May 2015 - Westerdam to Alaska - Inside Passage
There is an air of dignity in the Westerdam. The ship, part of Holland America’s Vista class, entered service in 2004, but has some sobriety and elegance that contrast with newer more modern vessels. At the same time, the Westerdam is showing its age. Like all the ships in the cruise industry, the Westerdam is a workhorse – there are some visible signs that the ship might need to be revamped soon, among them worn out curtains, minor water leakages and run down carpets. Still, the Westerdam is a ship that stands out among the growing cruise lines fleet. It reminds passengers of the real meaning of cruises, that is, the joy of sailing the ocean in an elegant manner, away from huge floating malls, climbing walls and water slides.
But what it really makes of the Westerdam a remarkable ship is its crew. The commitment of every employee, from top to bottom, to attend to all guests and excel in service is commendable. For over seven days, the overstretched and, in most cases, overworked crew did their best to provide superb service, taking care of every single detail and following-up obsessively to ensure that all guests were satisfied. Contrary to many other cruise lines, and other vessels even within Carnival Corp., managers at the Westerdam work hard to provide personalized service to guests, even if it means additional work. Their work ethic is outstanding. As the ship’s wine cellar master pointed out “we are here to serve you. If it wasn’t for you sailing with us, we wouldn’t have a job.”
The seven-day Alaska roundtrip cruise from Seattle to Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, showed the best side of Holland America Line. The breathtaking Alaskan scenery, the wildlife, and the picturesque towns, are only part of an unforgettable journey that needs to be in everyone’s bucket list. But overall, what it really made of this trip notable was the attention that all the crew members provided to passengers during that week.
The cruise was not perfect. And there are many improvements and details that need to be taken care of, not so much by the Westerdam crew, but by HAL’s administration and Carnival Corp. Holland America Line is different from other brands within the corporation because each manger in the ship is concerned with providing superior service, and the Westerdam sets the standards higher for all the vessels in the fleet. While other brands in Carnival Corp., seemed not to be very worried with customer satisfaction, HAL’s ships crews stand out for their determination to reach exceptional service.
Most of the Westerdam’s pitfalls are not the crews fault, but reflect a refusal by Carnival Corp. to move the brand forward by investing more in personnel training, ship retrofitting, and in innovation. For example, poor customer service by Lido pool bartenders and by some wine stewards, seemed to be a chronic problem in HAL’s fleet, from the Nieuw Amsterdam to the Westerdam. This issue has been raised by several previous passengers (including this reviewer) in the past through bulletin boards and through e-mails to their customer service department, but the company has been reluctant to change its practices and procedures.
And while HAL has been trying to change its image to attract a wider crowd, it has failed to be more creative in its entertainment and needs to do more to improve its food quality, even in its paid restaurants. The adjective “foodie” doesn’t pop-up when tasting some of its dishes. But at the same time, some dishes in the Vista dining room surpass expectations. The company needs to do more standardization to ensure that all service is equally excellent and that all of its food has the quality of a five-star cruise line.
Even with these few drawbacks, the seven day Alaska cruise in the Westerdam is an experience that it is worth living. Its benefits are much greater for the cost. Their “Sip, Sail and Savor” promotion included unexpectedly good wines. Holland America Line offers a very competitive price for the services it provides. It is almost a bargain that it is not to be missed.
Now to the details.
Despite being displaced as the novelty vessel by the similar, but bigger and newer Koningsdam and Nieuw Amsterdam, the Westerdam is a ship that contains its sobriety with elegance. In every hallway and public venue there are paintings depicting Holland’s naval glory days. At almost 2,000 people capacity, the Westerdam gives plenty of space for all people on board. And while signs of wear and tear are starting to appear, the Westerdam is just the right ship for those travelers that aim to have a more traditional cruising experience. The company must consider retrofitting the ship within the next years to keep up with other cruise lines.
As many of the other Vista class in HAL’s fleet, the Westerdam has a big formal dining room (the Vista), the Pinnacle Restaurant, the Lido and the Canaletto. Unlike the Nieuw Amsterdam, and the new Koningsdam, this ship doesn’t have more specialty restaurants like the Asian fusion “Tamarind.”
The food in the Vista dining room varies by day, from excellent to regular. “A mix bag” – seems to be a consensus for most cruisers posting opinions on boards when referring to HAL’s food. This could be a disappointment for many guests that have been allured by HAL’s “Culinary Council” advertisement and by their offer of “Culinary Arts” classes. HAL needs to raise the standards of every meal that they serve in every ship, including the variety of their food offerings.
This “mix bag” is easy to spot in their main dining room, when a menu can offer a delicious pâté, worth of a Michelin rated restaurant, but a mediocre soup and a below standard fish or steak – to the point where a steak is not cooked as it should be and needs to be returned to the kitchen several times. Overstretched personnel is an issue for those who aspire to have a pleasant meal. When the restaurant is half-empty, servers carefully take care of even the minimum detail, but when it is crowded, it is not surprising to see if they fail to serve the bread basket or if they bring the food cold.
HAL has tried to improve its menu in the main dining rooms, but at the same time, it wants to promote its specialty paid restaurant. Other cruise lines are going through this same issue, where they aspire to keep their main dining room’s food and service quality, while trying to distinguish alternative restaurants.
HAL’s “signature” restaurants could be a hit or miss and the costs outweigh the benefits. The Pinnacle Grill offers a large variety of beef cuts. Their stakes sizes could be huge, but the quality is poor. What about offering grass fed beef and lamb? Perhaps a more complex recipe? Their menu is rather simple and lacks variety. The Tamarind is an example of improvement in newer ships. It offers, perhaps, the best Asian fusion food experience in a cruise line. Their standards are superior and it is undoubtedly a must try experience. And Le Cirque – which is offered in the Pinnacle Grill one evening each trip – does have a good and tasty food selection, but for the price they could have a much better offering. For an additional $50 fee per person, Le Cirque should be competing with the likes of “El Celler de Can Roca.”
Prompt service is not an issue at HAL’s specialty restaurants. Waiters have to tend far fewer tables than their counterparts in the Vista dining room. The main reason, besides the food, to pay the almost $30 per person to dine at the Pinnacle, could be the service and the privacy – away from very loud and informal Lido, and sometimes extremely loud Vista – rather than the tasteless 20 plus ounces’ stakes.
The Koningdam has more specialty restaurants, even one that offers NY style pizza, something that it will be better situated at a Carnival cruise. It seems that corporate doesn’t get it. If they are serious at accentuating HAL’s “excellence” then why not offer a tapas or French cuisine tasting bar?
During the Westerdam’s 7-day Alaska trip, HAL offered local BBQ salmon, which was delicious. In addition, HAL partnered with local Alaskan Brewing Company to offer their craft beer. These details and events do make a difference to their guests. The company could be more creative and implement more food offerings like this one.
But perhaps the most interesting part is that HAL – at least in the Westerdam – does have talented cooks aboard who prepare outstanding meals, and they are not the well-publicized members of the “Culinary Council.” One time, eating breakfast in the Pinnacle, an Indian manager brought a special southern Indian typical dish as an unrequested gift – and it was perhaps the best Indian food out there. This detail and the food were outstanding. Also, the Indonesian cooks prepared a delicious sambal – a typical hot sauce from this nation – that it is not offered in the menu, but the kitchen personnel took extra time to cook it under request. That is creativity and real guest service. It might be difficult for them to do it for every single guest, but isn’t this what “excellence” is all about?
Maybe it is time for corporate to start looking inside their own ships’ kitchens to improve their food offerings.
The Lido Deck
Like the other Vista class ships, the Westerdam has two Lido deck pools: One open for the general public and an adult pool. For people who are in need of a more peaceful environment the adult pool is a good choice, and for those who do not mind being disturb, the main pool does the trick.
The Lido Deck is also the home of the main buffet restaurant (like all other cruises). Contrary to the Nieuw Amsterdam where most of the staff was rude – as it has been noted by other people in bulletin boards – most employees at the Westerdam’s Lido restaurant are much nicer and friendlier. The food is of good quality and high standards, even to the point that the evening menu have delicacies such as pate and salmon. Another high point is the “Dive-In” – a hamburger and hot dogs joint that shines for its “secret sauce.” For all the high-quality food served in the other restaurants, it is worth skipping that lobster for a day and trade it for a burger at the Dive-In.
Other Public Rooms
The Westerdam’s public rooms – among them the casino, the shops and the ocean bar – are standard compared to any other cruise lines. But, it seems to be a consensus among HAL’s past cruisers and reviewers that the Crow’s Nest and the Explorations Café are the favorites. And it is not difficult to find out some of the reasons.
It might be the beautiful view from the Observation Deck along with a seamless space of tranquility – unlike the Lido Deck – that attracts the attention and favoritism of guests. But also the notion of elegance and exclusivity, especially at the Explorations Café that stick out.
Of course, HAL could make some improvements. The Exploration Café’s computers already look old and outdated. In a time where tablets and smartphones are the rule, HAL should be investing in making it more high-tech. They could also expand the area and add more books and other literature. And the specialty coffee that it is being sold, it is awful and not something worth spending money.
HAL had it right with the establishment of these two concepts. With a little investment they can easily take it to the next level.
Here is where HAL makes an effort to be as close as a luxury cruise can get. Even as all the staterooms have good perks – including top of the line bath toiletries, not to mention breakfast delivered to your room – there is a huge difference among staterooms, verandahs, and their Neptune suites, with the latter elevating the bar for other competing cruise lines.
A sponsored reviewer wrote that for an Alaska trip it might be better to be in an inside room given the long summer hours. But there is nothing like a verandah room – the ability to have a balcony, privacy, and to breath fresh air while listening to the ocean and watching the scenery. Even in Alaska (see below) there is nothing better like watching ice from a glacier falling down from a stateroom. During the Alaska trip, the main issue with the verandah room was that curtains did not fully blocked sunlight. Also curtains were worn out and needed replacement – another problem with an aging ship – and let the light pass by. HAL could easily fix this by placing a double blackout curtain that blocks all the light in all of its summer northern cruises. Even with a sleepless night, the verandah staterooms provide sufficient and comfortable space for the price.
And while a Neptune suite can be substantially pricier than a verandah, the perks can easily justify the price. Its size, twice of a normal verandah suite, it is not only convenient, but also has a double size balcony. It is almost as having a personal one-bedroom apartment floating in the ocean. HAL often highlights that guests who book a Neptune suite have exclusive access to their Neptune Lounge, but this lounge can sometimes be extremely crowded by other guests (even as HAL has strict regulations restricting access to non-Neptune suite travelers). The real advantage, besides having free laundry, are the personalized service by the concierges, speedier room service, and special hot and cold hors-d'oeuvre delivered to the suites, and, preferential seating in the dining rooms (this is not promoted by HAL, it is a hidden perk).
The Westerdam’s verandah staterooms are starting to show their age. The bathtub displayed some corrosion, while the toilet was leaking water. However, the rapid response from the ship’s maintenance crew is commendable. In less than 10 minutes after the initial call, a repairman showed-up to fix the leakage and the bathtub. A supervisor followed-up later on the day to check that everything was taken care of.
This incident, while it wasn’t a major issue, was an unnecessary waste of resources. HAL, seems to be cutting corners by using ships as workhorses while performing the least possible maintenance. This makes no sense since they are spending in “patch” repair costs, instead of investing money in retrofitting their ships more frequently. There is more than one reviewer in cruise boards who complaints of HAL ships being in bad shape (this comment applies to older Vista and Rotterdam class ships, needless to say, not the newer ship in their Signature class or the Koningsdam). Evidently, Carnival Corp.’s lack of investment in renovation is damaging its HAL brand and driving away loyal customers.
So what of the many elements encompassed in a cruise vacation makes of HAL’s Westerdam more remarkable? In one word, service.
In a highly competitive industry, Carnival Corps.’s Holland America Group, with all it pitfalls, has strived to keep its “five star” service brand. In the Westerdam, their mostly Indonesian service crew is under high pressure to provide “excellence” to every single guests. From the stateroom’s stewards to the waiters and service managers, every employee is friendly and attentive.
Their positive attitude and hard work is laudable and they do make a difference to all guests onboard. They make their best to make every guest feel at home, even as they have to attend hundreds of people, sometime for less than a week, like is the case of the Alaska seven-day cruise.
In some instances, some personnel excel at getting out of their way to ensure that a guest has anything that she or he wants, even if it’s not available. The treatment goes as far as a manager ordering special food per request. These type of details are the highlight of a trip and one of the main reasons why a passenger would want to rebook in a cruise line.
At the same time, a common complaint in several cruise boards on the Internet is that the service is subpar. This is true, but it is not because of the personnel’s unwillingness to do their jobs, but part of corporate cuts and resources allocation mismanagement within the ship. For instance, during the formal dinner nights, most guests prefer to dine at the main dining room (in this case the Vista), taking most of the available tables. And while experienced waiters do their best to keep the pace, they simply cannot provide the same quality of service. This is a problem for a cruise line that trains its waiters to pay attention to even small details. A waiter can memorize how much water to pour in each cup, but when tending 7 to 10 tables with 4 – 6 people each, then he/she could forget something really simple as to bring a basket of bread.
Placing a food order to a stateroom is another ordeal. It can take up to 20 minutes of holding on the phone to speak with someone and another 40 minutes to an hour to get the food delivered. This has happened during all past cruises and, according to several recent reviews, continues to be an issue.
Obviously, Holland America has been trying to save money by requiring more from their employees without apparently developing a plan of action. It is logical that a majority of passengers would prefer eating at the restaurant and avoid other higher-end paid restaurants like the Pinnacle or the Tamarind. The corporation can easily solve this issue by hiring additional personnel, but due to their visible cost-cutting strategy, realistically, that is unlikely to happen. With a fix crew, ships managers need to assigned additional waiters to the main dining room. Also, they could create incentives for passengers to dine in alternative venues (a show in the Lido, or meals at a discounted price at paid restaurants).
Other notable personnel disparity in Holland America Line cruises is the customer service provided by their Manila and Jakarta trained crews.
Most employees hired in Indonesia work either as food servers or as staterooms’ stewards. Their service and commitment towards guests is remarkable, to say the least. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but they all strive to earn high marks in their evaluations, even as they work extended hours. Not surprisingly, employees who have been working at the line for the longest are best at their jobs.
The employees trained in Manila present inequalities in how they take care of guests. For some reason – and this could be intentional – Holland America Line assigns them to bar tending and drink serving duties (with certain exceptions where they work waiting tables). They do have a different attitude: they try to be “friendlier,” but sometimes they are close to being rude and disrespectful to the point of making fun of guests. They are more “pushy,” since for every drink they sell they collect a 15% gratuity, which is divided among the crew at each location. This also creates an incentive to be more impersonal or to not care for each guest individually.
There are some steps that Holland America can take to improve their service:
First, standardize all training. Instead of holding different trainings in each city to train local hires, ensure that the workers hired in Manila and Jakarta receive the same training and are evaluated under the same standards. Afterwards, they can be trained again for each function that they do.
Second, assign employees hired from both locations to randomly work in all departments. Ideally, there should be an equal number of Indonesian and Filipino hires at any given time in all departments. They should learn from each other and if there are cultural issues, it is the company's responsibility to use best practices.
Third, make tipping optional. In the U.S., as well as in many other countries, servers have to work hard for their tips. All employees working at the bar or selling liquor, should be gentle and not behave like a “used car” salesmen. After serving a drink they should not keep insisting on selling more, rather they should be concerned on how happy and comfortable each guest feels. And when passing the final check, they should ask if their service was satisfactory and if they can add the 15% tip. This is very basic, but for some reason HAL has failed to implement this policy.
And fourth, respect seniority. As noted, some of the best employees have worked the company for many years. Though, it is sad to see a steward cleaning a restroom after 20 plus years of service and still smiling to each guest, remembering new names every other week. Instead, these employees should be commended, by giving them the option to retrain for another department, or a shot at being educated at the company expense and promoted to management position. Employee loyalty is the best predictor of customer service.
The cruise industry’s growth in the last decade has presented opportunities and challenges for cruise line corporations. Carnival Corporation during its expansion has acquired brands that already have a niche market segment. There is Carnival, a cruise line clearly designed to be more “fun” aimed at middle income families and younger vacationers, that competes head to head with Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line. And there is Seabourn, the luxury brand that competes with the likes of Oceania Cruises. And somewhere in between them there is Holland America Line.
Long seen as a cruise line for empty nesters – whom continue to be a core customer group – HAL has been trying to market itself as a “hipster” and family friendly line to appeal to a broader market, while trying to keep a more “traditional-luxury” brand. Its slogan could easily be “a luxury-hipster-traditional cruise line, for the price of a popular cruise line.” But this new “hipster” market has been already embraced by competitor Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity brand, leaving HAL squeezing itself between its sister brands Carnival and Princess. Clearly, in a highly competitive industry, not one single brand can grab all market segments. HAL identity crisis is something that it needs to be solved and defined by Carnival Corp.
This is reflected in the new suite upgrades in some of the older ships like the Oosterdam. Yes, it is true that some of the suites and staterooms in these ships still have last decade technologies (literally), but then, what is the separation between an ultra-modern “hipster” decoration, and an elegant luxurious decoration?
The brand has also been trying to market itself to families, younger couples and a more global audience. The challenge here is pleasing people from different demographic groups and cultural backgrounds, plus managing a multinational crew. Diversity is good, there is no doubt about it. The issue in question is how to tend to all guests while keeping a “luxurious” service.
This can be noted in public areas, where some families and groups from different cultures do not have a problem at being extremely loud or not following certain rules. Or in the formal dining room, it is common to spot guests in shorts or informal clothing. At one point there was a large group whose members were clearly intoxicated at a formal dinner. Personnel was intimidated, and no one told them to quiet down, fearing complaints and repercussions. Being extremely festive in the main dining room might be ok in a “fun ship” (aka Carnival), but if HAL wants to maintain its “excellence” branding, then it is not out of place to enforce conduct rules. These situations might be common in Carnival, NCL, MSC or Royal Caribbean, but they present a problem to a brand that is selling exclusiveness. Repeating cruisers or other higher-end customers might end up going to a competing higher end cruise line like Celebrity.
In a growing market, HAL faces the conundrum of filling their ships, while complying with their mission of “excellence”. At the end, the company will need to prioritize, not only for higher-end paying customers, but also for loyal customers, while enforcing conduct policies. In fact, selling a cruise to a big group, or to party goers, might give them a boost in their short terms gains, but could cause long-term damage to their branding.
In an effort to appeal to a broader public, HAL has been trying to innovate their entertainment options to include popular shows that are more alluring to families and younger people. For example, the BB King Blues’ Club band is entertaining, but while the band members have the skills to play Blues from BB King, instead they try to mimic a TV reality show and play mostly popular songs from Disco to Rock. It is fine if they want to offer a musical show more attractive to a broader public, just don’t call it BB King Blues, which is not only deceiving, it is a dishonor to the legendary musician and his fans.
Other popular shows offered by Holland America are “Dancing with the Stars at Sea” and “Billboard Onboard.” Obviously, these shows are aimed at attracting a younger audience and families. The issue is that these entertainment options also reveal HAL’s identity crisis within Carnival Corp. They are trying to get to a demographic segment that is already a traditional target of their sister Carnival brand, while not clearly competing with Celebrity. At the same time, these shows might not be appealing to their traditional and loyal senior guest, whom might be looking at spending an evening in tranquility rather than jumping to the rhythm of Gloria Gaynor or Justin Bieber. Yes, there are classical musicians onboard – not very talented – and pianists, but these shows are like going to a distant cousin’s funeral – not fun at all, and quite depressing. They must find a middle option.
Ironically, again, the mostly Indonesian crew stole the show, literally. One evening during the Westerdam’s Alaska cruise, crew members stood aside from their daily duties to entertain guests with music and traditional performances. Their show was, without any doubt, the best in the entire cruise. Here is another area where HAL should be looking more at the great skills and capacity of their own employees, instead of poorly trying be more like Hollywood.
The Seven Day Alaska Cruise
There are several aspects that cruisers should look into before booking a cruise – any cruise, not only HAL. Topping the list is the right time to book and pay in full the reminding balance. Cruise lines will do their best to entice potential customers – particularly returning guests – with offers and packages starting six to nine months before the sailing date. The point is to sell as many staterooms as they can ahead of time and securing a full ship. The more demand a cruise company has ahead of time, the more they can increase stateroom prices as the departure date approaches. Then purchasing a stateroom earlier on is the best strategy, right?
Not really. There is a caveat. If the cruise line does not reach the desired occupancy quota, then they will lower prices in certain “unassigned categories” – meaning that the cruise line reserves the right to assign guests to any stateroom within a class depending on demand. So if a prospective cruiser booked and paid early one of these categories, and if lucky with a “good” promotional package included, there is a risk that the price could drop down substantially.
Another opportunity is to take advantage of late upgrade promotions. They could be very good or not so good, depending on the number of unsold suites.
In HAL’s particular case, there is another disparity with the customer service attitude at their corporate offices and their ships. If an unlucky guest booked a stateroom earlier on at a higher price and then this customer complaints, HAL’s “personal cruise consultants” (or reservations department employees), will kindly said “we’ll look into it” meaning “tough luck,” while other employees will go straight to the point without any politically correctness of a good sales agent. If HAL wants to preserve customer loyalty, at least they should offer to match the price or at least compensate a guest with another perk.
Their HQ’s employees’ attitude is also perceived when responding to their upgrade offers. They are not serious and courteous, behaving like teenagers on a job they hate, meaning “whatever, I do not care if you take this offer or not”. Totally, unprofessional.
And their ship services personnel put the icing on the cake. It is recommended that potential guests avoid dealing with ship services before their cruise. Their rude attitude with any request will make everything possible to spoil your cruise vacation even before it starts.
These experiences clearly demonstrate that there is a dichotomy within the brand’s corporate cultures. While most employees and managers in a ship do everything that is possible to gain their guests’ trust – from the captain to the stewards’ assistants – employees at HAL’s HQ are not guest services oriented. This is a serious issue that HAL’s upper management must address.
Embarkation at Port of Seattle
Embarking at the Port of Seattle is a wild-card experience. Like many other ports, there are some locations within the terminal that are very orderly, while parts are chaotic. In chronological order from arrival to embarkation:
The taxi drop-off and pick-up area is a complete mess. There is no order in designated areas, which means complete chaos, especially when two ships carrying two thousand plus passengers each are at the port.
Once prospective cruisers make it through the arrival area, there are few directional signs or port personnel to direct people towards the embarkation area. One example of this disorganization is how the company handled the compulsory health forms. Guests who bought the airport transfer option where given the forms to fill out at their buses, but guests who arrived on their own were not told that they needed to fill out the form until the last minute, even after they wasted time waiting in the wrong line. To this scenario of confusion, add a big international group of teenagers strolling around, and the result is plain and pure chaos.
The security check was lengthy at best, but this is an issue at most embarkation ports, not limited to Seattle. On the bright side, for those fortunate enough to make it through the embarkation adventure in one piece, HAL’s personnel at the check-in counters were extremely courteous, helpful, and friendly. Their service made it up for all the inconveniences during the process.
The largest state in the nation, has one of the smallest capitals, and roads to, literally, nowhere. After smoothly sailing through the now famous “Inside Passage,” the Westerdam anchored in Juneau. Next to the port, bald eagles stand comfortably overlooking, with calmness, the thousands of visitors that arrive per day.
Juneau, like many of Alaska’s small towns served by cruise lines, has been transforming itself into a cruise-tourism economy oriented town. This “phenomenon,” which started in Caribbean countries back in the eighties, consists in local economies becoming dependent on cruise tourism. That means lots of stores selling souvenirs, and tourist trap restaurants.
The beauty of Alaska is in its unique flora and fauna, including its incredible scenery. But for those cruisers who do not wish to spend on an expensive airplane expedition or in a tour to the region’s wilderness, Juneau has some good sights to offer.
Here, as in other southeastern Alaska towns, there are plenty of tour vendors at the cruise pier. For those looking for a short bus tour, or a trip to Mendenhall Glacier, it might be cheaper, and better, to book a trip with those local operators.
And Juneau downtown, while very touristic, is quite picturesque and it is worth walking through its streets, especially in those nice and long Summer Alaskan days.
As the Westerdam sailed away from Juneau, through the tranquility of the Inside Passage, darkness began to overcome the last vestiges of the day’s twilight. The clock marked midnight, a new day was starting, and the ship entered Glacier Bay National Park’s outskirts.
Glacier Bay is a cruising only day. Here is where the ship’s Dutch captain and his crew show their skills, cutting across small -- but huge – fragments of ice that are floating as the ship approaches the glaciers. When the Westerdam entered Tar Inlet, the ship’s food services employees set-up tents and tables with a selection of cheeses, white wine, and champagne – a nice and unforgettable detail from HAL.
The captain and his crew carefully approached Margerie Glacier, maneuvering their vessel, spotting any large piece of blue consolidated ice. Then, people waited and watched. And finally a large block of ice fell down. The glacier was alive; the ship crew members were as happy as the guests – not everyone in every trip gets to enjoy this show. A festive mood prevailed as the Westerdam turned back and sailed towards John Hopkins Inlet, and approached the glacier that bears the same name. On its way, the smaller, but still impressive Lamplugh Glacier was close enough and visible to all the guests in the Westerdam.
The ship picked-up steam as the bridge steered away from the near frozen waters, and the hungry seagulls flew away to wait for the next cruise full of tourist with a large pile of food to give away. Far away, the glaciers slowly began to appear insignificant. The Westerdam is heading now towards a rain forest.
A spotlight of sunshine settled in as the Westerdam anchors in front of the port of Sitka – the ship is too big to dock in this small town’s pier. The scenery is stunning. A line of small islands spreads out partially hidden by the area’s constant and sticky mist. The tenders began to depart. It is going to start to rain soon. Southeast Alaska’s rain forest doesn’t give a break to the tourists who throughout the Summer season overrun this town’s streets.
Visitors won’t need more than a couple of hours to walk most of Sitka’s streets. But for such a small town, each one of its corners has a story to tell. Each building, structure and monument reflects a time in this town’s history – totem poles, a Russian Orthodox church, a USPS post office like any other.
If Juneau is Alaska’s capital and Anchorage its largest city, Sitka is representative of the complex history of the 49th state. Closer to the continental U.S., but nestled within the Inside Passage, Sitka is a place where cruisers can still feel what a small Alaskan town is really like, something that Ketchikan, further south has, unfortunately, lost.
The Westerdam, once a lone-ranger navigating in the serenity of the Sitka Sound, now has company. Ketchikan cruise piers are at full capacity. Five ships arrive carrying thousands of tourists – for locals, it’s time to get busy. Tours vendors, shops cashiers, and salespersons run around the long wooden pier, offering to the unhurried visitors all types of services that range from airplanes tours to walking tours or salmon eateries.
Ketchikan used to be the salmon’s capital. Its timber and lumber industry were the area’s economic powerhouses. Today, is a town dependent of cruise tourism. A local fisherman, who is seated in a partially isolated park, looks at the masses of tourists who are searching for the best bargain in cheap souvenir stores and remembers, with solace, the days when locals worked in fisheries and in timber. Government regulations and fluctuations in the salmon industry changed it all, he says. Then the cruise industry began buying property across town. There are still salmons jumping upstream, as if they knew that their only function is to give a show to tourists who pose for selfies. They are free to roam and go on with their life cycle. This time around, they won’t be fished and eaten.
The salmons in the Westerdam’s Lido Deck were not as lucky. Hundreds of them are being smoked around the pool. Time to sit down, watch the busy port and the hybrid airplanes taking off and landing incessantly, and to eat a delicious Alaskan salmon together with an Alaskan Brewing Company golden ale. Tomorrow, the Westerdam will dock in another country.
It is getting late in the day, the geography changes along the smooth waters of the Inside Passage. The enormous and erratic hills and mountains begin to cede. The Westerdam sails along Vancouver Island’s coastline heading straight towards the vague skyline of Victoria.
Even as the ship docks in Victoria’s port almost at 6 p.m. there is plenty of sun out there. The long summer days are a plus to stroll through the capital of British Columbia, Canada. The city is relatively small. A shuttle bus, rather expensive for the short trip, takes cruise passengers from the piers to the downtown area.
The Parliament Building sits just south of Government St. where all the stores and restaurants are located. The picturesque harbor serves as the backdrop to complete a perfect postcard picture.
The time the cruise ship stays in Victoria is just enough to go around town. For those guests wishing to visit its famous gardens, the best, and perhaps the only way, is to buy the cruise tour. But the beauty of city of Victoria might suffice to leave a memorable stamp to an unforgettable 7-days Alaska cruise. Time to pack. Seattle is around the corner.
Disembarkation at the Port of Seattle is nothing like embarkation – orderly and fast with shorter lines compared to other ports of entry. Perhaps the most notable and unforgettable moment is when crew members, from the cruise director to the waiters, stood aligned in the bridge to greet and say goodbye to every guest in the ship. This is outstanding and it shows the true meaning of “excellence” and guest services.
This emotional moment, as well as the speedy exiting, is ruined by the chaos outside the terminal, where the noise, the stress, and the infighting for a taxi ride, are shocking reminders that the cruise vacation is over. Life must go on.