HAL Westerdam Alaska September 10th -17th 2006
This was my fourth cruise, the second one with HAL and hopefully not the last! As in my past review (on the Westerdam Western Caribbean cruise), for ease of reading I'll break down my comments by category.
Embarkation: went very well, as usual. We (i.e. my better half and myself) had flown into Seattle the day before and spent the night at the Fairmont Olympic a delight. After four or five meals during our long-haul flight, tiredness seemed to prevail over hunger. However, we did find enough strength to try Shuckers, a cosy oak paneled pub-style fish restaurant within the hotel, also open to non-hotel guests, which was excellent. First taste of exceptional American halibut! The morning after, our coach drove us to the port and, not surprisingly, we found no queue whatsoever at the non-US immigration desk and a smiling assistant who gave us all the documentation we needed for boarding and survival on the ship. Being non-US citizens has its advantages, but I must say that the US queue was not particularly ominous either. We boarded the ship immediately and were directed to the Lido Restaurant, on Deck 9, for lunch. Our baggage was handled swiftly and effectively and when we finished lunch we found it in our stateroom, together with a nice arrival gift. Cabin: this time, we had been proposed an upgrade to a Superior Verandah Suite overlooking the port (best for a Southward Alaskan cruise). Like last time, our beds were exceptionally comfortable and we were only half surprised to see that they could be purchased at a certain internet address if we wanted to. We had quite a lot of room as that stateroom was more square than the Deluxe Verandah Outside Stateroom we previously had. Again, lots of wardrobes and hangers. Our bathroom had a Jacuzzi bath tub AND a shower, which is what we used most anyway. I liked the nice touch of Elemis products by the wash basin. I discovered this (English!) brand on the ship on the occasion of our last cruise and I've been addicted ever since. Fabulous view from the spacious balcony, equipped with table, chairs, armchairs and even blankets to enjoy the glaciers sitting outside. Again, no rumbling noises or sewage odor in our stateroom.
Customer service: was effective. We had made our reservation for a Victoria trip before boarding and we found vouchers on our desk upon arrival. The front desk staff answered all our questions with a smile. One of our stateroom keys (cards) got somehow demagnetized, but the problem was solved rather efficiently. Public areas: Same comments as in respect of the other cruise. The main theatre, the Vista lounge, hosted the evening shows. There were comfortable leather chairs (armchairs!) and sofas and I did not find that there were many seats with an obstructive view. Columns were few. Never did we feel that the theatre was uncomfortably crammed. A few seats had tables for drinks and waiters came and went before the show to fulfill the guests' wishes.
There were a small atrium mid-ship, more for decoration than anything else, plus another nice lounge for various functions, and a number of nice bars with different features and often music played. We especially liked the Explorer's lounge, where afternoon tea was served, among other drinks.
The Lido Deck was quite nice in this season. We were blessed with exceptionally good weather and during our sailing party it was very warm and sunny. For those who haven't read my first review, the Lido Deck has a small swimming pool and lots of chairs and round tables to sit down and enjoy the sun and/or drinks and food or just some live music. There is another swimming pool on the aft deck for adults only.
The gym had all the necessary equipment and some room for classes. However, most classes were still offered for a fee, so out of principle I ignored them. People need encouragement, not a deterrent, to exercise! We also ignored the spacious internet room, which could be used for a (high) fee. To me, a holiday means no computers around. Alaska also meant no phone, which was bliss.
The library was well stocked, but as usual we had our own books and lots of room elsewhere where to sit and read.
The art gallery was interesting and had old-master paintings that were sold at auction impressive.
The photo gallery was OK. We managed to find one good picture to buy, which was especially good as it bore my birthday date. It would be helpful if the ship had more corridors lined with windows so that one could easily see which direction the ship is sailing and, consequently easily take the right direction towards a place at the back or front of the ship. However, the Westerdam has maintained its elegant touch in many ways, including the decor, so all was well.
Food: We dined on Deck 3 of the Vista dining room, which was spacious, organized in a circular way, with rectangular tables for two, four or six people as well as some round tables. Nothing like the refectory style of other ships, with very big and long crowded tables. The decor hadn't changed: carpet, velvet and golden railings, like in a luxury hotel. We were seated with four other people, at our request, which was a pleasant diversion and a way of talking to passengers. The food was extraordinary, always served in a professional way and with a smile. Food quality and presentation were of a high standard, with some variations each day, and quantity just right if not on the abundance side, even for hungry diners (portions would only be considered too small by people with no sense of proportion). Room service was very good. The choice was ample and service was very punctual and impeccable. Someone also called later to check that everything was in order. Croissants were still warm when they arrived, so an extra star from me.
The Lido restaurant had a buffet-style and provided different sections with a variety of food, from Italian to salads, sweets, bistro, oriental, deli, etc. Water, tea, coffee and chocolate were offered free of charge. I found any extra drinks ordered at the bars very good value, and not just because I had London standards! On the Lido Deck there were also burgers, hot dogs and tacos at hand, in addition to a bar. We would have liked to see more staff serving at the various counters, as that would have speeded up the wait.
The biggest surprise was the Pinnacle Grill. We had had a disappointing experience last time, but after writing to HAL's head office and participating in the first culinary demonstration, where we learned that the chef had changed, we decided to give it a second chance. Boy, was it worth it! Everything was so different and to our complete satisfaction. Our advice seemed to have been followed scrupulously. The maitre 'd was helpful, very polite and booked us a table for the same evening with no problem. The staff was half Indonesian, which was a plus even though English was not perfectly understood. One of the staff was Romanian and even had a sense of humor. No arrogance anywhere. The menu was varied and we were shown a sample of the types of meat cuts available, all seemingly succulent. The fish, which I had decided to stick to as much as possible (healthy choice and not the same quality in England, plus our itinerary was bound to be fish-oriented), was cooked perfectly. Portions were even too big for us. My BH had secretly ordered a cake, which duly arrived and surprised me even more. We did feel special all along and happily returned there on our last night, with some newly-found friends.
We also appreciated the so-called Chocolate extravaganza, a late evening buffet on the Lido Deck with every chocolate variation possible and ice sculptures. Very good for pictures.
Entertainment was quite good, still keeping a higher standard than the one I experienced on other ships. We thought we'd miss our previous cruise director, Drew Murdock, but Steve Gayna, also Canadian, was equally welcoming, pleasant and competent. He even spoke like Drew! The various entertainers were good and I was surprised that the theatre was never packed, unlike during our previous cruise. Maybe the activities offered as an alternative were too much of a distraction and did not make it clear enough that the show was and should be the natural next step after dinner. There was also the HAL's dance staff, with the usual choreography, music and lights that made up for the generally too big size of the female dancers. Male dancers were slim and of much better skill. We also took part in a back-stage tour one afternoon and had a chance to speak to the dancers and technicians. That was a new experience for us which we found very interesting. We attended the last stage of the Superstar competition, a Karaoke event. Many thanks to the fellow passengers who entertained us so well! The casino was another favorite of lots of passengers. We are not gamblers, but if you are you could find lots of choice there, although the dedicated area is quite small.
CLUB: Not applicable. We had no children with us and saw virtually none onboard. Probably not a preferred route or time for them.
The Spa: Very clean. We treated ourselves to a couple massage which did us a lot of good, especially as it was upgraded to a hot stones massage. At the beginning I was skeptical as it was a first for me and the idea of hot stones on my back didn't particularly appeal to me, but it was well worth trying. The staff was competent, we just noticed that the people at reception were not very well organized and mixed up some of the other passengers' appointments. Having said that, we didn't have any personal complaint and someone even called me back straightaway in our stateroom to give me an appointment at the hairdresser's as I was on the waiting list. The hairdresser herself was good, polite and not too pushy when it came to proposing products, which I appreciated.
Shops: Good size rooms. Usual selection of clothes, souvenirs, spirits, jewels and very good-value watches. There were always a number of people when we went, but never too crowded, except during jewelry and drinks events. There was also a make-up event, but they should have had more space and more than one person available for it; it was immediately fully booked.
Crew: marvellous. Unsurprisingly, we were mightily impressed with the staff. Again. Particularly the Indonesian ones. We didn't seem to bond with individuals like on our previous cruise, but everyone was very efficient, attentive, good-natured and genuinely smiling all the time. No request was impossible. And not just in exchange for a tip. We appreciated HAL's tradition to let the Indonesian and Filipino staff have their own evening show for us guests, this time it was even better than the last time, with dances and very good singers. They had to rehearse at night, after their twelve hours working day, yet in the morning they were alert and smiling again. They also took the initiative and anticipated our needs. For instance, we were probably the only couple asking for still mineral water as the tap water on the ship tasted a bit too much of chlorine (understandably) to which I have an intolerance. After the first time, we were always given a bottle without being asked. I also had green tea after pudding, which they remembered, too. Also, during the cruise I celebrated my birthday. We went to the Pinnacle Grill for the occasion and my BH ordered a cake in secret, which was duly presented to us. The next evening, the maitre 'd in the Vista dining room asked us where we had been. They had somehow found out that it was my birthday and had prepared a surprise birthday cake for me as well, so I had two cakes for my birthday! What a way to celebrate :-) Our cabin steward Karmen was, like all his colleagues, a smiling wizard, invisible but always available when needed. Our bed was not always immediately made up, but that must have depended on our varying breakfast time. Also, if we decided to leave our stateroom later than usual, he would see us in the corridor from one of the other rooms, recognize us and miraculously link us to our stateroom and make a mental note to get our cabin ready. Turn-down service had the touch of chocolates on the pillows as usual and a new animal was created each evening with the arrangement of some towels. I especially liked the elephant and the seal. Incredible! We confirmed our agreement on HAL's tipping policy. The daily fixed $10 tip ensured that all the staff was rewarded - the invisible hands who cooked (we were amazed when we visited the super-efficient kitchens!), maintained and cleaned the ship so well. Of course, one could also give an extra tip to those individuals deemed to be particularly good.
Cruisers: They were mainly of an advanced age, many in wheelchairs and walking with the help of sticks (these all being American, as far as I could see). For the great majority they were American, some Canadian and seemingly very few European.
Shore excursions: decking and tendering always went very well. Whenever we had a particularly early start, we had breakfast in our stateroom, which arrived promptly and never caused any delay in our schedule.
Glacier Bay: impressive, even for someone used to seeing glaciers. These glaciers actually go down from the mountain into the water. We were very fortunate to be able to advance a lot into the Bay by ship and come very near the ice. I thought we would be cruising without stopping, but we did stop for an hour or so and could admire the view first from our balcony, then from the deck (any deck, really), listening to explanations given by a naturalist on the speaker and eating Dutch pea soup. In one of my pictures I even spotted seals sleeping on the shore at the foot of the glacier! We also heard and saw blocks of ice cracking and roaring down into the water from the glacier. Quite a sight. The icy blue of the water and of the sky and the white of the glacier were made even brighter by the sun. It was windy at times, but we were well equipped for the most rigorous climate, expecting rain and cold! A few tours around the deck helped us enjoying the view from every angle and cleared our conscience after a copious breakfast.
Juneau: we organized one independent tour to go whale-watching. There were a few clouds, but the whales and other animals and birds we saw didn't seem to bother. We then went back and had lunch at the Twisted Fish, very near our ship. We had temporarily forgotten American sizes, so we ordered a starter AND a main course, to taste local cuisine. I have seldom eaten such good fish and in such quantity! We had fantastic fish fritters and then halibut and salmon. Unforgettable. Afterwards, we went for a walk down the main colorful village street, overflowing with shops, particularly jewelry and local handicraft shops. For a small village they didn't look down-market, just touristy. We didn't make it to Mount Robert's, but we already had enjoyed a fantastic view from the boat and from the village and, being used to the Alps, we didn't missed the cable-car too much (they call it tramway over there, which is quite confusing that is definitely a cable-car!). I could take a picture from our stateroom's balcony, we were docked just in front of it.
Sitka: by far the best port of our cruise and one of the most beautiful places we had even seen (and we saw a lot!). The weather was gorgeous, we watched sunrise from our stateroom while having breakfast and then took a tender. We thought we'd have to wait for a long time before taking the tender, as tenders with passengers going on ship's tours go first we did not know this and were quite disappointed. However, whether because most passengers had decided to stay in bed or because of HAL's efficient policy, we didn't have to queue and tendering went incredibly smoothly. Again, we organized our independent tour, a boat that took us around the bay to see wildlife. It was another huge success. Afterwards, we went to have lunch at the only place that seemed to prepare its own food, but it was closed. So we opted for a walk in the National Park and a bite onboard later. That walk (free entrance) was very pleasant, in the woods with a sea view. We saw squirrels and salmon swimming up the stream. We could breathe mountain-like air and that made us feel invigorated. It must be beautiful to rent a cottage for the summer and explore the many trails in the area.
Ketchikan: new port, new independent tour. We went flying over the Misty Fjords where there was no mist at all, just heavenly sights! We finished out short time onshore by having a bite (an Alaskan bite, i.e. rather big fish portions, not to mention the enormous cake that was intended to be a little something to leave a sweet taste in our mouths) at the Steamers' Restaurant on Front Street, another good address, and a tour of the village. The tourist office has brochures with walks around the village. Having more time than what we did, it would have been possible to explore more of the territory.
Victoria: for our last port of call, where we stayed from 6pm to midnight, we chose a ship's tour as it was a way of ensuring that we'd be back in time. We actually went on a rather short tour, a one-hour ride by horse carriage around the residential part of the city, generally considered as being the most picturesque. Our guide was young, informative and fun and we enjoyed the sights of a place that we'd already thought we'd be going back to. The Butchard Gardens were unexpectedly closed that week, so we were all the more satisfied with a tour that did not stop there. A very good route overall. We, like a number of other passengers, only regretted not stopping longer in the various ports. If anything, though, we got a flavor of an enchanting and amazing country.
Disembarkation: The umpteenth proof of HAL's efficiency. We were pleasantly surprised to see that, even in this respect, HAL had improved its policy, which was already good at the time of our first experience. Instead of waiting in the public areas or in our stateroom for our color tag to be called, either through speakers or on TV Channel 43, we received an information sheet the evening before with an individual, specified time window when we were supposed to disembark. This allowed us to time our morning to perfection and have a leisurely breakfast in the Vista dining room without hurrying. We disembarked when we were due to, again very quickly and with no queues given our status of non-US citizens (what a relief!), and immediately found our suitcases in the baggage claim area.
The obvious conclusion is that we absolutely loved this cruise, in all respects. We'll need to go back to Alaska in the future..! We highly recommend HAL.