After some anxiety about flying through Seattle, which had some big winter storms, we arrived in Florida as scheduled. We spent the night before the cruise at the Tampa Waterside Marriott, which was very nice. We stopped at Total Wine and bought several bottles for the cruise and then had dinner in Ybor City. In the morning we could see the Veendam from our hotel window. The Marriott has a Hertz desk, which made it easy to return our rental car.
We arrived at the pier about 11:30 and were told that boarding would begin at 2:00 p.m. because the ship was being sanitized after a norovirus outbreak. HAL had arranged for a deal on admission at the nearby aquarium, but we opted to sit and play cards. Boarding started at 2:00 as promised, and we were in group #8 to board. Staterooms weren't ready, so we went right to the Lido for our first delicious lunch. At that point it was not crowded, but the Lido got quite jammed as more people boarded in a short time. Since the ship was in Code Red, the buffet was not self-serve (even for water and coffee), which slowed service down a bit, but to stay healthy I was happy to avoid touching spoons that others had touched. The shortened embarkation time threw our usual Day 1 routine off schedule; by the time we got to the spa, there were no more massage appointments for the first sea day. Oh well. After the lifeboat drill, we went to the aft pool for sailaway and a margarita - HAL cocktails are soooo good! Then on to dinner in the dining room, which tonight entailed only a short wait. Food and service were good, as always. We made it to the show, which involved a comedian who was somewhat funny.
By the time we returned to our stateroom, all of our luggage had been delivered and we unpacked. We had an aft outside stateroom on the A deck, category FF. The bathroom had seen better days - definitely in need of the upcoming refurbishment. The bed was very comfortable, and the storage space was great. DD and I do not travel light - the three of us had 5 suitcases and 3 small rolling carry-ons, but it all fit in the closets and underbed drawers, and all the empty luggage fit under the bed. The air conditioner worked fine. Other than the beat-up bathroom, the only problem with the stateroom was a frequent odor issue. I love an aft cabin and the easy access to the Lido and the aft pool.
Monday we stopped in Key West. It was a beautiful day - like almost every other day on this cruise. We took the trolley tour, shopped for the items we forgot - air freshener spray and an extension cord, and walked down Duval Street. We were back on board for some pool time before a beautiful sunset sailaway. Our wonderful room steward had brought us a wine bucket and ice so we could chill our wine before dinner. There were a few new passengers (and their luggage) waiting to board in Key West, whose arrival in Tampa must have been delayed.
Monday evening we had our first delicious meal at the Pinnacle Grill (booked online before the cruise). The PG beef is incredibly good and the desserts (chocolate soufflE and Cherry Garcia Baked Alaska) were great too.
Monday night's show featured the Veendam singers and dancers in a tribute to Broadway. We saw several Broadway shows this year, and I thought that the Veendam entertainers were Broadway quality. Very enjoyable.
Tuesday was our first sea day. After breakfast in the dining room, we found lounge chairs on the stern of Deck 9, just below the aft pool, a very peaceful spot. At 3:00 I went to the martini class, which unfortunately conflicted with the Indonesian tea service. So many cocktails, so little time. Unfortunately, we could not get dinner reservations that morning (except for 8:30), and ended up waiting about 45 minutes for a table.
A note on AYWD: We'd requested the early traditional dinner seating when we booked in March, but got AYWD. I was open to the concept, but AYWD did not work well on this cruise. The ship was at full capacity since it was a holiday cruise, and there were several large family groups with multiple tables, which probably upset the dynamics of AYWD. If there are 1200 people on board and 75% of them eat dinner in the dining room, AYWD probably works relatively smoothly. If there are 1450 people on board and a higher percentage of them eat in the dining room, it doesn't work so well. When it worked for our schedule, we reserved a table for 5:30. On the two occasions that we preferred to eat later, we waited 45-60 minutes for a table (so much for eating as we wished). We were never offered a pager, perhaps because of the Code Red situation. The maitre de was one of the few unfriendly staff I encountered - he had an attitude like we weren't quite good enough to eat in his restaurant. That didn't help the situation.
My DD (on her 4th cruise since age 8) missed having a personal connection with an assigned waiter. She is a picky eater, so perhaps it is easier for her to order from the same person every night. She did have trouble finding food to eat on this cruise and ended up ordering pasta almost every night. The menu choices were just too adventurous for her, but the waitstaff was very willing to accommodate her requests for non-menu items like marinara sauce. I had no problem at all finding food to eat.
Once we were seated, the food and the service were both good. I did not think that the selection on the menu was as good as the Zaandam in 2006, but perhaps my expectations were higher on this cruise. I did not go hungry.
Tuesday night's show was an illusionist duo who were very impressive. How do they do that?
Wednesday we stopped in Belize, which involves a looong tender ride. We were on one of the first tenders and had arranged for a combo shore excursion - ATV ride and cavetubing - with Yhony. He was waiting for us when we disembarked, and sent us off with a great guide (Richard) for a short tour of Belize City on the way to the ATV site. The ride was muddy and lots of fun. The cavetubing was different from anything I've ever experienced, but crowded and chaotic. Next time I'd go to a beach instead.
Wednesday the Code Red was lifted. It was very interesting to see how much reappeared: salt and pepper shakers, bread baskets, self service in the Lido, the taco bar at the Lido pool, magazines in the library, the fruit basket in our stateroom, nuts and appetizers in the lounges, cloth towels in the restrooms, pool towels readily available, basketballs, etc.
Wednesday was New Year's Eve, one of the highlights of the cruise. It was formal night, so we got dressed up and had pictures taken. Because we left the ship before the 8:00 a.m. dinner reservation time, we did not have dinner reservations. When I called in the afternoon, they said that getting a table anytime after about 7:45 should be fine. Fortunately, we went to the dining room about 7:30, before the early show ended. We waited for almost an hour (and were not offered a pager) and while we waited the line eventually extended past the elevators. Finally the three of us were seated at two adjacent 2-tops, with an aisle in between. Service was very slow; clearly they were just overwhelmed when everyone chose to eat in the dining room on new year's eve. Perhaps on full capacity cruises - and especially on special nights - HAL should return to assigned dining.
We went to the show lounge at 11:00 for the New Year's Eve party, which was the best NYE party I have ever attended. Hats, necklaces and noisemakers were handed out at the door, the ship's bell was placed on the stage to be rung at midnight, VJ and the Hal Cats played great music, the officers danced, and there was a balloon drop at midnight. What a way to start the new year!
Thursday we stopped in Costa Maya. We rented jet skis, which DD loved, and went out on a one-hour snorkel trip. Fortunately we managed to do this before the downpour, our only rain on the trip. The beach in Mahahual is pretty, but walking down the malecon there was a constant barrage from the locals. Voyager of the Seas was also docked at Costa Maya, so the port itself was crowded, and the shopping was ridiculous. (At one store I asked the price of a pair of earrings, and was told $35; I returned a few minutes later with money, and a different clerk said $90, but for me $75. Such a deal!)
We had the good sense to make a 5:30 dinner reservation and dinner was again delicious. The show was a violinist.
Friday was our last stop, Roatan. What a beautiful island! A large Carnival ship was docked, so the Veendam tendered, which was a slow process because it was too shallow for more than one tender at a time. Luckily,we have learned to get ready early on tender days, and we were on the second tender (even after waiting for room service breakfast that never came). We'd arranged for a private tour with Bodden Tours, and we couldn't have chosen better. We had an island tour with a great guide (Norma), and then brief stops at West End and West Bay Beach before heading back to the ship at 11:00. The last tender was supposed to be at 11:30, but so many people returned at the same time that it took another hour to get everybody on board. We hung out by the aft pool for sailaway, and the music ended before the anchor was lifted.
Friday DD and I finally had our massages, and then I went to a flower arranging class, which was very interesting.
Friday was the second formal night, and again we made a 5:30 dinner reservation and dinner was good. The show was the Veendam singers and dancers, and just as good as the first one. We finally made it up to the Crow's Nest, where VJ and the Hal Cats were playing; they are really good.
Saturday was the second sea day and after the embarkation talk and the Mariners' lunch we hung out at the aft pool again, soaking up the sun and watching some silly pool games. After packing, we had our second dinner at the Pinnacle Grill, which was again excellent. The show was an encore performance by the illusionists, violinist and comedian.
Sunday we had silent disembarkation, which was a breeze. Our time was 8:30 - 9:00, and about 8:40 we were ready to go and walked right off the ship. Our luggage was easy to find, and National Rent-a-Car had a shuttle waiting. The cruise was a great way to pack a lot of sightseeing into a week, but it's the service that makes HAL a great cruise line.