North To Alaska with Holland America

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For those of you accustomed to reading about records or my Aussie buddies, and maybe even some occasional politics, sometimes I also write reviews.  Today, my wife and I returned from maybe my all-time favorite vacation.  So I thought I’d share my review of our Holland America cruise to Alaska on their ship The Amsterdam.

Let’s just start with the fact that this is a cruise. You’re on a cruise ship with a 1,500 other vacationers.  Often it’s close quarters, on the Lido deck, in the casino, the various lounges and watering holes, or dining in the different venues, you’re not hanging out alone. If you have no tolerance for others, or lack patience, a cruise probably isn’t for you.

A cruise isn’t cheap, unless you break down the cost. A cruise ship is really a hotel traveling at about 21 knots toward its destination. Your fare pays for your room, food, evening entertainment and your travel costs to exotic locales. You pay for most of your drinks, special services, and spending money.  One thing I left out is travel expenses to your embarkation point.  I only had to pay for a week’s parking at Pier 91 in Seattle.  I didn’t fly in from Minneapolis, or Virginia, or China as some of my shipmates did. Is a cruise really more costly than a trip to Disneyland, with airfare, hotel cost, “Hopper Pass” and mandatory visit to Brookhurst Hobbies? I dunno, but it’s close.

So here are some of my observations based on my one-time cruising experience

Service

I’ve never experienced anything like the service I received on our Alaska voyage.  Again, consider this good-sized ship (but far from the largest in the Alaska cruise biz) like a floating hotel.  Together with the 1,500 passengers are 5-600 employees keeping staterooms and public places clean-despite the best efforts of their clients.  They prepare and serve the food and drinks, constantly shuffling the dirty out while setting out the clean.  They answer the dumb questions, the insulting questions, the unthought-of questions.  They do all of it with a smile and with passion.  I never heard a frustrated word, saw a frown, or anything short of a complete effort to please.  The Filipino, Indonesian, and Eastern European service workers on the Amsterdam were the backbone of our cruise experience, and I truly hope Holland America knows how fortunate they are to have such a dedicated crew.  They are amazing.

Space

I love how the Amsterdam used its space. There was a large theater for evening entertainment. There were five watering holes that turned into varied musical venues. During the earlier hours these often hosted art or jewelry shows. The Crows Nest on the ninth deck had stupendous views forward with amazing recliners where I could take my book read a few pages and grab a quick nap.  In addition to these spaces, there were lounges where I could get up early in the morning, go to Explorations Cafe, grab an Americano and read, or just watch the sea pass by, catching the glimpse of humpback or orca whales along the way. Though the ship could get very busy and very crowded at times, it always seemed like there was a place, outside my stateroom, where I could catch some time alone if I wanted it.

Things to do

There was also plenty to do if I couldn’t occupy my time-usually not a problem for me. There was an internet cafe, though checking the web was costly and the service was balky. There was a daily digest of the New York Times available, so I could keep in touch with the Donald Trump laugh-of-the-day. There was also a library of books, board games and daily crossword puzzles to keep your hand in. There is a casino with black jack, roulette and dozens of video machines. I lost my ten bucks in an equal number of minutes, while our traveling companion won a couple hundred. There is a fitness center that stayed quite busy, though I did not visit, but three and a half laps on the outside promenade deck was equal to a mile and I did this once. There were daily movies and DVD’s could be loaned to your stateroom.  Lorri and I did the massage thing at the spa. There were classes on photography, culinary skills, digital photography, as well as a couple of pools, tennis courts and basketball hoops.  If you were at loose ends, it’s because you weren’t trying.

Close Encounters with Alaska

Lots of folks discuss their cruise experiences. Often they’re going somewhere tropical and wearing as little as they can get away with.  Alaska isn’t quite like that. Yes, it’s summer in Alaska, and because our destination is the Gulf of Alaska it’s not super cold, but not warm either. The weather tended to be high 50’s to mid 60’s and often threatening rain. So I packed a lot, probably more than I needed (Lesson Learned #1 with more to come.) Like most ocean cruises, The Amsterdam made several stops along the way.

Tuesday-Juneau

Juneau is Alaska’s capital, about 33,000 strong. The dock area is packed with shops catering to the cruise ships.  They all go here. Looked in vain for Sarah Palin’s house so I could see Russia. Failed miserably.  I didn’t have a shore excursion for Juneau, and now I wish I had, because there is definitely more here than I was able to see from my downtown ramble. The Red Dog Saloon was constantly packed with tourists.  Had a nice beer at The Hanger overlooking a very busy seaplane operation.

Wednesday-The Hubbard Glacier

The mountains guarding the entrance to Disenchantment Bay. A partial glimpse of the Hubbard Glacier.

All cruises to Alaska take their ship to view the glaciers.  We went to see the Hubbard Glacier. Winding its way through the islands that dot Disenchantment Bay, the sailing master of The Amsterdam got us pretty close, as the ship traversed the entire face of the glacier. It was spectacular with its beautiful blue colors set against the wildness of the scenery, and the occasional calving of mini icebergs.  Unfortunately, this glacier is in retreat, so the massive ice chunks of previous years were not evident, but that was out of Holland America’s hands.  Coffee with Bailey’s or Amaretto and hot split pea soup were available on deck though I didn’t partake.  Viewing the Hubbard Glacier was, for me, the highlight of the trip.

Thursday-Sitka

St. Michaels Cathedral from the inside and outside.  A view of Sitka from the Pacific Ocean.

Sitka was a Russian trading post and the scene of a bloody conflict with the native Tlingkit people in the late 1700’s. It remained an active outpost of Russian empire until it was included in Alaska’s sale to the U.S. in 1867.  It is a beautiful little town of about 8,000 residents. There are historical sites to see, some gorgeous art for sale, and historically significant St. Michael’s Cathedral with the onion-shaped dome of the Russian Orthodox Church. Worth the $5.00 “donation” simply to see the tremendous quantity of religious icons made available for viewing. We shopped before heading out on our only shore excursion, to the Great Bear Fortress, a preserve for orphaned bears. Loved it. Sitka brims with authenticity with its fishing fleet, Russian and Tlingit cultural influences, and enforced wildness under the eaves of Tongass National Forest.  Even so, the community struggles as it copes with outside development-see it while you still can.

Friday-Ketchikan

I confess, I stayed on the boat nursing a-whatever. Not in a fair position to offer an opinion.

Saturday-Victoria

Munros-Books-Architecture

Munro’s is an independent bookstore, housed in magnificent quarters. Any visit to Victoria is accompanied by a visit to Munro’s.

According to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, ships carrying passengers and cargo between U.S. ports must be flagged as U.S. ships and be crewed by U.S. citizens. However an exception is made if the ship stops on its way in a foreign port. Hence, the Dutch-flagged Amsterdam, crewed almost entirely by non-U.S. citizens stopped along side the Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line ships in Oak Bay to give a little shore leave in the capital of British Columbia. I’m not bitchin’ because Victoria is one of my very favorite places to visit.  On a Saturday night, the normally quiet city was packed with patrons off the ships.  The shops on Government Street were wide open.  Initially I wasn’t going to get off the ship, but Lorri and I gave each other that knowing look and grabbed a taxi to the parliament building.  It’s a short walk from there to one of my very favorite bookstores, Munro’s, which, thankfully, was open.  Downtown Victoria, like Seattle, and other cities is fighting to retain its identity amid the pressure to commercialize and corporatize.  It’s an unfortunate fact of life that even an occasional visitor like me could recognize with just an hour’s stroll.

What I would do differently

Cell Phone Craziness

I haven’t received my cell phone bill for the month.  It will have a really big data charge because I didn’t put my phone on airplane mode.  It freely roamed unsuccessfully for data until I got a text from AT and T to let me know I was accumulating over $100 in charges.  I may be able to work some of this out, but I’m not holding my breath.  Some cruise ship lines are available for a temporary “plan.” Unfortunately Holland America is not one of them.

Services and purchases aboard ship

Holland America, like every other cruise line, offers many services and buying “opportunities” aboard their ships.  Whether you partake of them or not is up to you, and honestly they are too numerous to list.  However, here are some experiences we had.

  1. Spa services-my lovely wife had a hair emergency.  This could only be resolved in the spa and involved coloring her hair. Without going into greater detail, it was quite costly, but we knew that going in.  We also chose a couples massage, again we knew the cost. However, the spa constantly insists on selling costly products to accompany their services, and for some folks it maybe be hard to say no.
  2. Photos-The ship takes photos at embarkation and at the formal dinners at the La Fontaine dining room.  The occasions are fun and the photos are taken by Black Label Photographers.  There is no pressure to buy, but obviously the Smyths were enjoying their photo sessions a little too well, and we were encouraged to have a private photo session for some artsy black and whites.  The session was fun, but we knew we would be in for sticker shock when we reviewed the proofs. I’m not going to badmouth the expense or the quality, but it is just one more thing to part me from my vacation dollars. Yes, we bought the smallest package possible, but still very costly. The photos are awesome.
  3. The beverage package-This is something we discussed a great deal before opting for the package.  For a fixed cost per day, each day of the cruise, all beverages, including soda, coffee drinks (not drip coffee), bottled water, and alcoholic beverages up to eight dollars are covered up to 15 per day.  Drinks over eight dollars and bottles of wine must be paid for in full. I am not a big drinker, but I certainly had my fill and then some on the Amsterdam.  Even so, I’m pretty sure I didn’t meet the cost per day (about 51 dollars including service charges per day per person) even once. It did encourage me to drink more-AM mimosas and evening gin and tonics, together with my required Diet Coke. For some folks I think the beverage package makes sense, I just don’t think it made sense for us.
  4. More shore excursions-Shore excursions can be costly, but they put you more in touch with the ports you’re visiting.  We spent a lot of extra money that would have been better invested in excursions that got us out of the commercial areas and into the natural surroundings. We really enjoyed the one we did take, I just wish we’d seen more of Juneau too.

Time to wrap up this really long post.  We really enjoyed our trip.  As first time cruisers, we learned a lot about the cruising experience.  Lorri and I also really enjoyed Alaska, and could see ourselves making this same trip again. But most importantly we developed faith in the Holland America brand-enough so that we put down a deposit on a cruise of the British Isles next summer.

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