Embarkation was a breeze. With three ships at Canada Place, the line for security was long--but moved very steadily. That served to space out people so that there were no delays for US Customs and Immigration, nor for check-in. Once we were through security, there were no further lineups before we got to our suite. The Mariner's luncheon in the dining room was very quiet, and set a nice tone for the week.
Our Cabin was a Neptune Suite (7067) directly across from the Lounge. We could not have been more pleased with it. Spacious and bright during the day, but with effective blackout curtains not only on the windows, but also between the cabin and the dressing area (very useful when one of you is an early riser and the other is not!). Our cabin stewards, Bayu and Sodiq, attended to us promptly and well. The laundry stewards took care of our clothes speedily and accurately.
For dining, we opted for fixed seating--as is our wont--and received extraordinary service from Wayan and Heri (our waiter and assistant waiter) and Arnold (our wine steward). I had availed myself of the opportunity to bring half a case of wine on board, and took four bottles down on the first night. Arnold managed them faultlessly.
The quality of the food in the Dining Room was absolutely first rate. I persuaded our table companions that one never goes wrong ordering the chilled soups on HAL, and they all confirmed that my advice on the subject was sound! Not one disappointment in all of the meals taken in the main dining room.
The Lido was less successful. While food options were many, and plentiful, most of the choices were uninspired. The sushi at the Asian station was downright insipid. The best options on the Lido seemed to be the Deli for very good sandwiches, and the Salad bar. Ultimately, the number of people, and general atmosphere makes the Lido my least favourite place to eat. (However, the cinnamon ice cream on Day 3 was a very yummy treat!)
The Pinnacle was impeccable, but service at breakfast tended to being somewhat stiff. So much so that the last two mornings we opted to breakfast in the Main Dining Room instead, and enjoyed it more, given that we had table mates, rather than breakfasting at a table for two).
We only ordered Room Service twice--once for breakfast on the first full day (when the Pinnacle was not yet open for breakfast), and once for hot and cold canapes before the first formal night). The breakfast order was missing an entire breakfast (mine), but fortunately I was able to pop across to the Pinnacle for a perfect substitute. The canapes were delivered absolutely on the dot, with the hot ones hot, and the cold ones cold, and were well received by us and our guests.
The dinner at Le Cirque in the Pinnacle was flawless--but excruciatingly slow. Given that these items must be made to order, the service can never match the speed of the Dining Room, but it was still remarkable for the length of time between courses.
We booked two shore excursions but alas, the first had to be cancelled since the seas in Auke Bay were too rough for the whale watching. The Mushers Camp and Sled Dog Encounter in Skagway was so good that it rivals Glacier Bay for the high point of our cruise. (Confound them for counting the puppies before letting us handle them!)
I booked a pass for the Thermal Suites and made use of it every day after my workout. Only once did I find the thermal suite full, and then, no longer then it took me to start in the steam room. The hydro pool never had more than four people. Very much my own space when I used it. The Fitness Centre was well equipped, and I never had to wait for a treadmill, even on sea days.
Entertainment in the bars was very good, particularly fine was the duo Allegro (violin and piano) who played nightly in the Explorer's Lounge.
However, there were some aspects which did not get a 9 on our surveys.
Entertainment in the Vista Lounge was more of a mixed bag. The first night was, frankly, dreadful. The musicians weren't even playing, it was patently obvious that it was prerecorded track, and the staging was very poor. The first night is a tough object--trying to put all of the ship's musicians, plus the singing and dancing cast on stage is a staging and technical nightmare--but you have to do it well, because this is the first impression that passengers will have. It needs a serious rethink.
The two production shows fared much better--but still suffered because some of the lighting instruments were improperly focussed (or had settled in their yokes) meaning that there were big holes in the lighting design. Sound balance was pretty awful, too. The guest artists were all very entertaining, though.
By far the most unpleasant element of the cruise was the incessant push on retail sale of jewellery. I am not so foolish as to misunderstand how important the retail real estate is to HAL's bottom line. But I cannot count the number of "promotions" and "invitations" that turned up in our mailbox to jewellery sales and events. And when we did go through the shops (which was unavoidable when in transit from late seating dinner to the show lounge), there was hardly anything else for sale. Not one camera, no camera accessories. No electronics. One tiny corner of duty free, and an even smaller corner of convenience items, a small perfumerie, and the rest was wall-to-wall jewellery and watches. (And just to demonstrate the fantasy that is shipboard pricing, one of our table companions was admiring a ring with a sticker price of $9,000 and was immediately told, "But for you, $3,000.")
The Vista class ships are not our favourites--we remain firm fans of the R-class ships. Placing the public decks between the decks of accommodation means shorter travel time to and from whatever activities one wants to get up to. It maximizes the number of balconies, to be sure, but makes the vessel less of a ship and more of a floating hotel.
But what does it matter whether or not one loves the ships when you receive service like this! And for all my complaints about jewellery sales, and poor lighting design in the show lounge, I would return to the Zuiderdam with nary a second thought!
Juneau is an eminently forgettable stop. It's a government town, with a street full of tourist shops near the pier. It's largely lacking in charm.
The Museum, however, is well worth a visit, and the local scenery, with your back to the town, is delightful.
Ketchikan is, perhaps, the nicest of the Alaskan ports of call. This is a real, working town, which has successfully preserved much of its charm without succumbing to an endless line of tourist shops all trying to flog Tanzanite (tm) at you.
It lacks the thematic charm of Skagway, but has the merit of being a real town, where real people live and work off the sea and the land.