Rather than a detailed account of our trip I will highlight some of my impressions and offer some tips and hints. I have also included some information that I had a difficult time researching before our trip. This was our third Holland America cruise and second aboard the Volendam. (Note, we boarded the ship in Skagway but this form does not have that port in the drop down list).
In general, the land tour and cruise exceeded my expectations. The land tour was super organized and the handling of baggage and other details was extraordinary. Room keys were always provided as soon as we departed the bus and our Tour Directory, Gwen, did an outstanding job of taking care of all of our travel needs. We also had a great bus driver, Rick, from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. The bus (coach) itself was full but was configured for just 44 passengers. This meant we had extra leg room. The coach had a reasonably sized bathroom and we were not discouraged to use it (other bus drivers on tours usually tell us to only use the bathroom in emergencies). There were also frequent rest stops, usually every two hours or less. The coach had video screens, music via provided headphones, just like a plane. HAL had two buses on the same route but they tried to stagger our times so that the restrooms and other facilities would not be overloaded. We also had several buses from other tour companies that seemed to be duplicating our itinerary. The trains to Denali and Fairbanks were also comfortable and there are good views on either side of the train.
I highly recommend this Cruise Tour itinerary. It provided a diverse schedule of included activities. All of the hotels were centrally located and they were clean and well maintained. I read some negative reviews of the Westmark in Beaver Creek but our room was fine. We didn’t get the meal plan but were satisfied with the number of meals that were included. We used the $25 per person coupon at the Westmark Whitehorse for breakfast and dinner. We are light eaters and the restaurant gladly split our dinner, even putting it on two plates for us. Unfortunately the Salmon was dry and other diners reported similar disappointment in their entrees. The days start very early and we usually did not attempt to eat breakfast on most days. We brought snacks and instant oatmeal which were sufficient to eat in the room. There were usually stops in mid morning and mid afternoon for additional refreshments.
We did not book any of the land tour excursions but opted to try to do some things on our own. We asked the bus driver on the included Denali tour if he could leave us at the Visitors Center before returning to the hotel and he happily agreed. We took the time to see the movie, view the exhibits, etc and then went on the free shuttle bus to the dog kennels. They had a good presentation and ran the sled dogs on a dirt path. On the second day in Denali we took the free shuttle from the hotel to the Visitors Center. The shuttle runs every half hour and is convenient. We then joined the 10:00 am free Ranger led hike. There were 20 of us on this hike and the Ranger said he would call another Ranger if more people showed up. This hike lasted about 2 hours and was fun and informative. Similar hikes are offered by HAL but cost almost $100 per person. At the end of the hike we saw a Beaver dam and were told that between 4pm and 6 pm is the best time to actually see the beavers at work. The Beavers are up to 100 lbs and they pull their downed trees right along the hiking path down to the dam. We were sorry to have missed that. We walked back to the Science Center and then had lunch at the Visitors center. We did not have to go back to the hotel and just walked down the path to the train which departed at 4 that afternoon.
The Fairbanks visit included excursions (sternwheeler, and gold mine) were both done well. On the sternwheeler, there are free doughnuts, and later in the day free salmon dip with crackers. I thought they would charge for the coffee but this was free also. The best seats on the boat are on the left side. The gold panning was fun but they sort of lock you in the gift shop after since you have to take the train back to the busses even though it is a five minute trip. However they have free cookies and coffee in the shop so can’t complain too much.
The Yukon portion of our trip was far more scenic than I envisioned. There are two long bus rides but they are broken up with frequent stops and some fun activities on board. Again, our bus driver, Rick, and our tour director, Gwen, did a admirable job in entertaining us. The dog sled presentation and demonstration just outside Whitehorse was disappointing. The talk was good but we couldn't believe they used a motorized ATV instead of letting the dogs pull a real sled as we saw in Denali and in Fairbanks. In Whitehorse we took the free day to hike the river trail. It is essentially one loop and takes you to the fish ladders and back. A pleasant way to spend the day. There is also a trolley that costs $2 one way and $4 for the whole day. The White Pass railway was a great way to end our land tour. The best seats are on the right side of the train.
Embarkation in Skagway went smoothly and we were on board before 1 pm, in plenty of time for lunch on the Lido Deck. The main dining room was closed that day so it was not possible for Mariners who embarked in Skagway to have lunch there. The Volendam recently completed a refurbishment and the ship was in excellent condition. However one big exception was the mold on our shower curtain. I am sure our room steward would have changed it if I asked. We had a "guaranteed" port hole room and were upgraded to a room with a large window and it was midships on the lower promenade deck, a great location. I was a bit odd having people walking past the window but we checked and it is almost impossible to see into the room during daylight hours.
We usually like to eat at the Lido but found that the buffet was a “free for all”. Some of the food was on the line too long and the “display” dishes looked better than what was served. Desserts were not replenished often enough and the line for the ice cream was always long. The toppings were inexplicably placed before the ice cream which led to even longer waits on line. The dinner buffet does not offer any more service than lunch. You still have to pick up your own drinks, entrees, etc. In general, the food tasted much better in the dining room. We ate dinner in the Lido the first night while still in port and one side was open for staff only. The staff side had a nice view of the bay and the guest side had a view of the pier and the graffiti covered rocks.
The Lido has almost the same menu as the main dining room but on formal night they did not have the lobster. The main dining room had Surf and Turf that night and we opted for Surf and Surf and the waiter did not hesitate in bringing us two lobster tails each. They were large and perfectly cooked. Probably the best lobster we have received on any ship. I packed light and just wore a dark shirt and tie. I saw several others dressed similarly and no one seemed to mind. We ate all of the other dinners in the main dining room as well. We had open sitting and whenever I called for a reservation for a table for two I was only given the options of 5:30 pm and 7:45. this worked for us. Without a reservation, a table for two meant a 20 to 25 minute wait (they give you a beeper).
It seemed like many of my previous suggestions had been incorporated. I guess they really do read those comment cards. There were few announcements, particularly in the stateroom so there were no repetitive reminders about bingo, etc. There were more activities than I remember on previous voyages. The entertainment was excellent and the shows were better than any I remember. The singers/dancers were good as was the comedian (Lee Bayless). Debarkation went smoothly and a nice improvement is that you can wait in your stateroom until your departure time. We had breakfast in the dining room on the last day and the waiters did not rush us at all. We walked the short distance to the train station. The train leaves frequently and it takes about 30 minutes to the airport. Just make sure you are on the Canadian Line. You can pay via credit card. We used our credit card frequently in the Yukon and did not need to change to Canadian currency. Leave extra time for the airport because you must go through U.S. customs and there was a long line.
This turned out to be longer than I expected. I would be glad to provide any other information so feel free to ask.