This our first attempt at a review and we will attempt to comment on things that may be helpful to people contemplating HAL for the first time. We will not attempt to comment much on the individual ports as others could do that much better. This was our first HAL cruise but we have been on two Celebrity cruises previously. We are in our 70's. Weather was between 26 and 32 degrees Celsius during the whole cruise and we only saw rain on 2 evenings. Fellow passengers were predominately Americans and Australians in the over 50 bracket. There were very few children on board which suited the age bracket of the passengers. One of the senior staff members had his wife and 2 young boys on board and their behaviour was exemplary.
Do as much research as you can before you cruise when you are going to ports you do not know, particularly in Europe. There is such a multiplicity of ports and choices within those ports that you need to be as prepared as possible prior to getting there. The history associated with the various ports is so extensive that you need to get your 'bucket list” organised before you go. Added to that you will want to spend as much time as possible enjoying yourself rather than chasing around on the internet trying to find out information. (More on the internet service later.)
Knowing what you are likely to face when you get to each port will work significantly to your benefit. Usually the ship's Cruise Director provides a lot of information the night before or on the morning of arrival but that may be too late. Some ports are very easy to negotiate by yourself whereas others are quite difficult.
I find that I like to switch off during the cruise so the preparation was very important for me.
We arrived on Barcelona on the Monday prior to a Thursday departure. This allowed us plenty of time to get over the jetlag brought on by the flight from Australia. Those 3 days were not long enough however as that city is a wonderful place " something for everyone.
We stayed in the Hotel Espana just off Las Ramblas behind the Liceu (Opera) theatre. This was a fantastic location central to all the action. The hotel has undergone a recent refurbishment, the rooms were modern, fantastic showers and great food " not that we ate there a lot as we were out and about much of the time.
We avoided the rush at midday by arriving a couple of hours after the start of boarding in Barcelona. We were met at our taxi drop off point without any waiting, relieved of our large bags and entered the terminal via the escalators. There were only 2 other couples in the queue so we were checked through within 15 minutes whereas the queue extended out through the doorway earlier apparently. Very relaxing process. We made our way to the cabin to be met by our cabin attendants and our luggage followed within an hour.
We were in cabin 5047 on the Verandah deck forward on the starboard side. We had a
Deluxe Verandah cabin Category VC which, without being suite size, was perfectly adequate. Storage, particularly hanging space, was excellent and we had plenty of room for all of our luggage including the 2 empty large suitcases which we could easily store out of the way under the bed. Bathroom includes a bath which is great for people who prefer baths to showers. Toiletries were of a good quality and dispensed from containers attached to the wall " these are preferable to trying to juggle little bottles etc in a shower.
The ship is relatively new (Launched 2010) and I could not find fault with the condition unlike some other reviews I have seen of this ship. It is described as mid size in today's terms but is much bigger than the QEII and the Titanic which used to be the benchmarks. At 86,000 tonnes it is much smaller and easier to get around than today's giant size ships. There were 2,100 passengers with a staff to guest ratio of 38.00%. Whilst that is not as high a ratio as the 6 star ships there always seemed to be adequate staff at all times particularly in the restaurants.
We loved the art works scattered around the ship particularly the New Amsterdam (New York) mural and the library scene " most ingenious. We also liked the trick with the mats in the elevators which were changed overnight to indicate what day it was.
Shops were mainly aimed at selling you jewellery, watches and the ship's merchandise. It would have been good to have somewhere dedicated to selling simple everyday things like batteries, snacks, cheap cosmetics etc. Waiting until the end of the cruise enabled you to get some of the items much cheaper.
Entertainment in the main theatre was acceptable. Highlight for most people was a group of 4 male singers called Cantare. We are classical music fans so the two piano recitals would have been our highight. I say would have been because they were silly enough to amplify the piano for the first recital which completely spoilt the sound " that is a no no. Thankfully the second recital night did not suffer the same problem. Both pianists were of a good standard.
The highlight musically for us was the Hungarian duo Amadeus " a virtuoso Gypsy violinist and pianist. They played in the Piano Bar just outside the main (Manhattan) restaurant. The positioning was a problem as people were continually walking past on their way to and from the restaurant and many did not show any consideration for the performers and their audience. Being self centred is something that is more in evidence these days so many people kept on talking at the top of their voices. Nevertheless being able to sit and hear this duo before and / or after dinner was always a real bonus for us. They played a range of light classical music, show tunes and Hungarian and Slavonic music at a very high standard. The pianist had a couple of nights by himself and his renditions of some slower melodies like Can't you feel the Love Tonight from the Lion King were quite moving.
There was lots of other entertainment available if you wanted it but HAL is not a party boat so if conga lines through the corridors are your thing look elsewhere.
There are 2 pools at the top, one of which is restricted to adults. These seemed to be adequate for the 2,100 passengers we had on board. The cabanas that HAL set up near the Lido pool seem to be a waste of space. A lot of area taken up for people who might want to lie in private areas and be waited upon " not many takers so I cannot see it lasting. Most people resented the cabanas impinging on useful space.
The Crow's Nest at the top front of the ship was a good area to sit and read or view port arrivals etc. The library was relatively extensive.
Might as well get my main gripe out of the way. Probably my only gripe.
The ship goes to great lengths to emphasise that Satellite Internet reception is much slower than shore based internet services but I have an issue with that. I believe that the problem is that they do not provide adequate capacity for the number of users utilising their facilities. I am not a "techo” but I believe the term is bandwith and it is insufficient for the number of users. Let's just say that response times were diabolical at night when there were lots of users on the system and much better early in the morning. Whatever the time just getting signed on was time consuming by itself.
I don't know what other ships are like but one suspects that as internet charges are based on time on the system it suits HAL to have slow response times to be able to sell more time.
I decided before we went that I would organise our meals on a basis that we would be eating at different restaurants each night.
The choices were:
Lido Buffet restaurant
Manhattan Main restaurant
Canaletto Small Italian restaurant set up in an area in the Lido for dinner only
with an extra charge of $10 per head
Tamarind Asian restaurant " Free for lunch but $15 per head in the evening
Pinnacle Grill restaurant with a charge of $25 per head
The last three required prior booking although they were sometimes available on the day. Food is also available by the pools if you wish.
Without bragging I should say that I have eaten in some of the best restaurants in London, Zurich, Munich, New York, Sydney and Melbourne generally at other people's expense so my comments are made by someone who has had some experience of what the food in top quality restaurants is like.
My thoughts on the various restaurants are as follows;
Good standard of buffet restaurant food
You have a choice of having fixed seating or just turning up at the door. Fixed seating works well for people travelling in a group. You can also elect to sit with others or ask for a table by yourselves.
Food is quite pleasant and we were never disappointed.
Best described as OK but not worth paying extra money for.
For us this was the best restaurant on the ship. The Indonesian girls that waited on us were lovely and could not do enough for us.
The food is of an exceptional standard. Lunch is dim sum where you can select one of a few different soups, then are provided a fixed menu consisting of some steamed and fried items which were beautifully cooked followed by dessert. I have to say that the fried spring rolls were outstanding " big fat juicy rolls in a beautiful crispy light wrap.
Evenings were a la carte and we were given a good range of items to choose from in their four categories of Earth, Wind, Water and Fire (Fire having the spiciest dishes but the level of spicing could be moderated if you wanted.).
The food was always beautifully cooked topped off by some excellent desserts. My favourite was Tamarind Chocolate " A Chocolate and Ginger mousse in a bittersweet chocolate basket. I had lots of those.
This is their top restaurant and is somewhat more formal than the other restaurants in the way of expensive restaurants worldwide.
They specialised in steaks and they were excellent. The porterhouse was a real challenge (In Australia we would call it a T-Bone). Enjoyed their jumbo shrimp cocktails as well.
They had 2 special nights on each 12 day sector where they featured a special menu. We went to An Evening at Le Cirque which cost $39 per head instead of $25 and featured a menu based on the menu of Le Cirque restaurant in New York. The butternut pumpkin soup and chateaubriand I had that night are probably the best I have ever tasted.
Our cruise was basically a 12 day cruise of the Western Mediterranean commencing in Barcelona followed by a 12 day cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean with Venice being the mid point and end port. The cruise stopped at a multiplicity of ports with port days occupying 20 of the 24 days. The only duplication apart from Venice was Katakolon (the port for Olympia in Greece). Stopping in so many ports could have been exhausting so we paced ourselves as to which ports we did excursions in. We were more interested in having a relaxing cruise than exhausting ourselves at our age. Half a day was nowhere near enough to see the larger cities anyway. The cruise was however a good way to get a feel for a large number of places and decide on those you would like to revisit. For us it was all of the larger cities.
The ship's shore excursions are typically very expensive and should only be used if you have not been able to identify excursions you can organise yourself or are unable to access public transport. Just remember that the ship will not wait for you if your independent excursion is late so leave yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship.
The other consideration is how far from public transport the ship is moored. Some cruise lines (?Oceania) make sure they get you to a bus station or train station but HAL did not so you are bit on your own. There do seem to be plenty of taxis at every port.
The ports where you were very close to transportation were:
Katakolon (for Olympia)
Kusadasi (for Ephesus)
Piraeus (for Athens) Hop on Hop off buses come to the port
Naples (but in a big mess because of the Metro construction)
Ports which were difficult were;
Livorno (for Florence)
Civitavecchia (for Rome)
Do your research and it will be easier.
Each port has its own charm and places of interest so rather than try to tell you things that many other people have said better than me, I would just like to say that coming in to Venice, Istanbul and Santorini on a ship is a thrill not to be missed particularly on your first visit to those places.
The best investment I made on the ship was the cleaning and pressing service which cost us $108 for each of the 12 day segments. To not have the nuisance of wet clothes hanging around the cabin, to always have clean clothes and to step off the ship with everything clean for our further 2 weeks in the UK was worth every cent.
Three experiences which were negatives:
Our changeover in Singapore was supposed to be 60 minutes but was actually 35 minutes by the time we left the plane. We had to rush the full length of one terminal to the train which look us to another terminal and then rush the full length of that terminal to the gate. Not recommended for us oldies. Conversely our changeover in Singapore on the way back was 2 & ½ hours and we only had to move two gates away from where we landed,
There were only 3 Passport control officers on dutyin arrivals in Barcelona for a 300 seat plane and any others that arrived after that. There were more policemen and women controlling the angry crowd than there were people on passport control.
Venice airport is wonderful once you get through check in and customs " quite modern with plenty of shops and eateries. At Check In there are virtually no seats for those who have to wait for Check In to open. Not a wonderful experience sitting on your luggage.
We can thoroughly recommend this cruise for someone who wants to get a taste of a large number of Mediterranean ports and be extremely well fed during the trip. For 2014 the 24 day cruise with some minor port changes on the Nieuw Amsterdam is called "Magic of the Mediterranean”.