Night before: Stayed at the airport Comfort Inn & Suites (it was OK). We had a very late flight and took the hotel shuttle to the hotel. Breakfast in the morning was pretty good. Walked a block to a 7-Eleven to buy a couple 12-pack sodas and some water to bring onboard. We had arranged for pick-up by the United Town Car Service at 10:30AM. This was the cheapest transportation we could find for 9 people. I would recommend them if you are looking to save a few dollars, but this company is NOT very organized and kept getting the details (time of pick-up, pier number) wrong and was not the most responsive by email. 30 minute ride to Pier 91.
Embarkation: We arrived at Pier 91 at about 11AM. Check-in was very smooth, and we got our boarding group number at check-in (we were group 5). Then waited until 11:30AM to begin embarkation by group. Dropped off carry-on bags in our rooms (surprisingly, rooms were ready), and went to Lido buffet for lunch. Luggage arrived very quickly after. Then went to Club Hal to register the kids.
Some hints (information I would not find elsewhere or was hard to find):
Early dinner seating was 5:45 and late seating 7:45. The nightly shows are 8PM and 10PM with slight daily variation on the show time. No early show which was tough for the kids. We had late seating which worked out well for Juneau. Friday night (Victoria) there was only buffet (BBQ) and maybe flex seating in the dining room. So we said good-bye and thank you to our servers on Thursday night.
We had 3 adjacent Veranda rooms. Each Veranda was quite roomy, and can probably stand 4-5 people comfortably. Asked the room steward to open the dividers between the Verandas, which made a big connecting veranda, and we could also access each other's rooms this way. That was very nice.
Kids: Club Hal was fine. My kids went a couple of times for a couple hours each and liked it.
- Junior rangers: On the Glacier Bay day, kids can participate in a program at Club Hal to get their National Park Junior Ranger badges. [Prior posts have written about this]
- What has not been as well described is that kids can get additional Junior Ranger badges in Sitka [Sitka National Historic Park] and Ketchikan [Southeast Alaska Discovery Center]. At Ketchikan, they give an Alaska Explorer'sÂ badge for completing 3 Junior Ranger programs throughout Alaska.
Formal nights are Sunday (sea day) and Thursday (Ketchikan). I could not find this information anywhere before the cruise and wanted to avoid reserving dinner at the Pinnacle Grill on formal nights. The first formal night had a French lobster dish (half lobster). The second formal night had surf and turf (with whole lobster tail) which was quite good.
Touring ports on the cheap: (and had a great time)
- Juneau: Rented a van from Juneau Car Rentals. About a mile walk from the ship. The people there were very nice, gave a large map and circled the highlights of Juneau. We drove to Mendenhall glacier and walked the Nugget fall trail (20 minute easy walk); took lots of great pictures and walked in the Mendenhall lake which was very cold. Then drove to the St. Therese Shrine - beautiful place, also where the locals say is the best chance for seeing whales. Then drove through downtown (saw a black bear cross the road on the way back) and saw all the buildings there. Returned the van and walked through some shops around the ship. Boarded the ship by 7:45 to have dinner. [With a long line for getting off the ship, we probably had about 6 hours total to spend in Juneau.]
- Sitka: Pretty long line to tender off the ship. Picked up a walking map right after getting off the tender boat. We walked to the Russian Orthodox Church ($5 "donation"Â per adult, very pretty place inside). Then walked to Sitka National Historic Park (junior rangers program, totem trail with >10 totem poles total, saw a bald eagle on a tree on the Russian Memorial trail). Then to the Raptor Center across the street on the other side of the park ($12 adults, $6 kids -- quite interesting but relatively short visit to see everything). Then walked back toward the ship, stopping at the Bishop's house (opens at 9AM, first floor is free to visit). Then to see the Native Dance Performance ($10 adults, $5 children -- 30 minute show at either 10 or 12:30; we left thinking it was simply a family of adults/kids/young kids doing about 5 dances. Not a very polished show and probably would not go back. Wondered if the Russian dance show was better). Walked around Castle Hill -- up the stairs had a great view of Sitka. Then long line to tender back to the ship (saw a whale on the tender boat). Arrived pretty close to 2:30PM (last tender boat).
- Ketchikan: Picked up a walking tour map from the Visitor Center right next to the ship. Caught the 8AM Lumberjack show ($35 adults, half price kids, open seating) which was not as packed so we got great seats. Great show and the kids loved it, but certainly not cheap. Then went across the street to Southeast Alaska Discovery Center ($5 per adult but a National Park Pass gets 4 adults in for free). Did the Junior Ranger Program here. Then followed the walking map to see all the other attractions in town. Got back in time to catch the Salmon bake on ship.
- Victoria: Picked up a walking tour map from the Tourist stand right next to the ship. Walked to Beacon Hill Park first (wanted to see this park in daylight) and saw the wild peacocks everyone talked about (awesome). Walked through the park, which was very pretty. Next to Royal BC Museum (opens until 10PM on Friday so we could have toured it but did not). A few totems outside the museum. Then to the Empress Hotel (could only take pictures outside; the hotel has people standing outside the entrance to stop tourists from going inside). Right around the corner is Miniature World -- which is supposed to be pretty cool but closes at 9PM (we got there just before 9 and didn't go in). Then to the Parliament which is very pretty. Waited for sun to set and the lights to come on -- took pictures. Walked back to the ship to pack and have a relatively early night. [Note, there is a tendency for this ship to arrive late at Victoria, see prior posts. We were scheduled to arrive at 7:30PM, but did arrive a little earlier than that -- still after 6PM. I think this makes trying to go to Butchart Gardens or any other shore excursions very unattractive.]
Seeing whales for free (on the ship):
- We saw whales starting on Sunday (sea day) through Friday morning. Takes some luck, but we saw some on Crow's Nest and also from our Verandahs. Also saw dolphins.
- The entrance into the Glacier Bay National Park is apparently a very likely place to see whales. There are two chances here -- in the morning upon entry, and afternoon (probably around 3-4PM) upon exit. There is a Park Ranger who stands at the very front of the bow of the ship (4th floor, forward) all day looking for whales. I stood by him for several hours in the day and saw about 9 whales. That was very high yield, and probably a little known secret. Also saw sea otters, mountain goats and some interesting birds.
- Didn't see any whales close by, so binoculars and a good camera are key. Don't know if the whales are closer on actual (paid) whale watch excursions.
Brought back beer from one of the ports to drink on the ship (I asked Holland America staff and this is allowed). Identical beer to what is being sold on ship for $4.75 per bottle. Bought a souvenir bottle opener in the ship gift shop for $5.99 (quite reasonable). If you want to drink Alaskan beer, this is probably the best way to go.
In my opinion, Verandahs on the Starboard side of the ship are probably slightly better than Port side. Yes, I realize this is a round trip cruise. On Sunday (sea day, nothing to do), Starboard side saw land while Port side saw only open water. Just before arriving at Juneau, there was an announcement that the ship would pass by the Misty Fjord area (on the Starboard side -- pictures?). We probably passed by this area on the way back south also, but I had no idea when. On Glacier Bay day, both sides got to see the glaciers equally.
Overall, I found the Westerdam to be light on activities during the day. We went to some cooking shows (they were OK), some Dancing with the Stars dancing lessons/competitions (they were OK). Went to some of the presentations about Alaska -- some were informative, others were basically Holland America trying to sell stuff. Did not attend any computer classes. Our group had an age range from 4 to 80, and we all felt somewhat bored during the days. Things pick up after 3PM. There is an afternoon tea at 3PM each day, with daily variation (high Dutch tea, Indonesian tea, cupcake tea, etc). Live music (at several venues) start around 4PM. Nightly shows were generally quite good (mostly singing and dancing). The one magic show at night was packed -- and hard to find a seat.
There was Catholic mass every day, and also an interdenominational service.
Disembarkation: I disembarked in the earliest group (~7:30, bring your own luggage) by myself. Quick walk through customs. Called Budget Car Rental (7th street location, they are open at 8AM) for pick-up (I had reserved a van online). Waited 45 minutes for the shuttle to come (!!). Got the van, drove 10 minutes back to the pier. [Note, they had reservations for several vans that day, but apparently didn't have enough available.] Picked up my family who disembarked around 9AM -- perfect timing. Toured Seattle for the day, and dropped off the van at the airport Budget location next morning. By far the cheapest one-way rental I could find.
LOOOOOONNNG wait for check-in at airport in the early morning -- definitely show up early. We literally stepped in the airport 1 hour before our flight and should have missed it [except the flight waited because so many people were late due to being stuck in long lines.] Helpful to know that there is a "family lane"Â for check-in which is probably much faster.