We just returned from a 14 day cruise on a the venerable Grande Dame, Holland America MS Amsterdam. Let me preface this review by saying we (my husband, son and DIL) very much enjoyed this cruise. We chose it for the unique Alaska ... Read More
We just returned from a 14 day cruise on a the venerable Grande Dame, Holland America MS Amsterdam. Let me preface this review by saying we (my husband, son and DIL) very much enjoyed this cruise. We chose it for the unique Alaska Itinerary that included many ports to which we had not been on our previous Alaska cruises. This was our 4th Alaska cruise and first time on Holland America. We have also cruised with Carnival, Norwegian, Celebrity and Viking Ocean.
By reading all the previous reviews, we knew that HAL caters to an older crowd; however, "older" is a relative term which in this case means "floating nursing home." I myself am 70 but I felt young and spry on this ship of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Don't expect to move anywhere quickly, but do expect to meet educated, well traveled shipmates with much good information to share. One of our shipmates reported going to the Lido late-night buffet, when an elderly man wandered in completely naked. Yes, that happened. Holland America knows their target market well, and have staff to help the frail get food at the buffet, enter and exit the ship, and even have the day of the week printed on the rugs in the elevators to help with orientation.
This ship still has the great viewing room with floor to ceiling windows that many newer ships have replaced with fee restaurants. There is also a big library/gameroom/computer room with large windows, which is a great place for hanging out.
We flew in a day early and had arranged for a car to pick us up at the airport through Seattle Town Cars. Their service was prompt and friendly. They delivered us to The Inn at the Market, which has a good location near Pike Place Market. We did the Savour Seattle food tour, which I recommend. We got to taste many of Pike Place Market's highlight foods including crab cakes, chowder, doughnuts, chocolates, dried cherries, Beecher's cheese and mac'n'cheese, to name a few items. My favorite was the salmon pate piroshky and rhubarb piroshky from "Piroshky, Piroshky." Absolutely delicious!
We Uber'd to port, arrived later than most, so there was very little wait in line. We boarded and were able to go straight to our cabin, which I will review in the appropriate section.
Dining: I would describe it as hit or miss. It is sometimes hard to find a clean table in the Lido Buffet. Or the table would be clean but the chair greasy or the wide carpeted window bases next to the table would be littered with food crumbs, etc. The bread baker is awesome, the assortment of breads varied and all delicious. And the pastries! You won't find better in Paris--flaky, light and baked to a golden brown perfection. Bravo! We found the Japanese, Chinese and Thai selections to be very good overall. Some soups were very tasty and well-seasoned, others were bland. The gravies on this ship are all deep rich and hearty. I wish I could make gravy that well! If you order filet in the main dining room you will receive a slice of baked tenderloin, good but lacking the crisp sear of a good filet. For that, you would need to eat in Pinnacle Grill, which currently has a $35. per person up charge. It is a bargain at lunch though--only a $10 per person. Make reservations early and know that the Pinnacle has no view and Cannaletto is a closed off section of the buffet (and serves many of the same foods). The Italian foods on this ship are in general just OK. Some dishes (rigatoni) were dried out, some sauces bland or watery. Avoid anything with spinach in it--the veggie lasagna consists of noodles, alfredo sauce and a blob of boiled spinach. Spinach omelettes are similarly yucky. Some foods that would have been delicious had they been served hot, suffered by being served lukewarm or cold. The Dive-Inn burgers fell into the lukewarm category (congealed cheese), but were served with tasty hot fries. Avoid anything with guacamole. It is a blackish-green color. My kids enjoyed the sushi choices and we all liked the salad bar, with many fresh choices, and some excellent house made dressings. I highly recommend the Asian Sesame. The ice cream was a lower quality that I have experienced on any ship, with some choices (chocolate) tasting more like ice milk. My DIL loved the sorbet choices. The Lido has some serve yourself sections, but most hot sections were served by behind the counter servers. This, along with limited hours, led to lines. It was not unusual to wait in a line for your eggs, then wait in another line for your toast. If you do the egg line first, your eggs will be lukewarm, if you do the toast first, it will be cold by the time you get your eggs. The main dining room is beautiful, but has problems. Service varies from very good to glacial, depending on the wait staff in your section and the time of day. We quickly learned where the best wait staff worked and requested their section. (Kudos to waiter Anas at dinner time--- ask for table #177 folks). Be advised that the MDR fills the worst seats first-- the ones that back up to a service station, face a wall, have a view blocked by a large column or surprisingly, are on the side so sunny that you have to pull the curtains and miss the view, while the shady side goes unoccupied. I avoided breakfast in the MDR after two tries. Are they deliberately trying to funnel people to the buffet by making them wait 45 minutes to order and another 45 minutes to receive the order? And then you receive lukewarm eggs, cold toast and cold pancakes. What a disappointment.
The room service folks try very hard to get your food to you on time, as ordered and still warm. It is just a long way from the kitchen to the cabins. Toast will be cold (order pastry instead), eggs lukewarm. Do not order the scrambled eggs unless you write in "use fresh eggs," or you will receive tasteless, weird-textured pre-fab eggs. Hint to Holland America: please get some lighter-weight dishes for your hard working servers. Those trays are heavy! And they need a heated cart to keep the food hot. A napkin wrapped around toast is not going to hold in the heat. I only used room service at breakfast--my son and DIL used it once for dinner and commented that it wasn't good.
Staff: There were many friendly staff members, but some who seemed stressed, unhappy or unfocused. At breakfast one morning as I waited for my eggs, I watched a (novice?) server mix up the orders, break the over easy eggs, walk away to wipe his nose and then walk back to wipe the edges of the fry pan with the same paper towel. I asked him if he realized what he had just done and he presented a blank stare. After that, I avoided any station where I saw him working. (I did report that to a supervisor.) The room stewards were all very personable and friendly, and there were always smiling folks to wish you a great day as you entered or left the ship.
Download the Holland America Navigator App for easy reservations at any of the extra fee dining venues. It has a free chat service with fellow travelers which we found helpful and which was operational most days of our cruise. It also has a list of the days activities, although some days it was not a complete listing and we found it safer to carry our daily newsletter.
There was less entertainment on this ship than on any of the other lines on which we have traveled. There were some mediocre to very good singers and dancers, a very funny ventriloquist, an amusing comedian. We liked the violin and piano duo "Adagio." Some evenings the highlight entertainment was a not so current movie or a BBC documentary accompanied by music. Small 1/2-filled bags of cold popcorn were available at the movies. There were also the usual Trivia and Bingo. The Test Kitchen presentations were well attended. If you don't want to stand, you need to arrive 1/2 hour early. They need a mirror over the work surface of the chef, as even if you sit in front, you can't really see what the chef is doing unless you watch the two TV screens at the sides. Might as well skip it, and watch it later in your room. My DIL attended a stretching class which she enjoyed. Each day there is a tea offered at 3 PM. We attended once and it was enjoyable to share a table with new friends, but the bread on the little sandwiches was stale. If you are a swimmer or hot tub lover, this is your ship. They were sparkling clean, the pool is also heated and they were often empty. No problem ever getting a lounge chair and the roof closes whenever the weather is cool/cold.
We avoided the casino area because it was so smoky. Unfortunately, the ship's shops are across from the casino and also smoky. I usually enjoy on shop browsing, but not this time.
Ketchikan: We booked the George Inlet Crab Feast privately. We have done this before and loved it. I must say that there has been some erosion in quality. Gone was the tasty potato that used to accompany the crab. The dressing on the salad, which was delicious in the past, was not as tangy. In the past, all the crab was fresh and delicious. This time, about one in three tasted watery and not fresh. The fresh ones though were awesome and the cheesecake is creamy and delicious. Be aware that there are many steps to climb to reach the Inn whether you arrive by bus or boat. You can request a ride if you need it. That afternoon, our son and DIL did the Lumberjack show (we just walked up and bought tickets) and they loved it.
Juneau: We have done Taku Lodge excursion in the past and it stands out in our memories as one of the best tours we have taken. This time, our son and DIL did it and also loved it. It is expensive, but so worth it.
Anchorage: We rented a car from Avis (the "B" street location). We took the free shuttle from port to the drop off point and walked the approximate 5 blocks to Avis. We arrived at around 8:30 AM and there was no line. We drove south along Turnagin Arm which is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. We stopped at Potters' Marsh and watched a pair of geese herd their brood of goslings. We drove on to Girdwood and had a yummy lunch of fried fish and chips at the 5 Chairs Restaurant. It has a charming log cabin feel and a beautiful mountain view. We also stopped at a quirky little coffee shop called "The Grind." We moved on to the Mt. Alyeska Lodge where our son and DIL met their tour for the "Summer Sled Dog Adventure." Both really enjoyed it. Meanwhile my husband and I took the hike through the beautiful woods behind the Inn. There is also a tram up the Mountain for scenic views. We then re-united and finished our day at the Alaska Wildlife and Conservation Center. If I go back, I will rent a car again and do the Portage Glacier Boat ride, which you can book privately.
Homer: We loved this port. We took the free bus out onto the Spit. Word of advice--if you plan on shopping, there is no need to arrive before 10AM. We shopped, stopped at the Memorial, walked on the beach and had lunch at The Little Mermaid Restaurant, which I highly recommend. Everything we ordered was top quality and perfectly seasoned and prepared. Service was excellent and friendly and the atmosphere is wonderful. They play great upbeat music and you can hear the happy cooks singing along. Our kids took the Katchemak Bay tour offered by the ship and said it was good.
Sitka: We did the Wildlife Quest and Finn Island Lodge tour offered by the ship and enjoyed it. The boat was large, comfortable, with plenty of indoor and outdoor viewing space. We saw one whale blow about 3 times and then dive. We saw many otters and eagles. We then proceeded to the lodge. The room where they serve you is a calm and pleasant banquet hall with a vaulted ceiling and wall of windows overlooking the expansive deck and water view. Everything seems new, fresh and meticulously clean. The food was wonderful--everything fresh, perfectly seasoned, piping hot. It was one of the best meals we had on the entire voyage. After eating, we went out by the bonfire where they had all the ingredients for s'mores, including Reese's cups, which make a surprisingly delicious addition. Sitka is almost always under cloud cover--dress for the likely misty rain. I can only imagine how beautiful this lodge/setting must be on the very rare sunny days they get.
Icy Strait Point: We have been before and enjoy this made-for-cruisers stop. This is one of my favorite places for souvenir shopping. There is a nice shoreline walk, and a free exhibition of old canning equipment. Don't miss the trail through the woods behind the main buildings. It is an easy walk that evokes the Frost poem, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Seriously, it is the kind of old growth, mossy woods where fairies and hobbits would be right at home. Too bad they are building a ropes course in the center.
Kodiak: Next time I will take a flight plane to see the bears. Folks who did that highly recommend it. We did the ship's tour that included a Russian Tea. Our bus arrived a little late. Our guide introduced herself and said that both she and the bus were old but still had good engines. I would add that the bus also had good brakes--more on this later. Every two seats had a washcloth hung over the back, presumably to use on the windows, which had to be closed due to the misty rain. With the windows closed, they quickly misted over and between that and the pea-soup fog, our sight-seeing drive was a bust. We could see absolutely nothing. If you have allergies, avoid this bus, there was mold/algae growing on a panel over the door and around the seals of the windows. At one pint, we drove around a corner and traffic was at a standstill due to some construction. Our driver slammed on the brakes and we hydroplaned sideways into the oncoming lane. Thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic, but it gave us all a scare. Our guide was also our driver and seemed unable to focus on both her driving and delivering her spiel at the same time. We stopped at a chapel of a Russian Orthodox Seminary and learned some history and went into a Russian Orthodox Church where the Pastor gave a presentation. We almost missed this second stop as our guide said the church was not open, until someone commented that they could see people going in and out, so we did stop. The tea part of the tour was held in a large room at at an Episcopal church. The tables were laid out nicely with cloths, china and Russian knick-knacks. The tea was a delicious citrus blend. The borscht was bland, the piroshky had very little filling and paled in comparison to what we had in Seattle. We each had one cookie, which was very good. The best part of this tour was the music, played by a large group with unique stringed instruments and dressed in Russian costumes. It was obvious that they enjoyed playing together and they were excellent musicians.
Victoria: We took a taxi from port to our meeting point for the 5 Star Whale Watching Tour. We booked early and were able to get the smaller boat, the "Sailish Shadow." It was just us 4 and the captain and only cost a little more than the other large-group boat. The small boat does have a bathroom, but it is tiny and you literally have to crawl in and out. The hour long boat ride out to find whales is not recommended for anyone pregnant or with back problems. Heed that advice--the ride is jolting, at times my bottom and the boat's were air-borne. Still, I found the ride exciting and kind of like being on a thrill ride at a a fair. We saw only one whale, a transient male orca but were able to follow him along a coast-line, watching him blow, surface and dive. He even rolled once and showed us his pectoral fin. Our driver was excellent at maneuvering to get the best view. After our tour, we walked down to see the floating houses on the wharf, then took the harbor taxi boat back, had delicious lobster rolls at Nautical Nellie's Restaurant, and caught a taxi back to port. The two taxis to and from port were 1/3 the cost of using the ship's shuttle.
We also cruised to Sawyer and Hubbard Glaciers. Amazing. We luckily had sunny days for both. Hubbard Glacier is magnificent, reminds me of the great ice wall in Game of Thrones and is backed by snow capped mountains. The glacier talks to you with loud creaks and thundering cracks and we were lucky so see an active day of calving. Sawyer itself is smaller and less impressive, but the scenery as we cruised toward it was beautiful and the sun on the glacial water turned the water to jade. It looked like it was lit from under the water. Mesmerizing.
We Uber'd from our final port to the airport. Easy peasy.
So, final judgement... would I cruise with Holland America again? Yes, but... only if it offered a unique itinerary that my favorite cruise line (Viking Ocean!) doesn't offer. Read Less