We are just back from a President's week seven night cruise to the Eastern Caribbean on the HAL Westerdam. Since Schplinky just posted what will arguably remain the ultimate Westerdam review, I will be a little more brief and write from a family's perspective. Just for some background info, I am a 44 year old high school English teacher. My husband is 46; he is an IT project manager. We traveled with our 12 year old son and my parents who are both 70 as well as a group of 8 friends of our family who are all older than we are
Air: We flew in and out of New York (LGA) to Fort Lauderdale on Jetblue. In spite of the many crises Jetblue was experiencing this week with the ice and snow, both our flights were on time with no problems.
Hotel: We stayed at the Embassy Suites in Fort Lauderdale. We stayed there last year and found that they went out of their way for our large group, chauffeuring us to dinner and providing complimentary transfers to the port. This time was no different, although the hotel was under renovation and some members of our party had rooms that were not up to standard. To the Embassy's credit, when they complained, their bills were reduced by $200.
Embarkation: This was a no brainer. We arrived around 1:30 p.m. and found no lines. Everyone was very helpful and friendly in terms of taking our luggage and checking us in.
Stateroom: We were in a category SS room which was very square yet larger (389 square feet with verandah) in comparison with a mini-suite on Princess (324 sq. ft.)or a family verandah suite on Disney (304 sq. ft). The room was very attractive and warm in color. The many drawers in the desks, tables and at the foot of the bed absorbed the absurd amount of clothing and luggage we brought. The bed was unbelievably comfortable and my son had no complaints about the sofa bed he used all week. The bathroom had both a tub with whirlpool jets and a stall shower. It was bigger than our bathroom at home. The verandah was a good size and had real wooden furniture as opposed to the cheesy patio furniture so often featured on other ships. HAL provides fresh fruit to one's stateroom daily. Our room steward, Taguh, was nice, efficient and observant. (After he noticed that my mother always pulled her covers out at night rather than tucking them in, when he turned down their bed, he untucked them).
Food: The food was fabulous. Whether it was the Lido buffet, room service, the Vista dining room or the Pinnacle Grill, everything was excellent. Some things we particularly enjoyed were the fresh waffles at breakfast, daily fish selections at the Lido during lunch---all of which were excellent---, the crab cakes and the Porterhouse steak at the Pinnacle Grill, the spring rolls and stir fried tofu at the Lido buffet for late night snack, the Parmesan crusted chicken, the black cod with brown butter, the conch chowder, the white chocolate chef's toque in the Vista dining room and the Butterfinger cake at the chocolate buffet. The fact that pasta and pizza and ice cream were available all day and night at the Lido made feeding my son very easy when he wanted a snack. My only criticism would be that the shrimp in the shrimp cocktail were very small.
Entertainment: As a family, we found plenty to do that was fun. Although my son pretty much turned up his nose at Club HAL because 1. he is shy and 2. he had already mastered all their video games, we still found plenty of "family" things to do. We did the daily trivia competitions as well as the Name That Tune games at the Northern Lights club. We also swam in the mid-ship pool and used the hot tubs. One day we borrowed a Scrabble game and played Scrabble. At night, we enjoyed the karaoke night which morphed into a week-long American Idol type competition called Westerdam Superstar into which my husband was quite humorously drafted. Comedians Julie Barr and Joel Mason were very funny, although at times the humor became less than family oriented. (Most of the time this was the fault of the passengers, not the comedians.) Joel's Elton John show was fun as was Julie's late night adult comedy. My parents and their friends spent every night in the piano bar singing with Robert Kent. Joelle, Stephanie, Chris, Juan, DJ Mike and Lenny led all the events with smiles and gave you the sense that they really cared if you were enjoying yourself.
Spa: The spa service was very good, although like most Steiner spas, the massage therapist tried to sell me stuff. I needed a manicure and the young woman did a good job, although the $44 fee was absurd. The Greenhouse spa now has YSpa for teens so my son had a massage, anti-blackhead facial and use of the thermal suite. The thermal suite was actually on the house and my son may be the only person ever to receive something free from a Steiner spa. My husband and I took and enjoyed Hillary's yoga class. It was not unreasonably challenging and she was an easy-to-follow instructor.
Ports and excursions: Unfortunately, we missed Grand Turk because of high winds and rough seas. To compensate, we arrived in Tortola somewhat earlier. Our friends who took the bus tour came away unimpressed. We shopped (got great earrings at Amethyst in town.), had a spicy lunch at Roti Palace and took a cab ($20 per person each way) to Cane Garden Bay Beach which is a breathtakingly beautiful beach. There are colorful beach bars and restaurants there and lounge chairs are free. We did not get off the ship in St. Martin as we have been there five times already. Our day at Half Moon Cay was the best ever. We rented the turquoise cabana and my son and husband had their "shady" and air conditioned beach day while I had my sun. The buffet line was long, but the food was very good. The cabana came stocked with floats, snorkel gear, soda and chips. The beach itself is a true "Bahama blue." It is groomed and relatively shallow. Our friends who love Hawaii said this was actually prettier.
Disembarkation: The disembarkation talk was handled very well and the fact that they served champagne made it more enjoyable. The fact that you can arrange to check your luggage and receive your boarding passes at the port for a mere $10 per person is a great advantage. Last year, after our Princess cruise, we were schlepping our bags through the rain at FLL with several thousand of our closest cruise passenger friends. Not fun! This time, we just took a cab to Jetblue with our carry-ons and went straight through security. Also, HAL serves a full breakfast on disembarkation day and lets you remain in your stateroom until your group is called. How civilized.
Overall, we had a wonderful time and are already planning our next HAL cruise. As a big group, we found lots to do when we wanted it and nothing to do when we felt like it. I know people say the HAL crowd is old and they are, but I found that sort of romantic. What could be bad about being married to the same person for 40 or 50 years and spending your retirement cruising around? I can think of worse options for my old age. My son said he liked HAL more than Disney and he has been on four Disney cruises. He enjoyed the food, the entertainment, the spa and the ship's more quiet, less frantic pace. (HAL is not a cruise line where cruise staff begin everything with the command, "Let me hear you make some noise!")We are cruising on the RCCL Mariner of the Seas in August and know that it will be a very different kind of experience. HAL doesn't have Disney's Broadway quality shows or comprehensive kids program or RCCL's roller blading, ice skating or surfing, but if you want a high quality, sophisticated cruise experience with attentive service, I would enthusiastically recommend the Westerdam.