My family had booked this vacation around Thanksgiving of last year, so there was definitely a lot of anticipation leading up to embarkation. None of us had ever been to Vancouver or Alaska, so we were very excited. There were 7 of us sailing in 3 rooms. All of us adults -- the youngest 27 years old. We were happy to get three adjoining staterooms with balconies.
Because this was to be my 5th cruise and because I enjoy extensively researching all things travel/cruise related, my family relied on me to plan the trip. It was my first time on Holland America, and I was a bit apprehensive knowing the reputation for the older age range of people who sail on this ship (I'm 31); however, the itinerary was fantastic (Glacier Bay and long port calls), so I knew this was the ship to pick. Here's what we did:
Travel to Vancouver: Five of us flew into Seattle on the Thursday before the cruise. My travel was significantly delayed, so I missed visiting Pike's Place market with my family that day -- hopefully I'll be back someday. We got a great deal at the Hyatt at Olive 8, which is a beautiful hotel. I'd recommend this hotel to anyone staying in the area again, although I do not know if it is convenient for travelers embarking on a cruise in Seattle.
On Friday, the five of us headed to the early morning (7:40am) Amtrak Cascades to Vancouver. If you have the time, I'd highly recommend doing this. Your train goes right by Puget Sound, and is incredibly beautiful. Sit on the left side of the train and book business class tickets if you want to disembark first. We did and felt it was completely worth it. Once arriving on the train, we took the SkyTrain to the Gastown neighborhood of Vancouver which was near our hotel. I felt the SkyTrain was easy to navigate, but I'm from Chicago and am used to this type of public transportation. The other two of our party arrived in Vancouver later that afternoon. We checked into Delta Vancouver Suites, which seems like it is close to the Canada Place Pier, but if you have a lot of luggage or people who have problems walking (we did), you will have to cab it to the pier for embarkation. It was a nice hotel, and the staff was friendly, except for one lady at check-in who seemed to be having a bad day in general.
Embarkation/Day 1: Embarkation went smoothly as it could. Arrived at Canada Place around 10:30 and was on the ship around 11:30/12 (we had to wait because the Princess Ship also docking there was slow to clear through customs). Had lunch in the Lido dining room, made our way to our cabins (which were ready early -- yay!), and took a wonderful ship tour with the Cruise Director. Our luggage arrived fast, which I credit to the fact we arrived to the port early, and we were all unpacked before muster. The muster drill was outside near the lifeboats, which makes sense, and there is a roll call, so be prepared to stand for a bit. We did not have to bring life jackets. On other lines I've sailed on, my muster stations have been in dining rooms and other public areas, which I always thought was a bit bizarre as you are not close to life boats.
After muster, we went on deck for sailaway, which is when we experienced Bad Thing #1: engine failure. I had read previously on Cruise Critic that Zuiderdam has electrical issues, and apparently when the ship disconnected from power at the pier, it triggered a power surge which messed up the engines (or at least that's what they told us happened). We were delayed about 3 hours from leaving Vancouver. This did not delay any of our ports of calls or mess up the itinerary from what I could tell; however, I was more annoyed that we had no information for 2.5 hours on what was going on. I would have appreciated an update at least an hour into the problem.
Day 2: At sea cruising the Inside Passage. Beautiful. Had breakfast in the main dining room (try the swiss style muesli -- yum!!!), went to the formal dutch tea, and at had dinner in the main dining room (late seating).
Day 3: Juneau. We arrived in Juneau 30 minutes early, which allowed us to explore Juneau for a bit before our 3pm excursion. We took the Whales & Rain Forest Trails excursion, which was lovely. Our guide had recently moved to Alaska with her boyfriend, and was a year-long resident. She was very knowledgeable. The hike was about a mile on easy terrain (my dad has problems walking and he didn't have any issues). The highlight of the hike was walking to the end of the Mendenhall Lake and seeing the Glacier. After the hike, we took a bus to our whale watching excursion. Saw at least 12 whales, and about 5 of those whales showed us their tails. I got some great pictures, even on my point-and-shoot camera (hint: use the setting for action photography which takes a series of fast shots in a row). The weather was beautiful -- sunny and 60 degrees. Missed dinner that night and ate room service, which was decent.
Day 4: Skagway. We had early excursions this morning. Four of our group took an independent excursion with Packer Expeditions to Laughton Glacier, and three of us (myself included) took the Yukon Expedition & White Pass Railway. This review is only for the latter, as I did not take the hike to the Glacier, but my family seemed to really enjoy themselves on that hike. If you are taking the Yukon tour, I'd advise you to get off the boat early because the busses leave for this tour when they are full (there were probably 4-5 busses for this tour), so if you are on an early departing bus you have more time to see things on the way out to the Yukon. Our guide made two extra stops than busses that left later, including a stop at Emerald Lake, which is beautiful. I really enjoyed this tour -- you take a bus up the Klondike Highway to the Yukon Territory, and made a number of stops along the way (including at the "Welcome to Yukon" sign). We also saw a bear at the side of the road! At Carcross, you can get your passport stamped at the local post office. On the way back you take the wonderful White Pass Railway (sit on the right side of the train coming down). We were lucky again in Skagway with weather -- about 55 and partly cloudy.
Day 5: Glacier Bay. One word: Breathtaking. It was rainy and cloudy, which is to be expected (so bring warm clothing!). Our captain told us that the week before it was sunny in Glacier Bay, but they didn't see any glaciers calving. We did, and I got some great pictures. It's otherworldly out there -- you feel all alone because it is so silent (until you hear the thunder of the glacier). We were served Pea Soup on the forward deck on 4 (they open this up for Glacier Bay day). This is the best place to view the glaciers until they rotate the ship -- then go to the Starboard side Aft. We also saw a puffin off the side of the ship. Very cute!
Day 6: Ketchikan. I wasn't really looking forward to this stop as much as the others, as most of the ship excursions seemed to be touristy. I imagined this to be a giant tourist trap stop. We booked an independent excursion with Ketchikan Taxicab Tours, which completely changed my mind about this island. This tour was WONDERFUL. I'd highly recommend them to anyone. We were able to drive all over the island and see the "real Ketchikan". The highlights were a trip to Settlers Cove, where we walked on the beach in low tide and then took a quiet hike (but somewhat difficult for those who don't like stairs) through the rainforest, and a stop for bear watching, where we saw three bears. Note that tour busses can't go to Settlers Cove, so you have to book with an independent tour guide or a smaller excursion. We also had great weather here -- 52 and partly cloudy.
Day 7: At sea cruising Inside Passage. Again, we were blessed with great weather. Around 4pm that afternoon, we ran into a group of about 150-200 dolphins (I'm not exaggerating -- there were tons of them) who started jumping all around the ship. It was magical.
Entertainment: I only saw one show on the ship, which was better than any other I've seen on a cruise ship. I think it was called "In Concert". Most nights before dinner we went to the Explorer's Lounge and listened to Adagio -- a classical pianist and violinist. They were excellent. Also note free chocolates here in the evenings -- yum! I went to the casino once, and lost some money playing blackjack. It was fun, but the dealers were not very friendly. My sisters and their significant others are amateur ballroom dancers and took advantage of the dance floors most nights.
Dining: We ate most dinners in the main dining room, late seating. I thought the food was great, and the portions were appropriate. We also had room service for breakfast on 4 or 5 mornings. It was always prompt, if not early. Bad Thing #2: Room service takes forever to pick up trays from your rooms (you are not supposed to leave them in the hall). Normally took about 3 calls to have them come get the tray, which is a minor annoyance, but still slightly frustrating. On the one day we broke the rule and left the tray outside, it was picked up right away -- go figure.
Cabins: We had three cabins in a row on Deck 5. Yes, we were above a life boat, but we didn't hear any banging. I was "lucky" to be in a room with three people - slept on the sofa bed which was better than I expected (but not amazing). Also, the way the deck above us was situatated - the balconies shot out a little further from the ship - protected us from the rain in Glacier Bay.
Disembarkation: This went relatively smoothly. We got a porter who somehow allowed us to cut in lines to get a cab. Was this legal? I don't know, but we just followed him. We stayed that night at the Westin Bayshore, which is a great jumping off point to Stanley Park. Took a free shuttle to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, which I highly recommend, even though it is a little touristy and crowded in the afternoons. Purchased passes on the Hop-On-Hop-Off tour around Stanley Park -- the driver narrated the trip around the park. We got off the shuttle at a couple of points to explore. Another beautiful day -- 70 and sunny (people were even on the beach in bikinis!).
Other Notes: The only other (very minor) issue we had (my Bad Thing #3) was with the photograph desk staff -- I don't know why, but on every cruise I've been on, these staff members are always aloof and unhelpful. I'm not talking about the photographers themselves, but the people who sell you the pictures.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience. Sure, the Zuiderdam is old and in need of updating, but do not let that ruin your cruise -- if you do, you are focusing on the wrong things, in my opinion. Open your eyes and look at the beautiful world outside the windows.