Just got back from the Rotterdam, Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Barcelona. It was grand. But I can go into more details.
The cruise contingent consisted of myself, my husband (both in our early 40s) our daughters ages 6 and 11, my parents, and my husband's father and his wife. For our immediate family, this was our 3rd cruise, 2nd on HAL. My parents received their 50 day HAL Mariners pin on this cruise, and have cruised on other lines, so I'm guessing this was around their 10th cruise. My father-in-law had never cruised before, his wife had once, years ago.
Now, for those suggesting long Mediterranean cruises on HAL to get away from the kids, let me warn you, their were 205 children on this cruise. That said, I didn't see any big problems. The staff was a bit worried at the beginning of the cruise. They brought in extra kid staff and had to sit people a bit more cozy at the dining room tables, but all in all it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be. Average age on this cruise was around 50. I mentioned to one of the hair dresser ladies I was surprised to see such an active group, my Alaskan HAL cruise had several folks with oxygen tanks, and this had none. She confirmed it was quite a change from the world cruise, which this ship had recently completed. If you were looking for a sedate crowd, this wasn't it.
My family had been traveling a few weeks around Tuscany and the lakes region with another family with young girls when we got to Venice on Friday. My ILs also arrived in Venice on Friday. My parents opted to take the HAL air option. Though they left home on Friday morning, got to overnight at a hotel in NY, and then arrived in Venice Sunday morning at 5am. Note that only a charter would get them into Venice at 5am, the airport wasn't totally open, and the HAL representatives weren't even there yet. For the same price they could have left Friday evening, got into Venice Saturday evening, ate, wandered, slept, wandered around San Marco some more, and then checked in on Sunday. Instead they got to spend an afternoon at JFK airport, since the hotel wanted them out by 12 and the HAL reps took them directly to the airport for their 5 pm flight, and 6 hours in a dreary unopened cruise terminal in Venice, just a mile or two away from San Marco, until HAL was ready for them and their 400 HAL charter friends. Just a cautionary tale.
On Sunday we got up, went shopping in Venice again, and took a water taxi to the ship around 3. Check in started at 11:30 instead of the 2pm written on our tickets, so by the time we got there the lines were non-existant. They sent us to the suite checkin area any way, even though between us and ILs, we took up all their suite checkin folks. Then they gave us a shuttle ticket, which was funny since they didn't have enough folks there to fill the shuttle anyway, and off we went.Our suite looked exactly like our suite on the Volendam, which was great. Lots of room to unpack a months worth of stuff. The ship was similar enough I could find every thing easily. The big difference for us was the Neptune lounge on the suite floor. Food all day!!! Wonderful folks to track down your laundry. Uncrowded breakfast even on those early shore excursion days. And last, but not least, 24 hour cappuccino machine. We took advantage of this lounge alot.
Now, the laundry and dry cleaning is free for suites, and we were counting on that as we don't pack that heavy, and it had been 8 days since we'd been somewhere with laundry service. However, not only does express service not work, but laundry was running 3 days, not two. The really bad part of that is they didn't tell you that 'til you not only turned in all your laundry, but were expecting it back. We bought a few Rotterdam shirts earlier in the trip than expected, but once we got that first batch back, and expectations were set, we did fine. They did lose a few things, but those wonderful ladies from the Neptune lounge (BG and Melanie) managed to find them again.
The food was uniformly good. The best part of cruising was exhibited at lunch the first day on ship. My FIL is on a low fat diet, which his wife lovingly prepares for him. She, however, prefers lots of red meat sausage type dishes, as she grew up in Germany. She was thrilled to see the pork loins and bratwurst on the welcome buffet. She loved the food on the Rotterdam, as they had many traditional dishes she doesn't get to try out much anymore. He could find his low fat meals both in the Lido and the dining room. Meanwhile, I got my father hooked on the bread pudding (how can you cruise on HAL for 50 days and not know about the bread pudding?) and my mom loved the other desserts. My older daughter got to experiment on fancy foods, my younger one stuck to the kid's menu.
This is one area HAL could work on, the kid's menus. Though they offered them in the dining room, in the Lido they did not have them at dinner. If you asked, they could make something from the kids menu, but they didn't offer it. I thought that was weird, as the kids program suggested the Lido so second seating kids could make their evening programs. This could easily be fixed by posting a kids menu.
The evening Lido menu was the same as the main dining room, and a waiter brought the main course to your table. It was quite nice for alternative dining.
The food in the Odyssey dining room was also good. At a dinner for suite guests they had a special menu that was superb (though no kids menu...). Their regular menu was also good, but not up to the standards of Italian restaurants on land. I could understand getting better mousakka or antipasto on land than in the main dining room, as that would be quite a chef with that kind of breadth of repertoire for 600 simultaneous diners. But the Odyssey, with its limited menu and number of diners could have been equal to those Italian restaurants in Venice, Rome, and Florence.
Despite the numbers, the kids program never got more than 30 kids at a time. HAL needs to do a lot of work to draw the "Tween" kids, those 9 to 12, but the smaller kids loved their activities. Often they grouped both together, and chances of an activity entertaining kids 6 to 12 is pretty much null. Outside the program the kids dominated the kids pool, and Lido area. I didn't see this as a problem. One thing that was confusing was the signs around the pools and information given out other places didn't match. The pool signs said kids were allowed in the jacuzzis as long as they were supervised. This made sense as the jacuzzis were attached to the Lido pool. There were also signs saying kids could be in the aft pool, just supervised, though I didn't see kids in that pool often. The kids' orientation meeting said kids weren't allowed in either of those places, but those meetings tend to be downers (more info on what is off limits than info on what is offered for the kids) so it is not surprising it is sparsely attended.
For entertainment there was an extremely funny juggler, a ventriloquist, a piano player, an accordion-violin duet act, a vocal stylist and, of course, the Rotterdam cast singers and dancers. The Rotterdam cast shows were my favorites, though I admit I'm willing to sit through many a dance school recital. The one night I went up to the Crow's Nest to dance it was packed. The band playing rock and roll was quite good. Those looking to practice their salsa and swing dancing could also find quartets about the ship both before and after the late seating.
My dad was extremely happy with the tons of activities on sea days. I'm not a big sea day type person, but I enjoyed the chat with the Rotterdam cast, the kitchen tour, and the bridge tour. My very favorite tour was the engine room tour. Our tour guide was a young apprentice who was graduating that very day, and would leave the ship, after a year of service, the next day when we disembarked. He was extremely friendly, and great at explaining all the different systems, from the huge 16 piston engines to the vacuum sewage system. When he had trouble explaining the thruster mechanism he drew us a diagram on the knee of his white coveralls. I was amazed at the amount of duct tape involved. Everything is at least redundant; the steering has four different methods in case others fail. I felt extremely safe on that ship. Though he said he really shouldn't, he also gave us a tour of the laundry facilities. They have a mangle that presses and folds table clothes in one step. Amazing!! This combined tour took over an hour, but was well worth it.
The other entertainment to be mentioned was Frank, the port lecturer. He didn't really say much about shopping, but his lectures were incredible. He was a professor of ancient European History. He could tell stories of every city that could go on forever, but unfortunately he was limited to an hour. If Frank is ever on your ship, go listen, you will not regret it.
I thought the service throughout the ship was just good. Tales of dining stewards who remembered your preferences from here in this newsgroup tended to set my expectations a bit high. Our dining steward couldn't remember which of our party preferred coffee after dinner after even twelve days. We gave up on decaf after noticing the first day that refills were filled on both decaf and regular out of the same pot. Careful watching the second night showed he never got a second pot for decaf even the first time around, he would just pour "decaf" at our table, pour from the same pot at another table, then come back to our table with the same pot and pour regular. Unless we specially requested it each night, he wouldn't bring the girls' dinners before ours. He was very used to serving in order, and did an excellent job of ensuring the adults all had food in front of them, but had trouble with those who only ordered main courses. Several times my older daughter fell asleep before her dinner came. (And this was a girl who had been eating dinner at 8:30 for two weeks before we boarded.) We finally turned to Merel, our assistant maitre'd, and she ensured the children got their food in a timely manner. She also remembered to my younger daughter's birthday with a cake and always chatted with the girls whenever we made it to the dining room, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My girls, particularly the younger one, really liked her. The wine steward reminded me of the rug merchants in Turkey. The first night, when he was out of our first four choices, he came back with a wine twice as much as any of our choices. We sent it away and he came up with a wine similar in price and style to the first four. He had the odd practice of bringing the wine at random times, sometimes during appetizer course, sometimes not until main course.
The room steward my parents and ILs had both cleaned their rooms well every time they stepped out of their rooms. Their menus, daily programs, and newsletters were all left in separate piles, with the latest on top. Their laundry was delivered before dinner. Their rooms were always neat. My mother said next trip she would get a mini suite instead of a suite because the service of her room steward in the suite overwhelmed her. I think the zealous room steward is more luck of the draw. Our room steward tended worked more like a hotel maid service. He cleaned our room once a day, sometime between breakfast and late afternoon. During dinner he did turndown service and brought laundry. He lumped paper in piles throughout the room. If new notices or invitations came it might take us awhile to realize we even got them, as they were piled with other stuff. With a family of four, instead of two, and the additional kids' club papers, our room was not as easy as either of the grandparents, so I can understand they wouldn't be quite as neat. Our first day, we needed extra laundry bags. We couldn't find him anywhere. The front desk paged him yet he still didn't show up. We asked the concierge for laundry bags, she tracked him down and made him come to our room. I think he was afraid of talking to us, and preferred we didn't talk to him directly. The concierges in the Neptune lounge turned out to be great intermediaries.
My kids like cruising, and would be happy on a cruise to Hawaii with 5 sea days in a row. I need ports, and this itinerary really fit the bill. We went on many shore excursions. Now, I haven't been on a organized tour in year, maybe even never, so I was very worried that I wouldn't be good at following the flag. But it wasn't as bad as I had thought. The kids were great at following, and I didn't worry about them as much. My dad didn't get lost. My worry that the tours would be held up either by my children or by an incredibly slower crowd never came to fruition.
Venice, Italy Venice is my favorite city in the world. Since we had been there a few days before boarding the ship, we decided to take a shore excursion. We took the Burano/Tortela excursion, and it was fun. We didn't have as much time as I hoped to shop for lace in Burano, but we did get a taste of what to see for next time.
Katakolon, Greece Everyone headed off on Olympia excursions this morning. We had a mixup with group times, and my parents ended up on a different bus. It helped us get organized for the next time. Olympia was wonderful, our tourguide was good. My six year old ran the track the original Olympic athletes ran. They have two excursions to Olympia, one stops at the museum, the other stops in town to shop. I think the museum is even more interesting than the ruins, as the original sculptures are there. Though we tendered to port, when we returned the ship was docked! Apparently the port authorities had just finished dredging the area and were interested in seeing if the Rotterdam fit. This meant it was easy to go into Katakolon for lunch. We, and most the ship staff including Frank the port lecturer ate at the last restaurant on the water farthest from the docking area. It was wonderful. The town is small, much like ports in Alaska. It was a very manageable to walk the town for shopping.
Piraeus, Greece Next was Piraeus, for Athens. We again took a tour of ruins, this time the Acropolis. Our guide was good, but terribly long-winded. I would have preferred more time to look around. The Parthenon was incredible, and the guide's attempt to awe us with the amount of money being spent to restore buildings about the Acropolis was quaint. Our local elementary schools are spending more money on remodeling. You can tell tour guides that also travel, and this one was more of a local guy. The tour offered to drop you in Athens, but we declined. We probably should have taken them up on it. When we got back to port we ended up taking a taxi back to an area of Pireaus near some marinas for an excellent seafood lunch and some shopping. Here the prices were half that of the store the tour stopped at.
Ephesus, Turkey More ruins, and these were incredible. This tour, as was the others, does require quite a bit of walking. One lady stayed on the bus, for two of the 3 ½ hour tour, I'm not sure she got her money's worth. Our guide was incredible. She knew everything, held my 7 year old's hand as we walked along, and always stopped in the shade to make it comfortable as possible for her charges.
She was a tour guide for 3 months of the year, and traveled the other nine, and it showed. She could explain things in a way people from the United States could empathize. The town of Ephesus was at one time an absolutely wonderful city. On the way back we stopped at a Turkish Rug factory for a demonstration. We listened to the demonstration as we thought it was interesting, though we just got our custom Tibet rugs, and have no need for more. I didn't think it was a hard sell, but I found the Turkish habit of trying to get your attention entertaining, rather than annoying. Others preferred to walk on to the ship and skip wandering through town.
Valletta, Malta I was up as we sailed past the very modern skyscrapers of Valletta and then turned into the medieval harbor. It was breath taking. We then made the mistake of actually leaving the ship. The very best part of Malta is the harbor. The ship should offer harbor cruises. Instead it offered a tour of ancient temples. At this point we tourist are pretty savvy about our ruins and were sorely disappointed when they tried to pass off crudely plastered walls as ancient. The tour guide finally admitted we were looking at reproductions, and not particularly good ones. The real temple was in a museum in Malta, we never saw it. Next stop a cave to see dwarf hippo and dwarf elephant bones. They never came up with enough bones to build a dwarf hippo, and the dwarf elephants they could only find their jawbones, so the major part of the exhibit were skeletons of modern baby elephants and hippos from a zoo in Germany. Next stop a restaurant where the "poor" guide bought us all extremely weak orange juice. He made it a point to tell us he was buying us orange juice at least 10 times. It got to be an in-joke amongst the cruisers, as we trudged back to the buses. He always assumed we could find the buses ourselves, as he had to stay behind for one last cigarette. The restaurant we stopped at for "orange juice" (perhaps it was tang.)would have had a lovely view of the ocean, but they walled it off, I don't know why. Next stop another set of ruins with no original pieces. The Malta countryside was desolate. It was a Sunday, so the shopping and church touring shore excursions were called off. The only folks happy they got off the ship in Malta were a family that collected Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. Needless to say, "Hard Rock Cafe, Valletta Malta", is quite a coup. The crew said Malta is entirely different if you stop on a week day, but if you happen to hit Malta on a Sunday, stay on the ship and enjoy the view of the harbor.
Naples, Italy Our excursion to the cameo factory and Pompeii was excellent. I had no idea cameos were actually carved out of a single shell, I thought it was two layers. Pompeii looked better than the books, and our tour guide made the tour in the hot sun enjoyable. He knew where to stop where there was shade, and how to hit the more popular sights without running into crowds. Here I noticed that P&O cruise lines was using one guide per two buses, as opposed to the guide per bus that HAL was using. Our ship wasn't docked near the passenger terminal, and we had to take a shuttle to the passenger docks, but it was well worth it. Clothes in Naples were extremely good deals, and the architecture was wonderful. Don't miss wandering around Naples, even if its just to get a pizza.
Civitavecchia, Italy From there we went to Civitavecchia, for our only all day excursion into Rome. We took the city tour and private tour of the Vatican. This tour was somewhat frustrating to me, as I had spent a little time in Rome before and knew what I wanted to see. This tour guide was extremely long winded, and not particularly loud. It gave me a headache attempting to hear him over the hubbub that was Rome. And his version of what was important just didn't match mine. For instance, he stood in a parking lot, with a view of the forum in the distance, as well as several monuments, and talked about the history of Rome for 25 minutes. But when it was time to go we whisked by the forum without time to even look over the edge and into the fields. We did get a "private" tour of the Vatican, with the other 400 folks from the Rotterdam. I remember of the suggested tours of the Vatican museum, the express version took 2 ½ hours. This tour was about an hour including the Sistine Chapel. Then the bathroom line (as they had closed all but one bathroom) took another ½ hour. I went on this tour, instead of just taking the transfer into town, to see my parents faces when they saw Saint Peter's, and for that, it was worth it.
Another plus to this tour was the lunch. We stopped in a restaurant on the Via Vennetto called "Le Pomadorino". It was excellent. They were feeding 200 tour folks as well as serving their normal walk in clientele, and they did so without missing a beat. The antipasto plate was set when we got there, with stuffed mushrooms, deep fried eggplant, and various other vegetables. The crusty white Italian bread was still hot. Second course was pasta, then chicken. It was topped off with tirimusu. The red and white wines were included.
We got back barely in time for late seating dinner. As it was a lovely day, not hot, in Rome, and it was casual night, we more or less made a bee line for the dining room. We had a nice relaxing dinner. Apparently those on the tour from the first seating got to attend a topside bar-b-que with extremely long lines where I heard they ran out of food. There were quite a few angry folks. Our room steward ran toward us as we stopped in our room on our way to dinner with room service menus, which we thought was sweet, though we didn't need them. My ILs took the tour of Ancient Rome. Warning, there are 3 ½ hours in that tour with NO bathroom. This didn't sound horrible to me, but then I wasn't there. At the end there was an hour or so available for shopping, but most spent it looking for a loo.
Monte Carlo, Monaco I have tended to business in Nice in the past, and know the area a bit. Nice doesn't have what Southern Californians would refer to as beaches, yet it is considered a resort area. The shores of the Mediterranean are shallow, and lined with rocks. Shopping in Nice is much more reasonable than shopping in Monte Carlo. We opted to take the train to Nice, where it then started pouring. We ate lunch while it rained, and then wandered around a bit. The bunch I was with wanted to go to Nice, but not leave too early (noon) and get back for our last formal dinner. I was under the impression they wanted to shop, but they didn't have the patience to go into any stores. I should have pushed harder to just stay in Monte Carlo and look around. In Monaco there are tours of the castle in the summertime, an okay aquarium, and lots of cute but expensive shops. It ended up being a longer day than those in our group pushing for Nice expected.
Barcelona, Spain We disembarked in Barcelona. The grandparents all got off the ship early, as they had plane flights out that morning. We had a leisurely breakfast and hung out on our balcony watching the head chef check out all the oncoming produce while waiting for our number to be called. We were finally called at about 10, and in our hotel rooms at 10:30. Barcelona is a wonderful city, with an extensive subway system that can get you anywhere. We were staying at the Hotel Juan Carlos Rey I, which was at one end of the green line. We made it to the Sacred Family Cathedral, the park designed by Gaudi, the Ramblas, and the port all on the subway. We ate lots of paella, and then after two nights in Barcelona and a month away from home, headed back to San Francisco. It was a great cruise, and a wonderful vacation.