My DH and I have been on at least a dozen cruises on various cruiselines, including Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean, Pullmantur, and Holland America. We just returned from an Alaskan cruise on the Westerdam, and had an incredible time. I will try to take the time to write a full-fledged review at another time. But many people like to compare the cruiselines, and I think that Holland America has definitely set itself apart in some areas, so let me explain.
First of all, a little about our background. We have lived overseas and traveled quite a bit, so we prefer independent travel, whether the entire trip or just on a port day. At the same time, it is very convenient to let the ship do the traveling for you. No packing every night or two, no finding the next hotel, just head back to the ship and choose where to eat. The next morning you will find yourself at a new destination! You should also know that we tend to choose cruises based more on the itinerary and price than on the ship or cruiseline. After this last cruise, though, Holland America would definitely be preferred for more exotic locales.
Many people talk about the food, but we have never had a hard time finding food that we enjoy on any cruise, so that is secondary to me. Where HAL excels, in my opinion, is their enrichment activities. Most cruiselines offer talks about the ports, but, when you go, it ends up trying to sell you the ship's excursions, or pointing you to their shops. Not what I'm looking for! HAL had 2 EXC Guides who were specifically for the independent traveler. They had an afternoon talk in the large theater with an overview of the ports and suggestions. They also gave very interesting talks about topics related to our ports. Just a couple of the titles were, "Alaskan Bush Pilots", "Mercy & Greatness on the Last Frontier" about the Iditarod, "The Secret Language of Ships", and my favorite, "Dreamers, Schemers, & Stampeders", the famous and infamous characters who gambled for gold in "The Last Frontier". There was also a Naturalist on board, who had times scheduled to watch for wildlife. He also gave talks on the wildlife, paw prints, fauna, etc. The day we spent n Glacier Bay we had the Park Rangers board the ship, set up a display and shop, and narrate what we were seeing. There was such a variety of information presented in a very interesting way! There was a BBC presentation called "Alaska in Concert" set to live music one evening that was fabulous! On other cruiselines, most activities involved selling me something or getting my money somehow. However, on the Westerdam, there was a free kitchen tour. There was a Digital Workshop with classes related to Windows that were always well attended. The Windows specialist, as well as the naturalist and the EXC Guides all had times scheduled if you had additional questions.America's Test Kitchen offered a variety of popular demonstration classes. We did not get to sample the food, however. Evenings provided the typical comedian, illusionist, and production shows (mediocre). We loved the music venues offered each evening. The BB King Blues Club, the Lincoln Center Stage ( a fabulous classical quintet), and Billboard Onboard (dualing pianos) guaranteed that there was always someplace to enjoy listening. I should note that, although, there were people who danced in the Blues Club, there was not a venue for dancing.
If you are wanting to party past around 1am, then HAL is probably not for you. It usually closed down between midnight and 1am. If you want wave machines and climbing walls and tons of activities for teens, then you may not like HAL. If you want a different restaurant every night or the huge mega-ships, then you might try another line. But, if you want a variety of classes and desire to learn about the destination that you are traveling, especially if you enjoy music, I would highly recommend HAL and the Westerdam.