The Internet can be a useful tool when looking for information to help decide on a cruise. There is plenty of data available, with some of it even being accurate.
If even half of what I've read is true, I thought I could expect the following on my first HAL cruise;
Dining on bland, easy to chew, cuisine, topped off with a glass of fine Ensure. Swapping stories about the good old days with tablemates like Jessica Fletcher, Matlock and the Golden Girls, then dancing to the rocking tunes of a Lawrence Welk cover band to the wee small hours of, say, eight or eight thirty. Cautiously walking the passageways, always on the lookout for stampeding wheelchairs.
These assumptions proved to be so wrong, on so many levels, it's almost laughable.
Last October, while my Wife and I were still suffering withdrawals from our September Mercury cruise (which is another story,) we received a flyer from HAL advertising a sale on suites for the 2007 Alaska season. In our "cruise vulnerable" state we took this as an omen and dropped a deposit immediately. We booked directly through HAL on this, and would not hesitate to do so again. We've heard the stories about TA's getting the greatest deals, perks, freebies, upgrades etc. We've also heard the stories about TA's completely dropping the ball and leaving the customer holding the bag (again, that information is courtesy of the Internet.) My previous 3 cruises, on three different cruise lines, were booked online, and I've never had a problem. Maybe just lucky. The gentleman I talked to at HAL could not have been more helpful. He knew the ship, and made some cabin recommendations without pushing an up sell. During the time between our booking, and our actual cruise, I called him back several times with questions and he always had, or easily got the right answer for me. HAL Customer Service gets big points. Anyway we got a fair deal on a Superior Veranda Suite (#6090) along with a one night, pre-cruise stay, at the Olympic Fairmont in Seattle. I casually followed the prices for the cruise, through some on line Travel Agencies, after I booked, and I never saw it offered for much better than what we paid (I think $45.00 less was the best I found) and it didn't include the hotel stay. Again, I think I got a fair deal.
Like I mentioned, this is our fourth cruise on our fourth different line. Though this hardly makes us cruise veterans, we do have a little cruise savvy. Our first cruise was the third sailing of the new Grand Princess (NICE!!) Our second was a 3-day Mexico/California on the Carnival Ecstasy (not as nice as the Grand) and our third was a Pacific Northwest on Celebrity Mercury. Bottom line is, my Wife and I are low maintenance cruisers. A decent meal, a cold martini and a friendly staff are all we need to keep us happy.
Not much to ask I think.
Okay, enough pre-cruise stuff and on to the cruise.
We booked last October, got a free night at the Fairmont Olympic, which is one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in (best described as old school classy) and had a great evening. The room was not large, but well furnished and comfortable. The food, drinks and service were top notch. The Fairmont chain sets the bar high, and does not disappoint.
We were given an envelope on check in, from Holland America, with instructions to meet the HAL Representative in the lobby the following morning. Let me start by saying that HAL has this whole operation organized. We met with the Rep in the morning and he explained that we could leave our bags with him, check out of the hotel, if we wanted, and be back at 11:30 to catch the shuttle. He kept a running tally of everyone's bags and made sure they all made their way to the ship. We checked out and strolled down to Pikes Market for a look around. My Wife and I love Seattle, and Pikes is always fun to visit.
We got back to the hotel about 11:30 and hung out in the Garden Room with some of our fellow passengers (we all had that goofy "Night Before Christmas" look on our faces.) Looking around the room, it appeared that the median age was mid to late sixties BUT, as I'm reminded of, again and again, age is less about actual calendar years than it is about attitude. Boarded the shuttle for the short ride to the pier and finally caught my first real glimpse of the Oosterdam. In short, the Oosterdam looks like a ship. We saw it moored next to the Golden Princess, which looked more like a hotel that just happens to float. Holland America boasts (rightfully so) a strong maritime heritage, and it is well reflected in the ship design. Good lines, and a nice color scheme.
Stepped off the bus, stepped into the check-in line and were through in about 10 minutes. The people working the counter were really scrambling, and I'm certain that they, this being the first cruise of the season, just hadn't hit their stride yet. From the Representative we met at the Hotel, to the last employee we saw on disembarkation, HAL made a favorable impression on us. Up the gangway, to the top landing, and we were greeted with wide smiles, and the compulsory hand sanitizer, from a young man in an old fashioned Bellhop uniform - could this get any better?? Oh yeah. Through security and on to the ship, we ran smack into the Martini Bar (I admit choking up a little at that.) We expected to be pointed towards the Lido Buffet, but an Officer directed us to the Vista Dining room for a sit down lunch (this was a first for me.) We were shown to a table for 2, handed menus (limited, but good, choices) ordered, and started to take it all in. The dining room was dark, and nicely decorated (In contrast to our Carnival cruise in which the dining room looked like "Circus, Circus." The lunch service, like the check in, was efficient, but a little harried, and I'm certain for the same reason. By the evening of the first day, the crew had their rhythm down and never missed a beat.
Strolled up to the Lido for a drink and a view of the Seattle skyline, one of the prettiest anywhere. We cruised with some good friends, who are HAL 1st timers also, and share our opinions of the cruise. At around 1:30 they announced that the cabins were ready.
We walked down to our cabin and discovered that it was quite a bit bigger than we had expected. A large (and very comfortable) bunk, sofa, 3 chairs and, surprise, enough room to move around them easily. The balcony (which I refuse to cruise without) had 2 easy chairs, a small table (w/chairs) and plenty of room. I think we made a good choice on the cabin; anything bigger (for us anyway) would have just been overkill. A discrete knock at the door and our smiling Cabin Steward, Arafin (just call me "Fin,") introduced himself, and presented us with his card (nice touch.) This pattern of service was evident throughout the entire ship, for the entire cruise. On my past cruises, I have always seen the service as being both polite and efficient, but I have to say that the service on HAL was truly gracious. The staff never hovered, but always seemed to be there when needed. Drink of choice, as well as your name, was remembered by the bar staff. A genuine smile, and greeting, was always offered (and always returned) by all hands. The legendary Hunky-Dory, who I had the pleasure of meeting the 2nd day, had powers of recollection that bordered on the supernatural.
Back up on deck, armed with a martini and awaiting the sail away, the Captain announced that the 1600 sailing would be postponed, as there were some late arrivals. Hmmmm, on the deck of a beautiful ship, drink in hand, scenic skyline in the background - oh yeah, a delayed sailing would be a living hell.
Once underway we quickly unpacked our four bags and found we had closet and storage room to spare (uncommon.) As expected, some of our garments didn't travel as well as we did, so we sent some things out for pressing (fair prices on this.) Met up with our friends for early seating, lower level, at 5:30 and were shown to our table for 6. With the new dining concept, you can show up for early seating, anytime between 5:30 and 6:00, and be seated. I was worried that the service, and food quality, would suffer because of this, but it seems to work well. As with lunch, the service the first night was a little hectic (not slow by any means) but for the rest of the cruise, the service was stellar. Our waiter, Nyoman, Bus person Wira and the Wine Steward Priscilla could not do enough for us. Friendly and professional all of them.
The food throughout the cruise was uniformly great, with enough variety to keep all hands happy (or at least pacified.) The portions were just about right and, though nobody in our group ever asked for seconds (came close with the escargot though,) I'm sure they were available. As with all cruises, some dishes are better than others but nothing came close to being sent back, and I can't recall anything ever being left on a plate (that is a high compliment to the Chef.)
The first evening's dinner was deemed "casual." For some passengers, casual seemed too formal a description.
Bid goodnight to our friends and tablemates, and headed back to the cabin, stopping to admire some of the ship's artwork along the way. Met "Fin" in the passageway, and were given a pleasant good night. The bunk was neatly turned down, but apparently the towel animals were still in their cages below.
The sea was a little choppy but we slept like babies. We awoke Sunday morning to a room service breakfast, gray skies, and drizzle.
Oh, and 10 to 15 foot seas (wheeeeeeee!)
Personally, I like the rough seas, and the motion of the ship that goes with it, but I'm certain I'm in a minority here. After breakfast we just sort of toured the ship. One major difference in the Oosterdam (probably on other HAL ships as well) is that instead of one or two main gathering areas (read "Bars") the "O" has several smaller, more intimate, ones. I like it. We played some cribbage, hooked up with our friends to graze at the buffet, and sampled a cocktail or two.
A tough life to say the least.
The Wife went down to the spa for a facial and gave it high marks. She was asked by the staff if she was interested in buying some products but a polite "no thanks" ended the sales pitch. I've heard about some hard sell tactics in some ship's spas but this wasn't the case here. She was so impressed with the Greenhouse Spa that she booked me for a facial the following Tuesday.
Pause here for laughter.
So with a little free time on my hands, I thought I'd amble down to the casino and try my luck on the machines.
Long story short, I've gotten better payouts from a parking meter (and no, that didn't dissuade me from returning several more times during the week.) The casino, while not big, is laid out nicely. A few gaming tables, poker machines, slots, the usual. One evening of the cruise is dedicated "smoke free" in the casino. Good idea. On the upside, the casino bar makes a great martini. Win some, lose some.
Headed back to the cabin to change into the good duds for the formal night, and noticed seasick bag stations had sprung up around the ship. Good planning on someone's part. We stopped at the Olive Pit (THE martini bar onboard) for a little pre dinner aperitif, and saw the Captain and Mr. Deering nearby. I know of Mr. Deering's reputation from the Cruise Critic Boards, so I though I'd introduce myself as (I think) the only CC member aboard. A pleasant gentleman, who took the time to chat for a few minutes, despite having what must be a punishing schedule. We bumped into him several times on the cruise and would always stop for a short talk and seemed genuinely concerned if we were having a good time (despite the big, dopey, grins on our faces that I mentioned earlier.) This was the pattern with all of the Officers we encountered on board. Never too busy for a quick chat. High marks again for the crew. We had some formal shots done that evening and they came out nice.
Walked down to the dining room and, as if by magic, a Sapphire Martini, up, w/a twist of lime was waiting at my place, courtesy of Priscilla, our Wine Steward. I'm not a wine drinker so this would just have to suffice.
Is this anyway to run a ship?
The dinner was superb but, due to the seas, some passengers excused themselves early. One of the friends we traveled with got one or two bites down, and quit while she was ahead. Our waiter, Nyoman, picked up on this and, once he was sure that it wasn't the food, immediately produced a plate of sliced green apples, as a sure fire remedy for seasickness. On a similar note, there is a special section on the room service menu for "passengers that are feeling the sea" consisting of green apples, beef broth and crackers. A very considerate touch I thought.
We finished dinner and headed up to the Crow's Nest for a nightcap and, up there, you can REALLY feel the sea. Loved it. People were tacking back and forth across the room, with the motion of the ship, and I noticed more than one passenger who was "a little green around the gills." I watched one lady (easily 75 years old) enter the room in a gown, and very high heels, and I remember thinking "oh, this won't be good," but she walked across the room, without missing a beat, and plopped herself down at the bar. Bless her, I wanted to buy her a round (She'd probably drink me under the table too.)
With a full day behind us, we headed down to the cabin to find (again) a neatly turned down bed and an expertly crafted lobster towel animal.
Life is good.
Awoke to some calmer seas and another good room service breakfast. Weren't due in to Juneau until 11:00 so we broke out the cribbage board to kill some time (I won.)
Headed down with our friends to disembark at 11:20 or so, and found the lines to get off pretty long. We thought we'd play it safe and head to the Ocean Bar until the queue thinned out. Half an hour later the queue had thinned out. One hour later and we were still in the bar. Go figure.
We didn't sign up for any shore excursions on this cruise (though there were some really great ones offered) due to the fact that the weather could turn really revolting, really fast and I had no desire to be cold and wet on some expedition (I'm cold and wet a lot in my job, and I prefer warm and dry on vacation whenever possible.) So we just walked around Juneau and did some shopping and sightseeing. The shopping is best described as interesting. All the shops in the main shopping area pretty much sell a lot of the same things (Alaska T-Shirts, jackets, hats etc) but take the time to look around and you can find some unique items. Some other passengers said that there are some good jewelry bargains to be had in Juneau and Ketchikan (low state tax) so this might be an attraction for some (and a deterrent to others.) Also, at the risk of being slammed, there are some great deals on furs (as in coats, hats and stoles.)
Note: I don't take sides in the whole fur issue, much safer that way.
We stopped in for a late lunch at the Red Dog Saloon and you shouldn't miss this place, if for no other reason just to say you've been there.
Back to the ship to change for dinner, and this evening we were going try the Pinnacle Grill. I've read some rave reviews about the Pinnacle (and some scathing ones as well) so one way or the other it should prove interesting. My parents (veteran HAL cruisers) gifted us dinner for 2 at the Pinnacle and, as I discovered when I went to make reservations, so did Holland America. I think that since we booked directly through HAL, this was given by them as a gift (who needs a TA?) Anyway, if HAL is reading this, thank you very much. We used the HAL gift to treat our friends to dinner (no hassle on this at all) and allowed them to pick up the tab for the drinks.
Good deal for all.
High marks all around on the Pinnacle. The place settings, service, decor and, naturally, the food, were first rate. This is definitely a haven for carnivores. Once our drink orders were taken, the waiter brought over what I like to call "The Cart-O-Meat" They offer several different cuts, and all were displayed, and explained, in great detail. If you shy away from dining on our barnyard friends, don't despair. Some very unique, and fresh, seafood items are offered. I had the plank roasted prawns, with cilantro butter, and could have eaten it three times a day and still not gotten tired of it. I kid you not, it was that good. The Wife (the Consummate Carnivore that she is) had the fillet and didn't leave a morsel (I had to beg for a bite.) Our friends had the fillet and the lamb chops and I recall very little food left on the plates. The Pinnacle bar offered wine flights (small tastings of several different wines) and the others went with this (I stuck with my usual libation - why break precedence?) I'm not a big dessert eater, but the Wife and I shared a cheese plate (excellent presentation and variety) and our friends went with the ice cream and a VERY impressive looking Crème Brule (if you eat there, try this just for the presentation.)
So we rolled out of the Pinnacle and decided to take in a show. That evening there was a comedy juggler named Charlie Brown (no, really,) so we thought we'd give him a shot. Funny guy, and some good, wholesome, entertainment. Nice.
A quick stroll up to the Crow's Nest for a night cap and we called it an evening.
What was the towel animal du jour you may ask?
Drifted off to sleep with Hubbard Glacier looming in the distance.
We entered Yakutat Bay at around 10:00, and the deck railings were crowded with spectators (here's the advantage of having a balcony.) The stewards were walking the deck, offering cups of Dutch Pea Soup (which is not to be missed!) to take off the chill. After a cup, we hit the Ocean Bar for an alternate method of taking off the chill. The four of us went down to our cabin to enjoy the view of Hubbard Glacier (which we got to about noon.) As we were going in, I caught a glimpse of the Mercury (fresh from a dry dock) just leaving. Good memories on that ship.
Hung out on the balcony until the chill drove us back inside (40 degrees +/-) and back up to the Ocean Bar (getting thirsty again.) We didn't get that close to the glacier face, due to the ice pack I think, but it was still spectacular. Some of the ice chunks were a shade of blue that has to be seen to be appreciated.
Left Hubbard around 1:30, and since there wasn't much going on, we grabbed a short siesta before we threw caution to the wind and played some bingo. I can't remember the last time I played bingo, but thought it might be fun. It was. The caller kept the game moving, and had a good enough sense of humor to keep it enjoyable. Went back every day for the rest of the cruise and, Just like at the casino, didn't win.
Another fine dinner (martini at my place at the ready when I sat down) and we called it a night.
Up early for a quick breakfast and took a little exercise. The most endearing feature on the Oosterdam has got to be the wraparound promenade deck. I mentioned earlier about how the "O" looks like a real ship, and the promenade really puts the icing on that cake. This is the first ship I've cruised on that actually has one. Sort of conjures images of well-dressed couples, walking arm in arm (martini's in hand, natch) in the moonlight.
So after a few laps around, we went to hit the tender line (bypassing the Ocean Bar this time.) I try to avoid tendering like the plague, whenever possible, but Sitka looked like such a neat port we just had to get off. I tendered once on another cruise line (which shall remain nameless) and I've witnessed multi-car pileups on the interstate that were better organized. I give HAL much credit for having this tender business well organized (like everything else associated with this cruise.) Went down to the Queen's Lounge, took a numbered ticket, and waited for the number to be called (about 10 minutes.) 5 Minute tender ride and we were there.
A scenic town, with some great photo material and friendly locals. Sitka offered many of the same souvenir shops but, like the other ports, if you look closely, you can find some very nice things. We bought a very unique cribbage board (which we sort of collect) and a small whalebone carving for fairly reasonable prices. I'd go back and spend a few days anytime.
Grabbed some lunch in town (fresh fish galore,) made another loop of the shops to make sure we didn't miss anything, and headed back to the ship. Again the tendering went well. Our boat was only about 1/3 full, but since no one else was waiting to board, they headed back to the ship (no waiting for a full tender to make the trip.) A while later I was looking out my balcony and saw a group of 3 seals, on the surface, sharing a salmon the size of a Volkswagen. A group of 4 Bald Eagles kept diving in and trying to take it away.
This by itself was worth the price of the cruise (like watching live National Geographic Channel.)
We went up on deck for the 5:00 sail away (yes, drinks in hand) and could not stop admiring the scenery. I think that of all the ports we hit, this was my favorite. Once we got into the main channel, we again noticed that the "Golden Princess" was still eating our wake. We had been playing tag the entire trip (we docked together in Juneau) and they couldn't seem to keep up (guess that new pod installed in dry dock paid off.) The cruise director eventually started calling it "The Alaska Talladega 500." We ran into some cruisers from the "Golden," who live not far from us, and I remember them saying "I wish we were on your ship." I think that says it all.
So we dressed out for dinner (smart casual again) and stopped by the Olive Pit for some refreshments.
I should mention at this point that there were two groups on board with us.
There has been much discussion regarding groups on cruises (much of it negative.) The first group was around 400 folks from Australia. Aussies are some of the most amiable, fun loving, and unpretentious people on the globe. I think we were lucky to have them aboard.
The second group was (if you can believe this) the North American Pauly Shore Fan Club. We didn't have any trouble with these people and both members of the group seemed very nice (okay, this one's a joke, but there really were a fun group of Aussies on board.)
Dinner was great this evening. The usual choices, plus an Indonesian Rice Plate, Nasi Goreng (that I had been waiting for.) Our waiter, Nyoman, was pleased that someone at the table ordered it, and had some knowledge about Indonesian cuisine. If I could make one recommendation on the food, it would be to incorporate more Indonesian dishes into the menu. If you've never sampled their fare, you are missing out. I wish the Pinnacle could add a few of these dishes to their repertoire. I'm sure HAL already has the talent on their staff already to do this.
Back to the room to discover a Stingray (and a couple chocolate's) had taken up residence on our bunk. This was the absolute greatest towel animal I've ever seen. If I could have gotten it into my bags, without wrecking it, it would be sitting here right now.
The Wife called it a night and I hit the casino to make another deposit (unlucky at cards, lucky in love, C'est la vie.)
Our ship had a nice roll and, again, we slept like babies.
Ketchikan (and a couple's massage) tomorrow.
Had a light, room service, breakfast of toast & coffee (room service I could get used to) to ward off any of those embarrassing "growlings" during our massage. I'm not what you'd call a big "Spa" person but the Greenhouse is a pleasant place to be. I went in for a facial earlier in the cruise (Okay, I can hear you laughing at me) and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I'd like to see offered for men is an old fashioned, hot shave, with a straight razor This would beat any facial hands down and I'd bet that the men on board would be lined up out the door to get one at almost any cost. I understand that another cruise line (again, no names) offers "The Ultimate Shave" with hot lather, hot towels, and a disposable razor. Tacky, Tacky.
So my Wife and I were introduced to our Masseuses and led into the couple's room. Nicely appointed with some soothing music in the background (God I sound girly!) My masseuse, a petite smiling thing, seemed a little undersized for the job, but, well, I guess she knows what she's doing.
I swear this girl could have crushed rocks in her bare hands. I could picture her beating up Hulk Hogan, and taking his lunch money, without breaking a sweat. She asked if I liked a hard, soft, or medium massage. I figured medium would be fairly safe for a deep tissue massage and, though it was a little less than comfortable once or twice, it was a great, relaxing, experience that I'd do again in a second. Top marks for the spa.
Met up with our friends, and walked right off the ship, without a wait, into Ketchikan. Strolled the streets, had some coffee and bought (more) souvenirs. If you're shopping for jewelry, they say this is the place to buy it. I've never seen so many jewelry stores, in such a small area, in my life! We tied up with the Golden Princess again and, again, their passengers looked longingly at the Oosterdam. We learned that the "Golden", while not that much bigger than the "O," holds 2600 passengers (and I understand it was at capacity.) Can you say sardine can? Climbed back on board for the 50K Snowball Bingo (nope, didn't win again but had fun.) Headed up to the cabin to change for the second formal night. The Wife had picked up a new gown prior to cruising and I went with the Kilt again. I like the formal evenings, but it seemed that we took the dress code a bit more seriously than many of the other passengers. This entire dress code subject has been beaten to death, many times over, so I'll just let it go at that.
Had a fine meal of lobster tail and, for the finale, we were treated to the Baked Alaska Parade, mercifully, to the strains of a Sousa March and not "Hot-Hot-Hot."
Thank the Almighty.
We planned to eat ashore in Victoria, the next evening, so we took this opportunity to thank our table staff for all they've done for us. Like the whole dress code issue, the tipping thing is a minefield that I won't step into here. We brought along a package of small thank you cards, with a modest amount of filler, for a little extra compensation (I felt it was well earned.) The envelopes were proffered discretely, and accepted with a slight bow, a large smile and a sincere thank you. I've witnessed what could best be described as greed, on other lines, but saw no evidence of it here. We're aware of how the tips are distributed but recognized those that really gave the great service. We made the rounds of the bars onboard, our last couple days, and slipped a few dollars to the Bartenders, and Servers, we had the pleasure of dealing with. Made us feel good. A similar envelope was offered to our cabin Steward, who we would have brought home with us if possible. We were also delivered volume 1 of our shipboard bill. The purser informed us that they had to have more paper brought in to finish our printout, and that volume 2 of our bill would be delivered, via hand truck, later in the evening. Once again, our bill made the National Debt pale in comparison and, once again, it was well worth every penny.
We attended the disembarkation talk in the afternoon, before we docked in Victoria, and the Cruise Director took the time to recognize all the crewmember's contributions, and even singled out Hunky-Dory as a HAL Icon (well earned.) Pulled into Victoria at about 6:00 and finally got off about 6:30. There was a line of shuttle buses at the pier, going to the downtown area (I think it was about a mile and a half walk, which I would have made if we had more time.) Round trip shuttle ticket, to downtown, ran $6.00 and the shuttles ran about every 15 minutes. Good system. Like Sitka, I would have liked to spend more time in Victoria. So we walked down to Chinatown and enjoyed an excellent Chinese meal. Back to the ship at about 9:00 and called it a night. We finished our packing, and left the bags outside our door (the cutoff for this was 1:00 A.M.)
The disembarkation was well organized and we were assigned a color, and a number, which they'd call when it was your turn to be dragged off the ship, kicking and screaming.
We had breakfast in the Lido, while waiting to be called, and managed to run into some of our table staff for some last minute goodbyes and thank you's.
Left the ship (grudgingly,) found our bags, segregated by color, and hoped in a cab for the ride to the airport (the shuttles are a great service, but a little on the slow side.) Made it to SeaTac in plenty of time for our 11:10 flight and we were on our way.
During this week on the Oosterdam, I learned why so many people are so loyal to this line. Holland America will be seeing us again (please notify the Martini Bar.) Read Less