Alaska Cruise Tour with Holland America Line

Alaska Cruise Tour with Holland America Line When seniors travel overseas from Australia they tend to ‘pack it in’, or make the most of the trip. This is how our party of six approach overseas travel. Our adventure to New York, Canada and Alaska had its beginnings eighteen months before our departure in May 2011. That’s when the wish-list was drawn up, and let’s be in no doubt - planning the journey is half the fun! Three couples met more than half a dozen times, pouring over maps, glossy brochures and all the tips passed on from trail-blazing friends.

We pulled on our compression flight knee-high travel socks and took off at sparrow chirp one frosty Thursday morning. With a 23kg check-in bag plus a back-pack each, we were driven to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport by Carl in his Westmead Airport Shuttle vehicle complete with trailer. Our detailed Itinerary included Travel the World’s E-tickets and travel arrangements made by them. Travel the World kept our documents updated as inevitable changes were made prior to travel. Our holiday included two cruises - Holland America Line’s Canada/New England 7 Day Cruise on Maasdam [Montreal to Boston] and Holland America Line’s 14 day Discovery Cruisetour #19 (Alaska & Double Denali) on Zaandam [Vancouver to Fairbanks]. On both cruises we chose an Ocean view Stateroom. All air and train travel was booked by Travel the World plus several transfers and many shore excursions and optional land excursions.

The Big Apple was dazzling from our Herald Towers Apartment in West 34th Street, New York. We had a wonderful 10th floor night-scene from our living room window, including the Empire State Building two blocks away. A ten minute walk to Planet Hollywood in Times Square on the night we arrived saw our 7-day NY Passes on the glass-topped dining room table, together with every kind of tourist flyer and a wonderful supper spread provided by kind friends Neville and I had met in Scandinavia in 2000. Rosemary and Ted drove in from New Jersey and filled our larder with nutritious and decadent foodstuffs. Qantas had fed us well on the long hop and we were happy with the American Airlines Airbus from LA to New York. Despite our long journey of 21 hours we arrived fresh enough to plan many of our priority activities for the next five days. With so many good things on offer we needed to make choices for six with a little freedom to wing it. Some of these included the Statue of Liberty by day and night, Rockefeller Centre, Empire State Building, Madame Tussauds United Nations Buildings, Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum Grand Central Terminal, Radio City Music Hall, South Street Seaport, Central Park and the Broadway Musical ‘Chicago’ with half price tickets obtained by waiting earlier in the day at the Red Steps in Times Square.

Our visit to Ground Zero and the various memorial sites were both sobering and inspirational. Inspirational in the stories of how the human spirit rises in times of tragedy to out-perform whatever evil is dumped on innocent victims. St Paul’s church, opposite the site of such devastation, bore many reminders of this and we were surprised to learn that not one window was broken in that building which was such a refuge for workers and survivors.

The wonderful central location of our accommodation meant we could get to many venues without backtracking. We also booked The Royal Tour of New York City which was a 6.5 hours trip to many of the venues on our NY Pass and also included a visit to Katz’s Deli where we bought a one-size-fit-all pastrami sandwich which was far too big for us but most delicious.

From Pennsylvania Station (known as Penn Station) we caught an Amtrak Train to Toronto, stayed in a youth hostel and next morning joined Adventure World’s Niagara Falls two-day, one-night Niagara Falls getaway. Both the American Falls and Niagara Falls were overwhelming in their splendour and the magnificent view we had from the Maid of the Mist IV and to a small degree from the window of our room in the Crowne Plaza hotel. Security was exceptionally tight on the train trip via Niagara which was the US/Canadian rail border. Security featured up front on the whole of our trip to a much greater extent than ever before.

VIA Rail took us from Toronto Union Station to Montreal, with a transfer to Montreal Ships’ Terminal where we were to board Holland America Lines’ Maasdam. Instead of walking the plank onto the ship we were directed to a Gray Line Coach for a long trip to Quebec. With Montreal’s recent heavy rains, Maasdam was not able to navigate under bridges between Quebec and Montreal. Quebec was a delightful city and we enjoyed the extra night there. We booked the ‘Montmorency Falls and Island of Orleans’ plus the ‘Quebec City Walking Tour & Tea at the Chateau Frontenac’ which were all most enjoyable and worth pre-booking.

After cruising the Gulf of St Lawrence for a day we arrived in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island where our pre-booked excursion was ‘The Best of Prince Edward Island: Top 10’. This was a 7 hour excursion and something we had long looked forward to, particular the women in our group. Anne of Green Gables was a major theme and dolls and other memorabilia were purchased which needed to be looked after for the rest of our travels. We now had a 23kg bag and backpack each plus long doll boxes for each couple to manoeuvre through customs and airports.

Sydney, Canada was very beautiful. We pre-booked ‘A Guided Walk in Old Sydney Town’ (2 hours) which in hindsight we would not have purchased. The three museums were quite similar and we thought we may have been better to roam around Sydney ourselves, perhaps doing one of the museums. The next excursion ‘Spirit of the Fiddle: Sounds of Cape Breton’ made up for any disappointment. This excursion – right on the pier where Maasdam was docked – was absolutely wonderful. The Cape Breton music and the whole presentation was enthralling, with tea and Cape Breton Oatcakes served at small tables while we were being entertained. Quite a bit of history was threaded in and around the music, singing and dancing. A demonstration of the unique Cape Breton style of step dancing was given by Fiona Cotter. Cape Bretons’ hold informal gatherings known as ‘a Ceilidh’ (pronounced ‘Cayleigh’). Much eating and drinking takes place and festivities can span more than a day.

The ports of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbour were equally enchanting. We pre-booked ‘Peggy’s Cove, Titanic & Hop-On-Hop-Off Halifax’ and were very pleased with this excursion. Peggy’s Cove is a photographer’s dream location and we were most interested to view the cemetery where Titanic victims are buried. We also learned of the Halifax explosion which occurred when a Belgian relief vessel and a French munitions carrier collided in Halifax Harbour during World War I. The Halifax Explosion in 1917, due to human error, was the world's largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. Halifax, Nova Scotia was the main base of the new Canadian Navy and housed the most important army garrison in Canada. A major hub of wartime activity, the Halifax Harbour Port was crowded with warships, troop transports and supply ships. More than 1900 people were killed, 9000 injured and 1600 buildings destroyed. Putting the Halifax Explosion story beside the sinking of the Titanic gave us food for thought. The peace and beauty of Halifax shrouded both events with a mist of surreal or ‘other-world’ happenings.

‘Bar Harbour by Land & Sea’ proved to be a disappointing excursion for us. We anticipated a wonderful two-pronged adventure but due to a real mist which rose early morning and wrapped itself around Bar Harbour until afternoon, we saw nothing from the summit of Cadillac Mountain and very little of Frenchman Bay aboard the 151 foot 4-masted schooner Margaret Todd. Bar Harbour appeared a beautiful port but the weather was not on our side. Neville’s assistance with hoisting the mainsail brought a little interest to the trip and we enjoyed wandering around the foreshore for a short time, taking photographs with the romance of a thinning mist.
Our Maasdam cruise drew to a close in Boston and we reluctantly said goodbye to the many friends we had made during seven days at sea. The food and service on Maasdam left nothing to be desired. We dressed up for two formal dinners and ate every other meal at the Lido with the exception of a breakfast or two in our cabins when early morning excursions made that necessary. The housekeeping service, entertainment and grand amenities were of the highest standard. Cleanliness was a top priority and every effort was made to ensure the good health of Maasdam guests.

Unfortunately we had no time to linger in Boston as we were booked to fly Boston/Dallas/Vancouver to stop over one night at the Hi-Vancouver Youth Hostel before boarding Holland America Line’s Zaandam from Vancouver, up the Inside Passage to Seward/Alaska, with a six-day land adventure to follow. The youth hostel in Vancouver was one of the best we have stayed in. Each couple had a double bedroom with semi-private or fully-private bathrooms. We chuckled then and have often laughed since about our mode of transport to the Hi-Vancouver Youth Hostel. A concierge at Vancouver airport directed us to a stretch limousine service as the best and most economical way to get the six of us plus our luggage to our accommodation. An unusual sight for those peeping through the blinds in the neat suburban street. Vancouver is a wonderful city, one we have visited before and would like to return to.

Our HAL Cruisetour #19 which included two nights at the Denali National Park lived up to our expectations and we have many, many special memories tucked up to re-live at will during leisure hours when we can in marvel over our photo books and videos. The Zaandam took approximately two hundred more guests than the Maasdam. This was evident in lifts at busy times, but the positioning of our Ocean view Staterooms provided good accessibility to all venues on the ship. As with the Maasdam, the food on Zaandam was exceptionally good, catering for all tastes and the staff were very attentive too. Now on Zaandam, our second cruise, we had a little experience under our belt to coin a phrase, and we knew the lurks and perks of an ocean liner and took good advantage of the entertainment venues and specialty shops on board. On both the Maasdam and the Zaandam we were very impressed with the presentation and serving of food together with the many evidences of carving craftsmanship and special dessert evenings which were simply amazing.

From Vancouver we sailed under the Lion’s Gate and out into the open sea for a day. Arriving in Ketchikan, we set off on the excursion we had flagged as one we were really looking forward to. And the two-hour ‘Magnificent Misty Fjords by Floatplane’ did not disappoint us. We spent over an hour’s spectacular flight over mountains, fjords and waterfalls before landing on a remote lake and climbing out on the ‘floats’ to view more closely the immaculate foliage, rock formation and beautiful green of the lake. Sailing all the way from Ketchikan to Seward afforded many opportunities to drink in the breathtaking snow-capped mountains and their brothers, the glaciers, together with pristine waterways, brilliant sunrises sea-going ambience, friendship-bonding hot chocolates on the deck and a chance to chat occasionally in the ship’s laundry. By now we were really hooked, ever looking forward to what tomorrow might bring and hankering for the double Denali experience via the luxurious high-domed Mt McKinley Express.

Thinking about what was to come, and how our energy levels might last, was quickly put on hold as we put our snow shoes on in the small helicopter air terminal at Juneau. ‘Dog Sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter’ was every bit as thrilling as our friends back home had predicted. We were blessed with a gloriously sunny day and took a fairyland trip through the skies of ice to the landing place on Mendenhall Glacier where dog-mushing is the name of the game for more than half of the year. Gus was our team leader and he literally took us to a place where the magnificence of creation loaned its backdrop to an unbelievably endearing experience of dog sleds, canine capers, cold, wind and sunshine where we turned into kids again and had the time of our lives. Gus was a real dog-man. When not on the esteemed glacier of Mendenhall, Gus lives with his dog-team in Seattle, training with them for the Iditarod, that prized competition from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome on the western Bering sea coast. The Iditarod demands only the highest level of stamina and know-how in order to reach the 1,150 mile finish line, after traversing snow and ice, jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest and bare tundra with little more than an hour to rest here and there, treat the dogs’ feet and re-sock them for the arduous trip still ahead. This competition is an extraordinarily hazardous race and takes teams of 12-16 dogs through a perilous journey over 10-17 days.

‘Dog Sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter’ was the cherry on the cake. It was exhilarating, a day to really chalk up as one of the best and worth the high price we paid for it. Extreme care was taken by the helicopter company; we felt safe, privileged and in very good professional hands.

How much adventure is too much for retirees? How long is that piece of string we stretch across the globe? When you draw a line from Sydney to LA/New York, bend the string around Niagara Falls and British Columbia/Eastern Canada, Boston, Dallas, Vancouver and up to the Gates of the Arctic Circle then Fairbanks to Seattle/LA/Sydney Australia, there was a lot more adventure ahead. One only has to show the photographs to the next generation to see their acknowledgement of their parents’ great adventures.

The ‘Yukon Expedition & White Pass Railway’ came next. This pre-booked excursion out of Skagway, though very different, rated very close to Mendenhall Glacier. This was a full day of magnificent scenery both on the coach going up to the Yukon Territory via Emerald Lakes, Fault Lines, waterfalls and the world’s smallest desert – yes, a small desert in Alaska! We enjoyed a barbecue lunch at Caribou Crossing and saw a very good museum of wildlife of yesteryear. In the absence of much real wildlife on our trip we snapped a few photographs for the grandchildren. Caribou Crossing is the place of the famous liquorice ice-cream but most of our money was spent on excursions, maps and books plus the usual souvenirs for the young. The White Pass Railway gave us a brilliantly PA informed, spectacular trip back to Skagway (even if a little scary as the train clung to cliff-sides and rattled over steep, ever so steep bridges). Back in Skagway we warmed up with coffee and looked around the jewellery shops which boasted exquisite diamonds at good prices without tax. Four of us dilly-dallied at the start of the short walk back to the Zaandam which appeared to be docked at the end of the street, then we ducked back to have a serious look.
Two sparkling days followed Skagway as we cruised the ice-studded fjords of Glacier Bay and College Fjord, known as the crown jewels of Prince William Sound. We stood in awe as we saw several majestic glaciers tumble to the sea. One or two whales made their presence known to a few Zaandam guests late one evening but we only have their word on that boast. Remember, though, we hardly saw the black of night in Alaska. In our Ocean view Stateroom we needed to draw the curtains when it was time to sleep. We observed quite a few sea birds and a number of otters building little nests attached to floating ice but we were more than satisfied with the splendour of the glaciers all around us and the pure, mill-pond of the water on which we floated. We’d been to the Canadian Rockies several years ago, but the snow, ice and ethereal surroundings in Glacier Bay and College Fjord hinted at a dimly marked horizon between heaven and earth or sea.

Saying goodbye to the Zaandam crew was again hard, but we were motoring on to beautiful Alaska Resort so we gathered up our luggage and once more set off for a new kind of adventure. We had in mind that our stay at Alaska might be pricey but we were pleasantly surprised at realistic breakfast prices and some good tips from our Holland America Tour Guide as to where we might dine in Girdwood, the town adjacent to the Alaska Resort. A complimentary shuttle ran between the resort and Girdwood about every half hour. We enjoyed this two-day lavish base camp and three of us took a wildlife walk from Alaska through to the ‘Hand Tram’ – a reasonably strenuous walk at times but very picturesque. There was evidence of moose prints in muddy areas beside some board walks but not a bear to be seen, however scared I felt as I started out. We enjoyed a late lunch up on top of Mount Alaska (3939 feet) after taking the tramway (skyway) to the summit.

From Alaska we travelled by coach to Anchorage along the scenic Seward Highway and stopped en route for a cruise to Portage Glacier. We toured Portage Lake on mv Ptarmigan (a mini-cruise) with an attentive and informative crew. Back on dry land we enjoyed a well-stocked souvenir shop and about 100 yards away we were able to learn more facts from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Centre. Soon after arriving at the Westmark Anchorage Hotel, on the corner of 5th Avenue and G Street (yes, that’s how you get around Anchorage, by numbers and letters), we descended the lift and boarded a small coach to our pre-planned ‘Wild Ride Sled Dog Rodeo’. Perhaps we were optimistic in booking so many excursions, and we certainly would have liked to just amble through the streets of Anchorage, but once at the Iditarod Dinner Show & Wild Ride Sled Dog Rodeo we were captivated again by the work put into preparing champion dogs for the Iditarod. Dallas Seavey, a passionate dog-sled competitor, gave us an unforgettable evening of fun, incredible dog performances and a very pleasing and well presented dinner with all the trimmings under white canvas. You guessed it – the evening was still a pup, daylight was still brilliant after dinner and there was time to wander the streets nearby to the Westmark for browsing and buying souvenirs. And who could get lost when all we needed to remember was G Street?

If the Alaska Resort was a touch of luxury, we were in for even more as we photographed and boarded the Holland America McKinley Explorer dome-topped train bound for Denali National Park. We were given a flyer but subsequently purchased the ‘Ride to the Historic Alaska Railroad, McKinley Explorer’ which was well worthwhile because at any point along the journey through the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains, all the way into Denali National Park and Denali State Park, we could refer to precise points and elevations on the maps provided plus learn of the history at each of these locations. The scenery came close to surpassing the beauty of the valleys and mountains of Yukon Pass. Such amazing sights - like with fine food – it’s hard to say when you’ve had enough. We felt over-blessed somewhat but still thirsty for what lay ahead.

Denali Lodge was just that, a lodge which was well-equipped to give one a comfortable stay while doing rough and ready adventures. The entrance and lodge shop and restaurants were fairly up-market but casual gear is all that is required at Denali. Part of our Holland America Land Content included a one day Tundra Wilderness Tour which was advertised as the best way to see wildlife in Alaska! Well, they were all in their hide-outs on the sunny day we ventured right into Denali. We saw a number of Dall sheep (through binoculars) high up on the mountainside. To me, Dall sheep look like a cross between a sheep and a goat. They have cute faces, horns and two-way hooves which enable them to grip and climb exceptionally steep, craggy cliffs. A fairly weather-beaten or battle-scarred moose poked its horns through some foliage at us on the short run into Denali Park Lodge Chalet. Apart from some far-off caribou, a few squirrels, hares and several bald eagles, we were not successful in viewing the wildlife we were hoping to see. The brown and black bears had made a pact. They were not going to do our bidding on this day. They hid in the glossy brochures. That is, until the morning of our departure from Denali Park Lodge. While waiting for our transfer to the Denali Information Centre and Railway Station, a big brown bear surprised us in the foyer. He was cuddly, spoke English and was more than happy about standing with us for photographs without the accompanying promise of a photo for a price. We loved him and he afforded us a good send-off.
The McKinley Explorer from Denali Park to Fairbanks was equally spectacular in its own way. Looking back at Denali from a very high point on the Alaska Range heightened our adventure. There was a new look around every bend – and there were indeed many twists and turns, with plenty of opportunity to take a long sweep of the McKinley ahead or its tail behind. Like the earlier trip to Denali NP, we were afforded an excellent train commentary, free tea and coffee whenever we wanted it and the best cuisine when it was our turn to dine downstairs. Wait staff gave very good service and we likened the superb meals to those on the Ghan and Indian Pacific trains which run from top to bottom and east to west in Australia. A night at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel heralded the end of Cruisetour #19 where we said goodbye to friends and our Holland America Tour Guide.
Our party of six stayed another night at Westmark Fairbanks as part of a Post-Tour Package ‘Gates of the Arctic National Park & Anaktuvuk Pass’. As a pre-planned package we were asked to give our body weights in advance. I am glad we didn’t fudge those weights because we’d certainly been living it up. We’d burned up a lot of our calories with exercise but we knew we had partaken of many delicacies we wouldn’t have had at home. Weight is so important in an eight-seater aeroplane and we were glad we’d told the truth. Following the massive oil pipeline from Fairbanks towards Prudoe Bay, North Alaska, we enjoyed an amazing day in Anaktuvuk Pass where we ‘lived with the locals for half a day’ and we learned more than we expected about how the true Eskimos live. The plane trip back to Fairbanks gave us a few moments of apprehension as we negotiated a cluster of thunder-storms and heavy cloud. The next morning we wandered around the historic foreshore and spent another night at a Bed and Breakfast Accommodation, Alaska Heritage House B&B. We found the Fudge Pot an interesting little place to get a light meal. It was upstairs, right opposite a lovely fountain. Sun streamed through sparkling windows and we counted our blessings. Home was not far off.

With an extra day in Fairbanks, we took the River Boat Discovery trip which was both relaxing and most enjoyable – a must for any tourist visiting Fairbanks. We also visited the University of Alaska Campus & Museum in Fairbanks. The climate in Fairbanks was quite warm. In fact after we travelled our several flights totalling 33-hours home to Sydney, we dressed in warmer clothes than we had unpacked at any time during our entire holiday stay. Apart from standing on deck in places like Glacier Bay and College Fjord, our dress requirements for May/June were those of a very mild Sydney winter. Back to Listing