My son and I just got back from a Christmas Cruise on Holland America. Most of our cruising experience is on DCL so there is a lot of comparrison between DCL and HAL. Rather than chop up my trip report trying to pull out the relevant discussion, I'll paste in the entire report and you can read all, part or none of it. Bottom line, DCL is a much better fit for us than HAL. Christmas Cruise Adventure 2010 Mike and Nick Rogillio 19 – 26 December Nick and I had originally planned to get on the road mid-afternoon on Saturday but Nick’s wrestling match lasted longer than we had anticipated so it was 6 pm by the time we left for our 10 hr drive to Tampa. About 2 a.m. we stopped in north Florida for the night. The next morning we drove on down to Tampa and parked Nick’s truck inside the gated community of a buddy of mine. Jeff was out of town so we took a taxi to the port which was only about 5 miles from his house. Embarkation. Embarkation on Holland America was very similar to what we were familiar with on Disney Cruise Line. We found our room on deck 6, lower promenade deck, forward and starboard, and then had some lunch. After our luggage arrived we unpacked and settled in. Most of our cruising experience is on DCL so we cannot help but compare and contrast the two lines. The Ship – Ryndam. The ship is smaller than the Disney Magic by about a third. The Magic has 3 sets of elevators, fwd-midship-aft but the Ryndam has only forward and aft elevators as it is much shorter and not nearly as wide. At first I found the ship confusing but soon learned my way around. We are just down the hall from the atrium which is open to decks 6, 7 and 8. Everything seems just a little smaller and more compact than on the Magic. The big theater area is very small compared to the Walt Disney Theater and probably accommodates about 1/4 the people; not that it matters though as there are no big Broadway-type productions like we saw on DCL. They have a much bigger, nicer lounge/library area than DCL and I’m sitting in the library right now by window watching the sea go by as I type. There is a really good selection of books, magazines and newspapers as well as various board games and such. There is one table set up with a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and people come and work on it a little. I’ve been watching the progress and it looks like it will be finished tonight. I think Nick sat at the table for a couple of hours last night. I just tried to get a really expensive cup of joe but there was a line and I hate waiting in lines. Nick found the teen lounge up on deck 11 and had a good time last night meeting the other teens and playing games and such. The fitness center is nice and seems to have a good variety of machines. They have spin classes, pilates and such but there is a $15 charge for that. Speaking of ‘nickel and diming’, they charge you for soft drinks here – even with the meals. I keep reminding myself that we got a real bargain on the cruise but it just galls me to pay for a fountain drink to go along with my steak and lobster. I miss the 24/7 beverage station on deck 9 of the Magic. I miss being able to get a cup of coffee to go first thing in the morning and walk around the deck. I got robbed last night! At least it felt like I was being robbed. I had a slight headache and decided to buy a small bottle of aspirin from the ship’s store. 24 Bayer aspirin cost me $9.50. Ouch! I took 2 and the other 22 will probably stay in the bottle until they expire in a few years as I so seldom take aspirin. OK, I feel better now with a ridiculously overpriced cup of coffee latte. We opted for the ‘open dining’ plan which means we can eat anytime between 5:15 and 9 pm. We went to dinner last night at about 6:30 and were seated immediately however we notice a big line forming after about 7 pm. We were seated with a young couple who were both grad students at UF and taking their (postponed) honeymoon. We had good conversation and the food was very good. I won’t make any comparisons yet with the overall food quality yet as we’ve only had one dinner so far. Demographics. We noticed almost immediately a big difference in the demographics of the cruisers. ‘Families traveling with kids’ is a small minority of the cruisers. I have seen very few teens and even fewer young children. The average age of cruisers is probably 10 or 20 years older than what we’ve seen on DCL. There are many senior citizens and couples in their 50s and 60s traveling alone. I think the passenger capacity of the ship is about ½ of what sails on DCL’s Magic/Wonder. Nick said the teen hangout is woefully undersized. The is a basketball court right over one side of the large dining rooms and it is very annoying listening to the constant thump, thump, thump of feet overheard while eating lunch so we decided from now on we will eat on the port side under the tennis court as it is quieter. The pool area on the Lido deck has a covered glass dome that looks like it opens up when the weather is sunny but we’ve yet to see the sun. Maybe it will clear up today. We make port today in Key West at 1 pm. The Room. Our room has 2 single beds and a mini sofa. We have a window that looks out on the deck with a slightly obstructed view of the sea. We got a deal on the room as it was ‘special pricing’ because of the ‘obstructed view’ so we got the entire 7 day cruise for $1,750 total for the two of us however the excursions added on another $600. There is a small TV and DVR and you can check out free DVDs from a huge selection of movies. The have about 10 channels including CNN and Fox News so I can maintain my news addiction. The bathroom is pretty small as one might expect and there are adequate closets and drawers. Of course, Nick and I have the room to ourselves so we actually have more stowage space than we need. The room is smaller than what we’ve had on the Magic but with just the 2 of us in the room, it is very adequate. The ship is very clean and well maintained – as much, if not more so than DCL. I think it recently came out of dry dock so it is newly refurbished and it shows. The crew is very cordial and as of right now, we have no complaints about the ship or the crew . . . although I’m still kinda ticked about the $9.50 for the aspirin. Just glanced out the window and can see a series of islands off in the distance which I assume are the FL Keys. Key West. I absolutely love this port! We were here once before with DCL when we took a 7-day western Caribbean cruise. The shorter DCL cruises stop at Nassau, Bahamas but I think Key West is a much cooler port-of-call than the Bahamas. The homes of Key West are remarkable. Even the unremarkable ones warrant at least a smile. There is so much history in Key West and we learned about much of it on the Conch Train tour around the 2 x 4 mile island. The island used to be about ½ the size it is now but they have been building up the land with material they’ve dredged out of the surrounding sea for years so it keeps growing. We learned about Hemingway and Jimmy Buffet and the famous ship wreckers who salvaged the numerous ship wrecks that ran aground and sank on the barrier reefs in the Keys. At one time, Key West had the highest per capita income in the U.S. because of the lucrative shipwreck salvaging business. We got off the train at the lighthouse and climbed to the top for a grand view of the island and we took the obligatory photo in front of the monument boasting “Southern most point of the continental US” which I thought was kind of a odd claim for an off shore island to make. After doing a little shopping for tee shirts and future garage sale items, we toured the shipwreck museum before getting back on board the Ryndam. We did not feel like getting changed for dinner so we opted for the informal dining room this night. I got robbed again last night! This time I was in the casino. I was looking at one of those machines that have hundreds of coins on 3 levels and paddles that push the coins towards the edge. You drop in your quarter and hope that the paddles push coins over the edge and you hope they drop out the bottom. I finally noticed there are slots on the sides that coins drop into but those coins don’t come back to the player as that is the house’s take. I dumped $10 into that stupid thing seeking my fortune! What a waste of money. I am just not much of a gambler as I don’t have the stomach for losing. I may try my hand at blackjack later this week but am still debating just taking a $20 bill and folding it into an airplane and sailing it off the bow of the ship! Last night was the lunar eclipse and since it fell on the winter solstice, it was the ‘darkest night in 245 years’, or so they claimed. I would guess nights that are densely overcast when there is no moon or stars are darker but what do I know. The sky last night was totally clear so Nick had me set my watch alarm so we could go see the eclipse at 0230 but when it went off, neither of us wanted to get out of a warm bed and go up on a cold deck to watch the eclipse. We’ll catch the next one . . . in 245 years or so. First Sea Day. Today we are steaming southwest towards Central America. I went to the gym this morning and ran 5 miles on the treadmill, then went to the sauna to sweat some more. I also went to the whirlpool and swimming pool on the lido deck. After Nick finally got up, we had a late breakfast. He is up in the loft at the teen hang-out and we are to meet for lunch at 1 pm. Belize City, Belize. What a marvelous adventure we had in Belize! Our day started when we anchored 5 milers off shore and loaded onto a tender boat that shuttled us to shore. There we boarded a raggedy old bus and headed in towards the center of Belize. Along the way our guide gave us much information about the history of Belize. I had read the night before that Belize had only become a sovereign nation in1981. The primary language in Belize is English and the main industry is tourism and fishing. After a very bumpy and uncomfortable 1:15h bus ride, we arrived at our base of the caves. We geared up with harnesses, helmet, helmet light and gloves and after a short hike along a very rugged trail, we entered the cave. We were told the Mayans used the cave but I did not see any convincing evidence of that claim. I’ve been in Diamond Cave, Mammoth Cave, Cave of the Winds and Ruby Falls cave but this was much different. There was no stairs or elevator or lights in this cave. The harnesses were initially used to tie on to guide ropes along ledges so we did not slip and plunge to our death below. We next used them to rappel down a 30’ ledge to a lower level of the cave. At times we had to crawl on all fours! It was a tight fit for Nick and I who are both 6’ 3”. Eventually we made it to our first zip-line crossing from one part of the cave to another part across a big ravine. We crossed rope bridges and had to use safety lines several more times. The second zip line was much shorter but also much steeper. After we exited the cave we hiked back to the bus which took us to an outside pavilion for lunch. They had a few photographers at strategic places in the cave and by the zip lines and rappel lines and were selling CDs with about 20 pictures of us for $25. As it turned out, I only had $20 cash on me so I negotiated the CD cost down to $20. After dinner this evening I tried my hand at video poker. I put $5 in the machine and played for about half an hour and still had $2.25 left. So then I tried a slot machine and after 8 consecutive spins without winning a thing, I took my remaining $0.25 and left! Nick found a quarter on the chair in the library and on his way back to the room – which passes thru the casino – he asked some guy to put it in the machine with all the coins on ledges and paddles . . . the machine that took my $10 the previous night. The guy put his quarter in and he won 3 back! Later that evening Nick and I played the $0.75 and won about $3 but I put them right back in and lost them despite Nick’s insistence that we “just walk away” after we hit our minor jackpot. Mahogany Bay, Honduras. Mahogany Bay is on the island of Roatan, Honduras. The island is about 35 miles long and is mostly a tourist resort area. They boast the largest barrier reef in the world second only Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Our adventure here included snorkeling, kayaking and hiking. We saw some awesome coral heads, several lobsters, and numerous reef fishes. While kayaking, I was taking a picture of Nick in his kayak and flipped my kayak! Fortunately my camera is an underwater camera. It was difficult getting back in the kayak in the middle of the water but a few other kayakers came to help hold my kayak while I climbed in. We bought a conch shell horn for $5 and I got Jamie a necklace from one of the little street vendors and we bought Casey some Swiss chocolate from the duty free shop near the ship. There were tons of knick-knack type things, wood turning and crafts and we browsed them all but did not buy anything. Tonight is the second of our formal nights so we will be donning our coats and ties shortly. Our first night they seated us with other people but every night since then we dined alone. I had the steak and lobster tonight and Nick wondered if my lobster had been one we had seen snorkeling that morning. I said he looked familiar. The overall food quality, quantity, accessibility and service are very good. I would rate them “meets expectations”. By contrast, I’d rate DCL as “exceeds expectations”. It seems like maybe our dining room server has few too many people to serve and several times our beverage glasses stayed empty until we asked for refills. The food is very well prepared but a little skimpy IMO. The informal dining room buffet is very disorganized – it is buffet but it is not self serve. I found this to be very inefficient and awkward having to ask for each item and communicate “just a little bit of this and a taste of that”. After all the physical activity today, I turned in early and slept well. Cozumel, Mexico. I went to bed early last night and subsequently woke up at 0500 this morning. I got a cup of coffee in the dining room then came to the lounge to write some on our travelogue. I’m in the lounge waiting for the Ridiculously Overpriced Coffee Shop to open. Our adventure today took us to the Coba Mayan Ruins and it was a day of jaw-dropping awe! It was so awesome that I didn’t even mind the 3 hours it took just to get to Coba. Cozumel is an island just off the Yucatan peninsula. We docked in Cozumel adjacent to the Allure of the Sea which I overheard someone say is the largest cruise ship in the world as it is 6” longer than it’s sister ship the Oasis of the Sea. ‘I don’t know what the big deal is, it doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauritania.’ It obviously dwarfed the Ryndam that looked like a toy boat next to her. We got on board a shuttle boat to take us to the mainland and after the 40 minute boat ride, got on board a big motor coach tour bus for the 1:45 ride into Coba. The ride did not seem that long as our two tour guides (two old Mexican men) regaled us with Mayan history and folklore. When we got to the site we walked a full mile back to the first pyramid. Wow! I did not catch exactly when it was built but the site reached its peak in 700 – 1000 AD so it’s safe to say it was at least 1,000 years old. Surprisingly they actually allowed those who were able to climb to the top of the thing. Going up was a workout and coming down was not for those who are uncomfortable with heights as all the steps varied in depth and height. After we had our fill of this pyramid, we began the trek out thinking we’d see the best and most impressive site – not so. We stopped at several other smaller pyramids on the way out and ended up at the most spectacular pyramid. I’ve visited various ancient sites all over the world and it always gives me pause to think about my life. In the grand scheme of things, the things we think are important are really not that lasting. Someday the houses that we call home will return to the earth and be forgotten. There were 50,000 Mayans who lived in the Coba area and all of their homes and remains are gone. The only reason we even know these Mayan existed is because the Coba ruins were found in the 1920s. I also can’t help but think how short of time our lifespan of 70 or 80 years really is. For thousands of years, the average lifespan was 30 or 40 years. At 47 I would have been a tribal elder living on borrowed time. Second Sea Day, Christmas Day. I’ve experienced 47 Christmas’s so far and I’ve enjoyed them all but this one was unique. However, it totally does not feel like Christmas. The ship has few minor decorations up and the Captain announced this morning they picked up a sleigh and some reindeer on the ship’s radar and I think Santa may be in the atrium for the children but Christmas to me is about family and it feels odd having only Nick – who still slumbers at 10 am BTW – near by. I got up at 0600 hrs this morning, had a cup of coffee, went to the gym and ran 5 miles then swam a little, sat in the hottub and came to the lounge for a really expensive cup of joe at the Really Overpriced Coffee Shop. Hmmm, I just remembered there was a time change last night so I guess I really got up at 0700. Wow, I feel much better now knowing that I slept in so late. They gave us our luggage tags this morning and we are to disembark at 0830 tomorrow. Disembarkation. Last night we packed our suitcases and put them in the hall to be picked up. Unlike DCL, we had till midnight to get out bags out in the hall. At first I thought this was a good idea waiting till later to put our bags out . . . until we tried to go to bed at 11 pm last night and listened to all the ruckus in the halls as they retrieved suitcases. I woke up about 0530, showered and came to the dining hall for coffee. The coffee here is free so they squeezed the last Ridiculously Overpriced Cup of Coffee out of me yesterday. Yesterday Nick and I played chess on the lido deck with on one of those games where they pieces are like 2 feet tall. It was a good game but Nick is smarter than me and I eventually surrendered my king. Last night Nick and I went to the casino and played video poker. I told Nick the basic rules of ‘jacks are better to open draw poker’ and let him play. He did ok and lost his $5 stake in short order. No one seemed to notice or care that he was there at the machine. I’m not sure if this was because he was with me or because he looks 18 but I think the former as once before he was asked to leave as he had stopped to watch a game. Our disembarkation time is 0830. They allow the folks with early flights get off during the first wave at 0730. I’m anxious to get home but I certainly understand it takes time to get everyone off this boat and people with flights need to get off first. Summary. This is our 8th cruise and we made memories that will never be forgotten. I told Nick when his son is 17, maybe I will travel with them and we’ll do another Christmas cruise. I never did anything even remotely similar to this with my father. We did not have many deep, introspective or reflective discussions but we did share some unique experiences. On a rating scale where I give DCL an overall 10 for the cruising experience, I’d give HAL an overall 7. Part of that lower rating is no fault of Holland America’s, it is simply the demographics. There are a lot of senior citizens on board. I don’t know if these seniors are life long cruisers or if they waited until they retired to start traveling but I suspect it is the latter. The most enjoyable part of this experience was the hiking, snorkeling, repelling, zip-linning and such that the seniors were simply not physically able to do. IMO, cruising for cruising sake is just not worth it. Yes the food and dining are good but there are much better shows in Vegas or any number of other places. To me, cruising is a convenient way to visit various ports-of-call and see the world. When I get to the point that I need to use a walker with tennis balls on the walker legs, I hope I’ve had my fill of cruising by then. The food was good on the ship but not great. The serving sizes were pathetic. I had a filet mignon last night that was about the diameter of a silver dollar. It came with 6 or 7 marble-sized potatoes and half a serving of string beans. I literally laughed out loud when I saw the plate. Of course they brought out a second entrée from me and I did not leave hungry but nearly all the dishes were skimpy like this. Perhaps this reflected the older demographic onboard? It is nearly 0700 now and I will go rouse Nick so we can have some breakfast and begin our journey home. It was a wonderful trip and very special time for Nick and I. Soon he will be off at college and starting his own family but the memory of this week will stay in my mind and my heart forever!