Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Great Alaska Adventure

The Great Alaska Adventure
Cruise/Tour Review
MS Statendam 9.9.2012

Just The Facts:
Ship:  Holland American Line: MS Statendam
Cruise & Tour dates: 7 September - 19 September, 2012
Captain:  Frans K Consen
Cruise Director:  Anthony Choice
Ports: Vancouver BC;  Ketchikan, Alaska;  Juneau, Alaska;  Skagway, Alaska; Seward, Alaska; Denali, Alaska; Anchorage. Alaska.

This is my 2nd cruise on Holland America, my 2nd cruise to Alaska, and my 74th cruise overall. We are traveling with a group of 20 regular and new cruising friends.

Travel--Vancouver, Canada
Capilano Suspension Bridge
We had a direct flight from DFW airport to Vancouver and actually met several of our group at the airport for the flight.  We arrived in Vancouver and took a limo for six to the Hyatt Regency downtown to stay two nights pre-cruise.  All of our group are staying there and it is a great hotel and in a good location.  We had an impromptu gathering at the hotel bar and then a wonderful dinner the first night at the Black + Blue steakhouse.  The following day we had a group day trip to the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.  It was very convenient as they had a shuttle from the hotel and the park was interesting with the suspension bridge, treetops walk, and cliff walk.  In the afternoon we visited the Gastown area shops and had a wonderful meal at Vancouver’s most popular Pub: The Lamplighter. We decided to walk back to the downtown and hotel area stopping at Mahony & Sons Public House on the waterfront and enjoyed a cocktail and the wonderful views of the Harbor, Canada Place, and the mountains beyond. Everyone seemed to really like our pre-cruise stay in Vancouver and the weather was wonderful.  It was a very nice start to a cruise vacation.

Day One--Sunday--Embarkation
ms Statendam at Canada Place, Vancouver Canada
We took a taxi from the hotel for the short trip to the Canada Place Cruise Terminal about 11:30.  We dropped our bags and went to the security and U.S. immigration area and soon were in the Holland America check in terminal.  It was not busy anywhere and embarkation was a simple process.  You can go direct to your cabin on Holland America Lines so that was our first stop to drop off our carry on bags.  The MDR (main dining room) is open for Mariner members (past guests), but we chose to eat at the lido buffet.  I like that the name of the area is actually The Lido, since that is generally what every cruise line calls their buffet area by default even though they usually have a specific name.  It was set up very well too and they serve your food to you so that you are not handling the utensils or food on the buffet.  I had roast beef with some extras and their wonderful bread pudding (they also had a banana bread pudding) for dessert.  After lunch everyone explored the ship and settled into their cabins until time for muster drill.  The boat deck was on our deck so attending was very easy for us, just walk directly out the passageway across from our cabin and down to our assigned life boat.  We sailed immediately as the drill ended and we stayed on boat deck until we passed under the Lions Gate bridge, then it was inside to get away from the open decks and cool weather.  Everyone in the group had Champagne, Chocolate strawberries and Beverage Cards in the cabin as a nice welcome.  Many met in the Crows Nest that will become our regular spot for the week.  I did have a “Grizzly Bear” the drink of the day.  The DW & I went to the lounge to hear some very good Jazz music before dinner.  As a group we have four tables together in the Rotterdam dining room along the aft windows.  Unfortunately, they sat some people from Anytime Dining at one of our tables so there was confusion and problems from that.  The Maitre D later sent an apology and chocolates to the group.  Although I didn’t sit at my table, dinner was good, my entree was the Prime Rib, but it was not an completely enjoyable dinner due to the confusion of their error in seating arrangements.  The production show, Nothings Going to Stop Us Now, started long before we had completed dinner service so we retired after leaving the MDR.

Day Two--Monday--at Sea
Lido Deck  -  MS Statendam
I had a good nights sleep was up early to watch us drop off the pilot at 7:45 am and leave the inside passage and into the open waters.  I went to the MDR for my usual first morning on a cruise breakfast of Eggs Benedict that were very well prepared.  Off to a better start in the dining room.  The seas were really rolling today.  It was much more than I expected it to be for sure.  The group spent the day doing various activities including the Casino, a Kitchen Tour, a Culinary presentation, Seminars, and more.  I had a very light lunch, but did have to have the wonderful bread pudding.  They have the standard raisin everyday on lido plus a flavored variety as well.  Today was Alaskan Berry (blueberries & rhubarb primarily) and both were great.  The rolling seas continued throughout the day.  In the afternoon many of the group attended the High Tea and they say they had wonderful scones.  I attended the Alaskan Beer Seminar in the Mix bar area.  Four varieties of beer for $12.50.  At 4:00 pm we all met as prearranged in the Crows Nest for Happy Hour.  We had one complete area to ourselves and it was wonderful with the view and cocktail service.  There is one thing our group is known for and that is ‘the one-hour cocktail party’ so this Happy Hour arrangement was perfect for us.  I had mojitos and then some Duck Farts to get in the Alaska mood.  We extended our time there well beyond an hour.  There is a group trivia contest at 6:30 that many used as motivation to leave the Crows Nest.  This was formal night and dinner this evening went much better.  The Matre’d came by to check that all was well.  My entree, the Beef Wellington, was very good and they also had sourdough bread pudding that was excellent.  After dinner we attended the Captains Toast and Welcome in the Theater followed by the production show: Bob Mackie’s Broadway featuring music and costumes from Broadway.

Day Three--Tuesday—Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
The weather is indeed rainy for the rainiest city in Alaska.  We are docked downtown and I enjoyed watching the early debarking passengers leave the ship before going to the MDR for breakfast.  We soon left the ship and went to Creek Street the location of the old bordellos and red light district that are now craft shops built along the creek.  We did visit Dolly’s, the intact bordello now a museum and it was interesting.  We saw friends that had just attended the Lumberjack Show and joined them for lunch at Annabelle’s in The Gilmore Hotel.  I had my first Alaskan Halibut of the trip and it was very good.  As a foodie though I was envious of the Snoozemates that took the Crab fishing/dinner excursion.  They got to eat the catch and the Dungeness Crab feast sounded wonderful.  In the afternoon we visited the Tongass Historical Museum and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center operated by the U.S. National Park Service.  We returned to the ship as we had a 2:30 sail away and we were also scheduled for the 3:00 pm Cocktail Mixology Class. It was a lot of fun and the drinks we prepared were: Champagne Dreams, Tropical Cable Car, and a Pool Side Car.  I especially liked the later.  At 4:00 pm it was time for Happy Hour in the Crow’s Nest. Not only is this a regular thing for the group but we have other passengers wanting to join the fun and we do have a FUN time.  Following Happy Hour it was some R&R time in the cabin before dinner.  Dinner was good this evening, my entree was the well prepared Pork Chop. The productions shows this evening were The Marriage Game and the Filipino Crew Show.  We also set our clocks back one hour to the Alaska Time Zone before retiring.

Day Four--Wednesday—Juneau, Alaska
Mendenhall Glacier  -  Juneau Alaska
It is a rainy day in Juneau, not enough to limit a fun day though.  I had a very nice breakfast in the MDR and we took our time leaving the ship.  The Statendam is docked at the prime pier located closed to central downtown.  We booked a local tour of the city and Mendenhall Glacier ($50 for both) that left from our pier area at noon.  We really enjoyed the Glacier and the Mendenhall Visitors Center, it was unique and I had not visited on my previous trip to Juneau.  As we left the park area we stopped for a mother black bear and her two cubs that crossed the road in front of us.  First bear sighting of the trip. We also saw three Eagles on the Mendenhall Lake mud flats.  After returning to town we visited the shops and stopped at the old (1913) Alaska Hotel and Bar.  It was very nice and more original than the more famous Red Dog.  We had a very nice cheese crepe and fudge from local vendors (buy Alaskan) before meeting friends at the Red Dog Saloon.  We enjoyed the Duck Farts and Alaskan beer from 4:00ish until close about 9:30 pm. The entertainers were fun and our folks could come and go as they pleased as we had several tables. We did have 17 of our group plus some extra fans there at one time.  It was an easy one block walk back to the ship.  We briefly considered the 10:00 pm ship happy hour, but everyone split up to finish the evening doing various activities.

Day Five--Thursday—Skagway, Alaska
Skagway Alaska  -  MS Statendam in background
We arrived as scheduled at 7:00 am in Skagway and we are docked at the  Broadway pier directly in front of Skagway. The weather is overcast with a little sprinkle or mist.  We ordered room service breakfast and it was very good, not many cruise lines have a hot room service option for breakfast.  We met our group for the ‘Best of Skagway’ excursion.  We boarded a bus that gave us a brief tour of Skagway on the way to Fraser, BC, Canada to meet the White Pass & Yukon Railroad for the return trip by rail back to Skagway.  It’s a beautiful trip even with the low clouds and mist.  The railroad and train are not to be missed and is actually the most popular cruise excursion in the world. We then went to Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp for a salmon bake and show.  This is on the actual site of the tent city at the head of the White Pass trail used during gold rush days.  The press never ventured beyond this point and thus the name Liarsville.  The Salmon was cooked on an outdoor grill and was very good. They also had a nice little show.  The final ‘Best of Skagway’ tour stop was a tour of the Red Onion Saloon Brothel museum on the second floor above the bar.  After the tour the men stayed for a few Alaska beers while the ladies shopped. Overall a very nice full day tour.  We returned to the ship about 6:30 pm. in a light rain to clean up before dinner.  Dinner was good, I had the Beef Brisket entree and it was served over a mound of Alaska Gold Mashed Potatoes, an interesting presentation.  After dinner the group was off to the various venues including the Casino, Showtime with Jeff Burghart in the theater, or rest time in their cabins.

Day Six--Friday --at Sea
Happy Hour in the Crows Nest
The seas are choppy today and it is windy.  This was to have been cruising in Glacier Bay day, but the Captain announced that due to bad weather forecast for the Gulf of Alaska he wanted to go directly to Seward ahead of the weather so we are not going to visit Glacier Bay.  This is very disappointing to most.  I had breakfast at the Lido with a very nice hot fresh omelette prepared at the omelette station.  Many met this morning for our annual cruise ‘Bloody Mary’ morning in the Crows Nest.  Always fun and we did see whales.  Since this is now a sea day they did add many activities on the ship, similar to the first sea day.  They did have a very nice Salmon bake by the Lido deck pool.  And of course for dessert: Bread Pudding!  Sourdough Bread Pudding!  Glad it’s one of my favorites.  At 3:00 pm it was time for our second Mixology class.  This one featured Grey Goose vodka.  The drinks prepared were a Peartini, a High Tide, and a Ginger Rogers.  Of course at 4:00pm it’s time to meet in the Crows Nest for Happy Hour.  We had a full crew plus our add-ons.  I stayed with the Pool Side Car from the first mixology class.  This was again great fun!  At 6:30 we some how won the group trivia contest and got a nice insulated tumbler as a prize.  We then had to prepare for dinner, this was the final formal night, but the men in our group wore our signature matching Hawaiian shirts...but they were a formal black.  Dinner was one of the best, my entree was the Surf & Turf and it was excellent.  After dinner I saw the production show: Encore in the Showroom at Sea theater.

Day Seven--Saturday--Seward, Alaska
"Making her Momma Proud' @ Mixology Seminar
We docked very early in Seward and it is a rainy day.  I enjoyed the previous days omelette so much I had the same again for breakfast in the Lido.  Very nice.  HAL provided shuttles into Seward so about noon we thought we would go into town to see what we could see.  They do have a very nice aquarium: The Alaska Sea Life Center.  We looked at some shops and enjoyed a very nice late lunch at Alaska Nellies Roadhouse.  We had a Halibut basket and sweet potato fries. We were to have attended the Mariner luncheon today, but due to the schedule change forgot, we heard that we had made the better choice as friends said the luncheon was not good.  We returned to the ship about 3:00 to attend the final Mixology class.  Todays drinks were: Fashionista, Tuscan Lemon Drop, and the Sunsicle.  The Sunsicle was my favorite.  It’s 4:00 pm and time for our final happy Hour.  I again personally stayed with the Pool Side Car cocktail, it may become a regular for me.  It was great fun and the cocktail servers were very attentive to us as usual and they allowed us to stretch the hour (also as usual).  We went down to Mix to try our luck again at group trivia, and something unusual happened....the ship lost power.  It was about 6:15 and there was nothing we could do about the power, but fortunately the safety lights came on in the passageways and some in the public areas including Mix where many of us are now staying.  The Captain did make several announcements and the CD was told to carry on with usual activities as best he could so we played trivia in the dark.  Of course the Snoozemates doubled up the next closest score and dominated the game.  Our prize was champagne for the group which was then expanded upon as those that still had the complementary bottles given to us brought them for a great Champagne Party in the Dark!  That’s whats great about the group...they can make any situation into a party.  Also thanks to the bar staff who traded our bottles for cold bottles of champagne and did the opening and serving as necessary.  It was now dinner time and it was unknown if they would even be serving, but we went to our tables about 8:15pm.  Dinner was interesting, we were served sandwiches on white bread.  We did have two choices:  Cheese or sliced egg.  That’s it.  Dessert was whole apples or oranges.  That’s it.  Dinner didn’t take long and then ‘let there be light’  the lights came back on.  This was a great relief as there was no lighting at all in the cabin and with no electricity there are no toilets either, both needed very much.  Since we now had power we went to the cabin to clean up and pack as we knew we would be leaving very early the next morning.

Day Eight--Sunday--Seward to Denali
Cabin Night Dinner Theater  -  Denali Alaska
Still rainy and windy this morning.  We ordered early (6:00 am) room service breakfast before meeting our tour group at 7:15 in the theater.  Our bus was first to leave so we hope to arrive in Denali in time for Cabin Night.  Our group of 20 makes up half the bus group and the driver, Melissa was very good.  We started north on the Seward Highway towards Anchorage and points north.  First stop was Portage Glacier and the winds were so high it rocked the bus and the rain was blowing parallel.  Few got off the bus.  The waterfalls were here were very impressive due to the recent heavy rains.  Next stop was Settlers Bay Lodge just north of Wasilla for lunch.  This was a make your own sandwich buffet and I enjoyed it.  Fresh breads and choice of ham, turkey, roast beef, cheeses, etc. with potato salad and slaw.  A nice lodge with a good view.  We were off again and because of the weather not a chance of viewing Mt. McKinley so our final stop was the Alaska Veterans Memorial along the highway.  Since we knew we would be on time we used mobile phones to get advance tickets for Cabin Night.  We actually arrived a little early at the McKinley Lodge and we had time to freshen before the Cabin Night Dinner Theater began at 7:00.  Everyone in the group attended and enjoyed a great family style meal of Salmon, BBQ Ribs, Corn, Potatoes, Baked Beans and Cobbler for dessert.  DW had a very nice vegetarian Pasta.  There were a few pitchers of Alaskan beer too.  The show was very good centered around Fanny Quigley’s roadhouse in Kantishna (now within Denali Nat'l Park) and featuring historical characters from the early days of Denali Park and Alaska.  It was a very enjoyable evening.

Day Nine--Monday--Denali, Alaska
Mt. McKinley (Denali) from 75 miles away in Denali Park
The day started with broken clouds, but it became a beautiful day.  We slept in a bit this morning then went to the main lodge and across the highway to Glitter Gulch, the shopping and souvenir areas across from the Park Properties.  This being the last week on the season there were some great close out pricing.  I looked for a while, but while DW and some friends shopped I went down to the Fish Shop for a very nice Captains Basket of both Cod and Halibut with french fried potatoes.  Very good.  At 2:00 pm we met our group for our big adventure into Denali National Park.  We boarded our assigned Park Service bus and our driver/guide Lisa Frederic was fantastic.  The weather really cooperated, the best we have had in Alaska so far.  Hopes were high that we may even get to see Mount McKinley.  They say that only 30% of visitors ever get to see the mountain, but our driver said it was more like 20% this year.  We didn’t see any wildlife early, but enjoyed the scenery of the park until we came up to the first vista that allowed a view of Denali itself.  It was primarily covered in clouds, but you could see the northern slope of the mountain.  Very impressive since it was 75 miles away.  As the weather was still continuing to improve hope were high for a better view later.  We continued into the park stopping several times for photos or breaks as Lisa told us tales of her adventures in the iditirod and dog training.  As we retuned we did see some moose just off the road.  There was not near as much wildlife as when I toured last year, but the mountains were much more impressive as they had already received their first coating of snow for the season.  We soon returned to the area that we could observe Mount McKinley (Denali) and what cloud were there took the form of the mountain and the north peak was very clear and the slope of the south peak was very noticeable.  Fantastic.  Very majestic and so dominating over the other peaks.  We are defiantly in the 20% club.  We finished our tour and returned to the lodge about 7:00 pm.  A great highlight for the Alaskan Adventure.  As a group we were able to get tables for dinner in the main lodge.  DW had the Mckinley Salad with cranberries, cheese, pecans, etc.  One of her favorite meals of the trip.  I had a Petit Steak and Baked Salmon combo with Alaska Gold Potatoes and some shared McKinley Salad.  A very good meal with great company.  We did see some of the Northern Lights that night upon walking back to our lodge.  A super great day on our Alaska Adventure.

Day Ten--Tuesday--Denali to Anchorage
Our rail car on the Alaska Railroad
It’s cloudy today with some light rain.  We put our bags out by 9:00 am this morning to be collected as this is a travel day with a noon train to catch.  I had a nice buffet breakfast ($18) in the Lodge and then we took an early shuttle over to the Denali Visitors Center to see a movie and see the exhibits.  We then proceeded down to the train station located just below  the Visitors Center and watched the Alaska Railroad train arrive from Fairbanks.  Soon we were loaded in the very nice Holland America rail car in the upper observation area.  Very nice with roomy seats and I got a Moose Mary cocktail as well.  Very beautiful scenery and mountain views as we headed south to Anchorage. Soon we were called for lunch service in the dining area below the upper observation deck.  I had reindeer chili and a salad.  While dining we observed rail workers moving about in a determined manner.  Soon it was announced that there were problems along the line and a wash out of the rail line had occurred just ahead.  We proceeded over Hurricane Gulch then stopped at the Hurricane maintenance yard where we then boarded buses that took us the remanding way (4+ hours) to Anchorage.  Very disappointing as this is my favorite part or the entire trip.  The rail road trip is very relaxing and beautiful and the best way to end the Alaskan Adventure.  We arrived in Anchorage about 7:00 pm at the Westmark Hotel.  We received our room assignments and we had the top floor, the 14th, overlooking the Cook Inlet.  The group gathered in the lobby and many went to eat at Humpy’s and a group went to the Glacier Brewhouse.  We went to the Glacier Brewhouse located just across the street for a wonderful late dinner.  I had a combo of Rib Eye Steak and King Crab Legs.  It was wonderful.  The in-house brewed beers were also very good, I enjoyed a couple Bavarian Hefeweizen and DW had a very nice Passion Fruit Mojito.  For dessert I had the bread pudding (what else), it was nice with pecans and pecan topping.  This was the best meal, by far, of the Alaskan Adventure.

Day Eleven--Wednesday--Anchorage, Alaska
Rainy day in Anchorage.  We slept as late as possible as we have a late flight.  We completely repacked our bags to get below the 50lb. air weight limit, then we went down to the lobby about noon to visit with departing friends.  We shopped for a while at the tourist locations then went over to Humpy’s Alehouse for a long casual late lunch.  I had the Halibut Fish basket as I knew it would be the last proper Alaskan meal.  I also had the bread pudding, it is served with a warm whisky sauce...both were very good. We then did some more shopping and returned to the hotel to relax and visit with the friends remaining before heading to the Ted Stevens Anchorage Int’l Airport.  It is very common for people to book red eye flights from Anchorage, but we are fortunate to have a direct flight to DFW leaving at 8:30 pm.  Due to weather  and wind there were many flight cancellations, but we got away almost on time.

The MS Statendam is now considered a smaller cruise ship at 719 feet long and 55,819 gross tons.   The ship never seemed crowded and was very clean and well maintained.  There were more than enough activities to keep everyone busy if they wished.  They had daily: Movies, Culinary Demonstrations, Trivia, Games, and various Seminars.  Also Productions shows, Musical groups, and Dancing.  The ship has a covered lido pool area that is ideal for Alaska cruising. 

We have cabin 417 an interior cabin located very aft on the starboard side of lower promenade deck (6).  The cabin has an exterior access to the outer deck just across from the cabin, great for viewing or a shortcut to forward area of ship as it circled the ship. The cabin has a lot of floor space if you split the beds into twins, larger than a Carnival standard interior cabin. It has the standard three sets of closets, key code safe, flat screen TV, hair dryer, and full couch.  Our cabin steward did a good job maintaining the cabin.  I would certainly recommend this cabin to the value cruiser.

The crew was for the most part very good.  Of course the cocktail servers and bartenders in the Crows Nest became favorites and well as the mixology staff.  Disappointed with dining room staff, not consistent at all.  Anthony the CD seemed quite good.  We enjoyed the Captain’s announcements in his unique staccato manner of delivery, very interesting. ;-)

My favorite food was the bread pudding, they usually had it somewhere every day.  Also in a variety of styles: raison, rhubarb, sourdough, etc.  The dinner entrees, when served, were all good and the buffet although not a big variety was also good.  DW said the cookies were very good.  Of course the first and last nights in the dining room were not a good experience.

Alaska Adventure Highlights
Two things were the highlight for me:  The view of Mount McKinley (or Denali), the largest mountain in North America was tops.  Although it wasn’t 100% clear, only 20% of visitors actually get to see it at all so we were lucky.  I also very much enjoyed the Happy Hours in the Crow’s Nest that were wonderful. I later saw the bar manager (during the blackout) and asked him about our fun group at Happy Hour and he was very pleased with the volume of business and fun we added.  They were nice to us and furnished hot horderves as a snack at each gathering, it really did make wonderful cocktail hours.  I also enjoyed Cabin Night and our dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse very much.

What made the trip FUN was traveling with a fun group.  Always rolling with the punches and making the best of every situation, the group was determined to have a great Alaska experience!

Snoozemates in Alaska