Background: DH and I went to Alaska on the Westerdam on the 8/3 sailing. We are both in our 30s with no kids and this was our second cruise together. Our first was our honeymoon in 2000 when we took the Grand Princess to the Caribbean. Despite having Penthouse suite on the Grand, we were not impressed with the cruise experience and were not planning on cruising again.
That changed this summer when his parents offered to take us on HAL in celebration of their anniversary. I loved everything about HAL that I disliked about Princess. I guess cruising is all about finding the right line.
The inlaws have been on the Westerdam before—they did the Baltics on in 05. HAL is their favorite line over Carnival and Princess, both of which they cruised in the past few years.
So, it was myself, DH, DMIL, DFIL and DSIL who is special needs but has traveled with her parents around the globe and really enjoys cruising and traveling.
A little about me... First, I teach high school. I'm surrounded by OPC (other people's children) all day long. I don't mind kids. I love kids. I do not like ill behaved kids, but I also don't like ill behaved adults.
Second, I put myself through school by working front desk at a resort. I've seen everything from a bachelor party bringing naked call girls into the (very family oriented) pool to parents leaving their small children alone in their room for hours while they got wasted downtown. Therefore, I have two philosophies I'd like to share: 1. Perfectly nice people on vacation may act like idiots because they believe they are entitled to do so. 2. Badly behaved people come in all ages.
Anyway, here are a few thoughts:
Embarkation Grade: A Summary: Hal certainly has this down to a science.
We arrived at the pier by cab from the Embassy Suites, which is where we had stayed the night. I want to say the drive took about 15 minutes, but to be honest, I was too excited to remember.
After we gathered our luggage, a gentleman waved us over, checked our online-check-in papers and passports and then sent us to drop off our checked luggage. As we were walking, a rather rude woman ran in between our party, separating DSIL from DFIL--which is a BAD idea. This lady was shouting that she didn't know she would have to drag her own luggage. I didn't know if she expected any of us to drag it for her, but since she was being so obnoxious I didn't bother to offer. Heck, I didn't even waste a dirty look on her. But yes, you do have to drag your own luggage. Or, at least that's how it worked for us.
After dropping off checked luggage, we went to the check-in line. That took five minutes. Most of that time was spent on filling out the health questionnaire. Next thing I knew, we had our welcome folder with our room keys and ship map. Yes!
The next hurdle was the metal detector and x-ray machine for hand luggage. That line moved a little slower, but no matter. Following that, it was up the boarding gangway and onto the ship! Total time...probably 25 minutes.
On Board Lido Lunch Food: B+ Lido Lunch Crowds: D Fitness Center: A
Once on the ship we went to buy soda cards at the pool bar. DSIL loves her soda card and had been talking about it for a week, so that had to be the first stop. Then we went to the spa and took the spa tour. DH was skeptical about the Hydropool pass, but after laying in those thermal loungers he decided we should sign up.
I also signed up for 3 yoga classes. I am not much above beginner when it comes to yoga, but the instructor assured me it wouldn't be too hard, but that the boat movement will add a challenge. If you want to do any of those classes, be sure to sign up as soon as you're on board. Our yoga class was full and she had to turn people away that just showed up because there wasn't any more room on the floor.
(More on yoga and the spa later)
Next we went to find a place to have lunch. As all other reports have said, the Lido was a zoo. People, luggage, food...everything everywhere. We opted to sit near the Lido pool (rather than in the restaurant) and had burgers from the pool grill. The burgers were really good and shortly after that, cabins were available.
Cabin Size-wise for Two Rating: A Bed Comfort: A+ Couch: D (it is awful to sit on...I don't know if it is because it is a fold-out bed or what) Storage: A Cleanliness: A Amenities: B+ (could use a few more outlets and pillows on couch are dead) Wear and Tear: B Steward: A Summary: Cozy and serviceable
We had 6018, a VB category cabin. It's very comfortable for two people. The inlaws were next door in the same category and I can imagine it's tight with 3 adults. A few doors down we saw a family of four open their door and one of the teens said, "So...where do we sleep? The bathtub?"
The room had a queen bed, a small sofa, small table, a desk, an ottoman and a nice flat screen TV with DVD player. The flat screen really helped make the desk usable. The veranda was nice, but the chairs out there were really beat up. The bathroom was all right, but the tub was small and the ceiling seemed very low.
Also, we did not see our steward at all so I cannot tell you name. I just started calling him Batman because he would obviously come in and straighten up, leave towel animals and information but he never came by and introduced himself. I asked about that at the front desk while dealing with the luggage issue and the girl said, "We've instructed our stewards to respect the guests' privacy so they will not introduce themselves if you don't ask them to." I really thought that was weird after reading everyone's reviews about how friendly their steward was...but...ok. He did a great job and we loved the towel animals.
Exploring the Ship Public Rooms: A DEcor: A (It was very nice, not as kitchy as Princess, thankfully) Friendliness of Staff: A+
DH and I decided to go exploring while waiting on our luggage and the lifeboat drill. All of the public rooms are gorgeous and MOST are set up so you don't feel like you are crowded. We stopped in the Pinnacle Grill to make a reservation as a treat to the inlaws.
Next we stopped in the Culinary Arts center. DH loves to cook, so he was excited to learn they do cooking demonstrations. (I hate to cook and can burn water so we are quite a pair) Anyway, we met Brad who is the Pinnacle Grill chef. I told him we had just booked the grill for the inlaw's anniversary and he offered to make us a special cake for no charge! We took him up on the offer and the cake was awesome.
Next we went and ordered the Admiral's Wine Selection for our dinner table. With five people, we can easily do a bottle of wine at dinner and this was to be another treat for the inlaws. This was about $270 for 7 bottles of decent wine. We thought this was a decent price considered a single bottle could run you $40 or more.
Following that, we went back to the room to find our luggage...and one of my suitcases had a HOLE in it. Now, it's not the newest suitcase in the world, but when I gave it to HAL, it was in decent shape. Instead, there was a big hole in the front and the frame was badly bent. I called the desk and they said to bring it down and their upholsterer would look at it. I told them we had purchased platinum insurance, but the girl said they had to "evaluate" the suitcase before making any decisions about fixing or replacing it.
Lifeboat Drill Efficiency: A People Taking it Seriously: C- It was by the book, but a few things that could have been better...the crew members taking roll could use some megaphones. If everyone could be quiet they wouldn't need them, but the reality is that people are going to be stupid. One woman, who was already pretty drunk, kept shouting "here" for every cabin number—including our two cabins. When a ranking officer came over and asked her to take this seriously, she said, "If I say we're all here I can go back to the bar!"
I'm surprised they didn't have a "chat" with her after that, but alas, no.
Shipmates Back when we booked our honeymoon cruise in 2000, the travel agent told us, and I quote, "Don't go on HAL. You'll be the only one at your dining table without an oxygen tank."
I don't know if that was true in 2000, but on our cruise to Alaska (and let's face it folks, Alaska isn't really an itinerary that kids clamor for) there were a good mix of people. Sure, the major of the people were 65 and over, but there were also families, teens, couples...it seemed like a great group to me. We never once felt out of place, or too young or any of that. Even the music selections were designed for a variety of tastes, so anyone could be happy.
As far as "badly behaved" people go, I only saw a few of them. I mentioned the lady at the pier and the lifeboat drill drunk, but another I need to mention was Entitlement Mother. This one bought a day pass to the spa pool and then snuck her children in. These were not teens--these were kids. Loud, obnoxious, running around the spa kids. Let's not forget that people are paying to use this space and let's also remember that one needs a keycard to enter.
So how did Entitlement Mom do it? She entered the spa. Then her kids walked around to the side door and mom opened it from inside the spa. The kids came in and those of us who were in the pool started with the dirty looks. Entitlement Mom said, "I paid my $40 for the day and I just can't leave my kids out there" (at the Lido pool) One of the older women got up and retrieved one of the spa girls who asked the woman to take her kids out. Entitlement Mom pretended not to hear. About 20 minutes later someone in an officer's uniform came in and kicked ALL of them out. Good.
Aside from that...people were decent and well behaved. Did we have a screaming baby sitting behind us in the dining room? Yes, but Mom was kind enough to take him out until he calmed down.
Tuxedos...I should mention...I did not see a lot of them on formal nights. DH was pretty mad because I made him rent one and he felt out of place. I don't know if it was because some people consider Alaska a "relaxed" itinerary, but...yeah. Not too much formal stuff going on, but plenty of men wore jackets and ties. I only saw a few guys in jeans on formal night and none of them in the dining room.
Spa: HydroPool & Thermal Suite Grade: A+ I need to preface this with the note that I am somewhat of a spa snob. It's my favorite place on vacation and I've been to a lot of them, including the Grove Park Inn and nothing can hold a candle to that. Still, this was wonderful and I recommend the HAL/Greenhouse Spa.
The hydropool is $250/couple or $150/individual for the duration of the 7 day cruise. The pass also gives you access to the thermal suite, steam rooms and aromatherapy room. It was the best money we spent, since the kids on the cruise pretty much monopolized the Lido pool and hot tubs. (Also, one of the Lido hot tubs had to be closed because some moron put a baby in it with a diaper and the baby made a mess)
When you board the ship, head towards the spa and take a spa tour. If your spouse is skeptical about spending that money on "a pool" as mine said at first, his doubts will fade when they let you lay on the thermal loungers. As soon as DH tried those on the spa tour, he was sold.
The hydropool is kept at body temperature so it is never too hot. It has a metal "sofa" inside that you can lounge on as the bubbles run over you and there's a center "high test" tank where you can just be immersed in bubbles. Outside of the pool are loungers and the shades are often pulled so you don't even have to look at the zoo going on in the Lido pool if you don't want to.
The thermal suite has six loungers. I went at least twice a day and not once did I have to wait on someone. If I had to, I would have gone in the aromatherapy room, but it seemed to lose its scent on the fourth day. One of the steam rooms was extremely hot (DH loved that one) and the other was not too hot.
Spa: Massage Grade: A- (I think it was rather expensive even in comparison to Grove Park) I convinced DH to try a massage. I think that was a mistake because now he will want them more often and that means I will have to go less often. The two masseuses we had were Zara (for him) and Mia (for me). Both were very good and their sales pitch wasn't much of one. My only complaint was that the oils they use have a real strong rosemary scent to them and I don't particularly care for rosemary, but oh well. It was still a great hour of massage!!
Spa: Yoga Class Grade: B+ (Gym is very loud and not really conductive to yoga) Yoga is very difficult to do on a ship. When I signed up for the class ($30 for 3) the instructor said that she would only do basic/intermediate poses. Even basic poses take on a new challenge as you feel the ship move even the slightest underneath you!
Still, it was a great class. If you want to do yoga, sign up early while you're on the spa tour. The class only meets the three days you're at sea: Mon, Tues and Sat, but I really liked it.
My only suggestion to HAL is to build a room just for their classes because it is kind of loud in the gym. And, if you're someone who wants to totally zone-into yoga, you may find it hard to concentrate.
Food Lido Food: C Lido Atmosphere: F Dining Room Food: B+ Dining Steward: A+ Pinnacle Grill: A+
Let's break the food down into three categories: Lido, Dining Room and Pinnacle. The Lido food was one step above the cafeteria at my school. People hogging chairs, the noise and rudeness was just on par, unfortunately. We ate there twice: once on the first sea day and then on the Victoria day for lunch.
The first time, we made the mistake of getting food and then trying to get a table. We wandered about 10 minutes with our plates looking for a spot and even asking if we could share. No one wanted to share. When we finally found a table, there was only 1 chair. DH asked a woman to borrow a chair off her table. She said no because her bag was Dolce and Gabbana and it needed its own chair. Umm...okay.
When we ate at the Lido again, I sat down and he went to get food and then we switched. Both times I tried different food and both times I was unimpressed. I suppose if you have to eat there, it's acceptable, but I preferred going to the pool bar (they have burgers and a fajita bar) or the dining room instead.
The dining room is very nice and our steward, Ali, was awesome. We had a table at the late seating for the five of us, and that went well. I found the food here good, but not nearly as good as the Pinnacle. I also learned that I love Baked Alaska and DH has now learned that he needs to learn to make it.
Also, one thing about the dining room...the portions are reasonable. And by reasonable, I mean small. So, Ali told us not to worry...if we wanted two appetizers, not a problem, just ask for them and he would get them. One night I tried the tabboleah chicken salad. I didn't know what it was, but it was delicious.
Oh...I should mention room service. We had room service breakfast every morning. DH said it was just as good as the food up in the dining room at breakfast. (He ate there one morning while I was at Yoga) I suggest doing that if you have the room in your cabin. The inlaws couldn't because with three people they didn't feel they had room to eat. I can understand that. But yes, room service breakfast...very good and often delivered hot.
Now, the Pinnacle...the Pinnacle Grill was the best, hands down. I'd say their filet mignon was on par with Ruth's Chris. The appetizers were good and the volcano/grand mariner cake was to DIE for.
I recommend eating there at least once. We booked it for Thursday and then again on Saturday because dining gets messed up when you're in Victoria. DH said when we go again, he just might make reservations there for the entire cruise because it is so worth it. (It is $20/pp)
Glacier Bay Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! What more can I say? The veranda made it even more awesome.
Juneau I am always skeptical of the jewelry shops that are located right off the cruise dock and Juneau has a plethora of them.
We took the Mendenhall Float Trip and we had awesome weather. They give you waders and rubber boots, so don't worry about getting wet. It worked well for our group and DSIL loved every moment of the "rapids." I do warn that you do ride on an open-air small raft (about 10 pax). The guide does the rowing, though for most of the trip it is just a float. This was definitely my favorite excursion, but if you have mobility issues, don't like small watercraft or have a bad back, it would probably not be a good pick.
One caveat: Don't count on the "light snack." DSIL did, and by the time our raft got in, it was all gone. She was a little fussy because she was hungry, so after that, she started bringing crackers on the excursions.
Sitka Sitka was charming and reminded me of New England. We did the "Mini Sub" excursion which was very educational and interesting. It is not a particularly comfortable ride and after awhile I got a little bored with looking at the kelp. Still, it was interesting. The kids on that tour seemed to greatly enjoy it, but I think I would have preferred something a little more outdoorsy and/or challenging.
Ketchikan Or however it is spelled, is a waste of time. It's one giant gift shop. I think they have more plastic-made-in-china totem poles than anywhere else. It's obvious that the cruise industry owns the majority of the town. I spoke to a woman who lives there year round and she said that when the cruise ships close their shops down (yes, good people, the ships do own a lot of those stores) the town basically hibernates.
We saw The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. It was rather entertaining, but nothing I'd write home about. Supposedly there were some great zipline tours but alas, no one in my party would go with me.
Victoria Don't waste your money on the tours the cruise line offers. You can get a cab to take you to the Empress hotel for $10 each way. We did that. I went to the Empress, bought some tea, and then we walked around the shops. Most had gifts but there were a couple of decent art galleries. This is a weird stop because you are only here at night...so...some things may be closed.
Notes about Tours... At each port (except Victoria) there were local tour operators who were offering various tours. Some of them looked pretty interesting but a few seemed really sketchy. There was a guy in Ketchikan who kept asking me to go look at the bears and the salmon with him. When I told him no, he wouldn't give up.
Use your own judgement on those...I don't know enough about how the ships get their tour operators, but I'm willing to bet that they do check them out. Sure, you pay more...but I'd rather ride a bus out to the raft loading area than get in a car with a strange guy.
Entertainment Westerdam Singers/Dancers: A- (The leading man seemed to be having problems singing his part) Caren and the Halcats: A+ Leo Hale (illusionist): A+ Julie Barr (comedian): B (Seen her on Comedy Central and didn't care for her style, still she'll make you laugh) Triva: A- (Some of those questions were ridiculous) Northern Lights (nightclub): B (kind of dead after 11, and Caren & the HALcats were better anyway) Casino: A (DH loves his roulette) Piano Guy (in the crow's nest): A+
On the Princess cruise, the entertainment was mediocre. Here, the only one I didn't like was Julie Barr and that's because she's not my style of comedian. Leo Hale, the illusionist, is awesome. Caren and the Halcats, who play just about nightly in the Queen's Lounge are a great band to dance to. They play everything from 50s to 80s rock, some country and a whole bunch of stuff in between. Queen's Lounge became my favorite after-dinner-drink place...followed closely by the quiet piano in the Crow's Nest.
Disembarkation Totally painless. No being herded into a public room (thank you, Princess). No loud announcements. It was perfect. We had breakfast delivered, finished packing and walked off the ship at our appointed time.
And...I think I covered everything...
A few odds and ends. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me at sysadminATasparatechDOTcom
Traveling with a special needs person (DSIL) can be trying. The staff and crew of the Westerdam were particularly awesome to her. Despite her random requests, they always smiled and spoke kindly to her. So, if you do have a mentally-challenged adult in your party and are looking for a vacation beyond Disney, I suggest HAL. For real...they were as good to her as the cast at Disney.
I should mention...what I didn't like about Princess were the crowds. There were just way too many people on that boat. There were also way too many unsupervised, rude kids on that boat. The food and entertainment were not nearly as good as HAL's and...I hate to say it, but for all the money we spent to get a Penthouse Suite, we didn't really feel it was worth it, even on a honeymoon. Another issue we had with Princess was the dining. We were assigned to sit at a table for four with a couple that was...well...not very nice to us. Apparently we were "too young" for their liking as dinner companions and they TOLD us that. After the third night, we just started eating in the optional restaurants and ordering room service to avoid them. (Thinking back, I bet they were just trying to run us off so they could have a private table)
But yes...we will go back on HAL! I'm thinking the British Isles..