Review of Noordam, July 1-8, 2008, Alaska's Inside Passage
Background: This was my family's third cruise. We had previously sailed on Carnival's Fantasy to the Caribbean in March, 2006; on the Volendam to Alaska's Inside Passage in June, 2007; and now, the Noordam, July 1-8, 2008. My husband and I (early 50s) traveled with our teenage son and daughter and my sister-in-law (early 60s).
Pre-Cruise We arrived in Seattle two days early to enjoy the sites. We stayed at the Comfort Suites on Roy Street. We had a two bedroom suite with kitchenette, perfect for the five of us. We were about two blocks from the Seattle Center an easy walk from our hotel! We enjoyed the Space Needle, the Science Fiction Museum, the Experience Music Project, Pioneer Square with the Underground Tour, Pike's Place Market, and the water front. We ate at Ivars, Elliotts, and Salty's on Alki Beach.
Embarkation: We arrived at the pier about 1:00 PM. Had no problem checking our luggage and no waiting in line to check in. We boarded the ship about 1:30 and went directly to our cabins. Cabin: We were in side-by-side cabins in what my DH affectionately called "steerage", #1118 and #1120. We prefer the lower decks because my daughter has motion sickness problems. While we enjoyed being on the deck with the front desk and shore excursion offices - so easily accessible and only one floor from the dining room, we would never again book these particular cabins. We were directly below the kitchen and were awakened early (4:00ish) every morning with what sounded like carts/tables being dragged across the floor and one morning the smell of bacon was so strong that we could have been sleeping in the kitchen. Our cabins were lovely, spacious, and the beds were divine!! We only had a shower - I missed having a bathtub. Upon our arrival to our cabin our air conditioning was not working - in either cabin. We complained first to our room steward and finally to the front desk where we were assured that the "problem was being worked on". My DH begin staking out various places on the ship where we might "camp out" because the room was much too hot for sleeping. Fortunately, after about 4 hours we could feel cool air blowing into our cabin and by bedtime we were able to sleep comfortably. And we appreciated that the front desk checked back with us every day or so to make sure that the air conditioning was still functioning properly.
Dining: Dinner: There was no "As You Wish" dining on our cruise in the Vista Dining Room - probably because of the large group (942 people) on our cruise (more about them later). Our food was consistently good and well presented. Some entrees were better than others, but overall we were satisfied with our selections. The portions were adequate - only once did my DH have to order a second entree because the serving was so small (the duck breast). And one other time, we were unhappy with the entree (the Wiener Schnitzel). It was dry and flavorless. But most entrees were quite good. Our steward, Rae, was wonderfully sweet - anticipating our every need. We had plenty of bread, water, ice tea, milk, etc. - never having to ask for refills. Problems: (1) We missed the string quartet playing during dinner, in fact we missed having any music at all and the dining room was loud. I don't know if this is a result of the design of the room, but the lack of music (which probably couldn't have been heard in the first place) and the loud voices destroyed much of the ambience of the dining experience. (2) The pace of our meal. Most evenings it took us 2 hours to be served and eat a four course meal. I don't think this was a problem with our steward but with the kitchen staff. We would frequently wait long periods between courses. Then we would usually have to hurry through our dessert in order to get to the entertainment in the Vista Lounge. (3) The variety (or lack thereof) of desserts. While I think the Vista Dining Room did an adequate job with desserts we were a little disappointed in the variety and creativity. Most of the desserts my family tasted were good but nothing memorable.
Breakfast and Lunch: We ate in the Lido Restaurant, Vista Dining Room, and the Terrace Grill for Breakfast and Lunch depending upon our mood and the schedule for the day. Again the food and choices were very good and again the service in the Vista Dining Room was so very slow that by the end of the cruise we abandoned the idea of eating in the Vista Dining Room at all. There is just too much to do on an Alaskan cruise to spend two hours eating lunch!
Entertainment: (1)The Vista Lounge singers and dancers were wonderful - the best of our three cruises. Sadly, this cruise was the last for the four singers - their contracts were up and were moving on to other exciting things. The shows were exceptionally good for a cruise line. The "That's Vegas" show on Monday night was very good except for an odd opening number and the most unusual rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" I have every heard. The dancers were very good and the again, the singers were excellent. (2) We also enjoyed the comedy of John Branyan the first night of the cruise and looked forward to seeing him again later. Unfortunately, he was not scheduled for another performance (again, probably because the 942 people reserved the Vista Lounge for their group) and we were quite disappointed. Go see John Branyan if he is ever performing in your area. He was very funny with a very clean performance - no sexual or off color jokes - my teenagers loved him, too. (3) On Thursday we enjoyed Howard Hill, a contemporary concert pianist, playing themes from television and movies (think a young Liberace without the candlesticks). He was a good talent and it might have been a very good performance, but I couldn't tell because the sound system was adjusted so poorly that the recorded background track, (which everyone on cruise ships use these days) overpowered the pianist and live performers. (4) Randy Keith was the "piano man" and every time we entered the piano bar he had a crowd around the piano singing. While he was very good and attracted a good crowd, we were a little disappointed that it was a loud, hard-driving type of performance, rather than the laid back, easy piano sounds we enjoyed last year on the Volendam with Barrie Blythe. Just a matter of personal taste. (5) We were not able to hear the Lakatos Strings in the Explorer's Lounge because they only performed during our two hour dinner time. (6) We enjoyed dancing to the Sean Bell Trio in the Ocean Bar, DJ Rich in Northern Lights, and with Meryll & The Hall Cats in the Crow's Nest. The Sean Bell Trio was not bad, rather young to be playing Standards, but their location was awful. They were stuck in a small corner, and the "dance floor" was really little more than a cleared out part of the walkway. Despite having all these different venues for dancing we didn't feel that the Noordam offered a good place for consistent ballroom dancing - most of the music seemed to be geared for a younger audience (who were not on this ship) maybe this music works for a Caribbean cruise where the passengers tend to be younger.
Children/Teen Program: My teens had a good time with the 30+ teens that participated in the teen activities. There were three teen counselors/supervisors. They were all well behaved, no discipline problems that we were aware of. One problem with the Teen Program however. At midnight the counselors went to bed leaving the teenagers unsupervised in The Loft. Noordam should either have counselors on duty until the last teen leaves or they should close down The Loft at midnight. (This could turn into a bad situation!)
Greenhouse Spa: While my DH and I enjoyed both the hydro pool and the thermal suites it was not worth the $250 to us. It was especially nice after a day of site seeing to come back and relax, and I'm glad we tried it, but I doubt that we will purchase the spa package again. A couple of times I took my shower at the spa but was disappointed in the service: could not find a washcloth and when I asked the girl at the desk she said none would be available until the next morning; shampoo was available in the shower but no conditioner or soap; water with lemon or lime was available in the hydro pool area but no clean cups/glasses.
Shore Excursions: Juneau: We took a 1½ hour helicopter tour of the glaciers with Coastal Helicopters (booked ourselves - not through HAL). Driver/escort met us at the dock right on time. Luke was our very competent and informative pilot. What a beautiful view from the helicopter!! We landed on a glacier and walked around for about 25 minutes. In the afternoon we took the bus to Mendenhall Glacier and toured the area.
Sitka: The tendering process was easy and well managed. We took a 4 hour tour with Davey Lubin on The Ester G (www.puffinsandwhales.com), a six passenger boat, to look for wildlife (booked ourselves - not through HAL). The boat ride was fabulous, saw all sorts of animals on land and sea and got a great tour of the area with Davey. FYI my DH, sister-in-law, and I did fine in the small boat on the open sea, but both of my teens had some sea-sickness problems. After a lunch of hamburgers in town we toured Sitka and did some souvenir shopping.
Ketchikan: Since we had such a short time here we decided to forgo any scheduled shore excursions (we toured the Misty Fiords by float plane last summer), so we did a walking tour and shopped.
Victoria: We took a two hour tour of the city (arranged through HAL). Wish we could have spent more time there.
Disembarkation Because we had an early flight we chose to depart early carrying our luggage with us. This was so simple and so easy - it just meant that we were up early with an early breakfast. We had no problems exiting the ship and walked straight to our shuttle stop.
Final Thoughts Approximately 45-50% of the passengers on the Noordam were with "Inspirational Cruises and Tours". In so many ways this affected our cruise: 1. They used the Vista Lounge for all their worship/seminars. Therefore, entertainment and informational sessions were cut for the rest of us; for example, unlike last summer's cruise on the Volendam, there were no Naturalist lectures. 2. With that many passengers on board with the same schedule, restaurants, bars, and decks were either packed or almost empty. The rest of us would have benefited from having their schedule so that we could have avoided being in the public places at the time their group meetings let out. Frankly, I think most of them went to bed after dinner (they were at main seating), because the Vista Lounge was never more than half full and the bars were deserted by 11:00 PM. (Actually, I have a feeling that the Noordam lost money on the sale of alcoholic drinks and in the casino this week, but they did run out of chocolate ice cream.) 3. One of the highlights of our cruise on the Volendam last summer was meeting and talking with people from around the globe. This year, most, if not all, of the "Inspirational Cruises and Tours" group were from the US and while they were all very nice it was not as much fun as dining with international passengers.
The staff and crew were fabulous, wonderful. They always greeted me with a smile and a "hello" and did everything possible to help my family have a wonderful cruise. This was also the last cruise for our Cruise Director, Drew Murdock. He was returning home to eastern Canada after four months aboard the Noordam. Drew was terrific and we would love to see him on a future HAL cruise.
Captain Hans Mateboer was our ship's captain. After advice from CC we did not attend the Captain's Champagne Toast, however, we did meet Captain Mateboer at the Saturday luncheon honoring Mariner and Suite guests. Captain Mateboer had a new and interesting problem that I'm sure he and HAL will be talking about for some time to come. When we tried to depart Sitka on Thursday our anchor would not come up. After trying for several hours to pull up the anchor, Captain Mateboer made the decision to sail on to Ketchikan (albeit slowly) while the maintenance engineers replaced the anchor motor. So we set sail (late) dragging 30 meters of anchor and chain (over 36,000 pounds!). Sometime around 10:00 PM the new motor was working, the anchor was pulled up, and Captain Mateboer order full steam ahead. We arrived in Ketchikan the next morning about one hour late so HAL gave us an extra hour in Ketchikan, causing Captain Mateboer to sail the Noordam as "fast as she has ever sailed!" to Victoria, where we arrived right on schedule.
This was our second cruise on HAL. On the second day we received a Holland America canvas bag on our bed with a brief "thank you" for sailing with HAL. A couple of days later we each received a tile with another "thank you" note from HAL. And then the next day we received an invitation to attend a luncheon in honor of the Mariners and Suite guests on Saturday, hosted by the Captain, Hotel Manager, and Cruise Director in the Vista Dining Room. The luncheon was a nice thank-you and we appreciated being invited. This was the only meal in the Vista Dining Room where we were served in a timely manner - we were in and out in an hour and 15 minutes.
In summary, we enjoyed our cruise on the Noordam - she is a beautiful ship. My favorite moments were walking the promenade deck; sitting in one of the teak chairs on the promenade deck, covered up with a blanket, watching the scenery and listening to the waves against the boat; hot chocolate (laced with Bailey's Irish Cream) on the Noordam's bow in Glacier Bay; dancing with my DH on the deserted dance floors! While the cruise was not perfect we will definitely choose to sail with HAL again.