BACKGROUND: I am an experienced cruiser (not counting that I am retired Navy). I have been on 15 cruises (on six different cruise lines). I have been to Alaska six times (a different itinerary every time). And I have sailed on HAL twice before (Maasdam and Volendam). My basic philosophy is it's not the ship that makes the cruise but the itinerary and that's why we chose MS Amsterdam - it went to three ports we've never cruised to before (Anchorage, Homer & Kodiak), three "ports" we've only been to once (Hubbard Glacier, Tracy Arm, and Icy Strait Point) and two of our favorite ports (Sitka and Juneau).
SUMMARY: The itinerary is a winner. The ship was a disappointment. Thus, the overall cruise experience was excellent.
BOARDING: Friends met us at Sea-Tac airport and we went to the revolving restaurant at the Space Needle for lunch. I was surprised to find that the food was excellent. After rubber-necking at the view, we arrived rather late at the Pier 91 Terminal. Man, this is the way to board! There were no lines anywhere and my wife and I literally walked straight through to the ship.
PORTS OF CALL:
Ketchikan. I'm not a big fan of Ketchikan and nothing we saw or did there this time changed that opinion. The main positive about this town is the ability to easily walk back and forth to Creek Street.
Tracy Arm. Glorious weather! We got to the mouth of the North Sawyer Glacier before turning back, so never saw the face of South Sawyer Glacier. That was a big disappointment since we got to within half a mile of it last August and it has some of the most beautiful blues of any glacier in Alaska. Given the weather, my opinion is that the Amsterdam's captain is a wuss.
Juneau. Beautiful weather in the high 70s. We've done the helicopter dog sled on the glacier, we've done the sea/land photo safari, we've done the whale watching. Each of these was fabulous. This time we did the raft trip down the Mendenhall River. Overall, a good trip, BUT, there were too many people on the raft making it exceedingly cramped and uncomfortable and it was way too long gently floating on the river. The "rapids" are child's play. Consequently, I doubt we'll ever do it again, but seeing mama bear and her cub on the bank was cool.
Icy Strait Point. After seeing the zip line our first time there we knew we HAD to do it this time around. It did not disappoint. A totally awesome ride and will do it again. 45 minute drive up the mountain to the launch point (1,300 ft high "hill") and a 90 second ride at 60 mph to sea level. Woo-hoo! And, yes, you really do need that zip shot at the bar when you land! Many mumblings among fellow passengers about going to a dinky town with nothing to do and I think they are all wet. This is one of the few chances to see a "real" native town - without the jewelry stores and souvenir shops. It's also a chance to see some wildlife, BUT, be forewarned that the wildlife does not emerge until mid-June. Any wildlife excursion before then is just stealing your money.
Anchorage. We have been there before on the train, but I am not interested in going to Alaska to see a big city. So, we took the 10 hour train ride down the Kenai peninsula. Excellent ride, but a bit long. Breathtaking scenery, some glaciers (but no stopping) and the occasional bear.
Homer. Wanted to see wildlife, so we took the boat excursion to Gull Island. Saw more gulls than I ever care to see again. Good tour, but not worth the price. Plus, the boat was VERY cramped. Our naturalist was Janet Klein who has written at least three books on Homer and Kachemak Bay (still don't know why she didn't bring some aboard to sell), so we had to scramble through the gift shops on the spit to finally find one). Look for her books, they are interesting. Also saw the Time Bandit of Deadliest catch fame. Homer is its home port. And the Time Bandit has its own t-shirt and souvenir shop on the spit.
Kodiak. Biggest disappointment was that there are no bears in the area. They are all the way south in the preserve. So, settled for a sea life boat ride. Saw otters, sea lions, eagles, puffins and even caught a rock fish just to show off the local fishing grounds. It was a "nice" excfursion, but overpriced. There is no shuttle service in Kodiak and for a boat full of old people that was a problem. There were almost shootouts for the few cabs that came by. Another Deadliest Catch ship was here, but I forget the name.
Hubbard Glacier. Another gloriously beautiful day and the captain would not come any closer than four miles to the glacier, confirming that he's a wuss. We managed to get some ok shots with our humongous rent-a-lens but the average passenger could neither hear the glacier nor see any activity.
Sitka. Again beautiful sunny weather in the high 60s. Quite a contrast to last August when it rained all day. We did the Tongass rain forest hike. It was a much more difficult trail than the literature indicated and although we persevered (and survived) anyone with any health issues should not go on this tour. We actually went to the Mosquito Cove loop (nowhere near town) for the hike. The forest was gorgeous and our guide was extremely knowledgeable about the flora and fauna (and the Russians). The hidden secret about Sitka is that you can take the local city bus for two dollars per person on a one hour loop around Sitka and see the whole city. You can even hop-on hop-off.
Victoria. We belong to the Whale Museum on Friday Harbor, so, of course, we went whale watching. Unfortunately, J pod was not in, but we did see two transients, T-20 and T-21. We've been to Victoria numerous times and for the first time learned that there is a quaint "floating village" at Fisherman's Wharf. Lots of fish'n'chips joints there.
DEBARKATION. Overall, it went smoothly once it finally started. For whatever reason, the ship seemed reluctant to announce what was going on and what the status of things was - not the first time that happened during the cruise. We did the "luggage direct" option and it went perfectly. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
SHIP'S STAFF. The wait staff was totally perfunctory. No interaction with the guests and no "flair" in their duties. The room stewards were friendly but inefficient. They were tardy in making up our room, they did not replace used items in a timely fashion and I'm sorry, but I'm past the "towels animals are cutesy" stage. For "big events" (bingo, happy hour, etc.) the bar staff was undermanned, leading to long waits to first get their attention and then get served. Cruise Director Jimmy was a hoot. Travel Guide Jeanette was very informative.
FOOD. A giant disappointment.
Dining Room. We had second sitting in La Fontaine Dining room. I'm really tired of executive chefs trying to jazz up a perfectly good meal into some kind of nightly dining extravaganza. To me, it results in overdoing a perfectly good meal. What's wrong with meat loaf or chicken fried steak? We never got a steak served the way we ordered it (medium rare). They always came medium well. We sent them back at first and finally gave in and just ate what we could. Crab night was disappointing as the portions were those of an appetizer. Overall the portions were smaller than I recalled, but since we can all use a bit of dieting discretion, I used that as my excuse to pass on seconds. Our Table Captain did promise to make crème brulee for "our table" one night and he did. For the six of us, he brought three dishes. Huh? To make up for it, he grabbed two more pre-made dishes from the Pinnacle Grill. How does 5 = 6? Frankly, my wife makes better crème brulee. They should pay her to use her recipe.
Lido Buffet. Our late dining sitting was not full, but the Lido buffet was heavily used - I think a testament to the fact that even the old folks are getting tired of the dining room cuisine. The Lido "system" (if I can call it that) was one of organized chaos. The few servers behind the counter (there were never enough) could not keep up with the demand. I love sandwiches for lunch. The one guy who makes them is swamped. On average it probably took 10-15 minutes to get a sandwich (which also led to people trying to butt in line from the other end). There does not seem to be any rationale for the way the buffet line is organized - it's just a bunch of random stations with the result that people line up all over the place without really knowing where the line actually is. And then, just try to find a seat to eat your meal! By the time you finish your third or fourth circle of the seating area, your food is cold. Finally, in the category of "weird/puzzling" is the buffet's operating hours. Due to our rafting trip being so long in Juneau, we got back to the ship about 8:45 and found that the buffet was closed. There was no where on the ship to eat at that hour. Since the ship wasn't leaving until 10:30 p.m. we were quite amazed at this. As it so happened, the Canaletto "restaurant" (a designated segregated-off portion of the buffet area) was open until 9:00, so we ate there.
Canaletto. I read some earlier reviews complaining about the Canaletto. It seemed perfectly fine to us. I had the chicken marsala and it was as good as Olive Garden's. With all the Italian items at the buffet, I'm not sure why they have this type of restaurant where it is, but it worked for us that one night.
Room Service. We used this several times when we had early shore excursions and did not want to do the table dance at the Lido. It was on time and what we ordered.
Hamburger Grill. Ate there once and it was a good burger.
Pinnacle Grill. We made the mistake of falling for HAL's ravings about the Le Circe "concept' dinner. What a waste of money and food. It was all overly fancified. We sent a couple of things back, didn't eat most of the rest of it. The pate was inedible. The lobster "salad" was a joke. The corn soup was another joke. The "prime rib" - actually a rib eye steak -- was very good. The potatoes were puffed and tasteless and the veggies we merely ok. HAL either needs a new concept or they need a new restauranteer. This one is a loser.
ENTERTAINMENT. I was embarrassed for the cruise director that he was required to shill for the ship's entertainers. They were totally off key and could not hold a tune. Amateur night at its worst. We walked out. We also walked out on the comedian and after that chose to ignore the entertainment until the Phantom of the Opera lady. She was good. The Adagio Strings were nice and some of the Ocean bar stuff was ok, but I thought the piano guy and the guitar guy were below average.
FACILITIES. The Crow's Nest is an awesome spot for an Alaska cruise because you can see so much from there. Most times it seemed under utilized, which was fine by me as is meant more elbow room. The "great room" of the library, coffee shop, Internet cafe, reading room and puzzle palace is a fabulous room. It's one of HAL's ship design highlights in my opinion. We never used the pool, the Jacuzzi, or the spa.
BOTTOM LINE. Not even a disappointing ship can ruin an Alaska cruise. Overall we loved the cruise and I would recommend it to others. Just don't let the alligators (or the little things) get to you. You do get fed, you do get to go to bed, and you do get to the next port.