My wife and I were looking for a wonderful honeymoon experience and we definitely found that on the MS Noordam Roman Empire Cruise. This was the first time cruising for both of us and after only being home a few days we are looking to book our next cruise already.
Our trip began with a little hiccup. Our flight into Rome was cancelled due to mechanical failures. This caused us to miss the embarkation of the ship from Civitavecchia. (In case this should happen to anyone reading this, be aware that there is a number posted on Holland America's website but not on the ticket that is available 24/7 for anyone who realizes that they will miss the boat.) After speaking with the people at Holland America they told us to ask the airline to route us to the first stop in Dubrovnik and they would make sure to get us on the boat.
Dubrovnik: We arrived in Dubrovnik a day before for the boat and spent the day sightseeing. The main draw in Dubrovnik is the old town. This area is a charming little city build of stone and surrounded by hills on one side and water on the other. We wandered through the town and found our way to a beautiful little cafe overlooking the water where we stopped for drinks. If you see the sign that says "Cold Drinks with the Most Beautiful View", you know you've found the right place, and they are just as advertised. We then took a walk along the wall of the city. There is an entry price of 70 kuna pp, which is about $12 each. The views from the wall were spectacular but be advised that there are a lot of stairs and on a hot day it can be a little taxing. Once you reach the top its a one way route and the next set of stairs back down are a 20-30 minute walk. There are a few stops along the way to get a drink if you need it. After touring the wall, we decided it was time for dinner. There are many restaurants in the alleys off of the main road through town and we stopped at one of them to eat. After dinner we went back to our hotel in eager anticipation of getting on the ship the next day.
MS Noordam: The next morning we woke up and took a taxi to the port. The taxi drove us right up the to boat and we told the Holland America personnel who we were and they were expecting us. Fighting out way up the gangway against the rest of our fellow cruisers who were disembarking to spend a day in Croatia, we finally arrived on the ship. One of the front desk staff quickly arranged for our bags to be sent to our room and brought us to the front desk for check in. After only a few minutes we were all set to go and on our way up to our room.
Our room was an SS category cabin which is considered a suite. It was very spacious and welcoming and we loved our wonderful balcony. The balcony had enough space for a table with two chairs and an additional two sitting chairs with ottomans. Inside there is a full couch, a table for getting ready, a writing table looking out the window and a very comfortable bed. The bathroom had two sinks with a whirlpool tub and a separate shower. As a wedding present we also received the suite amenities package which afforded us three pillows each, two bottles of wine, two bottles of liquor, unlimited laundry, two bathrobes to keep, two $50 drink cards and a few other perks. On top of all of this, the captain was kind enough to send us two bottles of champagne, one for our honeymoon and one for our troubles catching the boat. We also had an invitation to a private cocktail hour for special guests because we had missed the event with the captain the night before. After 30 minutes on the boat we both became big fans of cruising.
We decided to spend the day wandering the boat because we had already seen Dubrovnik.
Spa: We first went to the Spa to book a couples massage and get a pass to the Hydropool and Thermal Suite. Let me say that the Hydropool/Thermal Suite package was one of the best parts of our cruise. My wife and I went everyday if not multiple times per day. Especially on hot days in port, there is nothing better than coming back on the boat and going to the spa for instant relaxation. Be advised that the price was $350 for the two of us for a 10 day cruise when booking ahead of time, but only $199 once we were on the boat. The couples massage was my first massage experience ever and I really enjoyed it. Just be aware that at the end of your treatment in the Spa they try to sell you the oils/creams that they use. I would have preferred if they hadn't done that but it didn't ruin the experience.
Lido Restaurant: The restaurant is very big and there are a lot of options so I usually took about 3-4 minutes when I arrived window shopping for lunch. There is a menu to look at when you first come in but I preferred to see what everything looked like. The food is the Lido is not nearly as good as the food at dinner but it is still good. I have seen a lot of complaints on Cruise Critic about waiting in line at the Lido but I did not find the lines to be long at all. The only thing I did not like about the Lido is that at really busy times it was hard to find a table by the window. There were a few times that my wife and I took food from the Lido back to our cabin so we could have a better view.
(Vista) Main Dining Room: We chose to have an early fixed seating assignment. It seemed that most of the other passengers wanted to eat at 8pm but we very much enjoyed eating early. Before dinner every night we would halfway around the promenade deck on the way to the dining room and on they way back to our cabin we would complete the circuit. It was a nice routine and the light at that time of day was spectacular. Our waitstaff in the main dining room was wonderful. We had two servers as well as a wine steward who were the same every night and they tended to our every need. On top of that our wine steward Antonio would come by and perform a magic trick every night at our table. On the last night all of the waitstaff congregated around our table to wish us a happy honeymoon complete with a special dessert and song. As far as drinks in the main dining room, if you order a bottle of wine and don't finish it they will keep if for you and serve it the next night. Also any wine that you have purchased from Holland America can be brought to the dining room for dinner and consumed at no additional fee.
Pinnacle Grill: We ate at the Pinnacle Grill two nights on our cruise. The fee for the Pinnacle Grill is $25pp but well worth it even if you can only go once. The waitstaff in the Pinnacle Grill are very polished and attentive. They make sure every moment of your dinner is an excellent experience and believe me it was. My wife enjoyed the tomato with balsamic vinaigrette appetizer so much she was almost brought to tears. She also was planning on ordering the lobster mac and cheese for dinner but the waiter Arya suggested she order something less heavy and to order the lobster mac and cheese as a side and it was perfect. She ended up with lobster mac and cheese and filet mignon. The main dining room is wonderful but if you have the chance I would check out the Pinnacle Grill at least one night if possible.
Entertainment: I agree with many others that the only thing about cruising on Holland America that didn't wow me was the entertainment. I thought it was just okay. My wife had a more favorable opinion of it, but I think it pales in comparison to the quality of everything else on the ship. We went to abour 3 or 4 shows. My favorite show was actually the Filipino Crew Show. There are about 8-10 members of the crew who perform traditional Filipino songs and dances and it was very good. There was one night with a man who performed impersonations of famous singers and told jokes. He was pretty good. The last night the singers and dancers performed but the real show was about the pyrotechnics and the spinning hydraulic stage.
Explorers Lounge: Although I didn't spend too much time in the lounge I loved the atmosphere. There are computers for browsing the web, a huge library collection, daily sudoku and trivia, a puzzle that is left out to be worked on by anyone who is interested, a cafe and lots of comfy chairs. It was a really cool space and if there had been more sea days I definitely would have spent more time there.
Queens Lounge/Culinary Center: This was a fun multipurpose space and we attended many activites here. On the night in Santorini we watched Mama Mia when they had it set up as a theater. We attended two cooking demonstrations when they had it set up as a kitchen. The captain gave a talk one morning about being in charge of such a huge vessel which i found fascinating. However, my favorite event that took place here was the Marriage Game. It is basically the Newlywed Game using passengers as contestants. I would not have enjoyed it as much if I were participating (which almost happened) but it was a riot to watch.
Bars/Lounges: We did not visit all of the bars and lounges, but for a pre dinner drink I would suggest the Crow's Nest. There is a beautiful view and there is a happy hour from 5-6 so if you have early seating you can grab a drink and watch the boat pull away from port and then head down to dinner. The other place we went was the Piano Bar for a game of name that tune. I wish we had had time to make it to the piano bar at night and get a better feel for the atmosphere. One night we walked through the Northern Lights and there were about a dozen teenagers and no one else so we left and didn't go back.
Other observations about the ship: The crew on the Noordam was unbelievable. I can not express how attentive they are and how quickly they attempt to resolve any issues. There is a standard tipping fee that each person pays over the course of the cruise, but my wife and I were sure to add to that because of the amazing service. I could go on and on but there is a lot more to get to.
Back to ports of call.
Corfu: In Corfu you can buy a ticket for a Holland America shuttle that will take you to the front of the Old Fort. It was inexpensive so we used the shuttle to get into town. We arrived at the old fort and first went to the cafe. If you need to find a wifi access point this is a great place to get a drink and check your e-mail. We then made our way up the hill to the lighthouse. It is a hike but if you take your time its not too bad. Watch your step on the way back down. The steps are very smooth and slippery. After taking in the breathtaking view we went back down to the bottom and strolled around the small park in front of the fort. There is a palace at one end that has art exhibits. There was a Japanese Art exhibit when we were there and we decided not to go. We made our way into town and strolled the streets. My wife did some shopping and we tasted the kumquat liquor which is a Corfu specialty. It was very, very good. At about 1pm we made our way back to the shuttle bus and onto the ship.
Katakolon: Katakolon is billed as the gateway to Olympia. Olympia however is a 40 minute ride in and a 40 minute ride out and we did not have much interest in seeing it so we decided to stay close to the port. We disembarked around 11am and walked down the main street. My wife did some shopping and then we looked at a few of the fishing boats. There was a museum at the end of the street we didn't make it to, and a number of restaurants right on the water if you were to opt to have lunch off the boat. We decided to save some money and eat at the Lido.
Santorini: Santorini is the reason we chose this itinerary in the first place. My wife asked if we could go there on our honeymoon. It did not disappoint. Santorini is the one port we had to tender into the port. Holland America set up a process for dealing with all the people lining up to tender but we had breakfast on our balcony and by the time we were done there was no line so they said we could just head right down. We were fortunate to be the only ship in town that day so there were no lines for the funicular. The other option is to take the donkey's up the hill but I am afraid of heights so I wanted the journey to be as quick as possible. Once in town we made our way to the bus station. There is a map of the town of Fira in the Explorer guide Holland America leaves on your bed every night. The map will show the way to the bus station. We spent 1.60euro each for a 20 minute bus ride to Oia the town that is in all the pictures. I would suggest taking the bus to anyone visiting Santorini. It is quick, cheap and seems to go most places on the island that anyone would want to go to. Upon arriving in Oia we walked through the quaint streets and took in the views. I took many pictures of the blue roofed churches. After exploring for a while we decided to have lunch. If you get the chance, check out Pelekanos. It is a restaurant at the highest point in Oia and has an almost 360 degree view. The food and the music were also amazing. We stayed up there for almost 2 hours having lunch and we didn't want to leave. Finally we made our way back down to the bus stop and took the bus back to Fira. We thought of going to the beaches but neither of us had our bathing suit so we took the funicular back down and tendered back to the ship. Although we didn't do much it was an amazing day, and the first day I preferred the port to relaxing on the ship.
Kusadasi (Ephesus): We booked a tour of Ephesus through Ephesus Deluxe. It was a half day tour that included The Virgin Mary House, Ephesus and the Terrace Houses. We had a driver who drove us from stop to stop, and a tour guide who would accompany us into the sites. Our first stop was the Virgin Mary House. We paid a little extra for this but were disappointed so I would have left this off the itinerary in hindsight. The next stop was Ephesus which was unbelievable. The ruins were so extensive that you could really get the feel for what the city would have been like 2000 years ago. The terrance houses were the homes of the rich citizens of Ephesus and I thought this was a must see. The tile work and frescos were still in impeccable shape. At the end of the tour of Ephesus we went to the Greek Theater which was big enough to hold 24,000 people. We then went to lunch which was included with the price of the tour. We enjoyed it immensely. After this I was a little disappointed in the tour.
After lunch we were taken to a carpet dealer, a ceramics dealer, and nearly went to a leather dealer but we refused. At each stop we were shown how the product was made and it was really fascinating, but then there was a push to buy products from each dealer. We did go home with a carpet and a few ceramics that we were happy to buy, but I don't like when I feel pressured to buy a product. My wife did point out that it was good to see things that were part of Turkish culture. Ephesus is not Turkish but Roman, whereas the carpets and ceramics are authentically Turkish.
Athens: Athens may not have been my favorite stop, but it was certainly my favorite tour. We booked a tour through privategreecetours.com. It was the half day Athens tour. If you are going to book an independent tour at any port, make this the one. We were greeted at the port by Sakus, who was is native to Greece. He clearly had a love and passion for the country and was a wealth of knowledge. He is considered a driver guide which means he cannot get out of the car and bring you into each site, but before you arrive he preps you with all the information you will need to enjoy your experience and understand the history of what you are observing. The tour begins at the Acropolis. It is important to get there early to avoid the lines and the heat. We then continued to the Temple of Zeus, another hill that is higher than the Acropolis with a breathtaking view of the city, the Roman market, the Greek market, and then more modern sites such as the Palace and the tomb of the unknown soldier. Not only was it great to learn about ancient greece but because it was a private tour we were able to talk to Sakus about his views on modern Greece which were plentiful and interesting. I must say again that if you are going to book a tour in Athens make it this one. It was the best tour of our trip and also the least expensive.
Messina: Our stop in Messina was brief. We disembarked at 10:30 and made our way to the church in the main square. It was beautiful but we only stayed a few minutes because there was a service about to begin. We then made our way to one of the few internet cafes that were open. It was a holiday in Italy so practically everything was closed. We checked e-mail for a bit and then walked to the city center for the clock show. This is the main draw in Messina. At noon the clock has larger than life figures that move while Ave Maria plays. The minute the show is over everyone from the ship runs back to the dock. That was about it for Messina. The highlight of the day was actually later when we cruised past the active volcano named Stromboli. This was an impressive sight to see. We watched from our balcony but if you don't have a balcony or are on the wrong side of the ship, I would suggest watching from the Crows Nest.
Disembarkation: I wish we didn't have to get off the boat but I guess all good things must come to an end. Disembarkation was quick and efficient and we were off the boat and had bags in hand in no time. I must admit that the train station in Civitavecchia was a little confusing. I bought a ticket near the port but it didn't look like the tickets everyone else had and it only cost 5euro. I am not sure if that was a valid ticket or not but I couldn't get any information in the station and no one checked my ticket on the train so we make it to Rome okay. The train is hot and crowded and there is nowhere to put baggage. In Rome we took two tours with Context Travel that were very good and had a maximum of 6 people per tour so it was semi-private. One was of the Colosseum and Roman Forum and the other was of the Vatican. They were both great tours and I would book with context again.
After saying all that can be said and more I would like to finish by saying this was a wonderful experience and I cannot wait to cruise again. I hope that in the future we will have the pleasure of being served by such a hard working and diligent crew as those on the Noordam.