About us: Mid 40's couple. Our 4th cruise, first aboard Holland America, the previous three were all on Princess. We're pretty active, enjoy all sorts of foods and exploring new places. This cruise was simply a relaxation trip, we had no excursions planned when we left port.
I originally posted much of this information in my live blog I kept during the cruise. (http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1741245) This Review re-organizes all the reports into categories instead of by day to make it easier to get the information you may be looking for. I'll give you the overview of each element followed by the in depth report.
Before You Cruise
A few quick tips that we have learned both here on CC and in our previous cruises.
Closet space is generally a little tight on cruise ships so we bring an over the door canvas shoe rack with us that we put over the bathroom door. Not only does it hold the shoes, but we put toiletries and other supplies in there. http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/1/1/41853-over-the-door-24-pocket-canvas-shoe-organizer.html
Bring at least two night lights with you, one for the stateroom and one for the bathroom.
In the case of Holland America, I recommend at least one battery operated tap light for the closet. We found the closet nearest the door was too dark to see into as the light was too far away.
Almost all staterooms have only one power outlet so bring a power strip, power squid or some other power adapter with you. We found this neat "butterfly" style adapter at Target that has two USB power ports on the end and then opens up to reveal two regular power outlets.
Ft. Lauderdale & Embarkation
This cruise left from Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale. If you are arriving to Ft. Lauderdale in advance of the cruise like we do, cannot recommend Embassy Suites on 17th Street enough. It's an older hotel but the rooms are nice and they have an awesome complimentary breakfast that includes made to order omelette and pancakes.
It also has a nice shopping center behind it with a Publix, Wine Store and some really good eateries including Coco Asian restaurant where we each time. But there are some grills, Moe's and other places to eat that you can simply walk back to. A nice espresso and ice cream shop as well. We always arrive a day early and stay there.
For your cruise, it's an easy drive / taxi / shuttle to the port or if you drive, you can park your car at the hotel for a fee.
For us, we went with Park N Go which is an off port parking facility and they run continuous shuttles to the ships. We use their Park N Fly service here in Atlanta and have always been happy with them. In this case, it was a bit of an adventure. The shuttle broke down on the way to the ship, three times. The poor driver was trying everything he could to get the shuttle running again. As it as only 11:30 and departure not till 5:00, we weren't worried. Two new shuttles showed up within 5 minute and we were transferred for the last mile of the journey. All in all they did a great job handling the situation with humor and speed.
Getting through the registration lines and onto the ship was handled very smoothly by the entire port team. No problems at all, except of course those absolutely annoying photos you need to pose for before you can walk through to the ship. Not sure why the cruse lines think that's such a great idea. Why not take it AFTER we get on the ship, topside somewhere? That's when we're pretty excited. :)
If you plan to bring your own WiFi enabled device, it's definitely flaky even in good signal areas like the Exploration Bar/Crows Nest Area so bring a a good dose of patience. I used both my iPad 1 and iPhone 5 onboard and even when either device had a good solid four bars of signal, the wifi just disappeared for no apparent reason. The iPad is definitely worse than the phone at dropping the signal, but both devices do it. Fortunately all I had to do was go back to Settings >Wifi and reselect the correct wifi signal and I'm right back online. No need to log in again if the signal drops off during a session.
The WiFi in our stateroom was the worst of any ship we have been on despite the repeater being just three doors down in the hallway. I used 20 minutes of Internet time over two attempts the first day to upload my first live blog to CC, and the wifi kept dropping off so I gave up.
We purchased the 250 minute plan for $100 at Embarkation and got either 20 or 30 minutes added to the time. That time is good across any number of devices including the onboard computers. You just log in using your login and go. Obviously for these long reports I type up everything offline and the just copy / paste into CC. Definitely remember to Logout as instructed as soon as you are done so you don't waste minutes.
The flaky wifi is probably a gentle reminder that we are on vacation so go off the grid for a while. :)
The ms Nieuw Amsterdam & Stateroom.
In a word, beautiful.
We chose the Nieuw Amsterdam primarily because we had originally booked a Mediterranean cruise for 2011 on this very same ship but had to cancel. When we made the decision to get away for the Thanksgiving holiday, we found this ship itinerary and jumped at the chance to sail on her. Being from New York originally, the Nieuw Amsterdam really appealed to me with the NYC motif. I have to say first off, take the time to explore the cabin hallways as there are many MANY incredible black and white photographs of old New York, and many of the older HAL ships in New York. In fact there are great touches of New York all over the ship, but the photos are really enjoyable. I especially love the shipboard photos of how folks used to cruise.
We strolled around the ship and first impressions are beautiful. It's a bit more elegant with much more attention to the small details than what we've seen on Princess. Don't get me wrong, we still love Princess, but this ship feels a bit more like "classic cruising" than floating behemoth. Photo gallery, the screening room, main lobby, has a much smaller classic ship feel. We didn't try out the Screening Room on this ship, but that was a nice looking mini-movie theater with really comfy looking chairs and seating for about 30. 2nd run movies played the entire cruise.
Down on Deck 1 you'll notice what look like four movie posters on the wall just past the Shore Excursions desk on the starboard side. They are the history of the four Nieuw Amsterdams dating back to 1906. The posters are very cool and then turn around to see half of a glass panel engraved with all of the passenger signatures from the Nieuw Amsterdam IV maiden voyage in 2010. The other half of the panel is on the port side just past the Front Desk. Take a little time to check these out.
The Northern Lights nightclub was pretty small as to be expected on this line, looked nice, just not a lot of room to dance Casino was a good size, though we don't play on the ships, not good odds and way too much smoke in the rooms. Be sure to take a look in the art gallery at the "bicycle tire" chairs. Literally chairs made from bicycle wheels. The shopping area is pretty nice with the shops all being and open floor plan, like one huge store. Had the usual assortment of jewelry, watches, liquor and women's clothes along with some fun T's and coffee mugs playing off a "dam good" theme. And they also had THE largest box of cigarettes I have ever seen in my life. I have no idea how many packs are in there, but wow....
Off the Lido pool on Deck 9 is the spa. DW noted that she likes the concept of the hydro pool area of the spa, but it's not private at all. There are large windows that look in from the Lido pool area. She commented that you pay extra to get the spa therapy and it'd be a little nicer if that pool area was more private like the spa in Princess. A small thing but something she noticed.
The Crow's Nest up front offers one of the most spectacular views on the ship along with just a wonderful seating area. Its also adjacent to the Explorers lounge and the library DW noticed that the lending library has far more books than Princess and there's even a paperback exchange if you want to trade out some books. Explorers Lounge is where you will find espresso and other coffees. Quite good.
Our Stateroom was 4179 on deck 4 starboard. It's the very most rear cabin before the corner suite. The cabin was nice though there was an issue of the closet closest to the door not having any light. Makes it almost impossible to see in there so a battery operated tap light or something like that would be useful. And the overall layout of the closet setup is much better laid out on Princess, though its just a bit of a tight layout between the closets and bathroom Otherwise, the room and balcony are what we would expect for a cruise ship.
Actually being on Deck 4 our balcony is about a foot or so longer than all the other decks which is nice. This is because the lifeboats are directly below us and they needed a wider perch to hang from. So if you want a larger balcony for no extra cost, deck 4 is where you want to be.
The cabin is a shower only room, no bathtub, which we knew going in. Have to say, one of the nicest showers we've had on any ship. Good pressure, plenty of room, and a really nice shower head. The triple dispensers in the shower with soap, shampoo and conditioner make for easy access to all. And I really liked the dual controls for temperature and water on/off. Makes it easy to set the temp quickly the next time. Not to mention the lush towels like you used to get in the nice hotels years ago, really nice. And the bathrobes provided with the cabin were really nice and soft and much thicker than the paper thin ones we get on Princess. We thought about buying a set to take home.
Beds are relatively comfortable though DW (RebeccaC on these forums) did ask for an egg crate topper after the first night. The pillows were a bit too soft but we find that in almost every hotel and ship we go to. We at also had the mini fridge emptied so we could put out our own drinks in there. They have it preloaded with pay beverages.
One thing you'll appreciate when it comes time for the cruise to end, is that the departure paperwork was waiting for us in the room. What? Departure paperwork before the cruise even starts? Yep, get it out of the way so you don't even have to think about it on the last night. Actually a great idea.
Now the one thing we really noticed different about this ship compared to the three Princess ships we had been on previously is just how much you feel the engines and hear the noise in the ship. About the only thing that compares was one night steaming from Panama Canal a few years ago when the seas were a little rough and the captain was pushing us through. That ship had some rumble to it for one night. But decks 2, 3 and 4 on the Nieuw Amsterdam you really feel the vibrations of the engines and you can hear quite a bit of noise going through the lower promenade on deck 2. Even on the higher decks like up in Tamarind or the Cabana Club on deck 11 you still feel quite a bit of vibration from the engines. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, just something we've noticed different from the other ships.
About the only real negative on the ship was the carpeting in the elevator area was a bit rough and in need of being replaced. But we were told by a crew member that the NA is due for dry dock refurbishment in April of 2013 so the carpet will be replaced by that time. It really wasn't that big a deal.
I will say the crew was incredibly friendly from the top down. Sure they have been friendly on the Princess ships but it feels a bit more inviting and genuine here. Lots of smiles, friendly folks and taking care of our every need. At the buffet I watched multiple stewards go out of their way to help folks carry plates and drinks to the tables, and the serving staff / chefs on the buffet lines are just incredibly friendly and tend to laugh a lot. That extends to our Cabana Stewards Mel and Maurice. Seems each crew member tries to acknowledge everyone and not just turn away and ignore us. Nice touch.
As we have mentioned before (DW is RebeccaC here on CC) the crew has just been incredibly friendly and helpful from the top down.
The Cabana Club & Lido Pool Cabanas, the Pools.
If you're just looking for a place to relax, the Cabana Club is well worth the price.
This is the Eastern Caribbean cruise and as we have done a similar voyage on Princess in the past we decided to just make this a relaxation voyage. With excursions planned, DW booked a cabana for the entire week up in the Cabana Club. Even before we left Port Everglades we stopped up to meet our butler for the week and he made us feel right at home. Just sitting in port there was a beautiful breeze coming through. Though we were late for lunch service, he let us order from the menu and immediately got some champagne for DW along with chocolate covered strawberries.
If you don't know what these are, the cabanas are available for the day or the week and included are bottled water, fruit, lunch, champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, ice cream in the afternoon, and more. Most of all for DW there is shade at all times from the sun and we don't have to get to the pool area early to get a spot in the shade. There an entire area reserved for cabana guests that includes sofas and outdoor dining tables. Gotta say coming back to the Cabana Club after a day in port is very nice indeed. They spoil you up here. There is almost zero shade around that pool and the Lido Pool has limited lounge chairs so shaded lounging is definitely a premium on this ship. The main reason DW booked this cabana for the week.
There are also cabanas available by the Lido Pool but note that these are tucked underneath the Deck 10 walkway and back up to a glass wall. In addition, the roof of the Lido Pool is closed from time to time. All in all, we found that these cabanas seem like they can get stuffy with not a whole lot of air flow due to being tucked under the walkway and the roof being closed, especially in the mornings. And of course these cabanas will offer almost no privacy or quiet because you're part of the Lido Pool area which can be noisy if a lot of kids are aboard like the week we were there. But if you want guaranteed shade near the pool, this is the way to go.
It's obvious the pool roof requires a lot of maintenance as it seemed that they worked on it each day we were up in the cabanas. There is an alarm similar to a vehicle backing up that goes off when the roof is in motion which can be several times per day. Unlike the Island Princess, this roof is only one story up so it does get stuffy when the roof is closed, but they do seem to keep it open as often as possible. The neat thing is that you can walk around the outside of the roof on Deck 10 which on Princess it's an indoor walk. There is limited lounge seating around the Lido which is set up more for poolside dining. On the Starboard side of the Lido pool area is the grill that serves hamburgers and sandwiches. And for you Vegetarians, DW did say the veggy burger available at this grill is quite good. MUCH better than the one they serve on Princess.
If you're looking to just lounge out by the pool, I would suggest the Sea View pool in the rear of the ship, plenty of lounge chairs, though note there is basically zero shade back there. It's all sun. Also a note that the Sea View Pool is Adults Only which makes it a bit quieter. But keep your sandals and other footwear handy as the deck can literally turn scalding on a hot day.
A note on booking the cabanas: One of the CC folks we met on board told me one morning he wanted to get a Cabana Club cabana for the week but the front office told him they were sold out. It was clear to us at least a few were available so I brought him up to talk to one of the butlers, Mel. Mel confirmed that there were five cabanas available our week and said he could help arrange the cabana with the front desk Not sure why the front desk was saying none available. So if you want one of these and the front desk says they are sold out, I encourage you to go up to the Cabana Club and ask the butlers directly. They are awesome!
The Beverage Card Fiasco
A bit of a fiasco for us and in the end, we didn't need it.
DW ordered a $250 beverage card well in advance of the cruise and per suggestions here on CC, she ordered it to be delivered on the first At Sea day which allows us to avoid paying Florida taxes. Generally the card arrives within a few hours of leaving Port Everglades but by 8am of day one at sea, it had not arrived.
DW went to the front desk at noon and the attendant told her it would be delivered directly to the Cabana Club soon. At 1:30pm with no beverage card in sight, one of our fantastic butlers on the Cabana Club spoke with the beverage manager on the phone and was told there is "a problem with the system." What the manager told him to do was to run our beverages through and then the manager will remove the charges whenever the card gets issued. In reality, that never happened, the charges were never removed from our room and transferred back to the card.
At 4:50pm this time I went down to the front desk.. Was told by the front desk it's usually delivered in the late afternoon around dinner. I explained we have been waiting all day for it and we were promised a card "soon" at 12 noon. The attendant promptly made a card on the spot. I have absolutely no idea why the person at noon couldn't do the same thing.
A few days later, someone else here on CC noted that HAL changed their Beverage Card policy that very week we were cruising. We paid $225 for the $250 Beverage Card online before the cruise. That was the discount offer being made at the time. The very week we sailed, HAL dropped the discount so a $250 card cost the full $250. Perhaps this was the "problem with the system" our butler mentioned, but whatever the problem, it was definitely most irritating part of the entire trip and completely inexcusable.
We will never pre order a beverage card from HAL again, I can assure you of that. What an ordeal for a piece of plastic that took 30 seconds to prepare. In the end, we ended up not using up the entire card anyway, but HAL does refund the unused portion of the Beverage Card back to your credit card, so no money lost.
Dining and Food
The food was a mixed bag on the ship. DW had read on CC prior to traveling that the HAL ships seemed to be inconsistent with their food. The Dining Room was a bit disappointing, but both the Buffett and especially Tamarind were outstanding. I found most of the dining room offerings dry, bland and just not well prepared. A few nuggets were good, but were it not for awesome dinner companions at our table, I would have opted to avoid the dining room after the first night.
DW is a vegetarian and she ordered off the main menu each night we were in the Manhattan Dining Room and she was fine with that. There is a special Vegetarian Menu available, but she had plenty of choices on the main menu. Her food was consistently better as well. I think this is because fewer of those items are made than all the other entrees.
We opted for the fixed, 8pm seating in the upstairs Dinging Room. We've never done fixed seating before and decided to try it out and it worked out very nicely. For those who go with the anytime dining in the lower dining room, once the dining room is full, they issue you those wireless notification units like you see in many restaurants. This allows you to head over to the bar and relax instead of standing outside the dining room.
I will also say that it felt like the Dining Room staff was attending too many tables, at least in the upstairs, fixed seating Dining Room. The food was brought out smartly, but once we received our food, it was difficult to get the attention of our servers. So if something was missing, wasn't quite right, it might take 5 minutes or more to get the attention of the server. And they were so harried, a couple of times I mentioned problems with my dishes, but they didn't acknowledge what I said, simply smiled and moved on. With Princess the servers were always hovering near the tables.
What follows here are details on each of the days.
Manhattan Dining Room:
We all had the four mushroom crustini and while the mushrooms were quite good, the bread needed to be toasted more. DW had the chilled carrot and citrus soup which she said was quite tasty. I went with the chicken and artichoke cream soup that was decent. For the entree I went with a chicken special (can't remember the name) that was wrapped in zucchini and served on couscous. It was decent, the chicken was moist but just not a lot of flavor from the entire mix. DW went with the eggplant Parmesan which had excellent fried eggplant. For dessert we went with the strawberries with balsamic reduction. This was disappointing. It was just sliced strawberries with some balsamic vinegar dripped on. Good strawberries, but the reduction sauce was less than desired. Should have been served on a plate too so the berries all sat in the sauce. It was served in an ice cream dish which didn't work.
DW went with the cream of mushroom soup to start, it was ok, not great, but ok. Caprese salad had a nice balsamic dressing on it, mozzarella was good too. Then she went with the veggie loaf for entree. While the loaf was pretty good, she thought the combination of the loaf, polenta and pureed carrots was a bit odd. Each item was pretty good individually, but together they made for an interesting combination.
I went with the clams appetizer and had the smallest clams I've ever seen, but they were tasty. Then the Caprese salad with the Alaskan King Crab legs for the main course. The crab legs were good and thankfully they were split making them easy to eat, but be sure to ask for melted butter when you order. They don't bring it to the table, so as I mentioned at the start, it took a few minutes to get their attention again. Of course crab legs don't stay hot for very long so they had cooled a bit when the butter arrived. They were still good, but would have been nice to have the butter in advance.
Dessert was rhubarb crisp for DW and the "Master Chef" special for me. The crisp was pretty good, but the special was a white chocolate chef hat stuffed with chocolate mousse and a small piece of chocolate cake type of thing. It was ok. Desserts were consistently a weak element on this ship.
The kitchen redeemed itself this morning with some good French toast for DW and a very good Frittata Italiana for me in the main dining room. Dinner on Day Three was in the Tamarind speciality restaurant, that restaurant is listed separately.
Dinner in the main dining room was better tonight, and I had the best dessert I've had so far. DW had a goat cheese appetizer that was quite good, a blend of the cheese and nuts. The soup was a pistou that was basically a veggy minestrone, very good. For entree she went with the gnocchi with Alfredo and onions. That wasnt bad, could have used a bit of Parmesan, but them I make homemade gnocchi so we are a bit spoiled with mine. Dessert was the biggest crime brulee I've ever seen. It was ok, not crispy enough on top, but the cream was good.
For me I started with a crispy crab roll that was rather tasty. Soup was the corn and squash with crabmeat. An interesting combination. Dinner was the chefs special grilled duck salad. Quite tasty and probably the lightest thing I've ever eaten on a ship for entree. :) Now dessert was absolutely delectable. Flourless chocolate cake. Deep, rich dark chocolate. Just delicious, I almost ordered a second one. Best thing I've had in the main dining room.
DW started with the vegetarian citrus and avocado appetizer which was ok, then the Cream of Asparagus soup. The soup was not bad, not great but not bad. Entree was a vegetarian stuffed cabbage which she says was pretty good.
For me I started off with dual appetizers as I could not make up my mind. An Ahi Tuna carpaccio was outstanding, one of the appetizers I've had on the ship. The genoa appetizer was also good. I skipped soup in lieu of the Bibb lettuce salad with sundries tomatoes. Quite good. Entree was a VERY dry red wine beef brisket with mashed potatoes. The potatoes made up for the beef, not a very good entree at all. We skipped dessert as the "Dessert Extravaganza" was this same evening up near the Lido Pool.
What a mixed bag, mostly lousy. I will give up on the main dining room for all future HAL cruises. DW had the dual vegetarian entrees which were Mushroom Ravioli (decent) and the grilled Tofu dish (better) and a salad for appetizer. I started with the shrimp cocktail that featured a mustard dip. It was ok. Chicken and rice soup had a few pieces of rice and the broth was not great so I didn't eat it. My table mates said the escargot appetizer was great so I ordered one of those. Probably the best thing I had in the dining room all week. If you like clams in garlic and oil, you will like this. Entree was a Parmesan crusted turkey loin with mashed potatoes. Turkey was cold and dry so I didn't eat it, but the potatoes were good. As I mentioned previously table staff has too many tables to wait on so i wasn't able to tell them about the problems.
Then it was comical because this was the night for the baked Alaska parade, but our waiters had already served it to us before it started. Featured the same lousy ice cream, terrible cake (hardly any in it) and honestly the dessert was lousy. Maybe it's tradition, but if you make a big deal out of this dessert, then at least make a decent one. No other desserts were offered this night, so we went for cookies in the buffet after the show.
Speciality Asian Restaurant. $15 charge per person
Some of the best food we've had on any ship. Well worth the $15 charge.
Remember earlier when I mentioned that we can feel the engines and hear the noise more on this ship than any other we've been on? Well it really came into play our first night in Tamarind.
The Manager sat us directly up against the windows on the right side of the restaurant as you walk in. The floor was shaking so badly the silverware was rattling on the table and after about 5 minutes I was really starting to feel ill. This went far beyond just a vibration, it was literally pitching my chair up and down. And keep in mind this is all the way up on Deck 11. I finally had to ask the manager to move us or I was going to have to leave. Thankfully there were other tables available. Three other couples all did the same thing. Not really sure what happened that night but we experienced far more vibration, and in this case severe vibration than we've ever experienced, even on the higher decks. And I can tell you the seas were normal, no rough weather at all.
Now once were got to a better table, we were treated one of the best meal we've ever had on a ship. Started out with shrimp crackers for me and rice crackers for her. Plenty of vegetarian options for DW. She started with vegetable Spring Rolls then Vegetarian Sushi. For main course she went with Sesame Udon Noodles and then Tamarind Chocolate which was a bittersweet chocolate and ginger mousse. Wow, that was amazing. For me, I went with the Jewels of the Sea soup (shrimp wontons in broth), Shanghai Ribs over pickled cabbage (we heard they ran out of that right after I ordered it). The soup was good and the ribs excellent. For main course I went with the Scallops and Prawns with garlic and ginger. Just sublime. For dessert I chose the Tempura ice cream which featured a Coconut and a Coffee ice cream with a vanilla sauce. Outstanding.
The wait staff was simply outstanding in here as well Flying all over the place, very friendly and very helpful and quite beautiful. We booked a second reservation at Tamarind that very night.
Tamarind Dinner 2:
Dinner at Tamarind was simply incredible again and we noticed that the vibration issue along the windows was gone. Kind of ironic since we were going so much faster that night than the first meal. DW started with the vegetable spring rolls, then a vegetable sushi mix. For the main course she went with the Five Spice Sietan and Tempeh. She said it was excellent. Then for dessert she went with the Trio of Sorbets which was wasabi, passion fruit basil and lychee green tea. The passion fruit basil was her favorite of the three.
I started off with the Chicken Pho with lime and rice noodles. I've never had pho with a coconut milk base before, usually it's broth. Absolutely incredible. Then the Shanghai ribs again because they're so darn tasty. For the main course I went with the Wasabi and Soy crusted beef tenderloin. I'm not a hot spice fan so I asked them to go light on the wasabi, which they did. I could taste the wasabi, but didn't have any of the heat. It was the best steak I have had in a very long time. Was also served with tempura onion rings which were a nice touch. For dessert I went with the tempura ice cream again because it's so good.
The table next to us ordered the fortune cookie dessert which is an oversized cookie the size of a dessert plate. It's huge! We will be dining at Tamarind multiple times on our next NA cruise.
The food in the Lido Buffet was consistently better than what we had in the dining room. Veteran HAL cruisers onboard told us the Buffet has been getting consistently better while the dining room has been dropping in quality. The Lido Buffet has slightly different offerings in the front most station. On the port side it was Mexican themed and on the other side it was Flavors of the World which varied between Asian, Japan, Thai and Indian. The Flavors of the World always included sushi for lunch which was quite good each day.
DW wanted me to mention to the Vegetarians out there, the Lido Buffet does NOT label vegetarian items, you must ask the staff. The servers were very attentive about getting the information to know exactly what was and was not veggy friendly. She also noted that the best vegetarian options were usually found in the Flavors of the World area. The main entrees area rarely has a vegetarian entree though there are plenty of side dishes. All in all a very vegetarian friendly buffet.
Note that the buffet is NOT open 24 hours, it does have set times and does close At 11:30pm I believe, though coffee and other drinks Room service is 24 hours though so you can still take care of very late night munchies.
BIG positive in the buffet is the coffee. It is real ground coffee, not the coffee syrup they use on Princess. I'm a coffeeholic and I have to say the coffee is quite good in the buffet and a nice surprise. Not as strong as a coffeehouse, but a whole lot better than syrup based coffee!
Breakfast is excellent with made to order eggs, omlettes, crepes and most of the time pancakes and waffles. Lunches were very good when we had them here. Food is definitely much better and more consistent in the buffet than the main dining room. We also had lunch there upon our return and it was great. As we have mentioned before, check out both sides of the buffet as they are not exactly the same and the buffet is very long on both sides which really spread out people so you don't feel like crowded cattle.
Now for dessert, the only way to describe the ice cream on the ship (and we tried it twice) is that it is odd. Seems like some weird cross between ice cream and ice milk is our best guess. Whatever it is, it's pretty gosh darn bad, at least for us, both in the dining room and here in the buffet. So we went with the cookies for dessert.
The "Dessert Extravaganza":
Held one night during a 7 night cruise around the Lido Pool. Quite impressive in how they set it up, but for us, the desserts were much more beautiful than they were flavorful.
You can go early and shoot photos of everything before they turn you loose on the food. Before they opened the desert line, the most intriguing thing for us was the candied apples. Well, they looked a lot better than they tasted for us. Well actually, the poor chef serving them didn't know the flavors correctly. The caramel he gave my wife was actually lemon coated and my cinnamon was actually cherry coated. Very sticky and not all that great. But they make for a beautiful photo!
The rest of the desserts are a mixed bag and far too many to mention. Basically when they announce the buffet is open, The line grows immediately. One tip if you want to try the cakes, they have cakes set up on the stage area opposite the main buffet layout. People were mobbing the main cake display on other side of the pool, so I just walked up on the stage and had the chef give me slices of three different cakes, no line. Now here again, the chef didn't know what the cakes were besides the red velvet but it didn't matter, I was just sampling. Most of what we saw is the the same as is what is on the buffet.
It's certainly a fun social occasion though the Lido Pool area does get stuffy when the roof is closed. It was open when we started but then it was closed and it got stuffy pretty quickly. Was MUCH more enjoyable when they had the roof open with the breeze.
The styrofoam statues around are fun though. Big Ben (which kept falling into the pool), Pyramids, Leaning Tower of Pisa, all around the pool make for fun decor. All in all a fun event, but the deserts are definitely a mixed bag in terms of flavor. You'll definite find something you like though. For us it was a pudding cake I found on the stage next to the Sphinx.
We only did one of these the entire cruise, though we meant to do more. Each day at 3:00pm the NA has a High Tea with each day being a different theme. We attended the Dutch Tea. It consisted of a whole series of sweets from fruit tarts to mini cakes and pastries. All quite good and a nice selection of teas. It's served in the main dining room in the back of the ship. We would recommend showing up about 3:15 or so to let the initial rush of folks get through. This tea was much better attended than the ones we have been to on Princess so there was quite the dual lines when we arrived 5 minutes early.
When we got back to the ship, we tried out the Slice pizza stand in the back of the ship. The best way to describe this would be a good frozen pizza. It's not frozen, but that's kind of what it tastes like. Not the best, but not terrible. Kids will probably love it. The Pizza on Princess is much better.
Canaletto's is an added fee restaurant that operates in one portion of the Lido Buffet. Here on CC it gets mixed reviews and one of our fellow diners at dinner told us it was not to their liking. The problem I have with it is that it's just a part of the buffet space so there's no "restaurant experience" like Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind. Folks walk through the area on their way to the pools or to get drinks from the buffet area. So I honestly can't see a reason to pay extra for essentially a sit down dinner in a buffet area. If it was free, that'd be fine or just simply serve the Italian food as part of the buffet and leave it at that. Seems like a forced attempt to have a third "restaurant" on board. The Italian restaurant on Princess has been quite good and is set apart as its own restaurant.
DW ordered a bottle of wine at the first dinner, had it corked and at each successive dinner, the bottle has been waiting for her on the table. Very nice touch and better than the system on Princess where they have to go fetch it. And the dedicated wine stewards in the dining room are much more efficient allowing the food staff to get the meals out. When we dined in Tamarind, the wine steward went down to the dining room to get her wine, so you can have it anywhere on the ship. Again, dinner staff and the wine stewards just incredibly friendly each night.
Speaking of drinks, we have been trying out various drinks and their "drink of the day." Really enjoying the standard Mojito the most along with the Strawberry Basil Belissimo. Another tasty drink is the Tropo Mango Mojito which is blended with fresh mango. The Cosmo is also quite good on here as well.
For a nice place to have a drink, check out the Silk Den, it's directly in front of Tamarind on Deck 11. What a beautiful bar overlooking the Lido Pool with oversized couches and chaise lounges. A great place for a drink or conversation. When you order a drink they bring an appetizer plate with a spring roll and some sushi samples They also make the best Tropo Mango Mojito on the ship. We had drinks there before dinner at Tamarind both times.
Overall, the entertainment was decent. Nothing spectacular, nothing that we would have been disappointed to mix. And one just awful show that made us feel sorry for the performers.
The Showroom At Sea is a just a beautiful throwback theater with a lot of wonderful retro art deco touches. It really looks like a classic theater with full balcony, nice seats and great art deco retro vibe. We found some really nice love seats in the back row of the balcony where we watched a couple of shows. I'm also a techno geek (I work in television production) and I'm very impressed with the staging. They really squeeze a lot of capabilities into a small footprint.
The second night we caught the Cantare show in the showroom. The live band really sounded great and the four singers were quite good.
The Piano Bar is nice enough room, though a good portion of the seats on the right side have obscured views for some reason. The pianist is good and plays songs from different artists/genres each night which mixes things up. We were spoiled by Bert Stratton on the Princess ships who is a very talented and very funny pianist, but this gentleman is quite good on NA.
The comedian on our cruise was Rod Long who put on a fun 45 minute show that was ship, family friendly safe. There was another comedian / magician advertised who didn't appeal to us so we skipped it. We missed Recycled Percussion but that sounded like it was a great show.
Unfortunately, we DID see "NYC" which was a review featuring the ship's dancers and singers. The only way to describe this is one hour of my life I will never get back. We never expect much from the ship shows, but this was by far the worst show we've ever seen on a ship. We felt bad for the performers because they are talented singers and dancers, but whoever designed this show really doesn't have a clue. Poor song choice, poor arrangements, poor choreography, just a hot mess all around. People were leaving left and right from the balcony where we were sitting. We were trapped so we endured the whole show.
So on this ship, the entertainment was just so-so for us.
As I noted in the beginning of this review, this was a pure relaxation trip so we really didn't do much in the way of planned excursions.
First off, we loved the Self Serve Excursion Kiosks located on Decks 2 and 3 (maybe more) which allow you to book an excursion via an ATM type of machine anytime that's convenient for you. Simply swipe your room key, pick the excursion, select the amount of people and your tickets are printed on the spot. We did this one night on our way into the theater. This would be a great idea for more ships to pick up on.
The stunning thing about Grand Turk is that the ship literally pulls right up to the beach. This is the perfect, free, do nothing, convenient beach directly off the ship and with plenty of palm tree shade. Is is probably THE best set up port as far as a relaxing beach we have ever seen. It's now 10:45 and there are still hundreds of beach chairs available so don't feel like you have to "fight the crowds" for a chair. As Half Moon Cay requires tenders for that Island, we are thinking this is an even better beach experience in terms of convenience. So if you want a really nice relaxing beach day, plan to stroll off the ship and directly onto the beach in Grand Turk. No excursion required.
This is THE place to get a stunning photo of the ship in port. Walk over to the beach and shoot the ship through the palm trees, then walk down to the water line and get some shots from there. A remarkable sight to see a huge ship about 200 feet from the beach.
As a space and science nut I was happy to learn about Grand Turk's role in the early NASA Gemini and Mercury programs. There is a great exhibit in right hand side of the port shopping area with a replica of the Friendship 7 capsule and a John Glenn statue. He splashed down in the Grand Turk area after his historic first orbits.
The ship started a commentary about noontime on what we were seeing as we entered the harbor.
A tip if you really want to get some great shots entering the harbor, about 30 minutes or so before arriving, the stewards open up the observation area on the bow, directly below the Bridge. Go to Deck 5 and walk all the way forward to get out. Great spot for taking pictures of the forts and harbor as you come in.
This is our first time in San Juan so we booked the Old San Juan Walking Tour. It was a bit chaotic in the beginning as the bus that was supposed to get us to the starting point was 35 min late. But once we started we had a pleasant guide. It went the best walking tour we have been on but certainly not the worst. It was a great way to get the lay of the land of San Juan, see one of the forts and then get some good advice on where to go if you want to shop or eat in San Juan. As the tour was only 2.5 hours, we had about 3 hours or so to explore the city if we wanted. But the temps were about 86 and very muggy today so once the tour was over, we headed back for a swim.
Word of warning on this tour. This is a WALKING tour up and down hills, through the fort and then all the way back to the ship. The bus only takes you to the starting point and that's it. From there you walk the tour and all the way back down to the ship. Dress comfortably, have good shoes on and you'll be fine.
St Maarten and San Juan are both extremely well set up for just walking though there is far less car traffic in St Maarten. When you do get out and walk, be sure to explore the streets back away from beach. There are great shops, street vendors and restaurants for about 5 blocks back from the beach and about 20 or so blocks across. And because all of the roads here are narrow and one way, it's very easy to walk around. There is a great water taxi service for $7 round trip that drops you off in the center of the shopping. Easy on/off, or if you prefer you can walk right out to the shopping directly.
We had nothing planned here but i would recommend the America's Cup excursion if you are looking for something unique to do. We did that a few years ago and had a ball. They are the actual 12 meter boats from the mid 80's and you do a race out in the harbor. Good fun. And you still have plenty of time to explore the island.
There are two MUST stops for us in St Maarten. The Guavaberry shop and The Yoda Man shop. We highly recommend the Guavaberry coladas though they are a little strong So be aware of that. All sorts of great flavored rums and hot sauces in that shop, it's on the right side of the beach about one block back. Can't miss it, it has the image of an Uncle Ben type of character with a top hat and a sign proclaiming the World Capital of Guavaberry. You can sample everything before you buy.
I will say we came out with a bottle of their Mango rum as it was outstanding.
The Yoda Man shop is literally what it says. It's the guy who created the Yoda character for The Empire Strikes Back for LucasFilm. When we visited four years ago the shop was in the Old Street area, but he has moved to a larger space that now includes an interesting museum with Star Wars and other action film memorabilia. Today I got the chance to actually meet Nick and we chatted for about ten minutes. Super nice guy and if you are a Star Wars film fan at all, don't miss this shop. Very cool full sized Darth Vader among the neat things in the museum along with a host of facial masks of a lot of famous folks I picked up some artwork today too that he personally signed to me.
Half Moon Cay Bahamas
We opted to stay aboard this day and hang in the cabana instead of waiting on the tenders. The tenders hold up to 200 folks and it sounded most everyone who wanted to go ashore had made it by noon. It was announced some 1700 folks went ashore. From the ship Half Moon Cay looked gorgeous, reminiscent of Grand Turk's beaches. Looks like folks were having a great time, we definitely enjoyed our time in the cabana. All board was 3:30 and we got underway shortly thereafter.
Shipboard Activities & Electronic Readers
As for shipboard activities, well I can tell you there are a lot of them each day and there is a nice looking Culinary at Sea class area that we have contemplated at times. But honestly this has been a complete retreat for us so we have not partaken of any on board activities so far. I will say that there is only one announcement in the morning and then sometimes a second announcement in the later afternoon on the activities. So it's quiet out on deck with little distractions. I've already read through two books and working my way through a third. That's what we love about cruising. Lots of stuff to do if you want to, and no pressure to do anything if you don't. DW is saved all of the Explorers from each day and will post them separately.
And on the subject of reading, I have the iPad 1 but DW has the Nook Simple Reader which is an E-ink device. That means the device works just like ink on paper and requires light to see the book. If you like to read and want to sit outside, these are the way to go. Lots of glare on tablets mean you need to sit in the shade to read. Her Nook Simple Reader works perfectly in direct sunlight. Not fancy for sure, but for pure reading, it's great. And on blustery days like the few we had, no struggling with the book pages in the wind.
On our way back from putting down a deposit on a future cruise, we happened upon a towel animal demonstration down on Deck 2. The room stewards leave a towel animal on the bed each day and HAL sells a book with instructions on how to do them. The demonstration showed how to make an elephant, and underdog, a swan, a peacock, a monkey and a gorilla. Gave us a better appreciation for how talented the room stewards are creating these each day.
Photos, Regular and the "Black Label" private session:
Looking at all the photos in the Photo Gallery, I really have to ask, where do these photographers go to learn these ridiculous poses they put us in? It's not just HAL, it's all the ships. Put your hand up here, turn your leg out like this, let's see how ridiculous we can make you look as a couple. There must be a "Ship Photographer Training Class" somewhere that all of these folks must go to :)
NA does offer a "Black Label" photo session that's a one on one black and white portrait shoot. It's the same deal as the regular portrait photos, no cost for the shoot, no obligation to buy, but you MUST make a reservation for the photo shoot. They don't tell you any information on the pricing when you reserve, so it's up to you to ask.
We had a good time at the Black Label photo shoot. You're in a private room with the photographer for about 25 minutes and it's all shot in black and white. The photographer kept showing us the photos as she was shooting which is nice. You are much more likely to get a good quality portrait this way than the usual quick photos they take around the ship. At the end of the session, we scheduled a photo review with the photographer for the next day.
The review takes about an hour and I will say, these are definitely the best portrait photos you will get on board. The photographer went through 90+ photos with us today. Again, NO obligation to buy anything, but know that the photos start at $200 for a single digital image and go into the thousands of dollars quickly. Whether you just want only digital images, prints, or a combination of both, prices escalate quickly. Note that they do go in and clean up the photos in Photoshop before you get them so you are getting some retouching done. Definitely a good way to go for a special occasion, head shots, or you just want to get a really nice photo vs the regular ship photos. If you want a pretty much guaranteed excellent portrait from the ship, this is about as much of a sure thing as you'll get.
Medical Emergency at Sea:
On Day Six of the cruise, an At Sea day, captain made an announcement around 3:45pm that we would be making an unscheduled stop in Grand Turk to offload three passengers in a medical emergency. He noted that this would delay our arrival at the private island, Half Moon Cay, the next day by about 90 minutes but of course that was irrelevant.
Everything happened on our Starboard side of the ship so we got to watch the entire operation. The Carnival Glory and Ruby Princess were in port when we arrived so there was no room for the NA to pull in. The captain put the ship into a holding pattern at the edge of the bay. One of the diving tour boats from Grand Turk came out to meet the ship for the transfer at one of the drop down docks on the bow.
Two people in wheelchairs and one other person were transferred to the boat along with some HAL medical personnel. I could see an ambulance waiting at the dock for the boat. After about 20 minutes ashore, the boat brought the HAL personnel back and we were immediately on our way again. Very professional operation by both the ship and the land crew, makes one feel really good when you know that in the case of an emergency, they've got you covered.
The deadline on the final evening to get the bags out in the hallway is 1am. That's the latest time we've ever had on a ship. Nice to not have to rush before dinner to get the bags ready. Also, today we really appreciated HALs policy of having the departure paperwork in the room on the very first day. That was all out of the way early so we don't have to think about it today.
The Lido Buffet opened on Disembarkation day at 5:30 am and the Dining room at 7am so folks can have breakfast before exiting. We were surprised to see the dining room as an option, but that's a nice touch.
One GREAT thing HAL does is put the disembarkation schedule on the in room television. We've not seen that on the Princess cruises. In our case it was channel 26 and looking at it, we already knew our scheduled disembark would be between 9:30 and 9:45 as we did not have a plane to catch. It was nice to know that when we woke up so we did final packing and then headed up for a leisurely breakfast. All the stations were running just as if we were still at sea, nothing cut all elements available. A nice final impression of the ship dining.
Disembarkation turned out to be a breeze and very well orchestrated by the ship. Our section got called at 9:50 so only five minutes later than scheduled. Got off the ship in short order and then found our bags quickly. Customs went quickly too, less than 10 minutes after we gathered our bags. We actually appreciated that NA kept us waiting on the ship and called folks down in smaller batches making for a smaller logjam at every step along the way. We spent the last 30 minutes or so of our wait down at the Explorers Bar on Deck 2.
That's a good little tip by the way. The end of the line to get off the ship points back to the Explorers Bar so if you wait in there, you get directly into the line. When they called our section, about 50 or so folks came up from the Deck 1 seating area near the front desk and they had to work their way past us to get to the end of the line.
Despite the disappointment with the dining room food, we do plan to cruise HAL again. As we have mentioned multiple times, the ship really does feel like you're on a classic ship. Attention to detail is well done and the staff is just ridiculously friendly. The bed is comfortable and the room was a good value for what we paid.
Hope this review has been helpful. Happy Sailing Everyone!