Jess and I have done some cruising, notably the transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, from New York to Southampton – a voyage we also got married on. So our experiences of time spent on board large ships have been very positive.
When an invitation popped up from Holland America to come and experience a part of their Grand Asia and Pacific World Voyage on the MS Amsterdam, specifically the segment around Japan, naturally we were keen to accept. Jess had never visited Japan, and I was excited for the photography opportunities, as well as to find out what a Holland America cruise experience was like.
In this post I’ll share with you all our thoughts on our experience cruising with Holland America so you can decide for yourself if this sort of trip might be for you.
Cruising with Holland America
The Ship: Holland America’s MS Amsterdam
The ship we cruised on was Holland America’s MS Amsterdam. This ship is primarily used for longer cruises, such as the 80 day Grand Voyage that we joined, although she also sails to Alaska on shorter cruises in the summer.
At 780ft long with twelve decks and a guest capacity of 1,380, the MS Amsterdam is a mid-size cruise ship with a wide range of facilities and on-board entertainment options suited to meeting the needs of guests on longer voyages. Lets take a look at some of those facilities.
Facilities on board the MS Amsterdam
The MS Amsterdam has a fully equipped spa and salon, which we were pleased to be able to take advantage of on our trip.
Jess had a hair treatment, had her hair done for kimono gala night, and we also had a couples massage, which was an hour long treatment that we both enjoyed. The staff certainly knew what they were doing, and we were very happy with the services offered.
There are a number of treatments available, everything from nails to hair to different massage therapies.
There are definitely people who hit the gym when on a cruise like this. Which makes sense – eighty days of all you can eat food can certainly expand a waistline. Jess and I aren’t those people up for the gym each morning. We did however pop in and have a look at the gym, which was fully equipped with the latest technologies, and had a magnificent view over the front of the ship..
I was almost tempted to take a ride on the exercise bike because it was hooked up to a monitor, so almost had me thinking it was a game. Almost.
WiFi is available throughout the ship, and was certainly fast enough for all our needs. When you connect to it, you are presented with the ship’s information portal, a really helpful page which is full of information about the voyage, what’s going on, and also lets you book things like spa treatments, meals and even shore excursions.
It also shows you information tailored to you, so if you book shore excursions these will show up in your calendar. Plus you can see your onboard financial account so you can track your spending. We thought this was a really nifty tool that made life on board easier and more seamless.
Connecting to the actual internet is also possible, with packages available in blocks of time. It is fairly expensive, which is inevitable given the nature of the technologies involved, but the option is there if you need it. Most of the ports we docked at also offered free WiFi, which is also an option to consider for occasionally checking your e-mail.
As part of the on-board Explorations Café there’s a fairly extensive collection of books available to read. This café is presented by the New York Times, and there are computer stations available where you can read the online edition of the New York Times for free. We spent a bit of time catching up on work at the tables here, and ordering coffee and pastries at the café.
If you like shopping, you’ll find a number of on board options. We’re not huge shopping people, but Jess certainly enjoyed looking at all the jewellery in some of the stores, and admiring the ornate perfume bottles. They also have basic essentials so if you run out of something or need something (e.g., a pair of black socks or hand lotion), these sorts of items are easy to buy on board.
There are two swimming pools on the Holland America, an indoor pool near the top of the ship which has a sliding roof for sunny days, and an outdoor pool on one of the decks at the stern of the ship, which has lovely views. The indoor pool also has two hot tubs, which I enjoyed sitting in very much.
Both pools are close to a bar, and have deck chair seating available, although in poor weather the outdoor pool generally didn’t have the seating out (for obvious reasons!).
Art & Art Gallery
One thing Holland America is rightfully proud of is their commitment to art. The MS Amsterdam has millions of dollars worth of art scattered throughout the ship, including the truly fabulous and fully working nine metre high astrolabe which spans three decks in the main atrium of the ship.
Also worth keeping an eye out for is the spectacular stained glass ceiling of the main dining room, which was both an artistic and engineering feat to fit. There are of course hundreds more pieces of art as you wander through the ship, some especially commissioned for the ship, and you can take a self guided tour of the art on board.
For the cruise we were on, there was a full time photographer working on the ship who was on hand to take photos at various events on the cruise. This included when guests got on and off the ship, at gala evenings, when the ship was departing ports, and so on.
This was always a relaxed affair and offered very much as an option rather than a necessity. Photos are printed out and displayed for guests to peruse in the dedicated photography gallery and store on the ship. We had our photo taken one evening, and liked the photo so much that we bought it as a memento. Naturally, different packages are available, so you can save money by buying more! The small photo shop also has a small selection of cameras and photography accessories for sale as well.
On Board Entertainment
The primary entertainment venue on-board the Holland America MS Amsterdam is the Queen’s Lounge, a two storey theatre which hosts a variety of shows. These vary from the house band and house dancers, through to guest performers who join the ship for short legs of the journey.
The MS Amsterdam also hosts local entertainers who come on board from the various ports the ship stops at. We saw a variety of interesting performers who came on board in Japan, including Geisha’s, Japanese drummers, and a performance artist who performed a variety of optical illusion based tricks.
All of the performances we saw were very high quality, and we definitely recommend checking out the shows on board.
Whilst Jess and I aren’t exactly what you might call high rollers, we do occasionally like to put a few pennies in the slot machines. And the MS Amsterdam had us covered, with a full casino on board offering both table games and slot machines.
We didn’t win anything admittedly, but it was nice to know we could have.
The Wojang Theatre is a relatively small theatre space that has daily movie showings. We didn’t actually have time to watch a movie in here, but it looked like a comfortable place to do so, and the movies on offer changed regularly.
Probably Jess’s favourite of all the entertainment options on board was the DVD library! She loves to pick out a movie for us to watch together, and was delighted when we got on board to discover our room had a DVD player, and that Holland America carry an extensive DVD library on board which covers a wide range of tastes.
American’s Test Kitchen
One of the more intersecting infotainment options on board is America’s Test Kitchen. This is a partnership with the US TV show, and you can actually watch live chefs on board perform demonstrations of how to create various dishes.
We watched sushi chef Andy Matsuda create sushi and various fruit displays, and it was quite fun to watch someone so talented working in real time and sharing his secrets. So if you’re looking for some fun cooking ideas, this is definitely a show to attend.
Dining & Drinking
Without doubt, the dining on board the MS Amsterdam was a real highlight of our experience. The food was really excellent, and the service staff were top notch.
Standard Dining Options
There are a number of dining options on board, depending on your mood. The two main dining areas are the Lido Market, which is a large casual buffet-style dining area on deck 7, and the La Fontaine Dining room, which is a table-service restaurant at the aft of the ship on decks 3 & 4. This latter has two seating times, although there are also free-seating times available if you just want to turn up.
We ate at both of these, and found the food to be very good and very varied, even for the relatively short time we were on board. Jess was particularly enamoured by the sushi selection at the Lido Market, and I liked the ice cream counter.
As well as the Lido Market, deck seven is also home to the Dive-In, a fast-food casual eatery that focuses on hot dogs and burgers, as well as having a small buffet which focused on Mexican food while we were on board. We ate here a couple of times, and thought the burgers were top notch.
All the above food options were included as part of the cruise. However, the MS Amsterdam had two more options for us to choose from, Canaletto, and the Pinnacle Grill, both of which carry a small supplement, and are perfect for either celebrating a special occasion, or if you just fancy a change of scenery.
The first of these, Canaletto, is an upscale Italian restaurant, which celebrates the Italian concept of “spartire”, which means sharing. As such, when you order, you are given the choice as to whether you want to share the dish, or have it all to yourself.
We actually ate at Canaletto twice, once on our first night on board, and once on our last night on board. For some of the dishes we opted to share, and for others we didn’t. You still order the same number of dishes, all that varies is the presentation, and whether or not you split it. We really enjoyed the food here, which should be clear as we went twice.
The highlight of our dining experience on board though has to have been the night we spent at the Pinnacle Grill. This is a fine dining restaurant which, as the name suggests, focuses on grilled dishes. Taking its main inspiration from the American Northwest, dishes include a range of steak options, as well as fish dishes. They also have an excellent wine sommelier and wine selection, who will help you pick the perfect wine to go with your meal.
For the two speciality restaurants, reservations are essential to secure a spot. From time to time, the Pinnacle Grill will run themed evenings, and these invariably fill up well in advance, so if a themed evening tickles your fancy, do book it well in advance.
We had an outside ocean-view stateroom, one of five main types of room on board the MS Amsterdam in 2017. Below our room type was the interior room, and then classes above were all suites.
The ship is due for an update in early 2018, at which point some of the room configurations will change, so do check the Holland America website for the latest configuration, depending on when you are reading this.
Back to our room.
Our room was on the third deck, so we had a view out of the window onto the lower promenade deck, and then beyond that out to sea – although it was a slightly obstructed view as we were right near the aft section of the ship. We had privacy netting style curtains, but of course if all the curtains were open then folks would be able to see in.
Inside the room we had a queen size bed, a small sofa, a working area with a table, a TV and DVD player, power outlets in both US and EU styles, a whole host of lighting configuration options and a bathroom. Jess loved that the room came with an actual bathtub, I appreciated that this had a shower head. So everyone was happy.
We also had plenty of cupboard and drawer space, and overall, really liked the style of our room – it gave us plenty of space and light, with everything we needed. What would have made it even better? We would have ideally liked a balcony of our own were we being picky, but those are available at higher price points.
Lastly – our room was made up every day, and turned down at night, as in any good hotel. Every night we were left some chocolates on the bed, and, my personal favourite, a different towel animal was made up on the bed every night. It’s the little things like that which really make a stay, and I loved getting back to my new towel animal every evening! Jess’s favourite towel animal of the cruise was this octopus:
Of course, the success of a cruise relies greatly on the quality of the crew, and the Holland America were excellent. Everyone from the hotel director through to the wait staff through to our room attendants were friendly and accommodating.
When Jess and I couldn’t figure out how to get into her kimono, friendly help arrived at our cabin. When we wanted a specific hair style for Jess for an evening event, the spa folks just got straight to it. Basically, nothing ever seemed like too much trouble.
Dress Code on Board Holland America (and what to pack!)
The dress code on the Grand Voyage was fairly relaxed, which was something many guests seemed to appreciate when we spoke to them. There’s no requirement for black-tie for example, unlike some other cruises we’ve taken.
For evening wear, smart casual attire is the way to go for the majority of the cruise. This means that shorts, pool/beachwear, distressed jeans and men’s tank tops are generally not permitted in the fine dining restaurants on board. Jeans that do not have holes, tears or embroidery are permitted in all restaurants with the exception of on Gala evenings.
Gala nights are special events on board where guests are expected to dress up. The dress code for the fine dining restaurants on these evenings requires gentlemen to wear a collared shirt and slacks, and ladies to wear a dress, skirt or slacks. Whilst a jacket and tie is preferred for men in the fine dining restaurants, it’s not mandatory.
Some Gala evenings are themed, so of course you are encouraged to dress up if you have the appropriate attire – for example the Gala night on our voyage was Kimono night, and we had a lot of fun getting into suitable attire for that!
There is no specific dress code for the casual dining areas, which on the MS Amsterdam includes the buffet-service Lido Market and the Dive-In on the seventh deck.
For more information on the dress code, you can see the Holland America dress code guidance here.
In terms of baggage allowance, Holland America doesn’t have specific baggage allowances. However, as you will likely have to take some form of transport to get to the cruise ship, likely an aircraft, then you will have to confirm to those luggage restrictions. If you have a lot of luggage you would like to bring on board, Holland America offers various luggage services which will handle your luggage for you. Read more on those here.
In terms of what to bring, especially on a longer cruise, this really depends! There are of course on-board laundry services, both self-service and for a fee. The main consideration you will have to think about are the destinations you will be visiting and the weather you are likely to encounter. We’d suggest packing a variety of layers that will suit the majority of climates you will meet, comfortable walking shoes, and then some smart clothes for evening wear.
Obviously, you don’t come on a cruise just to spend time on the ship. Going ashore to explore the destinations that your cruise ship visits is a highlight of the experience.
Naturally, we took advantage of the various stops that our ship made around Japan. For the voyage we were on, these stops included Yokohama (Tokyo), Osaka, Beppu, Hyuga and Kagoshima.
We took a total of four shore excursions during our week long cruise. These were to the old town of Tokyo, a tour of Kyoto, a visit to Yabakei Gorge near Beppu, and a shorter tour to the Nippo-Kaigan Quasi-National Park near Hyuga.
Whilst there is the option to arrange your own excursion, or just to be totally self-sufficient (definitely a good way to save money on a cruise), we booked all our tours through either the on board shore excursion office or our online account.
Tours are given different activity ratings so you know what you are getting into. Tours range from sightseeing bus tours through to snorkelling tours and even scenic flights, depending on location. There was a cool-sounding tea ceremony offered during our portion of the cruise, but that booked out before we could get on it.
All the tours we took followed a fairly similar format. Before the tour started everyone going on a tour gathered in the Queen’s Lounge, where there was a pre-tour briefing, as well as the opportunity to buy drinks and snacks. Then the various tours would be called, and groups would be allocated to their buses.
The tours were usually popular, and every tour we went on had at least two large coaches full of people. Each coach had a local guide who led the tour, plus some Holland America crew to help out.
If you’ve been on a larger coach or bus tour with 35 – 45 people on, you will likely be familiar with the format of these tours. Generally, due to the time it took to get everyone on and off the bus, plus the various bathroom stops, tours could only focus on the real highlights of a region. If you want a more customised, personal tour experience, then you would likely want to book your own private tour – either by yourself, or by enquiring with the Holland America tour desk, who will be able to help you out.
Overall, we enjoyed the tours we went on, despite it raining for nearly the entirety of our time in Japan. Jess had been really keen to visit Kyoto, and was happy that we were able to see the main sights in the city, although of course, we’ll have to go back for a more in-depth visit. I think that is probably the best way to think about tours like this, and generally tours from cruise ships. You have to accept you’re not going to have an in-depth visit of a destination, that time will be short, and there won’t be too much flexibility. Just sit back, relax, and go with the flow.
On the tours we took the tour guides were all excellent. The tone varied between humour and seriousness, depending on the personality of the guide (one guide brought headwear to dress up in to illustrate different points!), but they certainly all knew their stuff, and spoke excellent English. We really enjoyed the view of Japan that we got on the tours, and are definitely keen to return to explore further.
Who Takes A Holland America Cruise?
The cruise we joined was the 2017 80 day Grand Asia and Pacific Voyage cruise. Obviously, not many people under a certain age bracket can take 80 days off work, so the demographic on this particular voyage was of retired travellers, the majority of whom were from the US. Many of the folks we talked to had been on multiple Holland America cruises previously, and had racked up impressive numbers of total nights on board.
The folks we talked to about why they kept coming back said it was the friendly staff, the relaxed style on board, and the excellent service. A long cruise like this means that guests and staff really get to spend a long time together, and really get to know one another well, resulting in a really friendly atmosphere on board.
Is A Holland America Cruise For You?
If you’ve never cruised before, then jumping in at the deep end of an eighty day cruise might be a bit daunting. Luckily, you can do smaller segments of these cruises to get a flavour for it, although the majority of folks that we chatted to on board were there for either the full trip or about two-thirds of the trip.
A long cruise like this is also a fairly significant investment for many people. As well as the cost of the cruise itself, you have to factor in the costs of gratuities and any shore excursions you want to book, as well as any extras on board like special meals, shopping, internet access, drinks, or spa treatments.
Overall though, a cruise can be a really fun way to see the world, meet like-minded people, eat fantastic food, and do it all without having to pack and re-pack between hotels. I love that about any cruise voyage, including river cruises – that the scenery outside your room changes every day, and I don’t have to pack my suitcase.
Combine the above with the stellar service we had on board from the truly fantastic staff, and we’d definitely recommend a voyage with Holland America. If you’re not sure about committing to one of their longer voyages, check out their website, where we’re sure you’ll find something to suit!
Find out more
Well, hopefully that’s given you everything you need to know about cruising with Holland America on one of their longer cruises! Here’s a bit of further reading and useful links to help you plan and book your cruise:
- The official Holland America website
- A full listing of all upcoming Grand Voyages
- A guide to the onboard dress code
And that’s it! Have you ever taken a longer cruise? Would you like a trip like this? Got any questions at all? Just let us know in the comments below!
So you know: We were invited by Holland America to join a part of their 80 day Grand Asia and Pacific Voyage cruise. Holland America covered our flights to and from the ship, as well as our costs for our time on board, in return for us sharing our opinion. As always, you can always read our code of ethics to find out more about who we choose to work work.