Delivering a premium cruise product and securing premium rates is not an easy task given the number of options for passengers today. An Alaskan cruise aboard Holland America Line's (HAL) Oosterdam - our only cruise this year - gets high marks in our opinion, with an elegant ship, rich in design and high-end furniture, tableware and shipboard art, and an attentive and sincere service-minded staff and crew.
The Oosterdam has that overall luxurious feel to it. It was pleasurable and soothing to walk this ship.
Our cruise took us from Seattle to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, British Colombia. Although the itinerary and the shipboard experiences were exhilarating and fulfilling we have to mention first and foremost the embarkation and disembarkation which stopped us in our tracks. One of those wow' moments and It's about time' when alternative dining started to weave its way through the industry as well as open seating for breakfast and lunch in the dining rooms. They said it couldn't be done!
VIPs Start to Finish
First off, the Seattle's Terminal 30 one of two cruise port facilities in the downtown area - was efficient and well-designed. The Emerald City has opened its port doors to the cruise industry in the past few years with a waterfront area that is inviting, clean, safe and interesting. Over 500,000 guests on 140 ships will visit Cruise Seattle in 2004.
The Oosterdam allowed all passengers to embark as early as 11:00 a.m. the day of departure with access to staterooms after 1:30. No mulling about in crowded waiting halls with anxious and impatient guests. No herding. The only restriction was access to the stateroom. This is no big deal for most people. Most of us just want to get on the ship! Passengers were welcome to have lunch, relax in the public lounges and buy cocktails (i.e., revenue producing!).
Premium rates should mean special treatment for everyone and HAL delivered.
At the other end - disembarkation - we were surprised again when told anyone could stay in their staterooms until their letter or number was called. The Oosterdam even managed full-breakfast room service on the day of departure. For years this magazine has complained that a wonderful cruise was all too often marred by the disembarkation experience - enough to put a damper on future cruise bookings.
HAL's Changing Face
Our last HAL cruise was in 1995 aboard the Ryndam and we were long overdue. Honestly we were somewhat reluctant to cruise with our teenage son knowing HAL's demographics of the past - the older and conservative passenger. Our son teased that we would fit right in. Well, there were still many in that category but surprisingly over 150 kids were on this trip, not only with grandparents but with parents. The infant barrier was broken as well as there were several babies aboard - one as young as three months. HAL's future is in the making and we welcomed it although there were some comments from the stalwarts that families with kids should go on other' cruise lines.
From our perspective the kids just added welcomed life and vitality to an aging profile. Thankfully there were no reprimands from Captain Jeroen van Donselaar - HAL's youngest captain (see interview herein), and staff (that we heard) to keep your kids in tow... don't let them go on the elevators alone (never works), and no running in the corridors (doesn't work either). These minor problems can all be addressed easily with talented youth counselors who know how to communicate directives to these important future passengers.
Let's Make More Deals
There were several notable 'deals'. Coke/soda weekly cards have been standard for some time but we were impressed by other package offers: four wines (from a special list) for $82.00; six for $125.00; six cocktails for $24.00; spa packages - $40.00 for unlimited classes (yoga, stretch classes, pilates).
A different surprise was the cost of photos - when did the cost of a 5X7 photo jump to $10.95? Granted the portrait prices are reasonable but how much higher can these prices go and how annoyed are passengers going to feel when they see their final bill?
Excursions are a must in Alaska if a passenger really wants to experience the grandeur of this state. HAL had extensive offerings in each port at all price levels.
HAL offers four seatings for its main Vista Lounge dining room from 5:30 to 8:45. We stuck with our 6:00 2nd seating for the most part but opted for one dinner in the alternative Pinnacle Grill at The Odyssey - and tried the Lido for a very casual evening. Dining room service was exceptional, and food selections and presentations were up to par. Uniforms on the wait staff were well-tailored, varied and crisp in appearance which always lends itself to formal, elegant dining.
The Pinnacle Grill lived up to its reputation for service, food, and presentation. Its ambiance is hard to beat with ocean views on one side of the restaurant and a well-lit glass-relief of Rembrandt's famous Night Watch. This was a glamorous evening at a Five-Star restaurant - a bargain for the $20.00 surcharge. Pinnacle grilled food was enhanced by use of a special 1,600 degree clam' grill for its Pacific Northwest cuisine.
The Lido buffet at night included several stations from which to choose: The Italian (pizza, pasta), The Bistro, roasted grilled meats and seafood with an excellent selection of appetizers and The Sweets. A salad bar was always available. Although the Lido worked well for dinners it was sometimes hard to find a table for lunch or breakfast as the ship was filled to capacity with over 1,900 guests.
Whether it was just this particular cruise in Alaska or in fact a real change in demographics for HAL ships entertainment is one area where we sensed an identity crisis.
The two top show productions - by HAL's director of entertainment Bill Prince, Wild, Wild West and Escape were top-notch, unique entertainment. The individual and small group show time events were well attended and received - standard comedy, magic acts.
Then things became muddled...Champagne Strings - a tradition on HAL ships featuring classical and string favorites was under-attended and no-shows on some nights. Dance music in the Crow's Nest and Ocean Bar started at 9:15 p.m and for some strange reason the two groups took the same breaks. What happened to lounge hopping? Groups in both lounges were talented but often did their own thing rather then tuning into an eclectic mix of people in attendance.
Some other choices were the Piano Bar and the Disco both of which had their ups and downs. Where was everyone? Well, the casino was always hopping and that isn't a bad thing for business. Also the Oosterdam passenger SuperStar and Karaoke were wildly popular. This is definitely a new HAL emerging.
What made this cruise experience stand out? A week on the Oosterdam paid out in a big way in allowing us regular people a chance to feel rich and famous for a week, if that is a need or wish.
No doubt the service and friendliness of the crew and staff was a big factor, but also the actual beauty of the ship. There was no scrimping on upholstery, napery, tableware, artifacts, sculpture, paintings, furniture and light fixtures. We've never seen so much leather furniture on a ship. And what a welcome sight it was to see wooden deck furniture pulled out of liner history.
Sometimes a sample or taste of a treat is all we want. The Oosterdam delivered on its promise of a premium dream' vacation and what better way is there than this to go back to our normal everyday - not-so-bad -after-all lives. - Ship review by Oivind & Angela Mathisen