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We have previously sailed on Celebrity and RCL, and this was our first cruise on HAL. We selected HAL based on price/value and sailing dates. Our demographics: we are early 40's with 2 children 9 & 12.
I'll try to summarize some main points:
The Ship: I thought the ship had a Euro-Dutch flair to the decor. Having traveled quite a bit to the Netherlands I could see the influence. The bright colors didnt seem to bother us as many others have commented. I will say when you compare it to other premium cruise lines decor - it does stand out as unique. I thought the mid-ship pool area was a bit compact - and found it to be a bit claustrophobic (for some reason the sea breeze was blocked by the decking). The aft pool was the place to be (for the younger crowd).
Our Cabin: We were on the port side in an SS. Great layout for a family of 4; however the brochure said the cabin was 513 sqft. I think this includes the balcony. Compared to the Royal Suite on Celebrity which is 523 sqft we preferred the Celebrity cabin - the Celebrity cabin had 2 rooms (master bdr + living room and both an indoor and ourdoor eating area for 4). The best feature of the SS is the Neptune lounge. What an awesome feature - no shlepping down to front office/shorex desks, and always stocked with snacks/drinks. Overall we enjoyed the cabin/breakfasts on the verandah - and how about that last night rough seas (We are still rocking!) The kids loved it.
The Food: Pinnacle excellent food, service, wine selection. I would suggest dining here 2x on a 7d cruise. Just one minor suggestion to HAL to look into the ventilation of the room - There was quite a bit of kitchen smoke at one point wafting thru the dining room. Vista Dining Room - On a scale of 1-10 I'd give it about a 7 for quality of food, 5 for service and 8 for presentation. I think the service is what disapointed me the most - Basically our waiter just took our orders and delivered the dishes. There was no genuine greeting, no discussion of the menu/suggestions, they did not take the ladies orders first, no assistance in pushing in chairs. They did not get to know our tastes - for example my son & I do not care for raw onions on salads - which came just about every night. We just piled them up on another plate and the waiter just laughed. This stuff is restaurant 101, and all I heard about HAL's premium service on Vista class just wasn't there. Both RCL and CCL got this right on lower class ships we were on.
The Entertainment: Got off to a rough start, but got better towards the end of the cruise. Hey, they dont call this stuff cruise ship entertainment for nothing! I thought the last big broadway show had some cool stage direction and costumes - and the cast was really giving it there all. I think if they replaced the male lead singer the overall quality would improve (I think we all found ourselves rooting for him like a parent - ok, hit this note, project from the diaphram, more energy, louder!). The magician was one of the best I have ever seen, and the kids really enjoyed it. And the instrumentalist was so passionate about his music, it was infectous.
The Cruise Director/Staff: Young, inexperienced, sometimes downright rude to the older guests (not to us). We only went to few activities - which all felt like they were staffed and thrown together and at the last minuet. Also I would agree about the wierd activity times. Again, compared to the RCL activities on the Voyager Class to HAL Vista class - RCL is a 9 where I found HAL to be a 3.
ShoreEx: The highlight for us was Virgin Gorda/the baths. What an incredible beach. And yes you do have to be in adequate shape to hike down to it. Also we really enjoyed HMC - we had the a private cabana towards the end of the beach - and it felt like we had our own little private beach. It's worth the $$ - I would highly recommend it. Sabina (shorex) was very helpful, although I was quite amazed that she is kind of a one woman show. HAL should keep her happy - or else. Once suggestion for Sabina - make the tour meeting places more obvious on the pier (perhaps some simple signage) everyone was confused. At Nassau - the helicopter tours were cancelled at the last minuet, some mixup with the tour operator - very disappointing for those of us that booked it - more so that it was scheduled for mid-day - and left us with no other options, however it turned out for the best for us. We hired a private tourguide (Mary) who gave us the best tour we had on the entire trip. Future guests> look for Mary(black straw cap) with the white Mercedes minivan just outside the pavillion as you exit. Ask her to stop in Fry-Town and pick up some fried conch for a snack.
Summary: Great ship, how can you go wrong with Carribbean ports, we had a great time. I would advise first timers to HAL that it does cater to an older clientel. I would say this voyage was 10% people in thier 20's, 20% 30's-40's and 70% 50's+. Based on your individual preferences, you should take this into consideration. For us we had a great time - but really did not have an opportunity to make a connection with other guests that were in the same place in life as we are. Not a dissapointment - but different from what we expected based on other crusies on RCL and CCL. Also I would honestly advise that HAL is not the best choice for kids. There were very limitied, if any activities for them onboard contrary to what HAL promotes and compared to CCL and RCL. Overall we had a great time and really enjoyed the cruise. We are booked on the Volendam for Alaska this August, and based on this first time HAL experience I would say great value for price paid, very traditional-sytle cruise experience, and that we are reconsidering switching over to RCL or CCL (if still available) for our Alaska trip.