In a word--fabulous.
This was a family cruise, with 16 of us (parents, siblings, spouses, and children) gathered to enjoy the Noordam's hospitality and to escape the winter cold in Canada. My indomitable and very organized step-mother (with the help of her favorite travel agent) coordinated the entire thing, from airline tickets to hotel rooms, cruise-port transfers to soda cards, right down to matching red t-shirts so that we would not lose track of one another on embarkation!
We sailed from Fort Lauderdale on 03 February, under heavy cloud but in warm airs. The boys in the group stood at the balcony railing in our parents' suite, very interested in the Coast Guard boat (with what appeared to be a submachine gun mounted on the bow) that zoomed up and down beside the Noordam as she lay waiting her turn to leave the harbour. Those of us less interested in the Coast Guard used the binoculars provided in the suite to watch herons, egrets, and pelicans at the water's edge.
Only three of us had not cruised before, but the first-time sailors adapted quickly. I had brought Gravol in case of heavy seas or motion sickness, and a lot of it was used over the course of the 10 days as many of the children found themselves feeling a bit queasy at bedtime. There were many nights when the rolling motion was quite profound during the wee hours. It didn't seem to bother any of the adults, even those who had not cruised before.
The itinerary was new(ish) to me: Half Moon Cay was the first stop, and was marvelous as always. The seas were rough, however, and the tendering to and from the ship was delayed several times, leaving groups of passengers cooped up inside tenders for some time at the dock. The grumbling diminished once the HAL employee opened the tender's forward windows, so that air could circulate (it had been getting pretty hot in there and lots of people were starting to look a bit faint).
We had several vegetarians with us this time, and we were heartened to discover that there were veggie burgers and other non-meaty choices at the Half Moon Cay barbeque (we were also glad to see our old friends the chickens wandering about the picnic area!) The food was wonderful, as usual.
The second stop, Grand Turk, was also very nice. We stayed pretty much in the cruise port and on the beach. The beach was in nice shape, and there were some curious schools of fish that delighted the kids by swimming fearlessly round them in the shallows of the roped-off area.
The third port was Samana, in the Dominican Republic. We were all very taken with the craggy beauty of the island of Hispaniola as we sailed nearer, and several people spotted humpback whales spouting nearby (the Captain said on the intercom that he had been forced to alter course eight times that morning in order to avoid pods of whales!)
We did not take any excursions in Samana, but rather decided to walk around and see what it was like. We had been told in the port information that the Dominican Republic was a 'third-world country', and this was evident the moment one stepped ashore: the pathways were lined with small children selling conch shells, with beggars, and with taxi operators and motorcycle drivers trying to persuade one to take an impromptu tour. I found myself feeling absurdly and guiltily rich, and finally broke down and gave two children each a dollar for a shell, which I later discreetly dropped back into the water (not being sure whether these were even allowed back into the US). Several other passengers with whom we later chatted did take HAL-sponsored excursions, and their experience of Samana was much more positive (they loved it).
Our final three stops were Curacao, Bonaire, and Aruba. We liked all three of these, although my personal favorite was Bonaire--the most laid-back, relaxed, and friendly island I've ever visited. We did the Two-Site snorkel excursion with Seacow of Bonaire (wonderful!) which I would highly recommend.
The Noordam staff were uniformly friendly, professional, and courteous. They seemed to be a very happy group, which I found a relief since the staff on Eurodam three years ago was most emphatically grumpy, and I was worried that this indicated a general malaise across HAL's fleet (doesn't seem that way now). The food was very good, with lots of vegetarian and milk-free options, and the dining room and kitchen staff bent over backwards to be helpful.
And finally, of course, it had to end. We were in the 8:45 to 9:15 disembarkation group, and we were off the ship--and found our bags--in record time.
It was a terrific holiday, and we will certainly return to Holland America soon (if only it could be sooner!)