Having sailed with Holland America 6 times before, I looked forward to this voyage with great anticipation. Overall, we had an excellent trip, with a few exceptions noted below. I traveled with 3 other adults, all experienced cruising enthusiasts. We booked side-by-side balcony staterooms and opened the partition between them, to give us a larger space. I have traveled with HAL 6 times before, and I've also cruised on RCCL, Princess, and the former Home Lines.
We booked our round trip air from the midwest independently, but we purchased the an overnight Hotel stay in NYC and transfers from HAL. Our flights went smoothly. Upon arrival at La Guardia, we had to search for a HAL representative and eventually found her outside near the baggage claim area. We settled in at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers. The Hotel was in an excellent location in Manhattan, close to the Ed Sullivan Theater ( we could have taken in the David Letterman Show) and Broadway. We enjoyed an excellent lunch at the Hotel. In general, the Hotel was average in terms of decor despite a recent remodeling. There was a sign in the Hotel Lobby instructing us to meet with a HAL representative at designated times that evening. We went to the specified location 4 times, but she never showed up until the next morning. Having found her, she then told us where to meet our transfer van to go to the Port. There were 10 of us for a 10-seated van. This would ordinarily have been suitable, but with all of our carry-ons crammed on our laps or between our legs, we had a most uncomfortable ride to port. We were grateful it was only 10 minutes long.
Once at port, the embarkation process went very well, although the lines were longer for those of us with "express" embarkation than for those without it. We boarded the ship by about 12:30 and were taken up to the Embarkation Luncheon. The luncheon was delicious, although we still had all our carry-ons with us, which created an inconvenience. I miss the days when we could not board until the rooms were ready. I always appreciated a welcome aboard escort to my stateroom from HAL. I'd freshen up, unload my carry-ons, then go to lunch. Perhaps those days are over. The rooms were available around 1:30.
Stateroom: The VF category Stateroom was a comfortable size with attractive wood furnishings and pictures. The bathroom was a good size, larger than the one on Coral Princess. The Elemis Spa soaps, shampoo, and lotion were great and replenished promptly throughout the cruise. I love the new Mariners Dream Beds! Oh my! These are truly the BEST beds at sea. I'm so glad HAL raised the standard for beds. We thought the storage space was barely adequate and would have liked more drawers. On the other hand, we appreciated that our luggage slipped under he beds easily: on some ships, that's been a tight squeeze or not possible. The wicker chairs on the balcony were nice appearing but not comfortable for more than about 30 minutes at a time.
The ship itself is lovely. We often stopped to admire the crystal sculpture in the Atrium, and the teak decks are a marvelous tradition that HAL keeps going. I'm delighted that HAL has beautiful FRESH flowers throughout the ship. This adds to ambiance in a way that fake flowers can't. The midships pool area, with the roof that can slide closed, is brilliantly engineered and designed. On 2 or 3 days, the crew closed the roof so that passengers could still swim despite chilly weather or high wind. The hydrotherapy pool, though warm and luxurious, cannot compare to the fabulous Thalassotherapy Pool and Aqua Spa facility on the Celebrity Constellation. Celebrity does not charge an extra fee. Why does HAL charge a fee? In this area, I think HAL has fallen behind both RCCL and Celebrity in terms of offering a large, glass-enclosed indoor adults-only pool free of charge. The Showlounge on the Noordam is beautiful and readily accommodates passenger demand for seating for the evening productions. Our favorite place for afternoon lounging and evening cocktails was the Crow's nest. The recliners in the forward area by the windows are perfect for relaxing and taking in spectacular views. We generally avoided the Sports Bar and Casino area. It was usually full of cigarette smoke, particularly in the evening.
Service on HAL is still top-notch, with the waiters, waitresses, and cabin stewards all gracious, friendly, and more than willing to meet your needs. We noticed that the Table Captain and Wine Steward have active roles and are not just mysterious background personnel. We like traditional dining, because we want to get to know our waiters, and we want them to know us and our preferences. One night, after a long shore excursion, we went to the Lido casual dining. The meal was delicious, and although it was casual, there were tablecloths and candles on each table. That is the sort of extra elegant touch I appreciate on HAL. Food in the Dining Room and in the Lido was consistently tasty and well-presented. The variety of vegetables and desserts was superb. We went to the Pinnacle Grill one night. Service there was absolutely first-rate. The steaks were good, but we've had better at top restaurants in our hometown in the midwest. The meal as a whole was not a disappointment, as there was something a little extra-special about the appetizers, soups, side-dishes, and desserts. Presentation matters. The five Ports of call were each unique even though they were all in the Eastern Caribbean. We went to Margaritaville in Grand Turk. The pool there is amazing, and it was not crowded, because we were the only ship there that day. It was a fun and relaxing place to be on a gloriously sunny day. One in our party went snorkeling. It was a long swim to the snorkel area, and he reported that the undersea sights were good---but not as good as in Molokai, Hawaii. We were very impressed by the fabulous scenery in Tortola. We took the scenic island bus tour there (ship's excursion.) With party cloudy skies all day, this trip was a photographer's dream! We have many pretty pictures. The trip included a few short shopping stops, which came in handy, too. We've been in St. Maarten twice before. This time, we took the water taxi in to Philipsburg and walked around the Front Street area. We shopped and sat by the pretty waterfront. There is a nice public beach there. In St. Thomas, we took the ship's excursion to Trunk Bay Beach on St. John. This was an excellent tour. But be patient. On our boat, which was a replica of an old Oyster boat, it took over an hour to get to Trunk Bay. You can just drink rum or rum punch and enjoy the ride over before swimming or snorkeling. Note: If you have mobility impairments, beware---you'll need to climb down a ladder into a rubber dingy to get to the beach. If you can't do that, you'll have to stay on the boat. In St. Thomas, the Noordam docked at the new pier in Crown Bay, where they are still building shops. We were disappointed that we were not at the Main pier by Havensight Mall. Crown Bay is neither as picturesque nor as convenient for shopping. The positive about Crown Bay is that when the new shops are completed, it will likely be less crowded for shopping than Havensight, as it seems there is less room there for multiple ships to dock. But the view will never compare to the Main pier. In San Juan, we had a short stay. Since we've been there before, we stayed on Board and rested.
We did not participate in many onboard activities during sea days. However, a cooking demonstration offered at the Culinary Arts Center was fun and interesting. There were many Bingo tournaments, Art Auctions, and even a ship-building contest for those who wanted to be more active in those things. We very much enjoyed the Explorations Cafe/Library. This was a large area, with many computers, magazines, and books, surrounded by wonderful comfortable chairs. HAL has done a great job integrating all those things into a functional and comfortable area. We watched a few of the recent movie releases shown on the Stateroom televisions, such as the Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and Happy Feet. We found TV programming to be quite good, although we would have liked to see CNBC and FOX in addition to CNN.
Disembarkation in NYC was a bit confusing. Apparently the NYC Port Authority told our Captain to go to the wrong pier. When we got almost alongside the first spot, we had to back out and relocate. This delayed disembarkation by about 40 minutes. We were called to depart around 10:30 AM. We boarded a large bus to transfer to La Guardia. Something was wrong with the engine, and the bus shut off at least 6 times in the City and on the freeway on the way. Despite contacting his supervisor twice, the driver got no assistance. Thus, it took us over an hour to get to the airport. It was a tense ride, and we were praying to arrive in time for our flight. WE sort of slowly coasted into the airport by noon. We were fortunate that our flight did not depart until 2:00 PM. The bus delay was not HAL's fault, but it is another lesson that you need to give yourself lots of lag time on flight or transfer days.
In summary, we had a great cruise. Transfers to and from Port were frustrating, but the onboard experience was generally excellent. I would do the same trip again.