrouded in clouds. Most of the island is covered in green foliage. It’s the subtropics and plant life grows on everything and everywhere. It reminded me of Maui - almost fluorescent. As we approach the viewpoint of the twin lakes the sun peaks out. This excursion was worth every penny (about $89) and although it was hazy, tough to get a crisp shot, the view will be forever etched in my mind. Our return to the city included a brief stop in the lake-side village of Sete Cidades, where the weather turned gray and wet. It was springtime in the Azores.
Back in town, I wandered through the square with its statues, churches, cafes and shops; narrow streets, bistros and bars. "Architecture in the Azores is an offshoot of the designs known in continental Portugal, sharing the simplicity of form common to the Mediterranean. It does, however, have its own characteristics. The most obvious are the easy integration of the buildings in the landscape and the structure of the settlements, in which streets tend to converge in small irregular squares where stand the most imposing buildings, the church and town hall." (Brandt Travel Guides)
Back on board, we sail out headed to Malaga Spain on a glorious afternoon - the weather had turned for the better as you can see:
After a day at sea we sail through the straits of Gibraltar at around 2 AM, and cruise in close proximity to the African continent on the starboard side, and Europe on the port side - about nines miles between the two. You can see the city of Eddayla on the African coast with an Arabic sign lit up in neon – is it a casino? Turn your head and you can see the lights atop the “rock” on the Spain side. This would be my second journey through the straits – a sight and experience not to be missed, day or night.
The morning is brilliant and crisp - my second visit to Malaga, I grab an early breakfast the second the buffet opens. I’m the first guy in line for an omelet, or eggs Benedict – every other day. Alternate days are reserved for a healthier intake of oatmeal and fruit. Got to watch the diet, to a degree of sorts. This early start gets me off the ship quickly, as others are just beginning to meander into the buffet and before the line grows at the gangway.
This day, I leave the ship with my friend Val friend. The shipmate from last year's Westerdam crossing. We didn’t really chat much on that trip – just acquaintances. After the initial shock of seeing her, again, we immediately became spiritual friends and soulmates of sorts spending hours out on the aft deck, talking, and fostering a friendship that I am sure will never end. When you cross the Atlantic as much as we have, you are bound to meet others who do exactly the same. Find yourself, seek out and embark. It’s the time at sea (and cost per day) that lure many – a precious, uninterrupted opportunity to reflect on life.
Val takes me to the Catedral de la Encarnación de Málaga. I’ve never seen a church like this. I just don’t visit churches much. It was awe inspiring, to put it mildly, and not having traveled Europe extensively, I was unfamiliar just how elaborate these houses of worship are. I’m a spiritual person and was set back by the sheer vastness of the space. The engineering, craftsmanship, design, elements, lighting and omnipotence a higher power - you knew this was the home of one supreme being.
After returning to earth, I wanted to delve into the local aspect of Malaga. It was time for some adventure. What else but to hop on a public bus headed in any direction in search of a local spot to get off and consume ourselves with the countryside, and a coffee and tapas. That’s what I do and precisely what we did, ending up about 10 miles out of town in a local park - a suburb of Malaga, surrounded with flats, and family-owned shops. Kids were playing, the view of the mountains and vistas were dramatic and the weather culminated in an ideal setting. VAL was a kind and patient friend. I knew she loved the experience as much as I did. It’s blending (sort of) with the local population that inspires me when I visit different lands. It was Spain. The bus ride took us through sights we would never see on a tourist coach and we had no idea where this little excursion would take us. What it did was confirm how two people, who knew little of one another just a week ago, came to be close friends – exploring. Bus fare, about $2. The excursion, our excursion - priceless.
Back to town and a leisurely stroll through the city's central park, Parque de Malaga, is centered between the major thoroughfare. A place of peace and quiet amidst the hustle and bustle of the surrounding streets. Manicured gardens with benches, fountains, and a small open-air theater are also home to one of the most important botanical gardens in Europe. Europeans seems to have a softer way of enjoying life, more tranquil in my opinion. Like leisurely, meals, Europeans take their time and “savor the journey” as Holland America’s bold byline states. Let time stand still for a moment – everything can wait.
Walking back to the ship, rather than utilizing the port bus, we wandered our way through a wonderful open-air craft market where I purchased a small framed cat made from stones -mounted and matted. Did I mention, my kitty, Blanca, the true love of my life. Farewell Malaga - what a splendid day !
My first stop here was on a crossing from Italy to Ft. Lauderdale (the converse direction of our current route) on the Westerdam in the fall of 2017. I knew of this great little café in town and following an invisible guide I was right back to this special spot of mine. It’s down a small side street across from a woman’s dress shop. I recognized the barista, wait staff, and lady across the street sweeping up the sidewalk right before the boss, an elderly gentleman, arrived to officially open his dress shop.
The city is just waking up. I savor a coffee and crispy, buttery, croissant. A religious affection I have early morning at any European port. Shop keepers are out sweeping the streets in front of their storefronts. The young, and young at heart, are jogging while the professional crowd rushes by grabbing a fast cup of coffee, plugged in. Local retirees settle in for their ceremonial morning meet up with mates; fixtures they’ve become over the years. Be careful where you sit. That chair on the street may have a name on it and its not yours. My mornings are spent photographing architecture, people, nature, and abstract "stuff." Early is best – it’s the shadows and newness of the day. Everything is coming alive – the birds, the people and life in general. The past is just that and the future has yet to arrive. I live in the now - the present. Here are some shots from that morning:
The sun was playing games as it rose between buildings and streets. Wild shadows appeared and expended as I continued to wander through the parks, open air malls with upscale brand shops, galleries and trinket stores filled with Cartagena’s logo wear, mugs and the standard touristy fare. Below, some of my architectural shots:
Berthed in corner of the port, we were witness to one of the world’s most amazing sailing ships. 468 feet in length at a cost of over 380 million Euros, owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko. The height of the masts, higher than Big Ben, are over 300 feet. Boasting eight decks at 12,000 tons, she features an underwater observation lounge, bullet proof glass, and a carbon fiber hull which explains it all. I spent about two hours staring at this one-of-a-kind monstrosity, pictured here:
Enroute to the ship, I passed through an open air, pier-side, café crossing paths with VAL I joined her for a coffe and ended our day in Cartagena together – sharing the day's events as we near the end of this journey. I will return to Cartagena. It's a special place. A gem with serious charm and, as evidenced by the photos, one of my favorite places.
OUT TO SEA - FINAL DAY
We sailed out of port into one of the windiest, roughest departures I've witnessed in years. In fact, a tug followed us out (it was too rough for the pilot.) Green water over its bow, these images are witness to the oceans current, large swells, and wind. This was a fun sail out for me. 12-15 foot seas would ensue next sea day as we approached the Italian coast, the morning of 13th of April. Time to say farewell, not only to VAL, but many of the shipmates, now friends, we acquired during crossing #7.
BENVENUTO A ITALY
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KONINGSDAM SPECS | AT A GLANCE
Namesake: Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands
Port of registry: Netherlands, Rotterdam
Builder: Fincantieri, Marghera, Italy
Yard number: 624
Launched: March 31, 2016
Christened: May 20, 2016
Completed: April 1, 2016
Identification: IMO number: 9692557
Class and type: Pinnacle-class cruise ship
Tonnage: 99,500 GT
Length: 975 feet
Beam: 114,8 feet
Capacity: 2,650 passengers