ALASKAN EXPERIENCE: I have a fair amount of ocean water under my keel on a variety of ships and to assorted destinations. For years I was totally indifferent about cruising Alaska. I just completed a 7 day Inside Passage RT Seattle on HAL's Oosterdam and can honestly say that I've joined the legions of Alaska cruise boosters. I'll not belabor the point about the grand scale and beauty of AK and its wildlfe. Suffice to say nohing in my previous travels ( including Norway)gave me the same sense of awe. I plan to revisit soon....perhaps a Cruise, Cruise Tour, Rail or some combination.
The Alaska experience should not be missed by any thinking traveler.
SUMMARY: A great trip that I waited too long to take. Holland America delivered a perfectly orchestrated cruise....but I came home with unfulfilled expectations. More about that below.
A FEW NOTES ON NON-PORT PLACES:
SEATLE: Flew in early and spent 3 days in SEATTLE. Most fortunate to catch 3 days of perfect, drizzle free, warm weather. stayed at the Mediteranean Inn on Queen Ann St.....a completely adequate 3 star travelers hotel in a center city location with near by restaurants and attractions.One quirk is that A/C costs extra.Not usually a big requirement in Seattle, but we caught temps in the 80's and regreted not having it.
Don't miss a meal right up the street at the Mecca Cafe. No ,it's not a middle eastern buffet. Open 24 hours a day it's a classic American basic food bar/restaurant/hang out. Great meat loaf, pot roast,burgers, etc. If it hasn't been featured on the TV series "Diners, Dives amd Drive Ins" it should be.
The packaged tour of Boeing is not good value. The factory tour is fine, but the majority of the 3 hour package is spent on a bus. Better to gather a few friends and rent or hire a cab and stay as long as you want at $25 instead of $60+ tour.
Re: City Tours. The value and quality of any City Tour is always a function of the skill and personality of the tour guide....basically a shot in the dark. That's were honest reviews by prevous customers are valuable. We hit the jackpot with "David" from Customized Tours The chemistry was so good with our driver David that we took him to dinner at an excellent out of the way Italian restaurant Buca di Beppo he sugessted. Ask for Brooke as your waitress. Our 3 hour basic tour expanded to 8+ hours...with door to door delivery. Request David Tyler as your guide and you'l see and learn a lot of Seattle.
FOOTNOTE FOR SMOKERS: We smokers have had to accept the slings and arrows, abusive behavior and condenscending insults from the pious reformed puffers. BEWARE...Seattle is not just aggresively non smoking....it's actually hostile and dangerous to the mental and physical health of smokers. For a City that takes pride in being gay, cannibus and hippie/biker friendly the locals will actually verbally assault anyone caught smoking anywhere. I witnessed my travel partner yelled at by a citizen at the smokers penalty box who ended his tirade with " I hope you die soon so yo'll stop poisoning our air !" This in a city that has designated one city park where it is legal to smoke pot, but illegal ($103 fine)to fire up a Marlboro. Welcome to Seattle. This is absolutely true.
TRACEY ARM FJORD: Not a port call, but amazing and outstanding. Not all cruise lines have permisson to enter and/or the mega ships won't fit. It is so special that I would not book an Alaska trip that didn't go there. Picture continuously narrowing waterway between granite cliffs and tree covered mountains. Add complete silence and totally untouched terrain. Mix in the occasionl bear, eagle,et al. Now start dodging ice bergs until you come to the dead end whch is an active glacier. Turn the ship around and get another 3-4 hours in reverse.
EMBARKATION AND GETTING OFF: Pier 91 is a modern facility shared by HAL and Princess.We boarded in 30-40 minutes... very smooth and efficient.Some others US ports should take note.
THE STATEROOM: WOW! HAL had upgrded us to one of the largest Neptune Suites at the stern....700 sq ft. Thank you Holand America for recognizing a long time customer and fan. More closets than we could use, a separate dressing area for the lady,enormous bath, aft facing balcony...no whales sighted, but a meteor diplay every night. Spotless and perfectly serviced by excellent Stewards. Possibly the best cabin I have ever had. The beds are delightful and the fact that the TV is not interactive was of absolutely no concern.
THE SHIP: Oosterdam may be the largest HAL ship I've been on, but remains fairly faithful to the HAL style of years ago. At 2000 passengers it avoids the Times Square feeling of the mega ships and encourages the passenger/crew interaction that many of us enjoy.
It's been 10+ years since I've cruised with HAL and after a day aboard there was a not so subtle feeling that something was not quite as I remembered it. Conversations on the Lido with some other old salts confirmed and finally identified the cause. HAL still markets to a mature, experienced and fairly sophisticated clientel, but has felt compelled to "liven up" the image.Unfortunately this has been done at the expense of personality and style. Old Masters have been replaced with mediocre pop art,dress codes are very lax, furnishings and decor are an incompatible mix of classic and trendy, relaxed dining and lingering conversation is a thing of the past and the general sense of being treated like someone special seems to be missing. Nothing overt, but not the quiet elegence of a decade ago....pity. Whether it's nostalgia or Carnival Corporate or me simply getting older is hard to say.
The ship is in excellent repair, perfectly clean with every thing operating as it should. Public rooms are very nice, but have little character....acrylic instead of crystal? Service at all levels is prompt and polite if lacking in a "personal touch". Lots of smiles, but no time for conversation.
DINING: Contrary to the opinions of some other reviewers I found the menus and food quality in all the eateries to be very good. Virtually all cruise lines include steak as standard fare on their nightly menu and I've come to order it the first night out as a barometer of what to expect for the rest of the trip. Its ranged from fair to excellent. The Oosterdam rated a strong 4 and the rest of the week was right on target. HAL has never been overly exotic or spicy ( probably in consideration of the mature guests) , but variety, presentation and taste are very good IMO. A few of the classic HAL touches were missing...no crystalized ginger after dinner, high tea lacked the grace and formality of yesterday and....what happened to the midnight chocolate extravaganza?
ENRICHMENT: On a trip with only 1 1/2 sea days you can't expect too much intelectual stimulation. There wasn't. The Alaskan lecturer who provided live commentary at Tracy Arm and other background talks was excellent and one of the best I have encountered. Dancing with the Stars was amusing , but hardly instructional.
WOULD I DO IT AGAIN: Of course I will! Alaska deserves 2+ cruises...the longer the better. Despite the changes in the style of Holland America they still rank high in my personal hit parade.