Preparing to sail on Holland America’s Noordam in Alaska

Bags are packed and cameras cleaned and charged as I’m about to set off for the West Coast to join the May 30 sailing of Holland America Line’s Noordam for a 7-day Alaska voyage, departing from and returning to Vancouver, British Columbia.

There’s nothing unique about the itinerary – it’s your standard Alaska run – starting out comfortably with a couple of days at sea, followed by port calls in Juneau and Skagway, a day spent cruising Glacier Bay, a final call at Ketchikan, then a scenic return to Vancouver along the Inside Passage.

I’ve cruised Alaska a number of times, but always on small expedition vessels, including those of Lindblad Expeditions, the former Cruise West, and American Safari Cruises (now under the UnCruise mantle). I have not, however, visited the 49th state onboard a large cruise ship – and I’ve never sailed with Holland America. So those two factors have perked my interest and should give me a fresh perspective – compared to my fellow ATC bloggers who are more than likely familiar with Holland America and have surely frequented Alaska via cruise ship.

For readers who don’t know her, Noordam is the last of HAL’s four Vista class vessels built from 2002 to 2006 and by today’s standards really isn’t a mega-ship at 82,318 gross tons and a passenger capacity of 1,924. Noordam was the first ship to benefit from HAL’s Signature of Excellence initiative, which incorporated extensive retrofits and upgrades such as elegant Euro-style mattresses and bedding; enhanced cabin features and amenities ranging from waffle-weave bathrobes to massage-type showerheads, flat-screen LCD televisions and DVD players; more balconies: re-styled public areas for a more contemporary look, and expanded kids’ and teens’ facilities.

The expansion of facilities and programs for youngsters can be seen as part of the company’s overall goal of expanding its appeal beyond a stalwart 60+ passenger base by attracting more multi-generational family groups.

Noordam consistently gets good reviews, especially for food and service. These are of course vitally important elements on any cruise – and so I look forward to seeing (and tasting) for myself how things measure up during my Alaska adventure.

Southeast Alaska’s deep-water ports of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan are naturals for cruise visitation and they’ve certainly proven their appeal over the decades, attracting close to a million cruise passengers annually.

Juneau is the largest of the three with a population of about 32,600. It’s the state capital – and a unique one at that — what with no roads leading into or out of the city. Nearly 60 percent of its residents work in government, and I’d venture to say most of the rest are involved in tourism. The city is surrounded by nature – towering mountains and the waters of Gastineau Channel – and it is particularly notable as home to the state’s most accessible glacier, Mendenhall, an immense 12-mile-long river of ice. It’s Juneau’s principle tourist attraction and I’ll be paying it a visit on a helicopter excursion – one that lands on the glacier, allowing some time to explore the icy terrain up close and personal.

Back in 1897, gold prospectors from all over the world stampeded into Skagway by steamship — much as tourists do today – bound for the Dawson Gold Fields in Canada’s Yukon Territory. A rough-and tumble congregation of tents at the start, it soon evolved into a rustic and unrefined frontier town, festooned with bordellos, saloons and dance halls. It still looks a bit that way as it tries to retain the flavor and feel of those Gold Rush days for the benefit of visitors. There can be as many as three or four cruise ships docked at Skagway on any given day, which absolutely swarms the place, making it hard to enjoy it for what it is. Smart thing to do here is to avoid the crowds and hop aboard the White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge train that follows the winding path of pioneer prospectors seeking Klondike gold.

Although it has rained every time I’ve been there, Ketchikan is my favorite Alaska town. I love strolling along Creek Street, a row of brightly painted wooden buildings perched over the water on pilings. Until the early 1950s this was Ketchikan’s red-light district and it well reflects the bawdy ways of frontier life. There’s a cultural side to things here as well – the world’s largest collection of hand-carved Northwest totems. They’re located out of town a bit, at Totem Bight State Historical Park, Potlatch Park and the native village of Saxman, but there are excursions galore leading to these sites. Note to anglers: some of Alaska’s best salmon fishing awaits you here.

I haven’t visited any of these towns since 2008, so it will be interesting to see how things have changed. Link up with me next week and I’ll share what I find.

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