This was our fifth cruise but our first cruise w/HAL-others were on Carnival (Fantasy,Inspiration,Jubilee,Triumph). We have also traveled to Bermuda many times and so I am bias because I have become accustom to a clean island, friendly people, a place where you feel safe/comfortable and little signs of poverty (to the tourists).
We had a group of 6 traveling - 1 girl age 13 1/2 yrs., 1 boy age 10, 1 couple (us) in mid-30s and 1 couple (my parents) in early-mid 60s. We arrived in Norfolk about noon and were on the M.S. Maasdam by 12:45 p.m. enjoying lunch on the Lido. Embarkation was a breeze and our luggage was at our room lickity-split. The ship was kept VERY clean the entire voyage and the staff was VERY friendly/helpful the entire voyage. The food was EXCELLENT no matter where we ate (lido, grill, dining room, room service). The ship holds 1,266 passengers and we heard that we were 300 persons over that amount due to the number of children on the ship because it was Spring Break. Still w/the extra people the staff was very pleasant and helpful and the only drawback was if you got to breakfast on the Lido between 9 and 10 a.m. the line was a little long but seemed to move at an even pace even so.
We had heard that the red meat in dining room was inconsistent so we had made reservations for mid-cruise in the Pinnacle Grill but we found the food, including the red meat dishes, in the dining room to be quite good and our waiter (Gede), busboy (Tri) and head waiter (Usman) were so enjoyable that we cancelled the Pinnacle. Our wine steward (Al) was very knowledgeable and pleasant. Even my daughter made mention that all the staff were so friendly and seemed to really enjoy their jobs. The atmosphere and moral of the staff sets the stage for a wonderful cruise experience. Our table was number 101 (Main seating)which was in a corner but right beside Usman who we enjoyed watching as he made the flambe every night. My son enjoyed the nightly Club HAL activity from 7:45-9:45 p.m. but because we had Main seating, he didn't get to eat w/us in the dining room.
Once we got out of the Bay on Saturday night (4/3) the boat got a little rocky (12-20 ft seas). My children stayed in the room Sat. night and all day Sunday as did my husband on Sunday so they missed the first formal night. Monday (4/5) smoothed out and the rest of the voyage was very pleasant w/little or no motion on the ship. I will touch on what we did in the ports of call and then on the ship itself.
Half Moon Cay was beautiful but I felt tendering to the island wasted a lot of time. The first tender didn't leave until 12:51 p.m. and we were on tender number 32 so it was almost 3 o'clock when we arrived on the island. The beach was very crowded because the Oosterdam was also there but we quickly found an open spot for our beach towels and my parents located 2 lounge chairs. You can get a cabana for $179/2 person, $25 each add'l person but considering the short time you are there, I am not sure it is worth the money.
Immigration before disembarking in St. Thomas was a breeze. We booked the historical tour shore excursion in St. Thomas which was very pleasant and informative. Our tour guide, Sue, was very knowledgeable and it was money well spent. After the tour we ate lunch at the Waterfront Restaurant which was economical & delicious and the staff was friendly. Unless there is more to St. Thomas than what I saw, I would not choose to go back there as I found it to be on the same scale as the Bahamas. There was a lot of garbage sitting around in the downtown area, it was not a clean place and there seemed to be a lot of homeless people or what looked like homeless people milling around downtown. I didn't feel comfortable at all. After the tour, lunch and a few stops for trinkets/treasures, I was anxious to get back on the ship. You could easily get an island tour on your own once you got off the ship if you wanted.
Our next stop was St. John's, Antigua. This was a lovely and clean island. Very friendly people. The dock area w/the shops was nice and the selection of souvenirs was good (barter on the prices). We did another historical shore excursion tour which took us over much of the island. Again, it was worth the money. Lovely foliage/flowers here. Lots of cows and goats. Again, you could easily get an island tour on your own once you got off the ship if you wanted.
Next port of call was St. Maarten/St. Martin. We were there on Good Friday so most things were closed. We took a taxi to the Butterfly Farm at Orient Bay. A word of advice when in the Caribbean where it is VERY hot - Make sure the taxi's a/c works WELL! We made the mistake of getting in a 15 passenger van and sat in the very back seat. It was about a 20 minute ride to Orient Bay and my children and I nearly suffocated! The taxi prices are set and we found them to be reasonable ($5-$6/pp depending on your group size). The Butterfly Farm was well worth the trip. The shore excursion for it through HAL was $49 a person. The taxi ride for 6 people was $30 total one-way and the entry charge is $10 pp so it is much cheaper to do this excursion on your own as long as you get in a taxi w/good a/c. If you have the stamina, you could walk the 1/2 mile to Orient Bay Beach after visiting the Butterfly Farm. We paid someone $20 to give us a ride over there and since it was about 95 degrees that day, it too was money well spent. The staff at the Butterfly Farm was very friendly. They took extra time w/our son who was took a great interest in the coconuts that were on the trees (they broke them open and let him taste the juice and the flesh).
Orient Bay Beach is nice. Love the soft Caribbean sand and the crystal clear waters which we found on every island on our voyage. We paid $5 each adult for a beach chair, umbrella and a drink near the TexMex. At the MonTiki, the cost was $7 each-but they had their own bathroom. Otherwise, you have to use the public bathroom which is going to cost you $.50 to use each time. For the first 10-15 minutes it is funny to watch everyone (clothing optional) but afterwards you get used to it and even my 10 year old son didn't pay any attention after awhile. My mother and daughter went parasailing and had a great time. Getting a taxi back to the ship was easy and the cost was $30 for all six of us (and the a/c worked!).
San Juan, Puerto Rico, was next on the voyage. Immigration was a breeze again. What a pleasant surprise - it was a very clean place and the people were very friendly. Since we docked at 8 am (it was 9 before we were cleared to go ashore) and we had to reembark by 12:30 p.m. we didn't plan any shore excursions and were just going to walk around in the downtown area. Some tour companies were trying to fill up there buses though and so they offered us a 2 1/2 to 3 hour tour for $15 each. We made sure the a/c worked well in the van and all 6 of us and another couple were off w/Rafael, our tour guide. We went to the forts and toured New and Old San Juan. Rafael stopped where ever we asked him and let us stay for how ever long we wanted. He was very knowledgeable and friendly. We got back to the dock around 11:45 am and went in a few of the shops near the dock before boarding the ship.
All in all, I would like to go back to Antigua, St. Maarten/St. Martin and San Juan but I wasn't impressed w/St. Thomas (maybe we missed seeing the nice side of the island?)
Now for the ship. It is a nice ship. Not one that when you board you are going to say WOW but it is clean and well taken care of. If you are used to the entertainment on Carnival you are going to be a little disappointed. The shows are good on HAL but are missing something. It was great that the shows were family friendly though since some on Carnival are not. Shows included Bruce Block (w/Skippy the rabbit who, to me, was the highlight of the show-I think Skippy was the Easter Bunny on our cruise??), Pamela Blake (singer), Scott Wood (comedian) and the Maasdam cast (the lead singers were great). Caribbean Fire (Steel Drum Band) was excellent and I enjoyed the piano/violin music during dinner in the dining room. Eric the cruise director was very good and the captain was always right on top of things w/letting us know "where we are and where we are going". HAL had a lot of nice Easter activities planned throughout Easter day as well. My mother and I did a scalp/neck massage early in the cruise and also a facial in the Ocean Spa towards the end of our voyage that were both great.
My son enjoyed Club Hal but I think they had there hands full w/all the kids on board. All of the children behaved most of the voyage but by Sunday night (4/11) they were obviously getting restless or mom and dad must have locked them out of the cabin because there were many that were running amuck on the ship - filthy language, rude to adults, taking food off the buffets w/their bare hands, destroying the lovely, large chocolate Easter eggs and leaving them on the floors in the hallways. We even heard that several youth had cut some of the cushions off the deck chairs and thrown them overboard. The staff did a great job making sure the ship stayed clean though but I wondered where these children's parents were ???
My teen daughter didn't do any of the Club HAL teen activities although I talked to many teens who hadn't done them as well but had met new friends and enjoyed just hanging out (w/o running amuck I might add). HAL did have lots of teen activities planned though. By the last night of the voyage, some of the adults, too, were getting cranky/restless. I was going to the photo shop to pick up reprints and a fist fight had nearly erupted over some people assuming that another passenger was trying to cut in line - I went to take care of business at the front desk instead. When I returned 10-15 minutes later, it seemed that they were still looking for blood because the cranky ones then jumped on my case because the photo shop employee asked to help me and handed me my reprints. Somehow, this was my fault ?? Perhaps these people had received their ship account bill for the cruise and were cranky about the shock from the bill? Perhaps they were the ones letting their children run about chaotically on the ship while they themselves harassed other passengers? No doubt, they needed a good nap, some help arranging their priorities in life (come on - starting a fist fight over line butting??? please!!!) and hopefully they have an appointment first thing back w/their therapist (or need to find a good one anyway).
Our cabin steward, Sumardi, was also very friendly and kept our room tidy. I felt sorry for him the first few days of our voyage since it was wall-to-wall suitcases in our cabin until I got things organized and put away. He did a fabulous job even when we brought in lots of sand from our shoes and beach toys. All the staff worked very hard and even though the tipping is optional until May when they automatically add it on your ship account), if you don't tip these people and tip them well (because they deserve it) then you are just a cheapskate.
We took in several movies on the ship (Chasing Liberty, Mona Lisa Smile and Love Actually). Nice theatre (love that the bathroom is near by too) and the Java Cafe is near by to get a drink/coffee and delicious popcorn before the movie. Also several good movies playing on the cabin TV during the day as well (not as new as the ones in the theatre though). Drinks specials each day were good. Lemonade or Tea served on the Lido in the afternoon was pleasant. My husband used the gym some and he found it to be nice as well. My dad was in the casino a lot and he had a good time but said the slot machines were "tight" (whatever that means). He won the snowball jackpot bingo (which my daughter made him play) on the last day of the cruise so that was a nice way to end a wonderful vacation too! Debarkation went quickly, our suitcases looked like they had been dragged through the mud (it was raining though) but we located them quickly after disembarking (about 10 am), boarded the bus back to the parking lot and pulled in our driveway at 11:45 a.m.
All in all concerning the ship/staff/activities/entertainment, etc. it was the most pleasurable and relaxing cruise I have ever been on - one of the first where I don't feel like I need a vacation to recuperate from my vacation. carnivals' ships are spectacular but I find their service to be only moderate, food moderate. I guess I am getting older now and the beer drinking contests by the lido pool just don't have their appeal anymore. We almost didn't go on HAL because a friend told me it was for "old" people and we and our children would be bored. Let me tell you, no one in our group was bored! We would definitely cruise HAL again w/our children and recommend it to anyone of any age. We were also hesitant about doing a 10 day cruise because usually after 10 days of vacation, everyone is ready to kill each other and you are ready to go back home. But HAL is so wonderful that even after 10 days you don't want to leave and wish the cruise was longer. I was sad that we had to leave when we were sitting on the Lido while waiting to disembark. GREAT CRUISE, GREAT VACATION, CAN'T WAIT TO CRUISE W/HAL AGAIN SOON!