If you haven’t sailed HAL before, the Westerdam, like most other HAL ships, is smaller and more Mariner traditional than other cruise lines mainly focused on the Caribbean style cruising. The ship passenger capacity is roughly 1900 people and our sailing was near capacity. We never waited in line for open seating style dinners. There were some lines during the first two days at the buffets due to a policy where only the HAL staff can serve the food. A great idea in order to minimize the passenger sanitary and Norovirus risk. There were two main restaurants, two specialty restaurants and one large buffet. The bars never seemed crowded, so finding a seat was not an issue. The pool deck had a retractable roof, which is perfect for the Alaskan cruises. Never an issue finding a lounge chair around the pool. We had a balcony cabin at the rear of the ship. It was really nice and perfect for an Alaskan cruise. If you are going to splurge for a balcony cabin, an Alaskan cruise is the perfect time to do so. The scenery and wildlife is constant during the whole cruise. We saw whales, sea otters, eagles, mountain goats, lot of different birds including puffins and Stellar sea lions from our balcony. I mean like 50 whales! The cabin and bedding were nice and our cabin had a tub in the bathroom. The rear cabin allows you to see scenery on both sides of the ship, which is great for viewing wildlife. It also has the smoothest ride. One negative, we noticed some black particulates on the balcony. I think it comes from the ships exhaust stack. We didn’t smell the exhaust but noticed the black dust.
The food was cruise ship OK. The dining room food was better than the buffet. Some of the highlights were King crab legs, lobster, Filets, duck, Halibut and lots of wild salmon. There was an Italian and a Grilled specialty restaurant. One night HAL did a special “Le Cirque” dinner based on the fancy New York restaurant. Although I enjoyed the meal, I’m not sure it was worth the extra fee of $49. The entertainment was good, especially a Vegas music act show. HAL also had wine, beer, whisky, martini tasting along with the standard game shows. No theme parties or deck blow-out parties. The passengers were mainly older than 60, but there were families and younger couples.
Shore excursion recommendations. You will have limited time in most ports, except Juneau. So, a shore excursion will optimize your time, especially if you want to do something specific. All the port towns are small and there is not much to do except shop, eat and drink. The most interesting things to see and do are around the port towns. Unfortunately most excursions are pricy as compared to the Caribbean. If on a budget, there are tour operates waiting in all ports when you get off the ship. Keep in mind, they aren’t always cheaper. If scenery and wildlife are your primary objective like mine is, I have the following recommendations.
Juneau: My three favorites, whale watching, flightseeing or Tracy Arm Fjord boat tour. If on a budget, take the shuttle ($20 RT) to Mendenhall glacier or a ride up the tram for nice views. An area near Juneau has great whale and Orca viewing opportunities, but you need to take a boat there. Flightseeing over the glaciers around Juneau is amazing. Tracy Arm may be the most beautiful fjord in all of Alaska with hundreds of waterfalls, two huge glaciers and 3000 foot cliffs rising straight out of the water. We saw Harbor seals on icebergs, lots of eagles, whales and thousands of icebergs. The glacier calving seemed to be more active here than in Glacier Bay.
Sitka: It may be the most scenic town along the inner passage. No cruise ship dock, so we tendered. All the town attractions are within walking distance. There is a free shuttle bus. The totem pole museum and trail National Park is a must. There is also a small aquarium that is worth a visit. Sitka is also great for wildlife. Several Bald eagles were hanging out right at the tender dock. At low tide you can also see starfish along the dock and shallow water area. There is a Raptor recovery center close by and several historic buildings in town. What made Sitka popular are sea otter furs. The Russians nearly killed all of them, but the otter population has recovered. You can take a boat trip and see dozens floating along the islets near Sitka. They are called otter rafts, were a dozen or so float together. I saw a Mommy otter with two pups on her belly. Score! We also had three 60 foot Humpback whales circling our boat (only 4 of us and the Capitan aboard). One surfaced within 20 feet of our boat. Another did a full out of the water breach.
Ketchikan: A popular option is the Lumberjack show, a short walk from the cruise dock. No need to book this excursion with the cruise line. Book on you own via their website. Ketchikan is a fun shopping town, but is starting to look more like a Caribbean cruise port. Jewelry shops now line the store fronts along Main Street. The most scenic area is along Creek Street, literally. The street is a creek with boardwalks on each side with historic buildings lining the creek. They are now occupied by shops and cafes. There are also a few small museums. We took a Misty Fjord Flightseeing tour on a floatplane. Misty Fjord scenery is amazing. Unlike most of the glacier lined Fjords in Alaska, the mountains and valleys are covered with trees, lakes and rivers. And, like Tracy Fjord, the 3000 foot sheer cliff mountain walls plunge into the water. We actually landed on a remote lake surrounded by mountains. There is also a boat cruise excursion to Misty Fjord. There are Native American village and wildlife excursions I would also recommend.
Glacier Bay: No shore excursions here and possibly the highlight of the cruise. The most scenic part is about half way up the bay where the glaciers come into view. But, some of the best wildlife viewing is in the lower half of the bay. A National Park ranger boards the ship and gives a narrative of the bay and helps spot wildlife. Most people come to see the tide water glaciers, but the wildlife is amazing and can be viewed from the comfort of your cruise ship. We saw whales, sea otters, Stellar sea lions, bald eagles, a Grizzly bear, mountain goats and lots of other birds. There are over 250 bird species in Glacier Bay National Park or 25% of all the species in North America. It also has a large Stellar sea lion population, which also attacks Orcas (we didn’t see any). It also has all five Northwest Salmon species, which attracts Humpback whales and Bald Eagles. Don’t get concerned about rain or clouds when visiting. This is the normal and actually enhances the blue color of the glaciers.