We sailed from April 13 - April 21, 2013, the last Caribbean cruise for HAL for the year until November.
Pros: Beautiful ship with unique art throughout every nook and cranny practically. Decent entertainment, lots of choices for things to do and see or just to relax and veg out, decent food, and lots of space in the cabin. Good high tea in the afternoon and friendly crew. Affordable elegance and not too many children (for those who prefer a relatively quiet cruise).
Cons: Food can be bland (to be fair we really like it spicy), Lido can be really over crowded, and the pool area was often times very crowded with people saving lounge chairs for non-existent people, and not a lot of time at each port stop. Shows can be hit or miss. Not too many children for those who are looking for a family cruise, but they do have good programs for kids and go out of their way to entertain the few kids around. Pictures are way too expensive.
I took a sister trip (myself and my two younger sisters) to celebrate one sister's birthday and the other sister's graduation. We shared 1014 which is a pretty large ocean view room. We split the beds into two twins and the couch in the room was a queen pull-out bed, which was very comfy. Despite 3 ladies who packed fairly lightly, storage space was not a problem at all. The window was a decent size: bigger than a port hole and was nice to have. We booked only a few weeks before the cruise and there were no interior rooms left (but that's ok, I wanted an ocean view), but there were some good sales and the third passenger was only $99. This was a quiet room even though its below the Casino - we did not hear any sounds. Personally, I would have preferred to be more in the middle of the boat for the convenience, but all those rooms had been booked. I did find our room to be somewhat convenient, since it was not far from the front elevator banks and it also offered a second gangway.
Embarkation was very easy and pretty quick - we carried our own luggage to the room which was on the Main floor (1st Floor) and towards the front of the ship right near the first floor of the Showplace and those bank of elevators. The dining rooms and lido buffet were all the way in the aft. But on the main floor is also the main desk, which was very convenient. I went directly by cab from the airport to the dock and was on the boat within an hour. The embarkation took about 30 minutes or less. The cab ride was about $15. They try and make you take a photo before you go on the boat and this held up the line considerably. My sisters and I traveled separately, so I did not want to take a picture alone. If it weren't for the picture thing, embarkation would have been even faster.
We had lunch at the Lido - it was super crowded. Its very hard to navigate during rush hours: Breakfast 9:15 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. (they shut down the breakfast at 10:00 a.m.); Lunch (11:30 a.m. to 1:20 p.m.) and Dinner (5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.). Dinner was the least crowded. I only had lunch 2 times in Lido because I hated the crowds. It got so bad that you could not even walk down the hall because of the numerous people. To be fair, often times the bottle necks would be caused by clueless and maybe rude people who just would stop and chat or space out and people could not pass. The food was pretty good at the Lido for breakfast and lunch with a decent selection of healthy food. We ate there for breakfast 5 out of 7 days and the selection is very good. The other days we ordered room service, which was delivered timely and the food was at a lukewarm temperature, but I think that was because of the distance it had to travel. The only other problem with Lido, is that the plates can often times be dangerously hot and they are heavy and you don't get a tray, so you have to keep going back and forth to get drinks or salads instead of one trip. We had lunch in the dining room 3 times and the food was ok, but I liked to be served instead of recreating the Hunger Games at the Lido. The Mariner's lunch was so-so, the food that day was not very good and it didn't feel as special as the other Mariner lunch I have been on (MS Maasdam), but they served Champagne and you got the blue and white tile of the Nieuw Amsterdam which was nice. I brought my sisters to this lunch, even though this was their first HAL cruise, and they did not have a problem with it.
Dinner: 5 nights in the dining room; 1 night in the Pinnacle Grill ($29 extra) and 1 night in Tamarind ($15). The dining room food for dinner wasn't too bad, but again it was bland for our taste so we asked for the Indonesian Chili Garlic sauce (called Sambal) and it really helped a lot. We did the late seating. Our service was ok - I have had fabulous and super attentive service on other cruises and other cruise lines. For some of the nights, the waiter remembered to have the hot sauce out and other nights he forgot and could not get it (Lido has it all the time for self service). Every cruise I have ever taken in the past, the set wait staff would know your name, remember anything special, and have it ready for you. Our group treated us as if we were in the open seating - I like picking a set seating for the extra attention. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't what I was used to (especial on HAL cruises). I don't know if it was the end of the Caribbean season and they would be dry docking for 2 weeks after our cruise or what, but the service was a bit lacking. The lobster served in the dining room on the last formal night was ok - it could be not fresh or pretty fresh depending on which tail you got. I ordered two tails and one was good but the other was inedible.
Pinnacle Grill was fantastic - very good food and a lot of it. We got the porterhouse steak, the rib eye, and the lamb chops - all of it delicious. Its a long night though and we were there for almost 3 hours.
Tamarind is their pan-Asian restaurant. We thought it was ok, not very good Asian food, but not the worst. I would not eat here again, unless maybe there was no surcharge. The location, decor and views are lovely, but the food was so-so. The portions are also pretty small for a surcharge restaurant.
The ship was pretty full - with a couple of large groups. One was a large business group of about 1000 guests (the ship holds about 1900 guests total)and many of us felt a lot of attention was paid to the group at the expense of the other guests, but I can't be sure that was true. There was a younger crowd on this cruise than on the previous cruises I have taken (Alaska and New England), which was kind of fun. The night club was consistently full especially after the formal nights and the music was pretty standard at the club. The Piano bar was very nicely decorated and the pianist and singer was good, but he was not as outgoing as some of the other piano bar entertainers I have seen on other ships. However, he was very good and I liked his subdued demeanor - it was very classy and fun. The Casino was pretty packed every night, but its a small casino.
The pools were pretty full between 10:00 a.m. and 4 p.m. There is the Lido pool and the back of the boat pool. Both were very full with a lot of the bucket of beer party groups in the back deck pool. I had mixed feelings about this because the crowd seemed more like a Carnival party crowd than a typical HAL crowd. We discovered that a lot of the bucket of beer party crowds were from the same organization that booked about 1000 passengers, so maybe this was an anomaly or maybe this was a Caribbean cruise thing - I think it was an anomaly.
We sometimes hung out on the promenade and sat at the lounge chairs there - the breeze was nice and it was a lot quieter and relaxing. We could read and snooze there without any trouble.
The shows were so-so. They do basically two large productions - the first was some theme about NYC but with very few songs related to NYC and the second was called Cantare - which featured their 4 male vocalists of varying talent. I wish they would just do a real show with a beginning, middle and end story line - I have been on NCL cruises and they did a Broadway show (Guys and Dolls) which was fantastic and always filled. Royal Caribbean also does a fantastic ice show and also a water show. Cantare was decent, but it all depends on the vocalist. We did not see the smaller shows in between, but many guests complained about the ventriloquist. I did hear raves for the Irish show and we saw parts of their Dancing with the Stars show on the last night, which was a lot of fun.
Throughout the ship and during different times there are all kinds of entertainment options. My sisters saw a cooking demo which they liked a lot (and which also did not try to sell the audience useless kitchen gadgets, which I witnessed once at a "cooking demonstration") and their are various musicians and singers at different bars. Some of our table mates got to do karaoke, which they seemed to enjoy.
We also purchased the week long use of the Thermal Hydro suite. I did this the other two HAL cruises I took. We negotiated a lower price of $150 for each of us and we got 10 salt scrubs and loofas for the three of us. We used the Thermal and Hydro suite every day. The Thermal suite has those wonderful tile chairs. I am not sure if it was worth the approximate $20 a day (daily rate is $40, but I know people who negotiated it down to $30), but we did enjoy it and it was nice after a long day of touring around. We spent about 1.5 hours each evening in the hydro pool and the chairs. I recommend going anytime after 6 p.m. because you will have the entire place to yourself. This was true every night and we never waited to use anything.
Signature shops - I found really good deals at the Signature shops on luxury items and Tortuga Rum Cakes. They sell high end items at discounts and duty free. In fact often times, you will save more money buying certain items on the ship then in the duty free shops in the port. My sister and I bought the same exact Michael Kors purse, but she paid about $40 more than I did. She bought hers at a Duty Free shop on the island and I bought mine on the boat. Its definitely worth checking out if you like to shop.
Shore excursions: I never take shore excursions unless someone gives me their tickets (happened to me in St. Martin once) and even then I can be reluctant. You can always do the same tour on your own either booking ahead or when you get off the boat and save quite a bit of money. At every port, you can hire your own taxi driver at a negotiated flat rate to drive you around and give you a tour. Their are also tour operators at the port you can hire for tours. We played it by ear, brought a Frommer's guide book, and had some great adventures for a fraction of the cost of the ship's excursions.
We unfortunately did not get to Half Moon Cay (HAL's private island in the Bahamas) because of weather conditions.
Overall, I would recommend this ship and HAL - we definitely will be taking another cruise with HAL and this ship is really beautiful.