Embarkation at around 11:30 was somewhat long, but discovered that there was an accident on the escalator up to the boarding level and also the HAL check-in card machines were operating slowly. This may have caused the back-up we experienced. Our 2 previous HAL cruises were on the Zaandam and the Maasdam a number of years ago, and we were anxious to experience HAL again.
THE SHIP: First impression inside was a bit underwhelming and claustrophobic. This is a lovely ship, no doubt, but VERY understated. THere's definitely no "Wow" when you first board, like I remembered with the 2 previous HAL ships. We found the atrium areas to be very small and pretty much unused. I also thought the Lido buffet area was poorly laid out, as people walked through it constantly to get from the aft pool area to the mid pool. The space between serving areas and tables is small as it is, and the extra people walking through who weren't even eating made it all the more congested. Not much they can do now, but feel the design just isn't quite "right."
Cabin: We had a VE balcony on deck 5, a triple as we had our grandson. It also seemed smaller than our previous cabins, and those were an OV and an inside. However, the storage space was super, more than adequate for the 3 of us, and we loved that there was space to store luggage under the bed. Once again, though, the layout of the room seemed off. When the sofa was extended into a bed, no one could access the balcony. Our room steward was exceptional, so he had our beds ready EARLY in the evenings (meaning we couldn't sit on the balcony after that without doing acrobatics), but he also made up our room as soon as we left for breakfast. The bathroom had lots of areas for storing all of our toiletries and we really appreciated the size of the shower/tub. Much bigger than most other lines. However, The lighting around the closet area in the entryway is very poor and you can't see inside, so I would recommend you bring a small flashlight to remedy this problem. The beds are WONDERFUL and the linens are so soft you'll want to run out and buy new ones for your home.
Dining: We had open seating and we loved it! We usually went to the MDR between 6:30 and 7:15 and we NEVER had to wait for a table. Sometimes we were at a table for 6 or 8 and sometimes we had our own table - we weren't picky and said we'd take anything and we were very impressed with this option. The servers treated us the same as if we ate at their table every night. I'd definitely choose this from now on. The food was exceptional! We loved the creative menus, and appreciated that many of the dishes had a caribbean touch. We had lobster twice and king crablegs once, so HAL was more than generous!!! The beef (filets, prime rib) was always so tender it could be cut with a fork and everything was well-seasoned. The BEST food we've had on any cruise. And most importantly, everything was always served hot. You don't know how important this is until you've sailed on a ship (Navigator of the Seas) where most entrees and soups were barely warm. Kudos to the kitchen and wait staff!
Entertainment: We thought the Noordam singers and dancers were some of the most talented we've seen on any ship, although their material sometimes wasn't on a par with them. The Las Vegas show was really good, especially the Sting number - very creative! We only saw the comedians on the last night revue so we can't really critique, although they seemed very funny in their short skits. The house band musicians were terrific, but the poor girl singer with the Halcats was just pitiful. Unfortunately, this was the late-night entertainment in the Crow's Nest and it kept us away from that venue. Gary T'To did happy hour in the Crow's Nest and he was fabulous - they should have him there all night!!! The piano bar was OK, the Ocean Bar band was really not very good. Movies were very recent but shown at odd times. We would really have liked to have one in the afternoon of a sea day, but it didn't happen. I suppose this is because the movies share the venue with the Culinary Arts Center. And I must mention the cruise director, Mike Connachan - he's just super!
Teen program: The Loft became our grandson's favorite part of the ship and they had an extensive daily program for the teens. We were truly impressed with this. He made friends from across the world and had a blast.
Ports: We stopped at St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, Martinique, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay. We booked independent tours (Serenity in St. Lucia, Heatwave in Barbados and Sunny Liston in St. Thomas) and did the others on our own. Loved them all. This is a wonderful itinerary.
Overall: We had a fabulous cruise! The staff and crew are without a doubt the best on the seas, and really spoil you for any other cruise line. The food was fabulous, the ship was meticulously clean. We loved the Happy Hours in the Crow's Nest and the Ocean Bar, the promenade deck, the scenic cruising along Martinique and St. Lucia, the many Culinary Arts Center demonstrations, the lack of harassing servers trying to sell us the "drink of the day", the incredible crew, the large library, well I'm sure I'm leaving many things out. But sum it up by saying we loved it and can't wait to go again! The big ships may be glitzier and have more to do, but no cruise line will treat you better than HAL. Want to feel like royalty? Sail HAL.
Would love to have better lighting around the closet area - it's difficult to see inside the safe and even to see the colors of clothing.