We arrived late Friday night in Seattle and just crashed at the airport Holiday Inn. Quick and easy shuttle transfer and a very nice buffet breakfast included. For some reason it took 20 minutes to get a taxi to the hotel, but then it was a quick and scenic trip to the pier. It really is too bad that HAL and Princess have decided to use the new pier 30 facility. It's in the middle of the cargo area, not at all attractive and not convenient to the Seattle waterfront or downtown. Check-in for suite passengers was quick and efficient, with essentially no line. Filling out the embarkation forms online is definitely the way to go. Embarkation itself was a bit like running a gauntlet of crew members trying to get you to go to this or that raffle. They were more of a hassle than helpful. We embarked around 12:30 and were taken to our suite which was not quite ready. We opted for lunch in the Lido. While the Lido has potential, it is more often a confusing and fractured dining experience, especially when eating with several people. Also, finding a seat was next to impossible most times as it was a popular place to enjoy the scenery and instead of chair hogs by the pool, the Lido suffered from chair hogs in the dining room. Also, I found the Lido hours to be quite limited with several times during the cruise when one could not find food anywhere. The food was decent but several notches down from previous experience and the service was poor.
Our suite (7132) was outstanding. We had the aft port suite on the 7th deck. While the suite itself was a bit smaller than the typical S suite, it was still larger than an SS suite and most important of all it had a HUGE wraparound balcony. In fact I would venture to say that the balcony is larger than many of the cabins. The balcony on the side was covered and the size of 2 A category cabin balconies, the rear balcony was at least 10 feet deep. It only had a 3 foot overhang, not enough to protect from rain, but enough that if sitting by the wall, you could not be viewed from above. We rarely saw anyone looking down on us from the Lido deck and likewise we rarely saw anyone on the balconies below us. Furniture on the balcony included a dining table with 4 chairs, 2 lounge chairs, 2 padded chairs with ottomans and a small cocktail table. We only experienced soot on the balcony one day toward the end of the trip. In the suite was a (true) king size bed with a wonderful firm mattress, fantastic linens, a down duvet and 6 pillows. It was by far one of the most comfortable beds I've slept on. The couch was turned into a twin bed each evening by our steward. Additionally there were 3 leather chairs and a coffee table. The TV was a flat screen with an excellent picture quality. Beneath it were a CD player and a DVD player. We had brought our own music CDs and DVDs were available from the Neptune lounge. A granite minibar topped by a silver ice bucket and fruit bowl (with bananas, grapes apples and pears) finished out the main room. Next to the bathroom was a dressing room with 3 closets, all with full mirrors on the front. The lighting in here was not great. The bathroom had 2 sinks, a jetted tub with handheld shower head and separate shower stall with a handheld shower head. The shower stall was a bit tight, but not bad. The first day the towels had the HAL logo on them, afterwards they were very plush oversize plain white towels. Bathroom amenities included shampoo/conditioner (which was not at all conditioning, I'd advise bringing your own), lotion, a sewing kit and shower cap. Other suite amenities included two terry cloth robes, an umbrella, binoculars (Bushnell, good quality) and a hair dryer (not very powerful, and I have thin, easy to dry hair). When we arrived a bottle of champagne was chilling compliments of the captain. We also received personalized stationery and an invitation to the suite reception that evening. I had pre-ordered some wine and gin which were also in the room. Our room steward did a very good job making up the room twice a day. A daily program was delivered to the suite each evening along with what I felt to be quite a bit of "junk mail". Turn down service included a chocolate on the pillow. Each morning the dinner menu for the day was delivered. I really enjoyed that little bit of information. The Pinnacle Grill menu was in the leather suite information folder along with the rather limited room service menu. We received a corsage and boutonniere for the first Formal night (each a white carnation). Room service was not good. They continually refilled the mini bar with soda water when we used the tonic water. Getting through to room service was a challenge, several times we had to contact the concierge to have her contact room service. We never used room service for food, just tonic and ice.
I ended up enjoying the Neptune lounge much more than I had anticipated. The cappuccino machine is fantastic!! The continental breakfast and snacks were high quality and frequently replenished. Many magazines were available. The concierge was friendly and tried hard but wasn't really of all that much help. I must have stopped in 3-4 times a day for coffee or snacks. Did I mention how much I loved the cappuccino machine? Other perks of the suite included free laundry which we used once during the week. They were very prompt, did a nice job and delivered the clean clothes to the cabin in a basket wrapped in tissue paper. Nice classy touch. We also had priority tendering privileges, we ended up not utilizing them as we only tendered in one port and by the time we went ashore, the tenders no longer required tickets. We were invited to a reception mid-week (not sure if this was a suite reception or exactly why we were invited) and to the suite lunch on the last day. The suite lunch was buffet held in the crow's nest, included drinks and was high quality food similar to that in the Pinnacle grill with an Indonesian twist. We also attended the Mariner reception held at 11:45 AM on the last day.
The decor of the Vista class ships has been debated and discussed in some depth so I won't dwell on it here. I will say that it does seem like a departure form that of the older ships (especially the Niew Amsterdam I sailed on in 1992) While I really liked some of it ( the elevators are beautiful) other aspects I found strange. A weird mix of classic and contemporary, beautiful high quality art and "junk". The flow through the ship is not good especially on the promenade deck. The photo gallery impedes traffic badly outside the dining room and the shops are laid out in such a strange manner. Another comment on the shops; most of what they sell is tacky junk, they are laid out poorly and the selection changes daily. Not at all what I remember from previous cruises. The atrium is pretty but seems small and dark for a ship of this size. It is definitely not the focal point it could have been. There is an occasional sewage smell detectable on the 2nd and 3rd decks, primarily forward. I also smelled it once on the observation deck towards the front. It's not awful, but it's there. As for vibration, I felt none in the Vista dining room and only occasionally in our suite, especially when the seas were a bit rough. The ship did seem to move about more than I expected for a ship of this size and more than other ships I've been on. The midship pool is covered by a retractable roof, is heated and is freshwater. This is the family pool. The aft pool is also heated and freshwater but is not covered. It is designated adults only. I did not use the spa, but the facilities looked nice. The Gym was well equipped. The Crow's nest is a very pleasant lounge. There were drink specials every day and wine packages are available ($125 for 6 bottles). Hot appetizers are served in the lounges in the evenings.
Service on the ship was highly variable. Our cabin steward was excellent, our waiter was erratic, the wine steward was often late getting to our table and there was none of the remembering of your name or preferences that I so vividly remember from my other HAL cruise. Lounge service was impersonal at best. Elsewhere on the ship we were often greeted by smiles but the level of service has dropped in my opinion. Perhaps they are just overwhelmed. Service in the Pinnacle Grill was very good with the exception of when the waiter made me walk back to my room to get the card indicating that I had pre-paid for my reservations even though the information was in the computer and I had confirmed it both with the concierge and maitre 'd. The Club HAL staff were pleasant and did a good job with the kids. They had a fairly full program which was broken into 4 age groups. The Kid's Club facility is rather small, but adequate.
Food is always a personal matter, but I really feel the quality has slipped in the main dining room. Not that it is poor quality or tastes bad, but it really comes across as mass produced banquet food. No attention to detail, none of the beautiful garnishes I remember. Some of the best dishes are the Indonesian ones. The appetizers tended to be better than the entrees. The soups were good, the salads variable. Desserts were often a disappointment. The food in the Lido can be quite good but the arrangement of the room makes it awkward for several people to eat together and I felt as if I was running all over the place to get my meal together. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room were very good, however the hours were very limited. The food in the Pinnacle Grill is excellent. One of the best steaks I've had, and the chocolate volcano cake truly is "to die for". Lobster is available every night in addition to the regular menu items. It is well worth the $20 surcharge.
The itinerary itself was not quite what I had hoped for. We spent much more time in the open ocean with it's rougher water and lack of scenery that I imagined we would. Relatively little time was spent in the inside passage, which I feel is what makes an Alaskan cruise so special. We did arrive early at every port, which was very nice. We arrived in Juneau 2 hours early and in Victoria almost 2 hours early. Still too late and too little time in Victoria I'm afraid but it is quite a distance from Ketchikan and we did leave Ketchikan fairly early as well (1 PM). In Juneau we docked at the farthest pier from town. They did provide a shuttle to the base of the tramway but during the afternoon it inexplicably stopped running, leaving many passengers rather stranded with no choice but to walk back to the ship. At Hubbard glacier we had a prime viewing time from around 10 AM until 4 PM. There was quite a bit of ice in the water and the Captain did a fantastic job of picking his way through to get us as close as possible. The bow of the ship was accessible to passengers during this time and was a prime viewing spot. In Sitka we tendered into port, but as I recall, tender tickets were not needed after around 9 AM. In Ketchikan we docked right in town. In Victoria we docked about ½ mile from the inner harbour but no shuttle was provided.
Shore excursions are easy to pre-book and our tickets were waiting in our suite when we arrived. We went sea kayaking in Juneau, which was strenuous but spectacular. We took the semi-submersible tour in Sitka which was fascinating. There is an immense amount of sealife in the Alaskan waters and seeing it up close was wonderful. My sister did the snorkeling tour in Ketchikan and gave it rave reviews as well. We went to the Lumberjack show in Ketchikan and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Debarkation in Seattle was done well, very organized. We took a taxi to our hotel and were able to check in at 9 AM. I chose the Hotel Monaco because it seemed interesting, I got a good rate and it was centrally located. I'm glad I made the choice. It is a unique hotel with funky decor, goldfish "companions" in the rooms, leopard print bathrobes and a nightly wine tasting. Not your average hotel.
To put this review in perspective, this was my 10th cruise and 2nd Alaska cruise. I've sailed with HAL once before, Princess twice, Celebrity once, Crystal once, Radisson Seven Seas twice, Windstar once and Disney once. I'm in my late 30's and was traveling with my husband, 5 year old daughter and my sister and her husband. I very much enjoyed this trip and think the Vista class ships, while not for everyone, are a good option. I do feel that HAL has made some improvements, especially regarding facilities but food and service have slipped. I'd put HAL up with Celebrity (and surprisingly, Disney) for overall quality. I would sail with them again, especially if I could have an aft suite!