Mike and Renée Cruise to Alaska
on HAL Volendam
Aug 31-Sept 7 2007
This was our 31st cruise, our seventh on HAL, and our seventh to Alaska. We chose a smaller ship, the Volendam, and a slightly different itinerary for this cruise. Our overall impression was wonderful trip, great sights, and a terrific ship and crew!

Living on the West Coast, we decided to fly to Vancouver on embarkation day. We had an uneventful flight and on reaching Vancouver, followed the signs to the USDirect area. Although the HAL documentation tried to create the impression you had to buy your air from the cruise line, the airport information showed this to be untrue, as the only requirement is that you have cruise line transfers airport/ship and be on the manifest. We had the ship's tags on our baggage, and it was collected for us and transported directly to the ship under seal, so we did not need to go through Canadian customs. This saved a lot of time. We boarded the bus, which was also sealed by a Customs agent, and went to the ship. Although it is only a few miles from the airport to Canada Place, it is a long and boring drive as there is no direct route and downtown Vancouver is torn up by construction projects. Once at the ship, embarkation was a breeze, and two hours after our flight landed we were in the buffet enjoying the great food!

Knowing from previous cruises that we would make full use of the Thermal Suite in the spa, one of our first stops was to book a weeklong couples pass for $120, a real bargain as far as we are concerned! The Thermal Suite on Volendam is particularly beautiful because of the wrap around windows facing the front and side of the ship. Before the ship left Vancouver, we were already relaxing on the heated couches. (Check out our page on Thermal Suites for more about this great experience.)

This itinerary begins with a relaxing day at sea. It was very nice to be back in our cruising style. Our longtime friend and traveling companion Pam joined us, and introduced us to our new friend Nancy. We enjoyed traveling with them. As we floated lazily through this day cruising the Inside Passage we were almost always in sight of land. We enjoyed just relaxing on deck, having a pina colada in the Crow's Nest, playing a hard fought game of Trivia, and the famous HAL afternoon tea.
The first formal night is held this evening. We had a very congenial group at our table, and on formal nights we were hosted by ship's Chief Electrician and his charming wife. The outstanding service and delicious food made dining a great pleasure every night.
Our first port was Ketchikan. We had a very rare day in Ketchikan -- it was not raining! We took the ship's tour to Saxman Native Village. After a short ride along the coast we arrived at the village and first had an interesting video presentation, showing the history of the village's beginnings at Cape Fox and its desertion in 1899. In the 1930's the elders revisited the site, retrieved some of the totem poles, and brought them back to Saxman. We then went on a short walk through the rain forest to the Beaver Clan House for a dance and song presentation representing a potlatch. We visited the totem park, with both old and new totems,and the carving shed where two poles were in progress. It was all a very interesting tour. Then Renée stayed in town while I returned to the ship.
Meanwhile our friends Pam and Nancy took the ship's catamaran tour to Misty Fjords. They reported they had a wonderful time and that the scenery was simply stunning. This is one of many pictures they took.

We all got together back at the ship and played trivia but came in second place, due to arguing about whether the Ozarks or the Appalachins were older mountain ranges!

Icy Strait Point was the next port. We arrived there and anchored in good time, but a low lying fog was between the ship and the tender dock. All we could do was wait patiently for about an hour. In the meantime we watched a video about the history of Hoonah and Icy Strait.
The fog soon lifted, and it was only a short tender ride in to the Icy Strait Point dock. This area has been built specially for the cruise ships and consists of a nice tender dock, a museum, a demonstration of the canning operations, and a building of gift shops featuring local artists. As we tendered in we could also see the new mile long zipline! The entire thing is owned by the native corportation, and is very closely controlled to prevent the cruise lines from taking over operations here. Local staffers directed us the short distance to the front gate where we were met by our guide, Keith of Teckk Tours. Keith is a third generation inhabitant of Hoonah, with mixed Norwegian and Tlingit bloodlines. We got to meet several of his family and this interesting combination of genes shows up in all of them. We loaded into Keith's comfortable new van, and first had a short tour of the town of Hoonah. Keith was an excellent and informative guide and a joy to travel with.
Then we started off on the logging roads.We saw lots of interesting things. We saw eagles in the trees. We saw berries that bears eat. We saw beaten down patches of grass where bears had been feeding...

But so far -- NO BEARS!

We continued searching. We saw lots of salmon in the streams, and their mating redds, or nests in the gravel. We saw skunk cabbage that bears like to eat. We saw lots of bear scat or droppings, and learned the answer to that age old question: "No, sometimes it is on the road"!

But so far -- NO BEARS!

So Keith began taking us further off the beaten path. We were traveling on seldom used logging roads through beautiful countryside -- except in the areas that had been clear cut by loggers.

But even here -- NO BEARS!

Keith kept showing us all sorts of interesting sights, and several times stopped to pick plants. He offered us local blueberries and thimbleberries to eat, and also picked these mushrooms. He showed us the places where the bears had beaten down the bushes while eating berries. We saw lots of bear scat, and Keith explained the difference in urine patterns between females (circular) and males (s curves).

But still ... NO BEARS!

We stopped on a log bridge overlooking a beautiful stream full of salmon. Keith said we would stay here for a while. We all kept our eyes peeled. But Renée was the first to call out ...

"BEAR! BEAR"

We looked downstream through the bushes, and sure enough there was a bear fishing his way up the stream. Keith knows all the bears hereabouts and he indentified this one as a four year old male named Toby. Naturally we did not want to get too close but it was definitely exciting to watch Toby fish! So finally we had ---

A BEAR!!

Although we tried several other streams, Toby was our only bear sighting. But a bear, eagles, scenery, salmon, plants and Keith's excellent narration added up to a very well spent day at Icy Strait Point. At the conclusion, Keith took us to meet his Princess, Edna, and settle the bill. Then he drove us to The Office and introduced us to Mary.
There we feasted on fresh Alaska Dungeness Crab, swimming this morning and on our plate this afternoon. It was very delicious and accompanied with local Alaskan beer made a great conclusion to our Icy Strait Point experience.

That night on the ship we had the "Master Chef's dinner" which is presented as a show, with the showgirls taking the part of waiters and all the waitstaff dancing around(or trying to!) It is a kick!

The ports on this trip come fast and furious. Juneau was next. Our friends Pam and Nancy had booked theWildlife Quest through the ship. The weather was overcast, rainy and cold, which was uncomfortable for people but great for the animals. They saw an eagle fishing, a whole island full of seals and sea lions, and several whales. They rated it as a wonderful excursion.

In Juneau, Renée was scheduled for the dogsledding on the glacier but sadly it was cancelled. In its place she was able to book the glacier landing by helicopter and enjoyed that very much. Overflying Mendenhall Glacier yielded some wonderful views.
Then the actual landing on the glacier and the chance to put on heavy cleated boots and walk around. Renee said it was totally stunning and a wonderful trip. Since I am not much for snow, I just stayed aboard the ship and treated it much as a sea day, relaxing and just enjoying an uncrowded ship. I even went to the theater to see SHREK III, with popcorn of course!

This evening I enjoyed the Indonesian specialty at dinner, Nasi Goreng Riijstaffel. This is always a treat on HAL ships. We found the food to be outstanding the entire trip. HAL tends to have a bit more European touch than some cruise lines, and we enjoy the chance to try a few different things.

Our morning in Sitka dawned overcast and dripping rain. We took consolation in the idea that it is good weather for animals! Our first excursion here was the Sea Otter quest. We boarded a beautiful big catamaran belonging to Allen Marine,the ship's tour operator. It had wonderful viewing areas on two decks and was a very comfortable trip, and not at all crowded. We always had good views as wildlife was sighted.

First we visited the outlet of a salmon stream. We were rewarded with the sight of lots of eagles, flying,fishing and resting in the trees. On the shore we saw five bears. Two disappeared but we had a good view of a mother and her cubs. This was the first time I wished I had an ultra long lens for my camera, as it was very hard to get good pictures.

But the quest, of course, was for sea otters. Suddenly the boat swung around and slowed for this solitary fellow, floating calmly on his back and regarding us with uncurious eyes. Being a gray headed elder, he had probably seen these boats all his life.

Soon we sighted a large raft of otters. floating happily in a bed of kelp. The boat went into "stealth" mode so as not to disturb them. The boat operates on very quiet water jets. The passengers cooperated by being very still, and we had masked off the flash on our cameras so as not to startle the otters. We stayed in the area quite a while, taking lots of pictures and observing these wonderful creatures!

This was a truly outstanding excursion and one of the absolute highlights of our cruise!

We had a nice lunch in a restaurant close to the dock and then set off on our tour of Sitka, including the Historic Park and cultural exhibits, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the performance of the New Archangel Dancers.

We got back aboard just in time to play trivia, and we tied for first! We lost our chance at HAL luggage tags on the tie-breaker, as we guessed wrong on the number of matches in a standard match book.

That night was the big show, "H2OH", and the second formal night. We ran into some rough weather exiting Sitka and I am afraid some of our party missed dinner. This was the only really rough seas on the cruise.

The last day of the cruise dawned bright and shiny, a perfect day for the sight we had all be awaiting, Hubbard Glacier. Bright and early we bundled up, got our coffee and settled at a table by the Lido Pool. It is a beautiful sight as we sail into Yakatut Bay, with wonderful mountains on each side. The first glacier we saw was Turner Glacier, very pretty in itself but just a prelude to Hubbard.
We were able to sail very close to Hubbard Glacier and had some wonderful glacier watching. The glacier was not really very active but we did see a few great calvings.
The stunning beauty of the glacier has been captured in many pictures. This one is by our friend Nancy and in a small way conveys the feeling of awe the glacier inspires!
Then we retired to our favorite retreat and a perfect spot for glacier watching -- The Thermal Suite. It was wonderful to enjoy the steam rooms, hot showers and heated lounges as the glacier loomed outside the window.
Hubbard Glacier has a wonderfully long face. It is hard to take it all in at once. This panoramic video taken from the Thermal Suite shows only a part of the beautiful view as the ship comes close to the glacier.
Hopping right out of the hot tub to face the cold breezes off the glacier is probably the definition of the word "exhilarating"!! Renée , Pam and Nancy all insisted that this picture be included!

After leaving the glacier, we had a nice lunch in the dining room. I had "The Master Chef's Special Meatloaf Sandwich." It was good, but that name seems to be getting a bit overexcited for a sandwich?

Then time for a final game of trivia. We tied for first again, but once again lost on the tie-breaker! "What was the average lifespan of Londoners in 1800?" There were a bunch of great trivia players on this ship and we had a good time kidding the new staff member who was conducting the games. She was a softy when we players argued with her! A bit of experience and she will toughen up.

During this last day a terrible rumor had been circulating around the ship. We hoped against hope that it was not true -- but alas, the ship's scuttlebutt was all too accurate this time.

The next day, they really did make us get off the ship!!

We had booked the transfer from Seward to Anchorage on the train. Our bags had gone ahead of us, using the Special Executive Baggage Service. This was a great convenience, as our bags went directly to the airport, onto our flights, and we didn't have to worry about them until we reached our home airport. We also got our airline boarding passes aboard the ship.

So we were pretty much the first pax off the ship to get on the train before 6:30 AM. Renée enjoyed meeting the handsome conductor. All women like a man in uniform, I guess.

The train ride is about three and a half hours, and passes through beautiful scenery the entire trip. We saw forests, mountains, streams, and glaciers all along the route. There was excellent narration by a guide, and the engineers slowed the train anytime we approached something interesting. We saw a moose, and Dall sheep grazing the hillsides.
The real excitement came as we passed by Turnagain Arm, a long narrow arm of the sea that extends up past Anchorage. Our guide told us to look sharp as on rare occasions they have seen beluga whales in the Arm. We watched closely for the white backs of the whales.

We were rewarded with the sighting of quite a large pod! The train slowed almost to a stop and we watched them for some time. They are very hard to spot but very interesting to watch. We also saw dolphins among the belugas, and a few seals sticking their heads up above the water. It was one of the best wildlife sightings of our trip.

It is very hard to capture them on video, but if you watch this clip closely you will have the experience we did of trying to spot them. There are at least seven sightings of the white backs above the water in this clip. The belugas seemed to be bidding us farewell from Alaska, and it was a fitting conclusion to our cruise.

All in all, this was a wonderful cruise and we had a great time. The Volendam is a magnificent member of the HAL fleet. In many ways, its smaller size makes it a very good ship to cruise. It has all the amenities but is easier to get around than a Vista class ship.

We found that September was an excellent time to cruise Alaska. The weather was typical Alaskan, cloudy some days and sunny on occasion. The temperatures were cool but not terribly cold. The salmon were in the streams to attract the bear, and the other wildlife cooperated in a wonderful way.

The less visited ports of Sitka and Icy Strait Point proved to be very interesting and were a refreshing change from the more usual itinerary. Having been to Glacier Bay several times, we were very happy to find that Hubbard Glacier is also a stunning and beautiful experience. We would definitely recommend this ship and this itinerary, especially for repeat cruisers to Alaska.

Fortunately, there are still some experiences left for our NEXT cruise to Alaska. Renée still has to land on the glacier for dogsledding, but I really don't think we will every try the ziplines!

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