We are a retired couple in our 60’s who took this cruise to escape the wretched winter weather that we were experiencing in the Northeast USA. This was our sixth cruise with Holland and our second on the Noordam.
This was one of Holland’s Collectors Voyages, which is a fancy way of saying that it combined two cruises back-to-back: a 10-night Southern Caribbean cruise with an 11-night Eastern Caribbean cruise for a 21-night cruise that started and ended in Fort Lauderdale.
This cruise took us to Half Moon Cay (HAL’s private island in the Bahamas), the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Dominican Republic, Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba, Sint Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, Martinique, Dominica, and St. Thomas.
Half Moon Cay has some of the most stunningly beautiful water we have seen, but the beach was awfully crowded. Those who did one of the excursions (such as snorkeling) probably had a more positive experience than we did.
We took HAL tours at several of the islands and were generally pleased. “Cultural Highlights of Samana” in the Dominican Republic was wonderful – mainly because of a great guide on the bus and a visit to a museum of pre-Columbian culture that included dioramas that traced the heartbreaking history of these indigenous peoples whose lives and culture were destroyed by their European conquerors. “Barbados In-Focus: A Photographic Expedition “ and “Panoramic Martinique” were the most visually stunning. The former is conducted by Ronnie Carrington, who is a native of Barbados and a photographer. It was superb.
We were in a Neptune Suite, which had lots of storage space, and a bathroom with a tub and separate shower and double sinks. The weather was sunny and warm nearly every day. As a result, we spent lots of time on our veranda, and even took some breakfasts and a lunch there. The staff were unfailingly friendly and eager to please. Kudos especially to Eric, Gabriel, and Charlene in the Neptune Lounge and to our room stewards, Eko and Wayan – they were all exceptionally friendly and helpful.
We chose As You Like Dining, and that worked well for us. We took all of our dinners in the Main Dining Room (the Vista) except for one night when we dined at the Pinnacle. We discovered a table that we liked and met another couple at the table next to us whom we also liked. Since we ate at pretty much the same time each night, we were able to get that table throughout the cruise.
Because we were doing two cruises back-to-back, our dining crew changed mid-cruise. But it didn’t seem to make any difference in the service, which was generally speedy and attentive. Deddy, Bagus, Soleh were fun to have as servers, and BJ and Ricardo, our wine stewards were wonderful, as well. They caught on to our routine and preferences very quickly. We also want to thank the Oka and Tri, the two Dining Room hosts: they managed to get us the table we wanted each night, and greeted us by name every time we came in.
As for the food: this is probably the most subjective part of any cruise – as anyone who reads cruise reviews can readily see. What we liked was that the menus had a good mix of choices that ranged from comfort food to gourmet dishes prepared with culinary creativity and imagination. The food is not what a foodie would find in a 5-star restaurant in New York, but it did have flavors and presentations that most foodies would still find interesting. We especially liked the soups – the chilled fruit soups were terrific, and the hot soups benefitted from a full-bodied stock that tasted home-made. While their beef, chicken, pork, and veal dishes were good, many of their fish dishes were exceptional.
Our dinner at the Pinnacle Grill (HAL’s specialty steakhouse restaurant – we had bone-in ribeye and a petite fillet mignon) was, as expected, extremely good. HAL has changed the Pinnacle menu, and it is an improvement over what was already a strong menu. HAL also changed the Canaletto menu. That’s their Italian specialty restaurant. We haven’t eaten there for the last few cruises, but the new menu really didn’t tempt us.
The ship is kept immaculately clean. In fact, they seem to be constantly cleaning it. One feature I like is that everyone – even those crew members who clean the bannisters or wipe off the tables in the Explorations Café – always greeted us with a warm hello.
The artwork throughout the ship is a delight. As we noted in a previous HAL review, you keep “discovering” things throughout the cruise.
The library (aka “Explorations Café) was well-stocked, as usual.
The HAL singers and dancers were better than they were on previous cruises. We were disappointed, however, in the Adagio Duo. They still perform in the Explorations Lounge, and there are still chocolates available (though not as good a selection as there used to be) for those who like listening to classical music as they sip a cognac or liqueur. But the group used to be the Adagio Strings, and part of the fun was seeing the personalities and the musical interactions among the four members of the quartet. Now, the quartet has been reduced to a duo (piano and violin), neither of whom seemed to make any effort to connect with the audience. What’s more, their repertoire was limited with works repeatedly played night after night. The last time we were on the Noordam (fall of 2012), they had a quartet from Moldova whose leader was so personable and such a skillful showman that audiences kept growing each night. They even put on special performances in the Queens Lounge. We missed them.
The weather was warm and mostly sunny for the entire cruise, and the ocean was as smooth as we have ever seen it. We spent some time at the pool that was in the stern of the ship (adults only), and it was comfortable. We didn’t have a problem finding pool chairs. What a break from the foul weather we have been having this winter in the Northeast!
Cost Cutting and Bean Counting:
Other reviewers of HAL cruises have noted evidence of cost-cutting and penny-pinching, and we, too, saw some of that. The change from Adagio Strings to Adagio Duo is one example of that.
But it was evident in other ways. For years, HAL has had a special promotion for folks who book their next cruise online. That still exists, but in the past it included a guarantee that if at any time before final payment the price of cruise went down, you’d be charged the lower price. Now, they no longer make that promise. The old policy made a strong statement about how much HAL valued its repeat customers; their current policy sounds like something concocted by a bean-counter.
Similarly, on previous cruises each day’s bulletin (I think they call it “Today On Ship”) had a well-done piece on the port we were visiting that day that contained a lot of cultural and historical background, a decent map, and some useful advice. Now, the bulletin is still published daily, but they have left off the information about the ports. It is included, instead, in a booklet called “Explorer,” and while we don’t object to saving paper in this way, there is far less information about each port than we were used to. And what they do include provides precious little in the way of historical or cultural background.
Finally, previous HAL cruises brought interesting speakers on board who lectured on the history and culture of the ports and peoples we were visiting. Since their passengers are mostly retired and well-educated, it is surprising that HAL included none of this on this cruise. That, too, was a disappointment.
That said, the pluses certainly outweighed the minuses.
As other reviewers have noted, HAL is not the kind of cruise line where you go for wild parties and late night adventures (although we are in our 60’s, we still lowered the median age of the passengers). Rather, HAL is what one could call a “civilizing experience.” It will please you if you’re seeking good conversation with retired people who for the most part have lived interesting lives, don’t require entertainment that tries hard to be flashy, and want to experience the relaxation of being on a well-appointed ship with an attentive and cheerful crew.
While Americans dominated the passenger list, we liked the fact that there was a significant number of passengers from foreign countries. Another virtue, at least for cruisers like us, is that the ship does not bombard you with constant announcements and sales pitches (the one exception to the sales pitches is the Spa, but that seems to be a problem that is common everywhere).
We were sorry to see the cruise end. By the way, we took advantage of HAL’s “Luggage Direct” program. For $20 per person, your luggage is picked up at your stateroom, delivered directly to your airline, and you don’t see it again until you arrive at your destination airport. They print out the airline luggage tags and boarding passes for you, and it does make the trip home significantly easier.
About the only drawback is that U.S. Customs insists that if you are participating in the program, you must leave the ship between 7:30 – 8:00 a.m. (They say that’s so that you are available in case your luggage is chosen for inspection.) But the early start also means that the lines at customs are very short. It worked perfectly for us: we left the suitcases outside our stateroom the night before, and we didn’t see them again until we landed at our home airport.
One last note (a fervent wish, actually): while HAL bans smoking in the staterooms and in most public places, it is still allowed on verandas, the casino, and in a section of the aft deck where the adult pool is located. We wish that HAL would go with the times and start banning smoking from the verandas.