This LONG review of my Westerdam, Alaskan Cruise on June 1, 2013 has a lot of helpful advice and I hope I have demonstrated discernment that includes the great experiences and the ones that need improvement. My hope is that this review will help you make great choices and stay on budget. I love to get my money's worth!
We chose HAL Westerdam to Alaska because we wanted to try out HAL after noting that it has many fans and were expecting just a tad above NCL and RCCL. The Westerdam has many nice features, but HAL comes in as number three. BTW, a customer rep from HAL just called as I was writing this review, so I have to give their website, my booking experience and customer service a very high grade.
I want to start out by saying that the widely accepted stereotype of an old population with walkers and wheelchairs on HAL was NOT true for this sailing. I only saw two scooters and just a few canes/walkers. The majority of the cruisers are younger than 50 with quite a few children. That said, much of the entertainment is stilled geared to the older folks. I walked around one evening by myself (DH wasn't feeling well) at 10:15 and there was nothing going on in the Crow's Nest and the only entertainment I observed was in one lounge with a sweet, elderly couple being the only dancers. Of course, this cruise was port intensive requiring the passengers to get up early on a few days, so that may be the reason.
Children: The kids onboard were just fine and well mannered. I heard from a number of parents and their children that the kids loved the HAL clubs and between pirate day, alien day, the Junior Ranger day at Glacier Bay and the other fun activities, the kids and their parents seemed to give the children's programs rave reviews. The only negative observation was a snotty, foot stomping, huffing and puffing girl who seemed like she would be a drama queen on land too. Pity her family...
Young adults, ages 18-25 were thought of by HAL and the had a get acquainted party for them. They tried to keep Northern Lights available to the younger crowd with a DJ but one young lady I spoke to was disappointed that so few in that age group showed up- maybe just two people. So, good for HAL trying to reach out to that age group.
Seattle: we arrived at SeaTac in the evening and quickly found the free shuttle for the Sleep Inn SeaTac. The front desk was consistently helpful and friendly and our room was very good. I didn't realize until our post cruise stay that we were put in a handicapped room because we had the senior rate. The room was near the ice machine in the hall and I could hear it throughout the night. Our post cruise room was in a quiet hallway. The breakfast had the usual choices, both healthy and hearty and was well stocked.
We had decided to take the hotel shuttle to the airport and pick up Shuttle Express from there. We didn't realize there was a better option: Seattle Express picks you right up at this hotel and goes straight to the piers for $12 pp. Shuttle express was fine and seems to have the larger share of the market but costs $22pp to and from SeaTac. We made arrangements with Seattle Express to take us back to the hotel post cruise and this was a wise decision.
We had stayed at downtown hotels on previous cruises and wanted to try the airport hotels. We were very pleased and can recommend the Sleep Inn SeaTac with the Seattle Express transportation. Sleep Inn was $71-76 and is highly rated on tripadvisor.
Pier 91- We were surprised to see no porters to take the luggage and this was also mentioned by another reviewer. We arrived around 10:45 and waited just a bit to put our own luggage through security and were quickly and efficiently processed by HAL. The earliest we were allowed to board was 11:30.
We enjoyed walking around the ship a bit and were hoping to go to the MDR for lunch but here was a private, by invitation only luncheon there so we went to the Lido. The selections were fine.
We were allowed to go to our room about 12:00 and the verandah room on the 7th deck was excellent. We had an upsell offer from an inside just a few weeks before and it ended up being a very good decision for $159 PP. The balcony has Plexiglas rather than metal barrier which made for excellent viewing. The beds lived up to their comfortable reputation. We had a starboard cabin near the aft elevators and never heard them and it was a great location as we could view much of the shoreline as we sailed north. The cabins that often come up as available for an upsell are ones located near the glass elevators and we were considering those. Glad we didn't take them as your privacy on the balcony is compromised. BTW- we were never bothered by smokers on the balconies. This seems to e a big problem for some on HAL.
The one problem we had in the cabin was sooty dirt falling from the ventilation above the bed. At first I thought it was my DH making a mess (sorry, honey) but then we kept brushing it off and it would reappear every few hours. This happened the first two days and the didn't reappear again. We must have been the super clean influence.
Our stewards, Andy and May were efficient and greeted us regularly. We don't require ice and none was ever there except on the final day. We are low maintenance people, though.
Public Rooms: the dÃ©cor ranges from tasteful and elegant to dark and sometimes not cohesive. Also some of the colors are dated (orange and gold-sort of like early 70's colors). I missed the lack of a centrum or promenade that helped to give a central focus and orientation to the ship. The ship was in immaculate condition and good repair with very little wear on the carpeting.
Crew: The crew is predominantly from Indonesia and the Philippines. While some were very outgoing and pleasant, I'd have to say the majority were disinterested and avoided saying hello. It seems they enjoyed private conversations between other staff at the expense of talking to the passengers. We always said hello when we passed anyone in the hall or sat next to them in a public room. HAL prides itself on the friendliness of their staff, but both my always kind DH and I thought differently.
The crew seemed to light up with friendliness on Friday morning and then I noted that Friday was questionnaire day where you rate the ship and staff. Nice try, but I have a pretty good memory.
Culinary Arts Center/Queen's Lounge: This is a very nice feature on the Westerdam. I did attend all the cooking demonstrations which are first come, first served. I am a pretty capable cook but learned some new tricks and recipes. A chef presented demos on crab cakes, salmon, cinnamon rolls, chocolate, and some other side dishes. I am not certain there were any "hands on classes" but they come with a fee. Well done!
The culinary center transforms into the Queen's Lounge which provides another nice area for entertainment.
Pools: There are two pools: the larger one has a retractable roof which was kept closed most of the trip and the aft pool is allegedly an adult pool. There were quite a few children onboard and they made good use of the larger, enclosed pool making it not pleasant for adults. No complaints here since the kids were following the rules and enjoying themselves. I just don't want to be sideswiped by a cannonball.
The retractable roof is a VERY nice feature and allows the pool deck to be used in Alaska. I enjoyed the deck in the early morning hours before the echoing pool noise took over.
I was told by staff that the aft sun poor was adults only, but there were children there too and even the signs indicated that children were allowed. It said "no diapers or swimmers who are not toilet trained" and that children under 6 had to be supervised by an adult. That doesn't sound like adults only to me! The aft pool likely is not used much on an Alaskan cruise since it is chilly in Alaska! The small hot tubs were nice, though.
For $199 for the week, you could use the spa pool which was like a heavenly hot tub. I read some recent reviews about things not working, that time limits were not adhered to and that the loungers were "overly occupied". Other reviewers rave about it though.
Spa and gym: While I did not use it, there were a few enticing special spa deals that might be a treat. The gym was rather small and heavily used during the hours you would expect. It had the important machines and seemed just fine.
MDR: We had assigned seating and had mostly reliable table mates who were very pleasant and good company. They had the courtesy to let others know if they had different plans for the next night. That said, I think I would opt for the flexible dining option on future cruises.
I'll start with the positive. The menu selection was better than RCL and NCL. There were always a few options I had a hard time deciding between. The food quality and presentation were the same standard and level as the other mainline cruise lines, though. The lobster on formal night was large and pretty tender but the filet mignon was tender but tasteless and really thin. Overall, the foods were enjoyed although the desserts were not the highest quality.
The service in the traditional MDR was hands down the worst I have had on seven sailings. We were never certain who was doing what and there didn't appear to be a head waiter; just three guys running around putting plates down. We weren't greeted when we sat down- just given our menus. They didn't seem to know our names either. They didn't ask if we wanted coffee or tea at least three of the evenings, didn't set up the courses properly and on one evening, were so late with our food (they blamed the kitchen) and we were shooed away before we finished dessert.
This team didn't seem to know what "fine dining" on a cruise ship should be. I am used to a waiter placing the silverware before each course and scraping bread crumbs with a small knife onto a plate and also saying goodbye to the group with giving a preview of the featured menu for the next night. This team made mistakes with who should get which meal and clearly was overwhelmed and didn't work well together.
Eating at the MDR for breakfast and lunch was a different experience. The random waiters were much better than our dinner team, but not as good as RCCL.
Lido Buffet: The setup is more like a cafeteria style and pretty inefficient. The selections were adequate and the food was generally good, but not spectacular. The staff was mostly bussing tables and beverages were all self serve. The glasses were very small.
The Lido is served by the staff during the first 48 hours of each sailing, so it tends to get backed up. I think this is a good health precaution. I was surprised that there was NEVER a staff member at the entrances to the Lido or MDR asking passengers to use the sanitizer. This is standard practice on other cruise lines and considering the serving tools are touched by so many people, I think is a good precaution. The Lido is clearly too small for the number of people who would like to use it. The covered pool area is a nice option when overcrowding is a problem.
My DH and I often like to go to the Lido and have an evening tea. The Lido offerings and seating are severely limited in the evening and is often closed off with only a small section (about 12 tables) available. At 10 PM when we left, NONE of the tables had been bussed.
Entertainment: I am going to be generous and rate this area as very good because of the HAL dancers and singers. A posting recently burst my bubble indicating they are all prerecorded and just lip sync. Well, they still had very fine voices and the dancers were also talented. This group performed at least 5 out of the 7 days so that is pretty outstanding. The Vista lounge was never full. I'd give the set designer a C+
The comedian, Derrick Cameron was excellent. A clean and very funny show. I took no offense to his comments about people who take pictures of their food- was he watching me?
The "comedian" juggler, Adam Kario who performed in a matinee in Victoria was a big let down. When you have seen other acts like Shark Bait, every other cruise juggling act suffers in comparison. This guy gets a C.
We only went to a few shows where the Halcats performed and they were very good and worthwhile. I commend them for being troopers when the audience isn't enthusiastic. Not their fault!
Digital Workshop: This is a very nice offering but requires that you get acquainted with Windows 8. There are some workshops that apply to Windows 7, XP, etc. but the intent is to get you hooked on Windows 8. Techspert Emily does a very nice job and presents cohesive information in a short time. There are about 3-4 sessions per day.
Dancing with the Stars: The week started with classes where the dancers taught the basics of various dances with the intent on determining finalists for the competition.
The finale was fun and six passengers were paired up with the professional dancers. They all did a great job but the best and audience favorite was a young male math teacher making his students back home proud when they see it on Youtube. The first contestant was a very pregnant woman who jived and ended in a split! Wow!!! The judges were three random silly staff people who gave all 10's to the 18 year old cheerleader who liked to show her underwear during her flips. Yikes! So, the ending was disappointing with the winner being the lowest common denominator who even overslept missing her final practice.
Afternoon Tea: This is a very nice tradition that takes place most days at 3 PM in the MDR. HAL had different themes (Royal Dutch, Cupcake Tea, etc.) and the pastries and canapÃ©s were very good. Nicely done!
Casino: This was the smallest casino I ever saw on a ship but it had all the tables, machine and smoke you would expect. I avoid smoky areas so didn't play, but DH said the machines were not cheap and that they were the tightest he has seen. So, we didn't spend much time there.
Library: This was the nicest and largest library and media center I have seen on a ship. HAL gets an A for effort here. It appears to be well used and was around the corner from the Crow's Nest.
Cruise Director: Armen was fine and I will leave it at that.
Movies: There are relatively newer movies shown in the Queen's Lounge each day and they have a few viewings. HAL also has an extensive collection of DVD's of movies and shows and guests can surely find something they like. They supposedly deliver them to your cabin, but ours was never brought up so we had to retrieve it the next morning. Then, our DVD player did not work. Sigh.
Juneau: We had previously done other Juneau tours so we decided to spend more time at Mendenhall. It was easy: Westerdam usually has a great dock location and the stalls for tours are right outside the ship. We went on the Blue Glacier Express for $16 PP RT. There are other companies that do the same. You are let out right at the ranger station and just get a map and go hiking. We went on the two mile hike to Nugget Falls which is popular and easy. You might want to bring some bug spray.
It started to rain as our walk ended so we hopped on the bus and headed to the library to use their free Wi-Fi. They are very pleasant about visitors but they were having "trouble with the connection". Hmmm. I hear it is usually painfully slow anyway. We headed to the stores to do some t-shirt shopping.
Glacier Bay: Glacier Bay tends to be foggy in the morning when you first enter around 6-7. The day got better and better and ended with a glorious clear sky. Not much calving but we did see some. I think your chances to see more are better as the summer goes on. The ship spends about equal time on each side of the ship starting with the port side. We decided that looking out a window was just silly except for warm up time. Personally, I think spending part of your time on the Promenade Deck is your best choice- just dress for the event. The windows in many public areas were foggy and a bit dirty and wouldn't give you the best views.
As the ship was turning to starboard, we went up to the Lido, grabbed a quick lunch and carried it back to our balcony. It was warm and cozy by then! Marjorie Glacier is the queen here although the Lamphough Glacier is spectacular with the cave that emerges when the waterfall in back of it bursts through in late May or early June.
The rangers come on board early, about 7 AM and are a great source to learn more. They make presentations in the Vista Lounge and I learned a lot, but also missed some great scenery by doing so...well...DH has the photos.
You might want to consider buying the book "The Alaska Cruise Handbook" by Joe Upton. Read it at home and then just bring the map- that book is heavy! The map is great to follow and the daily handout always includes the map mile markers so you know exactly where the ship is and the history and important features. You will also see more whales as the map indicates likely places for sightings. They also sell the book in the gift shop.
Also, grab a plaid blanket if you will be outside. They are scarce.
Sitka: The tender to Sitka was pretty quick. We were advised that it gets crowded around 9:30. We got onboard at 8:00 with no wait and found our way to the bus stop that runs the Tribal Council Bus. The driver was helpful and the ride to the Raptor Center was $1. He let us off at the stop on the highway giving us clear directions to back track to the street "Raptor Center Rd" and proceeded a short distance.
The Raptor Center is a rehabilitation center for all sorts of raptors and they gave a nice talk while one staff member discussed a bald eagle he held whose beak was congenitally deformed. Some animals are sent back to the wild where others live out their lives here. It was a really great place, lots of interesting raptors, a great gift shop and a really nice forest path with bears...watch out! Highly recommended.
I would have liked to have also gone to the Fortress of the Bears but ran out of time and energy. That requires a five mile drive with a tour.
We opted to take the 15-20 minute walk back to town and then did some shopping. You will find more unique items in this town as there are NO ship company jewelry stores! The town is happy to see the tourists making it a nice experience. The only negative was the orthodox church in the middle of town. They wanted a $5 pp donation which really wasn't a donation considering there was a lady at the entrance to collect the donation. I glanced inside and it was small with some pretty icons. No thanks...
I am glad we visited this town!
Back onboard, we were hoping to go to the MDR for lunch, but it was closed for lunch in Sitka. The Lido was very overcrowded as a result.
Ketchikan: I have been there a few times before and this time we only planned to do some shopping as the day was rainy, very chilly and a bit windy. We had seen Ketchikan both times before on a glorious day. The time was short here anyway with a 12:30 all aboard. Several people opted for the Lumberjack Show which they enjoyed as it was covered and heated. We didn't even make it to Creek St. this time!
We comparison shopped for our case of canned, smoked, Sockeye salmon and decided on Salmonetc. which we bought for $5.99 a can. We had them ship our case of 24 to us and it arrived the day we arrived back home. BTW- canned salmon tastes about the same as the stuff in the foil and is CHEAPER. We picked up a few boxes of the foil salmon for gifts, though.
There are lots of stores for souvenirs. Tongass Trading Co. has three different stores (lots of Alaskan items made in China!) with store #1 having the basics in personal care items in case you needed something.
The salmon bake onboard was cancelled because of the persistent rain.
Victoria: The day was lovely and we were moving fast to get there. The weather was nice enough to have the Great Alaska BBQ, but it was very crowded on the Lido Deck with no options for tables, so we went to the MDR and had the international dinner. I had hoped they would have served salmon but it wasn't on this menu.
I had hoped to go to Butchart Gardens but the wise people on CC advised against this as the ship arrives later than scheduled and you have little time to see the flowers. At 4:00 PM, the captain announced we would be at the dock at about 7:45! but we docked at around 7:15 and were quickly cleared. We were scheduled to be there at 6:00PM. We would have liked to go to Beacon Hill but the diminishing daylight made us think it would not be safe so we just walked around the city and the gardens near the Empress Hotel.
You can either catch a taxi, take the shuttle ($10 adults and $5 for seniors and kids) or walk from the dock. The walk seems like a lovely idea as Victoria is a very nice city. High tea at the Empress or Orca watching would have been nice if we docked at an earlier time.
The port times on this cruise were pretty short and I think this intimidates some people into taking only ship excursions in fear of missing the ship. I am reading lately that HAL is reducing time at the ports to travel slower using less fuel. The captain's lecture seemed to confirm this opinion as the Westerdam has recently improved their fuel consumption...
Debarkation: HAL gives you several nice options for your final breakfast and this is commendable as some lines don't allow room service on that last morning. HAL sent us a form to complete early in the week asking for our preferred time to leave the ship. This made the whole process efficient and quick.
We quickly found our luggage, made our way to customs and then went to Row R where Seattle Express was waiting. Highly recommended! After we rested a bit at the hotel (they let us check in at 10 AM), we took the hotel shuttle to the light rail down to the stadium and took in a Mariner's game.
Please be aware that departing from SeaTac can be a nightmare with horribly long lines from Fri. to Sun. The ones for Southwest are legendary, I hear and they wrapped like a snake around a good portion of the ticketing area. Folks were horrified when they approached it. A lady waiting for wheelchair assistance had to stand in that line for about 5-60 minutes and SW had no sympathy for her. So, leave AT LEAST two hours for your time at the airport. We had about 2 hours and 15 mins. and still didn't have enough time to purchase food for the flight.
In summary, I can say that I enjoyed myself and told everyone back home that "cruising is always wonderful when they asked how things went. I am only sharing details in this forum where people are asking for my opinion and that includes you since you are reading this. Would I travel HAL again? Maybe, if the itinerary, reviews and price were the best. HAL did not live up to their former reputation as being in the more luxury cruise range. The service was the issue that separates them from the other two lines we have cruised.
I have learned that each line has its cheerleaders, some who get special treatment and privileges because of their loyalty. Rest assured, if you have traveled 30+ cruises with them or developed your own website about a cruise line, the ship knows who you are and you are special to them. Also, someone who writes a review from "the suite life" is going to have a different treatment that most of the passengers won't experience. We all need to have a little awareness of who our advice comes from before we accept it or dismiss it.
I want to thank ALL cruise critic posters for their reviews, comments and advice. Your advice also helps me to be more discerning and you help me grow in my knowledge of cruising!