By Robert Ross
Cruisin’ to Alaska
“And Robert, what did you do for your summer vacation?” My imaginary teacher asked. “Well, I took an Alaskan cruise,” I responded. “An Alaskan cruise, Wow! Would you care to share your experience with the rest of the class?” “You bet!” I belted out.
Well class, I guess I should start at the beginning. Twenty years ago my wife and I decided to get married. To make a long story short, I woke up one day a few months ago, and realized that twenty years had passed by. In fact, twenty years had shot by in the blink of an eye. After this realization had set in, we both felt that this milestone needed a special acknowledgment. Neither of us had been on a cruise, so it was decided — a seven-day Alaskan cruise leaving from Seattle, would be a fun way to celebrate our twentieth anniversary.
Before we embarked on our journey, there were questions that needed answers. Through which agency should we book? How much is this going to cost? Which cruise line should we take? On what date should we leave? What should we pack? What side excursions should we book?
After checking newspaper, internet sites, the Auto club, friends and www.bbb.org , we booked our adventure through Cruise Value Center (www.mycruisevalue.com). This booking process involved e-mails, getting competitive bids and a few days of phone calls to Cruise Value Center. All and all, by taking the time and doing some homework, we saved more than $700. Homework can pay off!
We booked on the ms Westerdam, which is a Holland America Line ship, leaving May 7. This was the first sailing of the season. And, this was to be the inaugural sailing to Alaska of Holland America’s “new” refitted ms Westerdam.
We arrived in Seattle a day early, which gave us time to see the city. After walking through the downtown area and going to Pike’s Market — a bustling market with fresh fish stalls, food, handicrafts, entertainers and an upbeat energy, we both agreed that Seattle has a unique charm, and along with the surrounding area, deserved at least a week for exploring.
The next day, we arrived at our embarkation terminal at 1:30 p.m., for a 4:00 p.m. sailing. Embarkation took about an hour. There were lines, security checks, luggage checks and room assignments. Our room was on the first deck of a nine-story ship. Being on the first deck would prove to be very advantageous. We were midship and had a room with a large window. Midship and lower down is the most stable and smoothest place to be. In fact, I can’t recall ever feeling like the ship was moving even when we hit some rough seas on day two of our trip.
The ship sailed at 4:00 p.m. and before we knew it, it was 5:30 and time for dinner. We had elected to have an earlier sitting. This was determined at the time we purchased our cruise tickets. An earlier sitting allowed us to have time do a little exercising after dinner (six laps of walking around Deck Three — two miles) and still have time to catch a show.
Our table had ten people assigned to it. This would be our nightly table and dinner companions for the trip, unless we chose to go up to the ninth floor which served a buffet dinner (or lunch or breakfast) all day and evening. Or we could also opt for the Pinnacle Grill which was a fancy — pricey wines — type of restaurant.
Our first stop was Glacier Bay, Alaska. Glacier Bay was a magnificent sight — approximately 65 miles long and filled with fjords and inlets. It was a cloudy, drizzly day, the perfect weather for hot Dutch pea soup (a Holland America tradition) served on the observation decks. Three Glacier Bay park rangers came on board to give a talk on the area.
Juneau was our next stop. Juneau is the capital of Alaska, although at first glance, one would think that it was a mining and lumber town by the general look and feel of it. Holland America offered a number of side excursions at each port of call. For example, in Juneau one could take a helicopter flight to a glacier, book a dog sledding adventure, go whale watching or take a sea coast nature walk. All of the side trips were a bit pricey for our budget, so we opted to hop a local bus out to Mendenhall Glacier which was well worth the effort. We spent the afternoon gazing in awe at this incredible work of nature.
Then we were on to Sitka for our next port of call. By now our routines were set in place — laps around Deck Three after meals, walks up the staircase to the pool area on Deck Nine. On the first day we had agreed not to use the elevators, to burn off calories. There were nightly pilgrimages (by my wife) to an American Idol type of contest (which culminated the last night of our cruise), and the Jacuzzi for me — on Deck Nine later in the evening. This was a lifestyle to which I had no problem adapting.
Sitka was a beautiful village/town nestled in a forested inlet, and was the only port where we “tendered” to get ashore. In other words, we docked in the bay about a mile out from the town and rode in on one of the Westerdam’s life boats.
Rather than book a tour or excursion in Sitka, we again opted to walk through town, stopping at Sitka National Historic park, and a local coffee house to check e-mail.
Our next port of call was Ketchikan. Along with Sitka, Ketchikan is home to the Tlingit (“klin-Kit”) tribes who first inhabited the area. Because of the abundant fishing, the Tlingits set up a fishing camp at the mouth of the Ketchikan Creek. The town was later incorporated in 1900. It wasn’t long after, that Ketchikan became known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Today, Ketchikan’s economic base is tourism.
From Ketchikan we headed south to Victoria, Canada. We had a short stay in Victoria (about six hours), but it was long enough to realize that along with Seattle, Victoria is a place we would like to come back and revisit. It’s quite beautiful — on an enclosed bay with the majestic Empress Hotel as its centerpiece, looking out over the bay.
We sailed out of Victoria about 11:00 p.m. and arrived in Seattle the following morning at about 7:00 a.m. Cruise complete, it was time to reflect on the experience.
This was out first cruise, and we both agreed that it was a very positive experience. There are a couple areas of the cruise experience that stand out — that made the trip so positive. First, the staff of the ms Westerdam, primarily Indonesian, were committed in body and soul to having this be a great experience for us. Our cabin attendant was genuinely friendly, making and remaking our bed every time we left the room. The bed was turned down each evening with a chocolate on the pillow and the following day’s itinerary was placed in view.
The food on board the ship was superb. The menus varied nightly. And the dining room staff was, again, committed to having this sailing be the best possible experience.
The ship itself, offered a variety of nooks and crannies, from coffee bars to casinos to libraries to cater to just about any interests.
In Ketchikan, we talked to some people who were booked on a competitive cruise line. They were less than pleased with the food and the service on their ship. “Less than pleased” is a polite way of saying that parts of their trip were nightmarish. For example, an initial embarkation process in Seattle which should have taken an hour, took about seven hours. And no food or water was available while they went through this process. They were also charged extra for steaks or lobster. And according to them, the ship’s staff was, in general, unfriendly.
Negative comments about this particular cruise line were echoed by others. So for me, if I take another cruise (which I hope to do again), it’s definitely going to be on a Holland America ship.
Robert Ross can be reached at
Copyright 2006 by Robert Ross, all rights reserved
Return to the July/August Index page