(Please note I put this full review in the HAL boards with many photos.) Mom is a four star Mariner who had cruised for decades. She hadn't been for the last two years due to various health issues that make it difficult for her to travel alone. So I volunteered to go with her (twist my arm) , picked HAL because that was her favorite line, and chose the 10 day Southern Caribbean Seafarer because I was interested in the ports. Mom just wanted to see if she could still cruise and didn't mean to leave the ship. She wanted her own cabin (actually her own bathroom) and refused to put me in an inside cabin. I was able to find side-by-side veranda cabins behind the aft elevators. This was very convenient for dining but a bit of a walk for everything else.
We flew down to FLL the afternoon before the cruise. Our flight was on time, we got a porter and our luggage at FLL, then called the Hampton Inn Cruiseport North for the shuttle. We had to wait half an hour for the next shuttle to come. The hotel was fine, a decent typical Hampton, and we booked the 10:15 am shuttle to the port for the next morning. I ran across the street to Winn Dixie for sun tan lotion and a couple of bottles of wine. We took the hotel shuttle to Lester's Diner for dinner.
March 1: The next morning we were up early and caught the 10:15 shuttle. Luggage was taken away, and we waited on a bench outside for about 10 minutes. The doors opened about 10:50; Mom declined a wheelchair for inside the terminal so we checked in at the VIP counter then waited in the VIP lounge. This was just a separate room, nothing fancy, but they did offer water, lemonade, and cookies. At about 11:30 they brought over a wheelchair (Mom didn't want to walk up the ramp) and due to her 4 star status we actually were the first to board! I thought this was very cool. After dropping Mom at her cabin, making sure everything was OK for her, and throwing my suitcase into my cabin, I ran around the ship taking pictures of all the empty venues.
We went to the Mariner's lunch and I had a nice chicken mango salad and a delicious chocolate mousse cake. Then we went to correct our table assignments - even though our bookings were linked, they assigned us to different tables (late seating). We then checked at the front desk for a few requests. I had read on CC that Mom could wait out the lifeboat drill at the bottom of the atrium but that was not the case; she had to attend. She was annoyed with me for making her go because she used to hide in the cabin but I told her they didn't allow that anymore. I went early and saved her a spot on the one bench in our muster area.
After the drill we unpacked, then watched sailaway from our verandas. We were on the port side, deck 6, and the people on the deck above us were flying a huge Union Jack. So we were able to tell brother/husband/son where to look and everyone saw us on the webcam! We then went to the Seaview bar for margaritas and music. Mom went back to the cabin; I roamed the ship, had a snack at Lido, and set up internet so I could email my private excursions about the change in itinerary between Curacao and Bonaire. I paid by the minute onboard and was able to access free wifi on Grand Turk, Bonaire, and Curacao. Altogether I used 15 minutes of internet so with the activation fee spent $15.20; not too bad. The rest of my communication was an occasional text via cell phone, $.50 outgoing and $.20 incoming.
We had a pleasant but slow dinner; I asked for a thick cut of prime rib and got a giant plateful. I wanted to see the opening show in the Vista Lounge but arrived as it was getting out. This was quite a problem for late seating - we were among the last tables to get out every night, and there were several shows that were timed so that late seating guests could not attend. I felt this was a very big problem; not that I would have gone to everything but that HAL did not care that a large share of their guests were prevented from attending entertainment due to the scheduling. Based on the Explorers, here are the shows that were impossible for late dinner seating guests to attend:
Night 1: 9:30pm, Vista Lounge, "Let Us Entertain You"
Night 2: 9:00-10:00pm Queen's Lounge "50's and 60's Rock 'n Roll Party"
Night 3: 9:00pm Queen's Lounge Karaoke Night
Night 4: 9:00pm Queen's Lounge "Call My Bluff" gameshow
Night 5: 9:00pm Queen's Lounge "Battle of the Sexes" gameshow
Night 6: 8:00pm Queen's Lounge Karaoke Fun
Night 6: 9:30pm Lido Pool Party - we could attend, but all the tables and chairs were taken
Night 8: 9:00pm Queen's Lounge "The Match Game" gameshow
Night 8: 9:30pm Piano Bar "Pop Music Trivia"
Night 9: 9:30pm Queen's Lounge "The Marriage Game" gameshow
Night 10: 9:30pm Vista Lounge "Variety Show"
Night 10: 8:00 pm Queen's Lounge "Majority Rules" gameshow
March 2: Half Moon Cay. See port review for details; cool and overcast day. I went back to the ship at 12:30 and right into the hot tub.
Had lunch and crafted wine charms, then went with Mom to her 4 star Mariner free wine tasting. It really was a sales pitch for the wine packages although we did taste four lower priced wines. Got dressed for formal night and had my photo done at all the locations, ate the "Captain Gala Dinner", and saw the show "Ballroom Blitz." (This show really made me appreciate the Royal Caribbean entertainment.) The HAL dancers and singers worked hard but were really only average; my comment was that they were at least as good as Bristol Palin. By this I meant that the routines were at the level of difficulty that made Bristol look good. I would have left but didn't want to disturb the people on either side.
I brought my own bottle of wine to dinner, prepared to pay the corkage fee. However, it was a screw top and the waiter brought us wine glasses. I kept both my bottles in the cabin refrigerator and brought them separately to dinners, poured ourselves, and never got charged. I think the wine steward may have seen it but never said anything.
March 3: Grand Turk. This morning was our Meet & Greet from the CC rollcall. It was a lovely layout in the Crow's Nest; they had endless mimosas, a chocolate fountain, pastries, and coffee. We met the rollcall, a very nice group of people. No free gifts from HAL; our RCI Meet & Mingles gave out ship stuff to the guests. I went ashore at Grand Turk only to learn that my snorkeling excursion (HAL Ultimate Snorkel) had been cancelled due to high winds. I was extremely disappointed and it was even too cool to swim at Margaritaville. I did pick up wifi for a few minutes before it dropped, went back to the ship for lunch, then back onshore to get a bit more wifi at Froot. I shopped for a few minutes then returned to the ship as it started to rain. Mom wanted to see the comic after dinner (Julie Barr); she was decent but had too much interaction with one drunk in the audience.
March 4: Samana. I had room service breakfast which was delivered right on time as we approached Samana. After breakfast I walked three times around the promenade deck (one mile) and once around the Observation Deck. I tendered over to Samana; it took about 20 minutes. Then I walked along the waterfront to the end of the craft stands and back. I vaguely looked for a larimar ring but no one had the style, color, and size I wanted. This was actually the only island where I felt there were true hand made native crafts. Not necessarily great stuff, but at least some of it seemed authentic. There were plenty of people trying to offer taxi tours, kids were selling shells at $1, and the vendors kept calling out "Hola lady, for you I give great deal!" I just kept smiling, shaking my head, saying no, and walking on. It was less intrusive than I'd feared.
Then back to the ship for (finally) some sunshine. Mom and I had been invited to the VIP Captain's "Cocktail or After Drinks" party at 7:30pm at the terrace off the Crow's Nest. Mom stayed inside and was served champagne and hors d'oevres. I went outside and got fresh made cosmopolitans and passed on meeting the captain and crew. (Our invitation advised us to "refrain from hand shaking at this event.")
Then we were off to Pinnacle for our 50% off dinner (nice traveling with a four star). It was a delicious meal and excellent service. One caveat, however, was that Mom and I were seated at a secluded romantic booth far to one end of the restaurant. It would have been nice to be more in the middle of the restaurant since it wasn't very crowded. You can have as many appetizers, sides, and desserts as you want, plus one entree. They started with a bread basket, three kinds of whipped butter, and three kinds of salt. Mom had a great lobster bisque ("would you like brandy?" " Sure!") and we both had Caesar's Salad prepared tableside (actually just assembled tableside; I've had it made from scratch in my day and there's a big difference. But it tasted fine.) Mom had the Steak Diane and I had filet mignon with bernaise. Great cuts of beef. We got sides of onions, mushrooms, scalloped potato, and french fries. And sorry to admit that we got three desserts - the creme brulee (three great flavors), chocolate souffle (served in a junior size ramekin), and Baked Alaska flamed tableside with bing cherry sauce. I was a bit surprised to see soft instead of hard meringue, different from the Baked Alaska I've had in the past.
March 5: At sea. Woken at 5:10 am by the captain announcing that we were turning NE towards Puerto Rico because an ill passenger required a helicopter evacuation. We were asked to not go on deck, and to not take flash pictures from the balcony because we would blind the helicopter pilots. The captain woke us again at 5:45 am (just as I was falling back to sleep) to announce the evacuation was over and successful.
Otherwise a quiet sea day, which I started with a mile walk on the promenade deck. After breakfast I did the kitchen tour. I think it was basically set up for a photo op with the chef. I had done the kitchen tour on the Mariner of the Seas and saw a lot more. On the Noordam, I thought I was heading to a second part of the kitchen when I realized I was exiting through the Pinnacle. I spent most of the rest of the day sunbathing at the Sea View aft pool. Late in the afternoon I got the Ipod art tour from the librarian at the Explorations Cafe and followed along with the 36 minute tour, pausing to take pictures and move to different spots. It gave a lot of background information on much of the art in the forward part of the ship and the atrium, and is definitely worth doing. Among other things, I learned that the forward staircase had paintings of all four Noordams. Both Mom and a man at our dinner table made special trips to see those paintings. This was the second formal night.
March 6: Bonaire
See individual port review for details.
The weather got sunnier as the day progressed so it got warm in town; the humidity (85%) was now higher than the temperature (79 degrees F).
After dinner this evening was the Lido Pool party; Mom wanted to go and it only took me 10 minute to track down a chair for her. (Took another 20 minutes to find me one.) We came straight from dinner so couldn't eat; didn't look like much of a buffet and pretty simple ice sculptures.
March 7: Curacao. First words out of Mom's mouth on the veranda: "I'm so disappointed." We were docked at the MegaPier instead of the one across from town so no great view.
See port review for details.
I went to "Caribbean Night" at the ship shops, "complimentary tastings of Rum and Tortuga Rum Cakes." This consisted of one woman behind the counter pouring thimble size helpings of one kind of rum, and 1/2 inch squares of a few flavors of cake. On RCI, they had a vodka tasting with three people pouring at least five kinds of vodka. Boo on HAL.
March 8: Aruba
See port review for details.
I found Mom onboard and convinced her she could easily walk to and around those shops so finally got her off the ship. Not very far off the ship, but we both regarded it as an accomplishment. Then we had our own sailaway party on the verandas with a couple of cheese plates from room service. For a ship that prides itself on service, they were poor cheese choices and the bread basket was composed of Saltines, Melba Toast, and Rye Krisp. They should have been ashamed. The next day I assembled my own cheese selection from the lunch choices in the Lido, added some bagettes and bread sticks, and kept it in the fridge until late afternoon. So much better!
March 9: At sea. A quiet day (and the second formal night); mainly lounged around the Sea View pool and ate too much ice cream and cookies. We did go to the Mariner's lunch and got our tiles. Mom was surprised that they didn't even offer our table coffee or tea with dessert. The last formal night. After dinner was the Dessert Extravaganza; some of the bread/pastry sculptures were looking a bit the worse for wear. I had a nice little crepe Suzette and tracked down a chocolate truffle hidden behind some marzipan.
March 10: At sea. Mostly a repeat of the day before except for packing (suitcases had to be in the hall by 1:00 am). We also got preliminary copies of our bills to make sure everything was OK and I bought a couple of formal portraits. I thought the HAL packages were very rip-off. They printed "sheets" - for formal posed portraits, each sheet had one 8x10, one 5x7, and two wallet sizes - it cost $39.95. Each informal sheet (like pictures at embarkation, dinner table shots, and at the ports) was half the size and half the price. You could buy six formal sheets for $199 and six informal sheets for $99; each included the DVD of those prints. You could buy all pictures taken of you for $349 which included a DVD. I don't know if it's changed since 2009, but on RCI you could buy a variety of packages that included a mix of different sizes and both formal and informal. It was clear HAL was mainly pushing the expensive packages.
At dinner, we were just being served our entrees when the "Baked Alaska parade" started. This consisted of a number of waiters and chefs marching around and two people carrying Baked Alaskas. Then the head chef made a short speech, they all sang a goodbye song, and marched off.
March 11: Disembarkation. We had gotten Pink 1 tags for our luggage, which was supposed to be priority wheelchair assisted early disembarkation. We were told our time was 8:15 to 8:30, and that we should be in the Pinnacle bar 15 minutes early. So we arrived there well before 8:00 am and found half a dozen passengers waiting in wheelchairs in a line, and another couple of dozen passengers waiting for wheelchairs. I asked the man in charge what to do, and he said to have a seat for a while. How long is a while, I asked? Half an hour, he replied; he was having trouble getting customs to clear his staff to take the wheelchairs off the ship. We had a 10:55 am flight from FLL. Mom said she was prepared to walk off the ship rather than wait. We already knew from embarkation that they had different people to handle wheelchairs in the terminal. We kept getting conflicting information about whether we could walk off. First they allowed off the people carrying their own luggage, then they started the Luggage Direct crowd.
At that point I basically bullied our way off the ship, although they claimed our luggage wouldn't be available. We walked off into the terminal and took the elevator down to luggage claim. I noticed a Pinnacle employee from the ship with an empty wheelchair and we started walking in his direction. A security guard saw us coming and insisted the ship guy put my mom in the chair. We went over to luggage where I did find our three suitcases. Then I looked for a porter; a port employee claimed they were unloading luggage but we espied one man with a cart and grabbed him. The wheelchair was handed off to a delightful older gentleman who worked for the terminal who took us on an end run around the lines and right to the head of customs, where we breezed through. Our little entourage headed out and down to the taxi line, where we were in a cab and arriving at the airport at 8:15. I consider this my great triumph in manipulation and believe if we'd followed all the contradictory instructions on the ship that we'd have missed our plane. We checked our luggage at the curb and Mom got a wheelchair almost immediately. Another skip to the head of security and we were at our gate with two hours to spare and I could stop worrying.
General thoughts: Mom claimed this was her last HAL cruise although I suspect with time she'll change her mind. She thought the ship was too large and that venues used to be more open and accessible. She also thought everything was becoming separate cost centers rather than a cohesive experience. Her only complaint about the room was that she remembered long desks with drawers; I pointed out the four night table drawers and she was OK. She liked the coded room safes much better than the old card system. She slept very comfortably. She liked the pump bottles in the shower and enjoyed the veranda. She enjoyed the Pinnacle Grill which was her first specialty restaurant dining on a cruise. She found her favorite Clinique cream in the shops.
I only had my RCI cruises to compare but thought that HAL came off poorer in entertainment and also the openness of some venues. For example, the piano bar was in a separate room next to the casino rather than somewhere you could easily drop by. The ship itself was attractive and the staff were very friendly and generally tried their best to be helpful. I caught each of the music groups at least once and they were all OK but nothing special. I most enjoyed the steel drum player at the SeaView pool. I much appreciated the cold water and towels when returning to the ship from ports. And the public restrooms were great.
The dining room food varied from mediocre to excellent and you never knew what you would get so choices were a gamble. The menus were inaccurate at times and the waiters not that well informed. As an example, one appetizer was described as pineapple spears with coconut flakes. The pineapple was topped with peppercorns instead of coconut. Another time the chocolate dessert was supposed to have a dollop of whipped cream - no dollop. Herbs and spices were not always as described. Our servers were very nice but our service took much too long. This was even after they promised to put us first on the third night and I complained on the sixth night. It's a good thing we liked our tablemates! I had breakfast in the MDR once and it was good but extremely slow service. I also noticed both that day and at the Mariner's lunch that you heard and felt the engines much more on the lower level than on the upper level dining area. I would not have liked to experience that every night so was glad we dined upstairs.
I liked most of the food I ate at the Lido for breakfast and lunch but didn't get many of the hot dishes. Nice sandwiches made to order, quite decent pizza, good omelets (although the line was too slow), good salads, dangerous ice cream and cookies (I only gained three pounds on the cruise and hold them mostly to blame. Well, that and the bread and butter). Terrible coffee, though. I had to wait a few times for pastries and cheeses to be replenished. I appreciated being able to carry food out of the Lido and back to the cabin or my chair by the pool, and the free 24/7 room service and being able to bring my own wine on.
I was always able to find a chair at the Sea View pool (the Lido pool looked packed), and also eventually was able to always find a place at Lido restaurant, although sometimes that took a hunt. When I was alone, I brought a book to leave on the table while I was off getting more food, and draped my napkin over the back of the chair and never had trouble.
The cabin was plenty big enough for me! The bed was very comfortable although the sheets were clearly low thread count; slightly rough to the touch. There was lots of storage; I used the space inside the round desk chair to store the larger bottles from the fridge. That made room in the fridge for my wine and some snacks from the Lido . The lighting at the desk was not very good for drying hair - one vertical light to one side facing me and the rest behind me - but the outlet in the bathroom couldn't run the hair dryer so I made the best of it. I figured out how to work the DVD player (they should have provided instructions though). We had the door opened between our verandas and it made a nice long "porch", as Mom said. We were very lucky that there were no smokers anywhere near us so we could enjoy sitting out on the verandas with no problems.
But as a I noted at the start, what surprised me the most was how much I enjoyed the other passengers. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but everyone I talked to was so friendly and nice. On RCI, people were pleasant but more focused on their own families and groups. But HAL passengers were happy to reach out - maybe HAL has more couples and singles traveling? Anyway, I suspect I'm not really meant to be a cruiser but if I went again, I'd look for a smaller ship that can go into smaller ports or maybe the river cruises; it's getting too chancy with the bigger ships these days what with weather and germs and breakdowns.