Background: This is our 38th cruise and 3rd time on HAL. It's been 10 years since we were on HAL - for no particular reason as we have always been quite pleased with our past experiences. This cruise was chosen in part because the size of the ship provided my husband, who has a temporary mobility issue, less walking and also we had never been to Belize, Honduras, or Costa Maya.
Pre Cruise - We flew in the day prior to departure and stayed at the Springhill Suites. The hotel provided a shuttle from the airport as well as drop off and pickup at the nearby mall where we had dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. The place was packed and there was a two hour wait, but we got lucky and snagged a high top in the bar area after 15 minutes. All we had to do was call the hotel when we were finished and the driver was there in 20 minutes -a very nice little extra service. Before leaving the next morning, we had a light breakfast at the hotel and then took a cab for $20 to the ship - a quick 15 minute ride.
Embarkation - We arrived at 11 am and after being quickly processed were on the ship shortly after 11:30. I liked the way HAL took the security photo at check-in rather than when boarding the ship, which made for a much quicker embarkation on the ship Cabins were not ready until 1:30, so we went up to the Lido for lunch and relaxed by the pool until it was time to go to our cabin. Our bags were delivered by 2:30, so I was able to unpack and relax before the life boat drill at 4:15 pm. By the time it was over we had a few minutes to go down to our cabin to freshen up for our early fixed seating dinner at 5:45, ( too early for me, but my husband prefers it.) I love anytime dining and he loves traditional. I usually give in and let him have his way on this one.
Food - Overall, we were very pleased with the quality and selection of food in the dining room. On the first night we enjoyed what was probably the best prime rib we have ever had on any cruise - tender, juicy, and cooked perfectly - rare for me and med rare for my husband. He is a very picky eater and the majority of the appetizers did not appeal to him so he asked for and received a shrimp cocktail each night; and it was a very good shrimp cocktail - four larger than average sized shrimp and one night he had two. The second formal night we had surf and turf and the lobster tail was large and very tasty - he had two and I wished I had skipped the steak and had two tails myself. I thought the weak areas were the salads and veggies, but they offered Crepes Suzette twice for dessert, so I was in seventh heaven. Service was pleasant and efficient. We always had breakfast and lunch in the Lido and I loved the selection for breakfast which included a waffle and Eggs Benedict station. I personally enjoyed having servers in the Lido rather than everyone handling the serving utensils, but the service at the beverage stations never seemed to go smoothly all week and I would have much rather fixed my own tea or coffee. There always seemed to be a problem with the hot water, or coffee, or ice. On the last port day, there was a wonderful cold seafood buffet with crab legs, shrimp, and scallops in addition to the regular selections. It reminded me of the seafood buffet we enjoy so much on Princess for dinner, except we agreed that we actually enjoy it more for lunch. Regular and soft serve ice cream were available at the dessert station but I still I prefer Princess ice cream although I realize it not as readily available there as it was on the Veendam. My biggest complaint with the buffet was the short time they were open. IMHO, nothing beats 24 hour dining on Princess. It would have been nice if they had stayed open a little longer for lunch on port days. The small late buffet shut down promptly at midnight, which was early for us especially since we usually went to the 10 pm movie and would have enjoyed being able to get a snack until at least 12:30 am. I realize there is room service, but it's something we don't particularly like doing late. We did enjoy the Mariners lunch on the last day - it was a nice change of pace for us from the repeaters cocktail parties on other ships. I believe we went to all afternoon teas with the exception of one day. Everything there was nicely presented and served - I usually went to the Explorations Cafe in the morning for my daily latte fix.
Cabin - We had an aft outside on deck 4 - near the elevator for my husband. Even though the Veendam is going into dry dock soon, our cabin was in very good shape, especially the bathroom- no problems with the infamous pink tile! Everything looked clean and fresh. The only "flaw" I could find, was a chipped section along the edge of the laminate top on the dressing table. The beds were as comfortable as we had heard they would be. Overall we found our cabin to be spacious and well kept by our efficient cabin team.
Ship - Super easy to navigate - an important issue for us at this time. We found the ship to be in surprisingly good condition considering her age. I always enjoy the art on HAL and there were numerous displays of interesting artifacts to view. The onboard shops were weak in my opinion and will hopefully offer a better shopping experience after the refurb. I have no idea why one deck had escalators, but there they were - just like Macy's! LOL. On this voyage there were far fewer flowers than I remember in the past - victims of the cutbacks, I'm sure. The Veendam has to have one of the largest and best libraries on the seas. There was a well organized selection of books, magazines, games with ample tables and lounge chairs. Restrooms still have cloth hand towels, a very nice touch, and hand sanitizers are positioned at the entrance to each restroom. While we liked the aft pool area, on many days it was simply too windy and cool to spend much time there - the enclosed pool area was a much more pleasant area for this particular cruise.
Entertainment/Activities - We thought the quality of the entertainment was quite good - the singers and dancers were great, but as usual, the noise level during the production shows was just a little too loud for our tastes. The welcome aboard show was really lame, consisting primarily of passenger participation games that were the strangest I have ever seen. Everyone in the audience was rolling their eyes and we wondered why we wasted our time - there had to be something else going on that would have been more entertaining. The 4th day we were in Belize and the Lido Pool Party was that night. It was fun, but unfortunately it started at 9 pm and was the main event of the evening - no other shows, only a movie, Slumdog Millionaire in the main showroom, the Rubens Lounge. In addition to the singers and dances, during the week there was a multi- instrumentalist, a comedian, and an illusionist - all very good and entertaining. Overall, we wish there had been more to do in the evening - we are used to more activity. Dinner was usually over by 7:30 and then we had an hour and a half to kill before the show. Too bad HAL changed the show times - 8pm would have been perfect! No big surprise - the ship was dead by 11pm.
Daily trivia was fun with a consistently good turn out. One day the questions were incredibly hard, but we all had a great time stretching our brains. My team one once - HAL luggage tags!
Culinary Arts Center - This was the first ship I have ever been on that had a room designated for cooking demos. There were daily demonstrations as well as two cooking schools. The room was also used in the evening for a good selection of fairly recent movies with popcorn provided. We went every evening except one.
Spa - I had a Swedish massage the last day and used the $20 off coupon I received at the spa drawing on the first day. I was satisfied with the $100 final price with the coupon; more expensive than home, but I still enjoy going to the spa on a cruise. It was a very relaxing and great massage, but there was an announcement on PA towards the end and it kind of spoiled the moment. I'm not sure why they have to have the PA piped into the treatment rooms, but this is the second time this has recently happened to me and it is annoying. I always avoid the hard sell at the end of any spa treatment by telling them I work for a cosmetic company, (which is the truth), and I have more products at home than they have in their backroom. It never fails. And honestly, I do have a few Steiner products that I like and when I tell them I already have this and that product, they leave me alone.
Key West - Because of the wind, our arrival was delayed one hour but HAL received permission to depart one hour later, so no time was lost. We have been here several times, so we only went into town to pick up some caffeine free diet coke for me and walk around the dock. It was a very windy and cool day, and I believe a few of the water excursions were cancelled. It was a good day for us to simply relax, unwind and in spite of the cool day, enjoy much nicer weather than we had seen for a long time. (The winter was brutal here in Ohio this year.)
Belize - The tenders were great - large and open. Because of my husbands back we opted out of excursions and slowly walked around the dock shopping area. There was an abundance of faux designer bags and shoes as well as several well known jewelry stores. We stopped for drinks at the Wet Lizard before returning to the ship for a late lunch.
Honduras - We took a private tour with friends we met on the ship - a boat ride along coast and up a river. It was a beautiful day cruising past limestone cliffs, with flocks of birds and lovely water lilies. Along the way we saw many homes, some spectacular, but primarily the modest dwellings of the local population. Quite a few children were going to and from school in small wooden boats. It was a great value for $35 each plus tip.
Costa Maya - For a while I didn't think we were going to make it into port. It was very windy, but the captain finally maneuvered us along one of the docks. Just as we were ready to leave the ship, it started raining, but it was over quickly and by the time we were off the ship, it had stopped. The remainder of the day was sunny and beautiful. We did a little shopping in the area right by the ship and enjoyed the nice beach area, (not suitable for swimming), and sat on lounge chairs by the pool where we relaxed and had drinks before we went back to ship for lunch. We were so glad we went back because we didn't miss the seafood buffet. Many people went downtown to the beach, had beach massages, and lunch in town.
Disembarkation - Painless. After an early breakfast in the Lido, we went back to our cabin to relax until our designated time. We were quickly off the ship where we collected our bags and went through immigration. The only unpleasant people I met the entire week were two crabby security guards at the exit - very bossy and rude.
Post Cruise - We spent the night after the cruise at the Marriott Bayside, a lovely place to stay. We had a room that overlooked the bay, so we were able to sit and watch the ships leave in the afternoon, and with a tear in my eye, I waved goodbye to the Veendam as she sailed off into the sunset. We had evening snacks and breakfast the next morning in the concierge lounge and dinner at the hotel on the patio. The weather was so beautiful - I really hated to have to go back to Ohio and the cold weather.
Overall - This cruise was exactly what we were looking for - low key, small ship, new ports of call, good food and service. There were a few areas that I thought were weak and a few areas where my expectations were exceeded. We still like Princess best and missed the options we have come to enjoy on the larger ships. But it was great to return to HAL after being away for such a long time and we will probably return sooner than later.