Background- My husband and I are in our late 50's -early 60's, both professionals from South NJ. Most recently we have been on 8 Princess cruises. Since we have cruised with Princess the most and most recently, they will be my basis for comparison. Recently, we also traveled on 2 river cruises in Germany and France, which were a wonderful but very different cruise experience. Several years ago, we were on 3 Celebrity, 2 Royal Caribbean, 2 Renaissance and 1 Carnival. Of all these, our favorite was Renaissance- small size, no smoking and different itineraries. This was our first HAL cruise. We were aboard the March 19, 2008 sailing of the Noordam to the Eastern Caribbean.
Embarkation was delayed over 3 hours because the Noordam had hit bad weather returning to NYC. Of course, it was no one's fault that the pier situation was a mess with passengers disembarking and new passengers arriving. My husband dropped me off at Pier 92 and parked our car and found me with the "carry-on" and we made the trip to Pier 88! We had to walk four blocks in the rain, lugging our carry-on bags with way too much packed in them including several bottles of wine. Since we were just driving from our home in NJ, we brought our laptop too, so we really had a lot to carry. It wasn't the greatest way to start a vacation. Parking for the 10 day cruise was $180 and they did accept credit cards. We were given a $15 per person credit, I guess because many people missed lunch, which was a nice thing for HAL to do. I think we were finally on the ship around 4:30 PM. We had arrived at 12:30 PM. Another difference is the lifeboat drill on HAL. It is outside on a deck right below your assigned lifeboat. It was cold and rainy and took a long time while they called everyone's cabin number. On Princess it is a very serious matter also, but it is conducted inside in a comfortable theatre and there is no roll call.
Our Cabin was a VD category with a doublewide verandah. We were in cabin 4166. There were no lounge chairs there as expected and I asked our cabin steward if we could please have two loungers. He told us we would have to ask at the front desk, which I did. I got a call that afternoon telling me it was not possible to get the lounge chairs. The next day I saw a different person at the front desk and asked him for the lounge chairs but...this time I mentioned cruise critic. I said I had seen pictures on CC of this verandah with lounge chairs and was very disappointed! That afternoon the lounge chairs arrived. Cause and effect? I tend to think that "Cruise Critic" was the magic word. In my opinion our cabin did not have enough storage space and it was an awkward layout with doors blocking the bathroom. There were no drawers by the desk either to keep my make-up etc. Also, we could not use the refrigerator, as it was jammed with things to buy. This was another difference from Princess, which offers an empty refrigerator with a pitcher of cold water in it. I understand now that I should have asked our cabin steward to remove those refrigerator items and store them in my vanity chair but I did not know this at the time.
Service was great especially the bar service. I think it was the best bar service on any ship we have been on. We really liked the hot and cold appetizers served in the Ocean Bar each night by Roel. Our bar waiter, Sid, was a great asset and knew our names and drinks almost immediately. He provided friendly conversation and added to our time there each evening. Our cabin steward was excellent. He was very unobtrusive. We rarely saw him but everything was done and the room was always made up quickly and efficiently. We liked our cute towel animals each night also. Almost the entire dining room staff were very friendly and provided excellent service also. One night we had very mediocre service but from then on requested a specific waiter, Saiful and his assistant, and were more than satisfied. The wine steward also did a good job although he seemed to have too many tables at times. We got extra special attention from Alan, an assistant dining room manager, who really tried hard to keep us happy. This seems to be HAL's trademark and they do live up to their reputation.
Food, of course, is a very subjective matter. We do eat out very often and usually enjoy our meals. I don't think we are very hard to please. We were not very impressed with the food a few nights. One night the salmon was very dry and cold and the King Crab was terrible, very small pieces, and not hot enough. We think that Princess has much better salads and salad dressings. HAL had great soups, not salty and always hot but we always enjoyed Princess' soups too. Desserts on both lines were good, maybe with the better ice cream selection going to HAL, although their banana foster was inedible. Other nights the food was very good especially the osso bucco and traditional Dutch food night with a delicious dish Nasi Goreng (?). The lobster and filet mignon were good as was the prime rib. Everything was cooked as requested. Cappuccino is still included without added cost on HAL, which is not the case on Princess, which I find annoying! We did not really like AYWD, but this is all we could get as we only booked this cruise in December. There still seem to be many "kinks" to be worked out. When traveling with just my husband, we much prefer traditional second seating dining at a Table for Two. We enjoy meeting other people at lunch or breakfast but find we enjoy our private conversation at dinnertime. I made reservations every morning when I awoke. Most days we got our requested waiter, Saiful, and a Table for Two. If I called later, we had to sit with a larger group and this worked out just fine those few nights.
The Lido buffet had a nice selection and many more daily choices than Princess but was set up poorly and took very long to get anything. I believe the Caribbean Princess has more passengers than the Noordam and yet the buffet never seemed as crowded. We like Princess' set- up and the fact that they are open 24 hours much better. The Lido was often closed when we wanted to get some snacks after a day at the beach. We usually ate lunch in the dining room because of this but some days this was not possible when we were in port.
Room service for breakfast was wonderful. Eggs were hot, they even had egg beaters. We got everything we requested and even ordered things not on the breakfast menu- the Sunshine Parfait and salmon, bagel and cream cheese. We had breakfast in the dining room once or twice and it was very good with many more selections on a daily basis than Princess. Room service was slow in the afternoon but the cheese platters were nice with a glass of wine after being on the go all day. Room service breakfast, with all the selections, was even available the last day, which is not the case on Princess. Also, I find the breakfast selection from room service on Princess to be a real disappointment. It is a very limited continental type breakfast. Eating a full breakfast on my verandah is a real treat to me and HAL did an excellent job with this.
Public areas were spacious and clean. The aft pool was very nice and never crowded. We had no trouble getting chairs unlike on Princess. They even passed out free lemonade! Aft had a sign that stated NO Children and it was either enforced or no one tried to bring children into this pool. This was Easter week so I know there were many more children aboard than a usual HAL sailing but we did not encounter any problems. One day I was asked by a few polite pre teens, where I was from, as they were doing a scavenger hunt. The Explorations Cafe was a fabulous location. There was music, newspapers, crossword puzzles, daily sudoku and a great selection of books and DVD's. On our last Princess cruise, the library was a joke. It is a very nice relaxing venue with comfortable leather chairs. This is an appreciated HAL feature.
Entertainment was OK. We laughed at the comedian (Marty Brill) and liked the singer (Emma Sinclair). We went to the piano bar a few nights. Ian was at his best playing show tunes, in my opinion. Some nights while playing, he would not know the words to songs and faked them. We loved the piano bar on Princess, especially Bert Stratton on the Caribbean Princess, so were a bit disappointed in this venue. We also didn't like that we had to go to a show at 7 PM if we were eating dinner at 8:15. On Princess, we always had the late seating and then went to a show afterwards- 10:30 or so. We really prefer this especially on a relaxing cruise such as this, when we are not in a hurry to get to bed early. The best entertainment was the crew shows. Both the Filipino and Indonesian crew really seemed to enjoy their performance and sharing their culture with the passengers.
Ports of Call were all enjoyed. We had been to all except Tortola before and enjoyed our trip to The Baths in Virgin Gorda. We went on a ship-sponsored tour here, as we were concerned that it was Easter Sunday. We usually do all our excursions on our own. . We enjoyed the pool at Grand Turk and went to Little Divi Beach in St. Maarten by taxi. In St. Thomas, we had planned on going to Emerald Beach but we just shopped a bit, as the day was overcast and rainy on and off. Another nice HAL touch was wet, cold towels, water and Purell hand sanitizer, before you got back on the ship after a day in port.
I went to the Meet and Greet arranged by Bob (speakertosuits) and it was nice to meet many people but I suspect that the bad weather and rocking ship kept many away. The Crow's Nest was definitely not the place to be in weather such as we had. They had coffee and pastries out for us but no ship's officers attended.
Disembarkation was a plus in that you could wait in your cabin until your color was called. This was so much better than waiting in a public crowded area as has happened to us before or even in assigned Elite Princess lounge. We opted to get off late in order to sleep in and have a leisurely breakfast in our cabin. This was probably a mistake because we had to wait much too long as the various colors backed up. By the time we disembarked passengers were arriving to embark. This was our decision and as I said, we wouldn't do it again. Also, there were no porters to be found which made the whole trip to our car quite difficult. Carrying two extra boxes of liquor from the Virgin Islands didn't help either!
Miscellaneous- Here are just some random thoughts of comparisons between the two lines. Princess gives you a schedule of all weekly events so you can decide ahead of time just what show you want to see. There is also a list of what movies are showing for the week and what is on each channel each day. It helps to plan your day and week. If this was available on HAL, we didn't have a schedule or see any such thing. I thought the Daily programs were much more user friendly on HAL and easy to carry around as there was a perforation to separate the program. Princess' Daily Patters are much more difficult to read. There were many more convenient rest rooms to be found on HAL and they were never crowded. On many Princess ships it was a long way to a rest room from the dining room and they were always very crowded. Amazingly, we never had to wait for an elevator on the Noordam either. I think there must be more elevators on the Noordam, as it seemed we often waited much longer on Princess ships. Finally, we appreciated the fact that HAL also had a Catholic Mass available daily. This was not offered on Princess except on Easter Sunday.
In conclusion, there was no feeling of "hawking" on HAL, which has become very annoying on Princess. No one asked us to buy a soda card, wine card, drink card, souvenir glass or to attend a wine tasting!! Even the photographers were not "pushy". Yet, Princess' soda card is a much better deal, the Internet is much cheaper (we get 250 minutes free as repeat cruisers) and we love having irons and washing machines available on each deck. Both lines have very few announcements and there are very few interruptions. I think repeat cruise benefits may be better on Princess.
It is hard to say which line is better but we would definitely cruise both HAL and Princess again, there were enough positive things on each. I am looking forward to a cruise this summer on Celebrity's Constellation to be able to compare the three lines.