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Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam takes you to Mexico in the highest of style

By Barth David SchwartzSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 1983

Steve, who works nights in a Hollywood film lab, is discovering the joys of table tennis on the Upper Promenade Deck. ''I never had time before,'' he says; ''it's that simple.''

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Ken, an actor from New York, is jogging around the Promenade Deck. Lloyd, a Los Angeles doctor, is eight decks down, running some clothes through the self-service laundry, just to have fresh things for tomorrow in Ixtapa, our first port of call.

These were passengers, spread among the nine levels of Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, $150 million worth of French-built cruise ship, bound for Puerto Vallarta, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa, and Acapulco in seven days, with the same time back to San Francisco.

This is, after all, the world's newest luxury liner - 10 decks from the Sun Deck, where volleyball, golf, and just strolling are perfect, down to D Deck, reserved for crew and storage. This seaworthy hotel is 704 feet long, with a staff of 580 (including 57 chefs), all to serve 1,210-plus passengers.

The Nieuw Amsterdam made her maiden transatlantic voyage July 10, after a technical problem delayed delivery. She won't be Holland America's newest ship for long, however; her sister ship, the Noordam, is scheduled to be delivered in April.

The new vessel incorporates the smartest in ship design. Even the stern was redesigned, squaring it to give more deck space and larger cabins.

The ship serves Alaska and Mexico from her home port, San Francisco. But the draw is not limited to the Bay Area. Holland America offers ''fly/cruise'' packages that include the price of air travel in your cruise ticket, arranging everything down to the baggage handling. As with its Caribbean, Bermuda, and Trans-Canal service on the Volendam, Veendam, and Rotterdam (out of Ft. Lauderdale and occasionally Los Angeles), it makes it easy to join the ship from wherever you live.

At embarkation, Capt. A. J. Hess turned away almost 2,000 bon voyage visitors. ''That's my only objection to the port facilities of San Francisco, really, that the wharf is just not adequate for crowds of 5,000 people, passengers, and guests,'' he says. After 32 years at sea (all of them with Holland America), he knows whereof he speaks.

We were to spend a week sailing south to Acapulco, where the divers still leap from the rocks for tourists, where Henry Kissinger spent his honeymoon, and the Shah of Iran bought - but never lived in - Merle Oberon's villa. A stop was scheduled at Puerta Vallarta (Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas for those on the second, returning, week), with a day to explore the starkly contrasting world of poor Zihuatanejo and showcase Ixtapa, which is not a town at all, but a lineup of nine luxury hotels set on a spectacular powder-sand beach - set there in a row like so many children's building blocks by Mexican government fiat.

This seven-day southward sail, with flight home, is called the ''Seafarer''; join in Acapulco and sail to San Francisco and that is the ''Wayfarer.'' Each week is almost evenly divided: half the time at sea, half in ports. Just when you are passing from enjoying the peace and a certain monotony of sea life, onto land you go.

We had a full house aboard the 33,000-ton beauty as she sidled out of San Francisco's Pier 35, her navy-blue hull obscured by streamers and confetti. People had parties in their staterooms, the Indonesian cabin boys carried flowers and fruits, and the feeling was genuinely festive. The magic was there, with the elegance of the Rex, Fellini's luxury liner that cruises in and out of ''Amarcord,'' without the fascism.