In the summer of 2006 my wife and I attended a reception for Holland America Line (HAL) hosted by our local travel agent. We were so impressed with the HAL presentation that we decided we would give them a try. One point that attracted me particularly was the smaller capacity of most of their ships. In the late fall of 2006 we and another couple booked on MS Amsterdam for their seven-day Alaska Inside Passage cruise round trip from Seattle for May 2007. We chose the seven-day as opposed to a longer cruise because of time constraints on some of our party. The trip was planned as a birthday cruise for one of our number.
We (my wife and I) booked through our regular agent. The other couple, who live outside the US, booked online. We two chose an ocean view cabin. I wanted a veranda cabin but all were already booked and I did not want a penthouse suite. The fare was only slightly higher than what we have paid on previous cruises, possibly due to increased fuel costs. Our agent was able to get restricted air tickets Atlanta-Seattle RT for several hundreds of dollars less per passenger than HAL wanted for their air package. Guess which we took. We chose our shore excursions before leaving home and booked them on line, having them billed immediately to our credit card by HAL, a procedure we had not encountered before.
We flew from ATL early the morning of the cruise. With the time zone change, it was still morning when we got to Seattle. Baggage pickup and handling was smooth on arrival, with assistance from HAL/Princess reps. The prepaid bus ride to the pier was non-eventful. Embarkation was more chaotic and inefficient than I expected. Despite our having prepared at home the online HAL "express" boarding passes, boarding was anything but express. There was a long line of passengers filling out forms that mostly asked for information that we had already submitted, including credit card billing details. In fact, another line of passengers who did not have the express passes, was shorter and moved much more quickly. However, all the HAL personnel were friendly, cheerful and good-humored.
Next, armed with our cruise cards, we boarded the ship. We knew our deck and cabin number, but upon entry through the gangway, we were informed that our cabin was not ready and that we should go to lunch first in the buffet restaurant. We did that, leaving our hand carried bags in a holding area. After an hour, our cabin was ready. We were pleased to find a large, comfortable room with a sitting area, a full tub in the bath, and plenty of storage space. We found our friends, who had traveled separately, within an hour, and spent some time exploring the ship. Everything on Amsterdam is up-to-date and in good working order. Amsterdam had just come off the 105-day world cruise but nothing seemed the worse for wear. There was one morning when the vacuum toilets stopped working. The front desk staff acted surprised when I reported it but I know it happened all over the ship and has happened before. It cleared itself up (as far as I know) in a couple of hours. The front desk did call back later to ask if the toilet was working again.
The ship sailed on time and the lifeboat drill was held shortly afterward. On HAL, the drill is held on the boat deck with the passengers assembled around their boat station. The exercise was a muddle, with crew members calling the names of passengers who should be present until someone (anyone?) answered. By the time we got back to our cabin, our baggage had been delivered and we met our cabin attendant, Bardu. We saw very little of him during the cruise but never lacked for anything we wanted or needed.
Then to dinner. Any-time dining is not available on Amsterdam. We chose second seating and were assigned to a table for six in the upper main dining room. We went to the dining room only for dinner each day and ate our other meals in the buffet or on deck. The meal group was made up of we four and a congenial retired couple from Houston. We all struck it off immediately, never lacking for conversation or mild jokes at each other's expense. All present were appropriately dressed for each meal, including two formal nights. All participated willingly in dining room fun such as Dutch hat night and chef's special night. The wait staff, Karna and his assistant Nyoman ("Newman") were attentive and responsive, the wine waiter only slightly less so. The headwaiter or captain, Sugiyono, came to our table several times each meal to check on us or simply for conversation. After the first night, he brought us every night the next night's dinner menu and vegetarian menu so that some of us could choose in advance the dishes they wanted. Meals began on time, were served promptly and were finished expeditiously, but with no rushing. The food was generally good. I'm easily satisfied, as is our male companion, but the two ladies occasionally refused a plate or sent something back and reordered. In the buffet lunch line, they ladies were dissatisfied with quite a few items offered, and the day of our on-deck grilled salmon lunch at Ketchikan, they were absolutely horrified by the quality of the salmon that was served. Other than the dining rooms, we enjoyed the pizza, taco and burger bar on the pool deck, my wife loved the atmosphere in the coffee bar, We had one exquisite seafood lunch in the Pinnacle Grill, courtesy of our travel agent, with superb table service by Mattej, a young Slovenian who is gaining experience to start his own food service establishment. In all dining areas, we noted a general laxness on the part of passengers and crew in regard to the use of hand sanitizers.
We attended all of the production shows in the main lounge. There was plenty of seating space and never a problem with being on time for a show because of late meals. All the shows were good; the lead male singer and the second banana female were outstanding. The shows were a pleasant change, having seen the same four shows on four different cruises, over and over again, on a different cruise line. We did not bother with any of the comedians, jugglers, impressionists, or whatever else they had to offer. For other entertainment, we shopped, went to the casino one night, and spent some time almost every night in one or another lounge in conversation or dancing. The musical ensembles, mostly Filipino, were uniformly good. One young man, Paul, a violinist, was marvelous. My male traveling companion and I went once to a wine tasting conducted with flair by Rod, the head wine steward. For exercise, I walked two miles almost every day on the prom deck; my wife accompanied me a few times but I was never alone because there were plenty of other walkers. We had our photos taken a few times; I commend the photography staff for not being aggressive.
Our cruise took us to Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan in Alaska, and Victoria in British Columbia. We also spent a day cruising in Glacier Bay National Park. As was to be expected in mid-May in Alaska, the weather was cool but we had sunshine every day. Even in the national park, the morning chill and overcast burned off by noon and we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon. Hot pea soup served on deck that morning certainly helped ward off the chill. We participated in guided tours or excursions at every port. There's a certain sameness to the Alaska towns and not a lot to choose from among a variety of nature walks, wildlife sightings and salmon bakes at each. During the whole cruise I saw one whale, one seal and lots of otters and eagles. Debarkation at Juneau was messy. Throngs of passengers stood for 30 minutes in the passageways waiting for deboarding to begin. Tendering ashore at Sitka went smoothly, as did exiting and returning at the other two stops. On the whole, shore excursions were organized much more casually than has been my previous experience, with a lot left up to the passengers to figure out where they were going and how to get there. However, we thoroughly enjoyed the float plane ride over the Juneau ice field and took pictures as good as anything in National Geographic. The Mt. Roberts tram ride was nice but overpriced. They say you can ride up and down as many times as you want during the day for the price of one ticket, but really, how many times do you want to ride up and down? The salmon hatchery was a bore but the Mendenhall Glacier was worth the price. Sitka was fun, with the Russian dancers and browsing on Lincoln St. Our guide was OK, but made some misstatements about the town and its history. Our guide in Ketchikan, Charlie A., a retired school principal, was the best. He is steeped in local color and tradition and gave us interesting commentary on salmon canning, totem carving and wildlife characteristics. Our stop in Victoria was only a few hours in the evening. The bus driver/guide there was knowledgeable but rather distant. From him I first heard the phrase "First Peoples" for Native Americans.
Service was good everywhere with a couple of rare exceptions in the sales staff in the shops. Perhaps the most difficult person to get to know during the cruise was Captain Dirk van den Berg. I encountered him four separate times, even stood next to him once in the sandwich line in the buffet restaurant. In seven days I managed to get only one word out of him: "Enjoy." Other officers of the navigation staff were much more forthcoming about their duties and experience.
Disembarkation back in Seattle was about as well organized as going ashore in Juneau. Although we had colored-coded baggage tags and a prescribed order for getting off the ship based on flight times or destinations, groups were being called at random. A ship's officer at the gangway told me that the shore party on the dock was dictating debarkation based on the delivery ashore of baggage. Once ashore, customs and immigration was a breeze. We quickly retrieved our bags and the transfer bus was waiting. A 20-minute ride had us at the airport and the bus dropped us and our baggage in the middle of the Memorial Day travelers. After a lengthy wait to check in, we went to the gate with a couple of hours to spare. The flight home was without incident.
My overall impression of HAL is good but not significantly better than the line I usually cruise with. I do like HAL's smaller ships. My three traveling companions have a better overall impression of HAL and MS Rotterdam than I do but by no means do I regret having made this cruise. Perhaps my lukewarm response is a matter of too high an expectation.