Alaska Cruise Update 2012

| 08.20.12

My cruise to Alaska on Holland America yields nice surprises in wildlife sightings.

The Oosterdam offers some of the most elegant cruisiing in Alaska year after year.

I just returned from a one-week roundtrip cruise from eattle to Alaska, my first Alaska sailing on a mainstream cruise line since I worked aboard the Holland America Westerdam in 1993, 19 years ago. This week I am enjoying another Holland America ship - the newer (2003) Oosterdam, which is sailing roundtrip from Seattle to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, BC.

My goal is to see how much things have changed since my first cruises to Alaska back in 1993. I am very happy to say that this cruise has been far better than I expected - I would even describe this as a spectacular trip, almost as good as anyone could expect from an Alaskan sojourn. And that is saying a lot when you consider that I have been on other Alaska cruises in the interim that cost five times more than the cruise I am aboard right now.

Putting this Cruise Into Perspective

I am aboard the Oosterdam - one of the four compass-point "Vista Ships" in the Holland America fleet. The word "ooster" is Dutch for "west," while the three sister ships are the Noordam (north), Westerdam (west) and the Zuiderdam (south). This is a "mainstream" Alaska cruise, similar to the cruise itineraries one can take aboard Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity or Norwegian Cruise Line. But Holland Americ is considered a "premium" cruise line, a notch above mainstream, because the ships are more exclusive with closer to 2000 rather than 3000+ passengers. We have a wonderful stateroom with a verandah overlooking the stern of the ship.

But my previous Alaska experience just four years ago was on the expedition cruise line InnerSea Discoveries - called American Safari Cruises at the time. That was an amazing experience where we stayed inside the Alaska Panhandle archipelago for seven straight days with no given schedule. We did nothing but follow wildlife and watch glaciers that are too isolated for access by cruise ships as large as this one. But that cruise on a small ship only berthed for 50 guests, is priced five times higher than this cruise.

Most importantly, the highlight of any Alaska cruise is the sights you can see; whales, eagles, bears, glaciers and beautiful snowcapped mountains soaring to the clouds. You get more chances to see those things on a small expedition ship, but you can also see far more of those things on a cruise like this than you probably think, and not only is this cruise far less expensive but the accommodations are also considerably for more comfortable and the entertainment and other actiities are far more diversified.

Mainstream Alaska Cruises

The ports of call on this cruise are typical for most Alaska cruises; Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, the same as I took in 1993, although we sailed out of Vancouver back then. When I was on InnerSea Discoveries we flew in ad out of Juneau. One day we spent almost six hours just following humpback whales wherever they went. That does not happen on a large cruise ship on a pre-set itinerary - but that does not mean we couldn't also have a fantastic whale-watching experience on this cruise. While we were in Juneau we took a shore excursion tour with an extended whale-watching component. We spent over three hours on a small excursion boat sailing out of Auke Bay north of Juneau and in less than an hour we came upon a group of five whales so extraordinarily close, we heard them and even felt the spray from their blowholes before we looked straight down and saw they were right next to our boat.

That was the closest I have ever been to a whale - the best perspective I have evver had to appreciate the sheer size of them. I looked down upon the back of a full-grown male the size of a school bus. We watched these whales for almost an hour before we started heading for our scheduled lunch at Orca Point lodge. Within 15 minutes we had another extraordinary surprise. The captain of our boat stopped suddenly and said "we have two killer whales right beside the boat!" But she was so excited she ran off the bridge without telling us which direction to look. But I spotted the distinctive fin within a few moments less than 20 feet away from me.

We watched this pair of "killer whales" (also known as 'orca' and they are in fact a breed of dolphin, not whales) for another 15 minutes as they breached and slapped the surface of the water with their tails.

We then had lunch at a special lodge on "Orca Point." Above our table a wild bald eagle was perched majestically in a tree just over our heads. He sat with his body unmoving the entire time, only changing the angle of his head to stare unwaveringly at anything that captured his attention.

Following lunch we went to Mendenhall Glacier where we spied a mother brown bear and her cub sleeping in a tree on a surprisingly thin branch some 30 feet off the ground. After 45 minutes she finally climbed down and started chasing salmon.

In other words, you can see the best of Alaska on a regular seven-day cruise, you do not need an exclusive expedition cruise, you just have to plan ahead and pick the best of the provided shore excursions. Today in Sitka we visited two wildlife centers that each rehabilitate indigenous animals, the "Fortress of the Bear" and the "Raptor Center." In both places we saw rescued specimens of the most impressive species in Alaska; brown bears and bald eagles. The day before we had seen both of these species in the wild, and now we had a chance to see them up close.

Obviously, the Holland America cruise experience is top notch and a fantastic value as well. This cruise could be purchased for less than $1000 per person. We have a wonderful stateroom overlooking the stern of the ship, so if we look straight down we see the wake of the ship coming straight off of the propellers connected to the pods. You do not have to spend $5000 to see Alaska up close; the price per person for the expedition cruise I took a few years ago. Yes, the small ship cruise had many more of the special moments I just mentioned, but this cruise has nearly the same quality of experiences, just in smaller doses.

The key to having a great Alaska cruise is to plan your shore excursions carefully. I highly recommend whale-watching. If you have the time, a flight-seeing tour to the top of a glacier is also an unforgettable experience. You can do both on the same day if you plan carefully. I also recommend going to the bear-watching section of Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau.

There has been just one small disappointment on this cruise - that we could not spend any time watching a calving glacier (when large shards of ice break off and fall into the sea). We did sail through Tracy Arm Fjord towards Sawyer Glacier, which is a very active glacier for calving, but unfortunately there was too much ice in the water so our passage was blocked. I do know this passage was too blocked for the ship to reach the glacier each time it tried on all but four cruises this season. That is not a very high percentage.

Though no one on our cruise seemed substantially disappointed, however, I suspect they did not realize what they had actually missed. In that light, I would recommend an itinerary that goes to Glacier Bay or Hubbard Glacier (two glacier experiences that are always accessible) rather than one that only goes to Tracy Arm. They are availble for about the same price as this cruise.

As far dining is concerned, I had excellent food in the Pinnacle Grill, especially on the Le Cirque Dining night and the Chef's Open Choice dinner. But our last night in the main dining room was a disappointment. The Caesar salad was wilted and did not come with the promised anchovy, the main course (a freshwater fish called "sain" described as "mild" in taste) came drowned in salt and pepper, hardly appetizing at all. Finally, the dessert described a brownie atop coffee ice cream under with whipped cream and caramel toppping was nothing but whipped topping - the ice cream had melted and turned the brownie into a tasteless mush, making the overly sugar-whipped topping nothing but empty calories. More on the food later, mostly it was good, sometimes great, but not consistently in the main dining room.

The Bottom Line

Alaska is a fascinating destination and there are several cruise lines offering itineraries. If you really want the experience of a lifetime you can book one of the small and exclusive expedition cruise lines, but you do not have to spend a fortune to have a truly excellent and unforgettable cruise experience. Cruises on cruise lines like Holland America are very affordable. With a careful selection of itineraries and shore tours you can easily see all of the things for which Alaska is most famous.

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