Our entire family - me, my wife, my children (ages 6 and 3 ½) and my parents - all had a fantastic trip on the Noordam's March 10 Southern Caribbean voyage out of NYC. We could hardly have asked for a more relaxing and enjoyable vacation. Finding an easier one would be nearly impossible since all it took was a 15-minute taxi ride.
We arrived at the port at around 12:30pm and were given a number. It looked very crowded but in reality, we were through security in less than a half hour. Check-in went smoothly (thanks to the number calling system, once we went through security there was only one person on line in front of us - a slightly shorter wait even than those who had filled in their paperwork over the internet). From there we went up to the Lido for lunch, and rooms were ready around the same time.
The designers of these cabins are geniuses. We had a verandah cabin (VF) - actually three of them, adjoining cabins for us and the kids and a neighboring one for my parents. Despite the relatively small size compared to hotel rooms, these cabins actually had far more storage space. We (over)packed with 11 days worth of clothes, toys and everything else one takes when traveling with kids and it all fit in the storage spaces with loads of room to spare -- a piece of advice in the future is to use HALs unlimited laundry and pressing service for $70 (we did their laundry once for some kids clothes and were very impressed). And all 10 suitcases fit under the bed (some inside others, obviously)!
There is loads of closet space, cabinets above the coach, a cabinet in the desk, two large drawers under the bed plus a refrigerator (which will be emptied by the cabin steward if you prefer to store your own drinks). The floor-to-ceiling windows were terrific, the verandah felt large and with decent quality furniture (which compared quite favorably to a Carnival ship docked next to us in San Juan) and the bathroom was large and comfortable. It was our first cruise with a full bathtub, a valuable feature when traveling with children. The pull out couch (into a twin bed) was a fabulous feature for those traveling with a third person. We had a separate cabin for our children, but if we only had one child, it would have been a comfortable and realistic option (as opposed to the bunk bed offered by some other lines). Finally, the bedding (and the bed itself) was far superior to anything we've had on a cruise before. It was very comfortable, although I can't imagine many people buying it (as HAL suggested in the card placed on our beds the last night) - the Westin Heavenly Bed it was not.
The ship was beautiful as many have noted but most noteworthy was the near complete lack of smoking. An earlier review cautioned "Smokers Beware." I say "Non-Smokers Rejoice!" Not only was the casino non-smoking (the first such casino I have entered in my life), but the decks were also virtually smoke free. Unlike other lines that divide open areas into port and starboard sides and permit smoking on one, the entire vessel was pretty much smoke-free except for very small designated areas. Given HAL's core demographic, I think the line should be applauded for taking such a bold step. It made a huge difference to us.
Having traveled on RCCL for all three of our prior cruises with our children, we were also struck (and thoroughly enjoyed) the relative serenity of HAL. Public announcements were kept to a minimum and usually contained information of genuine importance to everyone (as opposed to "Jackpot bingo in five minutes," "jackpot bingo in four minutes," etc.). Drinks were not pushed at all (no announcements of the drink of the day or ubiquitous bartenders constantly trying to push them on you). The main pool area was relatively serene - the band was there only once for about an hour that we noticed (and we were there every day), they didn't blast DJ music and they did not have stupid pool games. The back pool had more activities and music, but for those who either wanted to simply enjoy the main pool with their children or relax quietly, the main pool area worked well. I thought that the roof was terrific -- it was open nearly all the time but closed the day before we returned to NYC so we were able to swim up until the end. And the space was well designed -- bright and open-feeling even when the roof was closed.
The combination of these four things - lack of smoking, lack of announcements, quieter pool and lack of pushing of alcohol - really made cruising on the Noordam a much different and more positive experience than we have recently had.
I also want to comment on the confusing orientation of the ship. I read this from many prior reviews and thought the comments were silly. Well, they are actually correct. Even though I have always had a good sense of direction and navigational skills, for reasons I cannot explain, on several occasions, I would find myself walking the wrong direction down a hall. Not a big deal since you notice within a minute, but there was something about the Noordam that caused this to happen whereas it never happened to me on any other ship.
This was actually the most disappointing aspect. I know others have spoken highly of the food, but we were rather unimpressed with the main dining room. Most dishes were okay, some were quite good and some were dreadful (meatballs on the last day was surely planned as a way to get rid of any leftover meat - they were absolutely inedible). Portions were on the smaller side and the desserts were not as good as we've experienced on other lines.
I thought the Lido food was better, particularly the freshly prepared foods like the Asian food and the pasta. I liked how the Lido had lots of different stations, such as fresh pasta and pizza, Asian food from a different country each day, a sandwich station, etc., but the layout actually caused one of the big drawbacks - huge lines for everything. If you wanted soup, pasta and a sandwich, it meant waiting on three different lines, each of which could be quite long at times. This would be a particularly big challenge when trying to manage two young children, although the staff were always happy to help carry trays or fetch drinks for you. But overall, I was pleased with the Lido - it was far better than RCCL's Windjammer in my opinion.
Finally, the Pinnacle Grill was outstanding. My wife and I ate there one night and thought that both the food and service was on par with any top NYC steakhouse. While a $30pp cover seems steep when you can eat in the dining room for "free," the quality of the food was enough of a difference. If we sail with HAL again, we would eat in the Pinnacle a few times.
By the way, if you can, I recommend seating on the starboard side of the Vista dining room or getting a table in the back. The port side (where we were) does not have windows.
As noted in virtually every review, the crew is extraordinarily friendly. My children received so much wonderful attention from the crew in the Lido, the dining room, the cabin stewards and even the security guards when we left and entered the ship each day. They all knew my children's names and could not have been friendlier and more eager to please. After a rocky first day or two, the dining room staff learned everyone's preferences -- as a result, drinks awaited us upon arrival.
However, I think that HAL's change to the dining room schedule did compromise service there. Originally, the schedule had 2 early and 2 late seatings. 5:45pm upstairs, 6:15pm downstairs, 8:15pm upstairs and 8:45pm downstairs (I could be a little off on the late times). Just before sailing, we learned that HAL changed it to an early seating of 5:30-6pm (arrive any time in that range) and a late seating of 8-9pm (also arrive any time). As a result, instead of our 6:15pm seating, we were constantly rushing the kids through their baths and getting dressed to make it by 6pm. Unfortunately, a 6pm arrival was considered on the late side even though it was 15 minutes earlier than what we signed up for. The waiters were already in the midst of serving those guests who arrived at 5:30pm and, as a result, our service seemed much slower. Compounding the problem is that we needed to be out of the dining room by 7:30pm since they had to be set up for any guests who arrived at 8pm for the late seating. Because the waiters were just getting used to the new system, we were almost never served with enough time to finish by 7:30pm so dessert was rushed and then we felt pushed out. If HAL wants to go with the flexible arrival time for dinner, they need to preserve the same amount of time between seatings - telling diners that they can arrive at 6pm and then allowing the next group to arrive as early as 8pm at the same table is just too rushed given the service. If HAL had made the late seating window the same half hour as the early seating window - perhaps 8:30-9pm - it would have made a huge difference. Or just stick with the original plan.
The other (and probably related) negative was the inability to get more expedited service for the children. We would hope that as HAL settles into the new dining schedule, they will be able to put in children's dinner orders in a way that the kids don't have to wait such a long time to receive their food, particularly since the younger ones don't have the appetizers and salads.
Given that you get woken up at 7am any time you need to go through US immigration (St. Thomas and San Juan), HAL should have gone to St. Thomas first instead of Tortola then St. Thomas. This way there would have presumably been no need to go through immigration at St. Thomas since we would have come from a US port. I suppose that it was done this way because the first port is a shorter stop (given the distance from NYC, you don't arrive until 3pm) and shoppers would want a full day in St. Thomas but, frankly, everyone's been to St. Thomas and I would have liked a full day in Tortola instead (Tortola and St. Thomas are almost exactly the same distance from NYC so travel time is the same). And I would have like to have been woken up for immigration one fewer time if the cruise went to St. Thomas first and Tortola second.
We did not do any of the excursions. We found beaches in St. Thomas (Megans Bay), Barbados (Paynes Beach) and St. Martin (Galion Beach). Megans Bay was beautiful but incredibly crowded. Paynes Beach was pretty but somewhat crowded and it was full of people hawking souvenirs, boat rides, parasailing, jet skis, etc. Galion Beach in French St. Martin was a true find. I can't imagine a better beach for young children. It is in a somewhat protected bay with very placid and shallow waters. You can walk out far without the water being over childrens' heads. It is beautiful, not too crowded and no development around the beach (cars park under palm trees right next to the beach). There is a small restaurant and facilities.
In Dominica, I took my 6-year old daughter on a hike to Emerald Pool. It's a relatively short and pretty walk that was a terrific experience for her. There wasn't much time to do anything in San Juan, but I took my 3 1/2-year old son to San Cristobal fort, which he enjoyed very much.
Our cruise seemed to have a perfect number of children. In the 3-7 year old group (in which both of our children were), there were typically 10-15 kids at Club HAL on a given day so each of our children had at least a couple of companions of the same age and gender. A group that size did not tax the facilities (the pool and Club HAL facilities were never too crowded) and yet the kids did not feel isolated. We went in and out of the Club HAL programs for a couple of hours each day (except in port -- they don't have them in port unless you sign up). There were lots of stuff for the kids to do such as art projects, lego, games, running around the sports deck, although we did not feel that the Club HAL staff were particularly energetic or engaged. They were friendly and the children liked them, but we have been spoiled with wonderful teachers at school and there is clearly a huge difference. We would have like to see a more inspired staff.
Being with children, we did not attend any of the shows, but nothing stood out as being "must sees" for us that warranted having my parents babysit. I liked the fact that HAL showed relatively recent, highly rated movies in the theater (such as Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwogima and Babel). While we actually didn't see any of the movies - we planned our schedule around going to Babel only to be disappointed to learn the day before that that was the one movie that did not have an evening showing for early seating diners (all others had multiple evening showings at around 6pm and 9pm or 7:30pm and 10pm to accommodate all diners) - the kids loved that we picked up some popcorn for them most evenings.
We did go in the main lounge briefly (and were going to see Doug Anderson's show until we couldn't find seats and left) and were surprised that a new ship was designed with pillars in the middle of the theater that obstructed the views of a fair number of seats.
This was the best of any cruise I've taken. We cleared immigration in San Juan so we only had to do customs in NYC (which is just handing in your card as you walk by with your luggage). Unlike any other ship I've been on, HAL let us stay in the room until our group was called. We live locally so we picked the last departure group. That let us sleep until 8am, get breakfast (my one suggestion is not to close the Lido so early on disembarkation day but they do have the burden of a tight turnaround), go back to the room to finish the last minute packing of our hand luggage and leave the ship at around 10am. After we were called, we got off quickly, our luggage was waiting for us and we were at the taxi stand within minutes. 15 minutes later we were home, getting ready for work and school drop-off for a half day for my daughter. Not much of a transition, but it sure beat a day of going to the airport, waiting around and then flying home exhausted after a day of travel to end the vacation.
We all had a terrific time and would enthusiastically recommend HAL. My wife was a skeptic because of some of the negative experiences on other lines. She wanted a more peaceful, smoke-free and less aggressive environment and HAL really delivered it. I had been a bit concerned about how the kids would fare given that HAL is not known as a kids line, but was quite pleased. While the Club HAL staff could have been better, our children were really happy with the facilities, the food and the crew and there were enough companions on an 11-day cruise to satisfy them. HAL will be at the top of our list for our next cruise.