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.
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.
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!
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).