Pre-Cruise: We flew into Ft. Lauderdale from D.C. the day before and, owing to Trip Advisor reviews, we chose to stay at the Hyatt Place Ft Lauderdale Airport South. The hotel staff was accommodating and very friendly, the breakfast buffet (included) was more than sufficient, our room was spacious (esp. the bathroom) and spotless, and the hotel grounds are set in a beautiful cul-de-sac. If you don't mind walking, it is a long couple of blocks to a large strip shipping mall which has everything from a dollar store (we bought razors I had forgotten) to a Big Lots (bought some sodas) to a K-Mart to a Home Depot to Ross. Look on both sides of the street. If you don't mind a bit further walk, you can proceed to the Home Depot and on around the corner to Sweet Tomatoes and a few other restaurants; however, a Chipotle Grill is on the corner before you ever cross the major street. The only down side to this hotel is having to pay ($8) for the cruise port shuttle, but the price (including breakfast) was worth it.
Boarding and Our Room We took the 11am shuttle, boarded the ship quickly, and our room was ready as per HAL's new policy. We booked a guaranteed balcony (VF) and were upgraded to VA a week before the cruise. Our room was 8171, at the very aft, next door to the suite with the wrap-around balcony. I would not recommend this room if you have "issues" with noise. Our crossing was fairly rough, so people were not eating around the aft pool, but once the weather settled down, and they did eat there, we continually heard moving of chairs. Our room was small - barely enough room to cross between the bed and the wall, but we did have a small sitting area with couch and table, and our balcony was large enough for 2 chairs, small footstool, and very small table. We enjoyed it at the start of the cruise and later on, certainly not during our 4 rough sea days! Our room stewards were very attentive, and the room was kept spotless. We paid for unlimited laundry almost as soon as we boarded. Thanks to those who posted this information on the boards; it was never advertised on the ship. The package cost $112 for the 16 days, although we could not use it for the first 2 or last 2 days. We were very glad we opted for this splurge, for it enabled us to pack lighter. We sent out laundry every day, and we always had it back within 24 hours, sometimes even the same day. Don't pay additionally for ironing; that is included, and wow, what a job they did! My husband's tux shirt never looked so good. We had a bath tub in our stateroom - a first for us - and how wonderful to have the extra space to shower and not fight the shower curtain hugging our legs!! Dispensers for body wash, shampoo, and conditioner are on the wall. We were not entitled to a "pillow menu," but our room steward obtained a firm pillow for me when I asked.
Food: We have sailed with HAL once before, finding the food to be excellent, and we were not disappointed this time. We had wonderful choices in the dining room (we had set dining), and the Lido has several different stations. Don't miss the grill near the main pool and the pizza near the aft pool. Do ask for a piece of salmon grilled (they call them "salmon burgers" - just skip the bread and French fries), and put it atop a green salad. Yum. We enjoyed the Caneletto one night (free - but make reservations), and the Tamarind for lunch (also free, but make reservations) was excellent (the food was great, the service spotty). We had terrific dining table waiters. While food isn't literally available 24/7, ice cream and cookies are available most of the time, and at 11pm, another whole buffet gets set up! We never lacked for variety in what to eat, and you can eat as healthy (or not) as you want! For dinner, we had lobster once and prime rib twice. Once in the Lido we had a Seafood Extravaganza with lobster tails, huge shrimp, oysters, crab legs, you name it. You can't miss it - look for the huge crowds!! The only downside to our dining experience is the 5:30 time slot. That is too early, and yet 8pm is too late. For busy port days, it is difficult to get back in time for dinner. In fact, the last formal night (we had 4) was held when we didn't get back to port until 6pm. Additionally, while the cruise director insisted this timing served to accommodate past cruisers' requests, we did not like having to wait two hours after dinner to get to the late show (we were asked to allow late diners to attend the 7pm show). At most, one activity was held between 7:15 (when we finished with dinner) and the show, and yes, we could listen to music, but it is easy to just give up and not make the late show. For us, the most fun activities - game shows - were held after the late show at 10:30! On port days with a 7am get-off-the-ship departure, that is not good timing. We used room service twice, and they were prompt both times, and the order was perfect.
Activities While we were initially concerned about the many potentially long sea days, we ended up loving them. As with most cruise ships, you can find as much or as little to do as you wish. While seas were a bit rocky on the way to Bermuda, they grew increasingly so the 3-4 days after we left Bermuda, when the captain tried to get north of a brewing storm. The front desk was handing out meclazine like candy, and they had baskets of green apples and saltines set out. Frequently, upper decks and pools were closed because of the rough seas. Having plenty of activities was a good diversion!
Dave Levesque, the lecturer, was excellent. He spoke at 9am on sea days about early explorers, ships, pirates, etc. He spoke each time for 50 solid minutes with not a single note - only his Power Point pictures. Ian, the travel guide, had informative talks on our ports - their history and sites to see. He was good to give alternative suggestions for those not taking the ship's excursions, and we appreciated that. I would suggest, however, doing your homework ahead of time, as we found some of Ian's information to be incorrect. Sites were open on Good Friday, when he said they would not be. A cab from our ship to our hotel in Barcelona was E18, instead of the E8 he told us. Still, overall, he was good. He cannot know everything about every port. He was an entertaining speaker, and he was available every morning and late afternoon for an hour to answer individual questions. The ship had a bridge director who held beginner and more advanced lessons as well as a duplicate bridge game every sea day. Unfortunately, he had far more people interested than the room could accommodate, and we wished he had gone to the Cruise Director and been more forceful. We gave up going to the bridge games when we learned we had to be there an hour early to even hope to get a table. Cooking demonstrations were great. Line dancing lessons were fun. Only one night did we see karaoke. You could find trivia games scattered throughout the day. Formal teas, esp. the Indonesian and Royal Dutch, were excellent. Don't miss the Chocolate Extravaganza. And the music venues were varied. Recent feature films are shown every day in the theater. It is, however, quite small, so if the movie interests you, get there early. We did discover we could go in almost any time (even if a movie was not showing) and get the popcorn!! The evening shows were quite varied. The ventriloquist was our favorite. Comedians, musicians, an opera group, singers/dancers variety shows (these were the weakest in our opinion), an electric violinist, magician - you get the idea. The exercise room is very good. Unfortunately, there is no running deck, but walkers (and a few runners) made use of the Promenade deck. We did not use any spa services, but they do have a hydro-therapy pool (costly to use) which we saw on our "tour." I resisted the impulse to tell the spa lady that Celebrity offers that pool for free!!
Debarkation Since we wanted to get to our Barcelona hotel and get a head start on our sight-seeing, we took off our own luggage; it is nice not having to set it out the night before. That went very smoothly. Even if you don't choose expedited departure, it is nice to sit in your stateroom and await your number to be called.
Bermuda - We have been to the Dockyards and Hamilton before, so we took the ferry ($12 all-day transportation pass is a great deal - skip the very long line to buy these near where the passengers get off, and buy them closer to where the ferries dock) to St. George's. We downloaded a walking tour from Frommer's, and that consumed an enjoyable couple of hours. We included walking to Tobacco Bay, not to swim or snorkel, just to see. It is beautiful. We then took the bus back to the Dockyards and another bus to Somerset where we ambled along a beautiful two-mile section of the Bermuda Railway Trail.
Ponta Delgada, Azores - eight of us from the Roll Call booked ahead with Amazing Tours. While we had hoped to see Sete Cidades, the twin lakes, our driver cautioned that the weather would not be good. He, instead, recommended Furnas Lake and some other sights, saying we would see more of the island as well. He admitted it would add another hour to our trip (and more money), so he pulled over and asked us to decide. We were glad we went with his suggestion. We saw several sites in addition to the lake. He then dropped some of us off (at our request) in the small town. It is a lovely place to wander - be sure to look at the mosaic-like tiled sidewalks - and we found a fresh fruit/fish market. We bought Portuguese cheese and some bread; wonderful!!
Lisbon - This turned into one of our two favorite stops. We had 1.5 days there. As soon as we got off the ship, we crossed the street to the train station and bought the 7 Colinas Pass, quite a deal for 24-hour transportation. (We did not dock at Alcantara, but closer into Lisbon.) Then we took the bus to Belem and saw the Monument to the Discoveries, the Belem Tower, and the Monastery of St. Jerome. That was a gorgeous place! We could not get into the church itself - the lines were long, and they were waiting for Good Friday services. But we did pay to see the cloisters, which are a must-see. We walked over to the Pasteis de Belem - go there!! The small custard tarts are heavenly!! After a bus ride back to Lisbon, we walked through the medieval section, trying to find the #28 trolley. Never could find that one (until the next day), but we did take one that went around Lisbon. Don't miss these - riding those old trolleys through narrow streets is quite an experience! We had packed some sandwiches and fruit from the ship, so we ate in a large square, then continued to walk and just enjoy the quaint alleyways, people-watching, etc. We were probably back on ship by 9pm, but we heard of others finding fado shows and staying out until the wee hours! The next day, we used Rick Steves' walking tours and went all over Lisbon - churches, the Alfama, found a flea market, went to several lookout vantage points, finally enjoyed the Tourist Trolley #28, saw the outside of the Sao Jorge castle, enjoyed the fado museum, wandered the Baixa, Chiado, and Barrio Alto. We found Lisbon delightful.
Portimao - Easter Sunday. We walked into Portimao, which was a leisurely 20-minute stroll. If your cruise director tells you you have to take the ship-provided shuttle because it is 4 miles into town, don't doit!! It may be four miles as the bus drives, but it is not that at all if you walk. (When you leave the port area, follow the "exit" sign left; then you will bear right and walk a dirt bike path for a short way; then you'll see the street; hug the water, and you can't go wrong; eventually, you will hit a broad pedestrian area along the water - a beautiful place to stroll. Even if you don't want to walk, you can share a cab for a total of E5 into the town. We went to the cathedral just in time to hear the singing and watch the Easter Procession as they left the church. We found a bakery and enjoyed some pastries. A few shops were open, despite it being Easter, and restaurants were open. It is a lovely little town to walk around; it's just that there's not much to it! I know the museum is supposed to be very good, but we did not go in. We then walked to Praia de Rocha - we had the ship-provided map, and we found our way easily (follow Avenida Tomas Cabriera toward the beach and past the fort). From the ship-end of the small town, it is a 25 minute walk. The beach is gorgeously maintained. The water and rocks are beautiful. We did not go in the water, but we enjoyed walking the beach and sitting on a large overlook. We walked along the high-rise hotel street on our way back, found an internet cafe (E2 for 30 min.), many shops, and scores of restaurants. Back on the ship, we went to a well-attended inter-denominational Easter service.
Cadiz - We booked ahead with Spain Day Tours for the trip to Seville, our other favorite stop. I would have preferred to take the train, and I talked to some who did, but we liked the timing of the tour, and we knew we would appreciate the guide on our 90 minute drive. We toured the Alcazar, the Jewish Quarter, and the cathedral before having a short bit of time to wander on our own and get some lunch or shop. The Alcazar is amazing, but if you are going to the Alhambra, I would skip this. For us, seeing the Alcazar definitely took away from the Alhambra as it is a mini-Alhambra, gorgeous in its own right and definitely worth seeing if you're not going to Granada. I am a sucker for windy, cobblestoned, narrow alleyways, and the Jewish Quarter does not disappoint. And Seville's cathedral - wow. The massive organ and the overwhelming high altar are sites to behold. We had a nice tour through here, and we stayed on in the cathedral (our tour was over) to see more of it (it is the third largest in the world) and to climb to the top of the tower for some great views of Seville. Our driver let some of us off in Cadiz, and we wandered there o see another beautiful cathedral, the tower, etc. Cadiz is charming, too, and if you don't want to go to Seville, you can enjoy this medieval town.
Malaga - We used this port, as did almost everyone, as a gateway to the Alhambra. We booked with Spain Day Tours and had excellent guides on our bus and at the Alhambra. We saw the Generalife Gardens first and then the palace. This is truly a magnificent place to visit. No wonder it is Spain's top tourist attraction. It is easy to be overwhelmed and stop appreciating the intricate detail that you see at every turn. After we got back to Malaga, we walked around this small town and then headed to the ship. It was a long day!
Barcelona - Our cruise ended here, but we stayed on for two full days. We did the typical Rick Steves and/or Frommer's thing: the walking tours to and around the cathedral (the Gothic Quarter was our favorite part of Barcelona), strolling Las Ramblas (several times - but it was way, way, way too crowded), eating or just wandering (and marveling!) at the Boqueria (loved this place), etc. We got a T10 transportation pass at the metro station, E7.85 for 10 rides (we shared the ticket) on buses and subways. This was a good choice for us. The evening of the first day, we took the bus to Montjuic and wandered there before going to The Spanish Village (I would not recommend this place - it is a Disney version of Spanish architecture - pretty but not the real thing) to see the flamenco show we purchased ahead of time at Carmen's Table. This was a fantastic choice! The dancers are so intense, and we loved the 60+ minute performance. It may be touristy; we certainly would not know the difference though. When you reserve your spot, I would suggest choosing only the drink and not the tapas or dinner. Why? Because then you will be seated in the small balcony, and no one will be in front of you (not guests or waiters who continue to serve during the show), and you can have an unobstructed view. Additionally, we were given a menu, so we could have ordered something had we chosen. We had already had dinner, though, and the pitcher of sangria was delicious!
Our second day in Barcelona was devoted to Gaudi - the Block of Discord, Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia, and Parc Guell. I knew nothing about Gaudi before this trip, and love or hate him, he is different!! Crowds, crowds everywhere - even at the Parc - and that certainly detracted from the experience. We also walked Las Ramblas again and explored the port area. If you are missing an American-style mall, Mare Magnum is at this end.
I can't speak to the dining experience in Barcelona, although we passed more tapas bars than I thought could possibly exist. We are more the get-something-quick-to-go-and-keep walking/sight seeing people. We loved picking up fruit at Boqueria, we found a small seemingly-local and inexpensive place off Las Ramblas (El Pollo Rico, I think) with chickens roasting on spits (yum), and the basement of El Corte Ingles has a full supermarket. We bought cheese and bread and took it to watch the Magic Fountains on Montjuic our second night. That is a lovely thing to do. Check their website for times; in April, the fountains only ran on Fri. and Sat.
We stayed at the Hotel Onix, very near the Playa de Catalunya, extremely convenient. They have "Shhh" rooms, so you don't hear street noise. The Aerobus stops at Playa de Catalunya, an inexpensive (E5.30) and quick way to get to the airport. I had read that it takes 40 minutes, but we were there in 25 (it was, however, a Sat. and 7am).
Final Thoughts We have sailed on HAL once before, and this trip matched the excellence of our prior experience. The 16-day crossing was over way too soon! If I can answer any questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.