I will start with my experience prior to the cruise since this is where most of my problems began. We were on cruisetour 23 northbound which can be found on page 60 of HAL publication "Alaska & the Yukon 2011" May-September. We booked this cruise in September 2010. Listed for Day 9 is Denali National Park via McKinley Explorer Rail. On May 11, 2011..approx 2wks prior to sailing I received a phone call from my travel agent telling me that a HAL rep was on the other line and wanted to know if I wanted to be switched back from a bus to the train and if I did I would have to give up the $75 onboard credit I had received for being taken off the train and put on the bus. This was news to me. No one ever contacted me about having been taken off the train and put on a bus and I certainly did not know of a $75 onboard credit. I consider this nothing short of bait and switch. No where in the brochure does it say train if space available or that you might be put on a bus instead. I said of course I wanted to be on the train just as I already thought was never a question. Once on the ship I made attempts to confirm both with the front office and the "Cruisetour Specialist" Jeremy that I was in fact on the train. At first Kerzey at the front office was no help until I showed up with multiple faxes from HAL starting in Sept 2010 thru March 2011 all of which showed us on the train and never on the bus. When I handed over all this documentation he went into the back and came back out a few minutes later and said you are right you are on the train...this in a way that made me feel like he was just saying this to get rid of me. I would not actually receive any tickets until on land in Anchorage and if the tickets weren't for the train at that point it wouldn't be his problem. Jeremy who kept very limited hours at his desk with a computer told me he didn't have access to my account...this from the guy whose job is "Cruisetour Specialist". So if you are doing a cruise and land tour package you need to know that the guys on the ship don't know and don't care whatever it is you are doing on land and will not assist you in any way with any questions you may have. There is no such thing as a centralized database where they can gain access to your account. HAL has not yet gotten up to speed with the computer age. We did end up on the train but it sure would have been nice if someone on the ship could have confirmed this for us. The other pre cruise issue I had concerned rules for baggage which are so confusing I won't go into. Just know that if you call HAL on that one good luck getting a straight answer. I had a lady tell me I had to take 2 bags and I just wanted to take one...and then she proceeded to tell me I was packing too much? Yes, like I said confusion reigns with HAL!
Food: nothing special. Much preferred the buffet on Princess. Limited buffet hours so I got smart and started taking snacks back to the room. No trays to carry things on. No room service menu or for that matter instructions on calling room service in the room. Basket in the room which I found out from someone else was suppose to have a card in it so you could order fruit. The first 48hrs you cannot serve yourself at the buffet and they serve in small bowls so if you want just a little of several things it ends up mixed together. I found many of the staff in the buffet seemed to not understand what I wanted. We did not eat in the dining room. We were suppose to have open seating but when we got our room cards they had an assigned time and seat on them.
Cabin: It was spacious with tub/shower. We were in an oceanview on the Promenade deck which was very conveniently located and the view out the window was good. Bed was comfortable. Large closets. Didn't use the hair dryer but it looked like it was a full size dryer.
Weather: This was in late May. We had mostly short sleeve weather and no rain. Only times you needed a jacket was when you were near the glaciers on the cruiseship and when we landed on the glacier at Mt McKinley. Everyone said though that it was very unusual weather and usually it is cooler and rainy. Fairbanks was mid 80s.
Arrived the day before embarkation and stayed at the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver. Very nice accomodations right at the port. You literally walk over to the cruise ship. HAL personnel very helpful with embarkation. Lousy view of the train tracks and didn’t feel very safe walking a few blocks out from the hotel. Lots of people congregating at street corners and begging.
Ports of Call:
Ketchikan--- We went on the Saxman Native Village and Lumberjack Show. Enjoyed the Saxman Village but not so much the Lumberjack show although my husband liked it. I thought it was kind of corny. We walked to St John’s Episcopal Church. Beautiful wood carving done by the native peoples on the inside of the church.
Juneau-----In the AM we walked around the town and took the Mt Roberts Tramway. We walked up a steep hill to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Governor's Mansion. In the afternoon we did the Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest...would highly recommend. The glacier is beautiful and the whales put on quite a show.
Skagway-----The ship had mechanical problems so we were late getting into port and shore excursions had to be modified or canceled. Since ours was already later in the day, we didn’t have much of a change other than time and the bus trip was shortened. Price remained the same despite the shorter trip. We did the “Best of Skagway” and really enjoyed it. Beautiful scenery on the train and the bus! Enjoyed the salmon bake.
Glacier Bay and College Fjord were sailing days and were absolutely beautiful. The only time we needed a jacket out on the ship. Be ready to take lots of pictures!
Seward---- There was a shuttle to take you into town during the morning before final disembarkation. The buffet remained open so you could eat lunch prior to final disembarkation. Since it was Sunday morning most of the shops were closed and I walked the short distance to the Alaska SeaLife Center. It was well worth the $20 I paid to go in. I did not book this ahead, I just walked in and bought a ticket and then waited for the free shuttle to take me back to the ship. It ran about every 15min so was no problem. My husband went on the Ididaride Wilderness Sled Dog Ride and Tour and really enjoyed it and was back in plenty of time to eat lunch and wait for our final disembarkation call.
Anchorage---We stayed at the Hilton. Nice accomodations. We went to the WildRide Sled Dog Rodeo & Iditarod Dinner Show. The show part is outdoors so be sure to take a jacket. Very enjoyable and interesting to learn about the sled dogs and trainers. Nice meal inside after.
McKinley Explorer train to Denali----Very nice with assigned seats. Meal served downstairs. A bit expensive but good food. Beautiful scenery. Seats are very comfortable and spacious. If you have an extra bag they can store it if too large to keep with you. If you have a tendency toward motion sickness you might want to take something as the train does kind of rock back and forth. As I have mentioned before, be sure and confirm that you are indeed on the train and they haven’t given your seat to someone else to accommodate a large tour group.
Denali----accommodations were sparse to put it politely. Newer building was given to large tour groups and those of us left were put in older buildings. They were clean. You had to wait for a shuttle to get back to the main entrance….too far to walk and up a very steep hill. Across the highway is several gift shops and places to eat...Subway. There is also a buffet and cafeteria in McKinley Chalet...food is ok but pricey! McKinley Chalet is not actually part of the park but I believe is run by HAL.
Mt McKinley Flightseeing and Glacier Landing by airplane---This was the highlight of the trip. Worth every penny! They provided glacier boots which fit right over your shoes and Velcro for adjustment. They will keep your bags for you as the plane is small and there really isn’t room for much. We each had our own window and headset to talk. We landed on Ruth Glacier and stayed about 30min. Time enough to get some great pictures. We got a lot of nice pictures of the summit of McKinley. We were fortunate in that the weather cooperated. This was absolutely awesome!
Historical Tour in Denali----This was included in our tour package. Was a nice tour of the park with several wildlife sightings and stops for photo ops. We got some good shots of McKinley in the distance since it was a clear day which I understand only happens 25% of the time.
Fairbanks---We stayed at the Westmark. Do not believe the picture on their website. The cruiseship passengers are put in an old section with no AC in the hallways and the AC in the room wasn’t working. We had to open the windows. Furniture was soiled and carpets were dirty and stained. Hairs and dirt between the mattress and boxsprings so I was careful how I handled our luggage when we got home. Staff was inconsistent in their answers and I felt like at times maybe didn’t even understand my question. There was a computer so you could print out your airline boarding passes. We ate in the restaurant and it was ok. There was a Thai restaurant a few blocks away that had fantastic food where we ate lunch. There is a kind of “unusual” but interesting gift/museum across the street from the Thai restaurant that we enjoyed going thru.
Would I cruise Alaska again? Oh yes! Had a wonderful time and still haven’t gotten thru all my pictures.
Reasons I would never cruise Holland America again….confusion and inefficiency, buffet with limited hours and mediocre food, and rude front office personnel on the ship.