My husband & I (late 30's) have been traveling around the world since August 2010. We returned to the U.S. this summer to get married then set off again on our "extended" honeymoon in September. We are backpackers/budget travelers and don't always plan our adventures too far in advance. Since we didn't have return flights to the U.S., we decided to book a cruise at the last minute instead! This was my husband's first cruise, too!
Since we were already in Europe, we simply made our way to Rome where we spent one night near Termini station to make it convenient to take the train to Civitavecchia and board the ship. While you can take a direct train for around 13.50 euros per person, we opted for the more budget-friendly local train which only cost 4.50 euros but took twice as long. Once we reached Civitavecchia train station, we walked about 5 minutes down the road to where all the cruise ship buses were lined up and then were shuttled (free) to the embarkation hall.
Embarkation was a bit unusual because our ship had an outbreak of GI illness and was being thoroughly cleaned. Thus no one was allowed to board prior to 2pm so there was a large crowd in the building. There were plenty of staff members offering sandwiches, coffee, tea, etc. but there was not adequate seating. In fact, many of the cheap plastic chairs broke while people were sitting in them.
Once we were on the ship everything went more smoothly although the first week was difficult because of the CDC protocols due to the GI outbreak. Everything was full service so you couldn't even get your own drinks in the buffet, the self-service laundry was closed, etc. But the casino remained open, of course!
Since we were assigned open seating, we could dine in La Fontaine (the more formal dining room) any time between 5:30-9:30pm. However we preferred to be seated by 6pm, as service was not always expedient (I think many of the crew were sick so they were short-staffed) and dinner sometimes stretched to almost two hours. As we had been backpacking, we were not carrying formal wear and thus skipped the 4 formal nights. They did have clothing for rent but it was not worth the extra cost to us considering the Lido Buffet almost always served the same food as was available in the dining room. On that note, I thought the food was generally excellent. Tons of variety and with few exceptions very fresh tasting and well prepared. One way we saved money was by bringing our own wine onboard (boxes, bottles, etc. are allowed and a corkage fee is charged ONLY if you bring a bottle to the restaurant).
We booked the cheapest rate we could find at the last minute and were actually very thankful for our inside stateroom on Deck 2, low and midship, especially when we hit unexpected bad weather and swells on the second night of the cruise. Our room was very quiet, with plenty of lighting, tons of closet space, and a sofa seating 2 people with a small table plus a desk & chair. Our bathroom was also spacious enough with plenty of counter space and shelving. I was a bit unsettled by all of the stains on the supposedly clean sheets...
We did not book any shore excursions as we are very independent and well-traveled and thus feel comfortable going everywhere on our own. Luckily all of our ports of call were walking distance to the town centers so we would just get off the ship whenever we wanted, walk around for a few hours and see what we wanted to see, then get back on.
Our ship offered plenty of diversions during our days at sea. The daily program was filled with activities divided into four categories: Our World, Food & Entertaining, Technology, and Wellbeing. I attended talks by the two guest lecturers - Warren Salinger, who worked in international development and whose seminars focused on globalization; and Dick Magaldi, a retired police commander and sea captain, whose talks covered diverse topics like diving for treasure, piracy, and maritime history. However, while both were good speakers, their lectures were always rushed and jumped from topic to topic a bit irratically, so after a few tries I moved on to other things.
In addition to the lectures, every day there were cooking demonstrations, computer classes, spa seminars, jewelery seminars, gambling tournaments, trivia challenges, and many, many more activities to choose from, almost all free to attend. We also took the behind-the-scenes kitchen tour, getting a glimpse at how the culinary staff prepares over 6,000 meals each day. To offset all the yummy food, we went to the gym most mornings!
I really enjoyed the variety of entertainment that was offered. Besides first run movies in the theater or renting DVDs (free) to watch in our room, we also attended most of the shows. The in-house performers were all very talented, from the Adagio Strings (an all female string quartet that played in the dining room), to the pianist and guitarist who played in the bar, to the house band "HALCats" and the stars of the Showroom at Sea. While the cast shows were entertaining, I especially enjoyed the guest performers: Tom Sutton (comedian), Passionata (Flamenco Fusion dance performance), Julian Gargiulo (pianist), Livewire (husband & wife Celtic duo), and Jay White (Neil Diamond impersonator).
Service was a step below what I expected from HAL, but I blame this partially on the GI illness outbreak which I know affected a large number of the crew. I still think they were doing their best despite the circumstances and most served us with a smile without fail.
Summary: We thoroughly enjoyed this Holland America cruise and would choose them again without hesitation. But I think it's important to note that the average age of all passengers on our ship was 65 and there were fewer than 50 people that were anywhere close to our age.
Disembarkation in Fort Lauderdale went smoothly but was inexplicably delayed by almost 30 minutes. We spent a lot of time pacing outside on Deck 3 trying to stay out of the way of the crew who were preparing the ship to sail again that evening.