This was a 21-day cruise that started in Civitavecchia, Italy and ended in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It combined two HAL cruises: a 7-day cruise with stops in Livorno (Florence, Pisa), Monaco, Barcelona, Caligari (Sardinia), Sicily (Palermo), and then back to Civitavecchia followed by a 14-day cruise that stopped at Alicante, Malaga, Cadiz, and Madeira before heading on a 7-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
What attracted us were (1) the cost savings -- HAL gives you a discount when you combine two cruises together like that; in addition, the 2nd part of it was a repositioning cruise, which also saves money; (2) the itinerary; and (3) the mix of interesting ports with lots of at sea days.
We flew out early so that we could spend three nights in Rome before our cruise. We booked our airline and hotel (Visconti Palace in Rome) through HAL. This worked out extremely well. I don't think that we could have gotten a better deal on airfare, and the Visconti Palace turned out to be an excellent choice: great location (you can walk from there to the Vatican or to the Spanish Steps or the Pantheon, etc.) and a surprisingly fine buffet breakfast each morning. There was a HAL rep onsite at the hotel. The transfers from airport to hotel and from hotel to the Noordam went very smoothly. It made schlepping luggage much less of a problem than it would have been if we had made our own arrangements.
For most of the ports, we wandered about on our own and enjoyed ourselves and found something interesting in all of them. Owing to a US State Department advisory, HAL cancelled the stop in Tunisia. That was a big disappointment, since I had been looking forward to seeing Carthage. (Those of you who studied Latin in school and remember their Cicero will understand my desire to see what all the fuss was about.) HAL substituted Sardinia.
We did use HAL tours for the following ports:
1. Livorno: Transfer to Florence
HAL has a somewhat pricey bus trip that takes you from the ship to Florence. The guide on board did a great job of pointing out sights to us, though it was primarily a way to get from the ship to Florence and back. Before we left, we had ordered tickets online for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. That turns out to have been a wise move: it is virtually impossible to get in if you don't have an advanced reservation. We spent most of our time in the Uffizi.
2. Malaga: Excursion to Granada and The Alhambra
This is a region that boasts 320 days of sunny weather per year. We, however, managed to arrive on one of the 45 rainy days. And, boy, was it rainy! It was a cold and constant rain all day long, which complicated the Alhambra tour, since much of it is outdoors. That said, the Alhambra was still spectacular and well worth the very l-o-n-g journey (2+ hours travel each way). It was one of the most visually exciting places I saw on this cruise.
3. Cadiz: Panoramic Cadiz & Jerez with Sherry Tasting
Not bad. We had a good tour guide on the bus, and the sherry tasting was instructive -- and fun!
4. Funchal (Madeira): Panoramic Island Landscapes
Great tour guide on the bus. She was knowledgeable and clearly enjoyed what she was doing. Unfortunately, the day became progressively cloudier and foggier, and that affected the views from the tops of those very steep mountains. I will add that enjoying this tour does require that you have a high tolerance for being on a bus that wends its way through narrow, winding, mountain roads with some hairpin curves. Kudos to the intrepid bus driver!
As for the cruise: the Noordam is a beautiful ship with interesting artwork and sculpture throughout the ship. Although we spent three weeks onboard, I was still discovering artwork up to the last day of the cruise. As we noticed on previous HAL cruises, staff are constantly cleaning it, and the result is that it was spotless.
We were in a Deluxe Veranda Suite. On balance, we have always felt that it is worth the extra cost, but it's a close call, and certainly the folks we met who were in other veranda rooms seems very pleased with the accommodations.
Some comments and observations:
The friendliness, cheerfulness, and helpfulness of the staff are a BIG plus. This was true everywhere we went on board from stateroom to dining venues to lounges. Even the crew who were vacuuming the stairwells when I walked down to the Explorations Cafe (aka "library") at 6:30 a.m. always gave me a cheerful "good morning."
While I realize that HAL's customer service training has something to do with this, I don't think it can explain it entirely. You can fake enthusiasm, at least not day in and day out. The sense you get everywhere is that there is a high level of staff morale on board this ship -- this despite the fact that most of the crew are either Filipino or Indonesian, work long hours, and are on long contracts that keep them away from their homes and families for many months of the year.
Our stewards (Andi and RaH) were always quick to service our stateroom, and knew us by name after the first day. Christine and Maryann in the Neptune Lounge were terrific. The Neptune is one of the perks of booking a Deluxe Veranda Suite, and they are the quintessentially helpful concierges who can handle just about any problem or issue that might arise.
We had the same good service in the Vista Dining Room. We got to know our servers (Putu and Eke) and wine steward well, and we have nothing but high praise for the three of them, as well as for Muji, who was made the table assignments.
Since we are not buffet fans, we rarely ate in the Lido, though the few times we did use it we were happy with it. Except for three nights at the Pinnacle Grill (one of which was the special Cirque meal), we dined in the Vista. We also had several lunches there.
We took some meals in our room -- breakfast always arrived on time, and if you order during the lunch hour, you can order your lunch off of the Vista Dining Room menu, which is generally a much more interesting selection than the standard room service menu.
We liked the food! We found it imaginative and well-presented. We especially liked the soups. The cold fruit-soups were among the most delicious I've tasted, and HAL chefs know how to create a great stock for their hot soups that was never greasy nor overly salty. There were nights where I skipped an appetizer or salad and settled for two different soups, instead, before I headed onto the main course. Desserts were well-presented, but I am such an ice cream enthusiast, that I am probably not the best judge of these: most nights, I settled for some variant of ice cream and chocolate syrup.
That said, I've noticed that no matter whether it is a luxury, premium, or mass market cruise ship, the Cruise Critic reviews seem to show the widest divergence on the subject of food. Yes, there were people we met on board who complained about the food, though it was hard to pin down why they disliked something that we found so enjoyable.
I think it is fair to say that HAL dinner menus try to be more international than many Americans are used to, and they try to include a few items that are aimed at "foodies" along with items that are more mainstream if not downright comfort food. Vista Dining Room menus, therefore, included everything from duck pate with caviar to meatloaf with gravy. I think that most can generally find what they want, but, of course, it will never compete with a five-star restaurant in a major world city nor will it ever satisfy the folks who are frustrated with the international focus of many of their menus.
I mentioned dining at the Pinnacle. The steaks we had were excellent -- exactly what you'd expect at a fine steakhouse. Their onion soup was big disappointment to me, but I suppose that's not primarily why one dines at a steakhouse. The Cirque was also very good and probably worth the extra money we paid for it.
We are not a good source of information concerning the entertainment on board. The few times we went to the Vista Lounge showroom what we saw was fair-to-OK, but since didn't see all that many shows, it is probably unfair to pass judgments.
The Adagio String Quartet, however, is another matter. Noordam's version of it included classical musicians from Moldova, and they were wonderful. They held forth each night in the Explorer's Lounge (where they offer free chocolates and the encouragement to buy a cognac or a liqueur). They developed quite a following, and the attendance kept growing each night to the point where it started to get a bit crowded. They also did a few special performances in the Queen's Lounge. What a deliciously civilized experience! I hope that this group appears on future HAL cruises.
The days included lectures (on subjects such as astronomy and the explorations of the New World), and the card room and game rooms and the Explorer's Cafe were well attended. I would have liked more lecture options.
In short, this is a cruise that would appeal to people who enjoy reading, good conversation, meeting interesting people (most retirees), dancing, eating good food, and the magic of watching the ocean as one crosses the Atlantic. Those who want lots of physical activity and lots of parties will be disappointed. The passengers were mostly people 60 and over, but there were some younger couples. Very few children, but then you don't expect to see school-aged children on a cruise in October.
A few final observations:
HAL ships all have a wonderful teak promenade deck. Three laps around the deck equals one mile. Lots of us took advantage of this.
The ship's business office was willing to exchange dollars for euros at the day's official rate of exchange. That is much cheaper than using the ATM machines in port to get euros, where there is always an additional transaction fee.
One big question before we cruised was what the weather and the sea would be like on a transatlantic crossing in late October. The weather was typically in the 70's and occasionally low 80's -- very comfortable, in other words, though rather breezy. On most days, we were able to sit on our veranda. I'm told, however, that sometimes the temperature can get colder than that. On two of the days, there were significant waves (20-foot high, I believe), mainly due to some distant remnants of Hurricane Sandy. We never felt queasy, but we did have to be careful walking around the ship since things were rather rocky. On several occasions they closed off access to the outside decks as a safety measure.
When we booked this cruise, we opted for a port-side stateroom. Since we were heading west across the Atlantic, our veranda faced south/southeast, which meant that it had more exposure to the sun. When we were in port, it made very little difference. In some cases, the view from the port-side was actually better than the starboard view. In others, it made no difference because the cruise terminal was in an industrialized area where the only "view" was of cargo containers.
I appreciate the fact that HAL is a cruise line that doesn't keep bombarding you with intrusive public address announcements. It's nice to be treated like an adult. Every day, they put a bulletin of events and notices in every stateroom. Once a day the captain and cruise directors would come on to update us on the progress of the cruise and to highlight a few things. Even then, the announcements were in the public areas and hallways. One's stateroom was generally a sanctuary free from public address announcements.
Several websites warned folks about being on the lookout for pickpockets at some of the ports we were visiting. For the first time, I tried using a money belt (I wound up getting Rick Steeves' Money Belt from Amazon), and I found it very convenient for safely holding euros and credit cards.
1. The folks at the Spa did not seem to exude the same level of friendliness and warmth that we felt from others on board. They Spa is run as a concession, and that may have something to do with this perception. Still, we enjoyed using it. I used the thermal suite, and my wife and I both had messages.
2. Since many new people were boarding the ship after the first 7 days, we had to go through a second lifeboat drill, even though we had been through one just a week earlier. That's not the end of the world, and to HAL's credit, they do take attendance, but it seemed odd that they couldn't find a way to require it only of those who were new to the ship.
3. Like many others who have posted reviews on Cruise Critic, we, too, were put off by the stench of cigarette smoke as one walked through the Casino. Since it is midship on Deck 2, it is hard to avoid walking through there when you are on Deck 2. There were some non-smoking tables in the Casino, by the way, but I don't think that helps much. HAL bans smoking in the staterooms, but allows it on one's veranda. That, too, can be unpleasant. I wish that HAL would ban smoking on the verandas.
In sum, this was a wonderful, professionally run cruise on a beautiful ship. While we were on board, we booked another cruise on the Noordam. I supposed that's probably the most ringing endorsement one can offer . . . .