First a little about us: We're a couple in our 60s from the deep South where we don't get much cold weather. I had to learn to dress in layers etc. for warmth then found that, for this cruise, I would have been fine with my normal winter wear because it was so warm. This was our sixth cruise, but our first cruise on HAL. This was our second cruise to Alaska, which is so beautiful that we just had to return even though we said the first Alaskan cruise was a once in a life time trip.
The ship: The Zuiderdam was in good condition in most areas with only a little wear showing that you would expect on a ship that has 2000 passengers each week. The most notable exception was the aft booths in the Lido buffet where the upholstery showed a lot of wear. We upgraded to an SY suite at the last minute which was both bad and good. The good was that we loved the extra room and the bath tub. The bad is that we got spoiled. I'm not sure we can go back to those tiny (by comparison) verandah cabins for future cruises.
The food: Had I not been expecting something extraordinary from reading HAL's praises here in CC, I would not have been disappointed. I know food is subjective, but we would rate the food as, for the most part, no better and no worse than what we've come to think of as "cruise ship food." While we were going through SEATAC on our way home, an airline attendant asked about the food and which line we had cruised on. When we told him we were disappointed with HAL's food, he replied that every cruiser to whom he had talked this season said the same thing with the exception of Celebrity cruisers. So apparently I'm not alone in my assessment. We did enjoy being able to order from the full breakfast menu and the MDR dining room menu from Room Service. This is definitely a good benefit of sailing with HAL.
The service: Again, had I not read here on CC gushing praise about HAL's service, I would not have been disappointed. We've gotten better, and we've gotten worse. We did note that we were rarely addressed by name. It was always "Ma'am" or "Sir." On our last NCL cruise we were addressed by many crew by our names after the first day. (How they managed to do this, I'll never know. I generally wear my ship's card turned backwards so my name doesn't show.)
Entertainment: We weren't overly impressed by the Zuiderdam singers and dancers. Even though the leads did have a lot of talent, we just weren't inspired by the shows. We were, however, "wowed" by the magic act. Le Cielel and his dogs were fantastic. He's one of only three magicians to receive a prestigious gold medal for his act, and we can see why.
Boarding: In spite of what I had read about being prepared for chaos, boarding in Vancouver was a breeze. We had planned to head down to the port from our Pan Pacific room at about 10:30, but the bellman of the Pan Pacific was so prompt that he came in 10 minutes instead of the promised 30 minutes. He took our luggage which we never saw again until it was delivered to our cabin around 3:00 pm, just as promised. This was a great help! When we got downstairs to the port, there were about 30 - 40 people in line ahead of us, but Customs was already open, and we just walked right through all the way to the HAL waiting area where we had to wait for about 30 minutes for them to start boarding.
The itinerary: We picked this particular itinerary because of the wonderful scenery that it promised sailing from Vancouver and going to both Tracy Arm and Glacier Bay. We were not disappointed! The scenery was just as awesome as we remembered from our first cruise.
There was no ice blocking the entrance, so the ship was able to get into Tracy Arm. We did the small boat add-on excursion in which a catamaran picked us up from the ship at the mouth of Tracy Arm. This was an expensive excursion, but we felt it was worth it. The scenery seen from water level, rather than several decks, up was spectacular. I think the ship had to turn around before getting to South Sawyer Glacier because of ice, but the catamaran inched it's way past the icebergs to get us close enough to see the glacier. On the way to join the ship in Juneau, we stopped for about 10 minutes to watch a large flock of eagles resting near the water. We were able to see them well enough for the tour guide to point out the juveniles as well as the adults. We also stopped for 15 - 20 minutes to watch a pod of humpback whales playing. We were really happy about this because it let us combine whale watching with the Tracy Arm excursion. We tendered in Juneau, but didn't do anything else special.
In Skagway, we only did the Original Street Car Excursion. It was an inexpensive but enjoyable way to get an overview of the area and its history. It was so warm in Skagway that we stopped on our way back to the ship for ice cream cones to cool off. (I had only packed long sleeved shirts because it was so cold when we went before. Next time, I'll listen when CC members report warm weather.) Upon our return to the Z, we were even able to enjoy sitting out on our balcony in just shirt sleves (no layers or coats) for about an hour watching the port. One thing that surprised us about Skagway was the number of jewelry stores. There were at least 6 blocks that seemed to be nothing but jewelry stores, with hardly any of what I'll call "just plain souvenir stores".
Glacier Bay was a little bit of a disappointment, but only because we had seen it the first time on a beautiful sunny day. This time, it was foggy for most of the morning, then cloudy the rest of the day, so we didn't see the beautiful blue that had so impressed us first time around. This day we needed our layers, coats, hats, gloves, deck blankets, etc., and were still cold. I think HAL gave a better tour of Glacier Bay than Princess since we stopped at areas where we hadn't stopped before. We stopped for a few minutes at several glaciers, not just Margerie and the Grand Pacific. On the way out, we saw many, many seals resting on a small island. That night we went around the islands on the Pacific side and had the only "rough" seas we experienced. I was glad we had not chosen to cruise out of Seattle where we would have had 2 - 3 days in the Pacific. While we didn't get sick because we came prepared, I know several people did.
In Ketchikan, we went independent and took the Island Wings float plane trip to Misty Fjord. Everything good I've read on CC about Michelle and Island Wings was so true! It was a beautiful experience. I have some limited mobility, but Michelle helped me get into and out of her float pane so I could get to land and see the awesome beauty of the small mountain lake we landed on. This was the highlight of our trip! I would absolutely recommend the Island Wings trip!
My only real complaint about the whole trip was that on the last sea day we kept getting conflicting instructions about how to get wheelchair assistance for disembarking. On disembarkation day, when we tried to follow the previous day's instructions, we almost missed our transfer to SEATAC because the wheelchairs didn't arrive as promised. We were paged by name on the public address system and told to report to the wrong place just as we were about to arrive at what would have been the correct meeting place. A crew member found us at the Front Office and escorted us to the bus just before they were ready to pull out. (They did leave 2 people who were late.) This transfer was one of the best pre-cruise choices we made. Our luggage went straight from the ship's hall to the bus. In our "sealed" bus, it only took about 15 minutes to get through the border crossing. Two custom's agents boarded the bus going down the aisle checking passports and collecting the declarations sheet we had been given on board. We arrived at SEATAC in about 3-1/2 hours.
All in all, it was a great cruise! We're not sold on HAL but neither are we against it. We'll continue to choose cruises based primarily on itinerary then use price as a tie breaker.