We arrived in San Diego the day before and we excited to wake up and see that "our" boat was in port and ready to take off with our family on board. We traveled with another family and between us had two 16 year old boys and two 14 year old girls. I will try to answer all of the questions that I wanted answered before our cruise.
Embarkation: I found it to be extremely easy. We stayed at the Days Inn Harborview and took a shuttle to the ship, dropped off our bags and headed out to walk the waterfront, take pictures, and check out Seaport Village. We went to board the ship about 1pm. You had to each fill out a health form and if you had your own pen, you could do it while you stood in line. Total time was less than 15 minutes. Just have your paperwork ready and BE ORGANIZED! It will save you time!
Public Rooms: We rode the elevator up to deck 9 and a full buffet was ready for us. We spent most of our time on the aft deck and joined our friends for picture taking and fun. We boarded the ship around 1pm and our room was ready around 1:30.
Cabins: We had previously traveled on Princess cruises and hands down HAL has it beat 10 fold! We actually could completely unpack a family of four and store our suitcases under our bed and not feel cluttered! Because we had a quad room, we lost a bathtub and only had a shower, but that was more than fine with us. Our cabin was on the main deck (floor 1)and had an ocean view. Our cabin steward was Matt and he did a great job the entire week. The only problem we had was that there were only a handful of hairdryers on the entire ship due to a problem with shipping replacements. That made getting ready for formal nights a challenge, but we just went out on deck and let our hair blow in the wind. You can make the best of anything if you just try :)
Recreation: The kids really enjoyed the ping pong tables, but unfortunately over the week, others broke the balls and paddles. Next time we will bring our own and keep them to ourselves. Lesson learned! We enjoyed the various activities and participated in Team Trivia every day for fun and realized we all needed to go back to school. The teens did better than we did! The pool was great and the roof could be closed if it got windy or cold.
Dining: We had late seating (8pm) on the second floor. Our server was Wayan and he was from Bali. It was fun to have the same server. We did free-style dining on our previous cruise and did not have the same server each time. We enjoyed trying new things at dinner. Some were hits, some were not. The buffet was pretty much the same everyday and by day 5 we were getting a little tired of it. Princess Cruises change up their buffet and offer different choices each day. The best thing on this ship is the free ice cream (we had to pay for it on Princess!). You can buy pop cards for $20.00 for 20 drinks. Princess offered an insulated cup for $25.00 unlimited. Not a real big deal, there was plenty of juice, water and ice tea for drinks.
Entertainment: It may be that we were on the younger side of this entire cruise population, but the entertainment was not even comparable to Princess. We had a comic that, in my opinion, was terrible and a singer that was okay. The one saving grace was, Edge, the juggler and entertainer. He was fantastic! We also missed out on The Piano Bar player, we never made it there. He played one song at the end of the cruise and he was fabulous. They should headline him and lose the comic. Very talented! The Cruise Event Staff was great. Parker, Eric, Barrick, and Matt kept things moving. We really enjoyed the pool party night. My son and his friend won the belly flop contest towards the end of the cruise! Even if it seems cheesy, join in for the pool games, trivia, bingo etc! It makes it fun! They held and "American Idol" type contest and it was hilarious!
Ports of Call: Cabo San Lucas was very overwhelming when you left the tender area. You get accosted by very aggressive people trying to take you places by water taxi and other excursions. We wanted to go to Lover's Beach and after negotiating a price of $6.00 per head (Cash/RT) for our group of eight, we finally boarded a oversized row boat. They tried to change the price "due to a misunderstanding" (are you kidding me?) and wanted us to get off the boat. My limited Spanish was tested when I asked the boat driver if $6.00 per head was fair? He said yes, got off the boat and told them we were leaving. He was great and came back and hour later to pick us up. Remember...bring enough cash to tip EVERYBODY. We tipped, Lupe, our driver both going and coming and even had to tip the guy that "helped" us back into the boat. If they help you with anything, the expect to be tipped. $5.00 usually appeased them. We then went to Medona beach and were constantly approached by venders. We rented jet skis and had some fun, but ended up walking back to the tenders (from Medona it is a good 25-35 minute walk) and ate a late lunch on the ship.
Mazatlan: We hired a driver right outside the boat for $25.00 per head to give us a tour of the city. It was worth every dime and we ended up having a great day in Mazatlan! Our driver was at our disposal and he let us set the itinerary, but was a great source of information and fun! One note: If you are with a driver, you are not harassed by vendors because of this. Mazatlan was beautiful in areas and run down in others. The Golden Beach area is the more tourist area and bigger resorts are there. We ate in town without any problems, just ask for bottled water. Remember...everything is extra and be prepared for an expensive lunch.
Puerto Vallarta (or Porto Wal-mart-o) was beautiful. We were docked across the street from Sam's club and Wal-mart. A great thing if you run out of stuff, such as sunscreen like we did. You can run over and get whatever you need. We walked to the Krystal Resort and paid $10.00 per family to use their pool and lounge chairs. Be careful, you can end up paying up to $40.00 per head if you talk to the wrong person. Just keep asking and the price will drop. Be kind and order something to drink and give them some business while you are there. The people could not have been nicer there! One thing we learned is to talk to the ship crew. They are a great source of information for where to go and what to expect to pay. Remember...they are there every week!! :)
Overall, we had a great time. The final two days were at sea and there was not a lot of activities to keep you busy. If there were, they were sometimes scheduled at the same time, so it was impossible to make them and then there were stretches of nothing. The food was better on Princess and we missed the "Movies under the Stars" that Princess had. HAL had better service and a better Cruise Event Staff. We were privileged to know one of the Officers on the bridge and were able to have a bridge tour. I would definitely recommend this cruise on Holland America. The staff was fabulous and don't forget to look out for Hunke Dorie in the Buffet and Mr. K in the dining room!