I'll start by saying that the reason we took this particular cruise was the unique list of ports. We're a family of four - my parents (late 50's), myself (30) and my sister (28). We love to travel and explore new places. The ... Read More
I'll start by saying that the reason we took this particular cruise was the unique list of ports. We're a family of four - my parents (late 50's), myself (30) and my sister (28). We love to travel and explore new places. The fact that this cruise went to Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Maya was the main draw or us. We weren't interested in the typical cruise ship ports.
For reference, the four of us have each done 3-5 cruses each, ranging from cruises on NCL, Celebrity, Princess and Crystal.
We arrived in Tampa the night before and stayed at the Grand Hyatt, which we arranged through HCL. We were originally disappointed because we were told the hotel was right downtown, but the hotel ended up being lovely. It had a nice area to walk around and a couple of pools. The cool thing was that the Auburn football team was staying there before The Outback Bowl.
The shuttle picked us up and brought us to the port. There was a Bucks game that Sunday, and they said there was traffic, but clearly they've never been to Boston or other places with true traffic, because there was barely any. We arrived in about 25 minutes. It took us about 45 minutes to get through security, check in and get on the ship. It was a little busy and I found it somewhat disorganized, but it was nice to get onboard and go directly to our rooms.
The ship itself is definitely showing its age, although it has been updated at times. For example, there were lots of nicks and paint flakes all over the place. While it was nice to have a tub in the room, I refused to fill it because the jets were nasty and I wasn't going to sit in water that touched those jets.
The ship is relatively small and is very easy to manage. It takes no time at all to get from one point to another. There are two pools, one is much better than the other. The main pool has a retractable roof, which is often open ever so slightly. This pool would have been much more appealing if it actually had more fresh air. This seemed to be the pool that most families hung out at. This one is where the action is. There's a lot of LOUD music, a grill, and you're right next to the Lido buffet. The second pool is the Sea View pool and is much more relaxed it quite. On both of our sea days, it was very difficult to grab a chair at both pools. They should really move the cart with beer displayed and replace it with a dozen chairs. You could easily fit three tables with four chairs each in the area where they displayed a ton of beer that sat out every day.
There were a few areas to hang out inside that we tended to spend time at. The first was the bar near the shops on deck 8. This is where a (less-than-average) guitar player played each night, BUT, we could catch any game that was on ESPN here. Since it was football playoff season, we hung out here a bit. The second place we hung out was the Crows Nest. We could also watch games here, but we also were able to watch other events taking place here.
One of our favorite activities though was to walk around deck 6 in the morning. The nice thing about this ship is the fact that it has a wrap around deck that's pretty wide. Three times during the cruise we went for 3 mile walks to make sure we didn't gain too much weight. While I wish I could have run around the deck, I understand why jogging isn't allowed. Being stuck in the cold north, I miss running outside in nice weather, but it will be back soon enough.
I have to say, we really didn't participate in any activities onboard. Why? There really weren't many options offered, and the ones that were weren't very interesting. Looking at the activities, you can tell what HAL's demographics are - people a lot older than us. We're not exactly keen on taking a bookmark making class. I've heard multiple times that they're looking to attract a younger demographic, but I haven't seen anything that makes me think that they're taking it seriously.
We went to a number of the shows in the theater, and I have to say, I was pretty disappointed overall. Some shows were better than others. The shows with singers and dancers were better than the other ones. I will say though, that even those shows could be elevated a bit. Clearly HAL doesn't put as much into these shows as some of the other cruise lines.
The musical entertainers could also improve. The guitarist was average, but he really couldn't mix it up. All if his songs had a similar sound. He had zero personality. We tried talking to him a little and he wanted nothing to do with it. In addition, the HALCats played a lot, and they stuck to their 50's/60's playlist most of the time. One time in the Crows Nest, they played Smooth by Santana and a ton of people got up to dance. After that, they went back to their old 50's playlist and EVERYONE sat down. Another time, there were a ton of teens and 20-somethings in the Crows Nest and they really wanted to dance. Many good bands would adjust accordingly, but they just kept on with their old setlist. For obvious reasons, those kids left and tried to find something else to do.
Having cruised NCL and Celebrity in the past, I'd have to put the food above NCL, but below Celebrity. The food in the Lido for breakfast and lunch left A LOT to be desired. Lines were VERY long and I was rather disappointed with the options. I thought that there were fewer options to pick from on this cruise that any other I've been on. The salad options at lunch were often picked over and lacked variety. The breakfast options seemed to be exactly the same every day. I love corned beef hash for breakfast, but not once did I see it as a meat option, just ham, sausage and bacon. Not to say that there wasn't a decent variety, but they didn't mix it up. The potatoes were always the home fried potatoes, never hash browns or tater tots for example. I know it's difficult to carry a ton of food like that for a cruise, but if they can mix up dinner each night, why can't they mix breakfast up every now and then.
Twice we ate at the Dive In burger and hot dog bar for lunch. This was definitely the better option for lunch. While it took a little while to get food, the food here was better than in the Lido. Note that you can get a side of those decent onion straws if you want. They aren't just for burgers and dogs. And if you want to create a customized burger or do, you're welcome to do so. I saw the person taking orders even suggest some customized options.
The main dining room was decent for dinner, although not spectacular. I was underwhelmed with the choices each night, but always seemed to find something I'd enjoy. Overall, I found the food was fairly bland and could have used a lot more seasoning. I really wish they'd offer a few different salads as well. In addition, I would have loved the option to add grilled shrimp on top of a salad for dinner sometimes. The portions were a good size - meaning you could order an appetizer, a soup or salad, an entree and a dessert and not leave feeling overly full. If you want extra of something, just ask.
We did all three specialty restaurants on board and found two out of three to be good. The first one, which was nice, was Pinnacle Grill. The food here was really nice and was definitely a step above what is offered in the main dining room. You can't go wrong with the steaks here. The only gripe we had here was that they didn't tell us the soufflé would take extra time to prepare before we received the dessert menu. We weren't in a rush, so it wasn't a big deal, but they should have told us.
The second specialty meal we had was a disaster. It was also the most expensive, at over $250 for all four of us ($50pp and a few glasses of wine). First of all, the dinner took two and a half hours. Most of this time was taken up by waiting 45 minutes between our soup and entree. The salads were pretty good, but the soup received mixed reviews. Those with the cold soup were very disappointed. The warm soup good decent reviews, but no one was raving about it. Our entrees were also decent, but because we waited so long, we weren't that thrilled. I have to say, we all pretty much agreed that the entrees were good, but weren't overwhelmingly better than anything in the MDR. Dessert was also mixed. Two of us ordered the much talked about creme brûlée, but were utterly disappointed when it came out very warm and with a puddle of liquid on the top. The traditional crispy sugared top was soggy and just not good. When we pointed everything out to the head waiter, he insisted that they were made fresh and that there was an issue with the kitchen that delayed our meals. This meal was our worst meal of the entire cruise and also the most expensive. We'd skip this and would recommend others skip it if you do a HAL cruise.
The third specialty restaurant we did was Canaletto. This was pretty good and one of our top meals of the trip. Food was served family style, so we got to try a lot of different things. The meatballs, salads, antipasto and entrees were all very good. We really enjoyed the lemoncello dessert as well. We'd return here and would recommend this along with Pinnacle Grill.
The service on the ship was done very well, except for two areas. The first I already mentioned, and that was with Le Cirque. The head waiter basically made us feel like we didn't know good food when we complained about our soupy creme brûlée. The other area we had a negative experience with was the photography area. I had purchased a candid photo package for my mom for Christmas. We arrived on the first day to make sure it was noted, as directed to do so in the note delivered to our room. The woman we spoke to said come back when you have a photo you like. I asked if we could start a folder with all of our photos to decide later and she said, sure. It would have been nice if she recommended this. What she also failed to mention is that most of the candid photos, we would have to seek out. We weren't in the MDR for formal night, we were in Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto, so we missed those opportunities. We were later told that we could have requested photos. Also, in two out of the four port photos, we had some random people from the ship. One was the original photo gal, dressed in a weird tux photo. The other was a Pirate. We tried asking for photos without them, but had no luck. In the end, we had very few photos to pick from. I'd advice against pre purchasing a photo package as a result.
The rest of the service we received, in our staterooms, the main dining room, and elsewhere on the ship was wonderful. For example, after two nights, they knew to bring my dad his decaf coffee after dinner. No need to ask again. We were always greeted by name by our cabin stewards as well.
The ports we visited were wonderful. The first one, Key West, was our least favorite, but probably because it was so touristy and busy compared to all of the others. While Key West was nice, I wouldn't make a point to book a cruise because of it as a destination unless it was in the off season.
Guatemala was our second port and one that I was really looking forward to. The pier was a shipping pier and not really for a cruise ship, but they did have a welcome center with merchants set up to purchase local goods. The people selling goods were a little aggressive and a lot sold some of the same things, so just know to be patient and know that they're going to try to sell you a few things. We negotiated on a few things, but didn't push too hard. After all, a $1 to us isn't that much, where a $1 for them goes a lot further.
We did a tour of Las Escobas, which was beautiful. It's too bad it rained a little, but the waterfalls and the hike was very nice. It's not a very long hike and is easy for most people. I would have actually preferred a longer hike with more to see, but I doubt too many people on HAL would be willing to do that. The guides we had were very nice and well versed on the area. The drive was a little sketchy, but not the worst I've experienced.
In Honduras, which ended up being our favorite port, we did the Starfish Snorkel and Beach excursion. The people here were SO friendly and welcoming. We took a boat to the snorkel area, but not your traditional snorkel catamaran. This was just your basic boat that fit about 25 people, all sitting and facing forward. The snorkel area had half a dozen or so starfish and a shipwreck to snorkel around. Honestly, it was hard to tell if the starfish were just placed here though. They were huge in any case. After about 45 minutes here, we went to a small beach for about 35 minutes before a bus drive back to the port. This is a tender port, so be prepared for that. We found the people of Honduras very friendly and welcoming. They weren't as pushy trying to sell us stuff. I'd highly recommend this port.
Our final port was Costa Maya, Mexico. Here, we did the Chacchoben ruins, along with practically everyone else. It was a very busy tour, especially with two ships docked this day. Because the ruins are spread out, it doesn't feel like a ton of people are there for most of the tour, except for the welcome area and the very beginning. The ruins were beautiful and we had a decent amount of time here. The ride to and from was about an hour each way, and wasn't very scenic. I'd recommend this trip.
Disembarkment was somewhat chaotic. They would call colors and numbers and people would congregate all over the halls. People were pushing and shoving to get out and it wasn't very pleasant. Eventually, we got off the ship and breezed through customs. A coach bus was waiting for us to take us to the airport, which was about a 25 minute drive.
Overall, I thought the cruise was nice, but I'm not itching to run back to HAL. HAL visits some great ports, which is probably the only reason I'd return. Right now, I'd probably return to Celebrity if I had to choose, although I'll probably stick to a few land-only vacations first before hopping back on a cruise. Read Less