MS Noordam 10 Day Caribbean March 19-29, 2008
Summary: We had a great time on this cruise and being part of a Cruise Critics group made it even better. We last cruised on the Noordam in October 2006 and the service was even better this time around.
Background: Mary and I (Bob) are a late 50s couple; white collar professional types with no kids. This is our 26th cruise; mostly Holland America, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line. We have cruised in the Caribbean, Alaska, a Panama Canal transit, transatlantic crossings and Hawaii.
Itinerary: The Noordam sailed alternating 11 and 10 day cruises to the Caribbean from NYC leaving Saturday for 11 day and Wednesday for 10 day cruises. Our cruise has 2 days at sea with a morning stop at Grand Turk on Saturday the 22nd, a noon to 9 PM stop at Tortola, BVI (Easter Sunday); St. Maarten; St. Thomas and a morning at San Juan on Wednesday the 26th then 2.5 days back to NYC. Unfortunately, the HAL front office in Seattle will discontinue Noordam sailings to the Caribbean from NYC, moving the ship to Fort Lauderdale after her European sojourn this summer.
Pre-cruise: We live in Brooklyn so it is normally a 30 minute ride by car service to the New York Passenger Ship Terminal; on 12th Avenue between 48th and 52nd streets. Since it was a Wednesday, the trip took about 70 minutes due to traffic. The Noordam arrived at pier 92 about 3 hours late and boarding was similarly delayed. We dropped off our luggage and were directed to pier 88 which had more room. WE were offered a $15 OBC because of the delayed boarding which was a nice peace offering considering that they could do little about the storm that slowed them down.
Weather: There was a major storm in the western Atlantic that slowed the progress of the Noordam back to NYC for the prior cruise. This storm was spread out from Maine to almost Puerto Rico just east of 60 W. The smeared out core of the storm on Oceanweather.com had waves up to 30 feet. The ship left NYC about 90 minutes late in a heavy rain / fog mixture. We had very rough seas the first evening out with rough seas on Thursday as well. Waves were as high at 20 feet early Thursday. Temperatures in the islands were in the high 70s with moderate humidity. Definitely take water bottles with you when you leave the ship even for a short walk. If you use wide mouth bottles, you can load crushed ice directly from the ice machines at the Lido.
The Ship: The Noordam (noor is north in Dutch) is the last of HAL's vista class new builds but the first of that series to have the signature of excellence program implemented. One area where this program is most evident is Explorations which is an internet cafe and library. The reading tables have New York Times crossword puzzles under clear covers you can write on. The book selections were wider ranging and interesting compared to the Statendam/Amsterdam series. Did not use the internet service but you can buy time at $55 for 100 minutes or $100 for 250 minutes.
Our favorite watering hole is the Ocean Bar where Venus, Edsel and Emilio hold court with friendly efficient service. We did attend some functions at the Crow's Nest but it was not as busy as the Ocean Bar. The Piano Bar is located is a separate area next to the sports bar/casino. The set up works but we found it less attractive than the Statendam series Piano Bars.
The Cabin: We had booked a SY superior suite (6057 on the starboard side forward) which has 390 sq ft including a 14 by 7 foot veranda. HAL has deeper verandas than Princess, Celebrity and NCL which is one of the touches we appreciate. During the run down and back to NYC, the veranda was rather windy and on occasion subject to salt spray. Once the weather warmed up, it was very pleasant to sit out there even when the ship was moving fast. The cabin had a king bed which was very comfortable but was tight to walk by with the coffee table and couch on the opposite wall.
Instead of a CRT TV, we had a 27 inch LCD widescreen TV with a DVD player. The veranda had a round table for two and two lounge chaises. 110 AC sockets are plentiful compared to other foreign built ships but still bring a power strip for you electronics. Our cabin steward Andy was very efficient and made himself available for additional services as necessary. Definitely a keeper for HAL and a good candidate for promotion.
The Ports: Our first port was Grand Turk where Carnival set up a deep water pier capable of handling two panamax ship (or larger). There is a beach area adjacent to the pier with free loungers and adequate shade trees. Behind the beach is a freshwater pool and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville bar and restaurant. We did not try the food there since we were in early in the morning, though the bar area seemed well populated. There is a faux town square with shops of various kinds as well as the obligatory duty-free shop. Note that HAL is diligent about snagging liquor purchases made ashore once they are spotted by x-ray. Tortola on an Easter Sunday had only a few shops open and we decided against going to Cane Garden Bay on the north side of the island (the port in on the south side in an inlet). The two painkillers we had made that decision easy plus we got two nifty porcelain mugs as souvenirs.
The pier at St. Maarten is about a mile from the center of town and we walked into town. The first part of the walk is shaded by small palm trees and is well away from the road. That portion will take you halfway to the boardwalk and the remainder is a narrow but passable walkway next to but separated from the road by a guardrail. Once at the boardwalk, you can walk along the beach or cut back to Front Street where all the shops are. We just walked around a bit and picked up some excellent chocolate from the Belgium Chocolate Shop on Old Street. After lunch at the Greenhouse Cafe near the road to the pier, we headed back to the ship. I have been told that the Harbor View Cafe is also good and it is located on the other side of the main square. Since Easter Monday seems to be a holiday in Euroland (of which St. Maarten is definitely a part), not many shops were open. We were told by one shopkeeper that working on Easter Monday would command triple time pay.
We docked at Crown Bay in St Thomas on the other side of the harbor from the main shopping venue at Havensight. Though still under-populated shopping-wise, there was enough for us. We had planned on going to honeymoon beach on Water Island which is reachable by a 5 minute ferry ride from the Crown Bay marina next door. However, the weather was cool and windy with some rain. We just had lunch at Pickles pub at the Crown Bay marina. At San Juan, we walked around the old town, but be advised, old San Juan is hilly. Other than the bit of rain at St Thomas, the weather was sunny or at least partly cloudy and in the 70s.
Dining: The main dining venue on the Noordam is the Vista Dining Room on decks 2 and 3. There two traditional seating times, early seating upper (deck 3) is at 5:45 PM and Main upper is at 8 PM. As you wish dining is available on the lower dining area (deck 2) from 5:30 to 9 PM. We had main seating and that was fine with us. Dinners consist of 3-4 appetizers, three soups, two salads and 6-7 entrees including vegetarian. There is a good selection of desserts including low fat frozen yogurt. Breakfast and lunch are served in the Vista. The food was good and in large portions but some of the meats were a bit too well done for my tastes. Food preferences are notoriously judgmental so YMMV. Our waiter Didiet and his assistant Johnneri were efficient and polite, but I think HAL like other lines overloads their waitstaff with too many tables. We did have some issues with our initial table mates who were either ill or did not speak much English so we did have several nights sitting alone at a table for six. Our assistant maitre d was very understanding of our situation and was able to arrange for us to have some convivial tablemates for the reminder of the cruise.
Breakfast and lunch (and casual dinner) are available in the Lido Restaurant. From the aft pool area going forward there are three buffet areas on port and starboard. The aft starboard and port areas serve design your own omelets at breakfast and hot and cold sandwiches at lunch. Just forward of the aft buffet areas is a connecting corridor between port and starboard that has the salad bar and coffee, ice tea and ice/ice water dispensers. The middle starboard and port areas serve standard breakfast and lunch items. Between the mid and forward buffet areas are the ice cream bar and the juice and yogurt area. The forward starboard buffet area serves egg benedict for breakfast and Asian style lunch and the forward port buffet serves waffles at breakfast and Italian pastas and pizzas at lunch. An additional drink dispensing area connects the forward port and starboard buffet areas. There is a poolside buffet setup with tacos and fajitas at lunch and also the grill for hot dogs and hamburgers. We did not try the Lido for casual dinner. Some of the lunch items, particularly diced meats, can be overcooked and dry even though they were prepared in small batches. We did we try the Pinnacle Grill which is HAL's extra tariff restaurant and it was a very pleasant experience that is well worth considering.
The Pax: Being a NYC based cruise, most of the pax are from about a 2-3 hours drive of NYC. .As with other NYC based cruises, the pax are ethnically mixed with many people of Asian and Eastern European backgrounds. The Cruise Critic party on the morning of the first sea day was well attended with about 40 people. Due to rough weather, we did not have any of the cruise staff available, but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. In addition, we had a "house tour" of the various cabins from standard veranda to the penthouse suite (thanks Chuck and Kerry). The nice thing about joining a Cruise Critics group even informally is having a ready-made group of acquaintances you can meet with and talk to or not as you wish.
Post cruise: Not much to say since we live in NYC. If possible do take advantage of express checkout where you can disembark early if you can carry off your luggage. We arrived at the Verazzano about 6 AM and docked shortly before 7 AM. Once off the ship, if you are going to take a taxi, they are plentiful, but you must get a numbered ticket from the taxi dispatcher since taxis are dispatched based on those numbered tickets. We got off the ship by about 7:50 AM. Traffic was very light on a Saturday at about 8 AM so we got home 8:30 AM.