We are in our mid-50's and have cruised before. We booked two cruises, first Anchorage-Vancouver on the Princess Diamond, then one night in Vancouver, then back to Anchorage on the Holland Zaandam. We chose the Zaandam last because we wanted to end in Seward.
Before leaving, we purchased a Northern Lights coupon book. Toursavers is very similar. I highly recommend checking them out. We saved hundreds.
In our short time in Anchorage we enjoyed watching the sea planes from the patio of the "Fancy Moose" (at the Millennium hotel). We really liked the Alaskan Native Heritage Center (coupon). We stayed at the Alaskan Frontier Gardens B&B which was good. Renting a car at the airport was a snap.
On the first leg of our trip, we used Anchorage Tours and Transfers to transfer to Whittier. They also do transfers to Seward. With the NL coupon it was a great deal, and our driver was a teacher at the University of Alaska. We enjoyed her as much as any tour guide we've had! We stopped at the Wildlife Conservation Center on the way down. I'd use this transfer service again.
In Vancouver, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency. It's walkable from Canada Place. The Vancouver Trolley Hop-On-Hop-Off was an easy way to see the city. We enjoyed walking in Stanley park, the seawall near Canada Place, and Granville Island. The best thing we did was take the shuttle out to the Suspension Bridge Park in the morning before embarking on the Zaandam. We walked down to Canada place to catch the first shuttle bus because the early buses often fill before getting to the hotel pick up points. We were back by noon.
Once we got through a very long, very slow customs line, embarkation went smoothly.
We were lucky to be able to visit each port twice, first on the Princess Diamond then on the Zaandam.
1) Rented a car through Avis rather than take the train. We enjoyed the drive, but being from Colorado, it wasn't as spectacular as we'd hoped. People who took the train told us it was pretty but got a little long. We had a beer at the famed Red Onion afterward.
2) Took the ferry to Haines, rented a car, and went to Kroschel's wildlife center. It was a unique and wonderful experience! (Google Kroschels) Another couple had set this up, and we were lucky that we were able to tag along. I'd highly recommend this excursion, but the ferry, car, and Kroschel's need to be reserved in advance if you don't book through a ship.
1) Went fishing with another family on Wolverine Charters. The captain, Jim Lewis, was wonderful. A retired teacher, he was personable and able to relate to adults as well as the child onboard. His boat and equipment were well kept and clean.
2) Rented a car with another couple and drove to Mendenhall and other sites. Great day, and we were easily to do the sites in a day. Be sure to walk to Nugget Falls if you can handle a couple of miles.
1) Morning, Great Lumberjack show. It's cheesy but great fun for all ages. It's best to get tickets in advance from the ship. They're $35 either way, you avoid the line, and are assured a seat. In the afternoon we did the Bering Sea Crab Fishing tour. Incredible!!! We booked independently and saved a few dollars compared to the identical tour with the ship. It boards right at the pier, so no transportation is required. You'll see a better eagle show on this excursion than anywhere else. Out of all the excursions we've done, anywhere, this is one of the most memorable! Dress warmly.
2) Misty Fjords Flight seeing with Island Wings, booked independently. Absolutely spectacular. Also highly recommend!
Glacier Bay was a highlight on both ships. Even though the Zaandam is much smaller than the Princess Diamond, the Princess ship went much closer to the glaciers. It may have had something to do with the tides. We were disappointed at the distance, but really enjoyed how the Zaandam opened the bow of the ship on Glacier Bay day. HAL sold plenty of hot drinks and wine that day.
Self-debarkation was a snap. Just outside the terminal is a free city shuttle bus (old school bus) that we took to the Visitor's Center near Safeway. From there, we walked a few blocks to the Bear's Den B&B. Our room was actually a 2 bedroom apartment that didn't include breakfast, but it was perfect for two couples. Another couple met us there with a car, but it was only a 10 minute walk to the small boat harbor. The food at Rays in the small boat was especially good.
While in Seward, we went to Exit Glacier and walked up to the glacier. We used NL coupons for the Major Marine dinner cruise, which was nice even though we didn't see much wildlife. We went on a float trip down the Kenai out of Cooper Landing with River Drifters (coupon) that was very pleasant. Our only negative experience was a beginners kayaking trip out of Miller's Landing near Seward. We got a newbie guide who obviously had no guide training at all. It did seem like groups with other guides fared better. A real highlight of our entire trip was the Northwestern Fjords 9 hour trip with Kenai Fjords Tours (coupon). It was absolutely incredible!!! We had an outstanding captain who knew when to narrate and when to be quiet and even turn the motors off. We saw a "National Geographic worthy" whale show and calving glaciers with only the sounds of nature. While in Seward, the 9 hour or even the 6 hour Kenai Fjords tour is a must!
We meandered down to Homer and stayed a day in a lovely B&B called Cranes Rest. Our biggest regret of the whole trip is that we didn't have more time in Homer.
Many people asked us which ship we liked better--the Princess Diamond or the Holland Zaandam. We'd say they are just different. The Zaandam is smaller, older, and more sedate. It's more of a "maritime" and less of a floating-resort experience. We joked about feeling like we were on the Titanic. Our Zaandam room was larger than Princess, but it was dated, had only one plug in, and the window overlooked the promenade so our curtains were usually closed. I wouldn't spend the extra on an OV cabin in this situation again.
Zaandam service was nothing to complain about, but the Princess service was definitely sharper, more attentive, more cheerful, and more professional. Several times there were problems with the toilet system shipwide, but they did get it taken care of within a few hours.
The MDR food was generally good. Formal nights were very nice, and most people in the MDR dressed up. However, we thought the buffet was the worst we've ever had on a ship. The buffet food was mediocre at best. Rather than giving you a platter, everything is served on separate little plates. You don't get trays, so you find yourself walking back and forth to put things down. Once you've finally got your food to your table, you have to go get your own coffee, tea, and sometimes even silverware. Between 8:30-11:00 pm there is no food available at all except room service.
A plus for HAL is that there are many quiet places to sit and watch the sea. There are only two small pools, one covered, but we didn't see too many adults in either of them. The Crow's nest is a very nice space. If you like an afternoon drink, they have a happy hour where drinks are buy one get the second for $1. You could bring your own wine onboard as long as it was corked and consumed in your stateroom. (Rumor has it that this HAL policy is changing.)
The theater is small, and the main level isn't sloped enough to provide good viewing. But the singers and dancers were very good, and we enjoyed all their shows.
Something we missed on HAL was the presence of a naturalist onboard for Alaska. On Princess, the naturalist gave lectures and announced in the public areas when wildlife had been spotted so everyone could go take a look. On the Zaandam, your chances of seeing wildlife were pretty small since you'd have to be looking in the right place at the right time.
There were pluses and minuses for each ship. Overall, we personally enjoyed the newer, more upbeat Diamond more. It was just more cheerful. I wouldn't seek out the Zaandam to cruise on again, but I wouldn't exclude it if there was an itinerary we really wanted.