I have been wanting to go on a cruise for quite some time now--my family, not so much. For vacation, we usually take road trips or do timeshare exchanges, but going to Alaska has been one of my "bucket list" items and taking a cruise seemed to be the best way to see tidewater glaciers. With two active teenagers, the Holland America Oosterdam was not my first choice in cruise ships. However, it was sailing the week my husband had requested for vacation, and, conveniently, the professional society he belongs to was offering continuing education classes aboard the ship. So after vacillating for many months, we reserved the last two adjoining balcony cabins still available after final deposit was due.
The following, rather lengthy, review is from the perspective of a cruising newbie. The comments have been subdivided into various topics so that you may scroll down to find what might be of interest to you. However, allow me to make a disclaimer. Because I was charmed by the novelty of this adventure, I probably am not as discerning as I should be. Someone else on this exact same cruise, with more cruising experience, might be able to provide more insight. Be that as it may, I will provide a few comments from the perspective of a cruising beginner.
Because of a family commitment, we were unable to fly early to Seattle. I've read a lot of discussion here on Cruise Critic regarding whether or not to arrive early to your port of embarkation. I think that if, like us, you have to arrive the day of the cruise, it's alright--especially if you take the first flight out, don't have bad weather or flight delays, and are flying within the same time zone. But definitely, it would be much nicer to come a little early to do some sightseeing first, particularly in a destination city like Seattle. Moreover, because we left so early in the morning we were a bit frazzled by the time we reached the cruise ship, and our embarkation photo looks like some sort of horrible mug shot!
At the advice of our travel agent, we did not book a ship transfer but instead caught a taxi from the airport to Smith's Cover Terminal 91 for $50 plus tip. Since there were four of us plus luggage, this seemed like a good deal. For that price, we also got to chat with the taxi driver about downtown development and the possibility of an NBA team coming to Seattle. Once at the cruise terminal, the check-in process was part airport security, part hotel registration, and part holding pen. The whole process went very smoothly, though: We arrived at the terminal at 10:30, checked in and waited until 11:30, then boarded and were having lunch by 12 noon.
Tip: Have your passport and boarding pass ready as you enter the terminal and take advantage of the many hand sanitizer dispensers scattered throughout the building.
As mentioned above, we booked very late so were lucky to get two adjoining Verandah staterooms towards the back, or aft, of the ship. Level 5 or Verandah deck is quite nice: it is not too far of a walk up to the Lido Buffet and not too far down to the MDR. However, being in the back of the boat means quite a long walk to the Vista Lounge, the Fitness Center, and the Crow's Nest in the front of the ship. There was no door between our stateroom and our kids' room, but the steward opened the balcony partition and we were able to walk back and forth between the two rooms by going out on the balcony. I grew up vacationing in a motor home as a child, so I thought the stateroom's bathroom was quite spacious, much larger than any camper bathroom. However, the ceiling is a bit low, so if you are tall you might have to stoop a little. Counter space is limited, but there is a shelf below the sink for toiletries, and the shower/tub has a retractable cord for drying bathing suits. The hairdryer is not stored in the bathroom but outside in a cabinet in the vanity table. Across from the bathroom are three large closets, one has a locked safe and another has a full length mirror inside the door. The bed is two twins, pushed and locked together, or in my kids' case, separated with a nightstand in between. At the end of each twin is a large drawer, big enough for almost all of the contents of my suitcase, and the suitcases themselves can be stored underneath the bed to save space. The flat screen tv was a tad smaller than I'm used to, but I loved to turn it on to the ship information channel to play on a continuous loop. We also appreciated having a Verandah stateroom so we could prop open the door and get a little fresh air. I saw an Inside stateroom once while walking down the hallway, and it looked substantially smaller than our cabin. However, we met a couple at dinner who were staying in an Inside and who were completely satisfied. With the money they saved they were able to take a fishing excursion almost every day of their cruise!
Tip: If you don't care for long treks from the back to the front of the ship, try booking a room more centrally located than we did.
I thought the food at the Lido Buffet and the MDR was fantastic, but admittedly, I'm not all that discerning when it comes to food. Any meal which I do not have to plan, shop, cook and clean up for is wonderful in my book, and my kids were thrilled to have steak and seafood every night. Such luxury. We loved all the choices, the food itself seemed to always be the right temperature, and the service in the MDR was efficient. My daughter and I discovered Afternoon Tea, which became our little ritual with a cup of English Breakfast and scones everyday at 3. Also, we noticed that if you make special requests, they are very accommodating. There was an extended Indian family who ate curry dishes every night. When my husband asked about this, our waiter said that we too could have Indian food, as long as we ordered it 24 hours in advance. Again, because we booked our cruise so late, we were only able to secure Open Seating Dining. Most nights this was not a problem since we didn't try to eat until after 8 pm, but there was quite a line on the first formal night. I didn't realize this, but you can make reservations for your table even if you are assigned the Open Seating Dining room. My other problem was trying to convince my teenage son that a polo shirt was much more acceptable in the MDR than a Pink Floyd t-shirt. Once he over came his aversion to the dress code, though, my son thoroughly enjoyed four-course dining.
Tip: If you have Open Seating Dining, try making a reservation for the first formal night in order to avoid a lengthy wait.
Holland America is not known for it's onboard activities, but we found many things to do on the Oosterdam . The resident naturalist was quite good, and her lectures about glaciers and Alaskan wildlife were very informative. I went to several cooking demonstrations at the Culinary Arts Institute, while my husband attended the photography sessions. I think we would have enjoyed the "Dancing with the Stars" dance lessons, but my husband was busy attending his continuing education classes each afternoon instead. My son spent a good part of each day at the fitness center, but my daughter was too young to go. And I checked out a couple books from the extensive free library in the Crow's Nest, where my husband and daughter played a few games of chess. We never tried Bingo, and although the pool area had a retractable roof which made it possible to swim in all kinds of inclement weather, we only went once to jacuzzi in the very tiny, lukewarm hot tubs.
Tip: if the coffee at the Lido Buffet is too weak for your taste, the Crow's Nest sells coffee which will perk you up while you browse through the library.
I think my family disagreed about the quality of the shipboard entertainment more than any other aspect of our cruise. My husband and son really enjoyed the live music, particularly the HalCats and the guitarist in the Crow's Nest, but neither one of them liked the large musical revues in the Vista Lounge. Although the songs the revue featured were for a much older crowd, I was impressed that the performers could sing and dance on a stage which moved with the sea swells. My kids and I thought the magician was quite entertaining, but my husband insisted that he had seen better. In fact, when the magician was scheduled for a special matinee feature, my kids and I made sure to go.
Tip: the magic shows get crowded, so go early and sit down in front if you would like to participate.
Summary of the Cruise
The first full day was a Sea Day in which we cruised the Inside Passage heading north. It was definitely nice to be able to relax that first day, especially since the motion sickness medication made me a bit drowsy. Although the ocean was like a lake, I noticed that many other people had patches behind their ears, too.
By the middle of the second day we arrived at Tracy Arm Fjord, and they opened Deck 4 at the prow of the ship for observation. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, with blue skies and even bluer water. Many people commented that the water looked like it could be in the Bahamas, except for the fact that there were iceberg chunks floating by. The fjord gets increasingly more narrow as you sail upstream until you reach Sawyer Island and the Sawyer Glacier. We got a kick out of the seals lounging on the ice floes. My daughter and I had Afternoon Tea, then walked around and around the Promenade Deck looking for the best spot to take pictures. My husband and son went back to our cabins and took pictures from our balcony. I heard that upstairs on the Observation Deck they were serving pea soup and warm blankets, but the day was quite balmy so we never went upstairs. They piped the naturalist's commentary over the loud speakers throughout the afternoon, who provided interesting information about the glacier and the geologic formations.
During the next four days we stopped at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, and Victoria, British Columbia. I've written about each of these under the Port Review section if you need further information, but I want to point out that the Oosterdam is one of the few cruise ships which still stops at Sitka. Some time ago, the residents of Sitka voted not to make improvements to their deep water dock, so cruise ships are forced to tender their guests to the town. This can be quite pricy for the cruise line, and one Sitka local speculated that sometime soon the cruise ships might no longer stop in Sitka at all. However, the town is quite charming and the surrounding scenery is quite spectacular, so if you have a chance to go to Sitka, I would highly recommend that you go.
There are a few things which we did not experience directly. Although my daughter is a teenager, she refused to participate in any of the organized activities for her age group. One day we wandered up to the teen lounge, and we saw kids hanging out and having a good time, but she was too shy to join them. So, Holland America does have organized Children's and Teen's Programs, but I can't really tell you whether those programs are good or not.
We also never signed up for any of the ship's excursions. These can be very pricy, but they come with the guarantee that you will be taken care of and you will always arrive back at the ship on time. I heard many people talking positively about their excursions, so I might be more willing to arrange something on my next cruise.
Finally, on the very first day my daughter and I took a tour of the spa facilities. The thermal spa area looked nice, but my daughter was too young so I didn't even consider buying a package. Later in the cruise I was talking to someone who complained that unlike Holland America, there are other cruise ships which provide adults-only, spa like areas free of charge.
Tip: if you are looking for a total spa experience or a free adults-only sanctuary during your cruise, the Oosterdam might not be the ship for you.
Finally, I want to say that I was amazed by the friendly service provided by the crew of the Oosterdam. Every day they were up early with smiles on their faces, wishing us good morning. I know how hard food service can be, but the serving staff was courteous and professional, always trying to get anything you might need. Our room steward kept our cabin tidy twice a day. And my kids were surprised that the wait staff in the MDR remembered our names. I think Holland America excels in the area of service.
Because our flight home was later in the day, we chose the last disembarkation time slot which allowed us to eat breakfast one more time in the MDR. My husband was a little disgruntled when he saw other people disembarking with their carry-on luggage while we had placed our suitcases outside our stateroom the night before. Personally, though, I was happy not to lug the suitcase any more than I had to. At the appointed time, we went down to the gang plank, walked down to the lower portion of the terminal to collect our luggage, went through customs, and then found the Alamo rental car kiosk just outside the terminal door. The whole process took no more than 15-20 minutes.
Tip: Alamo, National and Enterprise will rent you a one-way car from the cruise terminal to Sea-Tac (for a slightly higher price than normal). The rental agencies shuttle you from the terminal to downtown Seattle where you can pick up the car. Sundays in Seattle are not crazy busy, so its possible to navigate the one-way streets. Also, if you are lucky enough to find metered street parking, it is free on Sunday.
Would I Cruise Again?
Yes, most definitely. I found that certain stereotypes about cruising do hold true: food is always available, you are herded on and off the ship, and some guests are never satisfied. But I was surprised at how social the experience could be. People were generally quite friendly, would ask me questions, and tell me interesting stories. I learned a lot, not only about the state of Alaska, but about what life is like in other parts of the US. I was surprised at how well-traveled people were, and how familiar they were with the region where I live. And I was thankful that I never saw anyone being rude to the crew. I've read horror stories here on Cruise Critic, and I dreaded observing some nasty altercation, but I was thankfully spared any such scene. Perhaps the stereotypical, mature Holland America guest, after a lifetime of working hard, can appreciate others working hard for them.
Ten Reasons Why I Would Sail on Holland America Again:
1. Fresh flowers and live music
2. Robes in each stateroom
3. Turn down service with towel animals and chocolates each night
4. Excellent food and service in the MDR
5. Afternoon tea with scones and clotted cream
6. Very professional crew
7. Good enrichment programs
8. Not a lot of pushy sales tactics
9. An emphasis on safety
10.Fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast
Five Things I Would Do Differently on My Next Alaskan Cruise:
1. Book a whale-watching excursion. We saw whales from the ship, but they were much too far away. If you were on a whale-watching boat, you could get up close and personal with the whales.
2. Go a little later in the summer when the salmon begin to run.
3. Take a float plane to Misty Fjord. There's not much to do in Ketchikan besides shop, and people have said that the fjord is amazing.
4. Take the ship's excursion to Butchart Gardens to have more time.
5. Stay longer in Seattle since there's a lot to see and do there.
If you have never been to Alaska, consider an Alaskan cruise. The scenery, the wildlife and the tidewater glaciers are amazing.