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Edwin Freeman

Age: 43

Occupation:Airline Operations Controller

Number of Cruises: 7

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Oosterdam

Sailing Date: May 19th, 2007

Itinerary: Alaska


This was our third cruise to Alaska, each time with Holland America. We’ve also traveled with both Princess and NCL, but have previously been so happy with HAL’s cruises to Alaska (on the Volendam and the Statendam) we keep coming back to them. We’d noticed a slight deterioration in the very high standard of food between our first and second cruises; also more than a hint of “upselling” on board, so were interested to see how things had developed since 2005.

This was also our first cruise on one of HAL’s new “Vista” class ships. In the week previous to this cruise we’d joined the “Amsterdam” for a three night repositioned from Los Angeles to Vancouver. Some of the crew had previously served on board the “Oosterdam”, and told us the Vista class ships were somewhat impersonal because of their size. We were thus quite curious when we headed towards Seattle’s Pier 30 in our hotel’s courtesy bus. Just an aside in relation to accommodation in Seattle – if your hotel offers a courtesy shuttle, make sure they’ll take you to the correct pier. HAL and Princess operate from Pier 30, which is south of the downtown area, while the other cruise lines operate from Pier 66, which is north of downtown – it’s quite a big distance between the two piers. We were staying at the Silver Cloud “Stadium” Hotel, which is across the street from Safeco Field – an ideal location if leaving from Pier 30.

Even from a distance the Oosterdam was noticeably bigger and more modern-looking than her older sisters. That being said, she was docked next to the “Golden Princess” which is larger still. Call it a matter of taste, but the stern of the “Golden Princess” looks like she’s backed into something – hard.

The terminal at Pier 30 is basically a VERY large tent, divided between Princess and Holland America. It’s quite well set up, though a little drafty on a cool, windy day such as the one we encountered. I cannot stress enough how much time and hassle is saved by checking in on-line in the weeks prior to departure. That way, all you need to do is hand over your online checking printout (which HAL also have on their computer), your cruise tickets, your credit card authorization slip, and fill in a brief health questionnaire. After handing our luggage over, we stood in the queue for no more than five minutes before being greeted with the warm and friendly smile of our HAL checking agent. About four minutes after that, we were heading for the waiting area, room key-cards in hand – it was that quick. The terminal’s pretty sparse – basic chairs, restrooms and a Holland-America waiter handing out cups of water. There’re are also a couple of vending machines, and that’s about it. Once boarding was called, the queue started to move quickly through the terminal…then came to a grinding halt. The reason? As everyone filed through, there was a photographer taking the obligatory pre-boarding photos, which meant that everyone had to stop for a minute or two. One suggestion might be to have an optional line for those who DON’T want a photo taken at this point. Given it was no more than 50F in the terminal, everyone was pretty keen to get on board ASAP.

Once on the gangway, everyone was required to wash their hands in disinfectant. I lost count of the number of times I did this over the next week – personally, I haven’t a problem with this, particularly given the horror stories that one hears from time to time. In fact, one of the Princess ships was rumored to have been quarantined for a couple of days in Ketchikan at around the same time we were in Alaska, so it just shows you can’t be too careful.

Once aboard, we were immediately struck (yet again) by the genuine warmth and friendliness of Holland-America’s crews. They really are a great asset to the company. No matter how good a ship is, or how good the food is, the quality of the crews are what makes or breaks your cruise experience.

All passengers were directed to the main dining room – this is a little different to their normal practice of providing lunch in the Lido buffet, but seemed to work quite well. We were seated with another couple, who were experiencing their first-ever cruise. Goes without saying that within moments of boarding the Oosterdam they were sitting down to a VERY nice lunch, and were most impressed! We wound up having a great lunch together, and saw quite a bit of each other during the cruise. In no time at all the announcement was made that our cabins were ready, so off we went. We’d splashed out on a balcony – always a bit of a punt on an Alaskan cruise, given the uncertainty of the weather, but a great bonus as it turned out. Our luggage arrived within an hour or so, and not long after that came lifeboat drill. At this point I’d like to be completely NON-diplomatic, and state that I really, really hope to never have to take to a lifeboat for real. Many of our fellow passengers were either late for the drill, weren’t wearing their lifejackets as they’d been directed a million times, or talked incessantly amongst each other during the lifeboat drill. This “it couldn’t possibly happen to me” mentality is the kind of thing that gets people into serious trouble when there’s an actual emergency.

Once underway – on time I might add, and with the Golden Princess leaving dock late in our wake – it became rainy and decidedly cold out on deck. We retreated, as did many others, to the warmth of the Lido Buffet for a cup of coffee. It was pretty crowded – a common occurrence as it turned out. However, if you don’t mind sharing a table with strangers, you can find a spot pretty quickly – plus it’s a great way of meeting people. The selection of food in the Lido throughout the cruise was uniformly excellent, no matter what your tastes run to. We love fresh fruit and salads, and were never disappointed. I’m sure there were passengers on board who ate at the Lido for every meal, and would’ve been very happy for the whole week.

A word at this point about “freestyle dining” vs “set dining times”. We’ve experienced both, and are firm believers in the latter. Our one experience with freestyle dining saw us queue for ages just to get a table – give me a guaranteed table any time. I can’t speak for other cruise lines, but Holland-America have become more flexible by giving you an hour in which you have to make your appearance at your dining table. We went for late sitting, as we normally do, and had to show up at our table between 8 and 9 pm. There were some on board who wanted to change from early to late, and vice versa, and as far as I’m aware their wishes were accommodated. The two alternatives are the Lido buffet, or the up market Pinnacle Grill. There’s a small surcharge at the Pinnacle – we’d experienced it on the Volendam, and were mightily impressed. We didn’t feel the need this time around, with one of the main reasons being our dinner companions. We’d been allocated to a table for four – the other couple were from California, and couldn’t have been more enjoyable to be with for the week. After a couple of days, we made it a habit to join them for pre-dinner drinks in the Crows Nest bar before heading to the main restaurant – very civilized! On one occasion (Juneau) they bought a sample pack of beer from the Alaskan Brewing Company to share with us, so we had a little beer-tasting with them in our cabin before dinner, complete with fruit and cheese platters provided – quickly and free of charge – by room service.

I mentioned at the start of this article that we felt the standard of food had gone down somewhat between our first two cruises. We think that Holland-America have picked their standards up again – the menu every evening was a wealth of temptation, with food to suit all tastes. The amounts were just right, and always beautifully presented. We’re great fans of seafood, and Alaskan seafood is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Hard to pick a favorite, but the halibut possibly wins by a nose. More salmon than you’d believe, as well as Alaskan King Crab, lobster tails, Dungeness Crab etc. The service, of course was fabulous, with our waiters Arie and Dwi attending to our every need. They ALWAYS remembered particular requests, and went out of their way to make every mealtime special. Our drinks waiter, Thomas, was equally friendly and efficient, and very knowledgeable as well.

A word now about our itinerary. Seattle-Juneau-Hubbard Glacier-Sitka-Ketchikan-Victoria-Seattle. We deliberately chose this route as we’d never experienced Sitka or Hubbard Glacier before – and we’re very glad we did. The cruises out of Seattle DON’T go up the Inside Passage between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. Instead, they proceed up the west coast of Vancouver Island. This is well and truly open ocean, as we found out on the first night. Once clear of Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca, things became quite rough. This was around midnight or so, and continued into the early hours. Our cabin, 4033, was on the starboard side forward, around a dozen cabins from the bow (just above the “m” in “America” on the “Holland America Line” logo on the side of the ship, if you care to look!). The movement was quite noticeable during this stage, making it very difficult to sleep. Neither of us suffer from seasickness – it was just that the bed dropping every few seconds kept us awake! In all fairness it was quite rough, and we didn’t experience anything like this again during the cruise.

The cabin itself was very cozy and comfortable, with plenty of wardrobe and drawer space, and our suitcases fitted nicely under the bed. There were the usual touches, such as bathrobes, flat screen TV with DVD player, a safe etc. The hair dryer was in the main cabin, as opposed to the bathroom – my “better half” was unconvinced as to this being an improvement or not, though it got my vote when we were getting ready for one of the two formal nights. Our cabin attendant, Badroum, was efficiency itself, as well as adorning the bed with “towel animals” in the evening. About the only negative I can think of was the inconsistent cabin temperature, which seemed to bear little relevance to the thermostat on the wall. The bed was EXTREMELY comfortable.

We’ve never heard any noise from another cabin on one of HAL’s ships, and this was no exception, even though we had an interconnecting door to the next cabin. There was a loud whistling noise from the balcony door when the ship was underway, which was quickly solved by locking the door.

We arrived in Juneau on time, despite the rough weather enroute. This was the fourth time I’ve been to Juneau, and the first time the sun’s been shining! I’d pre-booked a photography tour prior to our leaving Australia, as well as booking a tour for the both of us for Sitka. The tickets were in our cabin when we boarded the ship, so this is definitely the way to go. Oosterdam was docked some way from the downtown area, with busses provided for a small fee. It was about a mile into town, so it was eminently walk able, particularly given the weather. I can highly recommend the photography tour in Juneau – it’s limited to just fifteen people due to the size of the boat involved, so book early. Our guide, Jim, was excellent – informative and friendly, as well as providing some good photography tips. You didn’t need to be serious photographer, nor need a top camera, to get great benefit and enjoyment out of this tour. A quick bus ride brought us to the marina at Auke Bay, where we boarded a small but comfortable boat. The boat’s windows were able to be swung out of the way when the boat was stopped to observe wildlife – we also able to get out in the open by the bow at the same time, so there were never any problems with being obstructed. The boat cruise itself took around three hours, and in that time we saw whales, sea lions, harbor seals and bald eagles, all in the most magnificent surroundings. After returning to the wharf, we were taken by bus to the Mendenhall Glacier, where there was the opportunity for a short trail walk. The bus then took us back towards town, where you could either go straight to the Oosterdam, or get out downtown and make your own way back to the ship. I chose the latter option – I needed to buy a new memory card for my camera – and enjoyed a nice walk in the sun back to the ship. A word about shopping in Juneau, indeed any of the towns on the cruise. You’ll find plenty of shops selling the usual stuff – T-shirts, caps, sweaters, fridge magnets etc etc, as well as the more expensive items like jewelry I won’t comment about whether any of these items are bargains or not – however, if you’re after something like camera accessories or even books, it pays to hunt around in the back streets. I discovered an excellent camera store in Juneau some blocks from the main street, with memory cards half the price. There was a great bookshop next door – I could’ve filled a suitcase just with books about Alaskan history and wildlife. Funnily enough, there were no – and I mean no – other cruise ship passengers in either of these stores, and this with four ships in port. We sailed just before sunset, and were treated to the sight of the beautiful scenery passing by in the dusk as we had dinner.

The following day was when the balcony really proved its worth, as it was our day at Hubbard Glacier, and the weather was still beautiful. Unlike Glacier Bay which has four or so glaciers which the cruise ships can visit, Hubbard is just one BIG glacier. This may not have been the best time of year to visit, as there was still quite a bit of ice in the bay – I don’t think we got closer than four miles to the glacier. Those who visit later in the summer would have a better opportunity for seeing the glacier up close, as well as seeing any calving. Having said that, it’s still a very spectacular place. We spent most of the day out on our balcony, so we missed the Dutch pea soup on the main deck. My “better half” was kind enough to get me a large coffee from the Windstar café in the morning (available for a small fee, but worth it), and then also got us a tray of lunch from the Lido later on, which we enjoyed on the balcony while admiring the scenery. The air temperature, while cool, was alleviated by the warmth of the sun, and we only needed to put jackets on when the ship picked up speed leaving the bay. Late that afternoon was time for trivia in the Crow’s Nest bar, as the ship sailed south-east for Sitka, parallel to Alaska’s spectacular coastline. We lost count of the number of humpback whales we saw in this area.

We arrived in Sitka early the next morning, to find it overcast and raining lightly. The rain stopped by around 9am, and this was the last rain we saw on the cruise. We’d booked the “Sea Otter Quest and Raptor Center” tour, and can’t recommend it highly enough. Sitka is one of the few ports requiring tenders to the shore – it seemed very well organized. Our tour boat picked us up directly from the ship, also well organized. The lower deck of the boat was enclosed, while the top deck was open at the back. We chose the top for the better view – it was cold, though not unbearably so. We were lucky enough to come across a “raft” of sea otters, maybe a hundred or so in number. A sight never to be forgotten, though more was to come. Our next stop was near a small island which had a pair of nesting bald eagles – spectacular. There were also quite a few seals in this area. As we were heading back towards Sitka, the boat’s captain spotted a humpback whale in the sound. To his – and our amazement – it was feeding, and repeatedly surfaced with mouth agape. This went on for some time, maybe half an hour. Everyone on board managed to get spectacular photos and video of this memorable sight, and we headed towards the Sitka marina very happy! There was a bus waiting for us, and we were at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center soon after. This is where injured eagles, hawks and owls are brought if they’ve been found hurt. Trust me, this was a real highlight, as after a brief introduction in a small auditorium, one of their resident bald eagles was brought out for us to admire. If you’ve never seen a bald eagle up close, you don’t know what you’ve missed – a truly awe-inspiring sight. Once again everyone left with spectacular photos. Our bus brought us back to town, where we were free to wander around town or go back to the ship. Sitka’s a very pretty town in all respects, and as the previous capital of Russian Alaska – as well as being the location of the signing of the Alaska Purchase - there’s plenty of history. Our dining  company went salmon fishing that day, and had great success.

Next day was Ketchikan. We’d been there before, and had done a floatplane trip to the Misty Fjords National Monument – an absolute must. Our dining companions partook of the “zipline” tour, and had a great time. We had a look around, though there wasn’t much time as the ship was only docked from 7am till 1pm. I purchased a few items (underwear and socks!) from a department store – this was actually a cheaper option than getting them laundered on board. Newer ships don’t seem to have self-serve laundries on board, so you have to pay to have it done. While this may seem trivial to some, it makes a difference if you’re away on a long vacation with a cruise just a part of it. Those “at sea” days are just the time to catch up on the washing! There were also two Princess ships in Ketchikan at the time, so the streets were pretty crowded. As soon as we set sail, Oosterdam’s sister ship “Zuiderdam” took our place at the dock. Lunch was being served at this time around the Lido Pool. The roof over the pool was opened for the only time this cruise, as lunch included barbequed salmon steaks cooked on the spot, as well as crab legs, mussels, salads etc etc. If that doesn’t make your mouth water nothing will!

It wasn’t until 5:30 the following afternoon that we were in port again, this time the lovely city of Victoria, capital city of British Columbia. Once again there were shuttle busses provided at the pier, and once again the system worked well. Our friends from the first day did the tour of Buchart Gardens – there was enough light for them to still see, and they said they had a great time. As we’d seen the Gardens before, we satisfied ourselves with walking around the very pleasant harbourside area and the main shopping streets. It was Friday night, so there was lots happening.

Next day we were back in Seattle – we were picking up a rental car (I don’t mind giving a free plug to Thrifty here, as they’re the only rental company with a booth at the pier). We didn’t have to be off the ship until 9.30, so had enough time for a leisurely final breakfast at the Lido. Our bags were shore side as promised, and we were on our way to Thrifty.

All in all the cruise was fabulous, with very few complaints. The “upselling” which I mentioned before doesn’t seem quite as strident as it was a couple of years ago. While one could purchase wine or spa packages, nobody actively pushed them too much in person. This didn’t stop the spa from leaving flyers for various deals in our “letterbox”. There was a certain irony in the spa touting their environmentally-friendly products, yet distributing a forest-worth’s of paper every day.

The on-board entertainment was pretty good, and a definite improvement on what we experienced on the “Volendam” back in 1999. We didn’t go to the shows every night, but I don’t recall hearing any negative comments. There was also an on-board talent quest along the lines of “Idol”, and it was a must – not so much the talent, as for the very funny repartee between the judges. It really was entertainment in every sense. The cruise director and his staff were very good on the whole, with DJ Kerry deserving particular praise.

The ship’s décor, while pleasant enough, was a bit glitzier and “colder” than normally found on Holland-America. Once again it’s a matter of taste – personally we prefer the slightly more old-fashioned and very dignified décor on their older ships. An example was the internet café – pretty functional with lots of chrome and glass. In comparison, the internet café on the Amterdam was incorporated in the library, with wooden desks, plush carpets and rows of books – plus the Java café was next door.

Those with a love of nautical history should take a stroll through the corridors on Deck 5 – the walls were covered in framed black and white photos of previous Holland-America ships either under construction or in service. I wouldn’t have minded taking some of these photos home, to be honest!

In summary, we’d recommend an Alaskan cruise to anyone, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Holland-America. They seem to be trying to appeal to a younger generation than before, and judging by the broad age group on board you’d have to say they’re succeeding. Their fleet varies in age and décor quite considerably, but in our experience you’ll always find a comfortable bed in a quiet cabin, great food to suit all tastes, and service beyond reproach. Will we back to Holland-America? Without a doubt!

 


 


 

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