My wife and I were excited to receive an offer from HAL for past cruisers to sail aboard Maasdam from Norfolk and receive an outside cabin assignment for the price of an inside...an no airfare necessary, as we live 8 miles from the pier. This was our 17th cruise and second on HAL.
The ship is probably not the right one for the trip. They need a faster ship to cover the transit time, on time. The first four sailing from Norfolk have returned 4, 3, 5, and 2.5 hours later respectively than the scheduled 8am arrival. The long sail from St. Thomas, the last port, to Norfolk, at 19.5 knots just cannot be done in time if any little ripple in the seas or wind occurs, and it usually does. As a result the ship does not leave until, typically 7 or 8pm when departure is scheduled for 5pm. In fact, no one can get aboard until, typically, 3pm, and many several hours later. Knowing the variability of arrival, we monitored it via a local webcam at http://www.wvec.com/cams/norfolk.html. It did not arrive until 1pm on Feb 21.
There were shuttle buses from a parking area available, or porters at the curb for those arriving by car. The terminal, at Norfolk's maritime museum, Nauticus, adjacent to the battleship Wisconsin, does a good job of handling inbound and outbound passengers despite the fact that it is not really a cruise ship terminal. Once we entered Nauticus our cabin assignment was checked and we were assigned a boarding number. We arrived at 3:15pm and received number 34. We were then given free admission to the museum, and HAL had sodas available.
It was very interesting touring the museum and the battleship and made the time pass quickly. Perhaps not so for those who had arrived at the pier at noon. At 5, (4 hours after arrival), the suite passengers and the first boarding numbers were called for embarkation processing. It only took about two hours for them to board all the passengers, a remarkable feat. No credit card was necessary at check-in, as they provided a form and simply asked that we present it at the purser's office within 24 hours with the credit card information. I had been informed by phone that my cabin guarantee was an upgrade from Cat H to Cat E cabin 728. In fact, we found out at check-in that our cabin was 782, and the bags had the wrong cabin on them. We were very happy to find that in the 3 ½ hours between the time we dropped them off and the time we got to our cabin, they had corrected the bag tags and all luggage was in the cabin. Nicely done! The lifeboat drill was delayed until 10:15am on the first day at sea due to the later boarding.
The cabin was on A deck, the lowest passenger deck, exactly amidships on the port side, and overlooked the pier. At 182 sq ft, it was ample, with convertible twin beds, a room desk/dressing table, with 8 large drawers, a sofa bed, adjustable height coffee table...perfect for room service...and a hassock. There were four closets, and the bath had a full tub. The only amenities were shampoo and lotion, other than soap. The TV carries no local TV in any port other than CNN, but does have nearly first run movies running on two channels, TNT movies, and some series like ER. There are the usual port information and cruise video channels, and the ship channel that alternated between maps of the voyage, weather, and ship's information and deck plans. Room service is available 24/7, but with a limited menu at night.
I had preordered, by phone call to HAL customer service in Seattle, a liter of Beefeater's which came with an obligatory 3 cans of tonic water. It was not there on arrival, but was delivered the next morning and there were very willing to exchange the tonic for some soft drinks my wife preferred. We also packed a case of wine in a wine shipping box, and checked it in with baggage. It arrived fine. Those attempting to carry hard liquor on board had it confiscated at the pier. Most had gotten the word of this recent change in HAL policy. All liquor purchased in the onboard shop and in all ports was gathered at the gangway and stored till the last afternoon when it was delivered to the cabin. We asked the cabin steward to keep one bottle of champagne iced and to provide a second bucked ice daily. He not only quickly accommodated us, but also provided two champagne glasses.
Since we had requested second sitting, fortunately since we didn't get aboard till a little after 7pm, I checked the diagram outside the dining room on deck 8 and found that our table was for two, as requested, table 139. I can say, without hesitation, that this probably the best dining team we have ever had. The headwaiter was present constantly, the waiter was very efficient, and the assistant waiter outdid them all. If we wanted to try a second entrEe, they brought just the meat or fish without the side dishes. On lobster night, we requested two tails and the plates arrived with two tails on them, and the waiter later walked around offering more from a platter.
Every night among the dessert choices was a flambE, which included bananas foster, crepe suzette, pear flambE, baked Alaska with cherries jubilee on top, and so on. Entrees included such items as halibut, grilled prawns, rack of lamb, filet mignon twice, crab legs, chateaubriand, orange roughy, lamb chops, Dutch recipes on Dutch night, lobster tails, cod, salmon, and prime rib. On the night we left St. Maarten, they also held a BBQ at the Lido Pool with steaks and king salmon from 6-8pm and offered happy hour prices on select beer and shots.
Breakfast in the Lido includes the usual mix of fruits, cereals and cafeteria hot table, but also includes eggs to order and an omelet station. Staff were eager to assist with trays and help with beverages. In a few days we noticed some even called us by name. Lunch in the Lido has standard cafeteria fare, but included such items as a stir-fry station on several days, pizza, and a sandwich station for made to order sandwiches. By the Lido Pool is a station open from 11-5pm offering hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled chicken breast, and a hot table with tacos, burritos and fajita fixings. Breakfast and lunch in the dining room is only on the upper level, on deck 8. The dining room offers eggs benedict every day I was happy to discover. Casual dinner is also available in the Lido. As you may surmise from this summary, we were very pleased with the food on the Maasdam, with one exception.
On "Dutch Night" we opted for a reservation in the Pinnacle Grill, the featured specialty restaurant, with a $20 per person surcharge ($10 on sailing day). We had a reservation for 8:30pm and arrived a few minutes early. Forty minutes after we were seated they finally took our order. By then the wine steward, who had held the wine tasting the first day at sea, had opened the wine I had brought to dinner and helped himself to a large glass without asking instead of the tasting cup. Butter arrived 20 minutes after the bread. While water from a pitcher was adequate in the regular dining room, the Pinnacle poured bottled water, at extra charge, without asking. An hour and 20 minutes later, still only on the second course, I tried to order another bottle of wine. They were out of 15 wines. I went back to the cabin and brought another of my own. The presentation was fine and the food was good, but no better than the dining room food. There were huge time gaps between courses, and they tried to explain it away that every order was prepared from scratch to order and takes time. The restaurant was less than half full by that time and that excuse doesn't fly. Gracefully, they said they wouldn't charge the corkage fee for my wine because of the slow service.
We enjoy dancing before dinner and after shows. The Ocean Bar on Deck 8 each evening had a trio playing traditional dance music, and before dinner hot appetizers were brought to each table. The Crows Nest on Deck 11 had a solo musician who played danceable music until about midnight, when the DJ took over, playing until ?? It was not very crowded at any hour. Show entertainment was a weakest link. The singers, dancers, costumes, and production were far inferior to almost every other ship we have sailed. Fortunately there were only three production shows in 10 days. Other nights offered singers (Gail Nelson with Broadway experience, and Bill Burns a very talented impressionist and singer), comedians and variety artists, and an Indonesian crew talent show. Every evening there were two shows, one after each dinner seating, except on the last night both shows were before dinner.
I was happy to find that HAL was not aggressive in pushing the daily tropical drinks. They were more visible on a few days, but nothing like we have experienced on other lines. The deck waiters circulated with iced tea or lemonade daily in the afternoon, and high tea is available.
Dress code was as follows: Day 1 Casual Day 2 At Sea, First Formal night, and it was widely observed Day 3 After Half Moon Cay, Casual Day 4 At Sea, Second Formal night Day 5 San Juan, Casual Day 6 St Maartin, Casual Day 7 Antigua, Casual Day 8 St Thomas, Informal (coat and tie/cocktail dress) Day 9 At Sea, 3rd Formal Night Day 10 At Sea, Casual
The photographers were available for portraits on formal nights and there were essentially no lines, amazingly. On the first formal night, the Captain's Welcome Aboard Dinner, they had a receiving line leading into the pre-dinner reception, and there were two portrait stations everyone passed through, and one snapshot with the Captain. They did offer a free cruise video if you purchased four 8x10 pictures during the cruise, and we took advantage of it, as we could see from the video which was run each day on TV that we were also in some of the shots. The video was a $34 value.
Port Days: Half Moon Cay. We arrived about 1 hour later than scheduled due to the late departure from Norfolk. The first tenders left at 1245. At 1:45 we went down for tender tickets. At 3pm we got on a tender. We returned on the last tender at 5:30. The process was so slow that the Rotterdam lent several tenders to help shuttle passengers. A strictly personal observation was that a more elderly passenger make up made for slower movement into and out of tenders. As usual we enjoyed the beach and snorkeling (I bring my own gear), and there were many more fish where the floats met the breakwater than I had ever seen there. The water is so clear you can see fish in thigh-deep water without a mask. They even nipped at my wife's knees, so I suspect they have been fed there.
The sea day between these two ports was Fat Tuesday, and the dinner show was Party Gras. Advertised as a Mardi Gras from Bangkok to Calgary to Brazil, it turned out to be their standard show. However, at 11pm in the Crow's Nest they held a costume Mardi Gras Party with Hurricanes at happy hour prices. Having chanced they would have some celebration we brought masks about 20 sets of beads and two umbrellas. My wife Karen won the "Miss Mardi Gras" for original costume: Her formal beads, feathered mask, and an open parasol. She won a bottle of champagne, and I received a silver 8x10 picture frame just for participating. Lots of fun, with dancing snacks afterward. Best crowd of the cruise in the disco.
San Juan. We arrived at 7:30am on Ash Wednesday, and US Immigration held mandatory immigration checks beginning at 7:30. Lines moved quickly. The ship was cleared about 9:30am. We went back to bed for nap and left the ship at 11:40. We took the free trolley bus from the stop across the street from the pier. We rode past El Morro, which we had visited on other trips and rode into Old San Juan to a stop near the old Cathedral. We were in time for noon Mass and distribution of ashes. We then walked to Hard Rock Cafe, only to find it closed for street construction. We found there was now a Senor Frog's in San Juan, behind the Windham Hotel a block from the pier, and we walked there to enjoy lunch, stand on a few chairs, and have the usual raucous time there. We walked from there to the Dept of Information building on the waterfront and partook of the free Puerto Rican rum drinks, and then walked back to the ship. Underway at 6pm.
St Maarten/Martin. We arrived in one of our favorite ports at 7am and the ship was cleared at 8am. We went ashore at 9pm, rented a car at the end of the pier with no reservation, a Toyota Camry with a/c for $45 all day. Due back by 5:45pm. We drove past the airport to see Maho Beach where the planes pass very low overhead, past Simpson Beach and a very resorty area, and found Cupacoy Beach. The beach is down a stairway along sandstone cliffs, with sandy beach. It is, however, clothing optional despite being on the Dutch side, just short of the boundary from the French side. Water was affected by wind, but the snorkeling was good. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rent, and drinks available from a vender at the top of the cliff. We left in time for lunch and drove into Marigot, the capital of French St. Martin. As we have been here on Sundays before, when everything was closed, we were looking forward to lunch in a French sidewalk cafe and some shopping.
We parked in the free public lot, and ate at La Vie en Rose, complete with french bread and wine. However, French St. Martin is using the Euro, which is currently $1.25US to 1 Euro, and things are expensive. They don't make much effort to cater to tourist trade. There is a flea market across the street and we purchased T-shirts for the kids there. Then on to Grand Case beach, where I had previously seen many large starfish last year. The beach is deserted and sandy, but without facilities except in the waterfront restaurants. Unfortunately, only one starfish this time. Then we drove on to Orient Beach and spent an hour there before heading back at 5pm to Philipsburg. We returned the car at 5:40pm and asked them to shuttle us back into town, which they did. Shops were on the verge of closing, despite the fact that Maasdam and the Radisson ship were in port till 11pm. Some folks went back out to casino's after dinner. We did catch the Guavaberry Emporium in time, and on the main shopping street purchases our liquor for several dollars per bottle below the prices aboard Maasdam in the duty free shop. Cigarettes were also $1 per carton cheaper there. Fortunately for me our favorite jewelry shops were closed.
Antigua: Arrived at 7am. We had purchased tickets to the Catamaran Sail and Snorkel Excursion and reported to the Rembrandt Lounge at 8:40. We left at 9am, and walked a short distance to the Tamiami Catamaran, which made about a 30 minute run to Paradise Reef in deep water. Water entry was from the boat into deep water, so this is an excursion for experience snorkelers. There reef coral and the fish were impressive. After about 45 minutes of snorkeling, we reboarded and set sail for Runaway Beach where they anchored in 10 feet of water and some chose to swim to the beach. My wife does snorkel but the bar was opened and never-ending strong and tasty rum punch was available, as well as soft drinks and other liquors. After about 30 minutes we left and returned to the pier at 1230pm. There is a duty free mall at the end of the pier in St John's. While me wife napped I did succumb to the lure of a nice ruby, which they mounted as a pendant on gold chain at a jewelry shop for my wife's birthday present. We sailed at 6pm.
St. Thomas: Arrived at 7am, berthed at the pier at Havensight, and Immigration checks again at 7:30am. We were permitted to leave the ship as soon as we individually had been cleared. We were on the pier at 8:20 and on the way in a taxi, $16 for two, to Red Hook. We caught the 9am ferry, $3 per person each way, to Cruz Bay on St John's. The ride takes only 13 minutes. We took a taxi, $4 per person, from the pier to Trunk Bay, National Park ($4 per person admittance), arriving about 9:35. No crowds yet. There is in underwater snorkeling trail marked leading to an island where there was plenty of coral and plenty of fish. I really enjoyed it. The park also has lockers, showers, restrooms, and concessions, including equipment rental. We caught a taxi at 11:30 back to Cruz Bay and took the noon ferry back to St Thomas. We arrived back at the Havensight mall a little after 12:30 and had plenty of time to shop before returning to the ship by 2pm. The ship sails at 3pm for the long trip home. Two ladies, arriving late, after lines were cast off, reportedly were fined about $3,000. There was a sailaway party on deck, the only one of the cruise. The cruise director didn't think the passengers would be interested. We would have been. It was in the 80's and HOT. In fact, we had no rain the entire cruise in any port.
By the next morning a weather front 1,000 miles wide had intervened along our route while East of Cuba. By mid day 12-15 foot waves, with some swells to 25 feet and 32 knots of wind from the north caused the ship to plow along, banging head on into the waves. The water in the pools was leaping out and the pools were closed. It was still in the 70's and partly sunny. The Mariners Society repeaters reception was held at noon in the Rembrandt Lounge in the bow of the ship, and it was all people could do to walk up to receive recognition and a photo. Many of the people recognized for many cruises on HAL were elderly and having a rough time moving around. It was a relaxed day, however, and great movies were running in the theatre and on TV, such as Seabicuit, Under the Tuscan Sun, and others. I enjoyed Intolerable Cruelty, too. Dancing that evening was a bit tricky due to the motion of the ocean.
By the morning of the last day at sea, the weather had calmed, the water was like glass as we passed the Carolinas, and weather was still in the upper 60's and partly sunny. By the last day the ship was out of wines, bagels, lemons and limes. Luggage did not have to be out until 1am. We celebrated my wife's birthday at dinner.
We were scheduled to arrive at 8am, but the captain had announced the day before that we'd be in about 10:30, which was right on target. This allowed a leisurely wakeup call, and breakfast at 9am. Weather was 60 and cloudy with a forecast of increasing wind. At 1045 the first customs call was made. We were permitted to remain in our cabins until debarkation. The first debarkation group was not called until noon, and we were called about 2:40pm, in the last group because we lived locally and were driving. While no lunch had been planned, without announcement they opened the Lido about 1pm and dredged up prime rib and salads, much to me excitement!
All in all, a great trip, outstanding food, wonderfully friendly and helpful staff, a low key cruise director who was as genuine in person as he was when he was "on", and we are booked for the next one, an 11 day Maasdam in December. There is talk that they may consider replacing Maasdam with a faster ship by then. I hope they don't shorten the St. Thomas stop, as it is just long enough to do anything meaningful.