About Us: Middle aged couple, well traveled. Second cruise together. First time to Alaska.
The itinerary: Chose to go out of Vancouver to lessen the chances of seasickness, to which I am prone. Also liked the itinerary including long ... Read More
About Us: Middle aged couple, well traveled. Second cruise together. First time to Alaska.
The itinerary: Chose to go out of Vancouver to lessen the chances of seasickness, to which I am prone. Also liked the itinerary including long port days that didn't start early in the morning. This was a vacation and we wanted to sleep in! Our ports were Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau, along with sailing through Glacier Bay. We were supposed to sail Tracey Arm, but because of either tides or ice (not sure which) we were unable to do that.
Vancouver: Loved Vancouver as much as I had the last time I visited 18 years ago. We added three nights at the beginning which I highly recommend. Got Hyatt Regency on a Priceline bid for $80 per night and couldn't have been happier with the hotel or the location. (There are websites that help with Priceline bidding strategy -- takes the fear and guesswork out of using Priceline.) We spent one day biking Stanley Park, walking the seawall and wandering the city and the other day at Granville Island Market where we managed to eat both breakfast and lunch. It helped that the weather was PERFECT. Denman Street in the West End (walking distance from anywhere downtown) is a great street for finding reasonably-priced ethnic restaurants for dinner. We loved the Legendary Noodle for Chinese food that is similar to Islamic Chinese food one would find in China. Why the Volendam: It offered the itinerary we wanted and the Wednesday departure worked well for us. It was the only ship departing on Wednesday making embarkation a breeze. Also, because of its odd departure day, we were the only ship in one port and only had one or two other ships in the other ports. This allowed us to be more spontaneous about what we could do in port. If we had wanted to book last-minute excursions they would have been available to us.
The size ship was appealing -- large enough to have many offerings and dining alternatives, but not one of the mega-ships. Also, we had been told that it was a good ship for Alaska because of all the outside viewing areas. This was true. There were plenty of places to be and no place was ever crowded outside. The Crow's Nest -- an indoor place on the highest deck with floor to ceiling windows -- was the only place that was ever crowded. I would have said that this was not a great ship to bring children, but a recent review indicated that school age kids had a blast with Club HAL. There were very few children on our sailing. Most passengers were middle aged or senor couples, or women traveling together, with a few young couples and multi-generational families. About half were Americans with most others from Canada, Australia or the UK. This was not a party ship.
We also wanted a balcony cabin and were booking only two weeks in advance and got a decent deal. And we wanted an itinerary that included Glacier Bay.
Embarkation: 20 minutes from arrival at the terminal to walking on to the ship. Arrived around 12:30 with plenty of time to eat lunch and wander the ship.
The Ship: Some reviews have said the Volendam is "worn" and "dated." I did not find this to be the case. I did not see any sign of wear or carpet stains or anything of that nature. On the contrary, there was constant cleaning and painting and an emphasis on sanitation. Hand sanitizers are everywhere. The ship dEcor is very nice and there are many different public areas. Going to Alaska having a deck with a retractable roof is a must and the Lido deck is very nice. We were so lucky with weather, but the deck remained comfortable when it was cold outside and the roof was closed, and was delightful when it was partially or fully opened on sunny, warm days. The Library is amazing -- one of the nicest areas on the ship. There is a HUGE selection of books, including recent best sellers, along with games and puzzles and just a lovely environment. We chose not to sign up for internet use.
Accommodations: We were in Verandah balcony "suite" 7073 on the Navigation Deck. It wasn't really a suite, but slightly larger than a regular stateroom with a tub in the bathroom. It was very comfortable, well-designed, plenty of storage, extremely comfortable bed and linens and with a lovely glass enclosed balcony. The location of our stateroom (which we had taken on a guarantee basis, didn't select the actual stateroom) meant the balcony was covered. The big question: Should one have a balcony in Alaska? I would say "maybe" and my husband would say "yes." The larger stateroom, being able to open the door for fresh air and the floor to ceiling view may have been more important to me than using the actual balcony itself. My husband did sit out on it and read, but I tended to be on deck more. We were lucky with the weather and could do our scenery-viewing from any deck. If there had been rain it would have been nice to have the covered area. My summation: If you can afford it, or get a deal on a balcony room that isn't much more than another room, go for it. If you can't, you can live without it. Some of the time it's too cold and windy to be on the balcony anyway. We would have been happy with the location of any of the balcony staterooms. In fact, we probably would have been happy with any outside cabin except the ones on the lower promenade deck with obstructed views that overlook where people are walking the deck. I visited an outside cabin on the dolphin deck (lowest) and that stateroom was just fine with a lovely view out of large windows.
Smoking: I was very concerned after reading negative reviews about smoking on the ship since I am extremely sensitive to cigarette smoke. I am glad to report that smokers were mostly relegated to the casino and one small area on one side of the deck outside the Lido buffet. When I made the mistake of going outside that direction it did bother me, and walking by the casino was pretty disgusting, but I did not smell the smoke anywhere else. Even though smoking is allowed in staterooms I could not smell any from my room or balcony. However, twice when walking the lower promenade circuit (3.5 laps to a mile) there was a man outside smoking a cigar. Yuck. I don't know if that was permitted or not, but other than the momentary stench as I passed it didn't bother me further.
Room Steward: Ours was quiet, unobtrusive and just fine. We received the little card to indicate what kind of fruit basket we wanted and when we wanted more fruit we filled out another card. We didn't have too many requests. The room was always cleaned very nicely. No complaints.
Cell phones and Blackberry: I did not have international service, so I only used my cell phone and Blackberry when we were in US ports. My AT&T service worked just fine. It was a pleasure to have these devices off while in Canada and at sea. My husband has Verizon service and did get international service so he could use phone and Blackberry in Canada as well.
Food/Dining: The food was better than I expected, considering they were serving 2000 passengers and staff for each meal. We had Anytime dining which worked great for us. Since there are so many questions about this I will go into detail. We reserved the Pinnacle Grill in advance for the last night -- the night of the Master Chefs Dinner -- because I had read on Cruise Critic about how bad this dinner is. We reserved through the HAL 800 number in advance, but could have done it on board. The food in Pinnacle Grill was slightly better than the dining room and the service was very attentive. For us, it was nice to "mix it up" for dinners and we enjoyed eating there one night and didn't mind the $20 pp surcharge. We really enjoyed the cook-out on deck the first night, enhanced because we had ideal weather. We checked the dining room menu each day to help decide what to do that evening. Three nights we ate in the dining room (including one formal night) and the food was for the most part quite good. We either called before 4 p.m. and made a reservation or showed up and were told to return in 15 to 30 minutes for a table. This was because we only wanted tables for 2. If we had been willing to share, I think we would have been accommodated at any time. The portions are not large so we tended to order several courses. The chilled soups were particularly good. On one formal night we didn't want to dress up, so we ordered from the dining room menu for room service and that worked out fine. One night we ate dinner in Canaletto, which is the Italian restaurant that is part of the Lido buffet area, but requires reservation and has waiter service and tablecloths. They were having a "soft opening" on this ship, expecting to go into full service over the next few months. It was a very nice meal with good service at no extra charge. For Anytime dining the waiter service was nothing special. I'm sure those who have the same waiter each night get better service, but it was fine.
The Lido Buffet at night has some of the selections from the dining room menu. A few nights I picked up a snack at the Lido to carry me over until eating in the dining room about 8 p.m. The Lido buffet dinners looked fine, but dinner there was not so appetizing to us, given all the other choices. We had lunch in the Lido or outside at the Terrace Grill every day. I had fresh-baked cookies and/or (usually and) ice cream every afternoon. Ice cream is set up from about 11 to 5 every day with cones, cups and toppings. Yum. They also have out a selection of cobbler or bread pudding all of which were really good -- especially the various types of bread pudding. The lunches were satisfactory -- nothing special, other than these great desserts. The day they had a salmon bake on deck was exceptional. I can only guess they had picked up salmon in Alaska as it was some of the best salmon I had ever tasted. We never ate at the late-night buffet. I did go to the Indonesian high tea and it was very nice.
If we were up early enough (only happened twice) we ate breakfast in the dining room, which was excellent. The other mornings we ate from the buffet at Lido that was open until 10:30. The omelet station was the only place I ever had to wait. Really good omelets. The pancakes were really good, but better in the dining room where they were fresher. The daily special pancake, e.g., mango or banana, was particularly good each day. Lox readily available at the buffet or dining room. Alaska is not the place for tropical fruits. By the end of the cruise they had resorted to serving frozen blueberries. Apples, pears and bananas were readily available.
Wine: I don't drink, but my husband did bring two bottles on board that we purchased in Vancouver. He had a sweet wine for late evening in our room and one bottle of white wine to have with an appetizer picked up from the Lido buffet before dinner. One night he did bring wine in a glass from the cabin to the dining room and no one cared. The house wines were not as expensive as we had expected (about $5 per glass) and wine is quite expensive in Vancouver (taxes, I think) so bringing some of our own wine did not save that much money anyway.
Water: the ship's drinking water was just fine and iced tea, hot tea and coffee are also free. However, I purchased a 12-pack of bottled water at the 7-11 in Vancouver for $4.99 and liked having it on the ship for my personal use since I'm not a soda or wine drinker and prefer bottled water. I also brought the bottles to port visits. The 12-pack was just right for us for 7 days.
Glacier Bay: The scenery throughout the Inside Passage was lovely. Glacier Bay was the only really cold and overcast day, so the glaciers didn't shine the way they would have on a sunny day. However, we bundled up and really enjoyed seeing them in their splendor. It was a really fun day sailing through Glacier Bay. They served hot pea soup on deck mid-morning that was a nice touch. We watched from a combination of places including our balcony, the bow of the ship, the crow's nest, aft deck and all over. The captain spun the ship around at each glacier so you could see them from anywhere.
Shore Excursions and Alaska Toursaver Coupon book: We didn't want to be tied down, so we didn't book anything with HAL. Many of the excursions that sounded great would have been ruined if the weather had been bad. Also, we knew there were few ships in ports we were visiting on those days so we could make last minute choices if we wanted. I did some research and called around and took contact information with me in case we wanted to do any adventure trips. I did want to book the helicopter to the Mendenhall Glacier, but didn't want to spend $279 each. From my research I knew Temsco was in the coupon book, but there are only so many seats at that price. In retrospect I should have realized that since they don't do HAL's flights and no other ships were docked in the late afternoon that it would be relatively easy to reserve. But I didn't want to order the book, wait for it to arrive, get the code and then make my reservation -- and maybe the toursaver seats were no longer available. So, I followed advice I had read on the internet and googled Alaska Toursaver and Craigslist and found three postings. I wrote to each and heard back from two. I bought through PayPal from someone who appeared reputable from our correspondence and was willing to give me the code as soon as I paid. I paid him $55 plus shipping, which was significantly less than the $99 plus shipping I would have paid to buy it new -- but the best part was that I got the code right away and was able to reserve the helicopter trip! The downside was that the flight plane to Misty Fjord, the other coupon we would have considered using, had been used -- but we knew that when we purchased it. Bottom Line: If you are really going to do one or more of the trips featured in the coupon book it is worth it -- IF you know you can get reservations. If it's early enough in the season you are probably safe. We booked our trip only two weeks before sailing, so it took a bit more research. And if you are going mid to late season with a bit of work you can probably find them for sale on the secondary market like I did.
Juneau: We were in Juneau from 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. which was ideal since we didn't have to get up early and could enjoy time on the ship that day. This was the day we couldn't sail Tracey Arm. The ship offers an excursion where 150 passengers can board a catamaran at about 9:30 a.m. for 5 hours through Tracey Arm. We talked to people who did it and raved about it -- they got really close to glaciers, heard calving, etc. It's $199 which was more than we wanted to spend and I didn't want to be cooped up on a catamaran for 5 hours. But it does sound like it's worthwhile to consider. Juneau was our splurge. We decided to do the TEMSCO helicopter to land on a glacier. We booked in advance using Alaska Toursaver coupon, so it was $279 for two of us. This is the cheapest of the glacier/helicopter flights -- no trek, just a walkabout. It was fantastic. Can't say enough about TEMSCO. They were wonderful. We were the last flight of the day and HAL doesn't use them and no other ships were in port at that time of day, so there wasn't a crowd. The van driver had plenty of time so took us the long way around so we could see the glacier from the car at the visitor center. My only criticism is that our flight was 5 p.m., but we were signed up for 3:45 p.m. pick up next to the cruise ship. That's a lot of extra time that wasn't needed when they aren't crowded. The pilot was wonderful and this was a really special adventure -- highly recommended. People we spoke to who did whale watching in Juneau also really enjoyed it. Again, the fact that we had blue skies in the 70's really made it a great day. But it was colder than we expected on the glacier. They had said to expect 15 degrees colder than in Juneau, so we didn't wear as many layers as we should. It felt colder than that and it was quite windy. Hint: Bring extra layers, hat and gloves if you do this, regardless of the weather in Juneau.
Skagway: We had really thought about doing the train, but I had heard that if the weather's lousy you can't see much, so didn't want to book in advance. Again, with some research determined that we were the only ship in port and it would be no problem to buy last-minute tickets on the 1245 train. We reserved a car thru Avis in advance just in case (also didn't need to because only ship in port; with many ships they could run out of cars) and had downloaded Murray's guide as recommended on Cruise Critic. The day was very foggy so we went with the car ($90) instead of the train ($120 each). We made the right decision because we had fog the entire way that the highway parallels the train. It wasn't until we got over the pass, which is further than the 3.5 hour train ride goes, that we had beautiful clear weather. It was fun driving thru the Yukon and we stopped a few places mentioned in Murray's guide. We had taken rolls, cheese and fruit from breakfast (always bring zip lock bags!) and picnicked at Carcross overlooking the beach. We drove as far as Emerald Lake and then came back via the Skagway cemetery. I do recommend a stop at the cemetery, including the short walk to the waterfalls. The whole drive took just over 5 hours, we filled with gas for about $20 and returned the car and went back to the ship. A lovely day. If we had more energy we would have done horseback riding or a hike at Yukon Horses near Emerald Lake. You can google it and book on your own. Others have recommended it highly. BTW, had to pay $2 to use the rest room at one of the restaurants along the drive since I wasn't a customer. Worth every penny.
Ketchikan: Beautiful day, really lovely town. Would have been a great day for kayaking, but we just felt like wandering the town. Went to Creek Street and then back to ship area and turned left and walked to the residential area and up and down some of the steep steps. Really nice views and very interesting to see how people live. I would have liked to walk in the rainforest, but from the map it appeared you have to walk all the way around to get to it. If there's a next time, I'll ask at the visitor center just how far to get to the rainforest walk.
Shopping: Bought nothing in ports or on ship.
Clothing: Since so many people ask about it, I'll give my two cents. I followed advice and brought many layers which worked out perfectly. Did wear my LL Bean rain jacket/windbreaker even though we had beautiful weather. I wore a sleeveless fleece a lot, over a long sleeved shirt, then a zip up fleece over it. Liked having the hood on my zip up fleece. I did wear my long johns and wool socks on the Glacier Bay sea day since we were outside a lot and it was quite cold and windy. Added layers. Also wore gloves that day. On the warm sea days (did I mention we were REALLY lucky with weather?) wore shorts/capris and t-shirt. Even laid by the pool in a bathing suit! Used shorts and t-shirts for fitness center. For formal night(s) I brought one black skirt (that doesn't wrinkle) with a black nylon top and a lightweight shawl/sweaters to dress it up. Worked just fine for the one formal night we ate in the dining room. Dressed casually the rest of the time.
Seasickness: I am extremely prone, so I took ½ Meclezine (Bonine) 3 times a day whether I needed it or not, staring the day before sailing and even on port days. I also wore acupressure bands on my wrists and took ginger pills several times a day. We only had one evening of rocking when I felt a bit nauseated and I ate lots of dried ginger during that time. The rest of the time I hardly felt the ship move. If there had been severe movement I would have been sick even with those precautions -- that's the risk of a cruise, even to the relatively calm Inside Passage.
Thermal Suite: I had read about the thermal suite in the fitness center and was intrigued enough to go to the open house on embarkation day. It is a separate, controlled area off the fitness center with a whirpool, two steam rooms and heated ceramic lounges. I am always cold, so this was a treat for me. It's $99 for one person or $150 for a couple. My husband wasn't interested, so I asked everyone at the open house if someone wanted to share the cost and someone did. So, I put it on my tab and she paid me $75 cash. It worked out great. I did use it every day and probably would have used it more if it had been really cold and I wanted to warm up. I was sometimes the only person there! The heated ceramic lounge was so relaxing. I would stretch or work out, then do steam and whirlpool, then read on the heated lounge almost every day before dinner. It is expensive, though -- even splitting the cost.
Onboard activities: There were some quality activities, but we didn't do much. The Culinary Center is very nice and I attended one food demonstration with the Executive chef that was really worthwhile. There is a computer center with classes, but my husband said it was too elementary for him. Others seemed to really enjoy the computer classes. The Pilates class was good but $12 for 20-30 minute class was too expensive. I did do a free aerobics class one day. My husband went to one ranger talk and was disappointed, although the ranger commentary in Glacier Bay was good. I walked the promenade every day and read some books. On the last sea day there was a Susan G. Komen On Deck for the Cure 5k walk. This was great and attended by 90 walkers who paid $15 each as a donation to breast cancer research. They asked breast cancer survivors to "break the ribbon" to start the walk. I really enjoyed this and it included a free t-shirt. Walking 5k was a breeze and I wish I would have done that sooner! There was bingo and lots of talks about shopping in which we did not participate. And I really don't understand who buys the art at all the art auctions.
Entertainment: Not a strong suit. Most of the lounge music was not very good, or at least not to our liking. Others seemed to enjoy the piano bar. The string quartet sounded like good amateurs. We didn't see any of the regular shows, but really enjoyed the juggler, Benjy Hill. He was fantastic. The magician, Joseph Tran, was worth watching. We ate at 8 p.m. so there wasn't a lot of time for evening entertainment anyway. We usually took a walk on deck at night.
Leaving the ship: We didn't purchase transfers as it was more expensive than taking a cab. We also wanted to leave as late as possible since our flight was at 1:15 p.m. We signed up to disembark between 9-9:30 a.m., having left our luggage outside the night before. The train to the airport was so convenient and cheap that we walked 5 minutes from the terminal and were at the airport in 30 minutes. (Note: it's cheaper to take the train from downtown to the Airport; there is a surcharge from the airport.) Breakfast the final morning was the only unappetizing meal we had the whole week.
Summary: I had no complaints. The ship was great, we saw beautiful scenery, ate good, plentiful and varied food and had an extremely relaxing vacation. I would not hesitate to recommend the ship or the itinerary. Keep in mind that different cruise lines have different strengths. Those looking for a party atmosphere, for example, would probably not have been happy.
I'm very glad to have seen Alaska this way. Read Less