Westerdam - Eastern Caribbean: Westerdam Cruise Review by schplinky
Overall Member Rating
Westerdam - Eastern Caribbean
Destination: Eastern Caribbean
Embarkation: Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades)
I don't enjoy reviews where folks write about HAL vs. Celebrity or RCL vs Princess or whatever. It seems to me to make cruising sound like a smackdown WWF match and, more to the point, the only people qualified to make such sweeping comparisons are those who continue to sail a good variety of ships on all lines. Too often, there are inflammatory posts on these boards from people who denigrate this line or that and then you discover they have never sailed that line or have not done so in years. This is misleading to new readers. The Holland America of today is different than the HAL of five years ago (if writers on this board are to be believed) and so it seems illogical to base one's conclusions about an entire line on one cruise from years More earlier or on only one ship. Also, I think that sailing on Holland America on Westerdam (a new, larger ship) will be a different experience than those sailing on, say Prisendam so when folks complain about Carnival (a line I have yet to sail) because they went on one three day cruise on an old Carnival ship five years ago, that doesn't seem to inform a person's decision to sail on one of that line's newer megaliners today.
All this is to say that I am not attempting to review HAL as a line so much as this will be a review of my one sailing on Westerdam. If things were different on the ship that you sailed or on your sailing of Westerdam, that's fine but this will be a record of our experience on Westerdam. We have only RCL and Celebrity to compare it to and at times, we found ourselves doing that both positively and negatively. These are our observations and yours may surely be different.
We chose the sailing because of the itinerary and because of HAL's reputation as a premium line and so we measured the success of the cruise on that basis. We also had read about the Vista class of ships and they seemed the best fit for us within the line.
A bit about who was on this cruise? My partner and I are in our early forties and we were travelling with a couple of friends the same age. We booked the cruise online, while our friends actually booked with a group we found online, because they had better rates than HAL. We would have booked with them, too, but they had no balconies left.
In actual fact, we were waitlisted for a room but when rooms became available, we were not assigned to one by HAL (even though we had been required to pay a deposit to waitlist and we were #1 on the list in many categories) so we did a quick search through cruise compete and found an agent that would sell us the rooms for a couple of hundred less than HAL. We checked him out on Better Business Bureau Online and then booked. Obviously, we cancelled our waitlist with HAL and the clerk had a these things happen attitude when I told her that there was space showing on HAL's web-site and yet we still hadn't been given a room. It's my experience that cruise lines give pretty shoddy service on land and much better service onboard so this didn't give us any pause about proceeding with our vacation.
HAL has a reputation of catering to an older clientele (according to most travel books and agents we consulted) but the Vista class is widely seen as an attempt to broaden or renew HAL's demographic. Given that our cruise was to be on a one week (among the shortest HAL sailings) in the Caribbean, we expected that the crowd would be about as young as it gets.
Traditional HAL cruisers seem split on whether they like the Vista class or not. Some find it too large. For us, Westerdam would be the smallest ship we have sailed on, although with 1,848 guests, only by a smidge. We have also sailed on Celebrity=s Constellation (2,034), and Royal Caribbean's Enchantment (2,446), Navigator (3,114) and Freedom (3,634). This week, there were slightly more than 1,848 on Westerdam since the ship was sold out and some rooms had more than the double occupancy in residence. Some folks don't like larger ships because they perceive there will be more walking or lines but that has not been our experience. I think the thing that affect the feeling of being crowded in or of walking all over are the ship's design and activity schedule (as in, is everyone at one thing at a given time or are there a number of things distributing passengers throughout the ship?).
We flew into Orlando a couple of days before the cruise to go to Disney World for a day. We had a great time and set out for Fort Lauderdale along the Florida Turnpike early on Sunday morning. The Turnpike was about $12 but was a wonderful and fast road. The rest stops were frequent and clean.
We arrived at Fort Lauderdale Airport around 11 a.m. and dropped the car off without incident. I know there are folks who feel it's easier to drop a car off at the agencies closer to the port but for this out-of-towner, the airport was the easiest thing to find in the world and the shuttle was less than a ten minute drive. We would do this again in a minute.
Check-in was already in process when we arrived at the pier. We were directed to the express check-in line, where folks who had filled in their forms online would be processed. There were about 125 people in line. Oddly, the line for folks who had not filled in their forms online was only about 5 passengers long. The man in front of us tried to join that one instead but was sent back, having been told that those agents would not be equipped to help us since they could only deal with people who had not filled in their forms. This proved to be untrue since at the moment that line was depleted, they started flagging people from our line to go down there. I doubt I would fill out the forms online with HAL in advance again in the future. I don't see the point in saving them time at the pier in data entry when all that is accomplished is that those who don't do this get the truly express treatment. That's like rewarding the lazy.
The rest of the check-in was painless. We were on the ship just as soon as we had our luggage scanned and our security pictures taken. I liked that the embarkation souvenir pictures (for sale in the photo gallery) were taken in front of a window with the actual ship in the background. I think some of the screens that have been used on other sailings we have made look like Wal-Mart photo studio backdrops. Our bags came around 4 p.m.
We entered the ship on Deck three (I think) into the Atrium. The Atrium is a three-story affair and is very compact. It is not grand but does serve as the hub of the ship and we would find ourselves passing through here many times in the coming week. I think there has been a purposeful designing in the Vista class ships to keep the areas relatively compact and enclosed and this is well reflected in the atrium. While the foyer on Constellation, a similar sized ship, seems open and airy, this atrium seemed designed to give a closer feeling to the guest. Indeed, many of the public rooms are broken up into sections, the Explorer's lounge being the best example. It felt like a series of sitting or reading rooms in a hotel. The art also seemed chosen to pacify more than provoke. There were an inordinate number of barely distinguishable etchings of ships in the corridors and the main pieces in the elevator foyers seemed to be rococo architectural pieces or pieces of old ships (like lanterns) that were now forming a part of the ship's art collection. There were a few notable pieces, including a Warhol of one of the Dutch Queens near Guest Services but in general, the art was not at all memorable (as much as that can be said about something as subjective as art). The only art pieces onboard I thought truly awful were the ornate benches in awful hues in the elevator lobbies on the cabin levels. The one outside our rooms was unattractive and also very chipped.
Our room was a VA balcony and was room 8106. Having been on deck 8, I would hope to be on deck 7 if I were to return. We often heard deck chairs being dragged about as they were cleaning the decks at about 6 a.m. each day. I think that they make deck 8 a VA because of the view but to my mind, the noise distracts from it. Also, if you're choosing your own room, I would not recommend 8106 if you are a light sleeper. We heard the bing-bong of the elevator into the night and it kept me from being able to nap in the afternoon. That said, it was a short walk up to the lido and the aft pool so I guess there is some trade-off.
The cabin itself was just great. While it was the same size as the balcony cabins we have had on RCL and the outside cabin on Celebrity, I would guess that the cabin was perhaps 6 inches wider on Westerdam because there was a bit less of a squeeze to get past the beds, but maybe I'm just getting used to that! The room on Westerdam just seemed to work better than the other balcony cabins we have had. I think the decoration was fine and pacifying and the furniture comfortable and free of stains or signs of wear. The beds were comfortable and were comparable to the new beds on RCL. I hope Celebrity upgrades their beds (er, cots) soon, to match this trend. I do think the actual new bedding was better on RCL. They have nice duvets instead of blankets and I found I was sometimes cold on Westerdam. It took most of the week to find a comfortable sleeping setting on the AC and it didn't occur to me until late in the game to ask for an extra blanket.
As on other lines, we were discovering new storage solutions all week long. I wish lines would put a card in the room pointing these out but thanks to the help of folks on these boards, I knew that there were actually drawers at the foot of the bed. One space we discovered was that the stool that you sit on while you're at the desk is actually hollow and is where you can store the items from the bar if you want to use the fridge for your own soda. We discovered this only when we asked for the fridge to be emptied and that's where the attendant put the stuff. We also discovered that this is where the room attendant would store our towel animals in the morning. Also, the coffee table raises and lowers, depending what you want to use it for. We used ours on the balcony as a dining table since it was larger than the other tables out there. The closets were ample but not quite deep enough to accommodate a suite without angling it when the door was closed.
We liked that the room attendant came to great us and he asked us which fruit we would like in our fruit basket during the week. This is really a nice feature. We also never had to ask for ice as the bucket was always filled. Our room attendant seemed to struggle with English but he was very friendly and kept our room in immaculate condition. He fulfilled any request we had in a cheerful and friendly manner.
One improvement I have for the rooms will not be popular for many, I'm sure. I think they should eliminate the bathtub and increase the common area in the cabin in these basic balcony rooms. The tub is so very small that even at 5'10", I felt bent up in it and could only recline with my legs bent or up the opposite wall.
I liked the Elemis bath products, although I didn't love the hair conditioner. In fact, I loved the bath wash so much I inquired at the spa about buying it. It had a nice spearmint (to my nose) scent. It was $37 for a tube with one cup of it!!! When we tipped the room attendant late in the week, he brought us extra so I was glad that he was getting our money and not the spa, and I think he brought us nearly a cup of it in many little bottles!
The balcony had two chairs (one with a nice seat cushion) and an ottoman made of wicker and a small cocktail table. It was a fairly standard size balcony. The only warning I would give on balconies is that the ones next to the side elevators were fully within the view of the elevator. We had breakfast out on ours on the first couple of mornings and that is truly a treat. We found that room service was very timely on Westerdam. The hot food was hot, the order was accurate and it was always delivered when you asked. One flourish they do on RCL and X that I like was that they called before the delivery to make sure you're ready. On Westerdam, we found we could be scrambling for clothes to answer the door.
One issue we had with room service was that we could not get rid of the trays to save our lives! They ask you not to leave them in the hall, which is not safe, considering those who might be mobility impaired. You are supposed to dial the number on the card they leave and they will come. We dialed after breakfast and then set out for the morning. When we returned to change for lunch, the dishes were still there. The room attendant said he is not supposed to remove the dishes as they go to the kitchen and so the room service staff is supposed to pick them up. I called again and when I came back in the afternoon for a nap, they were still there and I called anew. When we returned to change for dinner, the dishes were still there and I called and mentioned I had already called three times. When we returned after dinner, I complained to the room attendant and he finally removed them. The same thing happened the next day and when I called Guest Services, they apologized and said they would send someone right away. It took about another 90 minutes.
It's a small thing but it's sort of gross returning to the room over the course of the day, and seeing the food and dirty dishes on your tray still. Our neighbor was having the same issues and he took to leaving them on the bench in the elevator lobby. His were much more quickly picked up than ours but I couldn't bring myself to that as I didn't want to get caught. I know there are some who will say I should have pursued this up the line to the hotel manager but I don't like to spend my holidays pursuing good service.
We went to the sail-away party by the aft pool, which was not well attended. I suppose some are still unpacking or are enjoying their own departure rituals but there were only about a hundred people at this party. That was fine with us; they were giving out prizes to the first person to bring them certain items (shoe laces, a set of house keys, etc) and we managed to win a beach towel and an umbrella. That was fun.
Having settled into our room, we were running all over the ship making appointments with varying levels of success. For those who are going to be on Westerdam for her Eastern Caribbean swing, I post the dress code and entertainment for each night with the caveat that your experience may differ:
Fort Lauderdale Casual Welcome Show Sea Formal Up Front productions show (pop music) Grand Turk Casual Elton John Impersonator Tortola Casual Comedian St. Martin Casual (lobster night) Magic Show Sea Formal Showtime Production Show (mostly movie music) HMC Casual Farewell Show
This is the dress code as it actually happened and you will notice there was no informal, even though the cruise documents and brochure say that there will be one. I wish they could get this straight. I don't mind dressing up (or down) but I don't like to pack more than necessary. Also, the dress code of the nights was in a different order than was presented in the summary they give you on the first day so you have to pay attention to the nightly programs. The entertainment seemed to get shuffled also because we were aiming to miss the Magic show and had to change our Pinnacle Grill reservation from the originally planned night, since they had told us the wrong night when we made the reservation upon boarding.
We went to the spa to book the thermal suite/hydro-therapy combo ($250 for both of us for the week) and a massage that I had pre-purchased online through the gifts area of the Holland America site. It was to be a one-hour aromatherapy massage for $99. When I tried to book it, the spa attendant said that the amount I had paid wouldn't actually cover that massage. She told me not to worry; I could just pay an extra thirty dollars or so and have it or I could pay $20 more and have a regular massage. I don't think so! I said that I had purchased a one-hour aromatherapy massage and expected to receive that, since that's what they sold me. She (and I) got very heated and it ended in her saying that this was Holland America's problem since they sold that to me for that price and she was Steiner and it was unfortunate that the price had gone up since I bought the voucher. I asked her when, specifically the prices had gone up and she said, oh, I don't know. I have a feeling (and it's only that) that it's been a long time since this was available at this price. This was troubling since I had received cruise documents only two weeks earlier that re-stated the $99 price. I cancelled the appointment and used the $99 as shipboard credit for myself. I think it's unethical to sell something and then have a guest arrive onboard and not get what they paid for and were looking forward to.
In a similar vein, the ship's gift web-site said that the wine flights in the Pinnacle Grill would be 2.5 ounces each of four wines. Upon entering the Grill, we discovered that what the flights actually included were one ounce of each wine, although the price was the same. I like that there are all of these neat gifts to browse online as the excitement builds for your cruise but am unlikely to buy them in the future until the communications between the gift department and the ship improve to the point where I don't have to keep advocating for myself in order to get what I have pre-purchased. It isn't pleasant and I don't enjoy it.
Moving on to much more pleasant things, we loved the food in the dining room! I tend to feel by the end of a cruise that the dining room food has begun to all taste the same but on HAL, I think I could have stayed onboard a couple of more weeks and been happy re-visiting favorite items or trying things that got squeezed out by other items. I think that all of the courses were wonderful and that there is no apparent weakness on Westerdam, although a better selection of salads might be nice. I had read reviews that there was not much chocolate on the menu but there was always something chocolate for me. We ate two breakfasts and two lunches in the dining room and all of these were great. The reason we so often ate there is that I abhor buffets but outside of embarkation day, the lido did not seem as over-run as some. There are still some people who do not understand that the buffet is set up as stations and scowl at you for not starting at the start of the line but the food was very good. I particularly liked the sushi at lunch and the French toasts at breakfast (cinnamon one day, banana the next).
In the dining room, our waiter was very unobtrusive but was always available. To me, this is perfect. I don't want a waiter who will be interrupting all the time but I do like to be able to catch his if I need to. Our waiter, Verry, succeeded grandly on both levels. Our wine steward was similarly wonderful, and more. We had brought on our own wine and would bring it to dinner each night. He told us on the first night that we would have to pay a corkage fee and I told him we would rather give him a tip than pay a corporate fee. Corkage was never discussed again. We gave him ten or twenty dollars a night for the first few nights and he asked us to stop giving him money because we had given him too much. Additionally, he brought us a free bottle of wine on the last night of the cruise as a present to the table. He was swell. The headwaiter was similarly accommodating. We had met another couple we wanted to add to our group of four and the head waiter moved us all to the next table (for 6) and we were able to keep our great wait-staff. We had an assistant waiter but we saw him a less than I recall on other ships. He seemed spread over more tables.
There was the usual singing by the staff (a song in their language) and the parading baked Alaska's that seem to persist on all mass-market lines but the dining was the highlight of our cruise. There was one odd night where they did a Dutch menu (rather tasty) and left hats at our table settings. There was no explanation of this and we kept expecting something to happen but it never did.
The dining room seemed delineated into areas and even in the large open center area, there was a massive service area that seemed designed to break the area into smaller spaces. I think this reduces the noise of the room but I'm not sure we would even have noticed the beautiful Chihully glass had I not read about it online and known to look for it.
After dinner we headed to the show. The first night's show was mostly a warm welcome by the cruise director and then the comedy of Elliot Max. The Cruise Director is Billy Rogers. He has a really youthful appearance and seemed at times to act as though someone gave him this big ship to run and he could barely believe it. He did make one unfortunate joke during the cruise, considering that he would have been aware that there was a group of nearly 200 gay men onboard (we were not a part of the group but were aware of it). He told a silly joke about wanting to be kissed and a man called out from the audience and the CD said, This is a cruise liner not a fairy ship. He was booed and then he said that clearly we should have known he was joking. I'm not sure we would presume he was joking had the joke been at the expense of a racial or other minority group.
Elliot Max was a wonderful comedian. He did a really great job of being funny without working in a coarse manner. One thing I thought was funny was his talking about the old people who were on his last ship. He made a point of saying it was a line that caters to old people and he wouldn't name it but it rhymes with Morewegian. It was funny for the comedian on HAL to be making fun of the age of NCL passengers but I guess his jokes would not have been so funny if he were teasing the passengers onboard. The jokes were really very harmless but I guess he needs to be careful not to offend.
The next night, the entertainer was an Elton John impersonator. I don't particularly like Elton John but thought this guy was pretty funny during his featured show. The audience seemed pretty divided on this one. There were folks talking all over the ship about how much they loved him and we met others who told us they didn't need to see that sort of thing and that they walked out. Funnily, the next night in the Crow's Nest, a woman and her husband kept smiling at me and they finally approached me and told me they loved my show. I had to tell them it wasn't me (I wonder if I would have done that had they offered to buy me a drink?).
The cast of the Westerdam performed their first production show as a sort of world tour in music and dance. There is no polite way to say this but it was just awful. The choreography was worse than a theme park, the lighting was like a high school musical and a couple of the singers were continually off key. There were often singers singing in the dark because the spot light either couldn't reach them or was not exactly on them and sometimes, there would be interludes (one presumes to allow others to change for the next number) that were nonsensical and left the audience confused as to why a couple was simply strolling about the stage. The show might have had a more immediate impact if the music had been live (it is pre-recorded on HAL) but the dancers also seemed to be so busy counting their steps that they forgot to add rhythm. There were some bright spots but they were few and very far between. A show that runs from Mamma Mia (set in Venice for some reason) to Lord of the Dance to the Can Can already has the cards stacked against it but the audience was not helping either. With each new song, the women behind me talked about where they had heard this song or whether they liked that song. Darting eyes from us did nothing to make them quiet. We found that audiences in general on Westerdam were not very courteous. Many people chatted through shows and even at the Captain's toast, many folks continued with their conversations throughout his toast despite being shushed by other guests. Why would you come to the Captain's toast if you were not going to listen to it (I suspect the answer is free drinks)?
We skipped the magic show but they appeared during the closing show. They claim to have performed in Vegas but were very painfully awful. The man behind me could see [and was loudly explaining] how they were doing their tricks. The Elton John impersonator also appeared in this show and this time I agreed that he was awful. He would claim that he was doing humor but it was more like watching a Ritalin-deprived kid throw a tantrum at his parent's cocktail party. He only played two or three songs over the course of thirty minutes that were otherwise filled with coarse jokes.
The theatre is quite nice with a mixture of sofa style seats and free-standing chairs. I would advise people to get there early as the theatre tended to fill up on our sailing. The night that they had a bbq on the lido deck (Tortola night, I think), a lot of people seemed to skip the dining room and so at the first show, folks actually left without being able to get in. We found that in general that the doors opened thirty minutes before the show.
One thing Westerdam is lacking is an adequate secondary lounge. The Queen's lounge was simply not large enough for the events they held there (a karaoke contest called Westerdam Idol) and given that so few of the evening events had significant attendance (besides the main show), it seemed a shame that folks were turned away because the lounge was so full. Most ships have a theatre and then another fairly large room but I think that the whole theme of breaking the ship down into a series of small spaces has compromised Westerdam's ability to host an event that is too small for the theatre and too big for a bar. Perhaps the event would have been better suited to the Crow's Nest but night after night, folks were turned away from the Queen's lounge as it filled for this popular event.
Speaking of bars, Westerdam has a great variety of them and they all seem to serve tasty drinks. We especially liked the Atrium Bar and the Crow's nest. Both were neat spaces. The other bars were also fine but these two spaces were my favorites, the Crow's Nest for the views and the more open aspect of its space and the Atrium Bar for its coziness and central location. We went to the piano bar a couple of nights and enjoyed the trivia contests the pianist would host. We even managed to win one of them.
There were several large groups onboard but we were only turned away from bars a couple of times, which isn't that bad. There was a group of about 200 older gay men (that was the theme of their group, not me being ageist), a group of several hundred Christian music fans, a group of a hundred doctors on course and a family reunion.
We found the drinks on Westerdam to be reasonably priced (certainly cheaper than most restaurants on land) and varied. I liked that they not only had a drink of the day but also a martini of the day and a cocktail of the day. These were generally $5 (less for the cocktail). I did find that their featured drinks nearly universally featured home made sours, which can lead to heartburn over the long haul. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see them offer more than just the standard island drinks. We only fell for the souvenir glass trick once. That was a pricey round for plastic we didn't even bring home.
We decided to check out the pools and the like so we headed first to the aft pool, which was just above our room. It is a nice pool and is very quiet. There are rows of chairs and this was perhaps the easier pool of the two at which to get a chair. The chairs in this area are the standard canvas pool chairs (as opposed to the padded ones by the main pool). There was also an area above this area for seating but we prefer to be near the pool for frequent dips in order to cool off. This area was packed during the sea day, and on the first few days of the cruise neither show was working and both were taped off with that tape they use to sequester crime scenes and fresh paint. Neither seemed to be the case here so I'm not sure why they were unavailable. There is a bar in this area and it is perhaps one of the easiest places onboard to get a drink. The servers are omnipresent but not too pushy on Westerdam. We did find they try like mad on that first day and half to sell you a coke card (even if you're not ordering pop) but they do take no for an answer. Some folks refer to this as an adults-only space but we saw no signs indicating it. No matter, there were so few children onboard that you would truly have to be a grinch to begrudge the one or two present a chance to have a dip in the aft pool.
The main pool has the nicest deck chairs we have sat on at sea. They are padded and comfortable and tempt you to sleep. It's too bad there are only a couple of rows of seats by the pool but the rest of the area is taken up with dining tables. I think the magrodome (the sliding glass roof) is a great idea for a ship that travels to so many climes but I think that it leaves the pool feeling very closed in. This pool felt like the secondary or solarium pool on most other ships. The food by the pool is a nice touch, though. The guacamole and chips were quite good and we had those a few times instead of lunch or because we'd had a late breakfast and didn't want to ruin dinner. They play pop music very loudly at this pool. I think it was the loudest music we've ever heard piped in on a cruise. If it is an attempt to appeal to us (a younger demographic), then it fell on the wrong ears. Also, one day someone will have to explain to me why the loudest people on the ship tend to marinate in the hot-tubs while speaking so loudly that you would not want to sunbathe anywhere nearby. This is true of all lines and is just an observation.
They did run pool games while we were onboard a great deal. They had a golf putting game into life preservers in the pool, they sailed made-up boats in a regatta in the pool, they held pool-side beach chair bingo and there were two rounds of wet and wild pool games (which we skipped so I cannot report on). There was also a free throw competition and a volleyball tournament on the sports deck and a rubber chicken toss in the atrium (I was speechless). I was told that HAL had very few activities that involved a member of the activities staff and a microphone but that is not the case on Westerdam. These didn't bother us but we didn't make a point of attending them either. There must be a basketball nut on the staff, too, because I've never seen so many free throw contests scheduled.
In general, the activity schedule was very light, especially if you didn't play cards or board games. One thing we noticed, compare to larger ships we have sailed, was that often, there was one thing happening and if that didn't interest you, you sort of had to make your own fun or wait until the next hour or so. Also, I think calling sign a board game out from the library an activity on an already thin schedule is pretty weak. We were warned before we came on Hal that there wouldn't be all that much going on that didn't involve a fee but it was particularly striking once we were onboard how true this was.
One activity we did really enjoy that is hard to find on some ships is the kitchen tour. We have begged and pleaded on RCL and X to no avail to see the kitchens. On HAL, it was a scheduled activity and was a great walk-through. I will scan the information sheets and post a link later but I can say now that it was really neat to see all the galleys in the kitchen. They have a line for each entree, a galley for room service and one for the Pinnacle Grill and concierge lounge. Very cool and very nice of the chef to allow folks to enter.
We took advantage of the opportunity of boarding early to sign up for the cooking lesson. There were only 7 in our group (the other lesson that week had 15) and I suspect the reason for this was that it didn't seem to be listed anywhere. You essentially had to know to ask. The fee was $29 and included copies of the recipes you make and the apron you wear. I was surprised how few people washed their hands at the start (maybe they did that before arriving) but I had read online that you don't get to eat the food you've actually prepared anyway so I didn't worry.
We had the chef from the Pinnacle supervising us. We were not so much taught how to cook as we were assigned dishes to prepare and set free to do it. They treated us to some champagne as we cooked but it was all a little disorganized and there were not enough utensils. We did meet some nice people but I was a little frightened when the chef announced that yes, we would be eating our own food (and the dishes of others). We had made seared scallops over an avocado salad, while the other groups made a quesadilla of zucchini and jack cheese and the dessert team made a cake with hazelnuts. The meal was delicious but somehow I had expected the experience to last longer than an hour. By the time we finished (around 10 a.m.), I had eaten my second meal in two hours, having rushed a breakfast to get there in time. It was a fun activity but I doubt I would do it again. It was one of the few times of the week that Mike and I were sniping at each other to do stuff, mostly because it was not well organized and we were both trying to get our dish done in time.
An activity that I did like and found very meaningful was the On Deck for the Cure Event. Folks could register for $15 and then walk 5km (9 laps of the promenade deck) in honor or memory of a loved one with breast cancer. My mother has had breast cancer twice, losing a breast each time and it was moving to see about 125 people come out for the walk, despite it being scheduled very early in the morning on a sea day. They asked those who had been affected by breast cancer, through either a family member or a friend, to raise their hand. That meant almost everyone had his or her hand in the air. Then, they asked the survivors to raise their hand and there were nearly 15. It was an emotional moment as they were applauded. The walk was fun (I listened to a book on my iPod) and they served pink lemonade afterward, although it was all gone by the time I finished (in about the middle of the pack). I don't know if this was a larger group than normal but they ran out of most of the shirt sizes, too. I was given a medium, which was as close to XL as they had (I prefer t-shirts to be baggy but this one clung). Since they run the walk every week, it was surprising how few supplies they had on hand. We also received pink wristbands, which I'm going to send to my mom to let her know I did the walk.
The promenade is nice on Westerdam, with wooden chairs and teak. While the promenade wraps all the way around, you cannot see off from all directions on your walk sine the front is enclosed. It is also fluorescently lit at nighttime so brightly that it ruins whatever romance of being on the water there might be. I suppose they do this to assist those who are not so sure-footed but other lines seem to manage more subdued lighting at night.
We went to the Piano Bar one evening for the TV trivia. We guessed 33 of the 40 shows correctly and won a round of drinks. What is more surprising was that the next day, we were on deck and one of the waitresses from that bar came up to us and called us by name. That's quite a gift of memory, I think.
We wandered past the art area one night and played a game we have, which is to find any piece that you would actually want to own. With all apologies to those who like the auctions, I think the art they sell at sea could only be sold with free champagne or at a flea market. They call it collectible and then cart it around the ship, leaving it stacked in corridors five paintings deep. I am truly stunned at the amount of art they sell onboard. Do people really bring hundreds of extra dollars in case there is some faux baroque painting of angels they've always wanted?
I noticed one painting that looked familiar and was impressed at the length to which the dealer could speak on the piece. He pulled out a reference book and was able to show us the progression of the artist's work. To be honest, I was surprised as I have always found these auctioneers to be akin to snake oil salesman but this guy clearly knew his stuff.
In terms of other retail, the stores seem to sell all the same stuff (watches, jewelry, liquor, t-shirts, perfume) that the other ships do. The only real difference seems to be how much or little space they have to do it in. Westerdam had a few neat gift items including an egg shaped travel clock with a ship floating in it. It was aggravating, though, how much of the gift wear was not priced. One tip I would give here is that if you're going to buy postcards, buy them the first day. They were sold out of Grand Turk post cards by the end of the first sea day and we could find none in port to buy, either, except some that were really just re-prints of snapshots selling on the pier for a buck each.
They ran bingo a lot but the jackpot didn't seem to climb all that much so I don't think many people were playing it. We didn't go to this activity but it was being held in smallish venues so I don't think it was crowded until the end. There were always announcements when it was about to begin.
They listed a premium wine tasting in the program as having a nominal fee but the fee was $35. That seems more than nominal to me but I do know there were some appetizers served, also. I like wine tastings but that was too rich for my blood.
We did go to the Pinnacle Grill one night. It was a small restaurant that primarily acts as a steak house. Having dined in the specialty rooms on RCL and X, we expected this to be a treat but we found ourselves missing the food in the dining room. Our experience with Celebrity was that the specialty room was the food highlight of the cruise but this was not the case at the Pinnacle. Really, how creative do steaks and sides get, anyway? The service was competent but certainly was neither warm nor overly formal. On RCL and Celebrity, this meal would have taken a couple of hours but we were in and out almost as quickly as if we had eaten in the main dining room. The desserts were great and I had a chocolate volcano with Grand Marnier cream, I believe. I was really was struck by how exactly like Chops on RCL this was, right down to their rolling a cart of uncooked meat out as a visual aid to the menu. Even then, there are flourishes at Chops and the main dining room on RCL that were not present here. For instance, if you leave the table to go to the washroom, they refold your napkin or replace it with a fresh one if it is soiled. Here, you would return to the table to find your napkin exactly where you left it. It's a small think but those are the sort of things that add up over a cruise.
The art in the Pinnacle Grill was a mural of food that reminded me of a cafeteria in a nice department store in the 70's. At $30 per person, we expected more. The room was never more than a third full while we were there so I think they are going to have to rethink the fee increase. I also would not want to eat in the dining area that is in the atrium. Paying a premium only to be watching folks walk by all through the meal would not be my idea of a good situation. If we sailed HAL again, I would skip the specialty room altogether. The food I the Dining Room is equal to what they are serving here.
Is there any port prettier than St. Martin? I think not. As usual, we walked from the ship to a taxi and took the short ride to Orient Beach. this is a really well-organise port, with separate taxi lines for each of the beeches. Since Orient beach is on the French side, it is clothing optional but our experience is that outside the one clothing optional resort on the beach, fewer than 10 % of the people exercise the option. Folks seem to get worked up about this and how the "wrong" people are nude (which I think just proves they are the ones looking about) but I think that their complaints are more about their own body image issues than anyone they're seeing. For us, the real attraction is a beach that looks just like every postcard we ever see from the Caribbean. If I hadn't been there myself, I would presume that a picture of it was fake or had been retouched.
Our friends organized parasailing on the beach ($90 for two people versus $79 each from the cruise line) and I rented my first jet-ski with the same sort of savings ($40 for a half hour). I like that you can just walk up and reserve when you get there and that there is rarely a wait because that way you're not stuck on an excursion if the weather is unpleasant and you've prebooked. Because it wasn't busy, they kept our friends up 10 or even fifteen minutes, using them as advertising to drum up more business. This is so much better than the 7 minutes you are guaranteed with the line's excursion. Beach chairs were available for rent in front of almost every restaurant. They are nice padded chairs and are $7 for the day for the chair, umbrella and your first drink.
We had lunch at the Baywatch beach bar. It's run by a couple from New York (or was it New Jersey?) who seem to have left it all behind for a life of selling amazing fish dishes and ribs on the beach. We had a great time and they really are quite the couple. I cannot think of eating anywhere but there if we go back.
We had our taxi drop us off downtown upon returning to the port and we all bought our duty-free allotment. I got a liter of Bailey's for $14, versus $18 or so, on the ship. After browsing around the town for a short time, we took the water taxi back to the ship. You could also elect to save the $3 by walking but it was about a mile and we were tired.
In Grand Turk, Carnival Corporation, which owns HAL, have built a wonderful port. You can literally step off the ship and take one of hundreds of beach chairs available for your use. There are some duty free shops and a Margaritaville with a pool that is also for the use of ship passengers. We were in port with Elation and it was not at all crowded.
We took an excursion that included glass-bottomed kayaks and then a time at a beach. The glass-bottomed kayaks are in a national park and you get there by safari bus. Some of the roads we used put the term "rustic" to the ultimate test and we also skirted along the walls of a prison for a while. The kayaking itself was done along a tidal river, which meant it had a bit of current. Paddling out was way better than paddling back, in terms of ease. We didn't really see all that much in the river but it was neat to be paddling along the mangrove trees.
The next leg of the excursion was at a beautiful beach. The majority of folk suited up for snorkeling but we chose to just sit on the pier. I'm not a strong swimmer and get a little freaked out by the fish swimming around me. The beach was again pristine and I loved it. It is shallow for about a half mile out and then it drops to 7,000 feet. It is quite something to see the color of the water change from azure to a deep blue.
After a short drive through town, we were back at the pier and back onboard. I liked Grand Turk and would choose another itinerary with that port. It's very flat and there's not a lot "to do" if your idea of having something "to do" rests solely in shopping but we found that the people were friendly and kind.
Tortola looks very much like what I imagine St. Thomas would have looked like before all the duty free stores opened. It is very rustic and there were roosters in the bushes all over the place. We strolled around and looked in the shops and grocery stores, just to see what sort of things they carry. Our friend used the internet at the local library for $2/half hour, which wouldn't buy you three minutes on the ship. It was another friendly port but unless you were booked on an excursion, there was not a lot of diversion in the vicinity of the ship. It was odd, then, that this was the only port at which we would spend the evening. There was only one rustic restaurant (that we saw) and I doubt very much that many people actually left the ship in the evening hours.
Half Moon Cay was a treat. The only other private island we have been to is Labadee and they are similar in most ways, although there was very little shade in HMC that did not have a fee attached to it, either through cabana or clam-shell rental. While Labadee was broken up into various areas, HMC was one long arc of beach. I think the beach was much prettier at HMC. I used to think that private islands were just a way that cruise lines padded their revenue by ensuring that you had a port day where you could only buy your drinks from them but after visiting Labadee last fall and HMC this January, I will eagerly book cruises in the future that have islands.
We had clam shells and were trying to save one for our friends next to us but a party arrived that insisted on having that one, even though there were many nearby. The attendant sided with them and so our rather slow friends (it was 10:30 in the morning and the ship was emptying onto the beach swiftly) had to sit elsewhere. By the time they got there, we could not move to sit with them.
We arranged for unlimited laundry for the cabin for $45 for the week. Unlimited pressing was $30. When the bills came at the end of the cruise, we were charged for each laundry shipment separately, even though we had checked unlimited laundry on the bills and I had called the front desk to request this service. We schlepped to the front desk to have it fixed and they called later to say that the head housekeeper had authorized us to switch to this service. That seemed a funny way to put it but in wiping out all the individual bills, they also wiped out an express fee for some dry cleaning we sent out earlier in the week (this is not included) so I guess their inefficiency got us something.
The fresh flowers around the ship were very pretty. They were nicely arranged and I think the orchids we saw in the Crow's Nest were beautiful.
I really hate when cruise directors and comedians make fun of the staff who have been scurrying all week to ensure my good time. I further dislike that all these guests who will later rave about the good service they've received are happy to laugh at the staff's accents or nationalities behind their backs (or in front of them in the case of the poor cocktail servers in the theatre).
They list daily appetizers in the front of the bar menus. We had no idea what this was in reference to the first few days as we would spend an hour in one bar or another before dinner each night but were never offered anything but nuts. Then, on the third or fourth night, it seemed they were offered wherever we went. I'm not sure what made the difference. Interestingly, even the nut selection seemed to improve on formal nights.
The ship's staff stood at the entrance of the dining room and squirted purel into folks' hands. They were very open in discussing shipboard illness and how to prevent it. Some folks grumbled about this as being overly hysterical but I would rather be careful than sick because of the poor hygiene habits of others.
We did have occasion to visit the medical center as my partner caught a cold and we needed to buy a bottle of cough syrup while the ship was in port and the shops were closed. The doctor was very helpful and I noted that there were bins of free samples of sea sickness medication, aspirin and acetaminophen for folks to take. The cough syrup was reasonably priced, which was a bit of a surprise.
Again, we will doubtless not be filling out the pre-boarding information online next time. We filled in all of the details of our noon flight and were nonetheless told that our luggage tags meant we would be getting off only an hour before our flight. They were cheerful in switching them but I wonder what the point of all this form-filling online is if it doesn't accomplish anything.
Some last random thoughts and then the final analysis.
Why does every cruise line on the water (or at least HAL, RCL and X, who we have sailed) boast about all they are doing for the environment and then slide more paper advertising my way over the course of the week than I would ever have thought possible? The answer is that the advertising works but it seems disingenuous to me to boast about all your commitments to the environment when you do this so much. I have never thrown away so much paper!
The disembarkation was the swiftest we have ever had, once it got started. Because we had visited Guest Services during the last sea day, we got the correct tags (our online check-in was ignored, in terms of which flights we had told them, and we were given tags that would see us miss our flight) and we were off the ship in record time. Oddly, even though we arrived on time at 7a.m. in Port Everglades, the first passengers were not let off until ten to nine. One man was paged to the library to meet with customs and many were paged to Guest Relations (one presumes to pay their bills) but there was no explanation as to why this took so long. On other ships, we normally see the disembarkation start about 15 minutes after we're tied up and usually, you get back into port long before you're scheduled to. Once it started, though, we flew off the ship. We shared a cab to the airport with another couple but each party still had to pay as though we had gone alone. This was a little surprising but not a big deal. We didn't know the other couple but the cabbie told all of us to get into the mini-van in the taxi line so we thought the shared ride would cost less. It didn't but we'll live.
Our final bill was accurate and lower than it is on most cruises. That's always nice. We didn't buy any souvenirs this time and the spa credit that I was not able to use lowered my bill. I've emailed HAL to complain about my experience in the spa but they have not got back to me yet.
Fort Lauderdale airport would allow you to check in 4 hours before your flight but only to pass through security 120 minutes before you fly. Some grumbled about this but I could see the sense in it. There are sometimes 40,000 coming back in on ships and if even a quarter of them planned to just sit at the airport for hours and hours, the right people would not be able to get through security and to their gates in time. As it was, the terminal was pretty packed with only two hours worth of passengers!
I wanted to wait a few days for the last segment of my review because I wanted the vacation to come into perspective before I finished. I'm glad I did. The weather here this week has been brutally cold (-40 with the wind-chill today) and its nice to be reminded that any break from a Canadian winter is a treat not many get.
When I started my review, I stated that for us, the whole experience would be weighed against HAL's reputation, the itinerary and, inevitably, our previous experiences. Having taken the trip, I think that we both feel glad that we gave HAL a try. We had a nice time and a time away from the winter. That cannot be beat. We also really liked the itinerary. There were no dud ports and each port was different from the last. After HMC (and our experience earlier last year at RCL's Labadee), I'm a convert to the idea of private islands. Having been harassed on other beaches (as in St. Lucia last year) incessantly to buy stuff from locals, it was nice to have an uncomplicated beach day.
That said, I doubt we'll rush back to HAL quickly, not because of any glaring deficiency but because it isn't the right fit for us. One of the things I've noticed over the years in reading Cruise Critic is how personally folks take their affection for their cruise line of choice, and often, in saying one likes this or that about a cruise line, one is perceived to have offered grave offence. That is not my wish here.
We tried HAL out with an open mind and there were many things we liked a great deal. HAL has the best food we have eaten at sea; in the dining room, at the buffet and through room service, all of the food was great. If they could improve the Pinnacle Grill to match those other offerings, they would come the closest of any line I have sailed to actually matching what their ads say about their dining. This is not to say that PG is bad; it is just not up to the standards of the other dining onboard. It was the equivalent of Chops on RCL (most menu items were the same) and not in the same league as the Celebrity specialty room. We also thought the staff on Westerdam was one of the friendliest we have discovered at sea. That a waitress from the piano bar would call out to us by name on the pool deck was astounding to me. We thought the cabins were comfortable, the drinks were tasty and the days sunny (not that it would be HAL's fault if it were cloudy). The fresh flowers were pretty, especially in the Crow's Nest. Given how many groups there were on board, I thought they did a masterful job of making the rest of us not feel like an afterthought.
I think that one of the virtues of trying different lines is not just the discovery of what they have to offer but what is important to you. For us, it is becoming increasingly clear that what is important is a level of activity and a quality of entertainment that was not in evidence on Westerdam. Calling sign out a board-game from the library and sign out the art tour might be acceptable as activities if there were many other things going on but at times, it seemed that these sedentary pursuits were the only diversion available. The activity schedule on HAL was surprisingly thin, considering its reputation as a line that has such good enrichment activities (it turns out these are mostly saved for longer voyages). When we were on Enchantment, for instance, there were numerous dance lessons led by the dancers in the shows. We didn't see one. Speaking of the shows, the entertainment needs serious thought, also. It is simply trying to be too many things to too many people and is not succeeding. The brash Elton John impersonator seemed to offend many of the older passengers while the production show went back and forth from songs to please the seniors to songs to please the younger crowd in such an illogical way that it seemed nobody was happy for long.
I think that what makes someone a HAL cruiser vs. a Celebrity or Princess or RCL or whatever cruiser is that his or her priorities are well addressed by that line. Someone who loves great food and a subdued and sedate environment would be well served by HAL and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to that sort of person. Someone looking for a list of exploits to choose from or a more contemporary environment would be well advised to try elsewhere.
We knew of HAL's reputation as being a line for seniors and we chose to ignore that. In actual fact, I would guess the average age on our sailing to be in the high sixties and it would have been in the low seventies if you factored out the groups that were booked onboard (who tended to stick with the rest of their group). We chose to ignore that possibility because I tend to get along with older people (and they tend to like me) so we thought we'd just end up chatting with more seniors than normal. We hadn't stopped to think that they were generally travelling with friends or in groups and were not all that chatty back. We also didn't stop to consider how completely the experience seemed to be tailored to them, with sporadic flourishes meant to keep young people happy that didn't do a thing for us (like the really loud music piped into the lido deck). The ship was very under-whelming and contained in its environs. Trust me, I think that the Vegas-like design on some of the ships we read about is repulsive but there surely is a way to move away from that without running too far in the opposite direction. Refined is an oft-used adjectives on this board but I didn't think the design was all that refined. It was subdued but there was very little thought given to colors (besides the fact that red and gold are apparently very good) or styles working well together. I still maintain that the ship was designed to keep the older HAL customer from feeling overwhelmed on what is, after all, the line's largest ship.
Lastly, I'd like to say that while some may consider HAL to be a premium line, I am still at a loss to understand what the term means. If folks were wanting a premium, I would presume they would be surprised by bingos (and bingo announcements), constant little charges (for soda and the like), pool games led by cruise staff with microphones, art auctions, sail away drinks in expensive souvenir cups, wanted pictures in the photo gallery, shopping talks that result in little more than kick backs from the selected stores to the line, exorbitant charges for internet use, amber unveilings, and the list goes on. I'm sure some apologist will say, all the lines have these things and that's absolutely true, which makes me continue to wonder what folks mean by premium line. Increasingly, I suspect they mean no kids because there were very few in evidence, despite the smallish kids club. I don't think its wrong to aim at a particular set of cruisers but to call it a premium when it seems so similar to other lines does see peculiar to me. Our cruise director (while instructing us on how to fill out the satisfaction survey) listed all of the things that make HAL a premium and I can honestly say we have experienced most of them on RCL and Celebrity. Does HAL have little flourishes others don't? They sure do. The flowers were lovely (although so were Celebrity's). Are there areas of service where even RCL surpassed HAL? Yes, there were. Having got used to returning to my place-setting at dinner on RCL to a refolded napkin (or even a fresh one), I was surprised by the dining room and Pinnacle staff on HAL when I would return to my place setting and find my chair and napkin exactly as I had left them. Is it a big deal? No. But I will say that it's these little things that are supposed to add up to a premium experience.
So, for us it's on to Princess now as we try out the lines. I doubt we will ever get to try all of the lines that interest us but then again, if that's our biggest problem in life, it's still a pretty good life. I would encourage all of you to keep sailing and maybe even to trying a line that you hadn't thought to. We learned on HAL that there are things we like that we will only get if we sail them again. Maybe there's something out there for each of us in most any line.
So far, my perfect line would have RCL's entertainment and activities, HAL's food (except it would have Celebrity's specialty room and healthy aqua spa café), Celebrity's free thassalotherapy pools and RCL's ship design. A boy can dream. Less
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