My wife and I took two of our grandsons on the July 8, 2006 Holland America Oosterdam Alaska cruise. My wife has wanted to visit Alaska all her life, and we give each grandchild a special trip on their eighth birthday so we combined the events into our first cruise. One grandson was ten, the other turned eight during our cruise.
Boarding: Boarding in Seattle was the first of many good impressions. Holland America has this down to a well-oiled procedure and this left a good taste in our mouths. Theres lots to do on boarding but we felt things went well. We were welcomed on the ship with: Welcome to the experience of a lifetime! While thats an overstatement, it was part of the ship boarding process that got our cruise off to a good start.
First Impressions: The shipped seemed massive, Im sure they all do. Everything was clean and well lit, there was art everywhere. This is a level of vacation experience weve never experienced and it set the tone for a great week.
There were two pools, one amidships on the ninth floor, one of the aft deck outside. Both were a pool-within-a-pool, designed to handle the inevitable sloshing that characterizes a pool at sea. That is why you wont find pool tables on cruise ships no way to keep them level while underway. The boys loved the pools and went swimming every day. That was important for them.
I was struck by the emphasis on hygiene. There were dispensers of cleaning lotion everywhere, and when you went to the Vista restaurant, there was a steward who gave you a spritz on your hands. It was both comforting and a reminder that many folks get sick on cruises. But we were fine and there was no outbreak on this cruise.
Our Stateroom: Our room seemed small by comparison to hotel rooms but I understand the need to pack us in. Increase the room size by 20% and increase the fare a corresponding amount and we probably couldnt have taken this trip. The room was sparkling clean, well maintained by our cheery young steward from Indonesia. Every hotel room Ive stayed in had maid service; all the staterooms had steward service (I believe) and they all were from Indonesia or the Philippines.
Every day our steward did a new towel sculpture. With only the addition of two half-moon black eyes, he carved a new animal with a towel. Very imaginative, very cute. They train them to do this and he did it well.
The room seem almost brand new, with two comfortable single beds made together. They had a bunk that pulled out of the ceiling for one grandson, and our steward made the sofa into a bunk for the second so we were all right. It was cozy, but clean. The TV was good to provide some diversion for the boys and me, and Ellen and I appreciated being able to view where we had gone and where we were going.
Our Cabin Steward was from Indonesia and was exceptionally nice; Mr. Joe is what he called me. I felt totally comfortable with him as our room steward. He kept things clean and did the daily towel sculptures.
We learned that Holland America steward schools in Indonesia and the Philippines. Many of the cabin and food stewards are men with families. They sign a contract for a year and work on a cruise ship to make money for their families. Dui has a wife and daughter, one of our food stewards has two small children. Im glad for this opportunity for them, but its hard to be away from their families.
Meals: The meals were fabulous. Most of the dishes were top notch and we enjoyed make that over enjoyed each meal. Each meal came in courses, including breakfast.
I should explain the eating options. You can eat all three meals in the Vista restaurant; dinner was at an assigned table, breakfast and lunch were wherever they sat you. There were two levels in the Vista restaurant, and in the curving stairway separating them three men played pleasant dinner music on stringed instruments and a piano. We had 11-piece silverware settings (including a dessert setting), white cloth tablecloths, white cloth napkins, doilies aplenty etc. Everything was splendid, a level of luxury we never experience. It was slow one and one half to two hours per meal, but you get used to it.
The Lido restaurant never closed, although there was more food available at mealtimes than other times. Service was faster than the Vista restaurant, with a nice variety of food. We are several meals there.
Lastly are the specialty restaurants, which you paid extra for, so we never went. But we heard that they were beyond fabulous. The Vista restaurant was wonderful for us and we do not regret skipping the other restaurants.
You also could eat at different parts of the ship. One day we had Indonesian and Mexican food served poolside.
Although we over ate while on the cruise, the food was good enough that we were able to get a good mix of fruits and vegetables, so we felt good. Yes, this was one of the best parts of the cruise.
Entertainment: Every night there was something in the three-story Vista lounge. There were several Broadway-style performances. The highlight for us was a magic show from Las Vegas. Drew and Angela are a husband-and-wife team, hes the magician, shes the assistant and they make a very fine couple. The show plays on the husband-and-wife theme nicely without overdoing it. Drews magic is professional and convincing. Yes, weve seen most of it before and it continues to dazzle. The boys absolutely loved it, as did I. The singing and dance shows were good, something we rarely go to so I dont know how they sized up against other performances.
There was lots to see and do aboard ship and if we had not had our grandchildren, we could have seen and done more.
Stops: The Juneau stop was wonderful, as the weather was warm and clear. We have a friend in Juneau who drove us around so we were not left to our own devices. The Mendenhall glacier was nice.
The Hubbard Glacier stop was fabulous, at it was a perfect day and the captain took us to ¾ of a mile from the glacier. Calving was infrequent but if you watched long enough, you could see it take place.
Sitka was okay, maybe better than okay. But we had to be tendered to shore and that five-minute ride was rocky, I didnt enjoy it. The family loved the Raptor Center where injured bald eagles are rehabilitated.
Ketchikan was basically a shopping stop.
Victoria was okay but too short.
En Route: My wife had widely selected an inner cabin on the lowest passenger level, deck 1. I recall the first night at sea as we both made a bathroom break in the middle of the night. Were rocking and rolling now, was her comment. (We were glad we brought a night light, one of the few items you need to bring.) But due to our location, we experienced no hard rocking and, fortunately, no illness. We heard of one man who wound up on the floor one night and I spoke to several folks with shipmates who were ill but we were fine.
It was nice to have a TV image from the front and back of the ship always available in our room.
Disembarking: As with boarding, this was a smooth process. Unlike other cruise ships, this one allowed us to remain in our rooms until our color was called, then we exited without rubbing shoulders with hundreds of people. Customs was quick too. We heard from other passengers that other ships require you to meet in some large central area before departing but we waited in our room until our color was called. Worked so well that we had to call our pickup to come and get us earlier.
General Thoughts: Dont expect perfection on a cruise and you wont be disappointed. In a crew of 800 people, theres bound to be some who dont quite measure up. Weather varies, as do the seas. Its vital to remember that sea travel is subject to lots more variables than air travel and nothing is guaranteed. Dont schedule your airplane departure after the cruise in such a way that a delay in docking makes you miss your flight. I dont want to overstate these things but people who expect clockwork schedules and smooth sailing and not being realistic about what cruising can be like. Our cruise experience was great with no problems and many are. But dont count on it with every cruise.
Overall: We paid full price for the four of us for this cruise, and we feel we got our moneys worth. The entertainment was good, the food was great. Cruising is a luxury for us, not a vacation option so were not sure when well be able to do this again. We have a very good feeling about Holland America based on our experience, but just as you dont limit yourself to a wonderful restaurant, well likely try other cruise lines if we cruise again.