Number of Cruises: First Cruise
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: July 1st, 2001
Itinerary: Vancouver to Seward
Vancouver’s airport is huge and most airline passengers you’ll encounter in it don’t speak English. Chinese seems to be the predominant language. After claiming my bags (traveling with 2 suitcases is such a hassle!), I found my shuttle and took a short ride to the Delta Resort Hotel. At the hotel, the shuttle driver took my bags and gave them to the bellhop and directed me to the HAL desk. Two very friendly, patient, and informative cruise line representatives explained everything that would happen over the next 24 hours. I never had to go to the front desk, except to turn in my key the next day. The cruise reps processed my immigration papers and told me to have my bags ready at 8 AM the next day. A Gray Line tour bus would take us on a 3-hour tour of Vancouver before we boarded the MS Statendam.
The hotel was first class and the service was excellent. I felt very relaxed and was impressed with how easy things were going. I admit to being a bit apprehensive at first about the idea of traveling a long distance by myself and having to figure out how to make the various connections and transfers. HAL simplified all that and I would recommend booking through them, especially if you’re a first timer. I could have wasted a lot of time, money, and energy making arrangements on my own.
Finally, the day I’ve been dreaming about for over a year. I awoke to discover it was Canada Day. What a nice surprise! I had my bags ready at 8 AM and was told I wouldn’t see them again until they appeared in my cabin on the ship. Those of us on the sightseeing tour (another unexpected, but much appreciated “extra” from HAL) were each given a small Canadian flag to wave as we drove by Canada Day celebrations. Vancouver is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. Among other sights, we visited Stanley Park, Queen Elizabeth Park, and Chinatown.
The bus pulled up to the pier in downtown Vancouver and got our first glimpse of the MS Statendam. We walked down a corridor past a room full of hundreds of hot, sweaty people waiting to embark. Because we had already processed, we were able to bypass this steamy throng and go directly onto the ship and to our cabins. Within minutes my bags arrived, followed by my roommate Leslie. She and my girlfriend Holly had spent a few days in Seattle and took a shuttle up to Vancouver. Chris (Holly’s fiancé) and his 3 children drove up from California and met us on the ship about an hour later.
In the words of Johnny Horton’s 1961 hit song, it was “North, to Alaska”.
I was prepared for a cabin about the size of a broom closet so I was pleasantly surprised at how big the room was, especially the bathroom. As it turned out, Leslie and I only used the cabin to shower, get dressed, and sleep. It was an inside cabin (K class) which didn’t bother us in the least, especially when our friend Holly told us that the 20+ hours of sunlight in Alaska kept her awake in her outside cabin. I know the cabin is a big deal to some people but in my opinion, unless I was going on a cruise for an extended period of time, a bigger cabin or suite isn’t worth the extra vacation dollars. I’d rather spend my money on a shore excursion.
Made, our cabin steward, introduced himself. We rarely, if ever, saw him after that but somehow he figured out our schedule and came in unobtrusively twice a day. Our beds were made in the morning, bathroom cleaned, and the fruit bowl refilled. At night our sheets and bedspreads were pulled down and a foil wrapped chocolate placed on our pillows. I can get used to this!
I may as well get this out of the way early on. The weather was crappy, pure and simple. July 1 was the last day we saw clear skies. It was followed by 7 days and 7 nights of rain, fog, mist and drizzle. The Statendam became our proverbial Ark. My Land’s End rain slicker became a permanent fixture on my body. It never got above 57 degrees, but that didn’t stop us from walking in each port and taking in the sights. We still had a great vacation and would do it again. The fact that we enjoyed ourselves so much speaks to our ability to roll with the punches (and waves) and remain flexible, as well as an overall good cruising experience with HAL.
I mention the weather because if your idea of a cruise is dancing on the deck while wearing a fruit filled hat (a la Carmen Miranda), an Alaskan cruise isn’t for you. What we experienced is typical for southeast Alaska in the summertime, so be prepared. I was warned to be sure to wear sunscreen to protect myself from the sun reflecting off the ice and water. Nothing reflected off of anything and we were always covered from head to toe and carrying an umbrella. We also didn’t have any problems whatsoever with bugs or mosquitoes.
Due to the weather and the resulting large ice floats, we were unable to do our scenic cruising in Glacier Bay but College Fjord more than made up for it.
After the mandatory lifeboat drill, there was a sail away party on the sports deck and then our first of many fabulous dinners in the formal Rotterdam dining room. The food, presentation, and service were outstanding. Our waiter’s name was Yayan and his assistant was Astra. Every dinner was a 5-course affair. The seafood selections were outstanding and so were the desserts. My favorite dessert was the HAL signature chocolate cake I had at our first dinner. It was made with that incredible dark Dutch chocolate. No Hershey’s spoken here. The cake’s only competition was the chocolate mousse on the second night.
HAL has a reputation of catering to the Social Security set and some well meaning, but misinformed, cruisers told me to expect rather bland offerings. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Some memorable main dishes included Baked Stuffed Prawns Del Rey, a spicy dish made with chili flakes; Filet Mignon Oscar, topped with asparagus, béarnaise sauce and crabmeat; Seafood Mixed Grill (tuna, halibut, giant prawn and scallop); and Bami Goreng, spicy Indonesian noodles served as an appetizer or a main course.
You could have breakfast and lunch in the Rotterdam but we gravitated toward the Lido Restaurant. It was easier and quicker than the dining room, offered a good selection, and the 5-year old in our party could eat with us. I especially liked the omelet station at breakfast and fresh squeezed orange juice was available every morning.
Favorites at lunch included the salad bar, homemade soup, and pizza. One day an outstanding cold seafood bar was available which included chilled crab claws, marinated calamari salad, and fresh shrimp salad.
We visited four ports – Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, and Valdez. Due to the fact that we did a 6-mile walk in each port city, our involvement with shore excursions was extremely limited. I did sign up beforehand for the helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. It, like many other shore excursions, was canceled due to the bad weather and poor visibility. As a consolation prize, I took the tram to the top of Mt. Roberts. You’re supposed to be able to see the capital city of Juneau when you reach the observation deck. With the fog having the consistency of the Dutch green pea soup we ate for lunch, we saw zilch. We did enjoy the nature center and the movie on the history and culture of the Tlingit Indians.
Sitka was my favorite port and I can’t imagine an Alaskan cruise without it. The Russian landmarks and history are fascinating. Make sure you visit the Sitka National Historic Park. The park ranger gave us an extremely interesting tour and lecture on the battle between Governor Baranov’s troops and the Tlingit Indians.
Mal de Mer
We experienced 24 hours of rough weather and seas once we left the Inside Passage on our way to Valdez. That night our ship rescued a fishing vessel that had taken on too much water. The Coast Guard came by the next day to pick up the two men who were onboard.
Prior to going on this cruise, I was told I wouldn’t have any trouble with seasickness due to the size of the ship and the stabilizers. I packed some ginger tablets anyway and was glad I had them when we experienced turbulent weather. A combination of the rich food and the motion of the ship left me feeling rather green around the gills. The morning after the big storm the ship was really rockin’ and rollin’. I’d suggest packing motion sickness medicine just in case.
On-Board Activities and Facilities
Don’t miss Dutch High Tea. It adds a nice, classy European touch to the cruise. We attended all of the after dinner shows and found them to be entertaining. If you’re expecting Broadway or Las Vegas caliber performances, you’ll be disappointed. I live in Nashville and would compare them to the type of shows you see on the General Jackson Showboat. My favorite was the classical banjo player, which sounds corny, but he was really good. He started off with some Stephen Foster songs and finished with a medley of songs from “Fiddler on the Roof”.
There was a naturalist onboard and one rainy afternoon I attended his whale lecture. His slides were the only whales I saw during the entire trip! The lecture was very interesting, and I can now tell the difference between a dorsal fin and a pectoral fin.
Holland America does something that I think is very thoughtful. They try to have a Catholic priest onboard each cruise to say daily Mass. I attended three times and found it be a good way to focus yourself and start the day.
We tried Snowball Bingo one day and had a lot of fun but didn’t win any money. If someone doesn’t win the jackpot, it “snowballs” to the next day.
I thought the Dutch Dessert Extravaganza was more hype than substance but I know some people don’t think a HAL cruise is complete without it. It’s held at 10:30 PM, it’s crowded, and the servings are too big. I would have preferred a dessert sampler and dispensed with the ogling and the picture taking.
I know that HAL caters to an older crowd, but I was surprised, especially on an Alaskan cruise, to see so many people 65 and over. I thought that given the time of year and the destination, there would be more families and young people. I’m only mentioning the age of the passengers because I know that’s important to some people. We met lots of interesting people of all ages, including a 90-year-old man who was there with 20 other family members. Everyone we encountered was pleasant and enjoyable.
After hearing horror stories from friends about other cruise lines and their roaming gangs of out-of-control teenagers and around the clock drinking, I was glad to not have a bunch of 20 year olds vomiting in the hallway outside my cabin at 3 AM.
I’m very weight conscious and am proud to report that when I weighed myself when I got home, I hadn’t gained an ounce. I ate well, but moderately, and stayed active. No 5-10 lb. cruise gain for me! I pretty much stuck to 3 meals a day and took advantage of offerings like skim milk and fresh fruit and vegetables at breakfast and lunch. While the food at dinner was richly prepared, I thought the portion sizes were very reasonable. And no, I didn’t order 2 entrees, even on lobster night.
We docked in Seward and were some of the first passengers off the ship at 6 AM. On the first day of the cruise we upgraded from the shuttle bus to the Alaskan Railroad. Well worth the extra $39. I highly recommend it. The train took us through some of the most breathtaking, up close scenery we saw on the entire trip. Lots of glaciers and waterfalls in heavily wooded areas, as well as “braided” streams formed by the glaciers. We saw two moose grazing in a meadow. The train goes around an “S” curve into a beautiful valley. College students served as waiters and tour guides in the train cars. There’s a dining car but they’ll serve you right at your seat if you want. Since it was so early in the morning, it was nice being able to sip a cup of hot coffee while we took in the sights.
At the Anchorage train station, I parted ways with my friends. Because my flight was later and I was flying Northwest, the bus took me to the downtown Egan Center for a very unique, but practical, airline check-in. At the Egan Center, Northwest and TWA have temporary computer terminals set up in an exhibition hall filled with luggage. You claim your bags from the RR and then re-check them with the airline. I never saw them again until I got to Nashville the next day. So that you can enjoy your time in downtown Anchorage, there’s a bag sitting service. For $1 per bag, someone watches your carry-on luggage so you don’t have to lug it around with you. What a great idea! There are shuttles leaving at 3:30 and 5:30 for the airport. Since my flight didn’t take off until 11:30 PM, I opted for the later shuttle.
Anchorage is a city of 260,000 people. The downtown smells like freshly ground coffee beans and grilled fish. There’s a plethora of coffee houses and seafood restaurants. You don’t see any chain restaurants or stores, so it’s basically a “Starbucks free” zone. Everything is very clean and relatively new. After lunch I went sightseeing and shopped until my shuttle arrived.
My luggage and I arrived safe and sound in Nashville the next day. The long flight back at odd hours is the only drawback to this trip, so make sure you give yourself at least one whole day to rest up before going back to your dull, pre-cruise routine.
To sum it up, I did my share of eating on this cruise, but it was much more than that! So much so that on my 31-hour trip back home, my sleep-deprived brain was already plotting my next cruise. I’m hooked! I found the whole experience to be totally physically and emotionally relaxing. On my next cruise, I’ll probably try another cruise line just so I have something to compare with HAL, but I would recommend HAL and the Statendam to my family and friends without hesitation.