WESTERDAM: ALASKA VS. CARIBBEAN HAL delivered yet another consistent product, but with some distinct changes for the colder climate. After a dozen visits to St. Maartin and countless shopping days in Old San Juan, I headed to Seattle for a change of scenery. This was my fifth HAL cruise, but nearly twentieth overall. Here's my review of Westerdam's Alaskan Explorer Cruise with a comparison to HAL's sunnier itineraries.
ALASKA IN SEPTEMBER
While visiting Glacier Bay, one of the park rangers said, "I love Alaska in September. You get the best and worst weather in the same day." Although she was referencing the blue skies opening behind Marjorie Glacier, this statement easily described a week's worth of changes.
The sea day after leaving Seattle was particularly turbulent. Our course took us west of the Queen Charlotte Islands, exposing us to unusually long period swells and the high winds to match. With a bit of imagination, I pretended we were 'rounding Cape Horn as we bounced past ghostly rock formations. The captain made a well-rehearsed announcement about the Pacific being a cup of cooling tea, and requested that the ladies save their high-heeled shoes for the second formal night. Given that only six or seven tables were occupied in the main dining room during my visit, most passengers must have dined on the green apples and bread slices being offered at the reservations podium.
To the relief of most passengers, we entered calmer waters in the Chatham Strait at 4:00am. Don't sleep too late, or you'll miss the gorgeous scenery of the Stephens Passage beginning at 9:00am. Due to its warmth, the covered Lido Pool was a popular space for watching the green hills and flowing waterfalls. As we disembarked the ship, we were handed flyers promoting "Caribbean Gems," Diamond's International, and Del Sol. If it weren't for my heavy winter coat, I'd have thought I was back down south!
Today's highlights included seeing a mother bear and her two cubs, a porcupine in a tree, and a pair of wild mink feasting on salmon left by a bear. I chose to hike independently at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. For those who enjoy a mild to moderate hike, I recommend the 3.5-mile East Glacier Trail and the shorter Trail of Time. These trails are partially lined with gravel, but require walking on stairs and uphill surfaces. Both trails offer a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of the Visitor's Center and an excellent opportunity to view wildlife. Bus transfers to the Visitor Center can be purchased after disembarking the ship, as can a number of same-day sightseeing tours.
GLACIER BAY CRUISING
Glacier Bay was the highlight of the cruise. The pilot, four park rangers, and a Huna Tribe member embarked the ship at 6:00am near Bartlett Cove. The cruise to Marjorie Glacier took four hours, with an arrival time of 11:00am. Once there, we had spectacular blue skies and an uncommon view of Mount Fairweather, one of the world's highest coastal mountains at 4,671 metres (15,325 feet). Captain Henk Keijer positioned the ship so that each side had 30 minutes of viewing time at the glacier. The bow was open, as were the forward observation balconies on decks seven and eight. Dutch Pea Soup and unlimited hot chocolate were served outside on Deck 10 for those passengers watching the scenery aft of the Crow's Nest. Upon leaving the area, the captain announced we would attempt a full visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier with an arrival time of 2:30pm. Thus, the entire ship piled into the Lido Restaurant. To avoid the disaster (and it was one), make a lunch reservation at the Pinnacle Grill for 1:00pm. You don't want to eat in the Lido on Glacier Bay day!
For the second week in a row, Westerdam was able to make a close-up visit to the Johns Hopkins Glacier. According to a park ranger, September offers the best chance for this added bonus because the ice breaks at the end of August. Similar to before, the captain gave each side of the ship 30 minutes of viewing time before slowly retracing our path back to the park's entrance. We rendezvoused with Volendam before leaving Glacier Bay, which did not venture inside the Johns Hopkins Inlet.
As our tender left Westerdam behind in the mist, I dreamed about the white sand beaches of Half Moon Cay. Although it rained nonstop today, I took to the streets with my umbrella to visit the Russian Orthodox Cemetery. It is located precariously on a hillside, and appears to be straight from a Steven King novel. This site was recommended by a Lonely Planet Travel Guide, and is not to be missed! It is a most curious place, and far more interesting than the storefronts in the center of town. Given Sitka's small size, however, you'll have plenty of time to shop and spook yourself in one of North America's most unusual graveyards. Had it not been so cold and rainy I would have loved to visit the Sitka National Historic Park. It was too cold so I retreated to the hot tubs at the Lido Pool.
We brought Sitka's dreary weather with us to Ketchikan. Creek Street is not to be missed, and in September affords its visitors many end-of-season sales. For an interesting panorama of the city, take the Married Men's Trail to the Cape Fox Lodge (the entrance is a steep set of stairs on Creek Street). Depending on your weather, you will see the ship waiting patiently in the harbor surrounded by gorgeous mountains. However, all I saw was fog: white fog, dense fog, thickening fog, rolling fog.... I decided to send postcards with somewhat clearer views of the city before returning to the ship.
SEA DAY & VICTORIA
We cruised the sheltered waters of the Hecate Strait on the journey south to Victoria. While Westerdam hugged the shoreline all the way down, rumor has it that Golden Princess is required to sail further out to sea for environmental reasons. In any case, she could be seen from a distance for the entire day. I was unsure what to do about dinner tonight because the ship was scheduled to dock in Victoria at 5:30pm. To enjoy as much time ashore as possible, I ate at the Alaskan Salmon Cookout by the pool. While the decorations and ice carvings looked inviting, the food cooled quickly in the wind. I recommend eating ashore in one of Victoria's many charming restaurants; the inner harbor is simply stunning at night.
REGIONAL ALASKAN CUISINE
The fare offered on this cruise varied from HAL's Caribbean sailings. Notably missing were the Pepper Pot Soup, Grilled Mahi-Mahi, Spiced Rack of Pork, and Steamed Black Mussels. The menus in the Vista Dining Room were very heavy on salmon (a good thing) and pasta dishes (bizarre). While the food was consistent, something was missing from the experience. I think it was the informality of Alaska, the rain boots seen in the dining room, and the earlier dining times (5:30pm and 7:30pm). The first formal night that was essentially cancelled due to weather and the dinnertime arrival into Victoria also played a part in my slight disappointment. The Pinnacle Grill was extraordinary as always, and surprisingly never looked full. I am tempted to book the Pinnacle for five of seven nights next cruise, visiting the dining room only on formal nights. The experience is so worth it.
ENTERTAINMENT & PROGRAMMING
The entertainment offerings on this sailing included two full production shows (Grand Tour and Stage & Screen), with an additional show featuring only the singers: Aaron Neely, Katie Kern, Josh Campbell, and Brianne Hodoly. The HAL Cats featured two excellent vocalists: Brian Bateman and Erika Toler. Piano Man Stryker was very good as well, although Piano Man Jimmy from the Eurodam is still my favorite. The headliner entertainment was industry standard, and included the magic of Jeff Peterson, his dog Indy, and the comedy of Dan Bennett. Cruise Director Jason Venner made all of the entertainment enjoyable with his refreshingly refined sense of humor.
WARM WEATHER COMPARISONS
Despite the Alaska stereotype, the passenger complement on this cruise was younger than my previous HAL cruises in the Caribbean. However, passengers retired much earlier due to the 7:00am port arrivals and more demanding shore excursions. The ship also felt more crowded because no one used the open decks. Even though all of the cruising staples were readily available, I missed the sunshine and warmth found in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. It would have been nice to sit on the balcony and walk outside on the Promenade Deck!
To conclude, I'm very satisfied with my first Alaskan cruise and can't wait to sail with HAL a sixth time! An Alaskan cruise is different, and it's supposed to be. After a few more healthy doses of sunshine in the Caribbean, I'd like to try a one-way cruise between Vancouver and Anchorage to pick up Tracy Arm, Skagway, and Hubbard Glacier. Holland America has an excellent product, and I urge everyone to try at least one Alaskan cruise!
Thanks for reading! I'm happy to answer questions on the Cruise Critic thread titled: Westerdam Photo Review: Alaska vs. Caribbean.