Last year my sister and I were idly discussing going on a cruise, and by the end of the year I had done hours of research and booked a 7 night Inside Passage Cruise on the MS Volendam. Cruise Critic was instrumental in our choice of ship and itinerary and I read just about everything written on CC, and found it all very helpful. In fact my husband said I no longer needed to go to Alaska as I had read everything there was to know! We were a party of four, my sister sharing her cabin with another widowed friend, all in our early 60's. My sister came from Austin, her friend from Syracuse and my husband and I from Australia. We met up in Vancouver on June 5th, the day before sailing, and I am so glad we planned to arrive the day before as our flight times were changed by the airline and as it was we didn't get into Vancouver until 9.30 at night. It would have been so stressful to be travelling on the day the ship was leaving. Stayed at Days Inn Downtown, which is rather quaint but perfectly adequate for a nights sleep. I chose that hotel because they had a shuttle bus to the cruise dock. In actual fact it was so close to Canada Place that you could have walked! The driver of the shuttle said it would take about an hour and a half to get onto the ship and he was exactly right. There were two ships in dock and a lot of people milling around but the process was well controlled. We were split up though as my husband and I had Australian passports and my sister and her friend had US passports. We were sent to a holding area where we could sit until there was room in the line to pass through US customs etc. My sister and her friend had to stand in line the whole time! We got onto the ship first and our cabins were ready so we took our hand luggage to the cabin and then headed to the Lido for lunch. The Volendam is a great ship,just the right size, and gives the first impression of being an ocean liner, rather than a "fun" ship. Which is what we wanted, we were not looking for loud music, parties or crowds. There was another ship boarding at Canada Place which was huge, and had loud disco music playing, so we were very pleased to be on the Volendam. The ship was spotlessly clean and everywhere there were members of the crew cleaning and polishing. Our inside cabins were a good size and there was loads of storage space. The bathroom was surprisingly large and very well appointed. The shower was good with good water pressure. The hairdryer did not work but there was a replacement dryer in the cabin. The provided shower gel, shampoo and conditioner were really nice. The cabin was so quiet, you could not hear a thing, apart from occasional voices in the corridor. We tended to retire fairly early and there was never any late night noise. Our stewards were very efficient and obliging. Again thanks to CC we had taken a clock and a torch, but found that if you left the bathroom light on and the door closed, there was enough light at night to see your way around without turning on the cabin lights.
We had first dining at 5.45 which suited us and for which we had been wait listed. The dining room staff were excellent and the food was first class. We all ate far too much. We had breakfast and lunch in The Lido and found the choice of food to be varied and of excellent quality. The afternoon teas in the Dining room were really lovely.
The bars and lounges were comfortable and the music provided was excellent. We had cocktails on two occasions before the formal dinner nights and it was nice to get dressed up and sit watching the scenery from the windows.
We went to two shows, the Indonesian Crew Show which was very well done and the crew seemed to be having a good time, and their band was great. We also attended the Broadway show, which was good,some of the performers had lovely singing voices and the HalCats were excellent. I think they could have chosen better songs, but that is a personal observation. On the sea days we walked around the Promenade Deck, a mile per meal was our aim,(another hint from CC) or sat wrapped up in a blanket on a deck chair reading. Hot cider was served which was lovely.
Juneau was the first stop, and it was so wet. We took the shuttle bus ($16 round trip per person)to Mendenhall Glacier and although we got soaked to the skin it was worth it. We walked to Nugget Falls, and the view of the glacier and the blue of the ice was amazing. Having read the advice on CC about the weather in Alaska we were well equipped with rain coats and rain trousers, but there were people there with only thin plastic ponchos,and they must have been so cold. It was too wet and foggy to go up the Mt Robert's Tramway.
Skagway was the next port of call, and what a contrast to Juneau. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and we had a wonderful trip on the White Pass Railroad. I had pre booked this months before with Chilkoot Tours. They picked us up at the port and drove us to the Railway Station where we boarded our own rail car. There were only 16 people in the car so we had lots of room, and plenty of opportunity to stand out on the end of the car and take photos. If you can only ever do one excursion then this is the one! The train to Fraser takes you through wonderful scenery and in early June there was still a lot of snow around, and it was magical. We even saw a bear running alongside the train. At Fraser we transferred to a bus for the journey back to Skagway. The guide/driver was very informative and stopped at several places of interest on the way. The best was stopping to watch a mother bear and her three cubs feeding on the side of the road just outside Fraser. Going up on the train and back on the bus is a great way to see the countryside.
Glacier Bay was the absolute highlight of the trip. It was cold and misty with a bit of rain, but that just added to the atmosphere. We stopped at the Marjorie Glacier and the silence was profound, until the glacier started to"calve" and then there was a loud crack and thunderous noise rolling across the water. This is a magical place.
Ketchikan was the last port of call, and again it rained, but then it always does apparently! The rain only lasted a short time so we wandered around town and went up in the little tram and walked down the steps to town. We wanted to go out to the Totem Park, but the bus never seemed to arrive, so we did some shopping and then went back to the ship. Our friend did get the local bus out to the park but then it broke down and she had to share a taxi back into town as everyone had to be back on the ship by 5.30 and she was getting a bit worried about missing the boat.
Disembarking was a bit of a muddle, even though we had chosen a late disembarkation time and were carrying our own luggage. Although everything was colour coded it appeared that some passengers were determined to get off when they wanted regardless of the time they had been given! My sister had booked a bus transfer to the airport and they were told they would go into a secure area and their luggage would be passed through Customs, but this didn't seem to work as expected and they still had to pick up their own luggage at the port and then sit on a bus for an hour.
I can't recommend Holland America and the Volendam highly enough. It was everything we wanted and more. The staff all seemed genuinely happy to be of service and every member of staff greeted you when they met you. The ship was quiet, very few messages over the public address system and there was never the feeling of being pressured into buying anything on board ( a frequent complaint on CC about certain ships.) Thanks to everyone on CC for their advice and informative postings. Now on to planning the next cruise!