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In this new-generation cruise ship, a library is the only thing missing--for now

Though sailings today are not the events they were in the heyday of transatlantic liners — bon voyage parties, streamers and waving crowds on the wharf — I try never to miss a cruise ship’s undocking as it heads out on a voyage.

Thus Laurel, my wife, and I were on the Sky Deck, as far up as we could get on the Koningsdam, Holland America Line's newest and largest ship, for our sailing from Rome’s port of Civitavecchia.

It was a lovely, breezy afternoon as we steamed around the breakwater and into the Mediterranean, but we already had misgivings. 

I'm an unabashed Holland America loyalist, but my heart sank when we stepped aboard on Oct. 24, about six months after the ship’s maiden voyage.

Although it took the better part of our 16-day repositioning cruise to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the Koningsdam eventually won us over.

Even before sailing the word had spread among like-minded cruisers: "No library? That can't be!

“And no teak promenade deck with wooden deck chairs?”

Those chairs would have been ideal for sea-gazing and reading books no longer available onboard.

A good library and that classic deck and chairs are Holland America hallmarks. But as with most stories, there’s more to it.

“We’re taking a step away from what we used to be,” said Don Habets, Koningsdam’s veteran hotel director, when I asked about the changes.

“We need to get rid of the image that our ships are only for old people.”

There’s a new slogan too: “Savor the Journey.” Stainless flatware has replaced silver in the dining room, and logos are gone from the china.

Not just for old people

Ultimately,  the changes are more about additions than subtractions, and Koningsdam has introduced features appealing to more age groups.

Although Holland America has long offered dining options, beginning years ago with the Pinnacle Grill, still a favorite, the new ship has added more choices.

There’s Sel de Mer, intimate and specializing in fish, where guests order and pay a la carte, as at a shore-side restaurant.

At the Culinary Arts Center, $39 will get you a five-course dinner with organic wine, and you get to watch your meal being prepared by a miked head chef.  The Grand Dutch Café and New York Deli & Pizza, both complimentary, are open for breakfast and lunch.

The ship’s main performance space, the 640-seat World Stage, is state-of-the-art with high-definition LED screens that surround the audience.

At Blend, a partnership with Chateau Ste. Michelle, passengers can be winemakers in “the only blending venue at sea,” according to a chalkboard at its door.

Partnerships abound The Music Walk, another recent Holland America innovation, involves partnerships with B.B. King’s All Stars, Billboard Onboard and the Lincoln Center Stage.

Each has its own space, although the B.B. King group shares the two-deck Queen’s Lounge and its  daytime activities, including white-glove afternoon teas on sea days, some with dancing.

An online Navigator app allowed us to create a daily itinerary of events. I could view my account, explore and book shore excursions, and connect to the Internet (for a fee, of course). Meal reservations automatically appeared.

Stop, stop, then go

Typical of westbound repositioning cruises, our initial ports (all Spanish) came in a flurry: Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Alicante, Málaga and Cádiz.

All offered what we like best, the chance for independent exploration on foot. Helping with this was a young Dutch woman who called herself “Dora the Explorer,” a “location guide” not part of the shore-excursions desk. We also wandered on our own in Funchal, on the Portuguese island of Madeira.

When we sailed from that lovely harbor, we had a seven-day crossing ahead.

So what might we do on those sea days? Yes, we would read. It turned out that, when our group pooled the books we had brought, we were adequately supplied.

But so loud was the outcry about the lack of a library that Holland America has decided to retrofit one.

And we would walk. Indeed, there is a promenade deck that allows circling the ship, three laps to the mile. It’s narrow in spots, not teak and has no deck chairs.

For much of the way lifeboats block views of the sea. Since 2015 maritime law requires lifeboats to be on the embarkation deck of all new ships, not suspended above it.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on our wide, walk-around teak decks,” Habets told me. “We were very disappointed.”

Koningsdam’s theme is music; its decks are named for composers. Much of the art — very contemporary and favoring op and pop — reflects that as well.

Most evenings we would catch one of three daily sets by a string quartet with piano on the Lincoln Center Stage, sometimes focused on a composer (Dvorak, Brahms, Schumann) or a theme (Classic Favorites, French Connections, All American).

After dinner, if we skipped the main show in the World Stage, we would drop in at Billboard Onboard to hear talented performers including musicians who  played  country, 1960s and British invasion on keyboards disguised as pianos.

Dining was, of course, an important part of our shipboard experience. Though the main dining room was fine, we chose to add the “Ultimate Dining Package,” which included dinners in the Pinnacle Grill, the Culinary Arts Center, Tamarind (a wonderful Asian-fusion restaurant, our favorite), Sel de Mer ($30 credit toward the a la carte bill) and Canaletto (Italian specialties).

The package price was $119 apiece, but as three-star Mariners (members of the line’s loyalty program), we received a 25% discount.

Of the 2,389 passengers on our crossing (capacity is 2,650), more than 80% had previously sailed with Holland America. 

In fall 2018, Koningsdam is scheduled to gain a sister, to be named Statendam.

“What exciting new features aboard can we expect?” I asked the hotel director.

“A library,” he said.

travel@latimes.com

If you go

Koningsdam, (877) 932-4259, will cruise the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., through March, then leave on April 2 on a 13-night repositioning sailing to Civitavecchia, Italy. After a summer of European sailings, on Oct. 3 the ship will leave Civitavecchia on a 15-night transatlantic voyage like the one we took.            

travel@latimes.com

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