The idea of a cruise on a big ship wasn’t something I relished. I mean, really, who wants to travel with a couple thousand strangers and be herded around like a bunch of cows? That was my skeptical impression when I was invited on Holland America’s Oosterdam to cruise Alaska’s Tracy Arm for seven days. And when I heard this was a “Dancing with the Stars” theme cruise from the popular television show, my dread grew.
I was wrong. To my complete surprise, I was entirely beguiled by Holland America and big ship cruising.
My adventure starts on a Sunday in Seattle when we meet our Holland America representative early at our hotel for a shuttle bus to the dock. The Holland staffer, a pleasant, retired school teacher, has us surrender our baggage and efficiently groups us onto the shuttle bus. The bags, which we didn’t see again until we got to our stateroom, were trucked separately to the ship. As an independent traveler accustomed to schlepping my bags everywhere, going bagless was a luxury that continued even at the end of the voyage. I could get used to this.
At the cruise terminal, hundreds of people line up and move quickly through security screening. Our photos are taken—both for our security cards for purchases and for leaving and returning to the ship and for disembarkation souvenir photos (offered for a price). The atmosphere in the terminal is fun and light and, despite all the people, quite pleasant.
Our onboard room is a stateroom with a veranda that allows us to open the door for fresh air and even sit or stand outside on our private deck. This stateroom level is medium-priced and, in my opinion, worth the extra cost for the light and air the veranda provides.
I expected our room to be tiny, but it’s surprisingly spacious with one comfy queen bed with built-in side tables and reading lights, a dressing table/desk with chair and mirror, a love seat and coffee table, and a small flat screen TV that broadcast a handful of shows, the shipboard daily itinerary, and information like speed, direction, and temperature. There is plenty of storage—a large double closet with drawers and space for hanging items and room under the bed to stash both of our rollaboards. The bathroom features a full-sized bath/shower combo and sink with hair dryer and cabinet for toiletries.
I am still storing my personal affects when we’re called for the safety drill. Many cruise lines conduct safety briefings after getting underway, but not Holland America. They don’t budge until every passenger has checked in at his or her muster station.
After the drill, I return to the stateroom to finish putting away my gear. I look out the veranda’s glass door and realize the dock and shore are passing by. We’re sailing! The Oosterdam, a 82,000 ton, 936-foot, 10-story behemoth, has slipped out of dock so silently and smoothly it’s hard to tell we’re underway.
We spend our first day onboard getting our bearings and checking out the ship’s many levels. During the first day or two, they offer free classes and demos to entice guests to sign up for extra services. There’s no high pressure, but the staff doesn’t miss an opportunity to let guests know what’s available. I show up for free raffle drawings in the sprawling fitness room located at the front of the ship. (Though jogging on a treadmill with a sweeping water view is appealing, I never make it back to there to actually exercise!) They offer a number of free classes on nutrition, overcoming back pain, and other health topics. I also tour the spa facilities where masseuses specializing in different modalities give their sales pitch and I end my tour with a free10-minute chair massage.
Watch Out Waistline
Cruise lines are famous for their cuisine and Holland America doesn’t disappoint with their many offerings. The quality and variety of the food is a bit overwhelming, even for a foodie like me. Ninety eight chefs working in Oosterdam’s two galleys churn out 12,000 meals every day. And they do it using sustainable fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, they are so proud of their food they’ve even produced a cookbook for purchase.
During the first 48 hours, to combat problems like noro-virus, only a few of the ship’s restaurants are open and guests are served instead of serving themselves at the Lido (buffet-style meals ranging from breakfast and pasta and pizza to sushi). On the third day, all the dining venues open—the Lido, the poolside burger café, the outdoor Mexican buffet, the Explorer’s Coffee Bar, the Vista dining room, the Italian-style Canaletto, and uber-upscale Pinnacle. Canaletto and Pinnacle charge an extra $10 and $25 respectively per person and it’s worth it. (Note: cash isn’t used onboard. All extra charges, including a small daily staff gratuity, go on guests’ accounts via the individual ID cards created before boarding. This cashless system is carefree, but can become expensive for guests who don’t keep track of their purchases.)
Eating at the Lido’s multiple buffets is popular with many guests. While the food isn’t as good as some of the other venues, it’s plentiful and there’s a breadth of choices. Their Beef Carpaccio, super-thin strips of raw beef drizzled with good olive oil and served with grainy mustard and shreds of parmesan, becomes one of my favorite Lido snacks. Sometimes, we grab breakfast at the Lido, but often prefer the beautiful Vista dining room where the menu changes regularly and waiters serve us at cloth-covered tables, often right next to a dramatic bank of windows at the very back of the ship overlooking the churning water.
I quickly fall in love with a number of Vista’s morning items like muesli with green apples and cream and briny lox and cream cheese on a fresh, chewy bagel. They also offer tasty lunch items like Blackened Chicken Caesar salad and fruit gazpachos that are delightfully refreshing. Dinners at the Lido are full-on fancy meals with choices like crunchy coconut scallops, thick fishermen’s chowder served in a French bread bowl, and Pacific Rim salad filled with chicken, greens, mango, crisp wontons and macadamia nuts. The Vista staff quickly learn our names and automatically bring our favorite beverages without being asked.
The Vista is also the setting for afternoon Royal Dutch Teas. Guests are served pots of tea and delicate tea cups along with snacks like sausage rolls, mini-sandwiches like smoked salmon and cream cheese, and sweets like miniature mousse cups and tiny lemon tarts. It’s all fun and elegant and a nice afternoon pick-me-up.
The specialty dining rooms, Canaletto and Pinnacle, prove a nice change of pace. At Canaletto, Pilipino waiters dressed in traditional Italian striped shirts start our meal with a salumi plate consisting of prosciutto, coppa, grissini, shaved pecorino, and chewy Italian olives. Next comes an eggplant caponata with pine nuts and mint, and sweetened with golden raisins. Then it’s bruschetta, small crispy toasts with tomato and cheese. Entrees include potato gnocchi with braised short rib, mascarpone, and butter roasted carrots and celery; big, creamy ricotta ravioli with braised leeks, oven-dried tomatoes, and arugula-pine nut pesto; roast pork loin saltimbocca with seared escarole, cannellini beans, and marsala glace; and grilled lemon-thyme halibut with roasted fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, and an orange-olive salad. Desserts include an uber-creamy cappuccino gelato, my favorite; a trio of tiramisu (lemon, vanilla, espresso); citrusy Lemoncello mousse; and walnut praline served with vanilla gelato. We try them all!
Pinnacle, a more formal venue perfect on black tie nights, elevates cruise dining even more and features plenty of showy, table-side service. The dining room’s ceiling is decorated with giant lily pads that allow light to shine through and walls are festooned with lighted panels featuring master artworks. Pinnacle specializes in Silver Beef that’s aged for 21 days and then cooked in a 1600 degree clamshell oven. The juicy bone-in rib eye I order is so large it covers the entire plate and is perfectly cooked to medium with criss-cross grill marks. It’s served with a giant baked potato with butter, chives, sour cream, and pieces of crisp bacon. There are also asparagus, but with the succulent steak and potato, they’re largely ignored. Dessert includes a trio (coffee, chocolate, and vanilla bean) of creamy crème brulees with just the right sugary top and a mousse-like raspberry cheesecake with an intense berry flavor.
While we’re impressed with the food, our Holland cruise is about much more. The entertainment by the Oosterdam singers and dancers is top-drawer, as good as any you’d see on Broadway. Every night, the HAL Players entertain with fast-paced shows featuring creative costumes and staging that make the time fly. One night the show is a beach theme with numbers like “Where the Boys Are,” “Surf City,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and the “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” that get the audience rocking. Another night it’s Broadway show tunes; still another, a racing theme with a variety of creative car props and rapid costume changes.
One night, the Philippine staff shares their culture with traditional songs and dances. This show is amateurish and doesn’t really hold my attention. However, many in the audience have fallen in love with the friendly, attentive staff and heartily applaud their efforts. And, while the show is lacking, the audience appreciation is warranted because the largely Pilipino staff is terrific—attentive, responsive, and always smiling and friendly. The fact that this ship has 1,800 passengers and 800 crew members is a testament to the company’s commitment to customer service.
Of course, this is a “Dancing with the Stars” (DWTS) theme cruise so there are celebrities and professional dancers from the popular dance-themed television show, which is broadcast in more than 20 countries. Holland America offers six of these special cruises throughout the season and, because they’re super popular, it’s likely they’ll continue them for some time.
“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” TV star Carson Kressley is one of our celebrities and his self-depreciating, gay-centric humor is a big hit, even with older audience members who likely have never seen his television show. One evening, Carson appears onstage with a giant feathered show-girl headdress, complete with DWTS mirror ball trophy. “I take this wherever I go,” quips Carson. “But packing can be a drag.”
The dancing on the nights the DWTS celebs and dancers perform is spectacular and makes me realize just how skilled these pro dancers really are. From ballroom to swing, there is never a dull moment.
During the day, the HAL dancers and the DWTS dancers also lead free dance classes that are packed with enthusiastic students and those of us who prefer to watch the fun. The dance teachers demonstrate steps like the waltz and the cha cha and invite the audience to come on stage. In every class, it’s a mad house of participation with old and young eagerly dancing alone, in couples, or even in small groups. The classes become informal competitions and the pros pull three or four couples from each class to compete for the cruise title and the chance to win a free cruise and be in the grand finale competition held in January. Some of the winners are natural talents; others are dance fans who come prepared with their own dance shoes and serious determination. In the end, it’s all good fun that teaches guests a few dance steps and the lessons spill into couples dancing in the nightclub venues like Northern Lights.
“We’re the only cruise line with a full “Dancing with the Stars” contingent,” says Cruise Director Jason Venner, who’s been with Holland America for a dozen years. “Whether you’re 8 or 80, “Dancing With the Stars” gets people involved.”
The dancers also participate in a special “Dancing with the Stars” fashion show that features some amazing costumes from the television show and it draws a large, appreciative crowd.
In addition to free dance lessons, the Oosterdam offers a variety of classes and activities, most without additional costs. I attend a couple of the demonstration cooking classes and learn the secrets of making pesto, baked Alaska with fresh berry sauce, and fresh salmon brined in wine, vinegar or lemon juice.
There are plenty of other activities to keep guests entertained, including photo and computer classes, a full casino, high-end art auctions, a movie theater, a fully stocked library, high-end shops with some good bargains, and plenty of tucked away places to share a drink and enjoy a variety of live jazz, country, classical, and rock and roll. There are also two outdoor pools, therapy spas, and a day spa with a full line of massage and aesthetic treatments.
Sometimes the activities are outside on the deck like when the captain navigates to the face of a glacier up Tracy Arm, an impressive, ice-covered fjord. We don coats and gloves and brave icy temperatures to watch icebergs—some the size of toasters, others the size of trucks—float in the silty grey water and wonder at lacy waterfalls, many a thousand feet tall, that cascade down the nearly vertical rock faces. Every once in a while, the fjord’s deep quiet is shattered by the rumble and crash of giant sheets of ice caving off the glaciers. When it’s time to turn around, the captain pilots the big ship through an impressive three-point turn that demonstrates the maneuverability of these great ships.
The Oosterdam stops at several fascinating ports, including Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka in Alaska, and Victoria on Canada’s Vancouver Island. The ship docks in each port from six to 12 hours and guests must get themselves back onboard within 30 minutes of sailing or risk being left behind.
Guests are free to explore on their own or choose from a huge number of shore excursions through Holland America, including glacier flights, fishing excursions, cultural tours to Native villages, and wildlife adventures. In Juneau, we enjoy a glacier flight over the Juneau Ice Field and a salmon bake at Taku Lodge. We fly in a pontoon-equipped De Havilland Otter over one glacier, then two, and three. They’re tortured, spiky fields of ice studded with pockets of turquoise marking spots of super compressed ice.
At Taku Lodge, a rustic wilderness cabin reachable only by boat or plane, we dine on salmon caught in the nearby Taku River barbequed on an outdoor grill. While the fish cooks, an older rust-colored bear and a younger black bear wait anxiously just yards away. As soon as the salmon is cleared from the BBQ, the bears leap up to lick the juices from the grill. The young bear, a new arrival to the lodge, yelps as he burns his feet and he quickly disappears into the woods.
Back in Juneau, we explore Macaulay Fish Hatchery, one of 36 such facilities, where they raise and release 120 million salmon smolts annually to keep Alaska’s salmon fishery sustainable. Unlike some areas, Alaska has outlawed fish farms and relies on the hatcheries to supplement wild born salmon populations. The baby chum and King salmon here are raised on a natural diet of krill, shrimp, and plankton and released to swim free in the ocean. In three to five years, 2-10% of them return to the hatchery and the process repeats.
Before we leave Juneau, we visit Tracy’s King Crab Shack, a must-stop for Alaskan King crab lovers. We order the Crab Shack Combo—four crab cakes, creamy crab bisque, and an eight ounce Bristol Bay Red King crab leg with drawn butter that’s incredibly sweet and delicious.
When we dock in Sitka, we’re up and out early to meet Captain Nate who pilots the Ada, an aluminum 30-footer custom built for Alaskan waters. We’re joined by Nate’s dog and a young married couple and churn through calm waters under broken clouds. After 40 minutes, we arrive at Grandpa’s Hole, one of Nate’s favorite fishing spots. Nate helps us bait up and it doesn’t take long before we’re hitting salmon and rockfish. I pull in a Coho; then my friend pulls one in. By the end of our half-day adventure, we’ve bagged seven Coho salmon, two pink salmon, and three rock fish. We have them flash frozen dockside and shipped home to enjoy another day.
In the little gold mining town of Ketchikan, we take a flight through Misty Fjords National Monument with Taquan Air. With strains of ethereal Abba music pulsing through the headphones, our 10-passenger Beaver soars through breathtakingly steep, forested fjords criss-crossed with lacy waterfalls and draped with wisps of fog. These walls of green rise 7-8,000 feet and plunge straight down into emerald waters that exceed depths of 2,000 feet. At one point, the captain neatly lands the little plane on the water and we gingerly step out onto the floats and are enveloped in a silence so deep it makes our ears ring.
Our stop in Victoria is short, just a few hours, so we stroll a couple of miles along the harbor walkway to the iconic Empress Hotel and the Parliament Building and enjoy the buzz of musicians and vendors along the waterfront. On our return, we grab crispy halibut and chips at Barb’s Fish & Chips.
Back on the Oosterdam, it’s our last evening and the Vista dining room is celebrating by offering steak and lobster as a menu item. We begin with a delectable starter of sweet tomatoes and creamy mozzarella drizzled with tangy aged balsamic and good olive oil topped with finely shredded fresh basil and served with just-baked focaccia. Then comes light, lemony turkey barley soup studded with carrots and bell pepper and topped with a sprinkling of Parmesan. My salad—greens, tomatoes, chopped hard cooked egg, bacon, and mushrooms with Gorgonzola crumbles—is dressed with a light yet flavorful blue cheese dressing.
My surf and turf entrée lives up to my expectations—the tender beef filet is perfectly cooked; the lobster tail sweet and succulent. It’s served with porcini mushrooms, basmati rice, and veggies sautéed al dente. While we certainly don’t need dessert, we can’t resist the thin slices of chocolate cake with raspberry preserves and shavings of white chocolate that ends of our meal with a satisfying deep chocolate flavor and crispy-soft textures.
We linger over coffee, watching the churning water just outside our tableside window. We’re loath to leave the comfort of this elegant dining room, the attentive service of its staff, and the new onboard friends we’ve made. But we take heart, knowing there’s another Holland America cruise to different exotic and exciting location. I’m certain I’ll be on it. – by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor