PORTS OF CALL. We have visited Copenhagen and Oslo several times before, but were looking forward in particular to spending 2 days in Oslo. One thing we didn't anticipate was the major drawback in this cruise. We have never come across this in any cruise line before: virtually every port we called in, the ship berthed in freight yards, not passenger terminals. So taxis were denied access, and hop on, hop off buses, similarly. Unless you had booked the eye-watering prices of excursions, or even coach transfers into town, you had major problems. In Copenhagen we had a 40 minute walk through an industrial estate just to get to the Little Mermaid statue. In Oslo, where we have always berthed below the Fortress on previous (and cheaper) cruises, we were the wrong side of a road building project and had to walk through a flooded area as well. You could forget walking into town for a drink at night-totally impractical. This was explained away as the ship being too large for the site. Not true as a much larger ship, PO Azura, was berthed below the fortress the following day.
Bergen was the only port where HAL laid on a free transfer. However, cheaper cruises were again berthed at the end of the town dock. Again too much trouble to pop back into town in the afternoon when the sun came out. South Queensferry for Edinburgh was the worst of all. Instead of berthing in Leith, which the locals said was normal, we actually dropped anchor in the Firth of Forth, in the shadow of the bridge, and were tendered ashore in freezing winds. For Newcastle on Tyne, the local Tyneside council, bless them, laid on some coaches to the train station, but it was still a long and expensive train journey into the city. I'm sure HAL minimised their costs this way, but we were made to feel like second class citizens.
Other good and bad points are as follows:
CABIN. We were on deck 8. The cabin was fine, with a bath, but it was impractical to use it as the water never got above lukewarm. There was a large flatscreen TV, with a limited number of channels, and no concession to non-Americans in programmes apart from the lacklustre BBC World service. A nice touch was that one could get free DVDs from reception from a very wide-ranging list.
CABIN SERVICE. We had an affable steward, but I would have been more impressed if he had remembered a request for another blanket rather than concentrate on chocolates and towel sculptures. I opted to pay all the $22 a day gratuities, although some said they had abated theirs. I felt the minor staff were so nice and deserving that I couldn't in all conscience reduce mine. But the aforesaid steward's affability and friendliness totally disappeared on the last morning when he realised he wasn't getting a tip on top. I don't think a cruise company should put passengers in this position. The staff, mainly Indonesian and Philippinos, were generally effective and delightful, but too few in number, particularly in the bars. In the Explorers Lounge, the excellent Wellah, battled singlehandedly for far too long some nights.
DRINKS PRICES. We drink lager and G and T's. There was no draught lager, and bottles proved more than twice as expensive per pint as, say, P and O. There were happy hours, but not between 6 and 7PM when most people seemed to want them. The deal, a second drink for $1, was limited to you both having to have the same drink, and there were limits on the quality of some wines, for example.
ENTERTAINMENT. Generally the poorest we've come across. The dance/singing troupe was small in number, and probably to save costs, four of the string players in the orchestra doubled as the Adagio String quartet in the Explorers Lounge, but only when they weren't required on the Main Stage. There were other single acts, whose merits seemed to be in inverse proportion to the cruise director's hype when introducing them.
DINING. We opted for freedom dining, which seemed to work just fine. Food was generally good, though some nights we found little to our fancy on the menu. We were disappointed in the Asian restaurant food, though the service was beyond reproach. The Italian we found better, particularly the Seafood Linguini and the Tiramisu. The self-service restaurant had a wide range of food, but an outbreak of gastric problems almost from the outset meant one had to almost permanently be served by staff. I heard one being told to limit portions. One thing that, as Brits, drove us mad, was walking around a city and then returning to the ship at 2PM, only to find lunch operations closing down .Thus our staple lunch diet became salads or toasted sandwiches.
PASSENGERS. These seemed to be Americans in the main, followed by Australians, Asians, and British. All in all, they were the nicest and most engaging range of people we've come across on a cruise.
DRESS CODE. We had three formal nights. Then a small minority of men would look like stuffed penguins, another batch would be in a lounge suit and tie, and the majority looked as if they'd just wandered in from a baseball game. What is the earthly point of a dress code if it is not enforced?
FINALLY. One day we relaxed by the indoor pool on a warm day, reading. To our astonishment, workers started maintenance work on some overhead pipes, banging, drilling etc, which with the roof almost completely closed made an ear-splitting cacophony which went on for what seemed hours. Nobody batted an eyelid. Perhaps they've cruised with HAL before. We certainly won't be.