Zuiderdam, April 2-12, Partial Panama Canal Cruise
My husband and I are an average couple. We both work and have no children. This cruise was to celebrate my husband's 40th birthday. This was our 12th cruise, second on HAL. We've sailed nine times on Royal Caribbean and once on Celebrity. We were definitely in the younger group on the cruise. I really doubt that there were more than 100 people onboard who were 40 and under. I expected that since it was a Holland America ship and it was a 10-night cruise. Most people under 40 take 7 or less night cruises because of work or family obligations. My husband wanted a Panama Canal cruise so I picked this one based on the itinerary. Only HAL & Princess were offering partial Canal cruises this season, and HAL had the better itinerary.
We flew into Fort Lauderdale on the afternoon of April 1st so we'd have a chance to unwind a little before getting onboard. We stayed at the Hyatt Place North which is close to the Publix shopping center on 17th St. The Hyatt Place offers a shuttle from the airport to the hotel so we utilized that rather than renting a car or catching a taxi. We were initially given a room on the first floor right next to the elevators and lobby. Since I had requested a room on an upper floor away from the elevators, I asked the clerk if anything else was available. After she told me a couple times that they did not have to honor requests and me politely asking if she could at least check if another room was available; she finally sighed, rolled her eyes, and gave us a room on the 4th floor at the end of the hallway. Much better!
The room at the Hyatt was comfortable with a king-sized bed, sitting area with L-shaped couch, work area with desk, and a small fridge. One of the perks when I booked the hotel was it offered a free shuttle to the port. However, I was told that effective April 1, the shuttle was now $6 per person. I showed my booking confirmation that listed complementary airport and cruise port shuttle but was told they could discontinue services at any time. We ended up deciding to pay to take the shuttle to the port rather than catching a cab.
We walked over to Publix to pick up a few provisions then decided to get some dinner. We had read about a place called Ernie's BBQ that supposedly had great conch chowder and was only a few blocks from the hotel. We thought we'd give it a try since we like conch chowder and it isn't readily available around Houston. The chowder was disappointing - not spicy at all. The BBQ was okay but nothing special. The portions were huge so we should have split a dinner rather than each ordering one.
We arrived at the port a few minutes after 11. A porter quickly took our checked bags. I hadn't sailed from Port Everglades for a couple of years. The porters have become aggressive and almost threatening about tips. One of them was standing by the passenger drop-off area telling people that the porters were the ones that got the luggage onboard safely so everyone should be sure to "show them some love." I generally do tip the porter, but I didn't appreciate the implication that something may happen to my bags if I didn't "show some love." No one used the word "tip" but the hands were out.
We showed our boarding documents and were able to immediately enter the terminal to have our carry-on bags scanned. We were then directed to a waiting area and told to fill out the wellness forms. We didn't see where the forms were located so asked the only person we saw in the room wearing a red jacket where they were. She rudely told us that she was off duty, but another couple overhead us and directed us to a table in the back corner. I think it would have prevented some confusion if HAL put up a sign indicating where the forms were located.
After waiting a few minutes, we were directed to the check-in area where we got our cabin cards. I overhead the couple in the line next to us getting an invitation to eat embarkation lunch in the dining room. I thought that all Mariners were eligible and asked the woman checking us in about it. She told me that the rules had been changed and lunch was only for 2-star and above Mariners now. I was only 1-star so didn't get an invitation. We were directed to another waiting room after checking in and told that boarding would begin at 11:30.
Once onboard we were able to go immediately to our cabin to drop off our luggage then look around a little. After that we decided that we wanted some lunch. We didn't feel like fighting the crowd in the buffet so went to the dining room to ask if we could go in. I told the host that we didn't have an invitation but were Mariners and showed him our cards. He said that the woman at check-in was incorrect. The embarkation lunch was still for all Mariners and we should have received an invitation, but he would seat us anyway. We were seated at a table with a travel writer and a couple who seemed utterly enthralled by their 4-star Mariner status and made it a point to mention (several times) the number of cruises and days they had sailed with HAL.
We had ordered a couple bottles of liquor for use in our cabin. I had requested delivery "at sea" to avoid paying the Florida taxes. As on Maasdam, the bottles were waiting in our cabin when we arrived and no additional taxes were charged to our credit card. I had also ordered a $50 soda card for my husband since he drinks Coke Zero.I prefer diet DP so I brought two six-packs of bottles onboard to drink in the cabin. Our travel agent bought us one of the old 20-punch soda cards as a gift and that was waiting in our cabin. I didn't realize that HAL still had those. It turned out to be impossible to use except in the dining room.
We stayed in cabin 4180, which is at the very back on the ship on the Upper Verandah deck. The cabin was spacious with plenty of storage cabinets. There was a king-sized bed and a full-sized couch in the room. There was a desk facing a window at the back of the ship, but we discovered that the wifi-signal was too weak there for my computer to pick it up. The bathroom had a shower and a tub, two sinks, and the toilet. There are two medicine cabinets in the corners but a drawer or two would have been nice. Just outside the bathroom door was a vanity table and stool. This was not a good layout since the bathroom door would hit anyone sitting at the vanity when it was opened. We ended up using the vanity for the laptop since it was closer to the main door and had a wifi signal available. There was a small TV with a DVD player. There is a selection of DVD movies available that can be delivered to your cabin.
The balcony was amazing! It wrapped around the aft and port sides of the ship so we had great views. There were two loungers, a table with 4 chairs, and two additional chairs with ottomans. We did not lack for sitting places. The aft part of the balcony was about 80% uncovered and the port side was fully covered. When you stand at the rail, you can see all the balconies above you to the Lido deck. I learned not to look up - the couple on one of the VA balconies on deck 5 often forgot to wear clothing while on their balcony. I saw much more of them than I ever expected.
When we sailed on Maasdam a couple of years ago, we had a cabin without air conditioning so that was a concern for this cruise. The air conditioner in 4180 works extremely well. It actually got too cold sometimes, even with the setting barely turned to the blue line. It got a little warm in the afternoons if the drapes were open and the windows facing west, but if we turned the thermostat down, it cooled off very quickly and got frigid if we left it turned down too long.
I had read several reports of how worn the Zuiderdam was prior to taking this cruise so I wasn't sure what to expect. I saw some worn places on the carpet, chipped paint, and rips in chairs, but nothing to indicate the ship was falling apart. I didn't see anything beyond normal wear that you would find in any hotel or restaurant that sees many patrons day in and out.
I prefer muted color schemes so thought the bright blue, red, orange, and green carpets in the hallways was rather garish, but I've seen worse. I still prefer the layout of the Royal Caribbean Radiance-class ships, but Zuiderdam layout is okay. The only places that felt really crowded was the pool deck on sea days and the Lido buffet during lunch. Some of the hallways are a little narrow and become bottle-necks when going from the dining room to the theater.
The second through fourth days of the cruise were very windy and Zuiderdam rocked a lot. We really felt the motion at the back of the ship. Fortunately my husband and I are not prone to sea sickness so we did fine. I think several people ended up getting sea sick because the dining room was mostly empty on the second night. My husband and I went out on the upper deck one evening to look at the stars and felt like we could be blown overboard because of the wind gusts. We hurried back inside. The port side of our balcony was extremely windy - like a wind tunnel, and our chairs kept getting blown against the aft rail. I eventually tied the chairs to the railing using the cushion ties to make sure they didn't get blown overboard. We were able to use the balcony if we stayed against the aft wall. I've never experienced such gusty conditions. The wind finally died down as we went from Aruba to Curacao.
We had late seating for dinner in the upper dining room. We had requested a large table and were seated with 5 other people at a table for 8. The only time everyone showed up was the first night. For me, one of the highlights of a cruise is talking with my tablemates so eating dinner three of the nights with just hubby and I at the table was disappointing. The couple had wanted early seating but didn't get it so went to the Lido most nights. The family of 3 didn't feel like dressing up so they also ate in the Lido several nights. If I had realized that on the first or second night, we probably would have asked about moving to a table where the others would show up. I know that there are many dining choices and some people don't like to be locked into the dining room, but I feel that if someone doesn't plan on eating at least 75% of the time in the dining room, they should let their tablemates know or request open seating.
Overall the food in the dining room was good. There were a few things that I didn't care for but the variety was acceptable. I don't eat pork or beef which was half the menu choices. I tried chicken dishes a couple of nights, but the chicken tended to taste dry, even with sauce. I also had fish dishes a couple times, but the fish was rather bland. Crab legs were offered one night and they were good. The shrimp was also good, but the lobster was slightly overdone. The appetizers and soups that I tried were all very good. I had pasta dishes for several meals in the dining room during dinner or lunch. All of those were very good. My husband thought the duck and lamb were good. He had pork roast one night and was disappointed. The beef varied - some was perfect, but others were over- or under-done. My husband is diabetic and I don't have much of a sweet tooth so we didn't eat dessert every night, but I did try a few of the desserts. They were good, but some were too rich. We ordered the cheese plate a few nights. There is a standard plate that has cheddar, mozzarella, blue, and jack cheeses or a cheese menu that you can select from. The cheese menu has some interesting offerings so we tried several of them. The bread in the dining room was very disappointing - everything was cold and hard.
We ate lunch one day in the Pinnacle Grill. The food was really good. I had the scallop crème brulee appetizer, crab cakes, and raspberry sorbet. Hubby had the prawns bruschetta, the beef tenderloin, and brownie. The portion size on the crab cakes was small - only 2 about 1.5" in diameter. I could have used a third, but then I should have skipped dessert. We didn't try the Pinnacle during dinner. We waited too long to decide and it was booked up.
We had dinner one night in Canaletto. We were disappointed with the food, but at least the service was okay. The couple at a table next to us mentioned that they were seated about 30 minutes before us but we both got our food at the same time. Hubby and I had the seafood soup, which was very bland. It tasted more like seafood in warm water than soup. I had the seafood pasta, which was only okay. The pastas in the dining room were much better. Hubby had the veal but said it was chewy not tender. I had the Madagascar chocolate for dessert and hubby had gelato. The chocolate was good but too rich to eat it all. The best part of the meal was the garlic bread - it was warm, soft, and tasty! After eating the dining room bread for several nights, I was in heaven and asked for more!
We ate in the Lido buffet for lunch on a couple of sea days. I generally don't eat much at lunch so I stuck with the salad bar and soup. The salad bar usually had a good variety of lettuce toppings and salad varieties. My husband ate a few of the warm dishes but said it was just okay - typical buffet food.
We also ate at the Terrace Grill a couple times. My husband liked the cheeseburgers. I tried the "chicken burger" once but it was a dried-up chicken breast on a bun (not ground chicken) so didn't order that again. I made nachos or chicken tacos from the taco bar. There was a nice variety of taco/nacho fixings, but the meats and rice/beans would have been better if they were hot instead of room temperature.
The entertainment and activities were the most disappointing part of the cruise. I knew this going into the cruise so I shouldn't really complain. HAL offers several enrichment activities, like the culinary institute and digital workshop, but they are really lacking in the "fun" things to do. I went to a couple of the "advanced" photo editing classes, but they were very basic things that I already knew how to do so I ended up leaving early. Some of the culinary demonstrations were interesting, but I'm not that into cooking so doubt I'll try anything at home. We enjoyed the team trivia, but were only able to make a couple of them. We went to Name That Tune once, but we didn't recognize half the tunes so didn't go back. We attended a couple of the port talks, but noticed that Lance was giving out some incorrect information during his presentations. It seemed like he hadn't been to some of the ports in years and things had changed.
We went to some of the evening shows and activities. Island Magic (the steel drum band) was exceptional. I really enjoyed listening to their music. We also saw Jeff Trachta (a comedian/impersonator) who was interesting. He did some good and some not-so-good impersonations. He used to be a soap opera star (forgot the soap) so some of the women were really fawning over him. We also saw Jeff Peterson who was a comedian/magician with a dog. I wasn't that impressed with his show, but some people enjoyed it. They also had Jeff Nease, a comedian, one night. His show was lagging so we almost left until he brought some audience members on stage. That portion of the show was very funny. The Zuiderdam had the usual production shows with their singers/dancers for three of the nights. I am not much for production shows so we only attended one. The singers/dancers did okay - not Broadway or Vegas standards but not bad for cruise ship entertainment.
One big disappointment on HAL is they seem to schedule the audience participation/game show type activities for 9 PM, which is in the middle of second seating for dinner. I really enjoy watching and sometimes participating in the Battle of the Sexes, Love & Marriage, and Family Feud type shows but was unable to do so due to the schedule. On other cruise lines, these shows have been in the afternoon or after late seating so everyone could participate.
The entertainment after 10 PM was practically non-existent. What they had available was mostly geared to the older passengers. They had karaoke a couple nights, which was fun. There was the usual mix of those who can and can't sing. There was a string quartet that played wonderfully, but they rarely played anything but classical music. While I appreciated their skills, I prefer music that is a little peppier. I noticed several people nodding off while listening to them. The Northern Lights lounge rarely had more than a dozen people in it and I only heard one or two songs released after 1980 played in there. DJ Dan looked at me like I was crazy when I requested Nickelback's Burn It to the Ground so I tried AC/DC's Back in Black. They didn't have either of them. Too bad - both are great songs to really cut loose on the dance floor. The Neptunes did a good job, but they primarily played Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin era music. I didn't care for Paul Vandervoot in the Piano Bar. His singing was very flat so even when he played Caribbean songs that I like, Jimmy Buffet for example, I couldn't enjoy the music.
Our cabin steward, Aan, was amazing! I really wanted to take him home with me. We told him on sea days if we stayed in the cabin past his normal cleaning schedule to skip our cabin that morning. He always showed up anyway, even if it was 1 PM. We like extra ice and towels, which he always provided. If he saw us coming down the hallway and was close by, he would open our cabin door for us. He was always friendly and smiling but not excessively fawning, which I don't like.
Our dining room waiter Paulus and his assistant Putu was also great. One of my pet peeves is having dirty dishes left on the table, but they took care of clearing the plates when we were finished. My other pet peeve is having an empty water glass. I like to drink water with my meal and never want my glass to be empty. Putu took care of that for me. Paulus almost always had a recommendation for the dinner entrEe - sometimes the same as Chef Rudi's selection but not always. Our bar waiter Ernie was also fantastic. He knew my husband liked Coke Zero so made sure to bring one at the start of the meal and replenish it as needed. We ordered after-dinner drinks a few times and Ernie was always close by and delivered the drinks promptly.
We didn't spend much time in the Neptune Lounge, but we did stop by occasionally for snacks or to see what was going on. The concierge, Jules, and her assistant, Grace, were always smiling. Grace took care of getting a replacement when one of my husband's rented tux shirts didn't fit correctly. Grace had only been on Zuiderdam for a few months so had only made the Panama Canal cruises. She was excited to be heading to Alaska in a few weeks.
The rest of the onboard staff and crew was also very nice. We were almost always greeted as we walked down the halls. The front desk and excursion desk staff were friendly and efficient. I don't think we had a single rude encounter on the cruise.
Captain Turner made an announcement every day either around 1 PM for sea days or as we were leaving port. Each time he provided not only the typical sailing speed, sunrise etc. information but also a little commentary on the port, animals around the ship, etc. I actually enjoyed listening to his announcements.
Half Moon Cay:
Our first stop was Half Moon Cay. Since we were celebrating Hubby's birthday on this cruise, we splurged and got a cabana. I told him about that part. What I didn't mention until later was I also got the butler package. We originally booked the Orange cabana but after reading several reports about hearing music from the new pirate bar, we switched to the Green cabana. I'm glad that we did! We didn't hear anything from the bar initially but around 11 AM the music volume went up and we could hear the music at our cabana. It wasn't loud enough to be excessively annoying but we could tell what songs were playing. We walked down to the Orange cabana to check on the noise level. I could tell immediately that we would not have been happy if we had stayed with that cabana. The bar wasn't crowded at all - maybe 30 people in there when we went by. I climbed to the upper level to take some pictures. The view is nice, but there are some rough places in the wood so splinters could be a problem if someone wasn't careful.
The butler package was really nice but not something that I would normally do. We had the usual cabana amenities - chips, salsa, guacamole, veggies, fruit, sodas, and water along with floating mats and snorkel gear. Plus we had a butler (Mario) to escort us to the cabana and bring us lunch and drinks. For lunch we had gazpacho soup, lobster salad sandwiches, then our choice of entrees and desserts. I had the BBQ prawns and hubby had the filet mignon. Both entrees were cooked to perfection and very tasty. Unfortunately, all the beef hubby ate later in the cruise was compared to the filet mignon and found lacking. There was also a chicken dish available as an entrEe option. For dessert there was a choice of fruit salad or chocolate cake. We got one of each. The chocolate cake was fabulous and rich. The fruit salad was huge with melons, strawberries, and pineapple - enough for 3-4 people. We ended up with way too much food. We left the remaining fruit salad on the table when we went swimming. When we got back, there were several birds taking bits of it. Alcoholic drinks are included in the butler package. We're not heavy drinkers so I only ordered a couple daiquiris and hubby three beers during the day. Mario did a fantastic job of bringing us our drinks and lunch.
The island is beautiful with powdery soft sand and turquoise blue water, but the ocean was cold! I went swimming a couple of times but my husband didn't get in the water past his knees because of the temperature. The swimming area is very shallow so I was able to walk to within 15 feet of the marker buoys before I couldn't touch the bottom anymore. There are a couple of loungers as well as a table with 4 chairs in the cabana. We lounged and read for a while. The cabana has fans and an air conditioner, but the weather was nice enough that we turned the a/c off and just used the fans. There is a shower to rinse off after swimming but there isn't much water pressure so it takes a while to feel like the salt water is out of your hair. There were a couple of hammocks hanging next to our cabana. I tried one of them, but it was designed for someone much shorter than me since my head and feet were almost touching the trees that the hammock was hanging from.
Our next stop was Aruba, where we arrived around 1 PM. Hubby and I booked the Sea & See excursion through HAL. We arrived a little late so it was chaos trying to get off the ship. I think everyone onboard had an excursion booked for 1 PM that met on the pier. After being pushed and wacked with a cane, we were finally off and found our tour. We started with a bus ride to the "high rise" section of the island where we got on a boat to meet the semi-sub. The semi-sub has viewing area under the boat that allows people to see underwater. All we did was circle a sunken WWII era ship where there were mostly sergeant majors swimming around. I have been on semi-subs before where the tour included a couple reef stops and a diver that dispersed some food to attract fish closer to the windows. I wasn't impressed with that part of the tour.
After the semi-sub we got back on the bus and drove to the California Lighthouse. Aruba is a mostly flat, arid island so the scenery is rocky with cactus. Next we went to where the natural bridge used to be. That involved driving down a bumpy dirt road along the coastline. The coastline was extremely rocky with heavy surf so the view was nice. The natural bridge collapsed several years ago but a smaller natural bridge is still in that area. We were able to stop for pictures and walk along the rocks. The Casibari Rock Formation was our last stop before returning to Oranjestad. From the top of the rock formation, you can see most of the island. We got back to town a little bit after 6. Several of the shops were still open so we bought a few souvenirs. Since we weren't scheduled to leave until 11 PM, we decided to eat dinner in Aruba rather than return to the ship. We took a cab back to the "high rise" area and had dinner at Pelican Nest on the pier. The food was really good and we had an amazing view of the moonrise over the ocean. The mango daiquiris were awesome so I had two. After dinner we went to the Paseo Harencia shopping area and watched the "dancing fountains." They aren't on par with those at the Bellagio in Vegas but they were interesting for a few minutes. We wandered around for a while then headed back to the ship around 10.
After Aruba we headed to Curacao, which is very similar to Aruba in climate and scenery. We had originally booked an excursion with HAL but it was cancelled. The other excursions that interested us were full so we decided to see what was available at the dock. We ended up taking a 2-hour island tour with a 2-hour stop at Cas Abao beach. The island tour was only okay. We had a stop at a curacao distillery then got to see some of the resort area, town, Seaquarium, and then the beach. We made a stop to try some iguana soup. The iguana wasn't skinned and still had the bones. A piece of scaly black leg floating in your soup is rather disturbing! I was brave enough to taste it and it really does taste like chicken. The beach was nice - loungers, umbrellas, and a restaurant were available. There was a wall of rocks with some fish clustered around it for the snorkelers. Like Half Moon Cay, the water was cold! I was expecting it to be warmer since we were so close to the equator. The beach was really rocky in some places so I wish I had worn my water shoes. After a couple of hours, we were picked up and returned to Willemstad near the pontoon bridge. We had lunch along the waterway then explored the shops and forts before walking back to the ship.
The Panama Canal was the highlight of the trip! I got up at 5 AM and hurriedly dressed so I could get on deck. Unfortunately I hadn't gotten up early enough because there was a long line to get onto the forward part of deck 4. By the time I got through, it was already crowded despite still being dark out. Around 6 coffee and Panama buns were served on the deck. After reading so many raves about the Panama buns, I was expecting something truly fabulous but they weren't really to my taste.
Around 7 we were heading towards the locks. The deck was extremely crowded and if you moved even slightly, someone would push in front of you. I saw a couple of shoving matches happen because someone squeezed into a space in front of someone else to block the view. I got tired of the jostling and head views so went to deck 10. I couldn't see in front of the ship but could take pictures and walk from port to starboard side without being pushed. I was able to see the new locks that were in process. They are a little behind so I don't know if they will be ready in Aug. 2014 as scheduled for the centennial anniversary of the canal. I watched the "mules" being secured to keep the ship straight in the lock and see the sides of the lock as the ship was raised. After the first lock, I decided to head down to my balcony for the next two. The balcony was about even with the top of the lock wall so I got a close view of the mules and workers. My husband also got tired of the shoving and came back to the cabin when we were going through the second lock. Once we finished the third lock and headed into Gatun Lake, my husband and I headed for the theater to meet our excursion group.
We booked the Canal Experience tour along with about 400 other people. We were taken off the ship by a tender to meet our bus. We had about an hour bus ride to the other end of the lake to get onboard a smaller boat. The smaller boat provided a different but still amazing view of the canal. We passed under the Centennial Bridge on our way to the Pacific. Lunch was cheese sandwiches, pasta, fruit, BBQ chicken, sausage, and cookies. Our boat went into a lock with a large container ship. It was secured about 10 feet behind us and loomed over us as we were lowered in the lock. Our boat was secured against the wall, which was close enough to touch. We started out with the water level at the top of the lock, but by the time it has drained, the lock wall was high above the boat. After passing through the 3 Pacific locks and under the Americas Bridge, we reached Panama City where we docked and got back on the bus for the return to Colon. The return took about 1.5 hours. Our guide gave us some information on Panama and the scenery as we drove. When we arrived at Colon, we had about 30 minutes until we needed to get back onboard the ship so we went through a few of the shops along the pier. This was a worthwhile excursion and I'm really glad that we took it.
Our last stop was Costa Rica. We did the train, eco cruise, and countryside tour. Our guide, Humberto, was fantastic and very knowledgeable about Costa Rica. It was obvious that he enjoyed his job. We started the tour with a train ride where the best part was the first 10 minutes. We saw howler monkeys and a sloth. The remaining 50 minutes of the train ride were houses and yards, a bit of the coastline, and lots of trees. Next was a bus ride to the canal. The canal tour was wonderful. We saw a caiman, butterflies, birds, bats, basilisk lizards, sloths, monkeys, and turtles. Humberto and our boat captain pointed out the animals and circled around several times to allow everyone on the boat to see. I didn't want the canal part to end. After the canal, we were served beer, fruit juice, water, bananas, watermelon, and pineapple before getting back on the bus to go to the banana plantation. I've seen banana plantations on the Caribbean islands but here we were able to see not only the trees but also the picking, sorting, cleaning, and packing process. We were given bananas to sample then back on the bus for the return to Limon. We had a couple hours before the ship was scheduled to leave so we looked through the shopping stalls around the pier and bought some coffee and a few souvenirs to take home. I really enjoyed the guide, canal, and banana plantation parts of the tour, but wish we had skipped most of the train ride. I think I would have enjoyed taking the Canal and Zip-Lining tour with Charlie Soto instead. I wanted to take that tour but my husband wanted the train ride instead of zip-lining. I heard a couple onboard raving about the Charlie Soto tour and seeing some monkeys in a tree at one of the zip-line platforms. Maybe we'll go back to Costa Rica again.
A Few Complaints:
Overall I had a good cruise but I think there are a few areas besides those previously mentioned where HAL could improve. The first is providing an interactive system for checking account balance and booking excursions like Royal Caribbean has in place. I don't like having to stop by the front desk to get a copy of my account balance or standing in line at the excursion desk only to find out that the excursion I wanted is already full. I like being able to turn on the TV and check my balance without wasting time and paper.
Another area for improvement is the ventilation on the ship, particularly on decks 2 and 7. Every time I went to the Neptune Lounge, the hallways on deck 7 reeked of cigarettes. Deck 2 had a similar problem in the hallway from the Queen's Lounge to the Piano Bar. I could barely breathe sometimes while going through that area. The Northern Lights lounge was really smoky even when no one was smoking in there. It seemed to suck in the smoke from the casino. I occasionally smelled cigarettes on some of the other decks, but nothing like decks 2 and 7.
I don't want to continue to prod at the smoking issue since I know cigarettes are legal and smokers have the right to smoke wherever they wish on HAL. However, it would be nice if HAL offered one or two non-smoking nights in the casino and lounges like Royal Caribbean does. I don't feel that not being able to smoke in the casino for one night on a 10-night cruise really violates the smokers' rights. On the positive side, I couldn't stay in the casino for very long so didn't lose any money.
The final complaint was about the communication/information provided onboard. When we went to the port talk about the Panama Canal, we were told that the forward areas on decks 5, 6, and 7 would be open to help prevent crowding on deck 4. As I stated earlier deck 4 was extremely crowded, causing some passengers to become testy and combative. Several of us tried to get away from the mess on deck 4 by going to one of the upper decks but the doors to the outside were locked. A crew member told us that they hadn't opened those decks for several cruises but couldn't explain why. If the decks weren't going to be opened, then we shouldn't have been told that they would be. I would have liked to see the view from the front of the ship, but was not willing to be shoved around. The only option besides deck 4 was to go to the Crow's Nest or deck 11 and look through the tinted and dirty windows. Since I wanted to take pictures, I didn't want a dirty window blocking my view.
I tried to provide a fair and balanced review of the cruise and hopefully the few complaints that I presented above will not seem too negative.