I returned from my first cruise about a week ago, and I had a great time. Reviews I read here (and on a hotel review site that I can't remember the name of) were very helpful to me, so I'm writing some detailed impressions as a way to say "thank you" in the hope that I can help other prospective cruisers.
It's important to understand that I didn't have a typical first cruise experience because it was a gift so that my domestic partner and I could participate in a family celebration on board. That means there were 14 friends and family members on the cruise, all experienced cruisers, who could answer questions and guide us. Partly as a result, we didn't meet any new people since we spent almost all of our time with folks who were already in our lives. We're both gay and in our sixties, and we have traveled together in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Our Eastern Caribbean cruise was on the Eurodam from March 10th through 17th, and our flights, hotel the night before, and transfers were all arranged through Holland America Lines. Everything went totally smoothly, and HAL delivered the cruise experience which they promised. However, we'll probably never go on another cruise. That's not HAL's fault -- this cruise gave us the opportunity to realize that cruising is not our style of travel. There will be more on that later. Here's how everything went.
The biggest problem of the entire trip was on our initial FLIGHT from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale. A broken first officer's chair on the Delta plane resulted in a change of planes and gates and reassigning seats for a number of passengers not including us, but the new gate was nearby, and we only lost an hour. The flight home after the cruise went perfectly. We easily found the HAL person in the red vest in the luggage claim area, and she got us on the bus to the hotel with minimal fuss and delay. There were only 4 of us on a full sized bus which was driven by a wonderful driver from Puerto Rico. As it turned out, every bus, cab, and shuttle driver on the trip was originally from a different country (Haiti, Iran, Grand Turk, St. Thomas, and so forth), and they were all great.
The HOTEL was a minor problem. For some reason, HAL housed us at the Westin hotel on the far north side of Fort Lauderdale about as far from the airport and Port Everglades as possible while staying inside the city limits. We were marooned in suburbia, not within walking distance of anything. HAL did have more people in red vests to meet us in the hotel lobby, put the special luggage tags on our suitcases, and get us assigned to a bus for the next morning. The hotel was so far away from everything that the cab ride to meet our friends for dinner on SE 17th Street between the airport and the port was $31 plus tip each way.
The comments I found on the hotel on that web site I can't remember the name of were schizophrenic. It's not a matter of reviews posted before and after a renovation and change in management, because I checked the dates, and everyone was reporting on the same time period. Fully half of the reviewers reported staying at a fleabag with broken plumbing, yellow water, bad air conditioning, incompetent staff, and thin walls resulting in lots of noise especially from the elevator lobbies. The other half reported staying at a beautiful hotel with a wonderful restaurant, great staff, and no problems. Fortunately, our experience was the same as the happy group of reviewers. I only have 2 negative comments. First, there were only 2 computers in the free business center, and one of them was broken. Second, the prices in the restaurant were consistent with staying in an up-market hotel. We watched a family of 4 whom we later saw on board the ship eating a breakfast from the buffet that had to have cost them over $100 with the tip.
The morning TRANSFER to PORT EVERGLADES was timed so that we could sleep in, board the ship, and immediately go to our staterooms. This time, there were multiple busses which were all full, so unloading and claiming luggage took some time, but given the numbers it wasn't an unreasonable amount of time. My only quarrel was with the SECURITY SCREENING. I understand that HAL may have had minimal control over that. Once we claimed our luggage, we walked into the terminal building, made a sharp turn and were on top of the screening area without any warning, so it was a mad scramble to get through it. Unlike the great amount of information available in many places online about how to prepare for airport screening, we had no idea what to expect at this point. Do we take off our shoes? (No.) Do we empty our pockets? (No.) Do we need to show our liquids? (No.) Do I need to tell anyone about my insulin vials and syringes? (No.) Does my partner need the wallet card from his doctor to document the titanium in his spine? (Yes.) It was a big mess, and though we had no actual problems it was an ugly start to the process. Fortunately, except for a lot of walking the entire remainder of the process went smoothly and comfortably. Without much fuss we were suddenly on board, in our stateroom, and ready to go find lunch, family, and friends at the Lido deck buffet.
For THE CRUISE itself, I'm not going to report in very much detail. Suffice it to say that it was almost everything that HAL promised on the web site. Our room stewards, Joko and Tri, were attentive and wonderful. I'm happy to report that we experienced none of the problems reported by other cruisers on this web site -- no loud groups hanging out in the corridors, no kids pressing the elevator buttons for every floor, very few dress code violations in the dining room, only 2 people inappropriately dressed (bare chested men) in the corridors, no door slamming, no irritating vibrations in our stateroom. We did experience the vibration which was most noticeable when sitting on the toilet, but it was very minor. My personal complaint is that the water in the bathroom was overly softened . As a result, it felt like it took forever to rinse off soap in the shower and I was constantly cutting myself when shaving. It was just like South Florida water which I experienced when my parents used to live there.
Some reviewers complained about surly FRONT DESK staff. I found everyone to be professional and correct but not warm or friendly. The big disappointment was how little they seemed to know. Almost every question I asked necessitated a conference with an officer to get the answer, and I didn't think my questions were that unusual (for example, Are excursion tickets transferrable? Yes.). Lots of people, including us, smiled and said "Hello" in the corridors and elevators.
FOOD: We ate every breakfast, almost all lunches and snacks, and some dinners in the Lido buffet. Except for that first lunch it was never overly crowded or chaotic. I particularly enjoyed the "taste of the world" stations. I have no basis for knowing how authentic the Indian, Thai, Philippine, Indonesian, and Dutch dishes were, but everything that I tried was tasty and satisfying. The burgers and pizza by the pool were just so-so. The one dinner we had at Canaletto was fantastic. We didn't go to any of the places that cost extra.
The dinners in the Rembrandt dining room were actually disappointing. For me, there was an occasional lack of choices because I'm lactose intolerant and I eat kosher-style. However, that's to be expected. My complaint is that they promised more than they delivered. Everything was fancy and gourmet style, but it just wasn't all that good. The experienced cruisers in our group expected this reporting that the fancy meals on other cruise lines tend to be better and that HAL evidently doesn't aspire to that level. Ours wasn't an easy table to serve. They accommodated us by combing two tables so that 12 of us could be together (first seating). As a result, things took longer and we were usually among the last tables to leave the dining room each evening. The only true complaint is that our table seemed to be the Bermuda Triangle for iced tea. We never got it on the first request and on two evenings needed an officer to intervene before we got it at all.
We never went to afternoon tea, and we skipped the late evening chocolate extravaganza. The baked Alaska parade at the final dinner was kind of fun but a lot of fuss about not very much.
The only meal eaten off of the ship was a wonderful lunch at Gladys's Bar and Restaurant in the Royal Dane Mall downtown in Charlotte Amalie. It was recommended by our cab driver, and we sat at the bar and struck up a conversation with a Canadian couple from another cruise ship in port.
Our only experience with ROOM SERVICE was a bad one. My partner ordered potato chips and a soft drink in the middle of the night. After waiting for 45 minutes, a plate of soggy chips was delivered along with the news that the flavor of pop that he wanted was not available. Evidently, the phones were out of order. So he ordered a Coke and had to wait an hour and 15 minutes for it to be delivered. We never tried again. We bought a few of the overpriced snacks in the shop and then stocked up (along with dozens of other recognizable cruisers) at the CVS across the street from the docks in Old San Juan.
We went on 2 EXCURSIONS. On Grand Turk, we went on the Cockburn Town and National Museum tour which we enjoyed very much. Walking and riding in the bus alternated, and there was never too much walking at any one time for my 90-year-old father. The guide was very knowledgeable and jovial. The Latin Experience San Juan flamenco show was fantastic -- something that no one should miss. One person who reviewed it on the HAL web site described that venue as a little strange, which it was, but the show itself was highly entertaining and very well done with a clever and knowledgeable male guitarist and 3 lovely (and busty) female dancers. The only sour note is that there was no commentary from the "guides" on the bus rides to and from the venue. It would have been nice to hear something about where we were.
We also went ashore at Half Moon Cay. The two youngest family members went on active excursions and liked them. We walked around the shops which were disappointing and spent time at the beach which was manicured, completely clean, and quite wonderful.
ONBOARD ACTIVITIES: Three family members participated in one of the team trivia games and really enjoyed it. Several of our party went to the movies and enjoyed them. We went to the Indonesian staff show and were sorely disappointed. It has obviously changed from the wonderful experience that others have reported here. We found it to be high schoolish and not worth it. The one stage show that we went to was fine but nothing special. One friend went on the special insider tour of the ship. While he found it to be a great experience, I was shocked that the cost was announced to be "nominal" and turned out to be $150 per person. We didn't go. I went to the first shopping presentation and was so offended that I left after the first 10 minutes. It was totally heterosexist -- everyone is married, all of the "guys" want to buy diamonds for their "gals." The promotion of their favored merchants was shameless and constant. There was a spoken assumption that no one came on the cruise for any purpose but shopping. I wanted to visit the art gallery which I'd read was very good, but it was completely stripped and empty. My father and sister made a nice package deal with the folks in the photo gallery and had a lot of fun working with Josh, but their prices were heart stopping. I was never able to attend one of the LGBT gatherings because they were always scheduled at 7:00 p.m., and we were still eating our dinner then and found the gatherings to have ended by the time we could get there.
The DEBARKATION SESSION and EVALUATION FORM were an almost total waste of time. After about 3 minutes of actual debarkation information, the cruise director spent the rest of the time basically telling us how he wanted us to fill out our evaluation forms. It was clear that we weren't intended to give them much thought because we found them immediately afterwards when we returned to our room and they wanted them turned in shortly afterwards when we went to dinner.
MORE MISCELLANEOUS IMPRESSIONS: We lucked into being in the Crow's Nest at the right time to experience the ship leaving Port Everglades. The reclining chairs by the windows are wonderful. The way the bathroom is configured, it was impossible to plug in the night light that we brought with us. There was a faint mildew odor anytime we raised the toilet lid. The verandah of our stateroom was a nice size for 2 people, and we used it a lot. The Explorations Cafe was a very nice facility with lots of well used computer stations. I was surprised at how few people I encountered whenever I walked around the ship on the Promenade deck. Both the cruise center on Grand Turk and the shopping area at Crown Bay on St. Thomas were disappointing. There was no place to buy a newspaper. THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO SIGNAGE ON GRAND TURK TO SHOW HOW TO GET BACK TO THE SHIP! It was necessary to walk through the duty free shop which was OK, but I guess passengers have to be mind readers to know that. There are no instructions in the room on how to use the DVD player. The customs inspection back at Port Everglades was a joke.
FINAL BILLS: It was a good thing that we stopped at the front desk the night before we debarked to check our bills because they were wrong. Despite the fact that we had designated our individual credit cards when we checked in online, everything was billed to my card. It only took 10 minutes to get it fixed, and there was no arguing about it, but it shouldn't have happened.
"OK," you ask, "IF YOU WERE GENERALLY SO HAPPY WITH THE EXPERIENCE, WHY AREN'T YOU EVER GOING ON ANOTHER CRUISE? It's just not our style. We like to go for a week to 10 days and just stay in one or two places so that we can have a variety of experiences in places and really start to get to know something about them. We like to be able to choose activities that will give us the opportunity to talk to people who live there. We like to have a variety of eating places to choose from and to be able to eat at the times that we choose. We don't like crowds. We hate pretension like what we experienced in the Rembrandt Dining Room. We hate being locked into an itinerary and like to be able to change our plans just about at will. Since we've found ways to have the kind of vacation we like that work for us, we'll continue to do it that way. This cruise was a gift to us. My father decided to guarantee that all of his descendants would be with him to celebrate his 90th birthday, so he made the invitation, got someone to make all of the arrangements, and paid the bills. So we went, and we had a nice time. If anyone ever offers to give us another all expenses paid cruise like the one that we just went on, we'll be glad to give it another try. The Mediterranean would be nice. ?