As a winter resident of ft Lauderdale, I often cruise on short notice. I can book a cruise on Wednesday and sail on Saturday for a pretty good price. Many of my friends however don't have that luxury, and asked me to plan a cruise that they could go on also. So trying to be helpful, I set up a group directly with HAL last November for a cruise at the end of March. We ended up with thirteen people ranging in age from 29 to 86 with many first time cruisers as well as some seasoned veterans. I didn't expect everyone to have a great time, but boy was I wrong!
First let me say that Ft Lauderdale is the most convenient port to sail from. The airport is five minutes away for those flying in, the area has many hotels within ten minutes of the port, and the terminals are easy to navigate through.
HAL uses a number system for boarding and is well organized. The whole process from arrival to in our rooms was about 30 minutes. We explored the ship, had lunch, and got together for a departure toast and wave to the webcam which we arranged prior to sailing. We had a banner that said "cruise critic loves the webcam" and they zoomed in on us so clearly that my 6 yr old grandson was able to see us on his computer in Chicago.
Because there were 13 of us with varied interests, we pretty much did our own thing for the week. We did have dinner as a group twice, on the formal nights. The rest of the time some of us tried the Pinnacle, the Tamarind, Canneletto, or just room service. Between all of us we experienced about everything the ship had to offer, and I spoke to everyone about their experience before writing this review.
The food overall was excellent. Tamarind and Pinnacle were dining experiences to be enjoyed to the fullest. Expect to spend at least two hours in them so don't schedule anything that would cause you to have to rush during the meal. It is a theatrical presentation in a marvelous setting that you will remember. The food is very good as well.
Canelleto was a welcome change of pace. In a corner of the Lido you can enjoy a full service dinner (not lunch) from a limited Italian menu. The usual items of minestrone, salad, a veal, chicken and fish entree as well as pasta. Nothing too out of the ordinary but for the big wad of cotton candy you get at the end of your meal. Keep in mind though that there is no additional charge to dine there.
The Lido had a good selection of items as well as everything that the main dining room was offering for dinner each night. That made it a good choice for folks that didn't want to spend a lot of time or had younger children who wanted to eat and run. Breakfasts were exceptional with made to order everything available.
We enjoyed playing trivia, going to the piano bar, and the casino. Some of us did the hands on culinary demonstrations where we worked with a chef making a meal and then eating it. A couple liked it so much they did it twice! It is limited to 12 guests so if you want to do it, sign up as soon as possible once you board the ship. There was a $29 fee for this activity.
The fitness area was used by several of us. Some took yoga classes for a small fee, but most chose to use the treadmill or Exercycle to try to burn off some of the calories you can't avoid gaining on a cruise. The spa was enjoyed as well but be advised there is a lot of special pricing done at various times during the cruise. Port days seem to have the best deals and formal night days seem to be the most crowded.
The shows vary according to your taste. Some of us thought they were good and some thought they were just fair. The performers all worked very hard and really tried to please the audience but I would suggest going to the ones that interest you. If you enjoy Broadway, there is one night of that, if you like magic there was a good magician one night, etc.
The Addagio strings and guitarist on board were very good and had their own following of guests who saw them multiple times.
Turks was mostly for hanging out at Margaritaville or one of the local beaches. Some went snorkeling or to shop. The nice thing was the ship docks right in front of the beach and visitor center. You can walk to most things of interest.
San Juan is a large city. The port is in old San Juan and offers many things you can walk to as well. There are a lot of interesting excursions available that were enjoyed by us. The rainforest and Forts were interesting to see. We ate in a local restaurant and enjoyed the local flavor.
St Thomas was mainly a shopping spot for many of us. Unfortunately the ship docked away from the downtown area so walking was not an option. Others took a ferry to St Johns to tour the national park or snorkel. I've been here several times o it was an opportunity for me to enjoy some time on the ship.
Half Moon Cay was paradise! HALs private island is consistently voted the best of all the cruise lines for good reason. It has a gorgeous beach, wonderful snorkeling, a nice BBQ lunch and you can ride horses in the ocean! Marvelous way to spend the last day of your cruise.
We rented a Retreat Cabana for the week and it was exceptional. If you want one you should book months before your cruise because they go fast. Very private area with two cabana boys to take care of you. You have champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, actually anything you want they seem to get for you. Deluxe lounge chairs bottled water, fruit bowls etc. This was $299 for the week but I will get this every time I can in the future.
This was a breeze. We had breakfast in the Lido and left the ship at around 9:30AM. Customs and luggage was rightbthere when we got off and we were home in thirty minutes. Others who had flight to catch (some as early as noon) had no problem as the airport is so close.
This was my first HAL cruise but I had such a wonderful time I already booked my next. Going to Alaska in four weeks on the Westerdam and am hoping for it to be equally enjoyable.