As cruise ships go, Holland America's 16-year-old Ryndam is approaching its "golden years." But instead of slowing down, the ship has just undergone the second of HAL's "Signature of Excellence" (SOE) makeovers, with even more upgrades (including the addition of a few dozen cabins and a makeover to the aft pool area) to come in 2012-13. The result: She's fresher and livelier -- and not just because of the new carpeting and drapes everywhere.
During the last SOE makeover, Ryndam gained the Explorations Cafe, which functions as a library, coffee shop and media space; the Culinary Arts Center, a demonstration kitchen that now shares a stage with the Wajang Theater's movie screen; a sleek (though small) wine-tasting nook; and the you've-got-to-see-it teens-only Oasis, where designers have actually added a level to the ship for a Gilligan's Island-style tropical club with a waterfall and hammocks.
Ultimately, what was most compelling about Ryndam's second transformation was that it gave a mid-sized, older ship some fresh new flash. And yet, the ship also retains its status as a marvelously intimate, moderately sized ship that offers a uniquely cozy ambience.
"Guests love this size ship," says Hotel Manager Simon de Boer, a 16-year veteran with Holland America, who oversees all the Signature of Excellence makeovers. "On bigger ships, by the end of a seven-day cruise, you have lost some of the new friends you made." The makeover team began with Ryndam's 924 cabins, installing new drapes, carpeting, lampshades and granite countertops and flooring in the bathrooms. Most of the public areas were also re-carpeted. While a lot of that is simple housekeeping, there are three major changes to the public areas, and two of them are smashing:
The main showroom, the Vermeer, received a dramatic new terraced first floor, which greatly enhances the sightlines for the audience.
A clever collection of three specialty bars, together called Mix, has been laid out side-by-side near the casino. It's the hippest area on the vessel.
A horizontal slice of the Lido Deck Buffet restaurant converts in the evenings to an Italian specialty area with its own waiters. It's an interesting idea, but diners in the Lido already had an Italian option from the buffet, and the venue was largely forgotten on my sailing.
The Rotterdam, Ryndam's two-level main dining room, is a typical cruise restaurant venue, serving open-seating breakfast daily and lunch occasionally (on sea days only).
In the evenings, As You Wish Dining enables passengers to opt for preset seating and dining time -- or to take advantage of a flexible option. One level of the ship's two-deck-high dining room is dedicated to traditional early or late seating (usually 6 and 8:15 p.m., though times may vary based on itineraries), while the other is open from 5:15 to 9 p.m. daily. Passengers who choose the flexible option can make reservations ahead of time -- or simply walk in.
Two aspects of The Rotterdam experience were quite striking. One is that it's very colorful, and tables are set with upscale china, flatware and glassware. The other, on the negative side, was that the food was often mediocre and bland. Breakfast, on the three days I visited, was a particularly low mark. The menu was unimaginative, and the cooked entrees were not always served hot. Service tends to be slower than at dinner, but the ambience in The Rotterdam is certainly more elegant than that of the Lido Cafe.
The Rotterdam also offers a 22-dish, vegetarian-only menu for lunch and dinner; it consists of appetizers, salads, soups and entrees. Options include dishes like portobello mushroom and chipotle quesadillas, Vietnamese vegetable spring rolls or spicy lentil and garbanzo salad.
Kosher, low-sodium and other dietary needs can be easily met with advance notice.
The Lido, the ship's cheerful, pool-deck buffet area, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Asian, Italian and sandwich stations are set within the existing buffet lines. This setup did alleviate traffic jams to some extent, but it seemed that many passengers didn't realize they could jump from place to place and duly waited at the back of the line. One other interesting change (inspired by the challenge of Norovirus, perhaps?): With the exception of some salads and desserts, all food was dished out by servers, and motion-activated hand-sanitizer dispensers are positioned at each end of the buffet lines, at the entrance to The Rotterdam Dining Room and elsewhere through the ship.
At breakfast, the Lido served the usual morning fare, from cold cuts and cheeses to cereals and hot dishes, such as French toast. There are two eggs-made-to-order stations. Lunches were bountiful and supplemented by separate stations for deli fare, as well as a grill for hamburgers, fries and the like. Each day in the pool area, there was a steam table offering, for the most part, Mexican fare like tacos.
The Lido serves a casual buffet dinner with a similar, but not identical, menu to that of the dining room. The hours have been lengthened -- 5:30 to 8 p.m. Late-night snacks, with options ranging from French to American, are served from 11 p.m. to midnight.
Fairly noticeable in both The Rotterdam and Lido venues is Holland America's new approach to cooking. With staggered dining times and Lido cook training, it is offering food cooked a la minute, as opposed to banquet-style. At least in the Lido, the foods are more often grill-to-table hot, and the variety of cuisines provides an appreciable difference in taste choices.
The Lido deck addition, Canaletto, has been carved from the Lido with room dividers. Open for dinner only, it has space for 62 diners and offers an unchanging menu of familiar Italian dishes. Standout entrees include penne pasta with a choice of vodka, pomodoro or cream sauce, and cod that has been marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and oregano, then sauteed and coated with herbs, kalamata olives and capers. In true Italian fashion, there's gelato for dessert! It's free to dine there, but reservations are recommended.
Other than oil-and-vinegar cruet sets on each table and waiters wearing the gondoliers' familiar striped T-shirts, there is little to proclaim this is an Italian restaurant. During my brief cruise, the passengers either had not caught on to the existence of Canaletto, or the venue held nothing to lure them from the full buffet a few steps away.
One of Ryndam's most pleasant areas is The Pinnacle Grill, its alternative restaurant. This easily became our favorite dining spot onboard; the food was superb, and service was outstanding. It is open every day for lunch and dinner at a cost of $10 and $20, respectively. The restaurant specializes in the fare of the Pacific Northwest and features an excellent representation of regional wines. The Pinnacle has its own kitchen, using a higher grade of beef and separate menus for lunch and dinner. At any time of day, all of the soups are marvelous, and the beef and lamb are definite standouts.
There's always one big afternoon tea event held onboard during a sea day. Ours, which took place in The Rotterdam and was themed around chocolate, was as much a photo opportunity as it was a chance to snack.
Room service was excellent on Ryndam. Breakfasts (including egg dishes) could be pre-ordered the night before and were delivered promptly and correctly. At dinner, you can order off the dining room menu -- our experience doing that was also top-notch. But unless you're a suite-holder, you won't be served course-by-course. The 24-hour menu offers just enough variety.
Easily the most impressive public room onboard Ryndam is the Explorations Cafe. With its colorful, scarlet carpets set against dark, wood-like furnishings, the room takes on an elegant yet whimsical ambience. It's comfortable, with Internet stations mixed in among cozy seating areas. The walls are lined with books, and several tabletops are printed with huge crossword puzzles (with erasable pencils). A few Eames chairs and ottomans face the large windows.
Internet access was consistently slow and difficult -- more so than on almost any other ship on which I've traveled. Packages are available. Wi-Fi access is also available throughout the ship, though folks with their own laptops had as much trouble getting connected as the Internet cafe patrons.
Two outstanding features of the Explorations Cafe must be noted. First, as a result of its partnership with the New York Times, passengers on Ryndam can access that newspaper's Web site -- free -- on a daily basis. Also, the book selection is outstanding, and we were told that New York Times consultants helped make the choices. It's easily the second-best library at sea. (It's hard to top Queen Mary 2's.) DVD's can be rented there, as well.
One down note: Staffing of Explorations was uneven on our cruise. The folks who work the desk there are members of the entertainment staff, and we found they were rarely able to answer a question, simple or not, and their attitude was often curt.
The ship has a staffed medical center on Deck 4. On Deck 8 (Upper Promenade), a handful of shops sell a lot of jewelry, some logowear, a small selection of casualwear (though no formal outfits), perfume and cosmetics. A new addition to the mix is an upscale jewelry shop.
Slightly forward of the ship's center is the Atrium, with spiral staircases that drop through the public areas on Decks 7 and 8 to the staterooms on Deck 6. Side-by-side -- and thus often crowded in the relatively small Atrium area on Deck 7 -- are the Shore Excursions Desk and Front Office. The staff in both always seemed pleasant, no matter how busy they were or how often they answered the same questions.
There are coin-operated, self-service launderettes on three of the five cabin decks.
Accommodations on Ryndam include inside cabins (182 square feet), outsides with picture windows (197 square feet), balcony cabins (292 square feet) and suites, such as penthouse (1,159 square feet) and deluxe (556 square feet). Six staterooms are configured to accommodate passengers with disabilities. Every cabin on Ryndam, from insides to suites, got a nuts-and-bolts refurbishment, including new bedding (from duvets to fine sheets and pillow-top mattresses), drapes, flooring and granite countertops in the bathroom, as well as a flat-screen television with DVD player. The color schemes in the cabins stick to calming pastels -- nothing too vivid.
All cabins, save for insides, have bathrooms with small tubs (with whirlpools in higher category staterooms). The bathrooms did not get much of a makeover, aside from massage-type shower heads, on-loan bathrobes and upgraded towels, but they were well-designed to begin with. The lighting over the sinks and counters is better than in many hotels. One definite improvement: The powerless hair dryers that were mounted on the bathroom walls have been replaced by better ones (found in the vanity drawers). There are plenty of closet space, in-room safes and telephones that can handle voicemail and one-button calls to the front desk and room service.
Teak-covered balconies on standard verandah staterooms and mini-suites are outfitted with rubber-slatted furnishings and small, round tables. The largest verandahs have two loungers, two chairs and sizable tables.
Folks who book full-out suites are entitled to use the ship's concierge lounge on Deck 10, where special amenities include free DVD rentals and cold breakfast items, such as fresh sliced fruit, smoked salmon, muesli, yogurt and plus pastries. During the day, a series of cookies, pastries and hors d'oeuvres are offered in this lounge.
Holland America Line automatically adds $11.50 per person, per day, to onboard accounts; this is then shared among waiters, stewards and other service personnel. That amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the front desk. A 15 percent gratuity is tacked on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.
One of Holland America's Signature of Excellence goals is to enhance daytime entertainment offerings -- particularly those that fall in the enrichment category. The line is placing a strong emphasis on food and wine with its demo kitchen lab and wine tasting area. For-fee culinary workshops and wine tastings in the Culinary Arts Center typically fill up quickly, as each class can accommodate a maximum of 13 participants. Sign up early, and try not to miss the free cooking demos held at least once per cruise.
New to Ryndam is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, made up of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto DVD's (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal Web pages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.
The "techsperts"' are part of what Holland America has dubbed its Explorations Team. Some of this is repackaging what is standard fare on most cruises, but each trip features crewmembers offering dance instruction, a party planner who teaches flower-arranging (cut flowers are prominent in public areas) and leads pub crawls around the ship, and a port expert who often lightens the usual shore excursion what-you'll-see presentation with dry humor.
Otherwise, daytime activities on our cruise, which had three sea days, pretty much revolved around the "same old, same old" -- an art auction, team trivia, bingo. A recent and welcome addition: You can borrow an iPod to take a tour of the ship's collection of exceptional antiques and art, most of it representing the days of the Dutch East Indies Co.'s trading in the Far East.
Holland America has always excelled with evening fare. The Ocean Bar was a premier pre- and post-dinner spot for cocktails and dancing. We loved the Explorers Lounge, where the Champagne Strings played classical music.
Crow's Nest was the place to go for two-for-one happy hour drink specials before dinner and for late night carousing. The refurbished Crow's Nest is quite modern, airy and colorful with new furnishings (including that fabulous HAL trademark -- reclining chairs, lined up for prime viewing, forward).
One nice touch onboard: No matter which venue you select for a pre-dinner cocktail, you'll be served an array of hot hors d'oeuvres.
Mix is a new SOE venue, created from the enclosed Piano Bar and a sports bar open to the casino. The venue features three bars with distinct menus: one serves 17 types of beer with lots of imports, including four on tap, and middle- and top-shelf liquors; another features 11 kinds of Champagne (from $59 to $244 per bottle, though six are available by the glass, beginning at $12), as well as cocktails and three dozen red, white and sparkling wines, starting at $4.50 per glass; and the third and largest of the bars is nominally devoted to martinis -- the emphasis is on flavored martinis, and Grey Goose is the only named vodka there. You can order a flight of six mini-martinis for $19.50.
Seating is in conversation groups with two styles of chairs in muted green and orange (more laid-back than it sounds), chocolate-colored leather couches and two bars with stools. A piano player and a guitarist alternate in entertaining the passengers. Mix is closed off to the casino, but is now open to passersby on the corridor. Consequently, many more people who have stopped for drinks can hear the live music in the evenings.
The casino is relatively small and occupies a narrow space. It offers the standard array of slot machines, roulette wheels and card tables for blackjack and poker.
The Vermeer theater, now subtitled Showroom at Sea, was originally built with a flat first level. That made for poor sightlines for those sitting anywhere from the middle to the back. Now this lower deck has been cleverly terraced into five levels, most of them about six inches higher than the one in front. At the back of the room, the level is three steps higher. Seating is on roomy couches.
Each night, a different production is featured there. Shows ranged from vaguely themed musical performances ("a Las Vegas spectacular with a French twist") to a magician, whose skill was such that even cynical grown-ups were raving about his show the following day.
As far as shore excursions are concerned, the majority of trips offered on the seven-day Caribbean itinerary tend to be sedentary -- or the softest of soft adventures: narrated bus tours of the ports, trips to Mayan ruins in several Central American countries, scuba diving and ATV "safaris."
Prices seemed relatively high -- more than what you'd expect to pay for the same trip through an onshore provider. You're essentially paying extra for peace of mind, knowing that Holland America has checked out the trips, operators (and their command of English) and equipment before contracting with them.
With Holland America's Club HAL youth program, kids are grouped into three age ranges for activities: 3- to 7-year-olds, 8- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 17-year-olds. Typically, activities are supervised by one trained crewmember for each 10 children. The activities are available 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the ship is in port, and longer hours when the ship is at sea (usually until 10 p.m.). Baby-sitting is available from 10 p.m. to midnight, at a cost of $5 per child, per hour.
While the kids' facilities on Ryndam can't rival those of ships thrice its size, Club HAL got an overhaul, and it looks fantastic. More importantly, kids seemed to have a good time there. In addition to facilities for arts and crafts, the playrooms include numerous PlayStation consoles and kids-only Internet terminals.
Where Ryndam really stands out is with its teens-only facility. It consists of a two-deck-high indoor/outdoor area, connected by a spiral staircase. On the lower level is The Loft, a nightclub-style room with DVD's and Dance Dance Revolution, one of the hippest and trendiest dance gigs in teendom. What really smokes though is its outdoor Oasis. This area, completely outdoors, feels like it's a shade removed from Gilligan's Island, with hammocks, a fabulous optically lit waterfall and Adirondack-style chairs. The atmosphere is even further developed by the exterior, which is rimmed with wood slats -- not to mention faux pineapples and palm trees (and vending machines for snacks and beverages).
On our trip, a Sea of Cortez itinerary, passengers skewed older; this varies, though, with Ryndam pulling in plenty of families with kids on holiday weeks, as well as younger singles and couples (i.e. under 50) when it visits more active ports like Puerto Vallarta. A recent three-day trip just after its makeover included a bachelorette party of 10 and a wedding party of 98. (The marriage was performed while the ship was docked in Tampa.)
On formal nights, passengers took the dress code very seriously with most men wearing tuxedos and women dressed in evening gowns. The alternate standard for evenings is "smart casual," which translates into collared shirts and long pants for men and casual dresses or slacks for women. No shorts or swimsuits are allowed in the restaurants for evening meals. In practice, I did see both men and women wearing shorts in the Lido deck restaurant at night, though Holland America's typically older passenger demographic means that most guests are content to dress up for dinner.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Ryndam's main pool area, which sports a retractable roof, is gorgeous and easily has one of cruising's most pleasant pool bars. There are two whirlpools there. Aft of the ship is another pool -- this oft-forgotten spot is a good place to avoid sea day crowds.
Although Ryndam's Greenhouse Spa is reminiscent of the pace-setting spas found on HAL's Vista-class ships, it's important to note that, even with expanded facilities, this is still a smallish spa.
The fitness area is bright, sunny and well-equipped, as is the aerobics studio, where classes like aerobics, Pilates and spinning are held; most of these require a per-class charge. The ship's beauty salon offers all the usual services -- manicures, pedicures, facials and haircuts. A relaxation room is the primary bright spot in the spa; there, you can sip tea from rattan lounges prior to a treatment. Locker rooms are pretty basic. A small thermal suite features a tiny hydro pool and aromatic steam showers. It costs $15 to sample (even for those booking spa treatments), so we bypassed it.
Treatments are handled by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure; they were quite excellent, with post-treatment product pitches kept to a minimum. A wide range of services is offered; a popular treatment these days is the hot stones massage, but our regular old basic was pretty nice, too. Prices seemed quite high, particularly for more exotic treatments. But regular fare, such as a standard 50-minute massage at $99, was more reasonably priced.
Editors' Note: Depending on each voyage, the spa does offer port-day specials, though we found we had to actually go to the spa to find out what was available.
The ship has courts for basketball and paddle tennis, as well as two Ping-Pong tables.
And don't forget, as I nearly did, that the ship has a lovely quarter-mile walk-around deck on the promenade level -- much more conducive to recreational relaxation than walking around the pool deck!
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