Like marriage, your vacation is often a series of compromises. That is never more certain than when picking a cruise in Alaskan waters. • Will it be a megaship, carrying thousands of passengers but offering a spa, swimming pools and multiple dining choices? Or will it be a cozy ship taking fewer than 100 passengers, without workout facilities and with one dining room — but a vessel that will nuzzle the glaciers you came to admire? • My recent trip to Alaska began with a three-night cruise on a 1,916-passenger Holland America ship and concluded with a four-night cruise on a 78-passenger Cruise West ship. Each had pros and cons:
CABIN FEATURES: Onboard Holland America's Zuiderdam, my cabin had a queen bed, large writing desk with side drawers, minifridge, pull-out sofa, three closets and drawers in two nightstands. There was lots of overhead lighting, plus good reading lamps over the bed.
I had a balcony large enough for a couple of chairs and a tiny table, a telephone connecting me to shipboard services and the outside world, and a large flat-screen TV showing older films, views of the bow and stern, music channels and a DVD player (the ship's ample library stocked more than 100 discs). The bathroom had a large counter around the sink and a cabinet with three shelves; there was a hair dryer.
On Cruise West's Spirit of Columbia, I had a suite, which meant two single beds separated by a small desk with a chair, and minimal shelf space on the headboard, which had a too-dim reading light. There was modest lighting overhead and adequate lighting over the sink and in the shower/toilet stall. There was a minifridge and one sitting chair in the cabin, which had a window to slide open. The smallest cabins have no desk, chairs or window.
The TV played only DVDs or videotapes; the tiny library onboard offered a handful of Alaska-themed documentaries and perhaps a dozen theatrical movies. (This three-shelf library, however, held about 20 titles on the birds and wildlife of the region. The Zuiderdam library had hundreds of popular fiction and nonfiction titles plus travel guides reflecting Holland America's worldwide destinations.)
DINING: Not much competition. Zuiderdam has a two-deck main dining room large enough for 1,100, a 506-seat buffet restaurant simultaneously offering Asian, Italian and deli stations, plus a large salad bar, and a fine-dining room, which costs $20 extra. There is 24-hour room service, though meal times last for hours.
There is one serving time for each meal on the Spirit of Columbia. It has an energetic four-person galley crew. They prepare a chef's special for each meal, as well as soup, salad and four entrees for dinner, plus modest dessert options. Because a few entrees and most baked goods I had seemed either overcooked or dry, I'd judge the food better on the Zuiderdam.
AMENITIES: The Zuiderdam has two swimming pools, one covered by a retractable roof, hot tubs with each, a spa, saunas, hydrotherapy pool, workout area and combined basketball/volleyball court. It has a smoky casino, a show lounge that in the daytime offered cooking demos, and eight bars, some of which have live music. There are a few stores and a 34-seat movie theater.
The Spirit of Columbia has a lounge in which the "explorations leader" offers presentations or hosts locals who come aboard to discuss living in isolated communities.
INTANGIBLES: The Zuiderdam delivers on what it promises: plenty of everything — space, food, onboard activities and entertainment, and other passengers.
But it is 936 feet long, preventing it from bringing its passengers so close to the face of a glacier that they are chilled by the wind sweeping off its face, or so close to shore that passengers hardly need the 10-by-50 binoculars the Spirit of Columbia provides every cruiser to better enjoy the wildlife.
The Cruise West ship is just 143 feet long, so Capt. Doane Brodie can bring its bow to almost touch sizable icebergs, or slow its twin diesels to let passengers photograph sea otters or humpback whales from as close as 20 feet above the water.
And for the generally upscale and highly educated passengers I sailed with on the Spirit of Columbia, admiring nature up close was the reason to come to Alaska.