A bit of background first, this was our 11th cruise, with the breakdown as follows: HAL 2, Princess 4, RCCL 4, NCL 1.
We book our own air and since we leave out of Boston during the winter we head down a day early. Booked our air right through the American Airlines , after searching they did come up with the best pricing. We used the E ticket check in, again avoiding all the lines and had a great flight down to Fort Lauderdale. Upon arriving, we got our bags and headed over to our rental car. We opted to use dollar for our rental. I had booked with another agency but keep taking a peek at the prices and finally got a compact car for 15.00, 20 dollars with the taxes. Picking up the car was very smooth, you leave the terminal head over to the right, the dollar bus picks you up drops you off at your car and away you go.
We had booked a room at the airport Hilton thorough priceline, but the Hilton changed to Wyndham on Dec 1st. We arrived at the hotel at about 11ish, with the hopes of checking in early, they said come back at 1, 130 etc etc, without going into a long dissertation here, the bathrooms in the lobby area were FILTHY beyond believe. The customer service was terrible; not so much with trying to get into the rooms early but the way that they handled everything. If and when we go back, we will ensure that we do not go there.
Sunday am, dropped the car off, the dollar bus dropped us off at terminal 26 to begin our cruise. We handed the bags over to the porters, tipped them, but they were very nice reminding us to ensure we had our tickets, medication etc. We were in the line about 1045, at 1100 the doors opened to the terminal and the process began. We were given our boarding number and got in line, one line for the suite passengers, one line for those who filled out the immigration forms online and one for those who did not. We had filled out our forms on line and got in the short line, quite frankly no real value filling them out on line, the rep said "oh good for you filling it out on line." That process took all of 10 minutes and we headed up stairs, passing through the Xray machine and carrying our water and soda with us. Upstairs we waited about 15 minutes and they started calling off the numbers. They tell you with the early boarding to head up to a public area as the staterooms are not available till about 115 and they will call you. We headed up to the lido deck to get some lunch, and then went to the cabin dropped off our water, soda and stuff (this was about 1215) and then back to the lido pool for the afternoon. They did call folks to the cabins about 115 and the decks really cleared off then. Life boat drill went off at 430.
I will not describe the ship, that stuff is well documented.
Entertainment. Our cruise director was Gary Walker. He and his staff did a great job throughout the week. We had the following entertainers: Bernie McGrenahan Comedian, The Oosterdam singers and dancers, Master Illusionist Leo Ward, The Mikes, and Jody Reynolds. We felt that this was some very strong entertainment. Last year on HAL there audience was very lame in their response, this week the audience was very receptive to the entertainment. This was the last week for the dancers so it will be interesting how the new ones compare.
Lounges. Crows nest, there is a group up there B4 and we enjoyed the music they played, we would head up there to dance before dinner, after dinner and after the shows. Great job. The Alex Bellegarade Trio in the ocean bar area played nice music but a bit up tempo almost seemed like they were having a personal jam fest. The Caribbean Breeze played sounds of the islands on the lido deck but only about 4 hours a day at two different times and we enjoyed their up tempo style and music. Although we did not go there, we heard very positive comments about the piano bar and Champagne strings in the explorers lounge. Queens lounge is used for the daily movies.
FOOD We had all our dinners in the vista dinning room, all other meals in the lido area with the exception of 2 breakfasts. We had room service for one breakfast (we never use room service for that as we get up and head to the club etc for the treadmills, bikes), and on that morning we had rain (only day all week), delivery was prompt, on time and hot. The other breakfast we had in the dining room, a bit of a disappointment. We had the eggs benedict, sauce had no flavor and one of my eggs still had the shell, perhaps to keep it warm. Service in the dinning room, it was good but I think they are stretching these folks to thin. Our wait staff had 24 folks and that leaves very little time to get to know them or them to know you. It was good service and the head waiter helped out quite abit, not just in our area but all over. Food, was good. There were good selections, great presentation etc. But I will say like I have many other times this is ship board food being massed produced. One night with the prime rib, had a small portion of potatoes, 3 or 4 pieces of carrot, and 2 slices of a squash. Point being the portions have really diminished since we have started cruising, oh yes you can get more if you want though. The food on the lido deck is nothing more than a large buffet, plenty of choices, sushi, Italian, deli etc. For breakfast there is express line, scrambled eggs bacon etc. an omelet line, and a line for eggs meat potatoes. Overall service very good, food good, nothing that I would rate as 5 star cuisine. Ice cream bar open 1130 - 1 am, pizza pasta bar open 1130 - 1 am, the late night snack that goes from 11 -12 will vary, Italian, Indonesian, American, French.
PHOTO SERVICE the location of the Photo gallery is in one of the worst possible locations, as soon as you leave the vista dining room and it gets very congested. Now we and many others thought this was one of the worst groups of photographers we have ever encountered. In our area of the dining room, there were no photos taken of anyone of the tables on formal night, they were rude. I am not that only one that felt this way. Prices of course like everything else continue to go up on those shipboard photos.
Ship over all, we enjoy the layout of the vista class ship. On the promenade deck, deck 3, 3 times around equals a mile, so some real nice walking running can be done there. We never had a problem using the facilities in the gym. We would get there around 7ish, and use the bikes, treadmills, machines and free weights without a problem. They do offer classes but charge 11 per class, body fit ball, yoga etc, I think for 40 dollars you can get unlimited classes. There are some free stretching classes as well.
Plenty of activities on the ship for you to do or not do, games, tea, auctions, rum cake tasting, I took a tour of the kitchen (very impressive), karaoke etc.
Cabin was outstanding, good use of space, the mini bar is filled and if you use it they put it on your tab and you can get if refilled if necessary.
Ports of call
Half moon cay, we like this port, great fun in the water, good snorkeling head way down to the left and follow the rocks out to where the boats tender in. Bring a couple of rolls with you; the fish enjoy breaking bread with you. The barbecue lunch was great, even with two ships in port. Hint, if you take the little shuttle to the barbecue or walk there is a tendency for the folks to bunch up in one left, keep going to your left as they have about 6-8 lines open, shortest ones are near where the crew lines are.
Ochio Rios, we opted to go to the sandals resort at Dunns river for the day, they took us out on a snorkeling trip, and we were in the water for about 55 minutes. Lunch, all drinks, use of the pools, chairs etc all included, as well as all non motorized sports. Very safe and clean.
Grand Cayman, we had to dock at the alternate port due to choppy seas, 3 ships in port, 2 others by passed the island. It was a real problem at the dock and many tours from the ship were cancelled. We went with a sting ray tour operator right on the pier, as we had missed our capt marvins trip due to the dock congestion. It was fantastic.
Cozumel, we opted to take a cab to Chunkanab park for the day. One note here is that if you want to swim with the dolphins, then book it online with dolphin discovery you can save quite a bit of money over the ship excursion for the same tour.
Disembarkation. They want you out of your cabin and in the public areas by 0800, ship gets into FLL at about 5 am, we started leaving the ship at 0845. They do call by numbers but the crowd by the gangway tells me that there are many folks going off out of order. We were about the 10 11th folks off, grabbed our bags and went to the cabs and by 910 we were sitting at gate F8 waiting for our flight to Boston.
Overall impressions: We cruise because we like the Caribbean, the ship way of life and although it is going through many changes, I think it is still a great value for your money. Not as many tuxedos as in the past, informal night (jacket required but no tie) many without jackets, sneakers. But it is their vacation as well.
Would we cruise HAL again, I think so. They have a nice product.