There she was, the 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 huge. It was a trip of firsts: my first time to Alaska and the first on a big ship cruise. I’d just finished my the land portion of Holland America’s Alaska Land and Sea Adventure, and I had no idea what to expect next.
This was going to be a completely new experience.
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Alaska by Land
I wanted to discover Alaska from as many perspectives as possible which informed my decision to take Holland America’s Alaska Land and Sea Journey opposed to a cruise on its own.
The two-day on terra firma was a whirlwind that began in Anchorage aboard the cruise line’s McKinley Explorer, a double-decker locomotive bound for Denali with a second-floor glass-dome ceiling and sweeping 360-degree views. The seats were plush and comfortable with a pull-down tray for snacks and a cup holder. At the front of the car was a small bar with snacks where Chelsea our bartender tended to our requests. Rose our guide, periodically pointed out scenes of interest and provide tidbits of historical information or anecdotes about her own experiences along the route.
Within 10 minutes of leaving the station, we could see Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) to our left in the distance, it would be our touchstone throughout the ride. 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.
Though it was chilly, I visited the outdoor platforms between the cars for some clean Alaskan air and unobstructed photography. A lot of passengers had the same idea and we’d all crowd together to get our pictures and video. Thankfully, everyone was very friendly and took turns with the view.
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.
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.
Upon 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 is by way of Glacier Bay, Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, and the Inside Passage. My adventure on the water had officially begun.
Alaska by Sea
Getting Familiar with Boat
Finding my way and adapting to the idiosyncrasies of a big 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Alaska Land and Sea Journey Tips
Land + Sea vs 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.
For information on Holland America and accessibility, check out Curb Free with Cory Lee’s trip to Alaska with Holland America.
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.)
Holland America’s Alaska Land and Sea 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.
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.
Some Must-Pack items for Your Cruise
Another multi-purpose piece of clothing is this triclimate jacket. The fleece inside can be worn by itself as can the outer windproof, waterproof shell. I really loved its flexibility and with the right layering underneath I was able to navigate warm days as well as frigid. One note: The silhouette of this jacket is boxier than what is showing here. I think they pulled the size in a bit to take the photo.
Gerinly oblong fashion scarf
A good travel wardrobe has pieces that are multi-purpose. Scarves/shawls are a good example, they perk up a wardrobe, keep you warm, and can be styled in many ways.
When I saw this scarf, though I was skeptical about how good it could be at $10.99, I ordered one knowing I could always return it. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made. So good in fact I ordered a second a day later. Made of a lightweight voile, these wraps are soft and cozy and feel like cashmere, and best of all they look great. I’ve received a ton of compliments and they’ve managed to stay beautiful after a lot of wear.
Wallaroo Hat Women’s Naples Sun Hat – Colorful Paper Braid Fedora – UPF50+
Finding a travel hat that looks good is a real effort for me. And I won’t travel without one for sun protection. So, in short, I’ve worn some pretty unflattering hats in my day to make sure I’m covered. This Wallaroo hat is the closest I’ve come to addressing my needs: A hat that is packable has a wider brim and looks good. Yippee! It also comes in other colors. I got mine in Ivory.
My Charge HubPlus Portable Charger
Packing a portable charger is a must today. I’ve used this charger for a few months now and I really like it. It’s sleek, compact, and the integrated cords (I don’t have to worry about forgetting mine) is a great feature. I can charge my phone at least 3 times with MyCharge before having to recharge the device. Another nice touch: When you plug it into the wall you can simultaneously charge other devices too.
Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Cube Set 3Pk. $30
Packing cubes are ideal for keeping your clothes sorted, organized, and streamlined. I use three cubes to separate my undies, tops, and bottoms. I especially love them when I’m faced with a multi-stop itinerary–packing and unpacking is infinitely easier.
UPWADE Outlet Travel Power Strip
I won’t be without a mini power strip. It’s probably the one thing other than my phone I always have with me when I travel. I like this model by Upwade because it has two widely spaced international outlets which provide ample room for those pesky wide plugs that come with cameras and other devices, as well as four USB ports. The cord is a little longer than I need at 5 ft but I’d rather have it longer than too short. At 6 inches in length, it fits in any purse or carry-on bag.
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