We arrived at the Smith Cove cruise terminal in Seattle at about noon. It was packed - the cab line was so long that it took us almost ten minutes just to get dropped off. The lines inside were reminiscent of Disneyland on a summer weekend - we actually stood in one line just to get into another line! But everyone was quite helpful and we were on board in about 45 minutes. We had lunch and wandered about the ship. My suitcase arrived in our cabin about 4:30, and my wife's about 6:00 (it had been delivered to the wrong cabin, but out steward sorted that out). This was quite a change from our first cruise, where we got on board in less than 10 minutes and had our luggage delivered 30 minutes later.
This was our second cruise. Our first was a couple of years ago on the Holland America Oosterdam. There was a quite a contrast between the two; the Solstice is a lot bigger (2,800 passengers vs 2,000) and the decor is less ostentatious and more modern. Our stateroom (veranda stateroom on 8th deck, starboard side, forward) was quite nice. It was clean, and we both thought it was more spacious than our similar stateroom on the Oosterdam, especially the bathroom. Our veranda was not only larger, but because they have sliding glass doors on the Solstice (unlike the Oosterdam), all of the space was useable. And use it, we did. It was nice that we could lock the door in an open posotion and not have it take up space either inside the stateroom or on the veranda.
Without exception, they were all helpful. In a sharp contrast with the crew from our previous cruise, they didn't spend a lot of time trying to sell us stuff. All spoke English very well, and were unfailingly polite and friendly.
We chose the freestyle dining option instead of the fixed dining times, and ate in only two of the restaurants; the buffet (I forgot the name) and the main dining room (the Grand Epernay, whatever that means). I thought the main dining room was quite nice and not at all overdone, but I overheard others saying it looked "plain" and "minimal".
The buffet: we ate breakfast in the buffet every day. Breakfast is a hard meal to screw up and the Solstice didn't. It was hard at times to find a seat, so I took advantage of being an early riser to eat before 7:00 most mornings and had no problem. My wife ate later and we settled on a method of finding a table for two, and then each of us getting our food separately. I was really pleased to find that Solstice offered an English breakfast section, with baked beans, broiled tomatoes, cooked mushrooms, English sausages, etc. However, I discovered the next day that the American-style sausages and the English-style sausages both tasted exactly the same. At lunch, the cafe offers a variety of offerings, from Indian food (I *loved* the papadams and accompanying relishes and ate them every day) to Chinese food to hot entrees to Mexican food to pizza to sandwiches, soups, and salads. I found something new every day, and enjoyed it all.
The Grand Epernay: we made reservations for the main dining room almost every night. I don't know if it's the case elsewhere, but every time we sat at a "table for two", we found that our "table for two" was about two inches away from several other "tables for two", which was a slight surprise but not a disappointment. The food in the Grand Epernay was really good. Given the number of meals they have to turn out, I would have been surprised if the food had been outstanding, but a couple of our meals reached that level - especially the salmon. There were a few curiosities: I ordered prime rib, which was great, but it came with no horseradish. And in general (especially in the buffet), much of the food required salt and pepper. For every table there was a head waiter, an assistant waiter, a wine steward, and a cocktail waitress/waiter. I never knew who to order from. There were two formal nights. Ladies wore nice dresses (some very formal), and men more coats and ties (and pants of course).
Other shipboard stuff:
There was a wide range of passengers from around the world, of all ages. I'd say that the average age was 45-50.
We really enjoyed the music on board. There were two jazz combos, which made a jazzoid like me *very* happy. There was also a good singer-songwriter, a pop band (or two), a country-western band (with a small Elvis imitator!), and a classical music trio. They were all great.
There were lots of on board activities but we cruise to relax, so we spent most of our time either staring at the beautiful scenery, looking for whales, or reading. The Solstice had just one daily general announcement - every day at ten AM the captain would give a brief report, and the cruise director (is that his title?) would give a very brief rundown on activities for the day. That was a nice change from our previous cruise, where there were several announcements daily.
We only attended one of the evening shows, and didn't care for it. But we don't care for that sort of thing in the first place, so we might have been biased.
We really enjoyed the ship's naturalist, Brent Nixon. He gave several extremely educational and highly entertaining talks about the flora and fauna of the Inside Passage.
There are several bars on the ship, and we found two that we liked. The Martini Bar is a "flair" bar on the 4th deck, where the bartenders juggle bottles, and pour multiple cocktails at once - one of them poured 12 martinis at once. Highly entertaining. There was also a quiet bar on the 5th deck (the Ensemble Lounge), just outside the specialty restaurants. That was where the jazz groups played.
No sweat; no hanging around waiting for your group to be called. We carried our own bags and were off the ship and into our cab in less than five minutes.
We really enjoyed the cruise. The scenery was spectacular, and the amenities on board were great. I think we've found a cruise line we can stick with.
We were tendered, and I'd read several things in here about bad tender experiences (as opposed to "Love me tender") so we decided not to get off the ship. It was really nice having some quiet time on board. Juneau is another great, scenic location.
Since there's no separate place to mention it, I want to talk about what we did the morning before getting to Juneau: Tracy Arm and the Sawyer glacier.
The word "awesome" is frequently overused, but it was really appropriate for this part - our favorite part - of the cruise. The ship entered the fjord early on the day we got to Juneau. It's about 90 minutes up this spectacular fjord with its steep rock walls, waterfalls, rapids, mountains, glaciers, and mini-icebergs ("bergelets" according to the ship's naturalist). And it's culminated by the Sawyer Glacier. It's a tidewater glacier which flows right into the end of the inlet. Spectacular! We spent most of the time on our verandah, gaping with open mouths. You have to see it for yourself, and you should do it in the next few years before it retreats farther up the valley.
Ketchikan is beautiful! We were docked (not tendered), and it was a snap getting on and off the ship. We walked down the gangplank and made a bee-line for the first coffee shop we could find, so my wife could have a latte that was bigger than 12oz and didn't cost $7.00.
My wife has a friend who lives in Ketchikan who met us at "the eagle" (you'll know it when you see it), and acted as our tour guide. At my request, she took us to Totem Bight State Park, a few miles north of town. It's a small park chock full of totem poles and a clan house (sometimes called a longhouse, I think). I'd lived in Ketchikan briefly when I was starting grade school, and had some old snapshots of me and my siblings in the park. It was great to revisit it and see that the same totem poles are still there 50+ years later. We wandered around the park admiring the native carvings, and briefly explored the (rocky and slippery) beach. When I showed the old snapshots to the park ranger, she insisted on copying them, and said she'd display them. So if you go to the park and see some black and white snapshots from 1957, those are mine.
After that, we went to Settlers Cover, a state park at the end of the road north of town. There's a nice set of trails, and we took a short one following the creek, which was full of spawning salmon. Spent a really nice hour or two there.
We docked at Skagway early in the morning. Another easy disembarkation - just walk sown the gangplank and into town. The location of Skagway is (as usual) spectacular. The town itself, not so much. I'd guess there are about 750 people living in Skagway year-round, but there were four cruise ships docked, with about 10,000 people, so the town was awash with tourists.
And what is it with all the jewelry stores? It seemed like two-thirds of the stores in town sold jewelry, and most of it was Tanzanite. Why would anyone want to go to Alaska to buy a semi-precious stone from Tanzania? I just don't get it.
We joined the tide of tourists into town and did all our tacky souvenir shopping that morning. We then staggered back to the ship under the weight of all that stuff and had lunch before our 12:30 excursion.
The White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway was blasted out of the Coast Range mountainsides in just 26 months to carry supplies to the sourdoughs of the 1898 Yukon gold rush. The route follows the Skagway River, from sea level about 20 miles up to about 2,800 feet at White Pass (hence the name).
The narrow gauge tracks mean that the cars (and the seats) are also narrow, so be prepared to sit VERY close to someone. Or several someones. The trip to the pass takes about 90 minutes or so, and there's an on board guide who narrates what you're seeing, from historic places (like Soapy Smiths grave and the actual trail of the sourdoughs) to the scenery around you (spectacular!).
The train met us at the pier. Boarding is first-come, first served - there are no reserved seats. The round trip is three hours plus. There's no food on board, but they *do* provide water for everyone, and there are restrooms in each car. The scenery is wonderful, and the narration is both educational and entertaining. I highly recommend this excursion. It's the only one we took on our cruise, and it was definitely worth it.
Once again, we didn't get off the boat. We've been to Victoria several times. Instead, we enjoyed our last night on the ship. In fact, my wife told me after dinner that the next morning we should barricade ourselves into our cabin and refuse to leave. I *think* she was joking, but I'm not entirely sure.