When I booked my cruise, there were several things that drew me to HAL - the luxury the line's name invoked, the amount of time spent in port vs at sea, and the shipboard culinary arts program sponsored by Food & Wine.
I have cruised on two other lines (RC in '09 and Carnival many yrs ago) in the past, so I have something to compare HAL to. HAL Veendam fell short on luxury, but otherwise provided a pleasant cruising experience. Luxury is in the details, and things like a mildew stained bathtub mat, salt and pepper paper packets in the Lido restaurant instead of actual shakers (for the first two days), broken and missing tiles in the Retreat area, a pathetically small pool that was overrun by children, ship crew painting and varnishing main areas during the daytime, while at sea, just make for lasting impressions - unfortunately negative ones.
My room, while a little cramped, was clean and comfortable (minus the tub mat). Unfortunately, the doors to the Lower Promenade deck, which is where my cabin was located and right next to, slammed very hard while cruising, making for a constant banging whenever in use. There are signs posting caution on the doors, but in the "right" conditions, it took the strength of 1-2 adults to open the doors to the deck and depending on whether or not you were going in or out, determined whether you might have lost your fingers or toes, or gotten thrown into the interior doors because the force of the wind was so hard.
I didn't like the food for the most part. I thought RC's was much better. It was bland for the most part and forgettable. Room service was hit or miss - my breakfasts (I ordered 2 days) were decent, just detail how you want your food on the order form, but my lunch of a simple cheeseburger was cold, dry, hard and tasteless, while the cheese and fruit platter was a joke. I ate in the Rotterdam dinning room twice, not impressed either time, Lido everyday (hit or miss based on selections), Canelleti's twice - hit and miss. Nothing was outstanding that I had to have seconds, which was very, very disappointing. But other people raved about the food, so this is all very subjective.
Even though there was a kids area, they took over the only pool, many of the hot tubs and the Retreat area, which was only a foot deep. Since I just wanted some peace and quiet, I left after the shrieking began. There were quite a bit of quiet places to be found on-board, for which I am thankful, but my top two were my cabin and the relaxation lounge in the spa (a little hidden tip for you).
The movies in the theater were enjoyable, however in the Retreat area the audio was barely audible over the cruising sounds. Sometimes the movie ran on the in-room tv afterwards, but i couldn't figure out when, and didn't care enough to call the front desk to inquire by the time i figured out that the in-room tv had minimal options - 2 sports, cnn, cartoon network, TMC/AMC,(i dont remember which), TNT (thank God for the TNT), one channel which never worked, 2 for music, a tv guide channel which never worked and approximately 6 channels devoted to HAL! REALLY? While you may not be on a cruise to watch tv, when you are in your room and you want to watch tv, you'll understand how important it is when you can't. But thanks to HAL for having a decent dvd library, which I utilized often.
Culinary arts program - there was only one cooking class (despite the 800-rep's claim that there was more). It served a class of 12 people max. We were grouped based on our desire to complete a particular portion of the meal. No one got to complete their own meal, which makes sense from a time standpoint, but I felt shortchanged. I wanted to work on the dessert, but with 4 of us making one dessert, no one got to make the whole thing from start to finish. It was a strange way to hold a class, and I've taken other cooking classes before. The demonstrations were satisfactory and varied enough throughout the sailing.
The staff were friendly, as to be expected. The entertainment was fair. HAL serves a much older crowd (think retirees), with some families sprinkled in. The shipboard activities weren't geared towards those that want to rip and run. I would scan the daily schedule and circle my choices of interest and did what I wanted when I wanted. I travelled alone and am in my late 30's, and wanted to relax from my very stressful life - which is why I picked HAL over RC or NCL. Even with this in mind, I often found myself wishing that I picked a my livelier ship.
I did spend several days (and hundreds of dollars) in the spa. Again, as an avid spa-goer, I have much to compare it to. I was less than impressed. It was fair, but far more overpriced than necessary. Thank God for the daily discounts, because without them, I wouldn't have utilized the spa nearly as much. My technicians (I had 2) were competent and pretty good, but things like dim/mood lighting during the facial analysis (I'm used to the blinding bright light), a body scrub that left me dry as if I had no treatment at all (I'm used to scrubs with an oil base that leave some residue after the fact for that plump, moist, dewy feel), quick application and removal of a seaweed wrap and the body scrub (where's the luxurious/pampered feeling in feeling rushed?). And a shower that had left-behind algae mud in it from either me (I was the last client in that room the evening before) or from the person before me that evening. Either way ---- EEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWWW!
Bottom line, HAL to me was no better in luxury, elegance, excellence, service, food or value than RC.