My family (9 of us - 4 seniors, 2 adults, 3 kids) went on the 7-night Alaska Inside Passage Cruise on HAL Amsterdam in early September. The Southeast Alaska scenery was breath-taking and the weather was quite pleasant. However, the experience with HAL Amsterdam was just so so.
Pre-cruise: We stayed a couple of nights in Vancouver (Richmond area) prior to the cruise. Before cruise, we were worried how we would transport a large group like us in Vancouver. It turns out the Vancouver public transportation was adequate. We used Skytrain & Bus and found those to be quite good. The Skytrain is especially helpful since it stops at or around all major city sites tourists need to access, including the airport, Vancouver downtown, Richmond area, etc. We went to Stanley Park the day prior to cruise - it takes a bus ride from near Waterfront Station so not too hard. Once in the park, it's actually quite difficult to get around the park since it is so big. We walked around the park and spent sometime on the seawall which is very nice. The hotel we stayed in is in Richmond and close to a lot of Asian shops and restaurants, so very convenient. Vancouver / Richmond has outstanding Chinese / Japanese food!
Boarding: we boarded the ship from Canada Place Terminal around 12pm. Boarding was relatively smooth - apparently we were early so the line was short. The only thing was that I forgot to print out paper copies of the cruise documents. That caused some delay but overall not too bad. Overall it took us about an hour to get on the ship. The rooms were ready and the luggage delivered shortly after. We ate at the buffet (not impressed, more on this later) and the drill went smoothly.
Room: We had 4 ocean view rooms. 2 of them were connected and used by my wife and myself, plus the kids (3). In the past cruises the 5 of us tried to stay in one large family room. It was hard to find but we thought it would be a better arrangement than 2 connected rooms. We found that wasn't the case! The 2 connected rooms worked out really well for us - giving us some privacy and allow my youngest kid to take afternoon nap in one room while two older ones hang out with us in the other. The rooms are sufficiently sized for 2 or 3 people. Room was cleaned at least twice a day. No complaint there.
Food: We heard HAL food was good. But our experience wasn't so positive. There were very limited choices onboard - the main dining room, the buffet, and two specialty restaurants (Canaletto the Italian and Pinnacle Grill the steak house). We had dinners mostly in the main dining room, except one night in Canaletto. For breakfasts / lunches, we dined mostly in the buffet, except one lunch at Pinnacle Grill. Also had a breakfast as room service - the quality was really not good.
Main dining room: The food in the main dining room was just OK, comparable with Royal Carribean / Norwegian main dining rooms. Service was a little on the slow side. Our waiter was friendly but not very talkative (also due to him being busy all the time).
Buffet: The buffet was very disappointing. Amsterdam is not a large ship, with under 1,400 guests. However, the Buffet was always busy with long lines, and it was really hard to find tables. Being a smaller ship, the buffet station area is quite small, and there was not much variety. The other factor is because HAL insists on having the crew serving the food instead of allowing the guests to pick up what they want. This seriously slow down the whole operation and the serving crew was seriously stressed. I understand the reasons are probably hygienic as well as HAL cruises have high portion of senior guests, but the slowness really hurt the dining experience. The food variety was very little and doesn't change from day to day much. I'd say this is perhaps the biggest low light of the ship. The buffets on the much larger Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Sea and Norwegian Epic was much superior on quality and serving speed.
Canaletto: This specialty restaurant is located in a corner-offed area in the buffet. It really doesn't feel very special. The food was decent, but nothing to rave about.
Pinnacle Grill: This restaurant is nicely decorated. We had just lunch there, and found that to be a good value ($10 per person vs. $25 per person for dinner). The food was decent, but not any better than the high-end specialty restaurants on RC / Norwegian ships.
Overall the food experience was just so so. I feel HAL needs to do a better job to catch up with other cruise lines.
Ship: The ship is fairly small, hosting ~1,400 guests (compared to ~4,000 for RC / Norwegian ships we cruised on previously). The atmosphere does feel more relaxed due to the smaller size, and overall the ship doesn't feel crowded (except at the buffet and the day at the Glacier Bay - everybody was at the bow!). The activities on ship were most geared towards seniors so we didn't go to that many. With the nice weather / view, we spent a lot of time on the Lower Promenade and the Sports decks - these decks have outdoor loops. With a large party like ours and no way to communicate (should have brought walkie talkie!), we also spent a lot of time walking up and down stairs just to find people. The elevators are very fast, but difficult to get on (again due to the large senior crowd). The ship is small so stairs are generally adequate. Most activities are located between 3rd & 8th floors (3rd floor - outdoor loop, 4th/5th floors - auditorium, library, theater, shops, etc, 8th floor - the buffet and pool). The ship does feel a bit old but generally clean. The library area is very nice - quite spacious and equipped with many books and nice chairs. It's much nicer than the libraries found on the larger RC / Norwegian ships. Again probably a reflection of the focus on the senior guests. One thing that HAL needs to be commended on is that their casino is relatively small and smoking is not allowed there - this is very refreshing as the casino smoke was a major nuisance on RC / Norwegian ships.
Kids Program: Surprisingly this is the highlight of the cruise. We cruised in early September, so many schools have already begun so there were very few kids onboard. With the few days there, we probably saw less than 30 kids total! As a result, the kid's clubs are sparsely populated, and all of my kids reported that they enjoyed the clubs very much, and said the kids program here beats the ones on RC & Norwegian. What a surprise! A very commendable job done by the kids staff on Amsterdam!
Ports and Excursions: We didn't book any excursion through HAL. Instead we booked those directly with the on-shore vendors. In Skagway we booked the Skagway Van Tour with Matt - an outstanding experience and highly recommended! In Juneau we booked the Harv and Marv's whale watching and Mendenhall Glacier trip - the boat was really nice but overall not very impressive experience (feels rushed and commercial). In Ketchikan we just hopped on a bus to the Totem Bight State Park - a small but beautiful park to kill a couple of hours. Other than that we shopped and sampled various salmon products. Overall all three ports are lovely, small and tourist-friendly. The Alaskan port shops are actually quite nice with a good variety compared to Caribbean port shops.
Disembarkation: Getting off the ship was quite smooth. HAL did a pretty good job there.
Overall it was a memorable trip. I do feel HAL needs to try harder to catch up with other cruise lines in a number of areas, however.
We booked the Harv and Marv's whale watching trip. The whale watching part lasted about 3 hours - about 2 hours driving around and 1 hour actually watching whale / seals, etc. The scenery was really great - with glaciers all around you. The whale watching part is just so so, short and rushed. Feels very commercial. In the end we were dropped off at the Mendenhall Glacier, and opted to walk to the Nugget Fall - very pretty. We called a Taxi to go back to Juneau. 9 people for $40 - a better deal than taking the bus.
Ketchikan has lots of shops - higher quality than normal tourist ports. We went to the Totem Bight State Park taking the bus. The bus only goes to the park once an hour, so make sure you ask the information desk in front of the cruise port about the hours. The bus stop itself is very close to the cruise port. The Totem park was very small but lovely.
We booked the Skagway Van Tour with Matt. It was an outstanding experience. Matt was knowledgeable, patient, accommodating and very friendly. The tour through White Pass and Yukon was just breath taking. Such pretty scenery! Very much recommended!