For my 50th birthday I wanted to see Alaska, choosing this time to travel by cruise ship, something I’d never done. We chose Holland America Cruise Lines and booked the 7 day Alaskan Explorer cruise, which departs from Seattle, then ports in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, BC, returning to Seattle with one day at sea and one day spent cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. What follows is my complete review of the trip, including food, excursions, entertainment, and itinerary.
Alaska Cruise Review: Seattle, WA
We flew into Seattle a day early in order to explore the city and to make sure we arrived in time to board the ship the next day. It’s a good idea to allow plenty of time to meet the ship, as it will leave without you if you aren’t there on time. Because we had a full day to explore, we visited the historic Pike Place Market, the original Starbucks and, of course, the iconic Space Needle. We visited in late June, so the weather was perfect, mid 60s and sunny, and we fully enjoyed being outside and taking in the attractions.
Pro tip: If you have several hours between checking out of your hotel and boarding your cruise, make arrangements with your hotel to stow your luggage. Most will do this for free. Also, many hotels offer shuttles to the cruise lines, so take advantage of that service if they offer it.
Alaska Cruise: Boarding and Departing
Pay close attention to the time you are expected to be at the cruise terminal. In our case, it was 4:00 p.m., which was several hours before our cruise was scheduled to depart. Our ship was the Eurodam, Holland America’s first signature-class ship. The ship holds 2104 guests, over 800 crew members and is over 900 feet in length. She was to be our home for the next seven days, so we spent time exploring the restaurants, the decks and, of course, getting settled in our room. While exploring we noticed more experienced cruisers already drinking at the bars and eating in the Lido Market, one of the dining experiences included with the cruise.
Before you get too comfortable, the captain and crew will require everyone to meet on deck for a safety drill of the lifeboats, meeting places and rules in case of an emergency at sea. Be on time for this drill and listen carefully so you’ll know what to do if something happens.
After that, relax and get comfortable, as the next full day of this adventure is completely at sea.
Did I mention the first day is at sea? This is the day you’ll want to spend taking in the ship’s entertainment, restaurants, lounge chairs, and shops. The ship has three restaurants and nine bars, plus a casino and two musical entertainment venues. There are several gift shops aboard, and believe me, they will continually make announcements about all the deals going on. Do yourself a favor and avoid these, as the merchandise is cheap, designed to look expensive.
Instead, take in the views. Make sure to venture up to the crow’s nest too, as you’ll have some of the best views from up there.
Pro tip: This is an Alaskan cruise, and you are headed north into open arctic waters. If you are at all bothered by motion sickness, bring preventive medicine with you and take it before you think you need it. These waters are rough and the ship is going to toss around for an entire day and night. Our stateroom was in the very front of the ship, making this experience even worse. The ship’s medical unit can give out stronger motion sickness pills, so take advantage if you need it. Don’t tough it out, you’ll just be miserable.
Juneau: Alaska Cruise Review
Our first stop was in Juneau, Alaska’s capital. You can’t necessarily tell by looking around, but this is America’s second-largest city by area. Alaska is huge. To reach this capital city, we’ve traveled 1,708 miles, or a journey of 39 hours if taken by road.
Pulling into the port of Juneau gives you your first taste of Alaska and the beauty of the land and sea. It is spectacular.
There are several options once you pull into port. You can explore the area on your own or take one of the many excursions offered by the cruise ship. Excursions cost extra, so check with the cruise line for the options available. The benefit of booking excursions through the cruise line is that they guarantee you will be back to the ship in time to depart for the next port. If you go off on your own and don’t make it back, the ship will leave without you.
Alaska Cruise Excursion: Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest
We played it safe and booked a whale-watching and wildlife quest through the cruise line. Transportation was provided to and from the excursion, and we did see humpback whales, seals and bald eagles on our trip.
The downside is that these excursions can be crowded. I get annoyed easily by thoughtless people, and I was particularly annoyed by a fellow passenger who thought it was a good idea to bring a giant iPad and hold it up in front of everyone blocking the view! Everywhere we went on the boat, there she was.
Mendenhall Glacier Excursion
Our Juneau excursion included a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier, around 12 miles from downtown Juneau. The glacier is 13 miles long, and the views are beautiful. It’s an easy walk from the drop-off point, and there was plenty of time to take photos and spend time appreciating the beauty.
Pro tip: bring mosquito spray. The joke around town is that the mosquito is the state bird, and they are not kidding. I saw several fellow travelers swatting away at these huge insects.
Once we were returned to port we had the option of boarding the ship to take advantage of the included meal there or spend more time exploring downtown Juneau. I like to explore, so we chose to have dinner at the Red Dog Saloon, which was founded during Alaska’s mining era and is obviously very popular with tourists, being the oldest man-made tourist attraction in the city.
After dinner, we explored downtown Juneau before boarding to leave for our next destination, Glacier Bay. Ours was not the only cruise ship docked in this port, so there were potentially thousands of tourists exploring the very small shopping area. Still, the views of the land surrounding the city were beautiful, and we got to take in a sunset before boarding our ship. My advice is to avoid the shops and instead, try to take in the natural beauty. It’s hard to resist looking for a souvenir though.
Alaska Cruise Review: Glacier Bay National Park
From Juneau we sailed overnight to Glacier Bay National Park. Glacier Bay covers 3.3 million acres of mountains, glaciers, rainforest, and deep fjords so I was hoping for good weather and some nice views. I awoke to the sound of children running and yelling in the hallway. When I checked the time on my phone it was 3:30 a.m. More yelling, more running, the general sounds of people walking by. It was a few minutes before I realized that my phone had not registered the time change as there was no wifi signal on the ship. Instead of 3:30 a.m. it was around 6:30 a.m. I opened my stateroom door to see what in the world was going on, and discovered they had opened the doors to the bow of the ship. The bright sunlight and blue sky startled me, and I ducked back in to throw on some clothes.
Stepping out onto the bow of the ship that morning was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I was overwhelmed and to this day, have no words to describe the intense beauty. Instead, I’ll try to let these photos do it for me, although they cannot capture the sound of the glaciers and the experience of being so close to them. For me, THIS was the highlight of the cruise. This incredible, joyous place exists, and thanks to our expert captain, we were able to view it up close. We saw Orca whales, seabirds and dolphins and yes, the glaciers were calving right in front of our eyes.
The entire day at Glacier Bay National Park is spent on the ship, but there is so much to see as you cruise by this natural wonderland that there’s no reason to do anything but sit on the deck and watch it go by.
Alaska Cruise Review: Sitka, AK
From Glacier Bay we sailed overnight to Sitka, a distance of 125 miles. Once again we booked another wildlife excursion, this time heading out to see Sea Otters. I hate to admit it, but even though I love animals I realize now I should have chosen a different type of excursion, as this one was pretty much the same as the whale watching, except with otters. Otters are cute, but they are hard to photograph.
After disembarking from our wildlife quest, our guided excursion included a visit to the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, where we were able to see rescued Bald Eagles up close. From there, we headed to the Fortress of the Bear, a sanctuary for Grizzly bears. These were pretty much zoos and not very good ones. If I had to do it again I’d choose a different excursion. I can see zoos at home, but the wild beauty of Alaska, I can’t.
Alaska Cruise Review: Ketchikan, AK
Our last stop in Alaska was the city of Ketchikan, home of Misty Fiords National Monument and salmon spawning streams. We’d booked a plane ride excursion through the Misty Fiords and excitedly boarded our bus to head out immediately upon disembarking the cruise ship.
Unfortunately, the Misty Fiords were too misty that morning, and our pilot deemed it unsafe to fly. Disappointed but understanding, you can’t control the weather, we headed back to town to come up with plan B. Ketchikan is also known for its Native American totem poles, so we booked a tour to see a large collection of those instead. It was an easy, short walk through the temperate rainforest to see them.
I have no doubt that, had we been able to take the plane ride, it would have been spectacular. But totem poles and rainforest will have to do.
Victoria, British Columbia
Our last stop is in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. One of our guides told us that the cruise line has an agreement that, to go through their waters, they need to make a stop there. This stop is a short one, just a few hours, so we only had time for a short walking tour, a drink in a local pub, and then get back on the ship to make our way back to Seattle. Still, the area is beautiful, as is most of Canada, and their gardens are spectacular.
Alaska Cruise Review: Overall
Lodging: The Eurodam Cruise Ship overall was beautiful, clean and efficient. Our stateroom was small, as they typically are, but clean and comfortable. There’s a pool, a full-service spa, several decks, lounge chairs and blankets, and the crow’s nest for lounging. The ship is designed to feel like the Netherlands. Since I’ve been to Amsterdam twice, it was hard for me to get past the fake artwork and pretend Dutch antiques, but overall it’s a very nice ship.
Food: There is no lack of choice when it comes to food. There are three restaurants included with your cruise, two full service and one casual dining. The food is unlimited in these options. There are breads, salads, global cuisines, roasted meats, fish, and pasta dishes. Breakfast includes fruits, eggs, waffles. pancakes, omelets, fish, smoked salmon, coffees, pastries, etc. In addition, there is a New York style pizza shop, a sandwich shop and NINE bars on the ship. If you are hungry it’s your own fault.
Entertainment: Fair. There are three entertainment options, the Lincoln Center Stage, the B.B. King’s Blues Club, and the BBC Earth Experiences, plus a casino and gift shops onboard. On our first night, we enjoyed the band in the B.B. King Blues Club, but otherwise, the entertainment is just so so. The couple of shows we saw were cringeworthy and we snuck out. I know not to expect top-notch entertainment on a cruise ship but I still thought it would be better than it was.
Excursions: Fair. For the most part, I felt like we were herded like cattle to these excursions and the port areas. I found out later that most of the shopping and restaurants in the ports are owned by the cruise line, so it’s really just an extension of being on the ship. I was glad to see the wildlife we saw though. If I had to do it over I would have chosen the sled dog trip and possibly more adventurous sightseeing.
If you go on the Holland America Alaska Cruise
If you go, understand that you will be barely scratching the surface of Alaska. The state is huge, and travel times don’t allow for much time on land. A few hours at each port and you are back on board. Be sure to choose your time on land carefully, from either the ship’s optional excursions or plan your own visit, but make sure you’re back to the ship on time.
Also, be prepared to deal with crowds. There are over 2,000 people on this ship. At each meal, unless you choose the full-service restaurants, there will be lots of confused, elderly people standing around in a stupor blocking the entrances to the food areas unable to make a decision. If you want to get your meal before they start shutting down the service, you have to be aggressive and push your way past them. There’s no being polite and waiting, get in there.
Did I mention it was crowded? At all the ports, you’ll need to push past people to see anything. Many of the photos in my album were taken by putting my camera between two strangers’ heads or pushing my way through to the front. In other words…
What you think you’ll see…
What you’ll actually see…
Overall, we were disappointed that so much of our time was spent on the ship with sub-par entertainment and shopping. I’m not a spa person, nor am I a big eater or a lay by the pool person, so most of the options on the cruise ship weren’t appealing to me. But, I got to see Alaska, and the Glacier Bay day made the whole trip worth it for the most part. If you enjoy the cruising experience, this trip may be for you! I don’t think I’ll take another cruise for a long time.
If you’d like to see all my photos of my Alaska cruise, visit my Google Holland America Cruise photo album!
See you on the next trip!