We never thought we were cruise people until we ate our way around Asia on the MS Volendam. If you’re wondering what it’s like to cruise with Holland America, read on to find out why taking a Holland America cruise is an awesome vacation option for food-loving Generation X’ers like us.
Cruises are for other people. That’s what we smugly told ourselves whenever we heard about friends or colleagues taking cruises to exotic destinations around the world. Sure, we had fun cruising the Rhine on a luxury riverboat cruise a couple years ago, but that was an exception to our slow travel approach to traveling the world.
But things have now changed. We have officially crossed an invisible line and must admit that we are now cruise people. How could this happen to full-time slow travelers? It all began when we ate our way around Asia on a Holland America cruise for two weeks and loved every minute of the experience.
Exploring Asia on a Holland America Cruise
Two weeks on a cruise sounded like overkill to us. We’d surely go stir crazy and tire of the food, the people and everything else. But the chance to travel in luxury and eat our way through ports in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and China was too good to pass up.
As it turns out, we never got bored for a minute during our segment of Holland America’s Grand Asia & Pacific Voyage. We ate great food both on and off the cruise ship (more about that later) and enjoyed interacting with the passengers as well as fellow journalists.
Sure, the crowd on our cruise skewed older, but 6% of the crowd was Gen X’ers like us. Plus, the 1,343 passengers hailed from 42 countries all over the world with the majority from the US, UK and Australia. With such diversity, each conversation was an opportunity for us to learn something new.
Holland America Asia Cruise Video
Grab your chopsticks and watch our YouTube video to see us eat our way around Asia as well as on the MS Volendam.
We sailed on the MS Volendam, a 781-foot long ship that can comfortably house up to 1,432 passengers in its various rooms and suites. Although the ship seemed big to us, it’s actually considered to be a mid-size ship by cruising standards.
We never felt cramped or crowded during our time on the vessel. In the future, Holland America’s Asia cruises will be on the larger MS Westerdam which can accommodate over 1,900 passengers.
We boarded the ship in Hong Kong and disembarked in Shanghai, coordinating our arrival and departure with Holland America in advance. Once situated in our room, we never had to repack and unpack as we sailed to exciting Asian destinations.
Our suitcases and necessities traveled with us from city to city. As independent travelers, temporarily abandoning our suitcases may have been our favorite non-edible aspect of the cruise.
Internet was available on the ship at an additional cost and generally worked at slow speed but hey, we were on the ocean after all. In addition to paid internet packages, Holland America provides a free portal that tracks each passenger’s tours, internet usage and account balances.
Many passengers opted to access the free portal while on the ship but saved their internet surfing for when it was free and fast at the various ports.
We stayed in an Ocean View stateroom during our cruise and found it to be both spacious and comfortable. We especially appreciated the plush queen bed and massage showerhead. We never felt crowded thanks to a couch and desk, not to mention enough drawers and closet space for us to unpack and store our luggage.
Beyond basic comfort, we loved having a flat-screen TV with satellite TV and 24/7 movies as well as an amazing view through our small window. Other features included power outlets for both European and American plugs, plush bathrobes, a hairdryer and a safe.
We could have happily chilled in the room all day though we usually limited ourselves to breakfast in bed. As much as we enjoyed being in the room, we loved spending time on the rest of the ship even more.
Staff and Service
Service was impeccable starting at the top with Captain Frank van der Hoeven, Cruise Director Bruce Allen Scudder and Hotel Director Craig Oakes. But it wasn’t just them. Every staff member made it a personal mission to keep us happy and comfortable during our cruise.
The staff took care of pesky issues like passport control and immigration as we sailed from country to country within Asia which took a big burden off of us. Plus, they did a great job cleaning our room each day and left us fun towel animals each night while we were at dinner. And, for a reasonable charge per bag, we had our laundry done halfway through the cruise.
If you’re wondering what to pack for the cruise, rest assured that most people on our cruise dressed more for comfort than fashion. Passengers wore whatever they wanted during the day, with most wearing cruise wear like shorts and flip-flops.
Except for the three gala nights, dinner attire was smart casual. Don’t be frightened by the word “gala” – the dress code is fairly flexible on these nights but with an extra flair.
The activities on a Holland America cruise are extensive. Active travelers can enjoy pools, an onsite spa and pickleball. Shoppers can buy flex their bicep muscles during daily art auctions. And gamblers can hide out in the casino. As for us, these were the entertainment options that we enjoyed most:
America’s Test Kitchen
We got a kick out of attending live America’s Test Kitchen events where Eva Mulligan brought the American TV show to life with interactive cooking demonstrations. As she cooked dishes like dumplings and salmon, she shared cooking tips and techniques. Even better, she provided recipes for cooking these dishes at home.
We drank a lot of great wine during our Asia cruise thanks to a dedicated team of sommeliers and wine astute servers. In addition to tempting wine options in the restaurants and bars, the ship offers different wine tastings including the Wines of the World Festival that we attended during a day at sea.
During this premium tasting event, we tasted twelve wines from seven countries. Though we enjoyed tasting wines from countries like Italy, Australia and the US, we were particularly drawn to bottles of Puligny-Montrachet that we were lucky enough to sip with a seaside view.
The extra charge for this event was $25 and included unlimited wine and food.
Since we often wonder about the ingredients in exotic cocktails, we were happy to attend an Asian cocktail mixology class on a day at sea. During this class, Ryan Paul revealed the recipes and techniques for four different drinks. Not only did we learn how to craft a Samurai Mojito, a Lotus Blossom, a Sake Cruz and a classic Singapore Sling, but we got to drink them too.
The extra charge for this event was $15 and included four cocktails and a food pairing.
As expected on ocean cruises, our cruise on the Holland America Volendam had live entertainment twice a night, every night.
Though we preferred participating in trivia contests and watching movies like I Tonya on the big screen, we enjoyed checking out performers like talented concert pianist Naomi Edemariam who managed to exquisitely perform pieces by Chopin and Gershwin despite some rough sea weather. We also dug the onboard musical Traditional Okinawan Showcase while the ship was docked in Naha.
Holland America Shore Excursions
Exploring Asian cities in a day can be a daunting task considering logistics, currencies and languages. To alleviate the stress, HAL’s EXC department offers guided tours as well as advice for travelers who wish to explore the world independently.
Guided tours offer a trouble-free way to see a destination in comfort. These tours are available in every destination for an additional charge.
For more independent travelers like us, Holland America has partnered with AFAR to create detailed destination guides that educate passengers about where to go and what to do in each destination. EXC guides provide on-ship guidance and even appear on a special in-room EXC channel.
During our cruise, this show was our favorite thing to watch on TV since the knowledgeable staff members provided a thorough rundown and education about each destination before we docked.
Exciting. Exotic. Educational.
These are just three words to describe an Asian cruise with Holland America.
Possible destinations include ports in Southeast Asia like Da Nang and Halong Bay as well as cities in China like Hong Kong and Shanghai and cities in Japan like Fukuoka and Osaka. Cruise segments last for two weeks, with some passengers extending their adventures for four to six weeks or even up to 82 days. Here are the destinations that we visited during our cruise:
Port 1 – Hong Kong
One of the most exciting cities in the world, Hong Kong offers an intriguing mix of Western and Eastern cultures in a hyperactive setting. Despite an eight-year gap since our last visit, Hong Kong was just as wonderfully chaotic as we remembered.
Crowds fill the sidewalks, cheek by jowl, while double-decker trams barrel through the street on Hong Kong Island. The city, known as the Pearl of the Orient, buzzes at all hours of the day and night with one of the greatest skylines in the world.
And the food! With one night at the Grand Stanford Intercontinental Hotel in Kowloon and one night on the ship, we had just enough time to eat our way through the city. We dined on dim sum at a classic tea local tea house and enjoyed afternoon tea at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental. We also drank great third wave coffee brewed by a world champion barista.
Despite all of the wonderful food we ate in Hong Kong, our favorite memory of Hong Kong may very well be the sunset over the city as the MS Volendam sailed off into the China Sea (see photo at top of article).
The sun put on quite a show, weaving between Hong Kong’s pencil-thin skyscrapers, as the ship set sail – a preview of the many stunning sunsets and sunrises we would experience while at sea.
Port 2 – Manila, The Philippines
Docking in Manila provided us with our first taste of the Philippines, a country that we want to explore further in the future. With a full day in the capital city, we joined an EXC tour of Old Manila that took us to Rizal Park, the walled city of Intramuros and Fort Santiago.
We also made time to visit Manila’s China Town with restaurants that blend Chinese and Filipino cuisines. While in China Town, we shared amazing fried chicken, a jumbo oyster omelet and dumplings. We even made friends along the way in the rough yet ready Asian city.
After this short visit, we realize that the Philipines is a country that demands further exploration. When we return, hopefully sooner than later, we’ll be sure to follow these Philippines travel tips when we explore Manila and beyond.
Port 3 – Kaohsiung, Taiwan
We opted to take an EXC tour of Kaohsiung, the country’s second biggest city. This tour took us to Lotus Lake where we strolled among Chinese pagodas and drank bubble tea in its homeland.
The tour also included a ferry ride to Cijin Island where we wandered off to slurp down a big bowl of noodles. Despite our fear of missing the ship, we found time to stop for authentic Taiwanese duck on the way back to the dock. Priorities!
Port 4 – Keelung (Taipei), Taiwan
With just a day in the food-centric city, we made a plan to eat as much as we could from soup dumplings (see photo below) to mango ice cream. We even made a detour for specialty coffee because that’s how we roll.
Port 5 – Naha, Okinawa, Japan
Justifying an overnight stop, Okinawa’s capital city is Japan’s version of Hawaii complete with beaches, kitsch and World War II history. But Naha also has great food like Okinawa soba (see photo above), locally produced Blue Seal ice cream and, not surprisingly, sushi.
We also found two great cafes for crafted flat whites and cappuccinos during the first stop on the Japan cruise portion of our adventure.
Port 6 – Fukuoka, Japan
Some people visit Fukuoka for its castle. As for us, we used our time in Japan’s sixth largest, surprisingly eclectic city to eat some of Japan’s best ramen and drink at artsy cafes like FUK coffee (their name, not ours).
We also found enough tasty cheesecake and fresh cherry blossoms during our breakneck self-guided tour of the city to make us want to return to further explore the stylish, edgy Japanese city. And the castle? We saw that too.
Port 7 – Nagasaki, Japan
Despite its long and rich history involving Dutch and Portuguese settlers and a thriving port, Nagasaki’s history is defined by the atomic bomb that devastated the city during World War II.
We explored this history at the Nagasaki Atomic bomb Museum and honored its victims at the nearby hypocenter (where the blast occurred) and Peace Park.
With just a day Nagasaki, we had enough time to enjoy a scenic walk, spot cherry blossoms, eat noodles and, you guessed it, drink good coffee before setting sail for China.
Port 8 – Shanghai, China
Notable for being the world’s biggest city and having the world’s second tallest building, Shanghai was an amazing city to end our epic Asian cruise.
After arriving in time to watch the magical lights of the Pudong skyscrapers at night, we spent our first day touring nearby Suzhou, considered the Venice of China by Marco Polo, before exploring the city for four days on our own.
This extra time allowed us to eat our weight in dumplings and explore the amazing city at our leisure. After an eight-year gap since our last visit, we had a lot of ground to cover in China’s most modern city.
Four Days at Sea
We didn’t expect to love the sea days during our Holland America cruise but the four days we spent with no land in sight were some of our favorites during our two-week cruise. These days gave us a chance to reflect on the hectic port days, relax, recharge and explore the ship.
We chilled on these days, ate hamburgers by the pool, played trivia with our new friends and learned how to cook. Then we got dressed up at night to enjoy great food and bask in magical sunsets.
As we quickly learned, Holland America takes dining seriously with its Culinary Council helmed by Chef Rudi Sodamin. Other notable chefs on the council include Jonnie Boer, David Burke, Elizabeth Falkner, Andy Matsua, Ethan Stowell and Jacques Torres, a team that influences the cruise food at all levels.
Let’s start by saying we never went hungry for two weeks. Contemplating room service, food was available on a 24/7 basis – and that’s just on the ship. Every port offered us the chance to experience a different cuisine to explore and experience.
Since the cruise was in Asia, we ate a lot dumplings and noodle dishes. In a way, the cruise provided an introduction to Asian cuisines in new-to-us cities so that we now know where we want to return to eat more.
We typically ate breakfast and dinner on the ship depending on timing as well as lunch on the at-sea days. That’s a lot of meals over two weeks and the food options were so varied that we didn’t get bored. Holland America offers local cuisine as well as western food favorites at every meal.
Read on to see what we ate.
Fine dining plays a large role on cruises just like in vintage Hollywood movie An Affair to Remember. Passengers often dress up for these meals and can order as many dishes as they want or think they can handle.
Don’t worry about the ship running out of food. The staff replenishes perishables and procures fresh fish at the different ports.
Rudi’s Sel de Mer
Operating as a pop-up in the Pinnacle Restaurant space for just one night during our two-week cruise, Rudi’s Sel de Mer is an exciting restaurant concept that features food inspired by Cote d’Azure seafood brasseries. Not surprisingly, seafood ruled the roost for our dinner, though the pop-up has options for meat lovers and vegetarians too.
Easily the star of our dinner and well worth the $20 supplement charged at the time of our cruise, the Fruits de Mer starter was a feast of lobster claws, langoustines, crab claws, jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams and oysters. However, dishes like bouillabaisse, duck cassoulet and rack of persilade were close contenders.
If you’re celebrating a special occasion while cruising with Holland America, Rudi’s Sel de Mer is the perfect spot for dinner. Order a nice bottle of wine and enjoy the culinary adventure!
At the time of our cruise, reservations were required and Rudi’s Sel de Mer charged a surcharge.
Pinnacle Grill pays homage to the Pacific Northwest with its seafood-friendly menu as well as beef procured from the Double R Ranch in Washington. If you think that cruise food is more about quantity than quality, this restaurant will prove you wrong. You’ll find both here with dishes that are both crafted with care and generously portioned.
Standout dishes during our Pinnacle Grill meal were steak tartare, an 18-ounce bone-in-ribeye steak and a modern take on baked Alaska. Though the baked Alaska wasn’t served flambé, the staff made up for this by serving the dessert with Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream and jumbo bing cherries.
The wine list is equally impressive with a large section dedicated to top wines from the American states of Washington and Oregon. We drank some of the best wine of the cruise at our dinner here.
Brave diners can order the President’s Cut, a monster dish with a 36-ounce bone-in-ribeye steak that’s big enough for a couple to share. Though this gargantuan hunk of meat carried a $59 supplement at the time of our cruise, eating the President’s Cut is a once in a lifetime experience only available on a Holland America cruise.
In addition to requiring reservations, Pinncale Grill charged a surcharge during our cruise.
As much as we love to eat local food when we travel, sometimes we crave pasta and other Italian dishes. This is where Canaletto comes into play with its family-style approach to Italian cuisine.
Portion sizes are large, with most couples comfortably sharing a classic Italian menu featuring two small plates (contorni), a pasta (primi) and a protein-based second course (secondi).
During our meal, we enjoyed dishes like veal meatballs, swordfish puttanesca and gemelli with porcini mushrooms. We barely had room for tiramisu, but we managed to make a dent in the luscious dessert before rolling back to our room.
At the time of our cruise, reservations were required and Canaletto charged a surcharge.
The Dining Room
Meals at the Dining Room are included for all passengers three times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. We typically ate dinner here each night as well as the occasional breakfast.
Despite its formality, the Dining Room’s vibe is friendly and meals are leisurely with an emphasis on white-glove service. To us, these meals provided a great way to relax in style after a busy day touring a chaotic Asian city.
Eating breakfast in the Dining Room is a great thing to do on Sea Days when there’s no rush to make a tour or maximize limited time in a city. The menu has a range of breakfast favorites including waffles, French toast and pancakes.
Dinners are the main event with menus featuring multiple choices including signature dishes as well as regional and vegetarian options. Though the menu changed each night during our cruise, signature dishes like French Onion Soup, Classic Caesar Salad, Grilled Salmon, Broiled New York Strip Loin and Oven Roasted Chicken were regularly available.
On gala nights, the kitchen staff ramped up the options to match the occasion. These special dinners included dishes like Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, Foie Gras, Surf & Turf, Basil Crusted Veal and Flourless Chocolate Cake.
Wine is available by the glass or bottle for an additional charge. We drank various wines from countries like France, Germany, Australia and the US during our cruise. Not surprisingly, we didn’t drink any local wines from Asia.
Attire in the Dining Room is smart casual except on gala nights.
As fun as it is to linger over multi-course meals, we also enjoyed casual meals during our Asian cruise. These meals gave us a chance to eat great cruise food without fuss and circumstance. They were also great time savers on days when we had tours and other activities.
This casual restaurant spans two sides of the ship and offers buffet-style meals with a view. In addition to offering rotating menus three times a day plus at the end of the night, Lido Market is a good spot for a quick meal with both healthy and splurge food options.
Lido Market was our go-to breakfast spot for bagels, smoked salmon, cereal, fruit and so much more. We also ate lunch here a few times and enjoyed favorites like sushi and pizza. And, it’s possible that we came here a few times for late-night snacks like fried chicken and fries but Shhh! Don’t tell anyone…
Don’t miss Lido’s ice cream bar with sundae toppings like caramel sauce and sprinkles.
Though we love the food in Asia, hamburgers aren’t so easy to find – at least not good ones. Finding great hamburgers at Dive-In was a true treat. Eating them by the pool with a view of the ocean was an added bonus.
After much taste testing, we narrowed our favorite burger to the Cannonball, a 1/3 pound beef patty cooked to order with Gouda cheese, applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, chop-chop salad, sliced tomato and Dive-In sauce on a toasted brioche roll. As for the fries, we liked eating naked fries with sides of Dive-In sauce and guacamole.
Not a fan of hamburgers? Holland America’s Dive-In also serves Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and portabello mushroom sandwiches.
As much as we enjoyed eating at different restaurants during the cruise, we occasionally wanted to start the day with cereal and fruit as we dressed for a busy day of activities. Though we ordered breakfast in our room, we never ordered lunch, dinner or late-night snacks. Maybe we should have since in-room dining is included in the cost of the cruise except for specialty items.
Don’t worry about missing the Dive-In before it closes for the night. You can order burgers and fries 24/7 via room service for a small surcharge.
If you’re thirsty on a Holland America Asia cruise, then it’s your own fault. Seriously, the cruise ship has multiple bars for every type of passenger. These are the ones that we liked best:
As coffee connoisseurs, we weren’t crazy about the ship’s coffee until we discovered the cappuccinos at the Explorations Cafe. This cafe became our go-to spot for our morning jolt. Ironically, we started recognizing fellow coffee lovers, including ship employees, who queued up with us each morning for the good stuff.
Although these cappuccinos are not free, they were reasonably priced at $2.50 for a tall and $3.25 for a grande at the time of our cruise. On the upside, treats like oversized chocolate chip cookies were available all day long for no extra charge.
If you buy a Holland America beverage package, cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks are included in addition to wine, cocktails, beer and soda. These packages make life easier during the cruise.
The Sea View Bar
No matter where we are in the world, drinks always taste better with a gorgeous view. Our Holland America cruise was no exception to this rule. We often started our night with beers or G+Ts as we watched the sun set over the ocean.
Bring your camera to the Sea View Bar. The photo ops are spectacular.
We liked the Ocean Bar for many reasons including its intimate atmosphere, live music and cool vibes. Most of all, we liked finding our favorite beer on the menu. We didn’t expect to drink Unibroue’s Fin du Monde so far from Montreal, but it clearly is a small world after all.
Don’t miss the ship’s happy hours. Who doesn’t like a good bargain especially when it involves cocktails and live lounge music?
Final Thoughts on Cruising with Holland America
Our experience cruising with Holland America exceeded our expectations. Beyond the excitement of eating our way through different Asian destinations, we enjoyed spending time on the ship and were sad when the two-week cruise ended.
We hope to sail with HAL again. Maybe next time we’ll take a cruise that features culinary-themed EXC tours. As food travelers, that type of cruise sounds right up our alley.
We took a second Holland America cruise to Norway and it was awesome.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.