ALASKA - Hot Bouillon and Icy Waters
by Kevin Retief

It doesn’t get much better than this: sitting on the promenade deck of the ms Statendam, tartan rug over my knees, sipping a mug of hot beef bouillon and watching clumps of white ice thunder down from jagged cliffs into the milky-emerald waters of Glacier Bay.

I’ve travelled these waters before, on the ferry and on some of the other larger cruise ships, to the point of being almost blasé about it all, but there is something special about a moment like this aboard Holland America Line’s ms Statendam – something unique and rather comforting in the traditional ambience of the ship and in the effervescent charm of the Indonesian and Filipino crew.

Part of the largest five-star fleet in Alaska, the 55,451-gross-ton ms Statendam is a mix of understated, traditional elegance and state-of-the art, modern amenities.

From the peace of my favourite relaxation spot on the wide, teak Lower Promenade Deck, (or in the wood panelled Erasmus Library) , to the glitz of the Van Gogh Show Lounge (or the rush of the Crow’s Nest night-club), there is a place to suite every mood and every taste. ten passenger decks and large public rooms that cater to all. There is even artwork liberally located in every nook and cranny that keeps some of us intrigued for hours on end.

The 26-foot-high Fountain of the Sirens, encircled in the three-deck atrium, is just one small part of the $2 million collection of art and artefacts aboard the ms Statendam – an Holland America Line tradition of onboard artwork that began in 1938 with the famous ss Nieuw Amsterdam II.

Even the food is a work of art. Whether it is a casual meal in the 403-seat Lido restaurant, grand dining in the Rotterdam Dining Room with two levels connected by a pair of sweeping staircases, or an extra special occasion at the reservations- required Pinnacle Grill, there is nothing to fault the menus and extraordinarily high standard of food aboard the ms Statendam.

But before the pampering and constant barrage of excellent food lulls me to a self-indulgent stupor, the magnificence of the scenery on offer is enough to remind me of the real reason for travelling to Alaska.

Glaciers so close we can almost touch them, fjords and stunning inlets so numerous we didn’t feel too guilty missing one for the sake of a pre-lunch cocktail at the Ocean Bar, and a wealth of wildlife from hump-backed whales to bald eagles.

During the day at Glacier Bay, National Park Rangers board the ms Statendam to provide commentary and presentations with just the right amount of information to satisfy curiosity and to whet the appetite for more Alaskan wonders ashore.

For me, the most memorable excursion of the cruise was a helicopter ride from Juneau to the top of a glazier with two landings where very few people have been before. On top of the Ice Fields, standing alone with four intrepid, fellow explorers witnessing geography in the making, there was nothing but a truly deafening silence when we finally ran out of the oohs and aahs. I stooped down to scoop a mouthful of glacier water, the cleanest water I’ll ever drink, awed by this feeling of total isolation.

A favourite for the tourists though, is Skagway – a real life ghost town from the gold rush days of 1898, a taste of the rugged past of Alaska. I skipped the fun of the pioneers and prospectors ambling about town, took the side roads up to the Gold Rush Cemetery with it’s 19th-century tombstones and instant history lesson. The most popular excursion of course is the journey on the historic and scenic narrow gauge railway to the summit of White Pass which departs from the quayside, just a hop away from that comfortable deck chair of mine.

Ketchikan is also full of opportunities from museums of antique Amerindian ceremonial artefacts to Dolly’s House noted for it’s madam and the particular activities that took place there.

For me, however, it’s getting back to the ship that’s the best part of it all. Another friendly smile from the officer at the gang plank, a welcome home grin from the cabin steward, and my favourite deck chair on the Promenade Deck again. And all those decisions to make...

Another hour here on deck with my book and the view? A few minutes on the jigsaw in the Puzzle room, or maybe a line dancing lesson in the Crow’s Nest? Afternoon tea in the Rotterdam Dining room, or a slice of Pizza in the Lido restaurant? A movie or a lecture? Twenty minutes on the treadmill?

Maybe just a nap. It’s been a busy day!

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photos: Holland America Line

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