By Charlene Peters
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I awake at 3:30 a.m. to the ever-so-slight rock of an 82,000-ton ship cruising along the North Pacific waters. Actually, it isn’t the sway of the ocean underneath that woke me, but the time zone; I am three hours ahead, so it’s Seattle time. My point of embarkation took me by surprise in the vast beauty of Seattle’s skyline and natural beauty, but there it stood among the iconic space needle as we sailed away earlier that afternoon. Now that I’m alert before dawn, my curiosity lures me to the veranda for a peek outside the door to gaze at the night sky. It is at this particular moment that I call to my husband, grab two robes and we step outside for a breath of clean, brisk air and a look at the brilliant stars seemingly within reach. But, more than the stars above, it is the water below that catches our attention. The swells are like a dance, leading us to Alaska, a destination neither of us had ever visited; in fact, this cruise on the ms Westerdam / Holland America Line was our first, and so far, it has proved magical.
The stars in the sky aren’t the only brilliance we spot during our seven-day excursion, with stops in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, Alaska, and in Victoria, British Columbia, the latter where high tea awaits. This particular cruise has a “Dancing With The Stars: At Sea” theme, with professional dancers from the number one unscripted show in television: Aussie Kym Johnson, Irishman Tristan MacManus and the British Emma Slater, as well as a “Sea” cast of dancers. They’re on board for the fleet-wide competition to which Slater comments of the cruise, “I would never turn it down!” Celebrity dancer, Sabrina Bryan, a.k.a. Cheetah Girl, brought her family on this HAL cruise, where she danced during the star-studded show in the Vista Lounge. Carson Kressley, a throwback from season 13, left the audience in stitches with his comedic emcee talent. Johnson proved to be the shiniest star, and even led a few cardio dance classes that put to shame any Zumba class I’d ever taken. Some cruisers really get involved in the dancing aspect of this themed cruise, even bringing their specific dance shoes to wear during the three days’ competition. And some, like myself, just drag their husbands with them to learn the cha-cha. The end result is a dance-off, with the prize being a free passage on the December final Champion Cruise and a Mirror Ball Trophy.
But I digress from the natural beauty that surrounds.
Glaciers and dragon’s breath fog mesmerize us in unparalleled majestic beauty as we drift past snow-covered mountains of the blue-tinged Glacier Bay, slowing the pace to hear the roaring sounds of the glaciers as they calf. At the water’s edge, we spot a few roaming grizzly bears and mountain goats, while floating by are dozens of adorable sea otters doing the backstroke. On a photo excursion in port one day at Juneau, we spot several humpback whales that occasionally wave hello with their identifying flukes, some orca whales that skim the surface, and enough bald eagles to contemplate their near-extinction. We are in a small boat within petting distance from humpbacks, and on land, watch and snap pictures in awe of the spawning salmon in the creek below, as well as the slide of icy blue glacier that covers the bay.
A splurge in the Greenhouse Spa & Salon was worth the early arrival on board while in port at Juneau. An Alaskan Amber Ale at Red Dog Saloon set the stage for our re-entry on board, and my passage directly to the spa for a Swedish massage. I drifted in and out of consciousness as my body was caressed with untying stress knots in mind. Hot oil and a foot rub was exactly what I craved after a raw cool day spent on the water. A scalp massage did me in. In hindsight, I must have fallen asleep at some point, as I don’t recall the passing of about a half hour following my massage. It’s good to let go. Especially when you’re waving goodbye to one of four scenic ports of call from the Crow’s Nest, a.k.a. Observation Deck.
Next stop is Sitka, a major seafood producing port for the U.S., and where we must arrive by tender. Although we spot no wildlife in passing, we do stop at Fortress of the Bear, an orphanage where I could watch the brown and black bears for hours upon hours in their makeshift habitats.
As we cruise along, I can’t help but notice the air is chilly, yet the freshest, cleanest air I’ve ever breathed. On board, it’s a germ-conscious effort to keep the air clean. In fact, HAL has placed Purell stations at every turn, and there’s a crewmember doling out gel upon each embarkation. In keeping 2,000-plus passengers and crew healthy, for this I am grateful; you wouldn’t want to miss a meal on this ship. And with an average consumption of 11,830 pounds of meat and meat products per cruise and the cost of $1,300 per hour on food purchases, I don’t think anyone is missing out on the culinary offerings.
My most favorite meal on this seven-day cruise followed my favorite port excursion in Ketchikan (“thundering wings”): the salmon bake. Freshly caught, wild Alaska salmon served on the Lido Deck was the best tasting salmon I’d ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Now, that’s not to say that the Pinnacle Grill wasn’t spectacular, because it was really a treat to head there each morning for a five-star breakfast, and the dinners shared with our group were prepared in the same upscale style. Chateaubriand anyone? Alaskan King Crab legs? Why, yes. “An Evening at Le Cirque” was an unexpected culinary delight with Master Chef Rudi Sodamin and a Culinary Council comprised of six renowned chefs. I indulge endlessly at Canaletto, the Vista Dining Room and for a few buffet lunches on the Lido Deck, but I also walk a lot throughout the ship and on excursions, and I find time to work out at the gym and take a cardio dance class led by Kym Johnson.
More options on board include classes on Windows 8.1, art history and auctions, cha-cha lessons, bingo (I won $186 during one game!) and endless evenings of karaoke. We spend a bit of time at the casino, enjoy an afternoon tea, a chocolate/wine tasting event, and a fun-filled martini sampling at the Atrium, where we taste Classic Kamikazi’s, Tuscan Lemon Drops and Pomegranate Ginger Drops with a rowdy crowd.
Each evening following dinner, entertainment of spectacular arrangement may be found in the Vista Lounge. Aside from the Dancing With The Stars: At Sea spectacular, Recycled Percussion is the most fun and interactive (everyone got drumsticks) show on board. The only thing that overshadows the entertainment is the view. Alaska’s scenery is all encompassing, and we stand outside on the veranda at 3:30 a.m., it is difficult to believe this isn’t a dream.
Charlene Peters is editor special features at GateHouse Media New England. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taste of Travel: Alaska dazzles with Dancing With The Stars: At Sea’
By Charlene Peters