Below are copies of the note I sent to Holland Americal line and
their response on the 10-DAY SOUTHERN CARIBBEAN SEAFARER January
18th January 28th on Noordam:
> From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 10:16 AM
> To: Guest Relations (HAL)
> Cc: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Subject: 10-DAY SOUTHERN CARIBBEAN SEAFARER January 18th January 28th on Noordam
We were very disappointed with our most recent voyage on the Noordam. There were some very good points about the ship as well, but the overall impression I/we had with the Noordam and Holland America was negative.
I would like to start with the GOOD Ray and Vincent at the front desk/Purser's desk were excellent, providing as much assistance as possible with a smile. The Ship it self was clean and in good repair and well handled, both in our cabin and the public areas. The Spa/Gym staff were excellent, especially Saundra the leader of the morning Stretch and exercise class!! (and having these two sessions each morning from 7:00-7:30 and 7:30-8:00 as free classes was GREAT) The dinning room food was excellent as
However, our vacation was overshadowed by several events starting even before we boarded:
The first being our dinning room seating. When we booked initially, we were unable to get first seating (5:45) and were wait listed. Our travel agent suggested we try back on the day the final portion of the fare was due, which we did. We were able to obtain first seating (and it was reflected on the web site.) When we did the original submission of our documents to check in, 1st seating was displayed. About five days before sailing we went to print more luggage tags and noticed we had been re-assigned to open seating for dinner. We called Holland America Line and were told there was nothing they could do and we would have to call our travel agent, which we did. After spending close to an hour on the phone with our travel agent, we were able to again have 1st seating in the dinning room. (And again, we checked the next day to be sure it was on our reservation on the web site and it was.) When we came to board and were issued our ID cards, printed on the face of the card was open seating for dining. We immediately brought this to the attention of the agent that was checking us in. She, rather curtly said there was nothing she could do and we would have to handle it 'ship board' by talking with the dinning room manager. (In the past we have had to do this to get early seating and it always involves a "gratuity" of around $50.00 and since we worked at getting first seating before the cruise we had no intention giving anyone a gratuity for this again.) At my insistence, the manager on duty came over and I explained the problem. He also said there was nothing he could do and the only way to fix it was to do it on board.
I was surprised that a member of management was not empowered to resolve issues of this nature in a better way. He said my only alternative would be to call the 800 customer service number, which he provided. I did so ASAP right there and then (I think to the manager's surprise) I talked with a gentleman who claimed he was in the President's office. He also said that we should just go and talk with the dinning room manager. I again explained that fixing it with the dinning room manager would involve cash payments and about 1-2 hours of time. I pressed him with "if you are in the president's office, you mean you can't solve a simple customer's issue like dinning room seating?" he then put me on hold to "check something" and after a few minutes he came back and said that we should check with "Annie", the guest relation's manager on the ship and she would resolve our issue. I thanked him, boarded the ship, and went straight to the front desk/purser's office and asked for Annie. After a 10-15 minute wait, Annie came out and introduced herself. We explained our issue and she called the Dinning room, and after some discussion, we were granted 1st seating and had our ID cards re-issued, but not before Annie informed us that it was not the ship's fault that we did not have 1st seating. In all of this, we managed to miss the Mariner's Lunch in the dining room. We were the 7th, 8th and 9th people at a table for eight, so it was crowded, but our dinner companions were great and we all enjoyed each other's company each night at dinner (there were always empty tables in the dinning room and we heard from many others that they also wanted early seating and could not get it, but this has been an ongoing issue, since anytime dining was introduced and a different matter all together.) In all of this, the overall attitude that we encountered, both on the phone before the cruise, at check in and on board was:
It's not my fault
There is nothing I can do about it
It's not my issue
Where I was expecting the attitude of "How can I fix/resolve your problem." Which to me would be a signature of excellence.
The 1st night of the cruise, we received to notes about the deep sea fishing excursion we booked for a member of our group. One of the notes said the boat was out of commission and the other said here is your ticket for the excursion. Neither were date/time stamped so we did not know which to believe. We called and were not able to reach the excursion's desk (they were closed) We went down to the front desk to ask. They did not have a clue on which was correct, had no information other than the schedule for the next day with a mark next to the deep sea fishing and said there was no way to contact the excursion people to ask. (Where they were very nice and trying to be helpful, apparently they were not empowered to call/page/locate the excursion people to get an answer to our question) They suggested that we plan on the excursion, just in case it was "on", which we did and the it was (thank god we did plan) We also noticed that there were several people signed up for Deep Sea Fishing that did not show up at the boat, and we wondered if they had the same issues we did. Again we had the attitude of "there is nothing I can do/that I am allowed to do, to resolve the issue."
One night we ordered an in-room movie to be delivered. After the phone hold wait of 3-4 minutes they came on the line, took our order and said the movie would be there in 10-15 minutes, even though we offered to pick it up. After waiting over an hour for the movie, we called again (same 3-4 minute hold) they were surprised that we did not have the movie, then put us on hold trying to find out what happened, then we were told they thought the movie had been delivered asking us to be sure (we checked the outside bin, even though we were in the room the whole time, it was not there) then waited while they tried to figure out what happened. We never got the movie.
The times and locations of the ship board activities were poorly thought out nothing scheduled then several things scheduled at the same time. Locations and times of things like team trivia, and shipboard movies were greatly varied, even thought it was always well attended (when we could locate it) The quantity of the activities was very low. The late night Dessert event was held in the atrium, which was way too small. It was cramped, on three levels, and the A/C could not keep up we left quickly, without sampling much (We almost felt like the venue was chosen so people would leave quickly without partaking in the dessert buffet.
The movies around the pool on the Lido deck could not be heard/understood, ruining the movie. This is a BAD place to present movies and we declined to view any other movies on the pool deck. When we mentioned it to the Cruise Director, he said he knew and there was nothing that could be done. (Notice the theme of "not my fault, nothing I can do...")
The following items are just notes/comments about other things we think you should be aware of that normally we would not bother to write about, but since I am already writing, I am including them as well:
The Cruise Director, (Sean Michaels?) was the poorest dressed Cruise Director I can remember, who told very old, poor jokes to an audience that clearly, after the first couple of times he spoke, didn't what to hear them. I may be an old fogey, but on formal night, I would expect the Cruise Director to be turned out in a well fitting Tuxedo, complete with bow tie, cummerbund/vest studs and cuff links. This was not the case and it was noticed by many of the guests.
In the past, participation in trivia, game shows... yielded some nice mementos of the trip. This time, either they were not given or they were so poor as to be not wanted who really wants another pin... We can remember the days of the Dam Dollars and ending up with a "dam ships" sweat shirt, hat or t-shirt and we miss them.
Room service was prompt in the morning, delivering our wake up coffee. However, it took them forever to retrieve the tray (sometimes as late as 4:00 pm, even though we called early to to have them picked up) We honored the request not to put them in the hallways, but we were tempted to several times because of the delay in getting them.
Calling anyone on the ship's telephone resulted in always being put on hold for 1-5 minutes, regardless of who we were trying to reach.
The tenders on half moon cay were some of the worst boat handlers I have ever encountered. They struck both the dock and the ship very hard, jarring the passengers and alarming some of them. The weather was not particularly rough or windy, just poor drivers (When the Ship's tenders were used at Samana, they were smooth and gentle, in worse conditions...) Where this did not affect our enjoyment much, I thought I would note this for you, since they are outside contractors and you need to know the quality (or lack there of) of the contractors.
This was my 3rd cruise on a Holland America ship in the past five years and each one has been a step down in customer service from the one before. This is an alarming trend and feel that as a loyal customer, I need to make you aware of them. If this trend continues, Holland America will no longer be my cruise line of choice.
On 2/11/2013 11:50 AM, Guest Relations (HAL) wrote:
Thank you for your email to Holland America Line's Guest Relations Department.
We are committed to providing our guests with the highest level of service, and appreciate the effort it takes to write to us. Please be assured that we respond to all correspondence in the date order it is received. At times it can take several weeks to properly investigate and research some issues to provide a proper response. We appreciate this opportunity to review your correspondence and thank you for your patience.
You will be hearing from us soon.
If you find it necessary to contact us in the meantime, please refer to your booking number.
Office of the President
Holland America Line
We had arranged our flights through Holland America, and everything went smoothly. We were met at the airport in Rome by the HAL representatives, who were very helpful in getting our luggage onto the truck to the port, and to our bus. It is about a 45 minute drive from the airport to Civitiveccia, where the ship is docked. Once at the pier, we quickly received our ship's card and were on board. Unlike many cruises, we were able to go to our cabin, even though it was before noon. After admiring our cabin and spacious balcony, we headed to the upper deck casual restaurant for lunch.
The Noordam, as sister ship to the Westerdam, on which we'd sailed a few years ago, was a little easier to navigate than a brand new ship, but we still were lost some of the time. One thing that we really enjoyed, which a lot of ships no longer have, is a wrap-around deck for walking. We only got to use that one the 2 at-sea days, but it is really nice. That deck also has deck chairs for lounging, which we did afew times.
We liked the "open seating" dining that we opted for. We had a table for 2 twice, and "sharing" tables the rest of the time & had great table mates. Fixed seating is nice, if the mix is good & most of the time, we've had good luck, but there have been some that haven't been so great. We ended up missing three of the shows in the main theater since we were having such great conversations. One other nice thing about open seating is that you don't feel like you have to leave the table so that the waiter can clean the table for the second seating.
Our favorite entertainment venue was the Adagio Strings, a classical quartet, two men & two women who were wonderful. They played in a fairly small lounge, but one night they were in a larger theater doing Vivaldi's 4 Seasons concerto and it was fantastic. They had a great comedian/magician who was amazing, and we also saw one of the singer/dancer shows.
Our first port was Dubrovnik, Croatia. We took a tour that included a performance by an ethnic singing/dancing group at an outdoor theater. They were great, but all I could think of was how hot they must be. It was very hot/humid in the outdoor theater & at least we were in the shade. They were in long pants or skirts and long sleeved blouses/shirts. From there, we walked through the city's "Old Town," with its fortified walls, churches, monasteries & shopping areas. People on the tour had an option to be dropped off there to shop, after visiting the beach area, but we opted to return to the ship...just too hot!! From the Old Town, we went to a seaside resort area and relaxed by the beach area in the shade. It was beautiful! That afternoon, we went to the pool and it was nice, though a little crowded. The Noordam did have an "adults only" pool at the aft end of the ship, which was nice.
On the 9th, we were in Corfu, Greece, and we took a tour of the "Palaces of Corfu," two residences with a lot of history. The places were beautiful and it was interesting to hear about the area.
The next day, we docked in Katakolon, Greece, where we took a bus tour out to the sie of the original Olympics and the Olympic village. It is fascinating to see all the excavations that have been discovered and restored. It was a huge area, and the guide was very good at explaining everything. I'm not a huge Olympics fan, but the history is fascinating.
Saturday's port was Santorini, Greece, the one that we'd been waiting for. We visited Oia, a town way up on a hilltop and looks like the setting for the movie, "Mamma Mia." the views were breathtaking! This is the place where the artwork/photos must be taken for travel brochures for the Greek Isles...beautiful whitewashed houses & churches, with ocean blue roofs. They also had a lot of nice shops.
We visited a winery on Santorini and sampled three wines, yes at 9 AM...and they were all delicious. Better than the wine was the fantastic view from their patio. The ship looked gorgeous in the harbor. That was the only port that we had to tender to shore.
On Sunday, we were in Kusadasi, Turkey, where we took a tour to Ephesus. The restored ruins there were even more amazing than the ones at Olympus. This was our only afternoon tour, leaving at 12:30 PM. I was concerned at first that the heat might be worse, but it was fine, and there was a lot of shade. It was nice to sleep later, since our other tours before & after were EARLY, assembling in the show lounge before 8 AM...no sleeping in for those!
Following the tour, we were taken to a shop for a "rug demonstration." It was fascinating to watch the worker weave a rug, and lovely to watch the workers lay out the gorgeous rugs of various sizes, but then they put on a pretty agressive sales pitch that wasn't at all enjoyable. We had thought some of the designs were lovely, and might have bought a smaller size rug, even just to display on a wall, but the overwhelming aggressiveness of the salesman was a huge turnoff, so we just left. We walked through the shopping bazaar outside of the port area and found that ALL the sales people in that town in Turkey were super aggressive. I might have looked at some of the cloth purses that looked nice, but I didn't want anyone hanging over me trying to make a sale. It was a relief to get back to the ship, but we did enjoy the trip to Ephesus.
The next day, we toured Corinth and it was kind of an anti-climax, since the excavated ruins there are nowhere as impressive as Ephesus and Olympus, but it was interesting and they had a very nice, informative museum.
Our last at sea day was spent mostly on our balcony in the afternoon after walking on deck in the morning. It was another day when we really appreciated being able to sleep in. We had taken advantage of an upgrade offer from HAL to go from a Verandah cabin, to a Superior Suite. It was great having a much larger cabin & especially the extra room on the balcony. We had wicker furniture with comfortable cushions, not just plastic chairs as we've had on other lines.
Our last port was Messina, Italy where we had booked a tour called "In the Steps of the Godfather." We had liked that one, not so much since it went to the villages where the movie(s) were filmed, but because the villages sounded interesting. They were, indeed, very interesting. Both were at the top of the mountainous island of Sicily, and on the trip up to the second village, we had a fantastic view of a beach resort.
We docked back at Civitiveccia on Thursday, and took a bus to Rome and our hotel, where we spent two additional nights before flying home.
I can definitely recommend both the Noordam, and this itinerary. We spoke with several people who were doing back to back cruises on the Noordam's other itinerary to the Western Mediterranean, making it a 20 night cruise. The Noordam staff was wonderful, no complaints at all.
We boarded the Noordam around noon on 23 Dec 11 and had a small wait until our room was ready. We had a superior veranda suite and was very pleased with the size of the room. We had so much room we didn't know what to do with it. In the bathroom we loved the double sinks, the separate shower as well as the jetted tub/shower combo. My boyfriend and I were able to get ready at the same time without getting in each other way. The closets were big enough to hide all our suite cases and clothes. The balcony was so big it accommodated four chairs, a table to eat on and a side table. Our room stewards Aep and Hans were the bomb. They were available for anything we needed (I don't know when they slept). I always looked forward to coming back to the room to see what towel animal was waiting for me.
The staff were very friendly and personable. You could engage in conversations with anyone in the staff and you feel like you have known them for years. We had open seating andhad great servers except when we ate at table 4. The server never introduced himself to us and he appeared as if he really didn't want to serve us. I try not to complain when servers act ignorant but show them how displeased I am by either not eating there again or showing it in their tip. All I ask from my server is to be polite. The food was excellent from the omelets in the morning, the burgers at at lunch, the variety of dishes at dinner to the cookies and ice cream at night.
Our first stop was half moon cay and it was wonderful. You had so much to choose from to do. (Pay the extra for the shell). We had to tender to get there and it was not so bad a ride (I am terrified of the small boats considering I can't swim).
That night was formal night and it was nice to see others dressed up. The crew did an international Christmas program and it was nice to see all the different nationalities singing songs from their native countries. It was wonderful.
Our second stop was Turks and Caicos but did not stop because the weather did not cooperate and the captain came on and explained.
The entertainment staff were nice and I enjoyed them. The Hal Cats were excellent. Drew, our entertainment coordinator, was entertaining. Keep up the good work Drew. Reggie, our DJ, had the music bumping. Great job.
We also stopped at Samana Dominican Republic(Tender), Bonaire and Aruba. I loved Curaco. We were there from 0700-2300hrs. The floating bridge was the gateway to the other side and there was shopping galore and when nightfall came, the entertainment started. I wished we could have stayed over night.
We spent four days at sea (25, 27, 31 Dec 11 and 01 Jan 12) and there was so much to do from just laying around catching some sun to different activities to choose from. We had two more formal nights (27 Dec and 31 Dec). In the evenings, you could listen to the violinist, go to the piano bar, go to the disco, the sports bar, the casino, the explorers cafe for espresso, a good book, magazine or games. On New Years Eve, you had different choices on where to go for the count down. I was a little disappointed that the only place to get your hat or tierra were in the main dining room and everyone did not get one. They should have had different sections where you could get it especially if you ate in your room or the lido. It was nice to see the staff who were not working dressed up in their uniforms bringing in the new year.
We did the luggage direct program and it was worth it. It only took us 20 minutes to get off the boat and we didn't see our luggage again until we landed. Sweet!!! I truly felt spoiled on this boat. I I think I have become an Holland American girl.
In September 2011 my wife and I boarded the Holland America ship Noordam for a 10 day cruise to Greece. This was our 19th cruise but our first on a Holland America ship. We had been upgraded to a suite and were happy about the spacious accommodations. In fact, on the first day we were talking about becoming regular Holland America cruisers.
On either the second or third day, we began to notice the smell of sewage in our room and in the passageway outside our room. It seemed to get worse as time went on. I began to make sure that the bathroom door was closed at all times thinking that the smell was coming from there. It did not help and I became nauseous from the smell. I called the room steward and he said the smell was coming from the AC unit and he would notify engineering. Engineering came and said that they would notify housekeeping.
The oder seemed to go away for a day and then came back as bad as ever. Once again, I called to complain. Some people came to investigate but I got norelief from the problem. I was only able to tolerate being in the room by using a chair to hold the door open to the veranda. On the last day, before we docked, the odor went away.
We took a land tour and sat at a table with another couple that were on our ship. We all said we were having a nice time on the cruise until I said that I had only one problem: "the smell in our room." With that, the man went into a rant about how awful the smell was in his room and that he would never go on another Holland America cruse. I asked if he had complained and he said no. I told him that I had and it did no good.
I know that there is a tendency to blame the cruise staff for these problems and I want to say that I place no blame on any of the crew. In fact, at all times, they were friendly, courteous and respectful. Clearly, the blame for our terrible experience rests on top management for allowing such conditions to continue.
A mediocre experience.
This was our 3rd cruise with Holland America; the entire experience did not measure up to our previous cruises.
Definitely, there were very good things: attention for safety and infection control was outstanding. Every single corner of the ship was sparkling clean. The decorations on the ship were of the best of taste (the Florentine mosaic table in the library, the valuable pieces of Dutch art, or Turkish carpets, the old books, etc) The suites were great: lots of storage, and a large veranda, on deck 6. We were able to get in the very moment we were on board The cabin and dining room stewards were indeed very professional. Room service worked well The good habit of HAL to welcome back the tourists after their shore excursion with cold towels, lemonade or cold water was a very nice touch; we noticed that other ships in the port (from Cunard, or Royal Caribbean) did not do that for their passengers.
Unfortunately, the list of "not so great", even negative things , is longer. Embarkation was less smooth than accustomed to. It was a very hot day of August, and everybodywould have appreciated some complimentary cold water or lemonade. Food in "Lido" was mediocre. For infection control purposes, food was handled by the personnel; they were not always in the best mood. There are no more plastic trays, that makes difficult to carry the food to the table. The personnel was less eager than we were used to to help the older/disabled passengers. Food in main dining room looked very nice; main course though was too salty, most of the time. The shore excursions were expensive. We were a party of 5 (15- 68 yr); we planned our own land trips, at a fraction of cost. There were much less fresh flowers arrangements that we were used to. The entertainment was probably the lowest point of the cruise. The string trio in the Explorer lounge was sub mediocre. Most shows in the Vista lounge were mediocre one man shows, the dancers and singers were OK, but the quality of productions was almost embarrassing, obviously done on a very low budget. "Very low budget", or, in better words "much lower budget than before" is the general note on board of Noordam in 2011.
I will never recommend somebody this ship. It was the worth experience in my life. Food in “ all you can eat” buffet is like food in High School Cafeteria. The shore excursions are TURIST TRAP.
At Palma de Majorca they took us to pearl factory trying to sell. We did not come from NYC to visit pearl factory. Then we spent 40 minutes across the street on bullring, witch is place for public urinate. Nice. We spent 1hour and 20 minutes in cathedral where other people spend 20 minuets and cost for public ticket only 4 euro.
Out of 4 h we spent 1 ½ h in the bus and did not see Palma de Majorka. Shame!!!It was insult and abuse. And when you complain, they ignore you. It was like robbery. They spoiled our vacation.
This was a first time cruise for my wife and I starting off from Ft. Lauderdale for a 10 day cruise. Stops included Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, St. Thomas USVI, Dominica, Curacao, and Aruba.
Dominica was the port that we liked the most. We took the Rain Forest Tram tour, and it was a really fun time and the tour guides were very friendly and made sure everybody had a good time. All of the stops were great with clear blue waters. Snorkeling was very good at Half Moon Cay and Aruba.
When we first pulled up in the Ramada Inn bus, the lines for embarkation looked long and disorganized. But as soon as we were handed over to the staff of Holland America, things changed very quickly. There were many red jacketed people there to help and point us in the right direction. Within 20 minutes we were welcomed onboard the ship. The entertainment had already started with a band playing and a crew wanting to serve.
At 1:30 pm the announcement came that cabins were ready, so we made our way to our cabin on the UpperPromenade deck. The cabin was larger than expected with the balcony on this deck being about 2 feet wider than on the others to help cover the open deck below, but it is a great benefit for those on deck 4. The cabin was just as described, which is not always the case for rooms. The bed had a pillow top mattress and top quality bedding.
Dining on the Noordam has many options. We ate in the Lido dining room most of the time. The food is the exact same menu as in the Vista dining room, but you are able to see the dishes before ordering. We did dine in the Vista a couple of times, but preferred the Lido.
The staff were so friendly and helpful. The Pinnacle Grill was as nice as any five-star restaurant on land.
The entertainment was very good. The cast of the ms Noordam, which is a 14 member cast of singers and dancers, were really good. Many of the HAL ships do not get very good reviews, but that is not the case with this cast on the Noordam. With featured male and female singers, along with a male and female lead singer, dancers backed them up with 4 each of male and female dancers, they perform some very good shows. The guest performers were also of top quality. As for music, Caren and the HALcats were everywhere from poolside to lounges, and they sounded good no matter where they played. Dave the piano man put on a fun show every night. There was some type of music or show every night for everybody's taste, from a string quartet to piano players, to disco.
One of my favorite things to do each day was that the Exploration Café personnel would give a 30 minute talk about each stop, or a history of the area in general. Some of the talks included Rum Runners, The Real Pirates of the Caribbean, and Under the Keel. These were very informative and interesting even to those not that interested in history.
Holland America's silent disembarkation works very well. You are given a time slot and they leave it up to you to be there. No calling out of group numbers or colors every few minutes; just a smooth fast-moving line all the way to the airport bus.
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.
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.
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.