Year Started: 1873
Ships in Fleet: 15
Summary: A high quality upper mainstream cruise line with smaller ships and value prices. A cruise line for people who want to step up from mainstream at great value prices.
Regions:Alaska, Central America, Transpacific, West Coast, Erope
Good for: Teens. Seniors. Group.
Regions:Caribbean Eastern, Caribbean Western, Eastern Seaboard, Mediterranean Western
Good for: Teens. Seniors. Group.
Regions:Caribbean Eastern, Caribbean Southern, Eastern Seaboard, South America
Good for: Teens. Seniors. Group.
Regions:Caribbean Eastern, Caribbean Western, Mediterranean Western, Transatlantic
Good for: Seniors. Overall Service. Teens.
Regions:Caribbean Eastern, Caribbean Southern, Caribbean Western, Mediterranean Western
Good for: Value for Money. Teens. Seniors.
Regions:Alaska, Australia, Oceania, West Coast
Good for: Children`s Programs. Group. Families.
Regions:Africa, Caribbean Southern, Mediterranean Western, South America, Transatlantic
Good for: Group. Families. Luxury Travelers.
Regions:Inland Waterways, Mediterranean Western, Scandinavia, The Orient
Good for: Seniors. Group. Families.
Regions:Caribbean Southern, Caribbean Western, Mediterranean Western, Transatlantic
Good for: Overall Service. Value for Money. Seniors.
Regions:Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, South America, West Coast
Good for: Seniors. Group. Families.
Regions:Caribbean Eastern, Eastern Seaboard, Hawaii, Mexico, South America
Good for: Seniors. Group. Families.
Regions:Alaska, Australia, Oceania, The Orient, West Coast
Good for: Seniors. Overall Service. Teens.
Regions:Alaska, Caribbean Eastern, Central America, Hawaii, West Coast
Good for: Overall Service. Children`s Programs. Seniors.
Regions:Alaska, Central America, Hawaii, Mexico, South America, West Coast
Good for: Overall Service. Value for Money. Foodies.
Regions:Alaska, Caribbean Eastern, Caribbean Southern, Caribbean Western, Central America, West Coast
Good for: Children`s Programs. Group. Families.
I will try to describe different aspects of the cruise in categories. This was our 19th cruise. Most have been to the Caribbean, with sailing once before to Hawaii, and doing a partial panama canal trip. We have been on Royal Caribbean 13 times, Princess once, NCL once, Carnival three times, and HAL twice now. DH is 52 and I am 49. I hope you enjoy my review.
We flew into San Diego 2 days early to enjoy some warmer weather, being from NE Ohio. It was chilly and rained some. We walked around downtown area and the gaslamp district. Walked over to the port and saw Celetrity Mercury, and HAL Oosterdam. We stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown location next to the I5 freeway. I had gotten this on Priceline for the 2 night stay for $155.00 total. The location was fine, and the king room was nice. They had a free shuttle from the airport and again to the port. We left for the port about noon.
Once we arrived at the San Diego port, it was very easy. Gave our luggage to a porter, then went to checkin. There was a small line. It moved very efficiently. We were on the ship by 12:30, but couldn't go to our cabins until 1:00. We had booked an inside guarantee, and been upgraded to an oceanview, category E. Our cabin was located on deck 4, starboard side, right in the middle. The room had plenty of storage, 2 sets of drawers in the dresser area, and the closet was very adequate (4 doors). The safe is located in the closet, and you must use a card swipe. We brought an old gas card. We went for lunch in the Lido. After lunch, we went back to the room, and our luggage had arrived, so we unpacked, and went to the sailaway party in the Crows Nest.
Weather The first 2 days were chilly outside, but clear. The seas were relativly smooth. By day 3, it was nice and warm and we spent time soaking up the sunshine. Once we arrived in Hawaii, the weather was in the 70's and beautiful. I was concerned about the weather this time of year with it being the rainy season for both Hawaii and Tahiti, but we had very good weather. On our last sea day before the French Polynesian Islands, it was cloudy, some rain and no sunshine. Our first day in Raiatea, it started out raining for about an hour, then cleared up. We had a little rain in the upper mountain area in Tahiti. Upon our arrival in Nuku Hiva, it again greeted us with rain for about an hour, then cleared up. Our first 4 sea days on the return trip to San Diego were sunshine in the mornings, cloudy in the afternoons. By sea day 5 and 6, it was again chilly and somewhat cloudy, so no more sunshine.
Ports of Call In Hawaii, this was our 2nd visit there, so we didn't do too much. In Hilo, we rented a car, and drove to Akaka falls, then to Walmart to pick up incidentals for the cruise. Kona, we used the free trolley to go down to the Kahuluu beach area and see all the turtles. In Lahaina, we did a 2 hr whale watch through Pacific Whale Foundation. We didn't book this until we arrived, as we were concerned about the weather. We saw lots of whales. Very interesting tour. Price was very reasonable, we paid $68. for the 2 of us. On Oahu, we just took the bus down to Waikiki beach and spent time at the beach and did some shopping. I would recommend renting a car, and driving to the North Shore, very beautiful there. In Kauai, we rented a car, and drove to Waimea Canyon, and over to the Fern Grotto, took the boat ride, then stopped to see some of the waterfalls.
Our favorite island was Bora Bora. On our first day, we did the tour with Patrick. The 5 hour snorkeling and motu picnic. His outrigger canoes are all decorated and he plays his ukelele and sings along the way. The food was very good. We ended up having 24 people go all together. One of our CC had gotten in touch with him, and made the reservations, and we had 30 from our rollcall signed up before we left, and added 4 more from the ship. Some of us in his boat had been talking about going to Bloody Mary's when we got back, so he just dropped us off at their dock, rather than back in town, so we didn't have to pay for the taxi ride. On our 2nd day, we used Patrick again for his 4X4 tour. He is very knowledgable about his island, and very personable. We went to 3 different lookout areas to overlook the lagoons, and they were beautiful.
On Raiatea, we did the tour with Bruno. Bruno required a $20. pp deposit ahead of time, and he can take 12 persons. He had actually booked 14 persons from our ship but everyone fit in the boat without a problem. He has broken English. His tour goes around Tahaa, with a drift snorkeling (if you are not experienced snorkelers and GOOD swimmers, I would skip this part, or you will get all cut up from the coral, happened to lots of the passengers on our cruise), then tour a vanilla farm, pearl farm and have a motu picnic lunch. The day was very nice.
On Moorea, we rented a car and drove the island. We stopped at the Intercontinental Hotel for a while, and they have very good shopping at their little table inside their reception area if you would like some trinkets of black pearls. They had some that were only $6.00, the best price I saw on the island, and I didn't get any and was mad I didn't. Then we went over to the Soffitel hotel and had a couple drinks there. Walked the beach. Also took a tour of their over water bungolows.
On the island of Tahiti, we booked a 4X4 tour with Patrick Coridier: We did the full day, and it was way too long. Patrick is very knowledgable, but was a little too much like a professor and his information sessions seemed more like a lecture, with questions at the end. The island of Tahiti wasn't what I had imagined it would be, very commercialized, heavy traffic, dirty city, lots of people. We didn't see many pretty beaches. If I would go back, I would rent a car, and just drive on our own here.
For Nuku Hiva, the ship doesn't offer any type of tours. We usually don't book with the ship. I had gotten info from 2 different tours: email@example.com the tour we had done. It was a 7 hr. tour in AC SUV's. There were 30 people total, and we had 8 vehicles, locals driving, and only 3 of them spoke English. We would get out at various places for overlooks and pictures, and the English guides would tell us about the island. We stopped at 2 archeological sites, a beach area, and had lunch on the other side of the island, very good. It was a very good day to see the island and how laid back they are. The other tour guide is Jocelyn: firstname.lastname@example.org We didn't use her, but she has several tours available, some only a 1/2 day. If you don't book anything before you get there, take the first tender over, and there will be a couple tours available, and a couple cars to rent. Not much, so you must be first ones there to get something.
Shopping The best shopping in Hawaii is the International Marketplace. I purchased a hawaiian dress, a beach coverup, and a 24" surfboard with a hawaiian painting on. Everything is very reasonable here. For the French Polynesian islands, everything is very expensive. There are little shops in Viatape, Bora Bora that are very reasonable, lots of little places at the boat dock in Moorea (they will bargain there), but things are very expensive. Not sure what you would be looking for.
The Cruise As for the cruise itself, we took too many clothes. Too many for chilly weather. On Formal nights, there were lots of tuxedos, and many gowns. We had 6 formal nights. They have the self service laundromat. The cost is $2. wash, $1. dry. The dryers took forever. There were many older passengers, (avg. age was 75). DH is 52, and I am 49, but there were others in our age range. The ship offered "Happy Hour" each day from 4:30 to 5:30, 2 for 1 house brand drinks. We also spent most of our afternoons here meeting many new friends.
The ship will have entertainers from the local islands come on and do shows. They were VERY GOOD. Be sure NOT TO MISS them. The "children of Raiatea" performed and it was so good watching the little children dance. The show in Tahiti was also excellent. The entertainment on the ship was also very good. The exception was the singer from the HAL band, Jenny. She wasn't very good. There was music for a couple sailaway parties from Hawaii (Kauai, our last stop, and Moorea, our last island).
The ship offered lectures by a stargazer and a couple others about the islands but we didn't have time to go to them. We enjoyed many sea days lounging by the pool. On port days, we spent most of the time on shore.
The ship photographers were not very good. We have so many photos from previous cruises, we didn't get that many taken. The price was very high, $14.95 per sheet. I took over 1,000 photos myself and will choose from those.
The food was quite good. We had open seating for dinner. Most nights, we went between 6:30 and 7:00, and never had a wait. We did sit with other passengers. Several times, we would meet our new friends at the dining room, and go in together and be seated at the same table. The one place HAL is lacking is their desserts. They look very good, but are missing the great taste. For breakfast, we ate in the Lido. Lunch was either in the Lido or the Terrace Grill. They had very tasty burgers, and great nacho chips. We did go to the Pinnacle Grille for lunch (I won this from the Blue Ball dance from HAL) The food was just ok, as our steaks were dry (DH ordered med. rare, and mine med). We didn't complain, as we weren't paying anyway. HAL did have a chocolate extravaganza towards the end of the cruise. It was really nice to look at, but we only got a couple choco. covered strawberries. That was enough. There was a large variety to choose from, and we never tired of the food, as we tried not to overindulge since we had so many days to try many different types of food.
We did do a couple behind the scenes tours. There was a kitchen galley tour, not very long though. Behind the scenes of the stage for the production show where we saw the dressing rooms in the back of the stage area. We also took a tour of the storage area on deck 3. We saw the freezers, coolers and storage for the dry foods. They have a coffin room that will hold 4 bodies, but we didn't get to see it.
There was a medical emergency the evening we left Moorea. Someone had heart problems, so about 10:00PM, the ship headed back to Tahiti to drop off the person, and we were on our way again just after midnight. Not sure who they were or what the outcome was. There were a few passengers that got off in Tahiti for medical reasons. We had heard several had pneamonia, and with the long trip at sea back, the ship doctor felt their health was not well enough for all the sea dsys.
We did not get the College Bowl games, so DH was not happy about missing Ohio State play on our fist sea day. We did however get to watch the Superbowl. It was live, but we were not able to see the commercials, and that is what I like to watch. They had a Superbowl party for the afternoon, with wings, hamburgers, hotdogs, and sides. It was very nice, and they used a big screen in the Vermeer Lounge for this.
Overall, this has been our best cruise to date. We met many new friends, and had a very relaxing cruise. We would like to see HAL reverse the itinerary, and go to the French Polynesian Islands first, then to Hawaii. We would definitely consider this cruise again. I don't think I can go on just a 7 night cruise anymore. Yes, I am now very spoiled by this cruise!
Friday, January 2 Picked up at 7:00am for 9:30 flight to Ft. Lauderdale. It was snowing and 30 degrees. Arrived 12:30 in 80 degree weather. Stayed at a Marriott, which takes its customers to their ships for free.
Saturday, January 3 Arrived at the ship, Holland America's USS Noordam, about two years old. Dark Blue hull with white superstructure. One of the first on board, we went immediately to the spa to make various appointments. I'm not a spa person, so I passed. Arrived at rooms about 2:30. Before the market crash, I, as usual, was feeling flush, so I got a suite for us and an outside balcony for the kids. The suite was at least twice the size of a normal stateroom, came with a private lounge for suite holders, a Captain's welcoming cocktail party, free laundry service, and other meaningless BS. But I loved the size of the room. Ship left the dock shortly after 5:00pm. The dining room has two fixed hour dinner seatings and a dining when you want to seating. We took the second. The room was three floors, with fixed dining on the first andthird. The third floor was crowned by murano glass-like flowers that were actually made of some kind of plastic, but looked authentic. Attended the captain's cocktail party. Melanie wore a Maori hook necklace (looks kind of like a reverse "s") on a rope around her neck. I had been trying to identify the captain's accent and asked him where he was from. I guessed Australia, but he was from New Zealand and immediately noticed Mel's necklace. That got them off talking, and Mel identified herself as a rugby player and a New Zealand All Blacks fan. The two bonded immediately!
Sunday & Monday, January 4 & 5 Two days at sea. The first evening was a formal night, Phil and I in tuxes. We ran into our biggest controversy of the cruise, the fact that one had to be 21 to drink. Of course Phil had expected to be able to drink once we entered international waters, but that wasn't the case. That night, our table service was very good, and we had a lot of fun kibitzing with the crew. They suggested we come back the next night, so I went to the private concierge for suite holders who reserved the same table for the rest of the cruise. It became the only place where Phil could get a drink with no hassle. As an aside, their dessert menu always had a "shooter" of the day. So, of course, most nights, Dad and the kids enjoyed an after dinner zowie!
Tuesday, January 6 Arrived in St. Thomas, USVI. Holland America and other premium cruise lines use the new Crown Bay dock, leaving the old one to Carnival and its ilk, much to the consternation of the souvenir sellers at the old one. We were picked up by a very nice older driver, who took us to Coki Beach, a snorkeling venue, and an aquarium. On the way, we learned that there were a total of nine cruise ships there, adding some 20,000 visitors to the island. The beach was a sea of humanity, but the water was 78 degrees. Snorkeling was OK, including the sighting of an octopus, but the crowds made it impossible to relax. On the return, we HAD to stop at McDonalds so that Phil could get his fix.
Wednesday, January 7 Dominica, with the accent on the "ni." The kids did a zip line adventure, while mom and dad tubed down a river. We had guides, but I still went ass over applecart through one of the rapids. Upon return, we all went to the local hotel for some local beer, Kuhbuli. When I went into the bar to order, I noticed that the TV, instead of carrying CNN, was carrying Al Jazeera. The island is mostly rain forest. No beaches, little snorkeling and no resorts -- probably the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.
Thursday, January 8 Granada, with long second "a." I was immediately corrected by our guide in pronouncing the island. I assumed ahh. Anyway, Melanie and I had our own excursion, a climb to see the seven sisters, a series of waterfalls in the highlands of the island. It was quite a workout. The guide/driver talked about a 72 year old man who had recently made the hike; I waited until I had actually made it before telling him my age. Mud steps were carved into the sides of the hills, mostly going up. If you saw Lord of the Rings, I felt like Frodo, climbing the Mountain of Doom. I stopped several times to catch my breath and rest, but we made it to the first two waterfalls -- a great view, lovely pools, etc. Mel swam in one of them, freezing her ass off. It was there that we learned the other falls were accessible only to those who were willing to ascend on all fours and return the same way, who were dressed properly to resist the cutting of the saw grass, or who were willing to dive from pool to pool back down to where we were now standing. I took a pass, as did Melanie. We then had to return, and it seemed as if I were still going uphill instead of down. But, at the end of the hike, Melanie was quite proud of my being able to do it with her, and I got TWO bottles of the local beer, Carib.
Friday, January 9 Martinique -- well, of course, our favorite island. But no excursion. Not enough time. Besides I had to track down my favorite Martiniquan rums!!! and Mel had to have a typical Parisian lunch of bread and cheese.
Saturday, January 10 St Maarten/St.Marten, half French, half Dutch. Docked on the Dutch side. I had arranged for a car and driver for half a day. We were met by a young man, with no personality, who knew little about the island, except for where the tax building, police stations, and school buildings were. He also turned out to be a Muslim, as he reminded us too often that he didn't drink. Anyway, we ended up on the French side for a quick lunch, and returned to the Dutch side for some shopping. Not me! Phil and I found a local bar and had a couple of beers. The interesting thing about this island is that from it you can ferry to Anguilla, British, and to St. Barts, French.
Sunday, January 11 At Sea. Finished reading my second book and started the one that I held for last, Jon LeCarre's new one. Last Formal night of three. By this time, Phil had become one of the finalists on the Ship's karaoke competition, had developed a reputation for being a wild and out of control, though charming, dancer, and hung out with the only two or three females that were his age. Also by this time, Melanie had made friends with the young spa ladies, and they partied into the night the last few evenings.
Monday, January 12 Holland America, like many cruise lines, has its own private island, this one called Half Moon Cay, but it's a part of a larger, empty island in the Bahamas. They have a beautiful beach, a place for kids, and some shelter from the sun, a barbeque, and some water toys. There are also "cabins" available that come with a butler, so that you don't have to go to the barbeque house and mingle with the commoners. Interestingly enough, even though they are all open ended, they also have an air conditioning unit. Phil managed to befriend the only girls whose parents rented one. There are only 15 or so spread around the beach. I opted for renting a sunfish sailboat, and setting off for parts unknown. Of course, since it's only 10 ft. long, I could see all of the unknown parts. In the course of turning a sailboat, one has two options: turn with the wind in front of you, or behind you -- the safer being the first of the two. As I turned into the wind and came about, I forgot to let go of the line attached to the sail. A gust of wind turned the boat over, so for the second time in a week, I got dunked. I was taught how to right the ship, so to speak, though I was quite unsuccessful in doing so. Anyway, I determined to get back on the horse, and sailed around the bay for another 15 or 20 minutes before calling it a day. Left with a sunburn and a bruised ego.
Tuesday, January 13 Ft. Lauderdale. Saw both the Queen Mary and the Queen Victoria docked ahead of us, as well as the ship known as The World, a condominium ship that takes its owners literally all over the world. We exited the ship, and took our last excursion to an Everglades venue for an airboat ride to find alligators. Unfortunately, there was no sun, so the buggers were hiding. Though, we were fortunate enough to see 2 before a second airboat came roaring by.
Holland America Line Prinsendam by Bermuda Cruiser Eastern Caribbean December 19, 2008
Having enjoyed several Spring cruises with Holland America previously, my wife and I were interested to see how a Christmas cruise would differ. It was also to be our first cruise aboard the Line's smallest ship.
The Prinsendam underwent a major refit during 2008 which, judging from some earlier reviews, was badly needed. The result is a distinguished-looking vessel that harkens back to the fine old days of sea travel. Some may find the look dated, but we prefer it to the plasticky feel of the modern mega-ships.
The crew were very proud of their vessel, and seemed very pleased to be working on it. With one exception (see my comment in the Message Boards) nothing was too much trouble.
There were many additional touches to make this cruise even better for Christmas and New Year's Eve and we would gladly sail again this time next year.
Holland America Line Prinsendam by Les Galloway Southern Caribbean December 19, 2008
My brother and I had decided to take a cruise over the holidays. We had both cruised before and decided to try an upscale line for a little quieter and pampered experience. This may have been one of the worst experiences of our lives.
The food was sub-par and the service was deplorable. A virus was running amok on the ship and we were both severely ill for two days.
The biggest problem seems to be a communications issue with the staff. When we would make a request in the dining room, the wait staff would smile and say yes sir and then never return. Requests went ignored mostly because I don't think we were understood.
I feel badly for my brother as it was my idea to choose Holland America. I made a very expensive and severe error.
Most of my friends cruise and not one has cruised on Holland America. The experience was so bad I'll make it a point to apprise all I know of my own experience. This was a horrible cruise.
This was our second cruise on this wonderful ship. The first was April 2, 2005, and a reveiw I posted is still here. I have not changed my mind at all to differ much from the previous reveiw. HAL is still our favorite line for cruising.
Embarkation is still the classiest, fastest we have seen of all four lines we have tried.
The ship is in fine shape and kept that way, with a fine crew of maintenance people.
The ship's crew in all is friendly and helpful in every department.
The food is always excellent, and presentation and service is great.
The passengers are older than on other lines, but usually showing more class than on other lines. I do not know if people are more stressed in this time frame, but there were a few problem passengers the crew had to deal with. Please people try to act and treat all on board with more empathy for others. This is a vacation. It is for fun for all! All things can not be perfect, but your attitudes and actions can be if you try harder. And for sure guys, please wash yourhands after using the bathroom. I still saw several fellows that did not wash. How discourteous and filthy is that!
Still I have to say if you have a bad time on any cruise it is your own fault. A cruise is the best vacation anyone can take for the price per day. So take a cruise for yourself and have the time of your life.
We picked this ship because of the itiniery. It sounded so great and we were going with my brother and sister-in-law, so I was very excited.
Not to be. She became sick the night before we flew and so I was very disappointed. My brother booked a flight for the following day, but she was still sick. Sad.
We flew to Ft. Lauderdale the day before and stayed at Pelican Beach Resort. Let me tell you that this is one fabulous hotel! Right on the beach, very clean, awesome restaurant, and the rooms! First class all the way. I didn't want to leave.
We left for the ship at 1:00 the next day and found there were virtually no lines to embark. Wow. This was a first for us. Easy peasy. We then went to our room and found it to our liking. It was a VB balcony. There was enough room and we knew we would have beautiful views. Unfortunately, the deck was flooded and this issue was never remedied during the cruise, despite two complaints.
Off to the Lido for lunch we went. We found the food to be consistentlygood during this cruise. I should say that this was our first Holland America cruise and our tenth overall.
Dinner that evening was spent at the Pinnacle. We had four nights there, since we were supposed to have my brother and his wife with us. We'd paid beforehand for this and looked forward to two nights that were now four. Believe me when I tell you that this was fantastic!!!! Food, service, and ambiance were excellent and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinners there. Another night, we ate at the Lido, and it was good. My disappointment was with the main dining room. We asked for, and were flatly denied, a table for two on two separate occasions. I've never had that happen before and usually a maitre'd makes some effort but this one did not. No smile, just no. We ended up sitting with a nice couple one night, but the other night we were seated with very negative people. It ruined dinner for us.
Entertainment was ok. I liked the comedian, Julie Barr very much. The rest was ok. Dancers were great. That's it. I think we've really enjoyed entertainment more on Norwegian and Carnival.
Okay, on to the ports! Loved Grand Turk since we beached it all day. Fabulous. There's a little shopping there if you're interested.
St. Martin, what can I say? My favorite port of all time. I like the Dutch side since I like those campy bars and the beach, so we were very happy there. Shopping is terrific there too.
Tortola was our best stop. We have friends there and they took us out for the afternoon for a catamaran ride. Loved every minute. What a treat. Fun to see them again and the scenery is awesome.
The disappointing stop for us was the private island. The Westerdam and the Noordam were both there at the same time and it was way, way too crowded. Couldn't find a chair. It was a waste of our time to get off the ship for this stop. I'd really looked forward to this island, too. It was a shame.
Well, all and all, we had a good cruise. Our room was very clean, service was genuinely friendly and top-notch, with a few glitches. Am I sold on Holland? Not yet. I missed the younger crowd. This ship had a lot of very old people on it. My goal is to become very old some day, but not quite yet! I missed the regee bands on other lines and the party atmosphere of Carnival.
Disembarking was a breeze as well. Easiest I've ever experienced.
My wife and I were on our 16th cruise sailing from Ft. Lauderdale on Thanksgiving Day for 10 days visiting St. Lucia, Tortola, Barbados, St Kitts, Martinique and Half Moon Cay. This was our second trip on Holland America and we are both 45 years old. This review will be detailed for those that want specific information.
We stayed at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa prior to the cruise. They have a restaurant called 3030 which is one of the top places to eat in Ft. Lauderdale. We had a fantastic meal at 3030 which was one of the highlights of the trip. My wife also used the Marriott spa for her seaweed wrap. The cost is cheaper than you will pay on the Noordam and includes a message jet bath which the ship doesn't. I set this up in advance and my wife loved it. The Marriott has a private beach and a tropical pool which were both excellent. A great start to a vacation.
Ports We really enjoyed all the ports and particularly enjoyed the "Boat Yard" beach in Barbados and Cane Garden in Tortola. The Boat Yardis $4 per person by cab and provides a free ride back to the ship. Entrance cost is $15 per person and includes chairs, umbrella, choice of free drink and unlimited use of non motorized beach items. In Tortola we got off the boat and found a 30 person taxi waiting. He was charging $6 per person for Cane Garden Bay Beach. We spent 5 ½ hours at Cane Garden and found plenty of taxis for the return trip ($6) back to the ship. Chairs are $5 per person and several friendly vendors will set you up right on the beach (umbrellas were $10). The beach has plenty of shade if you don't want to pay for an umbrella. We had lunch at Sharkys on the beach which had a great lobster salad and cold beer.
Embarkation We arrived at the pier about 1:30 pm at the same time as a few buses from the airport. We found a line out the front door and thought we were in for a long wait. This was because the metal detector and x-ray machine are at the entrance which actually worked better. The line moved fairly quickly and the only snag was with the medical questionnaire. The lady who handled it was rude, didn't give instructions until you were at the point where you needed to have it filled out and just a pain in general. Not a big deal and we quickly filled it out while in line before getting to the check-in counter. Note: even when filling out everything on line "before" hand, you still have to have the immigration form in your cruise documents signed. They then write completed on a line across the top. The whole check in took about 30 minutes and because it was after 1pm we were able to go directly to our cabin and drop off carry on bags.
Crew I will say that we have seen several different types of crew members over the years. We have had crew members who do what is required only and those who go above and beyond especially with automatic tipping. The Noordam Cabin Stewards, Waiters, Assistant Waiters, pool and cleaning staff are all from Indonesia. Your bar staff is from the Philippines and your officers are mostly Dutch. All crew members are highly trained and it shows. We never heard the word "NO" and heard "Yes" to all requests. I had very high praises on the comment card and to some supervision about this very hard working crew. They smile all the time and will accommodate special request with a smile. Just ask if you want something and give them a little notice in the dining room and it's done. Service really makes HAL and out of 1900 passengers on board, 1300 were repeat customers. Many people have had comments about extra tipping, the extra cash given to an employee stays with that employee. The automatic tipping is pooled and distributed based on a formula. I was told that as long as you left the "service charge" as they call it alone, the crew kept the extra cash given.
Cabin We booked a "guarantee" inside and were upgraded to a large inside. The cabin had 3 separate closets, tie holder mounted to the door, shoe shine basket (for free shoe shine) a safe, plus plenty of space, once you placed the life jackets under the bed. Note there are two drawers under the end of the bed that pull out. You can easily place suitcases and life jackets under the bed to allow for more cabin space. The cabin has a hidden dirty laundry hamper located in the chair under the vanity/desk. You pull the seat top off the chair and place dirty laundry in it. It seals up and the chair slides right back under the vanity/desk. You also have a full mini bar located to the right of the vanity with the same pricing as the other ship bars. On the left of the vanity/desk a hidden compartment has a hair dryer and extra glasses for wine or champagne (a bottle opener and cork screw are provided with your ice bucket). The hair dry only plugs into the vanity and can't be used in the bathroom. Two HAL robes are provided and are a nice touch and so are the full size bath towels. HAL uses Elemis spa shampoo, body wash, conditioner, lotion and soap (replaced daily). They don't use those stupid wall mounted soap and shampoo dispensers. Beds were fantastic and the room was keep spotless.
Pool and Deck Space Plenty of deck chairs padded and non-padded. Chairs were always available at both pools and plenty of chairs were available in the shade. No signing out towels with a limit (like RCI -- so stupid) you just help yourself. This includes towels when going ashore which are not signed out with a threat of being charged if you don't return them. Other lines need to take note here, we are adults and don't need to sign out a towel. HAL gets points for having towel stations all over the ship. You don't have to go down to the pool to get towels from the upper decks (like RCI). They also have towels at the hot tubs and on the Promenade deck #5. The pool and decks are clean and trash is removed quickly to avoid stuff blowing all over (NCL is famous for this one). I was very pleased with the efficient deck staff and their willingness to get water or tea for seniors.
General Areas Spotless and public bathrooms have cloth hand towels which keep the restrooms clean. No paper towels anywhere and plenty of hand sanitizers. Bars and common areas have comfortable seating, the recliners are located in the observation lounge, great leather seating in Library/Coffee bar. In the stairwells between decks is some very nice art work of the different HAL ships through the years. Outside the shops on deck #3 is a touch screen interactive map showing ship location and other information about the ship.
Food This one is subjective but this is my opinion. The Noordam Lido has the same concept as you see on Costa and Carnival with the newer ships. The use of food stations which include a sandwich bar, pasta and pizza, salad, dessert and ice cream, Asian and sushi station and a hot food station. They have the stations located on both sides of the ship when in full service. They also have a taco, fajita, hamburger and hot dog station by the pool. What is different here is the execution. You are served most of your food and several things are cooked at the food station limiting people handling items and keeping food fresh. All plates are served covered to keep food hot until you return to your table. In the mornings most stations cook eggs, make toast and have basics along with the specialty items. This keeps lines down because you have multiple egg stations going at the same time. They have three special breakfast items daily plus all the basics. They have a great waffle station and an eggs benedict station which had some nice combinations. During the day, tea and water are served table side so you don't have to get up for a refill. Juices are available from 6am to 6pm at the ice cream station (just ask the attendant). Free fresh squeezed orange juice is available in the morning which is not the case on most lines. I found limited lines and the Lido staff assists with carrying trays and keep lines moving. This concept is less of a buffet and I found the food quality to be very good. Plus not as much food sits out and people handling items is kept to a minimum.
The dining room food was on a 20 day menu cycle which gives better variety on longer trips. The lobster was excellent because we asked in advance for it to be steamed, not broiled. The prime rib and all steaks were very good. The Coho salmon was good and the Noordam uses large shrimp, not the mini shrimp used by other lines. All the deserts were lighter (less sugar) than I have seen on other ships. The sugar free items were pretty good and the ice cream selection was nice. Fresh fruits were top notch! We did assigned second seating and had a table for two (plenty of them) and had fantastic service. I didn't notice any major waits for the "as you wish dining" but didn't use it. We also skipped the specialty restaurant Pinnacle Grill which I never saw even close to full. Overall food was very good.
Spa/Gym/Pools The gym was very nice, good sized with most of the standard equipment, classes and a great view. A nice touch is the cold towels available in the refrigerator after your work out. The Spa is very nice and the girls are very friendly. We only used the hydro pool and the relaxation room (a hidden gem with a great view and chairs that will make you fall asleep). The sauna and locker rooms are complementary and so is the gym. The hydro pool can be purchased with packages or just used at a rate of $20 a day. That includes use of the robes, slippers, showers and changing area. We chose the day pass and it was nice, but, I would not get the whole week. Pools are not sea water and the main pool (top) was closed and opened according to weather conditions. The whirlpool closest to the spa has foot jets and seats that fit the body.
Entertainment The Vegas acts were very good and vary from cruise to cruise. We had a comedian, classical pianist who did magic and a juggler. The dancers had nice sets and a great theater and several production shows. Two male dancers destroyed some classic songs and several of the female dancers were a bit chunky (which was something I had seen in other reviews and made me laugh). Overall it was fine and we went to most shows. The crew also has a show which is popular.
Overall this is a great ship and I found numerous people under 40 who were trying cruising for the first time. It is true that most of the ship is over the age of 55, but I found the older group to be fun, interesting and respectful. So this ship is a winner for all ages.
Of twenty-two cruises, this was my fourth on the Maasdam, and I must say the 'old girl' looks just fine. Embarkation in Ft. Lauderale was a breeze, and although the Lido lunch was crowded as expected, it wasn't long before the cabins were ready -- mine no. 753 on A deck, outside, midships.
The cabin was spotless, and continued to be so throughout the cruise thanks to my wonderful and caring steward. Once, he became concerned about my accidentally injuring myself on St. Martin -- I take blood thinners -- and he took it upon himself to bring me Bandaids, etc. He was really a jewel.
The shower had its problems -- low pressure and a strange black residue erupting into the toilet and out of the floor drain after showering. My steward cleaned it up immediately. I chose, however, to shower in the men's locker room; great shower, lots of water. But that was my choice.
No odor from the residue was apparent.
Dining was just wonderful. I was placed at a large table, and the folks there were absolutely delightful; and the food was excellent. I love both lamb and seafoodespecially, and our great waiter knew in advance to bring me double lamb chops and double fish -- on one plate, not two. The wine stewardess was both helpful and personable. They both, along with the asst. waiter, made dinner time a treat. The chef's special dinner was a thing to behold! So much better than the old Dutch hat and cap routine.
The 'Hal Cat' band was only so-so, but it got better when a sound tech came onboard and adjusted things. But, then again, they provide deck entertainment; they are not there to put on a show.
I can't speak for the evening shows in the main lounge as I am an early-to-bed guy.
As for the ports of call, I've been to all of them several times, so there was less pressure to buy into lots of tours. The rum tour on St. Lucia was a hoot -- factory and then tasting. The tasting amounted to about 20 bottles -- open -- and they left you alone for about 45 minutes. Well, that bunch of staid folks turned into a party. We sang and laughed all the way back to the dock.
Only problems were on Dominica and Guadeloupe. On Dominica, I did not take a tour, having been on two before. The harrassment by locals on the pier was so intense, I just returned to the ship. On Guadeloupe, it was worse. A couple were mugged at gunpoint and others were followed and threatened by thugs. HAL is not sailing to Guadeloupe again because of this; guests were warned by authorities not to go beyond the barricades, which enclosed a few kiosks and a duty free shop. All of this said, it is a part of visiting different ports; just know where to go and where not to.
Other ports were wonderful, especially Tortola and fabulous Cane Garden Bay Beach!
Otherwise, a nice ship, friendly folks, great food, superb service and personal care make for, to me, what is a wonderful cruise. I'm on the Maasdam again in May for a cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Montreal. That ship is becoming my home away from home.
About Us Jim (66) and I (61) have taken 24 cruises, mostly on HAL. We cruise with HAL largely because of the excellent service, but also to enjoy their generously appointed cabins. We love lazy sea days and usually sleep late and close the casino at night.
Overview This was our tenth cruise on our favorite ship; our first 10-day and our first Panama Canal. We hadn't been on a cruise since March, and this one was well-deserved. As the ship itself is our destination, we won't have any comments about shore excursions.
Service Service, as always, was exemplary. Captain van den Berg found us the calmest waters and even docked ahead of schedule a time or two.
Hotel Manager Mark Pells runs a fine hotel, and all services ran smoothly. Mr. Pells graciously attended our Meet 'n' Greet, which was held in a private section on the port side of the Crow's Nest. It was originally set up with a table for cookies and coffee, but Beverage Manager Mr. Daniela pulled it all out and they served champagne, Mimosas, Bloody Marys and juice, and walked around with trays of pastries, all courtesyof Mr. Pells. He filled us in on the itinerary and answered a few questions, then introduced the Panama Tour Guide Richard Ditrich, and Cruise Director Jesse. He is probably the most accessible Hotel Manager we've ever met, and it is clear that he is well respected by his dedicated and professional crew.
Most notable staff/crew:Captain Dirk van den Berg Hotel Manager Mark Pells Cruise Director Jesse "Yessie" Higley Concierges Kate and Bong DR Manager Mr. Sanjay Nariani DR Supervisor Arpad Plavecz DR Supervisor Mr. Leo
We found a few nice surprises! The physical changes to the ship are beautiful. At first I balked at the demise of our beautiful Oak Room, but once I experienced the Explorations Cafe, it grew on me. This combination library/internet center/coffee bar is beautifully designed to flow easily into what's left of the Crow's Nest. Every time I visited, it seemed to be better utilized than the old locations were. There is a sliding wooden panel which is pulled close to separate it from the Crow's Nest when in use for private functions. The old Internet Center is now a screening room; the old library is now Mirebella, an upscale gem boutique; the Windstar Cafe is now the new Pinnacle Lounge, a beautiful bar and comfortable seating area attended by the amiable Mark the Shark.
Embarkation I think HAL has the very best embarkation procedure of all. There are very short waits for check-in, and we were aboard in about 15 minutes.
Cabin We were upgraded from SS8099 to SA7061, a Deluxe Suite directly across from the Concierges in the Neptune Lounge. This is the best location we have ever had, and we did not hear any noise from the Lounge entrance at all. This suite was outstanding! Huge (510 total square feet), comfortable room, spacious veranda with two chairs and ottomans and a little dining table and 4 small chairs. Plenty for two. The bathroom had a jacuzzi tub, separate shower and double sink with two corner medicine cabinets and storage shelf below. A generous variety of Elemis products was provided, and refilled daily as needed. There was also an umbrella, laundry basket (service is free in full suites) and 2 fluffy cotton robes and slippers. The dressing room had a built-in dressing table with 3 drawers, hair dryer and lighted magnifying makeup mirror (1X/5X), 3 closets with mirrored doors and a safe (3 more closets are in the hall by the door). In the sitting area were a large couch, two occasional chairs and coffee table, desk with flat screen TV, cooler with loaded minibar and CD/DVD player, binoculars, data port, 2 telephones with voice mail and wake-up service, and a wall of mirrors behind the bed, making the room look much larger. Our cabin steward Muc served us well, working around our odd sleeping habits and provided plenty of ice and towels on request.
We found the usual bottle of champagne from Captain van den Berg and Hotel Manager Mark Pells, a packet from the Concierges with a list of the services they provide, our custom-printed letterhead, post cards & pen. We have stayed in this Cat suite many times, so were not surprised by the clean, well-kept and recently upgraded condition. The only change since our last cruise was the flat screen TV. Everything else seemed 'like home.'
Dining As You Wish Dining is here to stay. Although there is overwhelming support for Traditional (fixed) seating, HAL is holding on tightly to this more flexible dining plan. AYWD allows you to appear at the Vista Dining Room at any time and be seated either alone or with other passengers. I personally do not care to repeat the same cruise talk with new tablemates every night. I like having my iced tea or pretend wine waiting for me when I'm seated, refills without asking, or having my plate removed without waiting for everyone else to finish the course.
On the first night, when there is only one Showroom show, seating in AYWD is difficult to coordinate, so the wait may be longer than other nights. After that, the wait should be no more than a few minutes.
Don't misunderstand -- we had excellent service by all dining room attendants, but, except for the Supervisors, they were different every night. If you 'click' with a waiter at the beginning, you can make a standing reservation at his table for a certain time every night. We tried to ask for Hunky Dory's table, but he was so popular he was completely booked.
Ship's Facilities I have reviewed this ship many times before, so I will not write about everything.
Internet Café: I have no idea how I managed to use up 100 minutes of internet in 3 days. I frequently have many windows open, and even though I logged out of one, the others may have stayed connected. What I need is a (complimentary) unlimited plan.
Staff The Officers, Staff and Crew on this ship offer the highest level of service we have ever seen. They are professional, yet personable, and easily accessible.
Excursions This is my stock advice. I print it with every review. If you haven't already booked online, when you arrive at your cabin you will find a Shore Excursions brochure listing the various activities available shoreside. You may fill out the order form at your leisure and deposit it in the Express Drop Box at the Shore Excursions Desk. Please keep in mind that the most popular trips sell out very fast. If you are traveling with friends and want to go together, put all the tickets on one room card. One time we ordered separately and one couple got the tickets and one couple didn't.
Other Stuff Paul Tanner's show was SRO, and we were lucky to be able to stand up against the wall in the balcony. What a great singer!
At the Mariners' Award Ceremony we received our copper medallions. There were also some silvers and a platinum award. Cocktails and elaborate hors d'oeuvres were served, after which we proceeded to the Vista Dining Room for a lovely luncheon. There are so many Mariners now that the luncheon is divided into two separate seatings on different days.
The Panama Canal The Hotel Manager opened the bow and served Panama Rolls (yum) and offered Mimosas, Champagne and juices. Even though it was drizzling, we enjoyed Richard's history lesson over the PA while we entered the locks. Instead of Colon, we stopped on the dock at Cristobal, which seemed to go on forever. There were many booths with local handicrafts and a great band playing American hits in the local steel drum fashion. The half-naked native Panamanians kind of surprised me, but I guess it's part of the culture.
Thanksgiving Day was by far our BEST sea day ever! We spent a lazy morning getting ready for the sumptuous feast in the Pinnacle hosted by Hotel Manager Mark Pells. He served a lovely Champagne Luncheon with a special dessert -- ice cream in a crunchy shell, fresh strawberries and blueberries topped with strawberry sauce. Devine!
Our friends wanted to have dinner in the Lido, which was not nearly as special as the dining room. The food was the same as in the dining room, but although the service was faster, it was too casual for me. I missed the linen tablecloths, and the room just didn't 'feel' special. I spent the next hour tracking down my favorites to give them their 'above and beyond' tips, and take the last few photos of my vacation family.
Debarkation We had Pink/1 tags, and should have been first off after the wheelchair pax, but at 8:15 we went down to get in line. There were hundreds of people there, but the elevator left us at the head of the line, so we stayed there.
Someone came through and asked everybody ELSE to step aside so they could proceed, and it looked like the Red Sea parting. I think we got off at about 9:00 and found a porter right away who went all the way to the far corner to find our bags, and had us through Customs in about 5 minutes.
Once outside, they told us about the taxi strike, and a very aggressive East Indian van driver offered us a ride for $11 each, so we jumped in. At the airport, he left our bags at the curb, but not at the end of the curbside checkin line that already had 50+ people in it. We got another porter to take the bags inside, and the line there was even longer. I told him my flight was at 10:05, so he took the luggage to the head of the line for luggage tags and found the biggest one was 4 pounds overweight, so he had to charge me for that, and another charge for the 5th bag. I gave him $35 and he sent them through.
He then took us to the front of the Security line (jumping about 100 people) and we had to run to the gate. I paid for priority boarding, so we got right on the half-boarded plane, picked very good seats (first come, first served on Southwest) and departed on time. Whew! If it hadn't been for this wonderful porter, we never would have made that flight.
After we got to Jacksonville, we were so tired we checked back into the hotel and slept for 3 hours. Once on the road, the construction backed us up for about 1-1/2 hours, but we finally got home at about 8:00. We left the puppy at Doggy Sleepover Camp for one more night and made an admirable attempt at unpacking and laundry, but honestly we (I) took 2 days to finish.
Regarding the debarkation, it's annoying when SO many things go wrong. I'm just grateful it happened at the end of the cruise instead of the beginning. Since it was too late to mention this fiasco on our comment cards, I emailed this info to Mark, hoping they can make some adjustments to make certain the early fliers GET OFF EARLY!
Final Thoughts HAL's ms Zuiderdam, whenever she's in the Caribbean, is our ship of choice. We enjoy seeing our 'family' and spending time in her beautiful public areas and generous private accommodations. The passenger mix is right for us -- no uncontrolled children, no trouble finding a chaise at the pool, no pressure to drink all day. It's harder to sail the Zuiderdam now that she's not in the Caribbean in the summer, but we can be patient. One day we may even bite the bullet and actually try an Alaskan cruise.
See you around someday, maybe, on some "dam" ship!
My wife and I are recently retired, in our 60's, and have cruised 21 times. We are not in the travel business and are not cruise experts, so I apologize in advance for any errors or omissions in this review.
Extensive photos of the Noordam and of some of the ports on our cruise are available on the internet by clicking here: here. Click on the index photo for thumbnails of all the Noordam photos, then click on the slideshow option or click on individual thumbnails to enlarge them. There are far too many photos to include in this review, but they will give you an idea of what to expect on this beautiful ship.
I shall begin this review with some general observations about the Noordam, then some details of our particular cruise experience, and then conclude with our suggestions for independent sightseeing at each of the ports we visited. I will highlight some topics in ALL CAPS so that you can skip to any areas of particular interest.
THE SHIP This cruise, our third in 2008, was a 10 day Southern Caribbean itinerary in November on HAL's Noordam, the newest of HAL'sfour Vista class ships named after the points of the compass. This was one of the most enjoyable cruises we have experienced so far on any cruise line, and it was certainly the best value, in part due to a last minute cabin upgrade.
We have enjoyed the ambience on previous HAL cruise ships. On the Noordam everything seemed even better, from the décor to the entertainment options to the dining. The service remains topnotch. More about all that later.
At 82,000 tons and a full complement of 1,918 guests, the Noordam is an ideal size for us -- small enough to avoid the hassles of some mega-ships, but large enough to offer a variety of activities and venues, especially on days at sea. As a premium cruise line, HAL offers more of the larger verandah suites (three mid-ship decks worth) than mainstream cruise lines, so the ship seems less crowded (has a higher space ratio) than most.
The Noordam's DECOR is more elegant and subdued than on the Zuiderdam, the first of the Vista class ships. The Noordam's public areas and staterooms should please cruisers wanting a refined and upscale, but still informal, experience. Again, visit the photo link given above to understand what I am talking about.
One special aspect of HAL cruises is their fresh flower arrangements in public areas. These can be quite impressive. On this cruise we learned that a sub-contractor had two full-time staff creating and replenishing these arrangements every day. Even the dining tables in the Lido Buffet had orchids. Again, see the photo link above for examples.
Innovations on the Noordam include an expansion of the LIBRARY and INTERNET center into a beautiful lounge area (Explorations Café) with comfortable leather chairs and an excellent collection of current books and magazines. Here one can also get loaner Ipods for a self-guided tour of the ship's surprisingly extensive ART COLLECTION, which ranges from classical to whimsical. Some of the art is even mounted on the ceilings, and we would have missed it were it not for this tour.
Unfortunately the INTERNET SERVICE is as slow (satellite dependent) and unjustifiably expensive (75 US cents per minute, with some concessions when purchasing bulk usage) as on most other cruise lines. Some cruise lines have offered free internet access to their repeat cruisers (five or more cruises), but not HAL. We always have been able to find fast and reasonable (less than 10 US cents per minute) internet service in each of the Caribbean ports. Usually these are near the cruise piers, and locals are happy to direct you to them.
Unfortunately several of the computerized MUSIC LISTENING STATIONS in this area were non-functional, and most of the remainder had poor headsets with only one earphone, so one hears one's favorites (the music menu is enormous) in one ear and ambient noise in the other ear, which makes no sense. Other cruise lines have opted out of this service, perhaps because it is difficult to maintain. The one operable dual headset I found was top quality and was a joy to use. The music listening chairs are so comfortable (the famous Eames chair) that library book readers sometimes fill them.
Near the Explorations Café are meeting rooms for private groups and for informal Q&A SESSIONS WITH THE SHIP'S OFFICERS. We had never attended any of these before (the concept was new to us), but we found them very informative and entertaining. In one session the hotel manager answered questions from the audience. In one response he informed us that cabin stewards work in pairs for health reasons -- one does the "clean jobs" and the other does the potentially "dirty" ones, so that there is no cross-contamination. In general, the HYGIENE AND SAFETY STANDARDS (gels, hand wash signage, waiter service at buffet lines, etc.) on this cruise were the best we have seen on any cruise line.
At another Q&A session the Noordam's chief ENVIRONMENTAL OFFICER showed us a video and then answered questions about how regulations are met to keep the ship and the surrounding seas clean. With crew members, this ship is a city of about 3,000 people, and the environmental and waste management issues are impressive. We never realized, for example, that with a faltering world-wide economy recycling has become almost impossible because no one is willing to accept the recyclables for processing -- their market value is now too low to make it worthwhile economically.
We highly recommend attending these OFFICERS Q&A SESSIONS. We found them the best part of the educational and enrichment programs onboard. There is also a professional lecturer onboard, but we attended only one of her lectures, on Caribbean marine life.
Also new on the Noordam is the CULINARY ARTS CENTER, a small stage venue with a kitchen and closed circuit TV. During demonstrations the TV cameraman is a whiz at displaying close-ups of the chef's working area. The only negative, to our taste, was the use of non-culinary "sidekicks" to ask silly questions and otherwise interrupt the chef's instructions. The chefs are as talented as any on broadcast TV, and should be left alone to present their recipes and techniques.
This area is also called the QUEENS LOUNGE and is used as a small stage venue for such activities as movies, lectures, and talent shows. The KARAOKE contests which took place here (the finals were in the large Vista theater) were absolutely a scream. We highly recommend seeing one or more of these friendly contests, especially the finals.
Also on Deck 3 are the shopping center and photo gallery. SHOPPING is a major activity for many cruisers, and they seemed to enjoy the various sales available onboard during this cruise. In contrast, we are definitely not shoppers. My wife and I travel with one carry-on and no checked baggage wherever we go in the world, even on cruises like this. Yes, it can be done quite easily since three outfits (one formal, two casual), plus shorts, swim wear, and snorkel gear are all we need.
Airline and other connections are so unreliable nowadays that this habit has come to our rescue many times. During the last year alone we have had seven missed connections, canceled flights, or involuntary re-routes out of a total of nine vacations. Having our airline carry-ons with us at all times has been a lifesaver.
In any case, HAL supports shopping addicts (Emptor, ergo sum?) by providing a SHOPPING CONSULTANT, shopping lectures, and excellent maps for each port of call on this cruise. Fortunately, the maps also include good background information and sightseeing suggestions for non-shoppers.
The PHOTO GALLERY is near the main dining room and provides an entertaining stop when one goes to dinner. As on most cruise ships, the photo prices are quite high, so we have rarely taken advantage of this service. Relatively few passengers on our cruise seemed interested in formal sittings. Watching formal night photo sessions, however, can be good entertainment, especially when one views the results the next day.
The CROW'S NEST observation lounge is located on the top deck forward, and provides a nice retreat with forward facing recliners and huge windows to watch the scenery as one approaches ports. This area is also used for various meetings and activities, including the daily TEAM TRIVIA challenge. This is a low-key contest where everyone wins a prize ("Dam dollars" which can be traded for small prizes at the end of the cruise) just for showing up. When done with good humor, as on HAL, this activity can be great fun and is a nice way to meet new friends (we joined a new team each session that we attended).
Just below the Crow's nest is the GYM AND SPA facility. Unfortunately, as on most cruise ships, 10% of the people (those who pay for spa services) get 90% of the space. The other 90% of the people are crowded into the 10% of the space where free exercise equipment is available. This equipment is very popular, even among older cruisers.
The major problem we have with almost all shipboard gyms is the noise. The exercise classes, with their over-amped music, are held in the gym area. Since gym rats who want music have their own tunes (Ipods, Walkmen, and the gym's personal TVs), the booming music during classes and throughout the day is intrusive -- as bad as second hand smoke. Only ear plugs and early work-outs (0600) provide reasonable quiet in these gyms. HAL is better than most in this regard, but could be even better.
In spite of the noise, the SPA STAFF are friendly, and cruisers seemed to appreciate their services. In addition to the usual spa and salon services, there is a daily charge for the hydrotherapy pool. The sauna is free and is conveniently located near the swimming pool.
There are two freshwater SWIMMING POOLS with adjacent HOT TUBS, one mid-ship with a retractable roof, and the other aft. Both are better for soaking than for lap swims, but both are enjoyable. Mid-mornings are especially nice since there is no music or entertainment poolside, which makes this a great time for quiet relaxing.
Unfortunately HAL cruisers, like most others, can be POOL PIGS. They "reserve" pool chairs by placing open towels and personal debris on them, then wander off for an hour or two of other activities before returning to use the chairs. One morning when I was up early I saw this behavior even before the overnight safety nets had been removed from the pools. Another time I saw only one occupied chair in a front row of fifteen chairs that all had used towels or personal debris. The pool was empty at the time. The HAL pool staff are too polite to correct this situation, but should be trained to do so.
One feature of HAL ships enjoyed by all active cruisers is their full wrap-around promenade decks. These are especially appreciated by those with inside cabins. Traditional wooden deck chairs are available on this promenade, and they were well-used on our cruise. For those who enjoy walking this circuit, HAL went one step further by sponsoring a 5K "Walk for the Cure". For a $15 donation passengers received a cancer awareness T-shirt and wristband. The remaining (tax-deductible) proceeds went to support cancer research.
In addition to the options listed above, ENTERTAINMENT comes in many varieties to satisfy a wide variety of tastes. The main (Vista) show lounge has good acoustics and sightlines, and HAL fortunately does not over-amplify its shows. The shows are loud, but not painfully so. Unfortunately, HAL amplifies some shows, like the piano recitals, which should not be.
The SINGERS AND DANCERS on our cruise did a fine job. We usually do not enjoy Broadway style production numbers, so we are not the best critics, but we were impressed with the young talent and the high production values (costumes, technical support, etc.) that we saw here. A Q&A session with the cast was available one afternoon, and it proved to be fun and informative.
We did not catch the lounge acts on our cruise and did not hear any comments, good or bad, about them.
There is a small but very good DANCE BAND that plays every evening in the Ocean Bar adjacent to the atrium. This provides music to several decks, but leaves little space for a dance floor, which is in the smoking area next to the bar. We enjoyed an occasional dance here anyway, usually before dinner. Once they removed some furniture obstructing the dance floor, the dance floor was rarely crowded.
There are two good pianists who play in the piano lounge (nostalgic classics and name-those-tunes, I believe), the Ocean Bar (dancing), and the Crow's Nest (relaxing). In addition, there was a classically trained pianist from Las Vegas who gave two concerts incorporating popular classics (Chopin) with works he composed himself.
Near the main dining room in the Explorers' Lounge was a talented string quartet (from Hungary I believe) which played light classics in a near marathon all evening (I admire their stamina). This provided the wonderful option to listen to fine music while waiting for dinner companions or enjoying an after dinner drink.
For late night revelers, the Crow's Nest provided dance options, as did the Northern Lights night club. As I mentioned earlier, the Noordam is large enough to offer entertainment options for almost every taste.
OUR CRUISE We booked a STANDARD VERANDAH (balcony) cabin several months in advance, for the bargain rate of $110 US per person, per day (pppd) including port charges, taxes, and shipboard credits. Only HAL's $11 pppd charge for tips was extra.
This represents an exceptional value, perhaps because November is relatively low season for Caribbean cruises, especially in the current economic downturn. We met quite a few Britons and Canadians on this cruise who said that they were glad they booked before the recent drop in their currencies (against the dollar, which is the cruise line currency), and would not have booked the cruise after the devaluation.
An unexpected bonus came shortly before our cruise -- two upgrade offers that our Pavlus Travel agent received from HAL. First, for an additional $500 pp, we could upgrade to a category SA, SB, or SC DELUXE VERANDAH SUITE. These cabins are twice as wide as standard verandah cabins, and have about 500 square feet of space including the verandah. We did not need that much space and declined this offer.
A few days later we were offered an upgrade to a category SS, SY, or SZ SUPERIOR VERANDAH SUITE for an additional $98 pp. These are one and a half times as wide as standard verandah cabins, and have about 400 square feet of space. They include double sinks, double showers, and a whirlpool bath tub. They also include a comfortable sitting area with a couch and two chairs inside, and both dining and lounging areas outside on the verandah. Of course, we accepted this offer in a heartbeat.
This cabin proved to be one of the nicest we have ever had -- about as large as the suites we have experienced on small luxury ships, but at a third of the price. Our suite on the Noordam was so enjoyable that we spent much of our time just enjoying our unexpected private luxury.
Because AIRLINES can be unreliable, especially in winter, we booked our own flights, flew to Ft. Lauderdale a day in advance, rented a car for local sightseeing, and spent a night in a motel.
We stayed at a modest but nicely renovated motel, America's Best Inn, just off Highway 1 halfway between the FLL airport and cruise port. The rooms are small (about the size of a standard cruise cabin) but efficient, with a refrigerator, microwave, iron, coffee maker, and LCD TV. Each room has one queen bed, and baths have showers rather than tubs. A continental breakfast is included in the rate. At $55 per night plus tax for two, we found this a great bargain. The immediate area does not have walking access to shops or restaurants, but even with taxi rides this is a far cheaper pre-cruise option than most hotels in the area. To get an idea whether this option fits your style, check the internet for reviews and further information.
While in Ft. Lauderdale, we avoided the main beach (parking $10 according to the signs) and visited two very nice state parks instead. Hugh Taylor Birch SP is north of town on the beach and near the Galleria Mall. John U. Lloyd SP is south of town directly across from Port Everglades, with a huge beach and excellent views across the waterway of the Noordam. For children the south end of this park also offers great views of incoming and departing FLL jets.
In years past we have enjoyed the all day water taxi service in Ft. Lauderdale, which offers great views of the city, elegant homes, and large yachts. This time we had only two half-days, so we skipped this option.
EMBARKATION was a breeze. We dropped off our rental car near the cruise port rather than the airport (check with your rental company if they offer this option), and then we took their free (plus tip) shuttle to the ship.
TAXIS can be a problem between the airport and cruise port. If you arrive at or leave from the cruise port by taxi, make sure that your driver uses the most direct route between FLL and the cruise port -- usually the west entrance on 24th St., just off Highway 1.
Some taxi drivers will take a roundabout route or use the north entrance (off 17th St.) to pad their fares. For example, when we disembarked this cruise, our taxi driver pretended not to know the direct route back to the airport and tried several times to turn north, even though there were huge signs to the airport all along 24th St. He also "forgot" that we had bags in his trunk, even though he picked us up at the cruise ship. (Having learned our lesson in Buenos Aires, one of us always remains inside the cab until the bags are unloaded from a cab's trunk). Our direct route taxi fare for two without excess baggage between FLL and the cruise port was $11.30 plus tip (we did not short the driver in spite of his disingenuous behavior).
When we arrived at the cruise port, we had to wait only a few minutes until a CHECK-IN agent was available to imprint our credit cards and give us our key cards. We had pre-printed our boarding passes on HAL's web site, as had most passengers. There was an express line for category SC suites and above. Our SY suite did not qualify, but the regular lines moved so quickly that it made no difference.
An embarkation LUNCH was available at the Lido buffet, and hand baggage could be checked until 1:30 pm, when the cabins were ready for occupancy. This is a pleasant contrast with some small luxury ships, which charge an extra $150 per person for early boarding and lunch on embarkation day.
Our cabin has been described above. It was located mid-ship on the port side, which turned out to be the "port" side at most stops on this cruise. It gave us pleasant views over the islands and harbors while we were docked, and added drama to the arrivals and departures.
This itinerary featured four (of ten) days at sea, which we thoroughly enjoyed. My wife is a late sleeper and enjoys room service breakfast on the verandah. I am an early riser, so I took advantage of the quiet time at the gym, had a light breakfast at the Lido buffet, then joined her for a second breakfast when she woke up.
We usually ate in the Vista (main) dining room at lunch and dinner. Because we enjoy the OPEN SEATING on small luxury ships, we opted for this new option on the Noordam. On previous HAL cruises we have always enjoyed our fixed seating tablemates, but this gave us a chance to meet new people and hear new stories every day. There was never a wait for the open seating option at lunch, and at dinner the line was short and moved quickly. Those who want a specific dining time or a particular table size can make reservations, but we never bothered to do this.
The FINE DINING in the Vista dining room was the highlight of our cruise. The imaginative menus, the artistic presentations, and the generally excellent preparation of quality ingredients was the best we had ever had on a premium or mainstream cruise, and it often was equal to what we have experienced on luxury cruises. In our opinion, the Noordam is second to none in fine dining.
We were a bit worried at first, because the sesame encrusted snapper on the first night was tough and over-cooked, and the rack of lamb on the second night was not available rare. After that, however, the fish were cooked to perfection and the meats were rare when we wanted them to be.
The appetizers were often so tempting that sometimes we chose two and skipped the soup or salad course. The soups were inventive, usually two hot and savory and one chilled and sweet. The salads featured a nice variety of fresh and tender greens, with no iceberg lettuce or other fillers. If one did not find a main course one wanted, the off-menu salmon or strip steak were always good alternatives. Vegetarian options were always available, but we did not try them.
The desserts, as usual, were delightful, and were served in portions small enough that sampling more than one never left one feeling guilty.
The Vista dining room did such a fine job, in fact, that we never sampled the Pinnacle Grill, the ALTERNATIVE RESTAURANT (surcharged $10 pp at lunch when open, $20 pp at dinner). We have enjoyed the Pinnacle Grill on other HAL ships. On this cruise we thought we might request rare rack of lamb at the Pinnacle since it was not available at the Vista, but only lamb chops were available and no substitutions were allowed. This is the one advantage of luxury ships -- the smaller kitchens allow greater flexibility.
The LIDO BUFFET was a pleasure each time we sampled it, usually at breakfast or when the Vista dining room was closed. We generally skipped the main buffet lines, which other passengers said were good, and chose made-to-order items from the smaller specialty stations such as waffles, omelets, pasta, Asian stir-fry, deli sandwiches, or salad bars. One impressive aspect of the Lido buffet is that most foods are served by stewards, and all self-service silverware is refreshed frequently, minimizing the health risks of shared utensils. In addition to this, we always use the hand gels or washrooms between buffet line and table when cruising.
Although we did not try it on this cruise, several friends recommended the dinner service at the Lido. The tables are covered in linen and meals are served by stewards, as in the main dining room. We have found this a nice quiet option on other ships. On the Noordam the two deck Vista dining room has a relatively small atrium, so it was never too noisy to converse -- we never felt the need to find a quieter dinner venue.
DINING SERVICE, even with our open seating option, was always smooth, efficient, and very professional. Fixed seating has some advantages if one has particular drink or other preferences, but having a different waiter and assistant waiter each night was a pleasure for us -- they all were well trained and responsive to our requests.
CABIN SERVICE was also top notch. Our cabin stewards were rarely visible, but somehow they always managed to clean and refresh the cabin and bathroom whenever we were gone. They provided additional entertainment each evening by folding towels into amusing animal shapes, which were waiting on our bed with chocolates after dinner each night.
ROOM SERVICE also did a good job. One can order from the regular restaurant menu at dinner time (we did not). Hot foods are never as hot when delivered as when served in a dining room, but we enjoyed our room service breakfasts.
CONCIERGE SERVICE was available by phone in our suite category, and is available in person in the Neptune lounge on deck seven for higher category suites. The phone concierge always responded promptly and answered my few questions well.
As mentioned above, HAL has now instituted an AUTOMATIC TIPPING policy, in which $11 pppd is charged to one's shipboard account. Of this, I was told that 35% goes to cabin stewards, 35% to dining stewards, and the remaining 30% to the workers "behind the scenes" who add to one's cruise enjoyment. Any amounts given directly to crew members are supposed to be turned into these pools. I was also told, however, that amounts above the automatic charges could be kept by individual crew members.
We usually tip more than the standard amount, so we added $5 pppd in the form of direct cash to the room stewards and our maitre d', and a supplement to the charges on our shipboard account for the open seating dining stewards.
DISEMBARKATION was also a breeze. HAL has instituted new policies allowing those with little baggage, which they can carry off the ship themselves, to receive priority disembarkation. The ship was cleared a little before 0800, and priority disembarkation occurred about 30 minutes after this.
Airline schedules to our regional airport have been pruned back so much that we had only one option for our homebound flight, and it departed in the afternoon. Those passengers, like us, in no rush are allowed to remain in their cabins until last call, which occurs between 0930 and 1000.
Instead of constant announcements, disembarking passengers are simply given a 15 minute time window in which they are to report to the gangway and leave the ship. These new policies make for a wonderfully smooth and quiet disembarkation process.
IN SUMMARY, this was one of the best quality, most enjoyable, and most reasonably priced cruises we have ever had the pleasure of taking. We definitely will put HAL at the top of our list when we plan our next cruise. Unfortunately, the January 2009 HAL cruise that we just tried to reserve on our return home is already sold out!
PORTS OF CALL Our cruise called at Aruba, Curacao, Dominica, St. Thomas, and Half Moon Cay before returning to Ft. Lauderdale. We almost always prefer to explore ports of call independently rather than book excursions in advance. Most ports offer nice alternatives to the ship sponsored tours, and most Caribbean ports offer good and inexpensive public transportation.
That being said, this was the first cruise where we had less than optimal luck ashore. We were glad we had a suite as a fallback option.
In ARUBA we simply walk across the street from the cruise port to the local bus station. Buses leave every 15 minute and travel northbound along the west coast to the hotel district (the Marriott is the main destination). A few buses each hour continue farther to Malmok, which is a convenient area for offshore snorkeling. There are a few pocket sized beaches with shade umbrellas nearby.
From the Malmok bus terminus one can walk 10 minutes farther north along the coast to Arashi Beach, which is one of the nicest on the island for frolicking in the water. We have even met several Marriott guests who drive to Arashi, preferring it to the hotel beaches along the way. Hurricane Omar in 2008 has taken a good deal of sand away, but Arashi still has more than enough left. A new parking lot is being built there, which means this beach may become more crowded in the future.
When returning to the ship it is worthwhile walking the ten minutes back to the Malmok bus stop. There is Arashi bus service, but it is unpredictable. We think some drivers running behind schedule do not go to the Arashi end of their route. The cost of a perfect beach day? About $2.50 US round trip on the public bus.
Before boarding the ship, stop at the internet shop one block south of the cruise port entrance. It is about 10 cents US per minute for rapid and reliable connections. The storefront is visible, and locals can also direct you.
On our cruise it rained until early afternoon, so our beach stay was limited to two hours.
In CURACAO the main attraction is the quaint and colorful waterfront. This is a photographer's dream (again, see the photo link given at the beginning of this review). If one gets off the ship soon after docking, one can walk through the old fort, cross the floating bridge (retractable), and watch the floating market before it becomes crowded.
Unfortunately, Curacao beaches are not readily accessible by public bus. Friends on our cruise took a taxi to Thiel Bay (about $30) and said the snorkeling there was good, with sea snakes and other unusual sights. One local recommended a small beach called Sonesta, which is a shorter taxi ride from town.
We opted for a bus ride to the far end of the island (West Point route or Lagun and Knip Bay route). Either route costs about $3 US and takes an hour each way. We were told that beaches are available within walking distance of the ends of these routes, but one has to leave town early (0900 for West Point or 0830 for Knip Bay) to have beach time before returning, since buses leave only once every two or three hours.
The bus yard is just a few blocks from the cruise port (due west of the floating bridge). There is a booth for bus tickets, which accepts US cash and gives change in local currency (bring singles). Because we had spent most of our morning in town, we opted to stay on the bus at mid-day and just sightsee, to make certain we made it back to the boat in time. Our driver was great fun -- she had the most elegant manicure we have ever seen, but she drove the huge bus like a Formula One.
In DOMINICA we usually take the minibus to the southern end of the island at Scotts Head. This costs about $2 US and takes about 30 minutes. Minibuses leave every 15 minutes or so (when full) from an area about two blocks inland from the cruise port.
Scotts Head offers very nice offshore snorkeling, with clear water and a good drop-off. The snorkel point is a short walk beyond the minibus stop, in the bay at the base of the hill. After snorkeling, a walk on the trail to the top of the hill gives beautiful views back to the ship in the far distance.
Unfortunately, this was the first time we were on Dominica on a Sunday, and everything, including buses, was shut down. Some taxi drivers were willing to take us to Scotts Head and wait there for us, but they wanted from $60 to $150 for this service, and since we had done this often enough before, we were not willing to pay so much. We enjoyed our suite instead.
In ST. THOMAS we docked at the Crown Point yacht harbor rather than the usual Havensight pier and mall area. This made us very happy because it is walking distance to our favorite USVI option -- the 1030 ferry from Tickles restaurant to Water Island. A short walk on Water Island brings one to the usually quiet and serene Honeymoon Beach. The ferry costs $10 US pp round trip -- less than a roundtrip taxi ride almost anywhere else on the island.
Unfortunately, this beach has recently been discovered by local tour companies. What used to be an empty stretch of sand as long as a football field now has one or two tour groups visiting each day. It is still beautiful, but no longer offers a great advantage over popular Magens Bay.
For those interested in shopping, taxis have set prices and cost only a dollar or two more than they would from Havensight into town or to beaches.
On HALF MOON CAY, HAL's private island, a new larger tender service moves hundreds of people at a time between the ship and the private beach. The downside is that if one is traveling against the flow (early or late) one has to wait as the entire group passes through security. This means that some transfers can take more than 30 minutes, so plan accordingly.
The beach is one of the nicest in the Caribbean, with unbelievably fine white sand and good tree shade. It is not necessary to rent a cabana or shade shell, which are at the crowded near end of the beach anyway.
A (free) beach barbecue and various (surcharged) activities including horseback riding are available here. Snorkeling is not very good off shore because this beach is largely sandy with no coral, so plan on just enjoying the sun and surf while here. A short walk along the shoreline will take you away from the crowds.
Because I was worried about sand and security, I did not take my camera ashore except on Curacao (our first time there) and Half Moon Cay. Again, photos are available at http://www.picasaweb.google.com/efschlenk.