Number of Cruises: 1
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: October 18th, 2006
Itinerary: Southern Caribbean
We traveled on the HAL Volendam, and were very happy with the experience. The cruise left from Vancouver Canada and sailed through the Inside Passage then returned to Vancouver.
This is a tip for Americans traveling to and from Canada, and does not mean anything bad against HAL. Even if you are just going to Canada, have a current passport with you! The travel agent had assured me that, as a US citizen, all I would need is a driver’s license. This used to be the case, but is no longer valid. Now, the minimum requirement is a valid driver’s license AND a certified copy of your birth certificate. Also, if you have a young child, a birth certificate is required or they will not even let you onto the plane to Canada. Shortly, travel to Canada is almost definitely going to require a passport for everyone.
When we arrived into Vancouver, there were several HAL greeters at the luggage carousel who were extremely helpful. If you put the supplied HAL tags on your luggage HAL will retrieve them and place them in your cabin when you board. The process for boarding the ship was very easy, but it seemed it would have been easier if I had filled out the proper forms on the HAL website. I will definitely do that next time. When you board, you have a picture taken which will be put into an identity card which will act as your pass for getting on and off of the ship, whether in the USA or in Canada. This makes things very easy while sailing.
When we first arrived, because the rooms were still being made up, we were directed to the Lido Deck for a welcome aboard lunch, which was very nice. By chance, as we were getting onto the elevator, we noticed both of our suitcases being brought onboard, so we were able to relax. Granted, the buffet was a bit crowded, but if one person holds a table while the other goes through the line, it should go much more smoothly. The selection is very nice for lunch, though I have to say I enjoyed the breakfast items best at the Lido Buffet. As we soon found out, soda is not complimentary, but the Lido has continuous water, coffee, tea and iced tea available. As someone else had mentioned, you can refill water bottles at the Lido as well.
The ship is a nice size, in that you can find most everything easily, and there are detailed maps of the ship at every elevator bank (there are three sets down the middle of the ship). The age level of the passengers does seem to be a bit high (we are in our mid 40’s and we definitely felt young in the crowd), but that was all right because we don’t really like to mingle with people we are never going to see ever again. The down side is, there are not too many activities offered by the ship, so you need to be able to entertain yourself most of the time. The cabin we had, a standard large cabin, was extremely comfortable and certainly big enough for two people. The bed was very nice and we both slept very well on it. We never really used the television in the cabin, so we don’t know what sort of selection they have. The room was very quiet, and the PA system does not make announcements inside the cabins, so if there is something spontaneous going on you might not hear about it until it is too late.
We had heard that we should get the early seating for the dinner at the main dining room, and since we scheduled on line and fairly early we were able to get it. Again, however, the suggestion came from someone who was much older than ourselves, and on our next cruise we will seek the later seating. We ate most of our dinners in the Rotterdam Dining Room, which was very nice and the servers were very attentive. The first evening, be prepared because everyone in the serving staff (the waiter, the wait captain, the head of the dining room, the wine steward, etc) will come to the table and introduce themselves, which after a while became a little tedious but everyone was very nice. The meals were all very nice, though the seasoning was a bit bland (again, the average age of the customers). We did try the Baked Alaska because you are supposed to have it once, but once I think was enough; it was not bad, but certainly nothing terribly special. Being an Alaskan cruise, every meal in the Rotterdam had at least one salmon dish, though none of it was wild salmon but farm raised Atlantic salmon but it was still very good.
Our breakfasts were all from the Lido Buffet, and without exception they were excellent. There was an omelet station as well as the regular line where egg dishes and French toast and fruit and other things were available. Again, make certain one person holds the table while the other stands in line. Lunch was often also at the Lido, though once we did eat at the Rotterdam and it was very nice. Sometimes, when my wife would sleep in, I would bring a tray back to the cabin; the staff was very helpful about that and would pick up the tray afterwards when we left it in the hallway. We went one day to the Dutch High Tea in the Rotterdam which was nice, but the tea is simply from tea bags (though I learned how to make scones which we have regularly now!). We often ordered from room service which is available 24 hours, which is good because the dining times can be a bit rigid, and the midnight snack often was not available. The room service menu is a bit limited, but we always liked what we ordered (grilled salmon and steak sandwiches). Coffee was available all day long, though snacks were not always laid out.
Our cabin attendant was very courteous and was very happy to work around our schedule no matter how late we slept in or how early we came back. The nice little touches like the cute towel animals were always appreciated. The cabin was always very clean and he remembered my name immediately. Even when he was busy elsewhere, the other attendants would always make certain he quickly got word when we needed something.
We made several stops along the cruise, and mainly we enjoyed all of them. One thing to remember, the Alaskan pan handle is a temperate rain forest, so it will rain every day you are ashore; dress and prepare accordingly (raincoat, rain hat, ear drops, etc). Our first stop was in Juneau, and we had taken an excursion there. We rode a bus up to see a glacier up close and a little nature walk. We saw a stream with large red salmons swimming along, and my wife was able to take close up photos of a small mother black bear and her baby as they were getting the salmon. Then she got some excellent photos of the glacier and we headed back. Even though it is the capital of Alaska, Juneau is a tiny little city, and the bus driver even pointed out the infamous site for the ‘bridge to nowhere.’ She also told us about the different types of salmon native to Alaska. Be prepared, at every stop along the way there will be jewelry stores operated in conjunction with the cruise lines, and the personal shoppers will hype them mercilessly. Try, instead, to get to some of the independent outlets where native Eskimo artists have their lines shown. My wife got some extremely elegant reindeer antler and ivory jewelry at several different towns, and they are definitely unique.
Our next stop was in Skagway, and this was wonderful. This was the only day that it did not rain to any significant amount. We had signed up for the Brothel tour, which was very informative and the young lady who led the tour was very knowledgeable and friendly. She pointed out the various locations where brothels had been set up (Skagway was the last stop before beginning the overland trek to the Yukon, and she knew a great deal about that as well!). She pointed out where the various different establishments had been (from private back rooms to almost elegant hotels, and how they operated from informal to elegant to the truly horrific practices where women forced against their will were exploited!). Skagway is also the site of very beautiful flower gardens all throughout the town (this was a very pleasant surprise, and we got some unique and memorable photographs of these). The retail area of Skagway was nice (this is the town where most of the cruise staff will shop for their own personal items, so everything is relatively reasonable), with an excellent chocolate store that has a wide selection of sugar free items if needed.
Though we did not get off of the ship, we cruised through the Glacier Bay National Park and like all the rest of the inside passage the scenery was beautiful. We were able to get many wonderful photographs of glaciers, streams, valleys, and all sorts of wildlife (we got pictures of lazy seals riding on icebergs and moose getting a drink and birds hunting for fish).
Our final port was Ketchikan, and this was probably the most jewelry-centric of the ports so we just got on with it. We had signed up for a whale watching tour here, where they guarantee that you will see at least one whale or you get a 50% refund (apparently they have only had to give out the refund once). As we were searching for whales, the captain took us to see all sorts of other animals along the way. We got spectacular photos of eagles and seals and deer and all sorts of things. Finally, they found some whales when we had only about twenty minutes left before we had to go back in, and it was well worth the wait. They brought us to within about 100 feet of the whales and we could take pictures of them breaching and diving and spouting and it was great! The naturalist on this boat was excellent and talked about all sorts of things while we searched (for instance, eagles can swim if they accidentally overshoot a fish but they don’t like it!). On the way back in, we all had some samples of smoked salmon that was very tasty.
My only complaint about the cruise was that the assigned naturalist on board the cruise ship was not terribly helpful. She did not have very many scheduled lectures and she only had a few talks over the PA system (which cannot be heard in your cabin or in the dining room). Stepping out onto the Walking Deck one afternoon, I literally heard her over the PA saying ‘that was something you almost never see!’ I learned far too late that you should have your camera with you at all times, because the ship actually can be a great spot to view nature from. By the time I got back to my cabin and found my camera and got back out, the Orcas had finished frolicking and had all swam away (groan!). Not quite so bad, the exercise spa facilities are terribly small, with most of the space being devoted to activities that have a separate charge. The first morning, I went to the spa and it was very difficult to get a treadmill or stationary bicycle (though the view when you can get one is great!). After that, we just walked every day on the outside walking deck which was actually better anyways. There is a medical facility that is accessible in the bow of the ship, but the regular nurse’s hours are quite limited and the doctor is in attendance only about two hours a day. There are a few meeting rooms that never seemed to be used and I thought it might have made things seem a little more spontaneous if there were some talks or lectures on various subjects available.
The staff at the photo shop was especially nice and helpful to us, even though we did not buy any of their pictures. We had bought a new digital camera that neither of us knew how to use, but one of the staff set a time for me and by that evening we were both pros with the camera! Another nice touch was the self-service laundry facility, and you can get quarters from Customer Service for this; it was nice to be able to keep the dirty laundry to a minimum and with being wrapped against the rain when it was warm outside I ran out of clean clothes several days before I had planned to. Being in the wilds of Alaska, we only had cell phone service on board one day, and no access to wireless internet, but the internet café was decent (we purchased the bulk minutes plan, and that was relatively reasonable). The crew tries to make every experience pleasant, which often means having high priced specialty drinks available (like hot mulled wine or spike coffee for viewing the glaciers up close). There were a few piano and live music lounges across the ship which was nice, but no real dancing because the ship simply isn’t large enough which was a drag because we had hoped to learn how to dance. There are a few events which offer wine or champagne which can be a nice change from the endless coffee and water (a couple of art sales and lessons on wine tasting). If you purchase hard liquor, it must be surrendered to the ship until you depart, though apparently you can keep wine and beer in your room (I do not know this for certain, though, since we never got around to trying). It is also nice to have tips in your final statement, though I did tip our cabin attendant extra and thanked him for his help.
When we had arrived back in Vancouver, you need to be packed and ready the night before. I still was able to get a tray from the Lido and we ate in our cabin, but disembarkation begins very early (about 7 AM). Granted, calling people first by their ticket color and then by their cabin range made it all right because you have less congestion getting off of the ship. Remember, when you disembark you are entering Canada so have your travel documents ready (again, it is best to have a passport!). We then stayed over night in Vancouver before we flew back to the USA. You pre-clear through Customs and Immigration before you get on the plane in Canada, and if you have a passport you can electronically check in for the flight rather than physically waiting in line.
All in all, we were very happy with our experience and will be happy to travel with HAL again in hopefully the very near future.