We had a great time on HAL's Westerdam the week before Christmas. Our seven-night cruise took us to the western Caribbean: Grand Cayman and Cozumel plus Key West and Half Moon Cay.
Precruise: We flew to Fort Lauderdale the night before our cruise began. I booked us a room at the Hyatt Place, 17th Street and Convention Center. I was happy to get that hotel at a good price--around half the price through Priceline than I had seen on the Hyatt website. The hotel offers free shuttle service from the airport and free breakfast. It charges $7 per person for the shuttle to the port. We took a taxi instead, which worked out to be about the same price and a lot quicker because we did not have to stop at all the other ships first. The Westerdam was docked at one of the piers farthest away. The other ships in port included the Ruby Princess, Allure of the Seas, Silhouette, Nieuw Amsterdam, and a Carnival ship whose name I don't remember.
The second great thing about the Hyatt Place is its convenient location to shopping to stock up on essentials before the cruise. We arrived after 9 on a Saturday night, which was after Total Wine's closing time. We purchased wine for our cruise at the Publix grocery store. The stores in Fort Lauderdale are not allowed to sell alcohol before noon on Sundays.
Embarkation: We breezed through security and filled out our health questionnaire quickly. Then the lines began. We had about a 15-minute wait at the check-in area. By the time we arrived at 11:30, they were already allowing suite passengers to board the ship. Since we were not in a suite, we had received a number (9) and had to wait for our group to be called. There were plenty of seats, and they had already called the first three groups before we arrived. Our total wait in the seating area was about 40 minutes. As soon as we made it past the obligatory photo point, I headed directly to the front desk to sign up for the cooking class. I asked the woman which dining room was serving lunch, and she tried to direct me to the Lido buffet. When I mentioned my Mariner status, she pointed us to the dining room.
Food: Overall the food was good. My biggest complaint was that HAL doesn't serve enough vegetables. I occasionally asked for extra vegetables, but learned to order more salads and fruit instead of having to wait. Even the Lido buffet did not have a good selection of cooked veggies.
We tried to eat most of our meals in the dining room. We ate there six out of seven breakfasts and three out of seven lunches as well as six out of seven dinners. Service was attentive most of the time. We had second seating dining at a table for eight. They had originally assigned us a table for four, but I put in my request to change to the larger table the first afternoon. The maitre d' called me around 7:30 to let me know he had arranged to move us to the larger table. After the second night, our assistant waiter always had my glass of iced tea waiting for me. Lovely (the wine steward) also gave us attentive service. We brought several bottles of wine to the dining room during the week and paid the $18 corkage fee for each.
The food highlights in the dining room include the surf and turf both times (once it was filet mignon with shrimp and the second time, filet mignon with lobster tail), most of the appetizers and salads, and the fruit plate for dessert. At breakfast, I alternated between smoked salmon on rye toast and a spinach, mushroom, and cheese omelet. I always ordered the fruit plate and sometimes ate a half grapefruit as well. I thought it was strange that they did not offer melon separate from the fruit plate. Sometimes it included cantaloupe, watermelon, and honeydew--but other times it would be one melon without the others. It never had fresh pineapple, but I occasionally helped myself to that in the Lido buffet either before our formal breakfast or as a midmorning snack.
The real food highlight of the cruise was our evening at Le Cirque. Once a week they change the Pinnacle Grill from its regular steakhouse menu over to Le Cirque. We started off with an amuse bouche of pate de foie gras over a rhubarb compote. We both ate the lobster salad. It's a stunning presentation of Bibb lettuce, potato confit, green beans, tomatoes, avocado, grapefruit segments, and lobster tail. My only complaint about it was that the tomatoes were not good. They should leave them off rather than serve substandard ones. I ordered the butternut squash soup with huckleberries, and my partner ordered the melon soup with shrimp. Both were delicious. I had superbly cooked lamb chops for my entree, and he had the chateaubriand. Once again, both were delicious. I had tasted the crÃ¨me brulee at a cooking demo the day before, so I ordered the chocolate souffle for my dessert. My partner enjoyed his crÃ¨me brulee (probably more so since he did not have to offer me a taste). We ordered an extra dessert of a berry napoleon. The waiter delivered an assortment of sweet morsels before the desserts. None of them were outstanding, but the presentation looked good.
We returned to the Pinnacle Grill for its regular lunch menu one day when the main dining room was not open for lunch. I thought the lunch menu was good. The best things to me were the lobster crÃ¨me brulee and the shrimp bruschetta. (The shrimp on the bruschetta tasted better than the lobster we had on our salads for our Le Cirque experience.) The Northwest five-onion soup was also tasty but a little too rich for me. I ate the crab and shrimp cakes for my entree and they were tasty. My partner ordered the same appetizers, but added the lettuce and tomato tower salad. Once again, the presentation was great, but the tomato was not. He had the blue cheese crusted filet mignon for his main course. We finished off with the brownie decadence and ice cream.
Cabin: We had a VA balcony cabin near the aft of the ship on the Navigator Deck. It was a great location--one deck below the Lido buffet. Our beds were not made together as requested, but we did not bother to get the cabin steward to change them. They were comfortable, and our cabin steward did deliver extra feather pillows for me. He and his assistant kept our room made up well most of the time. A couple of days, they did not get it done as soon as I would have liked. (We always left our "Service Please" card in the door to let him know when we went to breakfast. Once we came back a couple of hours later, and he had not gotten around to cleaning yet.)
The bathroom was nice and large, especially compared to the one on the cruise before this one--on the Sapphire Princess. I disliked that they no longer give you individual bottles of shampoo and conditioner and bars of bath soap. There are three dispensers on the wall of the shower/tub with shampoo, conditioner, and liquid body soap. I had a bar in my Dopp kit from a previous hotel stay that we used the first part of the week, and our cabin steward gave us a couple of the tiny bars they have for handwashing.
We enjoyed having the balcony. We spent a lot of time watching the stars at night and sipping wine. The furniture on it included two plastic wicker chairs with thin cushions, a small round table, and a plastic wicker ottoman. One char was larger (and more comfortable) than the other. We ordered room service for breakfast once. It came 20 minutes early. Fortunately we were already up.
Activities: There are not a lot of activities compared to some cruise lines. The cruise director doesn't have much of a staff to schedule them. I'm not positive about the makeup of his staff, but it seemed like he was in charge of a DJ, the "party planner," and a lifestyle coach. For a ship this size, he really could have used the help of three or four more staff members. I was disappointed that trivia was not offered regularly in the morning and afternoon. It was well attended every time we made it, probably 15 to 20 teams of up to six people (officially, although some occasionally had more). We never won the general trivia, but we managed to win three of the specialized food trivias that the party planner had on her schedule. She was in charge of scheduling activities for the culinary arts center. I enjoyed the demonstrations that the chef from the Pinnacle Grill did. One of the dishes was shrimp with curried mango butter. He also gave a demo of Le Cirque's lobster salad and the crÃ¨me brulee. I was fortunate to be seated on the side that did not get the demitasse-sized portions to taste the crÃ¨me brulee. They ended up giving us full-size portions instead.
The cooking class was a lot of fun. When we sailed on the Westerdam in 2009, I attended the cooking class by myself. On this cruise, I made sure we both signed up. My partner, who doesn't do much cooking at home, was concerned that he would feel out of place. He didn't. He had a great time with the new format of the classes. In 2009, we broke into teams of three or four passengers. Each team got to prepare one course, with the chef moving back and forth among the teams to offer tips. I missed a lot of what he was telling the other teams since I was concentrating on making our appetizer (the shrimp with curried mango butter). This year, the chef led the entire class, moving from course to course. He had volunteers help him along the way, slicing and dicing, stirring and mixing. The dishes we prepared were a salad with lime vinaigrette, sofrito mashed potatoes, and pork tenderloin with picadillo salsa. They also gave us recipe cards for grilled pineapple with caramel rum sauce. After the class portion was concluded, everyone went to the Pinnacle Grill to eat the same courses, only not the food prepared during the class. They also served us red and white wine (four bottles for the table of 10). I'm assuming the new format is for health concerns. A mother-daughter pair did not like the new format and left at the beginning. I think they missed a fun experience. (But I'm glad I did not have to listen to them whine the whole class.) The only change I would have made would have been for the chef and party planner to have stayed and eaten with us during lunch.
Entertainment: We usually enjoy the production shows on cruises, but HAL's left me a little disappointed. On the Sapphire Princess, we were among the first cruisers to experience Princess's new pared down shows--30 minutes in length. The shows on the Westerdam seemed to go on a little too long. The male main singer was very good, but the other three singers were average. (I always think of Simon Cowell's critique of American Idol contestants when he's telling them that they sounded like a cruise ship singer.) The dancers were OK, nothing to write home about. But I think the real blame is on whoever put together the songs for the two production shows. (The costumes were also disappointing, without much bling or sex appeal, perhaps yielding to the taste of the Lawrence Welk crowd.) There were three guest entertainers during the week. The first was Hilby, the skinny German juggle boy. He was very funny. The second was a piano player (Lionardo) billed as a combination of Liberace and Jerry Lee Lewis. He's a Vegas performer (http://www.pianofollies.com/index_flash.htm) . The third was comedian Rondell Sheridan. We missed his first performance, but caught his abbreviated act the last night of the cruise when he shared billing with Hilby. He was funny.
The various lounges had musical groups playing in them. We did not go to any of them specifically. The only group I heard for more than a passing moment was the Adagio Duo--a violinist and pianist. They were decent but not great. I would have preferred more classical music from them than the Broadway songs and movie theme music they chose to perform. The steel drummer who played by the pool was very good. Unfortunately he performed alone with a taped accompaniment.
Spa and Gym: The gym had the usual equipment. I was glad to see that they had bicycles for use. On Princess, they keep the bikes locked up except for the spinning classes that cost extra. I did not use the gym a lot, but I saw quite a few people using it. I got most of my exercise walking around the Promenade Deck and taking the stairs most of the time. I got more than my 10,000 steps each day.
We purchased the weeklong pass to the hydro pool and thermal suite. I love the warm water of the pool and never made it into any of the other pools. (Another reason is that I try to avoid getting too much sun.) The hydro pool worked all week, as did the heated ceramic lounges. Unfortunately, the special steam rooms in the thermal suite did not. My favorite the first couple of days was the large steam room with eucalyptus scent. It stopped working after the second day. The peppermint-scented steam room worked intermittently. There's only enough room for four in it--and even four is a tight squeeze. The third steam room never worked during our cruise. The chromotherapy showers did not seem to function correctly either. My biggest disappointment, however, was that the thermal suite and hydro pool were closed the last evening. We were fortunate enough to run into one of the spa attendants at lunch, and she let us know. Our favorite time in the area was between 6 and 7 p.m. The areas closed at 6 p.m. the last day.
Ports: Our first stop was at Half Moon Cay. Tendering there was not a problem. We went around 9:30 and did not have much of a line to wait in. The water was crystal clear but a little cool. The facilities on the island are very nice. We decided to go back to the ship to eat lunch instead of staying on the island for the big barbecue. I enjoyed a small plate of melon and pineapple and the other food looked pretty good. We decided to stay on the ship when it anchored off of Grand Cayman. We have been there three times before and did not want to bother tendering in. I booked the Fury catamaran snorkeling excursion for us in Cozumel. We had time before the excursion to check out the shops at the pier and eat lunch on the ship. This excursion was a lot of fun. There were about 60 passengers on the large catamaran plus a half dozen crewmembers. The snorkeling stop was not great, but I nevertheless enjoyed seeing the fish. The biggest problems at the snorkeling stop were fighting the current and trying to stay out of the way of the other snorkelers. After snorkeling, they opened up the bar for margaritas and beer. I had time for a few before we hit the beach. Fury owns a nice beach with plenty of activities. We stayed in the water the whole time. One of my favorite things was the large inflated slides. They provided me shade while in the water. Kayaks and paddleboards were available at no extra charge. Many people took advantage of them. There were two other catamarans there at the same time, but it didn't feel too crowded. On the way back, we enjoyed more beverages and watched the crew lead a few passengers in Gangnam Style and other dances. All in all, it was one of the best values in excursions that we've ever taken. Our last stop was Key West. We did a walking tour on our own, seeing Hemingway's house, the Audubon House, the butterfly place, and other points of interest. We did not bother to pay for any tours of these places, but still enjoyed our day. We had been to Truman's Little Whitehouse on a previous cruise and did not need to see it again.
Disembarkation: I requested late disembarkation, and we received Black 3 tags. Our companion in the next cabin, however, got Brown 2 tags. We ended up getting off the ship around 9:15 and breezing through Customs. (Everyone had gone through Immigration in Key West.) There was a long line for taxis, including passengers from the Silhouette, but our wait was under half an hour. At the Fort Lauderdale airport, two of trivia teammates were waiting in the middle of the line for Southwest, letting everyone go ahead of them. They had arrived at the counter four hours and ten minutes before their flight and could not check in until four hours before it. Our flight was originally scheduled for 12:50 but was delayed until 1:20. It was nonstop back to Raleigh and reality.