My wife and I have returned home safe and sound from our first HAL cruise - a 7-day roundtrip (from Seattle) Alaska run aboard the ms Westerdam that called at Glacier Bay, Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Victoria, B.C.
Although our first HAL cruise, we are veteran cruises and are, I suppose, most loyal to Princess. We were very excited to be part of the HAL experience and were eager to add it as our top cruise line. I will break this down in bolded headlines in hopes of making it easier on the eyes.
A bit about us: I'm 26, my wife is 27. We do not party, hardly ever attend shows and like quiet and relaxing cruises save for the ports where we spend the most of our time ashore. I will not be reviewing Alaskan ports here, only the cruise experience itself. I will say we had great weather - no rain, flat seas and two brilliantly sunny days in Glacier Bay and Ketchikan.
If you want a laugh but don't care to read the entire review, skip down to the AS YOU WISH DINING review and you all will scratch your heads about HAL's treatment of this new program.
In consensus, we had a wonderful time, but based on this experience I wouldn't call HAL our top cruise line and would have a difficult time believing someone who calls HAL a premium line above Princess, Carnival, RCCL, etc. We will sail HAL again (and probably very soon), as we believe the minor issues experienced are Westerdam-only problems. You can tell one thing about HAL, though, that other lines simply don't show: HAL is loyal to its customers, always asking for input. HAL also goes above and beyond in recognizing crew, which is a great, classy touch.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I'll do my best to assist!
THE SHIP First off, the Westerdam is one beautiful ship. Not only is she easy on the eyes, she's easy to navigate! Seldom on a cruise ship can you walk forward to aft on every deck and not encounter a blockade of some kind - but on the Westerdam this was not a problem. The size is ideal, and we found it much more enjoyable that the larger ships afloat (Caribbean Princess, etc). The only time we felt crowded was at lunch in the lido, when no tables were available anywhere except near the aft pool. This is a problem experienced on every cruise ever taken, so you have to roll with the punches.
The lido setup is brilliant and all lines should replicate the same pattern - easy, efficient and attractive.
OUR STATEROOM Our stateroom, 4115 (HH obstructed view) was ample for the two of us, we loved the bath in the restroom. Coming from a few consecutive Princess cruises, we felt the room did not have the storage of a Princess cabin and found we bumped into each other more (most likely because of the closet differences between the two). To be fair, we have not sailed on anything under a veranda on Princess, so perhaps the HAL verandas have a bit more room to navigate within. The beds were the best we have experienced on sea. The loveseat was great - something that Princess decided to eliminate in place of a "walk-in" closet system. Both have advantages, both have disadvantages.
FOOD This topic has been covered ad nauseam - the food was great and the serving sizes were ample. To this day I believe Carnival has had the best food we've had at sea, but we won't sail Carnival again so it's not worth hardly pointing out. I feel most lines have the same quality food (save for NCL) and there is no difference here. I wish HAL had more fruit available in the lido throughout the day, but being in Alaska might have an impact on this.
Choices throughout lunch in the lido and dinner in the main dining room were ample and far-reaching, no one can reasonably complain about a lack of options while eating on the Westerdam.
AS YOU WISH DINING One of the primary reasons we had neglected to book a HAL cruise was the dining situation - we simply hate being told exactly when to dine in the main dining room and don't feel the lido buffet can ever fully replace dinner. So, with this, we happily signed up for As You Wish dining when we booked our cruise in January. On the cruise documents received, they said AS YOU WISH dining. However, when we received our cruise cards we were giving a specific table for the 8 p.m. dining time.
We immediately sought the maitre d to have it changed. He informed us that 1,400 of the 2,098 individuals on board had requested As You Wish dining and HAL decided to randomly place people in traditional dining slots. We were scratching our heads, and asked to be placed back to our preference. He tried to talk us out of it - saying lines would be long, we would likely have rushed meals, etc. - but we knew the pros/cons and insisted to be placed back to As You Wish, which we were.
Not one time did we have to wait for a table (and only one time out of three when requesting a table for 2 were we told it'd be a 10 minute wait) and only saw large groups having to wait. We ate at all times - from 5 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.
The meals - which we were warned would be rushed - were the opposite. I'm sorry, but 2 and 1/2 hours for a meal is too long and we experienced this three times, one when we were at a table for 2! I believe the issue lies within the sheer number of waitstaff not being able to handle the amount of workloads they are now given. The kitchen could get backed up, but this is something we obviously can't see so I won't speculate.
SERVICE HAL calls itself a premium cruise line because of service, but seldom did we notice a difference between HAL and Princess (worst service, to us, is RCCL with Carnival coming in very closely to HAL and Princess). The crew was friendly - but we've never had a problem with unfriendly crew.
We don't drink, so we don't have the opportunity to get to know bar staff which can admittedly make a huge difference. But, overall, we did not see a noticeable difference here.
We had no problems (save for our room steward which I will make a separate section) and were treated very well, we simply just didn't see the hoopla we had been reading about. :shrug: Ships can vary, so we very well might have been on an "off" week (more on this, too, in the MISCELLANEOUS section).
CABIN STEWARD (please read, feedback wanted) When cruising, speaking to the cabin steward is usually the highlight of our trip. Getting to know them, a bit about their family, etc. is enlightening and wonderful. Our steward for this trip immediately set a bad tone and never saved face. Sunday, after boarding, he came and introduced himself and asked our names and where our parents were (this was curious, but we let it slide). A bit later, I asked how his day was going and he responded, "Very bad - too much work." WOW. I was taken aback but chalked it up to a bad day and not feeling well, everyone is entitled.
Unfortunately, this never ceased. Only one day did he respond to that question other than "bad" or "too long" or the like. As a paying customer, this frankly bothered me a great deal and we let it be known on our comment cards. We will likely write HAL on this matter shortly - but we will of course praise the overall trip.
The one thing that set this over the top was on Thursday, when we were leaving the ship for Sitka, he asked if we were going to go ashore and spend lots of money. We responded no, we aren't big spenders and are after sights more than trinkets. He then proceeding for five minutes telling us about his poor salary, how he has to rely on us to send his kids to school. He even gave us numbers ($50/month) to back up his claims. This was insulting to me. Maybe I am jumping the gun, but this is inexcusable behavior anywhere, regardless on land or sea.
We do not blame this on HAL, as you can always have a bad apple in the bunch - but it is very hard to look past this. Anyone experienced anything similar to this before? We had not and hopefully will not again, it made us feel uncomfortable around him.
One smaller note, he somehow took off with my wife's medication holder. It was returned later in the day (we didn't realize it was missing at the time), but he came back before dinner and said he had lifted it to clean, placed it on his caddy and forgot it was there until now. This wasn't a problem, and we don't believe it was intentional, just another bit of salt on the steward wound.
MISCELLANEOUS When cruising, I take pride in seeing senior officers wandering around the ship. Unfortunately, not once did we see this on the Westerdam. The captain for this sailing was Peter Harris, who we saw only once (at the welcome reception). I believe a captain who is not seen sets a bad precedence for the crew, and I strongly believe this had led the Westerdam to be an unhappy ship. No other officers were seen about by us - could be happenstance, could be a trend. The captain seldom gave a captain's briefing - I believe we only experienced three in our 7 day cruise.
On the other hand, the cruise director - Jason venner - was by far the best CD we've had at sea. Not obtrusive, genuinely funny, a great attitude, etc. He is an asset to HAL.
The Westerdam - as we experienced Monday - can flat-out fly on water! Due to a mishap in Seattle with the oil boom breaking and wrapping around the propeller, we were four or so hours late leaving. To make up time, the Westerdam kicked it up to 24.3 knots for a good part of Monday. Never had I seen this and it was pretty awesome!
Ah, and now the dress! We saw jeans on formal night - the ship stopped in its track, clothing police flew in by chopper and escorted the offended couple off immediately! OK, that didn't happen but we did see jeans on formal night more than once. And on smart casual, all bets were off - never saw shorts but t-shirts were not hiding. Alas, I couldn't care less about what others wear and enjoyed dressing to the code.
OVERALL Again, we had a wonderful time - HAL has a very nice product and we will sail it again shortly (most likely on a Panama Canal run). The few problems encountered could easily be remedied, and I think the Westerdam suffers overall from the attitude problem addressed before. I doubt any other HAL ship has this problem, at least to the extent of the Westerdam.