As you probably guessed from the mini-post I left yesterday, my prolonged absence from my beloved blog occurred because we took a family cruise to Alaska.  It was, if I do say so myself, one heck of a good vacation.  Rather than dump all my impressions into a single post, I thought I’d break them up into a few posts, starting with one about the cruise itself.  If you’ve been on a cruise before, you probably know all this, but it was new to me, so I pass it on in that spirit.

The cruise we took was Holland America’s two week cruise to Alaska on the ms Amsterdam, a cruise that I can’t recommend highly enough.   Aside from seeing eight different ports and cruising up to two different glaciers — all of which I’ll rhapsodize about in a later post — we also spent many delightful hours living in the lap of luxury on the ship.

Our cabin wasn’t actually that luxurious.  Because the ship is an essentially egalitarian place, however, that did not stop us from enjoy precisely the same level of service, the same quality of food, and the same access to all but a few amenities, that the people living in the $28,000 penthouse suite enjoyed too.  (And yes, I saw the suite, and yes, it was incredible, with some pretty darn nice people living in it too.)

Our room was on the bottom-most floor of the ship, and boasted four extremely narrow twin beds, one of which was a bunk bed, cleverly attached to the wall.  It had a surprising amount of closet space, a counter, a small bathroom, and a nice sized window.  And that was it.

The cabin could have been quite claustrophobic but, for two reasons, it wasn’t.  First, we were almost never there, except to change our clothes and sleep.  Whether the ship was at sea or at shore, there was way too much to do to waste time in the cabin.

The other reason the cabin wasn’t claustrophobic was the presence of two cabin stewards who seemed to devote every waking hour to making sure the room was clean and tidy.  I’ll tell you here and now that it is very easy to get used to having someone make your bed, clean your bathroom and throw away your garbage every day.  I understand why my kids are so resistant to my efforts to end that phase of their life.

The stewards open up an important topic related to any cruise, or certainly to any cruise on the Holland America line:  the service is outstanding.  The ratio of passengers to crew members is about two passengers for every one crew member, a count that includes all the entertainers and officers.  The bulk of the crew members are men from Indonesia, the Philippines and Bali.

I cannot say enough nice things about these men.  They are the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, and the sweetest, most gracious service people I’ve ever dealt with.  While it is clearly ship’s policy that they be polite and friendly, it is their innate warmth that elevates these courtesies far beyond the mechanical, cynical or cold greetings one often finds in service situations.  These men radiated warmth and kindness — which is something almost amazing considering how relentless their work is.

My husband and I, good post-colonial citizens, periodically felt uncomfortable receiving services from these dear people.  The inequality in our status was sometimes so glaring that it seemed as if we had been thrown back to some sort of plantation, whether a Malayan tea plantation on a tropical hillside or a Southern mansion surrounded by cotton fields.  Those men to whom we spoke, however, clearly felt that they were getting a good deal — something borne out by the fact that many of them had held their jobs for years or even decades.  The chance to see the world is not to be sneezed at.

In addition, even though their wages were almost certainly lower than an American worker would receive and their work conditions more onerous than an American would expect, I gathered that the crew members were making considerably more money than they would have had they stayed in their native countries.  What is a small wage in America is a big wage in a small village in Indonesia, and can make the difference between a child living a subsistence existence in that village, or getting a college education in Jakarta, or some other major city.  In other words, just as, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, so too is the Filipino man with American dollars lining his picket rich by the standards of his small village.

When we weren’t being waited upon hand and foot, we were valiantly resisting over-eating.  The ship has a buffet, a grill, the main restaurant, a “fine dining” restaurant, and 24 hour room service.  Starving to death on the ship would require either an effort of will or the misfortune to be trapped in a closet the whole trip.

The food, by the way, wasn’t just abundant, it was delicious.  I’m sure the Michelin guide would turn up its nose at the offerings, but since I find haute, haute cuisine unpleasant, I was delighted with the well-prepared classics, which borrowed themes from American, Italian, Spanish, French and Asian cooking.  The recipes were imaginative, the food well-prepared and the presentation (if you weren’t in the buffet or the grill, both of which were self-service) was very attractive.

It’s no wonder that people manage to gain weight, in the double digits, when they cruise.  I tried to control myself.  If I ordered two desserts — and there’s nothing to stop you from ordering all the desserts — I made an effort to eat only half of each.  This worked as long as I wasn’t having Baked Alaska, which enticed me into full-blown gluttony, every time.

The entertainment was lavish too.  Depending on your mood, you could attend a revue show, see major movies, join in the singing at a delightful piano bar, relax 0r dance to exceptionally well-played lounge and jazz classics, listen to a string quartet, or party all night in the disco (complete with DJ).  For those who needed to work off some of the pounds, you could work out in the gym, take exercise classes, play yoga, jog, or just walk around and around the ship (being sure to include the stairs).  For those disinclined to bounce around, there was a library complete with slow and expensive internet access (which is why I didn’t blog at all), lots of books, puzzles and games.  And if all that wasn’t enough, you could keep busy with bingo, lectures, trivia games, and shopping, shopping, shopping (duty-free, yet!).

The kids too found plenty to do.  There were kids’ activities for all age groups, all of which were available to the kids whenever we were at sea.  My two quickly found friends and vanished to play with them all day long.  As my daughter said (after bonding with her fellow young teens), “we had a life-time of drama in two weeks.”

All I can say is, if you’re looking for a wonderful vacation, think seriously about a Holland America cruise.  Because of the recession, prices are good and, unless you’re king of the world, you’ll never again find yourself so well treated.