For some reason the town of Skagway was not listed in the embarkation drop-down. Alright, I'll preface this review by mentioning that I am not a world-weary, sophisticated traveler that is easily bored and has an axe to grind against Holland America but I also do not like tour-oriented vacations where the travelers are led around like cattle which is what the land portion was. This is a type of tour that my girlfriend and I would not normally be interested in but it was a family vacation and our tickets were paid for. Our trip was the 8A 8 day land tour to the n catch the Volendam in Skagway for a cruise through Glacier Bay and the Inside Passage and ending up In Vancouver for disembarkation. If you want the quick review and don't want to read the following, skip the painfully drawn out land tour and do the entire thin via cruise ship. So we traveled by air to Anchorage where we stayed at a Hilton which was a very nice hotel.
We woke up early the next day at around 6 AM for 12 hour train ride to Denali park. One of the engines broke down hence the long time. This was of course the day after most guests had spent the better part of the previous day traveling to Anchorage so it was a long day indeed. But the train was nice, the food was fair, and the guides on board were funny and friendly. We finally pull in to our lodging in Denali park which was agreeable. The next day we were scheduled to have an 8 hour tour throughout the park on a school bus to see bear, moose, etc., that started at 5:45 am and your luggage had to be out before that!!! Yes, you read that right. No thanks. That would have been 3 straight days of sitting with no hiking or real physical activity. So we slept in, did some shopping, and got a quick workout in. We then boarded one of the park buses for a 30 min tour and saw a bear, Dall sheep, and a caribou and her baby. Got lots of pics and had a great Korean War vet bus driver. He was my favorite person on the whole trip. Several couples mentioned after the 8 hour tour that had they known, they definitely should have skipped it.
By now the days were blending together and I couldn't tell what town I was in unless I consulted the itinerary. I was in a daze where time meant nothing and was reminded of my time in Iraq. I had developed the fabled 1000 yard stare actually outside of a combat zone. Sleep was a welcome time shrinker but that was robbed from me as a silly game was started on the bus. Alaska has potholes in it's roads. Big deal. So does every state. Well, on our bus anytime someone said "pothole" the entire bus screamed that word in unison waking anyone foolish enough to grab a few winks.
Next morning we had to have our bags out by 6 am to get an early start. This is a theme that happens throughout the entire land tour. Make no mistake, this is a working vacation as far as hours put in are concerned. The aggravating part is that during the day the tour guide announces how there's extra time so we end up making "additional" stops at crappy gift shops to purchase future thrift-store fodder. You know the items I'm talking about-stuff that when you give it to someone they wait till you leave and say "Really?" So the "we have extra time nonsense" happened on several days and got old real fast. Why not give everyone an extra hour to sleep in and grab a decent breakfast? The answer is that some of the gift shops are owned by Holland America. Please exit through the gift shop!! Frustrating as well is the fact that we rolled into our evening destinations so late that there's little to do but eat, clean up, and go to bed for another very early rise for more hours of sitting.
At about the 4th day the aggravation among guests was getting palpable. The median age was around 65 or so and I was naively thinking these older folks were having a ball. Indeed some were but 65 is apparently the new 45 and they wanted to get out and do more. Sorry, no can do. Sally's gift shop is waiting. Gold-panning at the El Dorado gold mine was quite fun and me and my girl could have done that all week. The people that run the operation are colorful, knowledgeable, and the real deal since it's a commercial mine. For those of you that end up here take this on board: you'll be given a bag of dirt to pan for gold. It goes quick and when it's gone that's it unless you reach down into the trough you're sitting at and grab more dirt. We increased our day's take from 14.50 to 15 bucks utilizing that method!! Enough for more tracks to download on my overworked iPod or coffee. Or sleeping pills. Also, more evidence that this great country is on the decline is that the water is warmed for the tourists. What would the "Greatest Generation" think of the rampant wimpification of Americans??? I digress. The riverboat excursion to a native village was cool and the riverboat dishes out free smoked salmon which I happened to love. What I don't love is 200 people in an enclosed area on the paddle boat with salmon breath. Next day was lunch in a town called Tok with a population of about the amount of people working in the obligatory gift shop and restaurant. What was the point of that stop? I remember now, technically it was for lunch but also to procure cheesy dream catcher thingys and other authentic made-in-Alaska by way of China goods. Next stop was at Beaver creek with a dinner and show. The venue was a cool, open air design with smores for the kiddos to make on an open flame. The show was hokey but not bad. Next stop was White Horse, not terribly memorable. We finally boarded a cool, old train for a very scenic two hour ride into Skagway to board the Volendam. That train ride eclipsed the rest of the scenery thus far. We could have just done that and still seen some of the best terrain in all of Alaska. Overall in my opinion though, the landscapes of Yellowstone and Zion Nat'l park offer much more bang for your buck. Yes, Alaska is of course beautiful but this is not the way to see it. If there's something you'd like to see more of, you can't because the schedule is so preplanned and you have to sit thru the things you don't.
We finally arrived in Skagway and boarded. For a line that's supposedly a step up from Princess for example, I wasn't that impressed. It was nice but is an older ship with not much to do for younger people and especially kids although there was a kid's club but that was about it. There were plenty of activities and some were cool such as a beer tasting. For the most part though, it was bridge lessons and seminars on things like how to photoshop and other simple how-to courses. We had a standard stateroom and it exceeded our expectations. Well appointed and spacious. The food was good and I enjoyed the salmon and clam bake held around one of the pools.
The staff was attentive and polite. No issues there.
I'm usually not to big on entertainment aboard ship but my girl talked me into going to see a comedian one night. He was marginal at best. Not what I'd call edgy or clever comedy. Pretty tame and predictable and obviously geared toward the older crowd.
The one shore excursion was a good time and that was Ketchikan. It's a great little town with good food and interesting sights to see like a salmon hatchery.
You can definitely get your relax on to decompress from the previous Bataan-esque march. There's even a gym and you're all but guaranteed that it won't be crowded. It's also a good spot to see the whales since it's perched up high towards the bow. Glacier bay and the Inside Passage were fun. We grabbed drinks and scanned for wildlife with binos that I brought. Oh yeah, if you're young and single and looking to hook up, hook up elsewhere unless you have a penchat for white hair and the bewitching odor of aspercreme. Not knocking old people at all, that's just a demographic fact of this tour.Disembarkation was very smooth and took just a few minutes. You can even leave early with your own bags instead of having to leave at your assigned time. There were other a few excursions I didn't mention and some of the above may be out of order. I wrote this to let people know how this trip really goes down. It's one of those trips that likely doesn't get repeat customers so I think it will remain as drawn out as it currently is. As I said before, I know some people thought this trip was just the best ever and think this review is way off but I know what the price was for our party of 11. If I were paying, I would definitely feel that I didn't get a fair shake unless I had traveled the entire time aboard the ship which is what I recommend. The land portion was just too much bus and train riding, subpar activities/entertainment at the stops (some locales did have interesting excursions for an additional fee but that's after you've been on the road all day), too early mornings, and too many gift shop stops. In addition, we spoke with another 4 couples once on the boat to ask their overall impression and all were disappointed and at the least would not do the land tour again and these were travelers who normally did tour style vacations. We were all just glad to get to the boat. Too much sitting, not the best time management for a vacation setting, and really not much to see in many of the towns on the land tour. I'd like to go back to Alaska but on my terms, to the towns and hiking areas I want, and for less money.