We flew out Christmas day. Just getting to Fort Lauderdale, where the cruise originated, was stressful. Our flight from Tucson, where we live, was delayed 2.5 hours, meaning that we were going to miss our connection in Dallas. Fortunately, they were able to get us on another flight. However, that meant that we had a 15 minutes in Dallas to catch our next flight, a near impossibility. To make matters worse, if we missed our connection, there was not room on another flight for three days; we would miss the ship. So, we took what we got and hoped for the best.
Our flight into Dallas arrived 10 minutes early. Also, as we were approaching they announced the gate information for connecting flights. We were coming into gate A-19 and the flight out was leaving gate A-20. Luck was on our side.
As it turned out, however, none of that mattered. The flight from Dallas was delayed three hours, due to mechanical problems. In fact, even if we were on the original flight from Tucson, we still would have made our connection. Even so, we were totally emotionally drained when we finally arrived in Florida.
We stayed the night in Fort Lauderdale. The next day, we were to get on the ship.
In the morning, they delivered our wine to the hotel. Well, allow me to step back a bit. We always bring wine aboard Holland America ships, because they allow you to bring as much as you want on board. It would be nearly impossible to fly the wine across the country, so we ordered our wine online ahead of time from Total Wine, a wine superstore in Fort Lauderdale. Total Wine has a policy that if you order over 200 dollars worth of wine, they will deliver it for free. We planned to bring about 10 bottles, so 200 dollars was easily exceeded for us.
We took the hotel shuttle to the ship terminal, and were on our way. At the terminal, a couple of pictures, and a health questionnaire later -- we were on the ship. We were through in less than 30 minutes.
When we finally got aboard ship, I gave a big sigh of relief. It was only then that I knew that we were going to make it. If we are going to take another winter time cruise, I think we will get trip insurance. There is just too much to risk with the weather.
When we boarded, our rooms were not ready, so we decided to get some lunch. There are two days that the Lido in packed and crazy: embarkation day, and disembarkation day. Since we are Mariners (previous Holland America customers), we were able to get lunch in the dining room, rather than fight it out at the Lido. That was quite nice. In fact, it was such a stark difference from the day before when we had to cram our faces full of airport food between flights, served by unhappy airport workers, with constant interruptions by overhead announcements. Here we sat and ate our leisure, and were politely served. It was quiet and peaceful.
Each person at the table told their story of almost not making it to the ship. It seemed that our crazy trip the day before was not unique. Everyone traveling across country had similar problems, mostly due to weather.
After lunch, our room was ready: room number 5096, a superior suite, mid-ship, near the glass elevators. This was our first time in a suite. There was actually room to move around. And the bathroom? Two sinks, a bathtub, and a shower. The balcony was also quite spacious, with two chairs, two wooden ottomans, and a large table. The balcony had a see-through railing. Below that was an orange lifeboat with the number 10 printed on it.
Before we sailed away, we had an informal meet-up with the Cruise Critic roll-call people, by the pool. After that, they had the muster drill. I should note that they no longer have you bring your life-jackets to the muster drill.
After muster, my wife and I went back to our room, opened up some champagne, and prepared for sail away. We have a tradition of drinking champagne for sail away, which is exactly what we did, sitting our private balcony. As we sailed away, we passed directly by a Princess ship, close enough that it took up the entire view from our balcony, and you could wave at the passersby.
That night for dinner, I had prime rib, which I actually think was my favorite meal of the entire trip. We also brought a bottle of wine to dinner. The corkage fee was 18 dollars. Since we only finished half the bottle, they were able to save it for us for the next night. People often ask us what happens when you have a bottle saved. Do they charge you again the next night? The answer is no. They charge you corkage to open the bottle only. I should also note that we had As You Wish dining. We simply had to give them our stateroom number to hold the bottle, so they could find it the next night.
The next day we were in Half Moon Cay. Half Moon Cay is an island in the Bahamas owned by Holland America.
After breakfast on our balcony, we started to head downstairs to A deck to get on the tender to the island. As we entered the glass elevator heading down, the cruise director announced that there was no waiting to board the tender. When we got to the bottom, however, the doors opened to reveal a huge crowd in line. It was kind of a zoo. As we got in line, everyone was grumbling about the announcement. What was there to do, however? We just got in line and waited. Unfortunately, there was one lady who kind of lost it. She got into the face of one of the workers and started yelling. That was totally uncalled for. I mean, we were all in the same boat (excuse the pun). The wait was really not that long either. Half an hour, maybe?
When the tender finally arrived it was huge. It held like 300 people. It took a while to get everyone off. Finally, it was our turn to board. Unfortunately, it was raining outside -- well, more like a drizzle. The funny part is that when that same lady got on the tender, she stormed right back off, back into the ship. After all that waiting, she did not even get off the ship.
On shore, we made our way over to the stingray pen. We had a shore excursion planned where we got to swim with stingrays. We put on snorkel gear, life vests, and water shoes, and got in the water, or should I say, I did. My wife chickened out and would not get in the water.
As I floated, the stingrays would swim under me. I reached out a touched them as they did. They were kind of cold and clammy. After a time, they gathered everyone in a circle where we all had a chance to feed them. I held a squid sticking out of my fist, tucking my thumb under (so it would not be mistaken for the squid). As it swam by, it hoovered up the squid.
After the stingray thing, we headed for the beach. Fortunately, it had quit raining. We got a clamshell, which basically a shaded cover you can rent, and spent some time there. I have to say that the beaches at Half Moon Cay are as beautiful as they come -- really fine powdery sand and absolutely no seaweed, rocks, or anything. It really looked like something out of a Corona commercial.
When evening came, after we had sailed away from Half Moon Cay, we had reservations at Tamarind, an Asian themed restaurant on board. I ordered sushi, chicken pho, and a coconut curry red sauce chicken dish.
Sushi: First let me say that I've had sushi aboard another cruise ship, the Carnival Elation, and it was absolutely horrendous. Yuck. As a result, I did not have high hopes for HAL's sushi. You know what? It was actually good. It was everything good sushi should be: fresh, the rice was done right. I was pleasantly surprised.
Pho: If you've never had pho, people get very passionate -- almost religious -- about it. Everyone has their favorite pho place, and each person likes their pho a particular way. Basically, it is a Vietnamese soup made with meat, thin rice noodles, and a light broth. Served on the side are bean sprouts, chilies, sweet basil, a variety of sauces, and lime. You season it to your particular taste. I was very curious to try HAL's version of it when we found it on the menu.
I can safely say that the soup they served us was not pho. First, nothing was served on the side. The big thing, though? No rice noodles. Pho can be many things, but the one constant is the rice noodles. No noodles, not pho. That is not to say that the soup was bad. My wife and I both liked the soup they served. It simply was not pho.
Coconut curry red sauce dish: This was like a Thai red sauce dish. I got mine extra spicy. It was very good. In fact, my wife got another dish but was very jealous of my dish, because it was better.
All and all, we enjoyed our Tamarind experience. It was nice to have options aboard ship. The next day was a sea day. We had put out the room service card marking what we wanted for breakfast and the time to have it delivered the night before. In fact, we did that every morning, and ate breakfast on our balcony.
I should digress a bit and talk about room service. We had taken a cruise a year earlier aboard the Oosterdam, to the Mexican Riviera. On that cruise, we had a terrible time with room service. We would call and they would never pick up. On the rare occasion that they did, the order would often be late. The orders were rarely correct. In fact, from that cruise, that was our biggest complaint. We said something about it in our review of that trip on Cruise Critic, and got an email a couple of days later saying that they heard what we said, and were taking action to correct the problem. I give HAL kudos for that.
When this cruise came along, we were curious what would happen with room service. This is what we found. They were very prompt, which was better. We could actually get through to room service, which was better. However, they still had issues with correctness of the order. We ordered the same thing every morning. Some days we got some things, but some things were missing. Other days, different things would be missing. Some days, we'd get extra things we did not order. As a result, I'd say it was better, but I'm not sure that I'd give it a passing grade.
That afternoon, we met other Cruise Critic folks at the meet and greet. My wife actually organized the event, and found HAL more than accommodating. They set up space for us at the piano bar, and provided coffee and sweets. The people we met there became our friends throughout the cruise. We spent a lot of time with them.
That night was the first formal night.
Actually, this is a good point to talk about dining options. In the past we tried early seating. However, that was too early. Usually we do not eat lunch until late on a cruise, so an early dinner, which is between 5:00 and 6:00 (I forget the actual time), is just that, too early. Then we tried late seating. The problem with late seating is just the opposite: it is too late. By the time you finish eating, it is like 10:00 pm. You just had a big meal, you are tired, and you just want to go to bed. We would always miss the nightlife. We wanted something in the middle, so we got As You Wish dining this time. Here is the deal with As You Wish dining, though. We found that we missed having the same wait staff every night (and the same dinner companions for that matter). You would get to know them; they would get to know you. So, I don't know.
The next day we were in Aruba. We planned a snorkeling trip there.
We exited the ship, took a cab to our destination, signed a waver, and headed out to board the dingy to take us out to a catamaran. Boarding the dingy was tough because the waves were rough. In fact, I thought that my wife was not going to make it on board. She did, though, and it took us to the boat.
On the catamaran, we sailed about 20 minutes to a buoy pretty far from land. That marked a spot that a German submarine sunk during World War II. We donned our snorkel gear and went out in the water. Down in the murky depths you could see an outline of the submarine. I could make out twisted metal. We did that for about 45 minutes and then headed to our next snorkeling stop.
The second stop was at a reef full of fish. Both my wife and I had waterproof cameras and we took a ton of pictures at both stops. At that stop, they also pulled out a rope swing, so that people on the boat could swing out into the water. Some of the younger guys did flips. It was quite impressive.
After snorkeling, on the way back to the ship, rather than take a cab, we decided to take the city bus. At the bus stop, a 12 passenger van drove up, with a sign that said "bus" taped to the window. My wife and I looked at each other.
"I guess this is the bus," I shrugged.
We got on board, and it took us back to the ship. It cost us $2.50 rather than 15 bucks.
The next day we were in Curacao. From our balcony, we could see charming colorful old buildings with red tile roofs, surrounded by big trees. It looked like an old European city rather than a Caribbean island.
There we took a private tour. After exiting the ship, we found our guide, Gigi. She took us all over the island, including a Jewish cemetery, an old plantation house, the Curacao liquor factory, and the synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. Each place she gave us detailed history. She also seemed to know everyone on the island. It was a wonderful tour. We also spent some time walking around the city, crossing the famous pontoon bridge. Around 1:00 pm we went back to the ship for lunch.
On a whim, my wife and I decided to try Tamarind again for lunch. We did not have a reservation, so we did not know if we could get in. On our way up to deck 11, we met a nice couple who had been at the Cruise Critic meet and greet earlier in the cruise. They were also going to Tamarind for lunch. When we got up to the counter, because they had a reservation, they were seated right away. We waited, however, to see if there was a cancellation. They closed at 1:30 pm so we waited until then, and then gave up. We did not think anything of it really. We just wanted to try and see if we could get in, like I said, on a whim.
We found out later from the same couple when we saw them in the Ocean Bar that evening that they were seated at a table for four at Tamarind. However, they were the only ones seated there, so they had asked if we could join them (which was very nice of them). The answer they got was no, which was very odd. I mean, usually HAL is very accommodating. They were not in that case. Very weird.
Late in the evening, like most evenings, we hung out by the aft pool. The pizza counter was there -- yes, the dreaded "Angry Pizza Guy." He always looked completely unhappy. When he would serve you, if you said thank you, he would just scowl, and not respond. I should note that on a Carnival ship we were on earlier in the year there was also an "Angry Pizza Guy." I think that it must be the worst job on the ship.
The next day was a sea day. It was also New Year's Eve.
When we got up, seas were rough. The ship was really moving around. In fact, they had the barf bags out by the elevators.
I thought, "This is not good." I did not think that it boded well for the festivities that evening.
Most of the day, we spent out on deck, getting some sun with some of our Cruise Critic friends, watching the whitecaps below us in the water. Funny thing about the sun. It is good at finding the spots that you forgot to put sunscreen on. As it turned out, that was my armpits. I spent hours on a lounge chair with my hands behind my head, hat covering my face. When we finally went downstairs to our room, all of me was tan except for my bright red armpits. Ouch.
When evening came, the seas had calmed down a bit. I then attempted to put on my suit, sunburn and all. When all was said and done, I felt like a penguin holding my arms at my side, away from my body. It was finally New Years Eve, and we were ready to party.
Dinner was good. I had the veal chop, which had been beautifully Frenched. In fact, that was one of the best meals I had the whole trip.
After dinner, we went back to our room, grabbed a bottle of champagne, and the headed down to the Ocean Bar on deck three, Promenade. There we found a seat right up next to the dance floor. A jazz trio was playing old standards. We got enough seats to seat most of our Cruise Critic friends.
My wife and I stayed there all night. Our Cruise Critic friends came and went, all night long. Apparently, they did some big thing in the theater for New Years. We did not care. Soft jazz was more our speed.
As midnight approached, they wheeled in a large plasma TV. We all speculated what it was for. Were they doing to show the ball drop? Maybe they were doing to show us what was going on in the theater? Finally, they turned it on to show big clock graphics counting down. Eventually, they passed out party favors -- little horns and twisty zipper things. The place was packed. The dance floor, every seat -- there were people everywhere. Finally, the band stopped playing.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Happy New Year! My wife and I kissed. Everyone was making noise everywhere.
Eventually, all our Cruise Critic friends came back, and we all stayed up until about 2:00 am in the morning talking.
The next day was our last full day aboard the ship. That day was a quiet one. We did not hang out with our Cruise Critic friends or anyone. It was just my wife and I. We stayed indoors all day to keep out of the sun. In fact, we went to the shops to buy aloe gel for our sunburns; we went to the internet cafe to check our flight itinerary; we even tried to catch a movie at the movie theater on board, but it was packed and we could not find a seat. It was a very low key day.
Finally, the dreaded day came. It was time to get off the ship. We got expedited disembarkation, which meant that we were off the ship by 7:30 am and had to carry our luggage off. We did that because we had an early flight out back the Tucson. There was basically no line to get off. Customs was a breeze. Next thing we knew we were on our way home.
In summary, we had a great time and would go again in a heartbeat. Obviously there were some minor -- emphasis on minor -- service issues: room service, the Tamarind lunch thing, and the "Angry Pizza Guy." In the end, though, I would say it was a pretty successful cruise.