About us: This was our 7th Holland America cruise. We are an 'alternate lifestyle' couple in our late 40's, and this cruise was our 16th 'anniversary' vacation.
The cruise: 10 Day Sea of Cortez, round trip San Diego departing March 5, 2009. Ports of call: Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Topolobampo, Loreto, Pichilinque, Cabo San Lucas.
This review: Those who have sailed Holland America before are well familiar with the friendly people, beautiful ships, etc. In writing this review the author takes that 'as a given' and primarily takes this opportunity to note exceptions. Therefore this review may seem quite negative. Please do not interpret it this way. The cruise had very many pleasant and enjoyable aspects and was a positive experience.
Embarkation - After arriving at the pier we handed our luggage off to one of the 'curbside' attendants. A quick trip through the short security line, 7-8 minutes standing in line to check in and we were on the ship in less than 15 minutes from arrival. Holland America seems to have this process down to a science, and it couldn't have been much briefer or painless.
Once boarded one can see the Ryndam is still a beautiful ship. The public spaces are well cared for and clean, with one glaring exception. Exterior window surfaces on the Crow's Nest and Lido areas were filthy and remained so throughout the entire cruise. When a cruise has 'Scenic Cruising' slated one would expect an effort to be made to clean these windows at least one time. It made it very difficult to take photographs (or even really enjoy watching) from inside the ship.
Stateroom - Once the public announcement was made that staterooms were ready for occupation we went down to take a look. The comfortable stateroom was pretty standard with few exceptions. On opening the door to the bathroom, we immediately noticed 3 separate piles of black, curly hair. Fortunately the stewards were in the hallway delivering luggage. We asked one to take a look and he said "I'm sorry Sir. That's a lot of hair!" That problem was quickly solved and our two room stewards took great care of our stateroom throughout the trip. The DVD player was held in place with duct tape. Several days into the cruise the tape came loose and it dangled under the shelf for a day before it was re-attached (sans duct tape). We didn't watch any DVDs so don't know if it was working or not. The radio controls at the head of the bed were pushed into the wall so were not accessible. Light switches by the door were loose. The beds were the same amazingly comfortable Holland America quality. The flat screen TV showed no ghosting had good picture and sound quality. The A/C only got the room cool enough for us two evenings, and it was frequently too humid in our stateroom. See more information below under 'transient problems'.
The bathrooms on the Ryndam are 15 years old and show it. Grout has been patched in places, caulking shows black mold, mirrors are scratched, etc. Our bathtub had bright red nail polish in a few places, and the shower button was quite difficult to push. Running cool water in the sink caused a pipe knocking sound in the wall. Nothing about the condition of the bathroom was disturbing to us given the age of the ship. The bathrooms are scheduled for major renewal during the drydock in 2010.
The location of our stateroom (Outside, E-category on A deck, Port side, mid ship) would be very nice for someone prone to motion sickness. Other than some slight vibration, we almost never noticed any ship movement at all. Perhaps we were graced with very calm seas throughout the 10 days.
Over all, our stateroom was quite acceptable and other than the minor A/C problems, comfortable.
Transit Problems - Of special note as a very strong odor on the Upper Promenade deck, between the Explorer's Lounge and the Piano Bar. The refuse smell got progressively stronger during the cruise, although there were often other strong aromas such as Vanilla used to lessen the impact. The Hotel Manager said that a very large blower motor which was used to "pressurize" the ship had destroyed itself two cruises previous to ours. They had received confirmation that the replacement was on the pier in San Diego, and it would be corrected during the next cruise.
Cruise ships are very complicated machines, and the Ryndam is engineered so that the interior is kept 'over pressure'. Many systems are designed with this principle in mind, so this one very large motor failure impacted much of the passenger areas on the ship. Some things I also noticed elsewhere on the ship such as strong cigarette smell in the aft hallways (NOT staterooms) of the A deck (I suspect 'leakage' from the crew area) and excessive humidity in our stateroom. I attributed these to this problem but did not confirm with the Hotel Manager.
Staff - the staff and crew are very friendly and competent. The Cruise Director was Matt Allen. Overall he did a fine job with his reduced staff. There were fewer activities than in our prior Holland America cruises, and it always seemed that if there were several we wanted to do in one day, they overlapped or we had to leave one early to get to the next.
Ingo (the Somallier) was quite entertaining and the series of wine tastings got better from start to finish.
Food and Dining - Cost cutting is very noticeable in the quality of food on board. I'm not a gourmet and found most of the food very acceptable, if a little bland. Eel is completely gone from the Lido lineup. (Possibly not a loss to most passengers, as David Wood - the Ryndam Hotel Manager said that I was probably about the only one who ate it.) Sadly, caviar has gone with the eel, and I'm sure more people will mourn that.
The Dining Room beef quality has gone far downhill. I ordered a Medium Rare Sirloin one night. I can't ever remember seeing veins in a Top Sirloin before. I trim the edges, gristle, etc. before cutting 'bites'. After chewing the first couple of bites for 90 seconds each without being able to separate the fibers, I gave up on the first steak. Sent the 2nd one back after another 90 second bite and got the linguine instead. Then I noticed that one of our table mates who also ordered the sirloin was too polite to send his back. He had a whole string of little 'un-chewable' connective tissue piles around the outside edge of his plate.
I spoke to the Hotel Manager and he said "We're using the same supplier we've used for 35 years. Sometimes you get a bad steak." I suspect that while the supplier is the same, the grade purchased is several categories lower than what HAL used to purchase. What kind of savings can there be when passengers send back 2 steaks and end up eating an alternate entree instead?
Bread Pudding was hit or miss on availability. I only managed to get some one time during the entire 10 days, although I did notice it available a couple of other times. Most of the time when I wanted some there was nothing there but the sign. I do love the bread pudding!
Lunch in the Lido was very good. I especially appreciate the Asian section and love the noodles and stir frys. There was always a large assortment of entrees to choose from and the quality was good. Around the pool - the pizza has actually improved since our last cruise on the Zaandam. Burgers, Brats, etc. were all very tasty and the staff was amazingly cheerful considering how hot it must have been by the grill. Poolside tables were not cleared frequently enough, and often we had to track down salt & pepper.
Pinnacle Grill Dinner - For our anniversary we scheduled dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It happened to be a formal night and the room was a bit warm for us in our Tuxedoes. Unfortunately we did not make our reservations early enough in the cruise and had to dine at 5:30. I ordered the Porterhouse (Rare) which was a very nice cut, although the seasonings (or perhaps the high grill temperature) made it taste a bit overcooked even though it appeared to be cooked perfectly. My partner had the Ribeye which he found excellent. We both had our choice of sauce (on the side) and vegetables. The creamed spinach was very tasty, as was the asparagus. Service was impeccable, the wine very nice, dessert excellent, and the company priceless. My only complaint here is that the Pinnacle Grill menus in the stateroom were out of date, so the appetizer and entree I had chosen in the stateroom and was so looking forward to were not available. Otherwise an entirely enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, Wine Flights are no longer available on the Ryndam.
As You Wish Dining - As You Wish dining just didn't work for us. Once you get the daily listings to plan your activities, the only available options were 5:00 or 5:15 if you prefer a table for two. After a few days we gave up asking for reservations entirely. We greatly prefer the leisurely dining room experience for our evening meal, but were 'forced' several nights to use the Lido if we wanted a particular dining hour and to see an entertainment that night. Holland America has a fine Lido setup, and if you like compressing your evening meal to 1/2 hour (not a requirement) this casual atmosphere venue is the way to go. Most of the dining room selections are available there and being able to pick & choose entrees and accompaniments is nice. Food quality is comparable to the main Dining Room.
Room Service - we used room service for breakfast a few days. Delivery was always on time (or within 3 minutes) and the food quality was quite acceptable.
Entertainment - Since most of the entertainment changes from cruise to cruise it's not really appropriate to address most of it in this review.
Lounge Show Times - My partner and I really enjoyed the late show times. In discussing the show times with David Woods, The Ryndam Hotel Manager, he said that the Ryndam is the 'experimental' ship for the show times. The way he explained it was: when the times are 8 and 10 the first show was standing room only, and very few attend the 2nd show. With show times at 7 and 9, both of the shows are well attended. What actually worked best for show attendance was (I think he said) 5:30 & 7:30, but even they thought that was too early. When asked, he stated that bar revenues are improved with the new showtimes. He does not expect to change the show times from 7:00 and 9:00 in the foreseeable future.
Crow's Nest - As on our previous Zaandam cruise, the DJ almost seemed to make every effort to run people off when his shift was due to end. Rap, Hip-Hop, etc. music would start about 1/2 hour before most people would (for some reason) leave. One song had me wanting to run to the restroom to wash the ' lyrics out of my ears. I'm not a prude by any means, but I can't imagine what Holland America expects to achieve by allowing this type of music on board in public areas. Normal closing was by 12:30, with a 3:30 exception one night. Don't bother asking the DJ for someone as 'obscure' as Debussy or even as 'new' as Rufus Wainwright.
Formal Night Clothing - as with many other things there has been a noticeable decline in this regard. The second formal night one younger couple wore cut-off shorts and printed tees to the Crow's Nest activity. They were not turned away even though they were by far the worst dressed. (Later in the cruise we did a shore excursion with this couple. They dressed far better for the shore excursion and always made sure they had the front seat on the bus, even though we had several couples over 70 on the excursion.)
Most passengers did make the effort to spruce up for formal night. Approximately 40% of the gentlemen were in tuxedoes, 55% is suits or jackets, and the others followed guidelines and were only seen on the Lido or Lower Promenade outside deck.
SPA - I did schedule a deep tissue massage one morning. The massage room seemed small and cluttered, and the slight young woman who performed the massage should probably have brought a jackhammer along with her.
Other things of note: Minor niceties such as Logo chocolates (replaced by generics), Logo swizzle sticks (thin wood strips) and flagged appetizer picks (bamboo swords), etc. were conspicuously absent. According to the Hotel Manager the picks (at least) are gone for good. Luckily, I think I still have a few saved from our first Holland America cruise 13 years ago.
Evening appetizers are still available in the public lounges and remain an appreciated, elegant touch.
The dinner chimes no longer sound and are greatly missed by this author. The Yum-Yum man station was most often unmanned.
Ports - Port information is covered very well elsewhere on Cruise Critic so here are a few brief notes on ports specific to the Sea of Cortez route.
Topolobampo - Los Mochos - The Botanical Gardens - while they may be among the largest, they were untended for several decades and it seems most of the non-indigenous plants were stolen(?) or died out many years ago. As an American it was quite amazing to see the sugar factory belching gigantic clouds of smoke and steam. - El Fuerte - Much is made of the "palace it took 200 lbs of gold to build", but no one pointed out what's left of it on the tour. The hotel/resort that has absorbed it is very attractive and is a conglomeration of that and 3-4 other mansions. The food on the tour was VERY good. The visit by "Zorro" was fun and he danced with each of the ladies. The city portion of the walking tour is nice, and the walk along the river is very beautiful but the walk back uphill can be strenuous.
Loreto - Quite a beautiful small city, lots to see within walking distance, and was probably the highlight port for quaintness, cleanliness, friendly locals, etc. We had an amazing seafood platter for 2 for only $50 that included lobster tails, whole crabs, a dozen baked clams with bacon and other toppings, fried fish filets, broiled fish filets, shrimp in mustard sauce. The meal also included chips, salsa, and a very tasty vegetable in seafood stock soup.
La Paz - Pichilingue - We rented Kayaks through Club Cantamar to Balandra Beach. Very lovely setting in quite shallow waters. They also transported us back to the ship at no charge. Quite a bargain and a fun time. We also took the free shuttle to La Paz and walked along the beautiful waterfront there.
Final Thoughts - Even though rumors are that Holland America is courting a younger age of passengers, it seems to us that we were 'encouraged' by the lack of activities to be in bed by 10:45 - not typically what's expected for younger passengers.
For our preferences, if we could have been guaranteed a 7:00 table for two we'd probably have been quite satisfied with this cruise even with the earlier show times and other items noted above. Perhaps it's just because we had such a magical time on the Zaandam in January 2008 that this cruise fell so short of our expectations.
After cruising exclusively on Holland America for 13 years, we're reluctantly ready to explore other cruise lines for our next vacation. After all, we've still got 15-20 years to go before we comfortably fall into the 'median' passenger age it seems to us the Holland America cruises are actually increasingly geared towards.
Still, Holland America offers a very nice cruising experience at an exceptional value. This was just not the Holland America experience we'd grown used to.