Number of Cruises: n/a
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: July 5, 1998
Itinerary: Alaska Northbound
First, an introduction of the travelers: Two able-bodied women, widowed, ages 56 and 60. We’ve both cruised before, Pam on Royal Caribbean and Carnival; me, Carnival only. I was "in charge" of selecting this cruise itinerary: HAL offered what I wanted – a tour that included several Alaskan ports, ventured into glacial fields and made the Denali add-on land tour available. Finally: Would I go to Alaska again? In a heartbeat! Would I recommend a cruise on HAL? You betcha!
Pre- and Post-Cruise Transportation
Flight Comments - We departed from Cleveland on a 7:00 AM Northwest flight and arrived in Seattle (via Minneapolis) around 11:30 AM PDT. Our return trip was from Anchorage to Cleveland via Salt Lake City and Cincinnati on Delta. The trips were without incident: no connections missed, no luggage lost, nothing.
Shuttle to Canada Place - When we checked in at the HAL desk in Seattle for the 3-hour shuttle to Vancouver, we were provided with box lunches (adequate for the preoccupied traveler). As I recall, we were supposed to leave the terminal via Gray Line coach near 12:15; however, the time was closer to 1:00. A portion of the drive is scenic, but most is not. Our bus driver was new to the route and we watched him read route instructions as he navigated (mostly) stop-and-(less) go traffic through Vancouver over a three-lane route which merged to one lane due to road work. We became anxious as the departure time for the Ryndam grew nearer. We finally reached Canada Place at 4:45, 15 minutes before scheduled sailing time. The lifeboat drill had already been completed, and passengers sporting orange life vests lined the Promenade Deck rail. Boarding the ship was simple: no line, no waiting. Our bus had delivered the last of this week’s Ryndam passengers. (There is something to be said for arriving in the embarkation city a day early!)
The décor was tasteful, understated. The glitz I’ve read about on the newest ships was absent. There was lots of orange/salmon and green with brass accents. I remember feeling comfortable, not overwhelmed by the visual impact of holiday-type neon lights and riotous colors. I also remember how quiet the ship was: no engine noise or vibration, no carrying of "people" noise from one public area to another. The ship was clean and it appeared that the crew was always working to maintain this shine. (One morning when I awoke and opened the curtain, I saw a long-handled brush scrubbing our window. No person, just the brush!)
We’d come for an adventure and found it not only on land but also on the ship! It was not until the end of the week that we became familiar with the location of many public areas as well as the route to get to them. This is by no means a complaint, merely an observation. Navigating the ship was challenging and fun.
Our Cabin - In our discussion with our travel agent, we agreed that since we planned to spend very little time in our cabin and since Pam needs darkness when she sleeps, an inside unit would be adequate. Also, an inside cabin is slightly less costly.
Fortunately our booking was entered in such a way that we were actually assigned to an outside cabin. The window curtains were sufficient for darkening the cabin and it was pleasant to have daylight and a view whenever the curtain was open. Our cabin (#534) was on the Main Deck and adequate in size: twin beds, convertible sofa, chair, footstool/bench, mini refrigerator and two closets. The bathroom was larger than I’d expected and included a shower/bath, retractable line for hanging items to dry, a hairdryer and adequate counter space. Our steward apparently changed our towels after each of our visits to the cabin. Rarely did we use a hand towel more than once; bath towel, never. He was efficient yet unobtrusive.
The Rotterdam Dining Room, in the stern of the ship, is two-tiered and has wrap-around, floor-to-ceiling windows on both levels. The pleasure of dining was increased since the ship was generally within only a few hundred yards of land and the view was always changing. One evening we watched dolphins (or were they porpoise?) cavort in the ship’s wake.
We’d requested late dining to avoid rushing to dress for dinner after shore excursions. However, our dining assignment was for early seating and, unfortunately, at a table for two. We visited the Maitre ‘d to request seating at a larger table and at the later hour. Apparently many passengers were attending an on-board conference and, by necessity, were assigned the later seating; thus a change was not possible. As it turned out, we returned from our shore excursions long before dinner and were able to dress at a leisurely pace. And the table-for-two wasn’t the isolating experience we’d anticipated. We exchanged conversations with diners at tables around us, and yet were able to leave our table without disturbing or having to excuse ourselves to tablemates.
Our waiter Ahdi was youthful and always smiling. He made every effort to serve us well. His assistant was polite, but aloof, perhaps because he enjoyed his job less or he was concentrating on his responsibilities. Our beverage server was shy but, like Ahdi, obviously eager to please. I mentioned that I always have the same before-dinner drink. Thereafter, it was waiting for me each evening when we were seated.
The food was excellent and always served with thoughtful presentation and at the proper temperature. Menu choices were abundant and described in such a way that making a decision required thought. Because we were so pleased with our dining experiences, we had all dinners in the dining room. Twice we ate lunch in the Lido and enjoyed the food both times. In fact, we had to remind ourselves to "eat light" in order to have appetites for dinner. We avoided eating between meals although we did visit the special midnight dessert buffet. Supposedly we went to take pictures, but found ourselves sampling a few offerings since we were there ….
On-Board Entertainment and Activities
There was an abundance of daily shipboard activities, but our shore excursions and time spent on deck enjoying the scenery prevented our taking part in most of them. We did attend an ice sculpture demonstration and toured the kitchen where (if I recall correctly) 7,000 meals a day are prepared. We also attended an afternoon tea in the Crow’s Nest.
One of only two complaints we had regards seating in the Vermeer Lounge. There are areas on both levels where the view of the stage is obstructed. In many areas, it is not possible to see over or past the person seated in front of you. In addition, the chairs are uncomfortable because the backs offer poor support. The two guest entertainers for the week were David Levisque, whose musical/comedy show missed the mark (thud), and Marty Brill, whose material was appropriate for the cruise audience and had the audience laughing throughout. The ship’s cast of singers and dancers was energetic and entertaining, and they presented quality shows. Unfortunately Pam and I were too tired to stay up to watch the popular Indonesian staff’s show, but heard many favorable comments from other passengers on the following day.
There are a variety of shore tours in an equal number of price ranges. The list includes guided tours of the villages, bus tours into the countryside, and boat trips to fish or look for whales, sea otters and other wildlife.
Our second criticism of this cruise was of the sign-up procedure for excursions. Our first day was spent at sea, and most passengers got serious about selecting excursions following the Shore Excursion Talk. Thus, the line to sign up for these activities was l-o-n-g. We stood in line for 1-1/2 hours as those in front of us often queried the three-man registration staff about tour particulars. The most popular venues had several time slots available. Rarely was an activity sold out, and in those cases, a waiting list was available. Since excursion options were presented in a booklet which arrived with our cruise documents, the next time we cruise we will be prepared to sign up the day we sail.
We chose the following excursions: In Ketchikan we toured Saxman Village where several authentic totem poles are displayed and Tlingit Indians performed ceremonial dances in native dress. In a workshed, totem poles were being carved to fill special orders. In Juneau Pam took the Wildlife and Mendenhall Glacier tour. Aboard a tour boat she saw sea otters, whales and bald eagles. Her group also spent time at Mendenhall Glacier. Before our cruise I had booked a helicopter tour (enabling me to save at least 20% over the shipboard price). The helicopter made two stops, and we were able to walk at the foot of a waterfall and on ice a mile deep in the Juneau ice field. As we returned to Juneau, we flew over Mendenhall Glacier. In Sitka I took a tour similar to Pam’s Juneau wildlife tour and Pam took the city tour. By the time we got to Valdez, we were "toured out" and stayed on the ship. However, a group of people who took a bus tour into the mountains outside Valdez said the scenery was some of the most beautiful they’d seen and they were glad they had gone.
I chose this cruise because I wanted to see as many glaciers as possible. Thus, besides Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, we cruised up Yakutat Bay and spent time at the face of Hubbard Glacier. We also cruised into College Fjord where there are sixteen smaller glaciers, although I think we saw only eight or nine of them. I read many glacier reviews prior to selecting our itinerary, and several people endeavored to rate one site compared to another. In my opinion each location is remarkable - either for the glacier’s size, the number of glaciers or how near the glacier the ship can approach. They’re all different.
Weather on the cruise was generally overcast to partly cloudy a portion of every day. We also had bright sun for a part of nearly every day. According to the on-board weather banner, temperatures held in the mid-50’s through the week. We found ourselves wearing unlined Ryndam nylon jackets (bon voyage gifts from our travel agent) as part of our daily apparel. Although we took gloves, we didn’t wear them. We didn’t wear the shorts we took either! Sturdy shoes for walking on deck, shopping or trekking are a necessity, however.
Because this is a "popular" HAL topic, let me say that one way or another, in the United States those who are served reward the server for, well, good service! Newsgroup contributors and cruise line/ship/itinerary reviewers occasionally gripe about the "need" to carry money on HAL ships in order to tip lounge wait staff, etc. I wear clothes with pockets (or carry a small purse) into which I drop some quarters and a dollar bill or two in addition to a tissue and lipstick. No problem! And at the end of a cruise, ANY cruise, tips are given to those who have taken care of me.
My favorite place on the Ryndam became the Crow’s Nest, a bar by night and library-quiet place to sit and look at the scenery during the day. On two evenings Pam and I went there for after-dinner drinks. Our waiter, Marvin, introduced himself and asked our names. After he brought us our order and I’d signed the chit and tipped him, he chatted with us and then made us flowers from our cocktail napkins before leaving to tend to other patrons. A few nights later we returned and Marvin was our attendant again. He greeted us by name and again, after bringing our order and settling up with us, made two more, even larger flowers from the napkins. And then he went off to take other orders.
A group of women was sitting a few yards away, also enjoying the view. One of them commented to us, "We’ve been coming up here every evening all week and he hasn’t made us flowers." I suggested that they tip him the next time he delivered their drinks, to which she replied, "We don’t order anything." (!?!?) On one of the evenings toward the end of the cruise, we returned to our cabin and found envelopes addressed to each of us under the door. Each contained a Dutch girl hat (reminiscent of a dinner earlier in the week when we’d all worn Dutch hats at dinner). These two hats had been decorated and signed by the Crow’s Nest staff. I thought it was a nice touch.
We added a 3-day land tour at the end of the cruise. We were bused from Seward, our disembarkation point, to Anchorage where we boarded a plane for a 45-minute flight to Fairbanks. There we climbed on another bus which took us to Gold Dredge No. 8 for lunch, a tour and an opportunity to pan for gold. It was exciting to find those small bits of gold in the pan once the dirt was washed away! We also stopped at the Alaska Pipeline for a quick explanation of its design and capabilities. (NOTE: Gray Line buses are associated with many of HAL’s land tours. The drivers/guides were, without exception, knowledgeable and personable as they related information about sites as we passed them or stopped to visit.)
Fairbanks is a town of around 60,000 people which has a small town "feel" to it. The hotel was quaint, with a portico reminiscent of the Southwest. Our room was large enough to live in and had the furnishings to make a long-term stay comfortable: a rocking chair, large writing surface, and a full-size refrigerator, stove and microwave.
Having spent most of the day seated on a plane and buses, we took a short walk after dinner. There was very little traffic which surprised us. Then we realized that although the sun was still bright, it was 10 PM! And when I got up about 2:30 that night, the sun was sitting on the western horizon.
The 4-hour train ride on the McKinley Explorer from Fairbanks to Denali was pleasant. The journey is a slow one to enable the passengers to enjoy the scenery and absorb the views. Each car is equipped with a dining room on the first level and coach seating above. The cars are clean, the food excellent and, again, the guides are personable and well informed. We arrived in Denali around noon and spent the afternoon exploring the grounds and gift shops. That evening (remember there are 24 hours of daylight…) we took a 4-hour bus tour and saw caribou and ptarmigan. At our turnaround point, we left the bus and our guide treated us to hot chocolate (drunk out of souvenir cups she provided for each of us) and a homemade snack. She also pointed out where Denali was although clouds prevented us from seeing the mountain.
The next afternoon we reboarded the train for the 8-hour ride to Anchorage. This day, one of only three or four a month the guide told us, the mountain was completely visible – all 20,320 feet. Majestic. Exhilarating. Awesome!
Alaska can only be described in superlatives. It has an indescribable serenity juxtaposed against a majestic landscape. The only way to truly understand the emotion the views evoke is to experience a trip in person.
Questions? Feel free to e-mail me! firstname.lastname@example.org