BACKGROUND: We are a young couple (for HAL anyway) in our early thirties. We have two kids which we left behind. This was our very first cruise ever.
EMBARKATION: Smooth as glass. We arrived the night before and stayed in a hotel (wrong one by accident - who knew Airport North was different than Airport). We were taken to the port by the hotel shuttle along with several other cruisers. One couple was headed to Princess, so we dropped them off first. This was our first time cruising, so we weren't really sure what to expect. The Princess terminal was PACKED. There were twisty turvy lines of people outside. I figured we were in for one heck of a long wait, but as we pulled up to the HAL terminal we realized the lines were absent. Leaving our luggage on the curb, we hesitantly wandered into the building to find very few lines. Many people had said on the boards that the line for express check in is actually longer than the line for the people that didn't register online. True, but the line moves oh so much quicker for us internet checker inners. Within a matter of minutes, we were on the ship and terribly overwhelmed. We wandered around the Lido deck for quite some time before giving up and heading outside. There was no way to find seating. The people that had gotten there earlier (we boarded around 12:30) were relaxing in all the seating even if they had finished eating. We didn't know you could check in your carry on bags by the pool and head over to the Queen's Lounge for a movie. So, we finally found a place to eat and scarfed down some food. It wasn't a big deal (not a trip ruiner), but it would've been nice if there had been a place to sit right away.
FOOD: We thought the Lido food was good, but nothing to write home about. There was nothing that either of us had that tasted bad, but there was little that was absolutely scrumptious. Although there was always a good selection of food, it tended to be the same or very similar at each meal. Still, it was good (especially since I didn't have to cook it). The dining room had better food than the Lido, but still very little wow factor. I did have some sort of mixed berry cobbler one night that was absolutely out of this world. The Pinnacle Grill had by far the best food. It was worth every penny (plus some). If you are a steak lover, don't miss it. If you aren't a steak eater, you may not be as impressed. The service in all of these venues was impeccable.
CABIN: We had an SY category cabin on the sixth floor (not the correct nautical terms - sorry). It was spotless, a pretty good size and came with the best room steward. I tried to get him to climb into my suitcase to come home with me, but he declined. Apparently he likes his job. We had towel animals most nights. The steward came in at least twice a day. I don't know how they know when you have left your room, but it is amazing how it works out. We did see the steward nearly every day in the halls and he always sincerely seemed to care what we were up to and how we were feeling. The balcony had a glorious view. When you look straight down, you see the tenders, but it didn't ruin the view at all. Most of the time you are sitting and looking out at the ocean, not standing and looking straight down.
SHOWS: We went to the show each night (except the first night, but I'm guessing we just didn't know about it then). They were all very good (especially the comedian, juggler and ventriloquist) except for one. Alfreda. Yikes. She is a singer that did a tribute to "Divas". Her voice was not terrible, but we just couldn't get into the music. She doesn't have one of those powerful "Celine" kind of voices. It's hard to explain. On top of that, she seemed to think she was the bomb. She was constantly looking for applause and heading out into the audience to shake hands. We were not the only ones that didn't enjoy it (from what we overheard after). Still, one bad show didn't ruin the cruise for us.
CREW: The crew is by far the most wonderful group of people. We have been truly spoiled. They find out your name and what you are drinking or something special you enjoy eating and it will always appear for you. They smile each time you see them in the halls and public areas. They are just so wonderful. The staff truly makes the cruise experience what it is. When we returned home, we found a severe lack of customer service. We knew it wasn't great before we left, but after the attention to detail on the cruise, we just couldn't believe how blah everyone else is.
SHORE EXCURSIONS: Our first stop was Cozumel. We booked a trip to Nachi Cocum through an independent company on the internet prior to the trip. This actually turned out to be the highlight of the whole vacation. I almost hate to mention it here and give away such a gem of an excursion. It is an all inclusive beach that is privately owned and only allows 100 people per day on its shores. They serve the most outstanding food right on the beach. The palm trees have hammocks so you can relax in the shade and stare at the gorgeous clear blue seas. There are palapas with lounge chairs beneath if you prefer not to be in a hammock (or do a combination of both). The water was warm and clear and calm. We even saw a huge iguana ramble across the beach. It was pure bliss and as close to that Corona beer commercial as I've ever seen. The second stop was Grand Cayman. We were much less impressed with this island. It is kind of dirty and run down in places. We did the Stingray City and Island Tour Drive. I'd recommend just booking the stingray part. The drive was basically stops in different gift shops. Not bad, just not really worth the money and time. We nearly missed the port as the weather was so rough. Our captain pulled us through and docked on the opposite side. That made the tender operation a bit tricky and we were with MANY full grown adults (okay, senior citizens mainly) that were grumpy, grumpy, grumpy. Again, this did not ruin anything for us. It just gave us something to giggle about. The next stop was Grand Turk. This is a much nicer island than Cayman. It is very, very small. We had booked the dune buggy excursion through HAL and found it to be a blast. They did take some of the slower drivers and separate them into their own group so as not to take the fun out of it for either kind of driver. You get absolutely filthy, but it is a load of fun. The last stop was Half Moon Cay. Wow. This is a gorgeous island. The food was really, really good. I just wish it hadn't been as crowded. I suspect if we had wandered further down the beach, it would've been slightly less busy. We got a clamshell. It definitely helped, but it gets hot in those things. Of course it is hot everywhere on the island. Only 35 people live there in tourist season and 1 stays the rest of the time. I tried to volunteer, but I guess they already had enough people. Darn.
WEATHER: Hurricane Noel made for some rough seas, but the captain did an amazing job. Apparently not everyone agreed as he came on the speaker one morning at breakfast and announced that several people had asked if he could make the ship move less. He said he could control a lot of things, but that was not one of them. If he could control the seas, he'd be able to walk on water and wouldn't need a ship to get around. We thought that was cute, but I'm sure the people that complained originally didn't. There are some people you just can't please. Anyway, the weather got pretty rough a couple nights (not that I would know if that was unusual since we've never cruised before). There was some definite walking difficulty and I heard some people got seasick. Seriously, for the way the waves looked, the captain impressed me immensely. It cannot be easy to keep a ship completely upright on some of those giant waves. Fortunately, it never rained while we were in port which is what we were really afraid of. The weather was gorgeous for the islands.
MISCELLANEOUS: There was so much that was wonderful and so little that wasn't. I hope I'm not missing anything. I tried to be thorough. Ummm...the coffee was good. Most people dressed up for dinner. I don't know if anyone smuggled booze on board, but I tend to think not.
Overall, I think HAL is the line for us. There were few kids which was pleasant. The service was outstanding. The food was good. The accommodations were good. Oh, our bathroom light stopped working part way through the voyage, but I called the help desk and within 15 minutes it was fixed. No big deal. The entertainment was good. Honestly, the biggest problems were the seating in the Lido the first two days, the fact that you can't hear the announcements in your cabin (unless you turn to channel 43, but by the time you get there, you've missed the announcement. It is better to stand in your doorway to hear), the one bad show and that they make you get off the ship at the end of the week. By the way, the aft looked fine and we had a flat screen TV in our room.
PASSENGERS: We were probably the youngest adult passengers on the ship, but there were many people that were not senior citizens. We loved our tablemates (table for six) and got along very, very well. The cruise critic meet and greet was great and they were all very nice as well. Several of the passengers were exceptionally grumpy, but I guess that is just a choice they made.
DISEMBARKATION: Smooth as well. We were "early independent" and arrived in customs somewhere around 9:30. There was a HUGE fiasco with one couple who had way too many bags anyway, but I guess a red 1 bag accidentally got put in the black 5 section. The woman found it, but the man made a huge stink. Security ended up being called. They were so put out, they demanded a personal escort out of the building. Perhaps that's what security was for. Still, they ended up in line like the rest of us. They then proceeded to complain to anyone that would listen and then to a manager and again security was called over. The guy was very loud and scary. It was completely ridiculous in our opinion, but it did make the wait fly by. We caught a cab to the airport and headed on home. Just a note: It is not difficult to find your luggage like I had previously read (in the customs area). It is just difficult to get the luggage out the door because so many people are trying to do the same thing. Just be patient and it'll eventually get worked out. We are definitely going to sail HAL again. We put down a deposit, so now we have to pick an itinerary. I can't wait!!!!!! In the end, I learned that a cruise is what you make of it. I can only hope that the people that complained the entire week will decide not to sail again and leave the Westerdam for those of us who can truly appreciate her.