Sailing date Dec 7-14 2013 Ft Lauderdale, Eastern Caribbean.
Ocean Cruise number 6 for us
HAL seemed well organized. Bags checked at the road side onto luggage wagons, luggage tags supplied by HAL on line indicated our room assignment. We had done our pre-cruise paper work online a month earlier, and two weeks later we got an upgrade.
We cleared security quickly, we only had back packs with us at this point. Paper work was quick, no line ups to speak of. Room assignment checked (no further upgrades available, the ship was sold out) door keys issued, credit card checked and then the 1 hour wait to board. Interesting questionnaire on infectious diseases, never had that before (haven't sailed in 10 years though). We were in our room at 13:34, and there was our luggage.
Rooms are wired for both 220 VAC Euro plugs and 120 VAC for the American standard. The hair dryer is hidden in one of the drawers not in the bathroom. The bar frig is well stocked
BTW, this room wasn't an upgrade in my books. It was the exact same room we booked, only in a different part of the ship. We did like the location though, in the middle of the ship close to everything.
We carried 5 bottles of wine, purchased in Fort Lauderdale in our back packs. It helps when you book your pre cruise hotel near a grocery store. This is currently allowed, but HAL is changing the rules as of January 31 2014. Best check the rules before hand. We won't talk about the rum and the vodka
Up to the top deck for the view, OK, 7 cruise ships in port, some really big ones. Nice view, I guess, to some, just a busy dock to me. Talked to a few other guests, some drinks, then off to prep for dinner. Ship sales at 16:00, no wait, 18:00, oh who cares, it's time for dinner. The ship was indeed late for departure, I think we were the last one to leave from the port. Maybe they draw straws to see who goes first.
At some point the ship had to turn around and head back to Fort Lauderdale because of an medical emergency. The Coast Guard met the ship half way and off loaded the guest. We then carried on to Grand Turk. The rumored cost for that turn around, on fuel, was about $7000.00 dollars.
Dinner was, by our choice, open seating, but, we learned, you can pre-book a dinner time, and the number of guests (2,4,6,8, something I do appreciate) up to two days ahead of time. Would have been nice to known that on day one, not day 5!!
Different dinner companions every night. Learned a little something about Texas, Montreal, Book writing, North Carolina, Grits, Alabama, the nude beach on St Maarten, other cruises and a lot more. Definitely the way to go with dinning, thoroughly enjoyed it.
We reserved one night at the Pinnacle for the wife’s birthday. The wait staff provided a nice impromptu birthday cake, what a total surprise that was.
It seems like they flambe all the deserts. The food was excellent, tastefully decorated and presented on the plate. We chose the lobster. It was better tasting, and of a better texture, than we had in the main dinning room. Where by the way, we requested two lobster tails and got them at no extra charge. The second lobster tail in the Pinnacle is $10.00 more, above the $25.00 PP for the reservation.
Wine is from a special wine list, BUT, you can request the wine list from the main dinning room, or any other wine that you may have found on board (if you bring it from your cabin, there is an $18.00 corkage fee). We liked their Chilean wine. The waiters will confirm the price of the wine before bringing it to your table. We did tip, and did notice that others did too.
Food in the Lido buffet was fine, but for the first 48 hours, you couldn't touch anything, it's all given to you. This is a health issue, it's really not an imposition, and we barely noticed it. We didn't get ill, nor were we aware of any one else getting ill either. The ice cream , of which I've had better, service closed down around 23:30. Pizza and some pasta dishes as well as other deserts were still available. We typically packed it in around midnight after a few slices of pizza, so I can't speak to what happens after midnight.
Activities on board. Well there was an art auction, we skipped that, we skipped the wine and liquor tasting too. Someone said there was a movie theater, playing such classics as “Home Alone 2”, yeah we skipped that too. We also missed out on the mariners group social, dam, gotta make a note to read the daily itinerary.
On this cruise, each “at Sea” day was a formal (attire) dinner day.
I did take in the free Microsoft Digital Workshop. A shameless excuse for Microsoft to promote their product, and only their product. Any comments on competing products were quickly shot down.
It was a good intro to Windows 8.1, Skydrive, Windows app store (heck, who new they even had one of those), and their photo editing software (Photoshop need not worry). Emily was very good at speaking to the “Mature” crowd about the goodness of Windows 8.1, and the photo editing software. For HALS part they supplied large screen computer/monitors for the guests to use. These units were also connected to the internet, but you weren't supposed to use them to check your e-mail (so I was told).
You were encouraged to bring your photo's, on a USB stick, and edit them in the Windows photo editing class, as well as after the class when the lab was still open. Periodically the lab was opened so you could use the computers (remember, no checking e-mails) to continue your photo editing right up to the last day of the cruise.
Night time entertainment for the most part was good. The Newly Wed game was funny (called the wedding game, no doubt a copy right issue). We skipped the dancing with the stars, didn't want to encourage the wife, or I'd be up there dancing too.
The comedian, Brian Bradley, was good, improv was his specialty, and he managed to get people up on the stage, much to the delight of the rest of us. He spread his wrath around the continent, picking on Canadians and Americans alike (I think he has a thing against curling eh), but in a funny way.
The magician team of Leon and Romy, were good too, although some of the routines were similar to ones we saw ten years ago on our last cruise. He also had a second show where he showed us how some of the basic card tricks work.
The ships entertainment crew did an excellent job, with their “Show Time” themed dance numbers and singing, they were very energetic.
The Blue's/Jazz, group (BB Kings Blues Club) was good but really loud so we left early. Not a reflection on the group, they certainly were putting a lot of effort into the performance, other guest said they enjoyed it, we just had an issue with the very high audio volume.
Cruise director Ross was certainly working his butt off. We would see him in the Lido buffet at midnight, grabbing a snack, then we'd hear him first thing in the morning describing the days events. He seemed to be everywhere, all the time, and always happy and cheerful.
The casino seemed to be doing a brisk business, although it's not our thing, so we usually just watched.
Larry in the piano bar was great at the keys, only problem was it seemed like it was always the same crowd at the piano, and we only ever got to sit there once, on the last day. Granted, some at the piano could sing a lot better than I could, maybe a blessing in disguise.
If you are going for the soda package consider that it is only for bar (fountain), soda, you don't get a can or bottle, and they add ice. $25.00 gets you $50.00 of bar sodas. Single cost price is $1.50 a glass, soda in a can, in the room fridge is $1.95, both add an automatic 15% tip. On shore in San Juan Puerto Rico, 12 cans of coke sold for $2.99, and there are no restrictions on bringing it on board.
As we boarded in Ft Lauderdale, the fellow boarding ahead of us had a hand truck with several cases of coke on it, not sure if he was going to bootleg it or not.
Be aware that you are not permitted to have your own personal drinks (that you brought on board), out side your cabin. To that end, the drinking glasses in your room, are different from those provided at the bars. While we never saw it happen, we had read, that guests with non dispensed (by HAL) drinks would be asked to return to there rooms with then. Of course you could buy one drink at the bar, then reuse the glass, just don't leave them where the room steward will find them, or you won't have them for long..
I have to take exception with the “Port Ambassador” Rita. Very good at her job was she, if your into nothing but shopping while ashore, lots of enthusiasm. She new her stuff, and the stores and the people in the stores.
But if your not shopping, or shopping in the “not approved by HAL” stores, she'll leave you in no mans land. The front desk wasn't much help either, with a distinct lack of local maps. Rita's maps where for shoppers, and showed mainly how to get to the shops.
In St Maarten, Rita highly promoted the water taxi ($7.00 return), (and highly discouraged the walk) to get from the cruise ship pier to Philipsburg, however, the walk was only 15 minutes, perfectly safe, and you couldn't get lost (despite her comments to that effect), just follow the crowd. Personally I would recommend the walk, if your physically able.
Liquor was half price (from Ft Lauderdale) in St Maarten, definitely the place to stock up with your duty free. You won't be allowed to keep it in your stateroom though. HAL will store it for you till disembarkation day. We didn't do any shopping in Philipsburg, instead favoring a drink with some friends we crossed paths with from a different cruise ship.
The shipped docked at 08:00 and set sail at 15:00 hours, seemed odd to me as we could have spend more time on shore, on the beach. Our friends shipped docked at 08:00 and departed at 17:00 hours. $25.00 got you a beach umbrella, 2 beach loungers and a bucket of beer, from one of the local vendors. While the beach is free, the loungers are all pay as you go. Typical of what we found in Europe.
Grand Turk was a disappointment from a shopping perspective, the cruise port is set up as a captured tourist site, no deals to be had. The beach on the other hand was great, with free beach loungers available to the guests from the cruise ships. Free WiFi was available from “Froots” a fruit drink purveyor at the far end of the square. There was a time limit of 1 hour per device though.
The Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on display just off the main square is a replica, not the real thing, but still, it is there to commemorate an event in human space travel, and is a good photo op.
We docked at San Jaun around noon and left at 17:30. Interesting fortifications to tour, and even more interesting history. The forts are part of the national parks service and totally accessible for $5.00 for both installations. San Jaun also has a free shuttle that winds it's way through the town, hop on hop off style, and is usually totally full, especially when there are several ships in port.
Half Moon Cay, beautiful powdery sand beaches. Relatively shallow warm water. A little windy, but not enough to blow the sand around. Not much to do here but lay on the beach , chase some roosters, and enjoy the bar-b-que. Again, we did not have a long stay here, setting sail around 15:00 hours.
Disembarkation was orderly and quick, around 10:15 AM. As we were staying in Florida for a few days (Kenndy Space Center), we choose to be among the last ones off the ship.
A note of caution here in Port Everglades. Ensure you know where your rental car company is located. Dollar and Thrifty are on the Port Everglades site. The rest are at the airport. We rented from Dollar, at the airport, and they wouldn't let us change to the on site location because we had a package deal that included a hotel. We also wanted to drop the car back at the airport when we were ready to fly home.
The only shuttles provided by Dollar, went to the on site location, not the airport. We were on the hook to find our own way to the airport. HAL wanted $19.00 per person, about the same for a taxi (for two). Hertz, Budget, Avis, etc all provided free shuttles to the car rental location at the airport, and they didn't ask for id or proof of rental, when you boarded the shuttle. All the car rental dealers at the airport are located in a common area, which also includes Dollar and Thrifty. You are simply dropped off at the curb, and need to make your own way to the rental agency of your choice.
Another item to note is Dollar rent a car, does not record small vehicle damage such as small dents, scratches or scuffs, on your rental agreement. We did however record all 13 incidents of (minor) damage on a note pad and then insisted that the gate attendant verify and acknowledge them, which he did without comment. On vehicle drop off, the attendant did a walk around the car, checked the gas tank, then said all was OK. He didn't ask about damages or problems. He just gave us a receipt, and we left.
We never had a problem with the car, (about 2 years old with 45,000 miles) it was fine for us, and we would rent from Dollar again.
I really didn't like the mandatory tipping policy of $23.00 per cabin per day. Why not just say there will be a mandatory surcharge, or add it to the cost of the cruise up front. It did put a damper on our trip. While not a lot of money, it did add up, and seems petty. Also not happy about their upcoming liquor policy change, or the current restriction on liquor in our cabin.
The Internet was pricey, communications was over a satellite link (not terribly fast), but on the last day they reduced it by 50% to allow you to check flights and print boarding passes.
The HAL Facebook group meet and greet was cancelled BEFORE the cruise departed, but no one was informed of it. When I showed up at the appointed place and time, no one had a clue what I was talking about. Even the front desk was clueless.
The Cruise Critic meet and greet came off fine, and was interesting.
OBTW, if you are having a very personal intimate moment with your wife (or the other person in the room with you), put the do not disturb sign out on the door.
The cabin steward was a little to efficient this one day. Kinda ruined the moment for us, but probably gave him something to discus with his work mates.
This cruise while enjoyable (although we thought the days at sea were boring), hasn't raised our desire to ocean cruise more, and vacation less, at all inclusive resorts, or on river cruises. It's just another vacation option, that currently sits at the bottom of our vacation preference list. We had a negative attitude going into cruising, and a more positive one coming off it, but it still is at the bottom of our travel list, and mostly because of the nickel and dime issue. I sailed in fear of the last days, on board charges, statement.