EMBARKATION: We flew direct from Cincinnati to Fort Lauderdale and utilized HAL transfers from the airport to the cruise terminal. I was surprised to find out that we had to gather our own luggage (why then do we put LARGE MS Westerdam tags on our bags) and deliver it to HAL porters. Still, as a young thirty-something I had no troubles transporting the bags the short distance, unlike some of the more - shall we say - experienced cruisers. At this point the process bogged down. We followed our HAL representative to our appointed waiting area and waited...and waited...and waited some more. He/They - as more representatives arrived - apologized for the delay as, "there are a lot of ships in port today." OK, I understand that, but am I to believe this is the first time more than one ship was departing Port Everglades on a Sunday? After standing outside for ~30 minutes our bus showed up. We boarded and were within the confines of Port Everglades within ten minutes. At that point traffic came to a halt and we waited to get into the HAL terminal another ~30 minutes. Fortunately, once inside we whisked through (definitely pre-register on-line) and were in our cabin within 15 minutes.STATEROOM: Our stateroom was well appointed and had ample storage. We expected to be cramped - traveling with two little men aged 3 and 1 - but it was doable for a week. The balcony was larger than most ships we'd traveled on even though we were in a cheaper booking class. The bathroom was also larger than most with a full-size tub/shower that was excellent for bathing the boys. The room had an LG flat-screen TV and separate DVD player that was always playing our favorite Nickelodeon/Disney shows. Sleeping was not private by any means; the half-curtain separating the king-bed and fold-out couch needs to be expanded to cover the room's width, and be leery of the pull-out - murphy - bed. My 3-year-old thought it was great, but as it rested right over the king-size, bed my wife and I hit our head more than once in the middle of the night.
LIFE BOAT DRILL: I have to mention this, as this was our second point of contention on day one. We repeatedly reminded HAL we were traveling with small children and were assured that everything was taken care of. Upon arrival in our room we immediately noted there were no infant/toddler-size life jackets. We inquired at the front desk and were told that they would be provided during muster. Once at muster we were provided two new life jackets...both for persons 60lbs and up. Two days later we were provided an infant life vest, the weight/size-limit of which my 18-month-old exceeded by 12lbs and 8 inches. Thankfully they were not needed.
PORTS OF CALL: We hit Grand Turk, Tortola, St Maarten and Half Moon Cay on our cruise. The weather was beautiful at each destination which helped considerably. Grand Turk was - probably - what most of the Caribbean looked like 25 years ago (the island's obvious exception being Carnival Corporation's 'Margaritaville' complex). The island was very laid back and rather spartan, but in a good way. No building was taller than two stories and cows, donkeys, goats and chickens all shared the streets with tour buses and bicycles. We went scuba-diving on the island so we didn't get to see too much above water. The dive-crew - booked through the ship - was great, but due to the short time in port they couldn't get you to the best dive sights on the north end of the island. Tortola was as good as remembered. We booked our own tour of the island through one of the local cab drivers, and all 14 of us boarded his open-air bus for a 4-hour tour up and down the mountains. Our final destination was an outstanding beach at Cane Garden Bay. We rented a couple chairs/umbrellas and paddled around in the turquoise water for a few hours. There was a small straw-market with the typical trinkets and a couple beachside bars for your drinking pleasure. Here again our time in port was bizarre as we arrived at noon and did not depart until 9:00. Thus you were left to decide between tendering back to ship (the ride felt like we anchored in St Thomas) for dinner or dine on the economy. We opted for the ship, but that effectively ended our day on Tortola (a little sooner than we wanted). If Grand Turk was the way life used to be St Maarten (St Martin) is the here and now. Not an inch of the island is untouched by tourism whether on the French or Dutch side. And, seriously, how many jewelry stores does one island need?!? We booked the See & Sea (semi-submersible) excursion primarily for the boys. They enjoyed the boat/sub, but most of the time was spent in the bus and they didn't care for that. Marigot (French side) was nice, and MUCH CLEANER than other FWI destinations like Martinique. And while it catered to tourists it wasn't as over-the-top as Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. Half-Moon Cay was as nice as most postings would have you believe. As we were with a large group we purchased the private-cabana package and spread the costs accordingly. This afforded us our own hot-tub/bathroom/bar/lunch/chairs/snorkels/etc. The price is prohibitive for a couple or even small family, but for a group of family or friends I HIGHLY recommend this. Half-Moon Cay really was a pleasure for the kids and adults alike.DINING: Who care's about all that other stuff, how was the food??? Again, let me preface all comments by reiterating I traveled with a party of 14, four of which were children, two of them mine. Food on the Lido Deck (does every cruise line call it this?) was buffet style and adequate. It was broken up awkwardly with Chinese here, Italian there, Mexican outside, salads in the back, but once you got your bearings it worked out ok. Peak dining times were - as mentioned in other postings - borderline unbearable, especially during days at sea, but provided you could adjust your schedule by 15 minutes you'll survive. The dining room food was much better than expected given the somewhat negative comments read on this website. Lobster was only offered once, but I have yet to be on a cruise where that delicacy was standard fare. WARNING: Always read the menu as every dish was infused with some spice or garnish that you might not expect, i.e. Watermelon gazpacho with onions and (lots of) cilantro. As good as the food was the service was suspect. Dirty dishes were left on the table far too long and not once were we able to get a second cup of coffee with dessert. Our waiter would disappear for minutes on end, and on more than one occasion both the waiter and assistant (who was almost never present anyway) were gone. They did their best to work with/around the kids, but every night a full place setting was put out for all four kids (ages 3,3,1, 9 months). Never give a three-year-old a knife, butter or otherwise. We never took advantage of our vouchers for the Pinnacle Grill (part of our Reunion Package) so I won't attempt to discuss. In-room dining was prompt and always served hot. We only took part in breakfast, but it offered a chance to get everyone ready at a leisurely pace without having to do battle on the Lido Deck.
MISCELLANEOUS: The kids' early bed-time put a damper on most entertainment offered on the ship, but what we saw of the production shows, pianist and illusionist were actually quite good. Some years ago several cruise lines - including HAL - tried pre-recording their music to cut back on paying for musicians. Fortunately they now have live musicians and the HAL-Kats were very good wherever they played. The casino won't make you think you're in Vegas, but it was adequate. I was able to steal away for a couple hours and thoroughly enjoyed the Black Jack tables and Texas Hold 'Em poker room. I noticed that the Casino even had designated 'Non-Smoking' nights which helped me better plan my night out. There were three pools on ship: one pay-per-use; one adult-only; and the one for everyone. If you desired a chair near the pool you had to claim it early or prepare to fight for one later. The main pool was covered but the staff couldn't find a happy median between open and closed and intermittent sprinkles at sea complicated their work. Regardless, the main pool was very cold and the constant covering and uncovering never allowed the sun to heat it. The adult pool was exposed at all times, and the temperature was pleasant. While we never took the kids in it, others were not as discriminating, but no one seemed to call them on it. The hydrotherapy pool was ridiculously priced - $45 a day - and as such, never seemed to have anyone in it.
DEBARKATION: This was, by far, the smoothest exit we have ever made from a cruise ship. We enrolled in HAL's new 'Signature Baggage Service' which allows you to claim your airline boarding passes on ship, and check your luggage at the pier. It worked beautifully as we were off the ship, through customs, and on our transfer bus within fifteen minutes. Drop off at the airport was a little erratic as other folks had luggage on the bus that needed to be unloaded at every stop, but that is understandable / expected. The best part of the signature service was having our boarding passes, thus despite our early arrival at the airport (9:45 for a 1:10 departure) we were able to bypass the zoo at the ticket counters and stake out some seats at the gate. The airlines were very particular about NOT letting you check in early for a flight, thus families were - effectively - camping out in the front of the airport.
FINAL THOUGHTS: A lot has changed since my first cruise. The ships are getting bigger and the crowds getting more diverse. While this is good on many levels this cruise showed just how bland cruising has become. Most of the ports look the same, no one dresses up for dinner anymore (even on formal nights), and everyone over the age of 65 has a mean-gene that kicks in when confronted with crowds. Furthermore, though my HAL ticket jacket says "The Signature Line" there really was nothing significant about it. We could have easily been on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean or Princess and not known the difference. Still though, this cruise was adequate with no glaring deficiencies but also no absolute perfections. As Lincoln once said you can't please all the people all the time so HAL - like every other line - decided to settle on pleasing most of the people most of the time.