Holland America has been in the cruise business for 137 years, and along the way the company and their personnel have achieved an expertise that is hard to match. The Maasdam, with a passenger capacity of 1258, has all of the features and amenities of a large ship. However, many guests prefer the mid-sized ship’s manageable scale. She is everything you’d expect in first class cruise ship: lots of mahogany and brass trim; an elegant two storey Rotterdam Dining room with sweeping staircases; a lovely theatre for Broadway-style entertainment; a variety of smaller lounges and sitting areas and a well-stocked library.

However, as with any successful business, it is the people who make the difference. Aboard the Maasdam, room stewards, waiters, activity animators, officers and crew all make you feel that your comfort and holiday enjoyment is job #1 for them. We met a couple from Cape Cod who have cruised extensively, and with many other lines including the upscale Cunard and Celebrity.

Linda said that they kept coming back to Holland America, commenting; “It’s the attention to detail and the staff that make the difference for us; we feel comfortable and looked after. Isn’t that what a good holiday is all about?” Repeat customers are a barometer of success, and during a past passengers Mariners’ Club luncheon, the Cruise Director noted that 700 of the 1250 guests onboard for our cruise were repeat guests.

We boarded the Maasdam in Ft. Lauderdale for her first 10 day Caribbean cruise after spending the late summer and early fall cruising Atlantic Canada and New England, which she will do again – expanding her season to the spring and summer. The Maasdam does alternating 10 day Caribbean itineraries, so you could stay on board for 20 days and enjoy two different routes. Our Southern Caribbean Seafarer would take us to Half Moon Cay (Holland America’s private island in The Bahamas) St. Thomas, Dominica, Curacao, and Aruba; with four relaxing sea days mixed into the itinerary. The alternative Southern Caribbean Wayfarer route begins with two days at sea before calling in at St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, Martinique, Tortola and then Half Moon Cay before returning to Ft. Lauderdale. Two cruises – one air fare – no snow! A fine combination if you can manage it.

Our first stop after leaving Ft. Lauderdale was Half Moon Cay, which is perhaps one of the best beach experiences during the cruise. The post card perfect crescent beach has talcum powder soft sand, and every convenience to make your day pleasurable. There are smooth concrete walkways from the tender pier to the beaches, and enough lounge chairs for everyone.

If you’d like to really spoil yourselves, look into renting an air conditioned beach house with a small balcony. A full lunchtime BBQ is available, and there are picnic tables under permanent shade structures to provide comfortable and spacious dining areas. If you or anyone in your group has limited mobility, Half Moon Cay offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy the beach. Based on the comments received from several fellow guests, we’d also recommend the horseback riding excursion, which includes a tour of the island and riding your horse in the ocean.

We then enjoyed a leisurely day at sea while making our way to St. Thomas. There’s so much to do onboard, it can sometimes be difficult to decide. Food and Wine Magazine sponsors a cooking demonstration on set just like a scene on The Food Network. Overhead cameras allow you to easily follow the chef’s step-by-step demonstration on the large screens at either side of the stage. The first day the theatre was filled to near-capacity for this new and popular cooking show. The Chef is Steve Raniowski, a Montrealer who has been with Holland America for 2 years and thoroughly enjoys his “television” work in addition to being the chef for the Pinnacle Restaurant, the speciality steak and seafood restaurant on board all Holland America ships.

Continuing on the topic of food, the two storey Rotterdam Dining Room is the focal point of evening activities. While it is also open for breakfast and lunch, it is quite special during the evening; especially for the three formal nights during a 10 day cruise. The menu has an excellent variety to suit everyone’s preference. Special dietary requirements are accommodated and your waiters quickly learn your preferences.

One of our table mates liked tomato juice before dinner, and from the second evening on, our waiter brought John’s tomato juice when he arrived to take our order. There were several entertainments provided by the waiters and busboys, including the ever-popular Baked Alaska Parade. Fine food, interesting conversation and good fun made every evening a dining pleasure.

The Lido Buffet takes the “cafeteria” out of the buffet experience and gives a whole new meaning to self-serve dining. Raised dining areas are carpeted, floor to ceiling windows afford fabulous views, and in the evening the white linen table clothes and subdued lighting give The Lido a more intimate atmosphere.

St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands is arguable the best duty free shopping destination in the Caribbean. Stores selling watches and jewellery will sell as much in a month as other mainland stores will sell in a year or more. Hence, manufacturers such as Rolex will understandably give the retailers volume discounts; which in turn mean attractive prices for us.

The same applies to gold, diamonds and other precious stones. The onboard Port Consultant provides an overview of the best shopping destinations; and we recommend that you attend these presentations if you’re considering a purchase. Further, there is a Store Guarantee offered by Holland America for selected retailers who have mainland offices and the ability to replace broken or defective goods. If you’re putting hundreds of dollars down for an item, it’s reassuring to know that you have a back-up guarantee.

Dominica, our next port, is the “youngest” island in The Caribbean, having risen as a volcano a mere 23 million years ago. It’s beautiful; and scenes from Pirates of The Caribbean were filmed in Dominica. As the mountainous terrain rises up from the water, this is not a beach destination, and we recommend that you take a ship-organized tour. There’s a good choice of rainforest excursions which allow visitors to appreciate the incredible beauty of this small island, which is still home to the once aggressive Carib Indian tribe. We took a combination sea kayak and snorkelling tour that was entertaining and informative. Our guide set a leisurely pace for us amateur paddlers and snorkellers.

After another activity-filled day at sea, it’s a full day and evening on the Dutch island of Curacao. The Dutch influence is very much in evidence in the architecture, especially in the primary shopping area, with buildings painted bright yellow, pink and blue. The shopping area is a comfortable ten minute walk from the ship. (A reminder that we are just off the coast of Venezuela, not too far from the Equator, and it does get warm – some would say hot…) Curacao has an arid climate, and we spent a good part of the afternoon at Contiki Beach. A 10 – 15 minute cab ride from town and at a fixed rate of $15, the beach is sheltered from the ocean by a breakwater that creates calm waters for swimming. Lounge chairs, shade umbrellas, palm trees, and a nearby bar made the afternoon very pleasant. At midnight, we cast off and sailed to nearby Aruba, another Dutch island.

Aruba is also an arid climate, and has developed a significant tourism business in addition to being a popular cruise ship port. As you might expect, there is ample shopping available, including major Caribbean duty free jewellery retailers. The shops are located close to the pier, and if you don’t want to walk a great distance – this is the place! Sightseeing tours, beach tours and snorkelling excursions are all available through the Onboard Excursion staff. Fellow passenger Ronnie, a Bostonian now retired in Florida, said that he played on an excellent golf course on Aruba.

We then enjoyed two laid back days at sea as we sailed back up through the Caribbean towards Ft. Lauderdale. There is a huge variety of activities to select. In addition to the ever-popular bingo and casino (open all day when at sea), The Maasdam has a well-equipped fitness centre (and knowledgeable instructors if you wish to join a class); two pools, including one that has a retractable roof; a walking deck, movie theatre, a lovely indoor observation lounge on the top deck and fittingly called The Crow’s Nest; and a beauty salon and spa.

Even with a beautiful ship, the wonderful climate and the Caribbean islands, it is the staff and crew who make sailing with Holland America such a pleasure; enabling the company to confidently use “Signature of Excellence” in their logo and marketing. Industry research confirms that Holland America consistently exceeds guest expectations – explaining their huge proportion of repeat business.

For information about sailing onboard The Maasdam or other Holland America ships, please contact your travel agent; one of the three CruiseShipCenters offices; or visit the Holland America web site at: www.hollandamerica.com or call toll free: 1-877-SAIL HAL (1-877-724-5425) Bon Voyage!

Montrealer Stephen Raniowski is The Pinnacle Chef onboard the Maasdam

When he attended the St. Adele School of Culinary Arts, Stephen Raniowski never dreamed that he would Chef of The Pinnacle; the gourmet alternative restaurant onboard Holland America ships. Food and Wine Magazine sponsors a demonstration kitchen on Holland America ships, and Steve really enjoys this aspect of his job. He’s very comfortable in front of an audience; and his easy going affable nature is popular with guests attending his Food & Wine presentations.

The Pinnacle is an intimate, wood-panelled dining room where elegance and culinary enjoyment are combined to make any occasion special. “We have an a-la-carte menu in The Pinnacle, and our signature dishes are the Sterling Montana beef,” commented Steve during an interview. “It makes my job easier when we have such fine beef to begin with. Only 3% of beef is given this rating, and that’s what we use. We also serve seafood, veal chops, and rack of lamb to offer a variety.”

Steve has been with Holland America for 2 years, after a successful restaurant career in the St. Sauveur area of the Laurentians. “I’ve been to South America, Southeast Asia, Europe and The Caribbean with Holland America. Working in a kitchen is a pressure environment, and I’m fortunate that we don’t have any tension with my staff.” Steve continues; “The company believes that a happy staff and crew in a positive working environment will make for happy guests.”

We enjoyed an evening in The Pinnacle, and it was outstanding. Professional and unhurried service, delicious meals, and the desserts alone were a gastronomic experience. There is an extra charge for The Pinnacle, and fellow guests agreed that their evening was worth the $30 extra. The Pinnacle is also open for lunch, and the extra charge is just $15 per person. Enjoy!

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