This was our first cruise with HAL. We were excited to see how they differed from the Carnival Cruises we had taken before. The Cruise Critic message boards provided a lot of good information and we really enjoyed being on the roll call for months in advance as we prepared for the cruise.
We flew in from Denver the night before departure and stayed at the Courtyard Marriott on the Ft. Lauderdale beach. This was a great location down from Port Everglades and allowed us to walk to the beach the morning before the cruise as well as sit out on Las Olas Boulevard to see the sights the night before. Embarkation was really easy. We waited about 45 minutes and were on about noon if my memory is good.
We thoroughly enjoyed this cruise and Holland America. Some reviews warned parents with kids away from HAL. While it is true that the average age group is on the older side, my kids still had plenty to do on the ship and really liked it. I have two very active athletic boys who managed to entertain themselves quite well. They do not like participating in the cruise line kid clubs, whether on Carnival or HAL. They really liked the swimming pool on the Lido Deck. They thought it was much larger than the Carnival pools and because there were less kids - the pool and associated hot tubs were less crowded. The Noordam staff typically closed the pool dome at night which transformed the pool from an outdoor cruise ship feel - to more of a fancy hotel inside pool ambiance. They also really liked the Ship Flicks movie collection and their ability to check out DVD's for the room. There is also an arcade that had about the same number of games as those found on the Carnival ships. They used the basketball court a few times, but thought it was too windy at times. They did miss not having a putt putt golf course that is found on most ships.
From the grown-up perspective, I thought the food was really good. While I like the food on Carnival just fine, I did think this was a step up. Probably my favorite meal was at the Canaletto Restaurant. I had the veal and it was outstanding. I also enjoyed having the "no charge" cappuccino in the main dining room each night. My Dad did miss the 24 hr. self-serve ice cream he is used to on the Carnival ships, but the ice cream HAL had was really good! We also really enjoyed the outdoor BBQ that the staff did for us the night we sailed around the Pitons of St. Lucia. The food was fantastic and the decorations and view of the Pitons made the night very special.
We were also lucky enough to participate in the Cruise Critic Meet and Greet. Candy Brock, a definite HAL veteran, hosted this event. It was apparently the largest one HAL had done, and was attended by several crew members. HAL provided a chocolate soda fountain and many fruits and desserts. We also had a grab bag exchange and we ended up with some great jams and tea from England. I did find it easier to get to know the crew on this sized ship as opposed to the larger Carnival ones we were on previously.
The ship itself is really spectacular. I love the glass elevators as well as the artwork found throughout the ship. There is always something to look at and study. My primary negative comment for the ship was the cabin layout. On the Carnival ships, I was used to having a queen bed as well as an upper and lower that turned into bunk beds for the kids (same room). HAL's set-up is not so great. The upper comes down over the queen bed and you only have about a foot until you hit your head. We turned around and put our feet under this to avoid the head bumps. Unfortunately, I had to unmake/remake the bed most nights as we were confusing the cabin stewards. Also, once the lower couch kid bed was down and made - you are blocked from the balcony unless you want to crawl over the bed. Very tight quarters - Carnival was much better on this account.
We did see one of the Broadway type shows as well as a comedian, Jeff Nease, who was quite good! Also, on the afternoon that we sailed around St. Lucia, the Captain opened up the bow of the ship while we went from Castries to Soufriere, and we were able to go out and have drinks and take pictures.
Speaking of drinks, I thought they were OK. For me, I was more used to a lot of frozen concoctions that Carnival served, while these were more basic drinks - not so much the frozen type.
My husband and I did use the thermal suite and really liked it. I would highly recommend this activity. It is like a really fancy large hot tub that smells great. You also get to use the steam-rooms and the tiled, heated chairs that overlook the ocean. Really nice. We had a couples massage the last night of the cruise and enjoyed this as well.
I will review the ports in the next section, but I will say they were all great! This cruise went to St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Dominica was our favorite and I can say we did not get to spend enough time in St. Lucia or St. Maarten to really get to see that much. If you haven't been to Dominica and like true rain forests, then put it on your list. But more detail in the next section....