Since there is a dire lack of reviews for this new ship.here's mine. Overall it was a good cruise, but not to be rated at 4.5-5.0 as HAL's ships often achieve. While this ship had some hits, it had many misses.
This was our first HAL cruise. As I make my commentary I am comparing it to the other cruises we have taken in the last 3 years: Costa Atlantica (Xmas 2000); RC's Radiance of the Seas ( Xmas 2001), Norwegian Sun (8/2002), Carnival Spirit ( Xmas 2002), Carnival Legend ( 4/2003) . all very new ships, on which we booked a balcony (verandah) room.
Room: HAL's verandah @ 244 sq. ft (back of ship room # 5184) was the largest ( both the room and the verandah) we have had yet. Room was at least 18" wider and almost two feet longer than those on the other ships. Bathroom had a full size tub. While it had the standard 3 closets, it desperately lacked drawer space.
Service: Superb! All wait staff are either Indonesian or Philippi no ( all are males). Very well trained, very willing, very friendly. Our cabin attendant "Hari" was terrific. Our dining room waiters ( Table # 36) "Andi" and "Alit" also provided very good service. Here HAL has a distinct advantage. Note this table was on the third floor .. Off to the side and had most of its view blocked due to ridiculous permanent lamp on the ledge above it. If at all possible, request a table on the second floor, views are much better.
What we were surprised at:
Cruisers: This cruise was populated by the "very mature". ( PS this writer and her hubby are in their mid 50's and early 60's). Many are "well-healed" patrons. On the two formal nights, most men were attired in TUXES and the ladies in gowns. For an XMAS cruise it had few children (214). Many patrons are repeat ( and only) HAL customers - large loyalty base. Many of these patrons with whom we spoke during the week, found the larger size ( 82,000 tons) ship a bit much to navigate. They said they preferred the older, smaller ships in HAL's line. Since we have always traveled on the larger ships, it was just fine with us.
Ship's Decoration: This was a surprise. This ship lacked the opulent decorations of many of the other 2000-2003 vintage ships. I can't say it's a pretty or beautiful ship. It's rather dark, with low ceilings in the common areas of deck 2 & 3. The Vista Dining room was attractive, but lack the pizzazz of other ships' dining rooms. The is no soaring atrium on this ship as there were in other ships. The Vista Lounge ( main theatre) is 3-storied. Here again not as attractively decorated as that of other ships. Staterooms are very similar to others, except the cabinetry is a lighter wood.
Here is the biggest surprise of all. Our expectations were that HAL provided very upscale food. Not so. It pales by comparison to the newer Carnival Ships, Costa and Norwegian Sun. The lido deck 9 food was average with the following exceptions. It had wonderful Pizza ( 7 varieties) available and freshly cooked about 10 hours a day). In the same area you could get custom made pasta such as carbonara with real parma ham. It was less appealing in fresh fruit and salad selections. Much of the fruit was not ripe enough. Also had a nice variety ( changing daily) of ice creams, sorbets, frozen yogurt. Waffles cones available every day as well as variety of self-serve toppings. On the pool deck, there was a burger/hot dog grill section ( all prepared) as well as mini buffet of tacos.
The main dining room was the biggest disappointment of all. Daily selections were light on seafood and fish, heavy on meats. We also felt that the meats ( steaks) were not the best quality and tenderized. The long awaited lobster night came on Xmas day. It was one small tail from which two strips of lobster were cut out and presented as medallions, outside the shell . with one small strip left in the tail. This tail, was no more than 4-5 0z. Overall, portions were downsized . as the standard diner plate was really a "luncheon-sized plate. In retrospect, this may not be a bad idea to control portions and food waste.
Baked Desserts: While you will find a huge selection of desserts showcased in the Lido, the quality was not there. Synthetic tasting ( little or no butter used). Dining room desserts were no better. We quickly learned that ice cream or sorbet was the best bet.
Gratis beverages are iced tea ( very small glasses and water) during the day and juices at breakfast only. A 12 oz. can of coca cola will set you back $1.95.
We had breakfast and lunch in the main dining room a few times. Breakfast was standard fare. But lunches were greatly disappointing. Soggy sandwiches, nothing notable or memorable.
As I said, it was a shock to us that the food was not as good as Carnival or other lines.
The Pinnacle dining room is the alternative dining for which you pay a $20 pp charge ( no tip added). Noteworthy: crab cakes . two tiny balls that were superb. I ordered the rib-eye . although flavorful, it was tough and somewhat fatty. Hubby ordered the filet. This too was not as tender as it should be. Curious that there was no lobster tails or stone crabs on the menu as there is on other ships. Halibut did make it on the menu. But who wants to pay extra for Halibut? Nothing else about the meal was memorable except the room itself. Highly decorated, definitely a showstopper with pewter wrought chairs, lovely linens and great lighting.
Here again, HAL drops back behind other lines. Two major productions were good, but lacked that pow. On other lines we have seen "broadway" quality shows. On the O, the female cast seemed much more mature, better dancers than their male counterparts who came across as very youthful and somewhat immature. The lead female singer did a great job belting out Celine Dion's and other divas songs.
The pianist Paul Pappas who appeared twice did a great job of playing a wide rendition of tunes. There was also a magician and comic as well as an acapello group. But we couldn't help thinking we saw more and better on other ships.
This ship gets kudos for not trying to gauge its cruisers with computerized machines etc. and cough up mega bucks on each game. They also gave away one heck of a "snowball jackpot" the last night .. $5,100+ won by an 11 year old boy.
They also had a raffle for a free cruise the last night. This one was strange. They had been selling tickets all week long at every bar on the ship, the front desk and at each daily bingo game. However on the last night there were very few tickets in the drawing bin. It made you wonder what happened to the tickets that had been sold all week long?
Ports of Call:
This was a major letdown. There were only 3 ports Vera Cruz (VC), Cozmel and Key West. This was the maiden voyage to VC. It was a major disappointment. There is virtually little to see with dismal shopping .. just cheap, low-end souvenirs. Nobody speaks English either. We walked around for a few hours looked the "spanish" exteriors of some of the older buildings and were back on the ship in just a few short hours. Irony . Hal allowed 7 am to 7pm in port. That was to accommodate visits to ruins, etc.
Cozumel: We were told that we would not be docking in San Miguel but at Playa Maya, outside of town and had to take a taxi to town. So where do we dock .. In Playa Langousta in San Miguel. No announcement of the switch was made. For those people who had never been to Cozumel .. They were trying to catch a cab to go to San Miguel when they were already there! The shopping is pretty much the same in Cozumel as it was a year ago . except that the jewelry is much more upscale and expensive. Went to Carlos and Charlie's, which is right opposite where the ship is docked. Fun place, loud and yes, some got up on the tables. Margaritas are potent. You get your money's worth. As usual it rained in buckets and we got wet again.
Key West: What happened here is a shame! It was the best port of call in which passengers got the least amount of time. So many of us were looking forward to this port. We were told that we would be docked at Mallory Square ( steps away from Duval street and the main areas). However, we were bumped by the Maasdam, which came in after us and took our position. So we docked at the military base. This required everyone to have to be shuttled down to Mallory Square by the Trolley or Conch train. There weren't a lot of them since these are the major form of touring for visitors to Key West. When we finally got off the ship, we waited in line for 40 minutes to catch the shuttle.
In Key West we had to clear Immigration. All (1,800+) passengers had to go to a room to hand in their documentation and have their passports reviewed. Unfortunately many passengers didn't show. It took an extra hour to get the ship cleared so passengers could get off. No one could get off until 1:00 pm ( we docked just before 10 am). By that time most decided to eat lunch and many got off closer to 1:30 - 2:00 pm, only to be faced with large delays getting downtown. It gave us only 3.5-4.0 hours to tour Key West. This was a shame .. What a great place!
If you haven't been there, use the Conch Train .. tours are $20 per adult for 90 minutes. PS the ship sells a 60 minute version for $24. The tour was wonderful. Note: The seats of the ( alternative tour method) " Trolley " are wooden and not as comfortable. We took the Trolley as our shuttle going back to the ship. We were glad we chose the Conch train for the actual tour.
Overall, we gave the shore excursions staff a very low rating. The few times I visited their desk, they could not answer my questions, nor did they get back to me. Ports and information was not as explained. On this ship, the shore excursions office does not generate the visitors maps nor ports description. It's the shopping consultant ( Jim Leary)who has that responsibility and he does not have an office. You had to hope that the port map got delivered to your room . which it didn't in our case . maybe because we were in the back of the boat???
There was also cancellation of a number of tours due to a lack of sign-up. We had planned to do the Ft. Lauderdale boat and land excursion when we got off the ship to kill the long wait we had for our return flight home ( 5:00 pm). We were notified only a day and a half before we landed back in FLL that it was cancelled. When I ask for the name of the tour director ( on land ) to see if I could book my own, they declined to give that information. It also left us with a large (ship's) credit ($119)that we had to spend on the last day, or else forfeit it. The last morning, I went to the front desk to question some charges on my bill and I heard another passenger request the name of the same tour company and she was declined that information.
Again, the Shore Excursion staff is a weak point of this ship!
The Gym is much smaller than other ship's gyms with very few little weight training equipment, but overloaded with stair steppers and tread mills. The low end Cybex equipment was a disappointment for people who like to work out. Absolutely no abs machinery of any type. Broken equipment had signs that said to be repaired. Not during the week we were there!
We read about the ventilation problems with the sister-ship Zuiderdam, specifically the smell of sewerage. Twice during our trip there was an overwhelming smell of sewerage ... Once on the lido (pool) deck and once in our room. The smells did dissipate in a few minutes. Our floor was two levels above the main dining room. Each night we noticed strong smells of food in the fifth floor lobby by the elevator. Putting the two together, we were left with the thought that there may be something going on with the ship's ventilation. Arrivals/Departure:
One plus, HAL has an early arrivals program for embarking passengers. If you get there at 11:00 - 11:30 am, you can get checked in fairly quickly. You can't get into your room until 1:30 pm but you can dine in the Lido dining area. There was however, a great deal of confusion for the early arrivals as to where to bring their bags and where to go to check in. We were told to go several different locations for both ( by HAL check-in staff). Check-in was ok except HAL's credit card readers were not working. Half-way through the cruise, anyone who used a credit card was summoned to the front office to have it rescanned.
Departures were fairly smooth. Called by a number that you were given with your departures documents along with luggage tickets.
Once you got outside it was a zoo! Many different lines for various forms of transportation. Be aware the FLL airport is just a 5 minute ride from the pier. And that a cab ride including a tip is $12 for two people. HAL charges $12 pp if you didn't buy the whole transportation package from them. I think we got to the airport a whole lot quicker than the HAL bus.
We booked and paid for our cruise in October. However, HAL did not send our tickets to us until four days before we left. The tour Company ( Cruises-N-More) that we booked with and I called HAL many times and each time we called we got a different (Airborne) delivery date. This was poorly handled by the Cruise line and frustrating for us.