Come Sail Away

On the MS Zuiderdam, we are what we eat

My first hour aboard, I watched a woman try to eat a slice of pizza with one hand while holding two double-scoop ice cream cones in the other. This was up on Lido deck, where, I later learned, only the very minor royalty ventures -- earls, viscounts, and baronesses by marriage, what we might call the riffraff. The class system is in full swing on board the Zuiderdam, with the rich quartered in the upper decks, stretching their legs on ample balconies and drifting to sleep among mountains of down pillows, attended by personal concierges, and the regular folks below. This system is mirrored by the staff, with the lowliest prep cooks in the A-deck kitchens hardly glimpsing the light of day during their full year contract.

So much for quantity. Quality is another matter. Nobody really expects a kitchen feeding 1,800 ravenous passengers to boast a five-star Michelin rating. But using an imaginative system of smoke and mirrors -- impeccable service, lavishly detailed menus, tables beautifully set with glittering crystal and silver -- Holland America convinces guests that they're getting the very best of the best. Add a bit of droll, over-the-top showmanship (I won't describe the brilliant "March of the Baked Alaska" -- wouldn't want to spoil it for you -- or the "Chocolate Extravaganza" buffet's marzipan menageries and fountains running liquid chocolate) and outrageous excursions (what happens when you secure a private cabana at Half Moon Cay is for you to discover) and you've put your finger on the reason so many people keep riding these ships over and over, year after year, racking up souvenir Holland America Mariner Club luggage tags the way some others collect Roman coins and Hummel figurines.

How shriveled and mean I'd have to be to dis this ride! Too many people worked way too hard to ensure that I float upon a weeklong, gently swaying raft of bliss. And grazing my way through a week's worth of fois gras and fish cakes, of pear belle Helène and chocolate avalanche, I did have some delicious and memorable dishes. An island seafood curry of shrimp cooked with lemongrass, coconut, and ginger, drizzled with green curry over almond basmati rice, was a sumptuous first-night entrée. My chilled apple vichyssoise, kicked up with a bit of apple brandy, was exceptional on evening two. I could happily eat Zander perch meunière, my day-four dinner, every night for the rest of my life -- the most delicate white fish tossed in a little brown butter with a small garden of lightly sautéed vegetables hovering alongside. A dish of cinnamon ice cream afterward was exotic fun. That "Dialogue of Salmon Tartare and Avocado" had lots of interesting things to tell even my jaded palate. And I made a perfect meal, on my last night, of a plate of tiny strips of salted gravlax with mustard dill and peppercorns, a grilled sesame tuna steak with spicy wasabi mashed potatoes and broccoli tempura, and nothing but a glass of quadi electra Muscat ($33 per bottle; you do pay for the booze), redolent of peaches and honey, for dessert.

Joe Rocco


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And then there was the staff -- poised, beautiful in their pressed uniforms and silk suits, unfailingly charming, unflappable, sincere. This crew would rather walk the plank than ask you to use the same fork for an appetizer and entrée. They managed an exacting blend of formality and friendliness, elegance and ease, that ought to be a standard of service in every decent restaurant and hotel in the world. To say that our servers were far superior in every way to we who were served -- bloated, immense, waddling from pleasure dome to concocted paradise to stateroom -- is an understatement. And if I didn't sleep particularly well knowing that my waiter was working 15-hour days on a 365-day contract with no days off or that he went back to his bunk every night to practice magic tricks so he could amuse us after dessert, I had to hand it to him for attaining a standard of excellence I probably won't see again -- unless I relent, in my dotage, and take another cruise. But I doubt it.

My last day on board, Culinary Operations Manager Robert Versteeg and Provision Master Peter Janssen walked me through the kitchens and freezers. Versteeg, formerly in hotels, has been with Holland America for nine years; Janssen is working toward 41 with the company. He got his start on the old New Amsterdam, which carried 800 passengers, and he says he plans to keep his job until he's 100. There are 110 crew in the kitchens, which take up a good part of two floors, mostly trained by the school Holland America runs in the Philippines. After so much excess, even these gigantic kitchens and freezers (some with more square footage than my entire house) seemed small. Real people were punching down loaf after loaf for those baguettes and black forest rolls. There's an immense, calculated organization here dedicated to the pretense of magic. But by that time, I didn't really want to know exactly how the trick worked.

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