We just returned from our first cruise. One of our close friends is a travel agent and mentioned a great deal on balcony cabins back in July. As we had never cruised before, we thought we would give it a shot, and given that we would know several onboard (including others with children) we thought it would be fun. My husband and I are in our late 30s/early 40s and my son is 7.
Embarkation went very smoothly. We purchased a case of wine the night before and simply left that with the porters at the pier (in the regular cardboard wine box). We boarded at approximately 12:15 and there were no lines at all. We headed to the lido and waited for our cabin announcements. Cabins were ready quickly, and we were very impressed with the stateroom. We had a VD category cabin on the 4th deck. Our luggage (and the wine!) arrived very promptly. Although the room is small, it has very well designed storage which allowed us to unpack all 4 bags plus 2 carryons and stow the luggage under the bed.
Kids Club -- We went to a Club HAL intro meeting the first night where they gave us the schedule for the next sea day. Our son loves "kids club" type activities and was very excited to try his first shipboard club. There's not a lot of info here in the reviews or on the boards about the club, so I'll go into a bit of detail here. Basically, on each sea day and days where we are scheduled late in port, they begin the activities for ages 3-7 at 9:00 am and conclude at 11:00. Then, if not in port, they have afternoon activities from 2:00 - 5:00 pm. As we had late seating, this allowed us to grab room service or food from the lido for him prior to our dinner. Then the club opens back up at 8:00 and concludes at 10pm, although extended care is available from 10:00 - 12:00 pm at a cost of $5/night CASH and IF YOU SIGN UP when dropping your child off at 8:00. (My husband forgot to do this the first night, but they were great about it) During the day there are scheduled activities about every 30 - 45 minutes and there is a "theme" for each night session. My son loved the club, and when the entire week's list of activities arrived the next day he eagerly went through and marked each session that he wanted to attend.
Dining -- Our family along with our friends were at the upper late seating, spread out among 3 tables of 6 or 8. Our son attended the first night, but due to the late hour, we subsequently arranged for an earlier dinner and Club HAL for him instead. There was some confusion on the first night. Several at our table wished to order wine but no one came by until we flagged the cellar master down about 40 minutes into our dinner. However, after that night, the wine steward was great and was at our table upon arrival. We brought wine to a few dinners and ordered from the list at some.
Overall, the food quality in the dining room was a bit underwhelming. That being said, we are quite picky. Nothing was particularly bad, just a bit bland.
We reserved Thursday night in the Pinnacle, and were very impressed with the service and the quality of food. I love carpaccio and had some of the best I've ever tasted at the Pinnacle. The steaks were very good an on par with Morton's/Ruth's Chris/Flemings. If we had to do it all over again, we would definitely reserve the Pinnacle for at least two nights (more if we would not be missing dinner with our friends).
As part of the Cruise Critic group, we were treated to a galley tour which was great. We also attended the two optional wine tastings presented by the cellar master and enjoyed those.
Room service was dependable and prompt, although the portions were a bit on the small side.
The lido was great for breakfast, but the lines could get a bit long at times. Well-cooked bacon lovers beware, though, they seem to prefer it a bit on the soggy side!
One thing I simply cannot figure out is the soda card concept. It is very frustrating to have to wait at the lido or go to a bar to get a soda for our son. Why oh why can they just not simply put in a fountain machine near the coffee & tea at the lido? It's not a question of price, but convenience. I'm used to having a close (albeit overpriced) vending machine at our disposal in hotels and resorts, and this was something that we found very aggravating!
Ports -- We were lucky enough to have great weather/seas which allowed us to make each scheduled port.
From reading reviews here, we were prepared for the relative lack of activities on Grand Turk. As our children love the pool, we got out early and setup "camp" right beside the pool in Margaritaville for the day. The beach is lovely and it was easy to walk from our chairs by the pool down to the beach from time to time. Our ship was the only one in port and there was no lack of chairs on the beach nor at the pool. We enjoyed the short day in Grand Turk.
Our next port was Tortola. Although we were scheduled to arrive at 12pm, we were much later. Thus some of our group simply decided to take a quick taxi over to Cane Garden Bay for a couple of hours of sunlight that was left. The ride over to the other side of the island could be a bit of a surprise for those not accustomed to taxi service in the islands. We arrived at Cane Garden and it was still moderately crowded with many ships in port. After a long walk down the beach, we found a spot to enjoy the surf for a while. Chairs were readily available for rent but were a bit old and not too inviting, so we passed due to our late arrival. Overall, I would rank Cane Garden quite low as a beach based upon our previous experiences in St. John and their beautiful beaches.
We went back to the ship, changed and walked back into town to eat that night at Capriccio di Mare. It is a small, patio restaurant which serves italian food & pizza. We enjoyed our pasta and wine and returned to the ship for our late departure from port that night.
The next day we were in St. Thomas. We had scheduled the champagne catamaran ship's excursion package for the three of us. After a 30-40 minute ride to Red Hook, we boarded the Tango for the short cruise to Caneel Bay on St. John. We would recommend this for those who enjoy snorkeling, but it is a bit of a swim to the beach. The crew was great -- very friendly and provided painkillers, beer & champagne as we headed back.
We had enough time to get off the taxi in Charlotte Amalie and do a little shopping and have lunch at Glady's Cafe. While the hot sauce didn't quite live up to the hype for my husband, it was a nice experience and Glady's entertained with Christmas songs.
Half Moon Cay -- We LOVED this island. While it was a bit breezy & cool in the morning, the afternoon was nice. We reserved a cabana with a butler and would recommend it. The sand/beach was great.
Sea Days -- We had two sea days, which was just right. I think we would be bored with more, but as first time cruisers, there was enough for us to explore to keep us busy for two. We enjoyed the cooking demos and the wine tastings, and our son was happy at Club HAL. We were not very impressed with the lido pool -- it's largely covered by the retractable roof even when open -- and the aft pool was adults only so we never got a chance to do more than just take a quick tour of it.
Entertainment -- the steel drums were nice at the Lido. We attended the comedian's show, which was great, and the illusionist, which was more comedy than illusion but also good. Generally, the atmosphere on the ship was quite low-key, which was what we had expected. Those wanting more of a night life environment might wish to look elsewhere. I will say that many have mentioned the "older demographic" specific to HAL. I didn't particularly notice that -- our experience was a nice mix of families, middle-age and older couples. That could be due to our proximity to the holidays, though.
Disembarkation -- We had a late afternoon flight, so we requested a late disembarkation. While it is nice that they allow you to stay in your stateroom until your group is called, be forewarned that your wait will not be uninterrupted. They knocked on our door repeatedly to check the minibar, pickup our son's lifejacket, and even deliver a bottle of champagne for the next guests! All that while they were making a terrible racket banging on the veranda below and washing the decks. We were the last group called, and the lines were not very long at all.
Cruise Critic -- Joining and reading the forums on Cruise Critic was one of the best decisions I made. As a first time cruiser, I literally spent hours and hours reading through the forums, making lists, etc. From the forums, I got the inspiration to buy the case of wine, bring the flameless candle for our stateroom, etc. It was great meeting our fellow roll-call members in person.
Overall impression -- We travel quite a bit and while the cruise was a great experience, we prefer to set our own schedules which is a bit at odds with the cruising concept. However, we will likely try another line in the next 5 years or so just to compare.