July 21st sailing of the Zuiderdam-Alaska Review
Overall, It was a wonderful cruise. Alaska was everything people say and more. I sailed with my husband and infant, my parents, my brother and niece. Combined we covered every age group from 5 months to 71 years. A bit of sailing history - it was my 11th cruise and I've sailed on Princess, Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean a few defunct lines and now Holland America.
We gambled and flew in to Vancouver on the day of sailing. Our flight landed shortly before 11am, we quickly retrieved our luggage, went through customs and then booked pier transfers through HA. We arrived at the pier shortly after noon and within 20 minutes or so were onboard. Embarkation was as smooth as ever. Holland America really excelled in this area. True we had completed most of the paperwork electronically before we departed, but still things were very orderly. The remainder of our party arrived at the pier over the next few hours. They were not so lucky. Apparently, the computers (both immigration and HA's) crashed and they had to wait awhile in order to board.
The Zuiderdam is a clean and well-maintained ship. Personally, I felt the dEcor was a dated. I prefer the clean lines and contemporary/modern feel of Celebrity and RCL anyday.
I must admit I was very reluctant to try HA. It was a goal of mine to try all the mainstream lines, however, I was quite content to save HA until I reached retirement age. I was guilty of listening to the stereotypes about HA being full of seniors. Not that I have anything against older cruisers, I just prefer a wide age range. At any rate I was pleasantly surprised. HA was no nursing home. It had a wide age range of cruisers. I should have known better than to believe the stereotypes. Just like Carnival's undeserved reputation of being a party ship, HA has been unfairly tagged as a "floating retirement vessel". I also thought I might have the only infant onboard but was pleased to see several couples had brought children less than 1yr.
No complaints here. I found service to be on par with other mainstream cruiselines. One note of exceptional service occurred when the airlines lost both my parents and my nieces luggage. This was ironic considering they flew down on different airlines. At any rate my niece got her luggage before the ship departed my parents were not so lucky. Their luggage did not reach us until the first port of call. Just as they were resigned to attend formal night in denim, HA volunteered a free formal rental. I thought that was above and beyond. They loaned them everything right down to shoes and cufflinks free of charge. It made me wonder how often cruisers had their luggage lost. I've seen many threads where passengers blasted one another for the way they dressed on formal night. I wondered would it have changed their judgmental opinions if they knew they were victims of lost luggage.
The food ranged in quality from decent to delicious. As with most of the other mainstream lines, some foods were average, some foods were far better than average. I think I will be raving about this spicy fettuccine appetizer I had for some time. The pizza was good, so were the deli sandwiches and boy did I have a love affair with the stir fry dishes found at the "The Wok." The only thing disappointing to me was the desserts. Aside from the bread pudding, I really didn't have any memorable desserts. Most I threw away after one or two bites. Mind you I don't eat chocolate, and find that most dessert menus cater to chocolate eaters. However, I usually am able to find some desserts that I really like.
The entertainment is deserving of my harshest criticism. I remember reading a review (pre-cruise) of the Zuiderdam and the reader called the shows "high school productions at best". I remember thinking to myself, "boy that was harsh". No, it wasn't. It was dead on accurate. To be fair, I went to the "On Broadway" show and left after about 30 minutes. So, it could have gotten better. The other show may have also been better. However, I will rip the Broadway show. My husband turned to me in the middle of it and said, now I see what Simon Cowell means when he says it's a very cabaret, cruise ship performance." I did take in the magic show which was nice and a few other events. However, I found myself missing the action packed schedule of Carnival and RCL. I also missed having several nightclubs to choose from which will play, jazz, salsa, R&B, oldies. You get to choose what you are in the mood for. The nightclub aboard HA was virtually dead after 10pm. On the nights that I went to bed early I didn't feel as though I was missing anything.
I realize that some cruisers do NOT like walkie talkies. If you fall in that category please skip this paragraph. I do not wish for this thread to become your gripe session. This is for people who would like to use walkie talkies. This was our first cruise bringing them aboard and we found they really came in handy. We purchased the Motorola talkabouts Model T8500 series and were pleased. They boast an 18 mile range but don't believe the hype. Under average conditions a mile or two is probably as good as gets. However, it was sufficient for our purposes. We didn't find any dead spots on the ship. We could even use them inside the elevators. In addition, we were able to use them in port. We did have to change channels a few times though to avoid picking up other cruisers conversations.
Sailing with an infant
I know this is another hot button issue. If you are one of those cruisers that hate to have infants/children aboard, skip this paragraph too. We really enjoyed having our daughter with us. As proud, first-time parents we were eager to share our love of travel with her even though we knew she wouldn't even remember it. I had no regrets. I didn't receive any, "you brought your infant aboard evil looks" and was pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive attention she got. It was an adjustment though, we were not free to do as we liked all the time and had to limit many of our activities to things we could do with her, but it was still worth it.
Ports: I rarely book excursions through the ship. Usually I find them to be overpriced and prefer the freedom of moving at my own pace. This cruise was no exception. Normally we would book some tours through independent guides, however, a few members traveling with us were on tight budgets. Most of the exceptional Alaskan tours are quite pricey. That said, we were determined to find things that met all of our needs.
We took the shuttle to the Mendenhall Glacier and hiked a few trails. It was very cheap and still lots of fun. I think the shuttle was about $6pp and there was something there for everyone. My parents didn't really want to do any trails so they just viewed the trail from the observatory. The rest of us are quite active and we hiked several trails. One important note, there is no charge to hike the trails or to see the glacier. You only had to pay if you wanted to enter the observatory to watch the video and hear the history etc. We stayed there a few hours and then explored the downtown area near the ship.
Words just can't describe the beauty and majesty that is Tracy Arm. I think I enjoyed this just as much as the "ports". We got up really early and were rewarded by a visit from a few whales. It was gorgeous.
We rented an SUV from Avis and headed up to Emerald Lake. Before I left I printed off the infamous guide but unfortunately my printer jammed and only printed the first few pages. Of course, I didn't realize this until the day before the ship docked in Skagway. I didn't want to pay to print all of that from the ships printer so I just got a map from Avis and we set on our way. I'm glad we went anyway. The guide was helpful in identifying all of the landmarks and giving additional info but it wasn't necessary. It was a straight shot. There was only one road. You couldn't get lost if you tried. I was really glad we rented the car. We stopped every few minutes for photographs and I'm sure that if we were on an organized tour there was no way we could have made all of those stops. The journey is the destination. Around every corner was a view more spectacular than the last.
On the way back we stopped to ride the horses at the Emerald Lake Ranch. The lady there was so kind. My niece really wanted to ride a horse but we only had a few minutes to be there. She let her ride around a few minutes for free. My niece, who had never been horseback riding before, will treasure that experience for life. We also stopped at a tourist trap near Caribou Crossing. Please don't bother to stop here. The sign boasts bears and other wildlife. We expected that they would be in a zoo like setting. They were stuffed- meaning DEAD. My husband, who is a devout animal lover and can spot a living organism and tell you its genus, species and natural habitat, saw a huge bear on display and asked the vendor about it. My husband questioned where he found that bear as they are not a species native to Alaska. The employee reluctantly admitted it was captured in Africa. AFRICA! Ohhhhh please! As if it isn't enough to have them dead and stuffed they aren't even indigenous to the area. TOURIST TRAP with a capitol T. I wanted to camp out front and warn all passersby.
We also decided to pan for gold at Gold Dredge. If you just want to say you panned for gold then it is worthwhile otherwise you will be disappointed. The cost is about $15 per pan. You can finish a pan in 10 minutes. You do find gold, however, they pre-pour the dirt into the pans before you arrive. I had to wonder what the odds were to find any of the larger pieces that they boast about because whoever poured them into the containers would easily be able to spot the larger pieces and remove them.
When we returned to town we still had time leftover to explore Skagway. I know I'm a city girl, however, I was really amazed at just how small some of the towns were. I guess this is why they call it the "Last Frontier". Many of the towns had the feeling they were trapped in another era.
Ketchikan- I really wanted to see bears. I knew that it had to be cheap if I was going to be able to talk our group into going. Fortunately, when we stepped off the ship there was a wildlife tour advertised by one of the dockside vendors. They charged only $40pp which is a steal compared to the other bear tours. On a whim we decided to go and boy was I glad we did. I got to see bears!!!!! Two to be exact but that was enough to satisfy me. We also went to see the Totem Poles in Saxman Village which was nice and short but scenic tour of Ketchikan. I highly recommend this as a cheap way of seeing bears. I also got the website because I researched and researched before we left and no one provided any cheap tours for wildlife viewing. (www.northerntoursofalaska.com) Again, we did not book in advance, we just joined up with them once the ship docked.
Glacier Bay- Glacier Bay was also stunning. It made me wonder what it looked like in the dead of winter when it was unsafe for boats. We did small calving, but as fate would have it, there was a much larger calving right after the ship pulled off. We were a distance away but I caught it through my binoculars.
Vancouver- We stayed a few days post-cruise to see Vancouver. It is such a beautiful city. I'm glad we decided to stay on. We took the trolley/double decker bus to Chinatown, Dr Sun Yat-Sen Gardens, Gastown, Granville Market and Stanley Park.
As it said before, it was a great cruise. For the right price and the right itinerary I would sail HA again. However, I definitely prefer many of the other lines to Holland America. I just didn't see any factors that set the HA cruising experience apart from any other lines. There was nothing that would make me a loyalist. Well folks that's it! Please feel free to ask any questions.