Holland America Line aims to strike a balance between classic and contemporary, and Noordam, christened in 2006, manages this well. The ship's smaller size, with fewer than 2,000 passengers, gives Noordam an intimate feel that makes it easy to meet people and make new friends. There are lots of nooks for conversation and quiet diversions like backgammon or settling back with a good book. Dinners in the main dining rooms and two specialty restaurants are leisurely. Pre-dinner entertainment includes listening to a violin-piano duo perform and dancing to ballroom and show-tune classics. Afternoon tea is served daily.
The best of Noordam's onboard programming skews toward the educational, such as cooking presentations and Microsoft-sponsored computer workshops. On our Alaska sailing, the piano bar was about as rowdy as things got. Australian and New Zealand cruises attract a slightly more lively crowd, although the vibe still tends to be low-key. The excellent B.B. King's Blues Club is the top pick for those seeking some less sedate late-night fun.
By day, the Explorations Cafe -- with its clubby, coffeehouse vibe and free online access to the New York Times, plus a nice selection of books and games -- was a steady hub of activity. Unfortunately, there is no free online access to Australian newspapers.
Compared with some HAL vessels' decor, Noordam's is downright glitzy. A three-story atrium midship sports a curvy green glass stairway crowned by a colossal Waterford Crystal compass. Gold-hued tiles mirror the surrounding walls. In the elevator lobbies, oversize urns sprout artificial foliage and busts of the Dutch royal family mix it up with ornate metal settees. However, there is little need to sit down when it comes to elevators. Noordam has an impressive number for such a small ship, which means there is seldom a wait for those who prefer not to take the stairs. As in other HAL vessels, some impressive and eclectic artwork provides lovely visual surprises throughout the ship. Historic photos of HAL cruisers from days gone by line the hallways and are a good fit for the ship's traditional feel.
Holland America is one of the few lines that still permit smoking on balconies. Some passengers see this as a pro; for others it could be a major con. On a recent Australia and New Zealand cruise, we smelled cigarette or cigar smoke only on one occasion, but non-smokers who end up with a balcony next to a smoker's cabin may not be so lucky.
The youngest of HAL's four early-2000s-vintage Vista-class ships, Noordam shows some signs of wear (separating wallpaper seams, worn carpet in areas). But the overall ambiance makes the ship a good choice for those who don't need water slides, ziplines or climbing walls to find their bliss at sea.
With an average age of 55, Holland America passengers skew slightly older than those of some major lines. On Alaska cruises, about 80 percent of cruisers are older than 50; about 40 percent are over 65. Ages were similar on our recent Australia and New Zealand cruise. In general, Alaska cruises and those taking place during the Australia and New Zealand school holidays attract more families.
On most Alaska sailings, Holland America cruisers are 60 to 80 percent North American, although this percentage skews towards Australian and New Zealand cruisers when the ship comes Down Under. However, you will still find many nationalities onboard, with Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians making up the majority of the passenger base.
Daytime attire is casual, though shorts and tank tops aren't allowed in the dining rooms. The Lido Restaurant is more laid-back but does request that diners wear shoes and a shirt. Recommended attire on most nights is "smart casual," meaning skirts or pants for women and casual slacks and shirts for men. Two formal nights on our cruise brought out a smattering of tuxes and sequins. Cocktail dresses for women and sport coats and slacks for men predominated. Alaska, Australia and New Zealand, and Pacific Island itineraries are typically fairly informal on Holland America. On European sailings, passengers tend to dress up more.
An automatic US$12.50 (US$13.50 for suites) per-person tip is charged daily. In addition, a 15 percent gratuity is added for spa services and bar tabs. The amount can be adjusted up or down at the service desk.