We (nearly 25 in our group) cruised Alaska's inside passage beginning August 8, 2003. The cruise began in Vancouver and ended in Seward/Anchorage. My comments are primarily from what either my wife or I experienced although some general observations were true for the majority of the people we in our group.
First, we were very disappointed in the ship. This observation was true for nearly everyone in our group and especially for those who had cruised before. We were on Holland America's Ryndam and feel that it is vastly over-rated. The food, other than what we had in their specialty restaurant, the Pinnacle (which normally costs an additional $20 per person), was at best mediocre. For example, the clam chowder we had one evening was more like a weak clam broth and the lobsters served one evening were cooked much too much. Our suite was OK, but nothing special although the cabin steward was excellent. Others had non-smoking rooms that reeked of tobacco smoke even after having the bed spread and curtains replaced. I did not feel that I missed anything by not going to the evening entertainment since those times I did go, I was not impressed. Our last cruise was on the Norwegian Sun and everything about it was significantly better than the Ryndam. On the other hand, Alaska was magnificent so that is what I will (mostly) write about.
If you are going to take an inside passage and have the opportunity to visit Vancouver - do so! Vancouver and Victoria Island are wonderful places to visit. The Listel Hotel looked to be the best place to stay in Vancouver. Vancouver is very international with many restaurants highlighting virtually any cuisine you might wish to try. Be sure to visit Stanley Park while in Vancouver. It is about a mile walk from the Listel (as well as several of the other hotels located in that area of the city). You could also rent bicycles and have a fairly easy ride to and around the park (which has a bicycle speed limit that we were told was enforced), or take a cab or bus. We took a horse drawn wagon ride in the park which was a good way to see a small portion of the park as well as to get some orientation to that area. Also while in Vancouver we cannot recommend strongly enough taking time to visit Victoria Island and especially Butchart Gardens. We did this on a bus tour (Pacific Coach Lines - on time, friendly staff, and reasonable rates) that allowed two hours at the gardens. Grey Lines also has tours to the Island, but their tour spends 90 minutes at the Gardens. If possible, you would be better off renting a car for the day or making other arrangements given the stunning beauty of Butchart Gardens. You will almost certainly want to be there for longer than any of the bus tours provide. We are ready to return to Vancouver and Victoria Island and look forward to spending several days in the area.
Check-in for the Ryndam was functional but was our first idea that this would not be as good an experience as NCL provided. For example, for our NCL cruise the cruise line provided juice and other non-alcoholic drinks while we were waiting in line to board the ship. Holland did not do so.
The first full day of the cruise was spent at sea. The mountains and shore line were spectacular for the entire trip and this was our first sample. We had an outside cabin with a verandah, but I spent a lot of time on the upper decks. Much of the early going was through fairly narrow channels and past many of the countless islands that dot the region. One important point to note about our trip, which could be very different from going at another time, is that we had great weather for nearly the entire cruise. Juneau is the last port before docking in Seward and it was not until late in the afternoon while we were in Juneau that we had any rain. We packed expecting the entire trip to be overcast and raining, or at least drizzling, and instead we had mostly sunny skies with daytime temperatures around 70. In the early evening and up on deck, it felt cool and was quite windy when the ship was cruising, but otherwise for most of the time it was perfect, until we left Juneau. The last day at sea we ran into a gale which left many passengers and a number of the crew wishing for dry land!
Some recommended excursions for the ports we visited follow.
In Ketchikan, I booked an ocean kayaking trip with Southeast Sea Kayaks (www.ketchikankayaks.com). They have more than one option, and I took the Orca's Cove trip since it left the town and went out a little farther. The kayaking was not strenuous (the day I was there the ocean was like a calm lake; the day before they had six foot swells). We saw three or four humpback whales as well as several eagles. My wife booked the Saxman Village and Lumberjack Show through a tour group in the city. She also had a good time. One couple did the Misty Fjord flight trip which they thought was outstanding.
Sitka was our favorite town overall. I did not book anything in Sitka and do not feel it is necessary if you just want to see the town. The Sitka National Historical Park is an easy walk from where you come ashore. [The cruise ships tender in Sitka - meaning you take a small boat to shore.] The park itself has many totem poles and a stream running through it that, when I was there, was literally overflowing with spawning salmon. I also walked to the Alaska Raptor Center and took a tour of it before going back to town. My wife booked the Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest excursion through HAL. She thought this was fantastic. Sitka is considered one of the better places to see wildlife on the cruise (Juneau being another).
HAL is, I believe, the only cruise line that stops in Haines instead of Skagway. The two towns are about 45 minutes apart by ferry or more than 300 miles apart via automobile. The main thing to do in this area is to take the White Pass Scenic Rail which is located in Skagway. If your ship stops in Skagway, this is highly recommended and nearly everyone who went on it thought it was a good excursion. However, if you have been to Durango, Colorado and have taken the Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge train you have had much the same experience and have probably had better weather to view the scenery (for less cost as well). My wife felt that there was a lot of waiting around for this trip since the HAL passengers had to take the ferry to and from Skagway to get on the train. I booked a float trip into the Bald Eagle Preserve in Haines before leaving on the cruise. I would not recommend this unless you are going to be there in October (which you will not be if you are on a cruise). It was a nice peaceful trip down the river, but I saw more eagles everywhere else we were than I did in the Eagle Preserve. The scenery in the Haines area was great and this included what we saw on the float trip, but if you want wildlife do something else. One member of our group took a flight over the glaciers which she thought was fantastic. [Seeing things by air seems to be an overall good way to experience the sights of Alaska. Everyone who did a flight trip had a great time.]
Even though Sitka was my personal favorite overall town, it was the stop in Juneau that really made the trip. Several of us booked, through HAL, the Mendenhall Glacier/Whale Watch Tour. Allen Marine Tours does the boat part of this excursion for HAL (they also were the company my wife's Sitka excursion was on) and they are excellent although their boats are larger than many of the other tour boats we saw. This was not necessarily a bad thing since it allowed them to go farther and to carry more crew and passengers than the smaller tourist boats. The tour company guarantees you will see whales on this trip or they will give you $100 in cash when they return. In seven years they have never paid anyone! Mendenhall Glacier was an unbelievable sight and the only bad thing is we did not have enough time to really get away from the tourist information center and get closer to the glacier. Until you see it for yourself, you cannot imagine how large the Mendenhall is. On the whale watch we had the great good fortune to come across a pod (or whatever it is that they call a group of humpback whales traveling together) of six whales. They were "Bubblenet Feeding." This meant that they were basically swimming in a circle and moving their food into the center, diving and then coming to the surface with their mouths open to feed. This was an incredible sight and is something that went on for a long time. We watched them for probably 45 minutes before moving to another spot. When we returned to that area on the way back they were still there. They were also joined for a short time by an additional five or six humpback whales creating a pod of about twelve whales. The two groups split after only a short time, but even the naturalists and ships crew were amazed by this sight. Everyone in our group thought that this one excursion was worth the price of the entire cruise. One time the original group surfaced about 50 yards from our boat. One of the other people from our larger group was on a smaller tour boat in this same area and the whales were so close that he had to back off the zoom of his camera since he could not fit them all into one photograph.
If you want to have dinner off the ship in Juneau, I would strongly recommend The Fish Company. They are (or were when we were there) located on the pier just as you get off the ship. [The Ryndam tendered in Juneau.] Stop and make reservations when you first get into town. Their seafood chowder was excellent as were each of the main dishes that four of us had. We also had a good time at the Red Dog Saloon and if you can get in, it is a fun place to visit. If the weather is perfect, you might want to go up the Roberts Tramway. I would not purchase the tickets for this through the cruise line since the place to buy them is right at the pier. However, the tram ride cost about $20 and if it is overcast and/or rainy, you will not see anything. I heard nothing whatsoever good about the restaurant at the top of the tramway.
When your ship is at the main glacier (either Hubbard or in Glacier Bay) go on deck to view the glacier. The sounds coming off the glacier and the sense of what it is like are much more intense than what you would experience watching it from inside this ship. Your ship will probably have a covered walk so if it is raining you might want to go there to view the glacier - but whatever you do get outside.
HAL was as poor about disembarking as they were with other parts of the cruise. First, they started calling people (by disembarkation number) nearly 45 minutes before the scheduled time meaning that many had no breakfast. I was in the shower when our number was called and we had not gone to have breakfast since we thought there was plenty of time. HAL blamed this on "the buses arriving early." Well the buses work for HAL and will stay until the passengers are off-loaded. It is a three hour bus trip from Seward to Anchorage; HAL did not bother to provide water or anything else to drink on the trip. [However, if you were going from Anchorage to Seward to board the ship, they did have bottled water. I guess that they were more interested in those about to board the ship than they were those who were getting off.]
We were very glad that we had decided to stay the evening in Anchorage rather than head straight to the airport. If you have film that you want to develop before heading back to the lower-48, there is a Kits Camera store in the main mall in downtown Anchorage that did a really nice job with several rolls of film I dropped off for quick processing. [Kits is a part of the Ritz/Cord camera group.] If you have time (at least three hours) we highly recommend visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center. You can catch a free bus at the Anchorage Visitor's Center and also get a coupon there good for 10% off the admission to the Heritage Center. It will take about two hours to see most of the things at the center although you could spend more time there if you wished. Go on one of the guided tours if possible; we walked around part of the center on our own and joined up with a tour mid-way through. The film they show at the Center is also well done. For dining, I would recommend Humpy's on 6th Street for lunch and the Sour Dough Mining Company for dinner and family entertainment. While at the Sour Dough Mining Company be sure to take time to walk across the street to the Alaska Wildberry Products store. You can get a free bus to and from the Sour Dough Mining Company from most, perhaps all, of the major hotels in downtown Anchorage. We went early and did not need reservations, but if you are going after 6:00 or so I would recommend calling ahead. If you don't call to make reservations and they are busy, put your name in and walk across to the Wildberry store while waiting.
Finally, one of the most difficult decisions will be deciding what to pack. We went, as I mentioned, planning on overcast, wet conditions. We did use some of our wet weather items but not until we were nearly done with the cruise. Our feelings about the trip would, undoubtedly, have been much different had the weather been what we were expecting. Day-to-day dress onboard the ship and in the various ports was very casual. Many of the recommendations I had read on this topic suggested taking items you could layer. This seemed to be the best advice on what to pack. We felt Alaska was a really great place to visit but we recognize that we were very lucky in that the weather and creatures we saw combined to give us a super experience. If you go, take lots of film or a large amount of memory for your digital camera - you'll need them!