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Springtime in Alaska
This was our first cruise on HAL, and first to Alaska. We went with a group of 11 friends,ages 20 to 82, most of us 55 -65. all of us new to HAL and Alaska but nearly all of us had cruised several other times. Some of us had suites & some of us had inside cabins, all of us were happy with our accommodations. The Amsterdam is a beautiful ship built in 2000. It is very clean, and the staff always looked very clean too. If you look for it, you will be able to find a scratch or dent here and there.
We stayed at the Sheraton pre-cruise and used the Holland transfers. The Sheraton is lovely and in a great location, we walked almost everywhere. If I were to do this again, I would book the hotel myself and take cabs from the airport and to the pier and save about $150 - 200. The only free wi-fi at the Sheraton is in the lobby, which I consider archaic. Our rooms were ready for early check-in. The Holland transfer from the airport was slow and awkward to get to. They mismarked two More
of our party as having already taken the shuttle, so that 80+ year old couple had to schlep their own luggage and pay for a taxi. Others sat on the shuttle bus for 45 minutes waiting to fill the last TWO seats before the driver would leave the airport.
That said, we fell in love with Seattle (see port review).
The weather for this cruise was darn near perfect. Sunny and mid-40's to mid-60's all but 3 days. One day at sea it rained steadily, oh well. Kodiak and Victoria had intermittent showers, nothing an occasional umbrella use couldn't handle. The two sea days had some rolling, especially at night. The rest of the time very calm & smooth sailing.
Embarkation was easy, took about 30 minutes from arrival at the pier to arrival in our cabin. Disembarkation was also easy, you can choose what time you get off the ship. We choose the last time, 9:00-9:15, waited with friends in their cabin and walked off with our luggage and were on the pier. Taxis are plentiful and quick to get,but using the shuttle took us nearly an hour to get off the pier. Taxi to the airport was $55. Shuttle was $9 pp.
Service: Apparently about 20% of the staff were new this voyage, and there were minor slips and glitches especially the first few days. The experienced staff were outstanding. Our dining room stewards were stellar. Everyone was very friendly and eager to be of help. I heard laughing and singing behind the kitchen doors and I liked it that the staff were enjoying their work. The staff seem to know when you want them and when you don't, and always wear a smile. The only really bad service was from the photo staff. Their printer went out after the first formal night, only a couple of days into the voyage, and they continued to take pictures anyway. I had a gift certificate for a photo from my travel agent and used it for the only picture of us in the gallery, and the photo staff charged us for it anyway after accepting my certificate. We were not the only ones double-charged. They were actually rude to one of my friends who tried to buy a DVD of the trip.
Dining: The MDR took forever for breakfast and lunch, we just went to the Lido, and usually sat by the pool to eat. The Lido was always crowded, and there were lines for omelettes and sandwiches. Food itself was fine, not gourmet but it is a buffet. Coffee varied from good to so-so, if you are a coffee freak then buy it from the Explorations Cafe. We had fixed seating early dinner,and ate in the MDR every night. Food was very good. Portions were smallish, and my husband ordered two entrees a couple of times. Salads were too small, soup bowls were half filled. If you order all three courses and a dessert though, you will leave satisfied. I had no complaints. Steaks at our table were not always done the way they were ordered, just ask for another one. There were always 3 or 4 fish choices, and that's what I usually ate. Lobster was offered twice, king crab once, ling cod, rockfish, halibut a couple of times and salmon every day. I had lamb a couple of times and it was excellent. Dining is meant to be a leisurely experience, plan on enjoying your dinner companions and the ambiance for an hour and a half. What's your rush? We had lunch in the Pinnacle Grill one sea day. Worth the extra money? If you like being fawned over, then yes. I thought our regular dining room servers were equal or better than the Pinnacle Grill servers. The food was about the same quality as the main dining room at their best. I ate well, often, and all I wanted & lost two pounds, probably because of all the stairs and all the walking on shore.
The cabin: 7055, a DD partial ocean-view. The window looked directly astern over a small public deck. I thought it had an awkward layout, half the sofa was in a narrow alcove that made it unusable. It was only a few steps away from the door (marked emergency exit but we used it anyway) to a deck overlooking the wake, large enough for 6 or 8 deck chairs. The outside stairs to the pool/lido deck minimally blocked our window. The window was large and had one-way glass so we had perfect privacy. We didn't use the deck much, it was too cool on sea days for deck sitting, but it was lovely to stand there out of the wind and watch the wake. Not many people seemed to use it, but a couple of smokers found it and they were out there much of the time, so I tended to not go out there. The cabin is under the outdoor pool, and the noise from the pool pumps was constant and loud. It was very steady, and soon became a background white noise. Once or twice we had noise at night when the furniture around the pool was being moved. The cabin was very clean and comfortable, more storage than we needed and a roomier shower than I've had on other lines. Shower gel, hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, shower cap, and lotion all supplied, also two hairdryers. There was only ONE electrical outlet in the cabin, at the desk. A 4 space power strip was supplied. No outlets in the bathroom.
Ship highpoints: The library! A great space, very quiet and well appointed. Lots of books available for loan. The piano bar! We ended up here most nights, Roy from South Africa is very talented. The Crows Nest! Too noisy for me at night, but a great place for daytime relaxation. The art! Scattered around the ship, every once in a while I would come across something new. Very good pieces.
The entertainment: The ship's company of singers and dancers were very talented, but their costumes and staging was dated. After the first couple of performances, we missed the others. There were some very good performers brought in for one night only, they were all excellent. Especially enjoyed the comedian Lee Baylis. The crew shows were the best, but they didn't start until 11 at night. Many people did not stay up for them, which is too bad. Well worth waiting for.
The itinerary: This was our first trip to Alaska, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I thought the mix of Sea days/short port days/long port days was very good. Plenty of time to relax, not so much that you got bored, the time in most ports was just about right. I will do port reviews, but there were a couple that are not in the port list so will review them here.
Homer: Weather was 50 F and partly cloudy, no wind to speak of. DH went fishing for halibut, caught his 2 halibut limit and a ling cod. Used the ship's excursion and was very pleased with the guide. The 65-70 lbs of hanging weight came to 22 lbs of fillets shipped home, cost $168 for processing & shipping frozen. Arrived in fine shape, we had some for dinner last night. Yum! I went with the rest of our group on a private excursion with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies. They picked us up at the dock, sent us across the bay on a water taxi to their field station where we went tide pooling, walking on nature trails around the peninsula, and visited the station itself. They supplied waterproof boots and a light snack. Our naturalist guide, Howard, was wonderful, very knowledgeable, personable and enthusiastic. We saw and touched all kinds of sea stars, anemones, sea cucumbers, crabs, mussels,butter clams, so much more. This is a strenuous clamber-about, and a couple of the older people had a difficult time with some of the slippery rocks and steep gangways. We were their first cruise ship tour group - guinea pigs! Two thumbs up for this excursion, it's tied for my favorite excursion with whale watching in Juneau. Highly recommend. http://akcoastalstdies.org They got us back to the spit with time for a little shopping if you wanted. I thought the spit looked very tourist-trappy, we just went back to the ship.
Kodiak: Weather @ 42 F high, drizzly and foggy. We went on a private expedition with Dake of Memory Makers. Dake is cheerful, knowledgeable, down to earth and friendly. Going on a tour with him felt like being shown around by an old friend you haven't seen in years. Very comfortable older GMC van, only room for 6 people at a time so his tours are all very personal. He's a photographer and will customize tours for photogs. Highly recommend. Kodiak Island is gorgeous, rugged, feels like the end of the earth. There are TONS of bald eagles, we do not see any bears. The fog limits us some. There is only one kind of tree on Kodiak Island, the Sitka Spruce. The forests are all spruce and moss, and have an eerie feel like a fairy tale. Not the kind with happy endings, the scary kind. This is a real fishing town, not very tourist friendly. You have to walk about 15-20 minutes to town from the dock, it's mostly level but I don't think a wheelchair could do it. Have a beer in Henry's Restaurant, shop at the craft sale at the Native Center.
Scenic cruising: Inside passage beautiful, hard to find a place next to a window. People tended to camp out for the day in a favorite spot. Tracey Arm was breathtaking, we did not get to the Sawyer Glaciers because of ice, but were very satisfied with the time spent there. We viewed from a friend's suite balcony, starboard and very forward, and had perfect views of one side going in and the other going out. Hubbard Glacier was another highpoint of the trip, we viewed from the same friend's balcony. Saw calving 10 or 12 times, nothing huge but impressive to us. Heard the crash of ice into the water, and did you know glaciers have a smell to them? Like ice too long in the freezer. Sipped cocoa and marveled, took lots of photos and got giddy with the gorgeousness. Wonderful day. Less
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Port and Shore Excursions
Weather: sunny and 52 F in town, raining and 42 F outside of town. May 20 We decide to take the Glacier Discovery train excursion because I really wanted to see the famous Turnagain Arm scenery and neither of us wanted to drive. The originally planned 10 hour trip was shortened by 3 hours ($30 pp refund) because of a threat of avalanche. Turned out for the best, a 7 hour train ride was too long as it was. Turnagain arm is lovely, scenery is great but we were really hoping for wildlife. We saw only a couple of sheep and one eagle in the distance, and get a glimpse of the back end of a moose. The guides are high school kids, nice kids but not very knowledgeable. They keep telling us to look for Beluga whales, then I find out later the Belugas don't come until August. Twice the train stops, in Portage and in Spencer, then backs out the way it came. This is the regular Alaska Rail commuter train. There is an observation car but there is an extra charge to sit there, which we did not know about and could not buy onboard.The second time we are in Portage ( the train turns around and retraces it's route) we get taken off the train and put onto buses for the last 90 minutes. We go back over the same route the train had taken. I would not recommend this excursion. DH and I get off the bus in downtown Anchorage and decide to go to the Alaska State Museum. We spend a pleasant hour and a half at their excellent exhibit of older native artifacts from the Smithsonian, we also enjoy some very interesting modern pieces that reinterpret the old styles. We walk the 3 or 4 blocks to where the Holland shuttle will pick us up and take us back to the ship. Anchorage is clean, lots of cheap gift shops, places to eat. Not really a tourist town. I think if we had not chosen to use most of our day on the train we would have liked it better.
Weather: Overcast, high of @43F. May 18 First, I need to say that I enjoyed this port a lot more than I thought I would. I thought it would be cheesy, a made for the cruise trade destination, fleecing tourists our specialty. Well, it is a made for the cruise trade port but I was wrong about everything else. We are tendered onto an old cannery dock. The old cannery has been turned into a museum/gift stores/couple of restaurants. The gift stores have some of the usual fleece jackets and tshirts, but there also is handmade beaded jewelry, handmade herbal salves, and what won my heart a whole room of things the local school kids make, like stationary and bookmarks, and sell to support school activities. Homemade soaps and salves are $3 - $5 each. The local Tlingit village, Hoonah, population about 850, borrowed money and set up the port. They are proud that they paid off the loans a few years ago so now the entire place is owned by the village, which is incorporated. Everyone who works there lives there, they do not allow any of the diamond stores or chains. Our ship excursion (all excursions are through the ship) is an ATV ride through the rainforest. Our leader is Thomas, a Tlingit who was a commercial fisherman for 21 years. He tells lots of bear stories, describes the diet of a native hunter/fisherman which he follows. He says, there was no cancer or diabetes among his people until the Europeans brought processed food. We travel several miles along well-maintained gravel roads, stopping several times to admire the scenery and hear more stories. The ATVs are brand new, everything in this port is clean, organized, and everyone is very friendly. They are just as eager to help us understand their culture and way of life as they are to sell us something. I buy a pair of earrings, beads that look like forget-me-nots, for my daughter because I see the little blue flowers blooming everywhere. Only $10. The lady selling them to me anxiously tells me she didn't make them herself, her mother made them, is that ok? That's fine by me.
Weather: May 17 Beautiful day, high of 58 F and partly cloudy. This was one of our favorite ports, due in large part to taking the whale watching expedition with Harv & Marv. We had their large boat reserved for our group of 11. Our driver, Kyle, picked us up at the dock as soon as we got off the ship at 9 am. He gives us a tour of Juneau as he drives us to where our boat is waiting at Statter Harbor. There's only on real street in Juneau, the locals just call it 'the road.' We go out with Captain Shawn and Jaynelle, a high school senior. Both are very good, friendly, cheerful, informative. The boat is very comfortable, built for whale watching, a real beauty. Almost right away we find a pod of orcas. Shawn says they only see orcas once out of ten outings, they just pass through and it's pure luck to catch a glimpse. This is the first orcas they've seen this year. There's about 15, including babies. We watch them play for 45 minutes or so, then they move on. We also saw about 6 or 8 humpback whales at different times.At one point Shawn turned the engine off, we are just drifting and watching the plumes, when two humpbacks come straight at us. Shawn says, they know we're here, as he stamps his feet on the deck and talks really loudly. They stop about 30 feet away and dive, two tails like synchronized swimmers. Magic. On the way back, Shawn takes us to a buoy that has a couple of sea lions hanging out, with Herbert Glacier in the background. Back to port where driver Kyle takes us to the Mendenhall Glacier. He gives us a full 30 minutes to enjoy the view. We could have stayed there and walked to the glacier, and taken the shuttle back to port, but we decided to skip the 2 hour roundtrip walk. Kyle drives us back to the pier.We were very very happy with this outing, probably the best excursion of the entire cruise. After a quick bite at the Lido and dropping off some equipment,we went back on shore and shop. Shops are the usual diamond stores, the shopping area is pretty compact. I bought a small, simple jade pendant at The Jade Store for $10, put it with a free whale tail pendent from one of the diamond stores, and get compliments on it the rest of the trip. Now everyone knows my secret bargain!
Weather today, May 15: High of 67 F and not a cloud in the sky. Beautiful day. DH goes fishing for salmon on a ship excursion. It's the beginning of the King Salmon run. There are no salmon in his future, though. Only one person caught a small silver salmon on his 6 person boat, and he threw it back. Oh well, says DH, that's why they call it fishing, not catching, and it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. I take the ship excursion to Totem Bight with a friend, we enjoy the trip and the guide is entertaining and has great stories. The Totem Poles are amazing. Some other friends went on the Misty Fiords floatplane trip and loved it. I meet DH back on the ship at noon, we go back out to walk around town. Ketchikan is very walkable, you can get a walking tour map at the dock that will direct you all over town in about 2 hours. We get the map but end up wandering in our usual way. :) We buy some souvenirs, our best find was polar fleece vests made in the USA for $4 ! Must have been a mismark, but we each got one. Prices here were better overall than any of the other ports for all the usual souvenir stuff. We walked up to Creek street, more shops and go to Dolly's House. Dolly's was a bordello until Alaska became a state in 1953 and it was no longer legal. That was fun & worth the $5. Esp. appreciated the framed original application to work there. ;) We found one store, opposite the museum, that sold original Native Tlinget crafts. Amazing artistry, pricey but we are talking quality here. We have a nice long chat with the proprietor, an elderly Tlingit man who does counted cross stitch, about some of the artists and how they carve walrus tusk and moose antlers.
Fell in love with Seattle, pure and simple. If I was 25 again I would move there. Loved the light rail, walked almost everywhere. The numbered streets are pretty level & easy walking, the streets that run down to the waterfront are steep and sometimes are just stairs. My legs hurt after a day of walking here, but hey - gave me guilt-free desserts. We went to the EMP, fun if you are a rock music fan like my husband. Lots of interactive exhibits.The sci-fi museum was disappointing, only one exhibit was open (Battle Star Galactica) but the coming up Avatar exhibit sounds like it will be awesome. The desk person gave us a coupon for 2 for 1 admission, so that was nice. 90 minutes was enough time for both museums. Looked at the Space Needle, did not go up. Weather was perfect the two precruise days, 62 F and sunny. Walked to Pier 54 from the Seattle Center, with a stop at Pier 66 Anthony's for a cup of coffee and sit on the deck. Watched the boats in the marina and people walking by. Met our friends at Ivar's Acres of Clams, they set up a table for all 11 of us next to a window. Excellent service, excellent food. I told the waitress they should have a chowder tasters platter on the menu, so she brought me sample 1/2 cups of all 4 chowders at no charge. All so good! I liked the original recipe the best, though. Excellent Dungeness crab cakes and strawberry shortcake for dessert. This was $19.38 on the early menu, get there before 5:30. Took a cab back to the hotel (Sheraton) those steep hills looked a lot steeper after two glasses of wine. The Sheraton is a very nice, upscale hotel. Original Chihuly in the lobby, excellent location. Next morning up early & go to Pikes' Market, 6 blocks from hotel. Walk via Union St., relatively level to market. Pass by the Gum Wall - really fun to see. Piles Market was good, saw the fish tossing, lots of craft type booths. Best parts were the fish and sea food displays and THE FLOWERS OMG. Bought a huge bouquet of tulips and spring blossoms for $15 to take to my stateroom. Enjoyed them for a week. Two weeks later, spent another day in Seattle after disembarkation. DH and a couple guys went to the Museum of Flight, they enjoyed it a lot esp. going through the old Air Force One. Three of us girlfolk went shopping. We started at Nordstrum, they are having a semi-annual sale on women's but I do not find anything I like well enough to spend $300 on. We go to Nordstrum Rack, very disappointed in the quality. Cheap Chinese made shoes they want $40-60 for, torn sweaters 'marked down' to $70. Forget it. We end up back at Pikes market and admire the flowers again. Decide on an early lunch at Lowell's, we get a great table next to the window on the second floor and have excellent food and service. One friend continues to shop, she ends the day not buying anything. The other friend and I go to the Art Museum and spend an hour gasping at the native art special exhibit. Stunning, really special. The gift store is very nice, we bought a couple of things there. Everyone meets at the Aquarium down on the waterfront, downhill 3 blocks from the Art Museum. Very highly recommend this Aquarium, especially if you have kids or just love Aquariums like I do. I could have spent all day there, but 2 hours will be enough for most people. The coral is amazing, extensive touch tanks, even some seals and otters. We sat in a coffee shop for a while - this IS Seattle, after all - and had some laughs with a couple of local ladies. We walked up to catch the light rail to the airport where our hotel for the night is, stopping along the way for dinner at The Bistro at 2nd & Cherry. We have very good burgers and beer, reasonably priced (for downtown Seattle)and very clean place. Around the corner is the entrance to the Tunnel, where all the buses and light rail are. We buy tickets to the airport - $2.50 ea. Very impressed with the light rail, clean and efficient. The station, however, is infested with zombies. Some local college kids are setting up a flash mob of zombies at the airport. Very amusing! We talk with them, take pics, enjoy their zombie antics for the 25 minute trip to the airport. At the airport stop, the zombies go off to join about 200 of their undead fellows to storm the Hilton. We call for the shuttle from the SleepInn Seatac to pick us up. The shuttle is there in a few minutes, takes us to the hotel. The room is very clean and the staff are helpful and friendly. We sign up for a shuttle to the airport at 4 am the next morning. We wanted the 5:30, but it was already full. Note: reserve places in the shuttle as soon as you can. They leave every 30 minutes.
Weather: 60 F and sunny. May 24 This is the most beautiful port yet, and that's saying something. The harbor is very protected, many small islands and the extinct volcano Mt. Edgecombe providing spectacular views anywhere you look. We go on the Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest, through the ship but run by Allen Tours. This is a tender port but the Allen boat picks us up directly from the ship , a nice convenience. We tool around the bay & out into open water for a bit as the day is so nice for about 2 1/2 hours. We see dozens of sea otters, males and females separate in groups called rafts. Some of the females have babies on their bellies. We see a group of harbor seals sunning themselves on rocks, and we also see a nesting pair of bald eagles. We spend the last hour chasing after a couple of humpback whales. Several good sightings, nice dives with tails etc. Not as good as Juneau but nice to see whales again, and very nice for the folks on board who did not go whale watching elsewhere. No puffins or dolphins. Well run excursion, they give us a great snack of smoked salmon. We spend the afternoon walking around Sitka, very pretty town and easy to walk everywhere. We visit the St. Michaels Russian Orthodox Church, very simple structure with beautiful paintings and icons. We stop at the Red Hot Reindeer Sausage Stand and pay $6.50 for a 1/4 lb. reindeer polish dog, inc. chips and a soda. Great lunch, we sit on the plastic chairs and soak up the sunshine. The dogs are very good, the couple running the stand are a project manager and physician's assistant who work at the local hospital but take their combined lunch hours to run this stand. After lunch, we go to see the Shelden Jackson Museum. This is not to be missed. It is an amazing collection of very beautiful native artifacts mostly from the 1880 - 1910 era. The gift store is small but very nice. I stroked a pillow of sea otter fur, it is absolutely the softest thing I have ever touched. I left it at the museum for someone else, not having budgeted $350 for a small pillow. We walked back to the tender dock, shopping a little as we went, and wishing we had more time in Sitka.
Weather: 62 F, occasional light showers. May 26
We took the ship excursion Short City Tour and Butchart Gardens. Tour was ok, nice town. The Gardens were breathtaking, awesome, gorgeous, insert superlative here.
There were brief light showers once or twice, but the Gardens have bins of umbrellas all over the place, you just get one when you want it and put it back in a bin when you're done. Very convenient. There are 4 major gardens, and each is completely different. We spent only 2 hours there, we could have spent the whole day. One of our traveling companions is a Master Gardener and has been to lots of public gardens, and kept saying she had never seen anything as lovely. She just walked around in a daze with a goofy grin on her face. I would love to live close enough to go here every couple of weeks to see how it changes. While we were there, it was like a dream of springtime, tulips by the hundreds, blossoming trees, petunias, flowers I have never seen before. And everything perfectly kept. Back to downtown, I drag DH to the Miniatures Museum behind the Empress Hotel for an hour while the rest of our party shops. I enjoyed it, over 80 exhibits from a circus to a working sawmill to the Battle of the Bulge. I could have stayed longer, but an hour is about the right length of time for most people I think. Victoria is very clean, we felt perfectly safe wandering all over. It is a very expensive town, we felt we found a bargain with a $15 hamburger. After wandering around downtown, we walked back to the ship at a leisurely pace through residential neighborhoods. Took about 40 minutes. Except for the Gardens, not a lot to do here except for a couple of tourist traps like Miniature World. But the Gardens are worth the stop all on their own.