This is quite a lengthy and detailed review, so I've decided to split it into two sections. The first section is a review of the ship itself, and its services, eateries, and amenities. The second part of the review will cover the itinerary, our experiences in port, and the shore excursions we went on!
Having already experienced the best of Alaska courtesy of Celebrity Cruises in 2014, we decided to return to the Pacific Northwest for a second adventure, this time with Holland America Line. After our voyage on the (then) ageing and since retired Celebrity Century, we'd gained some useful knowledge, and wanted to travel on a more modern, better-appointed ship, with more amenities and a wider range of dining options, and so we booked onto the Westerdam for a seven night cruise to Glacier Bay, on a round trip from Vancouver. We also took a step up in cabin class, from an ocean-view stateroom to a verandah stateroom.
The first impressions of our cabin (number 8029) were positive. Reasonably spacious and well-located close to the forward elevator shaft, it contained lots of storage space, a well-appointed bathroom, and of course, the verandah (ideal for the Caribbean: maybe not a must-have in Alaska). A major plus point is the addition of USB charging sockets: very handy if you don't want to use your own power adapter. However, on closer inspection, I was shocked at how worn, tired, and seemingly poorly-maintained the stateroom was. Stained curtains, a loose hinge on one of the overhead cupboards, and a badly-fitted ceiling panel all came as a major surprise to me. I also found that the mattress on the sofa bed was perhaps too hard, and that the curtains didn't quite close fully. Perhaps I'm naive about this, but is it unreasonable to expect a ship of only fourteen years' service to be maintained to the highest standards? I didn't feel that was the case here, sadly, although, when we reported the loose hinge and the loose ceiling panel, an engineer was promptly sent to fix it. Another flaw is that announcements from the ship's in-house PA system could not be clearly heard in the cabin, I'm guessing because speakers aren't installed in all staterooms. A major positive, however, was how powerful a water flow you can get from the shower. I was expecting it to be little more than a trickle, but it was more than good enough to get yourself a very good shower on a morning!
An important point to note is that if you have cruised before and have been able to access your room bill from your stateroom TV, the Westerdam does not allow for this. Machines located near guest services require you to swipe your key-card and you will able to view and print your bill as it stands at any point.
For such a large ship, the Westerdam is surprisingly easy to navigate your way around. Signage is present at all elevator shafts and passenger stairwells, and the ever-friendly cabin crew are always available to point you in the right direction. Looking at the service provided onboard as a whole, the standards are very high. All of the staff we met were polite and very courteous, the housekeeping staff were friendly and welcoming, and if you need to ask questions at guest services, as we did, you can expect them to be answered swiftly and satisfactorily.
Although we didn't make use of it, the swimming pool on deck nine is one of the ship's most impressive features, with its retractable roof, separate hydro pool. Also worth a visit is the fabulous Explorer's Bar, located on deck ten. Here, large windows offer views of the outside world, and. This is also where you will find EXC Central, your go-to place to book shore excursions, should you wish to wait until you're onboard before choosing.
From a food point of view, your options are many aboard the Westerdam. The main eatery on board, the Lido Market, is always well-stocked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a wide variety of foods, some of which are cooked to order. You are sure to find something that you'll like! Downsides include a regular lack of seating space at peak times (I would definitely advise arriving early if you want to find your ideal seat), a lack of variety when it came to drinks from the dispenser, and, cereal bowls that are far too small, and bizarrely, a lack of trays. It should be noted, however, that there is additional seating available alongside the lido pool, which, when the roof is closed, is a very pleasant place to sit and eat. The two-story main dining room, located aft also offers a good selection of good quality food, while the other two main restaurant, Caneletto and the Pinnacle Grill, are slightly more high-end.
Having purchased drinks packages on our previous cruise, we decided not to do so on this occasion, having felt that we didn't get value for money. That said, the Westerdam does offer a variety of drinks packages, and if you purchase an alcoholic beverage package, you may find some value in it, if you wish to live a little more freely and really 'cut loose' whilst on your cruise. It's horses for courses, but we found that purchasing sodas and bottled water as and when we needed to gave us good value.
The subject of shipboard wifi is something that people will doubtless be interested in. Having relied upon the appallingly slow and unreliable internet terminals on the 'Century', I was extremely pleased to find that the connection was reasonably fast and reliable. Definitely something worth considering if you want to stay connected!
A definite highlight on our cruise was the fabulous piano-playing duo of Vinnie and Anderson, who made the Billboard lounge a very lively place. On the second night of the cruise, we decided to bypass the stuffy gala dinner and head to Billboard for a raucous evening, which was much more fun!
After a smooth and stress-free boarding at Canada Place, we proceeded straight to our cabin, which was a nice bonus: no waiting around in the dining room while the stateroom was made ready.
Monday April 30th was a full day spent at sea. We took breakfast in the Lido, spent some time in the Explorer's Bar, and participated in the trivia quiz held in Billboard Onboard. For days at sea, a full programme of events and activities will be scheduled, and the chances are that you'll find something that you'd like to participate in! Be prepared however, to have to deal with what I called 'forced socialisation'. It is almost certain that fellow cruisers whom you have never met, will ask to join your quiz team or attempt to engage in conversations with you out of nothing. Not good if you're part of a group who enjoys their own company.
At 12:30pm on Tuesday, we docked in Juneau. For some reason, I had an inkling that this was going to be a bad day, and it turned out to be completely accurate. Maybe it was the weather, or the fact I'd only managed to grab five hours of sleep in two days.
The shore excursion we had booked combined a visit to the Mendenhall Glacier and a ride on the Mount Roberts tramway. We met in the MainStage theatre as our tour parties were called out, and one thing that didn't sit right with me was the cancellation of all seaplane and helicopter tours with barely ten minutes notice. Surely, if regular weather reports were being received, it would've been possible to inform the passengers with plenty of time to spare? Adding insult to injury, the people whose tours had been cancelled were told to proceed to the dock where they 'may have been able to he accommodated on a different tour'. I found this to be, frankly, shabby. It left people with no next to no time to make alternative arrangements, and would doubtless have left them feeling deeply annoyed. Everyone knows that the Alaska weather can be unpredictable, but surely Holland America Line should not offer excursions that are liable to cancellation if the weather does not cooperate? Something to consider.
After the announcement about the seaplane and helicopter flights, some tours began to be called out. In all, around six tour parties departed, before things came to a grinding halt. And then we waited. And waited. And began to lose our tempers.
Eventually, after forty five minutes, we were allowed to disembark and head to our tour buses. The reason given was a bottleneck at the gangway, something that was surely avoidable? If Celebrity Cruises can do it (and they did, in 2014, in Juneau) surely HAL can too?
In all honesty, the shore excursions arrangements in Juneau were less than impressive, and, dare I say, slightly chaotic? Nobody really seemed to have an idea as to what was happening, and we sat in the theatre for a long time before anything happened. For my money, the organisation of the shore excursions on the 'Celebrity Century' was better organised and more professionally executed. Updates were almost non-existent, and you could feel a sense of dissatisfaction among the people who were seated.
To be perfectly honest, the horrific start to the day in Juneau kicked things off negatively,and things never really recovered, which was a real shame. The atrocious weather didn't help. The Mendenhall glacier, however, was a spectacular sight, and the ride on the Mount Roberts tramway was certainly memorable. Overall, however, not a day I will remember fondly, and I now understand why only one Inside Passage cruise departed from Vancouver in the month of April; the weather in Alaska at this time of year is simply atrocious.
Wednesday was our day in Skagway. This was a very early start, and we took breakfast in our stateroom in order to save time in the morning. We only ever had one tour in mind for our day in the Gateway to the Yukon, and that was a journey on the White Pass railroad. Defying the forecasts, the weather was beautiful! We met our tour guide and driver, CJ, at the dock, and the whole process was smooth and stress-free. CJ was a wonderfully engaging and friendly guide, and she really enlivened the whole experience for us all!
I can honestly say that this excursion was the undoubted highlight of the entire cruise. The 27-mile journey from Skagway to Fraser, BC took us through some of the most spectacular scenery. As we climbed higher, the snow became deeper and the scenery even more beautiful. The train itself featured an outside viewing platform, which gave us some incredible views! A running commentary was also provided, which gave us a real insight into the history of the region, the Klondike gold rush, and of course, the railroad itself!
We disembarked the railroad at Fraser and reboarded the coach for our trip to Caribou Crossing and then the town of Carcross. Both were great places to visit, and we were given plenty of time to explore.
If your cruise includes a visit to Skagway, please, PLEASE make sure you put the White Pass Railroad at the top of your list, and ideally an excursion that combines the railroad with a visit to Carcross & Caribou Crossing. It really is an experience not to be missed. Book it in advance online as well; this tour, I'm sure, is immensely popular!
Thursday took in the magnificent Glacier Bay National Park and the many inlets, fjords and glaciers that make up this vast expanse. In 2014, we visited Hubbard Glacier, which did not disappoint, and this was arguably even better! It is on days like this, when the views are at their best, that securing a verandah stateroom really comes into its own. This way, you can avoid the hustle and bustle on other outdoor viewing areas of the ship, and enjoy the beauty from your own balcony. Photograph opportunities were plentiful, and it was fascinating to see how the captain and his crew manoeuvred the enormous ship through the ice-studded waters.
Friday was our final day on shore, in Ketchikan, before we embarked on the inbound voyage to Vancouver. We decided to slow down the pace and take in 'The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show' for our shore excursion. Located ten minutes' walk from the dock and held in a heated outdoor grandstand, this was a raucous and fabulously entertaining show! Four world-class timbersports athletes, and a couple of guest stars, competing in a series of different wood-chopping events. It was a brilliant show to watch, with lots of crowd participation, and the perfect final excursion of our cruise!
Overall, this Alaskan cruise was one of contrasts. Certainly, were we to repeat it in the future, we would give serious consideration to the time of year and to the cruise line we used. I cannot stress enough that I do not recommend undertaking the inside passage cruise in late April/early May, as we did. The weather is simply too drizzly and too bleak to get the most out of your cruise. I can't recommend Alaska highly enough as a cruising destination, but do yourself a favour and sail from mid-May onwards. If, like us, you had an 'ideal ship' on which you'd like to sail, you will be forced to compromise on date. It's a balancing act, but personally, I would rather sail on a less-.well appointed vessel and have better on-shore experiences and better weather.
As to the Holland America Line experience? There was some exceptional service, fabulous amenities, and good food on board, but their organisation of the excursions, particularly Juneau, was nothing short of a disgrace, and the standard of the accommodation was not particularly overwhelming. Overall, it was a cruise of contrasts; some great days, great entertainment and good food, tempered by some issues that prevented me from giving it any more than a 7/10 rating. Read Less