Just returned from HAL 7-Day Alaska Explorer cruise. It was me (47) and my husband (53) and my sister (48) and my mom (71) travelling. I want to say many thanks for all the great information I found on these boards. You helped make our cruise a success!
I'll try to repay the kindness by providing information for those who will be taking this same cruise this season.
Overall, a fabulous cruise. Weather was great, 50s and 60s with sun in both Ketchikan and Victoria. A bit of rain in Sitka and cool, but it's Alaska so you just roll with it.
We flew into Seattle a day early and booked an SUV-pickup at the airport with Seattle Towncar service. He was excellent. I called to confirm the day before. We were in communication via cell phone and had a perfect pickup. Very professional and I would use him again.
We stayed at the Sheraton Four Points at the Seattle Center. Newly remodeled, with a hip & contemporary feel - great hotel and value. Located in a neat neighborhood walking distance to grocery & drugstores. Space Needle & monorail was 10-minute walk.
We had dinner at Ten Mercer, a nice walk about .06 miles from the hotel. Some uphill walking but all of us easily managed. FANTASTIC meal at Ten Mercer - my sister said one of the most memorable she's ever had. Good prices considering it's Seattle. Nice we didn't have to pay $40 for cab fare. HIGHLY recommend!
Saturday morning we took the Savor Seattle tour of Pike Place Market and everyone enjoyed the tour. If you get a chance grab a scone and crumpet at the Crumpet Shop. SO good. We bought beautiful bouquets of flowers at the market for just $10 to enjoy on the cruise. One small problem - they do not provide vases. So we had to use our ice bucket. We took out the insert and our cabin steward (Ali - he was great) would fill it with ice. However, the plastic insert leaked. Word to the wise ;o)
After the tour we took the monorail back to the hotel which had been holding our bags and caught the 1PM shuttle (last one) to Pier 91 which we booked right at the hotel at $7/pp plus tip. Went really smoothly.
The ship is beautiful, very sophisticated. Even though the Westerdam is an older & smaller ship, we all thought it was really lovely. With the exception of a black mark here and there down the long cabin hall walls, I saw no signs of war and tear. Well taken care of and beautifully appointed. I'm an interior designer and can be a bit of a snob about decor but the Westerdam's style was certainly appropriate for the older Alaskan crowd.
We were in room 6100 Upper Veranda deck. Excellent room and location. We recommend rooms on this side of the ship because they look over the ports in both Juneau and Ketchikan when the ship is docked. This side also sidles up to the Margerie Glacier and we could enjoy it from our veranda.
Speaking of the glaciers, all four of us were disappointed in Glacier Bay. I know this won't be a popular opinion, as everyone seems to just LOVE Glacier Bay but we excepted more. It's basically snowy mountains (since it was late May). The glaciers were just small blue walls tucked in between rocks. Yes, they were larger than the ship, but still small. There were snap, crackle and pop sounds but never any calving and all in all it was very anticlimactic.
We could not get close to John Hopkins glacier because of ice. It was an overcast day so perhaps that limited the drama. However, even our dining room steward commented that this year the glacier seemed small. No big icebergs in the water but all the little pieces of ice looked like litter. Leaving Ketchikan was much more beautiful and picturesque but then again, it was a sunny day.
We did attend the ranger talk in the Crows nest Tuesday morning but she repeated what she said during the cruise of the bay, so that can be skipped if you plan on being anywhere you can hear her commentary. (in your room on channel 44).
Food was overall terrific in the Vista Dining Room. We had as you wish dining and were seated at table 185 the very first night and LOVED the location. So we sat there every night by reservation. Raj the Maitre D was always gracious, our servers Lalu and Yohan were the best. Ask to be seated at table 185 and tell them Diana says "HI!" I'm friends with Lalu on Facebook now ;o)
Formal nights were Sunday and Wednesday, menu selections were nicely varied and all were delicious.
There were four of us traveling together so we would try to order different things and then share so we could try as many menu options as possible.
Tuesday was the worst menu of the cruise. If we were to do it again, I would have dinner at the Pinnacle Grille on Tuesday. Menu highlights: Sat roasted chicken w/ sausage cornbread stuffing; sun lunch curry chic salad appetizer, custard Napoleon dessert; dinner gold rush soup, peppercorn crusted swai fillet and beef Wellington; apps on Monday were all great. Wednesday was surf and turf excellent apps. My sister and I ordered the Parmesan-crusted chicken special that night with a honey mustard sauce and it was one of the best entrees of the cruise. Too bad it was offered on surf and turf nigh it when so many people missed it. Friday shrimp salad appetizer was tasty.
Thursday's menu at Vista was the international menu with four different countries from which to select. We missed that because we ate at Le Cirque at the Pinnacle Grille. It was nice, the lobster salad was the best thing I had on the cruise. It was just fabulous - not to be missed! We would not do the $20 wine package again as the selections did not always pair well with our food.
Lido Dining - not great. Only ate there when we had to. Cinnamon ice cream on Fri was yummy. We did like the taco bar set up by the pool and would make our own nachos that were yummy.
Soda card: pop/soda is not included in the price of your cruise. We took the advice of others on this board and bought $50 soda cards for $25 on the day we boarded. Good call if you like Coke products.
Packing: I really tried not to over pack and just took a rolly suitcase that fit in the overhead compartment and a large tote bag: Two pairs of jeans, two pairs nice black yoga pants, black slacks/skirt for evening dinners, sparkly tops for formal nights, three sweaters, a top for each day and a blouse for each night that I paired with sweaters and different jewelry. Bathing suit, tennis shoes, heels for dinner. Gloves, packable down coat (could have used for a few hours total but never did, umbrella (I would take a rain poncho with hood instead as the streets can become crowded and it's too cumbersome with a wet umbrella.)
I wish I would have packed a little evening purse for dinner as I needed some place to put my cell phone, room key, lipstick, etc. Also, ladies wear something sparkly. It was nice seeing everyone dress up and we appreciate what HAL is trying to do with formal nights. We felt so bad for the people who did not dress up. We were in the elevator with a couple wearing wrinkled-clothes clearly just pulled from a suitcase. They would not even make eye contact with us. I brought a spray wrinkle release for our clothes and there is a service on board that will iron/press your clothes.
We did not do any shore excursion packages but just walked and shopped. We would have done Roberts tram and there not been so much fog. I regret not getting to see an eagle on the trip but otherwise would not change what we did.
Shipping/Mail: In both Sitka and Ketchikan we shipped back things we bought on the trip along with clothes we no longer needed and didn't want to haul home. BY FAR we recommend mailing things back from Sitka. The local post office was an easy walk from the tender location. They had numerous sized boxes for purchase plus "free tape" if you were shipping Priority mail. Our things arrived home before we did! We are still waiting for the things we mailed from Ketchikan. The post office there was not nearly as accommodating. We had to buy tape and they only had one size box to buy. The worker was not nearly as friendly - had no change for a $20 for the people in front of us who were the first customers of the day.
Ship Entertainment: the "Grand Tour" show on Sunday was very good, well worth seeing. The show tunes on Thursday was excellent as well, great costumes. One person we talked to said she and her husband cruise all the time and by far they were the best shows they'd ever seen on any cruise. The magician/ comedian and his dog, eh, I'd skip it. Slow paced and kinda boring although we liked the little dog Indy.
For movies you go to the Queens lounge and they set up chairs on the floor for overflow which causes a problem. Get there early and secure the higher booths because you can't see over the big heads in your way when they come in late and sit right in front of you in those floor chairs with no regard for others. There were excellent movies shown during the cruise: the Artist, the Vow, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes 2. You can catch them in your room the next day but you'll miss the free popcorn!
The Spa: one of my main reasons to cruise. Love the spa and I also got the week pass to enjoy the ceramic loungers, hydrotherapy pool and saunas. Awesome! (especially since we had $175 per cabin ship credit so it was basically "free"!) love the Elemis products and always buy them. Queen did my treatments and she was great.
I hope some of this information will be helpful to those taking this cruise.