My resume: This was my 12th cruise (6 on RCCL, 2 on NCL, 2 on Princess, 1 on Carnival). It will be my first and last on Holland America.
I booked this cruise because the itinerary sounded fabulous and unique. I read all the ship and port reviews I could find before booking; I thought I was an informed traveler and had done my due diligence. I did extensive research to plan all my port stops and excursions ahead of time.
No one told me that the average HAL cruiser is age 85. Which made me 45 years younger than virtually everyone else on board. It felt like a floating senior citizen's center. I knew it was bad when, on day 3, a 70+ year old man sat down beside me and complained that there were "too many old people" on board. And it wasn't just a fluke -- this was clearly HAL's target demographic. From the Sinatra/Bennett/Mathis muzak to the "remember Broadway in the 1940's" show and the Neil Diamond tribute artist, to the drinks menu at the bars (who orders a Tom Collins anymore?!), the whole cruise screamed "retirement village."
And yet, even after discovering what I was in for, I swore I would be a good sport about it. Which lasted for a little while.
MONTREAL -- I booked my flights and hotel independently (as always), and had no troubles arriving in Montreal the day before departure. I stayed at the Doubletree on Sherbrooke, which was lovely and had a basket of chocolate bon bons waiting for me as a Hilton rewards member. I spent Saturday morning walking through old town Montreal, which was charming and incredibly friendly. The only disappointment was that Notre Dame and the area immediately surrounding it were under major construction.
A quick taxi ride got me to the pier by noon for boarding.
Embarkation was a bit slow, but I blamed it on me being there too early (I should have waited until 2:00 or so to avoid the initial rush), it being the first cruise of the season (the locals didn't quite have the routine figured out), and the large number of travelers who hadn't done the pre-boarding paperwork online. Once onboard, staterooms were not ready (I knew this would be the case), but the staff had set up extra tables and chairs in the pool area to accommodate waiting guests. Rooms were ready promptly at 1:00, and my bag reached by cabin by 3:30.
Sailing out of Montreal and up the St. Lawrence was quite pretty.
QUEBEC -- We arrived in Quebec on time, and the port was well-situated within walking distance of old town and both the lower and upper portions of the city. I did the "old and new Quebec" bus tour in the morning, with a wonderful local tour guide. It provided a stop at the Chateau Frontenac, and drove us through all the major sections of the city and the Plains of Abraham. We returned to the ship by 11am. Unfortunately, by early afternoon it was pouring rain with temps in the low 40s and gusty winds, which made for a very unpleasant afternoon for those of us who ventured out. Still, Quebec is a perfectly charming city that you just want to scoop up and put on a cake. Just lovely, even in the rain.
SAGUENAY FJORD -- Given the itinerary, we entered the Saguenay river (I refuse to call it a "fjord") at 5:40am, for which I dutifully hauled myself out of bed. At 9:30am, we saw our first and only whale, and then promptly returned to the St. Lawrence. It was a good day for naps. Cruising up "la fleuve St. Laurent" was quite pretty, and the snow on the Gaspe Peninsula was quite a sight. But it caused me to notice just how absolutely FILTHY the ship's windows were, inside and out, in every public area. At one point passengers were grabbing pool towels to wipe off the windows themselves. Shameful.
CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND -- We were unable to make our call in Charlottetown, because the waters were too rough to allow the tenders to make it safely to shore. Even the pilot's boat had a good deal of trouble maneuvering through the waves. Disappointing, to say the least, because after two long days onboard, I was ready to get off the Maasdam for awhile. To HAL's credit, they not only refunded the shore excursion charges, but also the $8 port charges for PEI.
The cruise director made an announcement to let us know they had added extra "activities" for our unexpected additional day at sea. The revised schedule was posted near the elevators on all decks. This was another problem I had with HAL -- rather than use a dedicated TV channel to provide updates and info on things like the schedule, menus, itinerary, ship's position, weather, etc (see: Royal Caribbean), they made you wait for printed materials to be produced and manually circulated. This is horribly inefficient, but is in line with their desire to cater to an older, "wait for the morning paper" crowd. When I checked out the revised activities list, I was horrified to see that the only events they added were a Catholic mass, a nondenominational church service, and a Dan Brown book discussion group. Seriously? My choices are to go to church or to go talk about some author whose 15 minutes of cultural relevance expired 3 years ago? You must be kidding. Another nap day.
SYDNEY, NOVA SCOTIA -- Finally, at long last -- LAND HO!! The handful of passengers under age 70 practically ran to get off the ship once the gangway opened at 8:00am. I booked a bus tour of the Cabot Trail, which was a beautiful expanse of land on the Cape Breton peninsula. It was a VERY long day (8 solid hours), but we'd been amply warned about this ahead of time, and those warnings seemed to scare off folks who weren't up for such a long day. We had a good group of passengers, and a fantastic tour guide and driver. And abundant sunshine. I definitely want to see the Cabot Trail again later in the season when the trees are in full foliage.
Given the extra long excursion itinerary, we didn't get back to the ship until 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. The ship of course waited for us, but then once on board, it just continued waiting... and waiting... It turns out they had a power failure in one of Maasdam's portside engines, so we were going nowhere fast. Finally at 7:30pm (3 hours past departure time), we limped out of Sydney on one engine, and puttered toward Halifax.
HALIFAX -- Running on only one engine, we arrived in Halifax 4 hours late. This meant that all shore excursions were rescheduled or cancelled. I had booked an 8:30am excursion to Peggy's Cove, and had planned to spend the afternoon visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and the immigration exhibit at Pier 21 (where some of my ancestors arrived). Instead, my tour was moved to 12:45, and did not return until 4:00. I must say that Peggy's Cove was about the most overrated place I've ever visited, especially with 6 buses full of senior citizens. When I return to Halifax, I'll go there again on my own at sunrise, and I'm sure its charm will be apparent under those conditions. We had the slowest bus driver ever, a busload full of grouchy people who insisted he turn on the air conditioning (even though it was 39 degrees outside), and a tour guide who yammered on and on incessantly for 4 hours. Nightmare. Once back in port, I found that both of the museums closed at 4:30, so I was left with only an hour to see what little was left of interest along the harbor in Halifax.
Still running on only one engine, we puttered slowly out of Halifax. The captain provided no clues as to whether he anticipated a late arrival in Bar Harbor. I had no confidence we would arrive on time, so I cancelled my 8:30am tour to Acadia National Park. This turned out to be a good thing.
BAR HARBOR -- We arrived in Bar Harbor at 10:30am, a few hours late. The folks at US Homeland Security didn't find their way to the ship until noon, so for 90 minutes we sat there and looked at Bar Harbor from the ship. By the time I cleared immigration and made my tender, it was 1:30 when I set foot on land. Which gave me a little over 3 hours to get all my port shopping out of my system, have an authentic New England fish & chips dinner, and enjoy what was a beautiful but unusually hot day in a lovely seaside village. On the tender back to the ship, I met up with some folks who had taken my Acadia tour, only to discover that their bus had broken down at the top of Cadillac Mountain, adding to the continuing saga of this cruise from hell.
BOSTON -- HAL had incentive to get us to Boston on time, of course, and no surprise, they did. Disembarkation was a breeze, and it never felt so good to be heading home from vacation.
Assorted other observations: The interior cabins were bigger than any I'd stayed in before. The beds were extraordinarily comfortable by cruise ship standards. My cabin steward never once made himself visible -- I still don't know his name or who snuck into my cabin each morning and evening. If I'm tipping him, it would be nice to know who he was.
I should note I am not a foodie, and don't go cruising for the food; I go for the itineraries. I rarely eat in the dining room (can't be bothered). I prefer the come-as-you-are, do-what-you-want Lido buffets. HAL's Lido buffet was not nearly as plentiful or customizable as other cruise lines. The upside was that you got to eat everything they served in the dining room, so no missing out on the filet mignon or lobster when you skipped formal night. And because they cooked your meal immediately upon ordering it, you were less likely to get cold meals in the Lido than in the dining room. But the salad bar was miniscule, the entree and side choices were limited, and they offered the same 4 deserts every night all week long. I didn't go hungry, but there was much room for improvement.
All in all, it was a disaster. Even when I really tried to look on the bright side, something managed to go wrong, in ways that just couldn't escape attention. Never again with HAL. Never.