This review may seem kind of over-detailed in parts, with info about our pre/post-cruise hotel along with our non-ship excursions. I've done so intentionally, as I found the highly-detailed reviews I'd read when researching this cruise to be of immense help.
About us: my wife and I are mid/late 40's, in great shape, and have limited cruise experience (this was my wife's 4th, my 2nd). We both prefer quiet time to the party atmosphere of some other ship lines, and decided on a Holland America cruise partly for that reason. We weren't disappointed.
We would normally fly in the day of the ship's departure and transfer directly to the ship, but since we couldn't find a flight with an early enough arrival time, we left a day early and stayed overnight in Fort Lauderdale. We departed cold Salt Lake City the day after Thanksgiving, flying into Fort Lauderdale with a late afternoon arrival.
The hotel we picked for our stayover was Hyatt Place Fort Lauderdale 17th Street (referred to as Hyatt Place Fort Lauderdale Airport North on some websites), and I highly recommend this hotel. It's not as big or fancy as the Embassy Suites, which seems to get a lot of high marks, but it's slightly less expensive, a LOT less crowded, and just as close to the shopping center nearby. It also has a free shuttle from the airport. Use the free courtesy phone by the baggage claim to contact them, and then go out the doors, and to the right is a shuttle pickup area. They were there within about 10 minutes of our call. The Hyatt Place also offers a shuttle ($6 per person) to the Port Everglades cruise port. There is a brand new Italian restaurant next door to the hotel, an Outback within a 2-minute walk, and the shopping center is just across 10th street (a dead end access road, almost no traffic), less than 5 minute walk from the hotel.
We ate dinner at Duffy's which is in the entrance to the shopping center (huge sports bar chain restaurant in the Florida area), then went to the huge wine store (right next to the Publix store) to stock up for our cruise. Holland America allows you to carry on all the wine you can stand (wine only, no liquors or beer), so if you drink wine, take advantage of this, and avoid paying $29 (plus $18 corkage fee) for the cheapest wine available on board.
There were several other dining options in the shopping complex near the hotel. There are also many other dining/shopping options along 17th Street, and you are about 20-minute walk from the Water Taxi stop under the 17th Street bridge. On the weekends, it appears that almost everyone in the hotels along 17th Street are cruisers, and every conversation on the elevators seems to begin with, "so, going on a cruise?"
The Hyatt Place offers a continental breakfast from 7:00-9:00 every morning, and on weekend/cruise days, the lobby is packed. This is one reason why I think the Hyatt Place is a better option than the larger hotels in the area - as busy as it gets, I can only imagine the mobs of people milling around looking for coffee and waiting for shuttles/cabs in the lobbies of those bigger hotels. While the lobby is small, they do have kiosks for checking in/out, and we were taken care of quickly. The rooms were very nice, clean, with a huge 42" TV that was great for movies or sports. Also the internet access is free (not fast, but free). It's interesting to me that the smaller hotels offer free internet and shuttles for free, while the larger ones, charge more for their rooms, and then gouge you for internet, parking, and shuttles (not to mention the 'resort fees' that some tag on to your bill). I would guess the free airport shuttle and free internet at Hyatt Place saved us $20 a day over staying at the Embassy Suites.
As I mentioned, the Hyatt Place offers a shuttle to the cruise port for $6/person. You need to sign up for this shuttle as soon as you check in, because they fill up fast. We were able to get on the 11:40 AM shuttle, but it didn't actually leave the hotel until closer to Noon. As I mentioned, almost everyone in the hotel is going on a cruise, so there is quite a crowd and piles of luggage out in front of the hotel in the morning. No matter what you read about how close this hotel is to the port, do not, and I mean do NOT attempt to walk to the port. This is a HUGE port, and the ships are spread out, so you could end up walking several miles.
The shuttle will ask everyone which ship they are taking, and then will drive around to the appropriate drop-off points inside the port. We were on a shuttle with some Princess and RCI cruisers, and both of those drop-offs looked like madhouses -- people and luggage everywhere, and huge throngs lined up outside the Royal Caribbean pier.
In hindsight, we wished we had taken a cab instead of the shuttle to the port. Not that the shuttle was bad - it was fine. We just wish we had been able to get signed up for an earlier shuttle. As it was, we'd already paid for the shuttle (you pay when you sign up, and the shuttle driver is given a list of who is on which shuttle), so we took that. If we had taken a cab (possibly $10/person?), we could have left earlier, and been driven directly to our pier, getting us on board a couple of hours sooner. But don't get me wrong, we had no complaints as it was - we were just excited to get on the ship!
We left the hotel around Noon, were the last couple to be dropped off, and we still made it on board and in our cabin by 1:15. The line to get checked in was about a 15-minute wait, and went so smooth, it makes you wonder if you forgot something. Speaking of that, be sure to have all your boarding documents in hand when the shuttle drops you off. They take your luggage immediately, so don't leave your boarding passes in a luggage pocket (like we almost did).
Once on board, our room was all cleaned and ready, so we left our carry-on luggage (i.e. big bag of wine) in our cabin, and wandered all over the ship, checking things out and familiarizing ourselves with the layout. They give you a little map of all the deck plans with your room cards, making it easy to find your way.
We had booked a Retreat Cabana for the week, which ended up being the best money we spent on this cruise. We had debated whether to rent it for the whole week, or take our chances on one being available to reserve for the two At Sea days. Don't chance it -- reserve one for the whole week -- you won't be disappointed. All of the cabanas on our cruise were reserved. You don't get to pick which cabana you get; Holland America assigns them ahead of time, and you get a card in your mailbox outside your cabin telling you which one you're been assigned. I don't think any of them are better than others, so take what you get and enjoy!
Dustin and Brian were the cabana stewards, and each day that we used the cabana, both were quick to come by and see if we needed anything, and would check on us often. An ice bucket with two 2-liter water bottles was provided every day, and fresh fruit was always in a basket on the table. The cabana had a table, two chairs, and two wicker loungers with nice, thick, padded cushions, plus a smaller table between the loungers. In the common area outside the cabanas are more loungers and nice padded wicker chairs and couches, and a shower. The area is closed off from other guests, but they can still pass through the gates on their way to the upper decks. All in all, this area feels closed off from the rest of the ship, giving you a great feeling of privacy.
The Retreat overlooks the Lido pool area, but you hardly notice any noise coming up from that area. The cabanas on the Lido deck are right next to the pool, and would be great for families; we preferred our location much more. Our cabana was the 'Santorini', one of the ones along the outside of the deck, with a window overlooking the starboard side. There is an elevator lobby just inside the forward doors, and two bathrooms are right around the corner from there, plus the Explorations CafÃ© is in that area too, so you can go get a book or a drink anytime.
Brian and Dustin brought us fresh cut fruit plates in the mornings we were there, and would bring us coffee, breakfast, and anything off the Lido menu that we wanted, all for free. Plus you could order drinks, and they would go get them for you (you do have to pay for drinks other than water/juice/coffee).
As much time as we spent in our cabana, and as much as we enjoyed it, I think we would have been happy to have a less expensive cabin, and use the savings to pay for a cabana.
Oh, and those two big bottles of water that they give you every day in the cabana? Free. The same bottles are in your fridge in the cabin, but they are $3.95 each if you open them. We used the bottles from the cabana every day, and never had to pay for water. Think of that as a way to offset part of that $300 cabana booking fee!
DAY ONE, CABIN 5104, EMBARKING/DEPARTURE
We'd gotten on board the Eurodam about 1:15, and our cabin was already cleaned and ready for us. One of the first things we did was spend a few minutes wiping down the door handles, phone, sinks, shower handles, and anything else we'd constantly touch during the week with alcohol wipes. We'd read of this idea on Cruise Critic, and decided it was good practice. We had no problems with any germs/viruses on the trip, and we'd like to think wiping things down helped.
After wandering around and exploring the upper decks for a while, we returned to our cabin and a knock at the door soon afterwards signaled the arrival of our luggage. I'd guess we had our luggage by 3:30, nice to have it with plenty of time to change into nicer clothes for dinner.
But first came the muster drill, required on every cruise. There were overhead announcements in the afternoon informing us that we'd need to report to our evacuation areas at 4:00. Boring. But we didn't have to wear life vests for the drill, and it went fairly quick -- I think we were done and back in our cabin by 4:30.
Our cabin number was 5104 on the Verandah deck, and we'd picked this cabin specifically because it was centered midship on a lower deck, and was three rooms down from the midship outside elevators. People riding those elevators can see onto the balconies of the cabins directly next to the elevators. This cabin was in a great location. The Verandah deck is just above the lifeboats/tenders, and I had read that some were concerned with having the bright orange boats directly in their lower view. I can't speak for everyone, but I didn't think the boats were an issue at all. Yes, they block about a third of your view looking down, but the entire midsection of the Eurodam's deck plan is indented, so even if we were on a deck above, we'd be looking down at the lifeboats and Promenade deck.
The Verandah deck (the elevator voice as we arrive on our deck saying "Deck 5, Verandah" is forever imprinted in our brains), is slightly narrower than the decks above, so the balcony is about a foot and a half smaller. We didn't find this to be a problem, as there was plenty of room to walk out and sit down. There were two wicker chairs and a small table, and enough room for two people to maneuver around. It was very nice for us, and we wouldn't hesitate to book this cabin again, as it was less expensive than the decks above, and really, when at sea, the view doesn't change all that much from cabin to cabin -- you look out, and it's all blue sky and blue sea! I do think our cabin was sheltered from the wind a little better than the ones above, by the overhang of the deck directly above us. We would definitely book this cabin again.
We were slightly delayed leaving port, as we had to wait for several other ships to leave ahead of us. I would expect this is more common than not, as there were eight ships in port the day we boarded. But we were on our way by dinner time.
We went to the main dining for dinner on the first night. We had requested the early seating, and we'd asked for a 2-person table. Our table was on the upper floor towards the back of the dining room, near the rail of the center staircase. There was a reunion of WWII Navy veterans, and they were all seated at tables near us, and there was a banner hanging over the rail next to our table commemorating their group. We had no complaints at all. It was a nice location and comparatively quiet. With the early dining time, we were usually seated at dinner during the sunsets, and you could see those out the floor-to-ceiling windows around the entire back of the ship. About halfway through dinner we left the calm waters of the harbor, and the rocking of the seas commenced. It was windy the day we boarded, so the ship did rock quite a bit. I had had issues with the ship rocking on a previous cruise, so we'd taken a Dramamine tablet before embarking, and neither of us were bothered by the rocking throughout our cruise.
After dinner, we unpacked our suitcases and explored the lower decks of the ship, checking out the location of the casino, the piano bar, and other venues. We noticed right away that the dÃ©cor of Holland America ships is very understated and elegant, quite a change from the wild, retina-burning look on Carnival!
As for the demographics aboard ship, I'd guess that 75% of the passengers were our age (mid/late 40s) or older, with a fairly even mix of ages. The younger set was certainly a minority, but we did see younger couples with kids. As we prefer quiet time to the games and loud entertainment of Carnival, this suited us fine. When sailing on Holland America, you definitely feel like you're in an elegant setting, and the nature of the entertainment and venues seems to reflect that.
DAY TWO, AT SEA
The second day of our cruise was a Sunday, and being diehard football fans, we'd planned to watch the games in the afternoon. But first things first - after eating our room service breakfast (they leave an order card each night to order room service the next morning), we went up to our cabana to enjoy the sun. Turned out this was the windiest day of our trip, and while the temperature was 78 degrees, the wind and a few passing clouds made it tough to lay out in the sun for very long. In fact, they had closed the cover over the Lido pool to keep it bearable down there. We braved it for a few hours, and enjoyed the fruit plates and coffee from Brian and Dustin, but we finally gave up and went inside. We were a little worried that it would be this windy every day up on that deck, but as it turned out, this was the only day with winds on our entire cruise.
We ate lunch on the Lido deck. There are sanitizing stations at every entrance to the food areas. There were signs noting that to prevent the spread of any viruses, food would be placed on plates by servers for the first 48 hours of every cruise, so no one was allowed to touch any of the food. We felt this was smart, and although at first it was kind of annoying to be constantly reminded to use sanitizer, by the end of the week, we were actually looking for those sanitizer stations. And we miss them now that we're home! Where can we buy motion-controlled sanitizer dispensers?
The Lido lines are a little confusing, as sometimes you don't know which end of the line is the start or end, and it was a bit confusing to figure out what and how to order. But with a few rounds of practice, anyone can figure it out. The portions that they serve tend to be on the small side, but you can go back as often as you want. One trick I learned was to simply tell the server how much I wanted; they are happy to oblige.
There is a sports bar next to the casino on Deck 2 that shows the games, and we'd planned to watch the NFL football games there. But when we got down there, all the seats were taken (it's a small bar, seats maybe 25 people), so we went back to our cabin to watch the game. But we ended up suffering just a bit of jet lag from our flight out (we'd gotten up a 3:30AM for 5 hours of flights that day) and we both ended up falling asleep for half of the games. Some fans, huh? A rather uneventful, but relaxing day at sea!
I should note that the ship does show the football games. Being at sea, we were worried that they might not have access to games, but they do subscribe to the main channels, plus ESPN, and any games shown are also available in your cabin. They had the early and late games on the major channels, plus the night game, and they also had the Monday Night Football game on ESPN the next night. It appears that the region they show is the Denver viewing area, so I hope you like the Broncos.
The Sea Days are the Formal Dining nights, coat/tie are required. On other nights, most men wore slacks and an open-collared shirt, although some wore tie/jacket every night. Women typically wore blouses and slacks or cocktail dresses for casual nights and nice dresses for the formal nights.
DAY THREE, TURKS & CAICOS
At dawn on the third day, we woke up to see islands off the port side, and by 7:00 we were docked at Grand Turk. We had booked the 'Ultimate Snorkel', so after eating another room service breakfast we were all lathered up with sunscreen and ready to go. We went down to the gangway and walked right off the ship, no wait at all. We walked to a smaller dock to the side of where the ship was docked, and boarded a small excursion boat. They took us to a couple of places to snorkel. The first stop was in about 15-20 feet of water, and we were able to see coral and quite a few fish, including a 4-foot long barracuda (we didn't know it was a barracuda until we got home and were trying to identify the fish we'd seen). The second stop had just as many fish, but was also right over an area about 300 yards offshore, where the shelf drops from 25 feet deep to 7,000 feet. The ocean is pretty rough all along this coast, so you'll definitely need your sea legs and an iron stomach.
After snorkeling we stopped to eat at Jimmy Buffet's. I know some will ask why you would pay for food when you can eat onboard the ship all day everyday for free? But the sandwiches are to die for, even if they are overpriced ($13-17 for a sandwich and fries). We'd eat there again, definitely.
We then went down to the beach and laid in the sun for about an hour before we had to be back onboard the ship.
The port in Grand Turk appears to be almost entirely built by the cruise lines. Once on shore, you go through the entrance to a store and it opens onto a plaza with a bunch of others stores just like it, selling everything from jewelry to souvenir t-shirts. There is also a huge Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville with a pool in the middle of the outdoor deck. It looked like the restaurant and stores only open when a ship is in port.
We boarded the ship and loved that Holland America has a canopy set up on the dock and stewards hand you moist towels and sanitizer as you board. We walked right up and boarded, with maybe a dozen others boarding at the time. The Carnival Miracle was docked right next to us, about the same size as the Eurodam. There was a line about 50 yards long of passengers waiting to board the Carnival ship. Maybe this is due to the older crowd on Holland America (and perhaps some of the older passengers stay on board while in port?), but we never had a line to get off or to get back on board the Eurodam.
We enjoyed the snorkeling, and we had great weather in Grand Turk, but overall, I'd rate Grand Turk last on this itinerary. I've read that other islands in Turks & Caicos are great destinations (Providenciales, Pine Cay, Parrot Cay), but based on what we saw of Grand Turk, we wouldn't come there for a destination. In fact we'd probably avoid cruises with this stop on its itinerary, unless I was really hungry for one of those $15 sandwiches.
DAY FOUR, SAN JUAN
We sailed into San Juan right on time, passing by El Morro about 15 minutes before docking. Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a 500-year-old fort that protects the harbor, and there are great picture opportunities as the ship sails into this port.
Our plan for San Juan was to get off the ship, and explore the old part of the city on our own. We particularly wanted to see the two old forts. The weather was fairly hot and humid, and by the time we walked about a quarter mile to the information building and then back up to the Castillo de San Cristobal fort, we were both pretty sweaty. You really don't need to go to the information center, as the map, while more detailed, isn't of much more use than the one you'll get on the ship the night before. And the fort is visible almost as soon as you head up the streets North and West. Once you get to the fort, the trade winds are coming over the hill there, and it's a lot cooler. At the entrance to the fort you pay an entrance fee, $3 per person, or $5 per person for both this fort and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Then we wandered around and took a million pictures of all the various levels of the fort and read about its history. I'd guess we spent an hour exploring, and then we walked out and headed West on a road that follows the ocean towards Del Morro. The trade winds keep you cool, and it's a pleasant walk, probably a mile, and you'll pass some very poor shantytown areas on the right (you're on the road above them, you don't actually walk through there). We were surprised to see such poor living conditions so close to such a gorgeous ocean view area. Just past that, you come to a cemetery off to the right with many very old crypts and monuments below the old city wall.
We then came upon the huge field that leads to Del Morro. The field was a strategic design, giving defenders in the fort an open view of any approaching attackers for a good quarter mile away. Walking the path leading towards it reminded us of the path to Rohan in Lord of the Rings. You can use your receipt from the other fort to gain entrance (or pay $3/person), and then this fort has 6 levels to explore. The walls are 20 feet thick, and it is a fascinating (to us) history of a fort built in 1539, mostly still standing intact. You really get a sense of what it must have been like to live there.
After exploring for a couple of hours (it's a huge fort), we wandered the streets towards the old San Juan Gate, went out through that gate, and walked North along the path that hugs the ocean below the city walls. There are dozens of feral cats loving here. Don't try and pet them. You can walk all the way back to the fort, but we turned around after a half mile, and followed the path back South to a plaza where there is a really cool old fountain. From there you can see the ships and find your way back easily enough.
We got back too late to make it to dinner that night, so we tried to get reservations to the Pinnacle Grill or the Caneletto, but it was booked solid. So we ate at the Lido that night, then went to the Piano Bar on Deck 2, and listened to a great pianist, Eric, play just about every tune you could ever sing along too. There was a comedian performing in the theater that night, but the show didn't start until 10:15 PM (too late for us), so we hung out in the Piano bar until bedtime.
DAY FIVE, ST. THOMAS/ST. JOHN
It's hard to believe this is already Day Five, but this itinerary is such that you hardly notice what day it is. We got into St. Thomas right on time at 8:00 AM. Because there were five ships scheduled to be in port this day, and we figured it would be an overly busy port, we had booked a non-ship excursion for this stop, a snorkel/sail to St. John.
We highly recommend this excursion to anyone that enjoys snorkeling. The company (SailWinifred.com) isn't affiliated with any of the cruise lines (cruise lines get half the money for excursions booked through them), but they are ten times better than any excursion you will book through the cruise ship. They have at least two boats that we know of (Winifred and Morningstar), and a crew of two takes a maximum of 6 passengers for an all-day sail trip. We had a little bit of a mixup finding the driver they had sent to pick us up on our dock, but once we found him, we took the most thrilling (re. scary) cab ride to the other side of the island to Red Hook Bay, where we boarded the Morningstar (a 40-foot old wooden sailboat) and headed towards St John for snorkeling.
We were with another couple and their daughter from the Norwegian Epic, and there was plenty of room and time to relax on the boat and enjoy the sail over to St.John. Captain David and first mate Josh took care of any questions and proved very knowledgeable of the layout and topography of the islands as we sailed by them. They don't have a planned route that they take, but sail where their whims take them that day, and for us that meant Honeymoon Beach in Salomon Bay. They provided snorkel gear (and instructions if needed), then dropped us overboard for about 90 minutes of snorkeling along a beautiful bay flanked by a craggy reef to the South (lots of coral, urchins, and larger fish) and a pristine beach to the North. The water here is crystal clear and we took tons of pictures of fish and coral, then relaxed for a while on the beach. The beach isn't very crowded as it's rather hard to get to from land, but the area to the North of us was busy with ship-excursion boats packed with 50-60 passengers each. We were glad to be on such a small boat, with a crew that knew our names and catered to our every need.
Once we got back on board, a champagne lunch with chicken and fresh cooked vegetables was waiting (grilled right on the boat while we snorkeled), then an open bar was available as we sailed back to Red Hook. This day was easily the highlight of our cruise. The only downside was a miscommunication on our travel arrangements to/from the port. The company provides you with a driver to transport you, but you are still responsible for the fare and tips. That ended up being $10/person each way, so if you take this excursion, be sure and have an extra $40 set aside for the cab.
We got back to the ship right at the promised time, and we were back on board by 4:00. The ship sailed at 5:00. We had planned to skip the main dining room this night, and had made pre-boarding reservations for the Tamarind Restaurant, and Asian-themed restaurant and one of two that required a fee. This restaurant is well worth the money, my wife loved the sushi, and I ate one of the best filet mignon cuts (2" thick) I've ever had. We highly recommend eating here at least once if you cruise on the Eurodam. We never had a chance to try the Pinnacle Grill, which we'd heard was excellent, but I'd also heard it takes a good two hours to finish dinner there, and frankly, I think that's just too darn long to be sitting around waiting for food!
DAY SIX, AT SEA
This day had the calmest seas we've ever seen, with the ocean almost looking like glass, and we took full advantage of it by hanging out in our cabana all day. Coffee and fresh fruit in the morning, lunch brought to us from the Lido by our stewards, and champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries in the afternoon. Plus a beautiful day to lay out, relax, and catch some sun. Have I mentioned how much we loved our cabana?
Being a Sea Day, it was Formal Night in the main dining, and we dressed to the nines, ate dinner, and then we snuck out while the maitre' d' announced the parade of chefs and dining staff (this is the 'farewell dinner night' of the cruise). We were glad we left when we did, as we wanted to have some pictures taken, and the photographer booths weren't busy at all at that time. We were able to get 5-6 pictures taken at five different booths, so we had a large selection to choose from.
One thing about cruising, they have great photographers on board, and everyone always gets tons of portraits taken, and the picture-taking part is all free. That's the fun and good part. The bad part is the ridiculous prices they charge to purchase portraits. We ended up having about 30 pictures to choose from, and would easily have purchased 10 of them for $10 or so apiece. But at $40 each, we had to narrow our choices down to two, and they end up throwing away thousands of pictures. I know Holland America likes to think they attract a more elegant crowd (re. rich), but I'd bet the vast majority of cruisers are average joes like us, and on the second-to-last day of a cruise, we were thinking more about how much our cabin bill was going to be rather than if we could afford ridiculously-priced portraits.
Ah well, all in all, another great day in Paradise.
DAY SEVEN, HALF MOON CAY, BAHAMAS
I wish I could stay here forever. That's what the sign says next to the Bell Bar on Half Moon Cay. And it's true. Once you've seen this beach, you don't want to go back to the ship anytime soon.
This is a tendered port, owned by the cruise line, and the port has tender ships that come out and pick up passengers to transfer them to/from shore. This is actually nice, as the tenders are double-decked and hold far more than the Eurodam tenders could transport. It took about 30 minutes to get tendered to shore, and then right inside a 'fort' entrance, there are signs and an information booth, along with some small shops. We were the only ship in port this day, so it wasn't very crowded.
We had splurged on this stop, and we'd booked one of the colored cabanas located up the beach where the crowd thins out. We booked the Terracotta Cabana, which is #13 of 15 cabanas you can reserve. They have shuttles to take you to the cabanas, but we walked to ours in about 10 minutes. The cabanas are about 10 feet wide by 20 feet long, with the back half covered with a roof, and containing cupboards, a fridge, and an air-conditioning unit already running and set to 72 degrees (which we promptly turned off as it wasn't needed). The cabana has a table and chairs, plus two really nice wicker loungers. It also has a shower for washing off sand, and four big float mats for floating in the ocean. The ship asks you earlier in the week to fill out a form specifying what drinks you want while ashore, and they also get your fin size and have snorkel sets in the cabana for you when you arrive. They had a fruit plate and chips and salsa waiting as well. Pretty nice, but for the money, along with the short stay here, we probably wouldn't book the cabana again. You can rent floaties and snorkel gear at the entrance. The fruit/snacks and the waters were good to have, but for the money, I'd recommend the cabanas only if you have 4 people going in together on it.
The beach here has some of the finest sand you'll ever see, almost powdery, and the ocean is stunning with about four distinct color changes as you look out towards the ship. We snacked in the cabana, then lounged about went down to the water to test the temperature. Pretty nice, but there was a light breeze that morning, which chilled you as you came out of the water, so we didn't swim then.
At noon, the ship provides a lunch in a huge pavilion near the main entry area, nothing special, but every bit as good as what you'd eat on the Lido deck on the ship. There is a building shaped like a shipwreck right down the beach from there that is a bar, and the band from the ship (Jessie and the HALcats) was playing there when we stopped by on our way back to the cabana.
By now it had warmed up enough that we floated on our mats in the ocean, and swam a bit. The water is so crystal clear that you can see the ripples of the sand on the ocean bottom even in 10-12 feet of water. The beach is pretty crowded down near the entrance (and the bars), but out where we were, it wasn't crowded at all, and looked even less crowded as you went farther down the beach. Way down at the far end, they have horseback riding along the beach (and in the water).
The one downside of this stop is that you aren't here long enough. It seems you hardly get off the ship, find your spot on the beach, and get comfy and it's time to pack up and board the tenders back to the ship. Just don't forget to take a picture of yourself in front of that sign that says "I wish we could stay here forever".
We were back on board the ship before 4:00, and the stewards had already left the mats for our suitcases on the beds, so we could get things packed. Kind of a bummer to come back from a gorgeous beach, and be instantly reminded that all good things, even wonderful cruises, must come to an end eventually. We got most of our stuff packed, then went to dinner, came back and changed out of our nice clothes so we could pack them, and then spent the rest of the evening in the piano bar listening to Eric. He's so good, we bought his CD.
The last night on board you get a notice in your mail for the debarkment procedures and options. And very early the next morning, they will slide your room card bill under your door, so you can review all of your onboard purchases for the week. Unlike past cruises, the bill is pretty cut and dried, you can't make changes to where any of your tipping money goes, it will just show an $11/day per person deduction. If you have a credit card associated with your cabin keycard, you're good to go, and the bill is your receipt.
We had planned to stay in Fort Lauderdale for two days after the cruise, and had a car rental reserved, so we didn't need any transfers to the airport after debarkment. That came is handy, as we could sign up for early debarkment between 7:15 and 8:00 AM. While the ship/airport transfers are nice, you have to put your luggage outside the cabin door on the last night, meaning you are living out of a carry-on the next day. So it was nice to have our luggage with us that next morning. We ate an early breakfast on the Lido deck, and right on time, we heard the overhead announcement that early debarkment was starting. We headed to our room, got our bags, and then had one of the only long line waits of the cruise.
Actually, it wasn't a bad wait. Even though we got down to the Promenade deck at the tail end of the announcement, the line moved fast, and we were off the ship in about 10 minutes. We then had to go through a customs line and turn in our declarations sheets, but they hardly glanced at ours (the customs guy was more interested in counting the sheets in his hand than looking at ours), and we out the door and standing on the curb by 8:10 that morning. We called the car rental company to find out where to catch the shuttle to their office, and we were picked up within about 15 minutes and on our way. Smoothest transition ever from ship life back to landlubbers!
POST-CRUISE EXCURSION AND DOLPHINS GAME
Since we are die-hard football fans, and the Dolphins were playing at home the day after we arrived back in Fort Lauderdale, we stayed over a couple of days and enjoyed the Dolphins game (tickets were my early 50th birthday gift). So after getting off the ship and getting our rental car, we headed west to visit the Everglades at Sawgrass Recreation Park, about 20 miles straight west from the port. It was fun to ride an airboat in the Everglades, see an alligator, and hear about the history of this slow-moving river. There is a small zoo at Sawgrass where you can see a lot of other animals native to the Florida area. We spent about 3 hours there, and were back in Fort Lauderdale by about 1:00 in the afternoon. We wandered down 17th Street to the waterway and walked past all the huge yachts at dock by the Hilton -- there are people in this world with a LOT more disposable income than we'll ever see!
We stayed in the same hotel as pre-cruise, and enjoyed it. One thing that was very notable, on weekend days when there are cruise ships in port, the continental breakfast is very busy, people everywhere in the lobby. On days when the ships aren't sailing in/out, it's as quiet as can be. You can tell that the hotels near the port get a LOT of cruisers.
On Sunday, we drove to Sun Life Stadium and watched the Dolphins game. The stadium is only about 20 minutes away and really easy to get to from Fort Lauderdale. This was the highlight of our trip, and we had SO much fun going to this game, seeing all the sights/sounds, and enjoying my Miami Dolphins thumping some Raider butt. I won't go into detail on the game, as this is a cruise review, but if you're a Dolphins fan, catching a game is a great way to top off a cruise!
Tipping always seems to be a confusing topic, and people are always wondering the correct way to handle it, especially those like us who don't live in cities where cabs are prevalent, or don't travel enough to remember when to tip and how much. We certainly struggle with it, so hopefully it helps to tell you how we handled things.
On the cruise, we found was that if you sign up for the prepaid tipping, you are billed $11/day per person for gratuity. We asked the Front Desk how that money is disbursed, and we were told that one third goes to the dining staff, one third to the steward/cleaning staff, and one third goes to 'back end' staff (pursers, front desk, embark/debark staff, etc.). We prepaid our tips, but because we felt Brian and Dustin did such an exceptional job taking care of us in our cabana (plus we feel the ship lines exploit their employees somewhat), we tipped them personally at the end of the cruise. We also tipped our waiters personally, $20 to the lead guy, and $10 to the assistant. We tipped anyone that handled our luggage $2 per bag. And we tipped the captain and mate on our St Thomas excursion $50 total. That excursion costs $135 per person, and we'd read that for excursions like this, if you feel the service is great, you should tip as you would in a restaurant, 15-20%. And if you ever take that excursion, we're positive you'll love it.
I hope this great big, incredibly wordy, rambling diatribe is of use to those that read it. Sorry it's so long, but I really enjoyed reading reviews like this when I was researching our trip, so hopefully others will find this useful.
We will definitely sail Holland America again in the future. For now, we're saving for a return trip to Hawaii (we were married on Maui), but we'd love to take a cruise to the Outer Antilles islands, flying to San Juan, staying for a couple of days to explore, and then embarking from there on one of those cruise that go South to Barbados and all those islands in between. Holland doesn't have that itinerary, unfortunately. But when we are ready to do an Alaska or European river cruise, we'll definitely be looking to Holland America.
Thanks for reading!!