My two 80-year-old parents and I cruised on Zuiderdam June 16-23 out of Vancouver, Inside Passage. This was our 4th HAL cruise and our 2nd on Zuiderdam.
Transfer, Seattle to Vancouver:
We opted to do a first-ever Amtrak Cascades train trip, and get a cab to Canada Place. We had an excellent experience. We arrived at the King Street station at 7:05AM for our scheduled 7:40AM train, taking the CC forum advice to arrive after the departing Portland train and before the bulk of the passengers for our train. When we pulled up to the station there were no other cars unloading.
1) our cab was greeted by a red cap at the curb, who loaded all our bags onto a cart and walked us to and through the baggage check-in process
2) he then walked us to the end of the seat assignment line, helping my folks out with their carryons. He was outstanding: friendly, helpful, and saved me a lot of 'where do I go next' and I really wasn't expecting that level of service, and I definitely showed him my thanks
3) the seat assignment guy gave us left-hand-side seats at a spot for four, and there was plenty of space in the temporary waiting room
4) the boarding process was quite straightforward - just walk down the platform to the assigned car and step on
5) plenty of space in the car
6) plenty of overhead and shelf storage for the carryons
7) there was a line at the bistro car early but it thinned out pretty quickly and we got a table for our breakfast
Our TA had mistakenly booked coach seats, and I was interested in an upgrade at the station, but there were no business class seats available. But I was favorably impressed by the quality of the coach car. Clean, roomy, leather seats, and not shabby at all. (I'm a frequent European train traveler, and I was expecting to be disappointed, and was quite happy.)
The scenery was great and the ride was pleasant.
Our only nit: it was raining in Vancouver when we arrived - the baggage handlers line up all the bags in one row on the platform, so it is easy to walk up, collect your bag, and proceed thru immigration, but the suitcases all got fairly damp (not wet, but solidly damp) in the process. Oh well, no biggy.
We were thru immigration in the train station, at the ATM machine, and in a cab within about 15 minutes for the short ride to Canada Place.
My only regret about opting for the train was that we did get one siding delay, and arrived in Vancouver 40 minutes late, at about 12:20. That, plus the luggage, immigration, ATM, and cab ride meant we got to the pier at around 1:20 -- so we would miss the Mariner's lunch, which shut down at 1:30. Oh well.
Embarkation, Canada Place:
The Canada place luggage process was great, the cab backed in, the porter put on decent luggage tags, took our 3 suitcases, and pointed us in the direction to walk.
The biggest snag of the entire journey came at the pier, with two shiploads of passengers trying to get thru port security at one time. That was one long line, I'll tell you. There are insufficient x-ray machines and scanners, imho, at Canada Place, and if you get there after 12 noon, expect a really long line for port security, and whether nimble, with a walker, or in a wheelchair you'll get in line. This was rough on the parental units, but once we got thru that one, we were okay.
After passing thru port security, there are two more checkpoints: U.S. immigration, and HAL check-in. But, for the first checkpoint, U.S. immigration, if you are elderly or disabled, a HAL rep with a red coat will pull you out of line and jump you to a special line. My parents qualified, and my Mom really appreciated it, as did I on her behalf. So once thru the port security line, which seemed to take 20 minutes or so, it was 5 minutes or so to get thru immigration.
We then walked to HAL check-in, which only had about 7 people in line, and being suite PAX, we had our own line and were thru HAL check-in in about another 5 minutes, and up the gangway. Our cabins were ready so we went straight to them and dropped our carryons.
We had booked guaranteed VH (this was a last minute cruise, booked in early June), and were given a same-day upsell to cabins 7085 and 7075 for $349 pp. which we quite happily accepted, having cruised Zuiderdam once before from the Rotterdam deck, and really enjoyed the suites and the Neptune lounge.
Total embarkation time was about an hour; we got on at 2:20PM after arriving at Vancouver train station at 12:20PM.
We like getting on early, and doing the Mariner lunch; next time, we are either going to self-drive (which we've done once before, getting on-board at 11:30AM with no lines whatsoever), or try a HAL bus or Quickshuttle from Seattle if it gets in early enough.
We were starving, and missed the Mariner lunch, so we hit the Lido at 2:30PM. It wasn't very crowded, and we all agreed that the food was good. Table beverage service was active, and we enjoyed a glass of wine with our lunches.
We went to the Neptune and introduced ourselves to Diana (she is a terrific concierge) and made an MDR reservation for tonight, and a PG reservation for tomorrow night. She sent me to the spa to book my thermal suite, and I was happy to hear the price for one hadn't moved higher ($150) and came with a 20% discount on the first spa service, so I booked a hot stone massage as well (I had been planning to do so; getting a discount was a nice benefit).
The lifeboat drill started on-time at 4PM and lasted approximately 30 minutes. The briefing has changed: if you no-show, your name is called and you are told that if you don't show up, you will be invited to disembark the vessel! Eight names were called; presumably they all hustled to their stations as nobody that we know of made a walk of shame, LOL. Given the Costa Concordia grounding, I think this is a good thing.
Our Captain was Christopher Turner and the Hotel Manager was Kees van Santen. van Santen was quite visible during the voyage, he is personable and involved, and the one thing that struck me about this cruise was that the Zuiderdam seemed to be quite the 'happy ship'. Very good morale that we could see among crew and staff; we had the best service of any of our four HAL cruises.
It was raining, so we did a little roaming around and then changed our clothes for MDR 5:30 reservation. We were given a nice table for four at the rear windows, and had a great view of sailaway.
Once we left Vancouver, the rain left us as well. We had fog and mist, and we hit Queen Charlotte Sound early on the morning of Day 3, and had a rolling ship for about 4 hours before we got back in the lee of the land. Mom had a queasy morning. Passengers who stuck a patch behind their ear had it the best; something to think about if you are prone to seasickness.
The scenery and the weather were just fantastic throughout.
I was surprised on the way up that we did not duck into Tracy Arm. We must have not had good timing through the Seymour Narrows, as we sailed by the Tracy Arm inlet at 20 knots and arrived in Juneau just about on time.
Glacier Bay was outstanding. The two park rangers and the native Alaskan did excellent presentations throughout, on the PA and in the Crow's Nest, and were out on deck interacting with passengers all day.
Marjorie Glacier obliged us with 6 or 7 good-sized calving events and lots of rumbling, groaning, and cracking.
Our cabin stewards were Gumi and Aref. They were, in a word, outstanding. Always available, working from morning until night; my sports coat got some schmutz on it somehow, and Gumi got it cleaned tout suite the first night so I could wear it on night #2's formal night. They were personable, friendly, sociable, unobtrusive, helpful, and the starboard side of the Rotterdam deck sparkled. They took really good care of my parents.
I had room service at 6:30AM each morning the first three mornings, and it was delivered promptly, hot, and nicely laid out. Eggs benedict, breakfast potatoes, and pastries written-in on the room card -- no problema.
Neptune lounge coffee is much superior, as is the freshly-squeezed OJ, and my folks enjoyed it at 7AM most days. Completely outstanding: the pastries! OMG - I don't know how they do it but their pastry chef really has skills.
Suite passengers were given the option of having breakfast in the PG, but not until the second morning (Monday) for some reason. We did opt for it on Monday morning, but the service was a bit tardy (a one-time experience) and although we enjoyed the decor and the view, we didn't repeat it.
We had open seating, and in the MDR we always were promptly given a table for four. We had excellent service each night from both waiters and wine staff. No delays, no snags, and the food was really good -- it was better than Zaandam by a long shot.
The menus had excellent variety, imho; the fish was always excellent. My dad really liked the chicken that he had. All of the beef was surprisingly tender, with only one exception: a tournedos of beef had a few tough pieces mixed in with the tender cuts. I don't know what you can do in a ship's kitchen to avoid that. But we are fans of HAL food overall so when we get an exception-to-the-rule we tend to overlook it.
We ate in the PG once for breakfast, and once for lunch (a special invite to an Indonesian lunch - I love Indo food, and my parents had never had it. It was exceptional, and staff were dressed in Indonesian clothing and looked fantastic. We ate at the PG once for dinner, and the menu and the preparation were top quality, as was the wine (we had a 2002 Brunello from Antinori, and it was in fine shape). We also ate at the PG for Le Cirq. We enjoyed the ambiance, the china and table settings, the decor, the staff, and the food was excellently-prepared. But the menu -- well, I actually thought it was kind of boring, compared to the usual PG menu. There didn't seem anything innovative about the menu. So I was initially disappointed and kind of taken-aback. My Dad and Mom each had chateaubriand, and it was simply outstanding. I had a veal chop with wild mushrooms, and it was also outstanding. If you're a foody: it was a little old for a veal chop -- more white than pink, if you know what I mean, and I thought "uh oh" but it was very tender and flavorful. So top marks for the food, once I got over the hurdle of the ordinariness of the menu.
The Lido, I'm not a huge fan of, but to be honest by day four of the cruise I was a little "good-fooded out" and I confess to enjoying a cheesburger at the Lido grill; and sampling the buffet on several occasions. Everything I had was quite good, and it's nice to be able to "graze".
In the Crow's Nest, we had to work a little to snag a table up front near the windows. The staff didn't mind if you rearranged a table or chair setup. Ron was our favorite waiter. He waited on us the first night, and introduced himself as "Ron, from South Philly" (Philippines). He gave excellent service, was sociable when we wanted to have interaction but wasn't obtrusive, and was genuinely friendly.
We noticed that the crew and staff, on the nights (Friday) and mornings (disembarkation) when you might think they would succumb to the temptation to "phone it in" -- in a word, didn't. Our service in the Crow's Nest and MDR Friday night, and in the Lido and Neptune Saturday Morning (and in the hallways as well) was just as friendly as any of the other days. This is one of the reasons I am continuing to sail with HAL - I really like the way they make us feel.
I booked a Thermal Suite package for myself, and the thermal suite on Zuiderdam is very nice. A huge hot tub (not hot enough for me, it is "body temperature" presumably for safety of elderly passengers. That's okay though; the bubbles were great, and it never had more than 2 other people in it, and often I had it to myself. And the thermal lounge with picture window, steam and sauna. The lounges were awesome, again very uncrowded, never more than 2 others and often alone with nice "spa music" playing. They seemed to have some temperature problems in the sauna. One the first 3 days it was a perfect 140. But somebody must have complained because on the last 3 days it was a tepid 120. The steam rooms were 120 and steamy throughout, but I'm not sure the aromatherapy one was on, as both rooms smelt the same.
Still, at the end of a busy day, an hour or two of quite time, with the Inside Passage going by the windows, and the cycle of hot tub, sauna, steam, shower, and heated recliner -- best $20/day I've ever spent.
My hot stone massage was really well done: the practitioner was skilled and responded well to feedback. I booked the 75-minute version, and was given the 20% discount at checkout. I later got an invitation in my cabin to return for another massage, with -30% offered. I would have done it but we had other plans.
My folks loved all the shows but the first nights, which was more of an "intro" talk and only one performance. I attended the magicican, James Cielan. He and his wife (an aerialist) were outstanding. I'm not a big show fan; so I didn't attend any others. Nor did I do a movie in the screening room, but the selection was really good (War Horse was playing first night) and the room itself looked good when I stuck my head in.
I did go to the Explorer's Lounge three times and listen to the Adagio Strings. The Zuiderdam's strings were a pianist and violinist, both from Russia, and both well-accomplished.
In the Crow's Nest, a solo male guitarist whose name I didn't catch was really excellent. Think "Gordon Lightfoot" and you would not be very far off. We listened to him on three different evenings.
Ports and Excursions:
This cruise was a bit of a splurge for us.
In Juneau, we did a "bucket list" trip and flew to Taku Lodge for the salmon bake. That was one of the best shorexes I've ever experienced. I got to sit next to the pilot in the float plane; we had crazily-good weather (must have been 65-68 degrees, scattered clouds); the glaciers were awesome from the air, the lodge was beautiful, the staff were very hospitable, the bear came to visit, and the food was outstanding (we took home two cookbooks). The mosquitos were the largest I'd ever seen anywhere, and we were glad we had put on DEET (which they also had available on the front porch). It was fantastic.
In Skagway, the folks had a great time shop-hopping in the morning, and we had booked the Glacier Helicopter/Dog Sledding for the afternoon. Unfortunately, the dog sled camp was fogged in. They offered us the opportunity at the landing pad to switch to a Glacier Flight/Glacier Landing but said it would be 40 minutes walking around on the glacier surface. That sounded interesting, but less so, and probably wouldn't have been ok for Mom, so we opted out. We had no problem with the cancellation/reimbursement process. We shuttled back to the ship and I did 2 hours in the thermal suite.
In Ketchikan, we went Salmon Fishing and the weather if anything was even more nuts: it had to be 72 degrees, and not really a cloud in the sky. We had 5 anglers on board, so we fished 4 downriggers and one top line, which was nice, as nobody felt that they were "sitting out". We hooked three Kings simultaneously for some good excitement (landed two 15-pounders and one got away); and hooked a fourth later on but he was 2" short so he was quickly released. Of the two fish that were landed, one was mine (yes!) and one was from a guy from the UK who was quite pleased with himself. Since he could not take his fish back, he generously offered it it my parents and I, so we had 30 pounds of King salmon filleted and frozen and shipped back to my parent's house in Washington State. The fish arrived the day after we got home, vacuum bagged and still frozen, for just over $100 for preparation and shipping, and was BBQed that evening with the baste and biscuits from the Taku Lodge cookbook. It was delicious. When the bags were cut open, all you smelled was a faint smell of the sea. Exquisitely-fresh salmon.
We had no problems aboard ship. No toilet problems or problems with aromas. The ship looked to be in very good condition. I had read on the forums here the two weeks before I left reports of inoperable toilets, aromas, and general "shabbiness". We encountered none. My stateroom couch had a scuff on it, but other than that I noticed no other visual, auditory, or other intrusive or obtrusive things that made me regret cruising on Zuiderdam. I'd go again in a heartbeat.
We were planning on taking the 11:30AM Amtrak bus back to Seattle. I got a shorex newsletter in my suite advising me that there was a ship-to-Seattle-airport bus transfer available. I emailed my TA and had him cancel the Amtrak bus, and we opted for the HAL transfer.
We had our luggage in the hallway overnight; we hit the Neptune lounge at 7AM for coffee on Saturday morning, and the folks hit the Lido for a little something more substantive. We then assembled in my folk's stateroom at 7:45AM for a planned "7:50 to 8:00 AM" disembarkation window. They called our luggage tag color and number at 8:10, and there were no lines on board, in the corridors, or at the elevator. Mom had been worried that disembarking would be a zoo, but we walked quite easily off the ship.
It was a little confusing finding our luggage, but 5 minutes after walking off we had luggage in hand and quickly processed thru immigration. It was also a little confusing finding our bus station, but a red-jacketed pier employee pointed us in the right direction (signage was a little sparse; but lots of red jackets around to ask) and there was no line to board our shuttle (there was a large line for some other purpose - I couldn't tell if it was a bus line or a taxi line).
We had 25 people in one large bus going to SEATAC. We had a great experience, a nice rest area stop half way, and a diamond-lane thru the border, where we stopped and 3 agents got aboard and scanned everyone's passports. Because the bus is sealed before leaving the pier, as long as the seals are unbroken when the agents arrive they do not need to unload and examine your baggage. The whole border crossing took less than 10 minutes. The automobile line was about 60 minutes long.
We got to SEATAC on time. It was pouring rain. The bus pulled into its assigned unloading station, and the driver told the staff to radio for permission to go to another station nearer the airport terminal, as it would have been a long-ish, wet walk from where we initially stopped. Excellent job on the part of the driver.
Great crew and exceptional staff; great food; great ship; great weather absent 4 hours of moderate seas and some rain on either end; great transfer back to Seattle. I'm ready to go again.