We are retired and in our mid-60's and have sailed many times with HAL. It is the only place left where we can still feel young!
We live on a small, secluded Gulf Island, nestled in between the Metro Vancouver area of Southern British Columbia and Vancouver Island. In the winter we are at the mercy of the BC Ferry Corp. and winter storms so we always add a night's stay in Vancouver before embarking on any flights. The weather report had predicted strong winds and possible sailing cancellations on our travel day so we hurriedly changed our plans and left a day earlier. It was a lucky call because the weather did close in and the ferries did not run on our proposed travel day so without our two night stay in Vancouver we would have missed our early morning flight to San Diego. We were now ready to trade our small temperate island for other small tropical islands.
We also spent a night at the Holiday Inn in San Diego right across the street from the port. We used the hop on hop off trolley in San Diego and also visited the USS Midway for an interesting afternoon tour.
After a late and leisurely morning the next day we trekked to the embarkation hall and began the loading process. There was quite a queue and it probably took over an hour or more before we got onboard. Our stateroom was ready and after a trip to the hotel desk onboard to correct a faulty key fob issue we popped the cork on a bottle of bubbly and proceeded to settle in.
Our outside stateroom on the second deck was very clean and spacious with more than enough storage room. We generally travel light but there was room for twice our "stuff". Our cabin stewards were "invisible" and our room was spotless. A perfect combination.
We always try to get the 2nd sitting and are lazy conversationalists and prefer a table for two. We managed a designated table for four but it was only set for two. There was ample room around us. It was near the back of the dining room on the fantail and we never felt crowded. We received excellent service from our waitstaff and wine steward and the food was high quality every night. We ate onshore in both Lahaina and Honolulu and used the Pinnacle Grill twice. All other dinners were in the dining room. We usually took a leisurely breakfast in the formal dining room and occasionally would have lunch in the Lido if we weren't onshore. We paced ourselves with very light lunches and actually were very surprised at the huge meals some people could consume at all hours of the day. There are a lot of very heavy passengers.
The ship is in excellent shape for a vessel that has been at sea for 13+ years. Everywhere you went onboard you could see the detailed, perpetual cleaning and polishing. All the staff were typically HAL-friendly and we were always greeted pleasantly throughout the ship. Our day in Papeete saw nearly half the starboard hull receive a new coast of paint. The crew continually washed off salt-sprayed windows in the ever-ending exercise in futility against the elements.
We can probably be best described as hermits and don't really mingle with others. I suppose it is a Canadian trait. The passenger log was comprised of a larger mix of nationalities than the heavy American grouping that we normally experience. There were many Canadians and Germans and we heard lots of Scandinavian accents as well. It seemed to be a good mix. We generally attended the lectures, the morning coffee klatch with performing guests and the port lectures. We would spend many hours in the well-stocked library and we managed to catch up on lots of reading. The days at sea were probably our favourite but many of the ports also held some interesting times. One issue that we did notice however, was the lack of mobility of many of the passengers who wished to go ashore. Many of these little Polynesian "rocks" don't have quays so we had a high ratio of tender ports. Unfortunately, some of the passengers were not up to the rigours of some heavy seas (particularly at Rarotonga) and without the excellent assistance of ship tender personnel we could have had some major casualties.
The seas, for the most part, were very docile with only a few days of heavy "sledding". One can certainly appreciate the immensity of this ocean, the largest single entity on the globe. On past trips at sea there have always been sightings of other vessels but not once when surveying the horizon was there any indication of any other ships in sight. It makes one wonder how early sailors even managed to find these atolls and islands in the first place!
On our first night out we were awoken by what seemed to be a loud sound like a fan or shrill mechanical malfunction. It turns out that in the night we had turned and reversed back towards San Diego to facilitate a medevac. The sound that we had attributed to a mechanical function was, in fact, a helicopter hovering above us over the rear fantail. We were relieved that this wouldn't be a permanent condition but in hindsight hoped the passenger the best of luck. This made us somewhat late in reaching Hilo a few days later.
We also had other excitement before we arrived at Honolulu. The port had been closed in anticipation of a tsunami that had resulted from the 9.0 Japanese earthquake the night before. We spent the morning floating around Honolulu Bay in the company of dozens of other craft (even including a Navy submarine)! The tsunami reportedly did some damage onshore but amounted to nothing noticeable to us at sea.
We took a few of the ship excursions including a tour of the lava flows of Hawaii (out of Hilo) and a whale watching tour out of Lahania. We had just spent a month in Maui so we were pretty familiar with most things Hawaiian. We enjoyed the unique visit of Fanning Island, Kiribati (surprisingly pronounced Kiri-"bass") where the major pastime (sans power and plumbing) seems to be "baby making"! It is a strange remote place in the middle of nowhere but the inhabitants seemed content with perpetual smiles and singing. You can't help think that "civilization" will inevitably invade and destroy even as remote a place as this. We took the city bus around the Cook Island of Rarotonga and a few circle tours (on the islands of Bora Bora and Moorea). Actually, the best view and experience of all these islands is looking on land from the ship or floating about in the lagoons. On Rangiroa we wandered across the atoll to the ocean side and then strolled down a sleepy lane to a quiet bar on a deck that was suspended over the entrance to the large lagoon. A few Tahitian beers and a shady lounge chair made for a relaxing afternoon while watching tropical fish navigate in the crystal clear waters under the deck. We could have stayed here forever!
The other arranged trip we took was a real gem. The shore excursion people seemed to downplay the only tour offered on Nuku Hiva. We had visions of old broken down vehicles and nothing to see and we almost cancelled. Luckily we didn't! We managed to pair up with a couple from Calgary and ribbed them about the poor performance of their hockey team this season and their horrible winter weather as we toured the island in a new Range Rover (no less!) Our driver spoke some English and our high school French filled in the blanks. She was very industrious and also managed a bed & breakfast and was putting her family of 5 children though post secondary school. It was an excellent afternoon.
We avoided the casino and only passed through if we were moving to another part of the ship. I marvelled each time at familiar faces, shrouded in smoke at any hour of the day! To each their own as they say.
The entertainment was very good with a strong and versatile accompanying orchestra. We particularly enjoyed the Canadian flautist and the Australian violinist. Something different on this cruise found many of the entertainers performing in other venues on their off-nights. This was a nice added bonus. The two lead soloists were excellent. We both commented that this assortment of entertainers was by far the best that we have seen on any of our previous HAL cruises.
We like the pace of HAL and all her ships and we hope that the company continues to provide this level of service. I, for one, would prefer to pay a little more rather than have the familiar marquee diluted.
We are booked on the 2012 World Cruise next year on Rotterdam's sister ship (ms Amsterdam) and are anxiously counting the months to this next adventure.