Review & Comments on Holland America Lines CruiseTour #5A - Vancouver to Anchorage via Juneau, Tracy Arm, Skagway, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Tok, Fairbanks and Anchorage - July 6-19, 2011
Our pre-cruise activity included flying into Vancouver 10 days in advance of our cruise departure date, where we rented a vehicle from Hertz to take a self guided tour east and west of Seattle. Our eastern tour took us on the 'Cascades Loop' from Ferndale, WA to Lake Pateros, WA with stops at the North Cascades Visitor Center, Rainy and Washington Passes, a drive down Cut Throat Creek Road and a Stop at Winthrop for ice cream! The next day's drive took us from Lake Pateros to mid-town Seattle with stops in Chelan (State Route 97A is a real treat), Cashmere and Leavenworth (the entire town center is modeled on a Bavarian village). This is a great drive through the Cascade mountains and it turned out to be a primer for Alaska's mountain ranges!
Next we were off to explore the western side of Washington. We toured Olympic national park including Hurricane Ridge and the Hon Rain Forest. For the latter we stayed in Forks, WA where we highly recommend The Forks Motel for their friendly staff and clean rooms. We explored Ruby Beach near LaPush and then south along US 101. Watch out for the big logs on the beach and rapidly rising tides!
From Forks we were back to Seattle to pick up our boating travel companions from Knoxville, TN. We would be together for the remainder of the HAL CruiseTour. Then it was off to Victoria, BC and the Butchart Gardens. I've not seen so many flowers in one place!
We then went on to Vancouver (last of many ferries!) where we spent 1.5 days sightseeing. We highly recommend the Vancouver Trolley (looks like a trolley car) as a great means of seeing and learning Vancouver City in a short time frame. Also, we purchased our hotel rooms (Sheridan Wall Centre) via Priceline. Vancouver can be pretty pricey!
On July 6th we boarded HAL's MS Volendam and I was impressed with the boarding process. Although we had been instructed to board at 2PM for a 5PM sailing, we chose to get there at around 11:00AM. The baggage folks were great, and the check-in was painless. We were on board after a brief but pleasant wait. Shortly after that we had a pleasant lunch in the Rotterdam Restaurant and departed the dock right on schedule.
We are first time cruisers but long time international travelers and have even lived abroad with the family for a couple years. I mention this to lay the foundation for our review. Some may see things different but then I can only relate our experience.
We thought the Volendam was in very good shape for a mature vessel. The staff was always pleasant and attentive. We were on the Verandah deck (level 6) and found those accommodations very good. The food was very good, although we only experienced the Rotterdam and the Lido Restaurants. We skipped the formality of the formal evening, opting instead to leave our suits at home (didn't need the added hastle for the 11 day land portion of the cruisetour!). The Lido served much of the same food in an informal setting. My only suggestion to HAL is to more effectively organize the lines for the food stations. This isn't a big deal but I observed some folks waiting in lines they thought went one place only to find out they went another!
Juneau: Our stop in Juneau was brief (8 hours - 2:30 to 10:30pm). There are many excursions available. We took the Photo Safari by Land & Sea with David as our guide. This excursion is for any photographer wanting to improve making (not taking) pictures outdoors. David was outstanding in his ability to impart his knowledge and abilities while we shot (with cameras!) whales bubble feeding, deer, sea lions and seals and bald eagles. We had a full afternoon on the boat followed by learning about bears while walking the trails near Mendenhall glacier
Tracy Arm: We had great weather and made it pretty far into Tracy Arm. The floating ice was spectacular and added excitement to the crisp clean air topside. Everything you have read about dressing in layers is true. For this day, along with others where we were in higher elevations, I found blue jeans, a golf shirt, sleeveless fleece and a light waterproof windbreaker sufficient to stay warm. Otherwise, I was in shorts, golf shirt, sleeveless fleece on cool mornings and seldom needed the raincoat/windbreaker. By the way, we only had significant rain once on our cruisetour -- the last day when leaving Denali and going to Anchorage!
This is probably a good time to talk about laundry since we're talking about clothing. We balanced the airlines weight and baggage limits on one hand with our desire to have clean clothes for a reasonable length of time before loosing a couple hours to doing laundry. We did laundry only one time during the CruiseTour which was in Whitehorse and we chose to go to a coin Laundromat (hint - Canadian and US quarters seemed to be interchangeable in the dryers but the washers only took Canadian dollar coins). A word of advice -- laundry facilities onboard and at the various motels/hotels were few and in high demand. That is not to say it can't be done. We never found that our free-time and the machines free-time coexisted!
Skagway: We met Layna our tour director for the land portion of the cruisetour the morning of our arrival in Skagway. We disembarked MS Volendam shortly after for a brief guided tour of the town and secured our carry bags at the Westmark hotel prior to exploring Skagway. You can't check in until 3:00pm but HAL reserves two rooms to where you can securely check carry luggage) Lots of touristy shops and jewelry stores! The walking tour conducted by a ranger of the National Park Service was a big hit. That evening after dinner the tour met up and walked over to Steve Hites, North to Alaska Show. A very entertaining and informative one-man show.
The next morning we caught the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway to Carcross with a stop at Lake Bennet where a railroaders stew dinner was provided. The ride on this train along with the views is spectacular. You'll want to make sure your mosquito repellent is handy this day as the mosquitoes were out-in-force at the terminal in Skagway and the walking trails at Lake Bennet.
At Carcross we transferred (walked across the tracks) to our HAL Explorer Coach. This is not like your fathers motor coach! First, there were maybe 42 seats total - so lots of leg room along with big windows for watching the scenery. I was comfortable in these seats and I don't generally fit in airline or bus seats! We had two outstanding drivers -- Rex and Lori over the next several days. They, along with our tour director Lanya, are special folks. Their enthusiasm, passion, ability and knowledge about the surroundings provided us with a unique and positive traveling experience --in a word, they were great!
Whitehorse (2 days): After a long day of traveling we enjoyed the Frantic Follies Vaudeville Show at the Westmark. The next day we took the Kolanee Walk and Kathleen Lake Campfire excursion. We enjoyed the bus ride, bakery stop and box lunch. Kathleen Lake is a beautiful area. Our fondest memories of Whitehorse included finding an oldies ice cream shop, the warm night in the motel (this was the warmest day during the trip -- maybe 82 degrees!) and the experience at the laundromat.
Dawson City (2 days): We were about 8 hours getting from Whitehorse to Dawson City with a stop for a sandwich lunch buffet. It wasn't hard to imagine the gold rush days as the tailings from the mines are very obvious even today. We took the Exploring Along the Demptster Highway excursion with our guide Steve. The Demptser Highway is a 457 mile gravel highway that connects the remote town of Inuvik with the Klondike Highway just east of Dawson City, Yukon. Steve was a wonderful guide who imparted a lot of knowledge about the fauna, wildlife and native moors of the area during our 116 mile venture up the Dempster Highway. We spent several minutes taking close-up pictures of a moose and her calf as they dined in the water alongside the highway!
Our tour was slightly modified as a result of bad road conditions. Originally we were scheduled to board the Yukon Queen II and ride down the Yukon River to Eagle. However, after taking a 2 hour ride on the Yukon Queen we returned to Dawson City and the Explorer Coach where we took the ferry across the Yukon River and drove The Top Of The Highway Road to the Taylor Highway to the Alaska Highway and eventually to Tok (pronounce Toak). We had several intermittent stops. Two of the most notable were the US border stop and the stop in Chicken, AK. What can I say about Chicken, just look it up on the Web!
Tok: Tok reminded me of what an old stage coach stop must have been like. Don't get me wrong, the facilities were good; we arrived late, ate dinner, went to bed, got up the next morning, ate breakfast and left. A very brief, overnight stop it was!
Fairbanks: We were another full day on the Explorer Coach traveling along the Alaska Highway. We had stops at Rika's Roadhouse & Landing, Santa Claus House - Northpole, the Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center and lunch was provided at the Gold Stream & Dredge No. 8 tour.
We had a wonderful time that evening at the Alaska Salmon Bake & The Palace Theatre excursion. The Alaska Salmon Bake folks picked us up in a blue school bus at the front doors of the Westmark Hotel and dropped us off at the same place after a great meal and entertaining show.
Denali National Park (2 days): We traveled (4 hours) from Fairbanks to Denali via the McKinley Explorer train. Great sights and great food along the way. We elected to take the afternoon of our arrival off and leisurely explore the many retail shops and restaurants. We heard from others who had great fun on many of the excursions. The next day we were on the Denali Tundra and Wilderness Tour. A great, informative tour over gravel roads, along cliffs, up and down foothills some 62 miles back into the park. We saw lots of wildlife, including caribou, grizzly bears and cubs, Dahl sheep. We even had a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley (the picture is now the background view on my computer!) Some would say, "Pretty expensive shot". However, I think it was worth every bump and grind on the bus!
Anchorage: We traveled (8 hours) from Denali National Park to Anchorage on the McKinley Explorer in the rain! Wow, we couldn't have timed the weather better. While the view was still good in the rain the food was better - prime rib! One night in Anchorage with time to explore the city by foot the next day and then we were off to home that evening.
Accomodations: We stayed in Westmark facilities everywhere but in Anchorage, where we stayed at the Hilton and Denali National Park where we stayed at the McKinley Chalets Resorts (Aramark). They were all good, clean accommodations. Now the disclaimers and they shouldn't be interpreted as digs or complaints. One of the fun aspects of this cruisetour is the notion that you follow nearly the same route that the 'stampeders' took during the 1898 gold rush to Dawson City. Consider what those folks put up with (wait till you see some of it) and you'll be pleasantly surprised with the accommodations. We were of a mindset that each day is an adventure and we had a blast. HAL did a wonderful job coordinating baggage, rooms, etc. The tour director provided each couple/family with a packet of information including room assignment and room key, recommended restaurants, baggage out time for the next morning, etc.
Food: We chose not to use the HAL plan and opted to purchase on our own. The food was all good and I'm happy to report we didn't loose any weight in Alaska or Canada. My sense is that the plan and what we paid are pretty close. We took many of our meals at the Westmark motels with the exception of the Salmon Bake & Palace Theatre in Fairbanks. This excursion was $59 per person and worth every penny. Buffet style fresh salmon, prime rib, crab and one other fish, the trimmings, beverages and desert. You can eat inside or outside and after the meal there is a fun play put on at the Palace Theatre.
Travel: The Explorer Coaches were very comfortable and our drivers handled the various roadways (paved and unpaved) and ferry crossing very well. There were plenty of bathroom breaks strategically placed throughout each days journey. I guess the polite way to say this is, "We always welcomed a flush toilet whenever we had that luxury"! Remember -- each day is an adventure along the gold rush trail. The train rides were great.
We had a wonderful time and as expected the only real downside was the flight home. Not because we were going home but because after all the wonderful modes of transportation we had to endure the normal lousy travel on US Airways and United with maintenance delays, missed flights and out-right rude staff!
Summary thoughts: We would highly recommend HAL's CruiseTour 5A to anyone wanting to combine 3 days of pampered treatment aboard the MS Volendam and 10 days of easy, well organized, adventurous travel. We had a great time orchestrated by a spectacular tour director (Layna) along with great coach drivers (Lori and Rex).
Mike & Cathy