In early June 2002, my wife, favorite grandson Philip, and I embarked on a two-week Alaska cruise aboard Holland America's (HA) ms Veendam. We chose back-to-back cruises between Vancouver and Seward. The two itineraries differed enough to justify booking a two way, and we reserved early enough so we stayed in the same minisuite. Normally we choose a standard outside cabin, but we wanted a little extra space to accommodate nine-year-old Philip. The balcony was convenient when we didn't feel like going on the public decks. For those not familiar with HA's 'S' class ships, Veendam has marvelous forward viewing decks. They're totally unobstructed and provide enough space so we were never crowded. Veendam's deck plans, etc are available at: http://www.hollandamerica.com/fivestarfleet/veendam.htm.
For pre and post cruise we flew from Houston, TX to Seattle, WA, where we picked up a rental car and drove the remainder of the trip, @ 150 miles. We were using frequent flyer miles, and Continental asked 50,000 miles to Vancouver and 25,000 to Seattle. Rental cars are pricey, but it was still the better choice. I-5 is an easy drive, and the scenery is great. Consider driving as an alternative if you have to change planes in Seattle. The airlines insist on a two-hour time difference between flights. Adding up the wait time and the flying time between SEA and YVR plus a taxi to your hotel, the total time lapsed flying vs. driving is near zero during weekends. There are shuttle buses available, but they make so many stops that their travel time is too long. We encountered virtually no delays at the border. The wait time to cross was roughly ten minutes each way. The document inspection was more thorough crossing into Canada then returning. The Canadian inspector closely inspected our 'permission letter', which allowed Philip to travel with us. On the return, the U.S. inspector asked if we had permission. When I offered it to him, he waved us on without looking at it. The Canadian inspector in Vancouver also gave the letter a thorough reading when we disembarked. During the cruises there was no immigration or customs clearance northbound; however, southbound a Canadian customs form was required for disembarkation.
We arrived a day early and stayed at the Pan Pacific Hotel. It's expensive, but it is conveniently connected to Canada Place pier where our cruise ship docks, and has great harbor views. The hotel restaurants are excellent. You'll find an alternative food court underground on the street side of the hotel. There is an entrance to the underground from the Pan Pacific's front lobby. Boarding Veendam began at about 1:30PM. The waiting lounge has no concession stands. It is a large warehouse like area with check-in desks and straight back chairs for passengers. Sail-away was Sunday. Monday was spent cruising up the incredibly beautiful inside passage. This is your best day for viewing whales from the ship. We saw a number of humpbacks that evening, both before and during dinner (late sitting). Mind the Captain's announcements regarding the best sighting times. He was invariably on target.
While on-board Philip enjoyed the activities and games conducted by the kid's club, aka Club HAL. Club HAL schedule for both port and sea days included an evening session from 8:00 - 9:45. During sea days two-hour sessions were added morning and afternoon. The children were organized into three age groups: Kids 5 -8, Tweens 8 -12 and Teens 13 - 17. Besides the on-board activities, the shore excursion desk scheduled tours in each port just for children. The tours were age grouped for 6 -12 and 13 - 19. How well your child enjoys Club HAL depends entirely on the directors because HA provides little or no support. There is no specific playroom dedicated. Most sessions are in unoccupied and unfurnished meeting rooms, usually the Half Moon or Hudson. On one occasion they were ejected early from their scheduled and reserved room and had to complete their session in an adjoining corridor. They were still intent on having fun, but the hurt was evident in their eyes. Unfortunately, adults often treat children as non-persons with little regard for their feelings. The more active sessions were conducted in the pool area and the Sports Deck. HA has converted a dedicated playroom on Maasdam, but fleet wide conversion is progressing at a glacier pace. Philip was very fortunate to have Sara and Solange as directors. Both clearly love children and know how to interact with them. Philip is a very social child and each time looked forward to his Club HAL meetings. Each cruise culminates in the kids performing a musical routine during the RockinRolldies show on Saturday afternoon. Philip celebrated his ninth birthday during the cruise. He wanted to be in Club HAL that night so our dining room supervisor, Andre, arranged for a birthday cake to be delivered to the meeting room. It was a luscious black and white sheet cake inscribed in his honor. Sara organized the kids into a birthday party and gave Philip a small gift. Club HAL, principally due to Sara, was a major reason Philip didn't want the journey to end. He asked to cruise back-to-back-to-back ad infinitum.
A "Naturalist" was assigned to Veendam. Kurt offered daily talks on numerous subjects significant to our trip. Subjects such as "Fire and Ice" and "Glaciers, Rivers of Ice" were explored. Kurt also scheduled "desk" sessions for one-on-one discussions and questions. While cruising glaciers, he provided a running narrative over the PA system. Kurt possesses a perfect voice for this, a smooth baritone which you can mentally tune in or out at will. During these times, he was usually on the forward promenade viewing deck. Entering Glacier Bay, Veendam boarded Park Rangers who also provided narration and talks. Later in the afternoon, the rangers set up a table in The Crow's Nest Lounge selling mementoes and souvenirs of Glacier Bay. Bring your passport to have a Glacier Bay visa stamp imprinted. Our northbound itinerary included a day cruising Hubbard Glacier. The second day southbound we cruised College Fjord, and the third day was dedicated to Glacier Bay. Margery Glacier was best for calving. Margery shed frequently, throwing off building sized chunks of ice. Viewing glaciers is a magical experience. There is dead silence, interrupted only by the shotgun sounds of the glacier cracking and the crashes and moaning of the ice falling into the bay. For those not familiar with Holland America, a mention of age demographics is appropriate. HA is famous for catering to an older clientele. This is evident in the large number of repeat cruisers; some have accrued hundreds of days cruising with HA. Since school was out, there were youngsters on board, but not in the numbers you'll find on Royal Caribbean or Carnival. The majority of people choosing 'Cruise-Tours' scheduled their Alaska land segment pre-cruise, boarding Veendam in Seward. These passengers skewed to younger and more active families with children. There were twenty-three children in Philip's Club HAL group during our second week, as opposed to thirteen the first week. In Holland America's favor are the mid-sized ships with fewer passengers, exceptional dining room and cabin service, few in-your-face promotions, low key attractive interior décor with an abundance of genuine art works throughout the public areas, a couple of semi-secluded lounges, a "Magrodome" with a cover for the Lido pool area which can be closed in inclement weather, and a number of small amenities such as a free coffee bar serving espresso, cappuccino, cookies and occasional hors d'ouevres, afternoon tea service in The Explorers Lounge, and a proper movie theater showing current films. Did I mention the heated pools? Swimming is practical even in Alaska. Each day we enjoyed a late afternoon dip. A concluding word about personal choice: if you require a live-wire party atmosphere with ice-skating rinks and rock climbing walls, Holland America is probably not for you. However, young or old, if you prefer a more stress-free and stately environment with excellent service and lots of small amenities, then HA is absolutely perfect.
We sailed Veendam November 2001 E. Caribbean. At that time there was a notable staff shortage in the Rotterdam Dining Room, resulting in protracted two hour plus meals. This time the Rotterdam was fully staffed so we zipped through dinner in record time. Philip usually ate earlier in The Lido, but some nights, notably formal and semi-formal (What can I say. The kid likes to dress up.), he joined us in the dining room. The service was prompt enough that he never became antsy. There is a kid's menu, but it's the same each night. Besides, ordering from the main menu allowed Philip to discover new culinary delights. Some he liked; some he didn't. That's a good thing.
Besides the glorious scenery, the main reason for an Alaskan cruise is, of course, the ports. We scheduled shore excursions both through the ship and with independent operators. All of the ship's tours were first rate with exceptional guides. Independent tours offer flexibility of schedule as well as a more intimate and personalized experience. They are generally less expensive, as well. Alaska ports make it very easy to book independent operators. I reserved most of ours before departure, but many can be booked right on the pier. Ketchikan, for example, has a shed on the dock with about twenty different tour desks lined up waiting for you. If you're after a flight seeing or glacier landing type tour, you should advance book. Nearly all the tour operators have web sites. These are easy to find by going to each community's web page where you'll usually find links to the tours. Most of the Saxman Village, Gold Panning or Hiking type tours can wait till the last minute. Our best ship's tours were with Allen Marine in Sitka. The Sea Otter Quest, a three-hour trip, was most notable. Although Allen Marine employs large boats, the narration and amenities are excellent. Their boats can take up to 150 passengers. Ours was not that large. I didn't make a head count, but I'd estimate we had about ninety souls on board. The boat has a totally enclosed lower deck and a partially enclosed upper. I'd urge you to take an upper deck seat where there is a protective 'U' shaped wraparound glass windscreen that is open in the rear allowing air circulation throughout. Because the lower deck is totally enclosed, there is little airflow. The atmosphere inside becomes extremely close, inducing seasickness. The ride out to the viewing areas is quite rough and at high speed. It's a lot of fun, but when the boat slowed down and became still for wildlife viewing, every below deck youngster, including ours, became ill. I took Philip upstairs and some kind folks let us sit with them until he recovered. Those who stayed below remained semi-comatose for the rest of the tour. Along the way we saw one humpback whale, and rafts of sea otters. On the return southbound leg we took the Silver Bay Cruise. This cruise is in an enclosed bay, so it was a much smoother ride. It culminates in a visit to a salmon hatchery.
Our best independent tour was a three hour Whale Watching Cruise with Orca Enterprises, aka Capt. Larry, while in Juneau. Capt Larry's boat is custom built and seats a maximum of thirty-two passengers; however, he normally books only twenty-four, leaving extra wiggle room. The "Awesome Orca" is a forty-two foot water-jet propulsion craft with an enclosed lower deck. There is a roomy and comfortable exposed viewing deck on the aft end. The top deck is totally open for SRO viewing. Up-top limit is eight at a time, so we all periodically rotate. The trip through Auke Bay to the viewing area is at high speed, but the waters are calm throughout. The still waters in the bay combine with the smoother jet engines for a far smoother ride than our Sitka experience. We saw a number of whales, one of whom breeched directly in front of our bow. Two humpbacks were deep diving in tandem as a ballet duo, showing their flukes with each dive. Sea Lions and Dall's Porpoises were abundant. Alas, no seals or orcas appeared today. Orca Enterprises is a truly first class operation. Capt. Larry provides the narration and finds the wildlife. His web site is: http://www.alaskawhalewatching.com/. You need to book this tour about one month in advance.
For the northbound leg, we had booked a helicopter/glacier landing tour in Juneau. The ship contracts with Temsco Helicopter who is the only operator licensed to land on Mendenhall Glacier. The weather was rainy, but open for flying, so we took off. Unfortunately, when we arrived over Mendenhall the weather shut down. Landings were cancelled and we had to return to base. One advantage of a back-to-back cruise is the potential to make up for lost opportunities. Since I had scheduled Orca Enterprises for the southbound leg, I stopped by their office on the pier and asked Becky to schedule Coastal Helicopter in conjunction with the boat tour. This permitted Orca to coordinate our boat tour and helicopter trip. The shuttle bus from the boat dropped us off at Coastal's base. Coastal took us flight seeing over a few glaciers and landed on Norris Glacier. We had a beautiful sunny day, so both the boat trip and glacier landing came off great. Coastal is a much smaller operation than Temsco, but our pilot was skilled and an excellent tour guide.
A don't miss is the Raptor Center in Sitka. You don't need to book a tour. The Center provides frequent guided tours through their site. Each tour finishes with a video and a talk by one of the Naturalists. A Metro shuttle bus stops at the dock, runs through town out to The Raptor Center and circles back every half hour. The shuttle fare is $7.00, good all day. The Raptor center's web site is at: http://www.alaskaraptor.org/. There are great photo ops here.
While on the subject of eagles, you'll be pleased to know that they are no longer on the endangered species list, and they are absolutely everywhere. Our first stop on land, in Ketchikan, we stopped in a wooded area. There were eagles in the trees just above who proceeded to fly out and return in dive-bomber fashion. It was a marvelous display. Our tour guide said that they are well paid! Eagles cover the harbor islands and rocks in Sitka. Their favorite food is McDonald's French fries.
If your schedule allows time in Seward, be sure to book a dog sled tour and ride with Tom Seavy's Ididaride. The Seavy family breeds and raises dogs for the annual Iditarod 1100-mile race. You will visit the kennels, pet the puppies and take a bumpy but fun ride on a sled behind twelve of the best quality sled dogs in the world. Seavy's kennels are about ten minutes from Seward. Give them a call and they'll pick you up at the cruise terminal gate. Don't miss this, especially if you have kids with you. There are really great photo ops here. Seavy's web site is at: http://www.alaskaone.com/ididaride/. Also in Seward set aside an hour or two for the Alaskan Sea Life Center. No tour guide is necessary for this. It's conveniently located nearby restaurants in the center of town. http://www.alaskasealife.org/
Another first rate independent operator is Ketchikan City Tours who offer a Sea Kayak tour. We were provided with excellent guides and safe, well maintained and easy to operate kayaks. This is another tour you can book dockside. They're at desk #11 and their web site is: http://citytours.alaskamade.com/.
This cruise was the experience of a lifetime. MS Veendam is a first rate ship, maintained to the highest standards and staffed with the best possible people. As for our glimpse of Alaska, only a gifted artist can depict its beauty and grandeur, words can't suffice. I certainly can't describe it. You just have to experience Alaska for yourself. And don't forget your binoculars!