My husband and I had never cruised before but were beginning to think about it. We'd been to Hawaii twice and the hotels are very pricey and not always nice, and then you add the cost of food and it's very expensive. My aunt brought some fliers to a family function and was trying to get the whole family to book. We thought it looked great and booked in February. I probably should have done more research before booking, but I think we got lucky. Because it was a very nice cruise. The stateroom was small but reasonable(my husband is 6'4" and didn't hit himself on anything) we had a nice couch (that can fold out to a queen bed) and private veranda w/ rattan furniture. Quite charming. The shower had a removable wand which was very convenient and a small, but moderately deep tub. They don't have any non-smoking rooms, which concerned me, but there was no sign of previous smoking in our room.
When we arrived at the port a porter quickly took care of our luggage and directed us to check in. The staff seemed quick and efficient. We filled out forms registered our passports and took photos for room key data-base. Once on the ship there was plenty of staff to direct you to your cabin - and in tidy bell-hop uniforms w/ white gloves(a nice touch). Most of the crew is from Indonesia and they were all so friendly and helpful. Extremely nice! Leaving San Diego was really rough, but the front desk gives you free motion-sickness pills(nice!).
After the lifeboat drill there was a "fiesta" sail-away party on the lido deck. The lido deck had the family pool(inside w/ retractable sunroof), the buffet/casual dining restaurant spa and adult pool outside. They had a party every time we left a port but the buffet food served was not the best.
We had "leisurely" late dining- show up between 8-9. We enjoyed the flexibility. The food was quite good in the beautiful Vista dining room, but the soups were a little weird. I had excellent lamb and also very moist duck. My husband liked the prime rib. They had an abundance of fresh, ripe fruit which we enjoyed. The lido restaurant is casual and made up of themed stations(Italian, Asian, etc...) you go to the station and the staff serves you. Dinner is crazy there(families) so we only went for late lunch or breakfast. The pancakes tasted like whole grain, and they eggs were soft - not dry. There were also homemade pastries, and an ice-cream bar. You could also order breakfast in your room the night before w/ a form. They deliver it when you want. Also there's 24 free room service. Sometimes it was hard to get through - you would be on hold a long time and delivery could take an hour during peak times. However the food was delicious and it was convenient. I wished that the full lunch was served later in the day(esp. w/ late dinner) but there was always pizza and pasta which was very good. Not like Fresh Choice.
Shore excursions- we booked several offered by the ship and the Mexican tour guides really took good care of you, were very friendly and spoke English fluently. There were many choices in the "catalog" water sports, walking tours/bus tours, shrimp feasts, nature hikes... If you don't know the ports I recommend booking a shore excursion. We went kayaking in Mazatlan, and took a city/country & tequila factory tour in Puerto Vallarta. Some ports didn't have docks and so the ship would anchor near the shore and "tender". They used the very nice lifeboats(no orange rafts!)to ferry you back and forth as much as you wanted. Several crew members helped you in and out of the boats. In the morning if you wanted to go ashore you had to get your party together then get "tender tickets" after that you could go anywhere on the ship and wait for them to call your number. It was a very efficient process. The boats do rock a bit so you if you get motion sickness take out some "insurance".
Shopping-the shops on board were not that exciting, they had some nice tropical clothes, and men's accessories and a lot of jewelry. It seemed like a typical resort store. The sundries area is very limited so try to bring everything you might need. I went to the shopping ambassador's talks, which was like watching QVC, but she had some good advice and tips about shopping in Mexico. She also handed out maps. I bought jewelry in recommended store in Puerto Vallarta and got a substantial discount just by mentioning her name.
Entertainment-there were many options on the ship. Everyday an easy to read schedule was delivered to your room w/ a list off all the days activities. There's a casino, night club, piano bar, various lounges, movie theater, and a main showroom. We're not much for casinos, but if you are into that sort of thing they had all kinds of events. I didn't get to the movies, but I saw some of the live shows. The musicals were rather cheesy and the dancers weren't always in sync. The best was Joel Mason- an Elton John impersonator. He was very funny and a great showman. He said he was coming to the end of a long contract on this ship so I don't know what they will have next. There was also an illusionist, an adult comedian, crew talent show, and a variety show at the end (w/ Joel doing different material). The nightclub, "northern lights" was small and rather warm, but the decoration was fun and whimsical. It's popular w/ the younger set. During sea days they had a least 5 activities to choose from each hour. It seemed like they had something for everyone. My husband liked to lay out on the deck. I enjoyed selecting activities and particularly enjoyed the culinary demonstrations w/ the executive chef. I also enjoyed the afternoon tea, but it was a little crazy and understaffed. Once a week they have the "royal Dutch tea" which was a spectacular buffet style event w/ loads of pastries, and canapes and string quartet. Don't miss it!
The spa- the Greenhouse Spa was quite lovely and offered a variety of exotic treatments(including acupuncture!) at exotic prices. They offered specials on port days and the last sea day. I got a massage, facial and foot rub and it was very pleasant, but the table was too narrow. They use Elemis products(and toiletries in your room) which didn't irritate my sensitive skin. They had a gorgeous hydrotherapy pool I wanted to try but they closed it and all the hot tubs due to a stomach flu outbreak.
Kids: HAL caters to an older crowd and it was a very quiet ship for the most part. There were 450 kids on the ship but you never would have known it. They offer "club hal" on the 10th deck for the kids and a mom said her young son loved it and spent all day there.
Debarkation. A packet was delivered to your door the night before w/ necessary forms, luggage tags, and instructions. You tear off the colored stubs of your luggage tags then place luggage outside your door that night. The porters come and take care of it for you. We chose to have breakfast delivered to our room the morning of, but they also were serving an early meal in the Lido restaurant and Vista dining room. After breakfast they start calling numbers by color and you are free to walk around the ship or hang out in your room while waiting for your number/color. It was fast, and once you got off luggage was organized by color group.
Other details: drinks: Free 24hr tea, coffee, juice and hot chocolate in the lido restaurant. Soda was 1.75/can or at the bar. They offer a discount via soda card for $20. They punch it each time you order one. Booze: a lot of people complained about the high prices, but I say "what did you expect?" There were drink specials, but expect typical bar/club prices + a %15 gratuity. Everything(shopping, shore excursions...) is billed to your room card which is linked to your credit card. You cannot pay cash, but you could put down a cash deposit w/ your room card. Tipping is included in the $10/day per person "hotel fee". $3.50 goes to your cabin steward, $3.50 to your dinning staff and $3 to "unseen" staff. You can adjust rate up/down at front desk. Sickness- if you contracted the stomach flu virus going around(every effort was made to stop it -purell everywhere) your cabin was quarantined for 24 hrs, but they allowed you to order from the dining room menu via room service and offered free laundry and dvds and ship board credit.
All in all I would say it was an excellent cruise and we didn't want to leave. I was very fond of our dining steward and was sad to say goodbye. As I mentioned HAL does cater to an older crowd - my husband and I are young and enjoyed the atmosphere. If you want a wild party scene you may want to look elsewhere. If you want a relaxing, fun cruise with great food then I recommend this ship! We are already thinking about booking another cruise w/ HAL.