First, let me say that we had a great time on this cruise. We were drawn by the itinerary, which was unusual, and, as frequent cruisers, we are running out of new ports to visit.
This ship is OLD, and it shows everywhere. On the other hand, it feels like a ship, not like a small city. While it has a fiercely loyal repeat clientele, I'm not sure we will be counted among them (unless it's a great itinerary, of course). Rust is apparent in many places, carpets from hallways to public spaces meet but don't match, our stateroom bureau was beat up, and the beds, while comfortable, were not new. The bathroom door, an unusual sliding affair, did not work properly, and we spent the whole two weeks dealing with it. The show lounge was so cramped you were only able to get two people around a table for four.
Our stateroom was the smallest we have had on 14 cruises. If I was sitting at the bureau, my husband had to do an agile flip/roll across the bed to get to the other side of the room, as there was ZERO space. In order to stow our two suitcases, we had to pull out he sofa and put them behind it. This made a small cabin even smaller. On the other hand, the walk-in closet was a nice surprise, and there was plenty of room for both hanging and folded clothes.
From the outside, the ship looks terrible. Granted, on the cruise before ours, they had hit some really bad weather and there was considerable damage, but still, when docked next to some of the newer ships, it looks like an old tub.
Food--The food on this ship was the best we have ever had on a cruise ship. The beef in particular was outstanding and always cooked perfectly. My husband had beef every night and is now on cholesterol watch. We were never disappointed by our choices. Some Mainers at our table were disappointed with the lobster, but what do you expect? As New Englanders we do not order lobster when not in New England! Even in the Lido, where we routinely do breakfast and often lunch, the choices were good and the food of a high quality. The fruit was always of perfect ripeness, and the meringues, always available at the ice cream/cookie venue, had me hooked.
Service--There is some work needed here. Service in some areas was great. The front desk personnel were first rate. In the Lido there was always someone to refill your coffee (which was good) or help take your tray to a table. On the other hand, dining room service was spotty and confused. Not only was service slow (always two hours for dinner), but orders were confused, salads given to the wrong person, starters forgotten, and on and on. I never did get my chilled raspberry soup. I think it was a language issue more than anything, but there was an obvious lack of training. The wine steward was hard to get, and some nights we just went without, when they might have been able to sell us a nice expensive bottle. Clearly, the dining room management is sloppy.
On the first evening, I pulled out the robe provided by HAL and it felt heavy. In the pocket, I found a bottle of men's cologne. Obviously, the robe had been replaced in the closet without being laundered. Ugh! Although both robes were cheerfully replaced, that should NEVER happen. I'm hoping that this is not a practice employed in order to save water???? On the other hand, the cabin was always clean and we had no other complaints.
Activities--This cruise was so port intensive that we had only three sea days. They were welcomed as a respite from the "hit the ground running" busyness of the port days. Activities were of the usual sort; trivia, bingo, culinary demonstrations, etc. Nothing special. This ship has a wonderful library, and the Explorations Lounge, which encompasses the library and internet area, is a pleasant place to spend time. Often I have seen in these reviews complaints about the internet service. Yes, it's expensive, but the speed is not the cruise line's fault, and I found that Bernardo, the internet manager, was quite willing to advise when the service was slow and he felt people should save their minutes and try later.
One real asset of this cruise was the presence of the port lecturer, Frank Buckingham. His commentary was always interesting and informative and really enhanced the whole experience for us. He usually did a commentary on sea days which was replayed constantly on TV. For example, on the last day of our cruise, a sea day, the captain took us through the narrow strait between Corsica and Sardinia as we sailed toward Civitiveccia. We grabbed a comfy seat in the Crow's Nest, listened to Frank's commentary, and it made for a very nice last afternoon.
The fitness center is small, and I never saw an empty treadmill. Get your exercise by taking the stairs, walking in port, etc. I also participated in "On Deck for the Cure", a great HAL program in conjunction with the Susan Koman Foundation. The donation is minimun fifteen dollars. It all goes to the foundation except for the cost of the tee shirt and rubber bracelet. Fourteen times around the deck and you have your exercise for the day and have supported a worthy cause.
Embarkation--A snap. We took the HAL transfer to Tilbury and practically walked right onto the ship. However, if HAL plans to continue to use Tilbury as an embarkation port, they really need to provide some sort of shuttle into London. We overnighted, and the second day was a Sunday. No ferry to Gravesend, no train from the local station into London. A shuttle was provided to an alternate station, but we were concerned about getting back on time, so we opted for an overpriced HAL tour, which actually turned out to be fun, as it included the London Eye, which was great. There is NOTHING in Tilbury, and my advice to HAL would be--don't bother to overnight there unless you are willing to provide the necessary amenities for your guests.
Debarkation--We had an early flight, so we practically ran out of the ship, dragging our bags down the stairs, as one of the elevators was out of order (a common occurance, I understand, although we always take the stairs). The front desk had helped us book a cab, including giving us a free phone call, so all worked out well.
Zeebrugge--This is the port for Brugges, which is about a half hour's drive away. It would have been great had HAL provided a shuttle, but no, only a shuttle to a train station. We opted for a pre-arranged taxi with 6 other ccer's. This port is easily done on foot. It's easy walking and a simply charming city. I had Rick Steves's book and we followed his walking tour. A delightful day in a delightful city.
LeHavre--We opted for a full day tour of the Normandy beaches with 6 other cc'ers. This is a not-to-be-missed experience. Our guide was great and we always find that these private tours give us a better experience for a better price than the ship' excursions.
A Coruna, Spain--This is a charming city in Northwest Spain. As a port, it is chiefly the port for the excursions to Santiago de Compostela. We opted to stay in town and just walked around. We should have taken some type of tour here. There are some beautiful beaches and apparently surfing is very big.
Leixoes, Portugal--This is the port city for Porto. The port provided a shuttle into the city. This is Portugal's second largest city. It is known as the center for the productions of port wine. My husband was keen to go to the port cellars, but upon arriving, we found that they were all booked up with tours, not only from ships, but from various land tours as well. Obviously, we should have taken a tour here, but who knew? We spent the day wandering the old city on the riverbank and browsing the main shopping area in the new town.
Lisbon, Portugal--We took a pre-arranged tour here with 4 other cc'ers. What a great city. Our guide took us first to Sintra, a resort area outside the city which is just beautiful. Later we returned to Lisbon and were shown all the sights, of which there are many. I wish we had overnighted here instead of Tilbury. There is a lot to see. The sailaway is lovely as you glide down the Tagus to the sea.
Portimao, Portugal--This port, in the Algarve, is mainly a summer resort area. It could be the Costa del Sol or any other high-rise beach resort you can name. We took a ship's tour to a couple of the small towns in the area, one with lovely rock formations in the sea. This would be a fun destination in summer if you wanted to spend some time on the lovely beaches.
Cadiz, Spain--This port is mostly the jumping port for Seville. Since we have been to Seville before, we opted for a ship's tour to Jerez, where we visited a sherry winery. It was a lovely day, very good for a ship's tour. The winery was beautiful, the tour interesting, and it ended with a very generous tasting with tapas. Back in Cadiz, we spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of this old city, dealing of course with that annoying Spanish custom of closing the shops for the afternoon!
Melilla, Spanish Morocco--This port had a reputation going in. One of the crew told me that her boyfriend told her under no circumstances to get off the ship! Well, we did. In the morning we walked around town. There is really not much to interest a tourist, just a lovely plaza. It is clearly not tourist oriented at this point. We couldn't even find a post card! In the afternoon, we took a ship's tour. The guide, a young woman, was not fluent in English, although she tried hard and was clearly proud of her city. The tour took us outside town. The fortifications with Morocco are signficant; double fence, guard stations, etc. There is a large military presence in the city, and a large immigration problem to go with it. We noticed a lot of men loitering in the streets, and I had read that there is a bad unemployment problem. Our last stop on the tour was the "Old City", a large fortification clearly visible from the ship. It has been reconstructed with care in the last few years and is beautiful. This city is interesting in that it is clearly trying to become a port of interest to cruising. They have a way to go, but with the Old City, the beaches and the interesting blend of Christian, Muslim and Jewish population, it has some potential. There is something very appealing about sometimes going somewhere that is not frequented by many tourists. I'm glad we went there.
Barcelona, Spain--My favorite. We had been to Barcelona once before, but this time we overnighted, which was great. The first day we did the HOHO bus, which is a very good one. We can highly recommend it. We did all three routes and really saw the city. It's just wonderful. The second day was the biggest holiday of the year in Cataluna. We were warned that there would be crowds and shops would be closed. We ventured into the melee and became Barcelonans for a day, taking in the parades, watching the families enjoying their holiday, and stopping in a plaza for sangria and tapas. It was a great experience, just the sort you hope to have when you travel, really feeling the pulse of the city. My husband did have an encounter with a pickpocket, however, so be careful--they are rampant in the tourist areas of this city.
All in all, in spite of the lapses in service, we had a great time on this cruise. Sometimes it's all about overlooking the little things and appreciating the opportunity to see the world in this wonderful way.