PRE-CRUISE AND EMBARKATION:
Flew Southwest into FLL the previous day and stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites on Stirling Road in Hollywood, FL. Decent enough hotel and the price was pretty cheap, but I think I prefer the 17th Street area in general. Embarkation was pretty painless, as expected. Got onboard at around 12:00 noon, immediately after which it was announced that our cabins were ready. How nice to be able to drop off my carry-on right away and not have to deal with checking it outside the Lido!
THE SHIP ITSELF:
Very similar to the Vista-class ships, one of which I was on last year (the Westerdam), so with a couple of small exceptions I had no trouble getting around, although I often had to check the signs by the elevators to see which direction I was facing! I agree with those who think that the Lido cabanas really restrict the traffic flow, as well as limiting shade for the rest of us.
I was in VA6168, one of the stern verandah cabins. I guess I must have gotten confused in doing my research, because I thought it was concluded that their balconies were larger than on the port/starboard verandahs, but clearly that wasn't the case. I guess that only applies to the Vista-class ships. Also, because the sea was a bit choppy and my bed was parallel with the stern, at times when I was in bed I found myself kind of sliding front-to-back rather than being rocked side-to-side. There were also times when I felt a lot of vibration - kind of like someone had put in lots of quarters in the "Magic Fingers" machine (I'm dating myself) attached to my cabin! The closets in my particular cabin seemed like they weren't quite deep enough. I had to position some of my hangers somewhat on a diagonal in order for the doors to close. I did, however, think that the flip-up shelves in the closets were a clever idea. Also, the water pressure in the sink was pretty low, but I was told by maintenance that it was normal. Not a big deal, but I'm just used to it being a bit stronger. Otherwise, the cabin was fine - a typical Vista- and Signature-class balcony cabin.
Main dining room food was good. I actually strayed from prime rib on the first night and opted instead for a veal dish that was pretty tasty. There was another night when they featured a cold cranberry soup that was to die for! The Lido was decent, although there were a few times my food could have been hotter, especially the burgers from the Terrace Grill. The filet mignon at the Pinnacle Grill was also delicious (and something that I could actually finish as opposed to the mammoth-sized bone-in ribeye that I tried last year). I know this will be blasphemy to some, but I didn't think the chocolate volcano cake was all that great this time around. Maybe I'll have to try the crème brulee or something else next time. Tamarind was a lovely experience and the service was extremely gracious. Daily tea in the dining room was okay, although, based on my one previous cruise, I liked it better in the Explorer's Lounge. Unfortunately, I missed the Indonesian tea (I think it conflicted with trivia that day).
In addition to Half Moon Cay, the ports were Grand Turk, San Juan and St. Thomas. I'm not much of a beach or water sports person, so I chose sightseeing tours. I've come to the conclusion that I shouldn't expect much from sightseeing tours in the Caribbean. I don't know what I was expecting, but I was extremely underwhelmed.
My cabin stewards, Toni and Suherman (who goes by "Herman") were as sweet as could be and very attentive, too! Toni has been with HAL for 13 years, which says a lot for both him and HAL. I had open seating for dinner, and found the service good there as well. Everyone seemed to work efficiently and I never felt like dinner took longer than it should have. As usual, the waiters were smiling and pleasant.
The singers and dancers were good, if not fantastic. The male lead singer was kind of over-the-top cheesy, which may have been why a previous poster found him "hard to look at". James Cielen, the magician, put on a good show. The comedian was Jeff Burghart, who was pretty funny and also did some good impressions.
I participated in karaoke and also the Eurodam Superstar contest. I didn't win, but had an interesting experience, thanks to cruise director Jason (who was also one of the judges). I sang "Saving All My Love For You" by Whitney Houston, and in the middle of the song he decided to pretend he was the object of my affection. So he proceeded to pull up a chair, sit down in front of me and relax and loosen his tie. He then got up and put his arms around me. Somehow I managed to get through the song while all this was happening, but don't ask me how!
I also hung out at the piano bar a lot. "Piano Man Michael" was a very good musician and singer and he did play from start to finish without a break, but there was something about him that left me a little cold. It was kind of like he was on autopilot in terms of how he interacted with us, with some responses that seemed pre-programmed. I was also disappointed that he didn't believe in the music trivia contests with which other HAL piano bar players start out the evening. He also seemed a bit too "Vegas lounge" instead of "piano bar". I guess my opinions all boil down to personal taste in piano bar performers.
Okay, this was my one definitely bad experience. I booked a "well-being massage" on the last day of the cruise. My "massage therapist" (and I use that term loosely) wasn't very careful and she managed to scratch or scrape a large mole on my neck. This was after she asked me if I liked the room bright or dark, and I chose "dark", which apparently made it hard for her to see (in which case she shouldn't have asked me for a preference in the first place). I thought nothing of it after it happened, but I thought the massage itself was VERY overpriced ($119 for 50 minutes) for what I got and told the spa manager exactly that. The manager asked if I could be more specific so she could check into it, and I replied that since I was sure that Steiner set the prices, she probably couldn't do much about it and then I left. But wait - it gets better. I woke up the next morning (disembarkation day) and found that the top layer of the mole, which I'd had for as long as I can remember, had come just about COMPLETELY OFF. Since it was disembarkation day there was no time to go to the spa and report what happened and I had already turned in my customer satisfaction survey the previous night. After I came home I did send an email to the feedback section on Steiner's website. We'll see if anything comes of that.
With the exception of my spa incident and my disappointment in the shore excursions, it was a very nice cruise. Jason was probably the best cruise director I've ever sailed with -- and I would have the same opinion even without the Eurodam Superstar "moment". Just the right combination of humor, knowledge and approachability. Danielle, the travel guide, was also very knowledgeable and made the approach into San Juan very nice with her talk (even though I was standing on the wrong side of the bow and didn't have the ideal view of the scenery). I met some very nice people throughout the cruise. I particularly want to thank Mary, Bob, their mom and Sherry for making me part of their trivia team. Also thanks to Tony and Julie for setting up the Meet & Mingle. Speaking of which, another minor disappointment was that no staff stopped by the Meet & Mingle. Oh well, the cookies were good!