We have been cruising at least once a year since 1998 and love our time on board. We have cruised Princess (7 times) Celebrity (2 times) and Holland (3 times) during this period.
This cruise was essentially two seven day Caribbean cruises. The first week we did the Southern Caribbean (Half Moon Cay, Aruba and Curacao) with 20 of our family and friends. The second week eight of us stayed on board for the Eastern Caribbean (Turks and Caicos, San Juan, St. Maarten and Half Moon Cay). Half Moon Cay was cancelled the second week due to 40 knot winds.
We had an SY suite on Deck 6 and loved the extra space. There was plenty of storage, a large balcony (which was even bigger since we opened the partition shared with my in-laws), a separate jacuzzi tub and shower, double vanity sink, flat screen TV and DVD player. In short, at 400 sq. feet(including balcony) this was the best room we have had on any ship. Everyone raves about the HAL beds, and while I certainly am not complaining, I didn't think they were that much better than Princess or Celebrity. It might be that at 6'4" I struggle with the "queen" sized beds they have on board. I am really just sleeping on a twin bed, which is a bit small for my frame.
Our cabin steward did a fine job. We rarely say him, and our towel animals were a bit sporadic, but generally speaking everything was acceptable. We loved the SY cabin and would book it again in a minute.
Above everything else we found the service on board to be amongst the best we have ever had at sea. Andry (Yum Yum Man at night and Lido waiter in the morning), Frank and Disco (week 1 waiters) Ekky and Wayan(week 2 waiters) were all wonderful. Between the magic tricks at dinner, Andry letting our 4 year old ring the dinner bell on his xylophone, and the wonderful counselors at Club HAL, the service was impeccable.
CLUB HAL/KIDS CLUB
The counselors in Club Hal were amazing. Our 4 year old (almost 5) made us take him up to Club HAL every night, which was a bit of a surprise. He loved Ms. Denise and Ms. Lisa. He had fun every night he was at Club Hal. He is still depressed that he is not on the cruise. There are not as many kids on HAL as RCL, Carnival, or Princess. In addition, they do not have as many special amenities for the kids. However, our son loves the fact that there are not a million kids in the program. The counselors were fantastic and he was very happy with Pirate Night, Slumber Party, Freeze Dance, and the many games they played that kept them busy. As he gets older I would think that he might like RCL better as they have the water parks, etc., but at least for the next couple of years, I think he would be very happy with HAL's kids program. I will say that our friends kids, ranging from 5 to 12, also loved the kids program. If you were on a cruise, however, with only a handful of kids, then the over 13 crowd could be bored as there would not be enough kids to make it fun. I noticed, on the first week that the teenage disco (the loft) was hoping with teenagers overflowing with hormones. In short a great cruise for these kids. You could see the romance in the air. On the second week, the loft was essentially empty as there were not enough teenagers to create a party.
We found the food to be excellent. The dining room food was more interesting and tastier than Princess (we were married on Princess and have cruised them at least once a year for the last 7 years). The Pinnacle Grill was excellent and well worth the extra money. The Lido Buffet was, in our opinion, far superior to Princess. The different stations provided alternatives that Princess doesn't offer. We loved having the Asian/Italian/Salad options every day. Also thought the Mongolian Bar BQ by the pool was great. The Pizza is one thing that Princess definitely does better as their poolside ovens make great thin crust pizza.
Half Moon Cay is simply the best beach we have ever been on. The sand and water is absolutely spectacular. We rented the Pink Cabana the first week and it was well worth the $300. It made it much easier for us to enjoy the entire day on the beach, as we had a place to catch some shade, air conditioning, and a table to eat at for lunch. I would recommend the cabana in a minute.
Aruba was fine. We have been there many times and frankly we chose just to walk around town a little bit, have a bite to eat and get back to the ship. Our friends got day passes at the Radisson, went on a catamaran snorkel trip and loved their day.
Curacao. What a cute town. We walked all over the town, over the floating bridge, and ended up having one of the best curries I have ever had in a restaurant right by the cruise ship dock. Our friends were in a shop and the shop keeper pulled a gun on a shop lifter and ended up beating him over the head with the butt of the gun. It shook up their kids, but they snuck out a side door and met us for lunch.
Turks and Caicos. We stayed at the cruise port and spent the day floating in the pool at Margaritaville. Great facility. The rest of the island has been battered by Hurricane Ike and we were very happy to drink, eat and play on the beach and in the pool.
San Juan. We toured Old Town, went up to the fort and had a bit to eat. Had some great Mofongo (plantains with pork frita and onions). Service at lunch was bad, but food more than made up for it.
St. Maarten. Our favorite port. We did the America's Cup Regatta which is an absolute must if you ever get there. This is my second time doing this excursion and it was as much fun as I remembered it. We were on a Canadian boat, True North, and we beat the Stars and Stripes boat raced by Dennis Conner in 1986. The crew were fantastic and we got quite a work out.
As usual we met some wonderful new friends on board. We ran into a fair amount of grumpy people. It never ceases to amaze me that people can pay a great deal of money to go on a cruise yet they can't seem to get a smile on their face. Sometimes I am horrified by the rude behavior towards the staff. We found the staff to be among the sweetest, most caring, people we have ever met; however, some people still feel it necessary to bark orders and refuse to use "please and thank you". Despite this lack of civility the staff never lets a smile leave their face. I think that HAL's best asset is their staff and crew.
We love the casino after dinner, and despite the fact that it was not a winning trip, the staff in the casino were wonderful. Mike and Wendy, specifically, were great dealers. The smoke smell in the casino is pretty overwhelming. They were explaining that their exhaust system simply cannot remove the smell and that they are considering a new system. Amazingly, the smoke smell is only in the casino and casino bar area.We use the casino at night so I listened first hand to the piano bar singer every night. I wish I could give her a good review. This was her first cruise and frankly it was a little bit brutal to listen to. Enough said.
On the other hand, Jenny and the Hal Cats were great by the pool. Especially if you are over 40. I am in a band at home and their set list looks a lot like ours (Van Morrison, Motown, etc.).
We are not show people, so I am not in a position to review the shows on board. We did sneak a peak at Joel Mason and thought he sounded great.
The fitness center was great, even if it was a little smaller than we are used to. They had a Concept2 rowing machine that we use all the time at home, along with the usual suspects (eliptical trainers, treadmills, stationary bikes, free weights and machines). They had a spin class every morning that looked great. The instructor was awesome and his music was great. We listened and watched as we worked out and would have done a class ourselves if we had the time.
SPECIAL PRIVILEGE We were lucky enough to get a private tour of the bridge due to a friendship between my parents and Capt. Van Zanne and his wife, Apolonia. The Captain was marvelous, and as I'm sure he would agree, Apolonia, is simply the belle of the ball. She is warm, embracing and a great first lady of the ship.
DISEMBARKATION We love the HAL disembarkation, as opposed to Princess. On Princess you literally feel pushed out of your room on the last morning as they are in a rush to get it ready for the next cruise. No such feeling on HAL. The buffet was full service with no scrimping, and we were greeted warmly by everyone. We even ran into Andry outside the ship as we waited for our shuttle bus, and he ran over to give us and our son a big hug.
Not many really. My wife said that she would like a slightly bigger ship (Westerdam has 1850 passengers). There is no grand atrium on board, so if you like the feeling of grandeur the ship may fall a little short. The ship is very classy and elegant though. Also, with the lack of size, HAL doesn't offer some of the activities that Princess does. The pool area is a little small, especially if you have kids, who are not welcomed at the aft pool. As a result, there are not a ton of lounge chairs by the pool. We normally had to take a table in the shade.
I am a big fan of a steam, but the only way you can use the steam room is to sign up for the thermal suite, which costs $40 a day, which I find a little bit steep.
There were very few shore excursions offered by HAL on this cruise. This was not a big deal to us as we are happy to make our own fun, but specifically at Aruba and Curacao, it would have been nice if a wider variety of excursions had been offered.
While our next cruise may or may not be on HAL (depending on ship/ports and price), this experience certainly made it easy for us to choose this line again.