This was our first ever cruise. Firstly a thank you for the immense extra help and guidance given to us by our agent who went above and beyond to secure our holiday and spent a great deal of time advising us on ports and locations after we had booked. He even gave advice on port excursions for my father's Baltic cruise even though the booking was not with him. We would always recommend his outstanding service and care to anyone who wants to book a cruise. We depended on his advice as finding, booking and going on a cruise is a very different experience and we are experienced travellers who have visited nearly every continent!
We went with our three and a half year old son. The best part of the cruise is waking up in a different port every day and we were on the 12 night Mediterranean Empires tour which had an excellent itinerary around Greece, Italy and Turkey. Arrival in Venice and transfer to the cruise terminal was well managed but on arrival we were all left to carry our luggage from the coach to the terminal building. Not easy with a buggy and 6 pieces of luggage! We heard several complaints from other more passengers who said this was not usual! The ship is beautiful, like a 5 star hotel and very opulent. For first time cruisers it took while to figure out how to maximise the space in the cabin but once we did there was plenty of space. The bed was a little soft but we prefer an orthopedic mattress at home which is firmer. For UK visitors be aware that as this is an American ship you won't get a duvet but have to negotiate fiddly sheets and blankets! The food in the various restaurants was excellent, stupendous amount of choices. We preferred eating in the main dining room which felt calmer and more civilised with waiter service. The senior stewards were very friendly and took extra to look after our child's needs. The food was also nicer than the Lido which was essentially a high quality cafe. It felt too rushed and crowded with queues but there was an amazing selection and it was useful as a place for lunch or a snack. We did eat in the Pinnacle grill and felt that although the food was good it wasn't worth the extra $30 per person and wasn't that different from the Main dining room. We also ate in the Canaletto Italian restaurant, the food was good. The best of the three specialty restaurants is the Tamarind. We had a superb meal, easily the best we had had on the ship and the service was also excellent. We enjoyed the Commonwealth brunch in the main dining room and appreciated being invited by name! The food was delicious and really varied. The afternoon tea was a little odd in terms of what was being offered and the random order in which things arrived. Holland America need to do a bit more research into this! Why not just bring the food on the traditional stacked tiers?!
The two shore excursions we booked to Istanbul and Ephesus were well organised and good value for money. The Greek islands, Athens and Venice we toured ourselves, and this was easy to do. It would have been nice to have had longer in Santorini so there was time to see Akrotiri.
The ship caters for older passengers and we saw very few young children. We did check out the Club HAL children's facility but were put off by the fact that they insist you leave your child alone with them. Not everyone wants to get rid of their children on holiday! The room itself felt dark and gloomy and was clearly aimed at older children despite being advertised for 3 years upwards. The only activity offered him was colouring! We would not have left him there even if he had been older. The ship could easily put in a small soft play centre so that children who are there have somewhere to play and can stay with their parents.There is certainly space for one. Our child not having somewhere to play was the biggest negative of the ship's facilities and we spent time ashore using local playgrounds and beaches for him. For the record Lesbos has a fantastic playground, its huge and really well equipped. But no sandy beach. Argostoli has a fantastic sandy beach but a very tiny and poorly equipped playground. There was a small funfair for younger children but this was closed. Santorini had a beach but the play equipment there was broken and in bad repair and not all that safe. Katakolon has a small playground off the main street. Athens, Kusadasi, Venice and Istanbul were all taken up with sight seeing.
We appreciated receiving the daily itinerary but there were far too many bits of paper arriving in our letterbox every day, often with quite trivial or useless bits of information! We also appreciated the free room service though thought it was odd that this would be free but bottles of water would be charged!
The location guide Tom was helpful but could have done more to add value, he seemed vague on the details about some ports. Our biggest negative was discovering that the package we had bought from Holland America which included transfer from the cruise terminal to the airport on the last day involved the cruise line leaving us at the airport in the morning while our flight was not til the evening! This was never made clear at the time of booking and we only discovered it when we asked. The Front Desk was totally indifferent and said it was not the fault of the cruise line and that it was our problem. A very very poor way to handle this issue. in the end we dropped the the transfer and made our own way to the airport at a more sensible time.
Because of our child we didn't get much opportunity to take part in the many talks and shows going on. We thought the range offered was excellent and certainly something for everyone.
All in all a really lovely ship with excellent food and service and a wonderful itinerary. We had an excellent holiday and would love to cruise again but would probably choose a ship which had more for our child to do. It was nice not to have to deal with hordes of children on the up side of this but Holland America could do a bit more for its younger passengers!