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How a Holland America Alaska cruise is different from other cruise lines

Glacier viewing on Alaska

I joined Holland America’s Eurodam for a weeklong cruise through southeast Alaska, visiting some of the charming port towns and cities along this popular route.

I have enjoyed Alaska on both big cruise ships and smaller expedition vessels that ranged from 60 to 200 passengers, so I know there are different ways to see this magical destination.

Alaska balcony view

It had been several years since I cruised on a bigger ship to experience Alaska, and being onboard the 2,100-passenger Eurodam gave me a fresh look at the convenient things and wide array of dining and entertainment options this kind of Alaska cruise can offer.

And HAL’s program in Alaska stands out.

It’s All About Destination Immersion

Viewing glacier

Among the large cruise ships sailing in Alaska, Holland America owns the most history here. HAL has been offering cruises to this still-wild frontier for more than 75 years. 

Also, Holland America designs its Alaska cruises to ensure that travelers enjoy and experience the destination instead of focusing their time on the cruise ship itself. 

Bow of Eurodam

Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises are other lines bringing mega-ships to Alaska that can make a similar claim. However, cruisers on Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line ships, for examples, are much more likely to have picked those ships as much for what’s onboard as for the destination.

Read more: What is the best cruise line for Alaskan sailings?

Smaller ships get into areas the big ships can’t, but the bigger ships are better options for groups of friends and multigenerational families. HAL Eurodam features its kids club program Club HAL for kids 3 to 17. This allows them to hang with others their age and have plenty to do while they also experience Alaska.

Pool at glacier

On Eurodam, I sailed on an itinerary called the “Alaska Explorer,” which cruises roundtrip from Seattle. This is more of the classic voyage for Southeast Alaska, hitting the popular ports of Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, with a day cruising up a fjord to see a glacier.

Read more: 7 Best Alaska cruises from Seattle

Holland America sails with a wildlife expert onboard its ships in Alaska, and a highly curated program adds the enrichment cruisers are expecting when they visit this place -- especially if it’s their first time to Alaska. 

The daily program is packed with enrichment chats and Q&A sessions to help cruisers understand more about the fascinating history and geography of Alaska.

Alaska port talk

Cruise Director Jordyn introduced us all to the destination with a presentation “We Are Alaska” at the World Stage main theater on the first night. This told the story of how Holland America became the first cruise line to offer voyages here.

HAL’s Explorations Central (EXC) is the line’s destination-specific programming, and we had a series of EXC chats available for our cruise. Talks included looks at the famed Iditarod dog-sled race, the animals of Alaska, Ancestral Memories (which highlights the indigenous people of Alaska), “Pacific Giants” (about the whales) and a presentation called “Fire and Ice: Alaska’s Extremes.”

The EXC program touches all kinds of spaces, with a session available to learn how to paint watercolors of Alaska’s landscapes. Cruisers gather at the Art Studio within the Explorations Central observation lounge in the Crow’s Nest on Deck 11 and have endless inspiration to draw upon, especially when we reached Hubbard Glacier.

Glacier viewing in Alaska

On the day we sailed up to the glacier through Russell Fjord, Jordyn, our cruise director, provided scenic commentary as cruisers flocked to the outer decks. Also, there were numerous periods when wildlife expert John would ask cruisers to join him outside for wildlife spotting. (We mainly saw seabirds and a few whale spouts.)

Jordyn and John also offered sessions in the Explorer’s Lounge or B.B. King’s Blue Club to “Ask Your Wildlife Expert” any questions you have about the creatures in Alaska. 

World stage on Eurodam

Movies (recent releases and popular titles) were shown in the World Stage on several afternoons, and a couple titles selected helped highlight the region -- “Call of the Wild” and Disneynature’s “Polar Bear.” Of course, if you were a little Alaska’d out, you could have picked the showing of “80 for Brady,” too.

Holland America Offers the Best Alaska Shore Excursions

Kayaking in Juneau

I found some great excursions offered for our port visits, too. I recommend booking online as soon as you get your confirmation for your voyage because I had to get on the waitlist (and it never opened up any new spots) for a couple of my first choices, like the Bike & Brew Glacier View outing in Juneau that takes you on a ride along scenic Auke Lake and a viewing point for Mendenhall Glacier and then onto a trail in the rain forest. After, you head to Merchant’s Wharf downtown to sample a range of Alaskan microbrews. 

As a beer fan, imagine my disappointment to miss this epic taste of Alaska. 

I did get to do a sea kayaking excursion, though, in Juneau, where we saw dozens of bald eagles and sea lions, as well as a glimpse of the Mendenhall Glacier from our spot on Fritz Cove. 

John biking in Sitka

In Sitka, I took a bike and hike excursion, and in Ketchikan, I kept the thrills rolling with an Adventure Kart excursion in the Tongass Forest with Kawanti Adventures.

Read more: 20 Alaska cruise must-do excursions

Here’s a sampling of other Alaska shore excursions you can enjoy on your HAL cruise:

Ketchikan: Black Bear Wildlife and Nature Walk, Bering Sea Crab Fishermen (an experience on the ship that was made famous in “The Deadliest Catch”), Backcountry Zodiac Expedition and a Coastal Cruise & Oyster Farm with Ocean-to-Table Tasting (an exclusive experience in partnership with Food & Wine Magazine).

Juneau: Dog Sled Summer Camp, Dog Sledding on Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter and an Eveming Whale Quest and Alaska Cuisine experience.

Sitka: Best of Sitka: Otters, Raptors & Bears, Dry Suit Snorkeling and Guided Fly Fishing.

This is just a sample of some of the truly Alaskan experiences that HAL offers on its cruises to these ports.

Little Extras Make a Holland America Alaska Cruise Special

The culinary and beverage program play their parts, too.

Beer tasting on Holland America

For craft beer fanatics -- and Alaska has some of the best around – HAL offers an Ales and Lager tasting ($15) served with delicious pizza from the New York Pizza eatery onboard HAL Eurodam. On my cruise, the Alaska beer choices were a little thin. I think they could pick a greater variety.

Overall, the Alaskan and regional picks for food and drink were great fits to enhance the destination for cruisers. 

The program offered a tasting event called “James Suckling’s Great Wines of the Pacific Northwest” ($25). This is in collaboration with world-renowned wine critic Suckling, a member of HAL’s Culinary Council.

Seafood broil

When we arrived to our first port, the Lido Market buffet put out a salmon bake-themed dinner spread. And on Sitka Day, the ship held its popular Alaskan Seafood Boil Dinner at a space in the Lido Market. This popular dining choice ($35) is limited to about 75 people and sells out every cruise, so snag a spot ASAP.

Of course, these special events complement the variety of regional food and drink choices you can find every day, such as Alaskan king salmon and baked Alaskan halibut on the “Classic” menu in Pinnacle Grill.

Pinnacle menu
Alaska Drink menu on Holland America

The cocktail menus feature concoctions like Juneau Gin & Tonic, Alaska Blue Ice (Curacao, rum and pineapple juice) and Glacier Bay (gin, brandy, Curacao and lime juice) among others, all served over glacial ice. 

I chatted with Eurodam Hotel General Manager Bert Van Mackelenbergh, who has been with HAL for 25 years, and he said Alaska is his favorite destination by far. This rugged, beautiful place suits Van Mackelenbergh, who is an ultra-marathon runner and award-winning wildlife and landscape photographer.

He is proud to bring local flavors to his guests, he says.

“The fresh fish programs stand out,” he says. “In Juneau, fresh halibut, salmon – all fresh, fresh – arrive to the dock right from the fishing boats. 

“We have local, local flavors.”

Van Mackelenbergh said that of the 2,100 people sailing on our voyage, 1,500 were first-time cruisers (more than two-thirds), which is just the opposite of the Caribbean. They are drawn by the place and not necessarily cruising at first.

“It’s still my favorite destination,” he says. “I can’t get enough of it.”

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