Greetings! This website and board was a lot of help to me when I was planning our trip so I wanted to return the favor. We took the July 14th Holland America Zaandam Alaska cruise on the Inside Passage, Vancouver to Vancouver. Booked this in November though Annie Scrinavich with Cruise Advisors (1-800-544-9361). Had an outside cabin, Category D, with port taxes for $1100 (inside cabin = $900). Ports of call Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. Our first cruise and first time to Alaska. Great time! Had sunshine and warm weather every day (although some towns said it had rained for 11 days straight prior to this). Weather was in 60s, actually 70 in Ketchikan. Don't need heavy clothing, except maybe early morning in Glacier Bay, but layers definently best. We took and wore hiking boots but I think my tennis shoes would have sufficed (maybe because it didn't rain on us).
My husband did a flyout fly fishing trip with Bear Creek Outfitters to a remote stream in the Tongass National Forest. He is not a fisherman but he caught 12 pink salmon. He said the floatplane flight was great with scenery out and once there, he could turn in any direction and see a post card. This trip is expensive ($325), but worthwhile. I took a helicopter flight (Coastal Helicopters 1-907-789-5600 for $160) over the Mendenhall Glacier to Herbert Glacier. Lots of cruise ship helicopters land on the Mendenhall Glacier which you can see from a car. I think it's best to fly to another glacier so you fly over more of the Juneau Icefield and you aren't sharing your glacier with other helicopters. This way you appreciate the vastness of the icefields and the feeling of isolation you get on the glacier. I then rented a car and drove out past Auke Bay to St. Therese Chapel (very pretty and peaceful). I rented the car from "Rent A Wreck" (1-907-789-4111). Old car but good price ($35) and they let me keep it as long as I wanted for 10 more dollars and just leave it in a garage next to the pier. This was good since our ship was in Juneau from 2pm to 11pm. There is a lot of good shore excursions available around Juneau. This would be a good place to fly into some time and stay a while. Some of the people on our cruise took the "Wildlife Excursion" on a catamaran on Auke Bay. They enjoyed it and said they saw seals and orca whales.
I booked a few of our shore excursions through the cruise line, but most of the shore excursions, I booked on my own. HAL allowed prebooking but they don't tell you the times and whether or not you got the one(s) that you wanted until you are on board the ship. Booking on my own allowed me to know for sure that I got them and I could make sure the times would work with everything else we wanted to do in that port. It is usually also a little less expensive to book it directly yourself. Best book I found for this was "Adventure Guide to the Inside Passage & Coastal Alaska" by Lynn & Ed Readicker-Henderson.
In Skagway we took the White Pass Summit Train to Frasier (be sure to sit on the left side of the train going up), took a bus back and stopped by Liarsville to pan for gold ($134). Taking the bus back allowed us to see some different scenery and Liarsville was entertaining. This was a good excursion. Skagway was our favorite shopping town. It's picturesque with lots of shops.
Our favorite shore excursion was bear watching in Anan Bear Creek Observatory. We booked this out of Ketchikan with Island Wings Air Service (1-888-854-2444). It was expensive ($275) but a GREAT wildlife experience in a beautiful environment. You walk back about a half mile to the observatory in a rainforest on an easy path past a beautiful bay. Once there, we saw at least a dozen black and one brown bear within an hour. They come right up to where you are (you're safe on deck with a Forest Ranger) and fish and eat salmon out of the stream. The salmon are trying to leap upstream over a small waterfall. Bald eagles and ravens are right there too waiting for leftovers. We saw at least six bald eagles, two at close range. Got great pictures. This was a "DO NOT MISS"!
Also took a taxi ($20 roundtrip) to Saxman Village in Ketchikan and bought a totem pole ($100 for small pole). Can watch carvers carving large totem poles here. The totem pole selection in giftshop at Saxman Village was good and $15 cheaper here for the same pole we saw in Skagway.
Glacier Bay also nice. View this from the bow of the ship (left side best). Keep camera posed as you only have time to click when pieces of the glacier break off (calving). We were lucky and saw two big calvings during our time in Glacier Bay. Be sure to be watching for whales when going through the "Icy Straits" going into and out of Glacier Bay. Going out of Glacier Bay around 5:30-6:00 pm from the bow of the ship, we saw at close view a school of Humpback Whales which appeared to be playing. This was better than any of the two whale watches we paid $ for in Hawaii and Victoria, BC. Only about 6 passengers though got to witness this as most people had gone in for the evening. Don't give up--hang out on the deck.
The Zaandam was also a very nice ship with plenty of space, an air of elegance, good food, and good service from a friendly staff anxious to please. We found that the late dinner worked best for us so we could have more shore excursion time. Annie, our cruise agent booked us a table on the 2nd floor of the restaurant next to the window which was a definite plus. Loved the string quartet in the Explorer Lounge. Also liked the wine navigator package ($69 for 4 bottles or $99 for 6 bottles of wine). Order wine package on first day so you can start taking advantage of it. There will be a wine tasting later in the cruise so you can try out all these wines. Out on the deck, HAL served the best hot chocolate we have ever tasted. Best food on ship was in the Marco Polo Restaurant which requires reservations--make these on the first day of the cruise as it fills up fast.
Overall a great trip! We hope to go back some day and see the Kenai Penisula and Denali National Park. Maybe take a plane into Anchorage, rent a car and drive it or take train to Fairbanks. Would like to see the Kodiak bears. I also want to try fly fishing. If anyone has suggestions on any of this, things to do, and places to stay, let me know. Thanks and enjoy your trip!!
We are also going on the Zaandam Sept. 8 the inside passage. This is our first everything, cruise, Alaska. Flying into to Vancouver from Tampa, Fla. We are counting the days. Thanks for all your info. If you have any more I really would appreciate it.