Editor's note: Noordam now offers world-class musical performances with the B.B. King's Blues Club experience, five nights a week in the Queen's Lounge.
Sailing out of New York Harbor, to me, is a spiritual experience. Ships usually leave near sundown, and with the Manhattan skyline on the left and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to the right, with the shards of daylight fading and twilight approaching, the departures are often breath-catchingly beautiful.
When I got the chance to sail on Holland America's Noordam, the fourth and final of its Vista-class vessels, I was thrilled. It was early spring, and Noordam's last trip out of New York before heading to Europe.
It took until the final version of Holland America's Vista-ship building program for me to make it onto a Vista-class vessel. I thought I had educated myself, but after sailing on both Statendam-class and Rotterdam-class ships, I was totally unprepared for the size of Noordam. In fact, I was totally unprepared for most of the changes in this new generation of ships, and I was somewhat surprised at my reaction.
When it began its ambitious new-build program with Zuiderdam, launched in 2002, the line had a lofty goal: Expand beyond its appeal to (mostly) very senior citizens. Bring in family groups. Create a bridge between the seniors, its stalwart and consistent passenger base, and the youngsters who would soon be purchasing cruise vacations of their own. Indeed, appealing to "multi-generational family groups" is the stated objective of the line's Vista-class program. With expanded Club HAL facilities for youngsters, the addition of its hugely successful Loft Teen Clubs, and a large percentage of staterooms fitted with balconies, the Vista-class ships ushered Holland America Line into the 21st century with aplomb.
In 2003, Holland America announced its Signature of Excellence initiative, wherein it would retrofit all of the ships in its fleet with elegant Euro-style mattresses, upgrade the bedding, add waffle-weave bathrobes to all cabin categories, incorporate massage-type showerheads into the bathrooms, add flat-screen LCD televisions and DVD players to the cabins, expand its kids and teens' facilities and change some of the public rooms into contemporary, multi-purpose meeting places. Noordam was the first ship built to incorporate all of the changes into its design -- and what changes they are.
The Culinary Arts Center (taking the place of the Wajang Theatre -- movies are still played there) and the Explorations Cafe (replacing the Windjammer Lounge, Coffee Bar and the library) might be the biggest changes onboard but they are certainly not the only ones.
Distinctive, though, to Noordam were some additional modifications. twenty-seven feet of aft deck space was added to the Lido Deck and 35 new staterooms were incorporated into the design, eliminating much of the angled raking at the stern and creating a straighter up/down aft end. This has been deemed so successful that each of the other Vista-class ships will in turn go into dry-dock to get the same additions.
I am, admittedly, on the younger end of HAL's traditional senior passenger base, but like most of HAL's older passengers, I am somewhat averse to change. Stepping onto Noordam presented me with a culture shock that took a few days to overcome. The size of the ship and its layout -- compared to Holland America's "classic" ships with their more linear passageways -- had me bufuddled; there are new elements (like the cooking center instead of the Wajang), a jazzy style, open spaces and twisty corridors absent from HAL's other ships. Almost nothing in the physical configuration of the vessel felt familiar.
With apologies to the late, lamented Oldsmobile, "This ain't your daddy's Holland America."
Happily, for me, the staff and crew were decidedly "old school," as accommodating and genuinely caring as they are on any Holland America ship. I occasionally walk with a cane ... and when I had it with me in the Lido Cafe, I didn't have to worry about carrying my tray with one hand because a smiling steward -- always -- took it from me and carried it, through the line and to whatever table I chose. A question I asked at the front desk was handled with professional, hospitable grace. And, on this larger ship, although I may have felt like I was walking miles to get from point A to point B, at least my hikes were punctuated with smiles and cheerful greetings, often -- per HAL's tradition -- by name.
I might prefer HAL's older, smaller, more classic ships (although having a verandah without paying for a suite was a wonderful perk), but in the end, the overall enjoyment of any cruise vacation depends more on the total experience than on the ship's layout. I was treated like an old friend, greeted by name and pampered by my room steward. I dined in elegance and took advantage of the modern amenities (like the Wi-Fi Internet and DVD players) available on Noordam. I watched culinary demonstrations, listened to music in the Explorer's Cafe and made new friends. Noordam might be big and modern, but it is, after all, one of those "dam" ships, and I was sad to leave when the cruise ended.