Alaska first-timer with kids: Westerdam Cruise Review by CSTX Mom
Overall Member Rating
Alaska first-timer with kids
Clothing Like many others, I agonized over what to take, writing down hints as I read the boards. I use ziploc bags, packing folders and compressions bags to organize it. Below is what I ended up taking for each person unless otherwise noted, family of 4 with 3 adults (DH, DS and me) and a 9 year old girl. - 4 long sleeve and 4 short sleeve shirts, some of which were worn in Seattle pre-cruise - t-shirts for layering, 2 long and 2 short sleeves - 1 pair jeans (also wore one pair on the plane) - zip-off pants (for warm weather, nice for wandering around the ship) - khaki pants (for the boys to wear on non-formal nights) - 2 dresses for me, 2 dresses and 1 skirt/3 tops for DD for non-formal nights - Formal wear: 1 black skirt/2 tops for me, 2 dresses for DD, boys each had a dark suit we rented formal shoes through the cruiseline formalwear, and it was so nice not to have to pack 2 pairs of bulky shoes - swim suit - rainsuit - warm hat, scarf, gloves More - warm layer: sweatshirt or polartec shirt - lightweight raincoat - shoes: hiking sneakers/boots, sandals, flip flops, dress flats (DD), dress sandals with small heel (me) - What I wished I had also taken: sweater for wearing to the dining room in the evening. Otherwise I was very happy with what we took. It did not all get worn because it was never warm during the cruise, but I would take it all again.
If you are concerned about cold weather gear, they do sell hats, gloves, sweatshirts on the boat during Glacier Bay day, and all of the ports have reasonably priced items.
Everything else, some of this I always carry, some was specifically for this trip DVDs (we watched more than we usually do on vacation), books, binoculars (1 larger pair and 3 compact pair), pocket bird book, backpacks for excursions, GPS (wouldn't take it again, had a hard time picking up a signal), over door shoe rack (DH thought it was a bad idea at first, and then refused to throw it away when we were headed home), suction cup toothbrush holder, popup hamper for dirty clothes (loved this!), powerstrip (there were 2 sets of plugs - one US and one European - at the desk in the room, I would also recommend an extension cord if you want to work on the bed or the sofa), cameras/chargers, iPods/chargers, computers (to load pictures onto from cameras), sunscreen, night light for bathroom, toiletries and makeup, small flashlight, travel hairdryer (I am tired of the ones that I find in hotel rooms), travel alarm clock (there is no clock in the cabin!), travel scale (all of our bags were under weight restrictions, but we did have to redistribute), post-it notes (to write notes to each other or cabin steward and leave on mirror), highlighter (to mark activities that we wanted to do), extra 1 qt. and 1 gal. ziploc bags, small foldable cooler (did not use as the refer kept everything cold enough), notebook-sized plastic planner (had information about hotel reservation, shoe rental, excursion confirmations, e-tickets, etc.), lanyard (only DD used hers, as the rest of us just kept them in pockets; it had a plastic holder to insert the card into, so no need to have a hole punched, and they were able to scan the card through the plastic so she didn't have to take it out), clothespins to better close the curtains, and probably a lot more little stuff. We used the provided toiletries, and they were always replenished.
All of the above fit into 2-25" upright rolling suitcases, 1-29" rolling duffel, 1-26" duffel, 2 rollaboards, 1 tote and 1 backpack; 4 checked bags and 4 carryons in all. The 4 larger suitcases and the 2 rollaboard all fit underneath the bed for storage, backpack fit in the storage seat for the desk, DD's tote was in a corner next to the desk.
We arrived in Seattle on Friday evening, took the pre-reserved Shuttle Express (http://www.shuttleexpress.com/index.html) to our hotel. There was a bit of a line waiting for a shuttle, and I hadn't realized that we needed to check in first, so we ended up waiting longer than we should, but it was less than 10 minutes. There was one other family in the van with us, and we were first to be dropped off.
We stayed at the Silver Cloud Hotel Stadium (http://www.silvercloud.com/16home.htm). It was cheaper than the hotels in downtown, had 2 queen beds, and a free shuttle into downtown. They took us to a nearby liquor store and to a grocery store for wine. The shuttle would take you as close as possible to your destination, and there were 5 pickup spots that were always convenient to get to where you called - take a cell phone - for them to get you. Very nice hotel, I would gladly stay there again. I don't know, however, how busy it gets when there are games going on at the stadiums.
Since the weather was good on Saturday, we went to the Pike Place Market, ate breakfast, and then went to the zoo, following SeattleCruiselover's bus directions. We bought the city pass (http://www.citypass.com/city/seattle.html), which includes admission to the zoo and 4 other attractions for one price; I figured out that it paid for itself if you went to 3 attractions. The zoo took about 2 hours, and there was a wild eagle nest located above the wolf habitat that we got to see; I recommend seeing the raptor show as it was very informative and you could get a closer look at the birds and talk to the trainers after the show. Took the bus back town, walked around a little bit, and called for a pick-up by the shuttle. The kids stayed at the hotel while the shuttle took us to buy liquor and wine.
On Sunday morning, we packed up our things but left everything at the hotel and took the shuttle to the aquarium. That took about an hour to go through, we enjoyed watching the otters playing. We then walked to the Walgreens to pick up sodas, and called once again for the shuttle. The hotel's shuttle will also take you to both piers in town, you just need to arrange it when you check in. We were scheduled for the 1 pm shuttle, which dropped us off right in front of the luggage drop.
Upon arrival at the luggage drop, someone looked at all of our bags to make sure that they all had the luggage tag on them. We had a 6-pack carrier of wine and they told us to take it on ourselves. We also had 3 12-packs of sodas, and they weren't pleased that we hadn't packed them in something, but they taped a luggage tag to them anyways, and we received them all in our cabin just fine except one of them was missing one can. After dropping the luggage, we went into the terminal to check in. There was no one in line in front of us, and we filled out the medical form at the desk. Since we had checked in online, we only had to show our passports to get our room cards. They put a wrist band on DD which had our lifeboat station on it; they do this for all children, but I don't know up to what age. We walked around the photo line, out the door, and up the gangway to the ship. Used the provided hand sanitizer, had the room card scanned, picture taken (to be associated with the room card for when you exit and enter the ship, and they did usually look at the picture as they scanned the card) and walked on board. We then took the elevator to our floor (4th), dropped the carryons in the room and ran up to the Lido for lunch. The time from being dropped off at the terminal to being in the room was less than 30 minutes; I highly recommend getting to the pier around 1 pm. The only complaint I have about the embarkation process is that once we were on board, we had no idea what deck we had arrived on and where to go, and we had to look around for someone to ask; I feel that there should have been someone standing there announcing the deck number and where to go to find the elevators and stairs. This is really a minor complaint, as the confusion didn't last that long. :)
The life boat drill is held at 3:15 pm. You are supposed to line up with men in back, women and children in front. Because my daughter was the smallest in our group and needed a child's life jacket (there isn't one in the cabin, you are supposed to pick up children's jackets at the drill) I tried to stay in the front, but kept getting pushed back by all the late arrivals. One guy seemed very smug about being late and not having to stand there "like cattle" as he said, then got irritated with the cruise personnel when he was told to move to the back. Why can't everyone just accept that this drill has to be done and cooperate? They had to track down several passengers that were supposed to be in our life boat, thus prolonging the process for everyone.
We had asked for an early seating, and were assigned the latest seating at 8:15 pm. When we went to the location (posted in the bulletin) where we supposed to be able to talk to someone about seating assignments, all we found were other passengers, some of whom were quite upset about their assignments and the lack of someone to talk to about it. One of them called someone (? the front office), but we decided that we could live with what we had been assigned. We did end up going to the front office for something else, and did ask about it. We were told that there was no flexible seating on this sailing; we were in the lower dining room, which I believe is where others have said that the flexible dining occurs, and there was no evidence of it; I later found out that there was no flexible seating on this sailing because there was a large group booked.
We also went up to Club Hal and signed some paperwork for DD to go there. They hand out a daily program so that they kids can pick what they want to do and when they want to go. They separate the groups by age. Our sailing had a large number of kids, over 200 under 18. My daughter was in the 8-12 group. She only went there on sea days but did make friends. She did not go at night because of our late dinner seating. This age group is allowed to sign themselves in and out, unless you request that they not be allowed to do it.
The ship departed from Seattle at 4 pm.
Life on board...
Our room We had a VF category veranda balcony room with metal railing. While it would have been nice to have the plexiglass, it really didn't matter. It was usually too cold and too windy to stand out on the balcony for any length of time. Our room steward introduced himself on the first night, and did a good job of being unobtrusive, towel animals on all but the first night. It took him a day, but he did get us 2 extra chairs for the balcony.
With 4 people, it could be a bit tight. My son found the pull-out sofa not very comfortable to sleep on, no better than a rollaway. The upper bunk was fine for my daughter, and she was able to get up without the ladder, but she is very athletic. It has been suggested to have the lower bed made up the pillows at the foot of the bed so that you don't bang your head on the bunk; we didn't find this necessary, as we quickly learned where the bunk was! Also, the lights are along the wall, and pillows would fall off the end if the bed was made up that way. Very comfy bed and lots of pillows.
Weather We had some pretty rough seas any time we were out in the open ocean, with stiff breezes. None of us got sea sick, and we took no preventative meds. The only time it rained, though, was at departure time in Ketchikan and it didn't rain that hard; it also sprinkled a little bit in Juneau. Most of the time it was cloudy and foggy; unless you were close you couldn't see land except on the way to Victoria. Temperatures ranged from the mid 40s to mid 50s.
Meals We did both room service and went up to the Lido for breakfast. Every room service order had something minor wrong with it, from missing an item to only getting 2 coffee cups and sets of silverware for 4 people. We went to the Lido for lunch and if you went after noon it was difficult to find a table, although we always managed. There were Asian and Italian stations, bistro station for sandwiches, salad bar which had regular and rotating items, ice cream station (ice cream flavors varied from day to day, mixings, sugar free section with 2-4 choices, at least 2-4 other desserts). Near the Lido pool there is a Mexican buffet and a grill that you can get hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, etc. until 6 pm. We never ate at the Lido for dinner, at the Pinnacle Grill (which was never even remotely full) or the late night dessert buffets.
As I said before, we had the latest seating at 8:15 in the lower level; other seating times were 5:30 (upper), 6 (lower), and 7:45 (upper). In looking back, I am glad that we did not have the early seatings: we would not have made it back in time while in Juneau (although you can always have room service or eat in the Lido) and we were able to take all the time we wanted in eating. The biggest problem with the late seating is attending shows and events. There were things every night that we would have liked to try that were in the 8-9 pm range that we were unable to do. The show times were 7 & 9, so we either had to get ready for dinner early and go the 7pm, or arrive half-way through the 9pm. There probably isn't an ideal time for the shows that everyone can get to them conveniently, but I think that the times could be adjusted a little better.
The food was good to great. Had salmon most every time it was offered, experimented with some things that we wouldn't normally eat; I had the crab legs and surf and turf, which were wonderful. There was always something on the menu that everyone was willing to eat. My son loved the chilled fruit soups, sounds odd I know but they were tasty. My DD did order off the children's menu a few times mid-week, but also got items off the main menu at the same time. Our wine steward did not always approve of our choices of wines that we brought on board, and managed to charge the corkage fee every time (I have heard that some people weren't charged every time, but we were); he made origami figures for all of the children at his tables every night, often showing how he did it. Our servers, while not overly so, were friendly and efficient; after the first evening, we were served our cappuccinos automatically.
Getting into the lower Vista dining room: there was usually a long line on the starboard side, where it was easy to walk to. There is also an entrance on the port side, but you either have to go down the aft stairs or cross over from the other side close to the entrance. Even table are on the right (port), odd on the left (starboard), so if you are at an even number table, go to the port side line. Our table was #176, which was in a perfect location as you could see out the back and port windows. It was a table for 4 right next to another table for 4.
Show and activities We did not do alot, but what we did do we enjoyed. We caught most of the Westerdam Superstar (karaoke American Idol) tryouts and the semi-finals in the Queens Lounge, and did go to the finals in the showroom; our sailing apparently had a much bigger group of finalists than usual, with some kids that could compete on the real American Idol; the winner had been a member of the Platters, and he was great. Shows that we saw: grand tour with ship's singers and dancers (OK), magician Leo Ward (unfortunately missed most of the show, I highly recommend that you go), Captain's Welcome Toast (get free wine or champagne), Tyler Linkin (good show), stage and screen (ships dancers and singers, this is the one with the costumes by Bob Mackie, OK show).
Movies that were shown in the Queen's Lounge, we never went so can't say anything about the setup: Fool's Gold, Definitely Maybe, The Other Boleyn Girl, College Road Trip, Spiderwick Chronicles, 10,000 BC.
I also did the Kitchen tour on the first sea day. I recommend you bring a camera, as there are carved fruits, molded breads, ice sculptures, etc. It is a walking, self-guided tour, and you do get a handout with interesting facts about how many service staff and chefs there are, and how much food is prepared during the week. You can also get your picture taken with the executive chef Andreas.
Professional photos are done in the atrium (with stairs for background) and either side of the entrances to the Vista dining room. They were done on both formal nights, with pictures also taken in the dining room at the tables, and there were several times that pictures were taken on informal nights as well. The pros also take pictures on embarkation, at Glacier Bay, and during some port stops. All pictures are available in the Photo Gallery on the 3rd deck. Throughout the week you look for your pictures, which have already been printed, and either throw them away, buy them, or ask them to be set aside. On the last day, after the second formal night, you can make your final purchases. I have 2 complaints about these photos. The major one is the price; they charge $40 for each sheet, with a buy 2 get 1 free offer; this price is outrageous. The pictures are already printed, and so many are thrown away; if they charged less more would be bought and they would end up making more money. The other issue that I have is the way they took some pictures at an angle; I realize that this is a subjective and artistic complaint, but I didn't care for the way that they looked, and they took half of the shots this way.
General attitude of the crew There have been some complaints on this board about unfriendly crew and inappropriate actions. I thought that everyone was very friendly; the crew in the Lido restaurant was especially helpful, carrying trays for those that needed assistance, walking around to find tables for people, etc. I saw no inappropriate interaction between crew and/or passengers, but I wasn't looking for it either. The restaurant officers - in both the Lido and Vista dining room - were there for every service. We saw some of the other officers frequently around the ship, including the Captain several times. I didn't care for dealing with the front office people, as I was never really sure that they understood what I was asking. We enjoyed the cruise director Kerry. The DJ Jazzy was OK.
Dress code Most people wore jeans or other comfortable clothes around the ship during the day. There were several crass individuals who wore the bathrobes to the Lido restaurant and to the shows; note that these individuals were in these specific places, not in the hallways to and from spa/pool/cabins.
On formal nights, the only time that I noticed what people were wearing was while waiting in line to go in. Most men wore either dark suits or tuxes, there were a few jeans mostly on the second night (which I thought should be kicked out, they could have gone to the Lido if they didn't want to dress a little nicer), and very few with either dress shirt/tie, dress shirt/coat, dressy sweater, again mostly on the second night. Women were in either long gowns (not many), cocktail dresses, skirts, dressy pants. I felt that all of the children were dressed appropriately, in either dresses/skirts for the girls (some a little short, but what can you expect with teenagers) and tuxes/suits/dress shirts and ties for the boys. I didn't bother noticing if people changed after eating dinner, as who can tell if they changed or ate in the Lido.
Informal nights got a little less informal as the week progressed, but everyone still dressed nicely. There were jeans, but not that many. No tank tops, shorts, etc.
TV I intended to make note of the channels available, and then didn't. There was a news channel, cartoon network, movie channels, and ship channels. The 3 ship channels, in the 40s, showed a forward cam, aft cam (very shaky picture), and what I would call the officers channel, which would list information such as temperature, speed, location, sunrise/sunset times, ocean info, time, etc. There was also a channel about shopping.
Digital Workshop This is a new offering on the HAL ships. There is a room off of one of the lounges on deck 2 that they had set up with the leader's computer, large screen, and about 20 laptops. This uses a new windows software, sorry I can't remember the name but it is a free download; it only works on intel Macs using the windows partition. Topics: Just shoot me (intro), best face forward (editing digital photos on computer), home away from home (make your own travel movie), on the download (create website to share photos, how to transfer photos), 15 minutes of fame (enhance your website, blog), a click ahead (scrapbooks, photo cards, other memory gifts); all of the topics were repeated 2-3 time during the cruise.
My family uses Macs, and we are very familiar with using them to upload and edit photos, create a website, etc. We all found this to be useless for us. However, if you have never used a digital camera, uploaded and edited photos, etc., you might enjoy the workshop and learn something from it.
Ports/excursions The Glacier Bay day was wonderful. We had times of sun, which really helped bring out the blue in the glacier. Marjorie calved a few times, saw seals on the floating ice bergs. We split our time between the top deck and the bow. [With the doors open to the bow, our room, which was just a few door down, stayed cold most of the day. ;) ] The rangers made comments throughout the day, none of which could be heard in either place; I guess they need to improve the PA system or install more speakers.
Juneau: docked at 5:13 am, getting off the ship was relatively painless. We did not have any excursions planned. Since the weather wasn't all that great, decided not to go up the tramway. We pre-arranged a rental car from Rent-a-wreck (don't rely on the website reservation system, e-mail or call them) and called them for a pick up. They were there in about 20 minutes, and while driving out to their office, described locations of things that we might want to see. We drove up to Mendenhall Glacier, and hiked for a few hours, walking out to the waterfall. Saw a porcupine in a tree near the visitors center. After we left there, we went to the Fred Meyers and picked up a few things we hadn't packed, some souvenirs and snacks, and drove north to the end of the road. There was a black bear that ran across the road in front of us. We went to the Shrine and walked around the inlet looking at birds. On the way back to town we went to the Alaska Brewing Company, then dropped the car off. They drove us back to town, we shopped for awhile, the kids went back on the ship, and we went hunting for all of our freebies. The ship left Juneau at 7:44 pm.
Sitka: dropped anchor at 7:55 am. We were a little concerned about getting off the boat quickly, with the tendering, as we had an excursion booked at 8:30. If you are not taking a ship excursion, you have to go to the Queen's lounge to get a ticket at 8:15. We ended up leaving with the last of the ship excursion people, so it was a non-issue. If you plan to leave the ship after 9, you don't need a ticket at all. The tenders are actually the ship's lifeboats, and it doesn't take long to reach shore. Unfortunately, with the rough weather, our excursion with Capt. Davey was canceled as he has a small boat; the people he took out the day before ended up getting sick, and he didn't want to risk it. He recommended that we take the ship's excursion in the afternoon, which we did; the Sea Otter and Wildlife excursion ended up being enjoyable, and we saw lots of otters, 2 types of whales, eagles, seals, and an Alaskan brown bear; they dropped us off directly at the ship, so I don't have any comments about tendering back to the ship. In the morning, we walked out to the Raptor Center (use a shuttle or taxi, as it is a long walk) which I recommend. We caught a taxi on the way back and had them drop us off at the Totem park. After walking around there for awhile we walked into town and stopped in some stores, grabbed some clam chowder for lunch, and then did the excursion. Weather was overcast the whole day. Anchors aweigh at 4:49 pm.
Ketchikan: Docked at 6:34 am. First thing I did when I woke up was look out the window, and my heart sank as I looked at the fog. We had an early morning Misty Fiord floatplane tour booked. We got off the ship, went to the visitors center where we were supposed to meet up, and called and talked to the owner. He asked that we push our flight back a bit, to see if the weather cleared. So we took a wildlife tour that was offered in the next booth; saw eagles, nests, and 1 black bear that was very close to the car. After we got back, the company said they weren't going to fly, so we went shopping once again. It was raining as we waited in line to get back on the ship (they had entrances at 2 different decks, so that helped to reduce the lines somewhat, but it seemed that everyone wanted to get back on the ship at the same time) and the ship departed at 1 pm.
VIctoria: as I said above, it was a beautiful day sailing along Vancouver Island on the way to Victoria. The ship docked at 6 pm, but no one was allowed off until 6:30 pm. Since we have been to Victoria before, and didn't really want to go to another touristy area, we stayed on the ship and ate at our usual dinner time. We did get off briefly, and walked along the jetty; this is the only time, aside from Seattle, that we were parked where we could see our starboard room; however, just looking at the ship we couldn't really tell which room it was, so if you want to take a picture of your room, tie something brightly colored on the balcony to help you find it. Departure was at midnight.
Debarkation Back in Seattle: docked at 7am. On one of the first days onboard, they give you a piece of paper to fill out about post-cruise plans, including ship excursions and transportation, and you request a departure time. We opted to do the baggage express, where they take your bags off the ship and to the airport for you; essentially, they check you in for your flight while on board and print your board passes and luggage tags. The night before debarkation, you get your departure window time, boarding passes and luggage tags if doing the baggage express (note, these are not the airline luggage tags, just something that the ship uses, they put standard airline tags on at the airport), and a luggage claim card. We had requested 9-9:30 and got 8:30-8:45. We went up to the Lido for breakfast, and left our cabin at 8:40. They scan your card one last time, walk down the gangway, and into the terminal. Since we had already taken care of the luggage through the service, we walked straight through. Entire process, minus getting luggage, took maybe 10-15 minutes.
We called for the hotel shuttle and they came and picked us up. When I booked the hotel, I called and asked if they would pick us up and store our carry-ons for the day and they said yes; this was verified again when we checked out. The shuttle driver and the front desk person were not happy when they figured out that we weren't staying that night, but they reluctantly checked our carry-ons with the bell service and took us to the Seattle Center. There we went through the Science Fiction Museum and Experience Music Project, then walked over to the Pacific Science Center. All of these places are included in the city pass that we purchased the weekend before. We didn't feel the need to go up the Space Needle as we have done it before, so once we were done, we called for a pickup by the hotel shuttle. We walked over to the Pyramid Alehouse for lunch. Our pre-booked Shuttle Express picked us up promptly, we were the only ones in the van, and sadly headed to the airport to head home.
Overall impression: I am not sure that cruising is for us, as we typically go non-stop from morning until we drop into bed at night from exhaustion, and this is not that type of vacation. That being said, the Westerdam is a wonderful ship and I would recommend it to anyone. It has a nice itinerary, and by sailing out of Seattle, airfare for Americans is a little more reasonable than flying in/out of Vancouver or doing a one-way trip. Any problems that we experienced were minor and had no impact on the overall experience. I do wish that the weather had been better and that we had been able to do our excursions in Sitka and Ketchikan, but I knew ahead of time that there was no way to predict or control the weather, and don't hold this against the ship or Alaska. ;) Less
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