We chose to combine two HAL cruises, both leaving from Amsterdam: one through the Baltic and the other to the North Atlantic and across the Atlantic to Canada with NYC as the final destination. We have traveled on HAL several times; last year we did the Eurodam transatlantic crossing from the States to Copenhagen and enjoyed it very much. We arranged our airfare through HAL. With some small exceptions, we found the whole trip to be a wonderful experience with great destinations.
TRAVEL: We arrived in Amsterdam at 6:30 AM and were met at the airport by a HAL representative. We waited a short time and were taken by bus to the terminal about 8:30, where two other cruises were completing their disembarkation. We knew that the train station wasn't far, but we were really tired and chose to wait the "short time" until we could begin boarding. This was a BAD start to the trip, as we waited for six hours in complete chaos. There were no separate areas for passengers who'd logged in and those who hadn't, the sound system was nearly unintelligible, and boarding passengers and disembarking passengers were all milling around in the same area. Eventually some sandwiches, cookies and coffee were brought out. And yes, eventually, with a great deal of pushing, shoving, noise, and utter confusion we boarded the ship. (This fiasco was repeated when we disembarked and re-embarked in Amsterdam for the second half of the cruise. Very poorly handled by the cruise line.)
The sailaway out of Amsterdam was spectacular ... we were escorted by local sailors along the canal, through the lock and into the twilight with pretty countryside views in every direction.
FOOD: We thought the food was very good. Not every single item was outstanding, but come on! The staff is serving 2,000 people three times a day, so give them some slack. We ate in the dining room almost every night, most days having breakfast and lunch in the Lido. We did not have any meals in the specialty restaurants.
STAFF: Overall, quite good. Our cabin stewards were excellent and after a couple of days without ice, we never had a complaint again. They were very good at anticipating our schedule and almost always had our room spotless by the time we returned. The dining room staff was not as consistent; some waiters were better than others and some had some language issues. We chose the "as you like it" dining option and never waited more than a couple of minutes for a table. The maitre d' was outstanding. Jason, the cruise director, was the best we've seen and did a wonderful job. The Lido wait staff, again, were perhaps not as friendly across the board. We did have some issues with the front desk, who seemed to be very pleasant but not especially knowledgeable (lack of supervision? lack of training?). This did not dramatically detract from our cruise. We attended most of Ian's talks on the various ports and found him to be knowledgeable and generally helpful.
Although not technically a staff member, Jon, the Icelandic guest lecturer, was really outstanding. His lectures drew a larger audience than the ship's entertainment and were extremely interesting and informative.
ENTERTAINMENT: We don't expect much from ships' entertainments so we are not disappointed. We realize that it's impossible for all cruise ships to provide top-quality shows and entertainers.
DESTINATIONS: We chose this cruise for the varied destinations and we were certainly not disappointed. The Baltic cities (Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki and Copenhagen) are just beautiful and wonderful stops. We loved the canals and buildings. The Vasa museum in Stockholm and a harbor cruise in Helsinki were particularly noteworthy. St. Petersburg was grand, as expected, but very crowded and very hot. (Remember the heat wave of summer 2010?) We expected the crowds but were still a little taken aback. We booked two tours through the ship for St. P and they were handled efficiently, with an excellent guide.
On the second half of the cruise, our first stop was Edinburgh. There were several festivals going on and while the city was crowded, we felt fortunate to be there with so much activity. Great city. We overnighted in South Queensferry and went ashore the next morning to explore this small and delightful spot. Next stop, Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, was unexpectedly enjoyable. With another couple, we discovered a local tour company with an excellent driver/guide who gave us a terrific long tour of the island(s) with so much history.
On to the Faroe Islands, again unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable. We hopped a local bus that was going out into the countryside and after returning to Torshavn we wandered that pleasant place.
Iceland, what a place! Thanks to the lectures of Jon (noted above) we were somewhat prepared but still amazed at what's going on in Iceland: volcanoes, thermal springs, glaciers, rushing rivers, lava beds, craters, lush green meadows with LOTS of horses. AND the only spot on the planet were tectonic plates are pushing apart and one can see it above ground. We discovered a local tour company when we exited the ship, and their tour was excellent.
On to Greenland, where we spent a day cruising the Prinsensund fjords. It was foggy and slightly misty but fabulous nonetheless. Icebergs abounded. We didn't see whales, but oh, well. The next day we visited the town of Qartatoq on the southwest coast of Greenland. It's inaccessible by land and a most interesting stop.
Crossing the Atlantic (one day at sea), we landed at St. Anthony, Newfoundland, which frankly is not much of a stop. Its claim to fame is that 40 KM or so to the north, the Vikings supposedly landed about 1000 years ago and built some sod houses. Unless one booked a ship's tour to that site, there was no way to judge. There were no cabs, no buses, no tours from the town. Most of the ship's passengers ended up in the Dollar Store (no kidding) as the most interesting place to visit in town.
St. John's, Newfoundland, by contrast, was a busy and delightful stop. Local volunteers met passengers off the ships and were full of information and welcome. There are several nice churches, interesting shops, picturesque views from the hilly and winding streets. Definitely a walking town if you don't mind hills.
Our next two scheduled stops were Sydney and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both stops were canceled due to the path of Hurricane Earl. Instead, the decision was made to head straight for Cape Cod Bay, where we spent the next three days going around in circles. We did not have an effects of the hurricane, and we applaud the crew for keeping us up to date even if we were a little bit bored.
We arrived on time in NYC and disembarked without any problems or incidents.
Overall, a fabulous cruise with a few minor glitches.