BACKGROUND INFO: We had never cruised before. We went back and forth as to whether we would like this, as a family, or not. We had several family members that have cruised before so we took their experiences to heart. As we really didn't know what we didn't know, we used a travel agent through our local auto club. Next time, I WOULD NOT use an agent. She did not add much value and I ended up calling the 800 number for Holland America several times. They were more than friendly and helpful, although they did suggest I should be calling and using my travel agent. (I got tired of not hearing back from the agent for 10-14 days at a time). Seems like every time I had a question or issue, she was on vacation, out of the office or not available. So, if we ever do go on a cruise again, I think I would either do it myself (through the cruise company or via the internet).
A BIT MORE BACKGROUND: Both my wife and myself have lived and worked overseas, as Expatriates, so we both kind of know that things are not always as you would expect. I have traveled enough, around the world, to 'go with the flow' and again, sometimes things cannot or will not go as expected. That bit of info comes into our story later.
TRAVEL TO THE SHIP:
We live in Portland, Oregon, so we chose to drive to Seattle on the morning of our departure. It's normally about a 3 hour drive, on a good day. We ran into traffic around Tacoma, Washington and then again in Seattle. We thought we would try to get to Seattle around 1:00 PM but it actually was closer to 2:00 PM--we were a bit nervous. The city of Seattle was having a "Hemp" Festival as well as some sort of a race. The downtown core was busy/congested and it was very frustrating going block to block, just inching along.
We finally got to the Pier where the Westerdam was docked. It was a bit stressful to try and find where we needed to drop off our passengers and baggage. We had to stop and ask 2-3 parking lot attendants. Finally, got to where we needed to be and dropped off everyone and I went back and parked. FYI: If you chose to park in their 'long term parking'---it's going to cost to you about $185. It's about $26 per day plus a 9% state tax added on plus a 12.5% city of Seattle parking tax tacked on. That was the last kick in the gut---$185 is a bit steep but it's part of the deal.
Getting on to the ship could not have gone more smoothly. A porter took our bags and we went through security. Just the normal airport metal detector type of security check. We were directed to a window and got our key cards and some basic info and boom, we were on board. I would say arriving late DOES have advantages....no lines, no congestion dropping off our guests at the entrance and no traffic cluster to deal with. Plus, the cruise line doesn't give out any awards for being first on board. We dropped off our 'carryon' baggage in our room---which was ready---and decided to explore a bit. It was a beautiful, glorious summer day in Seattle---sunny and about 80 degrees. The chamber of commerce LOVES these kinds of days in the Pacific Northwest. You had a fantastic view of the city, Mt. Rainier, the Space Needle---just a picture perfect day. We headed to the Lido Bar on the back deck and ordered a Bucket of Beer and bought a $50 soda card (for $25) and we were already into our vacation.
Within the first hour, they have the mandatory Lifeboat drill. Of course, we had just bought our bucket of beer so we had to slog that to our station. We were in the back, could NOT hear so it was generally a waste of time. We knew where we needed to report to and where our life jackets were located (in the closet in our stateroom) and that was about all we got out of the drill---which was over in about 10 minutes.
We went back to the room and our baggage was already there. Decided to get a dinner reservation right away and the only time we could get was 7:45 PM. We had eaten lunch in Seattle so we felt we could make it and if not, maybe a 'room service' snack could help tide us over. We were off the dock at 4 PM and on our way to a week long vacation!!
STATEROOM: We had read a lot of reviews and most said make sure you get a balcony. I guess I would have gone stir crazy if we DID NOT have a balcony. Just getting out and getting some fresh air was a huge relief. Our room, SS Veranda 8054 was nice/pleasant. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law were in the room next to us, SS 8052, so we just opened the deck door and had an extra large deck to move around on. I didn't have high expectations so I was not let down. My wife has a bit higher expectations so she was a bit disappointed. There was supposed to be a picture hanging over our sitting couch that had either fallen off or was removed because you had four screws in the wall, where the painting was supposed to be, with a dark line outlining where the picture was supposed to be. We asked the room steward and he said the frame fell/broke and they had not had a chance to fix it yet. Seemed a bit weird to us. We had the beds pushed together to make I guess would be a king. My younger daughter was on the couch, which made into a single bed at night. There was plenty of closet space to put all of our jackets and nice clothes. We had more than enough room under the bed to put our large luggage---out of sight for the week. The bathroom was adequate. I took a shower in the shower on the first day and DID NOT use it again, the rest of the week---it is pretty tight/compact. I am 6'1 and I felt cramped in the shower. I took a shower in the bathtub the rest of the week---a bit more room to move around. I am not very picky---just get me clean towels each day, make my bed and make sure I have clean sheets and make a general effort to make sure the room is picked up/cleaned up and I am okay. Our room stewards, David and Kris, were fine. They always seemed to know when we were out or gone and our room would be made up, when we returned. A couple of times, they came by to clean and we were in the room. They just came back later. They were helpful/pleasant/friendly. My mother and older daughter were in the room directly across from us, 8056, and it was an inside room, no windows. It was pretty tight/small. We all used our room as the main room so they just used 8056 to sleep in. It was fine for that.
DINING: We had gone back and forth, back and forth, all spring as to whether we wanted a 'fixed' dining time or 'free-style' or 'dine as you wish' dining. Originally, we had decided on a fixed time of 8 PM. As the summer wore on, we decided that time frame would be way too late. We have two daughters and we NEVER eat that late at home (we live in the Pacific Time Zone) and we just didn't think we could do 8 PM dinner every night. I called our travel agent the first part of August to see if we could go back to 'dine as you wish' and she said no, it would be too late since we were sailing in about 3 weeks. I said could she please try for us? She got back to me about 10 days later, saying yes, we could do 'dine as you wish'---so that worked out. Now, for the joke that is 'dine as you wish'----If you learn anything at all from this: Dine as you wish basically means you call each morning and make a reservation and you either get 5:45 PM or 7:45 PM----we felt that was odd---you only got 2 choices. I asked for 6:30 PM--nope, not available, 7:00 PM, not a chance, 7:15 PM, nope. So, it was just a complete joke. The other thing that frustrated us about the main dining room: I called ahead and Holland America specifically told us NO JEANS ALLOWED---they said they have 2 formal nights (meaning a sport coat or suit for men and a dress or nice outfit for women)---NO JEANS. I cannot tell you how many folks we saw coming in with jeans on. I guess what frustrated us the most is that we took the time (and baggage space) to bring nicer clothes and it really DID NOT matter. Either the maitre'd didn't want to cause controversy or it really DOES NOT matter. Next time, if we cruise on Holland America, I would NOT bring a sport coat/jacket. I wear a suit EVERY SINGLE day to work and when I go on vacation, I DO NOT want to dress up---I want to relax and enjoy my week. I would NOT wear cut-offs or shorts to the dining room but again, I guess they are trying to go back to that 'golden age' of cruising. For our family, dressing up just is not that important but then again, we DO NOT want to eat at the Lido Buffet every night either. My wife celebrated a birthday the week of our cruise and I tried to get a reservation at the Pinnacle Grill for a special night/birthday treat. I called on Monday and COULD NOT get anything except for Friday at 8 PM---We were going to be on an excursion in Victoria at that time so that did not work. I tried to explain, stating it was a special occasion and they really DID NOT seem to care nor were they helpful. I even went down one morning and spoke with the manager and he just shrugged his shoulders and really didn't even seem to care. Oh well...that was a downer. Lido Buffet---it's buffet food, what more can you say? You get a variety of hot foods for breakfast, cereals and fruits and rolls/danish for breakfast. For lunch, there is a pizza station, an Asian noodle station, with sushi, and a hot line. Dinner, same thing, a hot line, a salad bar, ice cream/cookies/cake. Nothing spectacular, nothing fancy. The food wasn't awful nor was it great. They had a 'taco bar/Mexican station' by the Lido pool. You could also get a burger cooked to order or hot dogs/brats too. The burger was good--although I waited to the last day to try it.....wish I would have tried earlier in the week. One piece of advice: Get a reservation at Canaletto--it's their Italian place. DOES NOT cost anything extra and it's a chance to at least have something different. I had Chicken Marsala. Some in our party had the lasagna and a couple others had the spaghetti w/meatballs. We all felt it was a nice change of pace and are glad we did it. We did order room service a couple of times. They were fast and efficient. We mainly did this for a mid afternoon snack. We just felt we could not make it to 7:45 PM so we would get a few things to help to tide us over.
I am going to lump both entertainment and activities together---just because I felt they kind of go together.
There are more than enough things to do on the ship. Many did not cater to us or our family. A lot of things are geared to the older set (Bingo, basic computer classes, wine tastings, how to mix a cocktail, etc)---I am on a computer all day long---the last thing I want to do is learn how to edit a word document or learn photo-shop. Not my cup of tea. The Cruise Director, Jason, was fine. He is young, energetic, funny and has a good sense of humor. (My mom traveled with us. She's in her mid 70's and has been on 8 or 9 cruises and she said she honestly felt he was one of the better cruise directors, basically due to his personality). As I mentioned, there were lots of things going on. You could get as involved as you wanted. We like to walk/exercise. You can walk three laps on the 3rd deck and it equals 1 mile. We would go down there and try to get 3-4 miles in every day---just for exercise/fresh air. I DID NOT want to pay to have to use the gym. Spa treatments don't appeal to me. I didn't need/want a massage or a facial. So, again, some of this stuff just doesn't mean much if you don't use it or do it at home. I know and realize that some folks want to get pampered or that's the reason they go on a cruise or the reason that they do this. One thing we did like to do was the daily trivia contests. They were hard (a variety of topics from sports, to history to current events to politics to geography---very challenging)---Jason would do these, usually in the Crow's Nest. There would usually be a fairly good crowd---maybe 40-60 folks playing each day. They would give away a basic prize like a set of coasters, or something similar but we felt like it was something fun and we got into it.
We did the Joel Mason Elton John show one night. It was good/funny/entertaining. We DID NOT do the comedian. We did do the Broadway musical tribute show---a cheesy "Glee" knock-off show. We walked out about 1/2 through the show---just not that entertaining nor that good. My wife and in-laws went to the "Dating Game" show---they said it was funny and entertaining.
My favorite area to be in during the whole week: The Crow's Nest--I just liked the laid back atmosphere, the view and just hanging out up there. The first couple of days, it was very easy to get a seat. As the week wore on, it was very tough. I think folks either figured out where to go or they just ended up going there because it was a nice place to relax and chill. There was a coffee bar up there as well as a regular bar too.
Best part of my week: I won $1800 in the casino!! I essentially paid for our excursions/drinks and other room charges. I hit a $500 jackpot on the "Wheel of Fortune" slot machine. I hit a $1000 progressive jack pot and another $300 or so. I walked out with more than I came on board with That was the best part of my whole week!!
CHILDREN'S CLUB: Both of our kids poked their heads into the HAL Kid's Club and decided it was a bit too childish/baby-ish for them. They DID NOT participate. Our older nephew did use the "Loft" which is for the teen set. He liked it and made a few friends and seemed to spend some time up there.
SERVICE: Overall, I felt the crew and support staff were fine. Everyone was friendly/nice/pleasant. They all seemed to be helpful or wanted to help. The bar staff was friendly...as the week wore on, they would remember my drink, would come by and ask how I was doing, if I was having a good week, etc. Sure, you get asked every time you walk by if you want a drink, a cocktail, a glass of wine, etc. They are just trying to push more drinks, ergo, more money for the ship. We liked our room stewards---they were nice/friendly and were attentive to our needs but not smothering or in our face. We had a couple of issues here and there, through the week, but nothing out of the ordinary.
We chose this ship/itinerary due to the fact that it was to go to Hubbard Glacier. We worked with the travel agent and a few others. The first thing we had to narrow down is what cruise line? We DID NOT know the pros and cons of all of the various ships and their reputations. Everyone has an opinion. My mom likes Princess. Some like RCL, some like Norwegian, etc, etc. We finally decided we wanted Holland America because of the Hubbard Glacier option and Sitka. Do your homework. Figure out what is important to you and your family. We had thought we had done A LOT of homework but there is so much more we learned by just going and traveling this past week. I had bought two books ahead of time. I would suggest both: "Inside Passage" by Nancy Thalia Reynolds and "Alaska Cruises and Ports of Call--2011" by Frommer's. The Frommer's seemed to be a bit more helpful to us. Ask, ask friends, ask family, ask a travel agent. Do as much homework as you can.
Pros of Holland America:
1). Seems to be a bit smaller ship (only 1800 passengers as opposed to the Princess ship that sailed by us all week). Those extra 400-600 passengers could make a difference.
2). The service and staff were friendly/nice/helpful---but I guess most would say this about any ship.
3). For the most part, it seemed clean and orderly. As mentioned, I am NOT that picky and I had read some folks said the ship looked worn out, tired, in need of repair, etc. Folks, there are 2000 people on this ship, week in and week out. There will be some signs of use/wear and tear. It was not awful, by any means. There always seemed to be service staff vacuuming, cleaning, wiping, washing, etc. I DID NOT find it to be that worn down. But again, this was my first cruise.
4). A good variety of activities. Not all appealed to our family but you could find something to do, if you wanted.
5). The ports were interesting. Seemed to be enough choices of excursions.
6). The food was fine. I have read and heard complaints but I could not complain. For all those that complain, there sure were/are a lot of folks that HAVE NOT missed many meals.
7). The room sizes were fine. Again, not any major complaints.
Cons of Holland America:
1). This cruise line really, really skews to an older demographic. I would say the average age would be 65...if not older. Folks, this really is geared towards the older crowd. The retired crowd. There were lots of wheel chairs, walkers, motorized scooters. I had to really try hard to maintain my patience in lots of instances. I was behind an older/mature lady one morning in the waffle line. You have a choice of a plain waffle, mixed berries or strawberries----this lady COULD NOT decide what she wanted and held up the line for at least 10 mins. It's NOT that hard---plain, mixed berries or strawberries----chose one and get on with your day---that kind of stuff drives me crazy!!
2). The primary reason we chose this cruise and this line was to see Hubbard Glacier. WE DID NOT get to see Hubbard Glacier---due to weather and rough seas. This was a HUGE disappointment and let down. We were at sea for 1 1/2 days to get to Juneau and then another 12 hours to get to Hubbard and we DID NOT get a chance to see it. Captain said it was for our safety. I realize he had hit an iceberg earlier in the season so I am assuming he was a bit gun shy or maybe the company had him on a tight leash due to the incident earlier in the year. Our group was really, really bummed and very disappointed. We felt like we got short-changed or a major part of our trip was missing. Again, a major bummer.
3). The first 24 hours is just straight cruising, in the open water. We had a storm so the seas were very choppy. Most of our group got a bit sea sick. It DID NOT affect me but my wife was a bit green for a day as were my kids and my relatives. You should decide if you want an inside passage (calmer waters) or the outside passage (rougher and open seas)---remember, you ARE going to Alaska---you could get storms and rough weather. This was a bit of a bummer the first 24-36 hours. DID NOT see to many folks out and about. I saw several folks using 'air sick' bags and there was evidence of folks not making it to the toilet in time, in the hallways. The service staff did their best to get these 'accidents' cleaned up quickly. We had heard that a couple of folks actually got off the ship and flew home. They COULD not handle the seas and rough weather. Don't know if that's true or not, just what we had heard. You know rumors and how they swirl on a ship.
4). I realize that Holland CANNOT control the weather but it was a bit dreary/rainy/foggy the first 36 hours (outside of Seattle)---we learned from others, mostly locals, in Alaska, that the two best weather months seem to be May/June. Wish we would have known that before. So, if you are going later this fall---good luck. If you are planning for next year, maybe see if you can try for May or June. Again, weather cannot be controlled so take that with a grain of salt. My mother had been on this same Alaska cruise about 8-9 years ago, in early September and she had fantastic weather the whole week she was up there. It's a crapshoot.
5). The time in ports is very limited. We would have loved to have a couple more hours in both Ketchikan and Victoria. I realize that they are on a tight, tight schedule but take into account what is important to you and your family. Do you want to really see and experience the ports or just have a quick run through? We felt that 4-5 hours in Ketchikan was NOT enough time and only 5-6 hours in Victoria was NOT enough. Wish we could have had more time!!
6). Jewelry is not my style nor my wife's either. We could NOT figure out the infatuation with jewelry, diamonds, etc. The ship really seems to push their on-board jewelry shop, their high end watches, etc. I DID NOT go on a cruise to shop and even if I was looking for jewelry---I am not gonna buy it on a ship or from a cheesy jewelry shop in Juneau, Ketchikan or Sitka. I am buying from a reputable jeweler, in my home city, that I know and can go back to, if I had any issues or troubles. We could just not figure this whole jewelry thing out.....maybe we are not the target market/demographic??
7). Finally, remember, you are going to be with 1800 folks, in a fairly tight/confined area for a week. Some of these folks will drive you batty but you get that anywhere (Disneyland, any other resorts, etc). Just go with the flow---the ship is big enough so if you see the guy that is the loudmouth 'know it all' ---just go to another area. Or the little old lady that doesn't know how to order waffles: Just avoid the waffle line that morning
If I had written this after the first 48-72 hours, I probably would have said we would never cruise again. We were upset with the rough seas, the sea-sickness, the boredom of being at sea for almost 2 days. We were busting at the gut to get off the ship when it hit Juneau. A bit of cabin fever. By the end of the week, we had changed our tune a bit. I don't know if I would sign up for another cruise in the next 6 months or so but maybe, down the road, in the future. It DID get better as the week wore on. We loved Sitka and Ketchikan. The weather did improve and we started to enjoy ourselves. I had chatted with another couple in Sitka and they have been on 10 other Holland America cruises. They had expressed disappointment with not seeing Hubbard Glacier either but they said this was one of the worst Holland cruises they had been on. They said keep a good attitude----it will get better. And it did. They said that this was NOT the best 'first cruise' to be on. They said the weather and the seas were not normal and that we should not give up.
I would say overall, maybe a 7.5 out of 10 total. There were things that could be improved. We did not have our socks blown off by any means but we would probably go on a cruise.......maybe......someday again. We would do a LOT more research. We would use these reviews and then do some more homework. I realize that this is getting late in the Alaska cruising season so it may not be all that helpful to most but maybe to those that are going to cruise next year, take a bit from this and maybe it will help??