The verdict is we wished we went on the Serenade.
The hype for HAL ships is bad for the first time cruiser. We expected an awesome trip and a wonderful ship. We had previously gone on the RCCL Vision of the Seas, which I think it about the size of the Volendam. There is no comparison.
The disembarkation at the Canada Place pier was bizarre. There were absolutely NO HAL reps anywhere to tell us where to go. With RCCL, there are reps everywhere that guide you to the right line, and where to put luggage, etc. With HAL, you were on your own. Which I found odd, because the average age is much much higher on HAL, so I thought there would be lots of assistance. Now, this isn't only in Vancouver. When we left the ship in Seward and got back on, again the same thing -- no-one there at all. Very strange. And the most bizarre, was the no assistance onto the tender ships. On RCCL, there is a guy that stands on the boat (straddling the boat and the dock), that guides you onto the tender boat. Just having his arm help you, really helps out. On HAL, I saw no-one doing this at all.
I will throughout this review, compare HAL and RCCL.
STATEROOM We had an NN guarantee, basically guaranteeing a room. Nothing more. On RCCL, we have always gotten this room type, and have been extremely pleased with our rooms that we have been given (inside). This one on HAL, was the worst room we have ever had in our life (4 cruises). It was a wheelchair-accesible room, which for the life of me, I can't figure out how someone in a wheelchair can get into bed. I could not walk down the side of the bed to get in -- I had to do a side shuffle, or climb over from the end of the bed. The room also had the worst mildew smell. I found out shortly why that is. The shower -- although large, drained into these large roomsize grills -- they overflowed. I opened the shower curtain, and the entire floor was about 1/2" of water. It took me a while to scoot all the water to the other drain (in front of the door). Our cabin Steward (Yani -- awesome -- more about him later) called the plumber and he cleaned up the bathroom. He also put down deodorant powder down on the carpets. So instead of this overwhelming mildew smell when we walked in, we got a perfume scent -- which was fine. The other bizarre thing, was around 12:oo - 1:00 a.m. we heard this huge noise below us. Sounded like metal on metal (now I am a sound sleeper, and even I woke up with that). On the 3rd night, I finally had to go to the front desk to ask about that. He told me "Maam, that is the waves hitting the boat". whaaaaaaat? It was calm that night. I told him that it sounded like metal hitting metal. He went to the back office, and came back and said "I'm sorry, that is our trash compactor, I will see what I can do." To their credit, HAL did stop compacting the trash at midnight (we then heard it go at 6pm). I am amazed that HAL would let this room go. We are very tolerant people and have never complained before, but this just needed mentioning, since we were spending 14 nights there. The other noisy part was the side thrusters and the anchor. About 1 hour or so before we docked (always super early), we would heard the side thrusters (or something else)-- always woke us up.
On RCCL we have always been on deck 2, 3, or 8. On HAL we were on deck 1. Next time, I would definitely stay away from deck 1. At least at the front and on the side. Although we did have a porthole, I believe it was noisier than an inside would have been. We are actually on the minority who LOVE insides, because we sleep soooo well in them.
Stateroom vault -- we prefer RCCL vaults to this one. With HAL, you need a magnetized card to open & close it -- another card to carry (and it can't be your room card). With RCCL, there is a keypad, and you enter your own 4 digit number, so it's very easy to use. On HAL, there were many times when I wanted in the safe, but my husband had the card, so I had to wait until he came down, for me to get in there.
Stateroom Steward -- Yani -- AWESOME! The best! He was so cheerful. This is where either we lucked out, or HAL is superior over RCCL. Although on our last RCCL cruise we had an excellent steward as well. Yani, was always cheerful, smiling and wonderful. We did keep our room neat, and the 2nd week we had a thermal suite pass, so we hardly used the shower down in the room after that. I told Yani that he was the best steward we have ever had, and I made sure to write that down on the survey card.
Food -- I have to go against the HAL board here, and actually say that RCCL rules over the food portion. The first week onboard, we were at a table of 12, every one of people sitting there, also said they were not impressed with the food quality and choice, and preferred other lines.
Dining Room -- alot of misses here. There were some dynamic choices, like the bami goreng, the seafood sampler (both at lunch in the dining room on day 7). But the dinner time food was not that great. We much prefer RCCL. On RCCL, it was always "what should I have, it all looks so good". On HAL, it was more like "what kind of looks good?". Over the 14 days we tried most of the meals. Nothing to write home about.
Lido Buffet -- LONGGGGGG lineups. They only had a few breaks, so if you wanted something later on in the hot entree area, you had to wait a verrrry long time. Your food was always cold. On RCCL (Radiance class), they had lots of little stations, so it was easy to pick and choose. The HAL Lido had the best waffles though. And I did like that they cooked eggs to order. And I liked the fresh squeezed oj. But that was about it. The salads were dreadful -- I liked the RCCL ones.
Room Service -- only tried it once. Breakfast. cold. Not too appetizing. Didn't try it again.
Burger Bar -- dreadful service. Try to get the guys eye to order, expect to wait a very long time. We had the burger once.
Ship layout -- not as easy to navigate as RCCL. Found it very chopped up. Especially on deck 4, where you couldn't walk through, you had to go up to 5 or down to deck 3 to walk to the front. Although I liked the 3 banks of elevators (forward, center, aft). Made for very little waiting time. On RCCL, we used the stairs all the time, as the elevators took too long, and the exercise was good for us. On HAL, the elevators were pretty easy to take, so we used them a little bit more, although we did use the stairs alot.
HAL FRANS LOUNGE -- awful! Wow, what a terrible set up. Very very small -- try RCCL, you'll be in for a treat! On HAL the seats were terrible, it was like a cheap lounge. Upstairs there was nowhere to put a drink, on RCCL, they have drink holders built into the nice seats. Downstairs on HAL, the stage was too close, and it was just like a cheap lounge setup. Awful, awful, awful.
STAGE Shows -- Wow, another shocker. AWFUL! Very hokey, and not our style at all. They lip synch so much of the show, and the music is tracked. There are musicians that play, but they are backed up by tracks. Very boring for the musicians. My brother was in the orchestra on another HAL ship, and gave us the lowdown. Not very inspiring. The only shows we really enjoyed were the "Filipino Crew Show" and the "Indonesian Crew Show" Even though some of it was a little long, you can see they really enjoyed themselves, and they did everything. It was great, and I loved giving that support back to the wonderful workers (I'm talking about the cabin stewards, bar staff, waiters, etc. NOT cruise director staff).
Cruise Director -- He was the most available and down-to-earth Cruise Director we have seen (Russ Bralley). He was very nice. His staff, on the other hand, were not that great or professional. They were all very young, and seemed more into chatting than doing their job. The librarian was the absolute worst! The library was a wonderful room to read in, and listen to music (if those recliner chairs were available). The librarian was ALWAYS chatting loudly to other cd staff. gabbing, and laughing and so on and so on. Didn't anyone tell her that a library is supposed to be "shhhhh quiet". I had to laugh though. On our first day, we took the "ship tour", having never taken it on other cruises. The cd staffer took us around the ship, and then before we entered the library, she said "I will explain about the library now, as it is a quiet zone once we enter, we can't talk...." She and the librarian were the worst ones for chatting!!! LOL! The library would have been a much better experience had it been more quiet from the staff.
BACK - TO - BACK CRuises This is where HAL fails terribly. For a back-to-back cruise, you would think they would do things differently. They didn't. For example: They show movies in the movie theatre every day. We went to them every day the first week. On the return trip, same movies. Same with the cooking demonstrations (there are 2 per week). We had actually asked the CD if the cooking show on one day (the day we were in Sitka) would be the same on the return trip. He said no, they will be different. So we stayed onboard longer, so we could go to the cooking demo. Turns out exact same 2 demos on the return trip. :(
Smells: HAL actually had sewage smells. We smelled it strongly at the casino bar, where we hung out, had great fun with the bartenders there -- so friendly. We went to the environment officer's movie and talk on the last day. He actually said that HAL has a problem with sewage smells. They are trying to fix it, but it was a problem with ship design, and it's hard to move venting stacks. We were actually amazed that he divulged this. Normally it's "ignore and the problem goes away". We have not smelled sewage on the RCCL ships (Vision and Radiance).
Pool: HAL has the WORST design for pools. ON RCCL, the solarium is a nice area for adults and it's in a coverage area. The pool is quite secluded, and it's very nice for relaxing in. On HAL, it's awful! Very open, I never once stepped foot in the pool. It feels like you're totally on display. They have the burger bar area in there, and lots and lots of tables around. On the 2 weeks we were on there, we hardly ever saw anyone use it. Actually on the 2nd week, there were kids in there, especially one bratty fat boy who kept cannon-balling people. He would actually watch where people were sitting, and move that way to cannonball them. He cannonballed two elderly ladies in the pool, who promptly got out and went in the hot tub. I was appalled that his parents didn't ever stop him. I saw him do this daily in that pool, while they just sat and laughed.
Thermal Suite Because we never used the pool and hottub, which we used daily on RCCL, we decided to fork over $150 to use the thermal suite for the week. Best $$ we have spent. We were in there 1-2 times a day. Most of the time we were alone. The busiest we were in there, there were 6 other people in there. Awesome! The showers were great, the hottub was nice, overlooking the front of the ship, and then we would relax on the heated tile lounge chairs. My husband actually fell asleep a few times. That was so nice, and I would do this again in a heartbeat. I have to say, though, the staff were a little snooty.
The ship is staffed mostly by Indonesian and Filipinos. They are the friendliest crew I have ever seen. I didn't care for the other staff though (cd staff, spa staff).
The pluses to HAL over RCCL are: the filipino and indonesian crew -- wonderful the waffles in the lido, and eggs to order. the beds -- very soft. We have never complained about the hard bed on RCCL -- actually slept very well on them, but the beds on HAL are excellent. movie theatre -- loved this feature, even if the sound was scratchy.
These items alone, though are not enough to convert us to HAL. We will stay with RCCL in the future.