February 28, 2014

Around Cape Horn, #4: Regent vs. Holland America -- My Verdict

My home around the Cape Horn: the Zaandam

Sailing on cruise ships is new to me. An inveterate independent traveler, I used to sneer at people who vacationed this way. Now I’m one of them.

I made a fortunate choice for my first cruise last June -- Vancouver, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska. It was terrific, with exciting and fun shore excursions: flying over the mountains in a small plane, landing on a glacier for a walk, boating out to a bird-covered island. And I made a good choice of cruise line – Regent. It has a deserved reputation as being high priced and high quality.

I booked Regent again last summer for a Venice-to-Barcelona excursion with four generations of Schappis. I wasn’t too happy with that cruise; it seemed almost sacrilegious to spend day after day pretending you’ve seen Rome, Florence, and Barcelona after racing around on a bus for five hours with a guide.

That experience led me to conclude that cruises just weren’t meant for me, and that I should abandon the idea of cruising around South Amerca to escape DC's winter and visit a part of the world I'd never seen.

Luckily, I got several messages from friends -- whose judgments I respect -- urging me to give this cruise a try. Someone with lots of cruise experience suggested Holland America Line (HAL). Always willing to try something new, I booked a HAL cruise from Valparaiso, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

This morning I woke up after 6am to hear the cruise director announce we were reaching the point on Cape Horn where we would cross from the Pacific Ocean into the Atlantic. Now it’s north towards home . . . well, at least toward Buenos Aires, where I’ll spend a couple of days before heading back to Washington.

With the cruise coming to an end, I’m ready to make a judgment on which line is better. Actually I made the decision within the first few days at sea.

Hail, HAL!
HAL wins hands down for lots of little reasons, and one big one.

I’d worried that HAL’s ships are much larger. My ship, the Zaandam, carries just over 1,400 passengers, while Regent typically accommodates 500-700. I've noticed the difference only as we've waited for tenders -- those smaller boats -- to take us ashore. But it hasn't been a big deal, and I'm usually very impatient waiting in queues.

On the upside, HAL is cheaper than Regent, especially if you don’t book too many shore excursions or drink alcohol, both of which much be paid for à la carte on HAL. I take lots of shore excursions, but I don’t drink alcohol. I do drink a lot of coffee and occasional soft drinks, and I was surprised that HAL charged for them. But I rarely paid . . . because of HAL's big plus factor, which I’ll explain in a minute.

My cruise-traveling pal made this comment about another HAL plus:
One of the things we enjoy most about cruising is meeting a variety of people. On HAL, we always choose the open seating option in the dining room and ask each night to be seated at a large table for 6-10. Fellow passengers on HAL just seem to be a little more “down to earth” and less privileged (in the negative sense of the word) than the Regent bunch. 
I’ve tried this big-table dining option once, and it was fine. But I’m a solo traveler, often ill-at-ease with strangers. I find it easier to deal with new people at the bridge table, and cruise ships offer plenty of opportunity for that.

On this HAL ship, the "cheapest" stateroom with veranda is similar in size to the standard Regent suite, but slightly smaller and not so plush. HAL's next step up -- my choice -- features rooms that are about twice as large as standard-class rooms, and about twice the price . . . and similar to Regent's tariff.

Here’s my suite. It's much larger than my Regent accommodations, and includes a separate dressing area and larger veranda (which has meant nothing on this frigid cruise).

The BIG Plus Factor

I knew HAL was the winner within the first few days because of the separate concierge suite that's available to travelers in the higher-priced staterooms. The "Neptune Suite" is staffed by terrific concierges Isobel and Paulo, shown above.

On Regent, I spent lots of time dealing with the ship’s front office on internet and other issues. My requests competed with those of 500 other passengers. Here on HAL, the Neptune Suite’s services are available exclusively to passengers in only about 30 staterooms.

Neptune is just two doors down the hall from me. While its guests have exclusive use of the ship's best restaurant for breakfast, the concierge suite offers good cold breakfast options, and I prefer going there. Neptune is particularly convenient on mornings when we're hurrying to make shore tours.

Most of the time, I have the comfortable lounge to myself. It offers coffee, tea and and hors d’oeuvres during the day. I've found it to be a perfect place to unwind with coffee and snacks at the end of the day.

Neptune guests also get free laundry and dry cleaning, priority boarding for the shore tenders, and lots of other perks.

We arrive tomorrow (Friday) in the Falkland Islands, where most tours involve long drives in jeeps over rough roads to see penguin colonies. The tour director strongly cautioned people with bad backs or other health issues not to try these tours, and I reluctantly decided to take this advice. I told my room stewards that I'd miss the land tours, so -- when they were turning down the bed for the night -- they created this penguin to keep me company tonight:

Regent never did anything like this. HAL's creative room stewards come up with a different animal for my bed every day. Wonder if they take requests.

I’m a very happy camper.

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