BACKGROUND: My wife and I have taken 6 cruises, all on HAL. This is only our third HAL ship, so comparisons are a bit limited. This was a 26-day "combination" cruise of 16 days Transatlantic, plus 10 days Mediterranean.
STATEROOM: This was our first disappointment. Ever since our first cruise, when we booked an outside room on the Veendam, we have always booked the "inside standard". HAL has usually upgraded us at some point, and this was no exception. We were upgraded from MM to J, supposedly a "Large Inside" stateroom. It was the smallest stateroom we have had on HAL, regardless of class. The Front Office confirmed that it was one of the smallest on the ship, regardless of its "higher" class. There was just enough room to walk on either side of the bed. There was no "dresser" or "bureau" as we had become used to in other ships (including the "old" Noordam). It was made to feel even a little smaller by the round table that sat at the end of the bed and generally was in the way. If you like to sit in your stateroom and write (or work on a laptop), good luck! The "desk" space is almost nil once you take into account the obligatory bowl for fruit, the ice bucket, and a few magazines and books.
The bathroom was your basic prefabricated bath/shower unit. There was barely enough room in the cabinet for the toiletry items we brought. Lighting was good. The toilet worked fine. Water escaped from the shower every time we used it.
DINING: This was our next disappointment, approximately on a par with that of the stateroom size. The best cuisine we experienced was on the Veendam in 1999, when she was almost new. The "Old" Noordam, which we sailed on 3 times, was not up to the standard of the Veendam, but nevertheless was still very good. The Veendam in 2008 was not quite as good as in 1999, but still very good. The "New" Noordam was a disappointment.
One major complaint was with the saltiness of the food. After my wife and I and some others at our table sent back dishes, the assistant dining room manager finally arrived at a solution to the rejection of dishes by giving us the menu a day ahead. We chose our dishes, and then they were prepared with "no salt added". The food was also usually almost cold by the time it got to us. And many times the "advertisement" in the menu barely resembled the finished product when it arrived at the table especially when pertaining to desserts. Our service was slow, and we tended to be almost the last table to be served. To our surprise, our table stewards were visibly uncomfortable with people and almost seemed to resist "getting familiar" with the guests. This was a marked departure from prior cruises when the table stewards went out of their way to make everyone feel welcome and "at home", and was a shared feeling amongst all 8 of us at the table. I think about the only time our main steward smiled was the time he and the other stewards sang "Happy Birthday" in Indonesian to my wife. We had mixed-up orders, incorrect orders, etc. They always fixed things, but rarely apologized for errors, slowness, cold food, etc.
Food in the Lido was pretty good to very good, and it was consistent. The coffee machines were a pain it took about two weeks before they got them both working properly. Innumerable times one or the other would/could not produce decaf coffee. They were better at coming up with excuses than repairs.
HAL "sub-divided" the Lido for dinners, to produce the "Canaletto Restaurant", specializing in Italian food. It was included in the cruise price, and therefore no extra charge. It was a good experience we ate there twice. The menu was a little limited, and appeared to be the same each night, so we didn't continue to book it. ACTIVITIES: We love HAL and the Noordam for the variety of activities available. One of the things we enjoyed most on our second-last cruise (on the Veendam) the Culinary Arts Centre was spoiled on this cruise by the Noordam "hostess". Rather than allowing the chef to cook and talk about what he was doing and why, she insisted on trying to be a "poor man's Martha Stewart" and asking inane and sometimes downright stupid questions. We attended two sessions and were so irritated we skipped the rest of them. Too bad, because we considered these a highlight of our previous cruise.
We love the Explorations Cafe and the Crow's Nest. The library was excellent, with a great variety of good, and current books, including best sellers. And there always seemed to be something available for entertainment.
SERVICE: See "DINING" for comments on Dining Room service. I should note that the young lady who was Assistant Dining Room Manager was "a breath of fresh air". She was responsive, friendly, outgoing, but always professional. Our room stewards were excellent, as always. The stateroom was kept flawlessly clean. The rest of the ship was likewise scrupulously cleaned and polished. No complaints there at all. And the service staff, especially in the Lido, were attentive, prompt and friendly.
Another major beef with the Noordam is that they have no laundry facilities on the ship. For a 26-day cruise, this was almost intolerable. Of course, you can always "pay through the nose" for HAL's on-board service. But I heard some people complaining about the delays in getting their laundry back, so we decided to "make the best of it" and do what we could in the stateroom. This was really a pain, and we encountered numerous people who felt as we did about this aspect of the ship.
ENTERTAINMENT: The entertainment was very good. The Noordam has an updated stage setup that they utilized as fully as possible in staging some good shows. The guest performers were of a very good quality, except for one young lady they billed as an operatic-style singer. If she was half as good as she thought she was, it would have been a great performance. We, along with MANY others, left after about the third song. The string quartet, which used to be "The Champagne Strings" on other cruises, were very talented young ladies from Europe - Czech Republic I think. While each was a good musician, they lacked the polish and timing that we had become used to in other groups. What we heard in other lounges and areas seemed to be of pretty good quality.
PORT & SHORE EXCURSIONS: HAL tends to price their shore excursions pretty highly, so when we did take an excursion, we booked ahead of time with a third party. EKOS Tours in Turkey (Ephesus) were excellent. The ports we visited were great, with the exception of Katakolon. If you weren't going to Olympia, then you were stuck in "the Skagway of Greece" as the ship tour guy called it. While I'm on that subject, "Tom the Tour Guy" (my name for him) was really good to work with. He was a do-it-yourself kind of guy, as we are, and loved to walk the ports on his own. Therefore he was able to give some great tips for the DIY'ers like us. And his port talks were very interesting, and not the thinly-veiled commercials for HAL-sponsored shops that one usually encounters.
GRATUITY: This is one of our hot buttons. We appreciated HAL for it's "tipping not required" policy, and were disappointed when they finally broke down and went the way of most of the rest of the cruise lines. We strenuously object to the "flat rate" approach. We went to the Front Office and declined the entire fixed charges, and then gave cash to the people we felt deserved it. The HAL Front Office lady's remark was that the crew have to split up the cash donations. I think this is deplorable, and I told her so.
DISEMBARKATION: HAL charge exorbitant amounts for transfers. For example, from the Rome port city of Civitavecchia to a downtown hotel (only one of the hotels HAL put people in) was $99 USD per person. We made the train trip for under $10 USD each, all the way to Roma Termini, which was 3 blocks from our hotel. And HAL did almost nothing to organize things on the pier. Everyone was left to their own devices to figure out where buses would arrive, which were port buses, which were tour buses, where to stand, etc. It was mass confusion with scores of angry, upset passengers milling around. Dumping over 2000 people onto shore with very little coordination was not a good thing. However, they were flexible with allowing us to determine our own disembarkation time, and retaining our luggage in the room and taking it off ourselves. This helped to minimize OUR confusion. But many other people were very frustrated by the experience.
SUMMARY: Some parts of this cruise were as good or better than expected. The price we got on the cruise was great under $2100 CAD each for 26 days. The ship was beautiful, and well-appointed. It was very seaworthy, and overall a very enjoyable ship. However, as noted, we had a number of disappointments on this cruise, which were all reported to HAL. This experience has caused us to re-think our dedication to HAL. When it's time for another cruise, we will be seriously considering other cruise lines (for the first time).