It is important to note a bit of background on our cruising experience and what we look for in a vacation. A good vacation is one that meets our expectations. A great vacation is one that surpasses our expectations. This was a great vacation!
We are a semi-retired professional couple in our late 40's/early 50's and have the good fortune of sailing 50+ cruises as passengers. Additionally, following our first retirements, we found a second career in combining our love of travel and people -- we worked as onboard cruise staff for 4+ years with Carnival and Princess Cruises. Accordingly, we have experienced cruising from both sides. For this holiday, we treated ourselves to a deluxe verandah suite (Cat SA stateroom 7047) and every single hard-earned penny was well spent!
Pre-Cruise We arrived a day early into Vancouver, B.C. from Longboat Key, FL, USA. The Delta flight included one change of planes in Atlanta and was uneventful. A prearranged rental car from Alamo onsite at the airport was inexpensive and convenient since we were able to return it onsite at Canada Place before boarding the ship. The Park Plaza Hotel on Broadway was clean and comfortable and recently refurbished in an art deco motif that was aesthetically pleasing. It's location on Broadway offered many options for dining and shopping.
Embarkation After a good night's sleep, we arrived at the terminal at 11:10 am, returned our rental vehicle and went through the entire process of embarkation and were onboard before 12 noon. The actual process of embarkation took less than 20 minutes and all staff was personable and professional. Our key cards in hand, we posed for our first of many photographs, were videoed as we traversed the gangway, and heard those heart warming words as we took our first step onboard, "Welcome Home". The familiar HAL Mariner motto of "Once onboard, never forgotten" is replayed not only in words but in the actions of all crew members. We had a suite on deck 7, near the Neptune Lounge. Accordingly, we elected to stop by to introduce ourselves to the concierges Carlo & Faye, pour the first of many (many, many) delectable cappuccinos and to drop off our carry on bags. We had a light lunch at the Lido buffet, complete with scrumptious velvety bread pudding, before hearing the announcement that all staterooms were ready. (Approximately 1:20pm)
Stateroom/Suite Ammenities Ahhhhh, the sweet life of the suite life. Although we had cruised 50+ days with HAL, this was the first deluxe verandah suite (Cat SA) we had ever booked with the line. As many others have stated in their reviews, once you have experienced the bonuses that accompany the HAL superior deluxe suite, you will never want to cruise any other way. My husband and I agree that it was the fact that we were in a suite that made this vacation one we will never forget and one that stands apart from all others we have taken as passengers. The stateroom size is astounding. It measures at 510 sq. feet (although a standard verandah cabin measures half that size at 249 sq. feet) and is pure heaven. The color pallet is warm, understated elegance in crème, mauve and burgundy. So much has been written about the extra living space, storage space, oversized balcony, the fresh flowers, the premium duvet, oversize bath towels, and unlimited complimentary laundry and pressing that I will not elaborate. Our cabin steward Rahmat immediately appeared and welcomed us with a warm and genuine smile. Within one hour our 4 checked bags were delivered -- plenty of storage room for both my and my husband's 21 day outfits and 21 evening outfits. Our 4 large bags easily fit under the king size bed and were out of view for the cruise. Ample hangers were provided for all clothing requiring them. I separated out clothing to be pressed for the next 2 days and presented them to our steward for the laundry department. Throughout the entire cruise all clothing sent to be washed or dry cleaned was returned the next day and that to be pressed was returned that same evening as it was sent.
A bit of an aside, for those with long hair, I brought my own hair dryer and am quite happy I did since the one provided in the suite was not sufficient. Also, I did not bring my own shampoo/conditioner and elected to purchase some when the opportunity arose. (I guess I am in the minority on the Elemis products?)
We were off at 4:30pm to the lifeboat drill where the rain could not dampen our spirits. Speaking of spirits, after the drill my husband poured us a glass of champagne (thank you Captain von Donselaar and HM Mark Pells) and we toasted each other to the start of a great holiday.
Captain: Joreon van Donselaar
Hotel Manager: Mark Pells
Suite Concierges: Carlo & Faye
Cruise Director: Jason Venner
Asst. CDs: DJ Drew, Michael, Chris, Aga
Staff Entertainment: Jenny & The Hall Cats, Randall Powell on Piano (in Crow's Nest), Dan Brady on piano (the Piano Bar), Porto Fino (Ocean Bar band), City Quartet (Explorers Lounge plus special occasions string quartet)
Ports Although this was considered a repositioning cruise, it was extremely port intensive. In the 21 day cruise from Vancouver, FL, we visited 13 ports of call (including embarkation & disembarkation). We had the good fortune of varied ports from the pacific northwest region of our port of embarkation, Vancouver, to rainy Seattle, to the cosmopolitan port of Los Angeles, to the 6 ports of Mexico (Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Acapulco, Huatulco, Puerto Chiapas), the rain forest area of Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, the maritime/fortressed port of Cartagena, Columbia and the flavor of the western Caribbean islands, Key West, FL. We pre-booked our shore excursions using the HAL online booking and accordingly not only insured receipt of all of the tours we requested but also had them paid for before we sailed. Of particular mention were our personal favorites of the Mini 4 x 4 Expedition in the muddy hills of Puerto Vallarta and the Mountain Bike Tour in Huatulco. Our out of town tours in Cabo San Lucas (Todos Santo) and Manzanillo (Nogueras) were both interesting and insightful of the Mexican culture. While in Seattle, what is not to love about a tour of a winery (complete with wine tasting) at 10:30 am on a rainy day? And a highlight tour of L.A. including Rodeo Drive shopping came in handy for that "oops, I forgot to bring my favorite black pants (wink-wink)" which resulted in the purchase of not one but two new pair of pants plus other necessities! As a special treat, the Hotel Manager, Mark Pells, arranged for no less than 8 folkloric shows to perform for the passengers when in port. These special and unexpected cultural shows were well received by many passengers and a further insight into the colorful entertainment side of the Mexican and Columbian cultures.
Panama Canal Spectacular does not say enough about the engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. When you remember that the Panama Canal shortens by many thousand of miles a voyage that would otherwise involve going around the tip of South America, and couple it with experiencing it first hand through the transit of 3 locks, it is definitely a cruise not to be missed. Many people take cruises wherein the ship is their destination. Others seek out particular ports (i.e. St. Petersburg or perhaps Aruba) that they dreamed of visiting. On this cruise, the transit itself is a destination! We had the renowned guest lecturer Dr. Jay Wolff onboard. Dr. Jay shared his knowledge and passion with us as we sailed the full 21 days. His riveting story-telling combined with his personally compiled slides made his talks a standing room only activity. Dr. Jay prepared us for our journey with talks first on San Francisco and its Pioneers, to Cortez and Spain's greed lead to conquest Mexico, to the Digging of the Canal by Uncle Sam, to the Caribbean where Molasses to Rum To Slaves and Pirates were our topics. If you missed or could not get a seat at one of Dr. Jay's talks, it was broadcasted on the in-room television the next day.
Entertainment This area is often quite subjective and no two people on the same cruise will feel the same way about their experiences. I have listed the onboard staff above. There was enough diversity for us among the onboard entertainment staff; however we do not take cruises for the night life. Remembering that there are 1900+ passengers with varying tastes, I believe that there was a respectable variance in entertainment. On the sea days, we especially enjoyed the mid-day music at the Lido pool, mid-ship. On port days, the Lido pool, aft, took stage for Jenny & The Hall Cats and/or Randall on Piano for the sail-a-way parties. It was particularly enjoyable to listen to the "banter" of fog horns between the respective Captains of the Zuiderdam and the Noordam as the Z sailed away first out of the premier pier berth in Cabo San Lucas. The margaritas and laughter were overflowing as the celebration of our sojourn into Mexico began to become reality for us passengers. Our vote for the best of the best onboard entertainment was the City Quartet who played nightly at the Explorers Lounge and often graced us with tunes at formal dinners, special cocktail parties and our most special evening -- the Renewal of Vows ceremony. Featured Vista Lounge entertainment was spread equally among comedians, vocalists, pianists, etc. A bit of a disappointment was the hypnotist; however a raving review is deserving of Doug Mattocks, a virtuoso on banjo! Stage shows by the Z dance troupe were enjoyable, however there were only 3 different shows (twice repeated) presented on this long itinerary. Mid-cruise, the Officers Black & White Ball was held in the Vista Lounge with Jenny & The Hall Cats accompanying. It was a sea of Black & White tuxes and ball gowns, balloons and streamers. The videographer was present and captured many a couple shaking a leg and also snuggling close on an especial evening of pageantry. The officers looked dapper and the ladies looked gorgeous.
On a day to day basis, the cruise staff led the activities which included a wide array of basketball throws, ping-pong tournaments, ring toss, golf putting, trivia contests, dance classes, etc. We earned enough "dam dollars" to redeem for a long sleeved t-shirt, a short sleeved t-shirt and a set of wine glass ID rings (with the ship theme). I had the luck to win at Bingo on one occasion and also was chosen to "win" a cute t-shirt from DelSol during one of the Port Lecturer talks. My husband was selected to enter the Zuiderdam Superstar contest and he was graced by the judges CD Jason, beautiful singer Jenny and fun-loving, boisterous Randall with the title of "Zuiderdam Superstar", winning a bag full of HAL goodies including t-shirts, mugs, hats, water bottle, key chain, clock, umbrella, etc. Of course there were always new feature films in the Queens Lounge daily as well as replays on 2 television channels each day. There were art auctions by Park West that were scheduled on sea days in the afternoon and often included free champagne. A Walk for the Cure was held on the last Sunday (sea day) and it garnered good participation. We found there to be more than enough to keep us busy and I am enjoying a bit of a respite now that we are home.
Dining I would equate the dining with that of a country club. Choices were more than plentiful, and the selection and quality of sugar free desserts was abundant. The dining room staff was eager to please. We had a table for 2, early dining, top level. However, because of the way the tables were configured and due to the length of the cruise, we often chatted with the 4 top next to us as well as other nearby tables. The Lido buffet was typically our choice for breakfast and lunch with the omelet station in the a.m. being my personal favorite. Pizza and ice cream served most anytime throughout the day were among my husband's favorites. Of special note were the sea day afternoon BBQ's, which varied from Satay BBQ, to Salmon Bake, to Rib BBQ to Mexican Fiestas. The Chocolate extravaganza was absolutely remarkable and held on two separate evenings. We dined at the Pinnacle Grill one evening and found it to our pleasing; however the steaks and service at the dining room were equally satisfactory. I particularly enjoy starters and a number of the soups, the liver pate and escargot were among my favorites. Our favorite meal was served in the Pinnacle Grill for the suite passengers. Kudos go out to the Pinnacle Grill Manger Elvira and her staff. Hosted by Captain von Donselaar and HM Mark Pells, we were treated to a formal sit down luncheon of Indosian cuisine, with plenty of red and/or white wines to compliment the fare. The rice pudding dessert was tremendous! We were honored to be seated next to the Captain with a number of other cruise critic members at our table of eleven! Service was impeccable as was the company of our tablemates! (This was definitely a highlight of our cruise!)
Renewal of Vows Ceremony Without exception this was the number one most memorable event of our cruise. Near the end of the cruise we stated our vows to each other before the Captain in a moving ceremony. There were 5 couples and many witnesses to such a joyous ceremony held in the Oak Room. The City Quartet provided a lovely musical background to the magically decorated room. Champagne and hor d'ourves were served and many a tissue was used to dry the tears of those in attendance! For those considering it, the ceremony as performed by this Captain was sincere and not the least bit chintzy or hokey. Each couple was called individually before the Captain to recite their vows and to pledge their love. A beautiful photo album/memento book was sent to our cabin the next day with photographs, certificate signed by Captain and a recitation of the vows. You may invite witnesses/guests for a nominal fee to share in your special evening. We invited three couples to experience with us this special declaration of love and all the staff was accommodating in taking group photos for us. Also included in the package is a bottle of wine, corsages for the ceremony, a bouquet of flowers for your stateroom and dinner for two at the Pinnacle Grill.
Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle A nicer group of hooligans you will not find!!!! These people know how to have a good time! Through the leadership of Cool Chile (and her husband) and CP 556(and her husband), we had not one but two meet & mingle gatherings. We had the first of the two on our first sea day out of Vancouver (day 3 of cruise). It was held in the afternoon in the Oak Room and was attended by the HM Mark Pells and the Beverage Manager Murat Kaya. The HM spent a considerable amount of time sitting in a round chair discussion format telling us about HAL and its workings. He clued us in to some special entertainment planned for the cruise and gave us some insider tips. The second meet & mingle was the morning after L.A. We were 20+ strong and had numerous door prizes awarded. (Thank you again to our fearless leaders Cool Chile and Rob for their efforts) We had mimosas, coffee and cookies, mimosas, jokes and jabs, mimosas and with all of that champagne flowing through our veins -- FUN! Attended by HM Mark Pells (does that guy ever rest) and CD Jason, everyone walked away with something to remember the cruise critic gang. We were a bit like children in the lunchroom trading our stash for another's. As the days of the cruise came and went, we found that a number of us gravitated toward each other and lunches, walks, talks, shore excursions, coffees and cocktails and more gatherings developed. A lovely penthouse suite cocktail party was hosted by two of our gang on the third of our formal evenings and a Panama Canal lunchtime soiree was hosted by two others in their aft wrap around suite. The cruise critic gang knows how to turn up the temperature and have a grand time. Thank you to one and all!
Suite Ammenities WOW for "Way Over Wonderful" describes our feelings as we reflect on the suite experience. We have stayed in suites on Princess, Celebrity and of course all staterooms are suites on Radisson and Crystal. However, this was unparallel. The location of our stateroom near the Neptune Lounge undoubtedly had a great deal to do with our experience. We enjoyed ducking in throughout the day for juice or a cappuccino. My husband forgot (okay I forgot) to pack his cummerbund and the concierge took care of it. His tux shoe started to fall apart and the concierge took care of it. We had a minor issue with our key cards not working and the concierge took care of it. Invitations needed for our Renewal of Vows -- concierge. RSVP to various invitations we received -- concierge. Discrepancy on bill -- concierge. Need something pressed ASAP -- concierge. Phone Card -- concierge. We had no need to go to the front desk the entire cruise since Carlo and Faye were so readily available. Also, special welcome cocktail parties held in the Neptune Lounge the evenings of Vancouver, Seattle, and the last evening of cruise were lovely and well attended by suite passengers and upper management both. Corsages for formal nights were lovely. VIP cocktail party in the Oak Room with the string quartet was special. The luncheon in the Pinnacle Grill being one of the highlights already mentioned, it was overall just the feeling of being known by your name makes you feel special. While it is true that many of the staff and crew know your name when you sail as a passenger on HAL in a non-deluxe suite, the extra money spent, in our opinion, to have the Neptune Lounge and its services was well worth it.
Captain von Donselaar/Mariners party/Captains Toast Our Captain was quite visible on this cruise. Prior to daily comments of CD Jason, the Captain gave his address from the bridge every day at 1 pm. Near the end of the cruise, on the final formal evening, there was a lovely cocktail party served between the two fixed dining times for Mariners with less than 100 days. (A second more elaborate luncheon was served for those medallion holders on a separate day.) It was held in the Crow's Nest and attended by the Captain, HM, Onboard Cruise Consultants Arky & Shirley, as well as some other upper level staff. Wines, champagne and soft drinks were served. The Captain's Welcome Toast was in the Vista Lounge on the evening of the first formal night and was as described by others to be a glass of champagne with the Captain von Donselaar's opening comments and a toast. The Captain and Chief Engineer also held a Q & A during one of the sea days. For over one hour, many passengers had well thought out questions that were answered in simple lay terms. As we transited the Panama Canal you could see the Captain on the bridge, as with many of the port days as he skillfully glided us into narrow as well as shallow ports. Near the end of our cruise we had a fire alarm sound off during our dining hour. The Captain was on the PA in minutes with a calm and soothing voice informing us that there was smoke on deck 7, starboard, midship which sounded the alarm. (Our cabin was deck 7,starboard, midship) No less than 5 minutes later he once again came on to inform us that it was merely an A/C issue and no damage or concern. Whew!!!! It was handled professionally and at no time did we have any concern for our safety.
Photography Staff/Greenhouse Spa We found the photography staff to be pleasant and courteous at all times. If we chose not to be photographed, a simple no thank you sufficed. We purchased the end of cruise "Cruise Chronicle" DVD and find it to be fantastic. It puts into motion those memories of the cruise, the activities we participated in and many of the people we had the pleasure of spending time with on the cruise. It is under-promoted and is a gem! As for the fitness center and spa, the work-out equipment was more than adequate and we never had any difficulty getting the machines that we desired to use. The hydrotherapy pool and thermal chairs were a welcome treat near the end of the cruise when I needed a bit of R & R after constantly being on the go. There was never a hard sell by any of the salon/spa girls and I understand that appointments were usually available.
Disembarkation We arrived before dawn into FLL. We had been issued tag Red-1 and were called to disembark first. We pre-arranged for a rental SUV from Thrifty, waited in line less than 10 minutes to get off the ship, disembarked scanning our keycard one last time, located our 4 bags all in the same row, hailed a porter and were through customs and on the Thrifty van within 5 minutes. A quick ride to the rental location and the reality of being back on land set in. The 3-1/2 hour drive back to Longboat Key was a bit somber as we realized our vacation was at its end.