Background: The three of us have about 18 months of cruising experience total on a variety of ships. Although we have sailed on Holland America (HAL) before, this was our first cruise on the Noordam, the latest in its Vista class. We booked a veranda on the Holiday cruise to the Caribbean out of New York City. The Noordam's passenger mix on this cruise was less the traditional HAL crowd and more like Princess or Royal Caribbean passengers, with fewer seniors and more working adults. We had 166 children onboard (only half of what I expected) of whom 60% were teenagers, and all were remarkably well-behaved and obedient.
Embarkation: We drove to New York City (4 ½ hours for us). The port was easy to find - you can park literally next to the ship and even hear the announcements from your car! And what a sight she is! Over 950 feet long, the Vista-class ships are outfitted with Holland America's well-known blue and white dEcor and prominently displayed nameplate. Though lacking the graceful lines of classic passenger lines, tending toward the boxy frame of contemporary floating apartment blocks, this is somewhat minimized by verandah balconies that recess a bit further with each deck, creating a stairstep appearance to her silhouette. Unfortunately, one of our bags was lost, despite our delivering it in the terminal itself, showing up minutes before we sailed and slightly damaged. Our next-door cabin neighbor had major damage to her luggage. I was not surprised - I saw longshoremen literally throwing bags onto the ship's access ramp! Very unprofessional. Check-in procedures are quite easy: after showing our passports at the door, we proceeded through the standard metal detector, then across a vast room to a row of check-in desks similar to an airport lobby. You must present your passport a second time and cruise contract. You will need to fill out immigration forms, but they are available on the HAL web site for your completion well before arrival. You will also register your credit card for your onboard account, eliminating the need to do this after boarding the ship. The staff took our pictures for our boarding passes and gave us a pocket guide with a deck plan for the entire ship, which you will surely need throughout the week. Shoreside service was very courteous and professional from the guest services representatives. Because we were in line early when the doors opened, we were in the first group to board precisely at the announced time of 11:30. We went through the customary photo shoot and crossed the gangway to experience the adventures of the Noordam.
Cabin: Our cabin 4014 was a verandah stateroom well forward on the port side, 4th deck. The room is standard for newer HAL ships - nearly 200 square feet in size, twin beds that combine to form a queen, very firm mattresses, many small pillows that plump up, adequate closet space for three people to hang garments, but insufficient drawer space to avoid clutter. The sleeper sofa was not as comfortable as in prior cruises. There is no living space between doorway and bed, unlike lower-deck staterooms and suites, because the room is reconfigured to allow access to the verandah. However, the balcony was roomier than I imagined, easily allowing for 3 or even 4 chairs and a table and footrest. The bathroom is large enough to move around, and the counter space and cabinet were more than adequate to store our toiletries. It remains a mystery, however, why the electric outlets for the hair dryer are outside the bathroom - I suppose the designer thought that passengers would rather look out the window than stay in the bathroom to dry their hair! Hopefully this design flaw will be corrected in a future upgrade. Our room steward Oki was responsive and visible, not at all like some ships where the room steward becomes invisible upon departure. He fulfilled our requests for service, and his twice-a-day visits were very efficient and welcome. And the towel animals and chocolates on our pillows every evening were a nice touch. Laundry service is reasonably priced - just stuff all you can into a large laundry bag for $12, though dry cleaning is no bargain compared to land prices. However, service was very slow - up to three days to return a bag of laundry! We were told that 75 staterooms had laundry in at one time, and the laundromat was unable to handle the load, despite running round-the-clock. Our entreaties to both the steward and front office had no effect on expediting the laundry service. The lack of any self-service laundromat is a bone of contention, and I hope HAL will reverse their decision to remove self-service laundromats from the Vista-class ships (you can still do-it-yourself on the older ships). The Neptune Lounge is HAL's concession to a class society - only suite guests and top-line verandahs may enter this concierge lounge and enjoy the fresh fruit and coffee, hostess, priority reservations at the alternative restaurant, CNN on the big screen TV, magazines - jut like an upscale hotel lobby.
Public Rooms: The Main Deck contains the base of a three-story atrium and spiral staircase, and is a focal point of conversation and photographers. The atrium sculpture is a revolving astrolabe masterpiece that attracts attention and comments. It was especially beautifully decorated with Christmas garland. The stairs are so delicate in design that they present a problem with depth perception when you descend, and were frequently closed during the entire cruise. They are pretty to look at, but dangerous for some to use. The Front Office and Excursion Desk are located in the central area of the Main Deck, as are several staff offices, the radio communications office and the first of 13 bars (by my count). This bar is never very crowded and caters to stateroom guests in the early evening. As for the Front Office, I went to them several times with questions and issues, and they were very congenial and understanding, though they were unable to solve a couple of the major problems we encountered. The ladies who serve behind the desk are the ambassadors of the cruise line in dealing with the customers, and did a masterful job. Nearby is the Cruise Consultants desk. Tom and Veronica are friends from a prior cruise and so helpful in planning future cruises and answering questions. They only require $100 deposit per traveler, and will even credit your travel agent for a reservation. Both hallways lead to the three-story Vista Lounge in the ship's front. Exiting the Lounge upstairs are the Lower Promenade and Promenade Decks, the center of evening social life aboard. On the starboard side forward on Lower Promenade are the Piano Bar and Sports Bar. The Sports Bar was a room to relax and enjoy a drink while watching ESPN - the monitors are on all day. The Piano Bar is literally built around a piano, hence its name. The place is dead during daytime, though it draws about 20 customers while the pianist played at night to a good sound system. Ian McFarlane played a variety of songs with a different theme each night and encouraged sing-alongs. The Casino was not well attended on this cruise. Those few people who chose to gamble did so at the one-armed bandits - the croupiers were awful lonely at their tables. The Northern Lights is a high-energy discotheque with disc jockey and flashing lights all around. Teens must leave by midnight, when they are politely but firmly told to leave so the young-at-heart grownups can take over. Music themes vary each night - 80s one night, disco the next, 50s grease another, then the 90s, etc. The booths are hard seats - but of course, the purpose here is to mingle and dance and drink, not just sit and watch. Next comes a theater spanning the ship, the Queen's Lounge, which serves three purposes. It is a movie theater by day, and the tiered seating is a big improvement over the flat surface of earlier Vista ships that did not provide the true theater atmosphere (complete with free popcorn). The room also holds meetings of over 100 people, and hosts culinary arts presentations that are very popular with some cruisers (at an added cost). They occasionally broadcast special events (the Rose Bowl on this trip). The atrium area on this deck hosts the Pinnacle Grill alternative restaurant (more on that later), while the port side contains an unattended art gallery which failed to promote the ever-popular art auction; the best marketing is still the free champagne! The Explorers Lounge, an eternal fixture on HAL ships, hosts afternoon tea and post-dinner relaxation with the Four Seasons, a superb string quartet. Like the previous areas, it is little utilized. Space management is always a concern on major cruise liners, and several fine ideas are not being exploited by the passengers on these Vista ships. I found the public men's rest rooms very well maintained (though my wife had several complaints about the ladies rooms), and the ship overall was immaculate. This ship held true to the HAL reputation as "The Spotless Fleet". Nor did I notice the proverbial odor of sewage or paint, or even shipboard septic system clogs. The Promenade Deck is so named because of a teakwood (not carpeting) walkway around its perimeter. This allows a complete circuit of the ship in the open air. Three laps equal one mile on this large vessel. Inside aft on the Promenade Deck is the Photo Gallery, which spans the ship to ensure that passengers coming and going to dinner see their latest pictures, charge card in hand. Since the photos are arranged along the walls of the main corridor, traffic congestion just before dinner is a major problem, which is aggravated by the use of only one register counter, creating a mob scene for purchases. The photographers and managers are very friendly, and they represent a new firm that just took over the contract (the previous firm was either fired or quit during contract, depending on which version you choose to believe). However, the prices are much higher than I've encountered on other cruise ships ($15 for an 8x10, $40 for a sheet of four photos). Beginning with the next voyage, they will have all their equipment in place to develop custom DVDs for each voyage (we regretted the inability to buy such a remembrance for our cruise). One passes through the Ocean Bar before returning to the Atrium. This bar had a Filipino trio that performed for those who dance before and after dinner. HAL addressed the segregated section across the atrium by providing its own bar environment with the music piped in from the other side, so you can relax without dancing while still enjoying the music and ambiance. This amidships bar is well-attended by the cruisers. The mixed drinks themselves are not watered down and seem reasonably priced, though the service speed was mixed at times. We also appreciated the free nuts and hot hors d'oeuvres. On the other side of the Atrium is the shopping arcade. These are specialty shops that sell logo merchandise, jewelry, alcohol, tobacco and sundries. There is no brand name clothier on board, nor a tailor to measure and place an order for you. The shops straddle the ship, so you cannot avoid passing through and window shopping, yet there is no traffic congestion here. Selection is fairly good for jewelry and logo merchandise, but scant for clothing and totally inadequate for liquor and toiletries (don't leave any essentials at home - you will need to replenish in port instead of the ship). The shop staff provided the greatest discomfort of our cruise. We returned a purchase after reconsideration, but to get a refund on our account required 11 days, four trips to the store and an angry face-to-face confrontation with the manager. Neither he nor his staff "has the time" to run a refund through the system. Lesson learned - consider all shop sales final, just like portside purchases. Next comes the Windstar Cafe, bringing onboard a Starbucks-style influence with decadent (and very reasonably priced) coffee specialties and fruit smoothies. This cafe was hardly utilized by cruisers, and the drinks were not well-mixed, certainly not up to the standards on other HAL ships. The library has a growing collection of hardbound books, so HAL is clearly emphasizing an area that I have criticized for years. It provides a lovely area to read, although the lack of any wall to the public hallway defeats any hope of quietude. The Internet Cafe has a steady stream of users who maintain connectivity with the rest of the world while on board. The package deal of $100 for 250 minutes sounds steep and is slow, but one has little choice when the roaming charges between satellite cells at sea are so high. Unfortunately, the Internet manager was nowhere to be found throughout the cruise, other than when doing his lectures (for an added charge), and nobody else could answer my technical questions. The ship has three meeting rooms for about 40 people each that are used for religious services, group meetings, etc. They are not soundproof, so music from services will spill out into the adjacent hallway. The ship's art collection is a variety of classic sculptures and mementos from Dutch culture, as well as paintings of past HAL ships. The colors and carpet designs are much brighter than prior HAL ships, though not over the top as you would find on Disney or Carnival. The ship was beautifully decorated throughout for the holidays with garland, wreaths, trees and balls - red and green were the theme colors of the cruise.
Topside: Upstairs is the Lido Deck, the centerpiece of daytime activity. There are two outdoor pools, one for adults to work on their tan (hardly anybody actually swims in it), the other for kids to splash around. This second, larger pool has a retractable magrodome that covers it during rain. These pools aren't for laps, just for laughs. The Greenhouse Salon and Spa has a large and congenial staff with the usual beauty salon and spa rooms, plus a hydro pool at $15 per dip and massage rooms (all underutilized), and a gym that was big enough to avoid waiting for treadmills. Only one apparatus out of some 25 was out of service. The operation matches your favorite fitness center. Above the spa on the Observation Deck is the Crow's Nest, a fully windowed room to view the sea in front or take a nap. The reclining seats are so comfortable! The night life is exciting without ostentation, alternating between the Filipino trio and an easy-listening pianist. Glenn the DJ takes over late night and the place hops!!! The Oak Room is the cigar smoking area, another little-used room. The deck chairs outside in the sun bore more presence of life, and are actually wooden on the promenade and outdoor pool. Above the Lido Restaurant is the Club HAL meeting and game rooms for kids. The little ones were enthralled by the arts and crafts, music and games played here, and the teens enjoyed their own place to hang out, away from their parents. And the ladies on the staff are wonderful with the children. There is a Sports Deck topside with an observation area above the Crow's Nest and tennis and basketball courts behind the smokestacks. Organized games draw a dozen or so persons, but the rest of the time this space is largely ignored.
Dining: The Vista Dining Room provides a sweeping view over the ship's stern, a spiral staircase in the middle and star-like lights in the ceiling, accented by fiber optic lights with synchronized changing colors. Our table service by Delfin and his assistant Dani was first rate, and both were very personable and talkative. Our wine steward, Pauline, is a charming lady and pleasant conversationalist. A typical menu contained several choices of appetizer, three soups (one of which was chilled), two salads, seven entrees and five desserts. The appetizers were exotic, well presented and enjoyable, and the soups were fabulous. The waiters had no problem helping me choose between two options - they just brought them both! The salads and breads were somewhat mediocre, though better than prior HAL cruises. Our steaks and seafood were prepared to our taste and melted in our mouths. Vegetables were excellent though small in portion, but you can always get seconds. The desserts were decadent and easy on the pallet, though by that time it was difficult to roll away from the table! Amidships on the Lower Promenade Deck is the alternative Pinnacle Grill, where dining by reservation only is available for a flat fee of $30 per person plus any bar tab. The layout was reminiscent of a garden cafe with a well-windowed side and metallic furniture. We enjoyed the meal we had there - the filet mignon can be cut with a spoon because it is prepared specially for each customer - though the rest of the food seemed consistent in quality with the main dining room. The service was relaxed and polished. The Lido Restaurant is a buffet with all sorts of food stations - pasta, salad, sandwiches, hot entrees, deli, Chinese, desserts, plus tacos and burgers out by the pool. The traffic patterns are not at all congested and the lines are shorter than I have experienced on other ships. Jas greeted us every morning and afternoon, and helped us with our trays and to find each other when families got separated. Eugene was our drink master both here and in Northern Lights, and we remember him from an earlier cruise. Another former steward of ours is now in the Pinnacle Grill. We are so happy to see these men and women continue to enjoy their careers serving others. Oh yes, the food - much better than the standard cafeteria fare, consistent with the main dining room, and the ice cream bar, popular with young and old alike, is free (except for the calories!).
Entertainment: Inside the three-level show room Vista Lounge, HAL veterans will enjoy the lounge tables and comfy seats that are present in older vessels, and the rest of the auditorium has tiered seating. The room has pillars that block sight at a few seats, but the balcony overcomes these problems. The dEcor is deep red, very upbeat and not as subdued as previous HAL ships. The semicircular stage contains an elevator to raise and lower performers, and a rear entrance that is used throughout production. The four-man production crew is very professional and competent. We missed most of the headline entertainers other than Justin Miller, who regaled the audience with songs and stories of the stage stars he wrote and composed for (such as Bette Midler's beginning). The cast members are wholesome young adults in Bob Mackie costumes and reasonably decent singing voices, and I saw a larger dance contingent than usual (I counted 10). The HALCats backup band was superior to prior cruise versions because of some very talented instrumentalists who were clearly having a good time, instead of just putting in time. HAL retains many small bennies that that please the seasoned traveler: ice sculptures, religious services, afternoon tea, dessert extravaganza, limited announcements (though they must obtain more background music tapes - one can only take the same song every six hours a couple of times), lectures, group walks on the promenade, arts and crafts, and a recorded tour of the ship's art work. The highlight of the entertainment was New Year's Eve, which hosted several parties in different venues throughout the ship. The Vista Lounge was packed in every seat, and we saw more dancers on stage (including us) than any other cruise. It was a blast, with the crew comprising 20 different nationalities, and everyone was so happy! Isn't that what cruising is about?
Shore Excursions: The Excursion Office has a drop box for reservations, since it is only open limited hours. We only took two land tours, to Orient Beach in St. Maarten (which we highly recommend) and the Bacardi Rum factory tour in San Juan (which was lame - you can do better on your own, or else forget the tour and just buy the rum). Although they appear to have dropped somewhat from prior cruises, land tours still tend to be pricey, and a fine way to blow your bank account! Tender service only occurred in one port, and the ship berthed as soon as one opened up. Pulling into these deep-sea ports is so convenient. Shoreside shopping is a key element of any port call for us, and we found the usual prime selection in downtown Charlotte Amalie, Phillipsburg St. Maarten and Georgetown Barbados. We noted that vendors are not as willing to dicker price as in past years, perhaps due to the season or recent success getting their price from tourists.
Disembarkation: The final morning is sad for the passengers and very hectic for the crew. Customs was easy because our last port of call was San Juan in the United States. The process went quite smoothly to get so many people off so quickly. Like most people on-board this cruise, we opted for express checkout and left with our own bags right away to our conveniently-parked car. The crew would have avoided any confusion if they had announced the correct deck for the gangway; instead we all congregated on the wrong deck. Since we have traveled on HAL before, the tipping policy is well understood. We enjoy discretely passing out envelopes during our last night, with artwork designed and drawn by our younger son, and see the warmth and genuine surprise on the faces of these hard-working people. We maintain e-mail contact with several stewards whom we've met over the year, and are grateful that we made some new friends on this cruise.