This group of itineraries is ideal (and inventive in fact) because you can actually stay on the ship for 3 weeks and experience 3 different itineraries.... Southern, Western and Eastern. Many people on our cruise were on the week before and some were continuing the following week. But the Southern route is, in my opinion, the "lazy" and most relaxing week.
I decided to leave the internet back home, but brought my Acer netbook just to keep my thoughts in order as we cruised. Then I realized all the notes would only forge the negative memories best left in the past. After a week of cruising, if they still stand out they're worth mentioning. Otherwise they just weren't worth recording in the first place. So I reserved my Acer for uploading my pictures and nothing else.
The good points are always easily recalled so in retrospect I'm glad I decided to write this review based on memories alone. I think it's a fairer way to reflect on an absolutely amazing week.
No cruise line is perfect and HAL makes mistakes along the way just like any cruise line, but overall for the money, this cruise is a "keeper" with memories we'll always cherish.
THE HIGH POINTS
We cruised with two fellow CC'ers we met on a Prinsendam 10-Day cruise in December 2006. We've talked about cruising together ever since and we finally made it happen. We were in Superior Verandah Stateroom 6106 (SY) with our friends next door in 6104. As many of you know you can open the panel between the verandahs which we did as soon as we boarded.
I highly recommend this category stateroom. I know everyone loves the coveted larger suites with the benefit of the Neptune Lounge, but for us this was perfect and affordable. It's very large, very comfortable, with tons of drawer space, twin sinks and twin medicine cabinets, a separate stall shower plus a jacuzzi tub (which is absolutely the best!). The deck, too, is spacious and while I'm sure the larger suites are a cut above, the cost of this one is considerably less. At about $1.20 per nautical mile for two (a sort of different and fun way to measure the cost), it's an amazing value.
We chose traditional dining 2nd sitting at 8:00 and this has always worked for us. I like a nice long day and quickly adjust to eating so late. We had hoped for a table for 8 or 10, but were given a table for 6. If another couple was assigned, they never showed up so it was just the 4 of us. We all love a big table with lots of fun conversation, but fortunately none of us are ever at a loss for words so it was a great week with our wonderful Dining Steward, Augus. I really missed him our night in the Pinnacle.
We had the best food and menu choices I've ever had on a ship since we began cruising in 1982. This is a kudo I have never given HAL much preferring Celebrity. But it was absolutely fantastic (with the exception of the Pinnacle ... more on that later). The only complaint I would have was the lack of chocolate chip cookies and the disappearance of waffle cones on our last day ;).
Entertainers Joel Mason and Barnaby:
Both of these entertainers are far and away the best fun with the most laughs and joy I've ever experienced on a cruise ship anywhere, anytime. When they performed I never stopped smiling and they both received standing ovations. When they both performed on the last night, they outdid themselves and were better than the two nights they performed solo if that's possible.
It's difficult to find 7-day cruises with a lot of sea time. Since I cruise for the sea, this itinerary with only HMC, Aruba and Curacao as ports, it was ideal. We had 3 1/2 days at sea. Just glorious.
An all 'round amazing diversity of people in all age groups (very few children this particular week and the few we did have were terrific). Since we spent a lot of time simply relaxing or with our friends, we didn't get to meet a lot of people. But overall, wherever we went, people were in the best of humor and just wanted to have a good time. Our last cruise on the Veendam in 2007 (and the reason we didn't cruise again until now) was the polar opposite with more gloom and doom than I have ever seen on any cruise ship.
Captain Henk Keijer:
In my opinion, he is a Captain's Captain and most definitely a woman's man. He strode the ship exuding confidence, control and a presence such as I've never experienced before. He is a stunning man with a magnificent voice. If I were casting a film and needed a Captain, I would need look no further than Captain Keijer. He is, quite simply, stunning. Even without the uniform, there would be no doubt that he was the Captain of the Westerdam (no, I did not get a chance to confirm this).
We did a HAL tour on Curacao called the Curacao Beach Express. It was hysterical!!! It was pretty much as described ... an open air, hand painted bus. Open air is an understatement! With the windows open I enjoyed the blast of wind but couldn't hear a word the tour guide spoke. I do know she talked nonstop from the moment we left.
I asked others if they could hear her and they said not a single word. I'm sorry I missed that part. The landscape of Curacao (at least this time of year) is beyond ugly. We rode 1/2 hour to the beach. So essentially we paid $50/pp for a ride to the beach.
Still, when we got there it felt worth every penny. It's a beautiful beach and the water was heavenly. We had 2 hours there which was a generous amount of time. Generally these tours allow you very limited time on the beach. We loved it and it wasn't crowded. The tour included beach lounges which were in pretty bad repair, but did the job. There were lots of shaded areas, either trees or thatched umbrella thingies. There were rest rooms, showers, a bar ... everything you could possibly want.
Anyone considering this tour should be mindful of the caution to bring water shoes. The shore is very rocky so getting in and out of the water was difficult. One poor woman had a heck of a time. Brought up near the shore, I know the trick of letting the wave take me forward, but it could be a problem for some.
THE LOW POINTS (these appear longer, but only because of the detail)
I'm reasonably certain this will be our last dinner in the Pinnacle if DH gets a vote. The menu is limited, but I still had trouble choosing because there were several things I was sure I would love. I had the Steak Dianne which we were told was prepared tableside, but what they really meant was they wheel a cart over with the cooked steak, light the cognac, pour over the steak and serve. The same held true with the Caesar Salad. Again, the dressing was pre-made and simply tossed at tableside. In fact there was quite a fuss about whether they could prepare tableside or not; sometimes they do, sometimes they don't ... something about new regulations.
All that would be fine, but the entrees were all barely warm and my husband's veal chop was mostly fat and way overcooked. Since we had already waited far too long for the entrEe he made the best of it eating some of my steak and our friend's veal chop (which was done perfectly).
Our coffees arrived at least 20 minutes before our dessert. Two of us had ordered the soufflE and we were told it takes 45 minutes so we absolutely must order it the moment we arrived. The time between courses was way too long. I love a long dinner hour, but we arrived at 7:30 and finished a little over 3 hours later. On the plus side (because I always want the silver lining), my Chocolate Volcano Cake was absolutely delicious as always.
Still, for this I gave up Escargot in the dining room ... broke my heart.
Cabin Steward & Bar/Lounge Staff:
I was less than impressed with our Cabin Steward. He was smiling and friendly, but truthfully we saw him so little that I could not recognize him when passing at the other end of the corridor. Some would see this as a good thing, but the fact is he must have been overworked or we were at the end of his list. The first morning we returned to a clean room, but from that time on it was never done before noon and sometimes much later than that. When I went to Towel Folding (to learn how to make the wonderful towel animals) the Steward told us he had 29 rooms. That seems like a lot and someone has to be at the end of the list. The verandah was generally skipped and I cleaned the table myself most days and made sure never to go barefoot out there.
Still and all, the cabin itself was kept immaculate and the bright side is I didn't have to clean the bathroom, make the bed or wash the linens. So it's still a positive in my book!
Though not the fault of the bar and lounge staff, the service there was just awful because they were short staffed and just unable to keep up before dinner in the Pinnacle or Ocean Bar lounges. We would allow 45 minutes or so for a drink, but we simply were not served in time to enjoy any time there at all. Hot appetizers were finally passed just as we needed to go into dinner. This was especially poor in the Pinnacle bar.
Neither of us drink alcohol so while we do enjoy going to the Ocean Bar or Pinnacle Bar for a before dinner 'drink', we don't hang out in the bars as we would if we drank. That's why our experience has to be viewed with that in mind. Still, it was evident in those two lounges that the service was truly poor. With only one Steward in each, there's no way they could keep up. One night in the Ocean Bar suddenly 2 additional Stewards arrived so I'm sure it improved, but for us it was time for dinner.
I believe in both cases the problem is the result of cutbacks, not the individual service which was always friendly, warm and apologetic.
On the plus side, one night we did get the 'good nuts' (meaning cashews, almonds, pecans ... not just peanuts!).
Key cards and drink cards:
The WORST! And drink cards seem to be a new favorite among TA's (I learned this on one of my many visits to the Front Office). I was told these cards are new. They are not the ones available the last time we cruised where they give you a glass and you get free refills. This is an actual monetary amount on the drink card and you get a real drink or a can of Coke, beer, etc.. Our TA gave us each a $50 drink card in addition to the promised shipboard credit. I was thrilled because each time you buy a drink, bottle of wine, Coke, whatever, you get a receipt showing how much is left on the card. I thought $100 worth of drinks was very generous and we were really appreciative (reminder to self: Thank my TA).
They would be great if they didn't stop working every 5 seconds. And when the drink card didn't work, neither would the room key and vice versa. The staff couldn't have been more sympathetic or accommodating, but it's still annoying to want to pick up a Coke at the bar and have to wait 20 minutes while the key gets reactivated or replaced. I wanted to use the drink card, and not the minibar, because the drink card can't be used with the minibar. Nor can it be used to buy water when going ashore at which time I was told "hey, it's only $1.95" ...yes, but it's my $1.95!!!. Hopefully they'll get this all figured out before too long because I had to go to the Front Desk at least 5 times in a week to either reactivate my room key or the drink card or both (in some cases both had to be re-cut and linked which would de-activate DH's room card .... AWK!!!
FYI, the drink cards have no monetary value so use it or lose it. Because of all the problems I encountered, HAL was kind enough to credit us for the unused portion on our card but cautioned me they would not do this again ever. Of course, it's rare anyone would have trouble using up $100 in drink credits, but we don't drink alcohol so it's a challenge!
They also told me to be very careful not to put the cards together, not to put the cards near my cellphone or my camera (or, evidently, a magnetic clasp on a purse). So it's quite a juggling act keeping them separate when you tend to pop these sorts of things in your pocket or bag.
Clearly this was more of an issue for me than I thought if I spend this much time on it, but the truth of the matter is it had to be a pretty terrific cruise for something so tiny to bother me.
Entertainment and Shops:
The HAL Cats were particularly good. The lead singer was a giant step forward from our Veendam cruise. As for the dancers in the Vista Lounge, they were highly energetic and gave it their all. A couple of the singers had nice voices, but sad to say this was not a high point of the cruise.
I really disliked the shops, there was really nothing that drew me in so I was able to leave the ship with just 2 t-shirts under my arm (and 2 only because it was one for $25.00/2 for $30). I've always been disappointed in HAL's shops, but this is a subjective opinion. The final day they touted a huge sale of "watch sets" for $29.99 (2 for $49.99). Since I honestly think you can never have too many watches, I raced up there. They were the ugliest watch/earrings/necklace sets I think I've ever seen! And I won't even try to describe the men selling them ... but suffice to say I couldn't believe there was a HAL logo on their shirts. I've seen these same guys selling watches laid out on a blanket on the streets of NY.
HAL Rewards Visa:
I'm adding this for those who may have the HAL Rewards Visa. You can redeem points with a variety of onboard "gifts". When you redeem for a $50 drink card, the good news is you get an OBC, not a drink card, so you can use it for anything. I also redeemed $50 in casino chips for DH and we were able to simply cash that in for cash which was good (I've been meaning to ask him if he won with my gift because he won over $1000 which was pretty darned exciting!!!). If you redeem for the Pinnacle Grill, you must use it for that and you can't use it prior to the cruise. So if you prefer to make a reservation prior to boarding (in order to secure the day you want), you're better off not using your rewards.
AND FINALLY ...
Our Cruise Director was Shane Michaels. I can't comment too much about him because I never saw him except at the shows, but there I found him to be a bit stiff...even uncomfortable in his skin. The HM was Marco van Belleghem. The Front Office was courteous and accommodating (particularly Katherine) on all my visits, but no matter what I asked I got different answers each visit. Katherine was the only person who seemed to follow through and the outcome was just as she said it would be.
I know it sounds like I'm really splitting hairs here, but I wonder if it's possible to add a few new jokes at the Departure Talk or in the CD's little snippet talks before and after the shows? The CD just keeps telling the same old jokes that I swear I've been hearing for 25 years as have all the rest of the passengers who have even taken a cruise. And the same jokes are told on all the different cruise lines and everyone graciously laughs like they've never heard them before. At the very least, could they at least not pretend that they "just got an email" or "just saw this comment last night"? There has to be some new material out there, someone has to be writing something really funny we haven't heard before. I really don't think I can handle hearing about the naked passengers who forgot to keep clothes out the last night and ended up wrapped in a shower curtain as they exited the ship. This isn't a big deal; just something HAL could think about. A lot of funny stuff has to happen behind the scenes ... tell us some of it. We can laugh at ourselves.
There was minimal wear and tear on the furnishings, etc., and I could care less. There are far more important things to think about on a cruise. Overall, she ship looked wonderful to me. I loved the decor, the layout, the nooks and crannies. It does not feel like a large ship ... it has a small ship feel to me.
I loved leaving the ship before I was quite ready. Leave a party while you're still having fun, push away from the table before you feel quite full. This was without question the perfect 7-day cruise. I highly recommend it!