We sailed on the ms Volendam from June 1 - 15, 2008. I generally prefer to write (and read) a detailed-filled travelogue, day-by-day style review, but for this particular trip I'm going to break it into sections for various aspects of our trip, so that I can easily re-post separate parts on the relevant message boards here at CC, which were so helpful to me as I planned our Alaskan adventure. If you are reading this complete version of my review and considering an Alaskan cruise, I advise you to read not only the "member reviews," but also to check out the message boards for the particular cruise line(s) you are considering, the Ports of Call boards for Alaska and Canada, and the West Coast Departures board. They all offer an unbelievable amount of helpful information from those who have "been there, done that."
Background information: We are a couple in our 40's. This was our first trip to Alaska, and the first cruise on Holland America for each of us. We are experienced cruisers, and between the two of us, generally my SO leaves the planning to me after voicing a few preferences for activities and budget - and I'm the avid planner and researcher for our trips. I'm also the Cruise Critic addict. In January of this year I was researching a land-based visit to Alaska for the summer of '09 when I spotted the 14-day itineraries offered by HAL this summer. Much to my delight, my SO agreed with me that HAL was offering an excellent deal, so we booked and sailed on the Volendam from June 1 - 15, departing from Vancouver, turning around at Seward, and returning to Vancouver.
Overall conclusion: Alaska is an unforgettable place, and unlike any other place we have visited. So many aspects of the state come to mind as I write - the glaciers, the wildlife, the wide variety of scenery, the friendly people, the long (LONG) days, the many colors of the water, the sounds - all I can say is that we look forward to returning again! We were quite pleased with our excursion choices. The Alaska Ports of Call board here at CC was indispensable in helping us make the most of our shore visits. We also enjoyed our experience onboard the Volendam very much, and will absolutely sail HAL again if the itinerary and price meet our needs. This cruise didn't change our overall opinion that, for our purposes, the mainstream cruise lines are more alike than different. That said, we did see and appreciate very real differences in service, onboard activities, overall "feel," and several other areas between HAL and other lines we've sailed, separately or together (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL, NCLA, and a couple of lines no longer in business).
Pre-Cruise Travel and Hotel Arrangements: We flew AirTran from Atlanta to Seattle for this cruise, even though the ship departs from and returns to Vancouver, B.C. We live in Atlanta, AirTran's headquarters, and flying round trip ATL/SEA on their seasonal flights (offered only during cruise season) saved us just under $350 per person over flying ATL/YVR round trip. $700 is a lot of cash to free up for other things, and we gladly did so, stretching our vacation by two days on the front side, and one day at the end. AirTran is now offering upgrades to business class for pretty reasonable rates at check-in time, so we took advantage of this. We were able to upgrade to business class for $99 per person - for such a long flight, we thought this was well worth it, plus it got our vacation off to a really "pampered" beginning!
We arrived on time at SeaTac, and found the free shuttle bus to our hotel for the night, the Radisson Gateway (booked via Priceline for $50 per night). We had a nice room, with a Select Comfort bed, and a really good coffee shop/restaurant in the hotel. The next morning we got up early and met our previously arranged ride with Already There Limousine service for the trip to the Amtrak Station in downtown Seattle. This was so nice, and for only $10 or so more than a cab gave us a very "luxe" feeling.
We arrived at the King Street Amtrak Station in Seattle around 6:00 AM, which was plenty of time to pick up our tickets to Vancouver ($28 per person, booked online, with AAA discount), check our luggage, and later to obtain our seat assignments (left side, or "wet side," as the agent said). We LOVED this train ride as the beginning of our vacation! The seats were large and comfortable, and the views of Puget Sound and the landscape as we headed north were just wonderful. I also took the best eagle-in-flight photos we got on the entire trip right from the train as we passed through White Rock, B.C., where there were nesting eagles.
The train was on time into Vancouver, and we picked up our reserved Hertz rental car for our stay there. We drove to our hotel, the Pacific Palisades (another Priceline booking, at $125) and found we'd been upgraded to one of their one-bedroom units, which was so nice it made us feel bad we'd only be there overnight! They let us leave the rental car in the front entry for the few minutes it took us to literally drop off our bags in the room, and then we headed out for a day of exploring a little of Vancouver. We drove through Stanley Park, stopping for photos and enjoying a very lovely day weather-wise. We ate an early dinner at Prospect Point, and then finished driving completely around Stanley Park before taking the Causeway and the Lion's Gate Bridge over to North Vancouver.
We stopped at Capilano Suspension Bridge, and used the 2-for-1 Entertainment Book coupon there (the only one we used - which more than paid for the book, so that was good, plus let us leave the book itself as a tip for our hotel housekeepers, which I hope they appreciated). I put this stop in the itinerary because I knew my SO would love it - and he did. I figured I'd be okay with it, but for some reason this bridge really threw off my inner ear. It wasn't the height that bothered me; it was something about the motion - it almost made me feel seasick, and it was like suddenly having "land legs" after a long cruise. It took several hours to wear off, so I mention it just as a note for those considering doing this.
We continued up the road to Grouse Mountain, where we thoroughly enjoyed the tram ride (we had a pretty day, weather-wise, or we wouldn't have gone), and had fun in the snow. We spent a good while watching Coola and Grinder (the brown/grizzly bears), who were freshly out of hibernation, and we also watched the video about them. We then headed down the mountain, stopped at a shop to pick up some soft drinks and such for the cruise, and returned to the hotel. The next morning we returned the Hertz car to their downtown location, and then took a cab to the pier to board the Volendam.
The ship -- embarkation: Embarkation was very smooth, even given long initial lines. We were grouped with passengers on the Norwegian Sun through much of the process, but the lines moved steadily. We arrived at the pier at 11:35 and walked onboard the Volendam at 12:05. Cabins were announced as ready at 1:25 PM.
The ship -- herself: The Volendam was just two weeks out of dry dock, although the carpets, furniture, cabins, in many areas appeared to be showing normal wear and tear, so perhaps this was more of a systems/behind-the-scenes drydock visit. I liked the size of this ship very much - while she doesn't have every "bell and whistle" offered by newer, larger ships, she does have most of the central features I enjoy on a cruise ship, such as a good-sized show room and restaurant, a well-equipped gym, a couple of pools, several bars, etc. We LOVED the accessible bow for this Alaska itinerary - simply awesome views from there, and we also were big fans of the aft Lido deck. The Crow's Nest also offers wonderful views, and we really liked the Explorations Cafe space on Deck Five. She's a great ship for Alaska viewing.
We enjoyed many of the onboard activities, as well. We saw movies in the Wajang Theater (complete with popcorn), and I attended a few activities in the Culinary Arts Center, as well as taking a cooking class with Scott, the chef in the Pinnacle Grill, which was very fun and worth the price. The trivia games were a lot of fun, as well - we won a few trinkets there during the cruise. We aren't shopaholics, so we skipped the shopping "ambassador's" spiels and "guarantees." The onboard cultural expert's talks were interesting, and we attended one as well as watching others replayed on the cabin TV.
The ship - our cabin: We had cabin 7086, known here at CC as one of the "secret" cabins on the R class HAL ships. This is priced as an inside cabin (because it lacks a bathtub), but it's also sort of an ocean view (because it has a window), and sort of an aft balcony cabin, if you don't mind having to get dressed to enjoy "your" balcony (because out your cabin door you can turn left and immediately go through a fire door and exit door onto a wide public balcony running the width of the ship). The price makes this cabin a great bargain, and we really liked this cabin a lot - for the 2 of us it was just fine. Half the couch is in an alcove and so basically unusable, which wasn't a biggie, as we piled luggage down at that end. The TV (someone asked me this here, so I'm posting it) is still on the countertop instead of mounted from the wall, which cuts the available counter space rather significantly, but we were able to manage without much trouble. Best of all was being so close to an outside deck - either the port-to-starboard Navigation deck outside our cabin, or we could go up one flight of steps to the aft Lido deck. When Captain Bos made of one of his frequent announcements - "a pod of dolphins on the port side," or "a grizzly bear and cubs at about 3 o'clock to starboard," - we were able to be outside and looking in seconds.
The bed was extremely comfortable, the linens were wonderful, and we loved the DVD player in our cabin (we'd brought our own DVDs we wanted to catch up on - so we cruised Alaska while watching "Dexter" and "Scrubs" in our cabin!). Air conditioning problems have been reported before on the Volendam, and we felt that ours didn't work very well. The cabin was too warm even with the AC on the lowest setting, but our steward Yudi brought us a fan the first day and that kept enough air moving that it was comfortable in chilly Alaska. I'm not sure how it would work out for the Caribbean, though.
The ship -- entertainment: We attended the Franz Hals Lounge show on the first night of the 14 day cruise, called "Let us Entertain You." Probably the best way to sum up our reaction is to say that the only other show we attended there, which was not until week 2, was comedian Lee Bayless' show, as we'd heard some good things about his jokes about the cruise ship experience - he was okay. I want to stress that neither of the shows we saw were awful. They just weren't that entertaining to us. We also heard Elizabeth and the HAL Cats here and there - they are all talented people, but the lido deck is an unfortunate placement for them when the roof is closed - the sound is reflected and it just sounds like the singer is shouting over too-loud instruments. They were more enjoyable in the Crow's Nest in the evenings, by far.
Fortunately for us, entertainer Randall Powell, who has a number of fans here at CC, is on the Volendam this summer and through her trip to the South Pacific/NZ/Australia this fall. We sort of stumbled onto Randall briefly on night one of the cruise, but the next night, after our CC gathering, one of his long-time friends who happened to be part of our roll call intercepted us and introduced us to him in the Piano Bar. We played Name that Tune that night with those newfound CC friends, and I think for the rest of the 14-day cruise we only missed maybe 2 nights in the piano bar. Sitting in a "regular" piano bar listening to someone cover standards wouldn't be on our agenda, but Randall's showmanship, and his games and activities, just made it compelling and not to be missed for us. Just over 1/3 of our shipboard transactions were purchases at the piano bar, and the room was packed every night, including 25-40 folding chairs. I have to say that we'd have had a great vacation in Alaska even without finding Randall, but because of him we really enjoyed our evenings on board ship, which helped make this vacation even better. I hope HAL appreciates what an asset Randall is (I think they do, based on comments heard at our CC gathering from management).
The ship - spa and salon: After reading reports at CC about the thermal suites on HAL ships, we decided to purchase this for the first week of our cruise ($160 per couple). We really enjoyed this area, especially as I have a bad back and all that moist heat helped me recover from travel stress and from our port days during week one. We chose not to re-book this for the second week to save a bit of money, and because we didn't really care for the configuration of this space. The thermal couches on the Volendam look out the side of the ship, and face a publicly accessible deck area immediately outside the suite's windows, so people enjoying the exterior deck frequently blocked the "scenic view" from the couches. The thermal pool (really a large hot tub) is nice, though, and has a beautiful view forward - it was fun to sail through Glacier Bay while relaxing in the thermal pool!
I won a "mini-facial" at the day one drawing for our cruise, and found it very relaxing and non-high-pressure sales tactics. The aesthetician was competent, didn't try to sell me things, and I appreciated that. The spa area itself is very nice with beautiful views. If I were a spa/salon/massage type person at home, I'd have been very happy in that space on the Volendam. It's very beautiful and the people are quite nice.
The ship - laundry: The Volendam has self-serve laundry rooms on decks 1, 2, and 6. Because of the length of our trip, we'd planned to do laundry about halfway through. The cost is $2.00 for the washer (which includes the marine safe detergent you have to use) for a tiny washing machine load - it will hold maybe 4 pairs of jeans, or 3 pairs of jeans and a couple of shirts. The dryer is $1.00, and is larger - it will hold two loads of wash. You have to use quarters or 25-cent casino tokens in the machines.
That sounds like it's pretty straightforward, but the number of out of order and missing machines made doing laundry a real ordeal - most of the rooms only had three or so functional machines. Because so many people were either going on to land vacations, had boarded from land vacations, or were cruising back to back, the laundries were very popular and crowded. I walked into one to hear one woman literally yelling at another one "I was here first and you can just leave." I tried over a couple of days to find a room that wasn't jam-packed and finally found one at 9:00 PM one night, where I waited for one couple's wash to finish so that I could do one load of socks and undies in a machine. Then I stuffed the rest of the dirty things in a HAL laundry bag and put it out to be done by the ship for $12. Next time they can wash it all - I won't ever again count on reasonably available self-service laundry on HAL. It's a nice idea, but if they don't maintain the machines it's really more of a stress-generator than a useful amenity.
The ship - food, wine and beer: I have posted here at CC before, and will repeat, we are not "foodies." We aren't gourmets, we rarely drink wine at home, and we are generally pleased by the fare on most cruise lines whether in the buffet or the dining room. We thought the food on the Volendam was very good to excellent, and we enjoyed our 20 glasses of wine card (so much we didn't have any punches left to put in our cabin Bible)! Food is so subjective that I will only make a few random statements about it, rather than reviewing each meal, with the caveat that this is OUR reaction only, and yours might be 180 degrees different.
1) We enjoyed our meal in the Pinnacle Grill. I had the ribeye and SO had the filet, and both were exceptional. Our favorite side dish was the mushrooms, and for dessert the chocolate melting cake was also wonderful. The wine steward here made us feel pretty dumb by his reaction to our wine card (the only example of less-than-stellar service we encountered in two weeks, by the way), but that's life - we didn't realize that (based on his reaction) apparently offering the wine card in the Pinnacle was ridiculous - good thing he set us straight so we know for next time! (tongue in cheek);
2) We thought the dining room food overall was very good to excellent. Items we really enjoyed included the lobster on surf and turf night, the always-available New York strip, the chilled fruit soups, the bisques and tomato-based soups, the king crab legs, shrimp cocktail, and the pork and lamb dishes. We liked the Asian station in the Lido at lunch - they offered very good food there. Overall the desserts were pretty flavorless to us - the only one that stands out to me was the mountain berry crisp I had one evening - that was good. Most of the pastry type items tasted as if they'd been frozen and heated, but that's not such a bad thing - it kept us from gaining weight on the cruise!
3) We like locally brewed beers when we travel, and Northbound we really enjoyed those from the Alaskan label. Southbound, on day 2, the ship ran completely out of any type of local Alaskan-brewed beer. Note, this wasn't the fault of Harry, the Beverage Manager, who only joined the ship during week 1 of our cruise - but it was still quite annoying, especially as Alaskan has offered an event with HAL this summer involving purchasing Alaskan brews and obtaining stamps onboard;
4) I liked the Lido option in the evening if one didn't feel like getting dressed for the dining room - we used it two times and were quite pleased;
5) HAL needs either to enforce the dress code or get rid of it. We adhered to the dress code, and I'd estimate that the majority of the passengers (55-65%) did too, but the effort was basically pointless, based on the attire admitted to the dining room.
6) Room service on HAL rocks! They offer great breakfasts, including hot meals, and the ability to order dining room food during dinner hours was super. The club sandwich on the 24 hour menu is delicious. 7) HAL does something in the dining rooms I really didn't like. The waiters remove flatware and stemware from the table when unnecessary for that diner (which is typical), but then I watched them put those items directly back into the containers for re-setting the dining tables. I really don't understand having Purell everywhere onboard, and crew members requiring pax to use it prior to reboarding, going down the buffet line, and so forth on the one hand, but then reusing dinnerware without any idea of whether it's been in someone's hands (or mouth) on the other hand. BIG thumb's down for this practice.
8) As You Wish dining worked well for us. We typically had no trouble or significant delay being seated, and we walked in at various times between 5:30 to 8:30 during the 14 days. The first night of the cruise we were given a beeper, but were still seated within 20 minutes, and after that we were seated within 5 minutes at most, and usually less. Several times we were seated upstairs, in the "fixed dining" room, where we saw many empty tables. Perhaps it's just the Alaska itinerary, but it definitely seemed on our cruise that AYW was more popular than traditional, by a fair margin.
9) The Master Chef's Dinner was a bust for us. We skipped it in week one, in favor of the Pinnacle Grill, and decided to attend during week two. Requiring everyone to show up at 7:45 and not opening the dining room doors until 8:00 was just an invitation to disaster - I'll be posting some photos of the cheek to jowl mass of humanity solidly clogging the elevator lobby and all the stairways on Deck Four. It was downright dangerous (and it didn't improve my mood that the woman in front of me had bathed in perfume and simply reeked). Service quality slipped during the dinner (we received no wine steward attention until our entrees were being delivered to the table), and I didn't like having the range of choices for two courses restricted because of the "show." I personally didn't think the show was enjoyable (it was more like "painful to watch"). Also, maybe I'm overly sanitation aware as an elementary school teacher, but during the baked Alaska parade having people wave their used napkins over their heads, thus flinging the crumbs and such they've wiped from their mouths all over the dining room, was just plain gross to me. Needless to say, we won't be doing the Master Chef's Dinner again!
The ship - service: In addition to room service, mentioned above, service is the second area where I really felt HAL is a notch above other lines we've sailed. From our marvelous cabin steward, Yudi, to the front desk who helped me with a few issues as painlessly as possible, to Jose ("Freddy") and Augustin from the beverage staff, we just felt HAL goes out of their way to try to make everyone feel special. We were on the Navigation Deck, with the Neptune Lounge and the suite pax, and the stewards at that end of the corridor still always had time to say hello and smile as we walked down the hall. Simply put, wonderful people work for HAL. We left our auto-added tips in place, and tipped additional in cash frequently during our stay... and every penny was well earned and well spent.
Though not in the same category as tipped service staff, we also appreciated the fact that on the southbound leg our CC meet and greet was joined by Rebecca, the cruise director, and Harry, the beverage manager. We had a good time visiting with them, and really appreciated their taking the time from their busy days to join a small gathering of CC folks. I thank everyone from our roll call that attended the M&Gs in both directions - it was so nice to meet friendly people, and have familiar faces to see during the cruise.
I also really appreciated the master on the Volendam, Captain Peter Bos. He obviously loves Alaska, and really enjoys sharing wildlife sightings and such he makes from the bridge. His manner was also very reassuring when the fire alarm sounded on the last night of the cruise due to smoke in the Crow's Nest (it turned out to be easily resolved and the lounge reopened). Ports of Call - Ketchikan: Northbound we did the Bering Sea Crab Fishing excursion, booked through HAL, and we simply loved it - it was one of our two favorite excursions for the whole trip. It features hosts who actually have fished in the Bering Sea relating their experiences, coupled with live demonstrations of their gear and routines. With the stadium seating they've added to the Aleutian Ballad there's not a bad seat to be had, either - the lines of sight were carefully thought out. We got to see/touch a rockfish, a prawn (with the most amazing copper eyes), a king crab, a Tanner crab, and an octopus. It was a raw, cold, wet, nasty day - but the Aleutian Ballad crew offered ponchos, hot drinks, nice overhead heaters, and space indoors if you became too chilled. We were very much "in" to this excursion, as we are fans of The Deadliest Catch, but even those on our excursion who hadn't ever seen the show were as happy as we were with the experience. It's not touristy, canned, or shlocky at all, though I guess after a lot of repetition it could become that way. But for now it's just a great time and very genuine. We also went to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, and found it corny and hokey (which we expected), but still a lot of fun. We got some good photos there, as the weather had turned sunny by afternoon.
Southbound we booked Lois Munch of Classic Tours and we had a very nice visit with her while touring Ketchikan and Saxman Village. The classic Chevy is a hoot (it doesn't even have seatbelts!) and Lois is very knowledgeable about Ketchikan and Saxman Village. After the tour she dropped us at Creek Street and we had fun touring Dolly's house and checking out the shops as the clouds gave way to a gorgeous, sunny afternoon. We went to Steamer's for appetizers (chicken wings and crab margarita) and Alaskan summer ale, then shopped a bit more as we meandered back to our ship.
Ports of Call - Juneau: On the Northbound leg we had a major disappointment, as the Volendam was late arriving in Juneau due to what we were told was the need to perform some type of engine repair during the night. This meant we were unable to make our Adventure Bound sailing to Tracy Arm, which was very disappointing - that was the first excursion I'd booked for this trip and I'd really been looking forward to it. I contacted Winona at Adventure Bound when we returned home and she cheerfully refunded our money, waiving their 7-day cancellation policy since the ship was late - excellent service there, and she's so nice. I hope we get back to Juneau someday so we can take the Adventure Bound. Interestingly, when I called to arrange the credit Winona said that the Volendam was also late into Juneau on June 18, the ship's next northbound trip after ours. If this is a permanent schedule change, and wasn't a temporary problem on our sailing, HAL needs to change their published time at the dock from 7 AM to 8 AM so folks don't think they have time to make an 8 AM excursion in Juneau.
We booked the "Glaciers and Gardens" excursion through the ship at the last minute instead, and enjoyed it well enough. We liked the film at the Mendenhall Visitor's Center, and thought the golf cart trip through the rainforest was really very interesting and beautiful. After the tour we went to meet a group at the Twisted Fish for lunch and had a great meal - that was a really good time!
Southbound in Juneau we'd booked Orca Enterprises and went out with Captain Larry, Captain Shaun, and a naturalist named Dirk (I think those last 2 names are correct; if not I apologize). We had a wonderful time with them! The information shared was very educational, and we were fortunate to have whales come very close to our boat. A bit further away we also saw a whale breaching. Afterwards we did some shopping in Juneau and wandered around Franklin Street before returning to the ship.
Ports of Call - Skagway: We booked the Yukon Bus/Rail excursion through Chilkoot Charters at Skagway and really enjoyed it. The day got off to a rocky start, though - the email confirmation said for us to meet our driver outside the security area at the end of our pier at 7:30. We (and another couple who had booked Chilkoot) were there on time on a chilly, wet morning, and no van showed up. After several efforts I reached the offices by phone around 7:50 and was berated by the woman who answered because we were "at the wrong pier," and her driver was looking "everywhere" for us. I explained that we were at the pier where our ship docked - Ore Dock, per the security officer standing nearby whom I asked. The woman on the phone noisily flipped some pages, and said that according to her schedule we were "supposed" to be at Broadway Dock, and with a heavy sigh, said she'd send the van to our dock. This really irked me, to be honest. Did this woman think I had any control over where our cruise ship docked? Plus, couldn't her driver look around the port and SEE that the Volendam was berthed at a different dock than their schedule said? The Skagway port area isn't that big - one can easily see every ship in port.
In any event, the driver did finally arrive and he was very nice. We enjoyed the train trip, especially the "moonscape" above the tree line at the end. By the time we reached Fraser it had turned into a beautiful day. We really enjoyed the trip to Emerald Lake, the activities at Carcross, all the photo stops we were able to make, and our driver, BJ, was really nice and informative - his friendly attitude went a long way toward improving my overall impression after the phone conversation that morning. We saw a brown bear eating dandelions right beside the road and he ignored us as we got great photos right from the mini-bus. I liked doing this excursion in the small group very much, especially for the ability to make a lot of photo stops. The large buses just can't do that, because it takes so long to get everyone off and back on.
We returned to a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Skagway. We went on the ship-sponsored excursion to Liarsville for a salmon bake, show, and gold panning. We were the only 2 from the Volendam who went to that evening's show, and in fact there were only about 20 people in all who attended, so it was a nice, intimate experience. I enjoyed this excursion - again, it was a bit hokey, but then again we were tourists! The young performers were especially engaging and fun, and the food at the salmon bake was very good.
Ports of Call - Haines: We really liked Haines (which was our Southbound port of call rather than Skagway). The thing I liked immediately was getting off the ship and NOT seeing rows of the same jewelry stores you see in the Caribbean, and in Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway. We rented a car in the morning, using Avis at the Hotel Halsingland, and drove out the Haines Highway into the Yukon as far as Million Dollar Falls. It was a really pleasant drive, and we saw eagles, trumpeter swans, arctic ground squirrels, and a large brown bear, as well as beautiful mountain and alpine views. On the return trip we stopped for lunch at the 33 Mile Roadhouse, which had wonderful hamburgers and onion rings.
We got back to Haines and met our ship-sponsored excursion called the Alaska Wildlife Expedition, which visited the refuge owned by filmmaker and animal handler Steve Kroschel. This was thoroughly enjoyable! Steve is so knowledgeable and very enthusiastic, and so is Mario, another naturalist/documentary-maker who helped show us the animals and explain more about them, as did both Steve's son and Mario's son. We saw (and in a few cases got to pet and/or feed) a wolf, an owl, a hawk, a pine marten, a mink, porcupines, wolverines, lemmings, ermines, foxes, moose, caribou, and I'm probably forgetting some. Steve had recently had a brown bear cub placed with him and it was too soon for her to make an appearance, but we saw her from a distance. A couple of points about this excursion: first, the description says walking is required, but doesn't make it clear this walking is up and down some very steep gravel and dirt paths - several people in our group had mobility issues and struggled; and second, use the bug spray they give you liberally, as this place is on "Mosquito Lake Road" and they aren't fooling - there were zillions of very large mosquitoes. On the way back to Haines we stopped at the Bald Eagle Foundation and were treated to a very informative talk by Dave Olerud, who was one of the creators of the Foundation.
Ports of Call - Seward: We were thrilled by our excursion choice at Seward - the Kenai Fjords Northwestern glacier trip so frequently recommended on the Alaska board here at Cruise Critic. Those recommendations are spot on, based on our experience. We were able to use the Northern Lights 2-for-1 coupon for this excursion. We saw lots of wildlife: orcas (including breaching), humpbacks (also including breaching), puffins and other birds, sea lions, seals, otters, Dall porpoises, and mountain goats. At one point while we were stopped and watching whale activity several hundred feet away a different humpback surfaced nearby, then literally dove under our vessel, the Chugach - his tail wasn't more than ten feet off the bow rail! We also saw great calving activity at the glacier. I do advise bringing sunscreen for this trip, as our day was so clear and bright, and I spent so much time on the bow, I'd have burned without it. I did take Bonine prior to the trip, but my SO didn't, and neither of us felt at all queasy - though I could see how that could happen, as the boat did bounce and wallow from time to time even on this very calm day.
Our captain/naturalist, Mark Lindstrom (I think the last name's right) was very informative, his crew was excellent and attentive, and overall this was one of our top two excursions of the trip (along with the Aleutian Ballad one in Ketchikan). I was so impressed that instead of selling the rest of the Northern Lights book on Ebay (the Kenai Fjords was the only coupon we used from it, as it turned out), I gave it to the captain as a "tip" so that he and the others at the Kenai Fjords company could benefit from the various coupons in the book, or share them with friends and family.
Scenic Sailing and Glacier Viewing: One of the best parts of the itinerary we chose was that it gave us six "sea days" - two each for the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay, and College Fjord. We were able to maximize our time outdoors just watching the amazing scenery unfold. We also had two chances to see Glacier Bay, and Marjorie Glacier was much more active on our second visit than our first, so we were very grateful. During the second visit a piece calved which was so large the waves from it could be felt onboard the ship. HAL does these glacier days well, with blankets and hot pea soup on deck, plus hot chocolate available, and stronger fortifications for sale if desired. The National Park Service rangers during the Glacier Bay days were very informative, as was the representative of the Huna speaking about their way of life. I also really liked College Fjord, and being able to see a panoramic view of so many glaciers at once.
Clothing and gear: The best packing decision I made was to remove two of the four short-sleeved shirts I'd laid out and replace them with long-sleeved ones. I didn't wear either of the short-sleeved shirts until we were on the way home. I didn't need the waterproof hiking shoes I brought along, but only because we didn't have any days with steady rainfall, so my regular walking shoes were okay. I found my fleece pants to be warmer than jeans and wore the fleece most often. Most days I wore a long sleeved shirt, a sleeveless fleece vest over it, and then had my waterproof jacket with removable fleece lining if needed. I used gloves, ear muffs, and scarf at various times. My SO is colder natured than I am, so he took lightweight thermal underwear and was very glad he did.
I brought insulated mugs for hot chocolate from home, which we really enjoyed on scenic viewing/glacier viewing days on the ship. You could get hot chocolate on the ship, but it didn't stay hot long in regular cups. I was very happy I'd spent a bit more than I'd planned on binoculars for this trip, choosing the Nikon Trailblazer 8x42 model. They were so comfortable and easy to use, and lightweight to wear around my neck, so I always had them when the captain spotted things for us to try to see on shore - I was able to watch a brown bear sow and 2 cubs for about ten minutes one afternoon. My SO brought our binoculars with a built in camera and was very glad he did - he was able to use it to get photos of a breaching orca and a breaching humpback, among other things.
Post-Cruise and Returning Home: We booked transportation through HAL back to SeaTac, which was reasonably smooth, especially as at the US border the official just checked passports/ID and waved us on. Our driver was kind enough to drop us off at our hotel with our luggage, saving us a transition at the airport from the bus to the hotel's shuttle. We again stayed at the Radisson Gateway for $50, booked via Priceline. We had thought about seeing some of Seattle this day, but we were tired after some late nights at the Piano Bar and decided just to stay in and rest up. The next day we took the hotel shuttle to the airport and were again able to upgrade to business class for $99 per person - a real boon on cross-country flights. Our flight was late departing Seatac, but arrived on time in Atlanta, and all too soon we were back home and back to real life! Read Less