This was our first HAL cruise. Previously we have cruised on 4 times on Celebrity and once on NCL. We chose it for the itinerary -- Panama Canal -- and we wanted to be away for New Years. We had also heard good things about HAL from others who had cruised on the line. We flew in the day before and stayed at the Marriot Courtyard in Dania Beach since they had an airport shuttle and a cruise shuttle the next day included in their room rates. The hotel was fine, and there was a seafood restaurant in easy walking distance for dinner.
We got to the port at around 1 PM and were in our stateroom in maybe half an hour. Boarding was easy and efficient. Our stateroom was clean and the crew everywhere was cheerful and helpful. We had a VA balcony cabin on deck 8 towards the front of the ship with amazing views. We were extremely happy with it as we had booked a balcony guarantee cabin.
There have been some negative comments on the condition of the ship -- ignore them. There was always some maintenance, cleaning, painting, and whatever going on. Yes, there were some dings and dents in the walls at spots, and maybe the carpet was worn in a couple of extremely high traffic areas. If that is what ruins your vacation, then stay home.
The food was good, generally well-prepared, and the variety made sure everyone in our party had something they liked. I would like to commend the restaurant staff for handling food allergies well. One person in our party has a serious allergy -- she received the next day's menu everyday at dinner. She could order whatever she wanted and they would prepare her dinner separately to make sure nothing on the plate would cause her distress. We frequently travel together, and we were very happy not to worry about her finding something she could eat. We never got to the Pinnacle Grill because there was always something on the next day's menu that we wanted! You can also get the specialty coffees at no extra charge in the Dining Room with your dinner. There is a charge for them when you order them at the Crows Nest coffee bar.
The Lido buffet was the low point in the food service. It was more cafeteria-style than buffet and at times the lines were long because there was no way to just grab one thing from a station without going through then entire section because someone had to serve most of it. There were many items that should have been cafeteria-style that were not. The Philippine-style buffet on the last sea day was very good, but the line was terrible because the last item on the line was cooking too slowly and held up everything else. Overall, the food was good but we often chose lunch by what had the shortest lines.
On the itinerary: we wanted to see the Panama Canal and everything else was additional.
We took the excursion on the ferry that takes you through all of the locks to Pacific. DO NOT MISS THIS. Yes, it was very hot, and the excursion was expensive -- but isn't this why you took this particular cruise?
Half Moon Cay was a pleasant beach stop. I would have liked to have gotten to Curacao earlier. Most museums closed early since it seems that the day before New Years eve is a holiday so most of what we wanted to see wasn't open. There were 100,000 firecrackers going off in the streets in the afternoon -- we know this number because we happened upon the shipping container in one of the squares! We also stumbled on a beer and drum band street party that was fun. The Postal museum is listed on line as a point to see because of the age of the building. They are wrong, the age of the building is significant, but the man running the place is really worth the trip! He was closing when we found the place but let us in because we were really interested. Between his limited English and our total lack of Dutch we found out about history, renovating classic buildings, and traveling the world looking for funky stamps.
Bonaire is snorkel heaven -- need I say more? Costa Rica was more interesting than I expected. We hired a local tour guide off the ship who was a fabulous ambassador for his country. I could see going there for vacation. We went to a beach, took a ride through the canals seeing birds, sloths, a very cool red and yellow crab, and other local fauna, saw a banana plantation, and ate some of the best pineapple I have ever had.
New Years Eve countdown in the Vista Lounge was fun and lively. But there was not too much going on after around 1:30 AM. The entertainment was typical. I rarely care for the shows on cruise ships. I personally am partial to a bar with some good live music. The solo guitarist was good and the house pop band HALcats (very cute) were fun to listen to. I also liked the Steel drum band. My biggest complaint is that there was very little to do after 11 PM. There was just the casino and Northern lights which is a small DJ bar. It was just too close and hot most of the time. Maybe they could keep one lounge open later. We were at last call for one of the lounges every night. We knew this would be an early ship ahead of time, but it was still a surprise when we would get to a lounge after main dinner seating (around 9:30 -- 10:00), sit down listen to some music and chat a bit, and by the time we are ready for maybe a second drink, the bar is closing up.
I know some people have had some problem with the front desk, but we never saw it. My key card suddenly stopped working after a few days and we had a question about our bill and both instances were handled quickly and cheerfully. The biggest problems we saw was that one elevator was always out of service -- they never seemed to have every elevator on the ship working. Some of the public rest rooms were taken in and out of service for short periods of time.
Overall, we really enjoyed the cruise. We would definitely take another HAL cruise, and would also return to Zuiderdam.