Our party of three--one adult with two kids aged 5 and 8 years--traveled from Montreal to Boston on the Maasdam during the last week of August 2012.
I opted to make our usual New England to Pacific NW summer visit without flying on any airplanes this summer. I accomplished this by booking the train across the USA westbound (Amtrak), then a combination of train (Via Rail) and this cruise to complete our voyage home across Canada. My boys and I left home in mid-June and returned to Boston on September 1st, so we were traveling with a lot of luggage (6 checked bags at debarkation.)
We'd had the pleasure of my husband's company during the first leg of our Canadian voyage, so, rather than hassle with child safety seats in a taxi, my husband got a cab to drive our luggage to the embarkation port in Montreal while I walked with the children from our Vieux Montreal hotel (Marriott SpringHill Suites--very good!) This port is slightly different than our home port of Boston with a security checkpoint at the exterior gate as well as the security I expected inside the terminal building. That meant I had to show our passports as we walked up the gate, and I was worried that my husband's cab would be stopped since he had no ticket or other proof of his need to come onto the pier. It was actually no problem at all! He passed through in the cab and was waiting for us when we made our way up to the second-story passenger entrance. (Cars dropping people off drive up to this level on a ramp.)
Port staff in Montreal were very good, and I had no trouble with any part of the embarkation process though I speak no French. I found the overall embarkation process easier in Montreal than I had on a previous cruise from Boston. The location of this port is so wonderful for a tourist. It was easy for us to visit a museum festival on the morning of our departure as it was literally across the street from (and in sight of!) the docked Maasdam! If one stays in the old part of town (Vieux Montreal), there is no need for any transport except one's own feet to get from hotel to ship, luggage-depending, of course. To me, this is ideal.
Dropping off baggage was right at the curb, so no need for a porter to move our many heavy bags after we said goodbye to my husband at the door. There was perhaps a wait of one or two other passengers before we were checking in with an agent. (We arrived at exactly our 1 pm suggested boarding time.) We walked out to the ship and were within in a matter of a few minutes.
I was taken a bit aback upon boarding that we were given absolutely no indication of which direction we should go. As a lady coming aboard with two distracting little people and several rather bulky carry on bags, I expected to be offered directions if not help with the bags, especially as there seemed to be no queue pushing staff to hurry inordinately. Since this was the only service issue we encountered during the rest of our week, I mention it only so the reader might be expecting it; it does not mean that I had significant problems with HAL's level of service on the Maasdam overall.
We found the deck plan by the elevators and were easily able to get to our stateroom after that. I'd booked an inside cabin--Main deck 576--and we were quite satisfied with the size and layout. With three of us traveling, our sofa was instead a bed, and we did not have the little coffee table in the middle of the room. I was happy with that since it would've been in the way instead of helpful. We went for lunch right away so we wouldn't miss it, and then visited the Club HAL facility up above the Lido restaurant. While my kindergartener had been too intimidated to spend any time in Carnival's children's facility two months earlier, he and his brother were very excited to check out Club HAL, and they both ended up begging to spend every possible minute there.
Since HAL is not primarily a "family oriented" line, I'll speak to Club HAL at some length. I didn't ask how many children were on our cruise, but it obviously wasn't a very large number. We arrived back four days before our school year starts, and many areas would have already begun, so the timing of this voyage didn't invite school-age families. For my kids, that was great. There were just enough kids that there was always at least one other person to play with at the Club, but the room never seemed as full as, say, a typical elementary classroom. I think the most I saw at once was about 12 kids. This kept the volume lower (good for my kids) and made me feel very confident that the counsellors had all well in hand. There were three youth staff crew members--Jacob, Alyssa, and... the nice girl whose name my kids never learned! All of them were friendly to me upon drop-off/pick-up, and my kids liked them all quite well.
Maasdam's Club HAL has XBOX 360 with Kinect for video games. (My sons felt this very important to include in the review.) I was happy that the games available for the pre-teen group, which was all ages 3-12 combined for our cruise, were rated E10 or younger. I also was reassured by the staff that kids are not allowed to play video games at all times, but that they have some structured activities interspersed with free time when the kids may choose video entertainment.
Club HAL hours were 8am-4pm for port days and 9-11:30am/1-4pm during our one sea day. Evening hours were always 7-10pm. I brought my kids into the ports with me and found it hard to imagine leaving them aboard the ship while I walked around town, but that was an option. The staff orders up lunch if you do leave your kids all day, but they have to be signed in by 11am to have lunch at noon (for ordering purposes, I'm sure.) The staff did a good job remembering my kids' special (but not extraordinary or life-threatening) dietary needs, though their paperwork seemed less thorough than what I'd filled out on Carnival previously, perhaps because the scale of the program is so much smaller?
My kids felt really special when they were each given a Club HAL backpack and some souvenirs at the farewell party on their final night. Really, everything about this low-key program was perfect for my kids. If you are introverted/quieter people, a less family-oriented cruise can really be a good fit. I was worried about getting nasty looks or other flak from older passengers as I've read comments like that, but all the feedback I heard about my children was positive. I'm sure it helps that I am a strict parent with high expectations, and I travel with my children to share experiences with them--I'm rarely looking to send them off to babysitting so I can do my own thing. What I did hear from about a dozen different guests were compliments on my well-behaved children. That was personally gratifying, but also shows that not every "typical HAL cruiser" will be negatively inclined toward a family with well-behaved children. We did strictly follow the dress code every day, including neckties on formal night, and I'd say we were more dressed up than the average passenger.
As for HAL's entertainment, I am not a party person, and Maasdam was more enjoyable for me than my previous experience on the Carnival Glory (though I liked the Glory more than I expected I would!) I really enjoyed the lecture on the geology of the region, but not quite enough to attend the port lectures. The Explorations Cafe was by far my favorite spot, and I spent most of the cruise in there doing jigsaw puzzles. My little son observed that the Maasdam actually had books in its library, unlike the really poorly named "library" on the Glory with its ~4 linear feet of books. I loved having the espresso bar right next to the library and bought myself one specialty coffee each day. I found the caffe mocha overly sweet here, but my favorite barista (the only male barista, I think) could make a decent latte.
In spite of my low-key nature, evenings were probably the low point of the voyage for me. I am in my 30's, and my kids wanted to spend their evenings at Club HAL without me. After dinner, I would take the kids to the Club, go back to my room and put on more comfortable shoes, then take a walk around the open deck if it was comfortable outside. I sometimes worked on a jigsaw puzzle again, but the light wasn't as good and it wasn't as fun all dressed up for the evening. I went to one show, but I prefer serious theater to song-and-dance stuff, so it wasn't to my liking. By the end of the week, I got used to carrying my notebook around and I would sit somewhere with a view of the sea and write in my journal for the evening. I went to the "Disco Inferno" evening in the Crow's Nest hoping to dance a little since I never get to dance at home, but the dance floor was literally empty for the hour of my attendance. Too bad! A few staff members could go a long way in making it comfortable to get out on the dance floor. I was wishing for some "gentleman hosts" that time.
The stateroom was exactly what I expected and fully met my expectations, though I'll echo what others say and wish for more electrical outlets in convenient places! A clock with iPod dock would also make my life better; hotels are catching on, so why not ships? However, the layout was almost identical to my Carnival Glory experience, minus a helpful shallow cupboard, and worked perfectly fine. Even with six suitcases plus three carry on bags, we easily put away all of our clothing for the trip and tucked every suitcase away out of sight. Even our very large bag fit under the bed, which I'd worried about. With more than a couple sharing a room, a little more desk or table space would be nice, but, really, the room was exactly as described and held us all comfortably, except, perhaps, when we were all dressing for dinner in the narrow standing space between desk and beds. (Sharing with other adults or a teenage girl who fusses more about their primping would be radically different, and probably miserable, IMHO.) Everything in the bathroom was fine, though I'd vote for shelves on BOTH sides of the mirror (not just one) and putting the kleenex dispenser on the side of the sink CLOSER to the door instead of way back by the toilet would make it easier to grab one without going all the way into the bathroom.
Dining experiences were all pretty good. I prefer the dining room and table service, but my boys like the buffet. In the end, we ate most of our breakfasts in our room via room service (how I love those cards on the doorknobs that make breakfast appear at just the right time!) which always arrived promptly, even a few minutes EARLY, which is a tiny bit of an oops when I'm still in a towel fresh from the shower. Lunch was usually Lido buffet, and almost always sandwiches made by the very kind lady Apri. We had any time dining because that's all that was available when we booked, but after we ate at 5:30 the first two evenings, the dining room reservations fellow asked if we'd like to set the same reservation and table for the rest of the trip, and that was great for us. We really liked Herdi, our server, who talked to the boys about his own childhood in Indonesia and listened patiently to their long explanations of their little toys and the games they'd played that day, etc. We loved our table near the aft windows, and the inexplicable sticker on the mirror glass of the server's station next to us that said, "You are beautiful". I kept wondering if that was meant to be there for single cruisers, or if someone had "defaced" the mirror for reasons of their own... Anyway, the food was all made well and pretty good, though the desserts tended to look better than they tasted. My lactose-intolerant boys were so happy that sorbet was usually on the menu for dessert. My little son did miss the "disco dancing dinner" as he called Carnival's nightly dancing waiter show, but he seemed, overall, to like this experience better than the one before.
Every port on this itinerary was perfect for my tastes. I love to step off the ship and already be somewhere worth walking around, making shore excursions and public transit options, not necessities. Halifax was probably the most industrial/least friendly port, but it was still an easy walk to the part of the city most people would want to see. In Sydney, though it required a bus ride, the Fortress of Louisbourg was by far my favorite experience for this trip. Because I had my kids with me (and didn't want to install car seats in taxis), we did opt for several of the ship's shore excursions, all of which were fine, though only in Sydney would I opt to do a ship's excursion again. Having seen these ports, next time I'll just walk around on my own. The Fortress of Louisbourg 8:15am excursion had massive value added in that we were allowed entry into the park BEFORE IT OPENED for the day, though had to stay with our guide for the first bit, and I relished getting photos of everything without any modern tourists spoiling the historical effect. I intend to come back to Nova Scotia for an extended vacation in the future with my family, I liked it so much. We were blessed with great weather--just a couple of rain showers at night when it didn't bother anyone too much.
All in all, the quieter ambiance puts HAL above Carnival in my personal cruise rankings (of only two trips!), but I think I am still looking for my ideal cruise line. I would like even more lectures, especially about the history/culture of the ports. I would love to see a real play (not a musical) in the theater. I think I'll try Cunard next.