Our 2011 Alaskan Adventure on the HAL Amsterdam August 5-19
with a pre-cruise stay at Mt. Rainier and Seattle
In 2008 my husband Bob and I went on a 7 day Alaska cruise followed by a 9 day independent land trip. Alaska has been calling me back ever since. I consider myself very blessed to have had another opportunity to visit this majestic place. I had several priorities on this trip: to observe bears eating salmon, to see Hubbard Glacier and to see Prince William Sound. All my wishes were fulfilled. How much luckier could I have gotten? My husband's priority for a return trip was to go when it wouldn't rain. Although we had a little drizzle, it was nothing to ruin our trip and he was very pleased with the weather as was I. The first part of the review is my comments on the Amsterdam. Following those comments you will find a day by day review of the ports. Feel free to ask questions if you need more detail.
A bit about ourselves: Bob is 64 and I am 62. Neither of us is physically active. We love nature and scenery. Most of our lives we camped, including on our honeymoon. Cruising is not our vacation of choice, but we have used cruises to get us to places that otherwise would be difficult to see in a timely manner on a minimal budget. We see a cruise ship as a floating hotel.
Ship Experience: This was our third cruise and second on HAL. We booked an HH obstructed view cabin on the Lower Promenade Deck. It turned out to be a good choice for the price. We had more of a view than I expected. We pre-ordered a refrigerator which was nice to have. The cabin was under the galley, so we did hear some noises above us, but it didn't bother us. The noise seemed to subside considerably after 10:30 p.m. We were never awakened by the noise. I had read about the Amsterdam being a noisy ship. The place we noticed a significant noise and vibration was as we walked down the hallway to our cabin from the forward part of the ship. You hear engine noise and feel significant vibration. One day as someone exited one of these cabins I asked if they heard this noise in their cabin and they said they sure did. I would not have been happy in one of those cabins. That is the only place we noticed noise.
We found the ship to be very well maintained. Staff was cleaning, polishing, and painting throughout the two weeks. The ship never seemed crowded except the day we were disembarking in Victoria. There are many nice areas to just park yourself and enjoy the views out the windows. We like the size of the Amsterdam. You never have long hikes to get anywhere. We never had waits for the elevators, although we tried to take the steps as much as possible.
The staff on the Amsterdam was outstanding. Our stewards, Heri and Yulien were top notch!!! All I had to do was leave a note and they handled whatever we asked for. They kept our room spotlessly clean and always had a smile and greeting for us whenever we saw them. They would wish us a great day when we left for the day and ask how we enjoyed your day when we returned. We found the dining staff to be very friendly. I noticed a significant difference in the Front Desk staff from my last HAL cruise. I found the Front Desk staff to be competent on this ship. They had a better command of the English Language than our previous HAL cruise. Last cruise I dreaded going to the Front Desk; this time not at all!
One thing I missed on our Daily Explorer was information regarding where we would be cruising each day and what time we would be passing key areas like whale areas. On our 2008 Volendam cruise this information appeared daily and I have to say whenever we were told we would be in a whale area, we would see them. On our Volendam cruise a public announcement would be made from the bridge telling us that wildlife had been spotted and what side of the ship it was noticed. We never had an announcement about wildlife being spotted on this cruise. At least I never heard any such announcements. On the Amsterdam the captain would make an announcement telling us some information about where we would be cruising, but I would have preferred to have it written down. Sometimes you were in a place you couldn't hear the announcement, or you simply couldn't remember all that was being told to you.
We did not have any trouble tendering in either Icy Strait or Sitka. Many complaints had previously been reported about the difficulties getting off the ship in Sitka. When I noticed on the TV that the ship was going to be in Sitka early, we headed to the Queen's Lounge. We were in Sitka at 9:30 a.m. and the Amsterdam was scheduled to dock at 10:00 a.m. Rather than listing the time the ship docks, I wish HAL would list the time they estimate to be cleared for disembarking. This causes a problem for those booking independent tours. I know on my previous cruises the time listed as docking time was the time we disembarked. However, on this cruise, that was not the case. We were always being told the ship had to be cleared for disembarking.
We LOVED the unlimited laundry package. For $98 we had our clothes beautifully laundered and pressed. I was waiting for them to tell me I had sent too many bags and they would be charging me an additional fee. We sent out 14 bags !!!! The laundry usually came back the following day. If it did not come back the next day, then it was returned the following morning. We felt it was worth the splurge so we could pack lighter and not have to spend time trying to find an available washing machine. Often we ran into frustrated people trying to find a launderette with availability. I was told the second deck launderette was never open for use on our cruise.
There were no major complaints about the food from us. We enjoyed the MDR for dinners, the LIDO for breakfasts and lunches, the Pinnacle for one complimentary dinner, and the Canaletto for several dinners. Like most banquet hall food, I do think they could reduce the sodium. I am a vegetarian and although the entrEes were excellent overall, some did not have a high protein level. However, I just learned to ask for a cheese plate along with it and that solved the problem for me. The area most lacking was the desserts. They served lots of variations of cakes and mousse/gelatin desserts. If that is your thing, you will be pleased. If I am going to eat something basically unhealthy, I want it to be worth the calories. They did offer a fruit crisp and a Baked Alaska every day. The fresh berry cups I could get back in 2008 on the Volendam were not available on the Amsterdam. The bread pudding in the Lido was excellent. I tried the ice cream once and although it was refreshing, it was not very rich. Others seemed to enjoy it though. We found service in all dining venues to be excellent. There was staff in the Lido to help you carry your food if necessary. I did not find it troublesome at all the first two days when the Lido staff did all the serving. I had read about long waits, but we did not find that to be the case at all. Neither were there long waits in the dining room those first two days. We had one meal where service was slower than on other days in the MDR, but it was still acceptable for a fine dining setting. We never had to wait to be seated in the MDR or the Canaletto, even if we did not have a reservation. To us, the advantage of making a reservation is you can request a table by the window.
Since smoke is a trigger for my asthma it is always a concern when cruising. Our cabin had no hint of smoke. The only place I smelled it was the casino and we make a quick transition when we were passing through. Unlike our last HAL cruise they did not have non-smoking days in the casino on this cruise. I rarely saw anyone smoking on the Lower Promenade. Seemed like pretty much a non-smoking crowd from what I could tell.
I was disappointed the Indonesian Tea was on the Hubbard Glacier Bay day. There is no way I was giving up being out on the bow for the tea. It should have been on a sea day. I had heard how lovely this event was and wished I could have participated.
The Amsterdam was great for viewing the scenery. We were out on the bow for both Tracy Arm and Hubbard Glacier. Those who don't like to be outside can go to the Crow's Nest with its forward panoramic views. There are also many other places with window viewing like the Explorers Lounge. I prefer to be out on deck and that is exactly where we were on both of these scenic sailing days.
We enjoyed the onboard entertainment. I don't have as much to compare to as others do. Our first cruise we never went to any of the shows. I did like the entertainment on the Amsterdam better than what we had on our NCL cruise last year. We thought the Amsterdam put together a nice variety with the singers/dancers, comedians, ventriloquist, magicians, juggler, etc. I wished they would have taped these shows and shown them on the TV In our rooms at a later time. We missed two shows because Bob was not feeling well and we would have liked to see them at our convenience.
I had read many positive comments about the computer classes onboard. We did not have any at all the first week. I finally asked the librarian about it and was told that the previous tech person disembarked in Seattle and the new one was not boarding until Anchorage. We tried to attend one class, but the line was out the door so we left. I think they need a larger location for these classes.
I appreciated the New York Times highlights that were made available at various locations throughout the ship. I was happy to get the baseball scores for my hometown team as well as to read what was going on in the world.
In summary we had a wonderful, wonderful cruise to Alaska on the Amsterdam. I must say I was getting concerned as I read some of the reviews of those who were on this ship before we were. However, I didn't need to worry. It was a magnificent cruise on a great ship with an outstanding crew!!!
Aug. 2 Flying to Seattle and driving to Mt. Rainier: Today we flew into Seattle. What a wonderful flight we had on a clear and sunny day. After picking up our luggage we boarded a shuttle to the Enterprise office. Simply stated this was the least competent car rental office we have ever rented from. It took about 45 minutes to get our paperwork processed at the price I had booked at. After way too long we were on our way to Mt. Rainier at 3:30 p.m. The anticipated 2 hour ride quickly turned into a 2 1/2 hour ride as traffic was heavy. On our drive we were able to see Mt. Rainier against the bright blue sky. It was quite a site. Once in the National Park we stopped at several scenic viewpoints, including Christine Falls which were flowing fiercely. As it was now nearing 7:00 p.m. we headed for the Paradise Inn. We immediately fell in love with the lodge and enjoyed a lovely and delicious dinner in the lodge dining room. National Parks are our favorite places to stay. The accommodations are very basic, but we like it that way. It didn't take us long to realize we wished we had booked two nights here instead of two nights in Seattle. For anyone wishing to stay here, be forewarned that there are no elevators. If you have problems carrying luggage, request a first floor room.
Aug. 3 Visiting Mt. Rainier and driving to Seattle: How lovely it was to wake up in the morning looking out the large bedroom windows and seeing mountains. This was Paradise for sure!!!!! After a delicious breakfast we took a stroll around the property. This area had 900+ inches of snow this past winter instead of the usual 600+ inches which caused the hiking trails in the Paradise area to be snow covered. This was a disappointment, but it surely didn't ruin our day. After checking out of the lodge, we drove to Narada Falls. The trail was a bit steep, but we managed just fine taking it slowly. Our next stop was Reflections Lake. This is the spot where the post card photos are taken that show Mt. Rainier and her reflection in the water. Although it was a clear day there was no mountain being reflected into the water when we were there. We learned you needed to be there earlier in the morning to experience this phenomenon. Our next stop was Box Canyon which is about 100 ft. deep and only 15-30 feet wide. Next was the lovely stop at the Grove of the Patriarchs. The hike takes you through an old-growth forest. Some of the trees were over 1000 years old with circumferences up to 30 ft. As you take this hike you are walking along the Ohanapecosh River which makes for a very scenic stroll. To get to the Grove you must walk over a suspension bridge. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at a time. When you cross the bridge you are on an island. The Grove has a truly magical feeling to it. After visiting the Grove we headed to the Sunrise Visitor Center. The views of Mt. Rainier from the road to Sunrise were even more beautiful than the views from Paradise. The mountain appeared to be much closer to you from this vantage point. The visitor center was very well done with many interesting and informative displays. After a quick lunch at the Sunrise Day Lodge, we headed to the Silver Forest/Emmons Glacier Vista Overlook. This is a very scenic trail with magnificent views of the Cascade Mountains. Blue skies and pleasant temperatures made for a perfect hike. There were many beautiful wildflowers along the way. The scent of the trees was very striking and strong. We never experienced anything like it on any of the many hikes we have taken in National and State Parks. Crisp air, sunny skies and the scent of the trees was the perfect combination for a great hike. After this hike we started our drive to Seattle. Until we got into Seattle the drive was much more pleasant than what we had experienced yesterday. However, once in Seattle the trip became a bit nerve-wracking. The freeways are much more difficult to maneuver than what we are used to in Michigan. We arrived at the Quality Inn at 7:00 p.m. We were a bit apprehensive about booking this hotel because of mixed reviews. However, we were very satisfied. Our requirements were that it be clean and safe, and both of those were met. The staff was friendly and the room was very clean. Unlike the Paradise Inn they do have elevators here. Once we settled our things into the room, we headed out on the streets looking for someplace to eat. We came across the 5 Point Cafe and Bar which was a local hangout for the most part. It is a great place if comfort food is what you are looking for. We enjoyed our meal here. What a wonderful day!!!
Aug. 4 Visiting Seattle: This morning we missed waking up to the view of the mountains. Instead we looked at the Travelodge. After a quick continental breakfast at the Quality Inn we drove to the Chittendon Locks in Ballard WA. This was a very interesting place to visit. We hoped to see lots of salmon on the ladders, but we only saw one salmon and it was in the observing tank. It was still well worth the stop to us. From the locks we drove to Kerry Park where you look down on Seattle, the water front and the Space Needle. Since it was another beautiful day we were able to get a great view!!! Definitely worth a stop on a clear day!!! I understand the sunsets are pretty special from this viewpoint. It is in a neighborhood with street parking only. Our next stop was the Freemont Troll. The head-and-shoulders sculpture is 18-ft. tall and provided us with some neat photos. Our next task was to drop off our car at the downtown Seattle Enterprise office. We were very happy to be rid of the car. As I mentioned above, we found the roads a bit challenging to navigate in Seattle, even with a GPS. The Downtown Seattle Enterprise Office was extremely professional and efficient. Although they offered to drive us to Pike's Market, we opted to walk. We found it to be a very pleasant stroll to the Market. Although we found the Market to be quite crowded, we were told the crowds were light compared to the weekends. We strolled through the shops and admired the flowers. Needing a break from the crowds we went to a Starbucks for a cool drink to reinvigorate ourselves. Feeling refreshed we headed back to the Market. We stopped to see the Gum Wall, which made for some more interesting photos. Next we stopped at the Fish Market to see the fish being tossed. We were unable to catch a photo here. After deciding we had enough of the Market, we had a late lunch at Pear Delicatessen. This was a great choice and both Bob and I enjoyed our meals. After lunch we walked to the Olympic Sculpture Park. It was an easy walk and we enjoyed it. The park is on the beautiful waterfront with several interesting and fascinating sculptures. After strolling through the park we picked up the last Seattle Duck Tour of the day. We had an excellent guide who was both very knowledgeable and quite humorous. After this tour we stopped at Zeek Pizza for dinner where we had a yummy meal. That evening, when I was checking the weather on the hotel computer in the lobby, we met Laurie from our roll call. Soon we were introduced to the rest of her lovely family. How great it was to meet some friendly faces before we boarded our cruise ship. After having a nice chat with them, we called it a night.
Aug. 5 Pikes Market and boarding the Amsterdam: Today I brought breakfast up to our room. After we ate we walked to the monorail and headed downtown to Pike's Market to look through a few shops and to pick up a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for our cabin. We took the monorail back to Seattle Center and walked back to our hotel. At 1:00 p.m. we took the hotel shuttle to Pier 91. The cost was $6 per person. When we got off the shuttle, there were workers who offered to take our luggage. This made it so easy. I did tip them and we felt it was well worth it. We did put luggage tags on some soda and they did take it. Forty minutes after leaving the Quality Inn we were in our cabin. We were very pleased with how easy and quick the check-in process was. As we were walking into the check-in area one of the workers commented on my bouquet. She said to make sure to use bottled water in the vase and not cruise ship water. She said the flowers would last much longer that way. We were pleased to be able to go straight to our cabin. We booked an HH cabin and from what I had read, I was not expecting much of a view. We were pleasantly surprised with how much we could see across the promenade deck, especially if we were on the right side of the cabin. Everything that was supposed to be in our cabin was: refrigerator, excursions tickets, HAL coupon books, and Pinnacle Vouchers. We met, Heri, one of our room stewards. First impression was very positive and he did not disappoint throughout the cruise. He and Yulien, the only female steward on the cruise ship, were outstanding the entire cruise. We could not have had a better team!!! Since our luggage had not yet arrived we went to the front desk. I checked to see if our Onboard Credit was on our account and it was. So far we are batting 100% here!!! Great start!!!We requested a power strip cord and were given one to use. There is a $25 deposit which is returned when you bring it back. We also signed up for the unlimited laundry package which was $98 for unlimited washing and ironing. I was quickly spoiled!!! They did a great job with the laundry and ironing!!! In your closet you will find a blue laundry bag and a form to fill out. If you turn in your bag by 9:00 a.m. it will be returned to you the next day. Once it was returned the same day. After our stop at the Front Desk we proceeded to the Lido on Deck 8 for lunch. We also made dinner reservations. There is a stand in the Lido as you get off the elevators with a dining staff member who will make your reservations for up to three days out. The Lido was not crowded and we were quickly eating a delicious meal. After lunch we went to our cabin. Our luggage and soda arrived and we worked on organizing our clothes into the closets and drawers until it was time to go to the Muster Drill. After the drill we continued to work on organizing our cabin. At 5:00 p.m. we went on deck for sail-away. This evening we had a lovely dinner in the MDR. We really enjoyed eating in the MDR. We had open dining. Some nights we made reservations, other nights we did not. If you would like a table by the window it is best to make a reservation. We enjoyed all the people we met as we dined each night. Some nights we did have a table for two, but most nights we enjoyed the company of others. After dinner we took in the show and then called it a night.
Aug. 6 Inside Passage: After breakfast in the Lido we walked around the Promenade deck. It was oh so beautiful, but oh so windy!!! Cruising the inside passage provides a very peaceful and soothing experience. It is a shame it will not be included in the 2012 itinerary. To have scenery on both sides of the ship which is so close to the ship is an experience that is never forgotten. We were very fortunate on this itinerary to be cruising through the very scenic Seymour Narrows in daylight. Many times the ships are traveling through here at night. This morning at 11:00 a.m. was our scheduled time for the Meet and Greet of all who were on the HAL Roll Call for this cruise. Many of us had chatted on line for some time before the cruise and were looking forward to meeting each other. Terry contacted HAL and arranged for a lovely gathering in the Crow's Nest with some of the ship's officers. Refreshments and snacks were provided by HAL. It was a lovely gathering. Unfortunately our meet and greet time was exactly when we were traveling through the scenic Seymour Narrows. From what I could tell, most if not all on the roll call did drop by. However, many of us did not stay long since we wanted to be outside viewing the magnificent scenery. Bob and I spent a good amount of time out on deck 6, but eventually the wind got to be too much. We retreated back to the Crow's Nest which has a phenomenal panoramic view. About one o'clock we had lunch in the Lido and once again returned to the Crow's Nest to take in the breathtaking scenery. At 5:00 p.m. we attended Mass in the Queen's Lounge. Unfortunately the movement at the front of the ship made Bob feel ill. We had reservations for dinner at the Canaletto tonight. Bob couldn't make it through the meal. He headed back to the cabin where he put a patch on, had some ginger root and called it an early night. I finished my dinner and then joined him in the cabin. We ate dinner several nights at the Canaletto and enjoyed it every time. For those who don't want to dress up for formal nights, it is a great option.
August 7 Ketchikan: Docking time for Ketchikan had been scheduled for 7:00 a.m. Unfortunately we did not dock until closer to 8:30 a.m. The first passengers were not getting off until about 8:45 p.m. I am sure some who booked early independent tours were disappointed. We were given an extra hour in Ketchikan to make up for the later arrival. I had initially hoped this would give us enough time to head out to Totem Bight after our Misty Fjords tour. However, the staff at the Visitor Center told us they would not chance it. Our ship's tour to Misty Fjord was a very well-run tour and we enjoyed it. We were told we were experiencing one of 35 days in the year when Ketchikan has a full day of sunshine. (Would have been a great day for the kayaking we had considered!!!) The Misty Fjords Tour was run by Allen Marine. The granite cliffs in the fjords were simply magnificent. I didn't run into anyone who did not enjoy this beautiful tour. I must say the sunshine helped make it a great day to be out on the water. On our way to the fjords Allen Marine provided everyone with a small pastry. On our way back you had your choice of clam chowder or veggie chili. Bob and I both had the chili and enjoyed it very much. After we finished lunch a very interesting and informative film about fishing in Ketchikan was shown. We also had our first introduction to the five main kinds of salmon and how to use your fingers to help remember their names. After the tour was over we walked into Ketchikan where we stopped in a few stores. Our next stop was the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. If you have a National Park Pass you do not have to pay the entrance fee. The displays are outstanding and I highly recommend a stop here. At the Discovery Center we were told the salmon were three weeks late and just beginning to arrive in Ketchikan. They did not know why the salmon had been delayed. We still chose to head to the salmon ladder to check it out. On the way we did see some salmon in the river. At the ladder we saw a few more salmon. The whole time we were on the observation platform, there was one salmon trying to make its way in. However for the roughly 45 minutes we were there, it did not succeed. It was one persistent salmon!!! From here we walked to the Fish Hatchery where we watched some salmon making their way over a grate. As we were heading back to the ship we realized we were very short on time. Fortunately for us a bus was coming by and we were able to board. It dropped us off very close to the ship at about 5:10 p.m. As we were dining tonight we observed some porpoises and whales. After dinner we went to the Crow's Nest where they were having Karaoke. We were impressed with the quality of singing we heard. At ten o'clock we headed to the Queen's Lounge to see Ronn Lucas, the ventriloquist. He was outstanding and put on a great show!!!
Aug. 8 Tracy Arm Cruising: In June 2008 we saw Tracy Arm from a small boat excursion we booked from Juneau. It was our favorite excursion. This year we were cruising Tracy Arm on a cruise ship. Although the experience is definitely different, it is still an outstanding way to experience the fjord. Today there was some sun, some clouds, but no rain. We stayed out on the bow from 11:45 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. We just didn't want to go inside and leave this majestic setting. Although not all cruise ships get all the way to the glaciers in Tracy Arm Fjord, we were able to get in sight of South Sawyer Glacier. I was satisfied with how far in we got, but others were disappointed we didn't make our way closer to see some calving. To me Tracy Arm Fjord is more about the fjord and less about the glaciers. In 2008 we got up close and personal with North Sawyer Glacier. At that time we saw a lot more wildlife than we did this year. However the cliffs, mountains, glaciers and numerous waterfalls made for a spectacular day. We just couldn't get enough of this glorious beauty. Tonight we tried the Lido for dinner. The food was very good, but we prefer the dining room. The show tonight was the singers and dancers. They put on some good shows throughout the cruise. I marvel at their stamina and energy level. Tonight the cruise ship was supposed to anchor in the evening. However, we had a medical emergency on board and the ship was given permission to go straight to Juneau.
Aug. 9 Juneau: Today we had our tour booked to Pack Creek with Butch Laughlin of Alaska Fly n Fish Charters in hopes of seeing bear eating salmon. Pack Creek is on Admiralty Island and is run by the US Forest Service. The Forest Service only allows 24 visitors per day in this area.Pack Creek is a wilderness area with no facilities of any kind. There is a ranger on site during peak season who provides a scope and who carries a rifle. The bears on Admirality Island are Brown Bears. We learned that both Grizzly and Brown Bears are the same species. If they live near water they are called Brown Bears, and if they live in the interior they are called Grizzly Bears. The Grizzly Bears are lighter brown and the Brown Bears are much darker, some looking almost black. Their coloring has adapted over the years to the environment they live in. I had prepared myself the best I could for the possibility of just having a lovely float plane ride. I knew there are no guarantees when it comes to seeing wildlife even if you are going in peak season. We took a taxi ($24) from the pier to the Juneau airport where we met Butch at Gate 1. There was one other couple on our tour. They were locals who knew Butch. Since they were also pilots, I was put a bit more at ease knowing I was now with three people who could fly this plane if needed. Butch drove us in his van to the pier/dock where he keeps his plane. We were fitted with waterproof boots, given binoculars and then assigned to our seats. Bob got the co-pilot seat and I was put in the back. The other couple, Jeannie and Wendell, was in the middle.. This was the first time Bob and I flew in a float plane. It was quite an exhilarating experience to be flying in scenic Alaska on a gorgeous summer day. The views were simply breathtaking. I could have flown all day. However, I did book this tour to see bears, and soon we were on our way to Pack Creek. It took a half hour to get to Pack Creek. Butch and Wendell took care of securing the plane. The tide would be far out when we returned, so Butch had to be careful where the plane was left. We were walking for just a short time when we saw our first bear. Butch and the rangers knew all the bears and had given most of them names. It was truly exciting for me when I saw that first bear. I describe this day to anyone who will listen, as "The Day in the Life of a Bear." When I originally imagined what this trip would be like, I expected to see lots of different bears coming and going. However, we had three bears that we saw virtually the entire time and another 3-4 that visited during the 4+ hours we were at Pack Creek. The three bears that we watched the whole time were a sow and her cub and another cub that had been abandoned by its mother a year before normal. Butch said it was unusual for a bear to allow her cub to hang out with another cub. However, this sow did permit it. It was so fascinating to watch the cubs. They would stand up and play with each other, roll around, fish for salmon, go to the field and eat berries off the bushes, etc. They had never-ending energy. At one point the sow and her cub went into the woods. We thought they were going to take their afternoon nap. However, within minutes they were back out again doing what they had been doing all day. The sow did a lot of fishing, yet she was very attentive of her cub. If she couldn't see him she would stand up. At one point she followed the cubs into the field. When the bears went to the field they came VERY CLOSE to us. In fact when the sow was looking for her cubs in the field she walked a bit too close for comfort. Butch told us to grab our packs and be ready to move. Fortunately that was not necessary. The sow just walked right past us looking for her cub. PHEW!!! This tour was definitely a highlight of our trip to Alaska. Observing bears in the wild who were just going about their day was a truly fascinating and exhilarating experience. The return float plane trip to Juneau was just as awe-inspiring on the way back. Flying over the mountains and waterways of Alaska in a floatplane is an experience I will never forget. This day will forever be etched in my memory. Upon arrival at the airport we called Konnie of Rent A Wreck. Within minutes she picked us up, drove us to the office and literally within minutes we were on our way, paying the price we had earlier agreed on. Our first stop was the Shrine of St. Therese. The small church is in a beautiful and very tranquil setting along the water. There were several trails you could take around the church grounds. I would not call this a must do, but if you are in the area and have the time, it is surely worth a stop. Next we drove to Mendenhall Glacier. I have to say I was more impressed than I thought I would be from what I had read about this place beforehand. I am definitely glad we went and highly recommend going. Mendenhall Glacier was quite impressive. There was something special about it being so visible from the road. You didn't have to take a trail if you didn't want to. In my research I had read that there was a fee to get into the Visitor Center. I thought that was odd as we have never paid to use a park visitor center. However, there was no fee to get into the park. The road system along the park is very limited. I assume they did want to clog things up with a pay station, so instead decided to charge for the visitor center. We were very impressed with the Visitor Center and highly recommend stopping here. There were many well done and educational displays and videos. If you have a National Park Pass you do not have to pay to get in. While at Mendenhall we walked the Photo Trail and the Nugget Falls Trail. Both were well worth it. Although I was up to doing another trail, Bob was beginning to tire. We returned our car to the Rent a Wreck location in Juneau on Mill Street. We used the drop box and walked back to the ship. It was a bit of a hike, but we have really been enjoying all the walking. After a long day, we had dinner in the MDR and called it a night as we had to wake up at 5:15 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Aug. 10 Icy Strait: Our room service breakfast arrived 5 minutes before our scheduled time of 6:00 a.m. - 6:30 a.m. We thought HAL did a very nice job with the room service breakfast. Everything arrived hot/warm and was tasty. To make sure we got on an early tender, we arrived at the Queen's Lounge at 6:30 a.m. We received our tender ticket at 7:00 a.m. and made the 7:15 a.m. Tender. There was no need to get there that early. However, I did not want to take my chances. We arrived in Icy Strait at 7:30 a.m. and met Floyd of F.I.S.H.E.S at his van parked just off the dock area. We were quickly on our way to Hoonah where his boat was docked. Honestly, I was not thinking this tour was going to be a highlight. I had read about so many people going on whale watches and looking at backs, tails and fins. This did not appeal to me particularly. Our one whale watch on the East Coast turned out to be a bust. However, Icy Strait was a port that didn't have a lot to do that Bob and I were interested in, so upon the recommendations of many CCers we booked with Floyd. This trip ended up being a real highlight for us. Not only did we see whales and their fins, backs and tails, but we also saw some bubblenet feeding which was so intriguing. Bob and I were thrilled with this excursion. I love to see and do things I have never seen and done before and this fit the bill perfectly!!! Floyd had a hydrophone on his boat. This underwater microphone would pick up the chatter of the whales when they were preparing to catch their fish. Otherwise it was very quiet. As the sounds increased, Floyd would be scouring the water. When he would notice the ring of bubbles he would call out and point. Sure enough, within seconds the whales would come up in unison to grab their catch. This was, oh, so fascinating!!!!! No matter what boat you were on this morning you got quite a show!!! This cruise we have been blessed with everything going so right!! Although we had did have a misty rain today, the bubblenet feeding more than made up for that. I soon lost count of how many times the whales came up to bubblenet feed. What I thought was going to be a boring tour, ended up being an exciting and memorable experience. After Floyd dropped us off his wife offered to drive us back to Icy Strait. We chose to stroll around Hoonah. There was a light drizzle, but we were dressed for the weather. Hoonah is an authentic Alaskan town, not one overrun by tourist shops. We found it interesting to walk around the docks. Later we found a small city park that had some porta johns. For the most part the homes in Hoonah do not have landscaping. It is obviously not easy to get rid of your trash here. Many of the yards had large items stacked up in them. Some were more creative with their no longer needed items. Someone took an old kitchen range and placed it on their front lawn. They turned the area that once had the burners on it into a flower bed. It was a creative way to recycle a product that no longer worked. Touring Hoonah makes you realize how differently people live in our own country. After checking out some of the neighborhoods and the local cemetery, we walked back to Icy Strait. The area where your tender docks in Icy Strait has a few shops, a museum and at least one restaurant. We met several people who were disappointed in the Icy Strait port. They just couldn't find anything to do that interested them. I suggest you book an excursion in this port. There was another trail we had wanted to take along the shore, but we were getting tired. We tendered back to the ship, had lunch at the Lido and actually took a nap today. This is rare for me, but I think the pace of the trip and our early wake-up this morning caused us to be a little tired. This evening we went to the illusionist show by J. Neal and Liane. It was quite good. After the show we went to the Crow's Nest where they were having another round of the onboard Karaoke contest. The top four singers were chosen to move on to the Amsterdam Superstar Competition later in the cruise. Another great day on shore and on the ship!!
Aug. 11 At Sea: Todaywe slept in until 8:00 a.m. and woke up refreshed!!! After breakfast we took care of the disembarking paperwork. I am not sure what day we received the two sheets. One paper was HAL asking what our disembarking plans were. The other paper was the request for luggage direct. Although we had wanted to sign up for Luggage Direct the paper indicated we would have to disembark at 7:30-7:45 a.m. I checked two different times at the front desk and was told both times that this was correct. They said it had to do with customs. Since we had a later flight, we did not want to disembark that early and decided to deal with our own luggage which was just one piece per person plus our backpacks. We signed up for the latest disembarkation listed which was 9:00-9:15 a.m. Although I was told on CC that I would not be allowed to carry off my own bags at that time, I asked at the front desk and was told that indeed I could take off my own bags. I would like to comment on Luggage Direct. If you want to take advantage of this service and have a stopover flight, be aware that if you have a tight connection, the airlines will likely refuse your request. There were some upset people on our cruise regarding this. Another woman had a flight 10 minutes before the time mentioned on the form for Luggage Direct. She just could not understand why the airlines might refuse her request. The front desk staff politely informed her that they would process the form, but it was up to the airlines. She also was upset that they would not book her for a HAL transfer since she had the earlier flight. They explained the transfer buses do not leave for the airport until they are full. They recommended she take a taxi. This really upset her. Most of the people in these situations had a handicapped spouse and were looking to make life easier. I felt so bad they did not understand beforehand how it all worked. Today we actually did a little relaxing. We found a quiet spot on deck 5 by a window. Bob did crosswords and I wrote post cards and worked on my journal. After lunch in the Lido we went to the Queen's Lounge for a presentation by Jeanette, our onboard Travel Guide. Her lecture was titled: Extreme Elements: Alaska's Fire and Ice. She is an interesting presenter. I wish she offered more programs than she did. She did tell us we were having an unusually smooth sailing for this sea day. After Jeanette's presentation they were having a Variety Showcase in the Queen's Lounge. J. Neal (the ventriloquist) and Ronn Lucas (ventriloquist) put on another show. It was very entertaining. After dinner in the MDR we went to the Crow's Nest and listened to the HAL Cats and then went to the Queen's Lounge for the singing and dancing show. It was another high energy production.
Aug. 12 Anchorage: We booked the PWS tour through the cruise ship. The drive on the Seward Highway was very scenic. The driver commented he would have to think back about two months to come up with a day as nice as today. He promised to take us to a viewpoint to see Mt. McKinley if the weather held up. Unfortunately it was cloudy upon our return to Anchorage. I did hear of others on our cruise who were able to see Mt. McKinley from deck 9 of the cruise ship. To get to Whittier you have to go through a 2+ mile tunnel. It is a one way tunnel with access to Whittier on the half hour and access back to Anchorage on the hour. I have to say I felt a bit uncomfortable in this tunnel. The driver prepared us for the weather to be cloudy on the other side of the tunnel. We had a pleasant surprise when the sky was even bluer in Whittier. Once again we realize how blessed we have been on this trip!!! After a short drive in Whittier we were at the docks of Prince William Sound Cruises. Within minutes the ship left the docks and we were on our way to another day of beautiful scenic cruising. You will see many smaller glaciers on this tour. The "star" glacier of this tour is "Surprise Glacier." It was a good sized glacier and it cooperated with a little bit of calving. Along the route we saw some stellar sea lions, many sea otters and lots of birds. When you combine the blue skies with the wildlife and glaciers, you could not help but have a fantastic day!!! We returned to the ship about 7:00 p.m. We had another lovely dinner in the MDR with a couple and their daughter from the LA area. At 10:30 we attended the Marriage Game Show in the Queen's Lounge, which was followed by the Filipino Crew Show. The Filipino Crew were so proud to share their dances and songs of their beloved country. We enjoyed the evening very much.
Aug. 13 Homer: I had a hard time deciding what to do in Homer. I would read the reviews and find those who said Homer was their favorite port and then I would read those who were very disappointed and couldn't find anything to do. After going over all the options, we decided to take a hiking tour with Alaska Coastal Studies. We tend to enjoy nature and scenery more than cities and shopping, so this ended up being a great choice for us. Once off the ship we took the free shuttle to the Spit. There we found the Yurt where ACS was set up. It was a bit drizzly this morning, but nothing to ruin our day. We were soon on a water taxi headed across Kachemak Bay to the PetersonBay Field Station. Ryan and Joanna were our excellent guides. Ryan grew up in the Homer area so he knew a lot about the region. Joanna was a biology major who was very knowledgeable about both the sea life and the vegetation in this area. I would like to comment on the trail system. The ACS website states that the trail system was "developed." I would not agree. They simply cleared out a path among the vegetation. It makes for a very enjoyable hike in the wilderness. However, this trail is not for anyone with any kind of mobility issues. You are going up and down and walking over tree roots. You need to be pretty steady on your feet as some of the walking is on rocks. We saw many berries that were ready to eat, and quite a few different wildflowers. The fireweed was in full bloom. We did some tide pooling, saw a compound where some natives had made camp, walked out to a bog, and just simply enjoyed walking in the wilderness of AK..This was a very fascinating hike in a remote area which I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys nature. The water taxi got us back to Homer at 4:10 p.m. We shopped on the Spit until just before 5:00 p.m. looking for a t-shirt with a jellyfish on it for my grandson. That was his request and I was having a hard time finding one. No luck in Homer either!!! We took the shuttle back to the ship and headed straight for Mass in the Wajang Theatre. Tonight was the first time we were assigned to a table for eight in the dining room. It was just too difficult to try to converse with so many at the table. We much preferred tables for 4-6. I have to say we enjoyed meeting so many different people at our dinners in the MDR. On our last two cruises we were with family so we always ate at our own table. We found the people on HAL to be so well travelled and we learned of a few new places we might like to cruise to someday. This was the only day on the whole cruise that our service in the MDR was a bit slow. It was still acceptable, but just slower than usual. I had read so many complaints about service in the MDR being slow on the earlier reviews. Fine dining room service is not meant to be rushed. We liked having a leisurely meal after our long and exhausting days. Tonight Adam Kario was the advertised entertainment. It said it would be comedy and variety. Well, Adam is a juggler and he juggled. It was not a comedy/variety show. He was excellent and we enjoyed his performance very much. However, it was advertised incorrectly. I wonder if they get smaller crowds if they list an entertainer as a juggler? Another fabulous day in Alaska!!!
Aug. 14 Kodiak: Today we got up at 6:00 a.m., had breakfast in the Lido and then headed to the gangplank to meet Dake of Memory Makers Tours for our 7:30 a.m. tour. We took this tour with three people from our roll call. It was great getting to spend some time with them and getting to know them better. Dake has lived in Alaska for about ten years and was very knowledgeable about the area and its history. I especially liked that he was a great speaker who was both interesting and easy to understand. (no noticeable ums or likes) We started the tour heading off to a stream to try to find bears. We had no luck. Next stop was the view from the hill with the wind turbines on top. Dake told us most visitors do not get to see the beautiful view as clouds/fog are usually in the way. Next stop was Fort Abercrombie. This was my favorite stop and I wished we could have spent more time here. Fort Abercrombie is a lovely state park with more great views, as well as artifacts from World War II. We walked the wildflower trail and then headed out looking for bears again. Still no luck. Dake gave us some suggestions for shopping and then dropped us off in the main shopping district of town where we shopped a bit and then visited the Alutiiq Museum and the Russian Orthodox Church. The museum was exceptionally well done explaining the history of the Alutiiq people. There were excellent displays and some interesting videos you could watch. We decided to walk back to the ship rather than take the shuttle and I was so glad!!! On the way back to the ship was a little store with a sign saying "Going out of business." It was here that I finally found the t-shirt with a jellyfish on it. With only one more Alaska port on the itinerary, we were finally successful. Many people did not realize Alaska has jellyfish, but indeed they do. We say them on our Pack Creek Tour out of Juneau and on our Alaska Coastal Studies tour out of Homer. After arriving at the ship at 2:15 p.m. we headed to the Lido for lunch and then went up to the Crow's Nest. We enjoyed a happy hour drink and for the one and only time played Trivia. Very surprisingly we won and received those well sought after Amsterdam pins. Bob was tired and wanted to nap. He slept until 8:15. It was formal night and 8:15 was too late to eat in the Lido. We went to the Canaletto to eat and enjoyed another lovely meal there. A couple from the UK/South Africa sat next to us and we had another enjoyable dinner. On our way to the evening show we ran into a couple we had met earlier on our cruise who are from Georgia. They were always so much fun to be around, that we ended up spending the rest of the evening with them. At 10:30 p.m. the Dessert Extravaganza began. The culinary staff did an outstanding job of preparing a beautiful presentation of desserts, crepes, ice cream, breads, chocolate sculptures and ice sculptures. Unfortunately, many people did not enjoy the desserts. Many were left over and we were very sad to see that they just tossed all that was leftover into the trash. Overall, the desserts on HAL were not as good as I remembered back in 2008. That is okay as I ate less which prevented me from coming home with a massive weight gain. Another couple we had met earlier joined our table and we stayed in the Lido until 12:15 sharing fun and laughter. What a great day!!!
Aug. 15 Hubbard Glacier: Today we slept in and skipped breakfast. We tried to go to the Digital Camera lecture but it was packed with people out the doors. We headed for the Queen's Lounge instead for the Virtual Bridge Tour. We were a bit late, but what we were able to catch was very well done. We went up to the Crow's Nest and stayed until it was time for lunch. Bob needed to rest after lunch as the movement on the ship was significant and in spite of him wearing the patch, he was not feeling well. Bob slept while I took care of journaling and then did some reading. Around 2:30 p.m. we headed out on deck 3. When they opened the bow just before 3:00 p.m., we claimed our spot to view the trip into Hubbard Glacier. It was a cloudy day with on and off light rain. About 3:15 p.m. Hubbard Glacier came into view. We were told the distance was eight miles. Slowly we made our way up to this magnificent glacier. It is about 7 miles long, 300+ feet high and goes back about 75 miles. Hubbard is definitely the most impressive and massive glacier I have ever seen. That said, Bob and I both enjoyed our Glacier Day experience far more than our time in Hubbard Glacier. They are both great cruising experiences, but we prefer Glacier Bay. We are not sure how much weather played into our impressions. We saw Glacier Bay on a blue sky and sunshiny day. Hubbard was a gray and dreary day. Nonetheless, we were so happy we did not get iced out like many of the cruises earlier in the season. We also felt blessed that the glacier was in clear view with no fog. The ranger said we got as close as cruise ships get. He said the only thing that would make for a better experience would be if we could have seen the mountain tops. They were all enshrouded in clouds. However, I was really happy we got so close and the glacier was very crisp and clear. As far as calving, we did see some, but not as much or massive as I had expected. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations. We stayed outside on the bow until the ship turned around. When it turned around we went to the aft of deck 3 to catch more views of Hubbard as we were leaving. We finally gave in and dressed for our dinner at the Pinnacle. It was part of our booking package from the online TA we had booked with. It turned out to be a lovely and delicious dinner. Bob said his filet was the best he had ever eaten. I had read so much on this board about the Chocolate Volcano dessert in the Pinnacle. I have to say this was a disappointment. I wonder if I was served one that was not quite what it was supposed to be. I was expecting it to have some kind of soft center representing lava. However, it was simply a very moist chocolate cake. I didn't think it was worth the calories. After dinner we took in the Jeff Nease Comedy show which we enjoyed. I think we are just easy to please. We loved it all!!!
Aug. 16 Sitka: Sitka was the port that had been reported to be a nightmare to get off on the tenders. When I saw on the TV that the ship was arriving early, we headed to the Queen's Lounge. We got on a tender at 9:00 a.m., and arrived in Sitka at 9:30 a.m. Our 10:00 a.m. tour with Davey of Esther G Taxi had been rescheduled to 10:30 p.m. because of the difficulties the earlier cruisers had getting off the ship. No problem today. I used the extra time to visit the shops in the Visitor Center and a few other stores that were already open in town. Davey's tour had come so highly recommended to us, but I had thought of cancelling because I was beginning to realize we would get to see very little of Sitka itself. However, because of the raving reviews, I stuck with my plan and went out with Davey. As soon as we met up with him he said it was a rough day out there and we would not be able to go to the bird rookery on Lazaria Island. What disappointed me was that he still kept it a four hour tour rather than making it into the three hour tour which does not include Lazaria Island. Davey was a great tour guide and just a wonderful person. However the combination of a rainy day, seeing little wildlife and keeping the tour as a four hour tour without the ability to visit Lazaria Island just soured me a bit on my day. I still enjoyed some of my time out on the water. I spent as much time as I could out on the bow. Most of the time I was the only one who was outside. The others chose to stay in the cabin out of the elements. We did see one whale, some sea lions and sea otters, a few puffins and lots of birds. As we were finishing up our tour the sun began to shine and Sitka looked beautiful from the water. Even though I didn't get to visit much of the town, I have to say that it is the one town I would love to return to and explore. I could easily spend several days here. Once we got back to shore we did a quick tour of St. Michael's Orthodox Church which we found lovely. We learned the congregation does not sit for services which can go on for hours. We went into a few shops to look for a Matryoshka doll for my granddaughter and then caught a 4:15 p.m. tender back to the cruise ship. Dinner tonight was at the Lido. Unfortunately the ship was rocking again and Bob was not feeling well after dinner. He went to bed and I did some journaling and read. This day was just so-so from beginning to end. I guess they all can't be perfect.
Aug. 17 At Sea: Today we skipped breakfast since we were going to the Mariner's Brunch at 11:00 a.m.. I suggest you not line up too early for this event. At least for today, those that were in line first, were seated in the middle section of the dining room that is not by the windows. Those of us who were further back in line, were able to get the tables by the windows. We ran into Laurie and family again and enjoyed the lovely brunch with them. We invited them to see our cabin after we were done eating and had a nice visit with them. At 2:00 p.m. we went to the Queen's Lounge to see Jeff Trachta. We had heard he had a great show the evening before. However, this afternoon was not another comedy show, but rather a look into his life. He described his struggle with depression and encouraged others to not give up if they suffer from this ailment. After Jeff's show was the Amsterdam Superstar Competition. The four finalists from the karaoke contests each performed two songs. Everyone did great. A passenger named Ray, who sang Frank Sinatra songs, was the overall winner. He really had an outstanding voice!! On another cruise I am sure any of the others would have had a chance at winning. We just had a very talented group. After dinner tonight we went to the Las Vega Nights show by the Amsterdam Singers and Dancers. Once again it was a high energy program that we enjoyed very much.
Aug. 18 Victoria: There has been sadness in the air lately. The passengers are expressing angst about the cruise coming to an end. It has been so easy to get used to having your meals prepared, your room cleaned, and your laundry done. All this on top of traveling in a very beautiful part of the world with those never ending majestic mountain ranges. Do we really have to get off the cruise ship tomorrow? Today was the only day we had trouble disembarking. We were supposed to meet our ship's tour at 12:20 on the dock. We got in line about 12:15 p.m. and didn't get off the ship until 1:00 p.m. There were quite a few grumbling passengers. Lesson to be learned: On days with later disembarking time, you will find that everyone is up and ready to go at the same time. Once we got off, we quickly found our tour bus. In a few minutes we were on our way to the Butterfly Gardens where we were given 45 minutes to tour. It was a lovely butterfly garden and I wished we had a little more time here. After the Butterfly Gardens we drove to Butchart Gardens which was just a few minutes away. We were given two hours here, but that was not enough either. Bob and I felt we needed a good three hours to do justice to the gardens. We had any excellent bus driver/tour guide. He provided a wealth of interesting information on both the trips out and back. Unfortunately he would not drop us off downtown, saying it was against policy. We found out later that other drivers did allow their passengers off downtown if they wanted. We took the CV shuttle back downtown and visited Miniature World. This was a fascinating museum which we enjoyed very much. We walked around downtown Victoria searching for gifts for the dog sitter and the flower sitter. With our gifts in tow, we headed back to the ship on the shuttle. Our evening tonight included our last dinner in the MDR, filling out the HAL cruise survey, packing, filling out those last post cards and journaling. It was sad to know this was our last day. What a great cruise it has been!!!
Aug. 19 Seattle and heading home: First thing this morning I called Seattle Express as I had been instructed to do on my confirmation from them. Soon after I received a call from our airlines that our flight had been delayed an hour and a half. Now we had even more time before our flight...no stressing for us!!!! After giving our final good byes and hugs to our cabin stewards, we had a great last breakfast in the Lido. The Lido stayed open for a full breakfast later than they had posted. After breakfast we went back to the cabin and waited for our luggage tag color to be called. The gangway was on deck 3 which is the deck our cabin was located. This was nice so we didn't have to be concerned about using the elevators. We chose to roll our own luggage off the ship. We only had one suitcase each and our backpacks. Most people getting off were pulling a rollaway bag. We quickly found the Seattle Express Shuttle. They were in row R which is a bit far back, but not a big deal. We were soon on our way to the airport and we were the first passengers to be dropped off. I highly recommend Seattle Express. The online reservation was handled promptly. Payment is made the day of service and the staff and service were excellent. I learned about this service from some fellow cruisers who had used them last year and we were not disappointed. The Seattle airport is a large airport. For someone not used to traveling it could be overwhelming. We found the selection of shops and restaurants to be excellent, although we never found a comprehensive list of all restaurants. We would just find lists for each gate letter area. So, we did a lot of walking to find out what all the offerings were. We had lunch about 1:30 p.m. and then took the tram to our gate. Our flight left on time and we ended up being only an hour late instead of an hour and half. This vacation was everything I had hoped for and more!!! From the weather, to the scenery, to the outstanding cruise experience, we were just so pleased!!! As much as I would love to go back again soon, I think we will be looking to visit some of the places we have not yet been. Alaska is beautiful but there are many other beautiful places on this earth too and we would like to see some of those. If it works out, I would like to bring our children and grandchildren to Alaska someday, but that will not likely be for a few years when they are older and can truly appreciate the experience. Till next time..............