Alaska Cruise TourAuthor: forte88
Date of Trip: July 2006
This cruise/tour began July 15th and ended July 28th 2006. I hope I can cover some of the highs and lows of this cruise/tour.
One lesson that my wife and I learned from this experience is to never let Holland America (HAL) arrange our flights again. The flight arrangements were just horrible, and we were not the only ones affected by this. Many travelers were disappointed in HAL's arrangement of their flights. Cruisetour #18 is supposed to be a 14 day vacation. With the arrangements HAL made, it shortened our vacation to 12 days. We did understand that the first and last days included flight time, but we expected to be at least in our hotel at our destination by the first day. It was not. Our flight was booked so late on the first day, we did not arrive to our hotel room in Fairbanks until 1:00AM on the second day of the tour. Not only was our flight booked late, our seats were in separate sections of the airplane, not only on one flight, but for EVERY flight coming and going! Luckily, we were able to make arrangements when we arrived at the airport to make changes so we could sit together. However, we were lucky to be able to do so, and this was a great inconvenience. After arriving at 1:00AM, there was no time to do anything. We were expected to be up in a few hours to start our day of touring. Some travelers in our group did not arrive until 5:00AM and had no sleep whatsoever! They also had their flight arrangements setup by HAL and weren't happy. HAL also took our last day of vacation away by arranging our flight so early after disembarkation from the ship, that there was no time to enjoy Vancouver or take any excursions there. This whole flight fiasco is probably our biggest complaint so I guess it's good to get it out of the way early in this review.
Day 1: Now the bright side of HAL's flight arrangements. When we arrived at the airport in Fairbanks, it was midnight. It was still daylight outside. There was a HAL representative at the airport with a sign asking for people on their tours to gather in one section. They rounded us all up and told us not to worry about our luggage. Our luggage was pulled off of the conveyers for us, and we were asked to identify our luggage and put tags on them, and they were delivered to our hotel rooms from the airport. Many people were grumpy and tired on the bus on the way to the hotel. Most were complaining about their flight arrangements and or trying to get a few winks in before the busy day ahead of us. We arrived at the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks after a short drive through town. We received a package at the airport with our room key already in it, so there was no checking in. Things were starting to look up. In the hotel lobby, there was a HAL representative waiting there with a cart full of complimentary boxed lunches which included a turkey sandwich, an apple, some fruit juice, and some wilted lettuce and tomato in saran wrap. My wife and I decided to have it for a quick breakfast instead of eating it so late. This could give us an extra 30 minutes of sleep.
Day 2: ZOMBIE DAY! Most people were tired and had very little sleep. There was a note in our room from our Tour Director that stated we would meet early in the morning. His name was Mark with a "K". We soon found out that just about anybody that had HAL arrange their flights arrived really late and had very little sleep. My wife and I finally hit the pillows around 1:30AM and we had a wake up call around 6:00AM to be up in enough time for our first day of touring. We met up with our tour director (Mark) in the lobby. The lobby was packed full of people in the morning and everyone seemed to be trying to orient themselves and find their tour directors. We asked around and found ours without too much difficulty. Mark told us a little about himself and explained that he will be with us until we get on our ship in about 6 days. He gave us a summary of what to expect for the rest of the day. Then it was a wait for nearly an hour before we could get on our bus. My wife took the opportunity to check out the gift shop in the hotel. It was raining outside and a rain jacket with fleece lining would be a good thing to have, but prices seemed steep in the gift shop. We waited. It was a good thing we waited, prices are much cheaper elsewhere, and jackets are sold almost everywhere you go for the next two weeks. We finally got on our bus and was on our way to our first stop: A cruise on a paddle riverboat. When we arrived we had about a half hour before the boat departed, so it was gift shop time. We found some bargains on jackets in the gift shop here. My wife and I both bought nice jackets in this gift shop for 25.00 each whereas they were 60.00 at the gift shop at the hotel. It was rainy and cold, but the boat was enclosed if you wanted to be indoors and heated. Coffee and donuts were furnished on the boat. The cruise only went a couple miles down river, then turned around and came back the way the same way. There were a couple of staged activities. A bush pilot takes off with a float plane on the river for you to watch. You stop by Susan Butcher's kennel and we watched a demonstration of how the dogs can pull a 4 wheeler around a pond. We learned at that point that Susan Butcher was ill, and was in Washington state trying to recover from Leukemia. By the time I wrote this review, Susan had died. A little further down river they stop again for another local to let his 3 reindeer into an enclosure for another photo opportunity. Then they go a little further down river, and turn around and stop at a replica of an Native Alaskan village where you can get off the boat, see some crafts, huts, and hear some local high school girls of Native Alaskan heritage talk about their culture, and customs. Then its back on the boat and back to the dock. They tell you that you have time for more shopping but, our bus driver was waving us on, signaling that there was in fact, no time for any more shopping.
We got back on the bus and headed for the Gold Dredge #8. It is well into lunch time now. At the gold dredge you get complimentary vegetable beef stew and soda. Beer and wine was available for purchase. This was the first opportunity to try out Alaska Summer Ale. If you are a beer drinker, I suggest you try it. Many people raved about the Alaska Summer Ale most of the trip. We took the tour of the gold dredge and everyone gets to try panning for some gold with some pre-made pulp that you get in a pouch. Strange...if you were to buy a bag on your own, you would pay $6.00 for the bag. The average amount of gold found panning was about $6.00 per person. Coincidence? This will be your opportunity to take the gold you panned and put it into a necklace at the (you guessed it) the gift shop. Well, I have to admit, it does make for a nice souvenir for the wife or daughter. After the gold dredge tour, we got back on the bus where the busdriver drives you around Fairbanks and tells you about everything there is to know about Fairbanks. He drove us by the University and the Alaskan Pipeline. Many people were suffering from sleep deprivation and were sleeping during this portion. Then it was back to the hotel and to tip the bus driver.
We arrived late afternoon and there was about an hour or so to kill before our evening excursion. There were only two to choose from. The salmon bake and show, or the Esther Gold Town Crab bake and show. Most people chose the salmon bake and afterwards it got good reviews by the people who attended. We chose The Esther Gold Town Crab bake and it was a mixed bag. It was advertised as all you can eat Alaskan crab. Well, it was Dungeness crab, not Alaskan king crab. It had a funny look to it. It was muddy looking, not white and pink like I'm used to. But, it did have good flavor. It was only all you can eat in 30 minutes. You had to be out of the restaurant to catch the included Northern Lights panoramic slide show. I could have eaten more crab, but they don't give you time to really eat all you can eat! The northern lights show is a movie like panoramic format presentation created by one of the locals of his own photography of the Northern Lights. It was nice, but tended to get a bit repetitive toward the end. My wife enjoyed it more than I. I am a computer technician and multimedia instructor and I couldn't help but to think of ways to make his show much better. After the Northern Lights thingy, it was off to the saloon for a couple of drinks and a comedy musical show. The show was quite humorous and entertaining. We enjoyed it. Then back on a bus back to the hotel for finally a good night's sleep. On the way back, the bus stopped for the Princess lines tourists at their hotel. I couldn't help but notice that their hotel seemed to be in a nicer part of town, with views, and a newer looking hotel. Maybe a case of the grass being greener?
Day 3: The plan is to wake up early to get on a bus to go to the train station to head out to Denali. We didn't need a wake up call this morning. One of the guests woke the whole hotel up by smoking a cigarette in their room. The fire alarm went off early morning. It was less crowded this morning. We found our bus and tour director without a problem. We boarded on the bus for a short trip to the train station. Again the bus driver was full of information about Fairbanks and there were some reruns of information given the day before. We got to the train station and loaded on the McKinley Express. I have to admit, this train was very comfortable. There was plenty of legroom between the seats and the seats were comfortable. The glass domed car was great for viewing the scenery as you traveled. There was breakfast available on the train. The booths in the train restaurant were really small and uncomfortable even for moderately large people. No room between the seat and table for a guy like me. Breakfast was expensive, cold and tasteless. I was pretty disappointed. However, when we boarded the train a few days later, the food for lunch was much improved. More on this later.
We arrived in Denali after only a few hours of travel. When you get into the Alaska mountain range near Denali, the scenery becomes breath taking. After getting off the train (don't forget to tip your train guide) you arrive at the Chalet hotel. Now for those of you who watched the HAL video and saw the couple enjoying their room overlooking the river and mountains in Denali, I wouldn't count on it. Very few rooms actually have a view. Most rooms are situated in a wooded area with very little view unless you like looking at tree trunks. The rooms however, were clean. Every room has a small living room and separate bedroom with a rustic atmosphere. There were several excursions to choose from in Denali. We chose to take the McKinley Flight Seeing tour. I highly recommend this excursion. On this excursion they take you up in a small airplane and fly around Mt. McKinley up close and personal. We were very lucky to have great weather with great views of the mountain. The pilot said we were lucky to have such a nice day. Apparently, the mountain is usually shrouded in clouds. Sometimes it's so bad they have to scrap viewing the mountain altogether and take you to another area with a glacier instead. Many people chose the helicopter flight where you land and hike on a glacier. The reviews I got from people on this tour loved it, but bring your wallet; it runs about $500.00 USD per person. Also, if you weigh over 250 lbs they charge you 150% of the normal charge. That would be 750.00 for a person over 250lbs. Not quite worth it in my book! On the airplane excursion they do ask you what you weigh, which is an embarrassing question for most women. But, there is no additional charge for being overweight or a large person. The Flight seeing tour was over an hour long. There was breathtaking scenery and some great photo ops of the mountain. The pilot makes sure both sides of the airplane get the same amount of viewing time of the mountain. This was a highlight of our trip. When the trip was done, we got back to the Chalet Hotel and it was dinner time. We opted for the Salmon bake restaurant and bar in town. This was within walking distance. The food was very expensive and very skimpy here, but had pretty good flavor. My wife ordered steak and fish, and the steak was about 1.5 cubic inches total and cost about $25.00. We then did a little shopping in the shops nearby and headed back to our room. We had an early day tomorrow for our Tundra Wilderness Tour.
Day 4: We had to get up very early this morning to get on the Tundra Wilderness Tour. If my memory serves me correctly, we had to get up around 4:30AM to have enough time to get ready and get on the bus. We got on the bus and soon realized that the left side of the bus (driver's side) would have been a better choice for viewing. Most of the scenery on the way in to Denali is on the left side of the bus. Also, the seats are staggered and there is a bar splitting the view between two windows on the right side of the bus for every seat. The left side of the bus has one whole window instead of two windows with a split. For photography, the left side of the bus works better. On the right side of the bus, you get the views on the way back, but the way back is much more rushed. We did pick the right side of the bus unknowingly, but luckily, the closest grizzly bear we saw was on our side, so it worked out ok for us. We had 14 grizzly bear sightings, numerous Dall Sheep, and one of the highlights: A grey wolf. We were told that seeing a wolf is very rare and we should consider ourselves privileged. We had really hoped to see bears. One has to remember that Denali is not a zoo. Seeing wildlife is never guaranteed. The first few hours of the trip was coming up with nothing. The bus driver was actually stopping for us to view rabbits for a while because we weren't seeing anything. Our bus driver was knowledgeable and had a good eye for spotting the wildlife, but she treated the tourists as we were on an elementary school field trip. She was very condescending.
When you reach the furthest point the tour goes to in Denali, there is a nice view of Mt. McKinley (weather permitting). Again, we got lucky and the clouds cleared up for us for some great shots. There were also 3 grizzly bears sited near that stop. We were only permitted to be there about 10 minutes and many tourists became upset about having to leave so soon. This was especially upsetting because the 3 bears were coming over a ridge for a very close viewing, but the bus driver made everyone load up and leave the area. There was a lot of grumbling about her, but all was forgiven when we saw the grey wolf and one grizzly bear came within a few hundred feet of the bus. If we hadn't left early, we probably would have missed both. The rest of the ride was uneventful. This is a long tour, and we arrived back at the Chalet hotel around 3:00PM. This is another time to pick another excursion in Denali. We had opted for the self guided Jeep tour. This is basically a car rental for 4 hours. It's advertised by HAL as having a GPS unit installed with narration of the area as you travel by. They had removed the GPS units from the cars because they say it doesn't work correctly, but the price hadn't changed for the rental. Nonetheless, this was a good opportunity to take a car and travel to the non-touristy places. We drove about 15 miles outside of town and went down a dirt road for about 20 miles. This was wonderful, because we got to see some of the Alaska that was off the beaten' path. Some of our best scenic photographs were taken on this trip. We had the jeep from 4:00PM to 8:00PM. On the way back to the hotel we noticed the hotel for the Princess tourists. Again it seemed as though that the hotel seemed a little nicer with maybe more opportunity to get a room with a view. This again, maybe another grass seems greener scenario. After we returned the jeep we ate a late dinner in the Chalet Hotel restaurant. This was the best food we had had since the trip began. Make no bones about it, bring your wallet, but the food prepared here was worth it. This was probably the best salmon we had all vacation. Then off to bed.
Day 5: Today we spent early morning in Denali and got back on the train to go to Anchorage. This was a much nicer scenic train ride than the one from Fairbanks to Denali. This ride is about 8 hours long. There are some great photo ops on this ride. There is a problem with glare outside the windows from where you sit for photography, but you can hang out outside in the smoking section to get pictures if you want. Viewing in my opinion is better inside and up higher. Below and outside you are often behind the side of the track's tree line and miss a lot. Food on the train here was much improved, but the booths were still terribly uncomfortable for big people. Today one of the employees on the train wanted to play a trick on our Tour Director (Mark), and had asked the tourists if we would play along. Many of the people in our group started to act as if they were getting ill. Our tour director started to freak out and started to take notes on what people had for lunch and breakfast that morning. He thought there was some kind of epidemic starting. We finally let him off the hook and told him it was a joke. After getting off the train, he very convincingly told everyone that many of us had luggage that was sent to Fairbanks in error. This was his little payback. Many were in a panic until they reached their rooms and found their luggage there. When we arrived in Anchorage our room was in the Hilton. Our room had a nice view of the bay, but the room was pretty dirty. My wife found something on the wall in the bathroom that looked like vomit that was never cleaned. The bed, however was very comfortable. There was no time for excursions in Anchorage.
Day 6: We had only a few hours to spare in the morning. We went walking around downtown. There are a few gift shops here, and the mall was within walking distance. We had breakfast at a small café nearby and shopped a little. We walked to the mall which was really no different than the malls we have here in the lower 48, just a bit smaller. We then met up with our Tour Director at the Hilton and got ready to load up on a motor coach for our trip to Seward. This again is another scenic trek on land. We started to see more and more bald eagles now. There was one stop at a wildlife refuge where you can see moose, caribou, bears, a bear cub, and an eagle all in captivity. There is also a gift shop and some food available for purchase there. The bus driver was entertaining and full of information. He warned us that he had a dry sense of humor, and it was. I enjoy dry humor so I was entertained by him. Almost every bus trip you take, whether it's a few minutes to an excursion, or several hours to a destination, the bus driver will try to entertain you and give you information over the microphone. They always greet you as you leave the bus in hopes for a tip too. Have plenty of singles on hand! We arrived in Seward in early evening. Seward is a quaint little port town with a few bars, gift shops, and a few restaurants. The hotel we stayed in was by water and many rooms had views of the bay. This particular day was my wife and I anniversary. We were very disappointed to find out our room had two separate twin size beds and was a room without a view. The rooms are advertised with balconies. Our room had a balcony, but it faced inside of the hotel. Our view was a stunning view of the Front DESK! We complained, but got nowhere. We even would have settled for a room with a king size or queen size bed with no view. The hotel wouldn't budge on moving us to another room. Determined not to let this damper our vacation, we went into town to eat and have a drink. We had some fried halibut in a small restaurant and went to a bar to have a couple beers. We then headed back to our room.
Day 7: We woke up early knowing that today we will be taking a cruise on the Fjords and will be embarking on our ship: The Statendam. When packing our luggage, we realized we needed one more tag for our luggage to get on ship. We tried to track down our Tour Director. One of the other Tour Directors told us his room number and we went to his room to see if we could get an extra tag. This next part we found very disturbing. After the complaining we did about our room, that we were put in an inside room with a view of the lobby, we arrived at our Tour Director's room, only to find that his room was a prime room on the corner of the hotel with probably the best view of the harbor and bay. Maybe if I were a tour director I would think differently, but my opinion is that the paying customer should be given the best rooms, not employees of HAL. He certainly deserves a room, but for him to have the best room of all is just wrong when customers like us paid nearly $5000.00 per person! We then boarded the Glacier Cruiser for a trip through the Fjords.
There was concern that the water was too choppy for the small boat to get to the glacier, but our captain thought it was safe enough. This was a great tour! The water was very choppy, but for me it just added to the fun. There were several people that got sea sick on boat, but for us adventurers, we were on the bow enjoying the ride. There were several eagles sited. We saw puffins here, seals, otters, and even a hump back whale. The glacier was very cool. We got to see a big part of it calve off. The weather was cold and rainy, but it didn't stop us from having a great time on board. If you get too cold outside, just go in, and have some hot chocolate. Don't forget your camera for this trip. After getting off the boat, we all hopped on our motorcoach to go to our ship. A short 5 minute drive later, we were at the ship. We said our goodbyes to our tour director (tip time again).
Embarkation was very smooth and quick. It wasn't crowded at all. We only had a short line, and we were on our ship within 30 minutes. The Indonesian staff on board was very helpful and courteous. The ship was small compared to the other Carnival ships we had been on. There was much less glitz. The Statendam didn't have the spiraling marble staircases with mahogany banisters like on Carnival. The Statendam is mostly brass and glass. There was no fancy glass elevator in the lobby or anything like that. There were only a few stores in the mall section. Nothing like the floating cities we had been on before. The ship was clean. We had read some reviews about the Statendam stating how it was in need of repairs and the carpets were worn and stained. We didn't really notice this.
We got to our veranda suite room and were pleasantly surprised on how spacious it was. We had cruised a couple other times on Carnival with a balcony but found this room to be the best room we had ever been in on a cruise ship. The room was very clean and large. There was a living room area and our bed was very comfortable. The veranda was very nice with a lounge chair and a regular chair and table. The bathroom was nice although the hair dryer was a bit antiquated. The tub was a deep tub and it had jacuzzi jets. I'm 5 feet 10 inches tall and had no problem taking a shower, but I think that someone that is 6 feet 4 inches or taller may have difficulty showering. You have to step up into the tub, and the ceiling is pretty low after you get into the tub. The TV was a flat panel screen. The one complaint I have about this room is the lack of power plugs. There really was only one outlet at the desk. When you have 3 cameras, a laptop, and 2 cellphones it can become difficult to prioritize. There is also a DVD player. I was able to unplug the DVD player to open up one more circuit for charging batteries.
Our room steward introduced himself within minutes of arriving and told us that he will do his best to serve us. Our room steward was fantastic. He was never intrusive and always seemed to be apologizing in advance just in case things were not to perfection. I can't say enough about the service we were getting on ship especially from our room steward. We had dinner that night at our formal table and met our waiter. Our waiter didn't have much personality, but he did try to give good service. He was there with his little scraper to scrape off scraps and crumbs that didn't land in our mouths and landed on the table. The Maitre d' made an appearance at our table every night to make sure everything was up to par. We never got that kind of service on Carnival. The food was good. I can't say it was any better or any worse than the food we received on Carnival, but the extra service made the dining experience that much more enjoyable. Portions seemed small at first, but by the time you got through the appetizer, the salad, the soup, the dinner and the dessert, you left feeling well fed and not feeling bloated. We were signed up for late dinner which was something we had hoped not to be signed up for, but it worked out in the long run because of the late excursions we took at the port of calls. There was some kind of stomach flu going around and they suggested you wash your hands at least 15 times a day. There were hand sanitizer stations all over ship. Anytime you came into the dining hall, they forced you to use hand sanitizer before you entered. Off to bed, tomorrow is Hubbard Glacier
Day 8: Finally, a morning to sleep in. We put the do not disturb sign on the door and slept in. By the time we were showered and ready for the day, it was lunch time. Lunch on the lido deck. You begin to notice the advantages of being on a smaller ship. There were no long lines at the buffet. The only complaint I have about the lido deck lunches and dinners is that the window of time to get food seems shorter than on Carnival. When they close up, your only option is the taco bar or the hamburger bar by the pool. Even the ice-cream service shuts down. On carnival, the ice-cream was self serve 24 hours a day. On the upside, the ice-cream isn't just soft serve. They have different flavors of scooped ice-cream to choose from with the option of a waffle cone.
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