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By Eric Harlan
Published: September 17, 2010
Updated: September 17, 2010
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The thought of a cruise never really interested me. The thought of sitting on a boat for a week or more putting around the ocean stopping here and there for a few hours wasn’t extremely appealing.  The one and only condition to ever take a cruise would be a trans-world cruise for months or a cruise to Alaska.

Well before I have the chance to take a few months off work for a trans-world cruise, I finally got a chance to take the cruise to Alaska and here’s the low down.

First some of the facts:

We took our trip on the Holland American liner the “Zaandam” (“Zon-dum”). The ship was pretty nice a very middle of the road ship. It wasn’t crazy over the top extravagant and it wasn’t bottom of the barrel budget liner either, at least from my limited knowledge of cruise ships go (See “Titanic”).

The boarding process resembled something of an international flight out of an airport. First check was passport and boarding pass, second check point the same, then you go through security the same as if you were in an airport.  After which, you fill out a quick health questionnaire, get your boarding card and you’re off to the ship to dump your bags.

The card is basically your pass to everything on the ship.  Prior to boarding, you are expected to attach your credit card to your ship card. I was pretty nervous about this to be honest. I'm not too keen on putting my card out there for anything to be charged to it.  I will be honest it makes life pretty easy; the alternative is that you have to bring cash and deposit that cash to the card. Either way the ship is completely cashless.

There are two ways to eat on the ship. The first way is the “Main dining room”. Now what they don’t really come out and say or at least wasn’t very clear to us, is that the main dining room is free buffet style. So with the price of admission, food to an extent is all inclusive.

The second way to eat is by reserving a table in one of the restaurants there are 5 total and so far from what we could tell you only have to pay to eat at one of them (the Pinnacle Grill) as the quality of food is notably better.  But again the ship is cashless so you are charged, in our case, 20 dollars per person to have a meal at the restaurants. What did twenty dollars get me? 9-10oz Filet Minion, over a thin layer of whipped potatoes in addition to two huge prawns, steam asparagus and a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. And I went light so in a word, it’s worth the twenty bucks.

At the end of the trip the cruise line automatically puts 11 bucks per person per room on your card for gratuity that includes both room cleaning, food prep,  food serving etc. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem giving them a 176$ tip for 8 days of great service. However again, I wish this was made clear and transparent to us before we left port or when we booked. Again don’t like things just being charged to me without my consent. You can add additional tip to this 11 bucks a day or you can actually have it removed if you are so inclined.

Everyone so far on the ship is extremely nice.  From the servers to the staff to the bar tenders. Everyone so far was awesome. Most of the crew of this voyage is from Indonesia and have the respect and kindness as such. Even if the rude weathered Americans they are catering to aren’t. Kudos to the staff.

The ship is surprisingly easy to navigate, at first it seems very large and daunting but in no time flat you are remembering which restaurants and shops are forward of mid-ship, which are aft and if it’s starboard or port side.

Live music throughout the ship, from Elton John cover piano men to string quartets certainly a classy touch when you’ve been on the water all day whale watching.  There are few things better in life than having a water tan, sipping back a potent cocktail and listening to Rocket Man (giggity).  There’s also a DJ that “spins the wheels of steel” up on the crow’s nest at night.  I honestly don’t mind 30/40’s era big band music.

Some of the negative:

If you would have asked me before I took my first cruise, if I thought that cruise liners allowed people to smoke inside a ship. I would have said there is no way in the world, especially because one of the biggest dangers on a ship is fire.  And with all that pure oxygen on board (yeah I said it…I said it..) I can see that being a risk.

Apparently you can smoke in the ship including in your room. For a nonsmoker this is a major issue. Every single room is a smoking room. You know it the second you walk in the door. Honestly every single breath can be miserable.  If anyone from Holland America reads this. Seriously, designate smoking areas and have nonsmoking rules. People who don’t smoke shouldn’t have to live in a closed box for a week with people who do. IMO unacceptable and I’ll consider that next time I go to take a cruise.

That said, they did go through “reasonable” attempts to make it better for us.  There apparently are stages; you first get a room deodorization machine which does basically nothing at all.  Next they come in and tear down all the fabrics in your room from the curtains to the sheets, towels robes everything goes and is washed and replaced. Which in itself is quite the effort that I certainly recognize. However the root of the cause being smokers in the next cabin over and years of smoke in every single fiber of room really can’t take the smell away.

Lesson learned, find a nonsmoking ship.

Don’t scoff at me because you’re going to say “Well you’re on vacation you shouldn’t need it”; but wifi on the ship is CRAZY expensive. Fifty Five US dollars for 100 mins or pay as you go for something like .25 cents a min. And that doesn’t exclude loading time which crawls along at blazing ADSL speeds.  Do yourself a favor. Write all the emails you need to at once, when you get to port tether with your cell phone (since you are on US shores, and they do have cell phones in Alaska) and send out all the stuff you need. Better yet, disconnect completely and enjoy your quiet time.

Excursions:

Every single port of call we pulled into was inundated with peddlers of excursion wares.   You do pay a premium to be able to have a ticket and just get on a bus and be whisked away with little to no thought. However, if you wanted to save a buck wait until you get to port and literally step off the ship to plan what you will be doing that day. It makes life more interesting and you never know you might just have more fun.

That said, I will recommend highly “The Best of Juneau”.  Pick you up ship side; take you to another harbor to drop you off at a whale watching boat. However in transit you get a full low down of Juneau and its history. The boat goes out to the channel to an island where you have a fresh salmon bake. And when I say fresh, I mean it was literally caught out of one of many creeks that day.

The Undersea Adventure (Semi Sub) in Sitka was an absolute waste of time.  And I say that with the utmost love.  The people, the sub, and the passion they had for their area of the world and its wild life was great. However I can only look at kelp and star fish for so long. The best part of my under sea adventure was the Bald Eagle I saw pulling out of the harbor.

The Jeep and Canoe trip in Ketchikan was freaking awesome.  The staff was great the experience over all was just a ton of fun.  They had freaking CB’s! Do you know how awesome it is to be in a convoy of jeeps in the back woods cracking on each other with CB’s!?  Everyone got a call sign, us, in our 4 banger automatic red jeep took on the name Hot Tamale.  The canoeing part was kinda “meh” you went to a very pretty lake paddled out about a half mile to another spot on shore and took a VERY brief nature hike. The information was pretty neat though. After which you had a pretty meager meal of smoked salmon chunks and rolls. It was in a campy type setup so it kind of worked for it.

If you ever get to Ketchikan and take the jeep excursion, tell Toby that “Hot Tamale” says… “MONEY!”.

Warning about the excursions, none of them are planned longer than you are actually in port so you don’t have to worry too much about missing the boat however a lot of them are planned up to the last 30 mins before you need to be on board. We literally didn’t get to see anything but two shops in Ketchikan and from what I could see, it looked like I would enjoy that town the most of all the stops we made. Bummer.

Wildlife:

Well it’s Alaska what do you think I’m about to say.  Again, as I stated in some of my other posts, I'm not really in the trips for the wildlife however when there is such an abundance of it and their really cool animals, it makes talking about the wildlife a very important part.  On the trip we saw: Wild Salmon (Chum, Sock-Eye, King, Silver, and Pink.. what you didn’t know there were many kinds?), Black Bear, Humpback Whales (breeching), Killer Whales (Orca), Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Bald Eagles, various other fowl, dolphin (or porpoise not sure), a bunch of undersea life, etc.

I was REALLY bummed to find the photo of the humpback whales breeching 50 yards from us came out blurry. It was quite literally the best potential photo of the entire trip (you can see it below) but catching a jumping whale, on a rocking ship in a 400mil lens is pretty hard to do and alas I will only have it clear in my mind’s eye.

Enough facts, was it a good time?

Honestly I had a great time; finally being able to slow down and force myself to chill out for a while was priceless for me.  In my traveling I sometimes get wrapped up in the thought of going and doing as much as possible in the time I have.  Well you can’t really do that in Alaska without renting your own personal puddle jumper to fly you around everywhere.  Even then, Alaska is 3x larger than the state of Texas (p.s. See: “Size does Matter” tee shirt in Juneau ha ha) so getting around with any agility would be difficult as well.

Which really brings me back to the thought of doing Alaska by cruise. You have a floating jumping off point of sorts. You wake up and bam you’re in the next port or next scenic area and you’re forced to slow down much faster I’ve noticed this more than going on any other vacation (at least for me which has always been my biggest hurdle). I even noticed myself getting adjusted to the 4 hour difference in a mere two days which in most cases it would take a solid 4-5 days.

Would I do it again? Well maybe, maybe if I went further north up to Anchorage or Kodiak etc.  I’d like to get back to Ketchikan and give it some more of my time for sure. Overall I had a good time. We ranked it a 3 out of 5 star trip.  I’ll leave you with some final tidbits.

Bits of Wisdom:

The ship’s age ratios were as follows (estimated):

55-100: 75%

45-54: 20%

35-44: 3%

>34: 2%

 

  • Based on these numbers there is a strategy to getting food. That strategy is sleep in and stay up late. Think about it, look at the numbers and think about it. It will make sense in a minute.
  • Riding in an elevator going up or down while pitching left, right, forward and back is very very odd.
  • Stay away from ship foie gras. I was smart enough to think of this. From what I heard some others were not.
  • I totally forgot how awesome a nap can really be. I haven’t had a real nap in years I pretty much took one every other day.
  • Find out what “formal night” means on your ship before you pack.  Formal night on ours was pretty much slacks and a blazer. It can go all the way up to a Tux though.
  • The stars you can view while out to sea on a dark ship deck is un-freaking-believable
  • I can finally say I saw the Aura Borealis (Northern Lights).

 

When booking your Alaska cruise take note of where your room is located. If it is near a deck door, pretty much assume the wind whipping down the decks and slamming that door for people not smart enough to hold on to it and let it close slowly will enemy of that sleeping in notion if you don’t spot it beforehand.

 

Sitka has free public wifi, if you REALLY need to sync up (which I didn’t) you can take your device ashore with you. Makes it nice to find “What to do in Sitka” via wifi from my WinMo phone.

Be ready to be passively up-sold your entire trip. From services on the ship to excursions and deals the liner has with individual stores in port. It gets pretty annoying after a while but is just under the bar of “Ok this is getting to be too much”.

 

The elderly (at least the ones on this ship) can be just as devil tongued as 14 year old teenaged girls. Amazing some of the gossip and terrible things I heard coming from them when they think no one is listening. Something to aspire NOT to be like.

 

After a few cocktails, walking on a pitching ship is quite difficult and expands the notion of said buzz.

 





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