This Nov 29 -- Dec 2, 2012 review is written as a second-time cruiser on the Nieuw Amsterdam and a multi-time HAL cruiser on Vista-class ships.
Luggage: Since so many new cruisers are interested in "packing," I'll add a few tidbits. With a laundry package included in the stateroom price, we pack for three days casual and one formal night that translates to one suitcase. A second suitcase includes miscellaneous non-expensive photographic support items (spare batteries, chargers, tripods, adapters, computer case, etc.), backpacks, thermos bottles, white noise machine, extension cords, duct tape, curtain clamps, computer carrying cases (computers, tablets, and cameras are always packed in carry-on luggage sans cases), HAL collapsible suitcase for potential souvenirs, and lots of empty space for my pre-cruise purchase of Mountain Dew (2 per cruise day), granola bars, and liquid toiletries.
Pre-cruise hotel: We stayed at the Sleep Inn in Dania Beach, Florida, with its walking distance to Walgreen's, three restaurants (Chinese, Italian, and Mexican), and a Publix grocery with a good deli. The hotel facilities were fine but breakfast in a cruise-oriented hotel is always chaotic and crowded. The hotel chain has a dedicated van but we chose to take a taxi for $14 + tip to the port to avoid the crowd and stacks of luggage for several stops.
Embarkation: From the time I entered the lineup at the terminal (11:30 AM) until the time I was standing in my stateroom, with luggage present, was 35 minutes. This included a stop at the Front Desk for cooking classes and Behind the Scenes Tour signup as well as getting a hole punched in my room card. I was most impressed, actually shocked. The port staff was friendly and very efficient in moving guests through the process. Kudos to HAL and the Nieuw Amsterdam staff for streamlining this often nerve-wracking process.
An embarkation annoyance during the boarding process was the entrance to the gangway being blocked by the ship's Photography staff with no way around until those wanting embarkation pictures completed their photos.
Ship's Furnishings: I will dispense with any comments about the decor as being very subjective and having no bearing on my level of satisfaction with the cruise. The artifacts as well as the coloring throughout the ship do indeed complete the intent of the designer.
Stateroom: SC6175 was ready for our occupancy when we arrived just after noon. I especially enjoyed the larger than Vista-class flat-screen TV. Budi, our Room Steward, met us within five minutes and noted our desires to have the bar cleared for immediate storage of hand-carried Mountain Dew, times for refreshing ice, and room cleaning times. The sail-away party appetizers were delivered at precisely 3:00 PM and a party with more than 12 cruise critic friends was held on the huge aft-wrap verandah as the Nieuw Amsterdam left Port Everglades.
Room Stewards: Budi, was one of the best we have encountered on HAL. He was ever-present in the hallways and always asked how our day was going. He was efficient and adhered to our schedule for cleaning and ice refreshing. His standards for cleanliness and attention to the smallest detail should earn him some special recognition from HAL.
Dining -- General: Code Orange handling restrictions were lifted for the lunch on the third day. I was able to scan every daily MDR, Pinnacle Lunch and
Dinner, Tamarind Lunch and Dinner, and Canaletto menus thanks to the staff of the Neptune. As I discovered during the following week, the Caribbean 7-day cruises have the same Main Dining Room (MDR) daily menus.
Dining -- Lido: The food was good with the Pepperoni pizza (Aft Lido) being especially favored. At one evening meal, a lone strip steak was left on the steam table and the server offered me a prepared-to-order steak with delivery to my table. The Lido Manager delivered the steak and it was cooked to a perfect medium rare as I requested. Upon finishing my meal, I expressed my satisfaction to the Manager and then to the line cook and server who offered me a perfect steak. It was good to see them smile. It must be noted that the Lido Restaurant is always crowded at meal time and I often used the self-delivery method to my stateroom. Si I shall repeat my helpful hint for delivering nachos whether with melted or shredded cheese: put some cheese on the bottom before the chips to keep the nachos from sliding off the plate during delivery. During my many trips to the Lido Restaurant, I did not see a single instance of management asking diners about their satisfaction with the food. I mention this because it is atypical of normal Lido Restaurant management on Vista-class ships we have sailed for management to keep in constant contact with their customers.
One Lido dining annoyance was the lack of melted cheese for Nachos at the end of the tacos serving area. Being from New Mexico, nachos are a diet staple and always made with melted cheese rather than the offered shredded cheese. It must be noted that the Taco Bars on the Vista-class ships have melted cheese.
MDR: I ate only two meals at our table for two and on other occasions notified the Dining Room Manager that our table could be given to others. On those two occasions, the food was very good, especially the lamb and hazelnut cake. As a tea drinker, the Nieuw Amsterdam MDR no longer brings the extremely hot teapots to the table but rather pours the hot water from a large pitcher into your cup. Both meals took more than 1-1/2 hours which gave me ample time to see the waitstaff at work. My estimate was that each waitstaff team of two served up to 24 diners. On numerous occasions, both team members were in the kitchen picking up food for three to five minutes which left diners searching for service. Using simple math and the capacity of six meals per waiter tray from the kitchen, yields four trips to the kitchen for each of four courses or waiters missing-in-action for 48 to 80 minutes during a meal service. Additional runners to pick up food would have made things a lot faster. It must be noted that the Dining Room Manager, during my two meals, stopped at only two tables to inquire about the food/service and one of those was my table. The rest of the time he stood leaning against the wall and observing.
The only MDR annoyance, yet minor, was the slow service.
Pinnacle Grill: My steak Diane was cooked perfectly and the service was excellent although very formal. The menu is the same for all of the Pinnacle Grills, I think, so the only variation from ship to ship would be taste and service. During my 6:30 meal, the room was only 2/3 filled. It must be noted that the father of the Pinnacle Grill Manager passed away with two days left on our cruise and so he was not available at his normal post.
Tamarind: The food was excellent and the service was friendly. I noticed that the waitstaff are taking positive measures to explain the spiciness of each sauce unlike my first visit to the Tamarind on a previous cruise. I still have difficulty with the extra-long tableware but have learned to adjust my hand-to-lips distance before insertion. During my 6:30 PM meal, the room was only 1/3 full and the waitstaff were encouraging diners to return again during their cruise.
Room Service: As on every HAL cruise, food arrived almost to the minute requested. The food was always at the correct temperature. After eating eggs for the first four breakfasts and realizing the impact of so much cholesterol, I was introduced to European muesli; a granola mixture soaked in milk and will be making that for myself at home. It must be noted that if you want ketchup for an omelet, an extra empty glass, or chocolate croissants, you need only write it on the Room Service card. We ate the second formal night dinner menu in our stateroom and were impressed with the flavor and temperature of something delivered to our room.
Facilities: The ship was clean and was in constant state of scrubbing, vacuuming, and painting in all areas. On Tuesday, the A/C decided to stop for our cabin and several others on the same column. It was repaired within five hours and worked well for the rest of the cruise. A fan was provided for some relief.
The only facilities annoyance, and a critical one, was the nine one-inch threads at the base of my shower curtain. Extrapolated over the hundreds of staterooms, these could cause a massive drain stoppage if a simultaneous dislodging took place.
Neptune Lounge/Concierge: Gilbert and Rona, concierges, represented HAL in a very friendly and efficient manner. The only thing they could not accomplish was getting a replacement button for my tuxedo trousers. They arranged MDR meals to be delivered to the room. When the A/C went down, Gilbert quickly delivered a fan to the stateroom and kept us appraised of repair actions. At least twice a day, we were called to check on any needs or wishes. The Neptune Lounge was clean and responsive to all who entered by name. As always, it was a good stop for a snack. The WI-Fi reception was one of the best spots on the ship.
Laundry: The Laundry was the best of any HAL ship we have sailed to date. Every transaction was returned less than 12 hours after submission so laundry placed on the bed at dinner time was ready for wear as soon as the Room Stewards knew that we were awake in the morning. Note that each article of clothing has a specified location for those tags so as soon as you learn the secret, they are easy to find/remove. After many cruises, we have learned to remove those pesky laundry labels before wear and not wait until they start causing skin irritation.
Shops: The shops were OK but finding someone to swipe your card for payment was not easy.
Culinary Arts: The Culinary Arts Center and Party Planner were not available during embarkation as was the norm on our previous cruises. The normal two classes were reduced to only one for this week. The Party Planner and Chef Alberto emphasized that due to new health regulations, we could prepare but not eat our own preparations. Chef Alberto gave lots of good cooking techniques for Mexican food preparation and did a fantastic job in preparing the food that we did enjoy in the Pinnacle Grill. We got to meet Jacob and hear of his extensive wine education.
Computer Classes: I sat in one Microsoft Windows 8 Apps class but after the first five minutes, I learned that the instructor did not have a copy of the released version of Windows 8. We were given a PowerPoint presentation and some screenshots from his four-month-old beta version. Since none of the computers had Windows 8 installed, they were never turned to the ON position. The instructor's Windows 8 copies were located somewhere in the HAL terminal for the past two weeks. Having already installed Windows 8 on all of my personal computers, I was able to assist in answering questions for those considering upgrading. I did not attend any other computer classes.
Casino: Since I don't gamble, I can only comment on the lack of smoke when walking past it when the casino was in full operation. There must be new exhaust fans installed.
Excursions -- Half Moon Cay: The island is always clean and the cookout food nothing special.
Excursion -- Cayman Islands: The Sightseeing tour was interesting but especially the visit to Hell. A stop at the Tortuga Rum Factory was good for rum cake lovers and the large pirate statues were quite photogenic. The beach stop was only for 10 minutes and the visit to the Conch-covered house was a letdown. The tour bus driver did make a diversion so that one passenger could photograph a bank for her husband.
Excursions -- Dunn's Falls (Ochio Rios): The port area is beside a dilapidated warehouse and does not give a very good impression for those disembarking. Dunn's Falls is a steep walk for those walking-challenged or not "young at heart." Non-slip shoes to walk up the tiered rocks of the waterfalls could be rented for $8 and cameras were discouraged for the water walkers. It must be noted that the guides were barefooted and had cameras to take pictures to sell to the walkers. An impromptu but enjoyable singing group was near the entrance and performed for the entering tourists
A Dunn's Falls' annoyance was being routed through the narrow walkways of the vendor area rather than be permitted to walk directly to the tour bus. The vendors were "pushy" and all asked to shake your hand and if you walked on past, they accused you of disrespecting them. Telling them that your wife had all of the money and was following five minutes behind you, eased their aggressive sales pitch. At the end of the vendor's row, an awaiting lady with scissors removed your wrist band.
Excursions -- Mahogany Bay: I cancelled this excursion to go on the Behind the Scenes Tour which was then cancelled so I stayed on the ship and watched the rain.
Entertainment: Although not the original, Contare was excellent and received a standing ovation from the audience. I did not attend any other shows
Meet & Greet: Although not required, no ships officers attended the Meet & Greet. This was the first experience of not even a bartender being present. We did get to meet a lot of familiar names and even managed to lure a few non-cruisecritic.com folks to the affair.
Internet: Wi-Fi connection speed was typical of any cruise ship but better if you sit underneath one of those ceiling domes in the Neptune Lounge, Explorations Cafe, Lido Restaurant, or Indoor Lido Pool area.
Staff: The ship's staff which we had personal contact with on a daily basis were exceptional. Unlike other HAL ships, ship's officers never spoke when riding elevators or passing in the common areas. The traditional greeting, "How are you today," from the other Room Stewards that you pass in the hallways was absent. Dining staff, both MDR and Lido, had very limited interaction with passengers in my observation. The Pinnacle Grill waiters were not as conversational as those of other ships we have sailed in my observation. As noted, the Nieuw Amsterdam staff was not as "friendly" as the other HAL ships we have sailed but this did not detract from my enjoyment of the cruise.
Disembarkation: From HAL's prospective, disembarkation went smoothly until it came to the US Customs folks. With only five Customs positions open, processing so many passengers created at least a 45+ minute wait. We noticed several hundred passengers in the Queen's Lounge awaiting their back-to-back bounce through the HAL terminal. We had to wait for a porter since many were tied up in the long line for Customs but were fortunate to find one willing to transport our luggage across the street to the waiting ms Westerdam at Pier 21.