We started with a pre-cruise night at the Hampton Inn & Suites on Stirling Rd, a good location, with an easy walk to Oakwood Plaza (K-Mart!) for wine and a few other last minute items. We enjoyed the suite space, as well as the included breakfast. There was a smoked-in smell to the room, which lingered on our luggage for a while, but it wasn’t so strong that we couldn’t sleep.
We arrived early enough at the terminal that we had to wait for embarkation to begin. The waiting area is functional, but kind of a different scene this trip due to the notable scarcity of children! Embarkation process was smooth overall, and we were happily in our cabin before noon. Our luggage joined us before dinner, so no complaints about that service whatsoever.
Our first shipboard meal was in the Lido Buffet. Truth be told, most of our meals were there. That is typical for us, as we don’t particularly care for dressing for dinner, and I tend to seize up more than I like to admit when seated for any length of time. Things moved slowly for the first 48 hours due to HAL’s policy of doing all the serving in the buffet during that time. Once past that period, we were allowed to help ourselves to everything except the "Bistro” offerings, which comprised the main entrée elements of the meal. As I understand, these included most of what was offered in the MDR, appetizers and desserts not included.
Our cabin: Verandah cabin (8132) was very nice, with the best a/c I have ever experienced in a ship cabin. I absolutely loved having a bathtub, as opposed to the "shower tube” featured on most ships. However, the water temperature was what it was, and we had no control of it. It was hot, but fortunately not scalding. The diverter wasn't working, either, so we had water from the showerhead only. Better that than the other way around! Yes, it was reported, and non, never fixed.This cabin was directly below the Lido deck, and while we could certainly hear any chair movement above, the area was always quite deserted when we were sleeping. It was a guarantee, not a cabin I would have selected, but it worked out very well for us. Not so much for a gentleman 2 doors down the hall, he told us, but that’s HIS cruise experience to review!
We never did manage to see Captain John Scott, but liked the easy, down-to-earth style of the cruise director, Eric (particularly in the Liars’ Club!!!) The singers were amazing and the piano man, Greg, extraordinarily talented. It was great to have two nights of comedy entertainment our favorite kind with excellent comedians. I attended 2 presentations in the Culinary Arts Centre and think this is a wonderful addition to the line’s activity offerings. Likewise, the Digital Workshop! I strong-armed my husband into joining me for 2 classes, and only wish I had found time for more. The facility, techspert Emily, and topics were first-rate. We both enjoyed the classes AND learned new tricks.
Ports: Our lukewarm attitude about the ports may have been for the best, as we left the ship with few expectations, no pressure, and had an absolutely lovely time at each stop. In Grand Turk, we rented floating mattresses and only left that beautiful beach just long enough to acquire an over-priced Margarita at a well-know establishment. It was a blissful day. We hopped on the free trolley in Old San Juan and rode until we were motivated to get off and stroll around for a while. I will never complain about driving downtown at home again! Kudos to the trolley drivers who must grease those vehicles well on both sides. Sailing into and out of SJ was a treat...so much to see. In Sint Maarten, we browsed the shops and strolled the boardwalk, wishing we’d brought our bathing suits. Half Moon Cay was honestly the BEST beach I have ever been on! We rented mattresses again and floated, and floated, had some lunch and floated some more. Pure heaven.
The crew: What can I say? They are wonderful, unfailingly pleasant, polite, and eager to help in any way possible. It was even more incredible to see them keep their smiles intact during the last days of our cruise, knowing that many of them must have been frantic with worry over family and friends at home following Typhoon Haiyan.
The food: We were consistently disappointed in the food onboard, with the exceptions of the Asian section during lunch and the omelet station. Food at the Lido was tepid, as was coffee. The pasta offerings were the stuff of chain store pizza joints, right down to the powdered parmesan cheese in a shaker, and desserts bland and unimaginative. Semi-decent coffee was available at the Explorations Café, for a price, of course, but their hours were insufficient, and the snacks spotty. More often than not, the display case was almost if not completely empty. Being used to the lovely Café Promenade on many RCCL ships, this was particularly frustrating.
We ventured into the MDR one evening and enjoyed our tablemates immensely, along with the service staff. Sadly, the food was just plain bad, aside from the chilled blueberry soup. Mussels were awful, my fish was hard and dry. It was cheerfully replaced on request by steak, which was cooked to rare perfection but still tough and tasteless. And FYI , Holland America two little scoops of vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of thin and barely chocolate-flavored syrup hardly qualifies as a sundae!
High Tea caught my attention, and we squeezed in two during our week on board. The first was nice enough, but the Cupcake Tea was a flop, in our opinion. Dry, tasteless, and visually unappealing little cupcakes were served. Small uniform swirls of garish buttercream atop each, two flavours of cake - dry light and dry dark. I heard after the fact there there were real coffee presses at the Indonesian Tea... go figure!
We honestly applaud the trend away from the wasteful midnight buffets which is the current trend for most lines, but it makes me wonder why they don’t showcase their culinary expertise on a sea day DURING a mealtime? Naturally most folks don’t want 5,000 calories at midnight, but a beautiful presentation of appetizers and desserts at dinnertime or even midday would be very welcome.
Room service breakfasts were better. Coffee arrived hotter, and food was delivered on time and accurately.
The ship: In a word, immaculate! The Crow’s Nest was my favorite place. We did find it strange and extremely disappointing that pools and hot tubs had limited hours. That was a first for us, as ships we’ve sailed in the past only closed these temporarily for cleaning or in higher seas. Also, the sliding roof was put in place over the Lido pool by 7 every night. Considering the heat, it never made sense to us, as it created a large, uncomfortable sauna-like area on a deck we would have enjoyed for the open air in the evening. We learned to steer clear as it was just plain unpleasant, and ruled out nighttime use of the ping-pong tables, to boot. We also found the ship to have a lot of motion, for the relatively calm seas. We have sailed much rougher waters, with far less rolling.
Overall: We had a very relaxing week, at an extremely good price. We were glad that we tried HAL this time, as we are starting to plan for a longer European route next year. It is unanimous that we prefer RCCL, where we have enjoyed every meal (not just breakfast) and the nighttime access to pools and cafes. Amazing 90-minute productions, such "Saturday Night Fever”, are more to our liking than the 45 minute song & dance offerings on HAL, Princess, and other lines. We talked to many on aboard who are loyal HAL cruisers and can appreciate their opinion, as well as the fact that the cruise market offers many options for many tastes.
Disembarkation Day: For the first time ever, we did the expedited, self-disembarkation. This worked well for us, and the custom lines even moved at a good pace! We made it to the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 before 9 am. We had hoped they would store our luggage while we set out to tour Fort Lauderdale. They did much better and put us in a room immediately! We really appreciated being able to freshen up and settle in before heading out, even more so when we found out the water taxis did not start for the day until 10:30 am.
We had a ground floor, pool view lanai room, which was lovely and the bathroom felt like a ballroom following shipboard accommodations! Luck was with us again, as we were able to hope on the express elevator for a ride to the top of the tower. What a view! That room was shortly after closed for a private function, so if not for our early morning visit, we would never have had the pleasure of that panorama.
Loved the water taxi(s) and we rode both routes, strolled the Hollywood Boardwalk, grabbed dinner at Duffys Sports Bar near the Harbour Shops before calling it a day. After a week of total relaxation, it felt like we were on a marathon, but I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it.
I’d definitely recommend this hotel, although for travellers on a tighter budget, finding a place which includes breakfast will save you quite a bit.