Overall this was a fabulous trip on a great ship with a superb crew cruising to wonderfully exotic locations.
First a bit about me, I'm a 'retired' male in my early 60's, travelling solo. This was my second cruise. I took a 7-day trip to Bermuda about 30 years ago and really didn't like it so never considered cruising again. That is, until I saw this itinerary to Hawaii and the South Pacific. For a year I thought about it, talked with friends, and, most critically, hung out on CruiseCritic.com, finally joining the Roll Call to ask dumb questions and learn more. With the encouragement of the Roll Call, I booked about 11 months before sailing. My nightly visits to the very active Roll Call continued to relieve my various concerns. Nevertheless, it wasn't until about the 3rd day of the cruise that my apprehensions totally disappeared and I realized that this was the way to go.
My flights across the country were uneventful and on-time. (I used up some frequent flyer miles left over from my working life to book first class on United to San Diego. When my first choice for lunch was rescinded, I found out that when you fly 'free' you are the lowest rung on the ladder.) I came to San Diego 3 days early out of concern for early March weather and, since I'd never been there, it gave me a chance to play tourist and catch up with some left coast family I rarely see. The room I booked at the Holiday Inn on the Bay, was adequate and had a perfect view of the cruise terminal across the street. The hotel shows signs of its age and seemed a bit expensive to me, but location was perfect. I waited about half an hour for the courtesy van pickup at the airport, but had been told in advance that it runs every 30 minutes and there's no need to call, so I must have just missed one. After a couple days of touring around San Diego, mostly in the pouring rain, it was a thrill to see that my ship had arrived early Monday morning.
A group from the Roll Call had agreed to meet for dinner at a nearby Denny's the night before, so I was able to start making friends before even embarking. As I was most anxious to get aboard, I followed some of the Roll Call group across the street a bit before 11 AM. Then the waiting began. The ship had been on 'Code Red' for much of its previous cruise, so they were doing a more rigorous than usual cleaning and disinfecting. After awhile it was announce that boarding would be delayed until around 2 PM, but buses were available to take people to the nearby Seaport Village as a diversion. I don't know how many people took up that offer as I decided to stay in the terminal building and chat with more Roll Call members.
Finally boarded, had a quick late lunch in the Lido and headed to my cabin, which was quite far forward, on the Lower Promenade Deck, starboard side. I had booked the EE, guarantee, and this was considered a DD. I'm note sure it was an upgrade, as it seemed a bit smaller, and had an obstructed view. Nevertheless, it was more than adequate for me as I had spent many vacations on the Maine Windjammer fleet where my personal space was about 1/10th of this. There was plenty of room to hang and/or store what I'd brought with me. Since I'd limited myself to one suitcase, it wasn't an overabundance of clothes. My rationale had been that it is possible to do laundry (or have it done) on a regular basis, so why carry a lot of stuff. (I ended up using the bag option for laundry and was surprised at the amount of clothing I could pack into it.) Also, I had rented a tux from the service connected with HAL, thus eliminating the need to pack a suit, although at the last moment I packed a sport coat for more flexibility. The tux worked out well and I'd recommend it. The price seemed reasonable and it was very convenient.
There were pluses and minuses to the cabin and its location. I found it roomy enough with a small sofa and a suitable desk area. On the plus side, being on Deck 3, it was a short walk up to the many amenities on Decks 4 and 5 (I did use the elevators to get to the Lido or Crow's Nest - my fitness ethic extended only so far). Being on the Lower Promenade, it was quick and easy to get out for a daily walk, or to find a deck chair for reading or lounging. Although there were many people walking by, I rarely heard anything or felt that my privacy was threatened as windows are heavily mirrored to the outside. On the negative side, I was very far forward and was aware of the motion of the ship, which was quite rocky for the first 36 hours or so. (Thus my earlier comment about my apprehensions not disappearing until about the third day.) And there was a hydraulic pump motor that cycled on and off on an irregular basis 24 hours a day. The sound reminded me of the foghorns that I can hear from my home, so it was not a big issue to me. (I eventually found out that it was part of the system that kept the launching system for the lifeboats ready, so it was not something that could be shut off.) And finally, the lights on the deck are on all night. There was more light leakage into the cabin than I would have liked, but not really enough to disturb sleep. Using the individual control, I was able to keep the cabin temperature in a comfortable zone for me, generally on the cool side.
The ship is beautiful in a classic style with many works of art scattered though out. Everything in the interior was clean and shiny. If one looked hard enough on the exterior, there was some evidence of rust but there was constant maintenance and touch up. This is a working vessel in salt water, and corrosion is a continuing battle. As noted earlier the previous cruise had been in 'Code Red' and it continued for a couple days on this trip until evidence of illness was minimal. Unfortunately the antiseptic had raised havoc on the varnished wood railings in the stairwells, so during most of the trip, some section of a stairwell would be closed off for refinishing. On the subject of the 'Code Red', I did not find it overly obtrusive. It meant that there was no self serve on the Lido buffet, you had to ask for a serving. And rolls and butter were not on the dining table. It was easy to work around, and was over in a couple days anyway.
There were so many different interesting areas on the ship that I was still referring to the deck plan that came with the room key card a few days after embarkation. I found the library very useful (after the 'Code' was rescinded) and managed to read several of those books that had been on my list for some time. And I enjoyed the daily Sudoku available in the Explorations lounge. The daily news summary from The New York Times was useful and also contained the crossword puzzle.
Because of the itinerary, this trip had a large number of sea days. There was much discussion over whether sea days are good or bad. I loved them. There were a number of activities from crafts to cooking demonstrations to napkin folding to the Explorations Lecture series presented by knowledgeable speakers about the history and culture of many of our destinations. In addition there were daily religious services, Catholic and non-denominational. Also on the schedule I noted daily bridge sessions, team trivia, computer skill learning. On many days the Cruise Director had a Q&A session with a staff member or an entertainer. I could go on and on. Some days it was difficult to find a time to just relax and read. The way this trip works, there are a number of sea days followed by a number of port days in Hawaii, then a few more sea days before the port intensive visit to French Polynesia. After the final stop in the Marquesas, there are 6 days at sea to get back to San Diego. So, just as it seemed that another day at sea would be a test, there were several port days. And after exhausting myself on port tours and shopping, I was more than grateful for the sea days to recover.
Just a quick word about the service - wonderful. My cabin steward and our dining room waiters were terrific. Everyone was always smiling and offering a warm greeting. It was joyous. From the coffee server in the Lido to the stewards vacuuming the public areas in the morning, there were smiles and a good morning everywhere. And a helping hand was always nearby when needed.
I will try not to go on too much about the food. Readers of my personal blog believe all I did for 33 days was eat as I described the food in great detail daily. I recognize that food is a very subjective thing, but I loved it. I found the dining room food excellent 98% of the time. There was a wonderful variety in the choices and over the course of 33 days, many unusual and creative flavors. Of course if nothing appealed on the main menu, there were several items available every day. I had some extremely tasty lamb dishes, and well as terrific prime rib. The 2% I didn't care for was a chicken dish which was dry and over cooked. One evening our table mentioned to the dining room manager, when asked how everything was, that a couple things didn't seem as tasty as a similar dish had been a few days earlier. It was not a serious complaint, more of a comment. Within 5 minutes the Executive Chef was at our table and we had a great discussion for about 20 minutes. They were very attentive to special dietary requirements and I appreciated the 'no sugar added' desserts that were very tasty and helped me stay on the right track some of the time. I should add that I had early fixed dining and was at a table for 8 made up of truly marvelous, caring, and interesting people. Because of the camaraderie at our table, I never did try the Pinnacle Grill, although I spoke with people that enjoyed it very much. Some from our table joined me at the Canaletto Restaurant one evening. It was good, with limited choices, but not worth a repeat visit. One more negative comment - I did not like the coffee in the Lido. It seemed better in the dining room, but the best was at the Explorations Cafe, which, naturally, was an extra cost item, but I didn't gamble and drank little, so that was my splurge.
Again, entertainment is extremely subjective. Over the course of the cruise I went to almost all the evening shows. With a couple of exceptions, I found them most enjoyable. I was impressed with the variety and the quality. There were singers of all description, classical to classic pop, as well as musicians of a variety of instruments. There was a comic or two, a gymnast and a ventriloquist. Yes, some were from an older era, but nonetheless entertaining. However, I think my favorite shows were presented by the ship's entertainment group. They are a young, enthusiastic and talented group of singers, dancers and musicians. The house band, The HALcats, should be singled out for commendation. They work hard and are terrific. Not only do they provide music for the ship's singers, they are back-up for all musical entertainers brought on board, and they appear at various venues around the ship for background and dance music.
As a solo traveler, I found it easiest to book the ship's excursions for many ports. I realize that I paid for the convenience. Once I realized that every excursion would include a rest stop and that was a euphemism for a stop to shop at somebody's cousin's shack by the side of the road, and as it couldn't be avoided, I just went with it and enjoyed myself. The only real disappointment was the Circle the Island Tour of Oahu that was billed as having lunch at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Before I left on the trip several people had mentioned that the PCC was not to be missed. I was originally going to take the tour that went exclusively to the PCC and included the luau, but decided I'd see more of the island on the 'Circle' tour. And I was looking forward to the stop at the PCC thinking there'd be a short time to look around. Well, when it says 'lunch stop' that's what it means. 45 minutes to dash from the bus to a building along a confusing path from the entrance to indulge in a poor buffet, find a place to sit and eat and find your way back to the bus. It also was frustrating to see such glorious scenery with so few opportunities to stop for pictures. Like all tours, this ended up at some strip mall with somebody's cousin's gift shop, where we sat (I refused to get off the bus) for 25 minutes and waited for the shoppers. Perhaps those shoppers have a different view of the excursion. All the other tours were as advertised and satisfactory.
One quick comment on the port lectures provided on the ship. They were a waste of time and provided no useful information and occasionally provided misinformation. The 'Exploration' speakers were much more informative and helpful. I don't know if this is a problem of HAL, the ship or the person responsible, but it certainly was a weak point in a generally wonderful cruise.
We had several CruiseCritic related meetings during the trip from an initial M&G to a farewell lunch. Thanks to a couple of active Roll Call members for organizing them. The ship was most accommodating providing refreshments and arranging for the space. Over the course of the trip and the several gatherings we had a chance to meet and talk with the Captain, Hotel Manager, Cruise Director and several other of the top management. So not only were we able to meet one another, there were chances ask questions of the ship's staff.
I had decided early on in the planning process to stay an extra day in San Diego, so that I would not have to rush off the ship and head immediately to the airport. It was a wise decision as disembarkation was slow. There were two other ships in port so the Rotterdam was not at the usual dock. As the tide went out it made the angle of the gangway impossible to navigate and shortly after starting disembarkation, it had to be stopped for over half an hour to reset it. It was not a problem to me, but I suspect the delay might have troubled others.
I have rambled longer than I'd intended, but would like to offer kudos to the Captain and the Hotel Manager for running a wonderful ship and creating such a satisfying experience, one that I would highly recommend.