My wife and I had not cruised before and booked this cruise more or less on a whim via vacationstogo.com, a US-based internet booking agency.
As an independent cruise booking, we made our own arrangements to get to and from Civitavecchia. We flew business class with British Airways from Heathrow to Rome (FCO) and back into London Gatwich from Rome (FCO). Business class allows a much more generous checked baggage allowance which we (correctly) thought would be useful for a cruise, given the formal dining requirements.
Our transfers from Rome (FCO) to and from Civitavecchia were booked directly by us on-line with RomeCabs. The transfer cost was 130 euros each way, not cheap, but a very efficient service which ensured a totally seamless and stress free travel experience. I would thoroughly recommend RomeCabs to anyone willing to pay that little bit extra for a first class service.
Embarkation was efficient and took around 15-20 minutes for us to arrive on board. Our luggage was taken to our appointed stateroom and was with us within an hour or so of getting on board.
We had booked a superior verandah suite (category SS as defined by HAL) and were very impressed with the standard of accommodation both in terms of comfort and space, which compared very favourably to a typical good quality four star hotel in the UK. The balcony was a decent size and saw a lot of use during our ten days on board. The bathroom had two hand basins, a bath and a separate full-sized shower - very adequate.
The Noordam takes around 2000 passengers with a crew of approximately 800. The staterooms are found across eight main decks. The MDR, the Vista restaurant is spread over decks 2 and 3. Deck 2 has an offshoot restaurant called the Pinnacle Grill, for which there is an up charge. Deck 9 has a buffet restaurant called the Lido. There is also a burger bar located by the mid-ship swimming pool on the same deck, more or less right next to the buffet dining area. The ship also features a casino, a main stage for the on board shows and a cinema.
The service was excellent,provided by the mainly Indonesian staff and we certainly had no complaints in that department.
Dining was variable, but given the number of covers that had to be accommodated by the kitchen and waiting staff, one could not really complain. Catering for that number of people will inevitably involve some compromises in quality. We weren't expecting fine dining and we didn't get it. The Pinnacle grill is definitely a step up from the MDR and worth the up charge for a couple of evenings, which is what we did. The Lido buffet restaurant offers a typical buffet dining experience with fairly indifferent food. The pizzas in particular were spectacularly bad and appeared worse still considering we were sailing from an Italian port ! A nice touch was the ability to order breakfast in the stateroom, we used this pretty much daily, breakfasting on the balcony - nice.
Port excursions were arranged and implemented independently of the ship which had the effect of being much more flexible as well as less expensive. We had hooked up with a couple from California on the internet prior to the cruise who had pre-booked an independent tour of Tuscany which we joined, together with two other couples. This was a great experience and we all stayed in touch with each other for the rest of our time on the ship and regularly meeting up for a 6 o'clock drinks session on each other's balconies. We did, exceptionally, take a ship's tour at La Goulette, Tunisia. Our guide was friendly, urbane and almost completely incomprehensible. The tour was a four hour one encompassing Carthage and a museum. For the last hour or so of the tour, we were essentially souvenir fodder, fending off the stalwart advances of the locals, determined to extract as many euros as they could from us. Our tour guide clearly favoured certain 'shops' which brought the pungent tang of corruption to the nostrils.I should mention our stop over at Barcelona. The HAL cruise director (Shane) told us via the public address system that the local port shuttle bus service was less reliable than the one offered by HAL (at around four times the price). Those that did get a HAL ticket received a piece of paper with "non refundable" printed clearly on the reverse - go figure. Basically a complete misrepresentation of the facts designed to frighten people into using the outrageously over-priced HAL port shuttle. We used the local bus which was both reliable and cheap.
I can't comment on the on board entertainment because it was of no interest to us, preferring our own company and a glass of wine or two after our (late session) evening meal.
HAL allows its cruise guests to take wine on board. This was a life saver for us as ship board prices are basically a rip off, on top of which a 15% service charge is levied. The cheapest bottle of drinkable wine approaches $50 plus 15%, so $57.50 for something that would cost little more than $10.00 (if that) on shore.
All good things eventually come to an end. Disembarkation was a smooth and efficient operation with no hitches at all.
As a first time cruiser I have nothing to compare this experience with. However, we both enjoyed it very much and any shortcomings mentioned above were only of a minor nature. The watchword is basically to use your head to avoid being unnecessarily fleeced, there is always an alternative. We would choose HAl again not only because of the wine issue bu the price and accomodation combination was every satisfactory.