I was expecting the whole cruise ship experience to be cheesy as hell and possibly not enjoyable without a heavy dose of irony. However, at the tender age of forty-eight, I am keenly interested in new classes of experience and the idea of using a very large ship as a sort of hermit crab shell was intriguing. Also, Alaska.
My short review: that was actually reasonably fun. Alaska is flat out gorgeous and historically fascinating, so you should visit it if possible. There is no way to visit southeast Alaska from the contiguous 48 without a significant investment of time and money; given that, it makes a bunch of sense to unpack your stuff into a big floating hotel rather than unpacking and packing and flying and unpacking and packing and so on. I wouldn’t recommend a cruise for the sake of the food, the entertainment, or the social opportunities — YMMV on the last, I’m a bit of an iconoclast — but all of the above are just fine as side elements to a cruise focused on seeing the sights.
Details: we took Holland America’s MS Noordam on a six night cruise departing from Vancouver. We spent a day cruising the Endicott Arm, stayed in Juneau overnight, and stopped for most of a day in Ketchikan. We also had two full days at sea.
In a little more detail…
The whole thing was just really easy. It took a few hours to get on board because of a computer issue. This was an unusual event and once on board there were very few rough edges. For example, we got a two person table for dinner at 5:30 each day; every day was the same table, same waiter, and so on. If we wanted to do dinner somewhere else, no need to cancel the reservation. Holland America has clearly been doing this for a while.
The ambiance floated calmly somewhere in the intersection of luxury, tradition, and practicality. Holland America is not one of the serious luxury lines, but they’re going for an older clientele than, say, Carnival. The Noordam carries around 2,000 vacationers, which is half the size of the modern super-ships. Decor was generally sedate. The decks were an elegant teak. Bars were never too noisy. It fit our desires.
The food ranged from mediocre to reasonably good. If we’d wanted to give into upsells, we could have eaten at the steakhouse every night for a few hundred bucks more and gotten food that… probably would have been on par with a decent steakhouse on land. You’re on a ship that has to feed 2,000 people every night, plus another thousand staff. My expectations were not terribly high.
I was disappointed the first night and first breakfast, thanks to fairly poor service in the main dining room. It literally took an hour to get from the end of our main course to dessert arriving on the table. This might have been first night rush, I don’t know, but it was replicated the next morning with a really slow breakfast service. Later meals there improved and we had the remainder of our breakfasts at the buffet. Key tricks for better food: order more vegetables and look for things that will be cooked at the time of order as much as possible. Mmm, pool-side burgers.
The room was bigger than we expected. Having a verandah with a habitable balcony was amazing. The bed was really comfortable and the shower/tub was plenty big enough. It was dead quiet in the evenings, perhaps because we had quiet neighbors. Either way, I slept like a lamb.
And to reiterate: the value of not having to shuffle our stuff around for a week was very high. We’re thinking about a European trip next year via high speed rail. It’ll be fun but we’re gonna have to spend a lot of time and energy carrying bags around and checking in and so on. I mention this twice because it hadn’t occurred to me as a positive aspect of cruising before now.
The downside is that you’re spending relatively more time idly sailing between cities and ports. As it turned out, we had more or less enough time to explore Juneau and Ketchikan. I suspect that I’d feel more rushed on a European cruise, since a city like Copenhagen or Venice deserves more than a day and a half to savor. On the other hand, focused tours may keep that from being a huge problem, and it’s not as if I can spend my preferred two weeks in every single European city I want to visit.
Our fellow cruisers were generally older couples. There were a few families but Holland America isn’t tuned for kids or young couples. I’d been concerned that there’d be a lot of people expecting sociability. In practice, nope — a couple of times we wound up seating with other people at our restaurant tables, and you’re gonna chat with your tablemates, but even anti-social me didn’t feel oppressed. (Hm, perhaps I should be writing the Introvert’s Guide to Cruise Ships.)
Alaska. Wow. I will have a separate post of photographs later once I’ve finished editing down my 550 photos to a reasonable number. It’s gorgeous up there. Even our two sea days were remarkably beautiful; we rarely got too far from land, which made for scenic views 95% of the time. Add in whale watching, two close-up glacier visits, a hike up Mount Roberts, and just a lot of untouched wilderness and you wind up with me sitting around with my jaw hanging open a fair chunk of the time. I really expected to be more bored with the views.
The on-board entertainment was exactly what you’d expect. We caught three minutes of a truly awful piano player who satisfied the rest of the audience completely, so he was doing his job. The fairy-tale themed rock and roll song and dance show was satisfyingly cheesy. The B. B. King branded blues band was having fun on stage and cared about what they were doing. Don’t go on (most) cruises for the shows. Cayamo and other such cruises are an exception.
I kind of liked the days without Internet. It helped that satellite internet access to the New York Times was free. I could check the Tuesday primary results and find out who won the Celtics games a couple of hours after the fact. We brought plenty of books, and I was pleased that disconnecting was soothing rather than irritating. I am not yet completely cyborg. Probably reading a significant chunk of the Delta Green corpus was not ideal, given the one weird Cthulhoid nightmare I had, but it was certainly in theme for the area.
From my new vantage point as a veteran of one whole cruise, I certainly have advice for people who are doing this for the first time but I’ll wait to be asked rather than pontificate. I also recommend Cruise Critic. I used them for reference a lot in planning and their advice was always good.
We spent a week in London and Paris, and the luggage was by far the worst part. Get the luggage from baggage claim at Heathrow, onto the train to London, off the train at Paddington Station and onto the Tube, off the Tube and then a half-mile walk to the hotel; a few days later half a mile to the Tube station, off the Tube, onto the Eurostar, off the Eurostar and onto the Métro, transfer to another Métro car, another half-mile walk to another hotel, and then do it all in reverse a few days later. By the end, I was so tired, we took a cab from the hotel directly to Paddingtion station.
If we do the European trip, we’re going to backpack it — one bag with a daypack zip-on. I am hopeful that this will reduce fatigue.