This was our 10th cruise, our first with HAL. We were looking for a trip with some new destinations for us so the Panama Canal and Costa Rica were what sold us. We were traveling with another couple who also had a great time. Also not their first cruise.
Hotel: We stayed at the Comfort Inn in Hollywood. Good choice. The people were friendly and helpful, the grilled chicken sandwich poolside hit the spot, and the $7/night parking and free shuttle transfer was great. While we did not get as good a rate as I've seen published here (we got $107), they did not charge us for the 1st night parking or the last day. Be sure to make your shuttle reservation as soon as you check in -- they fill up quickly. We didn't want to be forced into a very early shuttle and have to sit in the cruise terminal all morning. The shuttle took 1/2 hour to get to the ship, and when we disembarked they were there within 1/2 hour to pick us up.
Embarkation: This was the fastest, easiest I've ever been through. We had completed the on-line form, so it was get our picture taken, grab our cards and on to the waiting area. Since we had arrived somewhere near 11:30, we didn't have a very long wait to board the ship. We went right to the Lido deck for lunch, and into our cabin by 1:30.
Cabin: The cabin was very spacious. Larger than any I had been in. We only turned on the TV a few times, watched an interesting show on jewelry making, and CNN a couple times. We never made use of the DVD player, but that was a nice touch.
Food: Can't say enough about how good the food was in the Lido. We ate breakfast and lunch there every day (except one lunch in the DR -- too slow!). The food was fresh, delicious, a great selection of anything you could want. This was the best casual dining room we've had.
We sat at a table of 6 in the DR for dinner. Table 62 -- upstairs, early sitting. Formal nights are not my thing, so we skipped two nights in favor of the Lido, but all other nights the food was excellent. (The Lido serves just about the same menu -- minus the pricey surf/turf, on formal night.)
Half Moon Cay -- I had the foot and ankle massage in the beach hut. Very nice. Beach was very, very clean. Soft sand, although the water was a little chilly. We opted for the $14 clamshell to keep the sun off of us on the very first day. The BBQ was a distance from the beach area, but it was good.
Aruba: We visited friends at the Westin for the day because we have been to the island before, but the other couple we were with took the island tour and loved it. The Butterfly Pavilion was their favorite stop.
Curacao: We have been here before -- this time I found it very dirty. Lots of construction going on, lots of trash. Even the path from the ship leads through a construction site. We took a small footbridge near the floating market and ended up in a very bad part of town -- abandoned buildings, piles of trash, etc. When we stumbled across the Maritime Museum we decided to go in. $6pp seemed like a lot for the little museum, but it was interesting.
Panama Canal: I don't suggest getting up at the crack of dawn to get up on deck for this. I waited until a reasonable hour, daylight, and saw everything. I've been through locks before, but the process is fascinating. We had a Princess ship next to us, and it's amazing how close together they are going through there. We did not take a tour, but chose to sit in the Crow's Nest for the morning. This is the greatest place -- the view is fantastic, and unless there's a dance class or trivia contest going on in there, it's quiet. The little shopping area Colon 2000 is nothing to write home about -- mostly the stop is just to pick up the tour groups after exiting the locks.
Costa Rica: We took the train/eco boat trip. The train is old, and I'm glad we did it first (some of the tours did the boat then the train) because it would have been a let down. The seats were wet, you can't see much from your seat (they stop so you can get up if they spot something), and the sloths and monkeys are way up in the trees. Bring your binoculars and zoom lenses. We saw the boat on the canal as we passed over on a bridge and I thought "uh-oh" -- the water is a coffee brown color. But it was the highlight. We saw so many different types of birds, lizards, sloths (one with a baby very close to the boat). The little shopping area at the HAL ship dock is fun -- much more reasonably priced that at the canal boat dock.
On board activities: I was very surprised about the charges for activities on-board. Spinning classes were $11, Pilates $11, wine tasting $15, a "how-to" mixology class was $10. Seems like they already own the exercise equipment -- why the charges? We did enjoy the tour of the kitchen (although it was short, and they dumped us in the Pinnacle Grill without even saying "thanks for coming" -- most of us weren't sure the tour was even over), and the backstage tour. You got to cross the stage, go backstage and meet the singers and dancers. It was fun -- and very popular.
Spa: I also had a Swedish massage -- great. I expected the product sales pitch after the massage, so I wasn't surprised.
Art Auction: I always love the art auctions.
Negatives about the ship: The prices of everything were high. Sodas $2, water getting off the ship $1, drinks $7, photos $15 for small $40 for formal shots. When you first get onboard they are trying to sell you the 3 or 5 bottle package of wine. They'll pour it at dinner, you can take it to your room, etc. Thank goodness someone had mentioned the wine card on this website (and the soda card). $36 plus 15% grat. for 10 glasses of wine. I overheard one woman on the 2nd day complaining to the front desk that the $10 charge for her glass of wine could not be right! I immediately stopped her and told her about the wine card. The staff never mentions this option -- you have to ask for it. While it's house wine (they offered me chardonnay, pinot grigio and merlot and cabernet), it's available at all the bars and at dinner. The soda card is $18 plus 15% grat for 20 glasses of soda (fountain soda, not cans). Still -- these prices beat anything they are pushing. (And, we did bring liquor aboard with us in a carry on without a problem.)
Service: It is evident that staff is being stretched. Waiters are covering more tables, cabin stewards are responsible for more cabins. Service was not what it has been in the past, but this is not the individuals fault, it's industry-wide.
State of the ship: I'm glad to read that the ship will be dry docked before returning to Alaska. It does need some refurbishment -- but overall I thought it was great. I hope they get some new chairs -- most were very uncomfortable if you were sitting in them for any length of time. The Crow's Nest had some recliners -- nice touch. The library has some nice ones with headphones -- I could never get the sound down low enough, but that's just me.