We flew a redeye from Seattle to Miami and arrived early Friday morning. Rented a Budget car and drove to FLL, had breakfast and then proceeded to Total Wine. We purchased a case of nice red wine to enjoy with our dinners, packed them in bubble wrap and loaded into a carry-on to ensure no broken bottles.
Embarkation went fairly smooth, took about 40 minutes and we were on and to our room, an aft VA 4176. We really were impressed with the cabin and the spacious balcony. Our friends occupied 4174 next door so our cabin steward opened the door between balconies so we could enjoy our cocktail hours every night on the balcony. The bed and bedding were very comfortable and we slept very well. No vibrations were evident and the cabin was pretty quiet. The bathroom is spacious and we had plenty of storage. My wife thought the desk area could be larger for doing her hair and makeup but she managed just fine and looked gorgeous every day.
This was our first experience on HAL and our 12th cruise overall. We loved the Noordam and it's crew and felt very comfortable from the get go. The ship was very easy to navigate, even with the fact our cabin was aft. The design and layout is nice and we never felt crowded even though the ship was at capacity. My wife and I both just turned 50 and we were younger than the median age but found our fellow passengers to be very cordial and pleasant.
Dining was a pleasant surprise after our last cruise on X Solstice was a disaster. I think a lot of cruise lines are cutting back on food quality but for the most part, HAL delivered. The first night at the MDR, the dinner was cooked to order however my prime rib was only about 1/4" thick. I was a bit disappointed but it was still good. I later learned that I could have requested a thicker cut so next time I will know better as I like a good 1"+ cut of prime rib. The second night we dined at Pinnacle Grill. We liked this place so much that we ate there the next 3 nights. In my opinion, the $25 surcharge is well worth the value received. The food and service were top notch. Upon going back to the MDR, we felt the food there was decent but a bit bland. Everything in the MDR was cooked properly and to order so I believe the difference between the two dining venues is primarily food and ingredient quality. We had one dinner at Caneletto one night and it was good but not great, however the service as usual was excellent. The LIdo breakfasts and lunches were decent but certainly did not exceed our expectations. It was pretty typical to most cruise lines so we were happy.
All the ports were wonderful and the weather was pretty good all ten days.
Aruba - We took a taxi to Moomba Beach and went on the Jolly Pirate cruise. This was a lot of fun and we stopped to snorkel at 3 spots and they were all pretty good. The last spot we were able to do their rope swing which was a blast. They also offered unlimited rum punch and we all probably had a little more than we should but it was good :)
Curacao - We had a car rented but one of our friends was not feeling well so we decided to cancel the car. We just walked around Willemstad and enjoyed the beautiful Dutch Colonial architecture and did some shopping. The town really transforms at night and the colors are amazing. The aft balcony was the perfect spot to watch the floating bridge open and close as well as watch the sunset and color changes. We felt blessed to be docked inside the harbor vs. the Mega Pier which hosted a Princess ship that arrived in the afternoon. We left port at 11pm for Bonaire.
Bonaire - We arranged a snorkel cruise with Woodwind. D and crew are wonderful and the snorkeling is among the best I have ever encountered and I have snorkeled a lot. The catamaran captain said the snorkeling is actually better than the diving there. We drift snorkeled in 3 groups of 8 and this lasted for about 45 minutes. This was like swimming in an aquarium, the water was so clear and just teeming with thousands of brilliant colored fish. Too many species of fish to count. We also saw some green sea turtles and I was able to capture several good photos with my digital underwater camera. There was also an amazing variety of colorful LIVE coral. Unfortunately, one idiot in our group was standing and kicking coral formations on a few occasions even though the crew told everyone to not do this. Anyhow, Woodwind is awesome and I would not hesitate to snorkel with them again in the future.
Samana, DR - I booked a zip line adventure with Tour Samana with Terry. This was the best shore excursion I have ever done and was also rated the same by my wife and our two friends. Terry is an amazing guide and a wonderful person. He went to the Dominican Republic on a mission and ended up moving there permanently and married a local woman. He is very thoughtful and offered a very insightful tour leading up to the zip lines. While this is a very impoverished 3rd world country, you could tell that it's residents were happy and content. The weather was off and on pouring rain and we were not sure what to expect. We went deep into the jungle crossing rivers and mainly on gravel roads and the scenery was jaw dropping. All the smiling locals waved and we waved back. We arrived at the Zip Line course and hiked up a small hill to the first platform which was built to resemble a pirate ship. The sun finally came out and the four of us looked down at the 1000' long first zip line and gulped. They probably should have had a cocktail bar on that platform for a little liquid courage before our first descent. We all went and after the first zip, the next eleven were a lot more comfortable as our confidence grew with each zip. We even dangled upside down a few times, too much fun! After our final zip, Terry took us to a beautiful secluded beach where we were served an amazing lunch with local fish and chicken. We were then escorted back to the dock to tender back to the ship ... what a spectacular day.
Grand Turk - Went left out of the port down the beach to Jack's Shack and had a great half day on a spectacular beach. We drank beer and cocktails, swam and relaxed for the most part. Enjoyed an amazing Jerk chicken lunch that was by far the best lunch I experienced on the trip. Jack's Golden Doodle, "Topher" woke up late but did find us and we loved playing with him as we are all dog lovers. I would highly suggest Jack's Shack if you are looking for a less crowded beach experience and it is just a 5 minute walk from the cruise pier.
Half Moon Cay - This place is incredibly beautiful. We staked out lounge chairs well down the beach away from the crowded area and it was perfect. My friend and I rented a Hobie and sailed the bay for an hour with some really nice winds. The BBQ buffet was average but well orchestrated.
Debarkation was very simple and went without a hitch. Our friend next door realized she had packed all her shoes and their luggage was checked through direct to the airport. This made for a great wake up laugh :) She went down to the spa and they gave her a pair of slippers! A nice final touch by the wonderful HAL staff.
Fort Lauderdale - We spent Monday at the Hilton Marina Inn and it was a great spot to end our trip. We had a very nice view room overlooking the water and all the boat traffic. Dinner at the China Grill was pretty good although it's a little pricey.
Summary - Overall, we were very impressed with HAL's Noordam. We did have a different experience than other cruises as we only went to one show. We really enjoyed the company of our friends and some new ones we met along the way. This was our first cruise that was longer than 7 days and I can't tell you how much those extra 3 days helped in the relaxation department. The service was outstanding, from our wait staff to the cabin stewards. The only rude person was a blackjack dealer on our first night and we did not return to the casino for the remainder of the trip. We did not complain but we did mention this in our guest comment card. Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed this cruise and we will not hesitate to cruise with HAL again in the future.