We have recently returned from our Alaska - Inside Passage cruise on the HAL MS Veendam (May 31 - June 7, 2000). This was our second cruise with HAL and also on the Veendam and our experience with HAL was even better this time around. I was somewhat disappointed with our first HAL cruise, but this time we thoroughly enjoyed our experience and wouldn't hesitate to cruise HAL again, and hopefully again.
We booked a two-day pre-cruise option and arrived in Vancouver on Monday afternoon. HAL flew us from Tulsa to Vancouver with one stop over in Dallas. We flew in one day early on our prior cruise and I am sold on arriving at least a day early. This removes all the concern about delayed flights and missing the ship. We've heard too many stories about this and the extra day is worth the small cost. We would strongly recommend this to any cruiser.
The weather in Vancouver was overcast but pleasant temperature and we spent the afternoon walking through Gastown and China Town. We made the mistake of walking from Gastown to China Town. We would caution against this as it is a rough neighborhood even though it is only a couple of blocks. Take a taxi. Actually, we would pass on China Town as it wasn't that interesting and everything closed at 6:00 p.m. Gastown is nice with lots of shops and restaurants and it is very close to the hotels and cruise dock. HAL put us up at the Waterfront Centre which is a beautiful hotel located across the street from Canada Place where the ships dock. We were on the 23rd floor with a gorgeous view looking across the pier and water to North Vancouver. The cruise liners docked right below us. It was incredible to look down and watch the ships come and go. Perfect hotel in a great location. HAL did us right on this part of the trip.
Tuesday morning the bus arrived to take us to Victoria, BC via the ferry. This is a wonderful trip but it makes for a long day, at least 12 - 13 hours. The ferry to Victoria Island is nice and the restaurant on board was excellent. As soon as we arrived on Victoria it began to rain but they are prepared at Buchart Gardens with handy umbrellas. Rain in Victoria is not like rain in Oklahoma. It is more like a soft drizzle than the blinding storms we get here. An umbrella is worthless in Oklahoma, but was all we needed to tour the gardens in comfort. These gardens are beautiful and should not be missed. The town of Victoria is also nice and I only wish we could of spent more time there. Beautiful town with lots to see and do. My wife enjoyed the many shops.
Wednesday morning we watched the Veendam come into port and this just made us more anxious to get on board and get going. We passed on the morning Vancouver Bus Tour and spent the morning just walking around downtown on our own. We showed up at the terminal about 12:30 and there were already several others checking in. They were able to process us, but we had to wait until about 2:00 before boarding the ship. by then the terminal was full of passengers waiting to board. All in all, it wasn't a bad embarkation process and the HAL staff were very friendly.
The Ship - the Veendam is a great ship and we prefer the mid-size ship over the super cruisers. Even with 1250 passengers, we seldom noticed any crowds and the public rooms are very nice and well maintained. We stayed in a Category B Mini-Suite, which was excellent and well worth the extra money. I know you're not in the room much, but when you are, its nice to have that view and to be able to relax on the verandah with your own privacy. Our prior cruise on the Veendam was on the Main Deck in an outside deluxe room and it was very nice also, so I wouldn't hesitate to go either way. Our Room Steward was very efficient and HAL always does a great job in servicing your room. My favorite feature on this ship is the Steam Room and it is used so little, that you feel like you have your own private club. My friend and I got up early each morning and did our 2 -3 miles, and then hit the steam and shower. Very seldom was anyone else using these facilities. Don't hesitate to cruise this ship. The Veendam is the perfect size and beautifully decorated.
My only complaint dealt with our dining schedule. We had asked for the early seating and thought we had it confirmed. Upon arrival, we learned we had the late seating (8:00 p.m.), but were told we could work it out with the maitre'd. Fat chance!! We sat in a waiting room and then were summoned in as though we were peasants presenting a plea to royalty. Three staff members seated behind a table, looked at me and asked: "Why do you want to change your seating?" When my plea was presented, we didn't even get an apology. It was just: "Can't do it. No way." "Next." I guess you had to be there, but my point is, these guys need some training in how to better handle this situation. We took it in stride and let it go.
The entertainment was excellent and the cruise entertainers seemed well rehearsed and talented. The ship comedian/magician wasn't real strong, but we enjoyed the impersonator very much. The Cruise Director - Yvette ? was very nice, but Lauren Henry the Social Director was excellent. She is one of the nicest and most professional cruise staff members we have encountered.
Food on the Veendam ranges from good to excellent and service in the dining room is great. We continue to be a little unsatisfied with the service on the Lido Deck buffet. The chefs could be more friendly and the tables could be bused a little better. This is not intended to be a major criticism, just an observation. Burgers and pasta at the Lido Pool area are great! We will pass on the Midnight Chocolate Buffet next time though. It always looks better than it tastes. We were one of three finalists in the bingo game for a free cruise, but had to settle for $100 in the tie breaker. To be so close . . . .
I should mention that we got incredibly lucky with the weather on this cruise. The first day out was cool and overcast, but Juneau was sunny and warm. Same for Skagway and Glacier Bay. It rained a little on us in Ketchikan, but they get 12.5 feet of rain a year, so we were happy it was just a light off and on again drizzle. Most days were sunny and beautiful. To be so lucky . . . .
Excursions: Juneau - we learned on the Internet about Orca Enterprises and Capt. Larry's Whale Watching Excursion. He has a web page you can find on Yahoo. We took and chance on him and by- passed the cruise ship offerings. One of the smartest things we've ever done. We strongly recommend this excursion. Cost was about $100 per person and their office is located just across the street from the pier. Easy to get to. He has a great boat and took us out to an area where we watched a pod of 6 - 7 Orca and 3 Humpback whales. After watching these, he took us to a secluded area where at least 8 - 10 bald eagles came down to fish on Herring. It was incredible. Capt. Larry is a great guide and this is a trip that should not be missed. We rate it a 10 out of 10 for value and quality. Afterwards you will still have plenty of time to shop in Juneau which has a nice pier front shopping area.
Skagway - here we booked the Scenic train ride through the cruise ship. If you are interested in this, book early or book in advance. This excursion sold out the first day of the cruise. The train loads right where the ship is docked so it is a very convenient tour. I understand you can book on your own and save a few dollars and the walk into town is only a short distance. But in my opinion, the convenience is worth the price. Our ride as an up and back ride only and lasted about 3 hours. It is beautiful scenery and well worth the trip, but they do not let you off the train at all. I understand that other passengers booked the train/bus combination which takes you up a little further on the train and you board buses for the ride back with some stops along the way (this trip is about 5 hours). This was good enough for us and we recommend it to others. They switch sides on the way back, so it doesn't really matter which side of the train you ride on. If you can stake out a spot on the outside deck, you will get some great pictures. Be sure and share the space. Back in town, we had lunch at a local restaurant and then hiked the short distance to the historic cemetery. This is a great walk, about 4 miles round trip, and well worth it. Don't miss the short trail above the cemetery to Reid Falls. What a beautiful setting. Clear cold water in a lush and cool setting. Great for pictures. You can climb up to the first falls and stand behind the water falls. You get a little wet, but it's a great way to cool off. They said you can drink the water, but its not a risk I was willing to take. Not on a cruise. Skagway is a great town for shopping. Lots of small stores, mostly located on one main street. You should be able to get wonderful pictures of the town from the deck of your ship. Beautiful setting.
Ketchikan - we booked the Misty Fjords flight through the cruise line and again were very happy with the results. Even with the low clouds and drizzle, it was a beautiful trip. Incredible scenery. We landed on a small lake high up in the mountains surrounded by snow and water falls. Passengers are invited to stand out on the pontoon and take pictures. At the lake we saw a black bear and as we moved the plane closer he watched us carefully. We must of gotten too close because he eventually took off. We were grateful for the close encounter from the relative safety of the plane. Ketchikan is also a great place to shop. The pier front shops are new and well maintained. My wife bought a beautiful tanzanite pendant and we were pleased with the price. (One of her cruise experience necessities.) There is also a Cyber by the Sea, cyber-cafe, in one of the buildings close to the pier. Address is 5 Salmon Landing #217 (www.cyberbythesea.com). They charge $6 minimum and $10 per hour for Internet access. Great opportunity to check your stocks, e-mails, etc. There may have been some in Juneau, but we didn't see it. I'd be surprised if there was one in Skagway. I can't wait until they have reasonably priced Internet access on the ship.
Disembarkation was painless. This is the worst part of cruising -- having to leave. We waited in the showroom for our number to be called and quickly proceeded to the gangplank, our bus and on to the airport. Our flight was delayed an hour, but that is to be expected. Got home at 10:00 p.m. and are still trying to adjust to the time change. Keep looking for the next buffet, but there is none.
If you read my opinion post on www.cruiseopinion.com from last year, you would see that I had not originally planned to cruise HAL again. In fact, I was looking for a bargain on Princess or Celebrity, when I found what was an unbeatable deal on the HAL Veendam Mini-Suite. I'm glad I did, because we enjoyed this cruise immensely and I am now a big fan of HAL, particularly the Veendam size ship. I apologize for complaining a little about the age category of this ship in my earlier opinion (we are in our 40's). The fact is, about 75% of the HAL cruisers are in the 65+ range. But its also true that these are the best people to cruise with. They are happy, they enjoy having fun and there is no doubt, they truly are "the greatest generation." If you're a young couple or young family that is interested in a younger crowd, you might want to pass on HAL. But even young families will have a great time if you don't need a lot of young peers around. We took our teenage daughters on HAL last year and felt very comfortable giving them the run of the ship. I'm not sure I would feel as confident on another cruise line. We still want to give Princess and Celebrity a try, but HAL will stay high on the list for future cruising. We would like to cruise to Hawaii next.