My wife and I were looking forward to our first cruise. We got all sorts of advise from all sorts of folks. Of course, everyone had a different opinion. We took the advice of my elderly cousins that said HAL was the best line out there based on their 45 years of cruising. Given they've been all over the world, we felt comfortable giving HAL a shot.
We booked via their website. It was about 45 days away from departure and got a great deal on a veranda cabin. It was a guarantee cabin but were bumped up to VB a week or so later. This was a repositioning cruise from Vancouver to San Diego.
First Impressions: We flew from SFO to Vancouver on Alaska. HAL reps were in baggage claim and directed us to our bus which arrived within 30 minutes of picking up our bags. Bus was clean and everyone onboard was looking forward to the cruise.
Embarkation: Vancouver has a great facility. Check-in was efficient. We received our luggage tags from HAL in the mail and got our keys etc with no issues.
The Ship: Having studied HAL from every angle via the net, I knew that Oosterdam had not yet received it's upgrade in Italy (scheduled for April 2009). Some of the carpet in high traffic areas looked worn but the ship was clean and polished. The Vista class ships are laid out logically and it was easy to figure out where things were.
Departure was on-time and smooth. We did the life boat drill thing then went to the Crow's Nest for a cocktail, watch the sunset and see the harbor/barrier islands slip by. It was a pretty full cruise with a mix of folks (though very few kids). No kids was fine by us since this cruise was an escape from our two toddlers!
We brought on-board champagne and wine (we live in the wine country) and indulged heavily as we unwound from a stressful last few months. The passage through the Juan de Fuca straight was rough and there was some roll but we were so exhausted that we hardly noticed.
Food: We thought the food was great and there was plenty of it. We lucked out with a table for two in the main dining room for the late sitting. We are foodies and were suitably impressed with the menu. We dined one night at the Pinnacle Grill and it was outstanding.
Staff: From cabin steward to dining room to bartenders, the staff was friendly, helpful and made sure things went smoothly.
Cabin: We were able to get to our cabin about 2 p.m. and it was spotless. Our cabin steward was unobtrusive but friendly. Yes, he was great at the little towel animals as well. These cabins aren't large (compared to shore-side accommodations) but were fine for two people. With kids, it would have been tight. Our cabin was aft and we did notice vibrations from the pods in rough seas (as they worked to stabilize the ship) and maneuvering into ports but it wasn't bad.
Activities: We didn't book this cruise to take part in every activity. Frankly, we wanted to get to know each other again after baby number two arrived and just recharge our batteries. We did do the culinary show (which was good though some folks ducked out due to sea sickness in some rough seas). The Elton John singer was on this trip and was great. The crowd wasn't what you would call lively (slanted towards older and stoic variety) and he gave them grief for that-which we loved. We skipped most of the rest of the organized stuff; we just loved walking around the decks in the fresh air and indulging in the food and wine on offer.
Ports of Call: There was one-Astoria, Oregon. It was interesting to see how a ship this size maneuvers into the Columbia River given the tricky currents and this ship didn't disappoint. My wife slept through the port call while I wandered the town, which is nice and there are some great Victorian homes near the port.
Spa: We bought the all access pass the minute we boarded and weren't disappointed. The spa was relaxing, clean and well appointed. We did a couple's massage and thought the masseuses were great.
The only negative we can think of for this ship is the air blowers run 24/7 on this ship. I guess it's good white noise but didn't see why it was necessary.
Exercise Area: Good range of equipment. It was pretty much empty during our cruise so we had the run of the place.
I've read reviews on all sorts of cruise lines and ships (we are getting ready to do Alaska in May of 2009). I think folks need to decide what their priorities are when booking a cruise..especially if they've never cruised before. For us, this was a perfect, relaxing escape from careers, kids and the craziness of daily life.
Decent space, immaculate bathroom, bit noise due to aft location