America's coolest state offers The Warmest Welcome 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PAT WOODS - Cruise guests see stunning natural beauty on an Alaska cruise.
  • Photo by Pat Woods
  • Cruise guests see stunning natural beauty on an Alaska cruise.

After reviewing five Europe cruise brochures, husband Rob and I chose to cruise closer to home because it is less stressful, cheaper and safer. So I booked a balcony cabin on Holland America’s Westerdam for an Alaska Inside Passage cruise.

Because we enjoy meeting new people and trying different food, we opted for open dining. Dinner and lunch in the bi-level Vista Dining Room provided multiple courses. At the popular Lido Buffet, guests chose from a plethora of tasty American and ethnic soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees and desserts.

The Westerdam also offers two alternate dining venues that require reservations. For dinner only, Canaletto ($10) creates an authentic Italian experience with numerous dishes to enjoy and share. The five dishes Rob and I shared were melt-in-mouth delicious and perfectly seasoned with heavenly sauces.

The Pinnacle Grille ($10 lunch, $29 dinner) is an upscale place for a romantic dinner or a special occasion. Known for its succulent Pacific Northwest steaks and fresh seafood, the Pinnacle is popular with repeat cruisers.

Once each cruise the Pinnacle transforms into the legendary Le Cirque of New York City ranked among the world’s best restaurants. We had jumbo shrimp cocktails, lobster bisque and delectable chateaubriand for two followed by a signature pineapple dessert at our Le Cirque dinner ($49).

Alaska cruises provide numerous opportunities for close-up glacier views. Three national park rangers boarded the Westerdam to narrate the ship’s onboard visit to Glacier Bay National Park that can only be reached by water or air.

As the ship maneuvered close to Margerie Glacier, our port-side balcony provided a spectacular spot to admire nature’s incredible beauty. Then the 285-metre ship turned to share the great views with starboard guests.

Small friendly ports

Friendly Alaska port towns exude a warm welcome for cruise guests. All are walkable, safe and offer a plethora of activities and shopping. You won’t need a pricey wardrobe. Simply dress in removable layers, wear sturdy walking shoes and bring rain gear.

All-day rain did not stop us from exploring Juneau, Alaska’s capital city. Our ship docked within steps of Mount Roberts Tramway, where a cable car carried us 549-metres up the steep mountain. www.TravelJuneau.com

On nearby Douglas Island at Dog Musher’s Camp, 150 barking Alaska sled dogs greeted us. Sixteen-dog teams pulled six-passenger wheeled vehicles that enable dogs to train year-round for Alaska’s favourite sport.

The dogs’ excitement made us forget the rain and enjoy the ride. Mushers demonstrated equipment while sharing their dog racing experience. Finally it was puppy petting time which helps pups become socialized with humans. www.alaskaexcursions.com

Like other Inside Passage towns, Sitka is an island that cannot be reached by roads or highways. Once a part of Russia, Sitka celebrates both its Russian and Native American heritage.

Known for clean air and safety, this quiet town of 8,900 (smaller in winter) offers hiking trails, museums, the Alaska Raptor Center and St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. www.sitka.org

Ketchikan pulls out all the stops for cruisers with a flat, attractive waterfront, large visitor center, free shuttle buses, plus friendly greeters, local tour operators, shopkeepers and residents. Although Ketchikan gets 386 centimetres of rain a year, it was sunny and warm. We strolled Creek Street boardwalk and visited Tongass Historical Museum.

Ketchikan honours its native heritage with a totem pole collection preserved at the Totem Heritage Center. The town has a thriving arts community and is a sport fishing haven with five salmon species. www.tourketchikan.com

A festive ambiance greeted us in Victoria, B.C. on a Friday evening. After sunset, 3,300 lights lit up the Parliament buildings, sidewalk musicians played lively tunes and attractions stayed open late. We toured the Royal BC Museum and strolled flower bedecked Inner Harbour. On a previous port call, we toured Butchart Gardens, rode one of the cute ferries and did a CVS hop on/hop off tour. www.tourismvictoria.com

Onboard experience

Although the Westerdam carried 1,923 guests and 800 crew, we found no long lines and it never felt crowded. That’s because management strategically schedules meals and activities to avoid congestion.

Besides traditional cruise activities, the Westerdam offered Windows technology and group cooking classes. Along with customary evening stage shows, musicians and comedians, the B.B. King’s Blues Club played music that made Beale Street famous.

When is the best time to cruise Alaska? Mark Pells, Westerdam Hotel Director, says May and September are good for empty nesters who like a quiet environment with fewer kids. Late July is best for King Salmon anglers.

“Reserve a balcony cabin, throw open your drapes in the morning and walk around the top deck at sunset,” Pells said. “The sunset colours are amazing!”

For maximum enjoyment of the Alaska experience Pells advised doing pre-cruise homework. “Study the different ports, read literature, visit web sites, then be ready to learn and explore. Listen to onboard lectures, watch the movies, and talk with other guests. Remember it’s the journey, not the destination.”

Seven Holland America ships ply Alaska waters between May and September with many Vancouver or Seattle departures. Contact your travel agent, www.hollandamrica.com or 1-877-932-4259.

 

A widely published cruise/travel writer, this was Pat Woods’ fourth Alaska cruise. She encourages readers to SKI (spend the kids’ inheritance) on a cruise.

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