Ok, first a little background - there were three in our party, my mom, my sis and I (all over 40). We have sailed on Princess (3) RCI (1) and HAL (1) prior to this sailing. In fact, we sailed on the Zaandam last year in August.
Pre-Cruise - We flew in a day early (as always) and stayed at the Marriott Marina, not as nice as the Marriott Harbor Beach where we stayed last year, (but it didn't cost nearly as much either). We would definitely stay there again. We got a 12th floor room with a great view of the pier, we watched ships leave Saturday night and woke up early to watch the ships sail in Sunday morning- ahhh vacation really begins.
We took a taxi to the pier at about noon (our fare was $12 but we had the cab driver stop and wait while we loaded up on Pepsi and bottled water). The porters took our luggage and we then went to stand in a long line. Increased security made this process a lot longer than last year and I'm guessing that it took us over half an hour just to get to the x-ray machine. We were in a suite, so the check-in process went very fast once we got past security. Boarding began promptly at 1:15 and at 1:30 we were in our suite. Here's where my brain goes into vacation mode and the watch comes off so I can't tell you for sure how long we were delayed leaving port but we watched them load luggage onto the ship for approximately 45 minutes beyond our 5:00 departure time. One of my favorite things is sailing past the condos with all the horns blaring, lights blinking and people waving goodbye. What a great way to leave port. After sail-away we went back to the room to check for luggage (none yet) met our room steward (a really good one), packaged up some dry cleaning and pressing and went to explore the ship and get a snack. Our luggage finally arrived and we changed and went to our late seating dinner. We had the best tablemates we have ever had on a cruise. One couple was from Long Island and the other couple was from Vancouver and we all hit it off great, meaning that we were usually one of the last tables to leave the dining room.
Our first two days were sea days and we took full advantage of lounging around and doing nothing. Being suite passengers throughout the cruise there were numerous pre-dinner party invitations, a tour of the bridge and a dinner with the captain in the Marco Polo (more on that later). The ship's officers were very friendly and helpful this cruise, even more so than we remembered they were last year. We developed our evening pattern early in the cruise; after getting ready for dinner we'd go down to the Ocean Bar for pre-dinner drinks and appetizers, where, as in the HAL tradition they remembered our names and what we drank after the first night. If you stop by the Ocean Bar be sure to say hi to Jimmy, Jose and Willy. Three of the best (and most charming) crew members we've had the pleasure of meeting.
Ports & Stuff
Our first port was Bonaire and we opted to do HAL's resort/beach excursion which took us to the Plaza Resort. There were plenty of lounge chairs with shade and the resort is beautiful. But the best part was the snorkeling!!!! I never thought I'd get to see fish like we saw here. I'm not a very adventurous snorkeler and like to stay fairly close to land so my usual snorkeling adventures are those little tiny fish that hang out everywhere. But not here ... we saw parrot fish, flounder, and a bunch that I didn't recognize, all only a few yards off shore. After snorkeling till we were prunes, we walked around the grounds of the resort and did a little shopping in the gift shop and then caught the transportation back to the ship for a nap.
Isla de Margarita, Venezuela. After reading the cruise boards and listening to the port talk on tv we decided that we really didn't want to spend 45 minutes getting into town on a bus or in a cab. From our balcony we watched as two young men began setting up the beach area for the day. They had hauled beach chairs and chair shades on boats as far in as they could get them and then carried them through the water up to the beach. The amazing part about this is that the water is very shallow for 30 to 50 yards from the beach so they had quite a haul getting the beach area set up. After watching all this we decided that we'd walk over to the beach area and spend the day. The water was bathtub temperature and you could literally walk for tens of yards before getting waist deep in water. Our Head waiter told us that one could actually walk around the island on the sandbar. A we were getting ready to leave port a school show band from town came to the port and performed along side the ship. They were very energetic, even in the heat, and were great fun to watch.
St. Lucia. It really is a beautiful island and watching the Pitons as we sailed past in the very early morning hours was worth getting up for. The ship docked right next to a shopping area that St. Lucia built especially for cruise ships and it is a very nice shopping area. We chose HAL's Northern Highlights Tour as it was shorter and in an air-conditioned mini-van. Our guide took us to a great lookout point for photos of the ship in the harbor, the Batik factory, Pigeon Hill and then on to a resort for an hour or so at the beach. If you have slight mobility problems this is a great tour. I shattered both sides of my ankle the first part of July and my walking ability is still not great - there were a few stairs at the Batik factory, a couple of sturdy wooden steps with handrails at the overlook and at Pigeon Hill you could walk as much or as little as you liked. I just walked around right inside the park while some of the others climbed to the top of the hills and explored burned out forts. St. Lucia hasn't had much rain this year so things were looking quite dry. We did have a couple of quick but hard rain showers and our guide said this was the first rain in 5 months. After our tour we went back to the ship and had lunch and then went to the shopping area. I guess I should mention that with the new security, getting on and off ship in ports isn't quite as easy as it used to be. You now have to show your sign and sail card and a picture ID to get back on the ship. All packages, purses, etc. are searched and they use one of the hand-held wands to scan everyone before they re-board. This does make for a few long lines waiting to get back on the ship but no one seemed to mind. After getting back on board we went to the room and took a short nap before sail-away. Do you see a pattern forming here? We set sail and headed back to Soufriere to pick up tour passengers. The captain blew the ship's horn to announce our arrival and after putting our tenders in the water to go pick up the tour passengers, the ship turned completely around in the harbor so everyone could get a good look at the Pitons. The only problem was that it was getting pretty dark by this time and I'm afraid my photos won't turn out very well. It was a great "cruise moment" and one I won't soon forget.
St. Kitts. We opted to be lazy this morning and do our own thing. Our cabin was on the starboard side of the ship and on this itinerary our side of the ship was next to the dock in most ports. We watched in amazement as 15 or 20 vehicles came hustling into the port area, people jumped out of the vehicles, unloaded tables and wares, and set up vending areas in a matter of minutes. When we got off the ship we shopped a little and then took a cab into town for some more shopping. It was a very hot and humid day so shopping in the small unairconditioned stores was not really a pleasant way to spend the day. After shopping and walking around town for a while we went back to the ship and watched from our balcony as a group of the local islanders with incredible costumes and huge feather headdresses put on a show.
St. Thomas. Since St. Thomas is a US possession all passengers must clear immigration before going ashore. One of the benefits of being suite passengers is that we were given a card which allowed us to go to immigration whenever we wanted, instead of by roll call, and then get off the ship as soon as we cleared immigration. This proved to be a big help as our tour was supposed to leave at 9:00 and there were a couple of people who never showed up and another couple who were late arriving. We chose the Castaway Girl Catamaran sail, one of HAL's Medallion tours. I can understand why HAL has given it its Medallion rating. The crew told us that HAL has a charter contract on their boat for whenever HAL is in port. Other cruise lines use the Castaway Girl but they have them take passengers to Buck Island to snorkel, where there is no beach and not much sea life. HAL has the crew take its passengers to Honeymoon Beach which is a great beach area with lots of easy snorkeling areas, shade etc. They serve champagne, beer, juice, punch, etc and fruit and snacks. If you're swimming or snorkeling you can't have any alcohol on the way to the beach, but you can have anything you want on the way back. The catamaran is large enough to hold 82 and our tour set sail with 12. The crew mentioned that HAL was the only cruise line that they knew of that would go ahead and pay them to sail with only 12 passengers. What an experience - it was kind of like owning your own cat. and crew!!!
Once we left St. Thomas the seas started kicking up and we noticed "the
bags" in the elevator bays that morning. by mid-afternoon the waves in
the swimming pool were so large that they broke out one of the
plexiglass pieces in front of the dolphins and the ship's officers
closed the pool and had it drained. Mom won $500 in the casino slot
tournament despite the ship's rockin' and rollin' (or maybe because of
We opted to stay on the ship in Nassau and enjoy a day with the ship to ourselves. Only problem was it seemed like quite a few other people had the same idea. The seas this night were quite rough and we discovered that several of the crew members were having a tough time with the movement of the ship. We handed out tip envelopes, which in some instances felt odd as we had come to think of many of the crew as "friends." We had to ask a waiter to go find the Headwaiter (he really went above and beyond in taking care of us) so we could give him his tip envelope - find that on any other line.
Disembarkation was fairly painless. They allowed suite passengers to keep their luggage until 7:00 a.m. if they wished and once put out at 7:00 it was picked up immediately. We had room service breakfast and waited for our deck to be called for immigration. HAL had the system down pat and immigration call went very smoothly. Rather than waiting in our cabin, we said goodbye to our room steward and went to the lido deck, by the pool to wait for the ship to clear. About 20 minutes later they called for the first passengers to disembark, and we were off the ship. We handed our customs forms to a customs officer at the end of the gangway, found our luggage, had a porter get us a cab and were at the airport and through check-in by about 9:30.
Marco Polo - Suite passengers were invited to dine with the captain in the Marco Polo restaurant one night. We weren't very impressed nor were our regular dining room tablemates, when we compared notes. Our service was much better in the dinning room and the food was as good, if not better. Let me say here that perhaps eating off the regular menu in the Marco Polo might be better but for the captain's dinner the menu was pre-set (we had beef) and you had no choice regarding any part of the menu, including how you wanted your steak prepared. Our tablemates for dinner were an engineering officer and his wife who were great fun, and it made an otherwise unimpressive dinner delightful. We ended up meeting them for drinks after dinner on several occasions. Here's a bit of advice for vegetarians - let your headwaiter know that you've been invited for the captain's dinner a day or so ahead of time. When confirming our attendance the headwaiter for the Marco Polo informed us that there were no vegetarian selections for dinner. My sister asked our headwaiter if she should cancel and just eat in the main dining room the following night and he told her absolutely not that he'd "take care of it." Sure enough when we went to dinner there would not have been one item she could have eaten (there was even meat in the salad) but they had prepared basically the same items without meat for her, including a "pouf" entree that looked a lot like our steaks.
Food - We again enjoyed the food on HAL and their spicy linguini is better than we can get at any restaurant at home. I think there was only one evening when I opted for the "always available" selection rather than one of the menu choices and they really tried to vary selections on the vegetarian menu.
Not so good - We did notice a sewer smell on a couple of occasions which seemed to be the strongest mid-ship. The engineering officer explained that they had installed a new water treatment system since the last time we were on board and they were doing their best to locate and fix the problem.
Well, I'll end this novel by saying that this was our best cruise ever and 10 days was still too short. I'd have gladly stayed on, even knowing that we'd be sailing into a tropical storm.