HIGHLIGHTS Great Alaskan experience - more depth of Alaska information than on our previous Alaska cruise on Princess - thank you HA. Sitka with the wildlife, and the lack of other cruise ships was a fantastic experience. The food was great in the Vista and Lido venues. The Pinnacle Grill was the BEST food we've experienced on a cruise ship and rivals what you will find in a 4 Star restaurant, unfortunately our 2nd visit to the Pinnacle Grille was not even close to being as good as the first. Ship's dEcor and the service level of the staff were a level above Princess and RC but then so is the cost of the cruise as expected.
LETDOWN The only letdown was the average age of our fellow passengers - older than (we) expected, and the music was for their generation. We're in our late 40's and the average age was somewhere in the mid 60s. Either all of a sudden, I'm very sensitive to caffeine or their decaf isn't very decaffeinated. For the first 2 nights I had decaf after dinner and ended up staying awake past midnight.
BOARDING & STATEROOM No surprises, no long waits, easy to get off the shuttle from the hotel at Pier 91. We chose to carry all but 1 of our bags on and had no hassles doing that. We arrived around noon and waited less than 30 minutes until "Group 9" was called to board. we even overheard our apparent table-mates for dining and introduced ourselves before we got on the ship. All passengers (dunno about suites) were kept out of their staterooms until 2:15 and kept on the Lido deck with food and beverage service. Bit different than our other cruises but no problems. We left our 3 daughters behind this time and upgraded ourselves to Holland America - we weren't disappointed, we thought the value and experience were great. Our balcony room was nice, modern, well appointed. Storage space was fine. Bedding, pillows, extra blankets were on par with Princess. Glad we brought our night light! The tub/shower was a nice upgrade from the showers only on other cruise lines' balconies. Towels were first class. Lighting inside & on the balcony was fine. No complaints about our VF cabin.
FOOD & GENERAL STUFF What an irritation free cruise - thanks to HA. With less than 20 kids on board it was a quiet environment. Part of that quiet was there were no blaring art auction announcements. In fact there weren't too many announcements of the "come participate/buy/drink/party" type at all. How refreshing. The room service was great. On time, food and drink was hot or warm or cold as expected. In the mornings, just don't plan on getting through to ext. 92 to have them come pick your tray up. Our cabin steward did us right there. We tipped him $10 at the beginning of the cruise and never wanted for anything. The predominantly Philipino and Indonesian crew was a great friendly bunch. We certainly didn't encounter the unfriendlies others have mentioned on the Westerdamn.
We decided on the early sitting for dinner in the Vista Dining Room at an 8 person table. That worked fine; however, we'd do Anytime Dining next time so that we could meet more people. The menu selection, taste, and presentation of dinner were a cut above Princess and RC. We weren't disappointed at all. The dining room staff was friendly and attentive, just as it has always been on our other cruises.
The Pinnacle Grille is definitely way above the other specialty dining rooms on RC and Princess. The food quality, service, and presentation made our experience on multiple Princess cruises pale. In all honesty the Pinnacle Grille is on par with the few true (Michelin) 4-star restaurants I've visited. We enjoy wine and we brought our own selection of 90 pt wines on board. Even if you have to pay the $18 corkage fee, my $20 bottles of 90 pt wines were far better than anything less than $50 on board the ship. Too bad all cruise lines seem to be above a 300% markup on wine.
The ship was constantly cleaned, well maintained, brightly lit, and what I expected from a cruise line that is supposed to be (per my TA) nicer than the rest of the large ship cruise lines.
SUNDAY-MONDAY Plenty to do on these sea days. We ended up spending the $250 for the week for the hydropool, saunas, and extras. WOW, nothing like it on our other cruises and well worth it to us to have the quiet, the thermal treatments, and feel pampered. We took advantage of this daily. Regular sized gym worked fine since the older crowd didn't use it. Not pushy for the spa or personal training sessions. We appreciated the staff's expertise on spinning and yoga. We quickly discovered the only two places that play 60's to contemporary music were the Northern Lights club and their guitar player Matt. Matt is GREAT. Crow's Nest and the library/DVD Rental/Internet Cafe are quite "posh". We walked out of the first entertainment review on Monday night and didn't go back. Sorry we missed the much acclaimed (in other reviews and by our fellow passengers) comedian and Elton John imitator, but ya can't do everything!
TUESDAY The big HA difference today was the way they handled the Glacier experience. First they had 2 National Park Rangers on board who were a cut above the tour guide on this cruise, and our Princess Alaska cruise. What a wealth of information and experience. The ship was navigated close to the edge of the one tidal glacier and we certainly lingered here longer than a visit to Tracy Arm. Plus we saw so many MORE glaciers in Glacier Bay than Tracy Arm. WOW factor was high here. First formal night was like formal nights on any other cruise.
WEDNESDAY Juneau with 4 other cruise ships! Ouch, that's a lot. Weather was above average. We (like always) arranged our own shore excursion with Alaska Boat and Kayak for a 3 hr guided kayak experience on the Tongass National Forest in saltwater. The wife is not an athlete, so I had to pass on the ½ day self-guided kayak trip to the lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. But from what we heard, that's the way to go if you have the stamina and direction to self guide. Our tour guide was a young native of Juneau - Cody and he was fantastic. The pictures we took in and out of the kayak were great, but couldn't really capture the experience of seeing the mountains, multiple glaciers, and other scenery from water level. Our 3hr tour turned into 4.5 hrs which was fun and taxing at the same time. My hat is off to Alaska Boat and Kayaks. Cody was incredibly knowledgeable as both a local and an educated guide on geology and forestry. Had time after our return to quickly head to the Spa for our hydropool, heated lounge chair, and steam sauna experience again. Ahh, so relaxing. After dinner, we enjoyed ourselves on the balcony and then in the Crow's Nest listening to Matt - he's darn good!
THURSDAY Another HA difference today. We actually chose the Westerdam as much for the fact it went to Sitka (instead of Skagway) as for the level of luxury. Sitka's wildlife exceeded our highest expectations. We chose a 3 hr nature boat tour with Davey and his Esther G Sea Taxi. He can carry six people. His all aluminum boat is as unique and classy as his knowledge of plant, wildlife, and local history. He has quite a network of fellow sea captains and zeroed in on some humpback and a gray whales quickly. In the space of 10 minutes (not the first 10 minutes!) we saw all of the following: humpbacks, gray whale, puffins, other diving birds, sea urchins, star fish, and large numbers of sea otters. We were so close to one of the humpbacks that we actually smelled his "shrimpy" breath and were able to get some fantastic close-up pictures of tail slapping. The Russian history in Alaska is unique to Sitka and we were glad to visit the Bishop's residence and other historical sites. We ran out of time and didn't make it to the Sitka National Park and Visitors Center, but like all ports of call, you don't see it all on one visit. Had another great session in the hydropool, too. 2nd formal night and we really enjoyed the Happy Hours in the Ocean Lounge before dinner. Missed the entertainment, but did go see the Dessert Extravaganza at 10pm. Nice work by the chefs and restaurant staff.
FRIDAY We got into Ketchican about 7 am. 2nd day we used room service for breakfast. Rainy start to the day. No formal excursions for us on this short visit (left at 12:30) to Ketchican. There are so many things to do by either walking or catching the great bus system. By going in early Sept you are assured of seeing 1 or 2 species of salmon returning to spawn. It's amazing to go see the numbers in the bay, below each level of rapids, and up by the fish hatchery on their way to the lake above. I finally found time to attend one of the digital camera/computer classes (free) they had on board. Fantastic. I learned some new tricks and really liked the free Microsoft Live Photo Gallery software the used - so much that I downloaded as soon as we got home. In all I attended 3 of these wonderful courses on Friday and Saturday. We "rested" in the room and watched one of their good, recent movies on the TV that evening.
SATURDAY A sea day with a 6pm stop at Victoria in BC. Ya know, I think that some of the crew on the Westerdam and our previous Princess cruise start to lower their standards on this last full day. We had another dinner reservation at the Pinnacle Grill and the service and the cooking wasn't up to the high standards they set earlier in the week. 3 tables (including ours) sent back food for being under or over cooked. The wait staff and even the maitre-de were seen to scurry away from complaining customers. Not sure what is up with that, but we encountered a similar "slacking off" with Princess on the last night of the cruise also in Victoria. My suggestion is never book dinner at the extra charge restaurants on the last night of the cruise. Lots to do during the sea day with onboard activities. We passed on Victoria since we've been there before (not on a cruise) but we do recommend the museum, gardens, and other sights there -it's a beautiful city.
SUNDAY Disembarking was a breeze. Had regular sit-down breakfast in the dining room with plenty of others. We were in the 2nd group off the ship and our checked luggage was easily found in the terminal on the pier. We didn't have ground transportation previously arranged so we "shopped" the cost of a shuttle service and ended up paying $16 per person to the airport. Not bad at all.