Our family of three consists of one "almost fifty year old" Mom and 2 teenagers age 19 and 14. This was our seventh cruise, the others having been to Caribbean destinations and the eastern Mediterranean. Our past cruise ships have included Holland America (both Westerdams, old and new), Carnival (Destiny), Royal Caribbean (Adventure of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas) and Celebrity (Galaxy).
The plan for this Alaska cruise originated with a planned vacation to Vancouver. We had intended to visit Vancouver a few years ago, even bought the airline tickets, and then had to bail when we had a conflict in dates with another arrangement.
It just seemed to make sense that if we were going to fly from Toronto to sight see in Vancouver for one week, we could add a second week to cruise to Alaska and make one grand holiday out of the whole thing.
Although we've had a few friends who cruised to Alaska and said it was wonderful, no one really described the trip in any detail, and we had seen almost no photographs.
This probably means we didn't know quite what to expect, in many ways!
The choice of cruise line was fairly easy as we had very much enjoyed our previous experiences with Holland America. An important consideration was the timing as we needed a cruise that would sail from Vancouver on either August 18 or 19.
The Ship Zuiderdam went into service in 2002 as the first of Holland America's Vista Class ships. Westerdam, on which we cruised the Caribbean two y ears ago, was the third Vista Class ship so we generally knew what to expect in terms of the layout although the décor and especially the art varies from one ship to the other.
Embarkation was very quick and smooth. We had completed our on-line check in prior to our vacation and from the time our taxi dropped us at the pier until we were walking onboard Zuiderdam wasn't more than 20 minutes. We were advised that the stateroom was unlikely to be ready before 1 p.m. and directed to the Lido where we had a bite to eat.
Based on past experience of the stampede to the spa, I knew enough to head in that direction right away to book the treatments that I wanted. This way I was able to get all the times and dates I wanted. When I returned from making those appointments at the Greenhouse Spa, my daughter laughingly told me that a gentleman at a nearby table on the pool deck of the Lido lost his entire pizza slice when a plump seagull swooped down to his table and carried the pizza away. The guilty gull returned a little later (as evidenced by the streak of tomato sauce on his beak).
Stateroom We went to check on our stateroom at about 1:10 and it was ready for us. It was a superior verandah suite, Cat SA, and was spacious, well furnished, and very nicely laid out. The verandah was a "double width" and therefore featured two comfortable faux wicker chairs with ottomans, and a round table with 4 chairs.
We found during our week on board that we had more storage space than we honestly knew what to do with. A nice problem to have! We had 2 closets each (one a hanging closet, the other with shelves) and plenty of drawers, cupboards, and other places to stash stuff.
Our stateroom had several electrical outlets which was handy for recharging all that electronic gear that invariably follows us around these days.
We enjoyed and took advantage of the "free" laundry service that Holland America offers to suite guests. Since we had already been traveling for 7 days when we boarded the ship, it wasn't long before we were able to fill a laundry bag and each time we did so, the clean clothes were returned to our suite the following day.
Our Stateroom Attendant seemed very capable, made us lovely towel animals, and generally was unobtrusive. My teenage daughter has a tendency to "sleep in" during her summer vacation which meant that T couldn't tidy the stateroom until late morning but he had others available to him much earlier and I think learned to save us until last.
Dining We originally requested early seating, small table, but about 2 months prior to sailing I re-thought that because some of our excursions were in the late afternoon and would interfere with an early seating time. I think the early seating request was a leftover from the years when my children were younger but they can easily wait until 8 p.m. now. Our travel agent made the request for a change to main seating and was told we would be wait-listed.
Upon check-in at the pier, we were given our cruise cards and they showed main seating, 8:15 p.m. so we were quite happy with that. Interestingly, on the first evening we showed our cards as we entered the dining room, were shown to our table and drink orders taken. Notably, our waiter did not introduce himself or his assistant and already I had the sense that he felt rushed and somehow not on top of his game.
I was sipping my wine when our waiter informed us we were at "the wrong table". I replied that this was the table to which we were directed when we presented our card upon entering the dining room. But the problem was, we were supposed to be at Table 195 and this was NOT Table 195.
After a bit of a shuffle, we relocated to the REAL #195 which was a table for 6 with 3 passengers already seated, a couple (perhaps 70-ish) traveling with their 13 year old grandson. They were pleasant to visit with so we were happy enough with the change.
However, I have never experienced such poor co-ordination between waiter and assistant in any cruise ship dining room as we saw between the two gentleman who were looking after us.
It was almost comical but it was not prompt nor particularly professional. There was a noticeable lag between each course, my entrée was incorrect (entirely the wrong dish) and when it was replaced, the replacement (salmon) was nearly raw.
The second evening, the formal Gala night, our table mates did not show up. Again the service seemed haphazard with the waiter doing almost everything and hardly a sign of the assistant waiter. Not only was this dramatically different than our previous Holland America dining room experiences, but it was way below the standard of any cruise ship on which we've sailed.
On Holland America ships, the assistant is shared between two waiters and it occurred to us that perhaps the second waiter was using up more than his share of time.
Ever since an experience a few years ago when our companions at a table for 6 only showed up about half the time, we have learned it works better for us to request a small table and fill it than be 3 at a table for 6 which is just an awkward arrangement.
The second evening near the end of the meal, the Assistant Dining Room manager came by to ask if everything was OK. I mentioned to him that our dinner companions had not put in an appearance and asked whether they had requested a change of seating. It occurred to me they might have done so because I think they felt the lateness of the seating might not be the best thing for their 13 year old grandson.
Sure enough, they had requested a somewhat earlier seating and so we would not have them with us again. On that basis, I asked for a change to a small table for the balance of the cruise. He returned half an hour later with a small card indicating a change of table for the following evening.
Our new table was in an adjacent section, only a few feet away, but this made a big difference to us because it brought us Wayan as our waiter and Evan as his assistant. Our dining experience onboard Zuiderdam took a full 180 degree turn for the better from that moment on!
Wayan was a superb server, friendly, professional, engaging, and with great suggestions about which items on the menu were really "the good stuff". Once again we felt we were onboard a Holland America ship and decided to consider table #195 as just a blip on an otherwise flawless radar screen.
The food was generally quite good and with enough choices to always find something satisfying. It wasn't "quite" the dining experience we had on Celebrity a year ago but certainly as enjoyable as other Holland America sailings.
A couple of years ago when I reviewed our cruise on the new "Westerdam", I commented that the breakfast buffet in the Lido required getting used to because things were scattered around quite a bit. For example, you do not get your custom cooked eggs at the omelet station but rather in the same line up as the general breakfast buffet. Many people seemed confused by this, walking up to the omelet chef to ask for "2 eggs over easy". Couldn't be done.
The Lido is designed predominantly as a cafeteria where you carry the tray and they serve up the food. Only the salad bar is self-service. This means that it can take a bit of discussion to get the right combination of items on your plate but the staff are generally very accommodating and will try to get things to your satisfaction. If you do not want to carry your tray to a table (or are unable to do so) there always seems to be a staff member more than ready to take it from you and look after things.
Concierge/Neptune Lounge We had a Concierge Class suite but to be honest I wasn't sure we would be able to make much use of the concierge lounge (Neptune Lounge). We sailed on Adventure of the Seas at New Year's and my daughter was not permitted to enter the lounge because she was younger than 18 years. The first day on the ship I went to the lounge to introduce myself to the Concierges (January and Carlo) and asked whether my daughter would be able to enter. They said "absolutely". I think the difference was that no alcohol was served in this lounge; on Adventure of the Seas there was a bar in the Concierge lounge.
The Neptune lounge proved very useful to all of us but especially to my daughter who tends to be a "grazer", foraging for bits of food at odd times during the day. She is quite slim and can afford those extra delicacies! The Neptune always had a variety of small chilled items available, canapés, fruit trays, veggie trays, pastries, and the like as well as an assortment of juices, tea, and coffee. My daughter was probably their most frequent visitor and this proved to be a very useful amenity for us.
On the other hand, I did find the Concierge on board Adventure of the Seas (an RCI ship) more useful to me personally, because she sent me an e-mail about one week before our sail date to offer her services in a variety of ways.
Because of that communication with RCI's concierge, I was able to book the reservation-only restaurant, spa appointments, and shore excursions via the Concierge well in advance of our arrival on the ship. I didn't have any advance contact with Zuiderdam's concierge and consequently I looked after making my own appointments either before we boarded or immediately upon boarding.
Demographics I have to say that generally this was the "oldest" of the cruises we've taken. That is not to say there were loads of senior seniors, but rather there were very few young people and especially teenagers relative to other cruises we've taken (including with Holland America).
My daughter went to explore the "teen program" a couple of times but returned to the cabin saying "there are only about 6 kids there, and they're playing video games". They just didn't seem to have an adequate supply of teens to get anything more interesting off the ground. Maybe a few more teens came out of the woodwork later in the cruise, but my daughter gave up after tracking the teen program down for the first couple of days.
It seemed to all of us that there was a higher proportion of "first time cruisers" on this ship than we've experienced in the past. I attribute that to our destination. Europe is easily visited without a cruise ship. Likewise anyone can get to the Caribbean easily enough.
Alaska is not so easy and the ports we visited were not easily accessible by any means other than plane or boat. There are no highways in or out of Juneau. And Skagway is only connected by highway to one other city. So cruising seems the logical option for accessibility. Coupled with that, the best scenery was to be found on our "Scenic cruising" days and literally you would HAVE to be cruising to see the scenery. Therefore, people who have not chosen to cruise to any other destination will probably cruise to Alaska if they go to Alaska at all.
Ports and Excursions Our itinerary for this cruise provided 3 ports of call: Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. It also included 2 "scenic cruising" opportunities, Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay.
Tracy Arm: After one full day at sea, we arrived very early in the morning at the opening to Tracy Arm. Tracy Arm is literally just that, an arm, and you cruise into it and then out of it again. It doesn't lead anywhere, but it provides some beautiful scenery and views, and was our first opportunity to view icebergs and a glacier.
Although most of the icebergs were quite small, there were a few larger ones and some amazingly blue glaciers As we later learned, the blue colour is the result of the intensely compacted ice which the blue rays of the colour spectrum are not able to penetrate and therefore the blue is reflected. These icebergs would eventually become clear or white as they were impacted by air and water.
We received a notice in our stateroom the evening before we cruised into Tracy Arm, indicating that hot chocolate and warm raisin buns would be served on the bow at 7 a.m. The poor servers were nearly knocked down by the stampede of people looking for hot chocolate. Eventually everyone who wanted hot chocolate succeeded in getting one (and in some cases, several) and I think passengers used these mugs as much to warm their hands as to enjoy the hot and tasty beverage inside the mugs.
It was c-c-c-cold out there! Many passengers were wearing ski jackets, hats, and gloves. I had a sweater and my camera and was quite appreciative of both.
I took many dozens of photos that morning and in reviewing them, I was struck by how "cold" the water looked, the wispy streams of clouds in the valleys and across the mountain faces, and the sheer beauty of a couple of brilliantly blue icebergs that I captured as they floated past.
Juneau: The following morning we arrived at Juneau where the ship was anchored and we were tendered to shore. Juneau looked quite interesting and I was eager to explore and do a little souvenir shopping. First, though, we took off for our shore excursion which was a visit to Mendenhall Glacier followed by a salmon bake.
The Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Centre is located about 12 miles out of Juneau. It was interesting to walk from the parking lot up to the visitor centre and see the "bear" caution signs along the way. It was clear that bear sightings were not uncommon. The nearby river was full of salmon and it seemed very likely that any time a bear could come down the river bank to scoop one up.
The Mendenhall Glacier is quite impressive, even from a bit of a distance. We were not able to get right to the glacier but certainly close enough to take very good photographs. The visitor centre was interesting and the 11 minute film did a good job of refreshing my rusty memory on Glacier creation and facts.
From the Glacier, we were taken by bus to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. This was truly an experience. I cannot imagine how many pieces of salmon they grill per day over their alderwood fire, but they were clearly quite expert at it. I have never, ever eaten better salmon!
The driver of our bus gave us the heads-up that the cornbread would be excellent and it would be even better with the sweet sauce on top that they serve on top of the salmon. We dutifully asked for an extra spoonful of sauce over the cornbread. Well, that sauce is to die for and it could probably make anything taste like heaven. We can vouch for the fact that it has this effect on cornbread. We went back for seconds on the salmon and the cornbread. My son said the ribs and chicken were good, I enjoyed the salads and especially the baked beans.
For dessert they had a variety of home-baked pies but I was much too full to even consider them. For the young and young-at-heart, they had a campfire, marshmallows, and sticks. My daughter very kindly roasted a couple of marshmallows for me and those crispy golden treats were my dessert.
After dinner we stretched our legs just a little with a short walk to a very pretty waterfall before boarding the bus which took us back to the port area. We still had a few hours remaining in port, so we went shopping for a few souvenirs and bought a warm fall weight jacket for my son who hadn't brought a jacket and had looked quite chilled on the bow of Zuiderdam in Tracy Arm the day before.
Skagway: There is no question that Skagway was our favourite port, and that is because of the two sensational excursions we enjoyed.
Our first excursion of the day was the Helicopter tour to a Glacier. This was an amazing experience for all three of us. We began by being fitted with glacier boots (they go on right over your shoes) and safety vests. We then had a safety briefing and then proceeded outdoors to wait in our groups at the assigned helicopter pad. There were 6 helicopters and 6 pads, and they all came in together, one right behind the other, which was a very impressive sight.
We had been advised of our seating positions in the helicopter (they have to balance the load by weight) so then it was a matter of getting into our seats, putting on the seatbelts, getting our headphones in place and settling in to enjoy the ride.
The pictures we took in flight will always remind us of this experience but it isn't possible to capture the magnitude of the view in the frame of a photo. We flew in and out of glacial valleys, through the low hanging clouds, above the glacier, alongside mountains, and it was absolutely beautiful.
When we landed, we were met by a glacier guide who provided additional safety information for walking on glaciers, handed out "walking sticks" to a few people who felt they would be beneficial, and then for 40 very informative and interesting minutes we walked on the glacier and learned as much as we could absorb.
Our 40 minutes were over all too soon and it was time for another wonderful 20 minute helicopter flight back to the heliport. We flew over our ship, and Summit which was docked alongside, and felt that we'd just had the most exhilarating excursion of any of our cruises.
That feeling lasted about 4 hours, until our second excursion of the day which in its own way was every bit as exciting.
Our second excursion was to a Musher's Camp for a summer sled experience and interaction with husky puppies. Before the fact, I thought this would be something of a woodsy experience, seeing the "real" Alaska, and a bit of fun to interact with some playful pups.
Goes to show what I know about Musher's Camps!
Oh, it was woodsy, "real", and fun all right. But it was NOTHING at all like the experience I had imagined.
We started with our 1 mile summer sled run. I do not use the word "run" lightly. These dogs were NOT purebred Siberian huskies. They weren't purebred anything. They were 50 pound racing "mutts", bred for speed, endurance, and sheer desire to "go!". They had all of that and then some.
When they took off, with 6 adult passengers and a musher in a summer sled (equipped with wheels instead of runners) it was probably 600 pounds of dog pulling 1500 pounds of human. Didn't matter. We were pinned to the back of our seats by the sheer energy of these dogs the moment they were told to go.
When not "going", they seemed to divide into two groups. First, those who lay on the ground waiting to hear the word "go" before springing into action and, second, those who stood in harness, vibrating like a Maserati at a red light, waiting to hear the word "go" and have their gears engaged.
Wow! There were lots of sharp turns, curves, and some serious drops along the side of the gravel road. I called to the musher "do you have steering on this thing?". "I have a steering STICK!", was the response.
My suspicion is that a steering stick is nothing like the power steering on my car!
This was the most exhilarating experience I had in Alaska and probably one of the most exhilarating experiences in my entire life. I really had underestimated this one. My heart was racing, I held on for dear life, I took some fantastically blurry pictures (which I love because they clearly delineate the speed and momentum and sheer vivaciousness of this experience), and at the end I felt that this had been a roller coaster. Not, I might add, a roller coaster built and supervised by engineers and other professionals who determine every tolerance and load. This roller coaster was built by dogs and one human, the musher, and it was quite the ride.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Glacier Bay: We received a notice to our stateroom on Tuesday evening to let us know that on Wednesday morning the Captain would be holding the ship directly in front of the Glacier "Marjorie" and a wine and cheese party would be held on the bow.
After the chilly experience of Tracy Arm, I laid out many layers of clothing on Tuesday night before bedtime, determined that I would (for a change) be the first one to exit the stateroom but properly dressed for whatever form of inclement weather Alaska might throw my way.
Murphy's Law being what it is, this meant that Wednesday morning dawned bright, cloudless, and relatively mild, and only got better as the morning progressed.
As the ship made its way into Glacier Bay we picked up a Park Ranger who provided commentary from the bridge, over the loudspeaker system, throughout the day.
The approach to Marjorie was beautiful, the water was as serene as a sheet of glass, a beautiful colour, and the morning was just perfect and sunlit. No need for mugs of hot chocolate and hot raisin buns here. I began to see how "wine and cheese" was going to fill the requirement perfectly.
What can I say about Marjorie except that she is one mile wide at the mouth, clean and white and jagged with peaks and striations of clear brilliant blue, surrounded by glorious mountain scenery. Never in my life have I attended a party in such a magnificent venue, decorated only by Mother Nature, and likely not to be rivaled by any event I attend or create in the rest of my life.
Cameras of course were in action on all sides. It just seemed impossible to take enough pictures to capture the drama, the spectacle, the panorama that was in front of us. After a very long time spent with the bow pointing directly towards this magnificent glacier, the ship began a very slow pivot so that every side of the ship had an opportunity to take in the scene.
At one point the Glacier Bay park ranger indicated she was going to speak only through the ship's internal speakers (not broadcasting out onto the bow) because a mother bear and her two cubs were grazing on a rocky slope and the ranger did not want the sound of her voice on the loudspeakers to scare them away.
I managed to capture a photo of them, albeit they looked like small brown specks in the distance. However, I was carrying an excellent camera with a good lens and later some careful cropping managed to expose the reality that these 3 dots were in fact a mother bear and her cub family out enjoying a beautiful morning.
Ketchikan: We had booked a private Hummer tour at Ketchikan. In hindsight, it was a little bit of a waste because Ketchikan was a bit like the other 2 ports and so there wasn't a great deal to see that we hadn't seen already in a similar fashion. Probably the most interesting area was Creek Street, which is an easy walk from the pier.
We did travel with our Hummer driver to see local scenery, salmon spawning, a bald eagle pair, with a stop for a very tasty salmon dip snack along the way.
But the most memorable thing about Ketchikan was "Dolly's House", the infamous local bordello from the days when these ‘houses' were legal in Ketchikan . Dolly was clearly an entrepreneur ahead of her time, a woman who marched to her own drummer and knew exactly how to get ahead in a male-dominated society. Upon her death, she donated her house to the town, complete with décor, gadgets and gizmos and resplendent with outlandish décor.
In hindsight, I wish we had booked no excursions for Ketchikan and simply spent all of our time in the Creek Street area. If this was the first port on our itinerary, it would have been much more worth the exploration. As the last port, it was just a bit too "been there, done that" with the exception of this one historic and very cute street with a few artsy shops and generally just a very pretty area to walk around.
It has been 2 months since we left Alaska and came home to the height of summer. When I think of Alaska now, the scenes that spring to my mind are the absolutely indescribably magnificent scenery (especially Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay), the helicopter flight to the glacier and the musher's camp.
This was a wonderful trip, a wonderful cruise. Between the 3 of us we must have taken at least 1,000 photos. Choosing my favourite 50 would be no easy task.
The Zuiderdam and its staff really provided a comfortable, warm, hospitable backdrop to an experience that is truly incredible and that even 1,000 photographs can only begin to hint at.