I decided to take my son on an Alaska cruise as a high school graduation present, even though he really wanted to go to the Mediterranean- another victim of the falling dollar and rising fuel costs. I am a divorced mom, mid 50's, and ... Read More
I decided to take my son on an Alaska cruise as a high school graduation present, even though he really wanted to go to the Mediterranean- another victim of the falling dollar and rising fuel costs. I am a divorced mom, mid 50's, and have to admit that I tend to see the glass as half empty. I have traveled with my son all over the world. Prior cruise experience on Celebrity, RCCL, NCL and even the Disney Big Red Boat. So, although I had read all the bad reviews about HAL, I had also heard that they were making an effort to attract younger people, that the Alaska cruises have lots of teens and that their ships were elegant and understated. With that in mind, a great cruise price through an internet site and tickets on Alaska Air purchased with frequent flyer miles bought on ebay, we set out for Anchorage and the start of the southbound journey to Vancouver.
I did not use any of the ship's transportation options. We flew to Anchorage, checked into the Hilton and spent a day in Anchorage. Visited the Native Heritage Center, which I frankly expected to be a boring tourist trap. Wrong! Fabulous is the only word I can use to describe it. The "college kids" working there actually grew up in the areas and in the types of dwellings represented. Next morning, bus to Seward. Called and made the reservation the day before. The bus let us off at a lodge a few miles outside of Seward, which checked the bags and delivered them directly to the ship for only a couple of dollars. Cheapest deal in Alaska. They even had a free shuttle which took us into Seward.
My son was really anxious to get on board and start eating, so we boarded before lunch. The boarding process was effortless. We avoided the ubiquitous photo in front of the ship and no one chased us down. So far, so good.
Then came the activities-or should I say lack thereof. I originally attributed it to the fact that it was boredom, oops, boarding day, but I would soon learn that this was every day. We were confined, until the rooms could be readied, to the eighth floor. This is the floor with the buffet, swimming pools, 2 "hot" tubs, work out room and spa. There was also 1 ping pong table and 1 floor sized chess set.
ACTIVITIES - There are a lot of rooms for sitting. They have many, many names for these rooms. You can sit with a drink, a computer, a book or at a card table. If you like to sit, this is the ship for you. The internet room is also the library and is quite beautiful. Internet charges are the standard overpriced sea rates. The library has a wonderful collection of books-all of which are locked up at 10:00 PM every night. I wonder where they think you would take the stolen book? If it is before 10, you can check it out. You can also rent DVD's for a fee. One of the places that you cannot sit is a "hot" tub. This is because the tubs are never hot. They are closed with netting or drained at about 7PM every night. In the morning, they are ice cold. It became a running joke between another passenger and me. She would sit on a chaise by the hot tubs every morning until about lunch and I would say "are they hot yet?" every time I passed by. The hot tubs got hot by about 5PM, when most people went to dinner. Then they were shut off at 7PM, ready to start the cycle again. I was told that there was a "hot tub" in the spa which one could use for $80 or so for the week. I asked to see it and was told to come back at 5PM, when it wasn't so crowded. (Coincidentally, the same time the free hot tub heated up). As to other activities, the indoor pool was taken over by kids, so I never used it and the outdoor pool wasn't an option- for that you need a different cruise. The ping pong table was really popular. My son told me that he tried to play basketball one day on the outdoor deck but the net or the hoop or some other part was broken. He found a group of teenagers to socialize with and basically they wandered around the ship bored. The activities director (some 22 year old girl with a whistle) arranged some lame competitions to win points which could be exchanged for ship cups and such. One was a ping pong match. There were so many people, because there was nothing else to do, that she limited it to best of 5 points between each 2 persons in line. They also had a contest hitting a ping pong ball with a putter into a net in the swimming pool held by one of the kids swimming. Have I mentioned how boring this ship was? I spent most of the time in the gym. There was a lovely view and the requisite number of treadmills, bikes, cybex machines, weights, etc. They had a few t.v.'s which ran the news all the time. I took one pilates class, which was taught by a Russian male instructor. He claimed that no other staff showed up, so he taught all the classes, no matter what they were. I didn't take anything but the pilates and it was a killer.
ENTERTAINMENT - If your idea of entertainment is having a guy sit at a piano and tell you to turn to number 71 in your book so you can sing along to "Climb Every Mountain," you have found paradise. This is the type of thing that poses as entertainment on this ship. It almost makes the adolescent bathroom and penis humor on RCCL look good. There are two shows every night. I (wrongly) assumed that the early (7PM) show was for the early diners and the late (I use that term loosely)show at 9PM was for the late diners. On HAL, the nightly show lasts approximately 45 minutes. So, I was told, the late diners, such as myself, were expected to go to the 7PM show. That would allow them to be at the dining room by 8 PM and presumably get to bed by 10-the time when most everything on this ship closes down. If you really want to stay up "late," there is a nightly movie. The last showing was usually around 10PM. There is also a casino. It has the usual slot machines, craps table, roulette table, 21, poker, etc. There is just no pizzazz. My son enjoyed the blackjack tournament one night, even though he ended up losing.
FOOD - One good thing about the cruise-you won't gain weight. My son's plans for a 7 day eating binge were thwarted through no fault of his own. The comedians who make jokes about 24 hour hot and cold running food on cruise ships have never taken this line. Didn't happen. Since I'm fat enough, this was not really a downside for me, but my son had his heart set on huge portions of lobster tails and baked alaska. Beginning with breakfast, we ate it at the buffet twice. I don't think the dining room served breakfast After that, we skipped the meal altogether. It was the equivalent of a high school cafeteria. The one stand out was fresh squeezed orange juice- which was unfortunately served at room temperature. The ship is kept so hot that you are thirsty all the time for something cold to drink. All that is offered all day, except breakfast, is water, coffee, hot and iced tea. My son bought a soda card for $20 or so and he couldn't use it at the buffet or in the dining room. He had to go to the bar. And he wasn't allowed to sit at the bar because he is only 18, so the card went to waste and he was thirsty all the time. We never ate lunch in the dining room because they are only open for about 1 1/2 hours at lunch. We always ate at the buffet. Dinner we usually ate in the dining room. Generally, the food is the same. The menu in the dining is the same as the buffet. The only other option is the restaurant with a $20 per person surcharge. The night I tried to book reservations, they were full. After that, I passed by and saw the exact same occasion cake as was on our table in the dining room, so I decided to save my money. Some of the food was good-the prime rib, the Asian stir fries, the mushroom soup and the lobster tails, for example. Some of it was awful. Most of it was bland, boring and poor quality. The fresh fruit wasn't sweet, the vegetables were frozen, the danish were the same every day, the pastries were cloyingly sweet and the meat was not trimmed of fat. The dining room was set for dinner every night with a place setting consisting of no less than 10 pieces of silverware, with 4 pieces above the plate. The fish and steak knives were delivered separately. It gave the impression that Holland America in their past had an elegant dinner service and was trying to hang on to that time. Now it was just an out of place relic and seemed pompous and foolish in light of the poor sparse food. Dinner was only 3 to 4 courses and far less copious than that of other cruise ships. The menu was divided into appetizers, soup and salad as one category and a main dish. A dessert menu was presented afterwards. Portions were adequate. Food was poor and pointlessly fussed over. For example, they served escargots on one night and chose to douse them with a thick cream sauce and place the thick mixture in a pastry shell. The baked alaska was a ball of egg whites covering a cake that tasted like a mix with a tablespoon of ice cream. Service was slow and pretentious. It took approximately 2 hours to serve 3 to 4 courses of pre-prepared plates. The buffet was staffed beautifully. It was not a chow line. Everything was served to you. Lunch began at 11:30 and closed promptly I think at 1:30. There was a tea service in the dining room from 3-4. I went to it one day. They used the same tea bags as usual and the staff had no idea what clotted cream or watercress were. The buffet also had some interim light meal before dinner. Dinner at the buffet closed about the same time as the dining room, probably 9PM. Then there was a 1 hour buffet at 11PM. Nothing was served in the Casino or any of the sitting rooms, although the library had a specialty coffee bar where drinks were for sale. If you have memories of things staff greeting you with hot chocolate or cool drinks after port, they are just that. On glacier viewing day, staff came around early in the morning hawking commuter cups for sale, so you could fill up your coffee and take it outside. My son said to just describe the food as "horrible" and stop using so many words. So much for the teenage prospective.
THE SHIP AND CABIN- The cleanest ship I have ever been on. The staff spent most of their time cleaning and they were insistent on standards with the passengers. You had to purify your hands every time you entered the dining room, the buffet line or came back from port. The public areas are lovely. They are mainly wood and afford ocean views everywhere. The walls have interesting art and it is worth stopping to look. We were in a cheap inside cabin. It was fine. Lots of room, lots of storage space. Suited our needs. Staff were constantly coming in to clean. PORTS- The ship spent the longest port time in HAINES, where there is nothing to do. We were there for about 12 hours. Some people took the ferry to Skagway to shop. We just walked around. The totem pole store was interesting. I enjoyed speaking with the carvers. The fort is not a fort, but a bunch of buildings and the town is tiny. An eagle watching tour is offered at over $100 per person, which we considered taking, but later were glad we didn't bother. Lots of eagles to come. On a cruise to Alaska, the ship fare is like the base sticker price of a car. My price actually doubled when the activities in port were added. And, there is not a lot of difference if you book yourself. Usually, I save a lot of money by booking shore excursions myself. In Alaska, you won't. All the money is made in the very short summer season, so prices are ridiculously expensive. And, since there are not a lot of suppliers, prices among them are pretty uniform. You can save about $50 per person on some of the flight trips, which we didn't take, booking them independently, but for the things we did, prices were exactly the same.
JUNEAU - We booked sport fishing through the ship, which delivered it through Juneau Sports fishing. We were bussed to the pier and assigned to a boat with 2 other people. Had an absolutely great time. The captain was terrific. The other fisherman were lots of fun. Cost was $219 per person plus $20 each for a fishing license. We each caught a salmon (Yeah!). The captain arranged to have the fish sent to Alaskan Sea Food, where it was smoked, packed and shipped to us in CA for a charge of $77. Wanted to see more of Juneau, but after the fishing, we were exhausted and went back to the ship
GLACIER BAY- Although this is not a port, it is an attraction. Spent the day on the highest deck covered in blankets watching ice fall into water and listening to the rangers describe the geology of the area.
Ketchikan- The absolutely best port. We spent the shortest time there. We booked the deadliest catch tour at $145 per person. It was worth the money. At one point, the fisherman threw bait into the water and we watched eagles swoop down from the tries to catch it. Watching the eagles was glorious. The fisherman were fun and the entire experience was just great in every way. Luckily the ship had pulled in a little early so we had time to walk around. But there are many shops and so much to do there. We would have gone fishing again if there was time.
In summary, if you are over 80, handicapped or expecting to have a medical emergency at sea, this is the ship for you. They actually were able to call the coast guard, turn the ship around and have a passenger taken off to the hospital by helicopter in less time than it took them to serve dinner in the dining room. Apparently, this happens with some regularity. The staff was wonderful with people in wheelchairs and those who needed assistance. If you have to go to a nursing home, for the same price you can cruise. If I live pass 80 or fall into really poor health, I will reconsider taking HAL. Read Less