The Ship

Anchorage

Homer

Hubbard Glaicer

Icy Straight Point

Juneau

Ketchikan

Kodiak

Sitka

Tracy Arm

Victoria

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David's Daily Blog

July 8 – July 22, 2011

We flew out of Sacramento at a very early 6 AM on Southwest. The flight was smooth and on time. When we arrived at our luggage, there was a representative from HAL there to greet us. (We purchased the ship transfer) It turns out that Southwest is at the end of the terminal, and the buses to the ships are at the far other end. So we had to hoof our luggage across the length of the airport. The first bus didn’t leave until 10 AM so we had about an hour to kill at the airport. The bus ride down to the pier was very enjoyable. The bus driver gave us a sort of “tour” as we made our way downtown. When we arrived at the terminal it was a breeze getting our boarding passes. But for some reason, we then had to wait for about 45 minutes until we were allowed to board the ship. They did not start boarding people until 11:45. We have never been on a cruise ship that started the boarding process this late. Our room was ready when we boarded the ship and our luggage arrived at around 4:30. (which we felt was very late) We had “anytime” dining so we had a table for 4. The dinner was typical cruise fare.

Day 2 – Inside Passage

The next day was a day at sea as we headed up the Inside Passage. We went up to the Crow’s Nest bar in the early morning to relax and enjoy the scenery. This was a great place to have a cup of coffee and enjoy the scenery, except for the loud techno-disco music that they were playing. It was quite obnoxious. We are 50 and were by far the youngest people in the bar. So why at 6AM in the morning, with a room full of seniors, are they playing loud disco music? It would have been much nicer to have a low soothing classical music selection played at that hour. This would have been more appropriate. (OK, I guess I am getting old….)

In the late AM, three of the four of us became ill. Gastrointestinal problems. All three of us had the “twice baked” potato soup and the salmon for dinner. The one of us that had something different did not become ill. My guess was that it was the soup. It was a cream soup. Regardless, we were all feeling better by the afternoon, so whatever it was, it didn’t last all day. (Thankfully) The weather was beautiful. Warm and sunny. So we spent a large portion of the day on the back SeaView deck. Perfect place that was not that crowded, except that again, they were playing the techno-disco music very loud over the speakers. All I could think was, does HAL realize who their clientele is?

Dinner on night two was better than the first night. The show was pretty typical and just Ok. Some performers were better than others. There were some surprising aspects to the show. Since the average age of the HAL cruiser, on this ship, is probably 65+, I was surprised that the Broadway show had such numbers as “Tommy” and “Little Shop of Horrors”. Not sure if everyone in the audience was familiar with those numbers, but they did a decent job.

Day 3 – Ketchikan

Ketchikan was our first port. We decided to spend the day doing a walking tour of the town. The weather was fantastic. Sunny and warm. I believe the temps were in the low 60’s. The residents were telling us that this was only the 5th day this summer with sunshine, so we really lucked out. There were 4 other ships in port, Carnival, Celebrity, Disney and Royal Caribbean. We walked up the creek to the salmon ladders. The salmon were not quite yet “running” so we didn’t get to see any fish, but it was still really pretty.

We toured the Totem museum which was interesting but very small. We then walked around the mountain and back into town. We did some shopping on Creek Street and then walked around the rest of the town, down by the docks. Along the way we spotted Big Foot and Santa Claus. At lunch we stopped into an alley bar called The Red Snapper. We had a few beers and used their free internet to pull down our emails and post to Facebook. We headed back to the ship at around 2:30.

Spent the rest of the afternoon in the Crow’s Nest people watching. At 4PM we enjoyed the “Happy Hour” in the crow’s nest. The second drink is only $1. We also did this the day before and it was very economical. During happy hour they served nice appetizers. This was a really nice touch.

At dinner we sat with another older couple and they were nice company. We had reserved a time and a window seat so that also made the meal more enjoyable. (As we watched the whales playing in the bay as we dined)The meal was better tonight. I think all of us had an “above average” meal. The entertainment was a comedian. He had some pretty good material.

Day 4 – Tracy Arm

Today was a day at sea with a visit up the Tracy Arm. We spent most of the morning, reading our Kindles. At about 10AM we headed up to the Crow’s Nest for some whale watching. At 10:30 the famous Pea Soup was served throughout the bar. It was very good. At noon the historian starting talking about the trip up the Tracy Arm, and you could not hear the commentary in the bar, so we decided to go down to the front deck on level 3. (Which was a little cold)

We spent the rest of the afternoon down there as the ship cruised up the Tracy Arm. This was a very scenic and enjoyable trip. Because the Amsterdam is a smaller ship, she was able to sail all the way up the Arm to Sawyer Glacier. At 4 PM it was back to the Crow’s nest for 2 for 1 Margaritas! Enjoyed sailing out of Tracy Arm with some nice cocktails.

For dinner we ate at the Pinnacle Grill. It was very nice. We all had steak. Much nicer than the main dining room. The entertainment tonight was H2 Oh, with the Amsterdam dancers. It was horrible. We walked out after about 15 minutes. Very amateurish. One of the worse shows we have seen at sea.

Day 5 – Juneau

Since we have been to Juneau before, and helicoptered to a glacier and went whale watching, we decided to take it easy this time. We walked around town, did some shopping, and spent some time at the Viking bar where we checked email and Facebook. The town is actually quite small. Much smaller than we remembered.

We had lunch at the Flight Deck. We had the halibut and chips which was very good. Very interesting place. Very casual but not cheap. The location is great, in that you can watch the float planes take off and land. We were at Juneau until 9:30 but discovered that the Lido buffet closes at 8 PM. The Terrace Grill, with the Pizza, closes at 6PM. So there is no place on board the ship to get a casual meal after 8 PM. This seems crazy. We have been on other lines that have 24 hour food. (At least pizza). But for some reason HAL closes everything up at 8 PM. I feel sorry for the Europeans, who are used to eating dinner at 9PM.

Day 6 – Icy Straight Point

We have been to Icy Straight before on a RCL cruise, so we knew that it was a sleepy port. We did the Whale watching cruise in the AM. It was a very nice boat and it was overall a good cruise. We saw lots of whales and the boat was only about half full. The water was very smooth, but we hit some fog so at times it was difficult finding the whales. Overall it was a pleasant enough cruise.

Afterwards we decided to walk into Hoonah. It took about 25 minutes to make the walk along the shoreline. The town itself is very sleepy. We went to the Lodge to have lunch and they were “out of fish”. So we decided to head back to the “cruise port” and have our halibut and chips there. We took the bus back which costs $5 per person each way. Pretty expensive for a 3 minute bus ride, but the road is pretty rocky and we decided that it was worth the money on the return trip. In hindsight we should not have gone to Hoonah because there was nothing to see. Overall it was a pretty relaxing day. But this is not our favorite port.

Dinner was good. Nothing spectacular on the menu, but plenty to choose from and it was tasty. We decided to skip the entertainment. We spent a few dollars at the slots tonight and we left both ahead. (Hard to believe, eh?) Let’s hope our luck can last throughout the cruise!

Day 7 – At Sea

One thing we did, at the beginning of the cruise, was sign up for the “unlimited laundry” for the two weeks. It costs $99 and we think well worth it. It is so nice to put your dirty clothes into a bag each day and have them delivered the following day clean and pressed.

Lost all of our “profits” at the casino. Being that we have a home near Reno, we could tell that this casino was very “tight”, so we decided to cut our loses and stay away from the casino. Dinner was formal night. The menu was nothing special but had a pretty good variety. We skipped the entertainment because it was the Amsterdam singers and dancers.

Day 8 – Anchorage

This is a port where the daily schedule said that we were there from 7 AM to 11 PM. We had reserved a car and thought that we would spend the day “on our own”. So we wanted to get off the ship early. Turns out that we did not dock until 7:30. Then we find out that we are in a “port” and that we can’t get off the ship until 8:30 AM, when the shuttles start to run, taking people downtown. Then we found out that even though the sail away time is 11 PM, the last shuttle is at 9 PM. We thought this was very misleading. This port is not 7AM to 11 PM. It is more like 9AM to 9PM.

That aside, this was a fantastic port. We rented a car and drove down to Portage Lake where we took the Portage Glacier cruise tour. Very good tour. You cruise across Portage Lake and then spend about a half hour up close with a glacier. It was a beautiful day and the weather was fantastic. (70+ degrees and no wind) After the cruise, we had lunch at the Portage Lodge Café. The Halibut and Chips were very good. Then we went to the visitors center which was also very good.

Our next stop was the Wildlife Conservation Center. This is a wild animal type park where you drive around and see the various animals in a natural habitat. We saw Moose, Bears, Musk Ox, Elk, Caribou and some birds of prey. On the way back to Anchorage we stopped at the Alyseka Ski Resort. We then took the tram to the top of the mountain. This was fantastic. What a view. We had a drink at the 7 Glaciers Bar which had a killer view. We then drove back to Anchorage, dropped of the car, and had dinner at Rum Runners. We then walked around town and did some shopping, and were just in time to take one of the last shuttles back to the ship. Overall an excellent day.

Day 9 – Homer

We landed at Homer at 10 AM. Similar to Anchorage, you cannot just walk off the ship. You must be bused to the spit. We signed up for the $15 hop on and hop off bus to the town of Homer. (Which is about 5 miles away) We boarded the bus at around 10AM and finally left the pier at 10:30. It was very disorganized getting people on to the buses. The bus stops at 4 stops. We knew it was a mistake when someone from Homer boarded the bus and laid out the stops. “Our first stop is the Ace Hardware store. There is also a coffee shop and McDonalds nearby. Our second stop is Radio Shack.”….. I am not kidding, those are the stops. We skipped those first two exciting stops and stopped at number 3, which was at an art gallery and the Pratt Museum. The museum was pretty good but small. From there we walked to the 4th bus stop. Saw nothing much along the way. So we would not recommend the bus ride into Homer. The buses were old school buses, which were not “senior” friendly.

After town we went back to the ship for lunch and then took the free shuttle bus to the spit. It was mainly fishing charter booths. A few shops and restaurants. We stopped into the Salty Dawg Saloon. Very busy and small. We each had a beer and left.

The weather in Homer was wonderful and the town charming, but this was not one of our favorite ports. This may be because of the disorganized buses. Dinner in the dining room was above average. We skipped the entertainment. We heard that a lot of people walked out of the performance, so that was probably a wise move on our part.

Day 10 – Kodiak

We arrived in Kodiak on time at 7AM. We left the ship at around 9AM and grabbed a taxi to Fort Abercrombie. The fare was about $20 one way. We told Roni, our taxi driver, to pick us up in a hour. The taxi drops you off at the entrance of the park, so there is a little bit of a walk to the actual fort site. (About 10 to 15 minute walk) It was a Sunday, so the museum and gift shop was closed. There is really not much to see, but the view was wonderful. Very scenic. It was a little overcast but not cold. On the way back to the entrance we noticed quite a few mosquitos. We had Roni drop off us “in town”.

The town of Kodiak is very small. So there were not many shops. We went to McDonalds and used the free Wi-fi to check email and update FaceBook. We walked around town, hit the animal museum and visitor center, and then walked back to the ship. On the way back to the ship we found the “Kodiak Brewery”. Little homespun micro-brewery with great beer. You can have a large pint for $5. This was a welcome relief for the walk back to the ship.

We got back to the ship at around 2:00 PM. We sailed away at 3PM. It was formal night so we went to the main dining room. The meal was not as good as other nights. The dining room was empty. I mean, really empty. I think people don’t want to get dressed up anymore? We skipped the entertainment because it was “Avalon” a show we have previously seen on the Nieuw Amsterdam.

Day 11 – Hubbard Glacier

Today was a cloudy day at sea. We spent the morning with our Kindle’s. There was very little ice in the bay, so we were able to get real close to the glacier. It was an overcast day, but the glacier was super. It was calving and you could hear the thunderous noise with each chipping away of the ice.

We had dinner at Canaletto’s. We have done this before on the Nieuw Amsterdam. It was very nice and a nice change of pace from the main dining room. We both love the lemoncello dessert. The entertainment was Michael Ziegfield. He was a puppeteer and comic. Very good. Best show we have seen so far.

Day 12 – Sitka

Today was cloudy and rainy. We booked the Sea Otter wildlife boat ride. It was excellent. If there was only one tour to book on this cruise, this would be it. We saw Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Humpback whales (breaching), Eagles, Salmon, and Puffins. The captain and crew were excellent. They served light snacks and drinks throughout the 3 hour adventure. We took the early cruise and it turned out great. The ship does not arrive in Sitka until 10 AM, so there is a huge rush to go ashore with the tenders. (The cruise director said it usually takes about 45 minutes to go ashore) Because we were on a tour, we went to the front of the line. So while we were out exploring the wildlife, the rest of the passengers were queuing up to get on the tenders. Our tour was complete at about 1 PM and they dropped us off in town. So that gave us 3 hours to do some eating and shopping.

Sitka is one of the more scenic ports. Lots of islands and greenery. We liked the town because it was “different”. It seems like all of the other towns all “seemed the same”. The same type of stores, same type of things to buy, etc. But Sitka had its own charm.

Tonight’s dinner was the Grand Chef Show. We all thought the menu was not as good as previous nights. Many of us did not finish our meals. The wait staff put on a dancing show which was quite nice. After dinner we went to the entertainment and saw Jeff Trachta. He is an impressionist and very good. This was the second night that we had top quality entertainment. Maybe HAL was saving the best for last?

Day 13 – At Sea

Today is our last day at sea and our last formal night. We attended part of the “behind the scenes” puppet show by Ziegfeld. It was quite entertaining. At 11 AM we went to the “Mariner’s” special lunch. It included a coaster and a glass of champagne. Nice lunch. We watched some afternoon shows in the theater. Today seemed to have more “activities” than a normal at sea day.

The dinner was really good tonight. The surf and turf was a Filet Mignon and Lobster tail. Probably the best “cruise dinner” I have had, in a “normal” dining room. It was excellent. And the portions were large. It is clear that HAL has back loaded this cruise so that the nice dinners and entertainment are at the end of the cruise.

We hit happy hour in the Crow’s Nest and did the trivia. Darn, we didn’t win this one. Oh well, we met a lot of nice people and had some half price drinks. Tomorrow is our last day. Wow, seems like the cruise went by pretty fast.

Day 14 – Victoria

In the morning we decided to do our packing. We didn’t arrive at Victoria until noon. We booked the Butchart Gardens tour. (With about half the ship) We were docked, so we walked off the ship and then boarded the tour buses. The driver was very friendly and informative, but he was a little slow at getting us to our destination. We only had a little over 1.5 hours at the gardens. But that turned out to be just about enough time. The gardens were in full bloom and they were fabulous. The only negative was that it was very busy. It would have been nicer if we would have arrived early in the morning.

After the gardens the driver did “allow” people to get off the bus downtown, rather than going directly back to the ship. This was nice because we were able to have dinner, shop, check wi-fi, and walk around. We took the “downtown shuttle” service back to the ship and it was only $4 apiece. (The stop is by the Orca topiary in front of the Empress) Victoria was a very nice city. Someplace that we would return to….

Overall Summary Review

The overall cruise was quite enjoyable. The itinerary was fabulous and we had excellent weather. The Amsterdam had its ups and downs. The Ship We had an outside cabin on Deck 2 (Main Deck). The cabin had tons of closet space. The bathroom was good size and we had a couch and sitting table. I have a bad back, so by the end of the cruise I was getting rather sore from the bed. We were below the walking track on deck 3. Each morning, at 5:30 AM, someone was above us dragging the deck chairs. This was quite annoying. The cabin steward (Putu) was very good.

The dining on the Amsterdam was very spotty. We thought the main dining room was pretty good. Some nights it was very good, others just OK. We would rate it on par with other cruises that we have sailed before. There was nothing really exceptional, but then again, it was pretty consistently good. The portion sizes were normally OK, but there were a few nights where they were a little small. The special lunches by the pool were great. There was Dutch Day, Indonesian Day, and the Salmon Bake. All were excellent. The Lido was a big disappointment for us. The food was very bland and there was not much variety. We had dinner one night in the Lido and it was not all that great. Lunch was also very busy and boring so we ended up eating at the grill by the pool most of the trip. We discovered that there is no place to “casual dine” on the Amsterdam from 8PM to 11PM. We discovered this when returning on the ship after 8PM. There was no place to eat. The Lido closes at 8 PM and the terrace grill, with burgers and pizza, closes at 6PM. This is unacceptable. You shouldn’t have to rush back to the ship with reservations to grab a quick bite to eat. This signaled to us that HAL is not geared toward the independent cruiser.

Our favorite place to hang out was the Crow’s Nest bar every day for happy hour. Almost every day there was a buy one get the second drink for $1 at 4PM. This was a great place to have a drink before dinner. Many of the days they also had team trivia games at 4PM and that was also fun. The wait staff in the Crow’s nest were all excellent. Very friendly and efficient. They were even bringing us appetizers each night, which was a really classy touch. So a big kudos for the Crow’s Nest!

Overall the entertainment was not as good as previous sailings. Our last HAL cruise had excellent entertainment. This time it was pretty poor. (Except for Jeff Trachta and Michael Ziefield) The HAL singers were so amateurish that we just stopped going. It wasn’t even worth our time.

Ketchikan – We spent the day in town. Nice little place. Lots of shopping available. We had great weather and the ship was docked to it was easy getting on and off the ship.

Tracy Arm – This was a day at Sea where the ship travels up an “arm” to see a glacier. We had great weather and little ice so we were able to get very close to the glacier. This was a nice addition that most cruise ships cannot do because of their size. (I guess size does matter)

Juneau – We were also docked here so getting on and off the ship was a breeze. We spent the day in town. Had some Halibut and Chips by the pier and watched the float planes. Lots of shopping here but very similar to Ketchikan.

Icy Straight – We took the Whale cruise which was pretty good. After that we walked to Hoonah which was a bust. Super small town with nothing to do. This is not one of our favorite ports. It is a manufactured cruise ship port. We should have gone to Skagway instead!

Anchorage – Anchorage was our favorite port because we rented a car and did our own thing. We drove down to Portage Glacier and then did the Wildlife Conservation Center. After that we went to the top of Mt. Alyeska on the tram. Was a super day. But getting off the ship was a real pain. Our schedule said that we were in Anchorage from 7 AM to 11 PM. But we didn’t dock until 8 AM. Then we were told that we were in a “secure” port and that we had to be shuttled to town and that didn’t start until 9 AM. It turned out that they started letting people off at 8:30. We were then told that the last shuttle back to the ship was at 9PM. And that you couldn’t walk back through the port. So why do they advertise this as a 7AM to 11PM port when you have to take their shuttles and they run from 9AM to 9PM? This made for getting on and off the ship a pain and it was similar to tendering, only on land.

Homer – On Homer we decided to purchase the $15 “hop on and hop off” tour. This was to take you into Homer and allow you to see town at your leisure. This was a joke. The “bus” was a school bus. The stops were laughable. “Our first stop is the True Value Hardware Store, our second stop is Radio Shack”… And I am not kidding. Homer was also a shuttle ride off of the ship. So again, it was a pain getting to and from the ship. The Homer Spit consisted of mainly fishing charters and a few restaurants. This was our second least favorite port. (Icy Straight wins that award)

Kodiak – Kodiak was a day where the ship was docked just outside of town. We decided to go on our own, so we rented a taxi and went out to Fort Abercrombie. It was very scenic but smaller than expected. The taxi fare was about $20 each way. After the fort we walked around town. Not much to Kodiak. On the way back to the ship we stopped at the Kodiak Brewing Company for some homemade beer. That was fun! Try the Sarah Pale Ale!

Hubbard Glacier – This was a day at sea with the afternoon at the glacier. The weather was cloudy but there was little or no ice in the bay so we were able to get real close. A crewmember said that this was only the second time this season that the ship was able to get real close. So we felt very lucky.

Sitka – We did the Sea Otter and Wildlife cruise and it was great. Probably the best “tour” we have ever taken on a cruise ship. We saw lots of animals and the captain and crew were great. This is a don’t miss tour. After the tour we walked around town and used the free town Wi-Fi to pull down emails and post to Facebook.

Victoria – Our last day was spent at Victoria. We docked about 1.5 miles from town. We did the Buchart Gardens tour. It was good and we were let off downtown to do further exploring. Loved Victoria and we want to go back!

Overall Impressions of HAL We like HAL but don’t think it is that much “different” than the other cruise lines. The clientele is much older than other lines. I think the average age on this cruise was probably 65 or 70. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your tastes. The dining room and entertainment are on par with the other cruise lines. (Although the entertainment on this ship was not near as good as our first HAL cruise) We felt the Lido was below par in comparison to the other lines. The “you can bring your own wine on board” policy is great and this does separate them from the pack. The service was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary. Would we sail HAL again? Maybe…. Depends on the price, itinerary, and ship. I’m not sure that it pays to be brand specific when cruising. I think the difference between the lines is getting smaller and smaller.