We flew Southwest from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale with a stop in Las Vegas. The price was good and I was really surprised at the comfort of the newer aircraft they used for the longer flights. Las Vegas to Ft. Lauderdale was 4 hours plus, and I was comfortable the whole way without being in an exit aisle or anything. The 2 free checked bags made things much cheaper.
We took a cab to the Embassy Suites on 17th with the cab fare with tip being $20. We were impressed with the hotel. We missed the free drinks but loved the room. The room was much larger than we expected.
We went to a Mexican restaurant out the north parking lot and a couple buildings north of the hotel. We spent $50 for two dinners and several drinks. I was happy, lol. Out the north parking lot and west was the Wine store and Publix market. The two stores are about 500 yards from the hotel. This of course is walking distance for some, but I had trouble with the distance. Since Holland America allows you to bring wine onboard, the wife stocked up on good wine choices and came back to the hotel. After the wine run we hit the local bar (restaurant) and service in the local bar was a bit spotty, but we had wine and beer before hitting the sack.
Our only complaint was the wait on Sunday morning to get an elevator. Obviously everyone staying there was going on a cruise and leaving at the same time. Also, the ice machine on our floor was out of order so we had to go up a few floors to get more. Not a big deal. I would recommend this hotel to anyone needing a room in Fort Lauderdale. One other hint, if you are not a member of the Hilton Honors program (frequent traveler system) you should join before reserving. It saved us about $40 for the night by booking through the honors program on the SPECIAL members website.
The complimentary breakfast was more than adequate with me being a big eater and my dear wife being a healthy eater. We were both satisfied with the offerings. We gathered our luggage and after waiting for an open elevator headed to the lobby. They offered a shuttle to the port for something like $11 per person but we hopped a cab for $20 and were at the port in 15 minutes. By doing this we did not have to wait for shuttle to stop and unload at each ship in port that day.
We checked in at about 10:45 and had about a 20 minute wait in the lobby before our number was called. We were in our room by 11:15. Dropped our carryon luggage, met our room stewards and headed to Lido for lunch. No problem finding a place to sit and wait for sail away. So much food and so many calories, and we are still tied up at the dock! One of the reasons I cruise.
Met our Cruise Critic mates to sort out specialty dining reservations and a drink, then off to life boat drill. Such a pain. So many people not taking things seriously and making the rest of us stand in the sun waiting for them to show up.
We had an aft facing balcony which I have always heard was a great place to be. Well, maybe not so great in my opinion. We were in room VB 4178. The room was great looking with a view the wife loved. BUT, being on the aft meant we never had any wind to cool things down. Maybe it was a freak weather thing but December was HOT. 80 degrees and 80% humidity made using the balcony with no wind unpleasant. I am a smoker and the balcony was one of the few places I could smoke on the ship. So I ended up spending much more time in the room with the AC than on the balcony. It was just too darned uncomfortable. For those that do not like smoking, the Nieuw Amsterdam only allowed smoking on the pool deck amidships on one side, in the cigar bar far forward, the casino, and on balconies. I did smoke on the open deck on deck 4 I think before I realized it was not allowed. Nobody said anything tot me, but I felt a bit guilty.
If you read reviews about the aft facing balconies, consider the distance from the elevator to the room. It does not look that far, but if you have any walking issues, they become more of a problem.
Dining is next. We had anytime dining which meant we had a 2 minute wait for a table whenever we chose to eat. A few times we chose to eat alone and a few times we chose to eat with others. All of our experiences in the main dining room were adequate. I really miss the service I was used to before they made all the cutbacks in personnel. Simple things like having the water refilled, bar service and having the bread replaced was lacking. I was satisfied with everything I ordered from the menu, but to be honest, it was not up to snuff with previous cruises. I really noticed the drop in quality of offerings.
Until this cruise it really bothered me that my wife of 3 years preferred Carnival food, but now I understand it more. She is not as experienced in cruising as I am and I just thought she had not experienced enough of HAL to understand how significantly better it was, but this cruise showed me HAL has really come down in quality.
We ate with Cruise Critic members at Tamarind and had difficulty with setting our reservation for 7 at the same time. There were 6 of us, all in different staterooms and none of our bookings were linked. We did get it done though. The service at this venue was at about the level of pre-cut HAL in the main dining room. In other words it was good, but nothing great. Many of us went with the tenderloin which is highly rated on reviews on HAL. It was good, but I should probably have gone with the Sushi on the menu. Afterward it seemed a waste to eat tenderloin which was a 7 when maybe the sushi would have scored a ten. Overall dinner took a good hour and a half with much of the time waiting for table clearing. When we got up to leave, the service staff finally showed up to get signatures from those who had not prepaid for the dinner. This of course caused a delay, which could have been taken care of earlier in the meal. One of our diners also ordered a cocktail that required watermelon liquid of some kind. They did not have it so he had to order something else. Call me old fashioned, but if it is on the menu it should be available. Overall, I thought the dinner took longer than it should have, but the food was good enough to entice me to go back on our next cruise.
We also had dinner at Pinnacle with our Cruise Critic friends. What a disaster!!! 3 1/2 hours of hell. There were six of us and from the start of the meal we waited for everything. I kid you not; from appetizer to salad was 30 minutes with empty appetizer plates sitting in front of us. No water service, no bar service, no service at all! Then the salads were delivered and we had another unacceptable wait to clear the table and bring the main course. I was ready to leave! And I was not hiding my emotions! Once the entrees were done, going by my watch, another 20 minutes to clear and order desert. One of our group ordered the soufflE which we understand takes 20 minutes to prepare. No problem, or so I think. 40 minutes later and the deserts are delivered. The food was ok, but the service was terrible. Hate to incur the wrath of the cheerleaders but not worth the money or the headache.
Not to confuse this review with the next review of the RCCL Independence of the Seas, but Chops on that ship was a perfect dining experience. Would I do Pinnacle again? Not only no, but **** NO!
Entertainment - I do not do the shows and such but the before and after dinner with the violinist was very enjoyable. In fact the music throughout HAL ships is one of my only shipboard activities. Where else can you listen to beautiful classical music on a violin! My wife and I both complained about some ***holes who were talking loudly during the performance. You would think people who wanted to talk about liposuction would go somewhere classical music was not being played. Trust me, hearing a 60 year old talking about intimate surgeries done to make her LOVER happier was not my idea of pre dinner conversation. Lord I wish I would had more to drink. This is one of those things you cannot delete from your memory.
Ports! We stopped at Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, Roatan (Honduras, Mahogany Bay) and the private island Half Moon Cay.
Grand Cayman was gorgeous. We took Captain Marvin's two stop trip. First we went to Hell and the turtle farm. Had a great time! Then we went to the swim with the stingrays. Again, very fun! The stingrays are not captive! They take you out to the middle of a bay, several miles off shore. There is a sand bar there where the water is only 3-4 feet deep. DW does not like being in the water, but she tolerated it and would love to do that trip again. You get to interact with the Rays, have pictures taken etc. Then they took us to a reef a few miles away and the snorkelers could explore for about 30 minutes before we returned to the dock. There was a photographer onboard who sold us 40 pictures for $40 with about 15 of them being just the wife and I with the rays. Money well spent. Loved all the trips we took with Captain Marvin. Would highly recommend this trip! At half moon Cay I did not even leave the ship. I have been there before and unless you are into sun worshiping and beach activities I knew it would be a waste of my day. My wife did go ashore (it was her first time there) and was not impressed. Had a good day on the ship.
Ocho Rios Jamaica! What can we say? Not fun at all. First of all, there are two docks for this port. Our ship docked at the second dock which is about 2 miles from the other port. This meant you had to walk to the town or take a cab for $5 there and back. We did a shore excursion to see the island which was interesting then took a cab to the town. My wife went to the CRAFT market, which is not a craft market. They sell the same junk in the local stores but the sales pitches are much more insistent. The vendors follow you from stall to stall and it is just plain annoying. The wife made the mistake of agreeing to have her hair braided WITHOUT AGREEING TO A PRICE. When done, the gal wanted $63. She settled for $25.
Make sure to take lots of small bills since getting change can be problematic. Same thing with cab drivers! They will insist on taking you to a certain store and making you wait for your change until you buy something. Just remember the word NO. It will save you lots of trouble. I was taught to say "No thank you". Forget the niceties, just SAY NO!!!!! It would have been much more convenient to dock at the other pier where you could walk to all the shops rather than where we docked.
Mahogany Bay. The entire port is Carnival owned. Which means there are NO LOCAL shopping areas around the port! It is also a long walk from the ship to the area where there are any shops of any kind. You might notice I am complaining a lot about the walking. On this trip I was somewhat limited in my ability to walk and found many of the distances uncomfortable. For those without disabilities the distances may not be problematic, but they were for me.
It is also a long walk from the ship to the exit of the private area. You can walk ½ mile to find private vendors or take a cab for $2. We had scheduled a private driver with Victor Bodden tours so took the cab to meet them. They were waiting for us and off we went. We spent 4 hours with the private guide and he would take us wherever we wanted. We saw a lot of the country side driving to vista points and made a stop at a lighthouse based restaurant. My wife loves lighthouses so she enjoyed the stop. They sold cold local beer for $1 each, so I loved it as well!!! We stopped at the "zoo" that Victor Bodden offers and gave it a quick tour. Getting to have pictures taken with monkeys sitting on you was a great experience as were the cockatoo's sitting on your head. Where else can you get this kind of stuff? The guide was bored stiff but we liked it.
We tried stopping at local artists shops but none were very good. Think art student in 8th grade. But the wife really likes supporting local non commercialized artists. These were just not very good. We tried to go to the cameo factory but it was closed before we got there. After the tour the driver was able to drop us off inside the Carnival private area.
ART SALES - I don't attend these but my wife does. She was not impressed with the folks presenting the art of the art that was available. I was glad, because normally she spends several hundred dollars adding something to our walls. This time she spent nothing.
HAL offers an art tour on audio via an IPOD they lend to you. The wife did the tour and said it was interesting but very limited as to what was covered. When first reading about it you would think it would be covering most of the art on the ship, but this only covered the large items. Still though, she found it somewhat worth her time.
Wine - I really like the policy on bringing wine onboard. The fact DW could bring the wine of her choice onboard, rather than having to pick what HAL had available, made her very happy. She still ordered martinis so I don't think HAL lost out on that much income. Additionally, since we were doing another cruise after this one, she was able to bring enough onboard to take the two bottles for the next cruise.
Disembarking - When we got off this ship we were boarding the RCCL Independence a few berths over. So we were not in a hurry to get off. We waited until we were almost the last people off the ship. We had met a Cruise Critic member who was doing a B2B and she was complaining they had to stand in the same immigration line to get off the ship and go into Fort Lauderdale. It really ate into their time in port on the turnaround day. We met many people who were doing B2B or B2B2B and some doing B2B2B2B. You would think there would be some special line for them to go through customs to go into Fort Lauderdale on the turn-around date. We cleared customs and had no problems with the process. Then we took a cab to the next ship. The port is so large you cannot walk from one ship to another.
Overall, I would say the cruise was another typical HAL cruise with both DW and I having a great time.