South from Alaska: A few quick notes on Holland America and our recent vacation

I thought I’d written up our (somewhat negative) experiences with Holland America Lines — HAL, “those dam ships” — back when I did a “cruising” series. Apparently not. In any case, the vacation we recently returned from was a third HAL cruise, and I think some notes are in order–especially because Holland America did a much better job this time than the first two times around.

The cruise was marketed as a 14-day Vancouver roundtrip, but was also clearly a combination of two seven-day Alaska cruises: Vancouver to Seward northbound and Seward to Vancouver southbound. We were surprised by the number of people who took the (presumably somewhat discounted) 14-day option; I didn’t count, but it must have been a couple of hundred out of the 1,400-passenger ship.

It was our fifth cruise in Alaska. We did it partly because we really needed a vacation (not having had a real vacation in two years or a cruise in three years), partly because a dear friend of ours agreed to our suggestion to see Alaska.

The last three Alaska cruises were 12-night round trips out of San Francisco on Crystal Harmony: A great itinerary for people living in the SF Bay Area who love Crystal. Well, that cruise no longer exists–NYK, Crystal’s parent company, renamed the Crystal Harmony and now uses it (as the Aoka II, I think) for luxury cruising in Japan. The two remaining Crystal ships summer in the Mediterranean. Our first Alaska cruise was southbound Whittier to Vancouver on the Regent Sea, a long time ago (15 or 20 years): The Regent Sea is at the bottom of the ocean and its parent company, Regency, long since disappeared.

I wouldn’t attempt to compare Crystal and Holland America Line (HAL) directly; that’s not really fair, since they’re in different market segments (Crystal is a luxury line, HAL is a premium line, which is a lower category than luxury) and have considerably different fares (if Crystal still did this cruise, I’d guess we’d pay about 50%-75% more than we did on HAL). On the other hand, the comparison isn’t as ludicrous as it would have been last time we were on HAL.

First, a quick note about the cruise itself: A great way to see southeast Alaska in a relaxed fashion. We stopped twice in Juneau and Ketchikan–with shore excursions one time, exploring on our own the other time–and cruised twice in Glacier Bay (spectacular both times, with a truly astonishing calving the second time) and College Fjord (somewhat disappointing: it seemed much more spectacular 15-20 years ago), plus one stop each in Seward, Skagway and Haines. Seward was new to us and easily explored on foot–and I will say that the last-minute $20 shuttle + SeaLife Center shore excursion was fairly priced, since tickets at the SeaLife Center were, um, $20 (the shuttle–Seward’s own little trolley-car–was free for the day for all HAL passengers, a $3 savings over their regular operation). The other ports–well, they’re all great, and we’ve been to all of them before, and enjoyed them again.

Now, as to HAL, or specifically the Zaandam (all HAL ships end in “dam,” and they use “those dam ships” on various shipboard merchandise):

  • On previous cruises, we hated the way they handled shore excursions: Get in one line, get a sticker on your shirt, wait in a theater, get in another line… Now, they’ve adopted the same procedure as Crystal and Regent Seven Seas: “You’re adults. Here’s your ticket. There’s the time. Meet at the pier/bus/whatever.” No crowding, no superfluous lines, no extra 45 minutes to gather up everybody, no stickers. Bravo.
  • On previous cruises, the beef had ranged from mediocre to too tough to eat. (I gave up on a prime rib end cut halfway through: the taste wasn’t worth the effort.) Much improved–the beef ranged from good to excellent.
  • On previous cruises, the chicken had also been tough. Again, much improved–the chicken was generally quite good.
  • On previous cruises, “plating” had been inflexible: You ordered a main dish and got the starch, vegetable and sauce that came with it–period. This time, we found considerable flexibility, at least with our waiter: You could substitute items from other choices, and one person at our table had rice with every entree, always with some sauce for one of the other entrees.
  • On previous cruises, portions tended to be too large. This time, most portions were plausible–you could eat the full five-course dinner (appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert) and not be bloated or have to be rolled off the ship. Sometimes, still a bit large, but mostly reasonable. (After two weeks, I was up three pounds, which went away again after three or four days; my wife actually lost a pound or two. And we were both eating most courses at most meals.) After all, you could always order something extra (or, during the day, just pick up a slice of pizza or make your own taco or get another dessert or get a fresh burger any time from 11:30 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m.)–but it always feels odd to leave a meal half-eaten.
  • Boarding had been mildly cumbersome last time, although not horrendous: Actually fairly typical, with Crystal and Regent Seven Seas only slightly better. This time, with the ability to fill in immigration information online and print out boarding passes, boarding was as fast and smooth as I’ve ever seen it on a cruise ship. (We haven’t been on Crystal or RSS recently…)
  • Smoking was a big problem in pretty much every space except the main restaurant last time around. This time, while still a problem (my wife’s asthmatic), it was considerably better: Even outdoor dining areas for the Lido restaurant are non-smoking except for one little back-of-the-ship area that’s fully isolated, there seemed to be less smoke in most lounges and, wonder of wonders, the casino was non-smoking on some days. Since the casino always seemed busier when it was nonsmoking (and since on smoking days you’d get one jackass puffing up a storm as he explored the entire casino, assuring that we all got plenty of second-hand smoke), a number of us suggested that they cut off smoking altogether. Actually, there’s another indication of progress: They held some focus groups (we weren’t invited but heard from someone who was) and asked about complete smoking bans, to pretty much total applause–including one smoker who said she’d rather be in a smoke-free environment on vacation and just do without for a week. And the end-of-cruise survey included an extra sheet asking three questions all related to a total ban on smoking on board. There may yet be hope…
  • HAL hotel staff have always been good but seemed much better this time; we had people remembering our names after one encounter, we had dining crew joking with us, the whole scene felt even better. On at least one previous cruise, ship staff (the people who maintain and run the ship, as opposed to the cabin attendants and restaurant crew) seemed a little put out by having passengers on board. This time, they either weren’t around or seemed much better. No complaints here.
  • Note that we weren’t getting special top-dollar treatment. We didn’t even have a balcony cabin; we were in 2nd-deck outside cabins, not that far up from the lowest categories. (The verandah cabins and mini-suites were all sold out when we booked, a mere seven months ahead, and we wouldn’t have paid for full suites anyway.)
  • With one exception, any problems we had were handled quickly and well. The exception, a window that was half blocked by condensation trapped between the two layers, really couldn’t be handled while at sea, but HAL gave us a more than satisfactory accommodation for only having half a view.
  • In general, the public spaces were nicer and the food and service were better than on previous HAL cruises. They claim that they’re improving their operation; although it’s been several years’ gap for us, I’m inclined to believe them.

Not perfect, to be sure, but what is? We could have done without the cruise director’s lengthy morning and lunchtime announcements of all the activities that are listed in the daily paper, although at least there weren’t loads of announcements during the day. The chair and sofa upholstery in our cabin could use cleaning and seem a little tired; even 8 years of cruising is hard on fabric. Some shore excursions seemed scheduled at needlessly difficult times. But, you know, none of those would rise to be particularly noteworthy.

The one real negative item happened at the end of the cruise, and I think it’s a good idea that hasn’t quite been worked out properly. To wit, debarkation–in our case, with a special twist. Debarkation is a problem on most cruise ships, with the tendency to force everyone to sit around in lounges after leaving their cabins too early, listening to dozens of announcements. Supposedly, Princess is fixing this; let’s hope their solution works and catches on. By today’s standard, the Zaandam is medium-sized to small (1,400 passengers–today’s BIG ships carry 2,600 to 3,000 or more). They said they were using a new streamlined procedure without announcements and that you could just stay in your cabin until it was your time to go.

But…they also offered, and promoted heavily, a special baggage-handling opportunity: For $16 a person, if we were flying directly to the U.S. from Vancouver on the day of debarkation (which we were), we could have our boarding passes in hand and our checked bags already airline-tagged on the ship. Thus, instead of the usual routine in these cases–get off the ship, identify our bags from the mass of bags for our group, watch as handlers put them on the bus to the airport, claim them again at the airport, wheel them to the airline, have baggage tags attached, deal with Canadian and U.S. immigration, then finally go through security–we’d just get off the ship, go on a special “locked” bus into a special area of the airport, and go through security. There were idle comments about it taking up to two hours to get through the process at Vancouver; I have no idea whether those comments were true.

Well, our flight was at 1 p.m. We signed up for the program, assuming it would mean we’d be able to stick around until at least 9 or 9:30 a.m. before leaving for the airport.

Wrong. Everyone who signed up for the program and was using HAL transportation to the airport ($25, and we’d already signed up for that) had to be in the big showroom at 7:15 a.m.

7:15 a.m. Ghastly. As bad as in the bad old days. That’s five hours and 45 minutes before our flight–and we knew that it was at worst about 30 minutes from the pier to the airport.

We weren’t even the worst cases: We were in Group 3 of 5; later groups included people with flights leaving 4 p.m. or later!

So instead of being able to get up a little early, have a reasonable breakfast, freshen up and roll down at 9 or 9:30–or even 8:30–we had the usual get up too early, have a rushed Lido breakfast, rush through preparation…

So there we were, all standing around and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

The process didn’t start at all until 7:45 a.m. Our group wasn’t called until 8:15 or 8:30 a.m. And when we were called, we went off the ship…and got into a nice long line. I think we got on the bus at somewhere between 9 and 9:15. As I remember, we finally got through airport security around 10:15-10:30–three hours after we had to be in the showroom, but only two hours before boarding would begin.

The idea’s good, I think, but the execution was lousy. I surmise they called us all together so they’d make sure we got the instructions right–but that’s unacceptable. They should reasonably have known that Groups 3, 4, and 5 had no reason to be off the ship before (say) 8:30 or 9:30 or maybe 11 or 12 for group 5, and should have staged things so we weren’t sitting around interminably.

It’s interesting that cruise lines haven’t solved the debarkation problem: You can lose a lot of good will in that last process. In this case, I’ll charitably assume they just don’t have the bugs worked out yet, and a lot of it has to do with HAL’s old shore-excursion attitude. Assume that we’re adults, that we can handle written instructions, and arrange things accordingly: We’ll all be happier!

Debarkation aside, HAL did a good job. Oh, did I mention the string quartet? My wife and our friend were devoted to this group, the Azalea Strings, playing every evening in one of the lounges, with a wide repertoire and excellent ensemble. I heard enough to know they’re first-rate; I just wasn’t as much in the string-quartet mood. (It’s not all reggae and piano bar on board!)

[Will we take HAL again? Probably–but we didn’t sign up for a British Isles 2009 cruise that looked good for an interesting reason HAL can’t help with: The air fare would have been almost as much as the cruise.]

2 Responses to “South from Alaska: A few quick notes on Holland America and our recent vacation”

  1. Jackie Hebert says:

    Hi, Thanks so much for this excellent letter! My husband and I are booked for the same cruise leaving Aug 3rd. It will be our first time to Alaska and our first cruise with HAL. You’ve made me much less anxious. Can I ask you about what you did on your shore excursions. On past cruises I’ve steered away from booking with the ship, prefering smaller groups. Can you recommend any local tour companies? Thanks again, Jackie Hebert

  2. walt says:

    We have traditionally booked shore excursions through ships–especially on Crystal and Regent Seven Seas–for a variety of reasons, and continued to book “serious” excursions that way. And for any long/difficult excursion, knowing the ship will wait for you is worth a few bucks (yes, we did wait in one port 15 minutes because an excursion was late returning).

    So I can’t really recommend local agencies–except that, in general, Allen Marine’s tours (Whales & Wildlife Quest in Juneau, others in Sitka and Ketchikan, which we’ve booked through ships) have always been excellent.

    Because we’ve done Alaska four other times, and because HAL had strangely early times in some cases, we didn’t do as many booked excursions as usual. We did do Whales & Wildlife again, the White Pass railroad again, and an excellent “Insider’s view” of Saxman Village. I can certainly recommend the Eagle Reserve float trip out of Haines. We don’t do helicopter or flight excursions.