Growing up, I was lucky enough to go on some amazing family vacations. My mother, a cardiac nurse who immigrated from the Philippines to America in her early twenties to make a better life for her family, worked and saved to not only take care of our basic needs but also take us on trips around the world. Past vacations have taken us to a luxury resort in the Bahamas, island hopping in the Philippines, and we’ve even done a European bus tour that took us through London, Paris, Lucerne, Venice, and Madrid. Last fall, I finally got to take my mom on a vacation–an Alaskan cruise with Holland America Line.
When I called my mom to ask her if she’d be able to drop everything and take a cruise to Alaska in a few short weeks, she was overjoyed. For one, Alaska had been on both of our travel bucket lists and since I moved from New York (where she lives) to Florida at the end of 2019, we hadn’t spent as much time together as we’re used to. We booked our respective flights to Seattle (the embarkation port) and got ready for a week of good food, adventure, and quality time together.
I met my mom in the Seattle airport. As a travel writer, I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in airports, and since my flight arrived two hours earlier, I decided to meet my mom at her gate. We took a shuttle to the Sheraton Grand Seattle (both pre-arranged by Holland America Line), checked in, changed, and headed to the famous Pike Place Market–just a short walk from our hotel. It was golden hour, and the line outside the Pike Place Starbucks (the world’s first!) was far too long. The market itself was also buzzing with activity–fishmongers tossing the day’s catch back and forth to each other; people perusing the fresh flowers, prepared foods and pantry staples; and jewelry crafted by local artisans. We saw the gum wall, which was as gross as it sounds, stopped for dinner at a tiny Chinese restaurant within the market, and grabbed some sweets from Mee Sum Pastry (a Chinese bakery) before heading back to our hotel after a long day of travel.
On the morning our cruise departed, my mom and I woke up at around 6 a.m., which I attribute to our excitement and the fact that we had traveled from the Eastern and Central time zones the day before. So we did what anyone awake at that hour would do: go to Starbucks. And at 7 a.m., right when the Pike Place Starbucks opens, there was no line. In fact, the store was practically empty. We got to take all the photos we wanted, peruse the various branded tumblers and glassware, and order an exclusive drink only served at this location: pumpkin pie nitro cold brew. As two lifelong Starbucks fangirls, we were thrilled.
Dining aboard the Westerdam far exceeded my expectations. Most mornings, I’d head to the Lido Market (the ship’s buffet-style dining venue) after a group fitness class and enjoy a made-to-order omelet and crispy hashbrowns or a warm bowl of congee topped with scallions, crispy garlic, and an egg. For lunch, we’d usually eat at The Dining Room (the ship’s main sit-down restaurant). On port days, an abbreviated menu was served to ensure everyone could get to their excursions in a timely manner, and in general, there was a wide variety of dishes to choose from. Small plates like fried calamari (served with three different dipping sauces) and crispy roasted cauliflower, and mains like the catch of the day and a Southwest quinoa bowl, were some of our go-to’s. In the afternoons, The Dining Room served afternoon tea, complete with a tower of mini sandwiches, tarts, and pastries.
The dining options onboard expanded even further for dinner. While The Dining Room and Lido Market are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at no added cost, for a small fee you can dine at the ship’s premium restaurants. These include Pinnacle Grill (a fancy steakhouse) and Canaletto (an Italian restaurant). At Pinnacle Grill, you’ll find appetizers like steak tartare and clothesline candied bacon (a David Burke recipe), prime steaks (including a dry-aged Delmonico, filet mignon, and a 36-ounce tomahawk ribeye), and seafood dishes (like Alaskan king salmon, seared scallops, and lobster tail). If you manage to save room for dessert, I recommend the Jacques Torres chocolate soufflé. Canaletto has a rotating menu of daily specials, plus classic dishes like jumbo lump crab risotto, lasagna bolognese, and spaghetti alle vongole that will happily send you into a food coma.
Over the course of our cruise, we also enjoyed a variety of beverages onboard––a Veuve Clicquot Champagne toast on our private veranda, impeccably crafted cocktails enjoyed during happy hour, hot afternoon tea that warmed our insides, a sommelier-selected bottle of Sonoma County pinot noir that paired beautifully with our Italian feast, and cozy lattes enjoyed in the Crow’s Nest (an observation floor with panoramic views)––just to name a few. In short, Holland America Line has you covered on both the food and drinks front.
If you’re looking for something to do before or after dinner, there are plenty of options on board. As someone who played the violin for more than a decade, I was particularly interested in the performances at Lincoln Center Stage, where a quartet of music virtuosos played enduring classics and pop song covers. Even if you aren’t a musician, it’s difficult to not be moved by the talent and passion of the professionals on stage. The B.B. King’s Blues Club hosts live bands covering classic soul and rock-and-roll hits, and on my cruise, a stand-up comedian performed on two of the nights. Billboard Onboard hosted music trivia and singalongs with the help of two pianos, and the World Stage was the backdrop for dance-centric performances and some movie nights.
Our first big excursion took place in Juneau: a helicopter ride to Mendenhall Glacier, followed by a short trek on the glacier. Go big or go home, right? My mom had never been on a helicopter before, and it was fun to see the look of excitement on her face. The views of the landscape below were stunning (despite some rain and clouds), and the tour company made sure we were properly suited up to walk along the icy, bright blue surface of the glacier. Some of my favorite photos from the trip were taken on this excursion––our happy faces say it all.
Seeing Alaskan wildlife was also high on our to-do list, so in Sitka, we selected a “best of” tour that included otters, raptors, and bears (oh my!). We kicked off our day of adventure on a catamaran, where an onboard naturalist gave a talk about the area’s ecosystem and pointed out sea otters, marine birds, and whales as we passed them. The whale sightings were particularly thrilling, and I (mostly) resisted the urge to snap photos as they came up for air and lifted their tails out of the water before taking a deeper dive. Next up was the Fortress of the Bear, a rescue facility that protects and cares for orphaned bears. I loved watching the bears sunbathe, swim, play, and live their best lives. Our last stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, a nonprofit that works to promote and enhance wild populations of raptors and other birds through rehabilitation, education, and research. We got to see the bald eagle flight training center, where rehabilitated birds regain their flight skills.
It’s been a few months since our Alaskan adventure, but my mom and I still talk about it during our weekly calls. I love looking back at the many photos I took, even though they capture only a fraction of the many things we experienced. The trip, at face value, was amazing––the meals, the shows, the breathtaking natural scenery––but, to me, the best part about it was getting closer to my mom. Living more than 1,000 miles away from her is hard, and I miss her so much, but it means that we appreciate the time we spend together more than ever before. During the cruise, there’d be moments when I’d worry about the weather or some other trivial matter, and she’d say over and over that no matter what happened, the best part of the cruise was spending time with me. Alaska and this cruise will always have a special place in my heart, and I look forward to many more meaningful adventures with the people I love.