As it was our first time in Fort Lauderdale we had decided on a 5-night pre-cruise stay and had already booked into the Bahia Mar (Hilton Doubletree) Resort. We were impressed with Fort Lauderdale and able to do everything that we'd planned on doing within our time scale. You can read our hotel and resort review on Tripadvisor.
From the arrival at the port (which is custom built for cruise ships and easy to access and navigate) to the check-in process and inevitable sitting in line in the cruise terminal, this was totally smooth and painless and we were soon on board.
Unfortunately our first impression of our cabin - (and first impressions DO count!) - was marred by the general uncleanliness (hairs on the bathroom floor and in the bath and shower, carpet stained, spilled salt in bathroom cabinets, a piece of broken glass underneath the table, sand and salt streaked balcony, dirty glass verandah screen, and rusted and tatty furniture) and so our first "activity" on board was to go to the front desk to ask for this to be attended to, or at least the "cleaning" element of it.
The customer services officer we spoke to was mildly apologetic and she offered to "send someone from housekeeping to remedy straight away".
We went to the Lido for lunch, then explored the ship, then found where we would be sitting in the dining room, then went back to our cabin; only to find that no one had been near!
Just at that point, our cabin steward arrived to introduce himself and we took him to task about the cleanliness issues, which he said he would attend to straight away and, as far as was possible, did. Although he assured us that we would have no further cause for complaint, as the days progressed we found other cleaning issues and overall were not particularly happy with the level of service here, although it has to be said that he and his assistant were really nice, pleasant guys.
Of more concern was the fact that the front desk never got back to us for a follow up or with an apology and this, I'm afraid, is just very poor guest relations!
On the day of our disembarkation, we were just about the last off on our deck and as the balcony side screens had all been opened up, we were able to see that some of the other cabins had newer, varnished, and cleaner tables than ours so perhaps we were just unlucky!
The other problem with the cabin was that the ceiling would creak and groan when at sea and this could get a bit tiresome at night. Also, one of the side screens on the balcony had the same defect and rattled as we were sailing in anything other than a flat sea. I tried to remedy this by jamming a great wad of thick card into the gap!
On the plus side, the cabin was very spacious and had plenty of storage space and clothes hangers. I also liked very much the heavy curtain in the inner door that blocked out any light and/or noise from the deck corridor. Good safe; fully stocked fridge. Take your own hair drier, the cabin one is (they always are) underpowered! Plenty of hot water in the bathroom and we only had one issue with the plumbing which we were told was "higher up the corridor".
As mentioned, the first thing we did was to go to the Lido for lunch. The food was fine, the view, (first impressions again!) was spoiled by the accumulation of streaks/dirt/salt on the windows. Come on HAL, you can and dam well should be able to do better than this - the ship should be CLEAN to greet and impress new guests!!!
No problems at all with any of the public areas. Our only reservation would be with the so-called dance floors which are miniscule and of little useable worth. They are, perhaps, adequate for the American style of "swing" dance that seemed to be all that the band would cater for on this cruise, however dancing was advertised as ballroom, cha cha and rumba. I guess that's one of the consequences of sailing from the U.S.
With regard to some of the comments re the pillars in the show lounge, yes, you do have to choose where you sit with care but there was usually plenty of room.
Deck space was good and only when all passengers were on board during days at sea was there any feeling of it being mildly busy, but never really crowded!
We didn't attend all of the shows and were more than a little disappointed with the resident singing/dancing troupe who seemed a bit insipid. To be fair to them, though, we've seen an other HAL ships that the "big stage spectaculars" are simply not there and the cabaret style approach is much more favoured.
In that regard, the magician/comedian with the dog was very good. Be aware, though, that all of the entertainment is geared up towards U.S.tastes and can be a bit different to what a UK audience might relate to.
The majority of the passengers were much older than us - in their 70's and 80's so the overall flavour of this cruise was "retired" but almost bordering, at times, on inert! That said, the good news was that there were no rampaging kids or lager-fuelled Brit chavs and that in itself was a pleasure! By the same token, the daytime activities were of a more sedate and quiet nature and there was none of the loud, intrusive music, announcements for bingo or karaoke etc, or pushy cocktail vending that you can get with some of the other cruise lines. This was a big plus - we go away for peace and quiet!
The demographic make up of our fellow guests on this cruise was probably U.S. 60%; Canada 20%; Dutch 15%; Brits and others 5%, so be prepared!
Sadly, our other main reflection on the type of fellow cruisers is that perhaps they see "smart casual" as a dress recommendation in a different way to us from the UK and it was not unusual to see jeans; t-shirts; sandals and flip flps; and even some women wearing shorts (!) in the Vista dining rooms and on those "special" formal nights you would see some equally irregular, unusual, and even downright bizarre interpretations from the normal tux and long frock "standard". Traditional bow-ties and long evening dresses were very much in the minority!
Ports of Call/Excursions:
Half Moon Cay: Contrary to my suspicions, when we found ourselves a nice quiet spot, we found that the loungers (admittedly basic plastic type) were free. The beach was lovely, the sea a little cold on this day but we went in anyway. Very enjoyable.
Aruba: Didn't take a trip, was happy to just wander around the port. Nice little park with plenty of small Iguanas, once we'd worked our way back into the town found that it was all a bit of a shanty town. Not quite what we'd expected.
Bonaire: Didn't take a trip, just got off ship and walked along the seafront road. Very pleasant. When we got back into the town area we had a look round some of the shops. Nobody was doing much buying which, considering the way the prices had been hiked up wasn't surprising (23 US$ for sun cream - havin' a laugh!) and we were soon back on board.
Much more sophisticated and up-market. Shops and parkland around the port area were very impressive and the whole place had a much more refined feel about it. We went through the fort, crossed the magnificent floating bridge and had a good look around the town, which is full of attractive little streets and interesting Dutch architecture. We picked up a trip in the centre of town (for 15 US$ each - would have cost about 60 $ through the ship!) and had an enjoyable trip to the liquer refinery and saw the slave and plantation houses, as well as a beautiful beach (Mambo beach). All in all, a good trip and good value for money.
Panama Canal: What we saw (pity it was pouring with rain) was very impressive, but we hadn't known that the Gatun Lake is immediately after the locks, so that's about ALL you will see! We'd expected more, but all you do is go through the locks (fascinating), anchor up to tender off a few passengers for shore trips, and then back out again. From there, you anchor up in Colon to await the return of the shore trips. Although Colon is a commercial and industrial port of little scenic appeal, we nevertheless saw a large croc patrolling the shoreline!
Costa Rica: On this port we had booked a shore trip. The eco-cruise which included a train ride; fruit/drinks at the boat berth; a boat trip on the river for wildlife viewing; visit to a banana packing factory. Excellent trip and good value for money. The river cruise was especially impressive and we saw howler monkeys; three-toed sloths; basilisks; cayman "alligators"; bats; beautiful coloured birds and butterflies, and the tail-end of a jungle otter. The "houses" you will pass en route, though, are a culture shock and may leave you with an impression of great poverty. They're put together with a few wooden props and boards and are predominantly walled and roofed with tarpaulin sheets and corrugated tin, chickens and goats are scratting about as is the odd mangy dog, and lines of washing are hung between trees. The people, however, wave and smile and the country is known to be one of the more stable in South America, so it can't be all that bad!
We booked this cruise because we wanted to visit this part of the Caribbean, so any shortcomings with the ports of call is down to us - no-one else! And as it's only our opinion, other visitors might take an entirely different view. As to our fellow guests, we half expected that they would be non-Brits but have still found many other HAL ships in the Med where guests from other countries will make the effort to conform to a dress code; why not here?
With regard solely to the ship, there were a lot of boxes we could tick, including, I have to say, the Captain and his officers who were very visible, courteous and pro-active. You don't often see the captain on other ships, do you? But here, he hosted the Officer's Ball, met and greeted guests and seemed genuinely approachable and welcoming. In his daily report from the bridge he gave lots of interesting information about the position of the ship, the nearest land, the ports of call and the weather/sea conditions.
But the facts remain, the ship is overdue a top-to-toe renovation.
Once that's done, we'd happily try her again, though not in the Caribbean.