Boarding and Disembarkation:
All went smoothly with one exception, if you are driving in and out of Vancouver and want to park at Canada Place, book ahead with "Vinci Parking" but be prepared for an utterly confusing experience driving through the parking complex and finding their office, which for some reason is next to the exit gates. Once in their office they will give you a yellow ticket to put in the machine along with your parking stub when you are on your way out after your cruise. They then explain in heavily-accented poor English that since they are by the exit this means you will have to drive in reverse to turn your car around and find a parking spot or leave, deal with the fact that you already have a ticket to pay for the privilege of visiting their office, then do a U-Turn in front of the convention/cruise and hotel facility to get back into the parking lot...could not be more stupidly planned and the staff was completely rude and indifferent when I expressed surprise at the poor planning.
I chose reverse and made my way back into the lot and down to level P2 -look for parking near the elevator. The reason to advance purchase is not because of a shortage of spaces but rather that I spoke to others who paid a lot more on their way out than was originally quoted. Misunderstanding could have been a language issue or a parking issue, maybe they never found the office to pick up their yellow ticket until after the cruise? There are no signs or directions to help fill this out. Next I will look for a hotel that will do a parking deal and rent a room instead of handing Vinci $186.00 for a headache. Coast Hotels does offer a deal at the Coast Plaza by Stanley Park and it's nice to have an extra night in Vancouver.
We let our agent up-sell us into an SS class Verandah Stateroom and were very happy with all the space. A few watermarks on the walls, stains on the first set of bathrobes, rusty door frame on the bathroom door. Fellow passengers shared our impression that the ship is looking a bit tired and worse for wear in some staterooms. But our beds were very comfortable and cabin stewards did a great job keeping things clean and were very friendly and accommodating. The colour scheme in the common areas is unbelievably gaudy -Denny's purple and orange carpeting, oranges and yellows, many colours I am sure not found in nature -too bad really because the artwork is okay and the fixtures are the usual euro-style chrome and brass, but it's hard to describe how nightmarish the patterns and the colours are until you actually see them..
Two nights at the Pinnacle Grill for the extra $25/ea were well worth it...5 courses,16oz. steaks fabulous attentive service, weird but pleasant decor and few window tables. When I told the Maitre de that we had booked a month in advance and would like a table that reflected that, we were told that "there are no bad tables at the Pinnacle" sorry bub but we beg to differ and by being a bit assertive got view tables both times. Open-seating means that each time you go to eat at one of the three dining rooms you take your chances. Every time we shared we got fabulous window-side tables and when we insisted on table for two it was hit and miss although a couple of times we really lucked out and had a table for 4 to ourselves. The main dining room lacks the high ceilings and grandeur found on many ships and the service varies from wonderful to indifferent. One disappointment was that the reception often turned cold when we didn't drink (not supposed to- my Dr's orders :-( ). Ordering a soda helped a bit sometimes but they are clearly looking for the 15% service charge that comes on beverages and clearly not happy when you don't play along.Also sent an awful cold breakfast back and that was not well received either -avoid the corned beef hash -it looked pre-digested. Still that was a minor complaint. The food, while not astounding, was consistently good with few exceptions. Key exception being the Lido Buffet which has several self-serve stations: salads, sandwiches, Asian, Ice Cream, Drinks etc. We did our best to avoid it as it was extremely crowded and chaotic at mealtimes and because you needed to visit at least three stations to get salad dinner and drinks. Food was often cold, not at all enjoyable and as you might expect when the food was being thrown together frantically and jockeyed to tables one piece at a time. Still, the Lido is a welcome refuge for people that refuse to wear anything but old jeans or shorts, tank tops and flip flops. Sometimes the Lido felt like a summer camp and at other times like a high-end nursing home. Better to have room service breakfast or stick to the dining room where you get to meet fellow passengers and really feel like you are participating in something special and not just fast food at sea. The 24 hour component consists of lukewarm thin crust pizza and the ice cream station closes quickly unlike the wonderful set up on the last cruise I took with HAL. I think they should go back to the traditional buffet -the Lido was for us, a nightmare.
We did have a dinner at Canaletto which is a small corner of the Lido cordoned off and nicely decorated to be an Italian Trattoria, it was only a $10 surcharge and well worth it! The Chocolate Exravaganza was impressive, but the actual desserts were flavourless, remined me of a Chinatown bakery where all the cakes look wonderful but taste the same.
Entertainment: Well what can you expect from HAL? The Cruise Director and others hosting and introducing the acts had a really annoying habit of screaming into their mike and talking to you continuing this theme that rather than an ocean cruise, it's summer camp or a nursing home. By far the worst offender among those who could use mike lessons was the piano bar singer who ould not carry a tune, remember the lyrics and was off-key, rambling and yelling and screaming at various points in the show. So bad it was almost funny at times, we almost felt sorry for the guy. The Zuiderdam Singers and Dancers had a strong female singer leading their shows, the male lead was awkward and fawning, but the choreography and direction was unbelievably frenetic, arm-waving, amateurish - so I had to remind myself that it is what it is and go along with it all, but still the direction and production is high school quality at best.
Three bright spots for music were the Leonard Cohen type guitarist-singer in the Crow's Nest every night (fantastic!),the classical duo "Adagio" who played piano and strings in the Explorer's Lounge and the ship's band the HAL-cats who were hard at work pumping out good tunes in various venues and had strong singers to complement them...these guys, including the female vocalist Ashley, were the most talented (and ironically hardest working) entertainers on the ship. Maybe it's all the practice? Finally and unusually, the comedians (there were two) were both great and truly hilarious. The magician claimed to have headlined in Vegas (at Bar Mitzvahs maybe?)but was all about pigeons, poodles and pulling multi-coloured scarves out of his mouth.
Ashore: We followed our agents advice and booked our own tours. Juneau whale watching on a small boat with 6 other passengers was fantastic (Alaska Galore or Harv and Marv's) and when we saw the giant hulking HAL tour boats listing as 50-70 passengers struggled for a view we know we had made the right choice. Skagway White Pass Railway was fantastic, again, return trip on the train can be purchased online direct from the White Pass Railway for $119.00 return. The train station is right near the dock -can't miss it and there are several trains running a day. No need to book through HAL. You can also get a bus/train combo which will take the highway one way to or from the mountaintop. This gives more chances for photo-taking and makes some stops along the way with a personable guide-driver $129.00. Ketchikan has expensive float plane tours but we really enjoyed just checking it all out ourselves, particularly the Creek District and Dolly's Brothel museum, as well as taking the funicular up to the hill top to the lodge overlooking the harbour.
Would we do it again?:
We met several returning folks who were on their second or even third trip to Alaska and I can see why, watching a glacier calve into the ocean or being within range of a bunch or Humpback whales is amazing and the history is interesting, the fjords and scenery are just breathtaking.
Next time we will try another cruise line with perhaps a bit younger demographic but there is no denying that HAL offers good value and really everything was more or less as we expected. Even with no boozing our stateroom tab was $273. -bingo $35. each for 4 cards, ironing $3.50 a shirt, 3 dinners in the premium restaurants $120.00, $12. a day gratuity (well deserved) it all adds up and they never stop trying to sell you something, so be prepared.
Ironically, speaking of sales pitches, we approached their "Book Your Next Cruise Now" staff person to ask if we could fly to Hawaii and cruise home or vice versa? She did not invite us to sit down, she was very unfriendly, (maybe because we were 2 guys together?) and stated "You need to understand, we are not a ferry service, we are a cruise line. Perhaps you could do it but the company will make you pay full retrun trip fare. I can't deal with this kind of request, you will have to contact the company or your travel agent." She didn't seem to notice that we had just picked up hundreds of passengers in the tiny town of Skagway and we about to ferry them to Vancouver, but then since Holland America owns several hotels, tour buses and shore services in Alaska and not Hawaii, maybe I know why. One more reason to try a different line. Remarkably rude for a sales person. Partner said rhymes with "witch", my guess: not her kind of customer.
The best show was at 10 am on the final day, when they prep you for disembarkation, hilarious video of the crew spoofing and a really touching good-bye song sung by over 300 of the various staff..don't miss it! Odd thing was the Cruise Director explaining how to fill out the Satisfaction Surveys as follows, "If you were satisfied mark the subject as a 9 if not mark it as an 8 and be very specific as to why." I wouldn't put much credence into their customer satisfaction data. Hmmm, who is accountable if some subjects are rated 3? Could it be there Cruise Director? It ended up being moot for us because Housekeeping staff removed them from the stateroom half-completed while we were atteding the "Mariners Lunch" with the Captain.