Mary Welch, Family Vacation Critic

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I have often heard that the two places on earth where the majesty of Mother Nature is life-transforming are Africa and Alaska. In both places the scenery, the people and the wildlife are awe-inspiring but also so forceful, so dominant, so overwhelming that one’s ego gets checked at the door and an appreciation of the world at large filters into one’s psyche. The result is almost a mental waterfall that cleanses, refreshes and renews. Since a trip to Africa is often a budget-buster, Alaska is a closer and more viable getaway. When choosing an Alaskan vacation, the best way to go is cruising, and the best cruise line for Alaska is, without a doubt, Holland America. Why? To paraphrase an all-too-often-used phrase, “Holland America was in Alaska before Alaska was cool.”

Holland America has been the dominant cruise line in our 49th state for more than 65 years and has more ships sailing its waters than any other cruise line and offers more itineraries. On our last cruise, there were seven Holland America ships showing passengers the beauty of Alaska. The itinerary is first rate and includes extra-long days in port with over 300 options ranging from mild to wild. In addition, one is offered a variety of vacation add-ons to Denali National Park, Anchorage, Fairbanks and other spots that showcase this amazing state. Our journey began with a flight from Atlanta to Seattle and then a transfer flight from Seattle to Anchorage. A short taxi ride took us to the Holland America- suggested hotel, the Alyeska Resort, located in Girdwood, which is approximately 27 miles (and a $100 taxi bill) from Anchorage.

A beautiful outdoorsy resort, the oversize rooms feature lots of windows, down comforters and a deep, deep bathtub that screams for bubbles and champagne. With the biggest ski mountain in the state in its backyard, the Alyeska resort has a tram line that goes about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. There is a white napkin restaurant as well as a much more casual restaurant that is perfect for a cup of hot soup and a bowl of chill. The mountain had 980 inches of snow last year and in mid June was still mid-calf-deep in snow. What made the resort special was the well-planned out and visible hiking trails that were perfect for people (like me) who have never hiked in their life. The quiet, the lushness and the faint movement of birds and water gave us a glimpse of what we would experience once we boarded the Zaandam in Seward. The Zaandam is a luxurious mid-size ship that carries 1,432 passengers and a crew of 615, all of whom showcase the Holland America service excellence. Our room was surprisingly large with enough room for two (less than neat) roommates to have plenty of space as well as room for putting away clothes and suitcases. And what we left on the floor was cleaned up by the very efficient room steward and staff. While we didn’t have a balcony, our window was large enough to get a good view of what was happening outside. In fact, it was more of a challenge to get the room dark enough at night since it was pretty light into the early morning hours.

Of course, when one thinks of cruises, food comes into mind and the Zaandam didn’t disappoint with enormous buffets at the Lido Grill, a more formal menu at the Rotterdam Dining Room, gourmet Italian at Canaletto, and, of course, room service. Our young adult traveling companion will testify that among the best parts of cruising is being able to order a cheeseburger at 1:30 in the morning after clubbing. And, it arrives quickly and hot.

For those who want an extra special meal, for a nominal cost ($25 for dinner $10 lunch) a meat-heavy Pinnacle Grill will satisfy. Think Bones or Chops. It also has a Cirque night that uses dishes inspired by the famed New York City restaurant. In between, the Explorer’s Lounge, Ocean Bar, the Piano Bar and the Crow’s Nest help keep cruisers fed and well-lubricated.

The nice thing about cruising on Holland America is that they treat their guests like adults. There are lists of activities each day, especially heavy on sailing-only days, but they don’t make it a communal embarrassment, like on so many other ships. No hairy chest or cannonball splash contests. Those interested in food and beverage can take classes such as how to roll dough and make cinnamon rolls or learn about Burgundy wines with Cellar Master Sam. Others could indulge in yoga classes or attend lectures about Alaskan culture and its heritage. Much-appreciated offerings were in the technology area and classes were given on photo editing, files, folders and sharing and transferring photos. We didn’t take any classes (they were all PC- based) but we did show up with a problem with our camera and the teacher was kind enough to fix it, explain it to us and saved the day so we could still take pictures. Nightlife offers a number of options, including a piano bar, nightclub shows, a casino and dancing at the Crow’s Nest. With its live band, the Crow’s Nest is the perfect spot to get one’s grove on or sit back, have a drink and stare at the stars. After two days of sailing, our first stop was in Haines, a pinky-finger of a town that was not a tourist trap. We opted for a bike ride along Lutak Inlet, a glacial lake. We cruised along a four-mile flat paved road and spotted eagles, birds and two baby bears playing by the waterside. Every curve revealed waterfalls, jagged mountain peaks and tall trees. While the exercise was relatively mild, it was amazing breathing pure Alaskan air. Other excursions included golfing, rock climbing, visiting a bald eagle preserve and a visit to Dalton City, a charming gold rush town, Well, truth be told, it’s a charming gold rush town recreated for the 1989 Walt Disney film, White Fang. But the real highlight is the Haines Brewing Company, the state’s smallest brewery with an annual production of 350 barrels of its signature beer, Dalton Trail Ale. The state capital of Juneau offers great shopping, especially if someone is looking for Alaskan fur coats, vests and boots. They are unbelievably priced and the workmanship is sublime — remember Alaskans have been making garments out of fur for centuries. The two biggest attractions at Juneau is the Mendenhall Glacier and whales. There are a variety of options to visiting the glacier, including helicopter. The other is whales and we took a photography safari, which incorporated both. The guide was a professional photographer who not only offered tips but worked with each of us individually to set up the shots of flowers, birds, waterfalls and bear caves. We hiked through the rainforest and was rewarded with a close-up view of the glacier. We then went on a boat and saw whales and sea lions sunbathing. Other excursions including zip lining, panning for gold, fly fishing and dog sledding. The next stop was Ketchikan, and since it was my second visit, I opted to spend an extra hour on the ship for a facial at the Greenhouse Spa. The Greenhouse Spa offers everything that the best of Atlanta offers, facials, massages, and pedicures as well as acupuncture and cleansing programs. Without an oversized pore to my face, we went to Ketchikan and walked to the Totem Heritage Center, which for $5 shows totem poles dating back more than 100 years. Even though Ketchikan has several totem poles throughout the city, the ones at the Heritage Center are the oldest with the paint erased by centuries and weather.

We then took a local bus ($1) to go to the Saxman Native Village, which offered the world’s largest collection of authentic totem poles and a wood carving shed with workman carving out a new totem pole. Actually, the best part of the journey was taking the local bus, complete with a man who could be out of Snow Dogs. His face with heavily lined, his beard was a few years old and he was missing a few teeth. Joining him on the bus was his dog, an Alaskan malamute. No one seemed to mind, if not notice. It was classic. The next day was a day of taking pictures as the ship eased its way through Glacier Bay. The glacier was icy blue and calved several times, which meant that blocks of ice fell off the glacier and into the bay. It was a day of whale watching, sitting in the hot tub and relaxing. Holland America is a cruise line that offers the finest things in life without being too snobby. The international crew is pleasant, remembers your name and knows how to — and wants to — please. The Zaandam leaves nothing to chance to ensure that each passenger gets what it takes to relax and enjoy — whether it’s gambling, dancing until the wee hours, sitting on the deck playing cards or experiencing the best extreme sports Alaska offers. And, isn’t that the very definition of a perfect vacation?