We're a Canadian family with two young children (ages 6 and 8) that travelled on the December 7, 2008 sailing of HAL's Veendam from Tampa visiting Key West, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Maya. Here's a write-up of our not-so-great experience on the Veendam. We're veteran cruisers and have sailed on several Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. We were looking forward to several new ports for us and to the "upscale" service that's expected on HAL. We were wrong, very wrong. It didn't help that our sailing was in Code Red with a noro virus outbreak. It just made things worse. Learn about our struggles to find food, the HAL disappearing act, the "nasty" ship, the surprisingly excellent Club HAL, our port of call experiences and finally our rude awakening. AS YOU STARVE DINING Before the rant about all the things we disliked about the dining experience, we must say that we loved the quality and presentation of the food. It was by far the best we have ever had on a cruise ship. The quantities were smaller and access to food was very difficult if you couldn't adhere to the schedule. Access to kid-friendly foods was limited unlike most other cruises we've sailed. Dinner at 5:15 pm is great if you can easily access food on the ship at other times. Not so on the Veendam. We had requested early dining but were told that everything was full for fixed seating. We were told by the dining room manager that the older folks usually like the early dining times since they need time to digest. Not impressed with the attitude or response. Upon embarkation, we were told that we had something much better - As You Wish Dining. We asked if they had any times available around 6 pm and were told no - you can reserve something at 5:15 or after 7 pm. Not impressed. To make matters worse, we had to make reservations every other day since we were only allowed to reserve two nights at a time. So we try dining at 5:15 pm. The first night we had awful service. The kids meals came out when the adult desserts were served. The second night in Key West we went to the Lido in hopes of finding better service and dining just after 6 pm. Wrong. No help juggling the kids' trays but plenty of older passengers offered some assistance. No food from the kids menu available - the grill area by the pool closes at 6 pm so we were told that we can try to get a dining room reservation or room service so the kids can eat. Needless to say that the kids picked at different items from the Lido buffet. The kids went to Club HAL until 10 pm and then we tried getting some room service for milk and cookies for the kids. Milk and cookies arrive an hour later. Both kids were asleep. We develop a strategy. For the next few nights we execute our strategy to cope with our dining situation. We wake up and dial 88 to request a different dining time but to no avail. We have loved our dining room experiences during all of our other cruises. We couldn't understand why what could be one of the best parts of the cruise experience was being ruined by dining at times we didn't want, having different waiters every night, disregard for kids and their attention spans (i.e., bring their food out ASAP and make sure that the adult dishes are served fairly quickly so that we can be out of the dining room by 7 pm when Club HAL opens), and having a lack of alternative snack options available past 8 pm since we had to eat our dinner so early. There's even more stress generated by the limited dining options on the Veendam. Since we finished dinner around 7 pm, we had to plan in advance for late night snacks for the kids. That meant leaving the show in the lounge a few minutes before 8 pm to get some fruit, milk and cookies from the Lido before it closed. We asked if we could pre-order room service and were told that we had to be in our room - we couldn't guarantee an exact time so that was out of the question. We also asked about room service being delivered to other locations (i.e., movie theater) and were told "no" but that we were welcome to purchase our own snacks in the shops. We wish that the Lido dinner was open until 9 or 9:30 so that we can grab a snack; it would have likely solved some of our issues since we were having dinner at 5:15 pm. Usually Club HAL has snacks available during the evening (drinks, cookies and a fruit plate) but due to the Code Red, they weren't available so we had to scrounge for snack items ourselves hence the room service issues. We really disliked AYWD. We love traditional dining and luckily we're getting it on our next two cruises. In our opinion, nothing beats developing a personal relationship with your dining room staff. We have come back from previous cruises just glowing with compliments about the way our family was treated during dinner. The bright side of all of this dining stress on the Veendam, no one gained a single pound. I've averaged a gain of 10 pounds on previous cruises. GOING, GOING, GONE The noro virus outbreak on this cruise put a damper on many activities and amenities. By the time we returned from Key West, things started to disappear. Long lineups formed. Plastic wrap covered the sneeze guards in the Lido buffet. We got chapped hands from using so much sanitizer. Pools and hot tubs closed. Pool towels disappeared. Club HAL activities were restricted to watching movies. Popcorn disappeared in the movie theater. Condiments, bread, butter and other small things disappeared in the dining room and at food stations. We had heard that at one point about 25 people had the virus. We heard the dreaded "Happy Birthday" song reminder of how long to wash our hands from the captain on a daily basis but little else was explained about what we were losing out on. Unfortunately there was no on-board credit offered to make up for the inconveniences we endured. What made the Code Red worse was the dining experience in the Lido. Yes, we've complained enough about dining but what made things worse was the fact that crew who were not familiar with handling food were now serving us at the buffet. We'd ask for a plum and get a kiwi. We'd ask for some bacon and get one strip (for a parent and child to share). We'd ask for some more of something, and be given just one more and nasty stares. An additional challenge was the metal plate covers added to each plate that made us look like pigs when we headed to our tables with ten plates stacked on a tray when in fact the total food wouldn't even fill a single plate! We did learn some new skills on this cruise. We are now all experts now at pressing elevator buttons with our elbows. We also learned some interesting new ways of greeting folks without a handshake - the high five with your elbows was a favorite for the kids. The kids also learned to climb ten flights of stairs without using the handrails. FLOATING MOTEL 6 The ship is old and in need of repairs. We sailed on the Empress of the Seas last year and it was on its last legs before being transferred to another cruise line and it was far superior to what we saw (and smelled) on the Veendam. Eau de sewage graces the hallways on several decks, especially on the lower decks mid-ship. Frayed and discolored carpets in halls and stairways are common. The ship itself has a dark, depressing look. The center area spanning decks 6 to 8 is unimpressive. The pools looked like they've seen better days. One of the shops had cracked glass that looked like it had been that way for a long time. Many of the public restrooms were out of service for a good portion of the voyage. Elevator buttons had duct tape over certain floors. The nicest part of the ship was the Oasis. Luckily our kids were able to use the area a few times although they are not quite teens. It was the only part of the ship that didn't look "nasty" as the kids referred to most of the rest of the ship. Our inside stateroom wasn't that bad. We liked the size and colors. The carpet could use some vacuuming and deep cleaning. The grout in the shower was crumbling apart. The bedding was ok - surprisingly, the bedding on Carnival was far better. Toiletries were pretty skimpy - only one of each item replenished daily although they were shared with four people. Try sharing a tiny bottle of sample size shampoo with two ladies who have waist-length hair - luckily the guys have buzz cuts! We've been on several "older" ships before with much lower star ratings than the Veendam and they all looked terrific. Their refurbishments and upkeep really showed. The only area that looked new on the Veendam was the Oasis. We expected a ship that looked nicer and that was better kept since it had higher ratings than the Empress of the Seas. Yes, we understand that it's more than the looks that comprise a ship's ratings but we didn't find that it was any better. I don't think that this Motel 6 can get into drydock soon enough. CLUB HAL BEAT OUT EXPECTATIONS Not bad at all. We were very afraid at the time that we booked that our kids would be disappointed with Club HAL but the counselors, Dani and Alex, made a huge difference. We typically sail in November and December and expect (and enjoy) low numbers of kids onboard since it's while school is in session. As expected, there were fewer than 30 kids on board and at most there were ten kids in the Club at any point. We were surprised though that they only had two folks working - on our other cruises on Royal and Carnival, even though we've only had about 20-40 kids, there would always be at least six to eight staff in the kids clubs. Dani and Alex really tried their best to make due with movies and games that didn't involve physical contact because of the Code Red. Our kids really enjoyed the overall experience although they couldn't have as much fun with crafts, games, and other activities. The Club hours were typically from 9-11:30 am, 1:30-4 pm, 7-10 pm on sea days. On port days, the Club was open from 7-10 pm. If you need one of the counselors to look after your kids during a port day, you must let them know the night before and they will take care of your kids at no charge. We did this one day when we took our daughter snorkeling. Our son stayed with the counselors one morning and had "fun" doing his homework, watching a movie, and playing with his Nintendo. GREAT PORTS OF CALL The primary reasons for selecting this cruise were: (1) low cost - about $1600, (2) fit with our pre-existing trip planned to Disney, and (3) itinerary. We prefer port days over sea days and we like visiting new places. With Belize, Guatemala and Costa Maya being new to us, we had a winner. We did all tours on our own thanks to our research on Cruise Critic. KEY WEST My wife and I had previously visited Key West but this was the first time for the kids. We enjoyed walking around, shopping for color-changing t-shirts, and visiting the Pirate Soul museum. We visited the museum on our own and it was a bit expensive (around $50 total) for a mediocre experience that lasted about one hour. The best part of Key West was the Sunset Festival that takes place near where the cruise ship docks. We watched the street performers until 5:55 pm before racing back to scan our cards and get back on the Veendam and watching the crew pull up the gangway after we boarded. BELIZE In Belize, we had pre-booked with Cave-Tubing.com for $45 per person and had a great family experience. We were expecting to meet our tour at 8 am but we only got off our tender at 9:30 am - first official tender of the day. Although we anchored at 7 am, there were some unexplained delays. So much for getting up early. The ride to the cave tubing site was great aboard an aging Greyhound-type of bus. When we got to the site, it was a good 20-minute hike on a gravel path to our starting point. Bring comfortable shoes - someone else came barefoot and regretted it! The caves themselves were great and the water was low so we were in "butts up" mode for a good portion of the trip. We went past the point where the woman on a Carnival tour died a few months ago. We found the approach taken by this tour operator to be much safer than some of the others we saw when we were there. We had one tour guide for every three or four people. Our whole family felt very safe throughout. GUATEMALA We loved Guatemala although it was chilly and overcast most of the day. We decided to took a tour with Happy Fish Travel to the waterfalls and absolutely loved every minute of our experience. After comparison shopping and haggling with the tour operators, we chose Happy Fish to go to Los Escobas for $80 for the four of us. We met up with a lovely couple from the Veendam that we had met the day before. Our tour guide was great (can't remember her name) but she explained lots of the local history on the way to the falls and gave the children some old currency. At the falls, we were joined by a local guide Jose (he was 11 or 12 years old) and he became the personal guide for our kids. They found shrimp, crabs, tadpoles, fish and many other neat things in the rainforest. We loved swimming in the refreshing water. Be sure to bring a camera and don't worry about getting it wet - there are always plenty of folks who can take your photo since not everyone ventures in. Luckily we brought lifejackets for our kids since they're not the strongest swimmers. The water is deep at certain points. Water shoes are a definite plus. After seeing the waterfalls, we stopped for some food that's available for sale. Our son gulped down three oranges. Our daughter enjoyed coconut juice in her very own coconut. Some souvenirs are available. The trip took about three hours overall by the time we returned to the ship. After having lunch on the Veendam, we decided to venture into town and check out a flea market that we had driven by on the way to the waterfalls. Upon leaving the port area, we were approached by various taxi drivers offering tours and we politely said "no thanks" many times. Some kids also approached our family offering to be tour guides but we knew where we were going. We wanted our kids to see what it's like in other places - something that you can't fully experience if you're zipping by in a taxi cab. We found our way to the market and saw a poor limping horse on the road, waved at lots of locals, and did our best to truly stood out like sore thumbs. We had fun. The market was nothing to write home about - pretty much what you'd find at a flea market or dollar store, some used goods, fresh fruits, and other necessities. Do not venture off to this market if you are looking for better deals on souvenirs like you'll find in the port warehouse - there aren't any there. We then headed back to the ship, did some shopping, ran back to the ship to get our passports so that we can have them stamped and receive a nifty little bracelet that our kids are still wearing, and watched some of the local entertainers. The real delight (and sad part) of our day in Guatemala was leaving. We went out on deck six and watched the Guatemalan dancers perform for the sailaway, taxis honking and blinking their lights, and vendors from the market waving. We felt special, appreciated. We left wanting to come back and willing to share our experience with others. COSTA MAYA Costa Maya was so-so. Since we hadn't really had any beach or snorkeling time, we decided to go snorkeling with one of the tour operators at the exit from the complex. Shark Tours took us to the 40 Canones (40 canons) hotel and were sent off on our $30 per person trip. We took a $3 per person cab ride to the hotel. The reefs were nothing to write home about. The water was a bit choppy and the guide pretty much did his own thing and expected you to follow. He didn't point anything out or ask if we were doing ok. We spent some time on the beach and then took a $2 per person cab ride back to the Veendam. After lunch, the kids enjoyed the pool in Costa Maya since the ones on the ship had been closed for most of the cruise. The cruise terminal looked very nice. There were enough shops to do some bargain hunting for sombreros and other knick-knacks. The kids painted their own ceramic souvenirs in one of the booths. THE RUDE AWAKENING Upon arrival in Tampa, we were woken up just after 6 am by the Purser's desk calling us to say that we must get off the ship NOW with our passports to clear immigration at the cruise terminal. We asked if one person could go and were told "no" but that we could come back onto the ship. Getting very tired 6 and 8 year olds to wake up early and stand in line was no fun. We would have appreciated some advance notice that we were going to be forced to do this (i.e., a simple note under the door the day before). Although this situation is not entirely within HAL's control, they could have prepared us a bit better since this wasn't the first time this ship has returned to Tampa. The disembarkation talk on TV didn't mention a specific time - we were just told that we'd be called by our colors. On our previous five cruises, we never had to report to immigration (usually on-board in a lounge) any earlier than 7:30 or 8 am. In other cases (twice in San Juan), we only dealt with immigration upon leaving the vessel. When we got back on the Veendam, we found our room steward tearing apart the room, the bunk bed had been retracted into the ceiling, and the sofa bed was no longer a bed. Our sheets were gone. So much for returning to bed after clearing customs. Fortunately our carry-ons weren't removed. We decided to go for breakfast. The expected crowds were everywhere and lots of carry-on luggage was in the way. We returned to our stateroom and waited, waited. We were expecting a silent disembarkation but were met with a string of announcements about the fact that we were delayed. We left just after 9 am. Thanks HAL for the wonderful kick in the butt on the last morning of our cruise and giving us two very cranky children for the rest of the day. PROBABLY NEVER AGAIN WITH HAL For now, the answer is definitely no with HAL. The dining experience ruined it for us. The Code Red made matters worse but that can happen on any ship. The difference is in how things are handled. We found the Purser's desk was pretty useless in several regards. For example, it took over 30 hours for our in-room safe to be repaired. On a previous Royal cruise, something similar was repaired within one hour. We asked the Purser's desk where the popcorn was one night in the movie theater. They said that it would be there shortly. We finished watching the movie and guess what, no popcorn. We asked what happened and they said that the popcorn will be there the following day. It wasn't. We asked the next day and were told to wait until the next show. We waited and asked again and were finally told that due to the Code Red, no popcorn was being served. My expectations of the Purser's desk to be a one-stop shop for honest, complete answers gave me the overall impression that HAL doesn't care. Other staff who didn't really care were in the gift shops, especially the one selling costume jewelry. The photo shop staff were somewhat standoffish. We were also surprised to learn that there were only portraits on the two formal nights. It helped keep our purchases down to only over $100. On other cruises, we spent several hundred dollars more because casual photos were taken on other nights. HAL's loss. Some positives to help balance out our negative experiences on HAL - my wife enjoyed several of the free cooking demonstrations, party planner events and the behind-the-scenes kitchen tour. MOVING ON Luckily we haven't been turned off cruising. We just booked a Celebrity cruise for November 2009 and a Royal cruise in November 2010. We asked the kids if they'd rather return to Disney, go to an island for a week or go on a cruise - the cruise won. Would we recommend HAL to others? No. If given the chance to cruise again with HAL, at a significantly discounted rate, would we go again? Yes - a cruise is always better than no cruise. Final blow - the wheels on our Royal Caribbean luggage were broken off upon arrival in Tampa. Coincidence or just bad luck?

Veendam - A floating Motel 6 with great food

Veendam Cruise Review by woodbridge_cruisers

Trip Details
  • Sail Date: December 2008
  • Destination: Western Caribbean
  • Cabin Type: Large Interior Stateroom
We're a Canadian family with two young children (ages 6 and 8) that travelled on the December 7, 2008 sailing of HAL's Veendam from Tampa visiting Key West, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Maya. Here's a write-up of our not-so-great experience on the Veendam.
We're veteran cruisers and have sailed on several Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. We were looking forward to several new ports for us and to the "upscale" service that's expected on HAL. We were wrong, very wrong. It didn't help that our sailing was in Code Red with a noro virus outbreak. It just made things worse.
Learn about our struggles to find food, the HAL disappearing act, the "nasty" ship, the surprisingly excellent Club HAL, our port of call experiences and finally our rude awakening.
AS YOU STARVE DINING Before the rant about all the things we disliked about the dining experience, we must say that we loved the quality and presentation of the food. It was by far the best we have ever had on a cruise ship. The quantities were smaller and access to food was very difficult if you couldn't adhere to the schedule. Access to kid-friendly foods was limited unlike most other cruises we've sailed.
Dinner at 5:15 pm is great if you can easily access food on the ship at other times. Not so on the Veendam. We had requested early dining but were told that everything was full for fixed seating. We were told by the dining room manager that the older folks usually like the early dining times since they need time to digest. Not impressed with the attitude or response. Upon embarkation, we were told that we had something much better - As You Wish Dining. We asked if they had any times available around 6 pm and were told no - you can reserve something at 5:15 or after 7 pm. Not impressed. To make matters worse, we had to make reservations every other day since we were only allowed to reserve two nights at a time.
So we try dining at 5:15 pm. The first night we had awful service. The kids meals came out when the adult desserts were served. The second night in Key West we went to the Lido in hopes of finding better service and dining just after 6 pm. Wrong. No help juggling the kids' trays but plenty of older passengers offered some assistance. No food from the kids menu available - the grill area by the pool closes at 6 pm so we were told that we can try to get a dining room reservation or room service so the kids can eat. Needless to say that the kids picked at different items from the Lido buffet. The kids went to Club HAL until 10 pm and then we tried getting some room service for milk and cookies for the kids. Milk and cookies arrive an hour later. Both kids were asleep.
We develop a strategy. For the next few nights we execute our strategy to cope with our dining situation. We wake up and dial 88 to request a different dining time but to no avail. We have loved our dining room experiences during all of our other cruises. We couldn't understand why what could be one of the best parts of the cruise experience was being ruined by dining at times we didn't want, having different waiters every night, disregard for kids and their attention spans (i.e., bring their food out ASAP and make sure that the adult dishes are served fairly quickly so that we can be out of the dining room by 7 pm when Club HAL opens), and having a lack of alternative snack options available past 8 pm since we had to eat our dinner so early.
There's even more stress generated by the limited dining options on the Veendam. Since we finished dinner around 7 pm, we had to plan in advance for late night snacks for the kids. That meant leaving the show in the lounge a few minutes before 8 pm to get some fruit, milk and cookies from the Lido before it closed. We asked if we could pre-order room service and were told that we had to be in our room - we couldn't guarantee an exact time so that was out of the question. We also asked about room service being delivered to other locations (i.e., movie theater) and were told "no" but that we were welcome to purchase our own snacks in the shops.
We wish that the Lido dinner was open until 9 or 9:30 so that we can grab a snack; it would have likely solved some of our issues since we were having dinner at 5:15 pm. Usually Club HAL has snacks available during the evening (drinks, cookies and a fruit plate) but due to the Code Red, they weren't available so we had to scrounge for snack items ourselves hence the room service issues.
We really disliked AYWD. We love traditional dining and luckily we're getting it on our next two cruises. In our opinion, nothing beats developing a personal relationship with your dining room staff. We have come back from previous cruises just glowing with compliments about the way our family was treated during dinner.
The bright side of all of this dining stress on the Veendam, no one gained a single pound. I've averaged a gain of 10 pounds on previous cruises.
GOING, GOING, GONE The noro virus outbreak on this cruise put a damper on many activities and amenities. By the time we returned from Key West, things started to disappear. Long lineups formed. Plastic wrap covered the sneeze guards in the Lido buffet. We got chapped hands from using so much sanitizer. Pools and hot tubs closed. Pool towels disappeared. Club HAL activities were restricted to watching movies. Popcorn disappeared in the movie theater. Condiments, bread, butter and other small things disappeared in the dining room and at food stations. We had heard that at one point about 25 people had the virus. We heard the dreaded "Happy Birthday" song reminder of how long to wash our hands from the captain on a daily basis but little else was explained about what we were losing out on. Unfortunately there was no on-board credit offered to make up for the inconveniences we endured.
What made the Code Red worse was the dining experience in the Lido. Yes, we've complained enough about dining but what made things worse was the fact that crew who were not familiar with handling food were now serving us at the buffet. We'd ask for a plum and get a kiwi. We'd ask for some bacon and get one strip (for a parent and child to share). We'd ask for some more of something, and be given just one more and nasty stares. An additional challenge was the metal plate covers added to each plate that made us look like pigs when we headed to our tables with ten plates stacked on a tray when in fact the total food wouldn't even fill a single plate!
We did learn some new skills on this cruise. We are now all experts now at pressing elevator buttons with our elbows. We also learned some interesting new ways of greeting folks without a handshake - the high five with your elbows was a favorite for the kids. The kids also learned to climb ten flights of stairs without using the handrails.
FLOATING MOTEL 6 The ship is old and in need of repairs. We sailed on the Empress of the Seas last year and it was on its last legs before being transferred to another cruise line and it was far superior to what we saw (and smelled) on the Veendam. Eau de sewage graces the hallways on several decks, especially on the lower decks mid-ship. Frayed and discolored carpets in halls and stairways are common. The ship itself has a dark, depressing look. The center area spanning decks 6 to 8 is unimpressive. The pools looked like they've seen better days. One of the shops had cracked glass that looked like it had been that way for a long time. Many of the public restrooms were out of service for a good portion of the voyage. Elevator buttons had duct tape over certain floors.
The nicest part of the ship was the Oasis. Luckily our kids were able to use the area a few times although they are not quite teens. It was the only part of the ship that didn't look "nasty" as the kids referred to most of the rest of the ship.
Our inside stateroom wasn't that bad. We liked the size and colors. The carpet could use some vacuuming and deep cleaning. The grout in the shower was crumbling apart. The bedding was ok - surprisingly, the bedding on Carnival was far better. Toiletries were pretty skimpy - only one of each item replenished daily although they were shared with four people. Try sharing a tiny bottle of sample size shampoo with two ladies who have waist-length hair - luckily the guys have buzz cuts!
We've been on several "older" ships before with much lower star ratings than the Veendam and they all looked terrific. Their refurbishments and upkeep really showed. The only area that looked new on the Veendam was the Oasis. We expected a ship that looked nicer and that was better kept since it had higher ratings than the Empress of the Seas. Yes, we understand that it's more than the looks that comprise a ship's ratings but we didn't find that it was any better.
I don't think that this Motel 6 can get into drydock soon enough.
CLUB HAL BEAT OUT EXPECTATIONS Not bad at all. We were very afraid at the time that we booked that our kids would be disappointed with Club HAL but the counselors, Dani and Alex, made a huge difference. We typically sail in November and December and expect (and enjoy) low numbers of kids onboard since it's while school is in session. As expected, there were fewer than 30 kids on board and at most there were ten kids in the Club at any point. We were surprised though that they only had two folks working - on our other cruises on Royal and Carnival, even though we've only had about 20-40 kids, there would always be at least six to eight staff in the kids clubs.
Dani and Alex really tried their best to make due with movies and games that didn't involve physical contact because of the Code Red. Our kids really enjoyed the overall experience although they couldn't have as much fun with crafts, games, and other activities. The Club hours were typically from 9-11:30 am, 1:30-4 pm, 7-10 pm on sea days. On port days, the Club was open from 7-10 pm. If you need one of the counselors to look after your kids during a port day, you must let them know the night before and they will take care of your kids at no charge. We did this one day when we took our daughter snorkeling. Our son stayed with the counselors one morning and had "fun" doing his homework, watching a movie, and playing with his Nintendo.
GREAT PORTS OF CALL The primary reasons for selecting this cruise were: (1) low cost - about $1600, (2) fit with our pre-existing trip planned to Disney, and (3) itinerary. We prefer port days over sea days and we like visiting new places. With Belize, Guatemala and Costa Maya being new to us, we had a winner. We did all tours on our own thanks to our research on Cruise Critic.
KEY WEST My wife and I had previously visited Key West but this was the first time for the kids. We enjoyed walking around, shopping for color-changing t-shirts, and visiting the Pirate Soul museum. We visited the museum on our own and it was a bit expensive (around $50 total) for a mediocre experience that lasted about one hour. The best part of Key West was the Sunset Festival that takes place near where the cruise ship docks. We watched the street performers until 5:55 pm before racing back to scan our cards and get back on the Veendam and watching the crew pull up the gangway after we boarded.
BELIZE In Belize, we had pre-booked with Cave-Tubing.com for $45 per person and had a great family experience. We were expecting to meet our tour at 8 am but we only got off our tender at 9:30 am - first official tender of the day. Although we anchored at 7 am, there were some unexplained delays. So much for getting up early. The ride to the cave tubing site was great aboard an aging Greyhound-type of bus. When we got to the site, it was a good 20-minute hike on a gravel path to our starting point. Bring comfortable shoes - someone else came barefoot and regretted it! The caves themselves were great and the water was low so we were in "butts up" mode for a good portion of the trip. We went past the point where the woman on a Carnival tour died a few months ago. We found the approach taken by this tour operator to be much safer than some of the others we saw when we were there. We had one tour guide for every three or four people. Our whole family felt very safe throughout.
GUATEMALA We loved Guatemala although it was chilly and overcast most of the day. We decided to took a tour with Happy Fish Travel to the waterfalls and absolutely loved every minute of our experience. After comparison shopping and haggling with the tour operators, we chose Happy Fish to go to Los Escobas for $80 for the four of us. We met up with a lovely couple from the Veendam that we had met the day before.
Our tour guide was great (can't remember her name) but she explained lots of the local history on the way to the falls and gave the children some old currency. At the falls, we were joined by a local guide Jose (he was 11 or 12 years old) and he became the personal guide for our kids. They found shrimp, crabs, tadpoles, fish and many other neat things in the rainforest. We loved swimming in the refreshing water. Be sure to bring a camera and don't worry about getting it wet - there are always plenty of folks who can take your photo since not everyone ventures in. Luckily we brought lifejackets for our kids since they're not the strongest swimmers. The water is deep at certain points. Water shoes are a definite plus.
After seeing the waterfalls, we stopped for some food that's available for sale. Our son gulped down three oranges. Our daughter enjoyed coconut juice in her very own coconut. Some souvenirs are available. The trip took about three hours overall by the time we returned to the ship.
After having lunch on the Veendam, we decided to venture into town and check out a flea market that we had driven by on the way to the waterfalls. Upon leaving the port area, we were approached by various taxi drivers offering tours and we politely said "no thanks" many times. Some kids also approached our family offering to be tour guides but we knew where we were going. We wanted our kids to see what it's like in other places - something that you can't fully experience if you're zipping by in a taxi cab.
We found our way to the market and saw a poor limping horse on the road, waved at lots of locals, and did our best to truly stood out like sore thumbs. We had fun. The market was nothing to write home about - pretty much what you'd find at a flea market or dollar store, some used goods, fresh fruits, and other necessities. Do not venture off to this market if you are looking for better deals on souvenirs like you'll find in the port warehouse - there aren't any there. We then headed back to the ship, did some shopping, ran back to the ship to get our passports so that we can have them stamped and receive a nifty little bracelet that our kids are still wearing, and watched some of the local entertainers. The real delight (and sad part) of our day in Guatemala was leaving. We went out on deck six and watched the Guatemalan dancers perform for the sailaway, taxis honking and blinking their lights, and vendors from the market waving. We felt special, appreciated. We left wanting to come back and willing to share our experience with others.
COSTA MAYA Costa Maya was so-so. Since we hadn't really had any beach or snorkeling time, we decided to go snorkeling with one of the tour operators at the exit from the complex. Shark Tours took us to the 40 Canones (40 canons) hotel and were sent off on our $30 per person trip. We took a $3 per person cab ride to the hotel. The reefs were nothing to write home about. The water was a bit choppy and the guide pretty much did his own thing and expected you to follow. He didn't point anything out or ask if we were doing ok. We spent some time on the beach and then took a $2 per person cab ride back to the Veendam. After lunch, the kids enjoyed the pool in Costa Maya since the ones on the ship had been closed for most of the cruise. The cruise terminal looked very nice. There were enough shops to do some bargain hunting for sombreros and other knick-knacks. The kids painted their own ceramic souvenirs in one of the booths.
THE RUDE AWAKENING Upon arrival in Tampa, we were woken up just after 6 am by the Purser's desk calling us to say that we must get off the ship NOW with our passports to clear immigration at the cruise terminal. We asked if one person could go and were told "no" but that we could come back onto the ship. Getting very tired 6 and 8 year olds to wake up early and stand in line was no fun. We would have appreciated some advance notice that we were going to be forced to do this (i.e., a simple note under the door the day before).
Although this situation is not entirely within HAL's control, they could have prepared us a bit better since this wasn't the first time this ship has returned to Tampa. The disembarkation talk on TV didn't mention a specific time - we were just told that we'd be called by our colors. On our previous five cruises, we never had to report to immigration (usually on-board in a lounge) any earlier than 7:30 or 8 am. In other cases (twice in San Juan), we only dealt with immigration upon leaving the vessel.
When we got back on the Veendam, we found our room steward tearing apart the room, the bunk bed had been retracted into the ceiling, and the sofa bed was no longer a bed. Our sheets were gone. So much for returning to bed after clearing customs. Fortunately our carry-ons weren't removed. We decided to go for breakfast. The expected crowds were everywhere and lots of carry-on luggage was in the way. We returned to our stateroom and waited, waited. We were expecting a silent disembarkation but were met with a string of announcements about the fact that we were delayed. We left just after 9 am. Thanks HAL for the wonderful kick in the butt on the last morning of our cruise and giving us two very cranky children for the rest of the day.
PROBABLY NEVER AGAIN WITH HAL For now, the answer is definitely no with HAL. The dining experience ruined it for us. The Code Red made matters worse but that can happen on any ship. The difference is in how things are handled. We found the Purser's desk was pretty useless in several regards. For example, it took over 30 hours for our in-room safe to be repaired. On a previous Royal cruise, something similar was repaired within one hour. We asked the Purser's desk where the popcorn was one night in the movie theater. They said that it would be there shortly. We finished watching the movie and guess what, no popcorn. We asked what happened and they said that the popcorn will be there the following day. It wasn't. We asked the next day and were told to wait until the next show. We waited and asked again and were finally told that due to the Code Red, no popcorn was being served. My expectations of the Purser's desk to be a one-stop shop for honest, complete answers gave me the overall impression that HAL doesn't care.
Other staff who didn't really care were in the gift shops, especially the one selling costume jewelry. The photo shop staff were somewhat standoffish. We were also surprised to learn that there were only portraits on the two formal nights. It helped keep our purchases down to only over $100. On other cruises, we spent several hundred dollars more because casual photos were taken on other nights. HAL's loss.
Some positives to help balance out our negative experiences on HAL - my wife enjoyed several of the free cooking demonstrations, party planner events and the behind-the-scenes kitchen tour.
MOVING ON Luckily we haven't been turned off cruising. We just booked a Celebrity cruise for November 2009 and a Royal cruise in November 2010. We asked the kids if they'd rather return to Disney, go to an island for a week or go on a cruise - the cruise won.
Would we recommend HAL to others? No. If given the chance to cruise again with HAL, at a significantly discounted rate, would we go again? Yes - a cruise is always better than no cruise. Final blow - the wheels on our Royal Caribbean luggage were broken off upon arrival in Tampa. Coincidence or just bad luck?
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