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Deborah Fleming

Age: 50

Occupation:Urban Planner

Number of Cruises: 3

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Maasdam

Sailing Date: May 22nd, 2003

Itinerary: Alaska Inside Passage


I recently returned from another Alaskan cruise adventure, having survived travel horror stories about SARS, terrorists, mad cow disease, and both the Norwalk and West Nile viruses. Monkey pox wasn’t yet a breaking story. How I ended up going back to Alaska is a story all its own. I consider myself to be the “Accidental Alaska Tourist”.

After cruising to Alaska with a group of friends and taking a cruise from Tampa to Cozumel with my sister, I decided to try one by myself. So last fall I booked a 4-day Pacific Northwest cruise with Holland America on the Ryndam out of Vancouver, BC. We were supposed to sail September 22-26, 2003. I picked this itinerary because it was short and included 2 cities I really wanted to visit – Victoria and Seattle.

In January I got a call from my travel agent. One of those “I have good news and I have bad news” calls. The bad news – an insurance company chartered the Ryndam so outsiders like myself were being evicted from the ship. The good news – in order to keep my business, HAL was offering me a 7-day Alaskan cruise out of Vancouver for a nominal extra fee.

My first cruise was on the Statendam to Alaska. I knew I wanted to go back there at some point, I just didn’t realize an opportunity for a repeat trip would present itself so soon. Now I had to choose between several “dam” ships and dates offered by the cruise line. Since I already sailed on the Statendam, I ended up picking the Maasdam because of the May sailing date. Besides being at the beginning of the Alaskan cruise season, it left and returned midweek and included Memorial Day weekend.

I was actually relieved to not be sailing on a ship full of insurance agents. All I could picture in my mind was a bunch of drunken salesmen quoting actuarial tables. Reason enough to violate the cruise lines’ policy of “Nothing Overboard”.

Background

This is probably the place to give you some information about my likes/dislikes so that you can put this review in perspective as you read it. I’m a 50-year-old single, professionally employed female living in Tennessee. Things that are important to me on a cruise include service, food, the cleanliness of my cabin and the ship in general, and interesting ports. Things that don’t rate as high include the ship’s décor, bars, casinos, and discos. I like to stay active on a cruise or any vacation, for that matter, so my idea of relaxation and a good time isn’t to lay in the sun for hours on end or park myself in a deck chair.

Itinerary

The cruise started in Vancouver, BC and our first day was spent at sea cruising the Inside Passage. Second day was Juneau, followed by Skagway. Day 4 was more scenic cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. Our next port on the way back to Vancouver was Ketchikan, followed by Day 6 in the Inside Passage, and finally disembarkation on Day 7. I visited Juneau and Ketchikan on my previous Alaskan cruise but Skagway was a new destination. My only regret about this itinerary was that it didn’t include Sitka, my favorite port on my previous Alaskan cruise.

One big advantage was that I was able to buy a round trip airline ticket to and from Vancouver, and fly back home the same day we disembarked from the ship. When I did the Vancouver to Seward itinerary, I had to fly back from Anchorage, which involves taking a “red eye” if you live east of the Rockies. I was up for 30 hours and didn’t get back home until noon the next day.

Reservations and Travel Arrangements

I booked the cruise, airline tickets, and hotel room in Vancouver through my travel agent, but didn’t use HAL’s Fly/Cruise Plan. There’s a certain amount of stress connected with all travel and I do everything I can to minimize it. One way to do this is to spend the extra money and get to the port city a day early. All you need is a missed airline connection or a major incident on a highway, and your vacation is off to a disastrous start.

For convenience, I booked HAL’s airport transfer for my return trip to the Vancouver Airport. It was $15 and could only be booked onboard at the Shore Excursions desk, unless it was part of your Fly/Cruise plan.

Packing

On my first trip to Alaska, which was in July, we had cool temps and rain the entire week. This time I had a better idea of what might happen, weather-wise, and found it easier to pack. Packing for an Alaskan cruise is challenging because you have Land’s End by day, formal by night, and not much overlap between the two. Two days before I left, I checked the Internet for weather reports on Vancouver and southeast Alaska. Predictions were typical for the Pacific Northwest - cloudy/rainy weather with temps in the 30s and 40s at night and 50s and 60s during the day.

Because of the potential for rain, I highly recommend taking 2 pairs of walking shoes so one can dry while you’re wearing the other. And socks, socks, and more socks. Don’t leave home without an umbrella, rain slicker or poncho, and hat and gloves. Both underwear and outerwear made of water resistant fabrics can be a godsend. I got a lot of use out my long-sleeve Coolmax tops. Layering is the key word when dressing for Alaskan weather. If you can afford the suitcase space, pack a lightweight, but warm, jacket made out of a fabric like Polartec. Mornings and evenings on deck can be downright cold.

The number of formal, semi-formal, and casual nights on your cruise will also influence what you pack. We had 2 formal, 1 semi-formal, and 4 casual nights. I packed one pair of dressy black pumps and wore them for both formal and semi-formal nights. I wore virtually everything I brought with me. I just wish I had packed more short-sleeve t-shirts. I found the temperature on the ship itself to be a little warm and muggy, and needed some lighter weight clothing for shipboard activities.

May 21 - Vancouver

I got up at 4:00 AM in order to be ready when my ride picked me up at 5:30. The flight from Tennessee to Chicago was uneventful, but changing planes was your typical O’Hare Airport nightmare. Our arrival gate was on Concourse F, and I had to race thru the terminal to get to my departure gate on Concourse B. When I got there, they were already calling my row. The flight was sold out and very stuffy (the air, not the passengers).

We finally landed in Vancouver. I fell in love with this beautiful, cosmopolitan city the first time I visited it. At the airport I bought a ticket for around $8 (USD) for the downtown transporter. It involved making a transfer, so it was going on 3:00 (5:00 CDT) before I finally arrived at the Hampton Inn on Robson Street, across from BC Place. I was hot, tired, sweaty, and hungry.

Robson Street is the “trendy” area for restaurants, clubs, and shopping, and my plans were to walk to dinner that evening and check things out. Given my foul mood, I decided to take a shower and lay down for a quick nap. When I woke up, it was 10 PM and raining. So much for my exciting evening on Robson Street. I watched some TV and then went back to sleep.

May 22 - Embarkation

The next day I got up feeling excited and energetic. I attributed my bad mood of the previous day to hunger, sleep deprivation, and jet lag, not to mention the hot, stifling air on the plane. I had arranged beforehand, via the Internet, for a Gray Line tour bus to pick me up at the hotel in the morning. The cost was $30. The exchange rate definitely works in favor of American visitors to Canada. My hotel bill ended up being $174. However, when my credit card statement arrived, I was only charged $124.

Since Holland America owns Gray Line, they were able to send my luggage on ahead to the cruise terminal. The tour included Stanley Park, Queen Elizabeth Park, Gastown, Chinatown, Granville Island, and the Shaughnessy neighborhood. I highly recommend this method of getting to the cruise ship terminal, especially if you’ve never been to Vancouver.

When the 3-hour tour was finished, the bus driver dropped the cruise passengers off at Canada Place. After waiting in check-in and immigration lines, going through the security screening, and filling out numerous forms, including a SARS questionnaire, we finally boarded. Considering that they have to process about 1,200 passengers, things moved fairly smoothly.

Some of the check-in agents and employees were a bit unclear on what forms needed to be filled out prior to boarding, and which could wait. Also, I don’t understand why HAL doesn’t include the account payment form in your cruise documents, as well as the form that asks you where you’re going at disembarkation and how you’re getting there. I filled out my immigration form on-line, under the false premise that I would be entitled to get in some type of express check-in line.

I booked an Inside Guarantee, which means I paid a lower fare in return for not being able to choose a specific cabin. The cruise line guarantees that you’ll receive a cabin in your selected class, but may upgrade you if cabins at higher levels aren’t sold out. I was pleased with the cabin I ended up being assigned. It was actually an outside cabin on the Lower Promenade deck with a totally obstructed view, according to the deck plan. In actuality, if you sat on one side of the bed, you could get a ¾ view of the ocean. Because I had an outside stateroom, the bathroom had both a shower and a tub. I was located away from the launderette and elevators, so my gamble with a guarantee paid off.

I don’t recommend the Lower Promenade deck if you’re a late sleeper. This is the level with a continuous teak wood deck circling the ship, so the crew is out there early cleaning and setting up deck chairs. Since I tend to get up early anyway, the noise didn’t bother me, and the Lower Promenade is a convenient location for accessing the outside of the ship.

I noticed that the top of the dresser was sticky from what appeared to be spilt drinks. I couldn’t find my cabin steward and my luggage hadn’t yet arrived, so I put my wallet and important documents in the safe and decided to head on up to the Lido for lunch. When I returned, the dresser top had been wiped clean, so I’m guessing the steward was well aware of it, but wasn’t able to get everything done before passengers started to board.

My luggage arrived while I was at lunch, so I unpacked, and was greeted by another surprise when I went to store the suitcases under the bed. I found a woman’s shoe. Things seemed to be getting off to a little bit of a rocky start. I left the shoe, accompanied by a friendly note, on the bed when I left for dinner. From then on, my cabin was orderly and spotless. The steward always greeted me when he saw me in the hallway and even though I was by myself, he would put 2 chocolates out for me at night (one for each hip).

Before the muster drill, I took a tour of the ship’s public areas, which I recommend to anyone as a way to get oriented. On the last day, there were still people perplexed as to why they couldn’t get to the Dining Room by walking the entire length of Deck 7. The Maasdam is a sister ship of the Statendam, which I cruised on previously. Their layouts are almost identical to the Statendam, so I was able to get the lay of the land pretty quickly.

After the muster drill, there was a sail away party. The only problem was, we didn’t sail anywhere. Our captain, Master Frans Consen, got on the public address system and in his booming Dutch voice with his rolling “Rs”, explained that there was a computer malfunction that involved resetting the automation system.

Much later that evening, we finally pulled away from the dock. During the night, I woke up and it didn’t feel to me that that ship was moving. I was right. Captain Consen was back on the PA system the next morning, explaining that we didn’t get very far when the mechanical problem reared its ugly head again. He made a decision to drop anchor overnight in English Bay, just outside Vancouver, to give his crew time to repair and recalibrate the automation system.

May 23 – Day at Sea

I started the day with breakfast in the Lido and then Mass at 8:15. Next on the agenda was a port and shopping talk that was a total waste of time, so I left before it was finished.

I never seem to have enough time to read, so I made a promise to myself that I would check out a book from the Leyden Library and finish it by the end of the cruise. I selected Mario Puzo’s “The Family” and did, in fact, finish by the time we had to return borrowed books. My favorite reading spot was the Crow’s Nest Lounge. Quiet but with a great view of the scenery we sailed by.

Besides borrowing a book, I also set up an account at the Internet Café. It cost $3.95 to activate the account, and $37.50 for a block of 40 minutes.

Then it was on to the kitchen tour and cooking demo, which was quite interesting. The crew scrubs the floor, ceiling, and walls every day and the place is absolutely spotless. Since 9/11, tours of the bridge are no longer offered.

Finally, bingo! I attended two sessions that day, one before lunch and one mid-afternoon. There was a lady who won 3 times that day and twice the day before. That’s almost statistically impossible.

This was our first formal night and included the Captain’s Cocktail Reception. It was also the only time we hit a little bad weather. I learned to not do 2 things on a cruise ship in rough seas – shave my legs and paint my fingernails. What a disaster!

After dinner I attended the show in the Rembrandt Lounge called “Up On The Roof” that featured songs from the 50s and 60s. There was grumbling from the nursing home set about too much rock & roll, but it was a big hit with the Baby Boomers.

May 24 – Juneau

I played a morning and afternoon session of bingo as we made our way to Juneau. Given our mechanical problems early in the cruise, we didn’t dock in Juneau until after 5:00. As compensation for our late arrival and for those passengers who missed their shore excursions, HAL offered everyone a complimentary city bus tour, including a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier and a salmon hatchery. My original plans were to visit the Alaska State Museum, which closed at 5:30, so I was glad to have an alternative. This was an unexpected, but much appreciated, gesture from HAL.

I tried to stay up for the Indonesian Crew Show at 11:00 PM, but I still hadn’t adjusted to the 2 hr. time change and fell asleep. We set our clocks back another hour that night, so now I was 3 hrs. off schedule.

May 25 – Skagway

This was the only port where I booked a shore excursion. Someone I work with highly recommended the trip from Skagway into British Columbia on the White Pass Scenic Railroad. It cost $99, so this was my one big splurge. I am so glad I decided to do it and it was worth every penny. I’ve seen some incredible sites and scenery in my travels, including the Palace of Versailles, Devil’s Tower, the Badlands, etc., but this topped them all. The vistas are breathtaking as you make your way up the pass, following along side the path taken by the prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush.

I booked the shore excursion online at the HAL website, and was billed immediately. It was nice having the trip paid for before I even left home.

Once the train got back into Skagway, I took the obligatory tourist walk down Broadway, including a stop at The Red Onion Saloon. A man and a woman dressed in 1890s garb stood outside and shouted to people passing by “Come on in and see where Frank Reid was shot in the groin by Soapy Smith and died an agonizing death 12 days later…the kids will love it”!

In Skagway, some of the passengers who were taking a land tour of the interior (Anchorage, Fairbanks, Denali, etc.) disembarked the ship. Another group who had just completed the same land tour took their places. I knew about taking a land tour in conjunction with a cruise, but I wasn’t aware that you could take half a cruise. This is an interesting concept, and one I may pursue in the future.

May 26 – Day at Sea

I got up early so as to not miss our scenic cruising of Glacier Bay. On my first Alaskan cruise, the Coast Guard wouldn’t allow us into the Bay due to bad weather conditions, so I was really looking forward to this. We stopped at the entrance to the National Park to pick up a park ranger, who provided narration as we toured the glaciers. Even though the weather was pretty much drizzly and overcast the entire week, on this day it was sunny, so we got a good view of the glaciers.

It was colder than all get out, and even thought I was wearing layers topped by a polar fleece jacket, I still had to wrap a wool deck blanket around me to get warm. Dutch green pea soup was served on deck at 10:00.

At 3:15 there was Dutch High Tea in the Rotterdam Dining Room. To me, this is one of those extras that’s unique to HAL and sets them apart from other cruise lines. I remembered the strawberries dipped in white chocolate, and fortunately they served them again.

It was Memorial Day for U.S. residents, but no real mention was made of it, other than a barbeque lunch beside the Lido pool.

May 27 – Ketchikan

After breakfast I had a choice of Mass or bingo, so I chose bingo. We docked in Ketchikan at 10:00, so most of my day was spent in port.

Ketchikan has a reputation for being “the place where men and salmon come to spawn”. Before visiting Creek Street, the former red light district that’s now a tourist trap, I decided to mail a few things. My map showed a post office near the cruise ship dock. The sign was outside a clothing and souvenir shop. I walked in, followed the arrows that directed me into another store, and found myself standing among Kenmore washers, dryers, and refrigerators. It was Sears, and there was the post office. It was like a scene from the TV show “Northern Exposure”.

On Creek Street, I visited Dolly’s famous house of ill repute, with a sign outside that read “If you can’t find your husband, he’s in here”. Legend has it that Dolly set a goal for herself of not quitting work each day until she made $100. She charged each man $3. That’s 33 and 1/3 men per day. Don’t ask about the 1/3! You could buy a print of an original poster that read “Girls will be unavailable July 3-5 in order to attend the July 4th Policemen’s Ball in Juneau”. I followed a dirt trail leading off of Creek Street that took me behind some buildings and ended up at a waterfall and fish ladder. It was called “Married Man’s Path” and served as the back entrance to Creek Street.

May 28 – Day at Sea

The day before I had received an invitation to my first Mariner’s Reception for repeat customers, along with a Delft tile depicting the Maasdam III . The reception was before lunch in the Rembrandt Lounge, and included complimentary appetizers and drinks. One woman was presented an award for sailing on HAL for 100 accumulated days. The presenter then asked for all 100+ day passengers to come to the front and pose for a picture. Average age for this group appeared to be around 90.

I spent the rest of the day just relaxing, and played my final game of bingo before dinner. It was the final jackpot and also the win-a-cruise drawing. I didn’t win either. Bingo is one of the few items you can pay for with cash, which I always do. I don’t want to see how much money I’ve lost in black and white on my account.

Our bags had to be out in the hallway for pick-up by midnight, so I spent the time before dinner packing. It’s a lot easier to pack going home, since you don’t care if the clothes are wrinkled or not, and you don’t have to think about what you’re going to need first, etc.

May 29 - Disembarkation

The first day on ship I purchased an airport transfer in order to minimize baggage handling. I waited in the Rembrandt Lounge for my number to be called and then we were loaded on buses and driven to the Vancouver Airport. Our bags we unloaded at the curb and then we proceeded to airline check-in, customs and immigration, security, etc. It was a lengthy process that took over an hour.

Dining

With the exception of one morning when I wanted Eggs Benedict, I ate breakfast at the Lido buffet. The fruit was outstanding, especially the fresh melon and pineapple. There were a good variety of breakfast items, from standard fare such as eggs and bacon, to more exotic offerings like smoked salmon and a cold meat and cheese tray. The smoked Gouda was especially delicious. Unfortunately, they only had it out the first two mornings.

I divided lunch between the formal Rotterdam Dining Room and the Lido. Some noteworthy lunch items in the Rotterdam included Salmon Salad Nicoise, fried calamari as an appetizer, and Nasi Goreng. Nasi Goreng is the rice version of Bami Goreng, a spicy Indonesian noodle dish that I absolutely love and order on Dutch Night. It consisted of Indonesian seasoned fried rice, topped with a fried egg, similar to the way Korean food is served. Various spiced and curried meats, including an Indonesian meatball, surrounded the rice.

I always had dinner in the Rotterdam. I requested second seating and ended up at a table for eight, consisting of two retired couples from Arkansas, two retired couples from Winnipeg, a single man from Vancouver, and myself. After the first night we never saw the Arkansas people again. I think they switched to 1st seating. But a couple from Niagara Falls, who boarded the ship in Skagway, joined us on the 4th night.

Our waiter and assistant waiter were very attentive and never made a mistake on anyone’s order. Memorable dishes included the roast pork loin in an Alaskan amber sauce, lobster tails, Bami Goreng (of course), veal medallions Oscar, Dutch brown bean soup, and the crab and artichoke appetizer. My dining companions raved about two lamb entrees that were offered, rack of lamb and leg of lamb.

My favorite desserts were the HAL signature chocolate cake, the key lime pie, and the warm bread pudding with vanilla sauce in the Lido. Somehow I missed the bread pudding on my first cruise. It’s the best bread pudding I’ve ever tasted and is a tradition on Holland America ships. One night I had a flourless chocolate truffle for dessert. It was over the top, even for a chocolate lover like myself. I should have stopped halfway through it, but didn’t. Sick to my stomach, I never made it to the Dessert Extravaganza that night. However, I recovered quickly and was back in dessert eating form the next day.

I would give the food an overall rating of “B+”. My two main criticisms were the inconsistent temperature of the food, which sometimes bordered on lukewarm, and the fact that seafood wasn’t featured as prominently as it was on my first Alaskan cruise. However, neither of these factors prevented me from gaining 5 pounds.

The pizza on this cruise also left a lot to be desired. Since my last HAL cruise, the crust had gone from the thicker, bread dough type to one that’s thinner and crisper. I could have lived with that, were it not for the fact that the pizza tended to be dry and overcooked, to the extent that the cheese on top was black. I did notice that it improved towards the end of the cruise, so maybe passengers were complaining, or a food service supervisor noticed that it wasn’t up to par.

Fellow Passengers

HAL caters to an older crowd, but this cruise was definitely skewed towards people in their 70s and 80s. Outside of a nursing home, I’ve never seen so many oxygen tanks, walkers, motorized scooters, wheelchairs, canes, and other orthopedic devices. Every other person seemed to have had a joint(s) replaced, or was waiting for joint replacement surgery. Being behind them in line required patience on my part, especially getting on and off the ship and in the Lido restaurant. I tried to keep in mind that someday that could be me.

Probably half the passengers were Canadians, Brits, and Australians, with the other half from the States. There were a few children onboard, the youngest being a 4-month old nursing infant.

I attribute the number of 70+ seniors on the ship to two factors – most families with school age children don’t take major vacations until June, and being that May is considered off-season in Alaska, fares are lower for the budget minded.

Something I noticed on this Alaskan cruise, that was different from my previous one, was that far fewer men wore tuxedos on formal night. Two years ago I’d estimate that 80% of the men wore tuxes, whereas on this cruise, 80% seemed to opt for dark suits. I really enjoy seeing the gentlemen in their tuxes, and weddings and cruises are about the only 2 occasions in today’s society where formal wear prevails.

Entertainment

On an Alaskan cruise, the main attractions for me are the ports and the scenery. I did attend 3 evening shows and would give them an overall rating of “C”. Not one of HAL’s strong suits. I didn’t spend any time in the bars or the casino, so I can’t really comment on those aspects of the ship’s entertainment offerings. After spending most of the day in the cold Alaskan air, I was usually tired and back in my cabin at 10 PM.

The Ship

The Maasdam was introduced in 1993 and can carry 1,266 passengers. I found the decorating and color schemes throughout the ship to be very elegant and understated. The atrium, with its glass column structure, is simple but classy. How the crew keeps the entire vessel clean and in “shipshape” condition amazes me, when you consider the day in, day out traffic and wear and tear that it experiences. I would give the ship an overall rating of “A”.

Prior to my cruise, I read a couple of Maasdam reviews that used the words “tired, dirty, and worn” to describe the ship. I honestly don’t know where these reviewers were coming from, because the Maasdam far exceeded my expectations.

Cruising Solo

I found cruising by myself to be both safe and fun. Some people, finding out I was by myself, took pity on me (“Oh you poor thang” as people say in the South). 1,200 other passengers, plus 600 crewmembers surrounded me, so there was nothing to be sorry about. There’s a ton of things to do on the ship and in port, whether you’re alone or with other people. I wouldn’t hesitate to do a cruise by myself again, and probably will.

Observations and Conclusions

There’s always post-cruise letdown. To prolong the mood, I was considering hiring a string quartet to serenade me each evening at home as I dine on my Lean Cuisine.

I would like to mention a few things I think HAL could improve on that I haven’t discussed so far. It would more convenient if they would issue each passenger one card that would open your cabin, as well as serve as your shipboard account card. I also would like to see them imprint your credit card at check-in, to avoid having to stop at the front desk and stand in another line to get this done.

In conclusion, I would recommend this ship and itinerary to anyone. Great service and attention to detail by the crew. I can’t wait until I can book another cruise. Happy sailing!

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