We began our vacation on July 24, 2011 with a 2 night pre tour to the Brooks Range. Upon our arrival in Fairbanks, we were a little disappointed to find there was no packet waiting for us with tour instructions. The HAL rep at the Westmark was quick to take care of this and had the information for us within an hour. After a short nap (we arrived at approx 830pm Alaska time and had to be up and ready for a 415am departure), we began our pre tour. It was a 9 hour ride up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot, Alaska. Our tour guide was very informative and the company that HAL uses for this tour made sure everything was taken care of. Upon our arrival in Coldfoot, we stayed at the Shell Creek Inn, which at first glance is extremely rustic. Twin beds, sink, small shower, and toilet. Thats about it. But it was very clean and well maintained. There is also a restaurant and saloon on the property. The restaurant had great food and we got to meet a lot of nice people; other travellers and some truck drivers.
The next day we continued our trek up the Dalton Highway to the Brooks Range and across the Attigun Pass to the Continental Divide. Breathtaking is how I can describe the scenery and the beauty of that part of Alaska. Our guide was again very informative and made stops whenever we wanted to take pictures or a break. We got to see a moose, wolf, and 2 blonde grizzly bears. Then we turned around and made our way back toward Coldfoot ending with a 2 hour rafting trip down the Koyokuk River. The weather was beautiful and the scenery was again spectacular. Arriving in Coldfoot, we took an 8 seat Piper Cub to Fairbanks (1 hour and 10 minute flight). Again with an excellent pilot/guide who pointed out points of interest to us throughout the flight.
We began the tour portion on the 26th and met with our HAL tour director, Justin, who gave us our packets and explained everything that we would need to know. Justin was again well informed in his job, and took care of all the needs of the approximately 50 people in his group with ease. He kept us well informed throughout the tour and handled everything. With approximately 4 or 5 groups/tour directors, you would expect chaos, but everything seemed to run very smoothly. We toured Fairbanks, the took the train to Denali, then Anchorage, and motor coach to Seward. The train rides were fun and with the domed cars, you can really see everything. They were very comfortable and the guides were again very informative and pointed out great picture opportunities along the way. We took the motor coach that was included in the price from Seward to the Ship and were glad we did. They offer an upgrade to the train, but it gets you to the ship later, and with the motor coach, we left at 830 in the morning and arrived at the ship by 1230pm and got checked in and boarded the ship in 10 minutes, then spent the remaining of the day walking around Seward which is a nice little town to walk around.
About the Zaandam: I read some troublesome comments before we left and was concerned, but I can honestly say that the ship is very well kept up. She is beautiful!! The crew always had a smile and a hello every time we passed them and stopped to chat when they could. The food was very good. We ate in the Pinnacle Grille one night and it was fantastic, as was the service. We also ate in the Canelatto (which is on the Lido Deck), and the food there was also delicious. The shows were ok as far as I was concerned. It is a matter of preference as to what type of entertainment people like, and I prefer comedy and magic. The magic and comedy shows were ok. I think they need to upgrade them a bit, I heard the Broadway show was really good, and the Indonesian show could have been better, but I didn't get to go to those shows, so I have no first hand experience.
We stopped in Haines, Juneau, and Ketchikan and had excursions in all ports. In Haines we booked the Takshunuk Mountain 4X4 mule tour, and were extremely pleased. Haines is a very cute little town and we found the best deals in shopping there for tee shirts and caps and that kind of stuff. In Juneau we booked on our own through Harv and Marv for whale watching and were not disappointed. Captain Sean made sure to go to all the good spots and we got to see lots of whales. We had a blast! We had a helicopter tour booked too, but they cancelled due to weather. In Ketchikan we booked the Bering Boat Tour on the Aleutian Ballad (which was the boat used in the first season of the Deadliest Catch), and it was so COOL! The Captain and crew showed us what is done when they go out on those boats and explained the perils and pitfalls that they face on a typical day at sea with great animation and information. Another truly great excursion.
Sailing through the College Fjords and Inside Passage was truly beautiful!!
Unfortunately the vacation of a lifetime came to an end and we were sad to go, but in true HAL style, debarkation went as smoothly as it can and we made it home safely with over 2000 pictures and lots of wonderful memories. My personal recommendation to anyone who is thinking of doing the type of vacation is to do the land part first then the cruise. The land part is a lot of touring and you will need the rest when you get to the cruise. One tip for future travellers is to take advantage of their unlimited laundry service. Its 49.00 for the week and unlimited amounts, and they do it for you. No waiting for a washer and dryer as it seems the rest of the ship is doing their laundry at the same time. We had all clothes laundered prior to disembarkation which made packing substantially easier as all clothes were neatly hung or folded leaving more room in the luggage for the souveniers.