June 2015 - Volendam to Alaska - Inside Passage
We just returned from taking the 7 day RT Alaskan Cruise from Vancouver, BC on Holland America Volendam. Here are the highs and lows: The Lows:
1. The biggest disappointment by far was the Tracy Arm non-event. Tracy Arm is on the cruise itinerary, and we booked this cruise in particular because we were told that Tracy Arm is not to be missed. But this cruise does NOT incorporate Tracy Arm at all. All it does is stop at the mouth of Tracy Arm, and off-load passengers onto a small additional excursion boat that then goes to Tracy Arm. If you do not purchase the excursion and leave the Volendam at this exchange point, you do not see Tracy Arm. This was very unfortunate, and to me, is not made clear at any time during the voyage or in the pre-cruise marketing materials. This was a major, major disappointment.
2. The Crowd. Very nice, but very old. My wife and I are in our 50's, and we were among the younger crowd. Our kids (ages 19, 15, and 10) were pretty much the only kids on board (yes, there were a few others, but emphasize the few). The crew said there will be more kids in July and August. But on this cruise, there were only a few kids. This has ramifications for night life on board, such as dancing and karaoke, so be aware of that. We have been told several times that is what to expect on Holland America, so that was a trade off for the itinerary that we wanted.
3. Most of your meals will be taken in the Lido casual dining room, which is basically a buffet service. The meals in the buffet are only okay. I grew tired of the "same old" food by about the third day of the seven day trip. Make no mistake, the food is plentiful and omnipresent. However, the variety and quality leave something to be desired. The experience is heightened somewhat by knowing what to ask for, though. Almond milk is available behind the counter (if you ask), together with walnuts for your oatmeal (if you ask). Just remember, the good stuff is available, but not for general consumption (you have to know to ask).
4. The "quaint" ports of call. Predictably, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan are comprised of hordes of gift shops all selling the same trinkets, and jewelry stores. Skagway and Ketchikan have some charm to them, Juneau not so much. However, the main thing to remember at each stop is that you are disembarking not into a town, but into a large collection of trinket shops.
1. The scenery, of course. Glacier Bay is as beautiful as advertised. The Inside Passage is beautiful. Alaska is gorgeous.
2. The crew. The crew on the Volendam were uniformly pleasant and service oriented. Our cabin steward kept our cabin in tip top shape, several times each day. The staff in the Lido (casual) dining room and the Rotterdam (main) dining room were all excellent. There was no wait at all for unreserved dining.
3. The Rotterdam Dining Room. While most of your meals will be in the Lido (casual) dining room, most or all of your dinners should occur in the Rotterdam (main) dining room. Great menus and selection, and the meals were generally quite good. I would say between a B+ and A- most nights, which is pretty darned good for the number of dinners they have to churn out in a 3 hour period.
4. Raymond in the Rotterdam. We enjoyed Raymond very much. He is a Dutch dining room officer, and he saw to our every need. Very personable, entertaining, and customer service oriented.
5. The Shore Excursions. Choose these carefully, but do choose them. Your Alaskan cruise will be much less of an Alaskan experience without them. Our hot tips: (1) in Juneau, we sought out Ward Air and chartered a sea plane for $740 for 6 people to go over the ice beds and glacier. We landed in a river adjacent to a beautiful waterfall. Ward Air is not a tour company per se, but will charter you a pilot and whole sea plane (different sizes of planes) and $740 for 6 is quite a bargain. Compare it to $210 per person that the other "tour" companies charge, and you will see significant savings. Plus, you get to design your own trip/things to see. (2) in Skagway, the wife and kids went ziplining and had a blast, while my younger son and I took the city tour and gold panning. The ziplining got rave reviews from the wife and kids, and the gold panning was enjoyed by my younger son (clearly a milder experience), but the tour portion was very educational and interesting about the Yukon gold rush in particular). (3) in Ketchikan, we took the Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour. This was totally worth the price of admission. The tour itself is very interesting as they pull up crab pots with King crab, spot prawn, octopus, etc. But the highlight is when you see the Bald Eagles. If you want to see Bald Eagles up close, this is the way to do it. We saw maybe 20 in close proximity, all of which dive bombed the boat at camera distance as they crew fed them herring. The Eagles alone were totally worth the price.
Overall, I would give the cruise itself a B. You must add in the correct shore excursions at each port, to raise the grade to an A.