Just got back from a 12-day HAL Denali-plus-Oosterdam trip (Seward-Vancouver cruise) and here are my thoughts. I’ve read all the comments on this board and I’m an intense observer once on the ship. There were six of us who went on the trip together.
Overall – Best cruise I have been on in six years covering 6 cruises on three different cruise lines. Well run ship. But HAL still has some dining staff issues to address.
Oosterdam Appearance – I had read a bunch of negative comments on this board about the condition of the ship being shabby. I really saw none of that – in fact, the ship looked 99% great to the point I went “wow.” I would assume they pulled it out of service and/or really worked on it this past month because much of the carpeting looked brand new, furniture mostly in good shape, and paint looked fine. It looked so good, in fact, it put an extra spring in my step! Our interior room was fine -- clean, well kept.
Oosterdam Staff -- The non-dining room staff was energetic, smiling and focused on getting work done. Cabin steward fine. Front desk staff and general management fine. But the staff in the Lido area and in the dining room was sub-par in my estimation – waiters and cooks. In the Lido, even though I pointed out the Hollandaise sauce was borderline cold, let alone lukewarm, nothing changed during the week. In the main dining room, service was sluggish – one night I had to get the supervisor’s attention to get our meals delivered to our table – they had forgotten about us!
Pinnacle restaurant staff was mediocre, too – not up to snuff for a five star meal presentation, and downright clumsy at some points. HAL does a great job in many areas, but for some reason they continue to let food areas staff -- Lido, Pinnacle and main dining room -- to be their cruise Achilles heel and prevent them from being very good. I don’t get it. HAL needs to get the message across to its restaurant staff that they, and their company are in competition with others; and people do make cruise decisions based on dining staff effectiveness as well as the food!
Another issue – the infirmary. My wife was diagnosed with no more than a cold but she really had a sinus infection which now has lasted a miserable two weeks! Mis-diagnosis for the $105 doctor visit fee! Not happy.
Food – Lido food has decent variety, but is very bland. I loved the salad bar. The pizza wasn’t too bad! They serve you the soft serve ice cream, which is an OK process. Ice cream was usually sugar-free and good. In the main dining room, the overall quality of the food and variety on the menu was superior to the last two cruises I was on – Carnival and RCL – but overall the quality of food on cruise ships ain’t what it used to be. At least the lobster deal was decent – our table asked for seconds. I found the meat and veal to be average, but acceptable. The ladies rated the desserts as decent, but not spectacular tasting.
Pinnacle Restaurant – All six of us had a great, great meal. The halibut with shrimp was amazing. One of our team said the salmon was the best she had ever eaten, and she eats it all the time. Steaks were done right. But the fantastic food was offset by the non-enthusiastic service of the wait staff. We had a couple celebrating their honeymoon and the wait staff managed to partially bungle the presentation of the cake dessert and didn’t have the staff sing to them, as they told me they would do.
Entertainment – HAL seems to get a lot of criticism for on-board entertainment, but I thought the singers and dancers on this cruise were good. Also enjoyed the HAL Cats pop group and Adagio, the violinist and pianist, although I think the Moscow-based Adagio duo on this cruise could do more to interact with the audience. Larry the piano bar man was fine. Although some said his choice of music should be more upbeat. We had a very active cruise director – more so than recent cruises.
Ports of Call – Glacier Bay was amazing. Attend the ranger presentation – very informative. For Glacier Bay, sit in the Crow’s Nest or go out on deck where they keep warm blowers on and it’s not as cold as you think it will be. Good job, HAL with the on-deck blowers! Haines is pretty, but pretty much a waste as a stop. Juneau has so much to offer – great whale-watching tours and the tram to Mt. Roberts and subsequent movie, show and hiking trails activity atop the mountain were fantastic, a trip highlight. The Alaska String Company family folk group is an absolute gem, a must see. I was stunned how good they are and learned they travel internationally and have a PBS special.
Scenery – Amazing views coming down the passage on the water, especially the last day before hitting port in Vancouver. Sitting in the Crow’s Nest with my binoculars, I saw five humpback whales put on quite a show for us. We also had dolphins and seals around us. Overall, didn’t see as much wildlife as I expected. Sit in the Crow’s Nest your last day and enjoy the views. Play bridge or watch sports when you get home!
Embarkation and Debarkation – Very smooth, well done HAL.
Denali Land Tour Before the Cruise – The sites in Denali are amazing, but HAL needs to re-work the logistics for passengers from the time they arrive by plane in Anchorage till they depart Denali by bus for Seward. What a mess. We had pre-paid a ride on a HAL secured bus to the hotel in Anchorage and the whole process was a mess. Much easier with a taxi. Passengers had many problems understanding luggage instructions – what goes to Seward what to take to Denali. The baggage handling instructions we got before the trip did not match what we saw on the ground in Anchorage and at Denali. Poor communication by HAL that luggage wouldn’t reach many McKinley Chalet rooms until 8. People fretted for several hours till they got their luggage, spoiling their initial evening at Denali.
The train trip to the McKinley Chalet in Denali was very good and the food was even better. I strongly suggest the crab salad/sandwich for lunch. At McKinley Chalet, we were placed in a cabin way back from the main cabin and didn’t have WiFi access from there or access to ice and soda machines. Poor.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Wilderness Tundra trip that comes free with the Denali HAL package as we went 62 miles into the park. Some harrowing, twisting roads but incredible vistas in this rugged country. Tour guides/drivers reall yearn their pay, believe me.
But the “snack” they included was totally inadequate . We learned about the minimalist “snack” prior to the trip, and many of us were angered we had to expend the time to stand in line and buy our own box lunch to have a sandwich for this 8 hour trip. Poor on HAL’s part not to include a nice box lunch – just add on $10 to the trip cost for heaven’s sake! Saw some wildlife, including a close encounter with a grizzly, but all in all didn’t see anywhere near the quantity of wildlife we hoped to see. But the whole Denali landscape is worth seeing. Be prepared for chilly weather like we experienced in mid-June -- it may not be cold when you go but you ,may regret not taking warm layers of clothing. You will see Mt. McKinley in its glory about 30% of the time. It’s hidden majority of the time. Bus trip from Denali to Seward was long, but went faster than expected thanks to our great driver/guide.