Overview Rating: 4* (Joe) 5* (Joan)
What's not to like about a full suite, with the Neptune Lounge, Concierge Service, and breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill? With that, and our membership in the thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool, we were surrounded by luxury.
The ship itself was rather large for our taste, but there were some nice touches, such as the Explorations Cafe. The dining room was quite good, but not up to the standard of Regent or Windstar. The Lido dining area had some areas that were well laid out, and the food (other than the excellent Asian food) was fairly good for a buffet and stem table type of meal. Entertainment and the ports are described below.
We're in our early sixties. This is our 10th cruise. We're both professionals (Joe CPA- Attorney, Joan Librarian. Joe has travelled extensively in Europe, but this is only our second trip to the Caribbean. We enjoy museums, foreign films, theater and opera. By and large, we
Parking and embarkation Rating 5*
We arrived at the pier at around 11 a.m., and quickly found a porter to take our bags. Joe then parked the car ($180, paid with cash, Master Card, or Visa, for 10 + days), and met me outside the boarding area. The car was there, safe, intact, and waiting for us, when we arrived back in New York.
After we walked into the terminal, we were given a card marked S for Suite, and were seated at the front of the boarding area. Boarding started at around 11:30, and was so fast that we were in the Neptune Lounge (NL), dropping off our hand luggage and having a nice snack, by 11:35. We were so comfortable in the NL that we made a mistake. We stayed in the lounge for about 20 minutes, meeting the concierges (angels: two wonderful Filipino ladies) and chatting with the other passengers. By the time we hit the Lido for lunch at 11:55, the place was packed with PAX and their belongings. I couldn't get any food the first time through, since the lines were so long. It's a good thing we had a snack in the NL, and that another couple agreed to share a table with us! The place remained packed until rooms were ready, at around 12:45; then it began to empty out.
A note on the Lido: it does not seem to be very well laid out. There are two main food lines, and separate areas for salad bar, drinks (2 areas), sandwiches, Italian food, Asian food, and an outdoor grill. The salad bar was always mobbed, and the main lines were often mobbed. It's a good thing we love Asian food: good sushi, seldom a line of more than 3 people. Even when the Lido was mobbed, the staff was always helpful, and always ready to carry a tray if one so desired.
Suite (SA) Rating 5*+
We opened the door to our suite, and fell in LOVE. You could get lost in one of those suites. The relaxing color scheme, the space, the chilled champagne, the twin sinks with separate shower and whirlpool bath with shower, all add to the pampered feeling. Our luggage arrived after 4 p.m. (bummer!) but it did arrive. We unpacked and went to dinner. Although the storage space is oddly arranged, with few drawers and lots of shelves in cupboards, it was much more than adequate for two. The space was fantastic, as were the balcony and bathroom. The bed was the best away from home bed ever: huge, with a great mattress and coverings. Each night there were eight pillows, and most nights our steward made a towel animal. He was unobtrusive, but always seemed to meet our needs.
Dining Rating 4* (Pinnacle Grill breakfasts 5*+)
We requested early seating and a table for two in August, 2005, when we booked the cruise. Instead, we were seated at a table for 10! They were fascinating people, but we prefer to eat at a table for two. Our NL concierge was able to get us a table for two starting with the second night, after our request to the dining manager failed. Lesson: if you're in a suite, ask the ladies to do administrative stuff for you, rather than doing it yourself.
The food was excellent for such a large ship. (It's unfair to compare it with our small ship experiences on Windstar and Regent.) Each meal consisted of several courses, each of which was usually a relatively small portion. (Exception: a huge chunk of osso bucco.) Because the menu was arranged as starters, then soups and salads in one grouping, it was easy to do what we usually do: skip a course. Vegetarian dishes were superb. The ordinary food in the dining room was about what you'd expect in a fine, but large, hotel: decent quality, nothing much exciting, but quite serviceable. The only real failures were attempts to get fancy, such as escargot in puff pastry. Stick to the tried and true!
We had one dinner at the Pinnacle Grill (PG). We're not big steak eaters, but the steaks seemed quite thick and tasty. The service was excellent, both in the dining room and the PG. A word of warning about PG wines. They have interesting sounding flights of Washington state wines. What you get is four large glasses, each of which has two ounces of wine. It's far better to order a glass of wine, or a full bottle. Unfinished bottles can be saved for the next dinner. Also, beware of the chocolate lemon hockey puck that is a dessert special. It bounced when you tried to stick a fork in it! They offered a replacement, but I was so full from stuffing myself with the cookies and candies that they bring with the coffee that I didn't need another calorie.
If you're a steak lover, the PG at dinner is worth the $30 charge. If you're not, one night on an 11 day cruise is sufficient for a change of pace. We went on the night when the dining room had the Master Chef's dinner.
Our comments on the Lido are above. It is, as noted, poorly laid out. The food itself is a cut above the buffet areas on Celebrity. Again, it doesn't have the elegance and quality of Windstar or Regent, but it's a fairly good place to eat. At night, the Lido is a causal restaurant. It's also a good place to pick up an extra dessert before 8 p.m., or pizza and ice cream until late at night.
Suite people may eat breakfast at the PG, and we did that as often as possible - six times in 11 days. We would have eaten there another two or three times; but we're early birds, and were often up before dining room hours (which are also PG hours). We fell in love with the Spanish frittata (really Mexican, with salsa, guacamole, and sour cream) and the sunshine parfait (fruit, yogurt, and granola), served by a window with a view of the ocean. One of my most pleasant memories of the Noordam is those breakfasts. One of the least pleasant is the eight pounds that I gained during the trip. (Possibly because he's allergic to chocolate, and avoided most desserts, Joe only gained two pounds.)
Service Rating 4*(general), 5*+ (related to the suite)
Ah, the suite life! Towel animals appear at the edge of your bed each night with the chocolates. You may inhale breakfast in the PG while New York City awakes to the sunrise. Concierges fit you into tours after they have closed to the public. The Neptune Lounge offers chocolates, fruit and cold breakfast or tiny sandwiches or appetizers from 8-8, washed down with your choice of hot or cold drinks. You could have lattes, any variety of tea, coffee, cold drinks, and the best of a cold breakfast in a lovely suite. Comfortable chairs and tables, reading material, and artwork, all combine to enhance your pampering. HAL offered a reception solely for suite residents champagne, and more. Our clean laundry arrived in a wicker basket, folded in white tissue paper, and sealed with a HAL gold seal. Even those NOT in suites commented on the personal, attentive service everywhere. The librarian was perky and eager to please. The internet manager couldn't do enough to help. Our wonderful travel agent found us a promotional fare which put us into a suite for a mere $200.00 above the cost of a mini-suite cabin.
HAL Tours Rating between 2 1/2*
Here, I fear, HAL must rethink and improve. Uniformly, the tour conveyances were cramped and hot. Most Americans in HAL's demographic are overweight, yet the conveyances. are scaled for slender people. In Tortuga, we had half a tour. Arriving at 3PM, we were cramped into uncomfortable open air buses (which were also used in St. Thomas) which took us to the sailboat. The sailboat was mobbed, and could only do half the tour because it got dark at 5PM. The tour operators were as nice as they could be, handing out personal instructions and rum punches with equal generosity and skill. BUT it remained only half the scheduled tour at the full price. Other tours were equally crowded, with long stops at tourist traps and no time for fascinating natural wonders. A tour including Coral World spent most of the tour going to and from the scuba shop, with people jammed in severe discomfort. Our tour bus on St. Martin had no air-conditioning. The guides do their best, but they can't change the laws of physics. Because the laws of physics apply, the HAL tour we were most looking forward to, river tubing in Dominica, was cancelled due to high water levels, Another bummer, but one can't blame HAL for this one.
Far better were Glory Tours in Barbados, a full day including lunch for a mere $52/pp. I sing their praises in another section, but it was one of the best days ever. Fredos in Dominica was one of the best tours ever: Four of us in a four-bench van, went all over the island in cool comfort. Old San Juan could be a fascinating walking tour, and everyone wanted more time there.
Shopping Rating of HAL shopping hints 2*
Okay, there's a guarantee for official HAL stores. Okay, you won't be mugged. HAL continues to recommend the most overpriced stores on each island. I walked between two HAL-recommended stores to J.A. Nieff, or some similar name, in Dominica, which was recommended to us by our Fredos tour guide.. Instantly, the prices went down and the merchandise became practical. Shopping where the tour guides shopped, I bought cloth wraps for $3.00 instead of $10.00. True, the cloth was different, BUT if you're giving gifts or merely want a remembrance of the island, why not buy what the natives buy? Don't get me started on people who buy diamonds on vacation and then wonder why it's hard to get customer service & When you shop where the natives shop, nobody takes the booze away from you and puts it into the hold of the ship. You bring back true native delicacies like guava paste instead of lewdly painted shells with the name of the island painted on it. I've given up on those shopping talks. The shopping mall in St. Thomas run by A.J. Cohn or some similar name just a block from the HAL-touted Havensight mall offered cute t-shirts at 3/$10.00, caftans for $7.00, and a ton of wonderful TRUE BARGAINS: dresses you wear after the trip, t-shirts people want to wear, and genuinely tasteful carryalls. We bought a $4.00 bottle of rum we hated so much we later gave it away to another native on another island, and a $5.00 bottle of champagne we liked so much we didn't order wine that night.
Entertainment Rating 3 ½*
We couldn't get into the Vista Lounge most of the time and there was no alternative entertainment when the show was going on We adored those two performers (Allenby and Williams), but to find any seating in the Vista Lounge you needed to arrive a solid 30 minutes ahead of time, often a physical impossibility for us. If you didn't get into the show at the Vista, you were on your own for entertainment books, DVD's, all OK but nothing wonderful. Why not offer some piano bar music, or other music while the show is in progress? Since the Vista Lounge is full, it can't take away from the main performers to offer alternatives. With the exception of Salina Williams playing the oboe and Will Allenby, most shows were packed before we got there. The piano bar was extremely popular AND crowded, but there was no entertainment during the shows. Perhaps, if the hours for piano bar performances were longer, more people could have enjoyed it. We spent most evenings reading a book or watching a DVD.
Daytime lectures were often superb. The lectures on the history of cruise liners and cruise ships were absolutely riveting. Thank you to the World Ocean and Cruise Line Society for its wonderful inclusion of so many of its subscribers. For a donation, we attended the talk and book-signing by the Captain, AND received one of his books signed by him AND toured the bridge, AND participated in the Walk for the Cure AND attended a cocktail party with free drinks AND met some wonderful people. The lectures on the prehistory of the area fascinated us. HAL really tried to offer interesting, educational entertaining activities for those of us who prefer that.
Walk for the Cure
This took place on the day after we left San Juan. For $15 per person you get a T shirt, a pink lemonade and fruit reception, and a donation to a charity that seeks a cure for breast cancer. Why would you not participate? Joan walked about a mile, Joe the full 3 miles. Fun, and well worth doing.
Spa and gym Rating 5*
As noted, we signed up for a full membership for two in the hydrotherapy pool and thermal suite, at $250 for 11 days for the two of us. What a wonderful, relaxing way to spend time! The thermal suite has six heated stone couches, and three or four steam rooms. The hydrotherapy pool is large, comfortably hot, and very relaxing. You get a robe, slippers, and a locker, and can change and shower in the appropriate locker room.
We never tried the gym, and our only time in the massage rooms was when Joan was used as a demonstration patient on day one
Tortola. Arrival at 3 p.m., with departure at 9 p.m., is a sick joke. It's too late to do much before sunset, but you leave too early for dinner and night life onshore. HAL needs to arrive earlier, or go back to leaving at midnight. Our excursion is described above, under excursions. Joan disliked being crammed into the open air safari bas, while Joe hated everything about it: the crowding, the feeling that you could fall out of the bus, etc.
St. Thomas. In the morning, we took a HAL excursion to Coral World, including a semi-submersible. Coral World was lovely, the semi-sub even better. On the negative side, the ride in a safari bus was much longer than in Tortola, and (as noted above) we really disliked having to stop each way so that some people could get snorkels and fins.
We had planned to go into Charlotte Amalie after doing some shopping near the pier (also described above); but it started pouring as we were walking back to the ship to stash our bargains. We ended up relaxing in the thermal suite.
We should mention immigration, which was painless both here and in San Juan. We filled out cards, went to the Queen's Lounge, gave the cards to ship's [personnel, showed our passports to the immigration folks, and were given landing cards. Easy as pie!
Dominica. In the morning, we had a fabulous tour with Fredos Tours, with stops at overlooks, Trafalgar Falls, the Botanical Garden, and a few other places. We had planned our first ever river tubing, but it was canceled due to heavy rains the previous day, so we spent the afternoon at the tiny museum, the open air market, and the local store. We loved everything about Dominica except one thing: the weather. By the time we were done with Dominica, our third stop, we realized that the Caribbean isn't for us: we both hate hot weather, and redheaded Joe had to try to keep out of the tropical sun, effectively ruling out beaches. If we go back to the Caribbean (which is unlikely), Dominica would certainly be on our itinerary.
Barbados. As noted above, we took a Just BIM tour with Glory Tours. The timing of the tour was messed up due to some passengers who got on our tour instead of the correct tour, causing us to have to start over again. Once we go started, the tour was quite nice, with Sunbury Plantation (a nice 19th century sugar plantation, but we would have preferred something older), overall island tour, botanical garden, lunch (wonderful), and the required, and to us useless, stop at the batik and pottery. We were supposed to go to the Bacardi factory; but, due to the timing problem, we went to the lovely synagogue instead.
St. Maarten. The biggest disappointment of the trip. We had wanted a private tour, but the standard tour had too much beach, too much shopping, and too little sightseeing for us. The one provider we found for custom tours was booked, and we found the taxi tours too confusing for us to take one. That's how we ended up on a HAL tour, Delightfully Dutch, Fantastically French. The tour was relatively cheap ($29), but the air conditioning of the bus was working poorly, and there was a smell of sulfur. As for the tour itself, we had nice views of a pretty island, but could have used much more than 30 minutes in Marigot. (The driver nicely offered to put us on another tour with more time in Marigot; but by then we were hot and tired.) Too much time was spent in shopping related matters: a stop at a store selling flavored gin or vodka drinks, including guava berry, and a stop in Phillipsburg, where most people on the bus got off. We went back to the pier, bought some champagne and brandy, and went back to the ship. Not a particularly interesting day.
What was interesting was our reaction to the weather. It was 85 degrees and sunny, with winds so high that the water taxi wasn't running. We were both miserably hot and uncomfortable. More proof that the Caribbean is not for us.
As with Tortola, the stop here is too short, ending at 1 p.m. We met Joe's law school roommate and his wife, and they showed us around the town: beaches, business and tourist areas, their lovely house, and fantastic Old San Juan. They wanted to treat us to lunch, but we had to be back to the ship by 12:30. We made it with eight minutes to spare.
The weather was drizzly and unusually cool: about 75. Joe has had a bunch of business trips to San Juan, where the weather is usually very hot and humid. We would go back despite the weather, to see the roommate and more of this wonderful place. Conclusion
I'd go back to the Noordam in a suite in a minute but maybe not to this area again. With the exception of San Juan, I feel we've seen most of what these islands have to offer. We're not drinkers, gamblers, heat lovers, sun worshipers, shop till you drop people, or beach people. We research the area we travel to thoroughly. Almost any temperate zone place we can think of holds more interest to us than the Caribbean, which simply isn't for us Read Less