Volendam Alaska Cruise August 23-30, 2006
This was our 2nd cruise aboard the Volendam, having done the same cruise to Alaska in 2005. We had such a great time in 2005 that I jumped at the chance for an encore in 2006. Because we took the same trip last year, I was able to compare and contrast the 2 trips, and the following is my review. As always, I will try to remain fair and objective, but I will also include my perspective and opinions in this review.
We left a day early, as is our custom, and arrived in Vancouver at 11:00AM on Tuesday. We grabbed a waiting limo at LimoJet Gold at YVR airport ($39CAD) and were whisked to the Westin Bayshore without any problems. I highly recommend flying in a day early, and it is real easy to get a limo without prior reservations needed. We had gotten the Westin through Priceline for $80 a few months earlier, and I had contacted them and paid for an upgrade to a Harbor View room in the Tower building for $40CAD extra. This was a wise choice! We were given a room with a great view on the top floor, and it was ready for check-in at noon. The room had the typical Westin Heavenly Bed and nice dual showerhead in the bathroom. The bathroom was quite small, but clean and manageable for 2 people. There was a small balcony to get fresh air and breezes, but there wasn't room to actually sit outside on the balcony. The location was absolutely ideal, down near Stanley Park entrance on the marina, away from the hustle and bustle of the city but close enough to get where you wanted to! Food prices were typically high, and we did not eat any meals in the hotel. There was a well-equipped gym, and both an indoor and outdoor heated pool. We had an excellent view of Canada Place and watched the Volendam dock in the morning.
Vancouver itself is a beautiful city and I would encourage anyone to spend some time there before or after your cruise. We had purchased the Vancouver Entertainment book prior to our trip, and used many of the coupons on our trip to defray costs. Our first order of business was to walk down to Canada Place and watch the IMAX presentation of Alaska. This was amazing, and the walk along the seawall was beautiful. After the movie, we walked down Robson Street to Stanley Park, and took a nice horse drawn carriage ride. There was a nice commentary from the guide, and we saw many cool sights along the way. After our tour, we walked across the park, through the Rose Garden and around Lost Lagoon, to the Stanley Park Fish House for dinner. They seated us at the outdoor deck, and we had a wonderful halibut dinner there. Excellent service, reasonable costs, and fantastic food. After dinner, we walked along the seawall to English Bay and watched the sunset, then headed back to the Westin for bed. All in all, an excellent day!
We slept in and headed over to Canada Place at about 11:00AM. Taxi fare was $7CAD. We gave our bags to the porters (tipped them $2/bag) and headed inside. We had done our forms online beforehand, and had all our documents ready to go. We breezed through Security, but when we arrived at the check-in area, we were met with a huge waiting room full of people! Apparently the computers had gone down, and no one was allowed to check-in. After about an hour, the computers slowly came back online and we were slowly checked in. This was an unplanned glitch, and totally unexpected, but HAL handled it well and kept making announcements to keep us in the loop. Most everyone was understanding, and no major problems other than HAL not being able to process our credit cards on embarkation. They required us to do this onboard in the first 24 hours, and it was not a problem doing that. Even after all the delays, we were on board by 12:30. Once onboard, there was the usual line of smiling greeters. Everyone seemed real happy, and we were sent to the Lido for lunch. The ship seemed clean, orderly, and in good repair. Rooms were available at 1:00PM.
On our trip last year, we spent a lot of time on the aft portion of the Navigation (7th) floor. It was secluded, sheltered from the wind, and a great place to watch the unfolding scenery. Through Cruise Critic, we had learned of rooms 7083 and 7086, which are inside cabins with windows that overlook this aft deck. We booked room 7086 almost a year ago, and got a good price for it. We were real excited to see what the room was like, and it did not disappoint us!
The room is more square than rectangular. As you open the door from the hallway, the bed is against the opposite wall, and the window is to the right (as you are looking in the room). There is a couch on the opposite side of the bed, and the bathroom is located to your left as you are looking in the room. The dresser and closets are on the same wall as the door (directly across from the bed as you are laying down). There is very little room between the foot of the bed and the closets, and there is minimal horizontal surface on the dresser due to the TV and DVD player. The TV is a flat screen model. There are 2 outlets available, so bring your power strip. The bathroom has a shower only, and there is a nice selection of shampoo, conditioner, and soap. There are 2 full-length closets, and 1 half-length closet with shelves on top. We found plenty of room for hanging things, but limited drawer space. The bed was as comfortable as always, and our 3 suitcases fit under the bed. Best of all, though, was the view. We had a beautiful wake view, and only paid for an inside category. Awesome! Also, the windows are tinted so one cannot see in during the day. However, if the cabin lights are on and it is dark outside, you can see in easily. Keep this in mind, and pull your curtains shut!
Now for a complaint. Part of the reason for booking this particular cabin was for the semi- private aft deck. Last year there were numerous teak loungers and 2 blanket chests on this deck, and it was perfect for whiling away the hours. This year, there were NO CHAIRS at all! I asked our room steward and the Front Desk where the chairs were, and they told me that there were NEVER any chairs out there, and never had been! This was obviously wrong information, as I had just been on the same ship just last year, and numerous cruise reviews on Cruise Critic have also mentioned the chairs. I was not getting any action or answers in this situation, so I took matters into my own hands. I went down to Lower Promenade deck and "procured" 2 teak chairs and brought them up to "our" deck. No one stopped me, but I had to keep an eye on them during the week, as the deck crew kept trying to remove them! There is a pretty cool resolution to this problem, though. On Monday, we received an invitation to attend a Question and Answer seminar with the ship's staff, which included the Hotel Manager, Shore Excursion manager, Cruise Director, and Front Desk manager. I have no idea how or why we were picked, but we attended nonetheless. There were only about 10 other people there, and we were asked what we thought of the cruise and what could be done to improve things. Of course, we brought up the deck chairs, and they seemed quite shocked that there were no chairs out there. The hotel manager, Theo, promised to look into it, and by that afternoon there were 8 teak loungers out on that deck! Pretty good customer service, if you ask me! Those of you who have this room in the future should report back on the status of the deck chairs.
As mentioned earlier, the Volendam was in good shape and cleaning and maintenance was constantly being performed. There was an abundance of Purell machines everywhere, and bathrooms were always well stocked with soap and towels.
Explorations Cafe was a nice upgrade to the previous Erasmus Library area. There were plenty of computer terminals with reliable, albeit slow, Internet connectivity. There were also numerous MP3 listening stations (free) with comfortable chairs with ocean views. They had a good selection of DVDs for rent, and the library has a huge selection of travel books, as well as a good selection of fiction and non-fiction books. To top things off, the Espresso Bar is a nice touch. Yes, there is an extra charge for coffee drinks, but they taste good and the cost is rarely over $3.50. They also had daily Soduku and Trivia quizzes available. This was a great place to while away the sea days.
The Culinary Arts Center was also a nice upgrade. Located in the Wajang Theater, this state of the art cooking center replicates the Food Channel. We attended a public cooking demonstration (free) as well as a private cooking class ($29 PP). The Pinnacle chef did the show, and both were a lot of fun. The free public show was after the Galley Tour, and he prepared Shrimp Bruschetta and Chocolate Volcano cake for us. Afterward, there were free samples and they were quite good! They held private classes for 8-12 people on both sea days. We attended the first sea day, and for $29 we each got a nice apron, a 6-month subscription to Food and Wine magazine, and prepared and ate a 3-course meal. We made crab puffs, pan-fried salmon and halibut fillets, and a Jack Daniels laced berry dessert. There was plenty of personalized instruction and we had a great time! Sign up early at the Front Desk for this class, as it is limited to 12 people.
The Wajang Theater itself is still open for 3 movies per day, and still has complimentary popcorn available. On one night, they served tortilla chips instead of popcorn¬ sure why. This is a nice diversion and a fun thing to do as well.
The Wine Bar is also a new addition, and is located in the old Java Cafe area next to the Pinnacle. We did not use this, but it looked real nice, and they have a nice selection of wines available from 1st growth Bordeaux to Chateau d'Yquem.
Explorers Lounge was used mainly for after dinner drinks and relaxation. They had a 3-piece classical band here every night. They had a small flaming coffee bar set up as well. I never did see any of the famed hand-dipped chocolates.
The Piano Bar was well attended on most nights, and was manned by a singing piano player who encouraged audience participation. This area was always quite smoky so we did not spend much time there. The Sea View Lounge was also well attended, and music was supplied by a band that played contemporary music. It was also very smoky.
The casino is small, but has the usual array of table games and slots. They had a Blackjack tournament and a Slot tournament here, and it was always busy in the evenings. They did have a non- smoking night once during the cruise, which was nice! I actually won $500 on video poker.
The Crows Nest was our favorite place on the ship. It offers sweeping ocean views at the front of the ship, although some of that view has been taken away with the addition of the Thermal Suites and gym expansion below. This area was never really crowded, and it was pretty easy to find good seats at night. During Glacier Bay and Tracy Arm, seats were at a premium because of foul weather, so you have to be early! We actually had the Mariner Repeaters Party here on the last sea day, and I thought it was a perfect location. Last year we had it in the Frans Hals Lounge, and it wasn't as nice.
Gym and Thermal Suite:
One of the best SOE improvements on the Volendam was the addition of a Thermal Suite. While not as large as those on Vista ships, the Volendam's new Thermal Suite is wonderful. We paid $198 (including 10% gratuity) for a weeklong couples pass. The Suite has 5 heated tile loungers, 2 scented steam rooms, a hot tub with sea views, and 2 wonderful misting showers. There is a private deck available for Suite-users only, and it provided unparalleled views on glacier days. They only sell 25 passes per week, so it is never crowded. It was so nice relaxing here with Enya playing in the background, while watching the beautiful Alaska scenery. Christian, the manager, was absolutely fantastic. He went above and beyond in his duties by bringing us fresh fruit, arranging bar service, hot soup, and chocolate covered cherries during our time at the Marjorie Glacier, and always ensuring that we were having a good time. I cannot recommend this amenity highly enough!
Prior to leaving, I had requested a table for 2 along the rail upstairs at 3rd seating. I am happy to say that I received this without a hitch. We were assigned table 76, which is on the port side and is along the rail&an absolute perfect table in my opinion. Dining times in Alaska are at 5:30 and 7:45 upstairs, and 6:00 and 8:30 downstairs. We chose the 7:45 time because it gave us plenty of time to get ready for dinner after shore excursions, but it wasn't so late that we fell asleep during dinner either.
The Rotterdam Dining Room is a beautiful area, and most of our meals were great. Our waiter was attentive, intuitive, efficient, and very friendly. We had excellent service all week. On past cruises, meals could get pretty long and drawn out, but our waiter kept the courses coming in quick succession and we were usually done in 60 minutes&perfect for us. As a general rule, entrees were very well done and presentation was great. We always had 5 choices of entrees, and 2 different salmon dishes available. There were 4 or 5 starters available as well. We had 2 hot soups and 1 cold soup to choose from, but only 1 or 2 salad choices. There were usually 3-5 dessert choices. Portions were on the small side, but we never went hungry because of the multitude of courses available. We thought that the salads and desserts were weakest, but really enjoyed the entrees. We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches in the Rotterdam as well, and thought that the choices were adequate. Like the dinners, the food tasted good and was well presented. Some favorites include Surf and Turf, King Crab legs, Lamb, and Fillet.
We only had a few meals in the Lido, and felt like the quality and quantity of selections had gone downhill from our last trip. Salad bar choices were quite limited, and most items tasted bland. They still have a separate sandwich, pasta, and oriental station available, but we were not impressed with the choices most of the time. The desserts, ice cream bar, and bread pudding were still amazing though! Don't get me wrong; the food was not bad&just not as great as it was last year.
Room service was stellar on our trip. Items arrived promptly, and there was only one time that they forgot something. Even that was rectified within 5 minutes of delivery. We usually asked for our food between 6-6:30, and it was always delivered before 6AM!
The Pinnacle was as good as ever. We ate there on Dutch Night (Saturday). We both ordered the Halibut and King Crab legs, and they were just fabulous. Other items ordered were crab cakes, Northwest pear salad, and clam chowder. I ordered the Baked Alaska for dessert and my wife had the trio of crème brulee. Hers was fantastic, but the Baked Alaska had WAY too much meringue on it. Service was efficient and professional. The wine list is quite extensive, and reasonably priced for a restaurant.
We also attended the Master Chefs Dinner on Sunday (Glacier Bay) night. I have seen conflicting reports about this dinner, but wanted to experience it for myself. Our waiter also asked us to go to this dinner, and told us that he enjoyed performing during the dinner because it broke up the monotony of regular dinners. The dinner is actually part of a show, and consists of 3 different acts. Upon arrival to our seats, napkins are placed on our laps during a song, and a single bun in the shape of a chef's hat is revealed under our paper chef's hats on the table. They encourage everyone to wear the chef's hat, but we chose not to. An Amuse Bouche is presented, and after that is done the staff puts on a little song and dance regarding making a salad. Everyone is served a nice salad, and then we are given a choice of 5 starters and 5 entrees. These are presented just like any other dinner, and they were very tasty. After the main course is finished, there is another song and dance number for dessert presentation, which is a white chocolate chefs hat filled with custard and berries&very good! We actually enjoyed the show and dinner, and would recommend it to anyone who has not experienced it. The staff seemed like they were having fun, and I know for a fact that our waiter enjoyed himself. That said, I would probably not go out of my way to see it again on a future cruise. It's nice for something different, but that's about it.
We thought that the entertainment on board was pretty weak. The production shows were the same as last year, and just as boring. The dancers were young and energetic, but most of their singing was just not very good. We did have a magician who was pretty entertaining, and we enjoyed his show. There was also a non-descript comedian who was just not very funny, and a banjo player that was just not very good. Entertainment was definitely geared toward the more "mature" crowd. Most nights, there were only a handful of people out and about after 11:00PM.
Ports of Call:
We booked this trip mainly because of the itinerary, which included 2 glacier viewings. Last year we were blessed with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, but this year Mother Nature was not as kind, and most of our days were wet, windy, and cool. That said, we still made the best of things.
It was wet and cold during our time here. We were able to get back pretty far, and had a good view of the twin glaciers. Most of our time was spent in the Thermal Suite, so we were nice and toasty warm while here. Regardless of the weather, this is always a picturesque place and I'm glad that HAL includes it on their itinerary.
We had really been looking forward to this port because we were signed up for the 4-hour Extended Glacier Trek with Northstar. Unfortunately, the skies opened up just as we arrived, and we had a very windy, rainy, and cold day. All flights were cancelled, and we had to scramble to find something to do. We ended up booking a City Tour and Mendenhall Glacier tour with MGT, and it cost $22 apiece from the vendors on the dock. We had an informative guide, and had a nice city tour before heading out to the glacier. Before we went to the glacier, we stopped at a beautiful Spruce church that overlooked the glacier. Wow!! What a jaw-dropping view, and it was just beautiful inside. We really enjoyed this. Once at the glacier, we took a nice wooded trail on a nature loop, and then headed inside the Visitors Center. There were a lot of informative exhibits and a short film about the glacier as well. Cost was only $3PP, and it was well worth it. Despite a wet and dreary day, we had a good visit here. Hopefully next time the weather will cooperate, and we can take that glacier trek!
It was also rainy and windy in Skagway, but not as bad as Juneau. Our first excursion was the Heli-Hike, which we booked though HAL. We arrived in Skagway right on time at 7:00AM, and our tour was due to meet at the end of the gangway at 7:10AM. We asked the Front Desk when we could get off the ship, and they said not until we had been cleared and an announcement would be made. So we waited, and waited, and waited. It was after 7:20, and I was getting nervous, and I happened to overhear the Shore Excursions staff talking on the phone to someone regarding the occupants of Room 7086 - hey that's us!! She said that the tour guide was getting ready to leave and we better get out there right now! I told her that the Front Desk said we could not depart the ship, and she said we had been clear for debarkation since 7AM! Anyway, we made it downstairs and met our tour guide, but I wasn't too impressed with the Front Desk staff!
The tour itself was fantastic! There were only 4 of us, plus our guide, and we flew via helicopter to our trailhead high up in the mountains. During our flight, we got a close-up view of the Denver Glacier and saw a beautiful waterfall coming off of it. After being dropped off, we geared up and took a scenic 2-mile hike through the woods to the Laughton Glacier overlook. Our guide was very informative and personable, and kept the pace easy and comfortable. He pointed out numerous plants and gave a nice commentary on the sights. We then returned to our starting point and awaited the White Pass train. It arrived and we were loaded up in the end car, which we had all to ourselves. Our guide popped open his cooler, and we had local beers and homemade salmon pate and crackers for our return trip. It was just beautiful, and very scenic. This excursion comes highly recommended, and combines a helicopter ride, scenic hike, and picturesque train ride on the historic White Pass Railroad.
Since Skagway has such a long port time, we elected to book 2 excursions. Our second excursion was the Chilkoot Trail Hike and Float. We met our guide and loaded up in a large van for the road trip over to Dyea, which is where the Chilkoot Trail begins. It was a nice short ride, and very scenic along the coast. Once there, we started our 2-mile hike up the historic Chilkoot Trail. The first half-mile is steep and sometimes difficult to navigate, but the pace is kept slow and steady and should not be a problem for people in reasonable shape. After that, the trail levels out and becomes much easier. We saw a few piles of bear scat along the trail, but no actual bears. At the end of the hike, we climbed into a large raft for a scenic float back down to our starting point. There is absolutely no white water, and it is quite relaxing at this point. We saw a few eagles in the distance, and had some wonderful glacier views. At the end, we all had hot cocoa and homemade chocolate chip cookies. This excursion was reasonable in cost and also comes highly recommended.
While not technically a port of call, Glacier Bay is the highlight of this cruise. Only a few select ships are allowed access to this wonderful area, and HAL is lucky to be one of the few who go here regularly. The weather again was cool, misty, and windy, but tolerable. The trick here is to get up early and spend as much time outside as you can, which is what we did. We were out on the bow from 0700- 1200, and had a grand time. We also spent some time in the Thermal Suite, which makes for a much better viewing area, and personalizes the experience. Early in the morning, 2 Park Service rangers and a Tlingit guide come onboard and provide a running commentary about the park and its many sights. There is also a naturalist on board, and this attention to detail puts HAL head and shoulders above other cruise lines to Alaska, in my opinion. There is a nice display set up in the Crows Nest, including a park map that gives approximate glacier viewing times. In our case, we were at the Johns Hopkins viewing area at 0900, and the Marjorie Glacier from 1020-1145.
Marjorie Glacier did not disappoint. The weather actually got better, and despite being cool, it was not wet or rainy. The overcast skies only accentuated the blue color of the glacier, and it was mesmerizing. We saw a few small calvings, but nothing real spectacular. We were able to get real close to the glacier and spent about an hour there. Pea soup was supposed to be served, and we saw a few people on the bow with bowls of soup, but never did see anyone walking around and announcing this. There were numerous hawkings of wine and cheese (for a fee), but never any announcements for soup. Luckily for us, we had been here before and knew about it, so we tracked down a waiter and he assisted us. I wonder if the rookie cruisers were as lucky? Seems to me that more emphasis should be put on this signature staple. The rest of the day was very relaxing, and we spent a lot of time taking in the scenery and listening to the naturalist and Park service presentations. Glacier Bay is not to be missed, and your best experience is outside!
Our final port was Ketchikan, and it remains our favorite. We had booked an independent excursion with Michelle of Island Wings for the Traitors Cove Bear Watch. We had wanted to go to Anan Creek, but the salmon run was over already, so Traitors Cove was our only choice. We had a nice 25-minute floatplane ride over to the island, and met our guide there. He drove us down an old logging road to the trailhead for the bear-viewing site, and we walked ¼ mile down the well-maintained trail to the salmon stream. We did get to see a medium sized black bear go salmon fishing, and had direct views from our elevated viewing location. We got some great pictures. Unfortunately, this was the only viewing for the next few hours, and we then went back to the van for our trip back to the dock. We stopped at an old road along the way and took a little hike down the road, and were met by a larger black bear! He didn't seem to afraid of us, so we got some pictures and slowly backtracked to our van, then met Michelle at the float dock for our return to Ketchikan. Michelle and her operation are top notch, and there is good value for the money with her excursion. We spent the rest of the day exploring and shopping, and had a great day.
1. Holland America has the best itineraries to Alaska, and has a naturalist on board. They also have Native craftsmen and interpreters on board, and are quite respectful of the natural history and heritage of Alaska. 2. The employees of HAL are hard working, friendly, respectful, and professional. You would be hard pressed to find a more professional crew anywhere. 3. Food as a whole was well presented, and taste was uniformly good. HAL is willing to try new things in an attempt to prevent complacency. 4. Stateroom 7086 (and 7083) are absolutely the best value for the money, on any cruise ship. 5. Alaska is beautiful, rain or shine.
1. The Volendam and HAL are definitely geared toward an older population. Relaxation and sightseeing are important on an Alaskan cruise, but there are a lot of times when it can get boring, especially when the weather is not great. Those of you who like the nightlife and require constant stimulation may be disappointed. 2. The staff, while professional and courteous, does not communicate very well amongst itself. We were frequently given misinformation, and the Front Office staff seemed to be the worst at this. I don't have a problem with someone saying that they don't know the answer, but DO NOT give me misinformation. That is a sure way to cause resentment and conflict.
I think most of my negative experiences were because I took the same trip on the same ship only a year apart. This leads to unfair comparisons, and it becomes a near impossibility to replicate the feeling of wonderment and amazement on our first Alaska cruise. Despite a few shortcomings, however, this trip was a wonderful experience. I got to spend some private time with my lovely wife, saw some beautiful scenery, and got to do something that some people never get to do their entire lives. I consider myself a lucky person, and continue to feel that HAL does a wonderful job, and that the Volendam continues to occupy a tender spot in my heart. Read Less