We just completed our second HAL cruise, the southbound glacier explorer seven night cruise on the Statedam in Alaska. We booked our cruise online via SmartCruiser.com. This is our third cruise that we have booked through them and we have found them to be the lowest price around. Agents have been very helpful and there have never been any problems with the cruise. I recommend them. This was our seventh cruise overall and second HAL cruise, having done a 12 day Mediterranean cruise in 2008 on the Zuiderdam. We did three days pre cruise on our own. Here is my review of the each individual part of the cruise, along with a review of the ports.
Pre Cruise land package: We elected to book this on our own, even though it mirrored the HAL package. I compared the two and HAL was about $1000 more. About the only difference I saw was some of the luggage handling. We flew direct into Anchorage and stayed at the Comfort Inn Ship Creek. We called for the complimentary shuttle, and had to wait quite a while because they only have one and it kept getting filled up before they got to us. This turned out to be the one and only problem we had the entire vacation. We booked this hotel because it was next door to the train station, but it was also on the banks of Ship Creek, a local salmon fishing stream. We walked the shore for a while and saw lots of fishermen fly-fishing. The hotel is just below the main city area, and I grabbed the shuttle up the hill where he let me off at a nice microbrewery. It was about 10 PM, but they were open and I got a great pizza and munched on it while walking back to the hotel. It is clean, has a free breakfast, and competitively priced (expensive, like all hotels in Anchorage in the summer).
The next morning we walked next door, with our luggage, to the train station. I had pre-purchased two tickets on the McKinley Explorer, the same train that HAL uses. Everyone else on there had booked the land package through HAL, and all were on our cruise. The car, one of two, was not even half full. It was a wonderful ride up with a great tour guide who was a local high school teacher. We saw bear and moose, got some great pictures, and had a nice lunch in the dinning car. We arrived in Denali at the scheduled time.
Everyone else on the train was staying in Glitter Gulch at the McKinley Chalet. We did not want to stay near all of the hustle bustle, and elected to stay at the McKinley Village Lodge, the only property outside of Glitter Gulch. It is 8 miles south at mile marker 231. A completely new main building (front desk, restaurant, gift shop) just opened in May, and all of the guest rooms were remodeled and upgraded. I had to book my own transportation from the train station in Denali to the hotel, and that cost me $18 per person. But they met me at the train and we never saw our luggage. They removed it from the train and it was in our room when we got to the hotel. However, this is the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood, and the rooms at Denali were on a special rate. The second night only cost $50, a savings of over $200. I don’t think HAL passed this savings along at all. So we only paid a net total of $160 per night, including tax. This more than offset the cost of the transportation, and I did not have to handle my luggage at all. Our room at the hotel was great; it was in the rear of the building next to the main lodge overlooking the Nanna River. It was very scenic and we walked the river each night. On the opposite shore a fellow guest saw a mother moose and her twin calves one evening. The hotel offered free scheduled shuttle service to Glitter Gulch and we went back the first night and shopped some before returning around 6 PM. We had the hotel shuttle take us two miles south to the 229 Restaurant, at mile marker 229. I won’t say much about it, except that it is run by one of the best know chefs in Alaska and is probably one of the best meals I have ever had. Google it and read the reviews. It is not to be missed and you will be amazed to find an upscale, absolutely wonderful restaurant of this caliber in this remote location.
We booked the Tundra Wilderness Tour into the park and the next morning the bus picked us up at the hotel. We made a second stop at the McKinley Chalet and more people boarded and then we went on the 8 hour tour into the park. Great tour. We saw caribou, moose, bear, golden eagle, Dall sheep and had a fantastic encounter with a wolf that walked next to the bus carrying his dinner in his mouth for about 15 minutes. After taking us back to the hotel, we rested and checked our email on the free WiFi they have in the hotel lobby. Then we caught another shuttle that took us to the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater. At the conclusion we exited the theater and got right on our bus to return to the hotel. How easy can that be?
Our cruise was set to sail from Seward at 8 PM. Because of timing you have to take the bus back. The train does not leave Denali until mid day and you can not get to Seward in time to make embarkation the same day. The bus is actually faster than the train and it stops twice, so the trip is broken up. We booked seats on the Park Connection Bus, a large motorcoach with a bathroom, again just like HAL. The bus picked us up at the hotel at 8 AM and we stopped a few hours later at the lovely Talkeetna Resort for about 30 minutes. A few hours later we were in Anchorage where they deposited us at the Anchorage Muesum. We had tickets for admission and a 90 minute layover, allowing us to walk around downtown and have lunch. We decided to go back to the same microbrewery and have the same pizza again. We spent about 45 minutes in the museum and then reboarded the bus for the trip to Seward. We stopped once on the way at a rest stop/overlook and made one quick stop at a resort property in Seward before the bus stopped directly at the cruise terminal in front of the Statedam. All of our fellow passengers already had tickets on their luggage, thanks to HAL. We stayed on board and the bus took us about 30 yards to the luggage check in where we got our bags and dropped them off to be tagged with our name and cabin number and then walked back over to passenger check in (a big tent really). We breezed through check in and were on board about 20 minutes after leaving the bus. It was about 6:00 PM.
Before I begin my individual reviews of the ship and its services, I should note that when we boarded it was under code red. This situation created the one instance that I was disappointed in HAL. As we were headed to the spa to sign up for the thermal lounger package, we passed through the Lido and I saw plastic wrap around all of the serving areas. I looked at my wife and said, “we are under code red.” I noticed a HAL employee and as we passed by I asked her if the ship was under code red. She looked at me in shock and acted speechless. She quickened her pace and tried to get away but did mumble “yes”. I then asked her how long they had been under code red and she glanced over her shoulder as she literally ran away and said she did not have any details. I thought this was odd. We went on to the spa and of course the thermal loungers were closed. We asked the spa manager the same question and he volunteered that the ship had gone code red the first day at sea the previous sailing. Later on, to our amazement, we discovered that the first HAL employee we encountered was the Cruise Director. Obviously, she was just as informed as the spa manager and merely wanted to avoid talking to me about it. The only other negative comment I will make is that this was without a doubt the worst Cruise Director we have ever encountered. Her favorite word was “woo hoo” and she used it as often as possible. She would have been right at home on a Carnival ship at Spring Break. HAL can do better then this buffoon. The code red did not cause us any problems and it was lifted after three days.
Dining: No complaints. Food was consistently well prepared and tasty. We had two dinners (on formal nights) in the Pinnacle Grill. We had all of our other dinners in the dining room. We had lunch on shore or in the Lido and split breakfast between room service and the Lido. Not having trays in the Lido, a big topic on the message boards, proved to be pretty much a non issue. We had open seating and always had a table for two. We never had reservations, and dined around 7 PM each night and never waited for a table but one time, which took about 10 minutes to get seated. Service in the dining room was prompt and speedy, and we got our glasses refilled regularly. I will note that last year in the Pinnacle Grill my wife asked for and received a lobster tail with her surf and turf. This trip they had lobster on the menu but the surf and turf was a prawns and steak combo. She asked for the lobster instead and they told us it would cost $10 extra (they considered it ordering a second entrée). A little chintzy if you ask me. So I ordered a filet and she got the lobster and I just cut my steak in half and gave it to her.
Public Rooms: Ship is in good shape. Some wear and tear and it is due for a dry dock next Spring, but no real issues. Some areas looked great, like the Exploration Lounge. Other more worn. I noticed some large stains on the carpets in some places for instance. But nothing that would take away from the enjoyment of the cruise.
Cabins: Typical HAL. I think the room was even larger than the Verandah that we had on the Zuiderdam, a Vista class ship. The two chairs on the balcony were miss matched and on one the webbing on the seat was split from the frame and falling apart. By the third day I was starting to fall through. I asked my cabin steward to replace it and a few hours later he brought me one of the deck chairs as a replacement. We brought Lysol and sprayed down the room surfaces as a precaution, given the code red status.
Entertainment: OK. I am not a big fan of the onboard singers and dancers. After one show I think I have seen about all they have to offer. The other three shows included a comedian/violinist, a comedian/juggler and a ventriloquist. All were pretty entertaining.
Spa and Fitness: Standard HAL. We did sign up for one lecture and the times published in the daily program were different than the sign up sheet. We went to the desk at the spa and asked about it and were told that we should follow the sign up sheet. Of course, when we got there that afternoon, we discovered they had flipped the two lectures to reflect what was in the daily program so the one we signed up for was actually given that morning. What irritated me was that the sign up sheet had only ten people (including my wife and myself) and included cabin numbers, so they could have easily called and left us a message to clarify the time. But they didn’t want to go to the trouble I guess.
Enrichment: My wife did a few programs and found them dumbed down to the lowest level, which made them boring for her. I think she stayed through the entire program anyway (one cooking and one on designing cards)
Service: No complaints. Everyone was friendly and polite, especially the dining room staff.
Value for the money: OK. I booked outside cabin, then upgraded to lowest verandah, and got upgraded three levels to a BA.
Ports of call:
College Fjord: Nice three hour sailing in the fjord. It was sunny and the glaciers were pretty, but not the towering walls of ice my wife expected. That came the next day.
Glacier National Park: About seven hours of sailing around and looking at a half dozen glaciers. Very cool. Spent about 90 minutes parked in front of the Marjorie Glacier waiting for the big one to drop, which it finally did. About ten tons of ice, five stories high crashing into the fjord, 400 yards in front of our verandah. What a sight.
Haines: I thought the city looked pretty boring. I understand some of the wildlife excursions were nice. We wanted to see Skagway and also take a helicopter to a glacier, so we book a ship’s excursion. We took a ferry to Skagway and did the helicopter ride with Temsco to the Meade glacier. Spent about 45 minutes on the ice with a guide. We elected to take the 4 PM ferry as opposed to the 2 PM ferry back to the ship and spent a few extra hours walking around Skagway. Skagway was my wife’s favorite port and shopping experience. Everything was well handled and we enjoyed the day.
Juneau: Took the ship’s excursion combo Mendenhall Glacier and whale watching with Allen Marine. The whale watching was nice. The boat is two levels, with a large outside viewing area. It is a jet powered catamaran that allows it to be very maneuverable. In spite of what you read, the large boats are really just as good as the small ones. None of them can get within 100 yards of the whales anyway, by law. The large ones are more stable and have nice restrooms, a galley, and lots of indoor seating with large windows which my wife appreciated. I stayed on deck most of the time and it was never crowded. I never had to jostle for a good view to take pictures. They also provided free binoculars and a souvenir book. We saw plenty of hump backs, a large gathering of sea lions and lots of bald eagles. At one location we were treated to two lunge feedings right next to the boat by two large hump backs. We then took the bus to the glacier, and spent about an hour and 20 minutes there, hiking and looking around the visitor center. Back at the docks we reboarded the ship for a late lunch and then got off again and took the tram up to the top of Mount Roberts, where we hiked one of the shorter trails, finally getting to tramp through some snow in June!
Ketchikan: My favorite port. It is more of a fishing village than anything else. We booked a float plane to the Misty Fjord’s National Monument on our own through Island Wings. All I can tell you is, if you only go on one excursion this should be it. I would gladly do this again, and almost did it a second time when I found out she had room in the place for the next outing following ours. The scenery is breath taking and Michelle, the owner and pilot, is the only float plane that not only lands on the water but taxis over to shore and allows you to get off. We spent about 45 minutes on land. Michelle is very gracious and grabbed our cameras and started posing us for pictures (obviously she has done this a few times before). Just do it, you will not regret it.
Vancouver: We did self disembarkation and carried our own bags off the ship about 7:30 and were through customs by 8:15. I called High End Limos and they sent a Lincoln Navigator over in about 10 minutes. We had the driver take us around the city and show us the sites for about 2 hours (Gastown, Stanley Park, Granville Island, Lions Gate Bridge). We had him stop whenever we wanted to so we could get out and take pictures or investigate the area. Of course stores were closed since it was Sunday morning. Cost was $65 per hour, Canadian, plus taxes and tip. I think I paid $165 Canadian, but we wanted to see the city. We got to the airport around 10:30 for a 2 PM flight and needed every bit of the time. It was packed, with several ships in port. We had priority access on American, and it still took us about 2 ½ hours to get through airline check in, US Customs, and security. We did have time to grab lunch and then had about a 30 minute wait to board.
Final comments: We have been cruising since the mid 1980’s and over the years it has become more of a mass market activity. I don’t think the levels of customer service have eroded over the years. Other than the super expensive cruise lines, most of the elegance is gone from cruising and frankly I miss it. I think I only saw three other men in tuxedos on formal nights, and at least half of the men didn’t even bother to wear a tie, let alone a jacket. I don’t particularly enjoy a formal dinner in the Pinnacle Grill sitting across from some guy on formal night with no jacket, no tie, and no socks. There was one guy that enjoyed lounging by the pool and then wearing his HAL robe over his trunks into the Lido for lunch. With crocs on his feet. Lovely. Overall our fellow passengers were more refined on the Med cruise last year. But nothing to be done about it and I don’t blame HAL. This was still a very enjoyable cruise and one I would recommend to anyone that hasn’t been to Alaska.