Itinerary: FLL At Sea Grand Turk Tortola St. Maarten At Sea Half Moon Cay
Short Summary: We traveled w/ our in-laws for this cruise. We are in our early/mid-40s and the in-laws in early/mid-60s. This was our 4th cruise (2nd on HAL): Carnival Elation (Mexican Riviera), Celebrity Constellation (Southern Carib) and HAL Veendam (Western Carib). We did the Veendam last March w/ my in-laws as well. Caribbean cruises aren't my favorite vacation type, but it does work well for traveling w/ my in-laws. We can each reserve a cabin that is w/in our budget and be happy w/ what we got. If we went to a resort, it would be a bit more difficult to agree upon the same caliber hotel. Plus the meals are all included in the cost and you get a set dining time so there's no discussion on where/when we will go to dinner or who is going to pick up the bill tonight. We are able to go off and do an adventurous excursion during the day, while my in-laws favorite thing is to find a beach or pool and sit in the sun and go to the bar. We always meet for dinner and are usually able to find each other for bkfast w/o having to set up a specific time to meet. We spend some of the time together on the ship doing some of the trivia or "name that tune" games.
I like HAL because of the smaller size of their ships, decent level of service and price vs. value. If I was going alone w/ my DH or friends, I would likely choose Celebrity since it's a younger crowd and a bit more active. We are trying going to Alaska on Princess for the 1st time this summer (going w/ friends). I would definitely go on another HAL cruise w/ my in-laws, but not if we were alone. I would choose Celebrity and maybe Princess (depending on our Alaskan experience) for cruises w/o them. Of course the itinerary and cabin availability is a huge part of my selection criteria as well.
Overall the cruise was very good and I am a fairly harsh critic. The best part was how happy it made my in-laws for us to be w/ them. That was worth the 11 hr return flight to San Diego, the cruise expense and the hassle of booking over Superbowl weekend (which was a total disaster trying to get a hotel room!!).
Cabin: We had a Deluxe Verandah Suite (SC6158). We were disappointed in the size of the cabin. It was much smaller than I expected (much smaller than our S suite on the Veendam last yr). It was much smaller than the SA and SB cabins we went into on the W-dam. Our cabin should really have been an SY or SZ. It was that small. However, since it was the corner aft cabin, it had a huge deck! The SA has a large wrap around sofa and 2 chairs. Our sofa barely fit 3 people. There was only 1 chair and it was tucked under the unusable desk. The desk was mostly occupied by the overly large TV. You had to push the chair all the way under the desk or you couldn't open the refrigerator. The only clothing drawers we had were in the nightstands and the 2 large ones under the bed. We also had 4 closets, instead of 6 in the SA. The closets were quite shallow and my DH's suit had to be angled to close the door (he's not a big guy so the suit isn't large either!). We did have plenty of room for our clothing but more drawers instead of closet shelves would have been preferred.
The bed area was small. There was barely enough room on the sides of the bed for the nightstands. The back of the room was slightly angled so it got narrower at the head of the bed on the side w/ the verandah. At the foot of the bed was the sofa and coffee table. Some day I'll post pics of the cabin.
The dressing/vanity area was poorly laid out and quite small. If I had a closet door open, my DH couldn't walk past to get into the bathroom. My DH could barely open the closet if I was sitting on the stool to put on my makeup. There were 3 small drawers in the vanity area - one was mostly taken up by the worthless hair dryer. It was stuck in the drawer so you couldn't use it at the sink to get the steam off the mirror (so my DH could shave after his shower). I much prefer the dressing area layout of the Veendam. There was only 1 sink in the bathroom on that ship, but there was a small one at the vanity so I could use it while applying makeup while my DH occupied the shower or toilet.
The bathroom had 2 sinks and a large counter. There was a ton of storage room in the bathroom w/ 2 medicine cabinets and a shelf under the sink (the entire length of the room). There was a whirlpool tub (didn't use it) and a claustrophobic shower w/ a curtain. Only used the shower in the tub, not the stall shower. There was also no hot water when we got back to the room (often after midnight). Wasn't much fun to wash my face in cold water. Glad I always shower before dinner and not before bed!
The deck has lots of furniture on it. There were 2 loungers, 2 arm chairs w/ 2 ottomans, 1 small drink table and a smallish dining table w/ 4 chairs. We had 12 people on our deck during a cabin crawl and there was plenty of room. I bet we could have fit another 15 people out there - even more if we used the side deck. The side deck was very windy so we barely used it.
We did had a party for 8 in our suite - 3 sat on the sofa, 1 on the chair, 1 on the ottoman from the dressing area, 2 on the bed and 1 standing. It was cramped but we still had fun. I don't want to sound like I'm a big complainer. But it was less than what we expected and I think we over paid for the cabin compared to the price of a comparable "non-Neptune" suite. We still had a wonderful time.
We were fortunate to meet the Captain on several occasions (suite reception, suite luncheon, Captain's reception, at the gym, etc.). One time we discussed the dry dock modifications that will be made to the ship in April, lovingly referred to as the "aft lift". I mentioned this to the Captain and he got quite a kick of the term. I wish I had come up w/ it but it was coined by another CCer. He told me that they are going to add 30' to the Lido deck (deck 9) and push out decks 8, 7 and 6 too. They are adding 18 cabins and the aft cabin decks will be considerably smaller. He also mentioned that soot from the smoke stack was a big maintenance problem for them. I did notice that our deck was often dirty. I wore the robe out there one afternoon and there were very noticeable black marks on the back from sitting in the chair (steward replaced it since I left it dirty side up on the sofa). Every day I noticed the deck was wet and sometimes there were some soap bubbles in the corners. Our door mat was always wet. I would hang it on the bottom of the lounger to dry, but it was wet again the next day. I realized that the steward was washing the deck and that's why it was always wet. We were also quite far from the Neptune. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing We didn't have as many snacks from the lounge since it was a decent walk to get there. When we did, we didn't want to schlep them all the way back to the cabin. Nothing like walking to the aft carrying a hot cup of tea and a plate of goodies! We definitely used it more last yr when we were on the Veendam and it was just down the hall. So maybe I didn't gain as much weight on this cruise because of that We also didn't use the concierge services too much this time since we were hardly in the lounge.
The aft cabin definitely had a bit more motion compared to the other cruise cabins we've slept in. There was more noise (squeaks and rattles) than other ships. It wasn't bad, but I did have some trouble sleeping on the first few nights. On the 1st night, I kept thinking my husband was shaking the bed and I was getting annoyed w/ him . We had 1 rocky day/night and it was challenging to apply mascara when I was getting ready for dinner. Despite this, I would definitely consider an aft cabin again. I don't know if I'd pay the extra money for a corner one because of the wind and small cabin. I would definitely consider a regular verandah in the "V" category (non-suite) since I don't think there's as much wind in those cabins and substantially less expensive.
Pools: I was surprised to find that the aft pool is for ADULTS only. This has been the source of much discussion on the CC web site. In the published Daily Papers, there was a note each day under "Services" listing the operating times for the "Midship Family Pool" and "Aft Adult Pool". Check out Schplinky's post of all the W-dam daily documents here (go to pic #41 for 1 example of the time for the Adult Aft Pool): http://schplinky.smugmug.com/gallery/2418958#127077843
That said, the only sign I saw was at the hot tubs. The sign stated that no one under 14 was allowed to use the hot tub. Despite the sign, I did see a small child in the aft hot tub one afternoon. I didn't look for any other signs regarding the pool since there were so few children on our ship and I preferred to use the Lido pool since it had more shade.
Food: We ate most breakfasts and lunches in the Lido. We had 1 room service bkfast and I wasn't impressed. I requested very dry scrambled eggs. They were nearly liquid and inedible. We also have 1 bkfast in the dining room. Big mistake. Service was unbelievably slow and the food was no better than the Lido and wasn't as hot.
We were fortunate to have the crew Doctor (Gracielle Lopez) join us on the 1st Formal night for dinner. It was a pleasure to dine w/ her. She's a lovely woman (see the crew show for more info about her).
We dined w/ 2 other couples that have been friends for nearly 50 years. They were a true delight and having dinner w/ them was one of the highlights of the cruise. We thoroughly enjoyed each other's company and kept switching seats every night to enable us to chat w/ each of the other people.
I thought the food was very good. I like fairly basic food and I never had to order one of the "always available" options. There was always something I liked. I am a picky eater and usually need to order stuff on the side or without one of the ingredients. I liked that HAL had detailed descriptions for each of the menu items. I only had to ask the waiter twice to leave something out of the dinner entrEe. My DH likes spicy food and did find that it was a bit bland for his tastes. We always had several of the courses, especially dessert. One of our table mates ordered 2 entrees on night. The waiter didn't blink an eye.
Ports/Excursions: Grand Turk - We did the Dune Buggy excursion. It was fun. We explored most of the island. There isn't too much to see but it was a fun experience. I don't know why they told us to wear a bathing suit and water shoes. We were never near the water! Even though it rained the day before, it was dry when we went. I did read on CC that someone went through some mud/water puddles on a previous trip. I would recommend sneakers as it would be easier to push the gas pedal. Also, if you are very short, you won't be able to drive since the seats don't adjust. I'm 5'6" and I had to stuff towels behind my back in order to reach the pedals and steering wheel. Every time we went over a bump (which was often), the seat belt would snap back and lock into position and pull me closer to the back of the seat. Eventually, I was barely able to reach the steering wheel! My DH had to unlatch it, pull it all the way back and then latch it again. My DH is 5'9" and didn't have as much of a problem. My in-laws spent the entire day at the pool at Margaritaville. It's a nice pool.
St. Maarten - we did the Rhino Rider excursion here. I booked through Internet, not through ship and it was about half what the ship was charging. But we did have to get a taxi on our own. It was $15. We took the bus back ($1 each), then had to take a water taxi from Philipsburg to the pier ($6 each). It took about 45 minutes for the taxi so make sure you leave enough time. We were told 30 minutes so we were late getting to the excursion. They almost left w/o us. This was a fun excursion too! DH drove out to the snorkel area and I drove back. If you have a bad back, this is not a good excursion for you. Way too bumpy! Snorkeling was ok. There were a lot of fish, just not a big variety. The water was reasonably clear.
Tortola - we didn't get into port until 2:15, not 12:00 as listed on our itinerary. This really didn't leave enough time to do much in the port. We spent 4 days in Tortola when we went to Peter Island 4 years ago. We were initially going to go to the beach but my in-laws wanted to walk around Road Town instead. We walked down the very long pier, and my MIL's hip started bothering her. So we split up and walked to Road Town on our own. We spent about an hour walking around, pointing out places we remembered and generally reminiscing about our last trip.
One important thing to note is that the entry into Tortola is really beautiful. You pass by several of the BVIs. I was told the area is called "The Narrows" and the passage is less than 4/10 mile wide. I recommend spending the time up top and taking pictures. It was really nice.
HMC - we booked the Sky Blue cabana, but all look good and I really don't think there's a bad one. It is busier at the end of the beach that is closest to the tender pier. The far end was less crowded but it was a longer walk. We were quite close to the BBQ and bathrooms, but far enough away that we didn't get any noise. The fruit plate that was in the cabana was a joke. It had about 4 slices of fruit - barely enough for 1 person, let alone the 4 that booked the cabana! We didn't get the butler upgrade. It was $279 and we're not big drinkers so we didn't think we'd get the value. I do recommend getting to HMC early. We were late arrivers (about 10:30) and it didn't seem like we had enough time there. They hurry you out of the cabanas at 3PM. The last tender is at 3:30. The beach is like baby powder and the water is crystal clear. All 4 of us agreed that this was the highlight of our cruise.
Service: Our Cabin steward was very good. On the 1st day, I requested 3 towels (2 for me and one for DH) and an extra bar of soap. We had 2 sinks, shower and separate bath tub. We needed 3 bars of soap since we didn't use the shower stall. From that day on, there was always enough soap and towels. I also did quite a bit of laundry/dry cleaning and the steward ensured there was a new bag in our cabin each day. Every time we saw our steward, he asked if we needed anything.
Our Waiter was a little slow at 1st. but seemed to warm up after the 1st dinner. Also since we kept switching seats at table to ensure we were able to talk to each of our table mates, he had his hands full trying to keep track of us!
Shows: We are not into the shows and in general try to avoid them as we haven't been impressed w/ the caliber of the performers in the past. We did go see the comedian on this cruise (JR or JZ something) and he told very old and unoriginal jokes. He was awful. I think I laughed twice. We also went to the Filipino Crew Show as the crew Physician told us that she was going to perform. There were 3 singers including Gracielle and all were excellent. There were 3 or 4 native dances. They were very long and w/ the exception of the Bamboo dance, we were pretty bored.
Misc: I didn't like the FLL pier workers. When we were dropping off our luggage, they demanded a tip. We always tip baggage handlers (quite generously) and were reaching for our wallet when the demand was made. I was quite annoyed and really didn't want to tip them after that. But I figured that our luggage would probably wind up in the water if we didn't!
I met many people through the Roll Call on the CC board. I set up a meet & greet through HAL which was very easy. We had about 20 people show up but no crew members were present. It was embarkation day, so I'm sure that's a very busy time for them. Still it would have been nice if 1 person stopped by for a few minutes. I requested cookies, coffee, tea and water. They used a large coffee urn for the water. It tasted like old coffee grounds. No one could drink it.
I did a fair bit of laundry & dry cleaning since there was no additional fee for us (in a suite). I wasn't impressed. The return service was quite slow; sometimes as long as 2 days. One polo shirt came back w/ stains on it - there were NO stains when I sent it in. I sent it back w/ no improvement. I washed it myself when I got home and the stains came out on the 1st washing. I have no idea why they weren't able to get them out. They did an ok job pressing the clothes, but 1 pair of pants that didn't have a center crease on the legs came back w/ one. Another pair that did have the crease, came back w/o it. I had to iron them both when I got home.
There was very little smoking on the balconies around us. That was very good. I'm very anti-smoking since I have asthma and can't be around it at all. Some of the bars were very bad (Sports bar in particular) and of course the Casino. There was no smoking in the Piano Bar (not sure if it wasn't permitted or we just lucked out). Smoking on the ship wasn't a big issue which surprised me.
Unfortunately, we were hit by the Norovirus on the 3rd day. I think over 100 people came down w/ it over the next few days. They immediately went into Code Red - no self-serve at buffet, no bread/butter/salt/pepper on dining table (served by waiter), hot tubs and thalassotherapy rooms were closed, etc. The Captain made several announcements each day. In particular, he commented that several people had left their quarantined cabins and he denounced them as "irresponsible" and stated that it was "reprehensible that they put others in danger getting sick". I thought the crew handled the situation quite well. There were longer lines in the Lido but they put a lot of crew in there to help. The BBQ line at HMC was very long. We ate quite late so the lines were gone by then. But the Captain came ashore to HMC to see the problem 1st hand and later apologized during 1 of his announcements. I was served my lunch by one of the singers. They really had every one pitching in!
We also heard that they were able to track down the virus to Person 0. Turns out, he was vomiting on the plane heading to FLL and lied on his signed statement when he checked in at the pier. This is inexcusable. He ruined the vacation of 100+ people because he was sick and didn't want to be quarantined when he boarded the ship. I disgusts me that this person was so inconsiderate of his fellow passengers.