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Cruise Diary: First-Timers on an Alaska Cruise

This was our fist cruise, so it might be of interest to the “newbies” out there.

We had never taken a cruise before, so decided to celebrate our anniversary with a cruise to Alaska. Several of our cruising friends recommended Holland America.

We were not disappointed, it was simply the best vacation we have ever enjoyed.

We booked a veranda room, well in advance, along with several tours at the various stops on our voyage. We flew to Seattle the day before, staying the night at an airport hotel. The next day we used the hotel shuttle to get us to the Holland America dock. We had completed and submitted all of the boarding paperwork in advance. Upon arrival our luggage was immediately taken and we were directed to the proper line in the huge facility.

Joe Solomon on board Amsterdam at Port of Seattle.

Joe Solomon on board Amsterdam at Port of Seattle.

After showing identification, we had our picture taken for the pass that would be our room key, charge card and also used for entry and exit from the ship. There were more than sufficient personnel to help us board in a quick and easy manor. A long walk up a series of gradual gangways led to the ship.

We were early, it was just after noon, and we were directed to the Lido Deck, where a large buffet lunch was waiting. Since the Amsterdam had just arrived that morning from the previous week’s cruise, the crew was busy getting the rooms and the entire ship ready for our departure at 4 p.m. that afternoon. We were told that an announcement would be made as soon as the rooms were ready for us. There was time for a leisurely lunch and a tour of the ship, or at least some of it.

Lunching near the Lido Pool.

Lunching near the Lido Pool.

When the announcement came, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had been upgraded to a veranda suite on Navigation Deck. This came complete with a complimentary bottle of champagne, invitations to use the Nautical Lounge and several invitations to cocktails with the staff, etc., in addition to free laundry service and personalized stationary!

The Nautical Lounge is on the same deck as the suites, and is almost always open, offering treats and coffee, tea and juices appropriate to the time of day. The room also has a small library and large-screen TV, comfortable sofas and chairs. A concierge is also present in this lounge to answer questions and help with anything at all.

Before leaving Seattle a lifeboat drill was held. All passengers had to report to their assigned lifeboat (noted on the ship’s pass) with a life jacket from their cabin. The entire complement of passengers, which was approximately 1,400 on this cruise, were lined up. It was women and children first — the men had to stand at the rear. All were shown the proper way to tie on the life jacket. A roll call of the passengers was taken for each life boat. I was surprised just how quickly this was all accomplished.

We had opted for the open and unassigned dining option, so at this point we went to our room to enjoy a glass of champagne on the veranda as we slowly left the Port of Seattle. After a rest and shower in the large double bath. We went down to dinner in the La Fontaine Dining Room.

Open seating is on the lower level of the two-deck dining room. We were shown to a table for eight. We were happy to find a relaxed atmosphere and pleasant conversation. We found that we could ask for a table for two or four or six. It seemed the most enjoyable were the tables for four, where it was a bit easier to chat about the days activities. It was also possible to make reservations in advance.

We did not feel pressured to order drinks or wine with dinner, it was offered and if declined not offered over and over. The food was really good. Well prepared and presented, service was very efficient, and not constantly in evidence.

After a moonlit walk on the Promenade Deck we retired to our room. The king bed was comfortable, with a choice of firm, medium or soft pillows. The bed had been turned down by our cabin steward, “Mo,” who also left us a towel stingray. The towel animals became more and more elaborate as the cruise progressed, ending on the last day with a spectacular three foot tall monkey hanging from a coat hanger on the drape rod! Fun!

The second day was an “at sea” day as we headed for our first port, Juneau. We tried the room service breakfast which is ordered the night before by filling out a door tag as to our choices, and selecting a time for it to be delivered. It arrived right on time, hot and complete with pots of tea and coffee.

We had plenty of time to further explore the ship and try out the pool. Though the air was brisk, the pool water was quite warm, and they opened the sliding roof about a quarter of the way.

It was a sunny day so we carried our buffet lunch trays to the pool area. Food is also always available around the pool, usually hamburgers, tacos and pizza.

There were movies, and food demonstrations. We chose to just relax and walk our three and a half laps around the Promenade Deck, which equals one mile.

The ship employs a photographer to take pictures of the guests boarding, dining and even during the life boat drill. They are printed and displayed in the photography shop. We didn’t buy any, as we took several hundred pictures ourselves. We checked out our photos in the photography store. There was no pressure to buy them. By the end of the cruise they had also prepared a DVD with the highlights of the trip and featuring the passengers and crew. The photography store’s staff were knowledgeable, a few days later they helped us with a problem we encountered with a new camera we had brought along.

A day at sea is also a formal night, we were a bit dubious about this, as we are not formal-type people. My husband brought along a coat and tie, I wore a dressier pant suit, and off we went. There were men in tuxes and women in gowns, but we felt just fine. The formal dinners feature the same great food and presentation. There was one other formal night, a farewell dinner, which we also attended that featured the “Baked Alaska Parade.”

We then enjoyed a variety show in the Queens Lounge, featuring oldies but goodies songs, and preformed by talented dancers, not sure if they were the singers too, as they lip-synced the lyrics. A few evenings later we also watched a juggling magician’s show in this lounge.

The third morning we arrived in Juneau early. It was gray and pouring rain. We had booked our longest shore excursion for Juneau. It was called the Mendenhall Glacier & Whale Quest, a five-and-a-half-hour tour. After disembarking, we were directed to a bus, which took us first to a remote harbor and the whale-viewing boat. It had three levels, two of which were at least partially covered, with large windows, which tended to fog up.

The rain continued as we started off in the inside area. But soon after getting underway whales were spotted. Orcas! So we abandoned the closed cabin for the open area up top. It was a wonderful experience; we saw many, many whales, most of them grey or humpback whales. This boat is required to remain at least one hundred yards from any whale, and can stay with any one whale or group no longer than thirty minutes. We were taken past an island where dozens of sea lions lounged and swam, and seemed oblivious to our presence.

Since Juneau is known to be home to many eagles, we expected to see them too. We saw one. It was in a tree quite a distance away. Eagles do not like rain. The three-and-a-half-hour tour extended to over four hours, as there were just so many whales that day. We took many many pictures and left soaking wet, and of course very satisfied.

The trip was narrated by a young woman who had worked at Florida’s Sea World. She was knowledgeable and quick to spot the whales and point them out.

The second part of this excursion was a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier, we reboarded the bus to travel to the glacier. It was still raining steadily.

This glacier is accessible by land. There is a visitors center and a system of hiking trails. Some of these trails were closed due to the preponderance of bears. We spent about an hour in the area and walked some of the trails. We spotted two bears, which were quite close to us, but the trails in this area are suspended above the forest floor. They completely ignored our intrusion as we photographed them shambling along just under our walkway. Finally, we sought the shelter of the visitor center, as it continued to rain. There was the usual shop selling books and postcards, some large windows to view the glacier and trails, and knowledgeable guides to answer questions.

The bus took us back to the ship in time for dinner. We had planned to ride the Mount Roberts Tramway, but were told to skip it if the day was overcast. It was. So we enjoyed the hot tubs and thawed out and dried out. Sometime around midnight the ship left Juneau.

The fourth day, Monday, was spent in Glacier Bay. This time the sun was out, but it was very cold. This was one of the best days on board. There were glaciers to see in all directions, the sounds of the tremors and rumbles as they calved were almost other-worldly. The sea was full of ice bergs.

Margaret Solomon on the verandah in Glacier Bay.

Margaret Solomon on the verandah in Glacier Bay.

National park service rangers boarded the ship as we entered into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. The rangers provided commentary over the loudspeaker system to those outside on the decks, and it was also broadcast on closed-circuit television. My husband spent most of the day outside on the deck photographing the changing scenes. I retreated to our room to watch from our veranda, wrapped in the woolen blankets, checking the commentary on the TV from time to time.

There was a “polar bear” swim in the main pool, with the roof closed almost all the way. Those that braved the chilly air were rewarded with certificates attesting to their stamina. The ship stayed in the bay until it became dark and then headed out of the bay and on to Sitka. This night’s trip through Icy Straight proved to be the roughest seas we experienced on the entire trip. Neither of us got seasick, and it seemed we slept really well with all that rocking motion.

Our fifth day was Tuesday — we would have lost track of the days if it wasn’t for the elevators! Every day the mats in the elevators which state in large letters the day of the week, are changed to reflect the proper day.

Sitka is a shallow-water port, and we had to be “tendered” ashore. The lifeboats are used for this purpose. We went to 0 Deck and were directed down a flight of stairs to the lifeboat. It was fun to watch the Amsterdam shrink in the distance as we pulled away, and headed for the dock. I was surprised that we had to travel about 3 miles in the lifeboat.

We arrived at the foot of Lincoln Street, which led to the heart of the town, which is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Sitka was settled by Russians in the mid-1800s. There are remnants of the original dock alongside the Native American totem poles in the park. We did not book an excursion in Sitka; we shopped and walked the town on our own.

The Raptor Center was one trip that several of our fellow passengers said they enjoyed. We found the shops in Sitka to be some of the best of the entire trip. Lots of local art, some good value, and less T-shirts. There was a short wait for the next boat to take us back to the ship.

I will now mention the shops on board the Amsterdam: there were several gift shops selling souvenirs and also a jewelry shop. Jewelry and art sales were held on several days, and promoted with fliers in our mail slot. There was a duty-free shop selling mostly liquor and cigarettes, plus a few toiletries. We had no interest in the art or the jewelry, so have no idea as to the values in these shops. These type of shops were also in all the port towns — lots of jewelry and T-shirts. After the first stop in Juneau, and some good shops in Sitka, we found there was little new to be seen in subsequent towns.

Day six we arrived in Ketchikan, in the early morning hours; again we had not scheduled a tour. It was raining heavily, so we made a short walking tour of the town. Then while debating on whether to go back to the ship, we boarded a city bus, and for a 50-cent ticket we made a circle tour of Ketchikan’s few roads.

We saw the dock where the ferry takes the locals on the short ride to the island where Ketchikan’s airport is located. This is the site of the famous “bridge to nowhere” project. This bus also stops at the entrance to Totem Bight State Park, where a large amount of totem poles are exhibited. We didn’t stop as our time in this port was limited. The longest stop on this route was at the town’s Wall-Mart, where quite a few locals got on and off. It was fun, we saw a lot of the town even though the windows constantly needed to be de-fogged. We agreed that next time we would sign on to a tour, as quite a few interesting choices were offered.

We were back aboard and underway by 1 p.m. that afternoon. The seas on the way to Victoria were full of wildlife, we saw seals and many whales from the ship.

The last full day we spent mostly at sea, getting into Victoria, B.C., at 6 p.m. We had been to Victoria several times in the past, so we booked a horse-drawn tram tour of the city to see as much as we could of the city in a short time. A group of folks in Victorian attire met the ship, the gang plank was lowered, we waited to disembark while a forklift trundled out one of the famous Victoria street lamp poles, completed with heavily laden flower baskets to place at the end of the walkway. Victoria has a new deep-water dock and is actively campaigning the cruise lines to visit the city.

The horse-drawn trolley was a delight; two beautiful Clydesdales, Molly & Dolly bore us through the town. The young girl driver assured us that the horses were very well cared for, and only worked one day a week, spending the rest of their time “back at the farm.” They were indeed in beautiful shape, and very adept at getting their passengers safely in and out of traffic. We were treated to a beautiful sunset, lots of historical buildings and a lush beautiful park.

The stop in Victoria was only six hours, but we had time after our tour to also walk back into town, about a mile, to see the Empress Hotel and the lights on the parliament buildings. We did take a cab back to the ship. We wished we had more time in Victoria — it is an enchanting city.

Holland America runs on time; we arrived in Seattle the next morning before 7 a.m. We opted for the new baggage service that promised our bags would be taken to the airport, and we would be able to pick them up at our final destination. We packed and put the luggage outside our door the night before arriving in Seattle. The service was part of the cost of our Seattle bus tour transfer.

The Lido had breakfast service beginning at 5:30 a.m., so we were able to enjoy a full breakfast before disembarking a little before 9 a.m.

After breezing through Customs and bypassing all the assembled luggage, we found our bus.The tour included a stop at the Space Needle, a winding tour through the various districts, and a stop at Pike Place Market. The driver also stopped at a vantage point where the entire city could be seen from across the bay and we all got out and snapped photos.

We were dropped at the airport about 2 p.m., which was well in advance of our departure time of 5:30. When we arrived back home in Las Vegas that evening, our luggage was indeed awaiting us on the carousel. In the future we will purchase transfers both to and from the airport, they do handle it all very well.

We loved our vacation, and cannot wait to cruise again. Planning on Hawaii this fall.

Margaret & Joe Solomon
Las Vegas, Nev.

  • ericwood

    Great log. It brought back memories of our Alaska cruise in 2008, also our first and our anniversary, too. Keep up writing about your trips. I’m looking into my crystal ball and see future HAL cruise consultants.
    Take Care,
    Eric Wood

  • Radbooks

    Very nice travel log of your trip. It was good to hear that Sitka had some nice shops – I’ll wait and see what they have before making any ‘large’ sorts of purchases!

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