For years I've read comments that the Noordam is the favorite ship of many experienced HAL passengers, and always took that with somewhat of a grain of salt. After all, I've yet to find a HAL ship I didn't love, so how could the Noordam possibly stand out from so many terrific ships? I consider myself an experienced cruiser -- this was cruise #25, but #13 on HAL. I now consider the Noordam my favorite ship as well, and look forward to sailing her again one day. In fact, I'll happily repeat this same itinerary repeatedly since both the ship and itinerary were terrific! Rather than giving a blow-by-blow account, I'll break this review into subjects/sections.
What can I say -- it's a piece of cake! I used ParkNGo for $6.99 or $5.99/day rather than paying $15/day at the port. They're right outside the port, meet you at your car with their minibus, transfer your luggage and whisk you off to the ship. Coming back I'll be off the ship early so I'll have to call them -- they'll come pick me up, take me to my car, put my luggage in my trunk, and hand me a cold bottle of water as I exit the lot. Can't beat it!
I arrived just after 10:30 and they directed me inside to check in. I told the lady there I was not in a deluxe suite but she waved me in anyways. Turns out they were using the suite waiting area & check in to process early arrivals as well. I was given boarding group #2 and at 11:00am went upstairs to wait for 11:30 for boarding to begin. I was unsuccessful at getting online, despite the port's website saying it had free wifi. At 11:30 they started boarding and I was on the ship at 11:35. All staterooms were ready, of course -- I think HAL is the only line that does this and frankly it's shameful the others still make their passengers drag their carryon crap around for 2 hours!
The ship is beautiful -- tasteful yet comfortable. I didn't see any garish or ugly public areas. There does seem to be fewer fresh flowers than in years past, so that is probably a cost cutting move on HAL's part. The art is still there, and everything looks fresh & in good repair. I have no idea when the last or next drydock was/is but there's no sign one is needed. Throughout my 10 days on board stewards continuously cleaned and maintained the ship better than I imagine any of us clean and maintain our own homes!
I had VB6006, way forward on the port side. I prefer forward staterooms, as midship just gets too congested at times and aft has the potential for more noise/vibrations. I was traveling solo but this stateroom would have been very adequate for a couple. It's really nice having all the closet space to myself, but had my husband wanted to cruise we would have managed just fine. I had no noise, being so far down the hall. Only 1 stateroom was past mine, which is a real plus. Some might think it's far to walk, but seriously -- with all the food on a cruise shouldn't we all be walking a lot more than we do?? My stewards kept the stateroom spotless and after the first few days when we had some miscommunication they settled into a routine servicing my stateroom exactly when I'd requested (8am and just after 6pm each day). In fact, many mornings I'd be on the verandah with my cappuccino but I'd put the "service please" tag in the lock and they'd come in, clean, and leave without me even being aware of them. It was great!
The fridge came in real handy, and it kept things cold rather than cool. It IS a mini-bar but I had room to add some bottled water and small wines without having to remove anything. If I had needed more spaced I would have emptied HAL's stuff into round seat at the desk. The beds and bedding are still as comfortable as always -- the best at sea! I loved having the verandah and made good use of it, usually first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon between pool time and dinner. Being on the port side, most of the time I had a nice view of whatever port we were in. Bonaire was the exception, where I faced out to sea.
Breakfast was in the Lido each day, and even at busy times it wasn't bad. Having lost some weight before the cruise I was determined to not gain it back so for me breakfast was the same every day -- bacon & eggs (same as at home). Lots of other stuff looked really good, but with the weight in mind I chose not to indulge. Normally I would have enjoyed a much wider variety of breakfast items! The full breakfast buffet ended at 10:30, when they took 30 minutes to reset for lunch.
Lunch I usually skipped, by eating breakfast mid morning. I'd usually grab a bowl of fresh cut fruit, which was always ripe and delicious. One day I skipped breakfast and got the caprese panini for lunch -- moving the insides to one half of the bread to save a few calories. It was very good. Sandwiches are not made with very much filling on board -- we're talking 3 small pieces of meat for the most part. I'm sure you could tell them double or triple meat, as my husband would have done if he was here. The lunch buffet ended at 2pm, but the Italian and sandwich stations remained open until 5pm. The Italian actually stayed open through dinner too.
For dinner I ate in the dining room about half the time, Lido 2-3 times, Pinnacle Grill once, room service once and Canaletto once. The first night in the dining room was agonizingly slow -- I actually left after 2 hours while my table mates had yet to order dessert. Other people did not have that problem that night, so I think it was just our stewards (any time dining). After that service was excellent, and the food was good to very good. Pinnacle was excellent, both in terms of food and service. It was an almost 3-hour meal but I dined with friends met on board and the time flew by. It did not feel like 3 hours! Canaletto was also very good, and a much faster meal than the Pinnacle. I do wish they'd change the Canaletto menu, as it's been the same for years and is fairly limited.
CRUISE CRITIC MEET & GREET:
I'd arranged our Meet & Greet through HAL about a month before sailing. The Beverage Manager had contacted me and met with me early in the cruise to discuss the arrangements, which is the first time that had happened. He asked for a list of the staterooms attending, which I did not have because several previous ships did not want the information. On the Noordam the Hotel Manager would have invited the entire group to the VIP party, but that didn't get to happen since I didn't know to get the information. I did get word to a few of the people, but since our event was the day after the vip party, most missed out.
The event itself was poorly attended, which is pretty typical. It's easy to commit to something while home but when you get onboard there might be something else you'd rather do at that time. We had approximately a dozen people, and those who attended were great and conversation flowed easily. The Cruise Director attended as well. Besides the usual coffee, tea, water & cookies the ship also provided fresh cut fruit, a platter of pastries, and a steward who walked around with complimentary mimosas and bloody marys -- very nice touch and very much appreciated!
ACTIVITIES ON BOARD:
My cruises are all about relaxing, so I no longer really participate in many activities. Each day had a long list of various activities, though. For me nothing beats laying around the pool or sitting on a shady verandah with a glass of wine.
HAL has a Culinary Arts Center on each ship, so each day there were a few events in there. Most are free and include a small sample, but some charge a fee if you'll actually be preparing a meal along with the chef. Bingo and trivia were done daily, and they had several fitness activities/classes each day. HAL is the only line with free technology classes each day -- usually 4-5 per day on topics related to digital photography or your computer.
Afternoon Tea is at 3pm each day, which is another thing I've never attended. They did the On Deck for the Cure the middle sea day, and it looked like pretty good participation. This is the first one I missed, but I had a "smart casual" attire event to attend 30 minutes prior, plus I had been walking 5 miles (15 laps) with another passenger each morning at 6am. Walking at 1pm does not appeal -- it's a stupid time to hold a walk (in the heat of the day) but in the past I always participated since I'm a 2-time breast cancer survivor and it's a worthwhile cause.
While not an activity, the Explorations Cafe was busy pretty much all day long. On the Noordam it has not been moved up to the Crows Nest, and it's a much nicer (and larger) space in the original location on deck 3. It's comfortable and inviting, which no doubt is what makes it so popular.
The ports were Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk, Samana (Dominican Republic), Bonaire, Curacao & Aruba. I didn't get off the ship in Half Moon Cay -- been there, done that many times and this time the Nieuw Amsterdam was also there and I prefer the uncrowded ship to a crowded beach & barbecue. In Grand Turk I'd just done an excursion last March so I mostly stayed onboard except for a couple forays to a spot outside the shops to pick up a free wifi signal. This stretched my expensive HAL minutes further!
In Samana I did not book an excursion and ended up staying on board. Friends who went ashore without an excursion said it was a huge waste of time -- 30 minutes to tender over, aggressive people & nothing to see at the port, then 30 minutes to tender back. Other friends who did an independent excursion with Terry raved about their day -- from start to finish they absolutely loved it! They did agree that without an excursion, there's no reason to go ashore.
In Bonaire I did an excursion (see section below) and then wandered around the little downtown area. There's not much there -- their "mall" is not what we call a mall in the US. But, the people here are very nice, and not pushy or aggressive at all. Diving/snorkeling is the big thing here, and I do neither. But, for those who do you can't ask for a better port! I'll gladly come back here -- the people were the most impressive.
In Curacao I wandered around the town with friends, and made a couple trips to the outside of the Starbucks in the fort by the Renaissance to take advantage of more free wifi. We were in port until 11pm so I made my second trip after dinner.
In Aruba I mostly stayed on the ship except for a couple hours when I used free wifi near the Starbucks in the mall of the Renaissance Resort here and did some shopping. The tour people seemed most aggressive here, at least out of the ports where I went ashore.
Having been to most of these ports multiple times my only excursion was in Bonaire -- the 4x4 Island Adventure. This was a nice way to see a lot of the island, riding in the back of an open-air land rover vehicle. The truck was equipped for 10 people but we only had 8 on our tour. It lasted approximately 3 hours and we saw the eastern and southern coast, including an off-road part, flamingos, slave huts and the salt mines.
In all ports tours were available once you set foot on land, and I was surprised by the long lines at the Shore Excursion desk on the ship. When you can book from the comfort of your couch at home, why would you choose to spend your vacation standing in line??
Besides the 3 production shows we had a ventriloquest (excellent), a comedy/magician (also excellent), a musician (pianist -- missed him but people raved about him) and one night the 4 singers from the cast did a show of just Broadway songs. This was a surprisingly great show -- I really enjoyed it. For once all 4 singers had good voices. It seems most cruises there's somebody who stands out for either screaming all their songs or being off key.
Happy Hour was held in different locations different hours each night. Typically it was 5-6 in Crows Nest, 7-8 in Ocean Bar, 9-10 in the Piano Bar and 10:30-11:30 in Northern Lights. During happy hour you get a 2nd of the same drink for $1.00 more. For the house wine that's $5.50 plus gratuity for 2 glasses of wine, which is very reasonable. It's nice that it was almost always happy hour somewhere, although due to the weight thing I didn't participate -- normally I'd be found at happy hour before dinner each day but I didn't want the calories of 2 glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres. So, several days I had a single glass of wine on my verandah (wine brought from home).
The night we were in Curacao (sailing at 11pm) there was no show -- instead they showed the movie Moneyball twice on a big screen in the Vista Lounge. I could smell the popcorn when I passed by, since the only movie I've seen in the past 5 years was Moneyball, I didn't see it again on the ship. They also had a barbecue by the aft pool this night, and while I went to the dining room a friend who attended said the food was excellent and it was a lot of fun, with so many people attending many had to sit in the Lido Restaurant. They also had a dessert buffet this night at the Lido Pool but I didn't see that personally.
The big Dessert Extravaganza was held the middle sea day, with photos at 10:15 and the feeding frenzy at 10:30. Rather than holding it by the Lido Pool (which I hate) they had it in the atrium on decks 1, 2 & 3. I don't think it worked better being in the atrium scattered on 3 different decks because it seemed too disjointed. I took photos but did not eat, but I can imagine people carrying their plates from one deck to another checking to see if there were different items on each deck, which seems tedious.
Each night they had live entertainment in the Piano Bar, Ocean Bar, Explorer's Lounge, Crows Nest and a DJ in the Northern Lights. They also had a different game each night at 9pm in the Queen's Lounge.
Overall this was a terrific cruise -- terrific enough that I booked a repeat for this November!