Say the word “cruise”, and wonderful things come to mind – delicious food served in elegant dining rooms, luxurious accommodations, a little indulgence in the spa, terrific entertainment and…where are we going? Alaska cruises have been described by returning passengers as a cruise so awe-inspiring as to be considered a spiritual experience.

Holland America has a rich history of 138 years in the leisure cruise business; and Alaska has long been one of the company’s special destinations. The company has added an impressive variety of enrichment programs to their industry-leading Alaska experience. In addition to outstanding cruise itineraries and land-based Cruise Tours using their own custom-designed sightseeing trains to Denali National Park, Dawson City and Fairbanks; Holland America’s enrichment programs provide travellers with an entertaining educational opportunity. Who knew that learning could be this much fun?

I sailed to Alaska aboard The Westerdam, a lovely mid-size ship with a passenger capacity of 1916, and a crew of 800. The majority of accommodations have private balconies, an important feature for a cruise with such spectacular scenery. We began our voyage with two days at sea, allowing plenty of time to explore the ship and participate in many of the onboard activities.

Take a complementary cooking course, swim under a dome, float in a thermal pool, then relax on heated lounges overlooking the passing scenery in a warm robe, lulled by soft music and touched by a hint of aromatherapy. (Hard not to fully relax, fall asleep and miss something!)

Have a top to toe spa treatment, try the luxury specialty Pinnacle restaurant (lunch an $10 additional charge, supper $20), do a craft, join a digital workshop, learn flower arranging, watch a movie, play a game, take a martini or wine tasting course, join a pub crawl, walk through the casino without stopping to try the slots – if you can.

Find the Piano Bar, listen to the classical quartet in another lounge, join in a karaoke competition or ‘Name That Tune’ contest in yet another cozy corner. Every evening of the cruise there is a major production show in the $12 million theatre, featuring the quality of entertainment that would be expensive tickets command top dollar in the city.

Two full Broadway style shows were presented during my seven day cruise. The highlight “From Sea to Sky” was choreographed and costumed by Hollywood’s famous Bob Macke.

The fully equipped gym has wrap around windows so that you won’t miss any sights while you work out or participate in exercise classes.

Well-qualified trainers are available to help you establish realistic fitness goals with a plan to follow back home.

Or just find a comfortable chair, and watch the scenery float by. In Glacier Bay, a few brave folks actually sat in the outdoor hot tub while we circled by the glaciers. It makes a great photo op and story for the folks at home.

On our second day, again a sea day, we reached Chatham Strait after passing the Vancouver and the Queen Charlotte Islands. In the early morning pre-dawn calm, I woke to all the colours of grey – from the slate steel greys of the sea to the almost black of the mountains rising up to a soft grey mist of clouds.

As the sun rose, the clouds soon were touched by rose, and spaces of azure sky began to appear. I soon wondered how many colours of blue I’d need to describe the sky, the sea, the ice bergs gently floating past the ship.

Glacier ice absorbs all the colours of the spectrum but blue, and these giant ice jewels are tinted from just a hint of off-white to deep powerful jade blues. By the time my breakfast was delivered, the colours had changed again, and I noticed fountains of misty vapour at odd intervals in the distance – the joyful first sighting of magnificent humpback whales.

The whales were soon followed by delightful pods of dolphins playing in the wash from the ship’s passing. Bald headed eagles later circled above, or watched me watching them from the majestic tops of Sitka spruce.

The Westerdam cruises at a very slow speed while in the inland passageway, and up and down the fiords. This is both in respect for the environment, and also to give guests every opportunity to see and appreciate the surrounding sights.

Within the semi circle at the upper reaches of Glacier Bay, and at the terminus of the Tracy Arm Fiord, the ship stopped and rotated 360 degrees, so everyone had the chance to savour every possible view. Glacier Bay’s 3.3 million acres of land and sea are included in a United Nations Biosphere Reserve and have been designated a World Heritage Site.

Old growth temperate rainforests present at beginning of the fiords, and active tidal glaciers move forward at the upper reaches.

We were able to fully appreciate the scenery in these special areas with the aid of an on-board naturalist (travel guide); broadcasting on the observation decks in hushed, almost reverent tones, describing what we were seeing, raising one’s spiritual awareness and knowledge of this part of the world. Informative morning lectures about the area’s geology, culture and history were offered by a US National Park Ranger and a Huna Totem Tribe member.

Cuisine

Since Peter and I last travelled with Holland America, the company has instituted an “As You Wish” option for dining. The Vista Dining Room is two-tiered; one floor reserved at dinner for guests who prefer traditional seating arrangements and the other level for those folks who like to dine whenever they choose… I opted for a set seating most evenings, and every meal was a pleasure; meeting my new friends and sharing stories about our day, talking of different excursions, and passing along a tip about yet another special corner of the ship. The waiters came to know us by name and preference. At a dinner celebrating Alaska’s 50th year of statehood, our table was enthralled with the napkin ballet and singing of the Indonesian wait staff… Lots of fun and good feelings amongst people from all over the world; and in this very special part of our hemisphere.

Holland America is known for culinary excellence at sea. The Culinary Arts Show Kitchen provides daytime entertainment and sampling! Top chefs, wine experts and leading cookbook authors are sponsored by Food & Wine magazine and provide complimentary culinary demonstrations, as well as private cooking classes for a modest fee. The week of my cruise, Chef Chris Salans, from Bali was invited to demonstrate the flavours of Southeast Asia. His restaurant, Mozaic, was voted “Best Restaurant in Indonesia” by Food & Wine Magazine, one of the top-five restaurants in Asia by the Miele Guide, and one of the top-100 restaurants of the world by San Pelligrina. Quite a treat to attend his presentations.

In addition to the main Vista Dining rooms, there is a casual buffet, a poolside BBQ, 24 hour room service, and optional dining in the beautiful Pinnacle Grill. Or really treat yourself and experience the Executive Chef’s special five course menu – prepared and served to an exclusive group in the show kitchen of the Culinary Arts Center.

Each course is paired with specially selected premium wines from around the world. Not only did I enjoy every mouthful, and the passion and knowledge of both the Chef and the Cellar Master, but I learned a great deal about food, wine, preparation, presentation tips and more. Once again a Holland America enrichment feature that made this such a unique and special cruise experience.

Excursions

I selected three excursions on my journey. The Best of Juneau tour takes in an area known for a colourful history during the Gold Rush era. We visited Glacier Bay Park, followed by a catamaran sail to see whales, seals, sea lion, eagles and sea otter close up, and a stop at a day lodge to lunch on BBQ wild salmon.

The Crab Feast and Float Plane Tour in Ketchikan combined a sight-seeing bus ride to a converted saw mill for an all-you-can-eat fresh crab meal; and a return trip by float plane – soaring just above the tree tops over sea and islands watching for black bear in every clearing.

My excursion in Victoria BC was a bonus for me, as I had never visited British Columbia’s provincial capital. I combined Sightseeing, with High Tea at The Empress. Jolly good!

I recommend you budget for excursions in Alaska…there is always time before or after the tours to wander the port towns and shop to your heart’s content. There are dozens of tour possibilities ranging from active exploration by sea kayaking, biking, hiking, fly or sport fishing, dog sledding, mountain golf, flight-seeing, to zip line fun in the rain forest canopy. And always there are less physically demanding scenic tours to bird-watch, photograph wildlife, or learn about native heritage and Alaska’s history.

It’s an uncommon occasion when a picture is not worth a thousand words. Nor is my thousand plus words of English language descriptive enough. Photos and words can’t capture the grandeur, the magnificence, and the expanse of cruising in Alaska.

Impossible to show the height and glory of waterfalls tumbling down hundreds of feet from the ice fields atop mountains along the Tracy Arm fiord – you have to see it yourself.

A photo can’t capture the sounds of the crackling ice, the splashes, the roar of a glacier “calving” huge shards of ice, which then become ice jewels that float and swish gently towards open sea. The smell and touch of crisp pristine air…the soft sounds of waterfalls…the whispers of people around me in awe of the scene… and the sense of spirits talking in this extraordinary place…

The nautical elegance of The Westerdam is complemented by the fine service of the crew and staff. It’s the folks who serve you daily that make a holiday special and those memories wonderful. The enthusiasm of the dining room staff and the cheerful demeanour of the cabin stewards make you feel like you’re their special guest. If you’re considering an Alaska cruise – the Holland America folks will make sure that it truly is the cruise of a lifetime. I met people who had sailed on many cruise lines but keep returning to Holland America because of the service.

Travel Planner

Holland America Line offers nearly 500 cruises to 320 ports of call in more than 100 countries with their fleet of 14 ships. They have thirty itineraries to showcase Alaska and the Yukon Territory with departures from either Vancouver or Seattle. Combined cruise and land tours add rail travel onboard the McKinley Explorer’s fully domed luxury cars, with service to Anchorage, Denali National Park and Fairbanks. The company also owns Westmark Hotels, its newest a 135 room lodge in Denali.

In 2007 Holland America introduced Explorer Coaches, luxury motor coaches that take quests to the spectacular sub arctic Kluane National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site encompassing five of the seven highest peaks in North America; or to Tombstone Territorial Park, outside of Dawson City. Summer 2010 will add a new 14 day Alaskan Adventurer cruise on HAL flagship ms Amsterdam, with added ports of call – Anchorage, Homer and Kodiak.

Repeat customers are the sign of a healthy business, that the clientele are satisfied with the service and believe that they are receiving solid value for their dollar. At the Captain’s Luncheon for repeat customers, The Westerdam’s main dining room was nearly full to capacity with so many repeat Holland America past passengers. Hotel Director Bert Van Mackelenberg noted that the company’s 114 day Grand World Voyage has a 90% repeat customer base. One couple has been making the cruise annually since 1965! A strong testimonial to HAL customer satisfaction.

To book an Alaskan Adventurer Cruise or Cruise Tour (which combines a cruise with an in-depth land tour), contact your travel agent or call: 1-877-SAIL-HAL (1-877-724-5425). Bon Voyage!

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