We took a 7 night Alaska cruise a few years ago and loved it so much that we wanted to experience more of this exciting destination. For some reason there are almost NO reviews of Alaska Cruisetours - it's unfortunate because those of us who research before planning our trips would really appreciate more information about this popular Alaska travel option. So here's my review -- the good and the not so good -- about our experience on a cruisetour.
Embarkation at Canada Place in Vancouver was a bit different than many of our cruises because we first needed to clear immigration. Nonetheless, it went quite smoothly and we were onboard after about 1/2 hour.
The Amsterdam was a much smaller ship than those we've sailed in the past. It was nice to be able to navigate the whole vessel in a short amount of time. Our stateroom was a Category A Verandah Suite. The room was spacious and well decorated, the balcony had room for two loungers which was nice, and the bathroom had a real bathtub, something I think HAL has on all of their ships if this is important to you.
We had a good lunch in the main dining room which was a welcome option from the crowded buffet. Muster drill was more involved than some we've attended, and also seemed a bit disorganized.
MEALS: The first night dinner was disastrous! We chose the select dining time option and went to the dining room around 6:00. We were seated with 3 other couples. Between the 8 of us, just about all of the menu choices for entrees were covered, and all of us had a complaint!! The dining room manager came to our table and made note of all the complaints and promised the next night would be better . . . and it was! In fact, the food from that point forward was really good. We did avoid the buffet because it seemed disorganized and crowded, so I can't comment on the food there. This was our first HAL cruise and we had heard so much about their excellent food, so we think the first night was a real glitch.
The second night was formal, and since we only had 3 nights on the ship and would be dressed VERY casually for our land adventure, we did not bring formal wear. I checked with HAL's office to see if my husband would be allowed in the dining room with just a dress shirt and tie and was told he had to have a jacket or we wouldn't be allowed in the dining room. So on formal night we ordered dinner from the regular dining room menu and had it delivered to our room. Keep this option in mind if you don't want to dress up, but don't want to have dinner in the buffet either.
ENTERTAINMENT: We attended the main show the first night. The seating is rather informal with small seating groups at tables - kind of a lounge feeling rather than a big showroom with auditorium seating. The floor is not sloped, so unless you sit right in the front you might have difficulty seeing. We also attended the main show on the second night. The singers were excellent, the dancers were not the best we've seen, but certainly not the worst either.
The Amsterdam has several lounge areas where you can dance or listen to music, and we loved this about the ship. There was a trio playing jazz standards and 1940 pop music in one lounge with a nice dance floor. They were excellent. They also have a piano bar, and there was a special show on the 3rd night which was highly recommended. We enjoyed that one too, so overall we think HAL offers really good entertainment.
ON BOARD ACTIVITIES: We attended a couple of cooking demonstrations - they were just ok. We also played trivia a couple of times. And we took a couple of dance lessons as part of HAL's Dancing With the Stars competition. They were really fun and a couple of passengers were chosen to perform in a show on the final cruise night. I hope we see a review from someone who saw that show because we wished we could see it.
CRUISETOUR: After 3 nights we arrived in Skagway where we met our group of 32 travelers and Tour Director Chad and began our tour into the Yukon Territory. We did not purchase the HAL meal plan, so we were on our own for most of our meals. A few were included with the cruisetour, mostly because we were somewhere too remote to find a restaurant. You will hear that food in Alaska is expensive, and it is. The HAL meal plan was about $840 per couple for the 8 nights. On our own we spent about $700, and we ate quite well.
SKAGWAY: We took the train from Skagway and saw some beautiful scenery. After the train, we hopped on our Explorer Coach in Fraser and rode up to the town of Whitehorse where we spent the next 2 nights.
WHITEHORSE: There were no activities included in Whitehorse, so we booked a couple of excursions through HAL before we left for our vacation. One included a visit to the Yukon Wildlife Preserve which we would highly recommend. We saw lots of wildlife up close and many animals we never saw in the wild, so it was well worth the time and money. We also took a Yukon River Adventure and saw lots of bald eagles - that was a real treat. We stayed at the Westmark Whitehorse Hotel, which is owed by HAL. The rooms were not fancy, but clean and good sized. The biggest issue was that there was no air conditioning so we slept with our window wide open, and it was light out until at least 10:30 pm!
BEAVER CREEK: After all day long on the bus, we arrived in Beaver Creek just in time for dinner. The tour included a brief lunch stop in Haines Junction, and dinner and show in Beaver Creek. The dinner was served family style, and everyone especially liked the Baked Alaska dessert. The Westmark Beaver Creek was pretty rustic. If you've ever been to a summer cabin furnished in castaways, you'll get the idea. This was our least favorite stop, and we understand that HAL is not going to include Beaver Creek on their cruisetour itineraries next year. It's just as well - we really couldn't recommend it.
FAIRBANKS: Another full day of bus riding was required in order to get to Fairbanks where we spent 2 nights at the Westmark. This was by far the nicest hotel we stayed in, although the neighborhood didn't have much to choose from in the way of dining options. Our tour included a really nice trip on a riverboat which included a stop at the Aleyeska Pipeline (interesting) and an Indian village. Family style lunch was also included, conveniently right next door to the gift shop. After lunch we headed to a goldmine where we panned for gold - and yes, everyone in our group did find some gold. Ours was weighed and valued at a whopping $11.00, but it was fun.
DENALI: A 4-hour train ride in a dome car brought us to Denali, the highlight of our tour. We booked a couple of excursions before we left home, and our favorite was the Husky Homestead visit to champion musher Jeff King's camp. The Tundra Wilderness Tour (part of the cruisetour package) was both good and bad. The good: we saw Mt. McKinley several times which apparently only 30% of Alaska visitors see, we saw lots of caribou, a few moose, one bear, and lots of Dall sheep. The bad: we were on a not-real-comfy bus from 2:00-10:15 pm! It was an incredibly long day and we were exhausted (and really hungry) by the time we finally got back to the hotel.
We stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort and our room was very comfortable - at least until an electrical fire broke out at 9:00 pm! Everyone evacuated and we were finally able to return to our rooms at 11:30. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the entire incident was very poorly handled. See my review on the Port boards for details. At 1:30 a.m. we got a Northern Lights wake-up call as requested, and ran outside to see a truly spectacular sight.
ANCHORAGE: We spent 8 hours in a dome railroad car traveling from Denali to Anchorage. Lunch and dinner on the train were excellent. Our cruisetour officially ended upon our arrival at the Anchorage Westmark Hotel. Anchorage is a nice, interesting city and very easy to get around on foot.
SUMMARY: A cruisetour is a very smooth, easy way to travel. Absolutely everything is taken care of for you, especially if you have a tour director as excellent as ours was. We saw some beautiful scenery and wildlife, met some really nice people, and generally had a very good time. The people who live in Alaska are interesting, resilient and self-reliant and we enjoyed meeting them.
Would we take another cruisetour? Never in a million years! We learned that we really don't like living out of a suitcase, and we don't like riding buses for hours on end. If you are thinking of seeing Alaska this way, just be prepared that the distances you'll travel are very long because Alaska is a huge state, and the scenery just doesn't change all that much. Our recommendation would be to take a 7 night (or longer) cruise with a 3-day Denali extension.