For years our bucket list has included a trip to Alaska. We are newly retired and chose the 14-day land/sea package offered by HAL. Having only cruised two other times, both with other cruise lines, this was our first HAL experience. We ... Read More
For years our bucket list has included a trip to Alaska. We are newly retired and chose the 14-day land/sea package offered by HAL. Having only cruised two other times, both with other cruise lines, this was our first HAL experience. We arrived in Fairbanks on July 26th, 2016 at around 2 pm.
HAL’s bus pickup in Fairbanks went smoothly. There was limited confusion – as with most things, anyone who listened had no problems. After check-in at the Westmark hotel, we had the evening to ourselves. We chose to walk to Bobby’s for dinner. We were very happy with our food. My salmon was juicy and flavorful. My husband said his meal was excellent and he raved about the carrots – HA!
Our Westmark room was typical. The bed was hard and uncomfortable for me, but I find most hotel beds to be that way. And I HATE the tiny pillows everybody seems to be using these days!
Jul 27th: We took the three-hour sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery tour. The weather was very warm and clear, which added to our experience. We enjoyed this excursion very much and would recommend it to anyone going to Alaska for the first time. The guides were informative and fun. The lunch provided at Steamboat Landing was fantastic and very well organized.
Later in the day, we were bussed to Denali National Park. When we arrived at the McKinley Chalet Resort, we were bussed right to our building, the Cottonwoods, which was at the very far bottom end of a large complex of buildings. We were told shuttles came by often but we didn’t find that to be the case. It was a very long uphill run to the main lodge, where we rushed immediately when we were informed our evening excursion (river jet boating) had been cancelled due to mechanical problems. The desk supervisor was extremely ambivalent about our situation, pausing just long enough to say our money would be refunded before she went back to her office. She offered no alternatives, but we were lucky enough to find a young man who reviewed our options and got us on a jeep tour instead. In hindsight, we are glad this happened. We had a great time in our own jeep, and we actually saw Denali Peak, something only 20% of tourists ever see. We also saw moose and beaver, and picked wild blueberries before it got dark.
Our room in the Cottonwoods building of the McKinley Chalet was a big disappointment. Although fairly clean, it was decorated with furniture that looked like second-hand store rejects. The carpet was soiled and the bedspread (yes, bedspread, yuck) was ancient. The room was hot and there was no air conditioning. Apparently HAL doesn’t plan on it getting hot in Denali. When I tried to open the window, I discovered it had no screen, and since mosquitoes are the size of small airplanes, I couldn’t open it until the screen was replaced. That was completed while we were on the jeep excursion. However, the replacement screen was severely bent and didn’t fit well. We asked for a fan, then found another one in the bottom of our wardrobe (I use that term loosely), so we turned both fans on us for the night. That seemed to work for our three-night stay. There was a small deck off of our room, just big enough for one chair. It was covered with spider webs and wasn’t very appealing to us since only one of us could be on it at a time, but the view was beautiful and the sound of the river was very nice.
July 28th: I wish someone had warned us about the 8-hour Tundra Wilderness tour into the national park. It was about 6 hours too long. The day was drizzly and foggy, and we were smashed into repurposed school buses with no restrooms. The windows were possibly the originals, miserable vertical sliders that people had difficulty opening and closing. They got foggy and dirty really quick. One of the guests on our bus kindly cleaned the windows at the rest stops. Thank goodness those stops came about every 2 hours or so – the women all made a mad rush to stand in lines at the biffies. We were provided with “hearty snacks” for the day, but my husband and I purchased sandwiches before we boarded, and we were glad we did. During the day, I heard quite a few complaints about the cramped busses, the lack of restroom facilities, and the sheer madness of an 8-hour ride in the fog. We saw very little wildlife and it was foggy so we didn’t see Denali either.
July 29th: In the afternoon we went on the water rafting excursion. We had a blast – we recommend you do this. They put you in dry suits, it’s great. My head was soaked, but my body stayed dry and warm. The water was quick and high so we got a great ride. That evening we went to the dinner and show on the chalet property. The show was cute enough and we were entertained. The food was served family style, and although it was hot, it was very mediocre. The salmon was so dry I choked on it and had to leave the table for a few minutes.
July 30th: We were transferred to the McKinley Explorer, a two-story train, and we loved everything about it. The views were extraordinary. The food was good. Our tour guide was witty, knowledgeable, and very personable. We arrived in Anchorage and were bussed to our hotel, the Hilton Anchorage. That evening we walked to Club Paris for dinner and weren’t disappointed – the food and service were both outstanding. I slept more comfortably on the Hilton bed.
July 31st: We rode the Cruisetrain to Seward, which is a narrated journey. Although not a double-decker like the McKinley Explorer, we had wonderful views, sat at tables for the entire journey, and were served by a well-informed guide who has spent most of her life in Alaska. She even had her own photo album of fishing and hunting experiences for us to peruse. This was one of our favorite days simply because of the unbelievable scenery. We were gob-smacked at the beautiful country. The train took us right to the dock in Seward, where we boarded HAL’s Noordam. We left port that evening.
We were pleasantly surprised at our room, #4054 on the port side. Our deck gave us great views both straight out and forward. To the rear our view was blocked by life vessels, but we didn’t find that to be an annoyance. Our bathroom was very adequate. The room was quiet – the only thing that ever disturbed me was the slamming of other guest’s deck doors as they went out or in. The room seemed to be neat and clean except for several quarter-size spots along the sides of the bed, and our deck looked like it hadn’t been maintained or even washed and cleaned in quite some time.
Our evenings onboard were usually spent wandering after dinner. We enjoyed a comedian one night, a performance of the cruise employee’s orchestra alongside a video one night, and a night in the piano bar, where that talented lady could play anything you yelled out. We didn’t lack for things to do, and aside from our ‘luggage debacle’, we were satisfied with our cruise.
The “Luggage Debacle”: Our luggage arrived late the first evening onboard and I was shocked when I saw the severe damage to my bag. I purchased what I thought was a very nice set for this trip, and the largest bag had been grossly mishandled. The adjustable handle at the top of the bag had been wrenched so hard from the bag that it had even ripped the stitching down both sides for a distance. The exposed handle end showed not just a hard plastic sheet had been ripped through, but also a metal sheet! This was not normal wear and tear. And somebody knew they had caused the damage because they had to reattach my identification tag to another one of the handles. Yet there was no note, no explanation, no call, no contact. The bag was just left in my room like nothing had happened. I was very upset but left the situation until morning, then went to customer service for reparations. The service employee that dealt with me for the next three days gave me the distinct impression he wished I’d just go away. He had very limited decision-making capability. I just mean that he was there to give lip service, not given the authority to make decisions. He said he’d like to take my luggage to the ship ‘upholsterer’ for a fix. WHAT?! OK, here’s where I went off the rails a bit. I knew it couldn’t be fixed. And he said I couldn’t go with my bag to the upholsterer to talk with that person or see what he intended to do. I was told I couldn’t know where my bag was going, it’s a secret place they don’t want tourists to know about. But over all my objections, I was pressured to give my bag up for ‘repair’. It was returned the next evening. The broken handle end was tucked inside the bag, held there by a huge hex bolt and nut! The bolt was about 1-1/2” long and protruded into my bag over an inch. A metal washer had been put on the outside of the bag and had been crushed by the head of the bolt until it curved up like a saucer. Heavy-duty blue thread (my bag is black, gray, and orange) was used to stitch a few very large running stitches along the ripped fabric and tie a large exposed knot. Now I was really upset. Again no note, no explanation, no call, no contact. I guessed I was just supposed to like what I saw.
I returned to customer service the next day with my bag in tow. The service employee asked me if I liked the repair?!?!?! When I assured him I didn’t, he said he would like to let the “upholsterer” try again. I was very frustrated but gave him the bag and returned to my room. This problem was running on for two days and was beginning to take over my vacation. After another day with no bag and no resolution, both my husband and I returned to Customer Service and demanded the problem be elevated. But again we saw the same employee. He said the decision had been made that HAL would not reimburse me, so I asked to see the person who made that decision. He reaffirmed his position and said HAL sub-contracts out their luggage handling so it’s not their fault. He said I should try to see their side. We said that sub-contractors don’t mean anything to us, we paid HAL and HAL has to accept the liability/responsibility. We demanded to talk to the manager who had made the decisions, and he finally left us. Another woman came out in a few minutes, very kindly apologized for our inconvenience, and agreed to give a refund. But she said HAL needed to keep my luggage. When I asked her how I was supposed to get my belongings back home, she suggested I go ashore at one of the next ports and buy another piece of luggage! I had to explain why I had a problem with this suggestion. First of all, my damaged bag was part of a set, so where in Alaska was I supposed to get a match? Second, where was I going to get a good deal on a piece of luggage offered at one of the next tourist-trap ports we stopped in? Third, I had booked excursions – was I supposed to miss those so I could shop for luggage??? She finally saw my point and said the photos they’d already taken should be adequate for HAL. So I was reimbursed and came home with a piece of jerry-rigged luggage.
But I digress.
Aug 1st: This was a full day at sea and we had a great time looking for wildlife. The food on the Lido was typical and we usually had breakfast/lunch there. We enjoyed the Vista for our dinners, and we found the food to be pleasing, always hot and fresh. We were quite amazed at how organized the Vista was. We never had to wait for a table and the servers were all very happy and accommodating.
Aug 2nd: We loved the full day at Glacier Bay. We especially loved our deck because we had our own viewing area and didn’t have to join the crowds on deck.
August 3rd: Haines. This was the only time we booked a non-HAL excursion. We went with First Choice Charters on a halibut fishing trip for five hours. There were only two other people with us. The weather was a bit wet but we had a great time
August 4th: Juneau. We took the Mendenhall Glacier excursion in the morning and loved it. While there we were able to see two black bears up close and personal, fishing in the river for spawning salmon. We were standing within 20 feet of them, on the bridge above, and it was fascinating. In the afternoon we took the “Best of Juneau Whale Watching” excursion and had another great time. This was probably the highlight of my whole vacation. We saw nine hump-back whales feeding in a “bubble net” formation that was just amazing. We would definitely suggest these excursions for first-time travelers to Alaska.
August 5th: Ketchikan. We took the “Behring Sea Crab Fisherman’s Fishing” excursion and were glad we did. This is another excursion we would recommend to others. Very informative, hands-on with craband prawns, and they take you to a place where they feed the eagles so you can see them up close and personal. Just awesome!
August 6: Another day at sea, cruising the inside passage. This was a very relaxing day where we watched more sea life, bears on the shore, etc. A perfect last day at sea.
August 7th: HAL shuttled us right to the Vancouver airport steps. Read Less