Alaska

What it’s Like to Go to Alaska on Your First Big Ship Cruise

There she is, Holland America’s Westerdam, her sleek 10-deck profile rising majestically above the Seward pier in Alaska. In the cruise industry, the Westerdam is considered a mid-sized vessel and carries a maximum of 2100 passengers. To me it was gigantic.  A few months ago, I took my first cruise on a small river boat up the Peruvian Amazon with a total of 19 other guests.

This was going to be a completely new experience.

(To pause the slideshow place your mouse over the photo. To move it forward either click the right arrow on the photo or click the image in the filmstrip below)


Boarding the Westerdam I was greeted by a sea of activity. Passengers and crew were moving in every direction anxious to settle in and get the party started. Our journey from Seward to Vancouver by way of Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan and the Inside Passage had officially begun.

Mount Denali (formally known as Mount McKinley) is the tallest peak in North America. - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise -137220180601

Mount Denali (formally known as Mount McKinley) is the tallest peak in North America. Seeing it with clear skies is considered almost a miracle. It’s usually obscured by clouds and bad weather.

It Takes Some Time to Get Oriented

Finding my way and adapting to the idiosyncrasies of the ship had me a little overwhelmed the first couple of days. I spent a lot of time turned around, walking toward the bow (the front of the ship) when I wanted the stern (the back) and vice versa. There were maps on every floor but I often misunderstood where I was in relation to “You’re Here”. (This says more about my sense of direction than anything else.) Eventually, I figured it out. Ironically, getting lost added to the sense of adventure.

My Stateroom: 5117 with a private veranda and the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay through the window. - - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise-3

My Stateroom: 5117 with a private veranda and the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay through the window.

Everything Looks Good from A Private Veranda

Situated along a nondescript hallway on deck five my stateroom was bright and airy with a comfy king-sized bed, a small sitting area, a minibar and ample space to move around.  I instantly fell in love with my private veranda. I spent hours relaxing outside, breathing in the fresh Alaskan air and photographing the ever-changing landscape. It was one of my favorite pastimes.

The beauty of the Yanert Glacier - Lessons Learned on an Alaskan Cruise -360920180601

The beauty of the Yanert Glacier

Discovering Alaska from Above and Below

I wanted to discover Alaska from as many perspectives as possible which made Holland America’s Land + Sea Journey an intriguing opportunity.

The land portion was a two-day whirlwind beginning in Anchorage aboard the McKinley Explorer, a double-decker locomotive bound for Denali with a second-floor glass-dome ceiling and sweeping 360-degree views. Over eight hours, we gaped at endless forests of cedar and Sitka pine, mountains streaked with snow like icing on a Bundt cake, and valleys flourishing with summer green. Lakes and rivers glittered through the trees.

One of the many spectacular views in Glacier Bay - Lessons Learned on an Alaskan Cruise -163220180604

Take from one of the outdoor observation decks, this is one of the many spectacular views in Glacier Bay

Denali National Park

The next day we explored Denali National Park on a converted school bus. A glorious view of Mt. Denali (North America’s tallest peak) was the cherry-on-top of a morning that included staggering vistas, moose, Dal sheep, ground squirrels, and caribou. (We were on the lookout for grizzlies but had no such luck).

The mountain shone bright white under a clear blue sky and from what I was told it was somewhat of a miracle.  Two out of three visitors will never see the mountain due to inclement weather. Of the one-third remaining, only a fraction will enjoy a partial view. It’s almost unheard of to see it picture perfect on a sunny day.

Two seals I spotted playing in the water during my whale watching excursion in Juneau- - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise -174020180606

Two seals I spotted playing in the water during my whale watching excursion in Juneau.

In the evening, I took to the air aboard an A-Star helicopter, for a Denali Glacier Landing. We flew 30 miles into the backcountry of the Alaskan range to land on the Yanert Glacier, touching down near a pool of turquoise meltwater that shimmered like a jewel in the snow. Occasionally we’d hear the roar of a distant avalanche or the call of an errant bird otherwise, it was dead quiet.

On the third morning, we hopped on a motorcoach bound for Seward to where the Westerdam was waiting.

All in all, we spent more than 25 hours sitting in one form of transportation or another (the reality of traversing a vast wilderness) which wasn’t ideal but there were plenty of stops to stretch our legs, and I was never bored.

View of the tram from Mt. Roberts in Juneau with the Westerdam below. - - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise-459820180607

View of the tram from Mt. Roberts in Juneau with the Westerdam below.

On-Shore Excursions

In port I spent an hour or two exploring whatever was within walking distance. On the whole, the harbors were very commercial, lined with frontier-styled souvenir shops, restaurants, outfitters, an inordinate amount of jewelry stores, and a few museums sprinkled in. The best and most convenient way to experience the area outside of the tourist center was to book a shore excursion through the cruise line.

In Haines, I opted for a Glacier Point Wilderness Safari. The expedition included a half hour boat ride up the Lynn Canal – one of the deepest Fjords in the world – a short bus ride, a quarter-mile hike through some woods, canoeing across a meltwater lake, followed by another hike across a mile of rocky delta. The prize: standing within 20 feet of the Davidson Glacier—a stunning valley of ice over four miles long.

Dall sheep in Denali National Park - - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise -140920180601

Cute Dall sheep in Denali National Park during our bus tour.

In Juneau, I became a citizen scientist during a Discover Alaska’s Whales boat trip.  In three hours, we examined a crab pull to see if we’d find an invasive species of crab (We didn’t), then recorded sightings of known humpback whales by examining the markings on the underside of their tails called the fluke. Each fluke is unique and the most reliable method for identification. The whales we saw were shy, teasing us with glimpses of their dorsal fins and tails but nothing more.

Off the shores of Ketchikan, I went on a Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure (You can read about it here). After a hilarious debacle putting on my wetsuit, we swam in a cove teeming with marine life including sea stars, urchins, and cucumbers, assorted small fish, two species of jellyfish, and a curious harbor seal.

I took this photo one morning from my veranda. I just loved the moodiness of the fog and mist. - - Lessons on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise-187820180607

I took this photo one morning from my veranda. I just loved the moodiness of the fog and mist.

If You’re on a Diet Prepare to Fail

Cruises are known for serving a lot of good food and the Westerdam lived up to the reputation. If you’re disciplined enough to pass up tasty dishes in lieu of something less caloric, all power to you. But if not, you may want to hold off on the diet until you’re back home. Why torture yourself?

For breakfast and lunch, I went to the Lido Market buffet which served quick dishes and snacks in a variety of cuisines. I left the posher restaurants like the Vista Main Dining room, Pinnacle and Canaletto (the latter two charge an extra fee) for slow dinners with good conversation and a glass of wine.  

For a complete list click here.

Windows in the Observation Deck - - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise -148520180603

The lounge chairs in front of the windows in the Deck 10 Observation area was a hotspot for passengers.

At Sea

I spent our time at sea unhurried. I let myself sleep in, I photographed the world from my balcony,  I explored the ship, indulged in a deep-tissue massage and shot the breeze with other passengers while watching the world glide by. Everyone was in vacation mode: happy, talkative, open to chatting up a stranger. At night I ate with other writers who were also on the trip. I danced to I Will Survive and Play That Funky Music at B.B. King’s Blues Club and took in shows at the Main Stage, a three-story theater featuring different acts including a magician, comic, and assorted productions. 

What I Learned About a Big Ship Cruise

The advantage of a big ship cruise is choice. Guests can do as little or as much as they like and their budget allows. Spend a lazy day by the pool? Sure. Go on a shore excursion? Fine. Spend all day at the casino. Yep, you can do that too.

You might say that any holiday is comprised of choices but on a big ship it’s about scale and proximity. Under one roof you can indulge in a wide range of activities, it’s up to you to make the most of your adventure.

The Talkeena River gorge as seen from the McKinley Explorer - - Lessons Learned on an Big Ship Alaskan Cruise -336820180601

The Talkeena River gorge as seen from the McKinley Explorer. One of the many beautiful views we saw on the train ride to Denali.

The challenge for me was getting used to the crowds, especially in high traffic areas like restaurants where lines formed. Other choke points were at the elevator banks, exit points when we docked, the guest services desk and the very popular ice-cream bar.

A couple of days in, I realized I needed to change my mindset in keeping with the experience. On previous trips, I’ve traveled alone or in small groups. This was obviously different. I’d heard cruise ships referred to as floating cities, but I only equated the phrase with size. But a ship really is a city. It offers the entertainment and culinary choices, activities, and health and well-being opportunities of a metropolis. On the flip side, it also comes with some of the negatives I mentioned above.

Hiking across a rocky delta to the Davidson Glacier near Haines. - Lessons Learned on an Holland America Alaskan Cruise-441020180606

Hiking across a rocky delta to the Davidson Glacier near Haines. To give you a sense of scale, check out the tiny red dots (people) in front of the ice.

As soon as I approached the cruise with my city metaphor in mind, I felt more in sync with the trip.  I also figured out some workarounds: I ate early or at off-peak times, and I stayed away from busier parts of the ship like the casino, pools, sing-a-longs and the Observation Deck if I wanted more privacy. When I wanted more action or to mingle with people, I couldn’t have asked for a more obliging venue.

Experienced cruisers explained that the larger the vessel (some carry four to five thousand people) ports become secondary, the ships become the destination. For me, the Westerdam was plenty big while keeping Alaska front and center.  I appreciated the balance but It really depends on what you’re looking for.

Like I said, on a cruise it’s all about choice.

I was a guest of Holland America but the sentiments are my own. The company neither saw or approved this post before publication. 

Special thanks to Canon Professional Services for their help with this post.


Tips for Making the Most of Your First Big Ship Cruise on Holland America’s Alaskan Adventure. 

Land + Sea or Sea + Land?

Holland America offers Alaskan Land + Sea Itineraries that either begin or end with Denali National Park. I highly recommend choosing the former. While the land portion is beautiful, you’re sitting for hours on trains, buses and motor coaches, and in my opinion, it’s much better to end with the cruise.

Budgeting

When budgeting for a cruise, be sure to use the list price for the trip as a base, not a total. While a lot is included, depending on your interests, extra costs should be expected. Shore excursions are extra, as are certain restaurants on the ship, beverages, internet plans, spa treatments and such. Make sure you research beforehand so you’re not surprised when presented the bill.

In addition, there are taxes and surcharges you should consider. A daily hotel service charge is added, as well as a 15% gratuity on bar charges.

For shore excursions, tips for guides etc. are customary, not mandatory but should be considered in your calculations.

This online FAQ is a great place to start.

You can also download a great PDF of Alaska Tour Tips here.

Veranda – if your budget allows, I highly recommend booking a stateroom with a veranda. It’ll add a lot to your holiday. (Tip: If you book early, ask if you can be on the port (left) side of the ship. That way when you’re visiting Glacier Bay you can see the Margerie glacier from your room as opposed to on deck with the rest of the passengers.)

Me in my wetsuit in Ketchikan, Alaska - Snorkeling in Alaska-876420180608

Me in my wetsuit in Ketchikan, Alaska

Shore Excursions

EXC Tours is an internal Holland America organization that works with local outfitters to provide a wide variety of interesting and exciting shore excursions based on interest, cost and activity level.  Note: All shore excursions are extra.

I highly recommend that you check out the options as soon as you confirm your reservation. While there are many to choose from, spots fill up quickly and you’ll have a better selection the sooner you book.

Before your trip: While there are descriptions for each excursion with times, fees and gear required, I suggest you look at the website of the outfitter – just Google the name of the tour—to see if there is more information that is helpful.

Once onboard: Go to the Observation Deck on Deck 10 where you’ll find a booth run by EXC Tour team members. They can answer questions and even change your reservation if you’d like to do something else. I changed my excursions twice after speaking with EXC staff.

Don’t Miss: One of the first lectures offered on board is a talk called “How to Get the Most out of Your Excursions.” Go to it. There are tons of helpful tips about each port, what you can see and do that’s in walking distance, where you need a shuttle or other transportation, and a lot of other info I found really helpful.

Here’s a link with more info on shore excursions.

On Board Activities and Knowing What’s What

The ship hosted activities every hour (less so when everyone is exploring a port). Each night my steward left a printed schedule called “When & Where” on my bed, detailing the following day’s activities. There were times and locations for board games, fitness classes, variety shows, singles meetups, the list goes on and on. If you want something to keep you busy, you’ll find it.

In addition to the printed schedule, I highly recommend that you access Navigator, an intuitive and easy to use onboard app that provides a real-time schedule of events, daily menus, spa information and basic ship info. I used it all the time.

Your Stateroom

The television gives you access to popular movies and limited live TV as well as details about the onboard restaurants and live streaming of the views from the front and the back of the boat.

If you want ice in your room, let your steward know and s/he will make sure to have your bucket filled each day.

The Passenger Mix

Most of the guests were over 50, some over 65, with a smattering of young couples and a few kids (there are more families during school breaks). (I’ve learned through my travels that age today is rarely a litmus test for enjoyment. I’ve met 80-year-olds who were a blast and 25-year-olds who were absolute bores. I do my best to form my opinions on a case-by-case basis.)

Who This Trip is Perfect For

  • Any group that has members with varied tastes such as parents with kids or multi-generational families.
  • People that don’t want to spend a lot of time worrying about packing and unpacking or managing logistics.
  • People who love water, wilderness and beautiful landscapes.
  • People who want to be entertained.
  • Solo travelers who want to be around other people yet enjoy their privacy too.

What it's Like to Go to Alaska on Your First Big Ship Cruise.

40 replies »

  1. The picture of the seals! Love it. Hey, great choice of Alaska: I’ve never been, but I’d do Alaska over anywhere else on a cruise ship, any day. When I was 13 my mom pulled me off to the Caribbean. It was OK in winter. When we went back in summer? Eh, not so nice. But Alaska, in winter, with a view from a nice steeley decor’d ship of futuristic gleaming sparkles makes me really hope a dinosaur or something will bolt right out of those glaciers. It’s just that… platinum. 🙂

  2. Awesome post, Susan! We have always wanted to travel to Alaska but have not pushed things through at this time. After reading your post and seeing the wonderful photos as proof of how incredible it would feel to visit the place, I am now more eager to truly make this plan a reality. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Great post. I have considered an Alaskan cruise for some time, just haven’t taken the plunge. Photos are beautiful. I think I would love the train ride as much or more than the ship. That looked amazing in your photos.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. If you think you’d love the train ride, then you’ll really enjoy the cruise. It’s day after day of beautiful scenery. 🙂

  4. Great post. This trip is on my bucket list. One suggestion has me confused, but I am very interested in your tip. For the verandah you suggest the “starboard (left) side” of the ship. I am no mariner, but always understand the “port” was the left side of the ship. So I guess my question is, looking forward on the ship, towards the bow, which side should be be booking our verandah?

    Thank you. and Bon Voyage

    • You are so right (pun intended). 😉 I get them mixed up and didn’t see my error. Thank you so much for pointing that out; I will fix the copy. You want to be on the left. That way you can see the Margerie Glacier from your veranda. The boat stops there for about 2 hours, then turns around, so you’ll have plenty of time to drink it all in. Be sure to order some mimosas from room service and do it in style!

  5. I followed your trip on Instagram and was absolutely obsessed! I am so happy you wrote about it too! Your pictures are stunning! And your descriptions made me feel like I was there! Also loved all your tips! Alaska AND a cruise are on my travel bucket list! 🙂 Thank you for sharing! <3

  6. We did a small boat, 50 passengers, trip in June. It, too, has its advantages, but no matter how you experience Alaska it’s wonderful.

    • Small boats are great too. Just depends on what someone is looking for and if they want all the options (ie. Theater, gym, etc.) a larger ship offers.

  7. Your trip looks wonderful. Your photos are amazing as always. I have never been on a cruise. I worry that I might be too anti-social for being stuck with the same strangers for such a period of time. However, it seems like a cruise might be the ideal way to dip a toe into exploring a place like Alaska. Alaska is one of the 10 states I have not yet visited so I absolutely have to go some time.

    • I think a cruise would be a good way for you to dip your toe. It’s easy to regulate how much time you spend with people… or note. it’s a natural for Alaska too since so much of the wilderness you can see from the water but not from any roads.

  8. Going into it with the right perspective is key. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but if you look at it from the right perspective you can have fun anywhere. Great post!

  9. Hi! I haven’t been on sea before but as I coursed through, I couldn’t help but feel myself against the salty sea air, aboard a glittering ship, off to beautiful places. Travel blogs such as these, which have a wide inclusion of experiences and also tastefully penned provide others the motivation to step out their four walls into a huge world beyond! Great work!

    • Thank you so much. That’s what I’m hoping to do (Inspire people to travel) and I am thrilled you feel I’m accomplishing that goal I really appreciate your kind words.

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