I have long wondered what a cruise would be like. It seems awfully popular, but it also seems really against the way we like to travel. Recently, I was turning 50 years old. I wanted to do something special and different to celebrate “the big 5-0.” As I’m still not interested in taking long flights or having a long travel day involving airports—and train travel in the US just doesn’t compare to what we’ve experienced elsewhere—I decided to do an Alaska cruise for my birthday.
After doing lots of research and comparing prices, I settled on a 7-day roundtrip cruise with Holland America (HAL). One of the big things I wanted to experience was being wowed by one of Alaska’s impressive glaciers. I’ve already visited Exit Glacier and that was really cool. I was hoping to see some calving as well.
There were a few things that helped me settle on HAL for my first cruise. For starters, I didn’t want to be on a ship that felt like a floating city. We saw those when we lived on Cozumel, and while they look just amazing, I don’t need to stay on one of them. HAL had some medium-sized ships that looked like they’d be more my level.
The second, and biggest, draw was that they had a nice itinerary that included visiting Hubbard Glacier. In looking at online photos of the various glaciers ships tend to visit during an Alaska cruise, I knew this was the one I wanted to visit. I also checked in with some cruise-loving friends, including Vivienne, one of the wonderful women behind Wave Journey. She was a tremendous help and had lots of great information.
I know cruises tend to have fabulous food, but one thing I kept reading from people was that HAL’s food was a step above most of the cruise lines.
If this isn’t your first time visiting this blog, you know how I feel about food.
So let me break down some things about our experience that may help you decide if an Alaska cruise is right for you.
Won’t I feel trapped and/or bored?
This was probably my biggest concern. On this Alaska cruise, we were only at sea for 2 days straight. All the other times it was broken up by ports of call. This was another big reason I opted for Alaska instead of some other trips. I’m used to being able to just leave an area if we don’t like it. Not so easy to do if you’re on a ship at sea.
I was very concerned about being bored. I wasn’t going to spend money on expensive, crappy WiFi. I planned on bringing a loaded Kindle and having plenty of movies on my laptop just in case. Lots of people told me there are fabulous shows on the ship, but (a) those don’t go all day, and (2) I’m not really into musicals and theater. Also, “you have a TV in your room.”
I can happily report that I really never felt bored. Each night you get a multi-page brochure telling you about the various activities happening on the ship the next day. They have lots going on even on port days, which surprised me. HAL was definitely diverse in its offerings. There were different kinds of talks, computer workshops, cooking demonstrations (arrive early because they fill up fast), etc., going on during the day.
They had some really great presentations about wildlife, Alaska, and history. I was pretty impressed and learned a lot.
At night, once again you could keep occupied until the wee hours. I routinely went to the Adagio performance which was a violin and piano duet who were amazing! Occasionally I sat and listened to another pianist. And while I typically don’t appreciate jazz music, I even listened to their jazz band a couple of times.
The shows in the theater were really great. A couple of nights were comedians who really funny. One of them did a combined magic and comedy act which was really entertaining. They had some very talented dancers. I think my favorite night was their Alaska in Concert show. This was a beautiful movie produced by BBC Earth which was accompanied by a live orchestra.
Tigger spent a good amount of time with other teens in their teen club. They usually had all kinds of activities going on throughout the day and until late at night.
As far as the TV goes, I was glad I hadn’t expected to rely on that. We only had a few channels, and those were mostly news stations and a movie channel that played the same movie repeatedly all day long. The movie changed daily, though. You can also see the view from the bridge’s camera which was often interesting, especially as we approached the glacier.
There were plenty of times I just sat in a lounge area staring out the window. There were other lounges with board and card games going on all day as well.
But you don’t really get a lot of time to explore!
This was my second biggest concern, and it definitely did hold true. Some ports had more time than others, but I just don’t enjoy only having a few hours to explore a place. At the same time, though, you are able to see places that typically would be much more of a challenge to get to. For example, Sitka and Ketchikan are only reachable by air and water.
It IS nice not really having to worry about getting to/from the city, too. In Ketchikan, our ship docked in the downtown area. You literally only had to cross the street to begin exploring on your own.
The short time kind of sucked when we were in Victoria, BC. The ship was treating me to a special birthday dinner that evening. That would leave us only a few hours to get out and explore, and it was our last night on the ship. So we decided to just stay onboard and come back to Victoria when we have more time to really explore. (We live only a few hours from there.) I have wanted to visit Butchart Gardens for years, but I don’t want to be rushed through it.
I also thought it would be really cool to do a high tea at the infamous Empress Hotel, but they were to close before our ship even docked.
A floating hotel
One advantage to a cruise is that you get to visit many places, but you don’t have to deal with transportation days, schlepping around your luggage, checking in and out of a hotel, etc. It was very nice to have all these places to check out without dealing with all this other stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to have a luxurious leisurely breakfast with an amazing view and only had to carry my camera bag when I left the ship.
It was also nice not having to figure out what we were going to do for lunch and/or dinner, and I didn’t have to prepare anything. Just show up during mealtime and enjoy!
One other major advantage with this particular “floating hotel” is that we often had sights of whales and porpoises, and sometimes sea otters, during meals, while enjoying a beverage, and while sitting in a lounge appreciating the splendid scenery. Others reported seeing orcas at different points in the journey, but we didn’t see them.
Aren’t the rooms tiny?
We paid extra for a larger room with a window. I really wanted a balcony, but I just couldn’t justify paying an extra $1000 USD. Since this was their high season and a full ship, discounted upgrades weren’t available.
While the room was . . . cozy, it really wasn’t that bad. We had a small sitting area so it was easy to stretch out and get some space even when both of us were in the room at the same time. The bathroom was larger than I had expected and had a tub/shower combination.
This ship (ms Amsterdam) is older, so we only had one power plug-in for the whole room. They had inserted an adapter so you could plug more than one item in at a time. It was a bit of a challenge, however, plugging in my BiPAP since the outlet was nowhere near the beds. I was able to get an extension cord from guest services, though. The steward put the cord under a bed so you didn’t have to worry about tripping over it in the middle of the night.
I know newer ships have more outlets in the staterooms. Have read many people mention having USB ports by their beds for charging devices as well.
It really wasn’t too much of an issue, though.
Increased chances to socialize
I love meeting new people, hearing their stories, getting to know them, etc. While some people obviously don’t really want to talk to strangers, for the most part other passengers were incredibly friendly and social. Even though we almost always had a table to ourselves, we often visited with people sitting at the table next to us. Halfway through the trip, we often had lunch with people we had already spent time with at other times. It was kind of fun feeling like you had new friends while on the cruise.
And when you don’t feel like dealing with people, you can sit in a quiet lounge, hang out in your cabin, etc. It was very easy to switch between my extrovert and introvert sides.
Different things can compete with a cruise, but the scenes are super hard to beat. Other than the above, we constantly were treated to gorgeous views, and when the weather cooperated we also enjoyed beautiful sunsets.
There aren’t many situations where you can enjoy watching whales while you’re enjoying a cocktail.
And visiting a tidewater glacier is one of those definite “once in a lifetime” moments. It’s incredibly difficult to describe what it’s like to be standing about a few blocks away from a glacier that is 6-7 miles across and goes back for 75+ miles. To see the various colors and textures is thrilling, and you can’t contain the excitement you feel when you see and hear it calve.
The ship spends a good amount of time there, too. They opened access to the bow as they approached. Once in position, they turned the ship to one side. After a while, they turned to the other side.
After we had been on the bow in the cold and rain for a while, we headed to our room and ordered hot drinks from room service. It was thoroughly enjoyable watching the glacier and seeing it calve from the comfort of our room while we warmed back up.
Frankly, this experience alone makes the cruise worthwhile.
This is a concern for many people. On this Alaska cruise, we were mostly in the Inside Passage, so we usually had extremely calm waters. We only had one time where waters were a bit of a challenge. I grabbed some free meclizine from guest services, and we were good to go. Thankfully, most of the time in those waters was late at night while we slept. During the day, we were only in them for about 5 hours.
Walking around the ship during this time was kind of fun, and fellow passengers would laugh at themselves and joke around as they stumbled around like they were drunk.
I spoke to some other passengers who were wearing medication patches, and they said they weren’t having any issues, including a couple who typically get motion sick quite easily.
Any other cons?
This was really just a tad annoying for me, but there is a heavy sales focus. Many of the workshops and presentations were geared around trying to sell you crap or prep you for a big shopping day at the next port. NO thanks!
Often onboard you had to walk past someone trying to hawk stuff, but since they tended to center themselves in the same spot it was easy to take another route if you wanted. They weren’t like aggressive touts, though, so that was nice.
We also had a crapload of flyers in our door a few times a day, and most of it was trying to sell stuff.
A minor annoyance.
Would you take a cruise again?
I think this is a really good and important question. And, yes, we both would definitely do another cruise. It was super relaxing, and it was nice being a bit pampered. We had great food and fabulous views.
I’ve actually been researching to see which one I’d like to do next. We both also felt like we would take another Alaska cruise that involved different ports.
I don’t know that we would do a longer one, though. I think 7-10 days is probably our limit.
Do you have any questions I didn’t answer?