I recently sailed on my first HAL cruise in 14 years on the Westerdam. I have sailed primarily on Celebrity but have basically sailed on most of the major lines and have been fortunate enough to have sailed on HAL, Celebrity, RCI, Princess, NCL, Cunard, Star Clippers and Travel Dynamics in the past three years.
I was extremely nervous on returning to HAL as I had read so many mixed reviews. I was also guarded as I had not been impressed by photos of the ship itself but I really wanted to keep trying different products.
Well, I didn't hate, loath or even despise HAL. I loved it!
I was extremely impressed by the superb food and service I had onboard and it was almost ridiculous how superior it was in nearly all aspects to RCI and Celebrity. The Vista Dining room in fixed seating provided consistently excellent meals with charming service. We loved the Rosenthal China and the heft and look of the silverware and tableware. Room service was also excellent but the Lido less satisfactory as while all the food looked and tasted good, most of it was thermally challenged or downright cold.
Dinner in the Pinnacle Grill was superb. Knowing, smooth service with fantastic cuts of beef. For those cheapskates out there who say that the food in the main dining room is just as good, as a veteran of almost 50 cruises, let me tell you in two words: "It isn't!"
I loved my aft veranda #5185 which was a whopping 225 square feet (actual) with an estimated 140 square foot veranda. This makes it about the same size as a small suite but with the same "real estate" as a cat SC. For all of those ship freaks out there, please - for once and for all, the cat VA's vary widely in size.
The toiletries were of an excellent quality and abundant and the beds were the best I have ever had on a ship.
The Greenhouse spa staff was delightful - not the usual "Ship of Evil" Steiner staff that one encounters. The Thermal Suite/Thalasso pass was excellent value for the money.
I loved the Neptune quartet in the Ocean bar but the string quartet in the Explorers was the worst I have ever seen. Wildly out of tune, arrogant and condescending - my favourite qualities in musicians! The piano bar pianist was a little too reminiscent of a Bill Murray Lounge Lizard spoof. I saw one production show in the Vista Lounge and while I deplored the recorded orchestra, the show itself was stupidly enjoyable.
I also enjoyed the provision of three sets of elevators and stairs - aft, midships and forward.
Now, I don't want to sound like a total shill for the company so I still have to list some criticisms.
The gym smelled of mildew and was extremely poorly ventilated with a poor selection of cardio machines.
My neighbours on either side of me smoked constantly on their verandas - while it may be their "right", it certainly spoiled my hours outside reading. HAL - please. Join the rest of the up market industry and ban smoking in cabins period.
The dEcor of the ship was distinctive - but not in a good way. The uses of orange, yellow, and strange blues created extremely weird colour combos that left you shaking your head. HAL appears to have confused "Classic" with "Dated". The corridors were reminiscent of chain hotels from the early 70's - cheap carpets and "art'" that consisted of one-piece frame, matting, image and glass all screwed to the wall like a jumbo placemat.
For a ship fanatic like myself, I was amazed at what poor condition Westerdam was in after only five years. Her poor fit and finish were coming back to haunt her at an extremely early age. There was noticeable peeling paint finishes in the Atrium dome ceiling and art gallery and the cabin corridor bulkheads were dented, scratched and peeling. The same cheap bulkhead material comprised my cabin walls - they truly reminded me of the interior of my first AA flight on a 707 in 1970!
Carnival does not spend on their ships and it shows. After you have sailed on the amazingly "solid" ships of RCI and Celebrity, the Fincantieri ships are very poor in comparison indeed. It's a documented fact that Carnival spends way less per cabin construction than RCI does.
But ..... you can't have it all. The fact that Carnival does spend less on the ship allows them to spend more on the dining aspect. Celebrity Solstice didn't come cheap and considering her cruises cost the same as HAL's, something's got to give.
So where does that leave me? Actually, in a very good place! I now have a trusted alternative supplier that I can rely on. If there's an itinerary I like on Celebrity or RCI, I may have to give up on the dining aspect but I can sail on a truly magnificent vessel. If HAL offers a better price or itinerary, I may have to sail on a frumpier ship but know that I will have a more refined dining experience.
Most importantly, for many posters who proclaim one line or another to be "the best" without trying alternatives, it's a big (cruising) world out there - expand your horizons!