Let me preface this with the admission that I know this review is long but I prefer to think of it as comprehensive!
About us: My husband and I are in our 60’s and this was my fourth Alaskan cruise (his third) but our first land journey. We are self-employed and were a little hesitant to be away from the office for so long but it all worked out well. Because we need to stay in touch while traveling I may include more info re internet access than you might need. In 2005 when we first cruised to Alaska with HAL we did most of our “must do” excursions figuring we would never return. Since we loved it so much and keep going back we only did a few excursions since most of those that interest us have been done at least once before. All of our cruises (8 for me/7 for him) have been on HAL. We liked it when we started in 2005 and see no reason to switch. There are parts of most cruises that we might like to change but for us the positives of HAL far outweigh to negatives.
TAMPA TO ANCHORAGE: We began our journey on Wed. June 25 flying SWA from Tampa to Atlanta then on to Seattle. On the Tampa flight we were joined by a team of teen girls on their way to Seattle to a national soccer tournament. In Atlanta we picked up another team of teen girls. They were obviously excited about their adventure but were not annoyingly noisy. Flights were uneventful. In case you are wondering, when I accompany my husband on SWA I fly free so that had bearing on our flight choices. We stayed at the Marriott SEA/TAC Wed. night and ate dinner in their restaurant and got a complimentary breakfast buffet the next morning. Our Delta flight to Anchorage wasn’t until early afternoon so we were not rushed. Delta’s baggage scale was not calibrated to my luggage scale so there was some shifting of items between bags at check in but that was easily accomplished. We arrived in Anchorage and as soon as we reached the baggage claim area we saw the HAL reps. They tagged and gathered our carry-on bags then asked us to claim our checked ones and then took those as well to transfer to the hotel. After only a short delay to gather other passengers we were bussed to the Westmark Anchorage. I admit to some trepidation about the hotel after reading reviews calling it “utilitarian”, “average”, etc. but was pleasantly surprised. The room was very clean and roomy with a separate sleeping alcove with a king bed and a living room area with plenty of seating and a usable desk. We were given a welcome packet with all info for the trip to Denali. I had made a reservation through Open Table at the Glacier Brewhouse across the street. Very smart move as when we arrived for our 6:30 pm time we heard many, many people leave in dismay when told the wait without a reservation was over an hour. Dinner was good. In the welcome packet we were given a choice of either traveling with all of our luggage or having some held in Anchorage to be delivered directly to the ship. We chose to travel with just our carry-ons so I juggled items around as the bags going directly to the ship had to be outside the door before retiring. I’ll admit to my only screw-up of the trip here: I forgot that my nicely laminated Oosterdam luggage tags were in the inside pocket of one of our large bags; a fact I would not realize until we arrived in Denali. It all worked out but I did have some worries due to my forgetfulness!
ANCHORAGE TO DENALI: Thursday morning we had to be downstairs to board the bus to the train station at 7:15 AM so we opted for Starbucks from the location in the Westmark lobby. The hotel has a breakfast buffet but we had heard great things about the lunch on the train so we decided or normal coffee would be enough. (More on that theory…). The Westmark holding area was very congested as people determined which bus they belonged on but after a brief delay we were on our way. We arrived at the Anchorage train station in about 15 minutes and there they were…the McKinley Explorer domed rail cars! Boarding was quick as seats were pre-assigned. Seats were comfy and visibility was great. Our carry-on bags were collected and I believe they were trucked to Denali. Each rail car holds about 48 passengers and has a tour guide and bartender. The bar is located on the top level with the main seating while the lower level has the dining room and restrooms. After only a brief safety/procedures review we were on our way. We were given our Denali welcome packets that included our hotel room keys. Guests were given the option of going down for breakfast and perhaps half did and reported the food was good. The bar was open and I recommend the Bloody Mary made with Alaska Frostbite Vodka! The ride was smooth and the guide and bartender both offered scenic information and amusing stories. Guests were soon asked if they wished to plan on lunch downstairs and we signed up. Lunch service began around noon but due to “sharing a kitchen with 2 rail cars” the service was slow and guests had to wait until they were instructed it was their turn to go down. Unfortunately our turn did not come until 3PM! There were snacks available for purchase so we didn’t starve but boy, we were hungry! Two observations: it would have been nice to know in advance that breakfast was available on the train and also been advised that lunch might be as late as 3PM. Both bits of information would have altered out decisions. Lunch was great once we got it. I had a crab melt sandwich and husband had “award winning“ reindeer chili. Too many scenic spots on this route to mention but we thoroughly enjoyed it and we arrived at the Denali train station around 5PM. We were bussed to the McKinley Chalet Resort. We were in one of the ground floor cabins located at the back of the area where the main lodge is located. We found our carry-on bags in our room when we arrived. Our room had 2 sleeping areas each with a queen size bed and the bathroom between. This was fine for us and we each picked a bed. The couple assigned the unit next to us took exception and was successful in being reassigned to a room with a king bed.
DENALI: I had planned on dinner at Prospector’s Pizza across the street but once we got organized and trekked over there in the drizzle/mud we found the wait to be 1 ½ hour so we returned to the McKinley Chalet and got on the list for the nicer of their 2 restaurants Nenana View Bar & Grill. The wait was only slightly shorter than if we’d opted for pizza but we enjoyed a beverage in front of a roaring fire while we waited. After a pleasant meal we turned in due to our early call for the Tundra Wilderness Tour. Because we were still on east coast time we were up early and had breakfast in Sourdough Trading Company casual restaurant then met in the lobby for our 7:15AM tour start time. This tour is a parks department tour and the transportation is on refurbished school buses. The seats are comfortable but there is nothing fancy about the buses. We received a snack box containing cookies, chips, crackers, cheese, gummy candy, hummus, etc. and a bottle of water. The Starbucks at the McKinley Chalet prepares box lunches for those that pre-ordered the night before but we were fine with the snack box as well as some other snacks I brought along. Our driver was a naturalist as well as a professional photographer and he was wonderful! We were lucky to see many caribou, several moose, squirrels, dall sheep and grizzly bear. There were many stops for wildlife viewing and the driver also had a video camera with screens located throughout the bus so we could get close up looks. Those screens also offer a great way to get close up photos. Our bus went to 62 miles into the park which was still 35 miles from Mr. McKinley. The highest elevation we were at was 3,940 feet. Due to clouds we were not among the 30% that get to see the entire mountain from the tour. We arrived back at the Chalet around 3:15 PM. At 3:45 PM we were picked up by ERA for our Denali Helicopter Tour. This tour was amazing! We’ve done the heli/dog sledding in Juneau and thought that was great but this was even better since in that tour the helicopter is more transportation to get to the glacier dog camp and today we had a 40 minute helicopter tour with fantastic view of the mountain and the surrounding magnificence! We were treated to bright clear skies and even saw a group of caribou cooling off on a snow bed. After our long but amazing day, we headed to the casual Sourdough Trading Company casual restaurant for a great dinner. Returning to our room to prepare for Sunday’s trip to meet the ship in Seward I realized that I didn’t have our luggage tags so I visited the tour desk in the hotel and they gave me tags that said Seward on them and I filled in the ship name, our cabin number etc. Luckily the Oosterdam was the only HAL ship in port that day so the bags made it there without a hitch.
DENALI TO SEWARD: After breakfast in the Nenana View Bar & Grill we bid goodbye to Denali and boarded the HAL Explorer Coach for what should have been a 10 hour trip. The driver gave brief scenic comments but not nearly to the extent as the train staff. Our delays began with our first rest stop. We arrived to find 4 other buses already at this location so the lines were long. Also, know that these facilities are rustic, and odorous. Luckily I had on a sweatshirt that I pulled over my nose and it was bearable but not at all pleasant. The next stop was complimentary lunch in Wasilla at Settlers Bay Lodge. They have a sandwich buffet with potato and pasta salad, cookies and beverage. There were several buses but service was fast and efficient and lunch was good. We all took advantage of their bathrooms. There is a convenience store adjacent which has a large liquor/wine selection and I pick up 2 bottles of wine as our no corkage in-cabin bottles. After lunch we were stuck in an hour long construction delay when 3 lanes of traffic went down to 1 lane. After a final rest stop which was pretty much the same as the first one, we finally reached the ship in Seward around 6:30 PM.
BOARDING: Because we were one of several buses that had been delayed the boarding area was very congested. We were glad that we could go to the Suite passenger line and even happier with our greeting there. As I reported on Cruise Critic earlier we had booked a Neptune Suite but had been offered an up-sell to one of the 2 Pinnacle (Penthouse) Suites. Once checked in, we were escorted through the security line, then to the wine check in table and onto the beautiful Oosterdam. Once on board we were escorted to the suite and given a complete tour with brief instructions of how things work/where things are located. The suite was even better in person than it looked on the HAL web site. We especially appreciated the powder room. We had booked with the Explore 4 package for our beverage cards were waiting for us as well as our complimentary Pinnacle dinner (scheduled for the following night at 8 pm). Our luggage that had been stored was there when we arrived and our carry-ons from Denali arrived shortly. Muster drill was at 7:30PM and we went immediately from there to our 7:45 dinner. There was a captain’s welcome reception but we decided not to attend. Dinner was great with a good table for 2 and attentive servers. Because we had the beverage cards we had wine by the glass so the beverage server never even visited us.
AT SEA DAY & GLACIER BAY: We enjoy breakfast in the Pinnacle and had wonderful service every day. We spent most of our sea day in our suite. Although on vacation, my husband had work to do. As is often the case, the internet was slow and expensive but for us that’s a necessary cost of cruising. We enjoyed daily visits to the Explorations Café, had lunch in the dining room one day where they were very apologetic that since it was close to the end of the serving time they did not have a window table available for us. We assured them it wasn’t a big deal! I usually visited the Neptune Lounge to get snacks for our in suite happy hour. The concierge volunteered that we could have hot and cold hors d’oeuvres delivered to our suite so we tried that one night and were amazed when an ample portion arrived along with a white tablecloth and fine china and silver as my husband’s work table was transformed into a fine dining table. Our Pinnacle dinner was perfect both food and service. Our day at Glacier Bay was brilliant and sunny and we had great views as well as a few instances of calving that we witnessed.
HAINES: Our first order of business in Haines was to find internet. There is a free shuttle bus in town so we hopped on and were told the closest spot was “The Rusty Compass” where for the price of a cup of great coffee we got the password for an hour of free internet. Amazing how much you can get done when the internet speed is as quick as normal! We had a great excursion here: Nature & Wildlife Expedition. We were bused to Chikoot Lake State Park. One the way there was a great stop for bald eagle viewing. They placed scopes out and focused them on eagle’s nests. Just as one of the guides was showing me how to put my I-phone camera up to the scope lens to take a photo the eagle took off so I got a great in flight shot. On the way to the park we passed the Salmon Counting Station which is a fence with a small opening where a Fish & Game guy was counting (by variety) every salmon that passed through. These counts determine the number of salmon fisherman and their length of fishing time for the following week. At the park we took a guided forest hike with stops to discuss flora and fauna we saw. This was a very informative and fun excursion.
JUNEAU: No need to seek out internet in Juneau because once docked all our electronics had clear signals right from our suite. We ventured into town briefly to buy gifts for the grandkids. After lunch we left again to go on our Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest with Allen Marine. We have been on several whale watching trips before and had always seen whales but never like this! Soon after we left we encountered 6 whales bubble net feeding. We stayed about 30 minutes and got great views. When we left we went to a buoy where Stellar Sealions were gathered. After all passengers got a good look at the sealions we were on our way again and came upon another group of bubble net feeding whales, twelve this time! According to the guides this feeding only happens a couple of weeks a season so it’s pretty rare to get to see it and very rare to see it twice in the same trip.
KETCHIKAN & INSIDE PASSAGE CRUISING: Because we have been to Ketchikan many times and it was July 4th with 5 cruise ships in town and a local parade, we opted a day of R & R on board. There was a Captain’s Reception held on Friday night in the Crow’s Nest. We attended and it seemed to us that there was a higher number of officers present. We’ve been to these when only a very few came but that was not the case this time. During the night Friday night the seas were rough and we woke up Saturday to rain and white caps. Once we were to the Inside Passage things calmed down although it remained overcast and wet. This had been the day we planned to try out the hot tub on our balcony. The weather dictated that we could have done that as a photo opt but decided not to bother. We had been told we needed to let the concierge know if we wanted the hot tub filled so rather than bother the staff we decided to forego the hot tub experience. The Mariner’s Brunch was on Saturday and we missed it but the concierge delivered our tiles to our suite. The remainder of the day/evening was uneventful and everything was packed and ready to go outside before bedtime.
VANCOUVER TO TAMPA: Disembarkation was smooth and we took a cab to the downtown Avis location to pick up our rental car. Because we had time to kill we told our navigation that we wanted to avoid interstate highways as we headed to the border. This gave us a nice scenic drive and only about 30 minutes to cross the border at the Peace Arch station. The reason we opted to take the “slow road” was because we wanted to stop for a special lunch. When we did this trip in reverse in 2005 we had lunch at The Oyster Bar on the Chuckanut Drive and it was so great we wanted to repeat it this trip. They opened at 11:30 AM so we stopped several times at scenic Pacific overlooks along the route. Lunch was divine and we decided to continue with our backroads trek to Seattle. Once in town we stopped at Pike Place Market and walked around but it was very hot and very crowded so we went ahead and checked into the SeaTac Marriott and after resting went back to Elliott’s Oyster House on the pier for a great end of vacation dinner. No issues checking into our 8:50 AM Alaska Air direct flight to Tampa and although slightly delayed we arrived in Tampa only 20 minutes after our original 5 PM arrival time.
GENERAL INFO: We both agreed that the stars aligned to make this the best of all our trips to Alaska. Of course the penthouse played a major role in that but all excursions were terrific, the weather was better than we had experienced in the past. This trip it was generally cool and although not sunny everyday it didn’t rain too much either. When you live in Florida it’s a treat to get to wear sweatshirts for a week in summertime! The Explore 4 beverage cards were a great plus! We are not big drinkers but ended up drinking more than our norm as well as getting bottles of water and coffee drinks daily. I don’t think we maxed the cards out a single day but we sure had fun trying! Food is very subjective but we give thumbs up to all of our food choices. We had dinner in the Pinnacle twice…once for our free Explore 4 dinner and again on the last night after being asked by the Pinnacle manager several times to please come back again. Only food issue was lack of spinach! Eggs Florentine is one of the breakfast choices and on day 2 or 3 I ordered it only to be told there was no spinach on board. I continued to ask every morning and was told that they went to Walmart in Ketchikan to try to buy spinach but were unsuccessful. Oddly when we had our second dinner at the Pinnacle I inquired if in fact they had the spinach that is on their menu and was told yes. I didn’t order it to find out if it would truly show up. Lack of spinach was not an issue but rather became a running joke between my husband and I.