Saturday, March 29, 2008

Our R Family Cruise Review: Part I HAL

On March 15 we headed out to San Diego for Clay's first cruise- an R Family cruise to Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta. It was a blast! Not only was it amazing and awesome to be on a cruise specifically tailored to families like ours (with LGBT moms or dads), but it was equally wonderful to be on a vacation that had programming that was inclusive to even our youngest family members. It was also an R Family/PFLAG cruise, meaning we also got to meet a bunch of supportive parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. So, gay or straight, kids or no kids, there really was (cliche alert) "something for everyone."

The cruise was on Holland America's ms Oosterdam. I'll start the review there- [Continued after the jump...]... The ship itself was fine- in some areas it was clearly in need of a makeover (at least in our rooms- worn fabrics, broken fold-away beds, stained furniture, stateroom doors that required brute force to open, etc), but it was generally clean and well kept. Architecturally, they appear to be going for "intimate" with small spaces and lower ceilings, but it often felt claustrophobic, particularly with the lack of a larger multi-story atrium that has given a sense of place to the other ships we've cruised on. The outside spaces (Promenade deck, aft Lido deck, etc) were nice and clean, and it was great that the main pool deck had a retractable roof. Some of the "key" cruise ship amenities were somewhat poorly designed- the main theater (Vista Lounge) had more than it's fair share of pole obstructed-view seating (although the combination of lounge-chair seating up front and plush bench seating throughout was very nice, especially with young kids), and the spa was poorly set up so that you had to walk through public areas from your way from the dressing to the relaxation room, and the hallways were generally noisy enough to be heard from the treatment rooms. I think my reaction was that it was nice and clean, but not necessarily "luxurious" or "premium" which I think is what HAL is aiming for. All in all, I found the Disney Magic to out-pace the Oosterdam in luxury, service, and ambience.

The staff was really hit or miss, with our cabin steward being a hit, and the front desk staff being a huge miss. There were at least 3 occasions where we were given incorrect information from the front desk, necessitating multiple trips back and forth, inquiries to the R Family staff, and general frustration. They did, however, give the wrong information with a smile on their face, so that's something. The dining staff were also hit or miss, with the buffet staff attentive and always offering to carry a tray when hands were full (or a baby was strapped to you), while the dining room staff were usually unhelpful- rarely offering refills of the complimentary beverages, taking 20 minutes or more to get those beverages, etc. The biggest issue I had with them was that when Gus choked on a piece of fruit cocktail and threw up, we scurried to clean up the mess with our napkins and at least 3 or 4 staff members came by to deliver drinks etc, but not a single one attempted to help us, or offer us additional napkins, etc. They all pretended not to notice and rushed by until we finally got up to get the dining room manager who helped clean the mess and replaced the tablecloth. I will say he was fantastic, but I'm surprised we had to go looking for help. The cruise director, Parker, was also pleasant and cheerful, and the non-service staff (maintenance, etc) were always friendly when they passed by.

Staff aside, the food was where HAL shines. We did a mix of table service dining, room service, and the buffets, and the food was fresh and flavorful in all three. The buffet (Lido) was particularly good for that service style, with multiple options, an extensive salad bar, Asian station with fresh sushi, and hard and soft-serve ice cream. Although we experienced a few days with lunch rushes and longer lines, there was rarely a wait. The steak in the "premium" restaurant was tasty, and actually cooked to order (I find it hard to find a place that actually cooks steak to medium rare regardless of what I order- it's almost always at least medium or even more thoroguhly cooked), and even though we ate there while docked in Puerto Vallarta (thus overlooking a Wal*Mart), it was one place on the ship where the ambience worked and where the wait staff were wonderful.

The staterooms were standard cruise rooms (we had verandah cabins on the cleverly-named Verandah deck). The are only meant to sleep 3 people (and given HAL's normal demographic, typically only have 2), but we were able to squeeze clothing for all four of us into the closets. Luggage fit easily under the bed, and the bathtub and shower were relatively spacious. The DVD player and flat panel tvs were a nice touch.

My favorite feature HAL offered was the luggage checking and boarding pass printing service- yes, it was a hassle when they noted they couldn't print a "plus infant" boarding pass, and yes one of our pieces of luggage didn't make our flight (it was also the only piece inspected inside by TSA, so that could be part of it), but it was well worth it to us to pay the $15 pp to not have to worry about checking all of us in on the s-l-o-w ship internet and to not have to worry about our bags until we touched down in DC.

I should note that the R Family folks and many of the other guests seemed to be very impressed with HAL, much more so than we were, so perhaps we simply had bad luck. Or perhaps our cruise last year on the Magic (while recently out of dry dock) ruined our perspective. In any case, if R Family were to cruise on HAL again, we would certainly consider going, but I'm not sure if we would choose them if there were other options.

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