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Copyright © 1995-2004
Linda Coffman

May 1, 2004
Western Caribbean

by Wade Sorensen

I just like the facts in a compact space that takes less than 5 minutes to read. I will attempt such in this review. You can find facts and pictures of the ship, ports of call, and all the people you want all over the Internet. 

I must first start by saying this is my first cruise. My wife and I find the concept of confined space unnerving and we decided to take this trip as a “test” of our compatibility with the cruise concept in general. We have traveled much and have visited two of the ports of call on this itinerary before during land vacations so I will have some input regarding that as a comparison at the end. 

Due to our home being in Arizona, we had to arrive the day before due to flight schedules. We stayed at the Embassy Suites on 17th Street. A very pleasant stay and they provided on-time delivery to the ship by sign up. I have heard horror stories about hotel shuttles to the ships, but nothing but kept promises on our experience. Granted, had I had to wait 10 minutes I would have hired a taxi for 10 bucks anyway. 

Getting on the ship was a piece of cake. Drop your luggage off at the curb, pay the porter 5 bucks (the sign states you don’t need to tip, but the hands are out for a tip anyway. My experience is if you want your bags in your room, instead of in the back of the porters car that night… invest the $5) and get in line. If you are smart, you have done your paperwork online with the HAL web site. If not, you get in a line that is 5 times as long with a whole host of people with that “I don’t know how to turn a computer on” look in their eyes. If you are reading this review, you will be in the short line. We arrived at 11:30 on the shuttle and were on the ship at 11:45. We met our steward at the room, unloaded our hand carries then took a quick walk around the ship, had a snack and returned to our room at 1:00 to find all our bags in our room ready to be unpacked.

We had a standard verandah room of about 245 sq ft which we found adequate. Plenty of storage and drawers for what we brought. The king bed was hard, but are all being replaced by pillow-top beds in the next few months. Those that we met that had the new beds raved about them. The suites and deluxe rooms already had the upgrades. Room accommodations were fine, water pressure was better than at home, occasional sewer smell in the bathroom that seemed to coincide with windy conditions outside. I opened the exhaust vent to full capacity and that seemed to eliminate the problem. 

Let me say something about sea-sickness. I am not prone to motion sickness as I spent a lot of time in aircraft traveling. To be safe, my wife and I got the prescription patch that you place behind your ear and started a day before the cruise as directed by our physician and friends that are “in the know” about cruises. The side effects stated are real… nausea, blurred vision, loss of balance, a feeling of being half high, and dryness of mouth that I have not experienced even during the driest of Arizona desert days. General consensus on the ship was that Bonine is the best for motion sickness. We met a pharmacist on board on day two, he told us to remove the patch immediately and things improved over the next two days as the effects wore off. The stuff is really bad. I could not even read a menu till day 3. It takes about 4 days to be completely clear of the side effects. I will never touch it again. My wife had the same exact side effects as did many others on the ship wearing the patch. We all thought is was keeping us from getting really sick, in fact it was making us sick. The pharmacist was right, the FDA goofed on approving this one. (Editor's note: The above opinion is that of Mr. Sorensen. does not have an opinion in this matter. Personal physicians should be consulted before taking any drug for motion sickness.)

The passenger to space ratio is as good as they claim. I seldom felt crowded on the ship with the exception of expected meal times. About 90 percent of the time our elevator was empty. The ship really did feel half empty even though the ship was completely full. Use of the tenders went very well. I was careful to always return at least one hour prior to the last tender back to the ship. Never had to wait more than 5 minutes. They run non-stop. Contrasted to the Carnival Triumph that was in Grand Cayman at the same time… 1-2 hour wait to get back on the ship. People standing in line in the humid hot sun while we waited across the street enjoying mahi-mahi fish and chips with a view of the tenders coming in. When one came in, we stepped across the street, stepped on the tender and went back to the ship. The looks of envy from the carnival cruisers was intense. 46 sq ft per passenger verses 29 for the cheap seats for carnival really showed here. 

The ship was spotless. I don’t recall even seeing a scrap of paper or anything out of place. I am a non-smoker and learned which areas allowed smoking and avoided them. It was not an issue. Our stateroom was smoke free. The A/C units in the rooms run non-stop, even when not cooling, and I was surprised by the lack of smoke smell in the ship generally.

Ports of call are the same no matter the cruise line. We went to Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Half Moon Cay. Shore excursions are shore excursions. We booked our own and saved enough $$ to upgrade our flight to Fort Lauderdale to first class. I am convinced we got better service for less money. Not as easy as booking with HAL, granted, but for me worth it. Grand Cayman is a mess on Wednesdays. Four mega ships in the same day. 10,000 people trying to capture Caribbean happiness. Glad I was diving and not shopping. I only had to contend with the fish. Half Moon Cay was very nice. Weather was great, we had the island to ourselves. We walked around to the far right side of the half moon. Had the whole beach to ourselves. The sand is pristine, not a rock or shell to be found, just white perfect sand. Lunch was great and once again the food line was well organized and my longest wait was for the server to put the bar-b-q’d ribs on my plate. 

The meals on ship varied in quality. We found all food served in the Vista dining room to be excellent. By the end of the cruise we were eating most of our meals there. Dinners were exceptional. We found the beef plates average with the exception of excellent prime rib. The other meals and meat dishes were all excellent. The fish was all very good. All meals we had were very hot and fresh. Considering that they served 55,000 total meals during our 7 days, I was most impressed with the quality of all the food in the Vista dining room. Portions were small but adequate and very tasty. If you tried an appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert, you were full. It was fun trying new things I would never venture to try at home. Service was excellent and prompt every time we ate there.

If you want to spend $20 per head to eat at the Odyssey on deck 2, we found it well worth it. I had the Filet Mignon with lobster. Simply put, the best 20 dollar meal to be had anywhere on the planet. 

We found the food on the lido deck to be typical of what you would find in any food court at a mall in a city near you. Some of the food was very good, some very poor. I can usually tell by looking which is which. The lido deck is divided into types of food, Oriental, Italian, Bistro, Deli, salad bar, continental breakfast, etc. I found the sushi and pizza very poor and also the “pre-cooked, served well done and then some” hamburgers on the lido deck by the pool less than what I had hoped for. After a couple days of that, we were driven back to the cuisine of the Vista dining room versus the quantity of the lido deck. Most of the more “experienced” eaters congregated on the lido deck with plates of food that reminded me of the Matterhorn at Disneyland. These were the same people who gravitate to the European speedos and two piece swim suits. It was disturbing, yet entertaining.

Entertainment on board was good. The ships performers (singers, dancers for the Las Vegas style shows) performed for two nights. They had good voices and were talented but will not be replacing Mamma Mia at the Mandalay Bay any time soon. The comedian was very funny and the early show was cleaner than the late one. I find rank humor for the weak-minded. There was an Elton John imitator that was very talented and flamboyant. The illusionist on board was very good. Great personality and skilled. There was a ventriloquist that we did not go see who was also supposed to be very good. Keep in mind that the acts change all the time. So you may have better or worse at any given time. We enjoyed the entertainment overall. The other bands on board seemed very good. The violinist in the explorers lounge was arrogant, but very good. The piano bar pianist was very good, but the steel drum band on lido deck should have been dropped off in the middle of the Caribbean and put out of their misery. The disco was dead.

I did not gamble at the casino. I paid enough for the cruise already.

Overall, a great cruise. I would like to do it again without the motion sickness patch as I would have had a 7-day cruise instead of a 4-day cruise. I must admit there are good and bad things about cruising. I felt rushed in the ports of call. You get to really see the islands, you just get snippets of what it is really like. You don’t get to sample the food or the night life. You really have to consider your destination as the ship. If you want to experience the Riviera Maya, you are better off spending a week in the Yucatan south of Cancun. My next cruise would most likely include family or friends. My wife never felt settled on board, partially due to the effects of the patch and one day of high winds that made for a sleepless night. I found HAL very organized, accommodating and service oriented. Getting off the ship was as easy as getting on. We docked at 7AM, went to the Vista dining for Belgian waffles for breakfast, went to our stateroom and watched a movie till our number was called at 9AM then walked off the ship and grabbed our color coded luggage all in about 15 minutes. Once again, painless. Some people were waiting in public places from 7AM to get off the ship… many upset. If you understand and work within the system, everything is great. Some people just don’t get it...

Copyright © Wade Sorensen

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