With vacation time at a premium this year, we decided to splurge on a 3-night introduction cruise for this brand-new ship for Labor Day weekend, and were excited to try a new cruise line.
Sailaway from New York This experience alone was worth the entire price of admission. Since it was the first journey for the ship, we received police helicopter escorts and a special fireboat tribute, as well as a spectacular sunset sailaway. Those things on top of the usual spectacle of sailing from New York with the eye-to-eye view of the Statue of Liberty and the breathtaking sail under the Varrazano Bridge made it an unforgettable night.
Our stateroom (mostly) (See "plumbing problems" below). Stateroom was nicely appointed with toiletries, tub, DVD player, comfortable mattress and bedding, and other niceties. But it was much smaller than other comparable balcony rooms we've stayed in, and the layout was weird - if someone was asleep in the sofabed, it was nearly impossible to get on the balcony.
Dining Choices We had "As You Wish Dining," but pre-booked the specialty restaurants Pinnacle Grill ($20 pp) and Tamarind ($15 pp) for the second two nights, and upon boarding, reserved Canaletto, the Italian restaurant within the Lido, for the first. All were perfection in service, food and atmosphere and we were very impressed. The reservation system (see "the bad") seems flawed but everything worked out. We never got to the main dining room.
Retreat Cabanas We decided to try one of the much-debated retreat cabanas for one day, and it was a memorable experience we'd recommend to honeymooners and anyone looking for a peaceful getaway with nice service and lovely ocean views.
Pool Atmosphere For the most part, the pool was quiet and relaxing. We did not miss the obnoxious activities and games and thumping rap/dance music around the pool that mark some other cruise lines.
Wine and Liquor We brought our own champagne and wine, and happily paid corkage fees to enjoy them in the restaurants. We also enjoyed ordering our own bottle of vodka for before- and after- dinner cocktails.
Hydro spa Though we'd prefer a single gender experience, the thermal chairs, showers, and hydro pool were a nice treat for a fairly reasonable fee.
NY Times partnership Complimentary access to the NY Times online in the Explorations café, and mini-NYT newspapers delivered every day were a nice touch.
Plumbing problems Our toilet overflowed the first morning of the cruise, and continued to flush itself and overflow repeatedly for nearly an hour while guest services summoned the plumber. We did receive a plate of chocolate covered strawberries and chocolates with a form apology note later that day.
Embarkation/Lifeboat drill We were among the first in the terminal and weren't given a boarding number. We got attitude from the first HAL employee we asked, who suggested that we should board after group 9. Eventually, someone did help us. On the plus side, we were on board by 1:10, earlier than the advertised time of 3pm. The unorganized lifeboat drill took place at 9:30 Saturday morning, immediately after our plumbing drama, and ate up another hour of an already shortened morning.
Disembarkation The process needs some help, more announcements, and more employees to direct traffic.
The "eh" (not good, not bad):
Family Programs "Club HAL" has a cute but tiny space dedicated to the program, and in our experience, it's not as robust a program as other lines offer. In 4 cruises, it was the first time my son had actually declined the program during part of the cruise. Even Club HAL was plagued with new-ship mixups. The much-promoted "Un-Birthday Party" on the last night was a bust because the cupcake order never showed up. It's the little things-especially when you're 6. A few kid-friendly items on the dining and room service menus, and a "family pool" with a shallow end (minimum depth was 4'5") would be a great addition.
Culinary Arts Center We were excited about the adult and children's programs here - but sadly, no classes for the 3 day cruise.
Dining Reservation System We made reservations for Pinnacle Grill and Tamarind to coordinate with Club HAL hours. We received multiple confirmations with conflicting information about times. When we went to inquire about the problem, we were told, in one case, "well, there's a note here that you're dining at 8, but the reservation system will only allow 20 that time, so you're down for 9." So when are we eating, exactly? At the other restaurant, we were told "well, we have 43 people dining at 8pm and that's too many." Why did you overbook, then? Puzzling malfunctions The first time we tried to use the thermal spa and hydro pool, the access key cards did not work. We were told it was "because the ship was built in Europe, and it's still being adjusted to US time."
The computer system in NY was not fully functional (or maybe the staff not really trained) when we checked in and it took three tries, two employees, and two computer terminals to finish our check-in. Even after that, one of our key cards didn't work. Elevators and rest rooms were randomly malfunctioning all three days, and an air conditioning problem left us sweating for all of the first morning (at the same time as our plumbing problems - fun!).
Even with some of the issues, there were some truly high points on this short cruise. On the whole, though, we will probably not sail on HAL again for a while.