By far the best offerings on Noordam are the cooking demonstrations in the new Culinary Arts Center. Several times per week there is a session highlighting the preparation of some delectable treat or another, whether it's a main course, appetizer or dessert, presided over by a senior member of the kitchen staff. On those voyages where a guest chef is onboard, there are more demonstrations, using that chef's specialties as the featured recipes.
New to Noordam in 2008 is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.
The Vista Lounge (the ship's main theatre, located forward and comprising three decks), is a modern marvel. The only ship theatres with more high-tech goodies are those on Disney ships. This one boasts a one piece, $80,000 LCD backdrop. Although the shows are fairly average shipboard fare, the sophisticated design allows for more pizzazz, some pyrotechnics, some animation, and things like balloons and confetti falling from above. Sight lines are excellent except for certain spots in the back corners, where large pillars can be obstructive.
Holland America is well known for its low-key and fabulous lounge performers and bands. Noordam carries the tradition with flying colors. You can just about choose whatever it is you want, from the peaceful strains of the classical quartet in the Explorer's Lounge to the light jazz in the Ocean Bar or the torch songs in the Piano Bar. Northern Nights Nightclub gets the younger blood flowing with disco, karaoke, and other theme-type parties, and you can dance under the (visible) moonlight in the Crow's Nest.
The casino isn't very big, but it's lively, with several blackjack and poker tables, a full-sized craps table, a roulette wheel and banks of slots. Oddly, the nickel and penny video slots were getting the most play, and paying off the highest, too.
During the day, the cruise staff has devised some boisterous participation activities, and while they aren't quite as outrageous as those on some other ships we've visited, they are a departure from Holland America's usual low-key offerings. Hairy legs contests are now part of Noordam's schedule.
One of our favorite Holland America activities is the ship-building contest, in which entrants scrounge around for materials to build a ship over the course of the sailing. Items might include styrofoam cups, cardboard boxes, and any number of other materials -- we saw a ship made with orange peels! Near the end of the cruise, the vessels are put into one of the pools, judged, and the builders awarded prizes.
There is an art auction every day, and on occasion, the artwork is stuffed into and around the Ocean Bar, a frustrating and appallingly ugly public space. And, of course, there's daily bingo, too.
On the Observation Deck is a smallish video arcade. Teens who aren't using the Loft can usually be found here.
Noordam Public Rooms
Noordam, more than any of the other Vista-class ships, has incorporated the new Signature of Excellence program into its very design. The names of some of the public rooms might be the same as on other HAL vessels, but the architecture is totally different.
The throbbing pulse of the entire ship is the Explorations Cafe, "powered by the New York Times," located on the Upper Promenade Deck. Comfy and relaxing and at the same time educational and inspiring, this sprawling space incorporates a library, Internet center, coffee bar, music listening venue and meeting place in one location. Leather chaises with earphones, tables with reusable New York Times crossword puzzles laminated under layers of epoxy, Internet stations at roundelays, and books, books, books and more books define this space as the indoor hangout for folks of all ages. The coffee bar charges for cappuccinos and lattes, but the reasonable price is worth it (about $2.50 for a specialty coffee) and the pastries are thrown in for free.
Another space in which from and function meet is The Queen's Lounge and Culinary Arts Center. The room takes the place of what used to be the Wajang Theatre, and while free hot popcorn is still served during the movies that play here, it's what's different that makes the place special. The entire front end has been designed as though it's a set from the Food Network, with cameras angled down onto a workspace with stovetop and television-type lighting. On each side of the stage is a giant LCD monitor, so no matter where you are sitting, you can see the action. Holland America has teamed up with Food and Wine Magazine, and will be hosting 60 "celebrity chefs" per year on all of their ships.
Noordam is filled with millions of dollars worth of original artwork, not all of it behind glass. There seems to be a large percentage of Asian art and sculptures, but other forms and cultures are represented as well. During my cruise, a photographer was documenting each piece; the photos and commentary will be put into iPods which can be borrowed for a self-guided tour of the art on the ship. What a fabulous idea!
The shops are all located forward of the Explorations Cafe, and in order to get from the back of the ship to the front on this level, you have to go through them. Here again, the corridors seem narrow and awkward, and until you realize that you are, indeed, on the main path, you get the sense that you've lost your way somehow, and ended up shopping by mistake. Despite this confusing design -- and once you figure out how to get into and around them -- the shops are great with plenty of logo stuff, jewelry and duty-free. The "Dam Ship" shirts sold out on the first day before I had a chance to get one, and there were wonderful 75 percent off sales that kept people coming back.
The meeting rooms across from the Explorations Cafe were well-used during my trip; for Friday night Jewish Sabbath services; Muslim services; non-denominational services; and Catholic mass on both Sunday and Good Friday. There were several private group meetings too.
A Passover Seder was held in the Lido Cafe. They closed off part of the room so non-guests couldn't see in, but the entrance was flanked with flowers, and the service was broadcast throughout the Lido area. The service was performed by a woman and it was an extraordinary experience to be able to hear it.
Most of the bars and lounges are located on the Promenade Decks that have public spaces. On the Lower Promenade, there's Northern Nights Nightclub, funky, but way too small for the crowd it occasionally attracts, the Sports Bar, the fab and well-attended Piano Bar, the Pinnacle Bar near the atrium, and of course the after-dinner favorite, the Explorer's Lounge with its classical trio or quartet playing nightly, and the complimentary chocolates served to anyone hanging around. The only smoking allowed on this deck is in the casino and in the Sports Bar which adjoins it.
The Ocean Bar is located on the Promenade Deck, and spans the area surrounding the atrium. This is a great mid-ship stop before or after supper, with a jazz quartet and small dance floor.
Both daytime (for the views) and nighttime (for the dancing) make the Crow's Nest -- situated forward and atop the ship -- a favorite for folks of all ages. Surrounded with floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a perfect place to see where you're heading, especially just before arriving in port.
The huge gyroscope that hangs over the atrium and the deco-style ceiling that surrounds it are both stunning, fitting for a ship of this caliber. The muted, earthy tones on the main public decks work well together, although at first I thought they gave a fairly gloomy impression. Too bad they don't follow on into the stateroom corridors, which are carpeted in a bright multi-tonal blue psychedelic nightmare, paired with faux burled-wood cabin doors, and suffused with awful fluorescent lighting. It's positively headache-inducing to walk to your cabin.
Noordam Spa & Fitness
The forward-facing fitness room, with its new high-tech treadmill, stair-step and weight machines, is attractive and rarely crowded.
The Greenhouse Spa, which fronts the fitness area, is large and well-equipped with treatment rooms, a thermal suite, beauty
salon and thelassotherapy pool. The spa, however, is awkwardly situated at the forward end of the Lido Deck. You have to
transverse the spa reception to get to the forward elevators. The thelassotherapy pool is walled off and enclosed by glass,
with posters covering the windows. It looks quite bizarre, almost as though it's an unfinished component of the ship. Peering
through the edges of the posters, we rarely saw anyone using it; this might be because the cost to use both the pool and the
"thermal suite," with steam showers, heated tile chaises and a sauna, topped $350 per cruise. The thermal pool alone was
$180, fairly steep considering that the non-enclosed hot tubs just outside the enclosure were free to use.
Yoga and pilates classes are available for a fee. Steiner Leisure, which runs the spa, offers a full range of treatments,
with discounts offered on shore days. The new hot promotion is teeth whitening.
The central pool in the Lido area is gorgeous, anchored on one end by a dancing dolphin sculpture and surrounded by three
generous-sized hot tubs. It's under the sliding magradome so can be used in all weather conditions. Plenty of comfy chaises
surround the pool; tables and chairs surround the outer edges. This central pool is open to families and often gets quite
active if there are a lot of children onboard.
The aft pool is fabulous in good weather, partly because on this ship, 27 ft. of aft decking has been added and large canvas
shade areas have been incorporated into the design on each side. Much quieter and adult-only, camping by the aft pool in the
sunshine is like taking a separate vacation.
We love the fact that the promenade deck makes a full circuit of the ship. Holland America's signature teak loungers are
available here too, and since it's usually quiet, this is a great place to take a book and just relax.
There's a volleyball court and basketball court on the Sports Deck.