In September of 2003 Dr. Neal took a 7-day Inside Passage Cruise to Alaska
on the Holland America Line's ms Volendam.
Photos of this cruise can be found here.



Review of Alaska 7-day Inside Passage Cruise
Aboard the m/s Volendam, Holland America Line
September 8 - 15, 2003


(Ports: Vancouver, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchekan, Vancouver)

Having sailed aboard the Volendam before, and this being my 7th cruise with Holland America, I knew what to expect in terms of the "cruise experience."  It is true that Holland America tends to attract an older, more sedate clientele; people who are interested in a refined, quiet, more "classic" style of Cruise-vacation are at home on their ships. This is particularly true of the Volendam; she's not a party "boat," but one can have a great time on her just the same ... and, from Sept. 8 - 15, 2003, we did.  For more details on the Volendam's layout and lounges, please check out my prior review of this ship on Cruise Critics.


Pre-Embarcation:

We flew into Vancouver from Dallas-Forth Worth on Sunday evening, arriving at about 7 pm.  We had a pre-cruise hotel package at the Fairmont Waterfront, just across the street from Canada Place, with a harbor-view room; upon arrival we discovered that we had been upgraded to a Suite for no extra cost.  The staff at the Fairmont was excellent and the room was outstanding, with a lovely view of Canada Place and the harbor.  Included in the package-deal was a complimentary hot buffet breakfast and a transfer of our baggage to the pier. This made everything so much easier. We spent the morning exploring the area and, then, at about 11 am we had the bellperson come and collect our luggage.  We were then able to walk across to the pier and spend a little while viewing (and photographing) the Volendam before going to check-in at noon. 


Check-In and Embarkation:

Check-in was quick and painless. We went through security rather quickly, then were waved into the short queue for those who had prepared their immigration forms on-line at the Holland America website. Within just a few minutes we had checked-in, had our boarding number, and were sitting in the waiting area, chatting with our fellow passengers. Boarding began at about 1:30, and by 2 pm we were in our stateroom, where our luggage had already been delivered. We changed clothing, grabbed a bite to eat in the Lido, and then wandered the ship until 4:15 and the Lifeboat Drill.

There appeared to be no sign of the early boarding option that we had heard about from those who had been on earlier cruises; we were not allowed to board immediately and wait in a lounge onboard ship. However, the process which was in place was quick, efficient, and didn't involve much waiting anywhere.

During the weeks before the cruise we had been warned that the Volendam had been under strict health restrictions -- and I had been advised to hose down everything with Purell -- but those restrictions had been mostly lifted by the time we arrived. Handshaking was suspended at the beginning of the cruise, but otherwise the Dining Room had been returned to normal procedures (with bread and butter and salt and pepper all being available on the table). The report was that the cruise prior to ours had no reported cases of Norwalk-like viruses, and during our seven days there were no reports of any similar illnesses.


Cabin Choice:

We originally booked a J-Catagory Guarantee, but as we were told to expect there were no cabins available in that category. As it turned out, about 10 days prior to sailing we were assigned to a C-Category outside cabin on the Lower Promenade Deck, just aft of midships on the port-side. We were thrilled. It was an excellent place on the ship to be. It's like having a huge Verandah on both sides of the ship; just a few steps and we were outside! Also, no place in the ship felt very far from the cabin. We loved it.

At first, we were a little nervous about people being able to look into the cabin from the outside promenade, but we soon discovered that -- during the day -- it was nearly impossible to see inside; the windows are tinted so-as to make that difficult, even with the lights on inside. At night it was nearly as difficult to see inside because the outside deck lights were always on. So ... there were no problems in that department. Similarly, while there was a little noise now and then coming in from the outside promenade, nothing that was in any way bothersome could be heard.


Status of the Volendam:

The ms Volendam is a lovely ship, well maintained and cared for. One of the things we noted, even before sail-away, was the amount of exterior railing that had just been re-stained, the fresh paint on many door frames, and the new carpet smell in several lounges. Throughout this cruise the loving care being lavished upon the ship by the crew was evident at every turn: scraping, painting, repairing, cleaning, vacuuming, and routine maintenance could be found going on everywhere. Even though she's now four years old, there are few signs of wear-and-tear. Likewise, from stateroom to lounges to dining rooms we found the ship to be immaculate ... the Volendam is a credit to HAL's slogan "the Spotless Fleet."

It should be noted that, while in Juneau the Volendam was boarded by the US Coast Guard and the ship and crew were subjected to inspection and drills. According to the Captain, the ship achieved a perfect score.


Dining Onboard:

The Marco Polo has been converted into the Pinnacle Grill, and while it does charge $20 per person for the meal, the quality of the food and the service truly is spectacular. The food here is billed as being a "Northwestern fare," and it meets that expectation; they have a set menu which has changed very little since our Nov-Dec 2002 Hawaii Cruise on the Statendam, but this is not a negative observation; it was nice knowing what to expect. I had the Pinnacle Cut Filet which was cooked to absolute perfection and was so deliciously tender that I was cutting it with my fork! The side dishes were excellent, although I would have appreciated a few more selections and slightly larger portions. The desserts were all wonderful (we sampled several).

The Lido was excellent for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, although I was disappointed that they didn't have more pasta dishes. The sandwich bar was excellent, as was the stir-fry, and at breakfasts I enjoyed the omelet bar. During our day in Glacier Bay the crew held a fantastic Seafood BBQ Luke by the Lido pool. It included grilled salmon and halibut, with steamed crab, mussels and clams ... among many other tasty meats. It was excellent.

The Rotterdam Dining Room met our expectations. We had second seating at a table for 8, nevertheless the staff was fast, efficient, friendly, and a joy to get to know; in short, the foodservice on this cruise was flawless. Our waiter, Krishna, was among the best we've ever had, as was his assistant, Denny. The wine steward, Nestor, was always at our table almost immediately after we were seated; we had purchased a wine package of several bottles at the beginning of the cruise, and each night we were served from the selections in that package. While not a great financial savings, having a wine package was far simpler and much quicker each evening than making a different choice would have been. Nestor was helpful by corking unused bottles and saving them for subsequent evenings.

The food in the Rotterdam Dining Room was about average for Holland America: the food was warm but not hot, the taste was good but not spectacular, and the variety left something to be desired. One night I had a Prime Rib that was excellent, but on another evening the pasta dish had nearly no taste to it at all. I enjoyed the Volendam Salad, but the Waldorf Salad proved to be a disappointment. The seafood dishes tended to be of superior quality, as were the poultry and lamb dishes, but the attempts at Italian food were just of average quality. The Dutch dishes were, again, rather bland, while the Indonesian and other oriental offerings were quite good. On the whole, the meals in the Rotterdam Dining Room were good, and at times truly excellent; only once was I truly disappointed.


Dress Code Violations:

The Holland America Line has a well defined Dress Code for Formal, Informal, and Casual nights which can be found in the "Know Before You Go" booklet; additionally, the Dress Code for each evening is published in the Daily Program. Despite this, many of the passengers on this particular cruise either ignored the code altogether, or they only poorly observed it. For example, on Formal Nights the number of men dressed in Tuxedos was far lower than I have ever seen on a HAL cruise; a larger number of the men were dressed in dark suits and ties -- which is perfectly fine, and these men looked smart -- but the apparent choice-of-clothing for a great many men on both Formal Nights appeared to be slacks and a blazer ... often with a tie, but sometimes without. Even still, it was not uncommon to see men without jackets, without ties, and even in jeans and t-shirts. Interestingly, the Informal Night Dress Code was more faithfully observed by a larger percentage of men than the Formal Night Code, but Casual nights were a couture nightmare: jeans and t-shirts were out in-force, with shorts and sweat suits being worn even in the Rotterdam Dining Room. Far from "dressy" or "country club casual," this was more a form of "sloppy casual." The women were sometimes better-dressed than the men, but only marginally.

HAL loyalists are sometimes badgered for upholding the Cruise Line's Dress Code, and I realize that I'm opening myself to attack for bringing up this topic, but it is a valid issue. This Alaska Cruise was the most "casual" HAL cruise I have ever taken. This may, in part, be due to the fact that there were far fewer repeat cruisers ("Mariners") on this cruise than on the others I have taken. From what I was told by several-such first-time cruisers, they would be bringing far more appropriate clothing next time. Hence, I believe that a growing body of new-cruisers is a good thing for Holland America.


Passenger Age:

This cruise had the lowest average age of any HAL cruise I have ever taken. HAL is generally thought of as being a "geriatric cruise line," but this seems to be changing as more and more younger and middle-aged people begin cruising. Sometimes young people are accused of being among the more poorly dressed, but in many cases I noted that those in the 20 and 30-something crowd were frequently among the best-dressed, while those in their 40s and 50s were sometimes less-conformed to the Dress Code.


Alaska Weather and Ports:

Words cannot do Alaska justice. Even in September, with the weather turning colder and the air turning wetter, the beauty of the 49th State blew our socks off. Temperatures ranged from lows in the low-40s to highs in the mid-50s. It rained nearly every day, but it wasn't torrential and we periodically had views of blue skies and even a little sun. In Juneau the cloud cover was so low that, from the top of Mt. Roberts it was impossible to see the city or the harbor. In Skagway and along the Inside Passage the low-level cloud formations were beautiful and, at times, spooky. Frankly, it wasn't cold enough to be at all uncomfortable; in Glacier bay as long as the sun was out the air was very nice, but let the clouds come in and the wind got truly cold.

In Juneau we took the Grand Tour, which included a short city survey, a visit to the Salmon Hatchery, a tour of the Glacier Gardens, and a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier. This was an excellent tour, with the surprise being found in the striking beauty of the Gardens and an amazing drive through the National Rain Forest. The Mendenhall Glacier National Park was both impressive and beautiful, and the US Forest Service Rangers were very informative. At the Mendenhall Glacier be prepared to walk all the way to the forward observation point for the most spectacular views of the Glacier and the waterfall.

In Skagway we took the White Pass Summit Scenic Railway and were very pleased. The rail-line comes right up to the pier, so all we had to do was walk about a hundred yards from the ship to board the train. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing journey up the White Pass into the mountains and across the Canadian Boarder to the continental divide. The views were spectacular and the running commentary from the Train staff was very informative. I highly recommend this trip, and would be willing to take it again on my next trip to Alaska.

Glacier Bay was amazing. The Volendam was in the bay along with the Veendam, and so we had a couple of opportunities to catch some excellent sights of another HAL vessel at sea; indeed, when up near glaciers the other ship looked like a tub toy! As excellent as the port-cities were, Glacier Bay truly was the high point of this cruise. We spent almost the entire day, from about 10 am until 4 pm, out on deck, viewing the stark landscape, the glaciers, and the wildlife. We had an opportunity to see Humpback Whales breaching, and Orrca paced the ship for quite a while as we traversed Icey Strait.

In Ketchikan we took the Totem Bight State Park tour, which provided an excellent opportunity to see some Native American cultural artifacts and learn something about the longest inhabitants of Alaska. The Totems, themselves, were beautiful and impressive, and the historical and cultural lectures by our tour guide were informative and enjoyable.


Conclusion:

The Inside Passage to Alaska makes for an amazingly beautiful, relaxing, informative, and enjoyable Cruise. The natural wonders, along with the historical and cultural sites, are compelling. And the Holland America Line's Volendam was a wonderful, practical, and relaxing way to take in the sights and visit the ports along the Alaskan Inside Passage.


© 2003, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved



Photos From Rev. Neal's Alaska 2003 Cruise.




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Embarkation from Vancouver RealPlayer Quicktime
Juneau, Alaska RealPlayer Quicktime
Skagway, Alaska RealPlayer Quicktime
Glacier Bay, Alaska RealPlayer Quicktime
Ketchikan, Alaska RealPlayer Quicktime

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© 2003, 2004, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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