We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale a day early, and took a taxi van to the Embassy Suites near the cruise pier. The hotel was nice, with an exceptionally warm outdoor pool. There was free (albeit slow) internet access. And for those who are interested, both Total Wine and Publix are directly across the street from the Embassy Suites.
We took advantage of the hotel's free breakfast, then leisurely made our way over to the cruise pier around 11:30am. The line outside the pier was chaotic, as porters were hollering for passengers to stay behind a painted line, and there were no tensa-barriers (you know, the ones with the flexible straps) to form a line. Thus, there was a mob of passengers trying to enter the cruise terminal. Once inside though, the procedure was a piece of cake. We were slowed down a few moments by the fact that our daughter has one of the new passcards (rather than a passport), and the shore personnel also needed to find and affix a lifeboat wristband to our daughter (required for all passengers under 13, if I recall what they told us). In any event, we were on the ship by noon, and settled in a for a light lunch at the Lido buffet. Kudos to HAL for under-promising and overdelivering: They told us our cabins wouldn't be ready until 2:30, but an announcement was made at 1:45 that all staterooms were ready.
We headed to our stateroom, and were very pleased. The bed, as many have commented about HAL beds, was terrific. There were three storage closets, as well as drawers in both the nightstands, and two more drawers beneath the bed. As our room was a triple, there were also two additional cabinets above the pull-out sofa. The living area of the cabin was comparably sized to others we've had aboard Celebrity Mercury and Diamond Princess. The bathroom, however, was significantly more spacious than either of the two previous cruiseships we've sailed on. The shower/tub combination was great, lots of water pressure. And a thoughtful mirror with a pullout door provided extra "countertop" space for toiletries. An LG flat screen TV and a Coby DVD player enabled us to leave our daughter's DVD player at home - she likes to fall asleep to a movie at night. Another touch we really appreciated were the in-room curtains that effectively enabled us to separate the sofa area from the beds - by pulling the curtain across the room, we were able to read at night, without the light interfering with our daughter trying to sleep. The cabin location was also great. We considered this to be the most stable of the three cruises we've been on, and even when we hit some rough seas on the way back to Ft. Lauderdale, we felt very little motion in our cabin; by comparison, when we were up on deck 10 at Explorations, the motion was much more noticeable.We met our stateroom attendant, Kurniana, and his assistant Harris. They're extremely friendly, attentive, and couldn't do enough for us. Kurni made up the couch into a mini bed for our 3-year-old daughter. Fresh fruit was waiting for us every day, and our daughter looked forward to the towel animal creations that greeted us each evening. (This was the first cruise on which we received towel animals - and a different one every night!)
Also awaiting us in our stateroom when we boarded was a bright pink envelope, containing all of our excursion tickets. There was also a letter from HAL, stating that due to an audit of port fees, a $5 refund per passenger was being credited to our onboard account. That was an unexpected, pleasant way to begin the cruise.
The lifeboat drill took place a little on the early side (4:30 as I'm remembering), and was handled a bit differently than others we've participated in. HAL's drill takes place outside on the promenade deck, and all cabins have to check in with a muster captain. Women and children at the front, men in the back. Apparently, men only get life rafts, women and children get the lifeboats. It felt a little like we were on the Titanic. It also took a little time before a crew member was able to find us a child life jacket, but eventually it was taken care of.
Dining: We had early fixed dining in the Vista Dining Room. Our waiters were Arsana and Jati, both of whom were terrific. Special requests were never a problem. Every night, they'd bring our daughter pretty much anything she wanted. Most nights, it was chicken nuggets, with fruit and French fries. Our wine steward, Jess, went way above and beyond the call of duty. Not only did he keep our wine glasses constantly full, but most nights he presented our daughter with origami creations to entertain her. She now has a paper zoo that consists of an eagle, a hopping frog, a flying duck, a rabbit, and several other Jess creations. After the first night, Jati just brought us cappuccinos after clearing our plates - he had us figured out! (This was a really pleasant way to conclude dinner, and HAL scores bonus points in my book for providing complimentary cappuccino and espresso in the dining room). About the time we ordered dessert, Club HAL (the kids' club) would open (7pm), and one of us would bring our daughter up there.
So how was Club HAL? Let's put it this way: The last night of the cruise, our daughter left half a chocolate chip cookie on her dessert plate, and asked us to take her up to Club HAL. When we asked her if she wanted to finish her cookie first, she said No, she really wanted to go to the club. The counselors, Courtney and Nicole, seemed to always keep the kids busy with activities that ranged from pirate night to movie night, and even took all the kids to one of the theater shows one night...
...Speaking of which, the entertainment on board was very good. On our cruise, the evening shows consisted of several Vegas/Broadway-style sing/dance production shows, which were well executed. We also were treated to comedienne Julie Barr (hilarious) and illusionist/comedian Leo Ward (awesome, though he's apparently heading home to New Zealand this week). We attended all of those evening shows, though didn't make it to the HAL version of American Idol. About the only critique I would offer is that the daytime entertainment options were somewhat limited, but on the port days that was a total non-issue, and on sea days we didn't really mind relaxing and reading either.Service was incredible. I should state that we are not boozers (one drink a night during the show is our style), so I was rather shocked when one of the bar stewards recognized me on Half Moon Cay, and immediately referenced the drink my wife had ordered the night prior in the Vista Lounge AND our cabin number. Two days later, he had learned how I sign my name, and was able to produce a very credible forgery on the drink tickets that passengers normally are asked to sign. I didn't sign for another drink the rest of the cruise; Joan Marc "signed" them for me. He also brought our 3-year-old a fruit drink in Half Moon Cay after she serenaded him with Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
We were thoroughly amazed by the crew's memory - of cabin numbers, favorite drinks, names, etc. Everywhere we went on the ship, it seemed someone was calling our daughter's name - even the crew members dispensing Purell at the entrance to the Lido Buffet, and the Yum-Yum man at the Vista Dining Room. It probably didn't hurt that Michele is precocious, and enjoyed learning and repeating Filipino and Indonesian words for Thank You and Goodbye to the crew. Still, the service was beyond belief - genuine, friendly, and caring.
PORTS OF CALL
On Half Moon Cay, I went parasailing. It was simply breathtaking. Beyond that, we had fun playing in the water, and our daughter enjoyed the kids' area with the slides. The water could not have been more clear or beautiful, and I have felt talcum powder that was more rough than the sand on Half Moon. The buffet lunch on the island was better-than expected, with standard picnic fare (hamburgers, watermelon, etc) complemented by barbeque ribs, grilled fish, pineapple, and other tasty options.
The next day, we docked in Grand Turk. I would probably vote the water there to win the Turquoise Award, better even than Half Moon, which is saying something. We booked the Reefs & Rays excursion through the ship, and it was exceptional. A boat took our group maybe a mile offshore to a coral reef called Round Key (Cay?) Reef, where we snorkeled amid colorful, tropical fish and the reef's resident barracuda. For someone who doesn't snorkel often at all, swimming within a couple arm's lengths of a barracuda is pretty spectacular. Especially since it didn't consider me lunch! After about 40 minutes of snorkeling, we hopped back on the boat, and headed to a tiny island (Gibbs Cay), where a family of Atlantic stingrays greeted us, and gobbled food (fish) right out of our hands. Our daughter joined us on the excursion, and while she stayed on the boat while we snorkeled, she did enjoy feeding and petting the stingrays.
After a sea day, we arrived in Grand Cayman. The weather was a bit rainy, which worked fine with our planned excursion - a city tour by bus combined with a stop at the Turtle Farm. Our daughter loved this, and got to hold a sea turtle, which was probably the highlight of the trip for her (at least that's what the photos suggest). As for the Rum Cake factory, don't waste your time: It is an overcrowded, chaotic hut frequented by every other tour group on the island. And the rum cakes, while delicious, are sold onboard the cruise ships at comparable prices.
Our final port of call was Costa Maya. Here we booked a private excursion (i.e. not through the ship) with Native Choice. We learned about the Chacchoben ruins tour through Cruise Critic, and as usual, we were not disappointed in the least. What can you say about one guide (David) who is Mayan by birth and another guide (Ivan) whose father discovered the ruins in 1942? These two knew every plant, every stone, every nugget of trivia you could possibly imagine. They pulled leaves off of trees, sharing with us the scents and tastes of the forests as the ancient Mayans must have done thousands of years ago. Keep your eyes peeled for fire ants on the ground at the ruins, and also the resident Tarantula spider, which we didn't find out about until after he posed for a picture with us (no kidding!). I would highly recommend this tour. One other recommendation: Anything you might want to buy at the Chacchoben ruins will be one-fifth the price back at the shops by the Costa Maya pier; don't waste your money at Chacchoben.
We had one final sea day before returning to Ft. Lauderdale. Our flight home wasn't until 1:40pm, so we had a leisurely breakfast in the Lido, before disembarking around 10am. A word of warning: Breakfast in the Lido seemed to close fairly suddenly after we arrived at 9 or so. Arrive early, or risk missing breakfast.
All in all, it was a fabulous cruise. We would definitely sail HAL and the Westerdam again in the future.