First, about us. South Alabama residents, D and I are 35 and 26. He is a contractor and I am a newspaper reporter. We don't have children -- yet -- and this cruise was one of the things to do on our "bucket list" before we have children. Because we're young and on a budget, we always look for a good deal when planning a cruise (this was our third). We also look for great ports, where we can have new and memorable experiences!
Our travel agent's parents took this same cruise a year ago, and she worried that the ship's passengers would be too "old" for us. We actually have a lot of friends who are older, so we enjoyed the older crowd on the ship. I would say the median age on the Zaandam was 55 or so. Because of that, the atmosphere was relaxed and people were well-behaved, which was a nice change from our cruises on Carnival.
Now for the information about our trip! I'll tell our story in chronological order.
THURSDAY, NOON. We departed the airport in Pensacola, Fla., and landed in Houston before arriving to Seattle at 5 p.m. Thursday. Because I am an obsessive planner and had researched Seattle's public transit system, I decided we would take the light rail from SeaTac to the Sheraton downtown. The light rail makes several stops before finally reaching the heart of downtown Seattle. Taking the light rail cost $2.50 per person, and took about 25 minutes to get from the airport to downtown. A cab ride would have cost $30-$40, I'm told. The only downside about the light rail was the walk from the airport terminal to the light rail station, which was probably 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile. With our luggage (one 30 pound duffle bag each, plus a backpack and my purse), it was a pretty good trek (and we're both in good shape). We felt like pack mules by the time we reached the light rail station! But getting to see different parts of Seattle from the train, plus spending only $5 on transit, was fantastic.
From the light rail station at Westlake in downtown Seattle, it was a short 1 or 2 block walk to the Sheraton, where we stayed Thursday night. Our 17th floor room at the Sheraton (paid for with credit card points, so essentially free), was nice ... clean and comfortable. After settling in, we walked to P.F. Chang's (the chain Chinese restaurant) for dinner, which was pretty good. We were starving, having only eaten one small airplane meal since 9 a.m.!
Armed with a map of downtown Seattle, it was easy to get around. Even though we're from a small town, I felt safe and comfortable downtown.
FRIDAY, 8 A.M. Rising early the next morning, we walked down to Pike Place Market and ate breakfast at the Pike Place Bar and Grill, which overlooked the market. The food was just okay, though my husband did enjoy the all-you-can-eat waffles. The market, however, was fabulous! All the scents, sights and tastes were incredible ... we particularly loved the flower stalls. $5 for a gorgeous bouquet! I bought some really cute t-shirts from one artistic vendor who hand-draws the shirt images and screenprints the shirts by herself. We walked around for several hours, and even ended up in some alley where people's chewed-up wads of gum covered a huge wall! It was strange but interesting, just like Seattle.
We scurried back to the hotel by 11 a.m., took a quick nap and checked out right before noon. We were able to easily get a cab with a porter's help, and were at Pier 91 in two shakes of a lamb's tail, at a cost of $25 (including tip).
When we arrived at the cruise terminal at 12:15 p.m., we found it to be extremely well-organized, and we had our luggage turned in and our ship cards in our pockets within 45 minutes, and we were thrilled to get on the ship!
We ate lunch at the Lido Buffet, and wandered the ship until our room was ready at 1:30. Our cabin was pretty spacious, with a large window. The bathroom was roomier than on other cruises, and having a tub was nice (though realistically, I couldn't see myself squeezing into that small tub). There was tons of closet space in our cabin!
We spent the rest of the day wandering the ship and were pleased with what we saw. Yes, the Zaandam is aging, but it is very clean and extremely comfortable. Some of our favorite spots were the Crow's Nest, for its incredible views and the Explorations Cafe (library), for its good selection of books and very comfortable chairs (we both love to read, and also enjoyed playing board games there). We also were grateful to be able to print out our boarding passes at the Ex Cafe at the end of the cruise, though the Internet was slow and it ended up costing about $30 to get online.
Friday night, we had a 5 p.m. reservation at the Pinnacle Grill, courtesy of our lovely travel agent. We had already decided not to pay extra to visit the Pinnacle Grill, but sweet Rebecca had other plans for us! The service at the Pinnacle Grill was very good, and we enjoyed the special treatment. I dined on lobster macaroni and cheese and D had cedar plank grilled fish. I had chocolate, coffee and vanilla creme brulee for dessert.
Late Friday night we got back to our room and enjoyed looking over the activities for Saturday and filling out the room service breakfast card. The seas were getting rough as we sailed into the Pacific, and they only got more rough at the night progressed. By early Saturday morning, we were being tossed in our beds like rag dolls. However, D and I, being Southerners who were used to the calm Gulf of Mexico, thought this was what the ocean was supposed to feel like. How wrong we were! Apparently during the night, the seas were 30 feet and the captain had to turn the ship around and start our journey over again to get out of the Pacific. We learned that having to turn the ship around took lots of time, and would result in us cruising through Canada's Inside Passage, and missing our stop in Sitka.
This was bittersweet for lots of passengers and just plain disappointing for others. We appreciated the captain's wisdom in keeping the passengers and crew safe, but we were sad to skip Sitka, where we intended to go on an amazing shore excursion to a bear refuge and then go on a wildlife-watching boat ride.
You have to remember, though, you're on a ship, and plans can change quickly. You have to go with the flow, like my dad says, and we did. However, it was four days before we stepped foot on dry land again. The Inside Passage was amazing, though, and we enjoyed seeing the coastline for much of our cruise.
MONDAY, 11 A.M. Finally, during all that sailing, we reached a highlight of our cruise and saw Glacier Bay. I was nearly tearful at seeing the amazing glaciers, and the captain kindly let the ship sit in front of the largest glacier, Johns Hopkins, for over an hour while we marveled at the calving. Friends who cruised on the Zaandam a few weeks before didn't see any calving, so we felt lucky to have this experience.
Glacier Bay National Park is spectacular, and we really enjoyed hearing the park ranger's talk about how the land has changed and continues to change. Did you know that those massive glaciers are formed starting with one little snowflake? Snowflakes build and compress to create these huge chunks of moving ice. Amazing.
TUESDAY, 8 A.M. Finally, dry land. We had originally just planned to walk around Juneau and ride the Mt. Roberts Tram, but after losing Sitka we planned a better shore excursion for Juneau. A bus (driven by the hilarious and talented poet Wendell aka "Grandpa Goose") took us 20 minutes north of Juneau to a marina where our three-story catamaran was docked. The boat was so comfortable and well-appointed, it was like taking a whale watching tour while riding around in your living room. Minutes after we left the marina, we saw killer whales (orcas) breaking through the water. The boat's naturalist said they only saw killer whales around 5 or 10 percent of the time, so we felt really lucky to see and photograph these amazing creatures. Soon after, we saw the tell-tale "blow" of 50-foot long humpback whales. Their huge backs would break the surface of the water, and then their giant tails would be visible above the waves. Again, I was getting a bit teary to see these amazing creatures, just a short distance from our boat! I will always treasure my photographs of the whales!
After the left the boat, we rode the tram up Mt. Roberts, which was a great view, but would have been more fun if it hadn't been rainy. However, the Alaskans we met said it was always drizzly there! We had hoped to do some hiking around Mt. Roberts, but not in bad weather. We visited a couple shops that were having big clearance sales, because we would be the very last cruise ship to dock in Juneau until next May.
WEDNESDAY, 8 A.M. We left the ship and boarded a bus in Ketchikan with 6 other people under the age of 30. We were all looking forward to our shore excursion: Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure! The snorkeling guide told us all about the gear and other particulars on the way to their shop, where we squeezed into wetsuits, boots, masks and other gear to go snorkeling in the 52 degree Alaskan waters. Yes, it was a little bit crazy, but an amazing way to see Alaska. It took about 2 minutes for to get warmed up once we were in the water, which was 100 feet deep in some places, and a little rough. But underwater, we saw another world ... starfish in bright shades of red, yellow and purple, spiky sea urchins, long and squishy sea cucumbers, rock fish that looked like rocks, long tails of kelp, and lots of other sea life. Our two guides said they swam with a humpback whale in that same area just a few weeks before, so we were thrilled to get in the water with all this native Alaska sea life. And only our lips got cold, for the record! We snorkeled for an hour and made our way back to the ship ... although there were other things we would have liked to see in Ketchikan, the ship left port at 1:30 p.m., so we didn't have any time.
Funny story: We were early getting on the shore ex bus, and we were chatting with the bus driver. We asked her if we would still be able to snorkel, since the weather was pretty rainy. She's like, what rain? You mean this drizzle? When we just have drizzle like this, we count it as a beautiful day in Ketchikan! You should have seen it raining buckets yesterday. :) Lesson learned. Alaska is rainy. That's why they tell you to pack a raincoat! Bring one and you'll be just fine!
THURSDAY We sailed for much of Thursday and landed in Victoria, BC, about 7 p.m. We debated even getting off the ship, because we knew it would leave Victoria at 11:30 p.m., and that didn't leave much time to sight see. However, the lure of being able to say we had been to Canada won out, and we took a bus to downtown Victoria ($7 per person round trip) and walked Government Street for a while. An Irish linen shop's window showed lots of beautiful treasures, but unfortunately, the shop was closed for the day. Disappointing. Victoria was interesting and beautiful, though, and we enjoyed the bus driver's narration about the city.
FRIDAY, 6 A.M. We woke up on our day of disembarkation back in the Emerald City and had our luggage packed, ready to run. We had a 11:30 flight to catch at SeaTac and didn't have a moment to lose. We enjoyed a final delicious breakfast in the Rotterdam Dining Room and did self-assist debarkation so we were off the ship by 8:15 (amazing!). Our cab driver took us on a fast 20 minute ride to SeaTac for about $50, and we were at our gate by 9:15, and touched down in Pensacola, Fla., at 8:30 that night, glad to be home!
Here are some highlights from the ship:
Entertainment: We LOVED the "Elton John" show, and really liked the PG-rated comedian. Haven't laughed that much in a long time! The productions by the ship's entertainment were also very good.
Food: We ate dinner in the Rotterdam dining room nearly every day for lunch and dinner. The food was very good, and we enjoyed trying dishes that we don't have at home, like chilled fruit soup and escargot. We enjoyed the seafood: shrimp cocktail, Alaskan crab, salmon, etc. The desserts were pretty good, either hit or miss. I actually enjoyed the desserts better on our Carnival cruises, but they were still pretty good on the Zaandam.
We ate breakfast in the Rotterdam dining room on two occasions, and then had room service a few days and ate in the Lido a few days. Room service breakfast was pretty good, but the selection at the Lido was hard to beat. We especially enjoyed the custom-made omelets, but missed having grits and biscuits like at home!
Room service was pretty quick (food always came within 30-45 minutes). Our sandwiches that we ordered one day after the snorkeling excursion were just decent, nothing great. Still, it was nice to be able to eat in our room with our robes on, and not have to get gussied up to leave the room. That's what made the room service so great.
Service: Excellent, of course. Cute towel animals every night and though our room steward seemed busy, we always came back to a clean room, if we stayed away long enough to let him do his job. Our servers in the dining room were
wonderful - friendly and fun to be around. I think they related to us better because we were all around the same age. After asking for iced tea the first day, I had iced tea again every night for dinner, without even asking for it!
Other: We loved the gym, with its spectacular view. It allowed us to eat multiple-course meals three times and day and not gain weight. The treadmills were easy to operate as was the other equipment. I didn't get that uncomfortable feeling you do at some gyms, when you're surrounded by people with fantastic bodies ... I felt totally at home there, surrounded by people who were just trying to keep the cruise food from sticking to them! Check out the little fridge with cold, wet, rolled-up towels ... so refreshing!
We also loved the pools. In the aft pool, the water was 85 degrees, but because the air temperature was 50 degrees, no one got in, so I had it to myself! Yay! The Lido pool was chillier but still comfortable and, again, no one was in it. The Lido hot tubs were sometimes occupied, but it was easy to find a time to get in without having to share.
I loved the watercolor painting class, which was taught by the artist in residence on the ship. It was really fun to try something new!
Other things we loved: the third floor promenade deck, which was great for long walks; the blankets provided outside when it got chilly; reading the library's selection of good books; our comfortable cabin bed; the funny cruise director, Eric; fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast; the kitchen tour; having laundry facilities on nearly each floor, meaning we arrived home with only clean clothes for $3 a load; and seeing the bald eagles all around Alaska.
All in all, our cruise on the Zaandam was fantastic, with little surprises around every corner. Sure, it wasn't exactly the cruise we thought we were going to take, but it was amazing nonetheless! Alaska is just a masterpiece, and Seattle and Victoria are interesting, vibrant cities. If you want a bargain and seek to avoid big crowds, and are willing to compromise a little, and endure some shaky seas and a little rain and cold, take a late-season Alaska cruise. Otherwise, go at the peak of the season!