Fighting to Get to Ft. Lauderdale
It all started the day before the cruise. We arrived at the airport around 6 am, but our Midwest Airlines flight was cancelled due to a mechanical problem. We waited around until we took off on a flight after 3 pm. After about 15 minutes, we turned around because the Milwaukee airport closed down due to weather. The gate agent said he could get us out the next day after 3:00. Uh, that's not going to work. Luckily, about six others needed to catch cruises. There is strength in numbers. We knew if we did not get out of Michigan, we would be stuck after the snowstorm came through.
We re-boarded and flew out after 6 pm. In Milwaukee, we hurried down to the Ft. Lauderdale gate, they opened it up for us and we sat on the plane for half an hour before all outbound flights were cancelled. We got a room at the Best Western for a distressed passenger rate. The next morning, we waited on the plane 45 minutes while they fixed another mechanical problem. We thought we were doomed to miss the ship.
Finally making it to Ft. Lauderdale, we took a taxi and arrived at the pier after 1:00. A HAL agent gave me a clip-on tag with an 'S' for suite to wear. This allowed agents to direct us to the suite check in. The process was very quick, but my ship card would not work. We waited while they printed another and the agent told me to exchange it in the Neptune lounge (the thing he did not tell me was that I would not be able to open the door myself because the card was blue and not golden). If it were not a sure way to be labeled the crazy person of the cruise, I could have kissed the ship's teak deck when we crossed the gangway.
The Suite Life
We had deluxe verandah suite 6177 on the aft starboard corner of the ship. The cabin has a different arrangement in the entrance than other deluxe suites. The area between the bed and sofa was also more cramped. The sofa bed was only a twin; other suites' sofa beds can fit two people. There were fewer shelves and drawers as well. The awesome verandah made up for these differences!
The verandah was huge! It even had a hatch that contained some sort of electrical stuff and painting supplies (maybe they should lock that thing). There were two lounge chairs, two chairs with footstools, and a table with four chairs. I so enjoyed this verandah! We had views from the side of the ship and the ship's wake. The wake side was partially covered and the starboard side was completely covered. If it was too noisy, sunny, or windy on one side, all you had to do was turn the corner to get a whole different environment. We caught some nice sunsets and at night, we could stargaze from the lounge chairs. The only bad thing was that water kept appearing on the verandah. Seems that it eventually appeared several hours after whenever it rained. Not sure where it came from or why it was delayed so long after rain. One night, there was about a half inch of water over the entire verandah!
Our fantastic cabin steward was GaGah. He always seemed cheerful and promptly took care of any requests we had. We asked him for some more hangers and he brought them about 30 seconds later.
Complementary laundry service was great!
The Neptune Lounge ladies were wonderful. So sweet and friendly! You can ask them anything.
We went to the suite welcome reception in the Neptune lounge and met Captain Peter Harris and Hotel Manager Ron Bontenbal. We also saw some familiar faces: Dining Room Manager Henricus Harimurti, Beverage Manager Hans Becker, and Cruise Director Shane Einspahr.
The Westerdam was in dry dock not too long ago. Some things are different from when we were on the ship last year. More shops were added and the Explorations Cafe was moved to the Crow's Nest.
The ship was decorated nicely. Garland was in the atrium and dining room. Christmas trees were scattered here and there. Outside the ship, on the top decks, you could see lighted decorations. The last night we were onboard, they broke out even more decorations inside.
For dinner, we had 8:00 seating at table 50. Our awesome dining stewards were Ari and Budi. We ate with a native Russian couple, a solo traveler, and a couple from New Hampshire.
The menus were delivered to our cabin daily. I enjoyed picking out what I wanted ahead of time. A couple of instances at dinner, when I was ordering, I would forget what it was I wanted, but Ari would say it! I don't know if he learned my tastes over the week or he read my mind!
Some of my favorite menu items were the beef wellington (so tender), parmesan crusted chicken, and the turkey. I don't usually care for fish, but decided to try the glazed salmon. It was so good! The flavors were amazing, not fishy tasting at all.
The Swiss-style muesli, however, did not seem sweet enough to me. Also, many nights, the vegetables with entrees would be the same pile of carrots, turnips, cauliflower, etc. I would rather have one vegetable on my plate at a time instead of the same mixture so many nights.
Our head waiter was Ede. He was friendly, so I asked him about my favorite dessert, the warm chocolate truffle. He said it wasn't on the menu, but he had some connections in the kitchen and we had it for dessert the next night! We felt special. On the last night of the cruise, the warm chocolate pudding is on the menu. It actually tastes like the warm chocolate truffle, just more liquid! Order one for me!
My mom does not especially care for baked Alaska, so Ede brought leftover chocolate avalanche cake for her and an extra for me because he knew I am chocolate obsessed.
I never went through the main line in the Lido, just the other stations. The stir-fry was good and hot. Pasta was also good. Ask the ice cream man for bread pudding. I liked the waffle station at breakfast. They have a nice mixed berry topping. If you wanted the strawberry topping, the chef gave you about 3 strawberries. You could even get warm chocolate sauce on your waffle.
There were some yummy desserts at tea time! I enjoyed the Dutch high tea. Indonesian tea time was very busy. I think they were overwhelmed and therefore service was not the greatest.
The dessert extravaganza was okay. We went after the late show, so much of the selections were picked over. Nothing was left to dip in the chocolate fountain. There were many chocolate cakes, so I asked a chef which one was the best, and the slice he gave me was very good. Then he recommended some cheesecake and that was also good.
Entertainment and Activities
Team trivia with the Cruise Director was great fun and very popular (go early to get a seat). Our appropriate team name was "Marooned in Milwaukee". Everyone got a "dam dollar" just for coming and there were prizes for each day's winner as well a progressive competition of scores. Overall, we placed second.
We went to some of the sports activities and collected "dam dollars" there as well. We redeemed them for beach towels.
The first production show, "Grand Tour" was good. The illusionist Leo Ward was funny and had some great illusions that got people talking about them for days. I never thought I would see a motorcycle go thorough the show lounge! At the farewell variety show, Leo Ward was back along with pianist Howard Hill (I found him to be cheesy, especially when he called out to Barbara Streisand). Other shows we did not go to were the comedian Philadelphia, pianist Howard Hill's first show, and the production show "Stage and Screen".
Cruise Critic Events
I arranged a Cruise Critic Meet and Greet prior to the cruise through a HAL event coordinator. It was held the second day of the cruise (a sea day) at 11:00. They reserved a section of the Crow's Nest for us and set up coffee, tea, water, cookies, desserts, and other drinks. The Beverage Manager, Cruise Director, and Hotel Manager joined us. We had a good turnout of about 40 people. It was a fun way to meet so many of the people we talked with on the roll call board!
Hans Becker "twisted some arms" and organized a private galley tour for CC members. We met in the Pinnacle Bar and Executive Chef Andreas Noemayr led us around both levels of the main galley. It was nice to get an in-depth tour from the chef himself!
I was interested in hosting a party for CC members on our verandah, since it was so big. The Beverage Manger made it seem like anything could be done, so we discussed a chocolate theme and even a chocolate fountain. The first formal night, the ship's party planner sat at our table for dinner. What a coincidence. She helped us plan a time and date for the party, otherwise, all we saw were dollar signs. I wanted to do it for free. I told this to the Neptune Lounge concierge and she took care of everything, even printed an invitation for me to see. She was wonderful! We chose 5:00-6:00 on the sailaway from St. Thomas. We found out this was the same night as the dessert extravaganza, so the chocolate theme was scratched.
On the day of the party, an army of six workers brought tables, tablecloths, and way more folding chairs than we needed. When we asked for folding chairs, we expected maybe five, but they brought about 20. Our verandah was full of the mysterious water again (it rained that morning), so they brought a giant vacuum and said "We will suck it dry!"
We had hot and cold appetizers, cookies, and leftover desserts from the Neptune Lounge. They also brought iced tea and different kinds of juice. We only paid for champagne and soda. I was so impressed with what they gave us! It was awesome. About 30 people showed up. Any more people stuffed onto that verandah and it may have been the end of the "aft lift". The only bad thing was that the mysterious water reappeared towards the end of the party. Staff came about an hour later and quickly cleaned up the verandah.
The next morning, a Cruise Critic member told me he and some others did not receive their party invitations until that morning. Uh oh. A woman from the front office called me about the late invitations. I'm not sure how she knew. She said the Cruise Critic people who organized the party delivered the invitations. I told her that I organized the party and did not deliver the invitations. She said she would call me back. A man called me later to ask more questions (I don't even know who he was). No one else called after that. The investigation must be continuing. Most likely, a few cabins stewards didn't put invitations in boxes in time.
CC members were also invited to a VIP reception in the Crow's Nest after our sailaway party. I don't know how so many people knew about our party. Everyone from the Executive Chef to the Cruise Director was joking around that they had not been invited. The Captain especially seemed to enjoy rubbing it in that the Cruise Director was not invited.
In Grand Turk, we walked off the ship and walked along the right side of the beach instead of the left where all the people are. There were conch shells everywhere! The sand was grainy in some spots, but soft and squishy in others. I cut through some shrubs and my sandals were full of burs. The area was really pretty and the water was so clear.
In Tortola, we arrived late because we had to wait for another ship to leave. We took the Virgin Gorda and the Baths excursion. Busses took us to a ferry and then safari busses brought us to the Baths. There is a long trail down to the beach. You must step on all kinds of rocks on the way down and the sand made them slippery. It wasn't an easy trail. Once we made it down, I thought this spot was beautiful! Giant boulders are everywhere! There is also a cave with a narrow opening to go through. Inside, there is water and that spot I always see in HAL brochures! Since it was so late in the day, I got some interesting lighting for photos. We wanted to watch the sunset, but thought it was more important to climb back up to the top while it was still light out. Climbing the trail back up seemed easier than coming down. I would like to go back to the Baths when I had more time and daylight, then I could do some more exploring.
In St. Thomas, we docked at Crown Bay and took a safari bus into town to shop ($4 per person). Crown Bay had some tame iguanas on the rocks by the ship.
In Half Moon Cay, the Amsterdam was with us. The farther down the beach you walked, the less people. That island is beautiful. We rented the purple cabana. We had chips and dip and fruit. They also stocked the fridge with soda and bottled water we requested. The cabana had an air conditioner and two fans. We didn't need them. The wind was strong and the water was cold, so we didn't swim for very long. There was also a shower and a mister. Float mats and snorkel equipment were included with the cabana. We lost each other at the Barbeque. All those pavilions look the same. They should put numbers on each side instead of just one and paint the roofs different colors.
Some More Random Memories
The last night was the roughest. I wondered if I would roll out of my sofa bed.
When I got off in Grand Turk and they scanned my ships card, little photos of me appeared all across the screen, as if I had gone on, off, on, off... who knows how many times. This was probably because my card didn't work during embarkation and I had a new one. It was kind of funny.
The couple from New Hampshire who joined our table the last few nights actually missed the ship in Ft. Lauderdale. They boarded in Grand Turk. That easily could have been us.
The dining room just got some new steak knives in. Those things look vicious. Sit next to a tablemate you trust.
We went to the Mariner's Reception in the Vista Lounge and then to the Suite Lunch in the Pinnacle Grill. There was a buffet with a long line, so we waited at a table. Captain Peter Harris came to talk with us and we invited him to join us, but he said he needed to make his 1:00 announcement from the bridge. By the time we got our food, he was back and asked if we still had an extra seat. Finally, finally, I can say I ate with the captain! We asked him some of our burning questions and I asked about the mystery of why one deck is not lined up after the "aft lift" the Westerdam had in dry dock. He said it could not structurally support the weight of the blocks of new cabins if it was extended and it would have taken more time and money and cancelled cruises to line it up.
I had some trouble with the elevator. I think it was the same one in the forward section each time. I pressed the floor I wanted, it picked up someone on the way, dropped them off, canceled my floor, went back to where I started, picked up someone else, skipped my floor, etc. Watch to make sure the button of the deck you want stays on or you will be riding for awhile.
They asked us to wait before entering the gangway because a large group from Turkey was backing up the customs process. We were off after 9:00. Once in the terminal, we were allowed to go immediately to an agent in the U.S. citizens' line. The HAL workers in the terminal seemed so pleasant. Many wished us Happy Holidays. For some reason, I was in a very good mood. Usually, I am practically crying when I leave a ship, especially a HAL ship.
Trying to Come Back Home
In Ft. Lauderdale, a ticket counter agent realized she somehow had one leftover bag tag for our checked luggage. She ran down the conveyer belt to find the bags, but all had tags on them. So we thought she just printed an extra. While waiting for our first delayed flight, we discovered a bag claim check listed another passenger's name. We remembered who checked in ahead of us and asked her name. It matched and luckily, she lived in Milwaukee and not some other far off place. The gate agents said they would try to catch the bag in Milwaukee.
After taking off, the pilot announced that our landing gear had a problem and we would notice him testing it to see if it worked. It did. And what exactly would we have done if it didn't work?
The little girl behind me seemed so innocent when she said things like, "What cloud is Jesus on?" and "Where is Santa's sleigh?" but she kicked my seat through much of the flight. We finally got to taste the fresh chocolate chip cookies. Then, we had to circle while the runways were cleared of snow. It was a very windy and kind of scary landing. The little girl said, "Don't try this at home."
When we made it to Milwaukee, our next flight was too heavy. They desperately asked for volunteers to be bumped. We figured the flight would not take off anyway due to weather, so we volunteered. We got free tickets to use later and a low rate at a hotel. When we claimed our bags, we found that two of our bags were tagged with the other passenger's information, but Dad's bag was missing. The passengers on the flight we were supposed to be on waited on the plane about two hours while we were settled in our hotel.
The airport was a zoo the next morning and the flight didn't leave on time. When we made it home, our airport's power was out and passengers were huddled under blankets for warmth. The Red Cross was handing out hot chocolate and snacks. Dad's bag was nowhere to be found. He got it back a few days later.
It was a good cruise! We had an awesome cabin and the staff was great! They took excellent care of Cruise Critics and I had a lot of fun at our events. The cruise was unfortunately overshadowed by air travel circumstances, but it was definitely worth the fight to get onboard! We will wait to fly Midwest again until the summer and have no desire to return to the forsaken land of frozen tundra called Milwaukee for some time.