I mentioned on another post that I would discuss cruising with an infant with HAL. Since the holidays are now over I have some time to provide my thoughts, pros, and cons. As a qualifier I will say that we had expectations based on the HAL policy document located at the following link:
This was our 9th cruise with HAL and the 7-day Eastern Caribbean itinerary was one we've taken before so I won't say anything about that. Really I want to focus on the cruise line, the staff, the room, and the ship itself (first time on a pinnacle class). My son was ~8.5 months at the time of sailing.
Cruise Booking and Check-In:
This was the first time we decided to book a specific cabin. My wife and I tend to wait until the last minute and try for a good deal and hope for an upgrade from a verandah to a suite. It just so happened our son was free this cruise and we really wanted to try one of the family oceanview cabins for the bathtub. We booked via a PCC as we couldn't get the family oceanview through the website. There was an initial hiccup with the fare and they charged my son full fare but a subsequent phone call got it corrected. The PCC made some notes to ensure we had a pack and play in the room and that we'd have access to a high chair in the MDR. They also sent us the form to pre-order baby supplies to be in the room when we got on board. We did not pre-purchase anything as the prices were 3-5 times what you'd pay here in the states for diapers/food/etc. One thought, which I included in my survey, was to allow guests to reserve diaper pails for their cabins also. Fortunately we travel with little doggie doo bags for sealing dirty diapers. The line currently has no forethought on what to do with all the extra waste. Thankfully, our room steward was excellent as far as keeping our small trash can empty. We were able to pack my son his own 28" large suitcase with everything he needed and then some. Maybe if you were on an extended trip (1.e. more than 10 days) you'd order some stuff but definitely not needed for a 7 day. You definitely need to be smart about packing. We took only one suitcase a piece, a delta clutch ultra compact folding stroller, and a backpack style diaper bag which doubled as our carry on for our wine bottles We also took a soft baby carrier which was stuffed in my checked luggage. Check in was a breeze even with the baby although we used the stroller to carry some extra consumables. Of course they made us take him out of the stroller, fold it up, and put it all through the x-ray. The check-in time given to us was 3 pm which we adhered to. What we didn't know is that as a result we would not get an invite to the 3*+ mariner champagne/cocktail hour/sail away that we enjoy attending. My parents were already on from the previous week and went but it's obvious there are more mariners of certain levels that they can't all accommodate. This seemed to be a common theme the entire week. Another complicating factor was that during check-in we noticed people with vouchers from the canceled 12/14 Nieuw Amsterdam sailing working with the staff to find available rooms. To say this ship was at capacity would be an understatement (over 400 kids this sailing per the cruise director).
The cabin was really nice and in excellent condition during our sailing with tons of storage and cabinet space. It was somewhat underneath Billboard Onboard but no sound penetrated the cabin late at night during the music performances. I did find that there is plenty of room for the pack and play between the bed and the window which was nice. This left a nice little play area on the floor in front the couch for my son. It turns out we desperately needed that little patch of playground. I determined you don't really need the extra washroom. The showers have high enough curbs that would could cover the drain and use that as a shallow bath. So while the room may be nice for families of 4, strictly considering an infant I would just go for the room with the most floor space you can afford. When we approached Club HAL about the following,
"In addition, the line’s Club HAL children’s program schedules Toddler Times for kids under the age of three to play in the children’s facilities. Parents must stay with youngsters at all times."
we were told there was no such policy. When we approached the front desk they also said there was no such policy. They said they would accommodate us if we could show them where it said that. Unfortunately I couldn't find the PDF on my phone during the trip. After much grief from many parents the front desk said with 24 hours notice they could work with hotel director, find a room (e.g. half moon room) , clean the room, and put it on the daily schedule. No one did this. It's one thing to see something in the schedule and decide whether to attend (like toddler free play) it's another thing to try and do the leg work and plan something else a day or two in advance when you have no idea if your child will even be in the mood after going through the motions. While the ship was generally clean I wasn't going to just let my son crawl all over the main public areas for a) his safety and 2) the safety/nuisance to the other passengers. Ultimately, we found that the Captain's Corner in the Crow's Nest never had anyone there and was the perfect place to crawl and make noise.
The ship itself was beautiful and clean. All the standbys we've come to know and love are there and appreciated. We ate at Tamarind and it was excellent. The MDR was also excellent. Music walk clubs were also very nice an enjoyable. Having been to the Netherlands we really appreciated the Grand Dutch Café. That being said we did not like this ship. The cruise did not feel like a Holland Cruise. Something about this ship makes you feel packed in with all the extra people. "Upsell" offer literature (e.g. buy a lobster in the MDR) was abound. The World Stage theater was small and the shows lackluster. The Lido is the biggest nightmare during peak times that I've ever seen. For the first time in many cruises we ate almost every meal in the MDR. Even then you had to go very early for both breakfast(7:30) and dinner(5:15 for anytime). It saddens me to have to make this parallel to Carnival but I think the extra people overtax the staff. Until this cruise I had never seen food plates sitting on hallway floors, on the art installations, balled up towels all around the pools, etc. But this was commonplace and it cheapened the experience and made us feel like we were on a Carnival cruise at times. And while the fellow passengers were generally pleasant the overall crowd didn't have the vibe of a typical HAL cruise. This could be good or bad depending on who you ask but I will say the general etiquette you'd expect wasn't as present as you'd want. To me it seems the pricing scheme of selling cheap cabins to fill the ships then nickel and dime people for what there willing to pay attracts a different kind of crowd. I'm not saying I won't go on another HAL cruise but I'm thinking the move to bigger ships makes this more prevalent and as such I think we'll stick to the smaller ships.
The staff on this boat was awesome and one of the reasons why we stick with HAL. As I mentioned above the room stewards made every effort to keep our room spotless so our son could play, fed us a steady stream of towels, and kept all the dirty diapers out all while being nearly invisible to our presence. The MDR jumped through hoops for us. Even though we didn't select fixed seating the dining room gave us a standing reservation for the week at the same table so we'd always be able to eat dinner stress free with the same staff (Lesson learned - pick fixed dining with baby). The servers would bring my son any assortment of mashed foods they could muster to provide variety from baby food packets. The wine steward would play the wine glasses to entertain him. The breakfast crew was just as amazing. The photographers were also outstanding. They treated our baby as if he were royalty and went out of their way to set up certain holiday photoshoots. For example they weren't originally going to have Santa visit the week before Christmas for pictures. We said we'd hoped to get pictures and a couple of days later they acquired a Santa suit and set aside time on two different days in different locations for Santa photos. They did such an amazing job we couldn't help buying the platinum photo package. Bravo!
I'll be succinct here. The food was the best I've had in a while on Holland. While they've certainly cut back on the premium aspect of the food in the MDR in favor of convincing you to book a specialty restaurant what they do serve comes out quick, as ordered, and delicious. As I stated above Tamarind was excellent and continues to be our favorite specialty restaurant. Due to recent price increases we no longer feel the value is there for Canaletto or Pinnacle Grill and shoes not to eat there. We considered trying Sel de Mar but opted out considering our proximity to Charleston, SC. If we really wanted good seafood we'd just take a trip down there.
This was not our favorite Holland Cruise. In all honesty it ranks at the bottom. The biggest issues being HAL not honoring their own policy (at least what I thought it was) and the size/capacity of the ship. I will say the pricing scheme is a major turn off but I suspect that is creeping into all the ships so I can't solely blame that. Traveling with a baby is doable. It certainly helps to have family there to give you breaks although we took turns going to the clubs at night too. The staff is generally accommodating and helpful to those with infants. The free play time in Club HAL really would have put them over the top. I have no clue if the policy-mentioned in-cabin babysitting for infants was available. We never asked as my wife wasn't interested in having a stranger watch our son however I suspect it is unlikely that it was based on our conversations with many of the other parents. I think HAL was just slammed with the overwhelming number of kids/people and how to handle them. Then again they aren't known for family cruising. I would posit that if you're looking to attract a more diverse crowd then you need to be able to accommodate the kids they will inevitably bring with them. If not move to the old pricing model and charge me more for less people, more room, etc. We would take another HAL cruise but probably on a non-Pinnacle class ship (either with or without our son). We are considering trying another more family friendly line for comparison purposes or merely just waiting until our son is 3 and can participate in Club Hal. I know this is getting wordy so I'll just leave it at that for now and will try to answer any questions should people have them.