Cindy: Hi! Welcome to my trip report of my Alaska cruise on HAL Westerdam.
Readers: HAL Westerdam? Alaska? Cindy, you’re confused. You’re not going to Alaska until 2014.
Cindy: Yes, HAL Alaska. Why the confusion friends? I had this vacation planned for well over a year.
Readers: But… but…Cindy, you weren’t planning to go to Alaska until 2014. This year you were taking a 9-night Celebrity Millennium wine cruise down the Pacific Coast with an overnight in San Francisco.
Cindy: You’re right! The only problem is that this uber-planner got thrown for a loop when the cruise I had been planning since April 2012 got cancelled three weeks before we were due to leave.
Readers: How did you handle that, Cindy? You like to have everything set and researched well in advance of your departure date. What about your lists? Your research? Your maps? Your iPad filled with details?
Cindy: Well, after I got over the shock, I got on the internet and on the phone, and 9 hours later I had pieced together Plan B…and that’s the subject of this trip report. A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, and what this girl was gonna do was go on vacation!
So…now that we’ve established what I’m going to be writing about, let me tell you a little bit more about our trip. Our cast of characters is me, my DH Jim, and my mom. At one time my aunt was going to be vacationing with us, but she decided to cancel (probably a good thing), and then my mom’s second roommate got sick and had to cancel (not a good thing). By the time the Millennium’s pod self-destructed and Celebrity announced she was going to the ship hospital, we were firmly set at three, and we all decided to go ahead with our vacation as long as we could make arrangements that fit fairly closely with the dates we were already scheduled to travel.
You wouldn’t think finding another cruise within our dates would be that difficult, but much to my surprise it was. After many hours of juggling plane tickets, hotel reservations, and available space on ANY ship we settled on the Westerdam out of Seattle to Alaska on September 14th. A few more odds and ends, quickly research and book shore excursions, and we were ready to go. Of course there was the small matter of living in Texas and not having appropriate September in Alaska clothes. Nothing a little time on Zappo’s and a run over to REI couldn’t fix!
Tuesday, September 10 – We left the house at about 6:00 as planned, and had absolutely no problems getting to the airport, parking, and checking in. I’ve NEVER had my passport checked as many times as it was for this flight to Vancouver. We had to show our passports: 1) to check in, 2) at the security line, 3) again before boarding started, and 4) getting on the plane. That was the first time I’ve seen everybody have to get up out of their seats in the waiting area and line up to show their passports, then return to their seats to await boarding.
Once we boarded we were thrilled to find there were a lot of empty seats in Economy Plus. We had booked aisle seats across from each other, but we were able to have a set of three seats with an empty seat in the middle. The back part of economy was a lot more crowded, but even there some of the middle seats were empty. It was a fairly smooth and uneventful flight, and we got to the gate in Vancouver about 20 minutes early. We thought we had smooth sailing ahead, but…
WOW! Immigration in Vancouver is a nightmare. We got in just after several jumbos from Asia, and the line was endless. Think Disney World on a holiday, without the entertainment in the line. Finally they opened a few more stations and then things started moving a little more quickly…all told immigration took about an hour from the time we got downstairs and got in line to the time we walked up to a podium.
Our Hertz rental car was fine…we paid more to get a bigger car (Camry) and it’s a good thing we did, or we would have been in deep doo doo when we added my mom and her luggage to the mix. The drive to Whistler was uneventful – very scenic, and the weather was beautiful. The Pinnacle Hotel in Whistler was a little disappointing. We really liked the location slightly away from the main village, but our room was tiny and nothing special. I didn’t realize that wanting a room without a hot tub in the middle of it would mean we literally had no place to sit and an air conditioner that was only about 6 inches from the bed. I have no idea how someone would stay there for any length of time with ski stuff and heavy clothes.
We walked around for a while, and went to Quattro right at the hotel for dinner. It was great, and the $75 voucher that came with our room didn’t hurt! We both had salads, Jim had the Spaghetti Quattro, and I had a delicious Cornish Game Hen. Dessert was out of the question…we could barely keep our eyes open. I think we were asleep before 9:30!
September 11 -- Wednesday was a wonderful day! We started out walking over to the village and found a cute place for breakfast with outside seating. It felt SO good to sit outside in a sweatshirt in September! We had a nice breakfast that probably was about the going rate for Whistler but seemed very expensive to us. Speaking of cost, we thought everything in Whistler was very expensive. On Tuesday night we went to the grocery store to pick up some water and creamer, and the guy in front of us bought one pack of cigarettes…for $13.50! :o I know cigarettes are expensive everyplace, but I don’t think they’re $13.50! Thank goodness we don’t smoke – we couldn’t afford it!
After breakfast we went to pick up some sunscreen (about the same price as cigarettes), and got our Peak-to-Peak lift tickets. They were also pricy, but worth every penny. It was spectacular! We took the chair lift all the way to the top of Whistler, then the Peak-to-Peak gondola over to Blackcomb. It really was an incredible ride and is an engineering marvel. I was shocked at the amount of snow. We might have stayed longer, but all the lifts except the Whistler Peak chair were closed, so many of the walking paths and trails weren’t available. We ended up heading back down around 2:00 so we could rest a while before dinner.
At 4:30 we headed over to the Plaza Gallery to meet our Whistler Tasting Tour. There were only six of us – a couple from our cancelled cruise, a couple from Tennessee, and us. We started with a beer flight (meh) and went from there to Elements Urban Tapas where we had salmon on risotto (yum). Next up was Hy’s Steakhouse which was actually something of a disappointment. We had Ahi Tuna which was quite tasty, but the sirloin tips were very “Stoufferish”. From there we went to Kipraki for lamb, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory for fudge and candied apple slices, and finally to the Fire Rock Lounge at the Westin for cheese and Icewine. All in all it was a pleasant evening with good company, but I didn’t think the food was spectacular…it was OK, but I’m not sure I would rush to order most of it again. The wines were the same…most were decent, but I’m not sure I would go out of my way to find any of them again.
September 12 -- Our goal Thursday was to leave around 8:00, and we did a pretty good job…we pulled out of the garage at 8:05. Since we were picking my mom up at the airport we wanted to allow plenty of time, and we weren’t sure how long it would take us to get to the airport with stops, nor did we know how long it would take her to get through immigration. As it ended up, our timing couldn’t have been any better. I don’t think she waited more than 5 minutes for us!
We decided on lunch outside in Vancouver to take advantage of the beautiful day. We ended up at Cardero’s and enjoyed everything we had. After lunch we walked along the Sea Wall down to Canada Place, then headed to the train station. In hindsight, that was a big mistake. We didn’t really know where we were going or how long it would take, and we got to the station WAY too early. Now, if you’ve been to the train station in Vancouver you’ll understand how very little there was to do, There’s nothing of interest at the station, we had already turned in our rental car when we arrived, and we couldn’t check our luggage until after we went through customs and immigration…at 4:30.
We thought the train was comfortable and while it was light it was also very scenic, but once it got dark we just wanted to get to Seattle. The train had to stop a couple times for other traffic, so we didn’t get in until about 10:30, and to the hotel at 11;15. We were all pretty cranky by the time we arrived, and glad to be done with a very long day.
As much as we were disappointed with the hotel in Whistler, I loved the Hotel Vintage Park in Seattle. Our room was probably no bigger, but it was oh-so-much nicer. I loved the location and the service. The room finishes were lovely, and I would probably have stolen the bed if I thought I could figure out how to get it home!
September 13 -- Friday Jim and I did our Savor Seattle Pike Place Market tour and it was fabulous! Our guide (Nick) was outstanding, and the tour was both informative and entertaining. We tasted everything from doughnuts to blackened salt to crab cakes, and enjoyed the stories our guide told along the way. After our tour we went up to Seattle Center to the Chihuly Gardens and Exhibit, but we never made it up the Space Needle since it was cloudy all day.
In the evening we went to the hotel wine tasting…a really nice touch where a local wine maker pours several different varietals from their vineyard. After happy hour we went to dinner at Tulio (attached to the hotel). I thought it was very good, and the $100 worth of vouchers we had for booking through AAA certainly helped with the bill!
None of us were up very late…it was a clear case of head hitting the pillow and falling asleep at the same time!
September 14 -- I woke up typically early on Saturday, as I always do when I have a ship to catch. By this time I was very ready to get on the ship if for no other reason than I couldn’t stand living out of my suitcase any longer. Breakfast was back at Tulio…good but WAY too much food!
We had arranged transportation to the ship through the hotel, and I thought it was a good deal. Our Town Car was $10 per person, and the only problem was our luggage BARELY fit…if we had one more person or bag we would have been out of luck. Even arriving before 11 we were in boarding group 5, so I wouldn’t have wanted to arrive much later.
After boarding we called and made dinner reservations, and headed down to the dining room for the Mariner’s Lunch. More on this later, but had I known what a headache dinner reservations would be I would have reserved two nights when I made the initial phone call. As it ended up, dinner reservations were a HUGE hassle all week, and the attitude of the reservations person left me with a really poor impression about their customer service on-board…I’ll talk more about that at the end.
The rest of the day was smooth and uneventful…just the way I like it! My suitcases were all waiting when we returned from lunch, so I was able to get unpacked and settled in before muster. Everybody showed up on time for muster, and we were off pretty quickly after that. Just before we sailed away the sun broke through and we were treated to a beautiful sailaway from Seattle.
We started what would be our evening routine – meeting for drinks at one of the very empty bars about 45 minutes before dinner, and then eating at 6:30. We were seated at Table 198 with a delightful and efficient team of waiters and wine steward. It took a lot of effort, but we managed to be seated at the same table each evening.
September 15-At Sea – This was a beautiful, slightly chilly day that had a lot of people remarking about how much the ship was moving, but I didn’t think it was bad at all. We ate both breakfast and lunch in the Vista Dining Room, and I noticed how slow and poor service was. That was a theme all week at both breakfast and lunch. There weren’t nearly enough people serving, and it could be painfully slow at times. One morning they even had to bring staff down from the Lido to help serve, but breakfast still took well over an hour. I guess it was a good thing it was a day when I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be!
We all went our separate ways for part of the day. Mom went to a cooking demonstration, I took some Windows 8 classes, and Jim went (I think) to some Alaska talks. Jim and I also went to our Meet & Mingle…what a sad little event. Only one other passenger showed up!
On Sunday, the captain announced we were to have a pretty major itinerary change. Due to a forecasted major storm, we would be skipping Sitka on Wednesday, moving Ketchikan from Thursday to Wednesday, and (hopefully) spending the whole day and evening Friday in Victoria instead of the scheduled hours of 6:00 p.m.-Midnight. I quickly got on the internet and sent an e-mail to the Bering Sea people with our new date and time, and I also was able to reschedule the tour I originally had scheduled for Victoria before the Millennium cruise was cancelled. With shore excursions rescheduled, I was all set, but I was beginning to think someone was trying to tell me I shouldn’t cruise in September!
September 16-Juneau – We arrived on schedule at 1:00, to partly cloudy skies. It wasn’t too cold and it wasn’t raining, so I thought it was just great for Alaska in September! We had booked a tour with Juneau Whale Watch on-line, and it was kind of a mixed bag. The whale-watch part was excellent and the boat was very comfortable, but I didn’t think their organization was very good AT ALL and we definitely got short-changed on the Mendenhall part of the tour. We didn’t get to the glacier until about 5:15, and we were told the latest bus we could get back to the ship was at 6:00. We really didn’t have any time to walk around or go to the visitor’s center. Jim and I were both shocked at how much the glacier has receded since we were there in 2000.
September 17-Glacier Bay – We woke to – you guessed it – fog, low clouds, and drizzle. That didn’t stop me from taking hundreds of pictures or freezing my tail off out on the balcony for hours! Even with the clouds and the mist, the glaciers were still beautiful, just in a very different way than they are when the sun is shining and you can see the mountains behind them.
Jim appointed himself the announcer of the impending calvings. He would listen for the crack, and sure enough, there would be a little baby iceberg born. This went on for quite some time, and as we were starting to sail away from Margerie Glacier Jim went inside to get his gloves…right after he went in, of course, we had a bigger calving that brought oohs and aahs from our side of the ship! We also went down to Johns Hopkins glacier, and it was in that arm that we saw what the park rangers referred to as the “Termination Event.” It was snowing up at the higher elevations, and that to them meant the termination of Summer and the beginning of their long Winter.
September 18-Ketchikan – We had a fantastic time today on the “Bering Sea Crab Fishing Tour!” I have had this tour bookmarked on my computer for several years just waiting until I got back to Alaska. It didn’t disappoint. Yes, parts of it are “staged,” but the fishermen and the gear they use are authentic, and I may never have another opportunity to see eagles that close again. I thought the tour was very well done, appropriate for all ages, and well worth the money. Interestingly enough, we had booked this tour on the internet, but most of the people booked through the ship…for $25 more per person.
We didn’t have a whole lot of time when we returned, but we did go shopping for our one “special” souvenir. We like to buy one nice piece from a local artisan when we travel, and we chose a hand carved whale mounted on a block of crystal.
We went to Le Cirque for dinner and enjoyed an exceptional meal. Jim and I both had perfect Chateaubriand, and mom had the Lamb. Mom didn’t think the lamb was too good, but other than that we enjoyed everything we had. The butternut squash soup was dreamy, and I will be scouring the internet for the recipe. I could have made a meal out of just that soup!
Remember I told you on Sunday the captain changed our itinerary to eliminate Sitka because expected bad weather and high winds would have made tendering impossible, and he wanted to try to get us south of the impending storm? As it happened, it was absolutely the right decision. I wouldn’t question a safety decision made by the captain anyway, but he did an incredible job of trying to stay ahead of what turned out to be a pretty major storm. That was reinforced at 1:30 Thursday morning when we were literally shaken awake by the incredible winds. The apparent wind speed was 60+ mph, and even on the leeward side of the ship our balcony on deck 8 was getting covered in spray. We were awake until about 4:00! It was too rough to sleep. Every time we would doze off there would be a huge lurch and we’d be awake again. Thank goodness we don’t suffer from motion sickness!
September 19-At Sea/Inside Passage – You would think today was the month of March, because it came in like a lion and went out like a lamb! It was very windy all morning and through lunch (the Mariner’s Brunch) until we got to the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The captain did all he could all day to keep us out of the worst winds and in calm waters, but he was also conscious of trying to make sure we were able to make Victoria. It wasn’t until pretty late in the afternoon that he announced we would make it to and through Seymour Straits in time for a morning arrival in Victoria. I know other ships weren’t as fortunate, or maybe their captain wasn’t as proactive as ours…the Star Princess was also trying to get to Canada on an altered itinerary, but they missed their window of opportunity and ended up cruising in long, slow circles all day Friday while we played in Victoria.
In a way, the itinerary change was a bonus, because we wouldn’t have gotten to do the Canadian Inside Passage without it…we would have sailed around the outside of the island and just made a 6 hour (PVSA) call in Canada. Not only was it calm and scenic in the afternoon, we were treated to about 30 minutes of a school of porpoises swimming alongside the ship!
September 20-Victoria, BC – Victoria was to have been a port of call on my cancelled cruise, but we didn’t have any plans to do anything off the Westerdam because our original port hours were terrible…6:00 p.m. until Midnight. As soon as I learned we would be in all day I contacted my tour provider, Victoria’s London Taxi, and fortunately they were able to fit us in. We had all been to Victoria before and wanted to do something different, so we visited Beacon Hill Park, Goldstream Provincial Park, Esquimalt Lagoon, and Hatley Castle. It was a really pleasant day! After our tour we went back to the ship and ate in the Lido for the first and only time all week, and just hung out and relaxed the rest of the day.
September 21-Seattle and Home – What an easy disembarkation! I really need to send the Galveston people to Seattle (and Ft. Lauderdale) to see how disembarkation should run. We had cruise line transfers to the airport, and much to our surprise we were extremely early for our 11:55 flight.
I did have an incident with TSA…we had received a corkscrew as a gift on our tasting tour in Whistler. Somehow it had wound up in my carry-on instead of a suitcase, and honestly I had forgotten about it. TSA couldn’t find it, and they ended up completely unpacking my carry-on to get to it. I got yelled at because I tried to help them unpack my camera lenses (gently), and I was practically in tears looking at my carefully packed stuff seemingly spread out all over Seattle airport. One guy was really nice and understanding, but when he called for back-up the second guy was a jerk…he accused me of trying to hide the corkscrew. Sorry, I made an honest mistake…no need to be nasty about it.
The trip home was uneventful but also very uncomfortable. Why is United using small, old planes with no entertainment on 4+ hour flights? Ah, if only I could eliminate the “getting there” part of travel!
Overall Impressions -- the good, the bad, and the ugly:
The Good – our wait staff at table 198 at Open Seating was delightful, personable, and efficient. As slow and impersonal as our service on the Noordam was, our service on the Westerdam at dinner was just the opposite. Our wine steward, Anthony, was awesome…again a complete 180 from our experience on the Noordam. We learned from each other and shared our love of wine all week.
I appreciated (for now) being able to take 5 bottles of wine aboard for the three of us. We had no problem paying the corkage and loved discussing our selections with Anthony each evening.
The food was consistently good. We ate almost all our meals in the dining room, and thought the quality and presentation were quite nice.
The Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour was outstanding! We booked privately and saved about $25 per person, but most people on our tour booked through the ship.
Our cabin, 8059, was fine. I admit to being somewhat spoiled…this was the first time in a long time we’ve had a cabin that didn’t come with extra perks, and I missed them. Still, that’s not the fault of the room, it’s the fault of the person who made the reservations and didn’t want to spring for the cost of a Neptune suite! Our cabin steward was efficient, and I thought he did a good job, especially when you consider he and his partner had 30 cabins!
The ship was very clean, and most things seemed to be working properly. I did see a couple public restrooms that seemed to be “closed for cleaning” quite a bit, but we didn’t have any problems in our cabin, and I couldn’t tell you if the A/C worked properly because for the most part we needed heat, not air conditioning!
I liked the little touches for Alaska…the plaid wool blankets for our balcony, the hot pea soup, the free hot chocolate refill with the purchase of an insulated mug, and the special menu choices that appeared to be just for Alaska sailings.
There was plenty to do during the day. I took advantage of the Microsoft classes because I just got a new computer with Windows 8 and I’m struggling with it. My mom went to cooking classes, played cards, and hung out in the Explorations Café working on the jigsaw puzzle. Jim attended a couple lectures that he enjoyed.
The Bad – we were worried about the weather going to Alaska this late in the season, and as it played out we were partially right to worry. Our captain was really on the ball with the weather and made sure he did everything possible to have our vacation be as good as it could be despite the weather changes.
The smoke in the casino was incredibly thick. One night I was in there for only about 15 minutes and I smelled like I had just smoked a carton of cigarettes. I guess it’s a good thing that the slot machines were stingy and I was losing my money quickly. I paid close attention since there’s been so much smoking talk on Cruise Critic recently. Although I smelled it out on my balcony a couple times, it certainly wasn’t anything that had an impact on my cruise, however the casino was just awful.
Our cabin location wasn’t good for noise. As much as the cabin itself was fine, I would probably never take a guarantee again, because I’m not willing to be underneath a tile floor where they are dragging chairs and rolling carts at all hours of the day and night. Again, my fault and not HAL’s, but lesson learned…a guarantee means you have to be willing to accept a bad outcome as well as a good outcome.
I thought the evening entertainment was poor. We literally couldn’t find things to do after dinner other than the casino. There really wasn’t anything going on before dinner either. Most nights we would be the only people (other than staff) in the Pinnacle Bar. We did attend a couple shows, which were OK but one of the female lead singers was just awful, and she really ruined the shows.
There was a noticeable absence of entertainment in other venues…I’ve never seen lounges on a ship as empty as those on the Westerdam. We did go play trivia one night, but as soon as it ended everybody scattered and the ship was once again deserted. That’s why we ended up in the casino most nights. Dare I say it? We were bored in the evenings. I wouldn’t have minded as much if this was a port intensive itinerary with early morning port calls, but since it wasn’t it would have been nice to have a few places to listen to live music both before and after dinner. It was kind of sad to walk past deserted lounge after deserted lounge and see the bartenders standing there looking bored.
The Ugly -- I dislike things that don’t make sense, or policies that are arbitrary. We had a $250 drink card, because I really liked the convenience when we were on the Noordam. The card worked much the same way on the Westerdam, except sometimes we could purchase something with it and sometimes we couldn’t. We got in the habit of going to the Pinnacle Bar each night before dinner. One night we could use the card for the special promotional wine, and the next night we couldn’t because they said the card couldn’t be used for specials. That made no sense to me. Zero. Zip. Nada.
Everything about the service in the dining room at breakfast and lunch was painfully slow. From the lengthy seating process with people lined up to give their cabin number, to the taking of orders, to the delivery of the food, meals in the dining room were kind of an ordeal. On the day we were in Glacier Bay, I finally had to get up and leave after 90 minutes or I would have missed Johns Hopkins Glacier completely. Everybody at the table was still patiently waiting for their entrée plates to be cleared. I understand that all cruise lines have cut back in the service area, but I just couldn’t get over how slow it was.
Port times were way too short. Juneau was 9 hours, but we didn’t get in until 1:00 so only about 6 hours of our stop was in daylight. We were only in Ketchikan for 6 hours, and we were originally scheduled to arrive in Victoria at 6:00 p.m. Had we made it to Sitka, all aboard would have been at 2:30 for a 3:00 departure. While I enjoy days on a ship, when I’m doing an itinerary with interesting ports I’d like enough time to tour AND poke around a little bit before or after.
The REAL ugly to me, and the thing that almost ruined my trip was open seating dining. We didn’t have a lot of choice when we booked so late, but I also knew my mom couldn’t do late dinner and I thought anytime would work well for us. It ended up OK, but I really had to beg and plead to get reservations. The whole system just puzzled me. I was told I could only make a reservation for 5:15 or 8:30…neither of which was acceptable to us, or I could stand in line. The reason? They only allow 2% of the tables to be reserved. Why on Earth would they only allow a handful of tables to be reserved? Every night the dining room was more empty than full, and the line stretched down the hall with people waiting to be seated. It just made no sense to me! I was actually told one day that if I didn’t like the times offered and didn’t want to stand in line we should just eat in the Lido! I was NOT happy! Honestly, if I thought there was a chance I would spend every evening standing in line or eating in the Lido, I wouldn’t book a cruise. The only reason my week didn’t end up like that was because I was mercilessly persistent…I think they finally took my reservation just to get me off the phone.
All in all, we had a good trip, with some memorable moments and some disappointments. I think in part we were still wishing we were on a different ship and doing the itinerary we had been planning for so long. Sadly, I wouldn’t say it was our best cruise, and I probably won’t be in a hurry to book another Holland America unless it’s for an unusual, port-intensive itinerary. We loved our Noordam cruise last year and expected to like the Westerdam just as much, but “something” was missing this time for us.