BACKGROUND INFO: My husband and I (and our kids) had cruised the Caribbean on Royal Caribbean and my mom had taken many cruises in the past as the owner of a travel agency. My mom now lives with us and is in her 90's but she had always wanted to take an Alaskan cruise, so we wanted to help her make that dream come true - PLUS it sounded like a wonderful experience for us, as well. I found this Holland America Cruise on the Zuiderdam by doing some online searches and it seemed to fit the bill. I made reservations about 6 weeks before the cruise by calling HAL directly. The agent I spoke with was friendly and knowledgeable and got us set up in short order. All paperwork was sent via e-mail & our luggage tags were mailed. It was very easy. We made our own plane reservations to fly from Texas to Vancouver, B.C. to arrive the day prior to sailing. I also made our own hotel reservations for that Friday night. With the internet, it's pretty easy to be your own travel agent.
TRAVEL TO PORT OF EMBARKATION: I highly recommend that if you are flying to a port city, you plan to arrive a day ahead. It was so nice to relax at the hotel after the long flights and anticipate the cruise without worry about any unexpected delays. We did have a weather delay getting out of Houston and it was nice to know that we had plenty of time to spare. Our party of 4 (my husband, myself, our daughter, and my mom) arrived in Vancouver late morning on Friday. It took us awhile to get through customs and the airport. My mom can't walk distances, so we had her in a wheelchair. Sometimes this slowed us down, but mostly it speeded things up because we got priority treatment whenever there were lines! Getting a minivan cab (wheelchair, 4 people and all our luggage) from the airport to the hotel was easy and relatively inexpensive.
HOTEL INFO: I had booked a Family Suite at the SHERATON VANCOUVER WALL CENTRE because they had a very reasonable price for their location and amenities. All went smoothly with our check-in there. Our corner suite with 2 bedrooms was lovely with 2 walls of floor to ceiling windows and a sweeping view of Vancouver. My husband & I walked to a market and bought a feast, stopped at a wine shop, and brought it all back to the room where we had a great supper. In the morning, my husband (a marathoner) ran around beautiful Stanley Park before we packed up for the cruise. We got another minivan cab (hotel staff very helpful) for the very short ride to the port. I would certainly recommend that hotel.
PORT AND EMBARKATION: This is where having a person in a wheelchair was a great advantage! We were whisked through the process in a flash! We were ushered to the head of every line which was a blessing for my mom who would have had an uncomfortable time if we had much waiting. I can't say how the process was for those who had to stand in line for a long time. We got on the ship and went right to the LIDO buffet restaurant where we ate and relaxed, then did a little exploration before heading to our cabins.
STATEROOMS: In the interest of keeping the cost down somewhat we had booked two unobstructed F class ocean view cabins (this had been fine for our Caribbean cruise where all you see is water) and asked that they be connecting or, at least, next to each other so I could help out with my mom. When we finally got our stateroom assignment a couple weeks before the cruise, I was excited to see that we had been upgraded to two neighboring VD class rooms on the Upper Promenade Deck with larger than average verandahs. Although our rooms weren't adjoining on the interior, we were able to get our steward to open the verandah gate between our two rooms, so we could walk back and forth between the rooms that way. Although we were very happy that we were upgraded and didn't have to pay extra for the better cabins, we quickly realized that we SHOULD have booked verandah rooms in the first place! Alaska cruises are all about the scenery! Being able to sit out on your own verandah and enjoy the beautiful panorama of mountains and the glacier was a huge part of the enjoyment of this cruise. I can't imagine now having to go up to a public deck every time we wanted to enjoy the view. We LOVED our verandahs! The staterooms themselves were more than adequate. We had plenty of room, the beds were exceptionally comfortable, and there was a lot of storage space. Nothing luxurious, but very nice. Lots of bathroom storage, too.
SHIP INFO: There are lots of other reviews that tell about the different features of this ship, so I won't go into them. This wasn't the most up-to-date ship, but this cruise, for us, was about ALASKA! We were excited just to be there.
DINING: We girls had breakfast via room service each morning and loved being able to just get up and eat in our "jammies" and watch the beautiful scenery go by from our sliding glass door windows. My husband went to the LIDO for breakfast because his appetite is bigger than what is offered on the room service menu. We all ate every lunch in the LIDO. There were a lot of choices and it was fun the first couple days. Then we noticed that most everything tasted kind of bland. I kept going back to the pizza because it was the only thing I found that I really enjoyed. We ate dinner in the VISTA DINING ROOM every evening except for one. We really enjoyed the open dining feature and not having to be there at a specific time. We never once had to wait to be seated. We enjoyed sitting in different areas of the room. Service was great. We bought a wine package and the wine was very good. By Thursday, though, I thought something had happened to my taste buds because I wasn't getting a lot of flavor from the food. It looked so great, but with a few exceptions, tasted kind of flat. Earlier in the week we had made reservations at the PINNACLE GRILL for Thursday dinner. I had heard it was very good and hoped it would be better than the Vista. Suffice it to say we wished we had reserved dinner there every night! It would have been well worth the daily extra $20 per person! We had the most delicious meal there. For example, I had a filet mignon in the Vista and it was tough and hard to chew. It was the worst filet I had ever had. I ordered filet mignon at the PINNACLE GRILL and it was so tender it cut like butter and tasted wonderful. It was one of the best filets I've ever had. Everyone in our party - plus a guest we had invited - raved about their meal. To top off a perfect meal, I ordered "the ultimate chocolate experience" for dessert. I'm not sure what it was called (it might have been their Chocolate Volcano Cake) but at the first taste, my eyes rolled back in their sockets! I think I moaned with every bite after that, it was SO delicious. My mom and my husband ordered the Crème BrûlEe Trio which was also heavenly. My advice on this cruise is to eat at the Pinnacle Grill as often as possible! Put that little extra expense in your cruise budget!
PORT AND SHORE EXCURSIONS: Sailing through TRACY ARM was magnificent! It's where we first gave big thanks for the blessing of the verandahs! Took lots of pictures. GLACIER BAY National Park was another great photo op ship excursion. We didn't do any organized shore excursions. We rode the Mt. Roberts Tramway in JUNEAU, but mostly we just enjoyed walking the streets and knowing that we were in Alaska! I really enjoyed SKAGWAY. I know it's very tourist-y, but we walked down some side streets and got more of the flavor of an Alaskan town. We also enjoyed KETCHIKAN. Took the funicular up to the charming Cape Fox Lodge where we walked around, enjoyed some totem poles, and then relaxed with an Alaskan beer in the bar. Would love to make it a destination trip sometime. Bought a few Alaskan trinkets in Ketchikan to give as gifts and as souvenirs of our trip.
ENTERTAINMENT: We went to three shows in the VISTA SHOW LOUNGE. We saw an illusionist, JAMES CIELEN, who was excellent. Lots of fun. We saw a pair of comedian jugglers, WILDE & JAMES, who were exceptionally clever and funny. And due to some scheduling problems attributed to illness of a performer, we missed the other comedian, LEE BAYLESS, but did see him do a short routine on Friday - mostly shipboard humor - not as funny as Wilde & James for us. However, of all the onboard entertainment, the most enjoyable aspect of this relaxing cruise was our nightly visits to the CROW'S NEST. We had checked out some of the other entertainment areas of the ship, but were turned off by the noise and activity. By evening, all we wanted to do was sit back, have a nightcap, and enjoy something more low key. Thankfully, by our second night we discovered the Crow's Nest and a fabulous guitarist, "KEVIN T." As a musician myself, I was so impressed with his skill and musicianship. He was very personable and made it seem like he was playing just for us. My 94-year-old mom asked if he could play a number that was her and my dad's special song, "There's a Small Hotel" written around 1935. He said he didn't know it, but if we came back Thursday, he would have it learned for her and would play it. Well, we came back every night anyway and on Thursday he was true to his word, and played and sang her favorite song so beautifully that my mother cried with happiness. We also heard other people ask for songs that weren't in his current (& large, from what we heard) repertoire and he did the same thing for them. He seemed to have quite a following. The beautiful Crow's Nest with its panoramic view and listening to the soothing sounds of "Kevin T." were the perfect end of each day and a memory that will stay with us always.
DISEMBARKATION: We signed up to be in the last group to disembark, wanting to prolong our stay on board as much as possible! It all went very smoothly. Again, the wheelchair helped! We were reunited with our luggage, got a minivan cab very quickly and were on our way to the airport hours before our flight home. We did have a little problem at customs when we forgot we were carrying a couple apples (which we had planned to eat at the airport for lunch) in a see-through bag. They were spotted and we had to go through a special area where they were confiscated and we were admonished for not declaring them! They said it could have been a $300 fine! A girl behind us got caught with a banana which they confiscated. They let her keep her nectarine, however. I asked why and they said that nectarines were "in season." Go figure. Anyway, watch out for your fruits! Also, I don't know if this is true or not, but our cab driver, a Vancouver resident, said that this was the last year that cruises to Alaska were going out of Vancouver. He cited fuel costs in Canada as one reason. Although we enjoyed the little we saw of Vancouver, if a cruise out of Seattle would eliminate all the customs' hassle, that would be fine with me!
SUMMARY: Overall we had a marvelous time and were treated very well by everyone on the Zuiderdam. The crew was exceptional and took very good care of us. If the food had been a little less bland, the cruise would have been perfect! The weather was great. Cool and no rain! (It was a little hazy due to some fires in B.C., but not too bad.) We will especially remember the beautiful SCENERY from our verandahs, strolling the streets of ALASKAN TOWNS, eating in the PINNACLE GRILL, and the lovely evenings in the CROW'S NEST listening to the music of "KEVIN T."