My wife and I both were 65 at the time of the cruise in February 2010. Previously we had been on cruises in 1993 on the M.V. Royal Majesty, 2007 on the Carnival Paradise, and 2008 on the Island Princess. The latter had been our longest – seven days. This one on the Holland America Lines (HAL) Noordam comprised two back-to-back 10-day cruises.
We flew into the Fort Lauderdale Airport and took the free Port Everglades shuttle because we did not have HAL transfers. Within 15 minutes the shuttle left us off at the front door of HAL’s check-in pavilion. A steward immediately took our tagged bags and I immediately gave him five bucks for his prompt and considerate service. Since we arrived about 1:00 p.m., there was no line. We had done online check-in in advance and had our e-docs. All of the additional paperwork was ready for us at check-in. We were impressed with how organized and efficient check-in was. It took only about 15 minutes. One complaint we do have is with the turnaround day between cruises when the 300 “Collector Voyage Guests” were herded off the Noordam into the hot and stuffy check-in pavilion and run through a perfunctory repeat check-in. It took about an hour and seemed so unnecessary.
Inside Stateroom #1053. We had never been in an inside stateroom before and wondered if it would be too confining for 20 days. It wasn’t. But we were so glad we got a "large" (207 square foot) Inside Stateroom. We never felt cramped and, in fact, didn’t even use all of the storage space. Twice we had guests – one couple from an Oceanview Stateroom and another from a Standard Inside Stateroom – and they were impressed with how much room we had – even more than the Oceanview Stateroom. It didn’t bother us that we could not see the ocean through a window or have natural light coming in. At times we did wish for some fresh air, especially toward the end of the cruise. The king bed and pillows were comfortable. There was adequate lighting and fine amenities in the bathroom. The only thing that was a little inconvenient was that the hair dryer could be plugged in only at the desk in the room. I also was annoyed that that the only news channel was CNN International (which constantly repeats feature packages over and over and virtually no news) and ESPN International with endless European futbol (soccer) matches. Being in an inside stateroom, we especially liked the live TV cameras on the bow and stern of the Noordam. It was handy to have a small refrigerator and a safe. We wondered if the room would be noisy being on the Main Deck between the Vista Lounge and Atrium. But it was very quiet. Occasionally we heard creaks and bumps, but we rarely heard people in the hall and not even doors closing. As you can imagine, it also was nice and dark for sleeping. We were glad we brought a nightlight for the bathroom.
The staff was uniformly friendly and helpful, especially our room stewards, Apip and Ary. Almost always when we passed staff members they greeted us warmly. Even during As You Wish Dining (AYWD) in the Vista Dining Room (VDR) and in the Lido Restaurant the wait staff was friendly and helpful, although they were different each day. We did note that the time between courses in the VDR was long and meals took one and a half to two hours, making it difficult to get to the shows before the Vista Lounge filled up. This may be because the wait staff had too many tables to serve, at least, that’s what HAL old timers told us and it seemed to be true.
We liked the overall style of the Noordam’s décor. It was muted, not garish like some other cruise lines I won’t mention. The artwork displayed throughout the Noordam gave it a classy feel. We were surprised how small some public rooms were, especially the Vista Lounge and Queen’s Lounge. We had to show up for performances at least a half hour ahead of time to be assured of a seat. In addition, seating in the Queen’s Lounge was all on the same level and it was hard for my wife to see over the heads of people in front of her. A couple times we went to the Queen’s Lounge and the only seats available were behind people, so we just left. We failed to take advantage of the Casino or the pricy Greenhouse Spa & Salon because it was, well, pricy. My wife did lift weights in the gym. She said it was virtually empty whenever she went. We both walked on the Promenade Deck but could not use it several days because it was closed.
We found the variety and quality of the food more than adequate – between good and very good – in the VDR and Lido Restaurant. Usually there were so many good choices on the menu it was hard to choose. At the same time, we would not describe the quality of the food as gourmet, not even in the Pinnacle Grill. Our favorite was the Italian specialty restaurant Canaletto. The antipasto was made at the table. The salad and seafood were fresh, and the pasta was al dente, as it should be, with credible sauce. BTW we purchased wine cards at $82.29 each for 20 glasses of not below average quality wine, which we used in all of the dining areas. We liked AYWD in the VDR because we had the opportunity to meet other people. We rarely saw any of them again, but we did hook up with two couples we liked. While the conversations were repetitive and superficial in general – Where are you from? How many cruises have you been on? How many grandchildren do you have? – we did meet some interesting people from other countries and even a mortician. We never had to wait at all even though we had no reservations because we always went to dinner between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. When we left, usually between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m., the lines were long. We also liked to eat dinner in the Lido Restaurant when we wanted to eat more quickly, not be engaged in conversation, and not dress up on some formal nights.
In general, we were disappointed with the educational enhancements. The vast majority of the presentations were veiled sales pitches by people like Travel Guide Susan and Port Shopping Ambassador Gail. Even presentations that were informative, such as the Fish Know-How Cooking Demonstration with Guest Chefs were filled with pitches for the their books and Web sites. The demonstrations were lightweight subjects such as napkin origami, scrapbooking, and endless trivia contests. In contrast, the Explorations Café had an extensive library and my wife read 7 (seven!) books during the cruise. I read only 2 books, but I’m a slower reader. Explorations Café also was a comfortable, quiet place to read and use our laptop. We failed to take advantage of the free Digital Workshop because we already know what was being taught. We did like two printed handouts available each day – a 4-page summary of news from the New York Times and Daily Sodukos.
The Noordam has wireless Internet hotspots (wi-fi) throughout the ship. We got a fair signal in our stateroom. However, Internet fees on the Noordam were outrageous. After a $3.95 connection fee, it was 75 cents per minute, or $45 per hour! There were two less expensive packages: 100 minutes for $55 and 250 minutes for $100. Still, the latter comes out to $24 per hour. We discovered that we didn’t need our daily doses of Internet, so we went to Internet Cafés at various ports. They charged between $6 and $10 per hour. That’s still a lot, but not $24 per hour. By the way, when I scrolled down HAL’s wi-fi home page, past the subscription form, I found four free Web sites. Three of them were HAL’s Web sites, but the fourth was the New York Times. I did not see or hear anything about free access to the NYT so I doubt that many people knew about it. The site was very slow, which is a complaint I’d heard from other users.
The HAL Singers and Dancers could really sing and dance. They were young, quite talented, and enthusiastic. The shows themselves primarily were music reviews that would appeal to the HAL demographic. We went to each HAL Singers and Dancers performance on the first cruise but did not go again when they were repeated on the second cruise. Alternating with the HAL Singers and Dancers were “seasoned” performers who ranged from awful (vocal pianist Brett Cave) to adequate (singer/impersonator Bryan G.) to excellent (tenor Aaron Shaw, comedian Lee Bayless, and singer Marlana Dunn). But the highlight for us were Adagio Strings, a string quartet that played classical music for about five hours each night in Explorer’s Lounge. We kept going back to them because they were talented musicians with a wide repertoire. They even took requests. We enjoyed our cocktails while we relaxed.
We booked four HAL excursions and two independent excursions. The best were Serenity’s Zipline Tour on St. Lucia and HAL’s Samur Sail and Snorkeling on Bonaire. Both were well organized and exciting. We also liked the excursion run by Antours on Dominica, where my wife swam in the Emerald Pool then we both tubed down the Layou River. However, Mr. Nice was not at his fruit stand and we were offered nothing to eat or drink between the time we left the dock and finished tubing – about 5 hours later. We were glad we had taken water and a couple power bars with us. We stopped twice at Carnival Line’s Half Moon Cay, where we walked the beach and my wife parasailed. The BBQ lunch provided by HAL on the island was average chicken and ribs. We were surprised that the Island Bar took only soda cards, not Signature Cocktail Cards. The only excursion that was disappointing was HAL’s Los Haitises (hi tee sis) National Park in Samana. It took about 45 minutes to get to the park by boat and the motor was so loud we could not talk. We saw a frigate rookery and stopped at a cave for about 30 minutes, which was the most interesting part of the excursion. We did two other excursions on the spur of the moment that were very good – a car rental with cruise friends in Aruba and local bus tour in Curaçao.
I guess the average of passengers was between 70 and 75, give or take a decade. However, we saw only a few wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers. At AYWD in the VDR we met some old people who were engaging and some who were boring. Some were exceedingly considerate and others were self-centered and obnoxious. That’s par for the course, I guess. We did hook up with two lovely couples who were near our ages and at our activity levels. I kept having to remind myself that we did not have a lot of screaming kids running around or drunken obnoxious teenagers pushing ahead of us in lines. What about those lines? If we went to the Lido Restaurant at the height of breakfast or lunch, there would be lines. Not too long, but long enough. The key was to go earlier or later. Then no lines.
We bought the $19 pp Special Express Baggage Service (SEBS) that provided us with airline luggage tags and boarding passes. We put our luggage outside our stateroom door and did not see it again until Baggage Claim in our home city. After a quick breakfast, we walked off the ship and got into a taxi with no customs questions and no waiting. The taxi fare to the airport was $20 (including tip) and we were there by 8:00 a.m. Since we already had our boarding passes, we could go straight through security and to our gate. We think SEBS is one of HAL’s services that’s definitely worth it.
Overall our experience on the Noordam was positive and we would sail on another Hal cruise. If fact, while onboard we signed up for two more of them, taking advantage of the $100 per person deposit offers. But most likely we won’t be in inside staterooms and not going for 20 days. We found that’s a wee bit long for us.