HAL's precruise experience was excellent. The airport meeting and transfer to the Westin Fort Lauderdale were quick and smooth. So was the transfer to the ship and embarkation. Leaving the ship was another matter. We were told we must report to the gangway between 7:45 and 8:00 AM. Once there, we waited an hour and fifteen minutes before we were allowed to leave. There were no announcements or explanations, so there were many frustrated people, some of them worried about their airline connections. Getting to shore excursions was also a disaster. On my other 12 cruises I received a sticker upon arriving at the lounge. It showed your tour and the bus number. You were then seated with others on the same bus. When your number was called, you exited the lounge and got on your bus in an orderly fashion. That procedure was abandoned on the Westerdam. You entered the lounge and sat with everyone else who was going on tour. The person in charge would then finally announce that they were giving out stickers for two tours at the same time. Everyone would mob the stage area, get a sticker with no bus number, then find an empty seat. When they called your tour, everyone would stampede the exits, clog the stairs and gangways, and mob the busses. Often the bus would fill, and then we would have to mob another one. This was the worst handling of excursions I have experienced in all my years of cruising. I am amazed they abandoned something which worked well, for something so unpleasant. Perhaps it was because the old system required more people. There were only two or three staff handling hundreds of excursion departures on the Westerdam.
On the positive side, the theater and the production shows were the best I have seen. The singers, dancers, band, sets and lighting were very professional and impressive. Jason, the Cruise Director, was funny, young, full of energy, and at most events offered on the ship. Cooking classes were offered almost every sea day, and were done either by the ship's cooks or by two excellent guest chefs who were talented and entertaining. The food in the dining room, buffet and specialty restaurant was excellent, as was the service. HAL recently switched to an optional "dine when you please" for half the ship's guests. We remained with the traditional late sitting, but heard good reviews from those who chose the flexible meal times.
The Westerdam is a beautiful ship, but looking somewhat scruffy in a few places. The chairs in the Crow's Nest were dirty and the fabric was worn through on many of them. The carpets were frayed from wear in the dining room and some other public areas. But other than the windows, the ship looked clean throughout.
Sadly, this was the second time in a row I have gotten sick on a HAL ship. Last time it was the dreaded Norfolk Virus that struck many of the passengers and crew on the Statendam. This time it wasn't as widespread or as unpleasant. But as I have never had any problems on my other 11 cruises, I am left with some doubts about the level of HAL's cleaning procedures, or its handling of food. I used the ship's sanitizers and my own hand wipes before meals and in between on the Statendam ad the Westerdam.
HAL attracts a large number of senior citizens. This cruise had the largest number of 80+ passengers I have experienced. The staff did a kind and excellent job of looking after them. And there were amusing comments about age at almost every one of the evening entertainment. The cruise had only 3 kids out of 1,800 passengers. Next time I will be looking for a broader age group to travel with. Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean seem to have a larger range.