Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holland America Westerdam Cruise Review


We took Holland America's Westerdam cruise from Seattle to Alaska, and it was the one that had the boiler room fire on June 28th, the day we departed (which I will try to avoid talking about, but I am bummed we missed out on Sitka due to that incident). This was our first cruise, and we learned that these devastating incidents are very rare. Of course, we have to experience a rare incident such as a boiler room fire instead of a rare incident like winning the lottery! Just our luck.


Much like almost everything I encounter, I want to understand the cruising experience. There's an imposed rhythm to it; perhaps a better word is a script. I wanted to understand the pieces of the script. I wanted to understand the layout of the ship. I'm one of those people who really needs to get my bearings and then let my natural navigation take over. I was curious about the crew. For the most part, the wait staff and cleaners were from the Philippines. My need to understand this new environment over the first day or two overwhelmed me. It was hard to relax when I had so many questions.

And I couldn't find the freaking trash cans. For some reason, I couldn't get over this. Aside from a tiny trash can in our room and bathroom, there were NO trash cans or recycle bins on board*. I'd carry stuff around wanting to DO something with it, but there was absolutely no spot so I'd carry it back to the room and then it wouldn't fit in the tiny trash can. After a while, I did what everyone else did and left stuff wherever it ended up. Your messes were picked up quickly by the Filipino crew, which made me feel like an overprivileged white person who thought other people should clean up my messes.

* I eventually found one trash can and recycle bin outside on the promenade deck, which was probably to deter people from throwing stuff overboard (my theory).

Around Monday afternoon I started feeling able to relax, probably because I was starting to understand the rhythm of things and how to get where I needed to go without relying on a map. Some things constantly annoyed me, such as announcements over the PA system (right over your bed, the bathroom, the hallways, outside, etc.) where you couldn't control the volume. I once made the mistake of trying to take a nap at 2pm. Thank you 100 decibel announcement right in my ear! And it didn't even tell me anything important, just that Bingo was going to start, which was in my program for the day. If I had wanted to go to Bingo, I would have already been at Bingo instead of in bed.
See, I digress. Who else talks of trash cans and the stupid loudspeaker when they discuss their first cruise? As you can tell, I'm weird. Let's try to force myself to have a REAL report.

People - not as geriatric as I expected. Lots of multi-generational families though. A lot of people from the south (their twangs are so freaking adorable). There were also some couples our age. Most people had been on a lot of cruises before. We didn't meet any other newbies like us. We met some people playing trivia and during meals, but we didn't end up exchanging our info with anyone for after the cruise.

Food - There was a lot of it, but I didn't find that it was that great. Maybe I'm a horrible judge of food though. The buffet was open nearly all the time. The formal dining room was open for breakfast, most lunches and dinner. The buffet was usually nuts. People everywhere, tables full, you'd have to go to several different sections to find the food you wanted. Drinks were inconvenient to get to. We had to get our food, find a table, get our daughter's food, juggle plates…all while on the high seas and the boat was rocking (navigating crowds while walking around the room in circles holding 2 or 3 plates while stumbling around due to waves is a sure fire way to even get strong stomach me to feel a little nauseous). By the time we sat down, I had a headache and didn't want to eat. 

We found that the formal dining room was just easier. Yes, my overprivileged white butt just wanted to avoid the crowds and eat in peace. The breakfast menu was similar to what you'd find at an upscale breakfast bistro. I'd have a frittata Italiana, pineapple juice and fruit each morning (not a breakfast person). My husband likes denser breakfasts. Lunch was a five course meal and so was dinner. They'd have a static part of the menu (salmon, steak, Caesar salad) and then have 4-5 new selections in each of the appetizer, soup/salad, main dish and dessert sections. I was fond of the chilled fruit soups, which were really just smoothies. You also had 2-3 other food venues. There was a burger shack near the pool. There was 24 hour room service with a full menu, and most days there was a themed meal on one of the decks (Mexican, salmon bake, etc.). All of the food was included in the cruise price, so it was all-you-can-eat. Good alternatives, but I didn't eat much that I thought, "OMG, this is the best _____ ever!" However, I completely overate, given the elaborate meals and hourly temptations.

 Accommodations - tight. In our room, only one person could be "up" at once. The bathroom was definitely a one-person bathroom. It was claustrophobic even helping our daughter get a bath. We ended up getting an upgrade to a room with a balcony, which was great, but sailing in Alaska--even in July--is cold with the wind. It was hard to spend more than 30 minutes at a time out there. In the Caribbean, I could imagine being out there much longer at a time. The balcony was good to have because it was a quiet place outside to read, take pictures, watch the scenery. With 3,000 people on a ship, it gets crowded. It's nice to have your own personal space while outside. 

Kids Club/Club HAL -  My daughter loved the themed evenings from 7pm-10pm. She didn't so much care for the daytime activities. I think that's because she's near the older end of her age range, and she would have preferred the next age group's activities. Duck Duck Goose when you're in first grade is apparently not cool. The kids club had an awkward break in the middle of the day when they closed, which was a tad annoying. Plus, if there was something on the schedule that started at 1pm, it would create a scheduling bump because the kids club opened at 1pm. So you'd be late to your 1pm event because you had to do the paperwork for your child when you did the drop off and then take the elevator to where the activity was.

Entertainment - This is where I was disappointed. Now this part is likely because of the specific cruise line. It just so happened that a lot of the activities didn't appeal to us. For some people, Holland America's entertainment options would be more appealing than to us. Maybe we're too weird, or too young, or too boring. I don't know what it was, but more often than not we were shrugging our shoulders as we looked at the next day's schedule. My husband had a bit better time because the World Cup was going on, so he would camp out in the sports bar. 

                Nightly shows - Most were musicals. We're not big fans of musicals, but they'd typically sing and dance to a few songs we had heard of. It was okay, but if you're not into musicals, you're just not into them.
                Trivia - We loved these. There were music trivia games (Name That Tune), pub trivia (general trivia) and themed trivia (chocolate trivia). There was also a game show they did that was similar to The Newlywed Game. That was fun to watch.
                Comedy - There were 2 stand-up comedy shows. Loved, loved these!
                Bingo - meh, not our thing
                Art Auctions - Sure, art is pretty, but I didn't bring $5,000 with me to buy art. And it's an awkward place to buy art since most of us can't easily price compare art while on a ship. But wait, that's probably why they do it that way.
                Culinary Shows - Holland America "partnered" with some cooking magazine to have a kitchen and a chef on board to show you how to cook. It's basically a cooking show but in real life, and then you can sample the end product. I didn't see the point in watching a cooking show for 45 minutes to get a little sample when I can go upstairs and get a meal. I guess cooking shows aren't my thing.
                Microsoft Classes - Holland America "partnered" with Microsoft to offer Microsoft classes. I did sit in on the Windows 8 one because I still haven't figured out all the features of my new computer and nothing else on the schedule at that hour appealed to me. It was an okay class.
                Specialized Sport Things - They had a putt-off, a tennis serve thing, and a few other sports things. I'd rather just walk around the promenade deck.
                Casino Tournaments - While I wouldn't mind playing with fake money, the buy-ins were too high since I'm a novice gambler. 

So really the things we were "YES!" about were the two hours of comedy throughout the week and the daily trivia game (sometimes there were two trivia games per day). All in all, not a huge to-do list while on the ship. But we kept occupied with reading, people watching, hanging out in the sports bar, minor gambling…all things we could easily do near our home. They did have two pools and hot tubs, but the pools weren't very big or deep.

So would I do the cruise thing again? Probably. I might relax a little easier the next time around, likely acclimating to the cruise life faster. We'd probably be more conscientious about picking a cruise line with on-board activities that more closely aligned with our interests. 

Overall, there are a lot of advantages to a cruising vacation vs. a more traditional airplane/rental car vacation scenario. Cruising is a lot less complicated, particularly for us since we lived close to the Seattle port. You don't have to be as strict about luggage. You don't smell like an airplane when you cruise. You wake up in a new destination ready to hit the ground running and can easily book (expensive) shore excursions or just walk around the town. If you're the type to eat five course meals while on vacation, stay in nice hotels and take in shows/entertainment, cruising is probably very price competitive. For us, we're Motel 6'ers who are fine with fast food and a subeconomy rental car while on vacation, so there was a cost premium associated with us taking a cruise compared to what we would otherwise do on vacation. But it's one of those things that was worth it, at least this once. I can't foresee us taking 2 or 3, or even 1, cruise per year. However, I can see us taking a cruise every 5 years or so. But heck, we don't take vacations every year, or even every other year, so for all we know cruising could be our standard vacation from now on. 

All in all, interesting experience. If I did it again, I would require a balcony to avoid the claustrophobia. I would really research the on-board activities available on that ship. I would investigate the ship's background a little more. I liked our ship just fine (aside from the boiler room), but some of the other ships we saw seemed a bit sketchy: older, falling apart, tacky fake lit-up palm trees on the deck.