I usually cruise on luxury lines like Seabourn (SB), either solo or with DH, but a cruise I had booked got cancelled short notice. I was in cruise withdrawal and determined to use the time off I had arranged to cruise. Four years ago I had surprisingly enjoyed a HAL cruise to Alaska in a Neptune suite on a large group themed cruise, so thought I would try HAL again, this time as a solo in a vista ( basic balcony) cabin, and with no group to bias my experience. The HAL website price for a vista cabin ( private balcony and bathroom with a jacuzzi bathtub, which I greatly value) seemed fine per diem, especially for a solo, $2200 for one week, ( though non- nclusive), compared with 2-3x that for a luxury line solo offering ( “inclusive” of beverages, i.e., fancy coffees, basic wines and cocktails).
I embarked in Boston after enjoying two cold and wet days there seeing sites and eating great food
(had brought two umbrellas, in case one broke :).
This was a cold weather cruise, 40’s with icy wind, ( some unmelted snow was piled up in parts of Quebec City) . In hindsight, it was a bit too early in the season to best enjoy this area but fortunately most days were clear. It was a lot like northern CA, though colder, and also like Alaska, but without as much dramatic scenery. The beauty here is more subtle.
Ports visited included Bar Harbor ( lovely for walks and fresh seafood ) , Halifax ,Sydney,Charlottetown ( Anne of Green Gables fame) Quebec City, and Montreal. Quebec City and Montreal are a bit like going to France, but closer, cheaper, and people don’t mind if you speak English or broken French. The old and new contrasts, history, and great food make this area must-see, at least once, be it on a cruise or land tour.
The cruise was supposed to end in Montreal but the river had high water, so we had to disembark in Quebec City and got bused to Montreal, ( three hours on a crowded old bus with torn and non-reclining cramped seats, but we got there).
Overall despite some service problems I enjoyed myself and am glad I went, but have to rate the cruise around 3.4, so round down to a 3, even after adjusting for the costs.
I had expected MDR and Lido food and service quality differences compared with SB, and there were plenty, though they had not been obvious to me on my 2015 HAL cruise where I was happy. I was impressed with the efficient cabin layout and comfort ( it reminded me of the small balcony suites on Crystal but here there was a bigger balcony, better closet space, and a more comfortable sofa).The main issue of concern was the indifferent or annoying service attitude by too many crew, on top of obvious understaffing ( see below).
The ship holds 1400 pax and about 500 crew, ( higher ratio than on SB, and it showed). It seemed pretty full but other than on the main deck and Lido, was quiet at night with few rowdy partiers. Public sitting areas are a bit old-fashioned in style but I loved them, they were wonderfully comfortable for my muscles and bones, nicer for me than on SB, with soft couches and padded, high backed chairs in most venues.
Pax were mostly seniors, with quite a few superseniors, only a few kids ( note there is a separate kids and teen area) , some extended families, a few solos. Unlike SB which caters to (on average) an affluent and/or special occasion splurge crowd, people on this short cruise generally appeared to be more budget conscious middle class vacationers ( nased on overheard conversations). Pax were primarily from the U.S. ( and by accents, many were from the northeastern U.S. which had convenient embarkation, Canada, some from Mexico, a few from Germany, and Australia. Some pax were Chinese-speaking.
The good-sized casino was usually busy, and though I overheard frequent discussions amongst pax about pricing, discounts, sales, budgets, and deals, and the shops were large, there were thankfully very few overhead announcements, and no hard sells on merchandise. There was photography service, but it was subtle.
Oddly, there also seemed to be ( compared with other cruises) a disproportionate number of couples who tended to argue with each other, (perhaps they were on a first cruise, as this was only seven days and cruising turned out not suitable for them).The average Body Mass Index was clearly higher than on SB, for whatever reason, which created a bit of a problem on the tight and packed excursion buses in that as a solo, I got to share more personal space and body parts with males next to me than I would have preferred ( especially when people were sneezing or sweating). If I cruise HAL again, I will absolutely avoid the crowded bus excursions. Luxury lines usually limit the number of people on buses, so pax can spread out more, but then pax pay more up front even (if the excursions are similar in price, as they use comparable vendors).
Casual. “Elegant Casual” officially at dinner for MDR. But even on the two “gala nights,” many people preferred the same jeans and sneakers they wore during the day, even in MDR (allowed) while others dressed up in something prettier. Waiters were in waiter black, however. The most common MDR evening and show male attire was mid-way, non-jeans comfortable trousers and a simple collared shirt. A man in front of me at a show, however, had on gray sweat pants like from a gym, which fell down below his buttocks when he got up. I had an unavoidable view of them before he hitched them up and was on his way. Many people wore T shirts, caps, and sweatshirts with logos or messages on them.
If you are looking for a special ambience to match a special evening on a special trip, or enjoy looking at creative special outfits as part of the evening cruise scenery, this was not the cruise to be on. Many people love an anything-goes dress style these days (I am from CA so I know), and even on luxury lines the trend is towards more and more casual and requiring less care and attention, but so far waiters are still dressed up, which I found especially odd on this cruise.
FOOD AND BEVERAGES
You can pick open seating or fixed seating for dinner ( early or late), share or not share . I joined communal tables twice, once for tea and once for dinner, that was enough as I really did not want to risk hearing more one-sided political monologues within five minutes of sitting down to dine, much less hear lore about cannibalism. Maybe I was just unlucky this cruise, but I was definitely not in synch with the tablemates I tried. So I mostly dined solo, which was not a problem except for the fact that food area crew young enough to be my grandkids automatically addressed me by my first name, repeatedly, without permission. I was told by a senior crew member that they are taught in Holland training to address pax by last name unless instructed otherwise, but many probably assume American women like to be first named by crew they do not know to create a (false) sense of friendliness, but I do not, many do not (overheard), and neither do most older Europeans. In contrast, SB does not first name pax without permission. I did not have the first-naming experience in 2015.
Food and beverages offered were abundant and variable in quality, with some outstanding dishes in the upcharged specialty restaurants ( steak tatar and dover sole in the Pinnacle Grill on the french themed night was even better than at the Thomas Keller grill on SB). The Lido cafeteria also regularly offered fresh hearty farmers bread which I loved, and is hard to get on SB ( unfortunately there were only sad and limited meats and cheeses to put on the wonderful hearty bread on this cruise. So this was not a ship for people who like European breakfasts with interesting cold meats and cheeses. There were omelette stations, pasta stations, and grill stations, some pre-made entrees at dinner, or crew would grill a steak. There was not much in the way of interesting salads, but there was some greenery, and vegetables in MDR and specialty venues were well-prepared.
Canoletti, the Italian specialty venue ($15 upcharge) had great gourmet food but irritating invasive service and ambience at a late dinner. Six crew people, within ten minutes, asked me how my food was (of course using my first name), usually right after I had filled my mouth with food, one even looked over my shoulder at my ipad messages and asked what I was reading, presumably to make conversation. But they then ignored me when I stated the only thing I did not like about my meal was the loud screeching rock music in the background playing songs with lyrics like “ I want to get away, yeah, yeah, yeah”. So I did, and did not come back. The restaurant manager had come over but all he was interested in is going through the motions to have me tell him everything was great. His tone changed when I mentioned the music, and he said he would check with his “production manager” , then disappeared.
The $38 surcharge ( more on French night) dining area Pinnacle Grill was easy to get into and was a true fine dining experience. I should have eaten here every night.
Breakfast in the quiet MDR was available 7:30-9, but
I am not a big sit down breakfast eater unless there is something special. I ate early local lunches mostly off the ship, so my food disappointments were mostly in the MDR and Lido cafeteria style area at dinner. Room service choices were limited without upcharge but met my needs, e.g., , continental breakfast was fine, including two fluffy small pastries, no food wastage.
In hindsight, if not dining in the Pinnacle Grill, just getting a burger to my balcony room for dinner would have been better than dining in the Lido cafeteria buffet or MDR ( note there is upcharge for a better room service burger or hot dog , but you can get a basic one free) .
Neptune Suite guests can breakfast in Pinnacle Grill, as I did three years ago on another HAL ship, and they have a separate small snacking and drinking area accessed by key cards, with a dedicated concierge.
There is a decent wine list on board with a wide range of price options, so I was happy enough with that. However, wines were marked up 2-3x from retail, that is just part of HAL business strategy. The couple sommeliers I dealt with seemed a bit unhappy and did not add much to my wine pairing ideas, and did not seem to enjoy their jobs, maybe they were just tired.
Note you can bring one free bottle of wine per person on board with you. Fee is $18 corkage if not drunk in your room, same for more than one per person or if purchased at ports, unless part of a wine tour ( there were lots of packages and rules to get discounts that I did not bother to learn but would if cruising HAL more). There is also a coffee bar that opens at 7 am , charges $6 or so for a cappuccino style drink in a paper cup. Room service coffee was surprisingly drinkable and arrived when requested. I actually had better room service consistency here than on SB, ( everything ordered came, as expected, at correct temperature, and on time) but they are not set up for customization, unusual requests or big selection options like SB is. You can get vegetarian and gluten free, however, and other health food accomodations reportedly can be made.
“ Orange juice” was unfortunately a thin diluted substance that tasted like Tang so I stuck with cranberry. Bacon in the Lido I tried once was perfectly crispy, and they do basic American style breakfast food just fine if you like that, many pax do.
Desserts were not very interesting or worth expending calorie budgets on even in specialty areas. Ice cream was bland, sorbet worse.
Salad choices were minimal as was fruit variety ( every time I had the room service continental breakfast it had nice watermelon, which I fortunately love, and a few berries, which I also enjoy, yoghurt, and two mini-danish, perfect). Apples and oranges were available, berries not so much. No fruit was brought to my room, but there was a bowl, presumably you can ask for it.
Bartenders varied , from excellent at the beautiful but cold water ( 81 F) aft pool and kidless Sea View lounging area, to friendly, or sullen and borderline rude at times elsewhere . I had ordered a $7.50 spanish coffee in the Crows Nest bar which is supposed to come with whipped cream. It arrived without whipped cream ( that is the key part of the drink!) and the bartender just shrugged, said he was out of whipped cream ( not even squirt top or cool whip)and did not even try to apologize. It would have been nice to be warned as I would not have ordered it without the whipped cream . He then unhappily offered me unwhipped cream, which made the coffee lukewarm. A German couple nearby immediately left when they heard there was no whipped cream ( they understood the problem!). :)
Drinks in the Ocean Bar, however, were lovely, and one day during “Happy Hour” included a delicious asparagus mousse canape I engulfed, and a smoked sausage that I would have liked on the farmers bread buffet.
Tipping is included, as aa 15% service charge automatically added on to beverages and other charged extra services , plus I had a $16/day hotel service charge. So there may have been little incentive to do more if crew sensed I was not a regular and not likely to fuss. The crew quality variability I experienced was striking. Fortunately no one stuck their hands out for extra tips. You can remove the charge if you complain about bad service, but most pax are apparently happy and do not.
MDR was closed for lunch every day, only Lido and Dive-In burger stand were open, so there was no quiet table service option. I was off the ship anyway at lunch seeking out local cuisine, except on the sea day, but it would have been disappointing on a cruise with many sea days not to be able to have a quiet full service lunch, DH and I greatly enjoyed those on luxury lines.
I had frequent English communication issues with both the cabin team and non-Pinnacle dining area crew (mostly Filipino or other Asian personnel) more than on the sister luxury line SB. With one exception, several guest services crew were indifferent to sullen with me, maybe because I reported problems and did not just automatically reply that everything was great. A surprisingly common theme everywhere was annoyance at polite negative feedback with constructive criticism I offered. For example, when I noticed that the Gala menu I was handed was covered with food and grease spots, after I ordered ,I quietly pointed it out to the waiter and suggested he tell his team to clean it before the next guest. He acted perturbed and just shoved it back into the pile of clean menus.
There was also a tendency not to apologize for anything that was broken or an error, ( exceptions) and to either get defensive, dodge the issue, ignore me, try and bluff a way out by pretending I don’t understand technology ( a common phenomenon in my solo female travels even on luxury lines or hotels) or otherwise avoid resolving the problem, and frankly act like low level government employees, secure in their positions. As the world gets more affluent, it is getting harder to get good crew without paying more and more, so it likely takes a lot for a crew member to be let go.
EX: The second time a waitress swooped in and hurriedly topped off my (separately paid for )sparkling water with regular water, I politely asked her to be careful and not mix them. She denied having mixed, and argued with me that she had not. I calmly told her she had indeed mixed them up , I just wanted to let her know, since she asked how my meal was, to improve. She did not apologize, but then decided to bring me a new bottle of sparkling, even though I was not asking for free stuff, I was just trying to help avoid the same problem.
I repeatedly enjoyed the Adagio piano and violin duo which sometimes included classical music, though they were not world class musicians. A bar pianist ( Stryker) in MIX bar was also a crowd pleaser.
In room TV service was mediocre to bad (for this day and age) ,small poorly positioned screen , fuzzy, only two music options ( Musaak and Musaak), you cannot go directly to a channel of choice, and have to scroll through all channels including blank ones . There are no on demand in room movies ( have to call for a Dvd from front desk, from a non descriptive list, but then after delays it turned out I had a broken DVD player ). There were protracted service comedies trying to get anything fixed. Other tech also did not go well. The HAL website is not user friendly, and the morning of my cruise when I logged on to see if the ship was in port, the website erroneously told me my ship had already sailed! This created some needless anxiety, as did the later failure to accurately scan my room card during the muster, resulting in a written warning I would be disembarked for alleged failure to do muster ( no call or knock on door) though I had done it, attentively, and been scanned. SB, a five-start line per Berlitz, also has a poor website, so HAL is not alone ( both run by Carnival).
There were two stage performances in one week with four singers and six dancers, one called Classique ( had loud piped in music that drowned out a lone violin player) , the other was called Variations ( with a small live band). The costumes and young bodies were nice to look at but both shows lacked coherence. Everything was overly dramatized which made nothing dramatic, and always passionate which made nothing passionate. Focus was on old saccharin love songs, some Broadway tunes, but it was hard to suspend reality when the singer microphones were very big and obvious and glued with visible tape to the singers’ cheeks. If you cruise for shows, there are better options.
Other ship entertainment options were the usual puzzles, yoga ( fee), board games, trivia, basketball court ( brrr), gym, spa, an Oprah book club discussion, big screen movie options including a story about Ruth Bader Ginsburg cases, a library, shuffleboard.
Crows Nest, the high forward observation bar, had recliner chairs which were very, very popular for lounging, especially on the sea day.
There were also performances by a ventriloquist ( lame) and an illusionist ( better but long-winded).
Shows on SB Odyssey, a much smaller ship with a smaller cast, were to my taste much better just a few months ago.
I was happy with the vista “suite”, ( no suite lounge privileges, however, just a room with areas) except for the archaic and broken TV and DVD system.
Only 225 square feet , but with a balcony, all nicely arranged, big bed ( a bit hard, so I got a topper), soft linens, long sofa, lots of storage, fridge with a fee minibar, and a cozy solo jacuzzi tub (shower above it), one sink, lots of closet space. Only one electrical outlet. All the fluffy towels I wanted were provided as were six pillows on a bed designed for two. A Bible was in a drawer. You can get your shoes shined. Cruise information was well laid out though some of it had seen many fingers.
Overall it was clean enough, except for a dirty remote, a greasy DVD information cover, and corner dust accumulations. A lot of the ship areas could have used a good scrubbing, more frequent public toilet servicing, and more touchup paint, which would take more labor, but overall at least the visible parts were adequately clean for hygienic purposes.
The Do Not Disturb sign was always respected. Cabin was made up quickly every morning and evening. Towel animals came, some cute, some just looked like someone forgot a cleaning towel on the bed. Laundry service was wonderful and timely, reasonable pricing for an “unlimited” plan.
Internet was — well, ship internet quality, even with the upgraded plan, unreliable and variable, like on all ships including SB, but good enough to get some work done and to prevent pax insurrections. I used my LTE in ports for major internet.
An excursion rep gave short but helpful talks about ports. I wished they were longer.
There was not very much about the history, so I read on my own. There is a library, plus your internet for this.
This was a great walking around DIY town, though we did need to tender to it. Along the shore from port is a 45 minute walk. I had “lazy lobster” ( shelled, drawn butter) at the unlikely fun Route 66 restaurant, with comfortable booths, 50’s memorabilia, and home made fries, not frozen.
The ladies’ room was demarcated with a frilly pink prom dress, mens with Castrol, so feminists beware. There are fun shops, historic little buildings, and excursion options to Acadia National Park ( I suggest doing it independently as I had done in the past, so as to savor) and other scenic areas.
A larger city, and though there are things to do in town, but best is to travel outside. You have to take a short shuttle ride from the ship to the terminal, people lined up. I did a packed ship’s excursion to Peggy’s Cove, Lunenberg, and Mahone. The restaurant at Peggy’s , Sou’est, had wonderful seafood and great service in a stunning setting, is a lot like northern CA. Lunenberg is a cute town with Germanic history and a sad memorial to hundreds of local men who died at sea, but most venues were closed, as it was too early in the season. It would be lovely in warmer weather and independently. Mahone did not have enough to justify a 50 minute stop.
Not much to do near port in this blue collar town trying to become a chic international cruise port. There is a giant fiddle at the terminal. Irish Triangle nearby had good lobster, and an Irish coffee with cream :). I had pre-researched this town and took a cab two miles with a colorful local to a hidden nature area, Baille Ard, ( good instructions on Internet on how to get there) walked along a stream, snacked on a scenically located bench, then walked back to town. This is a great place to have a calm picnic and get some exercise, 3 km loop, or mix it up. It was junk pickup day, with some interesting Canadain junk set out in front of modest unfenced homes, like a lobster trap, a bidet, and pieces of an old canoe.
Excursions out of town into nature were available through HAL, that is where most people went.
Great for walking and quality shopping in town but a main attraction is the Anne of Green Gables museum. My excursion had been cancelled, so I did a substitute afternoon crowded Island Tour and museum excursion. The best part is the woods behind the house, there is a 40 minute scenic loop, and there are picnic tables, beautiful, but the guided did not tell people about them. So pax complained the one hour stop was too long, I thought it was too short as I wanted to walk more. Best to come here on your own.
French is the main language, easy to tour on your own or jump on a hop on type bus.
Many great food options, shops, history. We spent the night here as could not sail on to Montreal.
DISEMBARKATION, QUEBEC CITY, BUS TO MONTREAL
Done efficiently, by group, no long lines at port. There were some pax on the bus back who complained about unloading delays when we got to the cruise terminal in Montreal, which were not HAL’s fault, e.g., yelling at the bus driver, “What’s the game plan?” People lined up in a long taxi line, I called an Ueber, which arrived within 10 minutes and was on my way to my hotel for a couple days enjoying wonderful Montreal.
CONCLUSION: I enjoyed my vacation overall, the ports, and my good value vista balcony cabin, the Sea View pool area, and the Pinnacle Grill. I did not care for most of the entertainment, and did not like how service problems were handled. I despised the crowded buses. I also did not like crew familiarity, e.g., automatic first-naming me. Even though there are also issues on luxury lines, there is an expectation there that they will be dealt with, and they are, here they often were not (they simply have less staffing, because they are cheaper). The passenger mix and style here was also annoying at times, and the general ambience was less than inspiring or elegant. But it may be different on longer HAL cruises with more experienced cruisers on board. The price was definitely low, especially for a solo, a major benefit.. I would consider HAL again, especially with DH, on a port intense good itinerary (they have many), but would focus on Pinnacle dinner dining as much as possible, and private excursions. Meanwhile I will continue to to seek out higher rated lines as a first choice (HAL is rated 3 start by Berlitz). Read Less