Our group of three couples chose the Denali add on where we flew into Fairbanks, then took the scenic train to Denali, and a second scenic train to Anchorage, and a final scenic train to Seward before boarding the Zandaam for a downbound trip to Vancouver. Downbound is recommended as it provides the relaxation of the cruise after living out of your suitcase.
The land portion of the trip was most impressive.
HAL excelled in this area. One bag stays with you and is in your various rooms before you arrive. The other goes directly to the ship from Fairbanks and is in your room when you arrive. Likewise, your luggage will be waiting for you in the airport in Vancouver. Outstanding!
The two tours provided by HAL and included with your add on were exceptionally well done. They were two of the best tours we have taken. The lunch provided on the gold dredge tour is so so. Hats off to the people of Fairbanks and the other locales. They truly understand how to do tourism.
The Westmark is an adequate hotel. The public areas are nice. The rooms need a makeover, but are fine otherwise. The hotel is located a few short blocks from the downtown area, which is safe and clean. There are things to do there that will entertain tourists.
I can highly recommend Big Daddy's BBQ, which was featured on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. Also highly recommended is the Thai House. Reservations are recommended for the latter. We split at both restaurants and had plenty to eat and paid prices similar to the lower 48. You will have plenty of salmon to eat along the way, so be patient and have it later.
Scenic Train Ride to Denali
This is a very nice experience! Watch for moose!!!
You stay at a very large resort with exceptional transportation services. The lodge is a nice facility, but seems to need some maintenance TLC. I understand HAL is buying it from the current owners. Hopefully, HAL will attend to these somewhat minor issues that the current owners may be putting off pending the sale of the development.
Your best food will be found across the highway from the complex. Try the salmon bake and pizza restaurant. If you have mobility problems, call the restaurant and they will pick you up at the main chalet.
The included tour is very nice. You will have beautiful scenery and will see many large animals. The animals are widely spaced and require a keen eye to find sometimes, but they are there.
The Husky Homestead Tour is a hoot. Book it!
Scenic Train to Anchorage
HAL provided us with the Hilton, which is one of two venues there. It was very nice. There is not a great deal to do near the hotel, so use the time for rest.
Scenic Train to Seward
Beautiful scenery and the train pulls right up to the ship. Well done!
HAL provides a first class experience with the Denali add on.
Zandaam and HAL
We have cruised a lot and have our own pecking order for rating ships and cruise lines. We start with food. We like to try new things and do not insist on American style food, which is often bland with large portions. Service and staff friendliness is next. The cleanlinest of the ship follows. These are the big three. With this in mind and without adding HAL, we rate the cruise lines in the following order: Excellent 1) Celebrity, Very Good 2) Norwegian, Good (3) Princess, ranked lower due to very average food, (4) Fair Royal Caribbean, ranked lower due to below average food and a ship atmosphere not to our choosing, (5) Will Not Cruise Carnival, due to one horrendous cruise experience with them. After cruising with HAL, we would add it to the Excellent category, just a whisker behind Celebrity. Celebrity seems to do what HAL does and adds some unexpected and occasionally surprising touches, which we did not experience on Zandaam. Otherwise, the two lines are quite similar in quality.
The food on Zandaam was excellent in both the dining room and Lido buffet. Oddly, food poolside was slow and below average.
The cruise staff was friendly and outgoing. The dining and room staff were primarily Indonesian. They were friendly and tried very hard to give good service, but language problems sometimes were apparent. This led to somewhat uneven service.
The ship was squeaky clean and the staff was very proud of its 100% cleanliness rating. With that said, Zandaam is 13 years old and shows some wear and tear, which will no doubt be addressed at the time of refurbishing.
Entertainment was a strong point. The dancers and singers used the somewhat small stage well and didn't try to and put on a Vegas style extravaganza, which often looks out of place on cruise ship stages. The performers were some of the best we have seen. The outside entertainment always varies on board. We saw a fair magician and an excellent comedian. The lounge entertainment was very good.
The ship itself is hard to describe. The best word I can come up with is "stately". Although built in 2000, it seems older, as if deliberately designed to harken back to a more traditional type of cruising. It has a musical and historical theme aboard. All the artwork tells a story, which we really liked. Be sure and read the gold tags next to each piece. There are some flow issues aboard and a couple of choke points, although you will never feel crowded. The ship is ideal for an Alaskan sailing as it boasts a retractable roof over the pool area.
On the downside, Zandaam lacks a "wow" factor. The small atrium is filled with a concrete looking Baroque pipe organ with a number of cherubs. It occasionally has the cherubs hit a musical note. I personally found it hideous. The showroom is also a jumble of colors and does not impress visually, although it provides an intimate atmosphere for the entertainment. The pool area is so so. In addition, the shop area is ho hum. These are the areas where a ship normally makes a design statement. Zandaam does not. With that said, the ship grows on you and feels comfortable. I note that passenger reviews consistently rate Zandaam higher than the website lead review. I would guess the difference is found in the visual impression Zandaam makes. I could see the key reviewer giving a lower score for the ship because of this, while the passengers dismiss the appearance and focus on the food, service, cleanliness, entertainment, etc.
Regarding children, they DO cruise on HAL. The ship has a youth program and there were 70 children on board. With that said, you will find that most cruisers would best be described as young at heart and active seniors. We found our fellow passengers to be some of the most enjoyable we have encountered. HAL keeps the same group of passengers together on the trains and buses, so you do form some nice first name relationships.
Just a note on ports, Haines will give you a view of a real Alaskan community. Juneau and Ketchikan have changed so much that is almost hard to believe. Both have been transformed into Caribbean style shopping streets and even use words like "pirates" and "Caribbean". Sad. Get away from the dock area in both and search for a more authentic experience, especially in Ketchikan's historic district.
Overall this was a VERY nice cruise. We will seriously consider HAL when making future cruise plans.