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Volendam to Alaska Cruise Review
Inside Passage 2013

by Karen Segboer

Can something as innocuous as a simple offering of after dinner candied ginger gone missing (and instead, store-bought cellophane- wrapped candy peppermints in its place) affect a long-standing opinion if a cruise line? Would a reputation as once being "the spotless fleet" come back to haunt a ship with apparently not a clean pillow onboard to be found?

Looking ahead, I know in my heart it’s time for a change again. I don't think we will automatically look to Holland America Line in the future as our default cruise line, Dutch husband or not. The same thing happened with Cunard several years ago. I think we're long past due to continue cruising with other non-Carnival Corp. lines, and the most exciting for me to try again are Celebrity and RCI, after initial positive experiences onboard their ships years ago. I think we'll definitely look at lines like Azamara, too. HAL has always been a go-to cruise line for us, just as Cunard had once been. It's time to move on again.

I brought my own pillow with me this trip because I could not, for the life of me, get a clean-smelling pillow or pillowcase on my last two HAL cruises. Because our verandah suite cabins always had a lingering odor of dirty hair upon entry, I'd asked our cabin stewards to please replace the pillows on our bed because they smelled so foul. That never happened, and I'm not even sure they really understood (or maybe they didn't really care?)

Everything on our last HAL cruise was just okay. If someone sailing for the first time were asked, I'm sure they would say things were fine. The food was okay. The entertainment was okay. The shore excursions were okay. Nothing stood out as being unacceptable ... except if you knew the line, it's history and what it was once capable of. I know those days are long gone and I acknowledge that HAL probably wouldn’t even exist if it had not been for the infusion of dough from Carnival Corporation.

It started as soon as we boarded in Vancouver. Instead of a smiling line of nattily outfitted staff, the boarding passengers were greeted by a few unfocused, inattentive young men who were no help to those who needed a bit of guidance as to where to find their cabins. It seemed as though they were more involved with their own private jokes and highjinx. Just steps from them past the entry gangway onboard were tables set up with wares to be hawked. Usually this is saved for when the ship is underway, and the venders have an attentive audience. It looked, quite frankly, like a street fair.

Speaking of Carnival (Corp.), the second day's onboard activities newsletter announced an unlimited Heineken "bucket o' beer" package, the final twist toward what many of us saw coming years ago. That a line almost affectionately known for its calm traditions and gray-haired cruisers would put out such a promotion is puzzling.

More hawking of goods happened on deck as we sailed into beautiful Glacier Bay. Announcements were made for passengers to please not make a lot of noise while we were in this environmentally sensitive area to increase the possibility of spotting wildlife. While we were all quietly watching the shoreline and sea waters, a bar staff member loudly screamed to buy souvenir mugs with unlimited hot cocoa. Passengers commented about this during the course of our stay at Glacier Bay. Somebody even told him to keep quiet! Kudos to that person and no, it wasn't me.

Lots of paper ... an inordinate amount of paper ... was used for ads and announcements and more general hawking of wares onboard. No daily TIMES news digest was delivered to our cabin, as was the case in the past, and I would have much rather have had that instead. The news digests were available in several of the public rooms, but the answer given as to why they were no longer delivered to passengers was that they "did not want to waste paper" (instead, all we got were ads and ads). Huh?

For our last few trips on HAL, we've booked verandah suites, with their large balconies, extensive perks such as unlimited complimentary laundry and dry cleaning, (a big plus on longer cruises) plus an attentive site-specific concierge, the company of other suite passengers, special meets-and- greets with the captain, and snacks and beverages that were steps away in the suite passengers' Neptune Lounge. Breakfast was usually offered every morning for our booked level in the Pinnacle Grill, the specialty restaurant onboard, which was always a lovely treat. This time, we were in the Kings Room just off the Rotterdam Dining Room. It was just not the same, breakfasting in what amounts to a meeting room instead of a specialty dining room.

Speaking of the Pinnacle Grill, onboard Volendam it is smaller than on, say, last year's Oosterdam, but the supper food and service was good. In the Rotterdam Dining Room one evening, I had the worst dessert I have ever had onboard a cruise ship. That said, please note I am a hearty eater and have been cruising for decades now. The culprit was called a “Gold Rush Baked Alaska". It was literally a little dab of ice cream topped with lots of burnt meringue under a four day old chocolate chip cookie. Literally, that's what it was and with such a promising name, too.

For all of you who still like to look on eBay for ocean liner and cruise memorabilia, I'm here to tell you that there is nothing "collectible" on cruise ships anymore. It's all from China. No surprise, I suppose. Even the area-specific items in the shops, supposedly from or of Alaska, were made in places like Mexico or the Philippines. This seems to be true in shore ports of call, too, so buyer please beware. It may not matter to you, but if it does, be cautious of your purchases. In all the Alaskan ports we were able to find shops with locally-made items at very decent prices. Sadly, places usually found in the Caribbean ports are up here, too, and their owners go back and forth between warmer climes and here, depending on the season. So, if you plan a winter Caribbean cruise after missing a "deal" in Alaska, you can still find that "bargain."

At the end of the day, I try to balanced comments with positive and negative aspects. I can honestly say there were not a lot of positive things, except the scenery, on this trip. Even the weather played havoc with us , but we know this is not the line's fault; indeed, we chose this week because we had been on an Alaskan cruise with HAL twenty-three years ago. We knew what we could expect, weather-wise, and it was okay. The only time I was disappointed was when our excursion to the glacier fields via helicopter was cancelled in Juneau because of bad weather. We have a photo of us doing this so many years ago, the memories were fond and it would have been nice to do again, "moon boots" slickers and all. I don't know if this happens a lot, but HAL missed the boat with regard to keeping passengers apprised of the status of their excursions and cancelations due to weather. We experienced that ourselves and heard from others that they were not pleased about the lack of communication. Still, our sea plane/catamaran trip to Misty Fjord outside Ketchikan was magnificent, as was our unexpected ride up Mount Roberts in Juneau after our original helicopter trip was cancelled. Another trip highlight was the White Pass Railway at Skagway. What history! What views! I wish we had more time in this port. I really loved this little town and felt very at home here.

I’d like to go back up to Alaska on another line at a different time of year and probably a different itinerary, one with more northerly ports of call, maybe even an interior land tour included. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to RCI’s Quantum of the Seas next year, home ported in North Jersey with varied itineraries. These last few years, I’ve had the complete transformation from classic ocean liner lover to interested party to novel and exciting new ships. Carnival Corporation can continue with their Carnivalization of Holland America Line. I don’t think I’ll continue to stick around to witness it.

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