Holland America Westerdam, Glacier Bay Explorer (Seattle Roundtrip), July 13-20, 2008
Pre-Cruise: Booked Outside (H) Guarantee through private TA. After full payment (90 days pre-sailing), HAL offered substantial discounts. Although too late to take advantage of discounts, TA kept this in mind and contacted HAL about upgrade two weeks before sailing. TA obtained upgrade to Veranda guarantee (cabin 5049) for $99 pp. TA also arranged shift from AYWD to Early (5:45 p.m.) Seating.
Cruise was booked in conjunction with Dear In Laws, who booked Superior Verandah Suite Guarantee (cabin 6102). Both cabins were quiet and ample for their class, with the SVS being especially comfortable.
DILs had promotional free pre-cruise night at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle in conjunction with their SVS, and DW and I booked a room there also. The Fairmont Olympic is a grand hotel that fully deserves all of its five diamonds, as it offers every possible amenity (including bathroom slippers). We ate supper pre-and post-cruise in the Shuckers seafood restaurant of the Fairmont, and enjoyed the meal both times. Our airport shuttle left us at a side door of the hotel, which required us to haul our luggage up some steps to the reception lobby, but a hotel executive arrived to help us and another couple. We learned from others who arrived earlier in the day that their shuttles had taken them to the hotel front door, which would have been much easier.
A cordial HAL representative at the airport assisted with our transfer to the Fairmont, and the two HAL representatives at the Fairmont were extremely helpful on Sunday morning with luggage and transfers to the ship.
Embarkation: Embarkation was a breeze. The only minor glitch was negotiating our way through a long tour group line outside the building to get to the inside embarkation queue, which had a wait of about two minutes. It would have been somewhat helpful to have had a HAL representative assist new arrivals in making their way through the waiting tour group, but it didn't take long to figure things out. Having previously obtained a boarding pass by providing information online, we obtained our key cards in just a few moments.
Upon entering the ship on Vista Deck (deck 2) at approximately 12:30 p.m., we already knew from Cruise Critic threads that we wanted to go to the Vista Restaurant for lunch, rather than the Lido. As luck would have it, our group of arrivals was steered directly to the Vista anyway.
We had a leisurely lunch (grilled Mahi-Mahi) and the announcement was made at 1:30 that the rooms were ready.
Food: We ate mostly in the Vista and had one supper in the Pinnacle Grill, which was excellent (grilled rib eye). We used room service only to order cheese and fruit plates as afternoon hors d'oeuvres. These always arrived within five minutes. DW and DILs are somewhat snobby about food and initially refused to eat in Lido. When they did finally try out the Lido, they loved it, and were eager to eat there. Of all our meals, only I returned one, the caribou venison. It was well prepared, and DW enjoyed hers, but the meat itself was a little too gamey for my taste.
Surf and turf (tenderloin and lobster tail) were offered at the farewell gala dinner Friday night, and I was at first alarmed when our wonderful server (Wayan, "Why-ahn") didn't ask how we would like our meat cooked. Because some posters on these boards have complained about overcooked steaks, I feared ours would come out tough. Instead, all the tenderloins were served a wonderful medium rare. If someone wanted their tenderloin cooked well done, they could ask for it, but I found the default of medium rare to be exactly to my taste.
At the Pinnacle Grill I had the chocolate Volcano Cake, which was good but not great. The same dessert showed up a few nights later in the Vista as "chocolate pudding". The Vista also served a wonderful flan at the farewell gala, which was labeled on the menu as crème brulee. I guess they don't want to confuse people in the Vista with slightly exotic names like "Volcano Cake" or flan.
The crème brulee in the Pinnacle Grill was extraordinary. It consisted of three elongated cups of different flavors.
We ordered the Admiral's Choice 7-bottle package, and the wines were surprisingly good. We were especially drawn to the Franciscan chardonnay and Mark West pinot noir. DW and DILs are from Napa, and while the wines were not among the best they get to taste at home, they were more than satisfactory. Because we didn't dawdle over the wine list, our wine steward Rey always came promptly to our table and gave us quick service. (It has been my experience on this and previous cruises that wine/beverage stewards soon observe who will make their drink orders quickly, and so serve them first).
DW and DMIL signed up for the Culinary Arts Class in the Culinary Arts Center. This was something of a disappointment, as they had to stand for an hour, and the class consisted of three different kinds of paella. DW loves paella and prepares it often, and found the class informative, but...all three recipes included pork chorizos and DW is allergic to pork and could not taste any of the food that was prepared. DW uses turkey or chicken sausage at home to prepare paella, and because of allergies and dietary restrictions, the Culinary Arts Class should have offered at least one recipe that did not contain pork. This is especially ironic as the ship offers turkey sausage on the breakfast menu.
Staff: Several posters on this board have offered the common sense reminder to call the ship's staff by their names. Our dining server, Wayan, wine steward, Rey, and cabin steward, Toto, were all excellent. They seemed genuinely appreciative to be called by name, and they always spoke to us by name as well. At the end of the cruise we gave all of them a small extra gratuity in addition to the automatic tip. They constantly went out of their way for us.
All of the ship's staff without exception greeted us in the hallways and common areas with a smiling "good morning" or "good evening". Previous posts on this board had suggested that the Westerdam was not a "happy" ship, and all of the crew seemed very intentional about dispelling any such notion. Of course, it probably didn't hurt to be smiling back at the crew, too.
Glacier Bay: Glacier Bay is...Glacier Bay. It is one of those places that is so awe-inspiring and beautiful that even a large crowd of people will speak in only hushed tones. The typical weather during our cruise was a broken high overcast, with a ceiling of about 5,000 feet. This permitted us to see all of the scenery along the shore and many of the distant high peaks. In Glacier Bay (and Victoria), however, the clouds parted and there was a clear, blue sunny sky. Marjerie Glacier gave a modest performance, with several large chunks of ice and numerous smaller ones calving into the bay. As if on cue, a bald eagle flew across the bow of the ship. It was a glorious experience and would have been so even if it had been raining. Relying upon earlier CC reports, we viewed the bay from the fifth (Verdandah) deck forward viewing area, which was less crowded than the bow. Ports/Excursions: Because DILs are in their mid-eighties, we decided to take things easy and mainly visit the port towns on foot on our own. In Juneau we rode the Mt. Roberts tramway (located immediately alongside the dock) up to the visitor center and heard a wonderful lecture and saw an interesting film about Tlingit culture. Then we went back to town and had the obligatory beers at the Red Dog Saloon (Alaskan Amber draft, which is also available on the ship at the Lido bar, is terrific). The stuffed potato skins are a meal in themselves. We shopped in town, going to the Alaska State Museum Store and the downtown drug store. Clerks were busy restocking the drug store shelves, as their ship had just literally come in. Many items of their inventory (especially anti-bacterial wipes and gels) had been fully depleted by the crush of summer cruise tourists.
At Sitka the tendering is a snap, as the ship anchors only a few hundred yards from shore. We signed up at the dock for the "Tribal Tours" city bus tour, and enjoyed a narrated tour by a Tlingit guide. The totem carving exhibit at the National Park and the Russian Orthodox church were especially interesting. While the ship was still at anchor we observed a small minke whale lolling by, just below our verandah. A brief light drizzle in Sitka was the only rain we experienced the entire cruise.
The stop in Ketchikan is very brief, to allow the ship time to cover the long distance south to Victoria. We visited the mass of tourist shops near the dock, and I bought a "Bah Humbug" scarf at the Alaskan Christmas store. The shops along Creek Street, a quarter mile away, were more funky and interesting. We took the funicular up to the Cape Fear Lodge and had our customary Alaskan Amber in the bar, overlooking the port and the ship.
The ship arrives in Victoria, British Columbia, at 6:00 p.m. and departs at 11:30 p.m. Because DW had visited Butchart Gardens as a child and wanted to see them again, we signed up for the ship's excursion. This was a good idea, as the gardens are approximately 15 miles from the cruise dock. Although there were taxis at the gardens when we arrived, which could have taken a group back to town, the rush exiting the gardens after the fireworks would have made it dicey to get a cab back. The gardens are extraordinarily beautiful but exceptionally crowded on a Saturday night with several cruise ships in town. The Gray Line shuttle bus drivers (about eight buses carried guests from the Westerdam alone) decided en masse to stay for the fireworks, which were quirky and impressive. The gardens' fireworks show relies heavily on ground-based displays that whirl and twirl and travel back and forth on tracks and cables. This Saturday (July 19) was the first day the skies got dark soon enough for the fireworks to end in time to return excursioners to their ships. Several ill-tempered guests on the bus, who were in the minority, complained loudly about returning so late to the ship.
Post-cruise: Because I don't enjoy debarking and locating luggage while being anxious about an airline connection, we arranged our own overnight at the downtown Sheraton. We arranged for our luggage to be in the last group off the ship, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and several hands of bridge on the Lido. The Seattle port terminal is twinned, with a reception and luggage area for the Westerdam on one side, and duplicate facilities for Princess on the other. All of the taxis and most of the shuttles queue up on the Princess side (the left when viewed from the ship). Because our group of four were arranging our own transfer to the hotel, the dockside porter was very helpful in taking our luggage to the other side of the terminal, where most of the shuttles were. The Sheraton is a large, attractive commercial hotel, but it's not the Fairmont Olympic, which is the gold standard of urban hotels. There are lots of large department stores and upscale shops in downtown Seattle. Because of the steep hills, though, and the fact that we were all sleepy from the late departure from Victoria, we did not go over to Pike Place Market, which I would like to visit on a return.
Summary: This was our seventh cruise and first on HAL. Although we have taken several cruises on entry-level lines such as Carnival, we have also taken cruises on Costa and Celebrity. The service and food on HAL were far superior to anything we have experienced. Because we are in our late 50's and DILs are in their mid-80's, the calmer, more sedate style of HAL was very much to our liking. There were ample teens and youth to socialize with one another, but they hung out mostly by the Lido pool and the Observation Deck and were never obtrusive, even on this midsummer itinerary. We will look first to HAL for our next booking.