My family and I sailed on the June 1 Alaska cruise of Holland America's Zaandam. My husband and I are African American professionals. I am a CPA and controller for a physician group practice and my husband is an insurance claims adjuster. We were travelling with our 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. This was the sixth cruise for my son and myself, the fifth for my daughter and the third for my husband. My number one reason for cruising with HAL was the line's long experience in Alaska. Additionally, I was impressed by the reviews that I read. So, below is a summary of the positives and the negatives of my Alaska cruise.
1. We got to Vancouver's Canada Place, the departure terminal, at 11:30 a.m., although the embarkation did not start until about 1:30 p.m. We were the first ones to board because the HAL representative wanted to make sure my kids would be the first to get to the buffet.
2. We had a very nice category S suite. The biggest benefit for us was the free laundry and dry cleaning service. We took full advantage of this perk.
3. Alaska was absolutely beautiful. The views from my balcony were wonderful, and the weather was also pretty nice. In Juneau, my son and I took the Coastal Helicopter flight-seeing tour. It was awesome. The service was great. When we got off the ship, a driver was waiting to take us to the heliport. The temperature on the glacier was about the same as it was on land. We left our heavy coats and scarves at the Coastal office and enjoyed a gorgeous flight over the ice fields. The trip was well worth the cost.
Upon returning, we met my husband and daughter and went to the salmon bake. I thought the salmon was wonderful. It started raining at the salmon bake, but the area was covered so we didn't get too wet. In Skagway, I took my children to the park service as recommended by "Budget Queen". The tour and movie were quite informative--but of course, I enjoyed it more than my kids. We learned a lot about the gold rush.
In the afternoon we all went on the White Pass train. Again this was beautiful but my 13-year-old struggled to stay awake. Thank goodness we took the train up and the bus back down from the pass or I too would have fallen asleep. There's something about a train ride that just rocks you like a baby.
We also stopped at the "Liarsville" camp. It was pretty corny, but my kids got a kick out of panning for gold. In Ketchikan, we went to the Saxman Village to see the totem poles. We watched an Indian dance and my son was picked to be the "Chief" in the final dance. This was a nice way to spend the morning.
We returned to the ship for lunch and then my son and I went off to our floatplane flight-seeing tour with Island Wings. Our flight was initially scheduled for 3 p.m. but our pilot, Michelle, didn't arrive until 3:30. At first I was upset, but Michelle gave us a wonderful tour of Misty Fjords. During our flight it rained a little but that did not spoil our experience. Michelle landed on a very small island and we soaked in the scenery for about 15 minutes. (I noticed that the cruise ship flight-seeing tours landed in water, so the passengers were not able to get out and walk around.)
After taking off from the island and heading back home, Michelle asked my 10- year-old son (who was sitting up front with her) if he would like to help fly the plane. My son looked back at me with this HUGE smile to see if I would approve. I nodded, and Michelle let him steer the floatplane all the way back to the docks. Needless to say, this was the highlight of the trip for my son. On our way back to the ship, my son said "Momma, I know what I want to be when I grow up--a pilot". Thanks Michelle. The next time we're in Ketchican, we'll come see you. My family, especially my son and I (although I'm not too sure about my daughter), thoroughly enjoyed our excursions.
4. Sumarno, one of the dining room waiters, and the Maitre D' of the Marco Polo (I forget his name) provided us with wonderful service. Sumarno came to our table every day. If the kids were not with us, he always inquired as to their whereabouts. He was a genuinely nice man.
5. Overall, the food was good. I did not find it any better or worse than the food on RCCL, but I did enjoy it more than the food on Princess and Carnival.
Now for the areas needing improvement.
1. This was the first cruise I have been on where my stateroom wasn't cleaned until 1 or 2 p.m. We would go out for breakfast and come back and our suite still wasn't serviced--although I noticed that other suites on our floor were cleaned. I mentioned this to the front desk but the service did not improve.
2. Our waiter did not speak or understand English very well. On the first night my daughter asked for cheddar cheese for her baked potato and she was given Parmesan cheese. We also ordered soft drinks that never came. We mentioned this to the dining room supervisor and he made sure that cheddar cheese was on our table every day thereafter. The service did improve as the week went by.
3. There were no other teens on this cruise, so my daughter was extremely bored. She spent a lot of time in the cabin watching movies. There were a few kids my son's age so he didn't have too bad a time. The kids' area, however, is very small. It made me wonder how Zaandam would handle 20 or more kids on board. This ship was definitely not made to accommodate too many children.
4. There was absolutely no racial diversity on this ship. Among 1,500 passengers, there was only one other African American family. In general, 99.9% of the other passengers were wonderful, but my husband, kids and I received questioning looks from some passengers as if to say "what are you doing here"? My kids also mentioned that one passenger made faces at them and my son said that another passenger pushed him out of the way. We explained to my children that some people are just nasty, ugly people who cannot help themselves. Anyway, we did not let this spoil our trip.
5. An FYI for those of you who consider purchasing the $19.99 soda card for your child: Be aware that on Zaandam it cannot be used in the dining room. Therefore, you pay $19.99 plus an additional amount for sodas in the dining room. This was unacceptable to me, and I returned my children's soda cards for full refunds.
6. The NBA finals were not available on this trip. This was a huge disappointment for my husband, my son, myself and lots of other passengers. I have cruised on other lines during playoff time where the games were close-captioned and televised on board.
7. I personally prefer a larger ship because there are a lot more activities. On this trip, HAL lived up to its reputation. There really was not much happening after the 10 p.m. show. I went up to the disco one night and there were about 10 people in it.
8. Debarkation was horrible. We did not get off of the ship until about 10:30 a.m. We were in the last group called. There were people everywhere in the cruise terminal. We then had to wait until 11:30 for the HAL bus. The HAL representative was very rude to us. HAL provided us with a free night's stay at the Fairmont Hotel, including a Vancouver city tour. I didn't notice beforehand, but HAL only provided us with two vouchers. The HAL lady had the nerve to insinuate that I did not pay for the excursion and that was why I only had two vouchers. I told her that I did not pay because this was part of a free promotion offered by HAL. I finally just got on the bus and sat down and told her that she could figure it out. The tour of Vancouver was wonderful however. And the service at the Fairmont was also excellent.
9. Vancouver airport was horrible. Because so many cruise passengers were going through customs and immigration, the lines stretched to eternity. After waiting in numerous lines for over two hours, everyone was assessed a $10 per person "airport improvement fee".
If the price were right, I would probably cruise on HAL again. But I probably wouldn't cruise on HAL with my kids because the ship wasn't geared to accommodating kids. Overall, HAL was a little below my expectation but I didn't let this ruin my trip. I had a wonderful time in Alaska. We enjoyed our suite (once it was cleaned) and in general the service was satisfactory. In some cases service was excellent while in other cases it was poor but it didn't detract from our overall enjoyment.
In closing, I must admit that I am a cruise addict. No cruise has ever been perfect. And I consider it all part of the cruising experience. I have already booked a cruise for 2003. Unfortunately, it will not be with HAL.