Background Information: This was our first Alaska cruise and first NCL cruise for my husband and myself. We are middle-aged parents of two college kids. We love to travel and I love to plan vacations. We have been on two previous cruises, however it has been several years since our last cruise as my husband swore off cruising. Previous cruises were on Royal Caribbean in a balcony and Carnival in a suite and both were with our children in connecting rooms. The kids and I loved the cruise experiences however my husband thought both were nightmare vacations. Needless to say it took some serious arm-twisting to get consent for this trip and he was truly dreading it.
I had done my research and hoped by booking in the Haven, the experience would change my husband from an avid cruise hater to at least a cruise tolerater.
I booked the first cruise of the year to Alaska to save some money and also to cruise the inside passage on the way up. We flew into Vancouver on the day of departure, which I would not recommend.
The ship departed from Ballentyne Pier, not Canada Place so we got a cab at the airport vs. the train to Canada Place. It took about 40? minutes and was a $40 fare, including a stop to get some Diet Coke to bring aboard.
We arrived to the port at noon and it was busy. The first line moved very quickly. It was a security screen. Then we moved onto a second process of checking in with NCL and giving credit card info. This line was stagnant and not moving at all. I saw a sign for suite passengers to the right of the masses and we walked over there only to be chastised by a lady in an NCL uniform and told that everyone needs to wait in the same line. I was thinking about all the extra money I had paid to avoid things like hours in line and that I was really going to get an, “I told you so,” from my husband. She ordered us to the line and I obliged however my husband stood his ground and all went well afterward. Anoop, the concierge, came out from behind a curtain and welcomed us by name, got our credit card on file and we were whisked away to the ship by a darling and cheerful waitress in one of the restaurants. The next stop was U.S. customs where our last non-congenial person of the entire trip met us.
It took less than a half hour from the time we arrived at the port until we were in our room to drop off our luggage and seated at Cagney’s restaurant. We had eaten a fabulous lunch, taken a hot tub, napped and explored the ship a little, all prior to the muster drill. The Captain came on the loudspeaker at one point to say we would be late departing due to a CDC inspection. At the muster drill we sat by a guy who had just boarded. He arrived at port at the same time we did and said he thought there was something wrong with copy machines that was delaying entry onto the ship. It took him almost 6 hours to get on board.
We had a two-bedroom villa on the port side. I would recommend port side for the Glacier Bay day, as port side seemed to get the most time viewing the glacier. Our room was much nicer in person than I had envisioned by watching YouTube videos. The carpet had just been replaced in the room and was a subtle brown and crème with a green twig pattern to tie into the furnishings. The second bedroom was basically unused but it was nice to have the second bathroom.
I compared our cruise to a four to five star hotel experience. The ship experience was equal in many ways, had a few aspects that were below and a few aspects that exceed a five star experience.
We loved the freestyle dining. Vacationing to us does not include packing a suit, tie and formal wear and having to eat at a certain time. Cagney’s was open for suite guests for breakfast and lunch and was directly down one flight of stairs from the Haven. The only item we ate there the entire week that we did not like was a swordfish sandwich. The service and food otherwise was great. We quickly found a Cagney’s server, Rochelle, that we requested and she took care of us the remainder of the week. I had read mixed reviews on the food quality and was not expecting good food or food service. I was wrong. We ate dinner in Summer Place, Indigo, Cucina, the French Bistro and Cagney’s.
I would not recommend pre-purchase of specialty dining prior to arrival. We saved a couple dollars pre-booking but there was so much gluttony that specialty dining was just over-kill. We were never actually hungry for a dinner but it was just not possible for me to be served perfectly prepared Kobe beef and only take a couple bites.
Had one lunch and early breakfast in the garden café. The garden café had a ton of variety and the quality of food was fine. The hoards of people, some groups pushing right in front of you when ordering an omelet was a bit crazy. Most people in the garden café were polite but a few groups were just crazy about pushing in front of you when trying to get some food on our plate. I think it was a cultural difference issue rather than lack of manners. It was more comical than annoying.
For those that wanted to be seated with strangers, I saw Indigo and Summer Palace seating these groups and the hostess introducing guests as they were seated. It’s a good idea to bring a few dollars to tip the servers if you feel like your service. We had some excellent servers in Indigo and luckily had them more than once so were able to give a tip for subsequent meals after we realized how good their service was.
Staff on board the ship were for the most part very friendly and it was nice to see them having fun. Officers were very visible and would strike up a genuine conversation and seemed truly interested in positive guest experiences.
Regarding tipping: I was confused about this whole thing. On the one hand I felt I was paying extra for the Haven and the included extras so the costs were built in and that it was simply unacceptable to tip all this extra when we already paid NCL. But when nearing the end of our trip I thought about it and came up with what I felt acceptable. I wish NCL had just told me what I should tip for butler and concierge but here’s what I ended up with: Butler, Charlie; He was very nice and served us daily afternoon treats and breakfast and lunch on Glacier Bay day. He also kept our much-loved Lavisso machine stocked and changed out our included alcohol for sparkling water. He got $100. Our room steward, Tito; also great guy. Gave him an extra $50. Concierge, Anoop; He was everywhere and it was eerie how whenever I needed him he just showed up. The hot tub was our biggest letdown of the cruise. It was typically lukewarm. I let Anoop know about this and he immediately fixed the problem. Perhaps it was just coincidence as I had let others know about the problem but not until I told Anoop was it fixed. We gave him $100. Gave our server Rochelle in Cagney’s $50. Wish I had given our hostess something as well in hindsight but did not. Dinner servers; we gave them a few bucks each meal. The girl who escorted us aboard the ship; I thought it would be our butler or someone who would be with us all week long so had not anticipated needing a tip for her. I think I only had $5 handy to give her. Not sure if above amounts were appropriate but it’s what I felt comfortable with.
Entertainment and activities: We thankfully spent the majority of our days in port hiking and getting a decent amount of exercise otherwise we would have gained a ton of weight. Even so we each gained four pounds in one week. We were tired at night and did not catch much of the entertainment or take the concierge up on many of the invitations. Did see the ventriloquist and he had us and the audience roaring. Went to the chocolate buffet and it was incredible. Fun to be able to go before others. I tried to take my kids on a previous cruise but the lines and crowds were so big that we never got to partake. My husband said he hated me for making him go. We ate too much chocolate but it was delicious. Did a bridge tour one morning. It was interesting. Spent about five minutes in the Casino before the machine took all my money without so much as a break even on one roll. That was it for activities and it was plenty for us. We were never bored. I had anticipated doing more, and if our kids were along probably would have but it was just too tempting to relax.
I never used the Internet but my husband did a little each day. Wifi not included but signal was good in the room. He used his verizon air card in ports but as soon as other ships pulled into port the air card stopped working. I think it was just too much usage by everyone else trying to do the same thing. Another technical issue: the room did not have a stereo or ipod base. I luckily researched this prior and brought an ihome so that we could listen to our music.
Ports and shore excursions: We did not book any excursions thru the ship. I had researched some good hikes and so Juneau and Skagway were spent hiking.
Skagway was more a walk vs. hike. Walked thru town to the miner’s graveyard and then Reid Falls. The walk there was very uneventful and a little boring but the graveyard and falls were worth the walk. It was chilly and we were not looking forward to the walk back to the ship. Some lady named Dave was knitting in her van and I asked her for a ride. She charged $5 for a ride, including colorful commentary, back to the ship. We ate lunch, warmed up and then walked back to town for shopping later in the day.
Juneau we took a taxi to the glacier and then a hike from there. It was beautiful.
Glacier Bay day: Your typical jaw dropping glacier viewing day.
Ketchikan: Our entire day there was spent on an excursion I had pre-booked on my own. A kayak trip in Orcas cove, salmon snack on their mother ship in the cove afterward and then a float plane picked us up in the cove for a tour of the Misty Fjords with a lake landing. It was a spendy day but worth it.
Wildlife sightings during our cruise: Two baby black bears in a tree, a lone wolf on a shore, bald eagles on Ketchican kayak tour that were as thick as flocks of seagulls, a minx, seals, orcas, humpbacks, and harbor porpoises.
Victoria also spent walking around and it was lovely. It was a nice re-introduction to city life for our last day of vacation.
Debarkation: Packed our carry on and only luggage and went to Cagney’s for a wonderful and relaxing breakfast and goodbyes. Then walked off the ship at 7:30 am and grabbed a cab to the airport for $25 (no traffic on Sunday morning). Our flight was not till 1pm however Sea tac was the least busy that I have ever seen. We were able to switch our flights and got on a 9am flight home.
All in all we had an excellent vacation. Alaska was good for our souls and taking a cruise there afforded basically a five star hotel along the way. I am happy to report that my husband LOVED the cruise and told me he would do it again if in this type of room and for the right price. I have overheard him telling others about the fabulous time he had. Sure there were little things wrong but nothing to ruin our cruise. If some bad artwork on the ship or perhaps the dated colors in the Haven pool area will ruin a vacation then I would not recommend it to you but otherwise I can’t imagine anyone not liking this kind of vacation. I had also read previous comments about the Haven overrun with wild kids. Not the case on our cruise. Most of the time it was empty.