On October 20, 2004, Holland America Line re-launched the spacious and
elegant ms Ryndam, featuring dramatic product and service enhancements
in virtually every area of the ship. All of the guest-pleasing
improvements, upgrades and amenities are a direct result of Holland
America Line's $225 million Signature of Excellence initiative which
focuses on five areas: spacious, elegant ships and accommodations;
sophisticated five-star dining; gracious, unobtrusive service;
extensive enrichment programs and activities; and compelling worldwide
As Holland America's Ryndam pulled away from its dock in sunny San Diego, I raised my glass -- er, coffee cup, as it were -- to the beginning of our cruise to Mexico's Sea of Cortez. The air may have been balmy at sail away but who knew? Ever since boarding the ship earlier that day, we'd been lured indoors by Ryndam's Exploration's Cafe, a library-cum-coffee shop-cum-new-media-outpost.
Explorations is just one of a number of genuinely new enhancements to the nearly ten-year-old Ryndam (the ship was released from an extensive dry-dock in summer 2004). In fact, Ryndam's stint at the shipyard was so intense that the ship actually gained 275 tons (of steel), as builders, in an unusual move, added new structure to the vessel.
Other improvements that quickly caught my eye on that first day onboard Ryndam include 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 teen-only Oasis, where designers have actually added a level to the ship for a Gilligan's Island-style tropical club -- if teens don't cotton to it, I assure you adults will!
Ryndam is a bit of a laboratory test for Holland America, which announced a year ago it would embark on an ambitious $225 million Signatures of Excellence makeover that would extend fleetwide. Ryndam is the first ship to undergo full rehab as part of this program, which targets not only passenger accommodations and onboard programming but also public rooms and mealtime menus. It is scheduled to roll out fleetwide within the next year and a half, as existing ships enter scheduled dry dock periods.
Ultimately, after a week spent onboard Ryndam, what was most compelling about its Signatures of Excellence transformation was that it gave a mid-sized, middle-aged ship some fresh new flash. And yet the ship also retains its status as a marvelously cozy, moderately sized ship that leads to a uniquely cozy ambience.
In winter, Ryndam veers between a Sea of Cortez itinerary and one that hits all the Mexican Riviera's high points. During spring and summer the ship heads to Alaska.
The Rotterdam, the ship's two-level main dining room, is a typical ship dining room, serving open-seating breakfast daily, lunch occasionally (on sea days only), and a set-seating dinner each night. All Holland America ships now operate a four-seating dinner routine; you can choose to dine at 5:45, 6:15, 8 or 8:30 p.m. Two aspects of the Rotterdam experience were quite striking. One is the dining room's overhaul: it's quite colorful, and tables are set with upscale china, flatware and glassware. What was surprising, on the negative side, was that food and service were generally mediocre (breakfast, on the three days I visited, was a particular low mark).
The Lido, the ship's buffet area, is also open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It, too, has received a cheerful refurbishment and even a strategic realignment in the sense that food stations (Asian, Italian, etc.) have been created within the existing buffet lines.
This did alleviate traffic jam-ups to some extent but it seemed that many passengers didn't realize they could jump from place to place and so duly waited at the back of the line. One other interesting change (inspired by the challenge of Norovirus?): With the exception of some salads and desserts, all food was dished out by servers.
At breakfast, the Lido served the usual breakfast fare, from cold cuts and cheeses to cereals and hot dishes like French toast. There are two eggs-made-to-order stations. Lunches were bountiful and supplemented by separate stations for deli fare, and 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 (taco fixings, etc.).
The Lido serves a "casual" buffet dinner that basically consists of whatever it is that's offered in the dining room, but the hours were so measly (6:15 - 7:45 p.m.) that we -- late eaters -- never seemed to make it there before it closed. There's also a themed "late night snack" served, ranging from French to American.
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.
One of Ryndam's most pleasant surprises was The Pinnacle Grill, its alternative restaurant. This easily became our favorite dining spot onboard. It is open every day for lunch and dinner, at a cost of $10 and $20 respectively; the food was superb and service was outstanding. The restaurant specializes in the fare of the Pacific Northwest and features an excellent representation of regional wines on its wine list. There are separate menus for lunch and dinner, but 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 menu -- our experience with that was also top-notch, though unless you're a suite holder you won't be served course by course but all at one time. The 24-hour menu offers just enough variety.
You could definitely tell which of Ryndam's public rooms got the dry dock makeover -- and which did not. And the difference was intriguing, with decor representing two different eras of cruising. Wherever you saw a lot of shiny brass (the atrium and Explorer's Lounge, for instance) was untouched from its circa-1995 debut. On the other hand, the Crow's Nest, which had been revisited, was quite modern, airy and colorful with new furnishings (including that fabulous HAL trademark -- the reclining chairs lined up for prime viewing, forward).
Easily the most impressive room was the aforementioned Explorations Cafe. It's colorful -- scarlet red carpets against dark wood-like furnishings gave it an elegant yet whimsical ambience. It's comfortable, with Internet stations mixed in among cozy seating areas. On one wall lined with books there were tables with huge crossroads puzzles (and erasable pencils); MP3 stations were typically in use by folks of all ages.
Internet access was consistently slow and difficult -- more so than on almost any other ship on which I've traveled. Packages were available. WiFi access was also available here and throughout other areas of the ship (those folks had as much trouble as we did getting connected, though).
Two outstanding features of Explorations Cafe (wait, three, we forgot for a minute about the coffee bar!) must be noted. First, as a result of its partnership with the New York Times, passengers on Ryndam could access that newspaper's Web site -- free -- on a daily basis. Also, the book selection was outstanding and we were told that New York Times consultants helped make choices. It's easily the second-best library at sea (it's hard to top Queen Mary 2's!). DVDs could be rented here, as well.
One down-note: Staffing of Explorations was abysmal. The folks who manned the desk here are members of the entertainment staff and obviously have no motivation to perform well at Explorations. We got to the point of calling them the "I am clueless" players because not only were they rarely able to answer a question, simple or not, they were often curt, too.
The ship has a staffed medical center, a handful of mostly unappealing shops (selling a lot of jewelry, some logo wear, a small selection of casual wear though no formal outfits, and a tiny display for perfume and cosmetics), and The Vermeer, its two-tiered (and nicely refurbished) main theater.
The Casino and its adjacent bar seemed to warm up as the cruise progressed.
Every cabin on Ryndam, from an inside to its biggest suite, got a nuts-and-bolts refurbishment. Accommodations range from inside (182 square ft. ), outside with picture window (197 square ft.), cabin with balcony (292 square ft.), and suites, such as penthouse (1,159 square ft.) and deluxe (556 square ft.). There are six staterooms configured to accommodate passengers with disabilities. All cabins have highlights that include new bedding (from duvets to fine sheets to pillow-top mattresses), and a flat screen television with DVD player.
All cabins, save for insides, have bathrooms with tubs that are somewhat abbreviated in length (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 quite nice towels, but they were well designed to begin with. One definite improvement: The powerless hair dryers that were mounted on bathroom walls have been replaced by better ones (you'll find yours in the vanity drawer). There's plenty of closet space, an in-room safe, and a telephone that can handle voice mail 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 a small round table.
Folks who book full-out suites are entitled to use the ship's concierge lounge, where special amenities include free DVD rentals and evening hors d'oeuvres.
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's placing a strong emphasis on food and wine with its demo kitchen lab and wine tasting area; on our trip there was just one workshop (and it was filled -- there's only a capacity of 13) and a handful of tastings.
Note: On every cruise there's at least one free cooking demo in Culinary Arts; if you're inclined to sign up for one of their smaller classes, it's a good idea to do it then.
Otherwise, daytime activities on our cruise, which had three sea days, pretty much revolved around the "same old, same old" -- art auction, team trivia, bingo.
Holland America has always excelled with evening fare, however. 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 late night carousing -- and though it was a very pleasant pre-sunset spot, we found we had trouble finding anyone, beyond the bartender who was very, very busy washing glasses, to take a drink order. 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. The Piano Bar, due to a bit of an out-of-the-way location, never seemed too crowded.
In the big-show arena, every night presented a different production. These 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 were concerned, we were pleasantly surprised at the wide range of offerings (from motorcoach tours to activity-oriented trips, such as kayaking).
Fitness and Recreation
Ryndam got the "Greenhouse" treatment during dry dock, so named after the pace-setting spas found on HAL's Vista Class ships. The designers have done a great job -- but it's important to note that even with expanded facilities this is still a smallish spa.
Not much has been done with Ryndam's main pool area (it has a retractable roof), but it was gorgeous in the first place and easily has one of cruising's most pleasant pool bars. There are two whirlpools here. Aft of the ship is another pool -- an often forgotten spot, so a good place to avoid sea-day crowds.
The fitness area is bright and sunny and well-equipped, as is the workout area, where classes such as aerobics, Pilates, and spinning were held; most of these required an $11 per-class charge. The ship's beauty salon offered all the usual services. Its spa received some updating -- a relaxation room was the primary bright spot, where you could sip tea from rattan lounges prior to a treatment -- but the locker rooms were pretty basic. There is a small thermal suite, "The Greenhouse Spa Pool," with a hydro pool (tiny), and aromatic steam showers. It cost $15 (even for those booking spa treatments) to sample and we bypassed it.
Treatments were handled by the ubiquitous Steiner Leisure but were quite excellent, with post-treatment product pitches kept to a minimum. A wide range of services is offered; popular these days is the hot stones massage but our regular old basic was pretty nice, too. Prices -- let me warn you -- seemed quite high, particularly for more exotic treatments, though regular fare, such as a standard 50-minute massage at $99, was reasonable.
Note: Depending on each voyage, the spa does offer port-day specials though we found that we had to actually go to the spa to find out what was available.
The ship has courts for basketball and paddle tennis and two ping pong tables.
And don't forget, as I nearly did, that the ship has a lovely walk-around deck on the promenade level -- much more conducive to recreational relaxation than walking around the pool deck!
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). Beyond craft-oriented rooms, there's one room dedicated to Playstations and kids also have their own set of Internet terminals.
Where Ryndam really stands out is with its teen-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 DVDs and Dance Revolution, which is one of the hippest and trendiest new dance gigs in teendom. What really smokes, though, is its outdoor Oasis. This newly constructed 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 -- and the atmosphere is even further developed by the exterior, 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 weekends, and younger singles and couples (i.e. under 50) when it visits more active ports, such as Puerto Vallarta.
There were two formal nights -- and passengers took the dress code very seriously with most men wearing tuxedos and women dressed in evening gowns. Even casual night carried more of a country-club-casual dress code.
Holland America has finally adapted to the industry's recommended tipping guidelines and automatically levies a $10 per-person, per-day charge onto passengers' accounts. That number can be raised (or lowered) with a visit to the purser's desk.