My friend Ed joined me on the Noordam for a 10 day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean to celebrate my 50th birthday. We decided to splurge and booked a Category SC deluxe suite in the spring on a guarantee booking. Around the end of August, I started checking the HAL website every day to see if our cabin had been assigned, but no luck for a few weeks. At the end of September, we found that we had been upgraded to a Category SA suite (7055) directly across from the Neptune Lounge!
I took Amtrak from Washington, DC to New York a day early to shop for wine and take in a show. For those who like to take wine on board with you, I highly recommend Ninth Avenue Vintner at 669 Ninth Ave. between 46th and 47th. Their staff really knows wine and made some great recommendations. I stayed at the Hotel Edison on West 47th St., half a block from Times Square and got a great rate (for mid-town) on their website. I saw Xanadu the evening before the cruise, and I can't say enough about that show. I loved every second of it, and would recommend it to anyone that wants an evening of mindless fun.
Ed (a first time cruiser) took the train from Baltimore the next morning and met me at the hotel. The cab to the pier was 10 minutes and cost $10. We arrived around 11:00, received our priority boarding passes and took a seat to wait. Priority boarding began around noon, and we were on the ship within 10 minutes. We headed to the Neptune Lounge to drop off our carry-ons, then off to the Lido for lunch. Just as we finished, they announced that the cabins were ready, and we went to explore the suite.
Although we didn't have any problems at check-in, we heard later that it was a nightmare for many passengers. Several people mentioned that they had to wait over two hours after arriving just to get to the check-in area, then they faced very long lines. The rumor was that the port had laid off workers since Holland America won't be sailing to the Caribbean from New York after next February.
Our suite was wonderful, and has spoiled us for cruising in the future. Very spacious with a separate dressing area, lots of closet space, a large bathroom with whirlpool tub and separate shower, and a large verandah. There was a nice seating area with a couch and two chairs, and the beds--oh my, what comfort.
We spent the afternoon unpacking, then explored the ship. We left port around 5 p.m., so the first bottle of champagne was opened. We also had appetizers delivered for sail-away--tasty, but uneven. The crab cakes and zucchini fritters were nice and hot, but the fried mozzarella was cold. It took us a few bites to figure out what it was. Our suite was on the port side, so we had a great view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as we sailed. The sunset was spectacular, particularly when we got to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
We chose standard late seating for our dinner and had wonderful people at our table; Jack and Francine from Montreal and Howie and Lisa from Great Neck, NY. It was a real pleasure to have such good company at dinner. Our waiter Bayu and his assistants did a wonderful job every night, and our wine steward, Alex, was very nice as well.
We were worried about the effects of Tropical Storm Noel on the cruise, because it had hit Haiti and the Dominican Republic fairly hard. On the first day, the captain announced that because of the storm, our second port, Grand Turk, had closed temporarily because of high water. The ship also needed to sail much farther east than normal to avoid the storm. It ended up that our first port, Tortola, was cancelled (it had the lowest passenger rating of the five ports), and we had an extra sea day, with the rest of the itinerary rearranged. All of our excursions had been booked through the ship, so we didn't have anything to worry about, but the passengers that had independently booked excursions had a lot of e-mailing and phoning to do to reschedule. Say what you want about the value of ship versus independent excursion booking, but this experience convinces me that the peace of mind is worth it to book through the ship.
We took advantage of the spa our first two days at sea with massages and facials. The hot stone massage was great! I felt like total jelly at the end and went back to the cabin for a nice long nap. The facial was also very nice and relaxing (bye-bye blackheads), but while my skin was nice and smooth when it was over, I also looked a bit like a corpse. I found out later that they offer a men's facial, so maybe I should have had that. The only down side for both treatments was the sales job for spa products at the end--$80 for a cream after the massage that would "break down the lactic acid in the shoulders" and over $800 in cleansers, moisturizers, and creams after the facial! Now my skin may not be perfect, but please! We went to the Cruise Critic meet and greet the first sea day, and about thirty people showed up. It was nice to meet everyone after reading that board every day for several months.
Because we were skirting the edge of the storm, the first two days at sea were fairly rough, particularly the second day when we had swells of 18-20 feet. It didn't bother me at all, but it got to Ed a little bit. We woke up on the third day to beautiful weather and a calm sea. I spent most of the day baking in the sun on the Observation deck to start off the deep Caribbean tan of my dreams.
The first port was Phillipsburg, St Maarten. We took a catamaran "sail" to Tintamar Island, a nature preserve off the northeast coast of the island. I say "sail" because although the sails were up, we motored to Tintamar. It was a beautiful clear day and Tintamar is beautiful. Once we got there, you could either go to the beach or snorkel. We both snorkeled and had a great time, although the reef looked dead. Ed went to the beach and wanted to go to the mud baths, but there was broken glass on the path and his shoes were on the boat. I stayed in the water for an hour or so before they called us back to return to port. On the way back, they opened the champagne, and it flowed freely. It was a great introduction to the Caribbean.
We weren't impressed with Phillipsburg itself. Just a lot of of duty-free jewelry and liquor stores. It was so oppressively hot that that may have influenced our opinion though. After just a bit of looking around, we went back to the ship and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing.
Our second port was Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. We wanted a beach day, so we took a cab to Sapphire Beach (the cab was $11 per person). Howie and Lisa had planned to take a ferry to St. Johns for the day, but they decided to join us. Sapphire is a beautiful beach with a magnificent view of St. Johns and several small islands. Loungers, floats, and snorkel equipment are available to rent, and there's food, a bar, and a convenience store as well. One word of warning--if you're in the shade under the sea grape trees and you hear rustling above you, it's probably the iguanas coming down. We had a great day, and Howie and Lisa were glad they came along since we could see that it rained in St. Johns all day long.
The next day we were in San Juan, Puerto Rico. What a beautiful city. The old town reminds me of the older parts of Madrid or Lisbon. We walked around the old town and up to the Fort El Morro. Again, it was miserably hot, so we decided not to tour the fort and spent our time inside the outlet stores. This was the best shopping of the trip--Coach, Ralph Lauren, Guess, and Tommy Hilfiger outlets.
Our last port was Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos. We took the helmet dive excursion and had a blast. Beautiful clear water, lots of fish, and interesting coral formations. We snorkeled while the first group was down, and then spent about 30 minutes underwater when it was our turn. This convinced me that I have to learn to scuba before our Western Caribbean cruise next summer. After the dive, we walked on the beach away from the port around the point and found deserted beaches--lots of shells, but also covered with trash. The port area at Grand Turk was not our idea of a good time. It amazes me that people rushed to get off the ship only to park themselves at the beach right at the port or at the Margaritaville pool. Forcing passengers to go through the duty-free liquor store to get off or back on the ship is just tacky.
The last two days at sea back to New York were very relaxing. We baked in the sun again the first day until the weather turned cooler and windy (and the deck chairs started blowing around the Observation Deck). The last day was too cold to stay outside long, so we spent the day relaxing inside. The concierges arranged a bridge tour for us, so we spent about 20 minutes on the bridge with the officers. This was the highlight of the trip. Although all of the HAL literature says that there are no tours of the bridge, one of the crew told us that if a deluxe suite passenger requests a tour and the captain agrees, one of the officers will take you on the bridge on a sea day. It amazes me that they are able to maneuver the ship with a joystick smaller than your little finger.
When we woke up the next morning and looked out the windows, there was mid-town Manhattan, and we knew this amazing trip was over. Disembarkation was a breeze. Once our group was called we were in line for a taxi within 10 minutes and on our way to Penn Station.
Noordam is a beautiful ship, and the crew were fantastic. They all greet you as you pass in the hall and will do just about anything to make sure you're satisfied. Our concierges, Mila and Claudine went out of their way to fulfill any request we made, from Pinnacle Grill reservations to arranging a party in our suite for our dinner table companions. Doni was our cabin steward, and he was an absolute joy. It was a pleasure to see him every day, and he did a wonderful job. Plus, his towel animal were great! The public areas of the ship are beautiful with wonderful art everywhere. We used the gym several days and theres a good selection of treadmills, bikes, and elliptical machines. There are free weights and weight machines, but the machines are clumsy, old fashioned, and not complete (for example, there are no machines to work your back).
Holland America has a reputation for an older clientele, particularly for cruises over seven days, and the passengers on this cruise certainly fit the bill. That's not meant as a dig at HAL or the passengers, just fact. If you're looking for a youthful crowd with lots of vigorous activities, choose another cruise. Even though we're younger than the average age on the ship by a couple of decades or more (at least in Ed's case), we weren't looking for a 24 hour party when we booked, and the atmosphere on the ship was just what we had in mind.
Although some of the dinner starters and lunches were hit or miss, the food more than lived up to my expectations. Without exception, the entrees we had a dinner were outstanding and on a par with a fine restaurant (and I have high standards when it comes to food). The lamb was cooked perfectly, beef was prepared exactly as I requested, the duck was amazing, and the Osso Bucco with risotto was heavenly. Several times we couldn't decide what we wanted, so we ordered two starters or two entrees. Bayu never batted an eye and let us order whatever combination of dishes we asked for. We had dinner at the Pinnacle Grill one night, and that was the highlight of dining on board. Wonderful starters (crab cakes for Ed, smoked seafood for me) and salads, and better steak than I had at Charlie Palmer's; two-inch thick Porterhouse cooked perfectly medium rare with grilled asparagus and potato gratin. We barely had room for the Chocolate Volcano Cake but were glad we ordered it. Delicious!
The Mariner's and Suite Guest lunch was a bit of a disappointment. The food was adequate, but not special, although the wine stewards were very generous. We had breakfast in either the dining room or the Pinnacle Grill. While we preferred the Pinnacle Grill for breakfast, we wondered why they only had the standard breakfast menu and didn't offer the daily specials like the dining room. On sea days, we generally went to the dining room for lunch, and that's the only complaint I have about the service. The first day I ordered a hamburger and after it arrived, I asked for mayonnaise. It took over five minutes to arrive. The next time I ordered a hamburger, I asked for mayo when I ordered, but the waiter didn't bring it with my food. I reminded him, and waited over ten minutes before I gave up. By that point, my burger was cold, so I went to the Lido instead. We enjoyed the Lido asian food when we had lunch there. The sushi was comparable to what you'd get in a supermarket, but it was fine for mass produced sushi. The main dishes at the asian station were very good. The deserts in the Lido were great, and we really enjoyed the ice cream bar. After reading about the bread pudding on the HAL boards, we had to try it, but I have to say we were disappointed after reading all the raves. It was okay, but I didn't think it was anything special.
We both thought the entertainment was so-so; it was definitely geared toward an older crowd. We missed several events we would have liked to attend (like the Karaoke competition), but they were scheduled right after the early dinner seating and conflicted with our dinner time. We did go to a couple of the shows. Jim Labriola was the comedian, and he was enjoyable. His show was marked "parental guidance suggested," but for the life of me, I can't understand why. We also saw the Tribute to Vegas show. The sets and costumes were good, the dancers were very good, and most of the featured soloists were good, but we both thought that the lead female singer had severe Celine Dion disease--I know she was singing in English, but neither of us could understand a single word, even if we knew the songs! We saw part of the Philippine crew show, and while I applaud their initiative and willingness to entertain, we both found the show boring and left after about 20 minutes.
So to close this long-winded review, we had a fantastic time on the Noordam and would take this cruise again in a second. This ship is beautiful, the service and crew are top notch, and the food is great. I'd recommend this cruise to anyone who is looking for a relaxing vacation. You can find photos of the trip at http://travel.webshots.com/album/561549262CMRwcV?vhost=travel .