This was my eighth cruise with Holland America, and my fourth HAL big band cruise. I chose it specifically for the big band theme and am glad I did, since it does not appear that HAL has any big band cruises scheduled or 2007. This was my first experience with one of HAL's Vista Class ships, and frankly I had some misgivings about its size, as I usually choose ships ranging from 35,000 to 55,000 tons, such as HAL's Prinsendam and S-Class ships, Crystal's two ships, and Cunard's now-departed Vistafjord/Caronia. However, the Noordam easily accommodates its 1800 passengers and never seems crowded.
This was also my first experience with a ship built to the new "Signature of Excellence" standard, my last HAL cruise having been in December 2005 on the Maasdam, which had not yet undergone her Signature re-fit. So, I have no basis for comparison with the rest of the fleet, all of which I understand has now undergone the Signature of Excellence upgrading. However, I do have some reservations about some of the new features - some are excellent but others are, I feel, a step backward in the HAL experience. More about this later.
And whose bright idea was it to name both the show lounge and the restaurant "Vista"?
Pre Cruise and Embarkation
I booked the cruise through my regular travel agent and selected a Category H outside, obstructed-view cabin (no. 4067) on the Upper Promenade Deck. This is my usual cabin type selection; as a solo traveler about the only time I spend in the cabin is sleeping and preparing for the next on-board or shore activity.
Since I was traveling to Rome independently two days early, I reserved a room at the Visconti Palace hotel, one of several hotels HAL was using, and booked, or thought I had booked, a city-to-port transfer through HAL. However, when I received my documents, I found that HAL had me scheduled for an airport-to-port transfer on sailing day, which made no sense at all, especially since HAL was well aware of my air arrangements.
My travel agent immediately contacted HAL and was informed that their city-to-port transfer was only available to passengers who had booked HAL's hotel package! This came as a surprise, as I have in the past used both HAL's and Cunard's city-to-port transfers when traveling independently. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but can't help think this might just have something to do with the fact that I was able to book the hotel independently for about one third of what HAL was asking for their 2-day package at the same hotel. You can buy a lot of transfers for the difference between $375 and $1,075!
Anyway, the problem was easily solved - my travel agent simply booked the transfer independently using the same shore service as HAL. When I got to the hotel, I handed my voucher to the HAL representative, who then added me to the transfer list. HAL did have the nerve to charge me $4 for canceling the original incorrect transfer, probably knowing that I would not go to the trouble of fighting this.
My flights on Lufthansa. from Boston to Rome via Munich, were uneventful. Transatlantic was a bit choppy for several hours, The price we paid for a 180 knot tailwind, making for a very short flight.
Baggage claim at Rome FCO was at its usual slow pace, but once I had my bags I took the FCO - Rome express train and a taxi to the hotel, so I was checked in by early afternoon. I had no problem using the train, but I have the advantage of knowing Rome very well, having lived there in the '70s. Wouldn't recommend the train, however, to travelers unfamiliar with the city and/or with more baggage than they can handle themselves.
HAL was offering a "Rome by Night" package the night before embarkation; I decided to take it, as I had a free night after dining with old Rome friends the previous night. The package included dinner at a popular restaurant in Trastevere - very touristy. but fun. Probably overpriced, but a good opportunity to get acquainted with some of my fellow cruisers. Tour guide not very good - we gave up trying to count the number of times he told us that the Vatican is an independent country.
Bus trip from Rome to the Port of Civitavecchia went smoothly, as did embarkation. I received my luggage quite quickly, so was almost completely unpacked before the usual lifeboat drill.
Strong points: * Beautifully maintained and spotlessly clean as is normal for HAL * Attractive dEcor, with extensive use of teak and other woods * Nice wide promenade deck, with plenty of room for both deck chairs and strolling - 3 laps = 1 mile * Good layouts of Lower Promenade and Promenade decks, where most of the public rooms are located, avoiding long, boring corridors * Lido layout best I have seen on a ship, with individual "stations" for various types of food, i.e. Asian, pizza/pasta, sandwiches, salad bar, etc. Cunard: take note and copy this on the Queen Victoria and to replace the non functional Kings' Court on QM2. * Fewer annoying public address announcements than I remember on previous HAL cruises * Efficient tendering operation at our tender ports * Real, live plants throughout the ship, unlike sister company Cunard's plastic plants on QM2 * Exploration Cafe, a combination of library and internet cafe, seems to work well, and manager Tisa, a helpful, delightful young lady.
Weak points: * Totally inadequate dance floor area for a ship of this size - mitigated to some extent by clearing floor areas in Crow's Nest and Vista Lounge for big band sets (which may or may not have resulted from a petition circulated the first day on board). * Postage-stamp size dance floor in Ocean Bar, the very popular pre-dinner venue, almost useless if more than a few couples tried to dance * Perhaps because passengers on this cruise tended to be older than those on a typical 7-day Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise, the disco dance floor was hardly used - the couple of times I looked in it was almost empty and the recorded music loud enough that OSHA would require ear protection if it were a workplace! * Multi-purpose Queen's Lounge replaces HAL's traditional dedicated movie theatres; like most multi-purpose venues, it doesn't work very well (which is why so-called multi-purpose stadiums have disappeared in the USA). It may be ok as culinary arts center but impractical for movies or audio-visual presentations because the flat floor results in poor or non existent sight lines. The traditional popcorn machines are gone. * Demise of HAL's popular Java Cafes. Specialty coffees are available in the Exploration Cafe at prices considerably more than HAL's standard terminology, "nominal charge" * Although I seldom do laundry on board, the lack of launderettes annoyed many passengers, especially since use of travel irons in cabins is, for good reason, forbidden. Probably not a problem on Noordam's usual 7 to 10 day itineraries, but definitely a problem on a longer cruise like this one, especially with the international airlines' limits of two bags per person, not to exceed 50 pounds each. Ship's laundry does offer a fixed-price package - $25 for all you can stuff into the HAL laundry bag. Pretty expensive, but more economical than by-the-piece laundry prices. * Also missed is the traditional string ensemble playing for dinner - the mezzanine area they use on other HAL ships occupied by additional tables on the Noordam, undoubtedly to accommodate the increase in the number of cabins and passengers over the other Vista Class ships. This has also resulted in increasing a number of dining room tables from eight to 10 places, making it hard to carry on a conversation except with the people seated next to you. * Upper level of the dining room, port side aft, where I was seated, is very noisy due to the low ceiling, also making conversation difficult. And, finally, could we please get rid of those hoaky Baked Alaska parades?
My Upper Promenade cabin was nicely laid out with pleasant dEcor, but it felt a bit crowded with the beds made up as a king-size bed. View blocked by a lifeboat, but this is what I expected. I book an outside cabin just to have some daylight, not for a view.
Closet hanging space appears to be adequate, even for a couple, on a longer cruise. What is seriously lacking, however, is drawer space, with just two small drawers in each night stand; not even a shallow drawer in the desk/dressing table in which to keep small items. Yes, there is a larger drawer at the foot of each bed, but it is hard to get to and used partially by steward to store spare bed linens.
Bathrooms are very basic, with only a small corner cabinet. Adequate for a single male traveler like me, but inadequate for the toiletries my late wife always carried. A small annoyance: toilet paper holder mounted on face of sink cabinet, so any splashing at sink ends up on the toilet paper roll. Very nice shower head and constant water temperature control, however. I would have gladly traded the tub/shower for a stall shower, but that's personal opinion.
The Vista Dining Room, the ship's main restaurant, a two-level room as on all HAL ships except the smaller Prinsendam, has open seating for breakfast and lunch, and two dinner seatings. According to HAL's website and brochures and my past experience, there are normally four seatings - staggered upper level and lower level times for early and late seatings, probably to spread the load on the kitchen. However, the Noordam was using an alternative system called "leisure dining" with early seating passengers invited to arrive "at their leisure" between 5:30 and 6:00 PM, and late seating between 8:00 and 9:00 PM. I did hear some concerns that this could result in some passengers at a table being half way through their meals while others were just ordering. This turned out not to be a problem, at least at our table, with an unspoken agreement developing by the second night wherein we all arrived within 10 minutes of each other between 8:15 and 8:30.
I had become aware of leisure dining before the cruise from the CruiseCritic website, as it apparently has been tried previously on Vista Class ships. However, when a fellow passenger attempted to get more pre-trip information from HAL's Seattle office, they denied all knowledge of leisure dining, and it certainly isn't mentioned in the latest brochures or the HAL website.
Table service was excellent throughout the cruise, except that it was occasionally difficult for me to get the attention of the wine steward to order a single glass of wine. It appears that both the waiters and the wine stewards are now responsible for more tables than in the past, so they are quite rushed. My only complaints about the dining room are the previously mentioned noise level and the demise of live dinner music. Oh, and the Baked Alaska parades which effectively brings conversation and dining room service to a halt!
I had most of my breakfasts and lunches in the Vista Dining Room, and the service was always excellent, which has not always been my experience with open seating on some other non HAL ships.
I also had occasional breakfasts and lunches in the Lido and found that the previously mentioned Lido layout worked very well, particularly when I only wanted a salad, sandwich, or a slice of pizza.
I only went to one poolside barbecue, the "Waroeng Indonesia" lunch, an impressive spread of specialties from the various regions of Indonesia. It was a bit blander than authentic Indonesian cooking, but of course the ship has to adjust seasonings to suit North American and European tastes for less spicy foods than the rest of the world.
I didn't eat in the Pinnacle Grill, so can't comment on it. Program and Entertainment
One of HAL's strongest points has always been the cruise director and staff, and this was no exception. Nice touches include staff members greeting passengers entering the Vista Lounge for shows and frequent solo travelers events hosted by Assistant Cruise Director Becky and several gentlemen hosts.
I only attended one of the productions of the Noordam Cast, "If Walls Could Rock", well done, but not really my type of music. I skipped other productions in preference for big band sets at the same time. The four lead singers from the cast also performed Broadway show tunes in concert one evening. The male singers were excellent, but I found the females' voices more suitable for stage productions than concert.
Lorna Luft was a featured performer and was entertaining, although I have never felt she was on the level of her mother (Judy Garland) or sister Liza Minnelli.
One of my favorite entertainers, on this and previous HAL cruises, is piano man Randall Powell, who performs nightly in the Piano Bar. This room is a bit larger than on the S- Class ships, but still intimate enough to encourage lots of give-and-take between Randall and guests. His themed "Name That Tune" and sing-along sets were particularly popular.
The featured big band was the Nick Ross Orchestra from England, which played two sets most evenings in the Crow's nest, plus two concerts in the Vista Lounge. This is a serviceable, dance band which leans toward the Glen Miller sound but also plays the standards of many other of the well known big bands. As with the old-time big bands, the program featured lots of foxtrots and swing and the occasional waltz. They did throw in an occasional rumba, but of course the Latin steps didn't really take hold until near the end of the big band era.
The "boy" singer is excellent, with a Sinatra-type style; the "girl" singer was not impressive. All in all a good band, but not up to the level of the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands I have cruised with previously.
The orchestra also played for HAL's traditional officers' black and white ball. The ball was held in the Crow's Nest, a mistake because even with most tables and chairs cleared out, the room is much too small, making dancing almost impossible, e.g. a "ball" without dancing! Balls I have attended on the Maasdam and Prinsendam were held in the show lounge, with the band at the back of the stage, making both the stage and the area in front of it available for dancing.
Unfortunately, as far as I have been able to learn, HAL has no big band cruises scheduled for 2007. I asked the Future Cruise Consultant about this early in the cruise; she promised to ask Seattle, but I never heard anything further. Probably not her fault, based on my past experience in trying to get information from Seattle. Communication between Seattle and the ships is not one of HAL's strong points.
The cynics among us concluded that big band cruises were being dropped because the band draws customers away from the casinos and bars!
The combo "HAL Cats" played in the Crow's Nest for dancing when the big band wasn't playing there. A second combo, "Porto Fino", played nightly for before-dinner dancing in the Ocean Bar. See my earlier comments on the total inadequacy of the dance floor in this very popular room. Both groups played a good variety of dance music, including quite a bit of Latin.
The Explorations Speaker Series featured Dr. Michael Mendelsohn, Professor of Literature. I particularly enjoyed the two lectures devoted largely to Hemmingway.
The second Explorations Speaker was "Mister Ocean Liner" Bill Miller, who is well known to most frequent cruisers. His three lectures were very well attended; although I had heard them before, they are always entertaining, as Bill continually updates them. An extra treat was Bill's running commentary during our early-morning passage up NY Harbor to our Hudson River pier.
I was disappointed that for the first time in my six big band cruises, there were no lectures on the big band era.
All in all, an enjoyable cruise with a good program, a pleasant group of fellow passengers, and lots of music. HAL's staff and ship's maintenance and housekeeping are second to none. On the other hand, limited dance floor space is discouraging for the many passengers who cruise mainly to dance. Also, elimination of launderettes and the limited cabin drawer space make this ship somewhat unsatisfactory for cruises of more than seven days
So, will I cruise with HAL again in the near future? Probably not unless they reinstate big band cruises, or if one of the smaller ships, such as the Prinsendam, offers a particularly attractive itinerary. I do know for sure that in the absence of any big band cruises, I won't be cruising with HAL in 2007. Too late for this now, as I'm fully booked for four cruises with other cruise lines - Crystal's two ships, Cunard's QE2, and Norwegian Coastal Voyage. Read Less