Good flight over from London on the Saturday with British Airways; arrival and processing through customs was smooth and took about an hour. Easy to get around Tampa Airport and found a taxi for the 4 of us without any problems. Flat fee of $15 to transfer to the Quorum Hotel, which was very close-by. The hotel rates as #2 in Tampa - not sure what that says about the other hotels in Tampa as it was OK, but certainly not remarkable.
The following day we took the hotel shuttle to the cruise terminal, which was quoted originally as $25 per room, which would make it $50 for us travelling as 2 couples, but when we asked to book a taxi, this was changed to $25 for the 4 of us, which was more acceptable.
Transfer was easy - a little scary with the driver swigging Red Bull whilst driving on the freeway! The cruise terminals were busy with the Veendam and a Carnival cruise embarking, but our embarkation process was very quick and easy; I'd say we were on the boat and in the Lido having lunch within 20-30 minutes of leaving the taxi (helped by the short queue for non-US citizens checking-in).
One of my cases was mislaid but we recovered this from the front office (the emphasis on us recovering our own bag). Aside from this hic-cup we settled into our cabin quickly. It was an outside on deck 4, mid-ship, starboard. There was plenty of storage and hangers; the bathrooms was equipped with a bath-tub (or "tub-ette" as most accurately described by the on-board comedian), and like others we experienced some problems with the toilet flush.
Staying with such matters; we are aware of some problems with the notorious Norwalk virus (Norovirus) outbreaks and heard (whether gossip or fact, who knows) of one couple being quarantined in their cabin but otherwise there were no signs of any outbreaks on our cruise. There were, however, some suspicious looking marks on the walls of our cabin, with phone records (which remain logged in the cabin's phone memory) of calls to and from the infirmary. Suspect a previous occupant had the virus, and if the marks are what we think they are, then there is some suspicion of just how thorough their disinfection process is.
This aside, our experience of the ship and its cleanliness was fine. Despite being imminent for re-fit, there were few obvious signs of this being needed. Indeed, doors were still being varnished so the ship felt more 'lived-in' than 'tired-out'.
This was not the case though with the crew. Comparing against both our experience on celebrity and my parents' experience on HAL and P&O this cruise fell well below par for the service (dining room, pools and bars), entertainment and overall friendliness of the staff. Don't get me wrong, this was not a bad cruise; indeed there were touches that we liked more on HAL than Celebrity (towel animals; $45 unlimited (an exemplary) laundry service; daily happy hour). It just seemed that the staff were tired, and somewhat beyond caring. Service in the dining room was very slow at the start of the cruise, and the overall wine service was appalling. The wine waiter had very limited knowledge of wine, the wine list was limited (with no description of the wine to make up for the waiter's lack of knowledge), and wine frequently arrived with the soup or even the main course. The table steward was better, he seemed a genuinely nice guy, but there was little personal interaction or discussion about the menu which we really appreciated from our celebrity table steward. We also breakfasted in the Rotterdam Dining Room and the service there was also slow and somewhat haphazard - on two or three mornings breakfast took an hour (and we were neither ordering great quantities nor making special requests to warrant such delays).
The food was good - my husband preferred the variety offered by HAL to that on Celebrity; for me the service really let the food down and so my memory is perhaps tainted. That said, we intended to go to the Pinnacle Grill at some point, but the menu in the Rotterdam Dining Room tempted us to dine there each evening so we never did get to the Pinnacle Grill. My mother, being diabetic, appreciated the sugar free muffins (variety changed daily) and general sugar free desserts.
The entertainment was best described as bizarre. The first night was a 'quiz show' theme, hosted by Lizabeth the cruise director (sadly lacking in charisma). This was dire. The ship's company performed on just 2 nights (now they have a great job!); with three nights being covered by an illusionist (very good), Lee Bayless - a comedian (excellent - comedy without profanity), and Bobby G - musician extraordinaire and also excellent. The remaining night was the 'pool party' best described as tacky. Organized entertainment throughout the day was limited, or perhaps simply not marketed very well due to the lack of announcements. A 'silent' principle is all very well, but needs to work with a complementary programme to make sure that people know what's going on!
We had great weather - the captain mentioned this most days - so we consider ourselves to be very lucky. I think that had the weather been for us like it had for others, then this cruise could have failed to deliver on many levels (but of course, the weather is well beyond HAL's control!). Certainly if they could have controlled it, they would have done so on the final day as the tide caused us delays which meant that we didn't dock in Tampa until about 8am. As you can imagine this caused some chaos in disembarkation (I suspect some people missed flights), but once cleared through immigration we had breakfast (the Lido remained open until 9am) and returned to our cabin until called (we had arranged to be in the final disembarkation group). It was just disappointing that our cabin was already being made up for the next guests, so our final bits and pieces were gathered together, and the toiletries all cleared away which was a strange thing to do given we weren't due to disembark until the last group.
When we finally left the ship (about 10am), we collected our bags and processed through customs very quickly and smoothly. There was a fantastic left luggage service ($1 per bag, through until 4pm), the operators of which also sold us discounted Florida Aquarium tickets (highly recommended), and Organized our return transport to the airport at 4pm ($32 for 4 and bags). Overall experience of Tampa Port and Airport - excellent. Would definitely return.
Overall, this was a good cruise. Perhaps my comments don't reflect that? Our first cruise was fantastic, so maybe the second was always going to struggle to compete. I think that the crew were definitely either in need of a rest, or on 'wind-down', as the service was not comparable to that described by other Veendam reviewers. Hopefully post-refit this will be different. Would I sail with HAL again? Yes, probably, if the dates / price / destination were right. But I'd choose Celebrity over HAL, and would be more inclined to try a different line if this were an alternative.