My girlfriend (GF) and I are from eastern Kansas, are in our 70's and widowed. This was our second cruise together, the first was last fall in the Mediterranean. Each of us had been on a cruise before we began dating, although mine was more than two decades ago.
I booked the cruise in January, through Holland America, noting the ship sailed from “Anchorage(Seward)”, listed exactly that way, on a one-way cruise down to Vancouver. The way the departure point was listed in the itinerary and in the Holland America website, plus my ignorance and that of the cruise line agent, resulted in a big error in our booking. Having never been to Alaska, and knowing that Anchorage is a port, I assumed at the time that Seward was a suburb of Anchorage. Google maps showed a pier there, suitable for big ships. But, the Anchorage inlet is no longer suitable for big ships, and the ship actually sails from Seward, which is way south of Anchorage. As I booked my flights separately, the agent never mentioned that Holland America has both a bus and a train that runs south from Anchorage to Seward, crossing the Kenai Peninsula. I haven't discovered the exact distance but the train ride is over 4 hours. So, I booked the cruise, obtained air tickets from Kansas City to Anchorage and from Vancouver to Kansas City, and thought I was set. About a month later, I looked at a map and noticed the actual location of Seward. After some initial panic, I called Holland America, learned of the cruise train, and booked it. My second mistake was to assume that the train ride is offered by Alaska Railroad. They have a similar, daily ride from Anchorage to Seward. Once again I assumed, supposing it was a special train of theirs.
We flew to Anchorage the day before the cruise, staying at the Holiday Inn Express near the airport, economical and excellent. The cruise train was scheduled to leave at one the next day, and we called the downtown train station to discover if we could leave our bags there while we walked about Anchorage. The agent knew nothing of the train, then checked and told us the train leaves from the airport. Holland America (an ocean cruise line!) runs the train and the optional bus to Seward, and there is a train station across the road from the air terminal. Only one more problem remained: when we went to the train station, we learned that the actual meeting place for train passengers was in a corner of the air terminal baggage section. So, we made the train due to dumb luck. Holland America's documentation could have been clearer on all this, and I might have asked better questions.
The cruise train was a highlight. The scenery is magnificent, along a long arm of the sea, then through snow-covered mountains that never stop. In the middle of the peninsula, the snow looked to be four feet deep at sea level. It was the first train of the season for Holland America, and you could see evidence of recent snow plowing of the railway. The cruise train pulled up next to the ship. Seward is a very small town and port. The airport runways looked too short for commercial jets. The GF and I talked to a few people who had cruised up with the ship from Vancouver, making it a 14 day cruise. They had endured bad weather coming up, while we had near perfect weather going south, except for swells one night that reduced the appetites of many passengers, and a strong crosswind another night that blew the ship into about a 10-degree list, so you could see nothing but water if you looked out one side, and sky on the other. Many of the passengers had flown to Fairbanks rather than Anchorage, and had taken the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage, then usually the bus down to Seward. They enjoyed the trip through Denali.
The Ryndam is a mid-size cruise ship, 719 feet in length and 101 feet wide, carrying up to 1260 passengers, launched in 1994. She had been refurbished over the winter, and was in great shape. Our previous ship was the Norwegian Gem, almost a thousand feet long. There were fewer restaurants on the smaller ship, but it was easier to get around in and was never crowded. There were few children or teens aboard, due to the early sail date. There was a high percentage of seniors. It was much quieter than the Gem had been. The talent level of the on-board entertainment was outstanding. The crew, predominantly Indonesian, were efficient and friendly. No complaints.
The first day was all at sea, the second was spent in Glacier National Park, sailing up the channel made by the glaciers, about 65 miles. They said as recently as 300 years ago, the channel was totally covered by glacier, but the glaciers have been receding, and by 1859, about 90% of the channel had been taken over by sea water. The channel splits into two arms, each terminated by glaciers. It was a very interesting day spent amid terrific natural scenery.
The third day was at Haines. There were several excursions available, but the GF didn't want to fly or take a small boat so we took a bus trip to a fish processing plant, and a nature center, where we listened to fascinating talks about the problems involved in harvesting, processing, and marketing fish and heard much about Alaskan wildlife. The town is interesting, a lot of artists live there, and you can drive there from the states. There was a large RV park and I suspect the town booms somewhat later in the season.
The fourth day was at Juneau, a much larger town. Our bus excursion was to the Mendenhall Glacier visitors center, and then we were delivered to the Alaska Salmon Bake, an outdoor eatery sited along a former gold panning stream. Salmon cooked over a wood fire was very good eating. Again, many other excursions were available. Finally, we shopped. I thought the Red Dog Saloon was a bit overrated, and isn't very reminiscent of Gold Rush days. It's a place to drink and giggle.
The next day, we arrived at Ketchikan, where we docked next to two other cruise ships, including the NCL Pearl, a sister ship of the Gem. They had departed by about one. There are many available excursions, and ours, the trolley ride, wasn't all that good. I would have preferred a plane ride, and float planes were continually taking off and landing in the water near the ship. There are many jewelry stores there, as in Juneau, and good bargains in winter coats and other warm clothes. The sixth day was spent at sea again, and we docked early the following morning in Vancouver.
While embarkation had been smooth, debarkation was a nightmare. They had everyone slated for getting off at specific times based on luggage tags they had issued with specific colors, and the word was that they would make one announcement when debarking would begin and none after that. They relied on passenger's conforming to their times. Big mistake. We were a few minutes late docking, and the Captain made the announcement to begin debarkation, but the luggage hadn't been transported off ship, and people showed up at their scheduled times even though they weren't letting anyone off until their luggage was ashore. A huge crowd developed around the two gangplanks, one on deck 5, the other on 6. Further, wheel chair passengers had been taken to deck 5, but the staff decided they had to be debarked from deck 6, so they had to take them back up through the crowd. The debarking area on deck 5 had become totally jammed when they finally decided those carrying their own luggage could get off. We were lucky in that respect. I wonder if some of the people who checked their luggage through the ship have gotten off yet. It would have been much easier to make announcements for each debarking category. Crowding and waiting would have been reduced and things would have gone much more smoothly. Alaska is truly beautiful, and despite the problems, I recommend Holland America, the Seward to Vancouver cruise, and the Ryndam.