My husband and I have been on 14 cruises through our 41 years of marriage. Our very first cruise was for our honeymoon and we have been hooked on cruising ever since.
This cruise was a gift to my mother for her 90th birthday. Cruising to Alaska was one of her dreams.
Traveling to port and back:
We flew to Seattle the day before the cruise, and stayed at the Best Western on Taylor Avenue. This is the pick-up site for Quick Coach, which provides transfer services to Vancouver (Canada Place Pier) and back. It is a no-frills hotel, but clean. The staff is friendly and courteous. We went to Alaska last year and picked this hotel again because of the convenience of being the pick-up point for the transfer service. For a one-night stay, before and after the cruise, it is fine. There are no porters (you have to take care of your luggage yourself), but there are at least luggage carts you can use. There is a small restaurant that serves a decent breakfast buffet. They also serve dinner, with a varied menu. Last year and this year our room had the view of the Seattle Space Needle - stunning!
Quick Coach is efficient, on time, and drivers are courteous and helpful. I highly recommend them.
Going through Customs entering Canada was a breeze. Staff were friendly and there was no hassle. Entering the US on our way back was another story. Agents are rude, not helpful at all. Out of 6 stations there were only 3 processing 55 people, and sometimes only two, with an agent leaving his station, or another one staring at his screen for what seemed like hours. We were all tired and ready to get on with our trip back home and did not need this inefficiency and apathy.
If you are going to Alaska for the first time, and if your cruise leaves from Vancouver, I suggest you fly to Seattle the day before the cruise and book a late return flight for the day you return (after 6pm), or stay one more night in Seattle. I mention Seattle because if you live in the US it is cheaper to fly to Seattle than to Vancouver. Taxi service from/to SeaTac will cost you about $40-$45 plus tips but it is efficient.
Holland America knows how to treat their passengers when it comes to embarking and debarking. At Canada Place there were three ships at the same time, so the lines were long, and what seemed to be endless. A Holland America agent saw my mother with a cane, came to us and pulled us out of the line to expedite our embarkation. She was an angel!
Our cabin was #6162, a Verandah Suite (A). It was midship, close to the laundry and the elevators. The cabin had plenty of storage space, more than we needed, which is not a bad thing. A few things I have to mention: our luggage did not fit under the beds. The carry-ons fit but not the larger ones. This is the first time we have encountered this situation. It could be that our suitcases, which were new, had the expandable section, making them a bit higher. I made sure the expandable sections were zipped up and they still did not fit. I stored the large suitcases next to the door to the balcony. They were not in our way.
The cabin seemed a bit tight. If one of us wanted to walk to the bathroom and the other was in the closet area or on the foot of the beds, one had to move aside so the other could walk through. If you wanted to use the vanity you had to move the table in front of the sofa so you could move the chair to sit down.
There was only one electric outlet in the entire cabin. It had both 110 and 220 outlets. Now that we all have phones, cameras, IPads, etc that have to be charged, having just one outlet is kind of inconvenient.
The Amsterdam is an elegant ship throughout. All public spaces are tastefully decorated. We felt special just by walking the Promenade and going to the lounges.
There is some rust in the lifeboats' brackets and some windows look like the insulation has been damaged and not repaired properly, with unsightly clumps of sealant showing. I guess since the Amsterdam is due for dry dock in December 2013 maintenance has gone to the wayside.
First, the Pinnacle Grill. We ate there on two nights. What an experience! The service, the food, the ambiance, are all better than any gourmet restaurant we have been to. You feel special the moment you are greeted. The Spicy Chicken Coconut Soup was a delectable surprise. Not spicy at all, but so flavorful. My filet mignon was the best I ever had - no knife needed, and cooked to perfection. My mother had the Lobster Mac & Cheese, exquisite. It is hard to choose a side dish because of the large selection, but you will not be dissapointed with whichever you order. For dessert we had a decadent chocolate cake brought to my mom with a candle to celebrate her birthday. I also had the best Baked Alaska ever! This is definitely worth $25 per person.
The second night at the Grill was when it is converted to Le Cirque, a partnership of HAL with the famous Le Cirque restaurant in New York City. This happens only once per cruise, so we were lucky to get a reservation for this one evening. The menu, the decor, the china, all resemble the original Le Cirque. And what a menu it is! My mom's Caesar Salad was prepared at the table as it should be. Fantastic! My Lobster Salad "Le Cirque" was a culinary treat. Not the salad we might expect. This is a work of art. The Chilled Yogurt and Melon Soup, out of this world! My Chauteaubriand was again cooked to perfection and exquisite. My mom had the Three Cheese Ravioli, and it was amazing. For dessert we both had their Creme Brulee - yumm! This evening cost a bit more, $39 per person, but it is also worth every penny.
Kudos to the Pinnacle Grill staff: Elvira the hostess, who by the way, came to us at every course to see how everything was, with a genuine smile and friendly conversation; Servers Dhana and Sarah, Coffee server Tri, wine master Eric.
Now, for the Main Dining Room, LaFontaine: What a dissapointment! Our first dinner there was on the second night of the cruise, since we dined at the Pinnacle Grill the first night. I asked the dining room staff member who greeted us where our table was (Table 50). Instead of escorting us to our table he pointed to it. Someone saw us wondering about and took us to the table. Our waiter greeted us and introduced himself, but never introduced his assistant. Service was OK but not impressive.
The food is bland, no seasoning, unattractive, not up to par to a cruise line of this caliber. On two nights our dishes had rice as a side dish. Once it was a lump of tasteless white rice, and another night is was a lump of tasteless yellow rice. My mom had roast turkey one night and the pieces of turkey were slopped on top of the cranberry jelly, just like food from a buffet line, and a bad one at that. The turkey had no flavor and it was dry. Steaks were generally hard and dry, lacking seasoning. Fish fillets were unappealing. The "Shrimp and Avocado Tower" is a clump less than two inches tall (no tower here). The avocado pieces were microscopic and the shrimp was nowhere to be found. Most of the time two of us at the table ordered the same thing and had the same opinion of the food. Dessert was no better. Most memorable was the "Volcano Cake" ( I don't remember the exact name, but the name had Volcano in it.) Thinking this would be the classic Lava cake (per the description) I ordered it. I got some clumps of chocolate that were supposed to resemble the boulders at the base of the volcano. They tasted like dark chocolate for cocoa before it is cooked. Two of us ordered this and had the same reaction.
We ate because we were hungry (8pm seating) and because if we returned anything we would have missed the shows.
The first time we were on HAL meals were to die for. This has been our experience on all cruises we have been on. This time the Amsterdam really dissapointed.
Kids acitivities: - not applicable since we did not need this service. There were not many kids on board though.
Excellent service on the Lido Deck at every meal. Staff were friendly and so helpful. Whenever they saw my mom with a plate in her hand they would carry it to the table and get her a drink or anything she needed without her asking.
Service at the Shops was great, although they seemed under-staffed at times. They were still courteous.
Photo: This has always been our one bad experience on any cruise, and this one did not dissapoint. At least they are not as aggressive as, say Carnival. An 8x10 is $19.99. I believe this has not changed much from the last time we purchased photos. But, there are no 5x7's anymore. What they do is add a cute decorative "souvenir scene" on a larger paper, beneath your photo. Now the paper is larger, so they charge $14.95 for these. I recall 5x7's were $9.99. Now, "portraits" are a different animal. They advertise portrait sittings as a separate service and for a higher fee. On a formal night my mom and I wanted to have our photo taken, of course, being a Mother/Daughter cruise and celebrating her birthday. Two photographers on the Promenade called us over and took our photos. The photos turned out beautifully, and we chose three. When we went to pay, these are $39.99 EACH! They put an 8x10 with a 4x6 and two wallets in one sheet and charged as a portrait. We did not ask for a sititng. THEY called us. Prices are not posted, so you do not know what you will pay. We were not happy. Instead of buying three photos we only bought one. If they thought they are making more money by charging $40 for those "portraits', this is counterproductive because we spent less than we would have if the photos had been $19.99.
To add to the bad experience, we had been told that if we purchased 5 photos we would get the digital file. We purchased 5, but were told we did not qualify for the digital file because the five photos had to be of the same category. Talk about a rip off!
And there is all that paper and toner that are wasted. This is not only annoying but not ecologically friendly.
As per ship's activities, the ones we enjoyed the most were the demos by the Culinary Arts department. This has been the best program I have seen; informative and entertaining. A joy to attend!
The movie theatre is a plus! Comfortable seating and a big screen. What a treat!
The onboard "Locations Guide", Kianoa, was excellent. His lectures on the topography of Alaska and the glaciers were an education. The guy is a walking encyclopedia!
The shows left a lot to be desired. The first night's show was an introduction to all the entertainment aboard the ship. One mini act after the other, so we got to know the performers. Nice idea, but it did not give you the WOW! you are used to on other cruise lines, or on our first cruise with HAL for that matter. The dancers were sub-standard and the shows looked like they had been put together by an amateur choreographer. The singers were fantastic though. The last night was the Finale of the "Dancing with the Stars at Sea", where a winner was voted on by a panel of judges and the audience. This was a lot of fun, and original.
The cruise director was OK. I was not impressed.
Port and Shore Excursions:
Glacier Bay: gorgeous views!
On our last two cruises to Alaska (yes, this was my third time), we visited the Hubbard Glacier, once on HAL and last year on Celebrity. This glacier is spectacular, majestic, incredible! There is a lot of calving activity. The glacier ice is blue, and its expanse of 7 miles in width makes it breathtaking to look at. The Amsterdam stopped at Margerie Glacier, one mile wide, dirty on its sides, and with no calving activity. We were stopped in front of Margerie for over two hours and nothing happened. I know calving is not a programmed event, but something should have happened in the course of two hours. I was dissapointed that my mom did not have the same exciting experience we had with the Hubbard on two occasions, 16 years apart. Being in front of that glacier, although a treat, was not exciting.
Skagway: Did the "Best of Skagway" excursion. Fantastic! First we had a tour of Skagway (does not take long), then we boarded the White Pass and Yukon Summit Railroad for a ride through the Yukon and White Pass Summit crossed by the gold prospectors in 1898. Spectacular views and interesting narrated history. Then we went to Liarsville, a quaint town set in the campsite used by tired prospectors. Here we had a lunch of smoked salmon with all kinds of side dishes that was absoutely delicious. There was a show by local artists with stories, anecdotes, and poems, very witty and entertaining. We "looked" for gold and found some nuggets that need a magnifying glass in order to see them, but gold they are! Our tour ended at the Red Onion Saloon, an actual bordello circa 1989-99. Here "madams" gave us an informative talk on how the bordello was run. Interesting!
Juneau: After a very informative chat by our driver, we visited the McCauly Salmon Hatchery and learned how salmon is being hatched and processed. Fascinating! We then visited the Mendenhall Glacier. This is spectacular, a must! After the glacier we visited Glacier Gardens, the most unique gardens I have seen. The developer acquired trees downed by an avalanche and put them in the ground upside down with the roots on top. The roots form a type of basket that hold plants, forming gorgeous hanging planters. The beauty is hard to explain in words. We had a tour on a cart inside the expansive garden grounds and parts of the Tongass National Forest. I highly recommend this tour.
Ketchikan: Went to the Totem Heritage Center and Potlatch Park. Both are fascinating places.
All drivers were excellent and knowledgeable. They were on time and courteous. We booked all excursions online through HAL.
Again, smooth and efficient.
Although you cannot go wrong with a cruise to Alaska, I would research in more depth if I go again. (And I might - I love this cruise so much!) Visiting Hubbard Glacier has to be a priority. The Margerie was such a downer.
The Amsterdam is an elegant ship, and the staff and crew were great. She needs some TLC though.
The "negatives" I expressed here did not hinder our cruise experience. Having said that, I might consider HAL again, but would be weary of the Amsterdam because of our bad experience at the main dining room and the inferior entertainment at the Queen's Theatre.
All in all, a great cruise. I say that if you like cruising, every cruise is a great cruise. The "glitches" have to be addressed, but the big picture is always great.