I've now taken 5 cruises to Alaska in the past decade, thanks to my wife's fascination with the place--three on Princess, and now two on Holland America. Regardless of the cruise line, I recommend that rookie cruisers aim for Alaska first, as the amazing vistas can make even an average cruise seems pretty wonderful. If somebody is ever going to drag me to the Caribbean (a third-rate Hawaii for the unsuspecting) that ship better darn well be spectacular...not so critical here.
This was my first trip on the Westerdam, and I found it to be a (mostly) pleasant experience overall. Positive impressions included the overall professionalism of the operation; outstanding, spacious cabin (deluxe verandah suite) and decent amenities commensurate with the price point. Given the size and scope of all the Alaskan cruise operations, anything short of that would have been somewhat surprising. None of these lines are new at this.
The Fitness Center is always a big deal to my wife and More
I, and this one was ok. The usual enthusiastic crowd overwhelming the place on the first sea day ("I'm going to work out EVERY day, for sure!") and then just a few regulars after that. Crowds not an issue. Note to HAL: It wouldn't hurt to touch up the rust spots on some of the machines. White paint is cheap, and the concept of painting is customary on most vessels. BTW, I also learned the Australian pronunciation of "water" from the staff: "WAR-tuh." Just a side note.
Entertainment was decent, the shows were not bad. I even liked the 'Dancing with the Stars' show, probably because my wife won it. (I taught her everything she knows. Not.)
The food...was, um, plentiful. A wide variety of the usual average everything. I'm fine with that, it's to be expected, and the Italian "surcharge" restaurant was actually pretty good--attentive staff, solid quality and nice portions. Didn't try the "steakhouse" surcharge place. The main dining room was ok--but I had some issues with the buffet and the grill, both worth noting:
First, the buffet. As you may know, HAL ships do not allow buffet self-service for the first 48 hours of a cruise, ostensibly to reduce the risk of illness. That slows the lines down considerably, and is extremely irritating. Ah, you may say--but that fact is more than offset by the reduced risk! Except that I did extensive research and found NOTHING that indicates HAL has a lower rate of gastrointestinal illness than, say, Princess. Imagine the wonderful irony at work--HAL has a policy that guarantees bad buffet service and successfully positions it as a marketing ASSET. Awesome. Even after the initial 48 hours, my teeth were on edge--if the buffet servers had worked any slower the ship would have sailed backwards. Of course, part of that is the (lack of) communication between picky eaters and Indonesian employees. As Prince Charles once said, "The international language is bad English." In any case, it was the slowest buffet line I've yet experienced at sea.
Now, the grill. This is a small thing, but small things add up. On four, count 'em, four separate occasions I distinctly and carefully ordered a "medium rare" cheeseburger from the "cook to order" grill. The first was well done but edible...the next three were increasingly charred as to be impressively inedible. How difficult is it to under cook a cheeseburger? Heck, it's the default mode in a slammed kitchen. (But room service compensated by delivering doughy muffins and raw scrambled eggs. I soon passed on room service.)
Saw Sitka for the first time, lovely. Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria comprised the other ports of call, with a trip to Glacier Bay, all worthwhile. Embarkation/debarkation professional and courteous. Weather worked out, usual mix of rain and sun, 65/35. It's Alaska, and there's a reason for all that greenery.
So, Princess vs HAL? My clear winner is Princess. HAL tends to carry fewer passengers than the Princess ships, but that doesn't necessarily mean it feels less crowded--the ship is smaller. The net result is you get the same 'small city' feel as on, say, the Grand Princess, but the larger Princess ships deliver better/broader dining and entertainment options. I believe the prices are comparable, but you'll decide that.
Whichever cruise line and itinerary you choose, you'll enjoy Alaska. The amazing mountains, ports of call and the WAR-tuh, too. Less