Number of Cruises: Thi
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: May 22nd, 2003
Alaska Cruise Review by Bob
Herrick (May 22-29, 2003)
On the Maasdam, Holland America Cruise Lines, 7-day Glacier Bay Inside Passage Cruise.
I am not the best person to review a cruise, but since there weren’t too many reviews for this ship on this route, I thought it might be helpful. I say I am not a great reviewer for three reasons: 1) I’ve never been on a cruise before, so I have nothing to compare it to; 2) We have a toddler, which does change your experience quite a bit, and 3) I am not a “natural” cruise ship passenger anyway (e.g., don’t like Broadway shows, dancing, or casinos).
That having been said, I enjoyed the cruise more than I had expected. I thought on the whole the Maasdam was a well-designed and well-run boat, and the scenery was nice.
We went on the 7-day cruise itinerary for the Alaska Inside Passage Cruise round trip from Vancouver (entitled “7-day Glacier Bay Inside Passage Cruise”). The port stops were Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, with a day cruising in Glacier Bay. About a third of the passengers also got off in Skagway for land-based extensions into the Yukon and the interior of Alaska, most for an additional week.
The first port stop was Juneau. Due to mechanical problems, we didn’t get there until around 5pm, so all the museums and visitor’s centers were closed for the evening. To compensate for the ship’s delay, they offered a free Salmon spawning center tour and Mendenhall Glacier tour (normally $40). The Salmon fishery had some nice aquariums inside, but was definitely not a “must see” kind of place. Likewise, the Mendenhall Glacier could be skipped if you’re already going to visit Glacier Bay later on your tour. (However, perhaps the visitor’s center is worthwhile – I don’t know since we didn’t get to go inside.)
The second port stop, and our favorite, was Skagway. It’s at the north end of the inside passage, and was a launching point for people headed into the Yukon Territories last century. The people were friendly, they had great visitor’s center and historical museum, and we found a lot of great things to do. We started out in the “Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park” Visitor Center / historical museum (web site: http://www.nps.gov/klgo/). They show an interesting movie every hour which is very worthwhile. They also offer walking tours of the historical downtown. After getting information on hiking from a few different places, we did an easy hike out to the point southwest of town. We had lunch at the Haven Café, the kind of “healthy food” deli / coffee shop I really love – really tasty food, too! (It’s a bit out off the tourist path, though.) Sitting at the next table was the Cruise Director of another cruise ship – all the rest of the customers were locals. Finally, we spent a few hours hiking to lower Dewey Lake. Most of the other hikers were locals who do the hike as exercise. We ended up hiking with a Native American and having a very interesting conversation about the challenges to preserving the native culture. The hike had great views of town and beyond, and the lake was also beautiful. It was a couple miles long, with a 500 foot ascent. Skagway is also famous for the White Pass Railway, but we didn’t think our toddler would enjoy being confined to a train. Given how much we enjoyed our day in town and the immediate vicinity, we were very happy to have done things without plans.
The next day, we cruised in Glacier Bay National Park. (web site: http://www.nps.gov/glba/) Two Rangers came on board, and offered a few announcements over the PA, as well as offering more detailed commentary in the auditorium to those interested, and at outside observation points. Of course the thing Alaska cruises are most famous for is watching glaciers “calve”, where big icebergs break off into the water. I expected we’d be seeing this on many days of the trip, or at least all day in Glacier Bay Park. But actually, the Margerie Glacier was the only one we really watched. Evidently, with its deep (800ft) water, ice wasn’t supported by the bottom, as it was with many other tidewater glaciers which end in shallower water. So it had more calving action than any of the others. However, “more” is still a relative term. If you’re hoping to get video of icebergs breaking off, be prepared to wait up to half an hour. The captain approached slowly, held the boat in position for half an hour, rotated the boat 180 degrees to let the other side watch, and then left. We saw one small iceberg break off from our stateroom. The observation decks were quite crowded, as you might imagine. I probably would have spent more time on deck if I’d realized this was the only Glacier we’d see up close from the ship. The rest of the day was pleasant cruising among scenery not too different from the rest of the inside passage. Under some conditions and times of year, whales and other marine life can also be observed while cruising in the park.
Our next port stop was in
Ketchikan, where things did not work out as well for us as in Skagway. Ketchikan
is one of the southernmost cities in Alaska, on an island, and near the Canadian
border. We had read that most of the tourist attractions were overcrowded in the
morning, and that it was better to go in the afternoon – this seemed especially
timely advice given the fact there were 4 large cruise ships with a total of
4-5000 passengers in port when we arrived. We started out going to the Southeast
Alaska Visitors Center on Mill and Main just a couple blocks from the cruise
ship dock ($5 for adults), which was worthwhile both for the native American
exhibits as well as the very helpful staff at the desk by the bookstore. They
strongly recommended Saxman village as having good authentic native culture and
being a worthwhile place to visit. They said that even as locals, they still
made a point of visiting a few times a year, something I thought was high praise
indeed. After we ate lunch at New York Café (also recommended by the staff, and
a place I liked) we caught the bus the 2.5 miles to Saxman Village.
Unfortunately, contrary to the general advice to go in the afternoon to miss the
morning crowds, Saxman village is only open in the mornings, so it was kind of a
downer. We took photos of the totem poles and listened to the tour guide’s
description of what they were working on in the workshop. We were thinking about
a hike, but the weather was lousy with periodic showers, and time was getting
short, so we just did another hour or so of sightseeing in town (which wasn’t
that great) before heading back to the ship. My wife and I agreed if we had it
to do over again, we would either sign up for an organized tour, or rent a car
(there are a number of attractions 6-10 miles to the north including good hikes
at Ward Cove Recreation Area and Totem Bight State Historical Park).
The boat (with, I believe roughly 1200 passengers and 500 crew) was a nice size in many ways. It was large enough to have a lot of variety in entertainment and public spaces, without the disadvantages of larger boats. Holland America is emphasizing similar size boats in its fleet, and making a point of avoiding “mega-ships” with 2000 or more passengers. However, even at this size, it was still large enough that disembarkation was slow at times. At least we always were able to dock, and never had to go through the hassles of using tenders. There were three areas they could improve things: one of them was embarkation / disembarkation at Canada Place. The lines to come through security were more than half an hour long. At some times, there were also waits to get your boarding cards after this, although we pre-registered on the web, and were able to avoid this second line. At the end of the cruise, we had to wait 90 minutes for them to call our disembarkation number, 30 minutes in the serpentine customs lines, and 20 minutes to get a taxi. While we don’t have personal experience with these things, I am told embarkation / disembarkation is usually a problem on any large boat – while the process could be improved (at a cost), I don’t know that this is worse than industry norms. The second thing they could improve is to hire window washers to wash the outside of the windows. They looked like they only got annual cleaning, and were caked with a lot of dirt and deposits. They were generally clear enough to see out of, but none of them (even on the top decks) were clean enough to photograph out of. If I saw something good out the windows, and wanted to video / photograph it, I would try to make a run for it to the nearest outside deck, but still missed some good shots (or got them with “dirty window” in front of them).
In most other respects, the boat was nice, and kept well cleaned. We enjoyed the promenade deck, where 4 laps equal one mile. It was never “freezing” on our Alaska cruise – usually about 50F, with on-and-off light showers. You could run outside for a minute or two to photograph without a jacket and you’d be okay. But it was blustery in spots, and too cold to go jogging on the sports deck (at least while the boat was steaming). Some of our other favorite spots on the boat: I was pretty impressed with the weight room they had, with a good range of machines and dumbbells, as well as treadmills, rowing machines, and Stairmasters. I attended a yoga / pilates class, which was decent ($11 extra, a reasonable fee). My wife took advantage of the spa / beauty shop a few times, getting a manicure and hair styling. They also offer massages. They have a nice observation deck, at the top (the Crow’s nest). Did they really need twelve (yes, twelve) separate bars on ship, though? And if so, did they really need to staff them from morning to the small hours of the night? My toddler son and I got to know the bartenders quite well in exploring the ship, and they (of course) got little business at most locations until the evening hours after the first show let out. By the way, the crew and passengers could not have been more kid-friendly. The crew were almost all young men from Indonesia and the Philippines with young families they left behind for most of the year (they’d work 8 months or longer, then take 3 to 5 months off, before signing on for another contract). I read a critical review of the Statendam from a Mexican Riviera Cruise passenger, who was claiming Holland America understaffed their ships to cut labor costs. While I can’t speak to his cruise, ours was overstaffed in almost every department (this even with a full compliment of passengers). The service was quite good as a result.
One area I heard a lot about before cruising was how great the food was – usually by people referring to how much or how often, which really doesn’t appeal to me (I want to hear about quality, not quantity). I also tend to be more critical than most people. Restaurants many people say are “great” often leave me thinking “it was okay, nothing better.” So the food on the ship was a really pleasant surprise, and one of the best things about cruising. Dinner at the main dining room was excellent every evening, and comparing it to the 50 restaurants I’ve eaten at in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Rotterdam Dining Room would beat all but one. This is really exceptional to consistently deliver food on this level, particularly given the number of passengers, and difficult circumstances on ship. Many of the dishes were the best I’d ever had, including the Tiramisu, Coconut Cream Pie (looks like Banana Cream Pie, which was also almost as good), and the Beef and Lamb Curries. By the way, Holland America makes it easy to eat healthy. The portions are reasonable, the dishes aren’t loaded up with excessive fats, and they have plenty of healthy choices, like a great salad bar. My only complaint was that, if eating at the main (Rotterdam) dining room in the morning, breakfast orders took 30-45 minutes between placing and receiving the order, due to understaffing in the kitchen during the morning. Because of this, we only ate in the main dining room twice for breakfast, using the Lido buffet instead the other mornings.
The Lido dining room is more of a buffet service. They have a few decent appetizers and salads. The main entrées generally are “okay” but were usually not as good as what we had in the main dining room. If you go down the port side, they often have specials further along, such as a stir-fry or curry bar. The staff often would head directly for this part of the dining area, and we found it had the best lunch food in the Lido as well. Further down the line on the port side were desserts (most were not quite as good as they looked, but a few were excellent, so try small portions of each before going back). To the end of the line on the starboard side was the ice cream bar, which was open extra hours. The ice cream was quite good, with flavors such as the strawberry, pistachio, and cinnamon better than any I’ve had elsewhere. They also offer a “midnight buffet” at 11pm. I passed on the food except for Southwestern night (there’s a theme each night). The dessert extravaganza night near the end of the cruise needs to be seen to be believed (long lines, though). I usually tried a few desserts, and got some ice cream.
Ship’s activities were generally
adequate to keep us interested. I’m not big on the usual “Las Vegas” activities
that are the bread-and-butter of most cruise ships, such as evening shows,
casinos, drinking, discos, etc. So your average passenger would be more
satisfied by the lineup. The last sea day was a bit disappointing, with too much
emphasis on Bingo (one of their main daily activities) but pretty weak
otherwise. The ice carving demo was worthwhile, though. My wife thought the
evening shows were quite good (I watched our son while she went, but from what I
little I saw, the shows also looked good to me.) The “enrichment program” was a
little disappointing, with a not-very-good lecture from the ship’s naturalist
(who spoke too much from notes with way too few slides), and a short
presentation from one of the Glacier Bay National Park Rangers. The Port
Shopping and Tour lectures were not worth attending, with no visual aids or maps
in the videos I saw of them. They appeared to be solely designed as a sales
vehicle for tours and hyping shops where Holland America earned commissions from
the merchants, and devoid of information that I found useful for what we wanted
to do. Your time would be better spent in the ships library, which has a whole
bookshelf full of Alaska books with great information on the port stops. By the
way, Holland America offers a very wide assortment of shore excursions, with
about 40 at each of the ports we visited.
After the cruise was over, we spent a few days in Vancouver, which we really enjoyed. It’s the most densely populated city in North America outside of Manhattan, which makes it compact enough to be walkable, and it also has good public transport. We signed up for the Gray Line double-decker tour bus, which makes a circuit of town. They usually sell you a ticket that lets you use it for two days, getting off whenever you want, and then catching the next bus when you’re ready to move on. The buses take 2 hours to complete a loop, and the next bus comes every 30 minutes. The quality of the commentary varied widely. One of the bus drivers knew everything, and was great; others were immigrants who were difficult to understand, and didn’t say much anyways. The ride was bit rough – I now understand why double-decker busses aren’t used much outside England! We had three days, which was about the right amount of time. My favorite sight: the small cold water aquariums in the Vancouver Aquarium. The “curators” at the aquarium packed every one of the little 1-cubic-foot aquariums with all sorts of little jewels from the sea – it took a few minutes to really appreciate each one. It was too bad that most people didn’t even look at most of them, focusing instead on the big aquariums (perhaps because the aquariums were fogged up due to the cold water – it’s worth the time to wipe the condensation off!) The belugas were also enjoyable to watch. Granville Island was my second favorite place, with walks along Robson in the evening and a visit to Mondo Gelato a close third. If you have the ability to add a couple of days on at the start or end of your cruise, Vancouver is a nice place to visit.