We have cruised about ten times with various cruise lines before and have always considered HAL, along with Princess, among the better cruise lines for us (we are not exactly the younger generation). We last cruised with Princess in 2011 in Asia. This is our third cruise with HAL on their 11-day Ancient Mystery starting off from Athens. We were very much disappointed.
Noordam is a smaller ship and we are fine with that. However, there are smaller ship should not equate to smaller expectations.
We usually get room service for breakfast because it would be easier for our elderly mother. The delivery is usually on time. However, it was very rarely (in fact, never) that they got our simple order right. As we had three people in our state room, we would clearly mark our order for three and placed orders for at least two pots of coffee and one other hot beverage. They would however, never gave us three cups or three sets of cutlery. The orders were also never properly filled out. Despite of repeated request to the room service delivery staff, we finally gave up. We ended up ordering the hot food and drinks via room service and went up to Lido deck ourselves for items and cutlery/cup that was missing from our order. It worked out pretty good.
In their desperate attempt to get good rating on their evaluation form, the Cruise Director reminded us at the beginning of our cruise that they could not please everyone and we should only judge entertainment on their effort. There is little doubt that the efforts made by the entertainers are good, but the type of entertainment effort provided by HAL was only fair. There were three big performances, including the DROOM show towards the end of the cruise which was excellent and full credit to the performing staff. Entertainment on other nights, however, consisted of solo guitarist, local Greek dancing group, and solo comedian/magician. These shows lasted usually for 30 minutes or less and most are more appropriate for smaller stage (eg bar or lounge setting) and not as the main attraction. Smaller ships should not equate to lesser entertainment shows.
We took a private tour from Port Said with over-night stay in Cairo (try not to take shore excursions from any cruise lines because they are usually really expensive compared to the real world). We contacted HAL before sailing, informing them of our itinerary and received a confirmation letter stating that they ‘approved’ our overnight trip and would pass the information onto the ship personnel. When we came back on board at Alexandria, our cruise ship ID cards lit up at the check-in counter. We waited for the cruise line official to come out and gave us a stern talk about not letting them know that we were not returning to the ship at Port Said and that they had to wait for us. She finally let us back onboard. We promptly dropped off the official letter from HAL at the front desk noting that the breakdown in communication was within HAL, but we never heard from the front desk acknowledging their error or apologizing for their previous accusations.
They claimed price match/guarantee for jewellery. We bought a relatively inexpensive Swarovski Crystal bracelet on board but found exactly the same one in Mykonos for a lesser price. We bought the one in Mykonos with a receipt and pictures of the store and display. The two bracelets were exactly the same with the same colour combination and marking on the claps etc. Even the assistant manager confirmed that it was sterling silver and same make. However, the manager of the store said that we had to produce the lot and code number in order to meet the requirement of their price guarantee claim. I doubt any retailer can or will provide customers with the lot and code number for their products. And it would be impossible to see any diamond with the same cutting and carat weight in the same token. One can expect price to be a little more expensive on the cruise ship, however, if I think if they want to make a ‘price guarantee’ claim to draw in customers, they should make a honest and reasonable effort to honor their claim. So, buyers beware. We would also like to commend on a male Pilipino staff at the gift shop was very helpful.
Boarding and Departure process:
The boarding process was efficient and quick. The disembarking however was complete chaos. People were lining up on the stairs to disembark all the way up to the Lower Promenade level (exit three levels down) even though we abide to their exit color coded system. Words of advice: take the elevator no matter how long the wait- you can still get down to the lower exit level faster than lining up. Getting out of the Istanbul terminal to catch a private car was also difficult because of the limited space. Make sure you have previous discussion as to the pick-up point and arrive ahead of time (which could be difficult because of the line up).
Food in the dining room was acceptable yet unremarkable. Service provided by the staff, on the other hand, was good as expected. Dining room and Lido deck staff were also very good, attentive and friendly (except for one server on Lido deck who we avoided) and should be commended for their hard work. On Lido deck, most of their hot water dispensing machines were either not working or with the dispensing buttons badly worn out. It is always a guessing game as to where to get your hot water. The BBQ they provided at Mykonos was excellent and a nice break from the routine
When compared to our most recent Princess cruise in 2011, HAL came across as ‘cheap’. Simple example, on Princess, we got off the cruise just before our birthdays (three birthdays within 10 days of one other). However, on seeing our birthdays being so close to our time on the cruise, Princess made sure we had our birthday cakes etc on the last day of the cruise and decorated the outside of our room with balloons, very simple touch to make our cruise more memorable . This time we spent our birthdays on board HAL and HAL were aware of it. When there were no balloons, I approached the front desk and was told that if I wanted balloons, it would be $1.50 each. Wonder how much it will cost HAL for little balloons. By the way, all other cruisers liked the balloons on our door because they served as landmark to help identify the corridor, directions and cabins.
We got lucky and were able to tour all the cities without experiencing any riots and demonstrations; with Cairo and the pyramids being the highlight of the cruise. For the pyramids, don’t pay to go inside the Great pyramid. Instead, go to the smaller one (‘Third’ Pyramid) by the Sphinx. It is just as interesting. Make sure you have someone who can speak Egyptian to negotiate for you for the camel rides and pictures at the pyramid. We heard one lady passenger on our cruise line who just wanted to get on a camel for pictures but got taken out to the middle of the dessert without her permission and her husband had to hop on a second camel on hot pursuit. It was for good intent as the handler wanted her to have a nice view but without knowing what was happening (and you can’t jump off the camel), it was not a pleasant experience.
For Istanbul, while one has to visit the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul because it is a tourist attraction, spent your time at the Spice Bazaar instead. We wanted to go back to the Grand Bazaar a second time for more shopping, but our guide recommended us going to the Spice Bazaar instead because it is cheaper, cleaner and sell roughly the same thing. He was right. Go to the Grand Bazaar for the experience but save your shopping at the Spice Bazaar. One thing you have to watch out for. The nice Turkish Delights samples we got at the stores were not the same as those packaged in boxes. They are made with sugar instead of honey (despite what the store owners may tell you) and there is hardly any nuts in them (as on the picture on the box). Also if you want the standard ‘cheap’ Turkish Delights, buy those offered at the cruise port in Kusadasi. The exact ones were sold at fraction of the cost as in Istanbul.
Overall, the itinerary was excellent and port-of-calls provided great touring experience. The Noordam, in our opinion, failed to live up to HAL’s ‘Signature of Excellence’ claim.