I have just returned from my 25th cruise. This one, however, was our first visit to Alaska and our first time aboard Holland America. We traveled with other family members, 14 total, ranging from 74 years old to 15 months old. We started planning this cruise back in 2010, but the plans had to be placed on hold because of my father's health issues, followed by two new babies in the family. But after a lot of planning, we finally picked a ship and a date. Several family members would be first time cruisers, one who visualized cruising as a worse experience than medieval torture. Would this cruise change his mind? We'd soon find out.
My most recent cruises had been on the 225,000 ton Allure of the Seas and the 130,000 ton Carnival Dream, so I will start by saying that I was a bit skeptical about sailing aboard the comparatively small 82,000 ton Westerdam.
I learned VERY quickly that a cruise to Alaska would be mostly about the destination and not so much about the ship.
We flew to Seattle the day before the cruise on Souhwest Airlines. This was our 1st time flying on them and while their fares are great and the free bags are a nice perk, this airline is not for me. The flight was late, the whole cattle boarding with no seat assignment is not how I want to start my vacation, with people trampling each other and throwing bags to secure a seat. To top it all, they lost one of our checked bags (the BIG one, with most of our clothes). Just for the record, we are back home and the bag is still missing. How an airline looses a bag indefinitely, flying nonstop between two cities, is beyond me.
Instead of exploring Seattle, we spent the morning of the cruise shopping for 7 days worth of clothes for the whole family. The good news is that we did our best to laugh it off and tried to forget about it (at least until we got home). By the way, gym pants and a dinner jacket can look good on a 3 year old on formal night!
We stayed at the Westin downtown, which proved to be an ideal location for our shopping marathon as well as the bit of sightseeing we were able to squeeze in.
As mentioned before, I was a bit skeptical about sailing on the Westerdam. But I must admit that, as I got to know my way around, I warmed up to her and truly enjoyed sailing aboard this ship.
Built in 2004, she's not brand new, but she's definitely not an old gal. She does feel just a bit tired in some places though (nothing major, just little cosmetic issues that can easily be fixed wit new carpeting or wall covers).
There were some areas which I absolutely loved, and spent a generous amount of time in:
- Crow's Nest and Explorations Lounge: easily the best spot on the entire ship. Tastefully decorated, wonderful views, and great ambiance.
- Greenhouse Spa: We signed up for the Spa Retreat week pass which gave us access to the Thermal Suite and the Hydro pool. A little slice of Heaven, specially after a long day of sightseeing.
- The Pinnacle Grill: We have enjoyed alternative dining on other cruise lines, and the Pinnacle Grill did not disappoint. The cuisine was great, the service polished, and we enjoyed having the option to eat here for lunch as well as dinner.
- Lido Pool: Nice layout. The glass roof was perfect for Alaska cruising, and since we were blessed with beautiful clear skies, the roof was retracted a few times. There's something to be said about taking a dip in a hot tub while enjoying the amazing Alaska scenery!
I didn't love everything about the Westerdam though. The decor is truly not to my taste and I found it to be a bit inconsistent. One moment I'd find myself walking by an elegant and tasteful venue or by a fine piece of art, only to be met by the most hideous and tacky decor at another. Some may say that some areas of the ship are "cozy". I'd call them dark and gloomy.
Please do note that even though the decor was not to my liking, it truly didn't affect our enjoyment of an otherwise absolutely wonderful cruise.
We had initially booked an oceanview stateroom on the Main Deck (1) but just a few days before the cruise, prices dropped and we upgraded to a balcony stateroom on Verandah Deck (5) for free, plus we received $150 onboard credit!
The stateroom was wonderful, the bed very comfortable, and we were very glad about having a balcony. Although we found ourselves out on deck for "serious" scenery watching, it was nice to have a balcony where to sit and enjoy some fresh air. The DVD player was a nice and useful touch, specially for people like us with small children and an arsenal of DVD's for kids.
The other family members traveling with us booked cabins ranging from Oceanview Staterooms to Signature Suites. All were very happy with their accommodations.
- Lido Restaurant: We ate at the Lido more than we would've liked because we were traveling with small children. the selections were varied and tasteful, but I had an issue with cleanliness (more on that below).
- The Vista Dining Room: Very nice (on the few nights we did make it there). One word of caution for families: waiters don't seem to be as used to small children as on other cruise lines, so service is more "adult" and less "family friendly".
- Pinnacle Grill: I already mentioned it before, but I'll do it again. This venue is a definite highlight on this ship. My wife and I left our kids with the grandparents while we went to eat there and enjoyed every minute of it. Well worth the upcharge.
- Room Service: Nice selection. Definitely wider than on other cruise lines we've taken. It was nice to enjoy a full breakfast in cabin instead of just a continental breakfast. The only thing that was amusing (and a bit annoying at the same time) was the fact that they kept delivering burnt toast. We kept ordering it hoping that the next day they'd get it right but they never did. No biggie. As I said, more amusing than anything else. The use of china instead of hard plastic plates like on other cruise lines we've sailed on was a welcome touch.
One of the things that I had read extensively about Holland America was that they cater heavily to a well traveled, older, more affluent, and polished clientele.
I will assume that, because this was a 7 night itinerary during the summer departing from a US port, the demographics were different. While there were many fellow cruisers that did fit the description that I had read, there were also many younger cruisers, several families, first timers, etc. Basically, there was a bit of everything, very similar to what we've experienced on more budget conscious cruise lines. Ironically, I had read on the Holland America board that I would never see people walking around the ship in their bathrobes. Well, I think that not everybody received that memo because I saw several throughout the week. It didn't bother me. I just found it a bit entertaining.
There were many families with kids on our cruise and Club HAL and The Loft are the programs geared towards them. While our kids only attended a few times (we chose to let them play with their older cousins instead), the staff was wonderful and the activities were plentiful. The actual facilities pale in comparison to more "family friendly" cruise lines, but at least they are offered.
We choose this itinerary specifically because it sailed from Seattle, on a Saturday, and visited Glacier Bay.
The convenience of sailing roundtrip from Seattle was priceless. The main drawback though was that we sailed along the west side of Vancouver Island (instead of the inside passage) so we didn't start enjoying the scenery until day 3 going into Juneau. Not only was it less scenic, but the seas were very rough on the first night. Thankfully, after that, we were blessed with blue skies and calm seas.
-Juneau: Unfortunately, I got sick this day (more on that later) so I didn't get off the ship. But my wife and kids took the Glacier Express to Mendenhall Glacier and had a nice time, although they said they were packed like sardines on the bus. So a different method of transportation may be a better option even if its more expensive.
Other family members did the helicopter / dog sledding tour and they said that it was the most amazing experience of their lives and well worth the price.
-Glacier Bay: First of all, we were blessed with amazingly clear blue skies and temperatures hovering in the 60's. Arriving in Glacier Bay and seeing the beauty of this place with my own eyes was the moment when I realized that the last 3 years of planning, and all the bumps along the way, had been completely worth it. Pictures and videos will NEVER recreate what your senses feel in this place. Pulling up to Margerie Glacier, and enjoying the views, breathing the pure air, listening to the sound of glaciers calving, and feeling the crisp breeze, was an absolutely wonderful experience.
-Sitka: A little hidden gem on another beautiful clear day. Originally, I had been a bit bummed out because I wanted to visit Skagway and do the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, but this itinerary visited Sitka instead. Now I'm glad I had a chance to see this place.
We were tendered ashore on the ship's own lifeboats. Sitka is (thankfully) not as developed for cruise ship passengers as many other Alaskan destinations (they only receive an average of 1 ship twice a week). It doesn't have a cruise ship dock and you are not greeted by chain stores like Diamonds International or fancy Welcome Centers. Instead, there's a sign that says "Welcome to Sitka" next to a visitors booth.
We opted to walk along the waterfront to the Sitka National Park, cut through the forest, and visit the Alaska Raptor Center where we got to see up close many rescued eagles as well as other birds.
On our way back, we walked along Lincoln Street through the downtown area, visited St. Michael's Cathedral, and browsed the shops before going back to the ship.
Other family members did a Kayaking tour and loved it.
-Ketchikan: The only time during the week where the skies were overcast and chilly. Since we had small children in the group, we opted for the Ketchikan Duck Tour. Very cheesy but very informative. We started the tour asking ourselves what we had gotten ourselves into, but finished laughing along with the other passengers. It was nice to get a perspective from both land and sea. After the tour was over, we walked to Creek Street and browsed the stores. If I have to pick a least favorite port of call in this itinerary, Ketchikan would be it. With 4 cruise ships in port at the same time, it felt a bit too crowded (like Nassau or Cozumel on a busy day). Don't get me wrong, I'd go back in a heartbeat since we had a great time. We just liked the other ports more.
-Victoria: Back to clear, beautiful days. What we originally thought would be a technical stop to fulfill law requirements turned out to be one of our favorite ports of call. The ship arrived at 6:00pm and we had to be back onboard by 11:15pm so time was very limited.
We took a taxi and were dropped off near the Parliament. From there we walked to the Fairmont Empress hotel. We took one of the side streets and had dinner at Nautical Nellie's before returning to the ship. Victoria is one of those cities that makes you want to return for a longer stay.
We used our balcony one final time to watch the ship sail away from Victoria while, making a mental note to come back some day.
And just like that, 7 days of one of the most amazing cruises I've ever taken were over. We arrived back in Seattle under blue skies and 77 degrees.
Debarkation was an absolute breeze. The silent method was extremely efficient and we were in our taxi to the hotel in minutes. We enjoyed one more day in Seattle (visiting the Space Needle and Chihully Gardens) before catching a 6:00am flight back to Atlanta the next day. Just for the record, the return flight went smoothly and no bags were lost. Yay!
Would I do an Alaska cruise again? ABSOLUTELY, 100% yes! If I didn't use the word wonderful enough times, I'll use it one more time. It was a wonderful and truly amazing experience! I'm thinking that next time, we'll opt for a one way from Vancouver, spend a few days doing Denali, and enjoy all the great tours (like the helicopter, dog sledding, floatplane, etc) that we didn't get to do this time because we were traveling with small children. But the purpose of this trip was to get the family together so I couldn't just leave the kids behind. Next time may be a completely different story.
Will I ever cruise Holland America again? For the right itinerary, absolutely (and looking at the brochure that we picked up onboard, there are plenty of itineraries worldwide that I would be very interested in). But I don't think they'd be my cruise line of choice for a vacation where the destination is not the main focus. While part of me craves a more traditional cruise experience like what we enjoyed on Holland, I'm very interested in newer, larger, and more innovative ships just for the mere fact that they may be a better option at this stage of my life (raising a young family).
Was there anything that I did NOT enjoy about this cruise? Mostly minor things not even worth mentioning (or already mentioned). But there's ONE thing that wasn't so minor. On the morning we were scheduled to arrive in Juneau, I became violently ill with constant vomiting and diarrhea. I found out that my niece had also woken up with similar symptoms, so needless to say, the first thing that crossed my mind was a Norovirus outbreak. Thankfully, we were traveling with 3 doctors in our family who brought an arsenal of medicines with them, diagnosed us, and brought us back to health by the afternoon. Our symptoms and length of illness pointed to food poisoning. Upon comparing what my niece and I had to eat the day before, we pinpointed the source of our illness to one thing: PIZZA
Obviously, after this experience, I became hyper vigilant of anything that I ate the rest of the week, avoiding items that were at a higher risk of spoiling or cross contamination. And I also became more aware of how food was being handled. And that's when I noticed some food workers, wearing gloves, but touching surfaces, taking trash out and then handling the food. I watched as one worker put too much rice on someone's plate and then grabbed the excess rice with her hands and dumped it back in the original container. I lost my appetite fast and walked away. I also walked by the pizza station and noticed slices of pizza sitting under the heat lamp and made me wonder if someone else would also get sick. Amazing the things you notice after you get food poisoning! I did report what happened and included it in my guest survey.
So, taking the lost bag and the food poisoning incident out of the equation, we had an amazing vacation and I would do it again in a heartbeat. This is one cruise that everybody, cruise enthusiast or not, should experience.
Which brings me to my brother in law who considered cruising to be comparable to medieval torture before this vacation. Initially, he tried to focus on the negatives but by the time we got to Juneau and he hopped on the glacier helicopter tour, he became a believer. I don't think he'll become a cruise enthusiast like I am, but he enjoyed the experience tremendously and might even consider taking another cruise some day (gasp!)