As I sail with more cruise lines, the ability to compare and contrast more accurately increases but that also has a strange side effect. It affects my opinions on all cruise lines in the process, forcing me to rethink past cruise experiences as well as rethink future decisions when it comes time to hop on a ship to see another amazing part of the world. I had a lot of preconceptions about what cruising with Holland America Line would be like and, for the most part, those preconceptions weren’t quite right. Today I want to share what it’s really like to sail with them, what I think are some areas where they could improve and, the most important question, would I sail with them again? Holland America provided me with the cruise experience but, as you all already know, I never shy away from true and honest commentary.
A caveat – the destination
The cruise I enjoyed onboard the Holland America ship the Westerdam was a 7-day cruise in Alaska. We boarded the ship in Anchorage and ended in Vancouver, with several amazing stops along the way. However, while cruising Alaska is something Holland America has done for many decades, I don’t think that it’s emblematic of their typical cruise in other parts of the world. My cruise was amongst the shortest they offer anywhere in the world and given that, along with the fact that we sailed in summer means that many key aspects of the cruise experience are different. All I can do though is share from my own personal experience, but do know that some of those impressions may not be completely reflective of other Holland America experiences.
Premium cruising with Holland America
The one issue I had in understanding Holland America was, well, understanding them. I knew they weren’t among the super-duper-high-end luxury lines, which was fine with me. I also knew that they’re not among the more entry-level cruise lines either, so what are they? Turns out the phrase to use is Premium Cruising. Elements of both a more basic as well as high-end cruise experience are morphed into one experience. This slightly confusing way to describe it is seen in many different ways, from the gorgeous art deco embellishments that harken to the earlier days of the cruise line and the attention to detail by the crew members. But then I was also surprised by some of the extras that were missing, like complimentary bottles of water and umbrellas. It’s a curious mix but it’s one that Holland America handles well, to be honest. That’s no surprise though, the company offered its first vacation cruise back in the 19th century, so it’s this many decades long experience with leisure cruising that has enabled them to fine tune the experience over the years.
Comfort and style
I mentioned style, and it’s what surprised me almost immediately. I had a very outdated notion of what cruising with Holland America would be like. I thought they’d be old fashioned and stuck in the past. Well, that’s not true. Thanks to some enhancements they’ve made in recent years, the ships and the onboard comfort are all very modern. Details like the incredible art onboard the ships to the stylized cabin number plates, all come together to create a more memorable cruise experience. For me cabins are always important, and our verandah stateroom was a comfortable refuge for our week onboard the ship. One thing to note, if I were cruising for more than a week I’d probably go ahead and splurge for a small suite, just to enjoy a little more leisure space. But the stateroom we enjoyed was more than enough for our needs, and our cabin attendants made sure no need went unmet. One little thing I want to mention is the onboard TV/Movie selection. What was offered onboard was much better than any other cruise line I’ve sailed with, offering movies just as current as those on the last flight I took. We used some of our downtime to catch up on missed movies, which honestly was a nice way to pass the time.
Great food options
I was told before my cruise that the food offered onboard the Westerdam would impress me, and they were right. Everyone just assumes that cruise lines will have great food options but, from lots of experience, I know that’s not the case. When I sailed with Viking Ocean Cruises in December I left extremely disappointed in their food options, even though they self-label as a luxury line. So I was a little hesitant before my first experience with Holland America, but I shouldn’t have been. As with any ship the size of the Westerdam, there are many options offered onboard from the always casual buffet options to high-end specialty dining. The one constant wasn’t only the quality, but the variety. I think it’s the variety that is key, especially for someone like me who is a very picky eater. Throughout the week onboard the Westerdam though I was extremely impressed with everything, but especially their main dining room. With the ability to seat more than 600 people at once, the main restaurant is a study in organization and even though we were just a couple of the many diners there in the evenings, we felt well attended to and even treated as honored guests.
It had been a while since I last cruised with a more mainstream line like Holland America, so maybe the enhancements they feature are normal, but they still impressed me. Engaging in a series of strategic partnerships, Holland America is able to bring some really interesting options to passengers onboard their ships. My favorite was the America’s Test Kitchen tutorial series, which brings to life the popular TV program and their unique advice on how to make some favorite dishes. But it doesn’t stop there, whether it’s health and well-being with O Magazine or the live music at Lincoln Center Stage, these enhancements are just that – they greatly enhanced my own cruise enjoyment and I can’t imagine the experience without them.
The destinations and my only complaint
I fell in love with Alaska almost immediately, as I imagine most people do. It truly feels like America’s last frontier and it’s that sensation, along with the incredible landscapes and experiences that make it a bucket list destination. The ports of call with the Westerdam were all great and I had planned a varied selection of excursions at each stop to provide a well-rounded visit to the 49th state. While Holland America does a great job of providing access to these small communities, I don’t think that they did a great job of highlighting them onboard. Maybe I’m spoiled by more luxury-minded cruise lines, but there just didn’t seem to be a focus on the destination itself onboard the ship. The port talks weren’t really port talks, but shopping guides and even the maps provided only featured shops to buy jewelry and knick-knacks. I was really surprised by this oversight, given what I know about the cruise line, but am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe I missed something or that their Alaska cruises are different from other itineraries. Regardless, for any cruise line I firmly believe that the destinations should be the focus and everything else should work in concert to highlight them.
I enjoyed my first experience with Holland America, which honestly wasn’t a guarantee before I left home. I was on the fence before my first cruise with them, but I was quickly won over by their outstanding service and attention to detail. Are they perfect? No, but no one is to be honest and especially for someone like me who tends to be a little (very) overcritical. The entire trip though is something I know I’ll always remember and the destination – Alaska – was so central to the entire experience. There are few, if any, cruise lines with the level of experience cruising Alaska that Holland America has and I honestly couldn’t imagine a better company to use when exploring this remarkable part of the world.
4 thoughts on “Cruising with Holland America: What the Experience is Really Like”
I wonder how the Westerdam would compare with the Celebrity Millennium, both of which do 7 night Alaska itineraries. I was rather disappointed in the Millennium’s current premium restaurant options and while the quality in the main dining room was consistently good, it was challenging to have a relaxing dining experience due to its size and noise level. As to HAL’s Alaska port talks, which promoted commission paying shopping options, I wonder if they do that themselves or contact it out to a supplier like PPI Group, which, like art auctions, are often the most disliked guest experiences. Did you dine at the premium restaurants and if so, were they really a big step up from the main dining room?
Yes, I mentioned the premium restaurants and while they were fine, I didn’t think they were above and beyond. One thing to note though, I don’t eat fish or seafood and that seemed to be the big draw for the premium option.
Such a unique and memorable experience, Matt! Both the destination and the cruise are breathtaking. So happy I stumbled upon your post which whetted my appetite. ;)
My wife and I cruised from Vancouver to Seward in June 2018 on the Noordam and had a wonderful time. The staff were great and the food incredible. We mainly used the Lido restaurant which was convenient for us to turn up when we wanted and give a choice from salads to roasts of the highest quality. We researched the excursions as Holland America give you a chance to select them before the cruise. Our favourites were Tracy Arm, Skagway which included a train journey and the Kenai Fjords. We were keen to see the birdlife and mammals and were not disappointed, we saw albatrosses, Tufted and Horned Puffins from our Verandah deck (which incidentally is so steady I could use a telescope without any vibration), amongst many other seabirds and Humpback and Killer Whales, Sea Otters and bears from the ship. The Bay of Alaska is a place you will feel glad you have made the effort to visit as it is that spectacular. We loved this cruise and the changing coastline on the way up. Holland America cater for most passenger tastes and the onboard entertainment and lectures are superb. Alaska is a wonderful place to take a cruise.
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