One of the good things about cruising is that to a large extent you can make a cruise whatever you want it to be. If you just want to get out to Sea & do nothing, you can do that. If you want to meet lots of people and participate in activities, you can do that. Or maybe you just want to eat & drink yourself silly – you can do that, too. So this Review should be prefaced by knowing what we wanted from this cruise. We were just looking to relax and be pampered for a week in comfortable surroundings.
I also should point out that I have not sailed on HAL in over ten years. Since about 2001, I have cruised only on Regent, Lindblad and Paul Gauguin – the biggest ship being 900 passengers. So I went into this cruise on a ship with double that capacity with a little trepidation, and did not set my expectations too high. Also, we were in a Neptune Suite, which gave me a little more room, a few additional perks, and access to the Neptune Lounge. I am sure my experience would have been very different had I been in a lower grade cabin. As pointed out in my review, we rarely used the Lido, and only ate 3 dinners in the Vista restaurant.
Bottom Line: For the most part, I was impressed with HAL, especially with their continuing health and safety actions, and the cruise exceeded my expectations.
DAY 1 – Fort Lauderdale:
What a great end to the day, sitting here on my LARGE balcony on a comfortable chair, feet up, looking up at the stars. Just returned from B.B. King’s club here on the Westerdam – the singer, CeCe Teneal, was much better than I would have expected. We will definitely be back.
I think this has been the best First day of any cruise I’ve been on. Things are running well on the Westerdam. We arrived at the Port at around 2 PM with no line to check in whatsoever. Immediately went to our cabin, dropped our things, and went into the Neptune Lounge to check that out. There were a few little problems with our cabin, like a broken showerhead, and some items which appeared dirty, that should not have been dirty. All it took was a single mention to the concierge there, and everything was not only taken care of, but they kept coming in to check to make sure everything was good. Our room stewards, Kiry & Johan, could not have been more helpful, continually asking us if we needed anything else. Due to allergy, we had requested all feathers be removed, and the bed was made up perfectly. So far, the A/C is great – I’ve heard horror stories about the A/C not working properly, but ours is quite cold. We’ll see if it goes off during the night.
Ate tonight in the Pinnacle Grill, and that was the only negative of the day. Not HAL’s fault, however. We were seated in a “Quiet Corner (per the Maitre’D) in a booth, a “romantic table for two” we were told. It may have been, except for the obnoxious couple seated near us. They were just finishing their second bottle of wine (but had not yet received their entrees) when we were seated, and the man was unreasonably loud – he could probably be heard at the other end of the ship. And he laughed hysterically at everything HE said. But it got worse – suddenly he moved over to his wife/girlfriend & was pawing all over her for several minutes. Not just a kiss or two, or holding hands, etc. – they were practically having sex right in front of us. And believe me, this was NOT a couple anyone would enjoy watching! â˜º
Off to bed now (hopefully that scene will be out of my head).
DAY 2: At Sea
Well, maybe everything about that first day was Not perfect after all. Didn’t sleep at all, and at 5 AM I found out why we didn’t. My partner, the allergic lady, was up all night sniffling & sneezing, etc. At 5 AM we realized that they had put a FEATHER blanket inside the duvet cover. OOPS –and they were supposed to remove the feathers. Our room steward the next morning could not be more apologetic. He said he thought he has used a polyester blanket in there. OK – so we’ll just take a nap today.
Beautiful day at sea – ship rides like a charm. Everyone is so helpful and accommodating. Breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill (for Neptune guests) was excellent. A word about cleanliness. We had a letter in our cabin telling us that other ships had been reporting outbreaks of NoroVirus in this region, so they warned everyone to take precautions. There will be no shaking of hands with staff, hand sanitizer dispensers are everywhere, no self-service in the Lido for 2 days, and cleaning of surfaces is constant. Looks like HAL is doing all it can. I just wish the passengers were complying. I can’t say how many times I saw people come out of bathrooms, or walk into dining areas, and NOT use the hand sanitizer.
Dinner tonight was in the Vista Dining Room. We have Anytime Dining, so we walked in around 8 PM and requested a table to 6 or 8. We waited maybe 30 seconds and were shown to a table where we had a very pleasant & fun dinner. Most of the food was good – the quality was not something I would go out of my way & pay a lot of money for, but it was for the most part fine. Escargot was yummy – lots of garlic! Unfortunately, at a table for 6, they did get a couple of orders wrong. And, the pasta came out inedible – it was totally dried out and cold when served. It was sent back, and the new order was fine – they remembered to put the sauce on it this time. After dinner, an old tradition: stopped at the YumYum Man for ginger. Then it was off to the Queen’s Lounge again for another B.B. King Blues Band show. Last night’s show was terrific. I think this one was better! They have us hooked – we’ll be going there every night.
DAY 3: Grand Turk
We had booked a private snorkeling trip to Grand Turk with Crystal Seas Adventures after reading reviews on Tripadvisor, and then communicating with them via email & phone. I especially wanted to swim with sharks, and their reviews talked about that. We were not disappointed. First of all, our trip cost a little less than the ship’s snorkel excursion. More important, it was almost a private trip. And we went to more sites than the ship’s excursion, and were not surrounded by more snorkelers than fish. As soon as we got into the water, there it was; a Nurse Shark. And another, and then another. And a Barracuda. And Grouper, Grunts, Snapper, Butterfly Fish, Puffers…. And the guy who ran it was fantastic – the two owners are a marine biologist and a lawyer from the States who left their “boring” life to do dive trips. And upon learning that I am a docent at an aquarium, the boat took us to an extra snorkel site where I could witness a coral restoration project our boat’s owner was involved with. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Dinner tonight was at Vista again, and again, we were seated at a table for 6, and had a pleasant meal. The food again was OK – EXCEPT – my partner ordered a chicken dish, and after eating a few pieces, realized that it was undercooked. The waiter & supervisor immediately took care of it & brought a properly cooked one. Again, all the staff were pleasant. Then off to B.B. King again for another great show, some dancing, and a stop in the casino to make a contribution during the intermission. I do have some criticisms of the Casino. First of all, it was pretty smoky. Oddly, there was a big sign saying the Casino is Non-Smoking Except for Designated Tables or While Playing Slots. Three tables were non-smoking, and that was it. (And two of those tables were for a “Fun” blackjack game, that isn’t as good as normal blackjack.) So why the heck do they call it NON-Smoking? And the Craps table did not open until 9 PM, even on the Sea Day. And when we went by there at 11:30, it was closed already. I was told there wasn’t enough staff to keep it open longer.
Had a scare today. Shortly after we sailed from Grand Turk, we were in our cabin, and the A/C went off. Completely. No fan movement. UHOH – and the sun at that time was pouring into our window. I’m nervous at this point, so I immediately called the Concierge and asked what happened. She was not aware of a problem, and indicated that elsewhere they still had A/C. She checked some more and found that the cabin next to us lost it’s A/C as well. But not any others. 20 minutes later, fortunately, our A/C came back on. I was told there was a Contractor working on the A/C and they had to shut the unit down. Phew, Close one. In the 20 minutes that we had no A/C in the cabin, the temp rose 4 degrees. I wish they would have warned us of the shutdown ahead of time.
DAY 4: San Juan.
We just docked and are now waiting to get off the ship and explore on our own. Since the ship is here until 8, we are planning dinner onshore. On our first cruise together about 8 years ago, we ate at a wonderful restaurant in San Juan, during it’s first week open. Loved it, and went back there a 2nd time that week. We plan to try to go there tonight.
We were able to get a reservation for 530, so we went back to that restaurant, MARMALADE, and it was fantastic! Clearly one of the best restaurants we’ve ever experienced. Highly recommended if you are in a cruise that stops in San Juan and are able to do dinner in town. Reviews are consistently 5 stars.
San Juan itself was a little disappointing. Too many of the small shops that were a part of the old city have been replaced by national chains. Seems to be missing its former charm.
Then back to the ship, but, alas, tonight no B.B. King show – their one night off. OOPS – that means a Big contribution tonight in the Casino.
Day 5: St. Maarten
What happened to St. Maarten! I’ve been here a few times, but with the huge influx of cruise ships, the island has totally lost its identity. It felt like walking around a shopping mall at Christmastime. 7 ships in Port created a mob scene, and the shops are the same ones I see in shopping malls everywhere. We got off the ship, but then got right back on again to enjoy a leisurely day on the ship reading & relaxing.
Dinner tonight was in Le Cirque. They convert the Pinnacle Grill to a supposed replica of the LeCirque restaurant in NYC. Very good. What LeCirque, and Pinnacle as well, do that the Vista restaurant doesn’t, is provide impeccable service. In Vista, every night there has been at least one error at our table. No such thing in Pinnacle. Of course, it IS much smaller, and there is lots of staff to serve us. Since we’ve been going there every day for breakfast, we’ve become well known. But not well enough to be able to get a reservation for other than the first night of the cruise. I had tried online to reserve for a couple of months, but kept getting a message that they are not accepting online reservations. But then once we got on the ship, we tried to book reservations, and it is full every night. We’d really like to eat there again, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. We learned that because of the Explore 4 program, there were 600 guests eligible for a free meal at Pinnacle, so they were completely booked. But a full booking there does not even mean all the tables are full. There were several empty tables, but they only allow a small number of diners per waiter, so that keeps the numbers down. Although no one said it, some of the staff at Pinnacle did not seem happy with this program, as it overwhelmed their capacity.
Day 6: At Sea
A relaxing day. Finished my 3rd book of the cruise. One very nice thing HAL did today was have a 5K “On Deck For a Cause” walk. To participate, you made a donation towards cancer research, and received a T-shirt & then a group of maybe 50 people walked around the Promenade deck. I was a little disappointed in the turnout – I would have liked to see more.
Today was our first time eating at the Lido. Won’t do it again. First of all, what is wrong with people? There are hand sanitizers all over the place, yet we observed many people walking right past them. I observed one person picking up food from the buffet & then putting it back. As for the food there, I wanted something somewhat light & not fancy, so I ordered a grilled cheese. After waiting about 5 minutes, I received toast with 6 slices of ice cold cheese inside! Not even close to melted cheese. So I decided I’d try a hamburger – I remember form prior cruises on HAL that I loved the burgers at lunch. LOOOONG line at the Grill, waited about 20 minutes for a burger, and then it was inedible. Grossly overcooked and dry as a bone. I would have liked to put ketchup on it, but there was none! The ketchup dispenser was empty, and I grew tired of waiting for it to be filled. Fortunately, being in a Neptune Suite, our lounge has little bites, so that would have to do for today.
Unable to get into the Pinnacle again tonight, we dined at a table of 7 in the Vista. Again, problems with the service and the food. I am STILL waiting for butter, for example, for the lobster. The steak, ordered rare, came out way overcooked, and served to me before anyone else was done with their appetizers. Although we all ordered at the same time, some people got their entrees while others were on the soup. My partner asked for lemon for her fish, and the waiter said “Yes, as soon as I finish this” and she had to wait quite a few minutes for lemon, at which point the fish was very cold. One of the DR managers was seen scolding our waitstaff on several occasions. It was not a dining experience we’d like to repeat.
Tried to play blackjack at the Casino again tonight. Unable to get a seat. The casino was empty – no one playing anything but blackjack, yet there is only one blackjack table. This makes no sense, as it is a popular game, and always a wait to play.
DAY 7: Last Day – Cocoa Cay.
HAL did a good job here of getting people on & off the ship to the private island. They use tenders that are dedicated to this island, and much easier to get on & off than the usual ships’ tenders. The beach was beautiful –cool white sand, and pretty water. Plenty of lounge chairs. BUT TOO COMMERCIAL! Again, SHOPS SHOPS SHOPS! It is supposed to be a replica of an island in the Bahamas, but they fall short there in making it too much like Disneyland. There is a snorkel area, but the snorkeling is not so great, especially compared to the great trip we had in Grand Turk. There was a nature trail which we walked, but all we saw was one single mockingbird. Lots of bulldozers though! Not much nature. And I asked where the wild bird sanctuary was, but no one seemed to know of its existence, even though a HAL travel book speaks of it. I was particularly perturbed by the Sting Ray area. People can go in there & swim up close & personal with Sting Rays. That may be fun, but, I didn’t like the idea that the area was fenced in so the Rays are stuck in there. I wonder what will happen to them if a hurricane should hit, and the water goes over the fencing, or the fence is destroyed. You’ll then have these Rays out in the water, but probably unable to defend themselves. They’ll be easy prey.
Back on the ship, while doing my walk around the deck, I noticed something that I was happy to see. There was crew member unloading soda cans, and placing them in bins marked with the names of each bar on the ship. What I liked was that before placing each can in the bin, he washed down the can. Good Idea. I give HAL very high marks for their efforts to maintain cleanliness.
Used to be that HAL made everyone leave their cabins and wait to disembark. Now they ask you to remain In your cabin – very good idea! Avoids crowding of the hallways & public rooms, and makes getting off the ship run smoothly. We walked right off the ship, to our luggage not only waiting for us in the section for its color, but someone even sorted the luggage & had our pieces together. Nice touch, HAL.
A long line to get through US Customs then greeted us, but it moved very quickly, and within a half hour of leaving the ship we were in our car & on the road home.
Would I sail HAL again? Probably. But only in a Neptune Suite, and I’d be sure to book in the specialty restaurants ahead of time. As mentioned, this trip did exceed my expectations, and we got exactly what we wanted from the cruise.