We didn’t have high expectations for our recent Mexican Riviera New Year’s cruise on Holland America’s Koningsdam–we just needed a convenient pandemic cruise fix out of our hometown port of San Diego. We had sailed twice years ago on Holland America ships and our memory of them was that they were OK, but nothing special. By the end of this cruise, our opinion of the cruise line went from ordinary to exceptional. This time it was like experiencing a seagoing restaurant row of fine dining—with servers wearing masks.
With the omicron variant running rampant around the world, and the cruise industry already battered by two years of covid chaos, we were fortunate to make the trip. Cruise ships around the world were reporting outbreaks and ports were shutting their doors. We almost pulled the plug, especially after the Koningsdam made the local news when guests were banned from Puerto Vallarta unless they took a test and proved negative. According to reports, most of the outbreak on the ship was with the crew and all proved to be mild cases or no symptoms at all.
When four of our friends canceled, we gave the idea of doing the same serious consideration. Ultimately, it was the fact that the entire crew and passengers had to be vaccinated and have a negative antigen test that convinced us to take the risk. That, and our positive experience on a Mediterranean cruise four months ago. We figured it would be as safe as making our weekly run to Trader Joe’s, where vaccination and testing are not required.
-Strict COVID protocols on the ship were the other key factor in deciding to make the cruise. Blog postings on Cruise Critic from passengers making the same cruise prior to ours were also reassuring. There was no news of outbreaks or port closures, and everyone seemed to enjoy the ship and the shore experiences. In the end, there’s always a risk in travel. Luck is also a factor — sometimes it travels with you, other times it’s AWOL. Veteran travelers accept the risks, they do their homework, minimize risk and cross their fingers. We did all three.
One of the few silver linings of the pandemic according to Frits van Der Werff, vice president, hotel and food and beverage for Holland America Line was that they had time to rethink their product experience from top to bottom to make sure they have it right. They also fast-tracked key initiatives they had in the planning stages.
“With the Pinnacle-class ships we have taken a quantum leap in the product and experience we deliver to our guests,” he said in an interview. “The standard is that we can deliver a premium product, but still have a ship that is what we call perfectly sized. We can deliver the experience of the small luxury ships but also have all the entertainment and activities you find on larger ships. Our food and beverage, our hotel product, is on par with what you find on the small luxury ships.”
Indeed, the Koningsdam is clean and beautiful, with tasteful décor, lots of comfortable nooks, and state-of-the-art entertainment venues. The veranda staterooms were spacious, the bed and bedding were first-rate. We slept like babies. The glass-encased shower was the best we’ve experienced at sea. The crew was professional and friendly, almost without exception, but the biggest, most pleasant surprise was the outstanding food and drink offerings.
Our dining experiences on the Koningsdam were among the best in our 30-plus cruises. The ship offered a wide range of outstanding dining options – everything from my most excellent cheeseburger and fries at the Dive Inn by the Lido Pool to the exceptional Asian cuisine at the beautiful Tamarind dining room.
Holland America brought in seven celebrity chefs for their Culinary Council to enhance their shipboard dining offerings. The Council’s Chairman is the cruise line’s long-time Master Chef Rudi Sodamin, born in Austria and trained in France.
Rudi’s Sel De Mer, the intimate brasserie featuring classic French dishes with a twist, was our favorite specialty dining experience. Celebrity Chef and James Beard Award-winner David Burke’s Pinnacle Grill and the Tamarind coming in a very close second. Rudi’s large 12-ounce sweet succulent lobster tails made the difference. It was so good we dined here twice. On the first visit, Ron had a beautiful Dover sole meunière with shaved pink Himalayan sea salt, oysters on the half shell, fruits de Mer, and salt-crust. Rudi’s Sel de Mer restaurant is available on Koningsdam and Nieuw Statendam, but on other ships, the Rudi’s Sel de Mer menu is available on select evenings in Pinnacle Grill.
The Pinnacle Grill is a beautifully decorated world-class steak house. We each enjoyed one of their 28-day wet-aged USDA Prime filets—cooked, tender, and juicy. The menu offered lobster for $20 extra, but after having one the previous night at Rudi’s, we passed on the surf and turf. We had to try Burke’s maple and black pepper Clothesline Candied Bacon and we were glad we did. And the crunchy Iceberg Wedge Salad with buttermilk dressing, gorgonzola, bacon, tomato, red onion, chives, toasted walnuts went perfectly with the steak.
Completing the trio of our favorite specialty dining venues is Tamarind’s Asian dining room. Condé Nast Traveler wrote that Tamarind “rivals the top restaurants on land.” We agreed it is one of the best Asian dining spots we’ve come across in a long time. It’s also one of the most beautiful dining rooms at sea. The restaurant features its twist on the traditional culinary traditions of Southeast Asia, China, and Japan. Sushi lovers will love the sushi bar with offerings created by Culinary Council member and Master Sushi Chef, Andy Matsuda.
We tried a dozen beautifully prepared and presented dishes. Favorites included the satay sampler that included Malaysian lamb, Chinese beef, Thai chicken, Indonesian pork, and Vietnamese shrimp. The tempura was super crunchy with sweet tender shrimp. Our dining partners tried to eat the entire serving of the healthy portions of Chinese Five-Spice Baby Back Ribs. Ron loved his crispy duck with ginger-chili glaze and washed it down with hot sake. The Mango Posset with coconut macaroon, passion fruit jelly, mango sorbet was the super-star of the dessert selection.
We enjoyed a satisfying Vongole (spaghetti with clams) in the Italian dining room, Canaletto. Although they added shrimp to the dish and most likely used canned clams, the dish satisfied our craving for seafood pasta. It would have been a much better dining experience if the dining room with transparent walls wasn’t in the buffet area of the ship. The cafeteria lighting and constant foot traffic just didn’t come close to the gorgeous aforementioned dining rooms.
The other casual eateries, including the buffet and the attractive main dining room, were also a cut above the competition. We dined twice in the main dining room, and we were surprised by the quality, presentation, and preparation of their changing daily menu. We were fortunate to pick a night when the main dining room was featuring items selected by each of the seven Holland America celebrity chefs. It was like enjoying all the specialty dining in one place.
Both have award-winning wine lists. We brought a special wine from our cellar for our experience at The Pinnacle Grill. Our sommelier decanted our 22-year-old Silver Oak Cab that opened up, offering plenty of complexity and ripe fruit. Service at both dining rooms was top-notch. The wine selection is broad, with many of the fine wines from around the world available on our beverage package at no extra charge. The beverage package also included top shelf cocktails, including our favorite Vesper martini, shaken not stirred.
From the first meal to the last, the consistency and quality coming from the ship’s kitchens pleased our palates. We were satisfied and sated cruisers who had gained a few pounds. We enthusiastically recommend Holland America’s Koningsdam to any of our sea and food-loving friends. It was simply amazing.