We chose the 7 day southern Caribbean itinerary largely because we had both seen most of the islands before and were attracted to three full days at sea. We both enjoy life on a ship.
The Westerdam is the right size for us - just under 2000 passengers when full (which it was) - yet large enough to offer a wide variety of spaces and facilities. The layout resembles a classic ocean liner with a proper observation lounge and classic wide promenade deck offering a fully unobstructed circuit of the ship. Three laps equal a mile and we, along with many others, used it every morning. Both the Promenade Deck and the forward section of the Observation Deck offer classic, comfortable wooden deck chairs with good padding. A wonderful place to read a book and watch the world drift by.
Our fellow passengers were older (older than usual according to two officers, which for HAL is saying something)and many were, sadly, loud and coarse with a habit of yelling at each other across pools, decks and dining tables or with peremptory demands at passing staff. A minor irritation (over which HAL has no control)but the fantasy of watching a few of them wash overboard did occur. Some people's grandparents .... Our table companions, on the other hand were delightful. If you choose a fixed sitting as we did, table companions can make or break a cruise. Our table of ten consisted of well travelled and amusing people of mixed ages who were amusing, informative and fun to be with. Whew! The menus were varied, the portions reasonable and the quality of ingredients above average. Meats were invariably cooked as ordered and, wonder of wonders, the lobster tails were both large and moist. HAL has always been accused of under seasoning and the first night menu was a touch bland and tasteless. Several people mentioned this, the kitchen gained courage and things improved markedly from then on. Dessert quality varied, usually good but not always. After demonstrating the "Art of Strudel Making" one afternoon the pastry department followed up with the toughest Apple Strudel in living memory (you could gnaw on it)and later with a Napoleon with a top crust apparently made with shortbread. Too odd. A night in the Pinnacle Grill revealed a classic steak house (and a good one too, mumbo jumbo about the Pacific Northwest aside,) with the expected starters and very large, well cut and expertly grilled steaks. The Pacific is represented by a salmon steak and a plank grilled filet of sea bass which one of our companions dismissed as tasteless. The crab cakes are very good as is the numbingly rich lobster bisque finished table-side with a half shot of cognac. Tables are well spaced and the pace of dinner is leisurely.
Service in both the Vista Dining Room and the Pinnacle Grill is friendly, eager and caring but lacks experience and finesse. Our Vista table was never served at the same time (although we ordered together and the same number of courses too) and having three people staring at cooling main entrees while others were just beginning second courses was par for the course. The waiter and his assistant forgot things, places were not fully set, silverware was dirty (I mean soup caked spoon and the like)and they seemed exasperated at times with each other, other waiters and the kitchen. Lots of smiles for us though and we were a good humoured bunch but you get the idea that a lot of new staff are learning the trade and that the teacher-student ratio isn't good. Even in the Pinnacle Grill good will exceeded skill and no less than five staff from the maitre d' to the wine steward wandered over to ask if our steaks were grilled to our liking. How would we know? We were too busy answering questions to eat. More seriously mussels were substituted for clams in one Vista appetizer and served without comment. When questioned the server responded "Oh. HA Ha. Kitchen have no clams" and wandered off. Breakfast service was painfully slow, disorganized on two mornings to the point of collapse and the kitchen was forever running out of things (Danish Pastries, Raisin Bran, Kippers)and we were early arrivees). The cabin staff are a different matter. Smooth, expert, intuitive. Things done quickly, accurately and with polish. Outstanding and a treat to experience. The cabin itself was well thought out and equipped with adequate storage, lots of hangers and comfortable beds. A bit soft I thought but that's me. My companion and most other passengers loved them. A good bathroom with a shower a larger man can turn around in. Good water pressure and lots of hot water. Excellent, fast laundry service.
We enjoyed the new library as part of the Crows-nest Bar. Much better selection than most ships and a open airy environment with coffee (extra charge) and snacks available. Crows-nest bar always good as was the Ocean Bar. Piano Bar smelled of Mildew so we avoided it. Casino averaged sized and busy. Night Club seemed to host Karaoke so we avoided that too. Pool areas well laid out and never seemed overcrowded. Usually lunched at the Lido Cafe which is a well laid out multi-station buffet. Variable quality so you need to shop around. Pizza quite good as were the Asian noodles.
Production Shows were good for a ship, with an excellent team of singers and dancers doing the usual run of Vegas style tributes to this and that. Barbara and the HAL Cats good as was a guy who did an Elton John night. Magician so-so. Comedienne un-funny. Cruise director Keith visible, approachable and knew his job. Captain came out of hiding late in the cruise. Other officers invisible.
Refreshingly few announcements throughout the cruise. Hats off to HAL for that. Overall a good cruise on a nicely appointed well laid out ship. Not five star but except for some aspects of service firmly four star.
If the line stops wildly expanding so that the number of trained, experienced staff can catch up with the number of ships it will get better.