Number of Cruises: First Cruise
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: May 3rd, 2001
Itinerary: Vancouver, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan
This is a cruise review of my Holland America Alaskan cruise on May 5-12, 2001. My objective is to share some of my experiences. Some of the topics covered include: embarkation, your cabin and whether to pay more for windows or not, motion sickness before and after the cruise, tennis court? - Get real!, dress requirements, tipping, casino details, first or second dinner seating?, debarkation or have you ever had your name announced over the ship's public address system?, etc. This was my first cruise and I had many questions before the cruise that weren't completely answered by reading on-line cruise reviews, emailing Holland America or asking my tour escort. I hope my review will answer some of your questions and better prepare you for your first cruise.
For me the word "cruise" was a misnomer in describing my Alaskan cruise as it was anything but "travel at a speed suitable for being maintained for a long distance", i.e., a relaxing trip. I had a wonderful time. But it was go, go, go! There were so many things to do on board as well as off the ship, that anyone claiming there wasn't enough to do, . . . well . . . they really missed the boat! Don't get me wrong, if you wanted to lounge at the pool all day, you could. But there so much to do, see and experience. As a first time cruiser, this cruise exceeded all my expectations.
(This was Zaandam's maiden voyage into the Alaska Inland Passage. This voyage actually began in Florida about three weeks earlier.)
1. Cruise Insurance. This is a $90+ expense that you should consider seriously because your reservations are made so far in advance and you'll be traveling in international waters. We had one friend who, one week before the cruise, was told by his doctor he couldn't take the cruise because of a possible serious medical condition. Another friend was forced to purchase clothing items during the cruise because his luggage was misplaced by the airlines and never made on board the cruise. Both persons purchased the insurance and are either filing the required documents to receive reimbursements or weighing their options, i.e., insurance or airline. But then again, we had people in our group whom did not purchase the insurance.
2. Embarkation - have lots of patience. The Zaandam docks in Vancouver along side the Pan-Pacific Hotel. If you approach by private transportation as we did, you'll discover the lack of signs directing you to the luggage drop off area. The traffic guards outside the hotel knew nothing about dropping off luggage. We spent a frustrating half an hour in and out of the hotel's parking lots till we finally forced our way into a lane reserved for taxi drop offs only, where Canadian dock porters just began accepting Zaandam luggage, it was about 1100. We then found the Thrifty Rent-a-car area on a lower level and parked our car in a Thrifty stall. But there was no sign directing you to the Thrifty counter. We eventually found Thrifty on the "CS" or CruiseShip floor near the front entrance of the hotel that was two levels above where we parked the car and one above where we had dropped off our luggage. Because we had a few hours before embarkation, we went back downstairs to the level where we had just dropped off our luggage to store our carry-on luggage, cost per bag was $3-$4. I should point out that the Holland America entrance was also on the level where our carry-on was stored and where our luggage was dropped off. (If you have the time, you might want to visit the 150 store underground shopping mall a few blocks from the dock whose flagship store is Eaton's.) The embarkation area opened about 1330 and once you entered, you were given a number and as your number was called, you proceeded to a check-in station where you presented your papers and were given your cabin key that looks like a credit card. Once past the metal detector and up the gangway, you're escorted to your room.
3. Once on the ship, the first order of business is the only life boat/life jacket drill at 1600. Before the actual drill, you're told of the time for the drill over the public address (PA) system outside your cabin. We kept opening our cabin door so we could hear the announcements. We later discovered you could tune-in to channel 5 on your intercom/ship's radio to hear PA announcements within your room.
4. We had an inner room, number 1880 on the Dolphin deck (1st level if you will), that included no window, a free security safe to store your valuables that was activated, opened and closed with a credit card (so remember not to store your credit card in the safe), 2 standard beds, 2 small night stands, 5 closets, a sofa, a chair, an ice bucket filled 2 times a day, a "micro" table that was big enough for a bowl of fruit with napkin and knife, intercom/radio so you could hear the public address system in your cabin, light switches everywhere, and a 20" TV that included CNN Live, TNT, two Movie channels, a channel that was a 24/7 video cam overlooking the front of the ship so you could see the outside weather, a Port channel that played cruise memories videos, a Ship channel that played back that day's lectures or shows, and a Scan display channel that showed the current sea conditions, time, and described the different rank insignias of the crew. ESPN was on 24 hours in the casino bar only, satellite permitting.
5. You'll be spoiled with the morning making-up and evening turning of your bed. If you find yourself locked-out of your room, just see Housekeeping down the hall as I did, even though it was close to midnight. One of our friends had her key changed 8 times! that is amazing since we were on a 7-day cruise. She said the Front Desk folks told her credit cards magnetic strips were altering her room key's code. She separated her room key from her credit cards and placed her cabin key in a neck pouch but that didn't work. The strangest part was that her husband's key worked fine. Go figure!
6. The hardest thing to remember about your room will be on which side of the ship your room is located. Even numbered cabins are on one side and odd numbered cabins are on the other side. Some of us felt a sign would be helpful that would be seen as you exited the elevator or as you came down the stairs that pointed to the side of the ship that had the even numbered cabins or vice versa. A mini refrigerator is available for $2/day but should be ordered in advance. We didn't use this convenience because our ice bucket was filled twice a day and we could always go down the hall, sneak into the mini-galley and help ourselves.
7. Showers were small with plastic curtains but big enough to bend over and pick up dropped soap, contrary to other cruise stories I've read. The shower has two control knobs. The lower one presets the temperature and guarantees a comfortable shower every time. The toilet has a vacuum jet action whose noise is quite startling at first but efficient. There is no clock but wake-up call is available or you can turn to the TV Scan channel to check the time. There will be two time changes that occur at 0200. When you enter Alaskan time zone, you'll have to set your watches back and when you return to Canadian time zone, you'll have to set your watch forward. You'll receive a timely notice under your door the night before each time change.
8. Lack of a window didn't make that much difference. But rooms on the promenade deck had to keep their curtains closed for privacy from the public (not worth the extra charge for a window we think). But for rooms with windows below the active deck where the public could not peak in, our friends enjoyed waking up with the sun (what little there was) and one morning looked out their window to see dolphins swimming along side the ship.
9. Sodas and bottled water are provided in your room for sale. You might want to consider bringing your own soda or beer on board. Holland America will allow you to bring alcoholic beverages on board. In Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), there is a government regulated liquor store about two blocks from the dock. (Regulated meaning no matter what liquor store you enter in BC, the prices are the same at each liquor store.) Sodas are $1.75 on board, but free drinks included: water, hot chocolate, coffee, ice tea, and juice during breakfast and lunch hours only. There is a corkage fee in the dining room for private liquor.
10. A hair dryer in the bathroom is provided though the blower is very weak but everything seemed to dry quickly in this climate. I hung my wrinkled coat, pants and dress shirt in the bathroom after a hot shower and the wrinkles were gone by the next day. My friends told me this only works if your clothes had been laundered before being wrinkled.
11. Motion sickness. Whether you're prone to motion sickness or not, you should take some kind of motion sickness medication at the beginning of the cruise. The front desk and infirmary dispense for free, a medication, I believe, called Sea Calm. We brought our own prescribed scopolamine patches. On the second day of the cruise during our first formal dining, the motion sickness illness literally crept-up on many unsuspecting diners. We were unaware that the waves were breaking 7-12 feet (and would reach 18 feet that night due to a storm). One by one, diners began exiting to their rooms before the main entrée. I overheard one diner say, " . . . let me out and get some air!" I don't know if she actually did. People said they felt better once they retreated from the fourth or fifth floor dining areas to the their cabins on the Dolphin deck which was on the first floor in the middle of the ship where the swaying seemed less pronounced.
12. Rotterdam Dining Room on 4th and 5th decks. There were 2 formal nights, one jacket/no tie night, one casual, and the others informal. We had a few rebels in our group who refused to wear a coat or tie but were permitted into the dinning area. So although required, the policy was not enforced. Before the cruise, you'll request how many people you want at your table. Tables in our area were set up from 2 to 8 persons per table and this is the table you'll have all your dinner meals. Menus included appetizers, soups, salads, main entrée, desserts (sugar-free ones too). As you cruise, you'll find that you can double order anything on the menu or order as many entrees as you wish. When it came to lobster night, we doubled our orders but our waiter tripled our orders so when we did ask for another lobster meal, he had them waiting for us. On the last night, my friend and I ordered and shared all four desserts listed on the menu. At the end of the cruise, the dinner menus except the last night's were presented to each couple. For some reason, no one received the dessert menus. As you entered the dining area, you were treated to live music (though we thought the playing of Theme from Titanic was a bit eerie) and extraordinary ice sculptures that were built from 300 pounds of specially frozen ice that cost $60. (There was an ice sculpture demonstration at the Lido pool where three sculptures were carved in 15 minutes!) On our last night, the waiters paraded baked Alaska desserts with lit sparklers to your table. Each night as you left the dining area there was a mint server who scooped mints or figs for you. He was one of the many friendly staff and each night he greeted us by our first names. His name was Yoman and he gets my vote for employee of the month.
13. Lido Restaurant buffet area on the 8th deck served buffets for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and themed "midnight" buffets of desserts, German, and French specialties. Even though we were on the Dolphin level (1st level) we worked off some calories by walking up all 8 flights of stairs each day. We usually stopped at the shops on the 5th floor before continuing to the Lido level. Walking down was no problem. The Lido provided a great view on either side of the ship. And being enclosed, we were able to observe eagles, seals, and even a brown bear from the comfort of our table. For the most part, breakfast was regular fare of omelets, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, cereals, fresh fruit, juices, smoked salmon slices, etc. (For our fellow kamaainas from Hawaii, we heard shoyu is available if you ask for it and the white rice requested was foreign.), lunch had awesome dishes such as Osso bucco, grilled fish, pasta dishes, and rotisserie chicken. Since we ate all our dinners in the Dining Room I can't comment on the Lido's dinners. The Lido also provided self-serve late night hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and water. Not even Las Vegas provides this kind of service. We always found seats at the Lido whether dining or having a hot chocolate. For planning purposes, the busiest breakfast was on the last day since everyone needed to be out of their rooms by 0800. We heard the wait at the Lido and the Dining Room was almost half an hour. The Lido does provide a smoking area.
14. Lido pool area provided hamburgers w/all the fixings, large hot dogs, and pizza slices in between the main meal hours. This is also the area for the salmon bake. Unfortunately, on our cruise the marinated salmon was blackened beyond recognition. Not a problem since Indonesian cuisine was also being served in the Lido restaurant. The Lido pool is also a good gauge of how much the ship is swaying side to side. One night around midnight we saw the pool's water sloshing back and forth. We knew the ship was swaying and remained tilted for a while as evidenced by the water in the pool was lower on one side than the other. The pool area also sponsors the nightly "cigars under the stars".
15. There are two dinner seating in the dining room. If you eat a lot during lunch and/or plan to attend the afternoon teas, you might want to select the second seating to space out your meals. Or if you plan to attend the late 2300 buffets, you might want to select the first seating. The Holland America staff was most accommodating. A couple in our group was able to squeeze into the second seating when they were late for the first seating due to an extended shore excursion.
16. Marco Polo Restaurant for Italian cuisine. I did not eat there but others in our group said the food and service were excellent! Reservations are required but keep trying as openings became available due to cancellations.
17. Fitness area is located on the 8th deck same as the Lido restaurant and Spa. One of the advantages of exercising on this level is that you can exercise while viewing the spectacular scenery over the front of the ship (I never did figure out aft, bow, port, or starboard!) When entering into the Juneau area in the morning, look for the house on an isolated island surrounded by tall pine trees, on the left. Exercise machines include: stair steppers (pedal type), free weights, cybex weight machines, a long line of treadmills over looking the front of the ship, towels, aerobics classes, etc. We exercised in the Fitness area in the mornings after our chilly but invigorating 1 mile walk or 3 and a half times around the deck. Considering how much food was being devoured, it's a wonder the Fitness area was never crowded.
18. Outside sports deck toward the rear of the ship includes a small combination volleyball/basketball court, a reduced sized tennis court that Holland America refers to as "practice" courts (leave your racket at home and use the ones provided and you might want to bring a can of dry tennis balls for practice hitting) and a shuffleboard area. To tell you the truth, it was so cold, I only visited this opened area twice, once to see what a practice tennis court looked like and the other time for a tour group picture of us shivering in hooded jackets, but this is another story.
19. Passport to Fitness sports incentive book is provided to record your participation in exercise functions such as the morning and/or afternoon 1-mile deck walks; aerobic classes; sport tournaments such as ping-pong, tennis; etc. Being from Hawaii, we made the mistake of showing up for our first deck walk at 0730 in shorts and t-shirt. We should have known something was wrong when everyone else was wearing parkas and warm-up suits. We should have received extra points that morning! But points were easy to come by. We received points for showing up at a ping-pong tournament even though it was cancelled because lounge chairs blocked access to the tables. By the way, there were only 5 paddles meaning you could have 2 singles games on two tables or only 1 doubles match on one table. I hope another paddle is found so both tables can be fully utilized. Anyway, for 10 points you receive a water bottle, for 25 points you'd receive a shirt, etc.
20. Debarkation. The Debarkation presentation is given the day before the actual debarkation and you'll be assigned a debarkation number. But don't worry if you miss the presentation, as it will be shown over and over and over on your TV until you disembark. Basically on the day of debarkation, your luggage must be tagged with colored tags provided by Holland America and placed in the hallway by 0200 and you should be out of your cabin by 0800. When your number is called, you'll disembark the ship and retrieve your luggage on the dock before you board your bus. Also, I believe the Holland America staff is not allowed to help you carry your carry-on luggage off the ship. So if you have heavy carry-on luggage that requires assistance, you might want to leave it out the night before. And at the debarkation presentation, everyone was reminded that everyone's charge account must be settled before any debarkation begins. So imagine my surprise when my name was unceremoniously blared over the entire ship's PA system that my account hadn't been settled and no one could leave the ship! I went to the Front Desk and found one lady arguing about erroneously being charged for two drinks and another lady claiming she was being overcharged on her account. To make a long story short, both ladies' pleaded (loudly, I might add) their cases and both bills were dropped. I assumed Holland America couldn't produce the signed charge slips passengers sign when they charge purchases on the ship. In my case, even though Holland America had charged my credit card for the first 5 days, they claimed my credit card wouldn't take my purchase of bingo cards purchased the day before. Hmmm. Go figure! This negative 20-minute episode at the Font Desk that should have taken a couple of minutes did not detract from what was an outstanding cruise! Needless to say, when I met my group I told them they had my permission to leave the ship. *smile*
21. The casino area includes a crap table; one roulette table; 4-5 blackjack tables with $5 minimum and double down on any two cards, 6 decks w/shoe; one fun blackjack table where the queens are thrown out; many slot machines; and tournaments for blackjack and slots. There was also one fun blackjack night where the dealer's hand was also dealt face-up, minimum bet $3. I didn't play this game but other people in our group who did said it wasn't easy to play and basic strategy doesn't work.
22. Bingo is very popular. $10 buys you 4 games or $20 will get you three cards for each of the same 4 games. Most jackpots were over $300 and the final jackpot was over $2,200. Three members in our group won jackpots.
23. Tipping. You will be read Holland America's official policy on tipping which is "tipping is not required". But tips are gladly accepted. Tipping was my way of recognizing certain members of the staff on their outstanding service.
24. Weather. Be ready for cold and rain when outdoors in the port towns or on the ship's open decks. Otherwise, if you stay inside the ship, it's like living in a hotel.
25. If you have time, don't miss the Sea Quest scavenger hunt. It's not advertised very well, but we caught the tail end of the event and found it very entertaining.
26. The Movie Theater showed current movies and provided a small bag of free popcorn. My only minor complaint is that the picture was so low to the floor that it was difficult to read the subtitles without standing up.
27. Washing and drying machines took only quarters and cost $2 and $1 per load, and detergent is provided. No dryer sheets however.
28. Clothes. Think layer and waterproof top and bottom. I brought an umbrella but found it inconvenient to carry around so I didn't use it. I instead used a waterproof jacket hood.
29. Cameras. Bring lots of film and back-up camera batteries. We rarely take photographs but ended up taking 7 rolls on a borrowed camera. (Word to wise: Remember to use your flash when taking pictures with a white background. Otherwise, you'll end up with two black silhouettes posing in front of a bright white glacier.)
30. Juneau excursion - we joined a private bus tour of the town with a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier visitor center. It was very informative but our stop was not long enough to attend the informational movie and walk down the gravel path to the glacial lake for closer viewing of the glacier. Bring binoculars! You'll be surprised that although the glacier's surface looks like it's covered in dark dust, the dust is really comprised of large boulders and other large debris that the glacier movement has picked up. We were there when there was a thunderous sound, and the glacier calved off a piece of ice, resulting in a big splash and a clean, striking deep blue colored ice. Just marvelous. Are helicopter rides ever cancelled? That day, Juneau was cloudy, cold in the mid forties, light rain with the clouds coming in lower forcing the cancellation of all helicopter flights that morning.
31. Train ride to White Pass and return to Skagway. This is a relaxing 3-hour ride up and down, no off loading. If you do take this excursion, our recommendation is don't sit in the first or last train car otherwise you'll be inhaling diesel fumes on one leg of the trip. At the top of White Pass, the train's engines change sides so what was the caboose going up the Pass now becomes the first car behind the diesel engines. Complimentary sodas/juices are provided and chips/candy/videos are for sale. Standing between the train cars was the best spot for viewing the countryside and taking pictures.
32. Helicopter excursion from Skagway to Noarse Glacier took 18 minutes one-way and we stayed about 20 minute on the glacier. The helicopter ride was exciting but too short and somewhat expensive. Each helicopter carries 5 passengers and glacier-walking boots are provided for your safety.
33. Canoe excursion at Ketchikan. We were warned it rains 300 days out of a year in Ketchikan and sure enough it rained the day we scheduled our canoe ride. Can't remember the name of the lake but it took a 45 minute drive to get there. Although the weather was miserable at best, this was my best shore excursion experience. We were provided clean port-a-potties and clean rain jackets and pants. In a medium rain, we paddled out onto the lake, visited the lake's island, received an informative talk about the plants and wildlife, and stopped to have clam chowder, hot chocolate, smoked salmon, and mints served in skunk cabbage flowers. That day's hot clam chowder never tasted better! But for me, the highlight was out racing the other canoe after they had a head start. Also, when returning to Ketchikan, we spotted no fewer than a dozen eagles perched in the pine trees probably waiting for the fishing boats to dock and throw fish remains into the sea. Look for white golf balls in the trees.
34. Ship lectures by a naturalist named Jay were exciting, and informative; and for the majority of his lectures, he used his own stunning photographs. One memorable photo was one of the 2-mile wide (10,480 foot) Pan-American glacier that dwarfed and towered over a 795 foot cruise ship that floated in its shadow. That photo truly communicated the overpowering width and height of the glacier. To put it into perspective, the glacier is 13 times wider than the length of the ship! Just taking a picture of the glacier doesn't do it justice.
35. Library & Internet rooms. Logging-on cost is .75 per minute and on some days you could receive 5 free minutes after the first 10 minutes.
36. Shops on-board and off ship. There were ship's photographers throughout the ship taking posed pictures of its passengers "at no obligation." If you did have a picture taken of you, you need to see your photo at the Photo Shop and if you want, you could purchase the photos. Prices varied. There is also a Duty Free Shop. Their inventory was limited but where else can you buy a carton of Marlboro for less than $19? Shopping off the ship. We noticed because we were one the first cruises of the season, many shops were just receiving their season's inventory and putting the finishing touches before "fully" opening their stores for the Summer rush. Some of the shoppers in our group felt cruising later in the season might have been better when all the stores were opened and well stocked.
37. Salmon fishing. The salmon were not running and don't until June/July. Being this is the first cruise of the season, salmon fishing was not an option.
38. Vancouver: internet access was free at the public library; all you need is library card if you were from Canada or the lower 48 states. Being from Hawaii and not eligible for a card, the accommodating librarian logged me on and I was able to spend a few minutes on-line and check my emails. He was one of the many friendly, no hassle Canadians we met and we plan to return and see if the rest of Canada's people possess a similar kind of attitude.
39. Motion sickness illness after the cruise? We heard that taking medication after the cruise might be helpful and from our experience, this may not be such a bad idea. Several people in our group reported feeling ill and dizzy once they returned to land, very similar to how they felt on the cruise during the 12-foot waves. However, others did not. From general observation of our group, if you were sick on the cruise, odds were good you would be ill for a couple of days on land too.
I apologized for having rambled on so long. I hope my notes of Zaandam's maiden voyage into the Alaska Inland Passage were helpful. As I said earlier, for me this first time cruise exceeded all my expectations!