HAL to Alaska on Westerdam
Loved this shot of a worker loading luggage
Sailing under the Lion's Gate Bridge is one of the best parts of sailing out of Vancouver.
Our shipped moored in Skagway.
Sailing through sheet ice in Glacier Bay
Another great view in Glacier Bay
More Glacier Bay
More Glacier Bay
More Glacier Bay
Tons of sheet ice
Waiting for an elevator? Here's a place to sit.
Our poolside selfie.
We have been off Westerdam on our first cruise aboard a HAL ship since 2008 for about a week as I write this. In our new roles as travel consultants with Expedia Cruise Ship Centers we were invited on this familiarization (FAM) cruise in late April/early May 2018.
The FAM part of the cruise was a hello cocktail party, three 2 hour plus classes, a dinner together at Pinnacle Grille and a farewell cocktail party, plus some other out-of-class bonding.
Here's our FAM group. We were the only Americans. Everyone else was a Canadian and I was the only man in the group. Fun!
But the real reason we were on the cruise was to see if we could and would recommend to our clients that they book Holland America to Alaska. Well after a week, the answer is a resounding YES with only one major reservation.
Our one reservation
The service in the main dining room (and to some extent, the buffet) is HORRID! It’s not the individual servers, but the systems. Some examples:
The reason I am still willing to give HAL a high grade in Alaska is that the main dining room is a fixable problem. They just need someone to step in and fix their systems.
Now on to the good stuff that we loved!
We were in 4145, a balcony stateroom on deck 4. Loved being there near the stairs/elevator. Good stuff in the cabin included:
Let’s talk about that TV
I know, we were on a cruise…but there were two sea days and other down time. And since HAL has a partnership with BBC Earth, the programming on the TV was amazing. As Kathleen will tell you, I am not a big nature doc fan but these were AWESOME (I now owe Bob $1) as was the huge selection of FREE movies available. There were great films that were just out of theaters as well as a bunch of classics. They did have a hard time getting them categorized correctly but they were still good. And the navigation map is awesome. with five different levels of magnification.
A note about laundry
We didn’t use the laundry as we were coming right from home. HAL does not have self-serve laundries on their ships but they do have something others told us about: $49.95 for UNLIMITED laundry cleaned and pressed on a seven day cruise. OMG! We were shocked. Some of our fellow travel consultants had been in Vancouver for a week or more and needed laundry done and what a great value for them.
HAL's outstanding web app
HAL has an OUTSTANDING web app that you can add to your phone in your browser just by logging into their WiFi network—at no charge—which allowed us to see the daily program on the ship, our onboard account, the menus in the dining room and specialty restaurants. You could also book spa reservations, specialty restaurant reservations and more. And we were thrilled to see we could keep up with the news since HAL gave us the NY Times free. That’s better than we can get at home. Not only that, but the app gave us free chat with each other and anyone else we exchanged numbers with.
I also want to add that the daily announcements that you found in your room each night were the best I have ever seen, graphically speaking. Easy and a joy to read (that's the graphic designer in me talking).
The entertainment is outstanding including:
Canaletto Italian restaurant was very good.
It’s the ship’s “other” specialty restaurant and is located (only at night) in one section of the buffet. There is an extra charge ($15) and we felt it was well worth it. The service was excellent (if a little hovering) and the food was superb. They recommend that everyone at the table order an appetizer and then share a pasta and an entrée for each two people. The food is served family style so you pass the plates. We wish we had gone with four other people to try even more items. What we had was outstanding.
Other food venues
We ate most lunches and three breakfasts in the buffet and it was crowded and sometimes entire sections would close at the strangest times but there was always plenty to eat any time you wanted it.
The burger/hot dog bar called Dive-In needs work on their systems as well. Food was outstanding but I should NOT have to wait 30 minutes for a hamburger or hotdog. They also supervise the Mexican food/nacho bar near the pool which was just fine.
HAL is now doing some amazing things with their destination talks/tours, etc. They call it EXC (Explorations Central) and it is centered in the former Crow’s Nest on deck 10 at the front of the ship. HAL has installed some pretty incredible interactive screens that you can use to plan your (independent) tours at your destinations. It is fully staffed much of the day either by EXC specialists or the ship’s naturalist (a very fine fellow). HAL seems to be all about experiences and this new EXC set up is outstanding.
First, this was our sixth cruise to Alaska and three of those were from Seattle and three (including this one) were from Vancouver. We will never sail to see Alaska from Seattle again. What I mean by that is that next summer if we go to Alaska on RCL we will sail from Seattle because that cruise will all be about the ship (taking the grandkids) one of RCL’s big ones but if you want the real Alaska experience, sail out of Vancouver.
Why? The biggest reason is that when you leave Seattle and get to the Straits of Juan de Fuca (between Victoria and Port Angeles) you take a hard left turn and head out to sea and that means that on your sea day getting to Alaska and getting back you are truly at SEA! You can only see land far in the distance.
On the other hand, when you leave from Vancouver, those first and last sea days are spent in the glorious Canadian Inside Passage. Don’t get me wrong. All Alaskan cruises go through the Alaskan Inside Passage but that’s not until the ship gets all the way up to Alaska. And in the Canadian Inside Passage, the weather is always better. We had so much sunshine coming back, people were actually laying by the pool…in early May! And all the way we were in a narrow channel with small Canadian towns slipping by us as well as lots of incredible mountains on either side.
Another reason to choose Vancouver is that with the Jones Act in full force, every Seattle ship has to stop for a few hours in Victoria to make sure they stop in a foreign port. That means that the only ship sailing near us, the Norwegian Pearl (which had sailed from Seattle) had less time in every port than we did. They had to leave each port earlier so they could be on time to stop in Victoria from 6:00 pm to 11:00 pm on the last night of their cruise. Not enough time to even really see Victoria but required by law. For that reason when we have sailed out of Seattle, we have always felt like we were rushing.
One more thing. To see the real Alaska, go early in the season. We were in Skagway last year in June when four ships were in port. It was slammed. You could barely walk on the sidewalks. See the pic above, no one. not a soul on the street. We were able to walk into shops and actually talk to the owners. Wonderful.
And lastly, we have discovered that it is wonderful to be on the first cruise of the Alaskan season. Why? Because we were one of two ships in Alaska that week which meant that unlike when we had been here in summer 2017, we were able to walk on the sidewalks in Skagway and get lunch without waiting at the brewery. It was heavenly. It was like Alaska used to be back when we first were here on the original Westerdam in 2000.
Leaving Vancouver we had some incredible clouds