We're a family of three, two adults and one 10 year old girl. This was our second cruise, the first being on The Disney Dream. We chose HAL for Alaska because they have permission to enter Glacier Bay and were recommended by a few trusted friends - people who've taken multiple cruises and know our family's preferences. It turns out the Oosterdam was a solid pick.
Seattle's downtown area is perfectly situated right next to where the ships dock. We arrived in the evening, spent a day doing activities in Seattle, spent a second night at the hotel (We could see our ship come in from the Westin Seattle) and embarked the next day. If you have the time, here a few restaurant recommendations: Top Pot for Doughnuts, Pike Brewery for just about any meal, Belltown Pizza for casual late night dining and Oddfellows for lunch. We also enjoyed a meal and a Greek restaurant called Lola, not too far from The Westin.
The most pleasant embarkation to date! Port employees were genuinely friendly and helpful. Our photos were taken promptly and we were on our way to our room, which lo and behold was ready! This was a first.
Loved it. Having read the editorial review, I worried we'd be cramped and lack storage. It was a non-issue. We felt we had as much living space as we did on The Dream and the overall design of the cabin was relaxing. Speaking of which, the beds were incredibly comfortable -- better than our bed at home and with nicer linens. I was also impressed with the bathroom. The spa line of toiletries had this great smell, the shower had excellent water pressure and the bath was a decent size. The balcony was also big enough to fit 2 chairs for an adult and a small child, so that worked out well for us.
Note: Having cruised twice, I probably would not bother traveling without a verandah. Waking up to see a new landscape is priceless.
We met our cabin steward (who did a great job, btw and made excellent towel animals) briefly then headed straight to the Lido for lunch.
The Lido was a bit crowded on the first day, but we managed to find a seat by the large window and head over to the buffet. Compared to our other cruise, this food was just as good. I'd resigned myself to the idea that cruise food is not always going to be as good as what you'd get ashore, but HAL exceeded by expectations in many respects with the freshness of the produce, fruit and quality of the beef. I can't comment on the seafood as I don't eat it, but the other types of meat (including lamb) were all very tasty. The only thing I found disappointing was some turkey I had one day at lunch, but there was some really good ham that made up for it plus a lot of other things to choose from. There weren't a lot of ethnic choices - just an Asian station with mediocre sushi and the usual Americanized stir-fry dishes, but my husband enjoyed his stir-fry. Because there were so many other choices, I never even made it to the Asian station. So in terms of variety, I thought it was fine. Plus if you're observant, you will also notice they change up the salad selections every day, so if you like various whole grain salads with wheat berries and such, always take a pass by the salad station.
Whales and Porpoises
Saw quite a few throughout the cruise. If you spend a lot of time looking out the window, you're bound to see one and usually when there's on there are more. First you see the spouts, then you see the whales. Porpoises just kind of come out of nowhere and then start jumping alongside the ships. The three we saw did a little synchronized act alongside the ship. I think they like playing in the wake.
I like babies and don't mind hearing them cry, but when kids get unruly it can be a stress for the parents therefore a ship full of babies can mean a ship full of harried parents. This was not the case on HAL. People seemed fairly mellow and happy. The crowd may have skewed a wee bit on the older side, but I find that a bonus as I tend to enjoy the company of people with more experience on this planet - especially healthy, happy, seasoned travelers. There were also happy young couples and plenty of middle aged parents with kids my daughter's age. It was a nice mix of people from different walks of life. I didn't feel that "I'm here to drop the kids off at the club and get toasted" vibe.
Having traveled only on a very large ship, it was nice being on a somewhat smaller ship and having access to the crew. I actually knew the cruise director's name and loved that he participated in game shows and ran trivia. His name was JT and while he was not the captain, he was kind of the voice (along with the captain) of the ship and seemed like someone you could trust to handle any problem that arose. The party planner and culinary host (Kirby) was delightful, the guy who led the tech classes was funny, the spa staff were always visible and friendly, and the captain was the best! He even participated in a culinary demonstration in which he made Dutch pancakes and answered questions about life as a captain. It was truly fascinating and if HAL offers that again, I recommend you go even if you don't have kids. By the end of the tour we felt like they were part of our family and it was kind of sad to leave. By the way, I realize how cheesy that sounds and I never thought I'd say that in a review, but the staff were just so warm and efficient and genuine. Which leads me to the dining room staff. We were supposed to be at a table of 8 but they gave us a table of 4 which meant the three of us weren't sharing a table with another family. It was actually kind of nice not having to make small talk every evening, but even better knowing we'd have the same waiter, Freddy, every night. He was kind to our daughter, remembered our preferences, and very professional at the same time. Okay, so that's enough about the great service.
But let's get back to the food. Main dining room food was VERY good. We didn't go until the third night because we had our first dinner at Canaletto and second at Pinnacle, but the main dining room was a sideways step rather than a step down, in my opinion. Pinnacle was good and the steak at Pinnacle was a tiny bit better than the one I had on surf and turf night in the MDR, but the service on the upper level of the MDR was better and overall. That being said, I'd definitely have another evening at Pinnacle for the great steak and maybe a chance to try some other things.
As for Canaletto, It was solid and we had excellent service. The food was good, but not quite in the same league as Disney's Palo. Then again, you have to pay extra for Palo. My chicken Marsala was tasty, but it was on par with Macaroni Grill (which I happen to like for casual dining, knowing full well it's not the utmost in cuisine).
Okay, moving on. Whoops . Not moving on. Desserts! We loved the desserts on HAL. The cookies were okay, but not very imaginative. They had sugar, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin. Maybe they could throw in a more imaginative cookie? I suggest big ginger cookies for HAL. Seems like they wouldn't be too difficult. The cakes were excellent - moist and in varied flavors and the other desserts were quite inventive. I also loved eating different takes on Baked Alaska every night. The chefs would make it with different flavors of Ben & Jerry's and different sauces each evening. Good thing we could order as many desserts as we wanted. The sundaes, cakes and tarts were all great. There was a cheesecake which I didn't care for because it tasted more like icebox cake than real New York cheesecake, but it wasn't terrible like the gelatinous mess I'd had on the other ship. They also had sugar free desserts such as pudding, Jell-O, some sort of apple thing and chocolate mousse. The breads were all good too, though the muffins were a little heavy and not really my style.
The wine by the glass list was rather limited and the bottled wines were all marked up. I never thought I'd say this, but it might be work taking your own wine on board and paying whatever corkage fees they charge. That, or just order wine by the glass. If you do order a bottle of wine, they cork it when you're done and bring it out the next meal. That was kind of nice, as we don't typically drink a bottle of wine every night.
We loved going to the daily trivia game, culinary demos, craft session and game shows. Bingo was a lot of fun too and there were plenty of kids in attendance, which is always a riot. We only did one Bingo game because you have to pay for it, but next time I'll budget for more bingo. When there weren't activities going on, we either swam or read books and played games in the Explorations lounge (more on that later.)
The singers and dancers were fine, but they could use some new material to work with. We still enjoyed watching them. The magician, Leo Ward, was fantastic. Our daughter couldn't stop talking about him. The whole family also liked the comedian who was funny without being raunchy. I'll also add that we went to all the 10:00 shows. That's way past the usual kid bed time, but on a cruise it didn't seem to matter and there were other well-behaved kids in attendance.
It was small and homey with lots of planned activities games and I believe, X-boxes. Kids came and went. It never seemed over-crowded, but there were always enough people for our daughter to play with. She only went twice in 7 days, but the Kid's Club staff remembered her and wrote her a personal goodbye letter on the last day. Oh, and they kids did a talent show one day! They got to perform in the Queen's Lounge on a real stage and everyone on the ship was invited (though not everyone came, thank goodness). The staff were so encouraging and supportive of the kids' talents. Again, that was just another advantage of a small kid's club. Not having a toddler, I didn't pay any attention to policies on toddlers, but I really didn't see a lot of them on board anyway.
Always a nice place to swim and never too crowded. Hanging out by the pool was fun because it always smelled like hamburgers. There were lots of comfy chairs and of course, a nice view out of the windows. Because we were in a cold climate, it was covered, though the top of the deck as a big skylight type thing that they can open during nice weather.
Explorer's Lounge/Crow's Nest
Filled with periodicals, books, a paperback exchange (I traded two new good books for two new good books), puzzles and games, this little coffee lounge was our favorite room. It had really comfortable chairs (3 or 4 were Eames) and sofas and you could always find a place to sit back and enjoy your book without being secluded or truly alone because the Explorer's Lounge connected with a much larger lounge called Crow's nest which had a big wall of windows. It was pretty much the living room of the ship - always busy, but never over-crowded or unpleasant.
I've been known to throw money in the slots from time to time, but this room didn't appeal to me. It was dark and smoky. We always walked through it really quickly. The casino host seemed really nice, though. If you don't mind the smoke and like games, it seems like a fun place to learn some gaming lessons. I just can't sit very long in a room full of smoke, but I'm probably not the casino's target audience anyway. I'm not sure we'll ever see non-smoking casinos, sadly.
Our first cruise set the bar pretty high. This one was a completely different experience which had a completely different bar set at that same level just in a different spot.