Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alaska & Yukon Cruise Tour

Holland America Line
Alaska / Yukon Cruise Tour Review
July 23 - August 4, 2011

Just The Facts:
Ship: ms Zuiderdam 7/23 - 7/26
Ship Captain: Werner Timmers
Tour Director: Tom Shoperson
Cruise: Vancouver-Inside Passage-Juneau-Skagway
Tour: Skagway, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Tok, Fairbanks, Denali, Anchorage
Weather: Partly cloudy most of the time--nice and cool.

This is my 1st Holland American Line cruise and 1st Alaska visit and tour. There will be a lot of new experiences this trip. I’m a part of a Travel Agent Familiarization tour and traveling solo on this trip.

Travel Day
I was able to arrange a flight from Waco which makes it much easier as the airport is only an hour+ from the ranch. It’s small, only two gates, so very easy. I had a short 1:00 pm flight to George Bush Airport in Houston then after a 3 hour wait the long direct flight to Vancouver. We arrived about 9:00 pm and I cleared Canadian customs and took a Taxi ($35) to the downtown Hyatt Regency. The hotel was great and a very good location. I used to book the room and received a very fair rate-IMHO.

Day One--Saturday--Embarkation
I was up early, still on Texas time, and went next door for a Tim Horton breakfast by 7:00 am. Because it was early and a Saturday there were few people out and I decided I would do a downtown walking tour. I went several places including Canada Place and the Gaslight district. I waited at the famous steam clock for the 8:00 am blast, but it never happened. The clock was very interesting though. It was too early for the shops to open, but I was really only interested in the sites and architecture so it worked well for me. Because you must clear security AND customs before even reaching the cruise check in area it tends to get busy with lines. I was told to arrive either about 11:00 am or after 3:30 in order to avoid the long lines. I originally intended to do the Vancouver tour bus and arrive late, but since I was out early I decided to head to the pier early. I took a taxi ($5) from the hotel to Canada Place and arrived just after 11:00 am and checked my bag with the curb side porters. I then proceeded to security where all cruise passengers for all the ships are screened. Once they have scanned your bags and checked your ID your proceed to customs. They have lines for Canadians, for Americans, and others. Since they do this before boarding you don’t have to clear customs when we reach Juneau. At this point passengers go to whatever cruise line they are sailing. This morning it was only the ms Zuiderdam and a Princess ship so I was directed to the Holland America Line area. I will say that the shore personnel were very helpful and it was a smooth process. I was checked in including security photo and directed to a waiting area until boarding at 11:30. This was set up well so that rows of chairs were filled as needed and then passengers could be directed to board in order. We did start boarding and I was on board ship by 11:45. I then discovered a long forgotten feature: All cabins are ready upon boarding. That is fantastic and I understand it is a fleet wide policy. This is my first HAL cruise, but I did receive a Mariner Society invitation to dine in the Vista dining room for lunch from noon-1:30 pm. This is a great idea and feature as it takes pressure from the Lido deck buffet and adds a benefit for repeat guests. I did dine in the MDR and had the Salmon entree, but I did go up to the Lido Restaurant and get a wonderful Bread Pudding for dessert. I explored some of the ship in the afternoon and took a short nap until muster drill at 4:30. Soon after we sailed away from Vancouver and under the Lion's Gate Bridge and began our adventure. Our group met in the Atrium Bar for a meet & greet and then had dinner in the Vista Dining room. I had the Smoked Alaskan Seafood Appetizer (salmon, scallops, etc), French Onion Soup, the Alaskan Crab Legs entree and Apple Strudel for dessert. I don’t recall having crab legs on a cruise ship in many years. All were very good. They had a welcome show in the Vista Lounge theater at 9:30, but I retired to the cabin soon after dinner.

Day Two--Sunday--Inside Passage
There was sunshine at dawn, but very soon it was a very foggy morning that continued through most of the day. I went to the Vista dining room for breakfast and had Eggs Benedict as usual on the first day of a cruise. They were very good. I explored more of the ship before a 10:00 am meeting for our TA group. I had some cabin time and I’m very happy that I took the up-sale and took a verandah cabin. I can see the scenic coast as we sail north up the famous inside passage. I do suggest the starboard side. I went to the Lido restaurant for lunch and had Baked Ziti with meat sauce and another bread pudding for dessert. The weather did clear somewhat so some more cabin time and coastal viewing. I did bring binoculars and that helped a lot. I did see the first whale just after lunch. At 3:00 I attended a Cocktail seminar. They have 3 over 7 days, but this one is the only one I could attend and this one featured martinis. They made four: Strawberry Champagne Dreams, Cosmo Cubana, Tanqueray 0010, and Green Appletini. My favorite by far was the Cosmo Cubana consisting of lime, mint, cranberry juice, sour mix and pineapple favor rum. It was an entertaining presentation. The portions/samples were generous and having won a trivia question I had an extra to sample as well. That’s more alcohol than I am used to drinking--LOL. Some more cabin time and a nap was needed before dinner. For dinner I dined in the Pinnacle Grill, the premium dining room. It was a large beautiful room with a lovely view as we sailed. The china and silver presentation was wonderful. For dinner I had Jumbo Shrimp, Dungeness Crab Cakes, a Porterhouse Steak, Creamed Spinach, and Asparagus spears. For dessert I had the Baked Alaska and a Vanilla Souffle. My favorites were the Shrimp and Baked Alaska, but it was all very good. I had a taste of the Fillet Mignon and it was better than the Porterhouse, but IMHO the steaks grilled out on the ranch are better, but of course I am bias and had to sample theirs for comparison. The Pinnacle Grill was a great two+ hour dining experience and I would dine there at least once per cruise. The great meal, wine, and cocktails earlier really put me in the mood for a good sleep so I had a bit of cabin time and turned in on the (exclusive to Holland America Lines) Sealy pillow top mattress for a great nights sleep.

Day Three--Monday—Glacier Bay--Juneau, Alaska
After the great rest we turned back the clock an hour overnight so we have an extra hour today and we are three hours from Texas time. The weather is cloudy and overcast, but no rain as forecast. About 7:30 am we approached the entrance to Glacier Bay. The scenery is spectacular especially the further up we travel and soon I saw our first iceberg. They have a Park Ranger giving a presentation in the lounge and observation areas, but the view from the verandah is great. I ordered a room service breakfast as I didn’t want to miss any of the scenery. They do have a nice variety of hot breakfast items that you do not see on most cruise lines these days. I had a very nice ham & cheese omelette. We reached the basin where the two branches of Tracy Arm split and turned around about 9:45 am. I’ll get to see the scenery on the opposite side on the return. The ship stopped when a bear was spotted so that most could see the bear. You just don’t think about a large cruise ship stopping for a photo opportunity. I had a nap before we reached Juneau about 2:00 pm. I went over the State of Alaska Museum and the Alaska state office building. The museum had some great exhibits and historical presentations. The state office building has a library and free Wi-Fi. I was able to catch up on email. I then visited several of the tourist shops and found the enamel artist I wanted to see for a pin. I then decided to visit the Red Dog Saloon and had a great time visiting with tourists and people from the group who also came by for local Alaskan beer and a few Duck Farts. The entertainer played both country and sing along bar music. It was fun and I ended up staying until time for the ship to sail at 10:00 pm. We were among the last to leave Juneau it seemed at least the town was shutting down. Back in the cabin late I ordered club sandwiches from room service and packed for the early departure next morning. I had to have my primary bag out by 1:00 am. For the land portion they we will be following a similar procedure as the bags may not travel with us on the motor coach.

Day Four--Tuesday--Skagway, Alaska
We had to meet at 7:45 am in the ships theater for an tour orientation and met our tour director for the land portion of the trip. Soon we debarked the ship and had a bus tour of Skagway, the scenic overlook, and cemetery. They then dropped us at the Westmark Inn hotel and we were free to explore the Skagway area the rest of the day. Skagway is very much an 'old west' type of town that now caters to the tourists. I visited the Klondike National Historic Museum and related exhibits then had time for a visit to the Red Onion Saloon for an early lunch. I then watched the Days of ’98 Show with Soapy Smith at the FOE Theater (photo right). I really enjoyed the show and local history they presented. Then to the Skagway Brewing Company to meet new friends and try a unique locally brewed beer, Spruce Tip Ale. At 7:00 pm we attended a entertaining show by local Steve Hite featuring the history of the Klondike gold rush and the development of the railroad. After the show and with an early wake up call I retired to make notes and rest, but I really enjoyed my day in the town Skagway.

Day Five--Wednesday--Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
We met early in order to board the famous White Pass (WP&YR) narrow gauge railroad. This is the most popular shore excursion in Skagway (actually anywhere in the world between May and September), but we are using it as the first leg of our land journey. The railroad follows the famous White Pass over the mountains and has spectacular scenery. We had a short stop in Fraser as we had to clear Canadian customs and we changed time zones as well. Later we stopped at Lake Bennet Station for a nice railroad lunch of stew, homemade bread, and apple pie. We arrived at the end of the line in Carcross in the late afternoon. After some time in Carcross and spotting the first American Bald Eagle of the trip we boarded the motor coach for site seeing on the way to Whitehorse. A representative of Yukon Government Tourism Department joined our coach to welcome us and provide information on the trip to Whitehorse. The Westmark Hotel in Whitehorse is very nice and everyone in the group is preregistered at each hotel and we receive our keys as we leave the bus. Very quick and convenient. Several of us had dinner at Klondike Rib & Salmon BBQ and I had a great meal of Alaskan Halibut, garlic mashed potatoes, vegetables, and sourdough bread. For dessert I had the Sourdough Bread Pudding-it was outstanding. We attended a Klondike theme production show called Frantic Follies. It was a show for tourists, but very well done and very entertaining. After the show a nice Yukon Gold beer in the bar before retiring about midnight, but the unusual thing is that it is still daylight.

Day Six--Thursday--Dawson City, Yukon Territory
We left early as this was our longest travel day leaving Whitehorse on the scenic Klondike Highway. We had some photo stops at Five Fingers Rapids and Tintina Trench overlook plus a nice break with a game of horseshoes at Moose Creek Lodge and lunch in Minto, all on the upper Yukon river. We did see our first bears today too. We arrived in Dawson and were assigned our rooms for our two night stay. Dawson City is like arriving in an old west movie set with: dirt streets, wooden board walks, old false front buildings, and Saloons. What a perfect place for a group ‘pub crawl'. Several brave souls started out at the Westmark Inn Lounge, then Bombay Peggy’s, then the Drunken Goat Tavern, then to the Downtown Hotel for the Sourdough Toe drink initiation, then Diamond Tooth Gerties for the midnight saloon show, then finally only the hardy finishing at the Midnight Sun for a live band. The Sour Toe Cocktail Club event involves drinking a shot of Yukon Jack whisky with a mummified toe representing the first of an old ‘98er who lost it to frostbite. It is quite a ceremony. Diamond Tooth Gerties is a full casino with three nightly shows. I believe they charge admission for the 1st touristy show, but not for the later shows. The Drunken Goat has very good greek food. Yukon Gold beer was my drink of the night and it was quite a fun evening. This was a very late night, but still not very dark at 2:00 am. No northern lights visible.

Day Seven--Friday--Dawson City, Yukon Territory
I slept in on our off day in Dawson and it was needed. I signed up for the noon Jeep Tour excursion of the Dawson Gold fields. It was a nice three+ hour tour up to the King Solomon Dome, the source of all the gold creeks in the area. We stopped at Gold Dredge No.4 the largest used in the Klondike. Back in Dawson I visited the nice area museum located in the former Territorial Capital Building. For dinner I ate at Sourdough Joe’s and had some great uniquely battered halibut fish & chips. I walked around town before retiring much earlier this evening

Day Eight--Saturday--Tok, Alaska
We started the morning with a three hour river cruise on the Yukon Queen II going down the Yukon river. Originally we were to sail all the way to Eagle Alaska and motor coach from there, but there was a highway that was questionable so it's now just a return cruise from Dawson. We stopped and watched numerous bears on the side of a mountain. We were lucky to see so many bears including a large cinnamon colored bear and black bears with cubs. We returned to Dawson then left about noon by taking the George Black ferry across the Yukon River. From there we traveled a short way to the U.S. Canadian border at Poker Creek, Alaska where they stamped our passports and we lost that hour of time again. Poker Creek is the most northerly border station in the United States. After posing for photographs at the Welcome to Alaska sign we were met by a pilot vehicle to lead us across the ‘Top of the World Highway’ a dirt/gravel track following the top of the mountain ranges (photo right) until we reached Chicken, Alaska. Chicken is a remote but very unique roadhouse with a small cafe, saloon, and station. From Chicken we followed the Taylor Highway to Tok, Alaska founded in 1942 when the new Alaskan highway meets the Taylor highway. This was an interesting Westmark facility celebrating Christmas in July and delivering to each room a hot chocolate at bedtime. The restaurant also had some good Tex/Mex. The new route added some new places to see so it was a fair trade off for a shorter cruise and the town of Eagle. Chicken, Alaska was unique enough!

Day Nine--Sunday--Fairbanks, Alaska
We left Tok now traveling on the Alcan or Alaska Highway a very nice road. Our morning stop was at Rika’s Roadhouse, the site of a very early roadhouse at Delta Junction an important crossroads of rivers and early roads. This is now a state historic park and a good stop with museum, restaurant (good bear claws), and exhibits. This was also our first sighting of the trans-Alaskan pipeline. From here we followed the Tanana river down to Fairbanks spying a moose along the way. We had a miners lunch of stew and biscuits and visited a gold drudge at Gold Dredge No.8 just outside Fairbanks. We then visited the El Dorado Gold Mine and had a train ride that stopped at various mine displays, including underground, for demonstrations of mining techniques. We then saw a sluice run and gold panning demonstration before we got to pan for our own gold. It was quite fun and everyone got a few gold flakes, I was pleased with my take. You can certainly understand how people got ‘gold fever’. We arrived at the Fairbanks Westmark with all the conveniences of a larger city hotel. A few took excursions to the arctic circle, but I took advantage of the Wi-Fi and little business desk (multi plugs for charging, etc.) in my room and caught up on some work and notes this evening.

Day Ten--Monday--Denali, Alaska
We were around early this morning in order to catch the morning Alaska Railroad train to Denali. We had the very nice McKinley deluxe rail car with high domed viewing area and plenty of room. It’s about two hours by rail from Fairbanks to Denali station. I had a nice breakfast on the train and a few Moose Marys as well. It was a lovely trip. When we arrive we were taken to our accommodations, the McKinley Village Lodge, but I only had time to drop my bag as several signed up for a River Rafting excursion at 1:30 pm. The river outfitters were great suiting you up in waterproof suits that were needed on the cold Nanana river. The rapids were great and we had a fun crew even attacking another float trip close to us. It was an 12 mile trip and a great adventure. (photo: I'm in the blue suit on left side of the raft) After returning we waited at the McKinley Chalet Lodge bar and enjoyed a beer and great view as the rest of our group was coming over for the Cabin Night show. Cabin Night is a dinner theater show and was the best show we saw on the entire trip. The food was also good: a family style all you can eat with ribs, salmon, corn on the cob, baked beans, salad, and cobbler for dessert. Following the show we met at the Chubby Salmon a watering hole located back at our lodge.

Day Eleven--Tuesday--Denali, Alaska
I tried to sleep in as long as possible, but it was only 8:30 or so. I had a nice buffet breakfast in the lodge and it was not busy as I’m behind the morning tour schedule. It was a great buffet with egg station and any breakfast item one would want. I was able to pick up some Wi-Fi from the employee dorm so I did some email and notes after breakfast including uploading photos. The big excursion of the entire trip is this afternoon, the Tundra Wilderness Tour. We loaded into a Denali Park bus at 2:45 and proceeded into Denali National Park and traveled along the park road 53 miles then returned. The tour driver is a Park Naturalist and narrates along the way. We crossed several rivers, mountains, tundra and changed elevation many times on the drive. The photo left (click it to enlarge) was taken at Polycrome Pass where you can really view the glacial effect on the topography. Also golden eagles flying on the wind. We were very lucky as we saw much more wildlife than the normal tour. We did see all of the ‘big five’ and a group member kept a count. We saw: 14 Moose, 7 Grizzly Bears, 18 Dall Sheep, 15 Caribou, and two Wolves in addition to two Golden Eagles, and the state bird of Alaska the Willow Ptarmigan. The Wolf is the hardest of the ‘big five’ to see so we were lucky to have one run down the road and along side the tour bus (photo right). The tour lasted well into the evening as it’s still daylight, we stopped at each animal sighting and several rest areas, and scenic locations. We were returned to the hotel at 10:30 pm so it was a long and interesting tour. A very late snack then to the room for needed rest.

Day Twelve--Wednesday--Alaska Railroad--Anchorage
I had another deluxe breakfast buffet and this was even better as it was a gift from Holland America Lines. I went over to the Denali National Park Visitors Center early and enjoyed the movies and exhibits before the rest of the group arrived next door at the Alaska Railroad station for the trip to Anchorage. We again have the wonderful McKinley observation rail cars for the trip south (photo: click to enlarge- the McKinley cars are in the middle-blue). We observed the beautiful scenery along the way as well as more wildlife. I had a very nice early dinner of prime rib in the dining area. The upper portion of the rail cars is observation and the lower has dining, restrooms, and outdoor platform. It was almost to the very end of the tour, but we actually saw our first bull moose along the railroad tracks between Wasilla and Anchorage. We arrived at the Anchorage depot about 8:00 pm and soon checked into our rooms at the Westmark Hotel. This is a very nice hotel and location right downtown. We then went to Humpy's, a popular local watering hole and restaurant. I had a nice Halibut fish and chips again. This was kind of a farewell for the group as this is the end of the official Holland American Line cruise tour part of the trip.

Day Thirteen--Thursday--Anchorage, Alaska
We started the day in the hotel with a breakfast and presentation sponsored by the Anchorage Visitors Bureau. (Photo: the Westmark Hotel is one of the highrise bldgs in lower left) They also furnished us some attraction passes for various tours, museums, the zoo, Alaska theme shows, etc. Good timing as I watched a sister city ceremony at the town square with Russian folk music and dance. Then I did the trolly tour and watched some Alaska movies. I was very impressed with the Anchorage Museum, a very large impressive building with extensive displays, art, and historical exhibits. I had a great dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse one of the top rated restaurants in Anchorage and just across the street from the Westmark. It was worth the one hour+ wait. I had a green salad and an entree with freshly grilled Halibut, Salmon, and Cod. It was excellent. After dinner I took the 8:00 pm shuttle to the Anchorage airport.

Day Fourteen--Friday--Travel
This day became much more difficult than planned. The red eye flight from Anchorage left just as the day began about 11:30 on Thursday night and we arrived in Denver as planned just about 6:40 am Friday morning. As we came in for the landing the plane diverted just 200 feet from the runway. The early morning fog was too thick to land. The plane diverted to Colorado Springs for fuel and was to return to Denver, but some mechanical problem caused a complete cancellation. We were to be bused back to Denver but I already knew I would miss the afternoon connection into Waco so I just opted for a later flight from CSO. I really didn’t want another bus ride since I had so many in the past two weeks. A LOT of passengers had shipped 50lb boxes of salmon and were now having to man handle it to a bus. I hope it stayed refrigerated. The new plans were to get me to Waco about 10:30, alas that flight was delayed and I missed the Waco connection in Houston. Continental Airlines furnished a very nice room at the Hilton and the rest was sorely needed. So I returned to Geo. Bush for the 11:30 morning flight to Waco and made it home to the ranch about 2:00 on Saturday afternoon.

This was my first time to sail with Holland America Line and I was very impressed perhaps most by all cabins are ready upon boarding. I believe the verandah cabin and balcony are larger than Carnival’s in the same category. Very clean and ship shape.

Crew / Staff
Cruise: The staff and crew are very good. Our waiters were excellent. The bar staff all very friendly. Tour: Tom our tour director was excellent, he kept everything squared away for us along the way. The motor coach drivers were very knowledgeable within their individual areas.

Cabin / Rooms / Other
Cruise: I had cabin 7119 a verandah on starboard side. The room is very nice with small couch, leather chair, push button safe, shower & tub, robes, mini bar, full windows, and roomy verandah. Tour: All of our hotels on the land trip are Westmark Inns, a chain owned by Holland America Lines. In the remote towns they are small and quaint and in the city modern full facility hotels. I was very pleased with the hotel properties. On the land portion of the trip you will eventually probably have to use a ‘long drop’ or outhouse. We went to some very remote locations so be prepared.

Cruise: Although only on board for a short time from what I observed the food overall was very good on the Zuiderdam. I would really like to sail a longer cruise on HAL. My favorite was the bread pudding. There is also ice creme in dessert area of the Lido buffet. Tour: The included foods were good standard fare usually served as a theme such as in a rail depot or a gold mine. We really found some great places to eat along the way. I will say that food is more expensive in the Yukon and Alaska than in the lower 48 so be prepared for that. At least there is NO sales taxes on purchases.

The beauty of the landscape can be very overwhelming. Very spectacular, but the camaraderie of the TA group was the highlight. As wondrous as all the beautiful landscapes were, the group of people I was traveling with was the highlight for me.

If you do Alaska I highly recommend an Alaska or Yukon cruise/tour with Holland America Lines. They are the experts and own their own rail cars, motor coaches, and even hotels. It allows for a smooth and efficient vacation experience. If one only does the usual southeastern cruise ports they have not seen the real Alaska. I was so impressed I will be recommending a cruise tour to my friends for September 2012.

~~I will add links to friends photo pages as they become available~~