Unlike some, we cruise on occasion - but still enjoy other types of vacationing as well. That being said, this was our fifth cruise (and the second on Holland America) over the last ten years. This was also our second trip to the Mexican Riviera as we did a similar itinerary several years ago on NCL. My wife and I are early 60's (she's retired and I continue to work full time). While we've also cruised on NCL and Princess, we think Holland America provides one of the best rides going. Our group arrived on Thanksgiving day and spent two days seeing the San Diego sights prior to boarding. We rented a car and stayed at the Hampton Inn Sea World because of the proximity to Old Town. We also enjoyed Gas Light area restaurants as we stayed over a night upon returning at the Gas Light Marriott. Also, I must add that this particular cruise was a CardPlayers.com poker cruise (with about 500 poker players) and as a result, had a larger cross section of age groups than we saw on our earlier HAL trip. I'm sure this younger than normal crowd also affected late night activities in the Casino and other lounges. Having this group aboard, however, didn't appear to have any adverse affects on anything except for the fact that the Crow's Nest lounge was taken over by this group and not available for any other ship's activities.
Embarkation - We arrived around 11:30....stood in line for 10-15 minutes and were on the Lido deck enjoying a great bloody mary and buffet lunch shortly after noon. State rooms were ready, as advertised, at exactly 1:30pm. For this cruise, we had chosen an aft veranda cabin (5180) which was fantastic. The balconies on the end of the ship are huge - we had two chairs, two chaise lounges and a table and still had tons of room. The king sized bed was very comfortable and we had more than sufficient space for all of our belongings. One note here, "bring half as many clothes and twice as much money as you think you will need" - that's the motto of my niece, a former travel agent, who along with her husband were also with us on this trip. We also opted for the unlimited laundry - at $45 for the week, we think this is one of HAL's better bargains. Don't forget, however, that your cutoff to send laundry in is 48 hours before the ship returns (or 10am on the next to last morning). As we had spent two days in San Diego before boarding, the first thing we did was to fill the laundry bag and call for pickup.
We also met other CCers for the Banner Wave at 3pm and HAL provided us with a nice complimentary "meet and greet" on the first sea day.
Spa - my wife and my niece opted for the hydrotherapy package ($150 a piece or $250 a couple - they were able to sign up together and got the couple's rate). This provides unlimited use of the hydrotherapy pool, heated lounges, sauna, changing rooms and showers for the week - another great bargain. The best part is that this package is limited to the first 50 people that sign up so that it is almost always available for use. My wife and niece can expand on this further -
Niece: The heated thermal lounges were quite comfortable and offered floor to ceiling windows for fantastic sea views. One late day visit offered a gorgeous sunset. The thermal lounges are warm, but not overly hot - Perfect for relaxation, reading or a nap. The heat in the dry sauna was much hotter than the thermal lounges if your body needed the hotter temperature.
I guess that's my (wife) cue . . .If left up to me, I would not have mentioned the hydrotherapy package. Why? Because when I cruise again with HAL, I don't want everyone else to beat me to this tremendous offer! I can't say anything negative about this package. Having the freedom to go as often as you want is wonderful. We never found it overcrowded and if you chose to stay on board during a port of call, you basically had the entire spa to yourself. The only thing that could have made it better, in my opinion, would be the hours of operation. On our cruise, the spa opened at 8:00 and closed at 10:00 p.m. A little earlier opening for the hydrotherapy pool would have been wonderful.
Food - barely enough (ha)....We opted for the late traditional seating - we would have preferred the early seating, however it was already "sold out" when we made our reservations. HAL's main dining room is on two decks connected by a stairway - the upper deck is reserved for traditional seating whereas the bottom deck is available for "as you wish" dining. There is also one "extra cost" dining room, the Pinnacle Grill. My niece and husband had lunch there one day but gave it only "average" reviews. One comment however about the Pinnacle Grill, the head chef there, a Canadian, did a French Cuisine session (a $29 cost) on one of the sea days - both my wife and niece attended and gave it rave reviews - I'll let my wife expand on this as well.
It's my (wife) cue again. . .the French Cuisine Culinary Arts class was fantastic! My niece is somewhat a gourmet cook in her own right, but for a very basic cook such as myself, I found this to be the absolute BEST VALUE of the entire cruise. We had the completely devoted time of Chef Brandon as he prepared 3 wonderful dishes and allowed us to help. We were served wine, given the recipe cards, an apron AND tasting rights of the meal. We were there approximately 2 hours and it was absolutely the BEST!
I'll break the review into Dining Room, Lido Buffet and Room Service.
Dining Room - we love the traditional dining where you have the same wait staff each evening. We really enjoy getting to know them and, assuming the service is good, provide an extra gratuity on the last night. Try as we did, we never really got the hang of our server's name (he was from Indonesia and had been with HAL for seven years). He was, however, excellent and we really enjoyed him. One night my wife went to use the pepper shaker and the lid came off. He, the waiter, was visibly upset over this and immediately grabbed up her plate and ordered a new entree' brought out for her. After that, each evening when we arrived for dinner he would pick up the salt and pepper shakers in our presence and ensure they were correctly fastened - we gave him some good-natured teasing about it as well. Also one night when my wife didn't come to dinner - he wanted to know if she was ok and I told him she was feeling a little under the weather. He replied that he would pray for her. When she appeared the next evening, he gave her a big hug to welcome her back. As for the food - it was certainly ok, however nothing really overly special and in fact, could have been a bit hotter on occasion. The highlight was the escargot - wish I'd have ordered two (or more). Soups were also very good overall. Desserts, on the other hand, were average at best. The turf portion on "surf and turf" night was very rare - which I love, but might not have been to all other's taste.
Lido Buffet - We primarily ate there for breakfast with eggs/omelettes/eggs benedict to order were all hot, well prepared and very good. They also had a wide variety of toppings for waffles and the meats, breads and juices, etc were all excellent. Late night Italian buffet was average at best. We also ate off the hamburger bar which was good as well and made great use of the free ice cream bar. I also enjoyed the cookies as I'm something of a "cookie monster." All in all, I'd say the buffet was better than average just because of the breakfasts and everything seemed to be well prepared and presented.
Room Service - We ordered breakfast on two occasions via the hang the request on your door the night before as well as another occasion when my wife slept in. On all occasions, everything arrived right on time and with the exception of the toast was hot and very tasty. HAL is the only ship we've been on that provides eggs/omelettes for room service breakfast - NCL and Princess were only continental breakfasts the last time we sailed with either. Overall, I'd say the food was good, not outstanding....the service in the dining room could be a bit slow on occasion but that, I think, is to be expected.
Shipboard entertainment: Casino - my wife played the slots primarily and won more than she lost (which is always nice)....I tried the blackjack on one occasion. Overall the table games were priced well (several $5 blackjack games) and were quite busy in the evenings even with a plethora of poker players off playing poker in the Crow's Nest. I did have occasion to talk with a number of these folks and they seemed overall to be happy with the poker tour. Daily trivia - Our group did well here, winning on a couple of occasions. This is always a fun event for us. Other activities - ping pong, golf, basketball, bingo, etc were all available but my group participated only briefly in any of these. I did enjoy the hot tubs and pool as well as the plentiful deck chairs for reading and just overall relaxation while on-board ship. I tend to get a tad restless on the last day at sea and this time was no exception, however, the dam superstar competition and a special evening show on the last day were exceptional and made for a good finish to a great cruise vacation. Ship entertainers - Singers and Dancers did three shows and to be honest, I found them quite boring. I did watch a singer's only show in the Queen's lounge one night (Broadway to Queens) and found this to be quite entertaining so I'd say they may need to hire a new producer/choreographer for the song and dance group. The magician was superb and put on a very good show and certainly in the "don't miss" category was Joel Mason and his salute to Elton John - what a fantastic performer. The whole cast to include singers/dancers, magician, the HAL-cats musical group, and Joel Mason did a final night show called Joel Mason and friends - and it really brought the house down - what a fantastic way to finish the cruise. We were so wound up after watching this show that we stayed up and partied a while and almost forgot that we had to pack and have our bags out by 1 am - we made it, just barely. We briefly heard some of the lounge singers - the piano bar entertainer was also quite good. We also enjoyed the Ocean Bar piano and music -prior to going to dinner. The staff also hosted their version of American Idol called the "dam superstar". The cruise director, Jason, one of the male singers and Joel Mason served as judges - this is also in the "not to be missed" category - what a great time for everyone - audience and those in the show. One final note here on the entertainment, the cruise director, Jason Veneer was perhaps as good as they get - He, unfortunately for HAL and for anyone reading this was making his final cruise - He WILL be missed.
Ports of Call/Excursions: Cabo San Lucas - This is the only stop requiring tender ships. We were in port with two other cruise ships (pretty much the same in all three stops) so the town was pretty full of folks. My group went on the dune buggy ride to the beach and we all got too much sun (don't forget the sun screen - ha). Our buggy also had the adventure of running out of gas just as we were trying to get up onto the highway - the trail vehicle had some gas for us and we were again soon on our way. Overall this was an "ok" adventure for the group - the beach we went to was also inhabited by one of the snorkel tours as well. Mazatlan - A first for me and my nieces husband, we went on the zip line canopy tour and had a blast! I had wanted to do this on another cruise a few years ago but for one reason or another opted out. This is one excursion, however, that I would definitely do again. The Mazatlan crew did a great job - there were 39 of us in our group. They broke us down into 3 groups of ten and one of nine....fitted us with gear, gave us a short demonstration and a safety briefing and we were zip lining through the trees in short order. I must say that never once did I not feel safe - it was a great time. We then made a stop at a working tequila factory where they assured us that the second free sample would be better than the first so, of course, I had to check them at their word and found it to be so (ha). They were selling the tequila, of course, for $30 a bottle (a so-so price). Had it not been for having to fly home afterwards and concern about packing the bottle in my luggage, I'd have probably spent the money - especially after the second shot. Puerto Vallarta - We took the advice of many of cc'ers here and made the trek across the street from where we docked to buy souvenirs at the local Wal-Mart. They also had a great selection of tequila as well - my niece bought some here for her son. The only excursion we did here was called "Rhythms of the Night" which was absolutely fabulous. I'd read other accounts where cc'ers were saying this was the best excursion they'd ever been on so was a little concerned that all that hype might be for naught. On the contrary, we loved it....the boat crew on the way to Las Caletas does a great job of entertaining you and providing as much as you care to drink. Then the evening show was fantastic and the buffet dinner complete with wine and candlelight right next to the shore line was very romantic. On the ride back, the crew of the boat continued where they'd left off on the ride over - got every one up and dancing and of course the drinks continued. I highly recommend it. I believe in tipping for good service and these folks received the highest tips I've ever doled out for an excursion.
Disembarkment - Alas, all good things must come to an end but to Hal's credit this was "the best" disembarkment we have ever had. We filled out a form early in the week indicating what time we wanted to be off the ship. On the day before arrival back in San Diego, we were given luggage tags to coincide with our selected times and provided information about when to leave the ship. They made one announcement about 8:15 am or so that everyone could begin and after that, whenever your time window arrived, you left the ship. We chose not to leave until 9:30 - slept in until around 7:30 (as we hadn't gotten in bed until after 1 am), got dressed and enjoyed a final breakfast in the Lido. At 9:30 we made one last trip to the restrooms, took the elevator down to deck 2 and literally walked off the ship into a waiting cab. Couldn't have been smoother and left a great "after"taste for Holland America lines.
One final remark would be, again, given the value for dollar, level of service and quality of overall cruise, Holland America leads the pack above the others that we've cruised.