We were looking forward to cruising across the Atlantic, April 15, 2006, on the new Noordam as we had sailed on the old Noordam. We had become acustomed to the Martinis on Celebrity Cruises and were very disappointed in the obviously water downed drinks on board this ship.
This was a BIG BAND cruise but only had one small BIG BAND which was not very good. The food in the dining room was decent but not of the same caliber as Celebrity or the previous Noordam. The staff in the dining room was not very skilled at service and we rarely saw the wine steward. The specialty restaurant on the Noordam was excellent, the European service staff looked after us very well.
In closing I will look elsewhere before booking with Holland America again.
Summary: The Noordam is a nice ship considering its age. It was very clean, not run down (as I expected), and had a nice crew. The majority of the passengers were older than us (we are in our late forties, probably 80-90% were older), which suited us fine. Entertainment was ok considering the smaller size of the ship. Food was very good except the desserts, which I believe are frozen and bought from a supplier. Remember that a smaller ship like the Noordam is necessary to get to some of the ports in the Mediterranean. Eight wonderful stops in ten days; a new civilization to visit every day. Now that is an itinerary to remember. Would I recommend it to anyone else? Of course! Would I do it again? Sure, but not right away. We will probably go back to any of the port stops and spend more time at each one in the near future. This was a perfect way of scouting out future return visits. Overall, a great cruise. HAL has not disappointed me yet.
If you in interested in pictures and cost information that I experienced on the cruiseand at each port, I plan to summarize it and this report on my web page at http://daddyo.home.texas.net within a few weeks.
Day One - Saturday, Oct 28 - Rome We arrived in Rome with no problems, went thru passport control and customs without any hassle. We had use some airline miles for free tickets, so we had not use any of the services from Holland America except to buy the cruise only. The reason is that the prices for transfers are very high, and we are pretty much independent and like the challenge of getting around on our own and saving some money. So here we were in the airport and we find out that all banks are closed after noon on Saturdays. Our plans were to take the train from the airport to the Termini station, then a taxi to the hotel. At the airport train station, which is connected to the airport, I find out that window #1 will accept travelers' checks and credit cards, but that it was closed. Turns out, for whatever reason, window #1 closes from 1:27 pm to 1:45 pm. Since it was 1:30 pm, I decided to try my MasterCard in the auto ticket machine. Well 5 minutes later and a lot of swearing, the machine returned my card. Seems that you need a MasterCard Euro version to use in Europe. So at 1:45 pm, I was first in line to get my tickets at window #1 for the train. It was scheduled to leave at 1:50, but as I found out, trains in Italy are not always on time. It was running about 15 minutes late. There is not a lot of room for luggage. I was able to put the entire carry-on bags overhead, but the one big suitcase had to go on a seat next to me. Thank goodness the train was not completely full. The trip into Rome was fast and scenic, but it was quite a walk from the train to the end of the terminal building to catch a cab. Now I started learning an important lesson. Taxis in Rome will not necessarily take you to where you want to go. If the trip is not long enough, they tell you no. The first taxi asked for 40K lira ($17) and then said it was for a private car nearby. Saying no to that, we went to the taxi line and got in. We arrived at the hotel, which was the Jolly Hotel Vittorio Veneto, and paid 15K lira ($6.50 with tip). We had read that this was a decent hotel and not far from the Spanish Steps. The rate was a standard 400K lira, which came to around $170. The room was nice and the rate included breakfast for both of us. I would recommend it to any other visitors.
We wanted to see as much of Rome as possible since we had to check into the ship tomorrow around 2:00 pm. We headed for the Spanish Steps and learned that there was a Metro entrance close to the hotel and that it had some underground moving sidewalks to the Spagna station. A few minutes later we arrived at the Spanish Steps exit and was immediately in a large crowd. This is a very popular area and it was shoulder to shoulder in front of the steps. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe and had a sandwich and beer and just watched the sights. It was a beautiful day, warm and sun shining, just perfect. From the steps, we walked to the Trevi fountain. It has recently been cleaned and looked great. Thank goodness we went to the fountain today since tomorrow on the tour it was turned off. This is also an area that is known for pickpockets, but we had no problem. From there we walked over to the Pantheon, which was everything I had read about it. Very Impressive. Now I thought we could go toward the Roman Forum area, see it a little, and catch a taxi back. Well empty taxis on Saturday night are rare, and they will not take you unless you are going far. We decided after an half hour to give it up, and decided to walk to the Colosseo station and take the Metro back to the Spanish Steps Spagna station. The Colosseum after dark light up at night was unbelievable. So after a total of 3 hours out in Rome, we returned to our hotel and crashed.
Day Two - Sunday, Oct 29 - Rome The main objective today was to visit the Roman Forum / Colosseum during the morning, then return to the hotel by noon to check out, and catch a 1:00 pm train to Civitavecchia to board the ship. We again took the subway from the Spagna station to the Colosseo station and walked around. The line to enter the Colosseum was very long, so we passed. But on the other side, since it was Sunday, there was an entranance opened to enter and attend a small worship service in one of the rooms inside. After sending some time at the Forum, we decided to return to the hotel. The Spagna and Colosseo stations are on different lines, so you have to transfer from one line to another at the Termini station. I had heard that pickpockets were pretty bad in Rome, and especially at crowded places like Termini, so I had devised a triple defense system. First, I had an empty wallet in my back pocket as a decoy. Next, I had a type of fanny pack / carryall that was attached to my leather belt (harder to cut away) which not only had a slide lock on it, but also a zipper compartment inside the flap where I had my spending money for the day. Lastly, I had a security belt under my clothes with passports, credit cards, and travelers checks. Well, as we were getting onto the subway at Termini in the crowd, I felt someone lift my wallet. I turned around as the doors closed and said, "You got nothing, it's empty". The pickpockets know what they are doing. They get the wallet when you are just entering the subway, and then step back off, knowing that you will probably not follow and leave your wife/companion. Back at the hotel we had the doorman arrange a cab while we were checking out. At the train station it took a while to get the tickets since it was pretty crowded. There is a InterCity train that leaves very half hour to Civitavecchia and beyond. The cost was 13,000 L for the two of us 2nd class. Thank goodness I asked the clerk which track number it was at as the monitors were confusing and only mentioned the end point, and not the train number. I also knew which train it was from the departure time, which was shown, and then the actual time which was again about 15 minutes late. You can get all the info you need for train travel at the following web site, http://www.fs-on-line.com/home/en/, which I did and printed before leaving the USA.
The train makes only one stop at a nearby station in Roma, then goes on to Civitavecchia. There was no problem in having room for the luggage, and we had a nice one-hour trip to the port city. Unfortunately, when the train stopped at Civitavecchia, I could not find a button or latch to open the door. I still do not know if you are to wait until the conductor opens the door from the outside where there is a button to open, but after a few minutes, I reached up and pulled the emergency lever. An alarm sounded, and the conductor showed up and opened the door. Well it worked, and we were off the train. You have to carry your bags down an underpass and back up to the station, so be prepared for a little workout. A taxi took us right up to the ship for check in.
Since we had bought a guarantee outside room ticket, we had no room number assigned yet. The dock men wanted to take our luggage and seemed upset when we could not give it to them yet. The check in is under a large tent, thank goodness, since it was raining slightly. In fact, this was the only rain we encountered in our whole trip. The weather was warm and beautiful the whole time with no need on long sleeves or jacket. Anyway, we checked in, were assigned room #556 on A deck, and had to leave our passports with the ship crew. The room had a small porthole, but was very nice and clean, which I will say about the whole ship. Considering its age (1984), it was in remarkable shape, and much cleaner than the newer Monarch of the Seas that we had been on a few years ago. As we learned, the only problem with these rooms near the end of the ship is that you are under the kitchen area, and the noise in the early evening until midnight is sometimes an issue. In hindsight, I would not have paid an extra $100 a person for the outside guarantee with just a porthole for a window, but would have taken the inside guarantee instead.
For dinner we were surprised to find that we were at a table for four, even though we had asked for a large table. The couple that was seated with us had also requested a large table. They had asked the headwaiter for another table before sitting with us, but were told that all large tables were full, and that we were given a window table in return for sitting at a table for four. At first we were concerned if the couple with us would enjoy our company since we were in our late forties, and they were older and retired. Turns out they were perfect traveling companions and had a spirit of travel and life that was amazing to witness every day. Score one lucky point for us.
Day Three - Monday, Oct 30 - Rome Today is an all day tour from the ship called the "Private visit to the Vatican Museum". It was rather expensive at $186 per person, but we decided that it would be well worth the money since you would be able to tour the Sistine Chapel at closing, and avoid the long lines due to it being a Jubilee year. The tour starts off early around 7:30 am, and takes you to the center of town at the Popolo plaza where you get a couple of hours to tour on your own. Since we had already been around this area the last two days, we decided to catch a taxi and see the Laterano Basilica. This turned out to be a very nice visit to the church that was used by the Popes before building the Vatican. Returning, we were taken down the Appian Via to a very nice restaurant for lunch. All of the Holland American tours go here for lunch, so it was crowded, but done well enough. The food was good and hot, and there was plenty of wine choices for everyone. The only drawback was the small number of rest rooms available, so the line was long before and after the meal. I would suggest you go during the meal between courses. Now we were taken to the Vatican, and followed our guide around St. Peter's Square and Bascilia. Then around 6:00 pm, we were taken to the back entrance to the Sistine Chapel and allowed to view it for about 40 minutes with explanations by our guide. Unfortunately the climb and the long walk out of the museum were almost too much for some of the older companions in our group. To make it worse, the buses were parked a couple of blocks away and it made for a bad walk in the dark, especially trying to cross several busy streets with no traffic light. Everyone was tired and sleeping on the trip back.
Day Four - Tuesday, Oct 31 - Naples Today is Naples with our main goal of seeing Pompeii. Since we like to be independent and adventuresome, I had decided to get to Pompeii on our own. I knew that there was a train that went to Pompeii from the Naples station, but the station was too far to walk from the port. I learned that the street tram #1 would take you from the port to the station. So we tried to do just that. It was not a good idea. In morning traffic, we had to stand on a narrow piece of concrete about two feet wide in the middle of the street with traffic flying by us on both sides. Worse the tram did not show up for 20 minutes, then it was crammed full. By the second full tram, we decided that we were wasting time, and decided to try a taxi. The taxis in this area did not want to take us over to the station, and even would not go to Pompeii without also bringing us back. Finally we went to the last taxi in line and got him to agree to a one-way trip for $30. It took a lot of arguing, but we finally got there. Pompeii is not for people who are handicapped or have difficulty with walking. The roads are made with stones that are rounded and slippery, and there is much climbing to get into the area, and it is so large! Else wise, it was a wonder to see, and even in November was pretty crowded and hot. I cannot imagine trying to see Pompeii in the heat of the summer and the crowds. Hint: we packed a lunch of sandwiches from the ship and ate at a little outdoor snack bar on a terrace overlooking the entrance to Pompeii. We had the table nearest the entrance and could see the whole front of the city and people going in. It was one of the best moments of our trip. Coming back worked out great. The info office at Pompeii has an English timetable for trains to Naples to give you. The station is near the entrance, and the cost was only 3,200 Lira each. Don't make the mistake I did and get off at the first Naples station. There is a smaller station that is the end of the line a few hundred yards down the line, and is more convenient to catch the tram from it. We got on the #1 Tram (still had our tickets from trying to use them that morning) and made it to the port ok. The total time from Pompeii to the port was an hour and it was cheap. Plus no traffic to worry about since we saw traffic at a standstill on the way back. After a little shopping for some shoes and stuff, walking around the downtown area, we decided to go back to the ship and call it a day.
Day Five - Wednesday, Nov 1 Day at Sea. Great weather again, so we stayed around the pool some, enjoyed the music and food. What else is there to say?
Day Six - Thursday, Nov 2 - Crete Again we decide to do our own transportation. This time we had our table mates Stan and Joan join us to go to the ruins of Knossos. The ruins are much smaller in area than Pompeii, but still very impressive. The age of the city is amazing to comprehend, around 3,000 to 1,500 BC. This is one place that we did not bargain too well for a cab, and paid $80 for 4 of us for 2.5 hours. The port director on the ship had said to pay no more than $20-25 per hour, so we learned a lesson in bargaining. Still it was cheaper than the excursion tour from the ship. We used our taxi to go to the museum in town to see the actual frescos from Knossos. Across the street from Knossos we found a nice outdoor cafe and just soaked up the sun and atmosphere. After lunch we did our shopping thing with lots of good bargains. I recommend the Crete honey and the honey-coated pistachios. They were great and were not available anywhere else on the trip.
Day Seven - Friday, Nov 3 - Santorini This time only Stan joined us. Joan decided to stay behind since she had been to Santorini before. Stan opted for the cable car, while we went on the donkeys up the cliffs. Actually it was not so bad as people had said. The path is very wide with a low wall to keep the donkeys on track. We walked towards the bus center at the edge of town and just missed the 11:00 bus to the ruins of Akrotini. Since the next bus was not for another 90 minutes, and we were concerned about getting one back in time for the 5 pm departure, we decided to skip the ruins and just shop and eat. We noticed that some tourists were renting scooters, so we plan to go back and explore the island that way. What can we say about Santorini that everyone else has not said before? It is a wonderful place, and was a highlight of our trip. Eating on a terrace overlooking the sea and ship with a view of the whole city on the cliffs is one of the greatest treats on earth. Loaded with more great bargains from the shops, we made our way back on the cable car and return to the ship.
Day Eight - Saturday, Nov 4 - Athens Six of us decided to take a taxi into town to save money. Finding a taxi that would take us to the Acropolis one-way was tough, but we managed to get one for $30 total. We paid in Greek money and ran into our first scam. We gave the money to the taxi driver, which included a 5,000-drachma note. He then held out a 500-drachma note and said that we had him that instead. After a lot of arguing, we gave him another 5,000-drachma note. One of the couples with us had the same scam again on the way back. Beware; the taxi drivers are practicing for the Olympics. Another very warm day and tons of tourists! The climb, heat, and the slippery stone paths were almost too much for many older persons. Do not forget to go to the museum next to the Acropolis to see the originals that were once on the Parthenon. From there we walked down into the Flea Market area and did some shopping. From there we walked towards the Parliament building and stopped at a sidewalk cafe for lunch. Some cafes we noticed were not too crowded, but a few had lots of local people at them. We ate at a cafe that was crowded and we were not disappointed. The kabobs were excellent and very cheap. We walked on to Syntagma Square and watched the changing of the guards. From there we returned to the port by subway. We had a problem getting a taxi to take us back to the ship from the subway station, so we finally jumped into one and would not get out until he took us, plus we offered $5 up front. It worked. The walk from the station to the ship was about 1.5 miles, so it could be walked if you wanted to. Since the ship left at mid-night, many people stayed in town and ate dinner there.
Day Nine- Sunday, Nov 5 - Mykonos The ship docked about 1.5 miles from town, so we had to ride a shuttle. About half of the town was closed, and the shopkeepers said that they were shutting the rest down as soon as the Noordam left. The town was very empty except for the ship crowd, so we were a little disappointed. We were able to get a small meal of Greek salad at one of the waterfront cafes. I tried one of the local fish dishes, but it was not very good. Prices in general seemed higher than the rest of Greece, but since it was the end of the season, we were able to get some good bargains. It was interesting that the walking tour of Mykonos was sold out. It seemed like a pretty much waste of money since you could walk it yourself with no problem, and there was not much to see or was open. It shows you that many Americans have to be taken care of every stop and do not want to venture on their own. Mykonos is definitely an island that would have been more exciting to visit in the tourist season. We plan to go back and see it when the island is a little more active and we can visit some of the famous beaches. I was very surprised to learn that our visit to Mykonos was only the 2nd time this year that the Noordam had docked at Mykonos. I knew that docking here was not guaranteed since the weather can affect the ship and pier conditions, but I think HAL should let peiple know that the percentage of docking at Mykonos is greatly against them. From the brochure and warnings, you would assume that the Noordam docks most of the times, but occassionally misses it. Not So.
Day Ten - Monday, Nov 6 - Kusadasi Another beautiful day. Just about everyone was taking one of the ship tours. We also took a tour this time since we were not sure of getting a taxi to go to Ephesus and getting us back. It seemed safer to do the tour this first time. We left at 8:30 a.m. and arrived in 30 minutes. At this time of year, it was still crowded. This was one time that we were glad to have a guide. This is a place you can return to time and time again, and I bet see or learn something new each time. This was probably the best site to visit in our whole trip. After returning we walked over to the small bazaar to shop. Wow, the shopkeepers were very aggressive and the bargaining much harder. You would swear that they were actually mad when you tried to get a decent price. Part of the game. Never pay more than half of the first price is a good lesson to go by. We had lunch at the Goldfische cafe that was very good, $34 for four of us including tip and beer.
Day Eleven- Tuesday, Nov 7 - Istanbul We arrived at Istanbul around noon. The view of the city coming into the port is a once in a lifetime type experience. I had studied more on Istanbul than any other city, so I felt prepared to spend the next three days there. The port guide said that we could walk to the spice market from the ship pretty easily. It was actually more than 2 miles, so I would suggest a taxi. They are cheap and better than walking a long distance. If they try to make you pay ahead of time and negotiate, then get out and get into another one. They are suppose to use meters in Istanbul, so make them do it. The spice market was everything we had heard or hoped it would be. It was so crowded and around the streets near it. We had met some fellow shipmates while walking to the market, so we decided to meet at 1:30 pm at the Pandeli Restaurant located at the end of the spice market upstairs. I had heard that it was nice, and we were glad that we went there. Very good food and service. From there we decided that we would enjoy the walk to the Grand bazaar. Now I wished that we had done it the other way since it was all uphill to the Grand Bazaar. (Hint: Go to the Grand Bazaar first, then walk downhill to the Spice Market). It is impossible to describe the atmosphere surrounding the Grand Bazaar. My wife was not too pleased with the constant harassment from the shopkeepers. I finally got a migraine from having to say NO THANKS to every person I met. We did persevere and bought a beautiful antelope leather coat for my wife and some pashminas at bargain prices. We decided that we did not know enough about rugs to buy one, even though this was the place to get one if you ever wanted to. Guess we will have to learn more and go back. We hopped a cab back to the ship and started our packing.
Day Twelve- Wednesday, Nov 8 - Istanbul The last day of the cruise and the infamous disembarkation. It was not so bad. Since we were staying on for another couple of days, we were one of the last to leave the ship around 10:30 a.m. We really had a difficult time in getting a taxi. There were just not enough of them and when one arrived, everyone was yelling for them. Finally we got one and agreed for $10 to go to the Hyatt Regency. This was one time no taxi was accepting people with just the meter. Still it was much cheaper than the ship transfer, but the wait for the taxi for 30 minutes was a down side. While waiting for the taxi the ship's captain announced that George W. Bush had won the election. It made good conversation at the time; little did we know that it was continue to be good conversation for a month longer. The Hyatt was soooo nice to be in after the small cabin. We decided to hit the road and see the sights. First stop was the Topkapi palace, which was a great beginning point. In the palace area you can eat outside at the Konyah restaurant and see the Bosphorus. You have to try this spot if you come. The huge amount of ships and boats coming and going is fascinating to see. Do not miss the tour of the harem. >From there we went to the Sophia Hagia and the Blue Mosque, and finally the underground Cistern. We called it quits and returned to the hotel to change for dinner. We took a cab to Mavi Yesil restaurant, which was only a few minutes away by cab, but at rush hour traffic, it took 45 minutes. The restaurant was fantastic with a great view of the Bay Bridge. You select your fish before heading up to the dining area. Since you buy the whole fish, we picked a nice sea bass that would be perfect for the two of us, plus come giant size prawns. The food, wine, service and view were all supreme. I highly recommend this place to anyone.
Day Thirteen- Thursday, Nov 9 - Istanbul The last full day of touring. We decided to take a cruise up the Bosphorus instead of seeing more of the city. We walked down to the ferry station from our hotel and bought tickets for a tour. Cost was only $5 for both of us. Don't take a tour when you can do it yourself. We met some people from the Noordam who were also on the same boat. The ferry runs up the Bosphorus, stopping about 5 times on the way. The last stop you get out and tour around the city of Anadolu Kavagi and have lunch, then return a few hours later. We had some great seafood. Once back, we decided that the cruise up the Bosphorus had been a perfect and relaxing way to end our vacation.
Day Fourteen - Friday, Nov 10 - Going Home Our flight was at 8:00 a.m., so we had to get a taxi from the hotel around 6:00 a.m. The driver tried his best to be a race car driver as he sped through the city. It was a scary experience and I was just glad that there was no traffic. The airport was very modern and nice and our trip was un-eventful until I returned. While on our trip we had been careful to drink canned drinks and water, and not drink anything with ice in it while on land. Well, I got an orange juice at the Istanbul airport at the Burger King there. When I finished it my wife took it to throw away. She noticed that there was ice in it (had a lid on it). I figured the chances were slim that it was be a problem. Saturday after returning, I came down with the worst type of revenge for three days. Hey, I lost 5 pounds for the whole trip thanks to that, but I wouldn't want to lose weight that way again.