The Vista Lounge (Decks 1 through 3, forward) showcases a resident cast performing the usual song-and-dance numbers that are a staple of cruise ship entertainment. Enormous, dynamic LED screens that make backdrops astoundingly clear and almost three-dimensional give production shows added zing. Guest performers include comedians and musical acts. The lounge is a comfortable venue with plush, roomy seats and excellent sightlines from the main floor and the balconies.
As on many cruises, a number of activities on the daily roster are really sales opportunities (acupuncture consultations, gaming lessons and the ubiquitous art auction). Expect the typical array of shipboard diversions: team trivia contests, bingo, dancing, and instruction on folding towels into animal shapes.
HAL has partnered with America's Test Kitchen in offering cooking shows on most days. It's not hands-on instruction, but passengers can watch a live demonstration in a show kitchen and take home recipe cards. Demos often have a theme, such as chili, chocolate or lamingtons and take place in the B.B. King's Blues Club, aka the Queen's Lounge on Deck 2. This venue also screens movies and BBC Earth documentaries on some afternoons.
The Explorations Cafe has a fairly extensive library, including lots of large-print editions and an impressive selection of guide books. Comfy armchairs and foot stools and a view of the Promenade Deck make it a nice place to hang out. Backgammon, chess, jigsaw puzzles and board games also are on loan. Regular social games of bridge, Yahtzee, backgammon, chess and the like take place here or in the nearby Stuyvesant Room and are listed in On Location, the daily activities program.
On Alaska cruises, a National Park Service ranger boards the ship at Glacier Bay to talk about the flora, fauna and geology of the region. Commentary is also provided on Australia and New Zealand sailings as the ship travels through Milford Sound. Waiters circulate on deck distributing hot pea soup during scenic cruising in Alaska and New Zealand, another HAL tradition. On New Zealand sailings there are also Maori-themed activities, including a traditional welcome and the chance to play old-style Maori games that were originally used to improve the hand-eye coordination needed for hand-to-hand battle.
B.B. King's Blues Club on Deck 2 (a multi-use space that also serves as the Queen's Lounge and the America's Test Kitchen by day), gets a groove on when the B.B. King's Blues Club All-Star Band takes the stage, an impressive three times nightly, to belt out funk, soul, rock 'n' roll and blues. It's the most dynamic entertainment onboard and a good spot for a lively, late-night drink. The club closes around midnight.
The casino has the usual table games (poker, blackjack, craps and roulette), plus 126 slot machines. Most nights, it's a busy, noisy place.
Passengers seem more inclined to settle in with a good book than dance until dawn in the disco. Small, intimate lounges scattered throughout the ship tend to encourage quiet contemplation and reading rather than late-night revelry.
Atrium Bar (Deck 1, midship): The small bar near the front desk is open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It hosts events such as mixology classes and cocktail sampling (for a fee).
Piano Bar (Deck, 2, midship): One of the most popular -- and liveliest -- venues on our sailing, the piano bar drew a crowd of loyal regulars who gathered around the baby grand to unleash their inner crooners. This was our favorite place for late-night fun. It's open from 7.30 p.m. until late.
Explorer's Lounge (Deck 2, aft): Adagio, a violin-piano duo, performs classical music to pre- and after-dinner audiences four times each night.
Queen's Lounge/B.B. King's Blues Club (Deck 2, midship): The B.B. King's Blues Club All-Star Band performs three shows most nights. During the day, the space hosts more-staid events like cooking demonstrations, movie screenings and religious services.
Sports Bar (Deck 2, midship): The small bar just off the casino is divided into two distinct areas and open early until late. It's surprisingly quiet, considering the TV screens are tuned to sports, perhaps because it only has one channel. We were disappointed to miss the Melbourne Cup race on our Australia/NZ cruise.
Northern Lights (Deck 2, midship): The nightclub was never particularly busy on our sailing; instead a DJ played dance music in the Crow's Nest bar. The two-room space, one with banquettes and the other dominated by a dance floor, is due to be tranformed into a new venue in the 2018 refurbishment.
Ocean Bar (Deck 3 midship): The space surrounds the ship's atrium on its upper level. On Alaska sailings, the house band performs ballroom and other music for pre-dinner cocktails and dancing, however this venue was fairly quiet on our Australia and New Zealand cruise. Happy hour is from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Sea View Bar (Deck 9, aft): The outdoor bar is next to the Sea View Pool at the rear of the ship and is open early until late.
Lido Bar (Deck 9, poolside): The popular poolside bar hosts beer tastings (for a fee) and is open from early until 9 p.m.
Crow's Nest (Deck 10, forward): The best spot for a panoramic view, the large room is packed during happy hour (from 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.). It's a popular gathering place for cruisers traveling in groups, as well as solo travelers looking to meet people. You might need to arrive early to get a seat during happy hour, unless bingo is on, in which case it will be noticeably quieter. A DJ plays later in the evening.
Noordam has two pools, both on Deck 9. The largest, the Lido Pool, with its centerpiece leaping-dolphins sculpture, has a retractable roof that makes it a popular spot in cool-weather venues. It has three adjoining hot tubs. The Sea View Pool is at the ship's rear and is surrounded by a shallow area that makes it a good bet for small children. Deck chairs here offer nice sea views. The pool also has two, small elevated hot tubs. Covered areas have dining tables and are a particularly nice spot for lunch.
Deck 11 is equipped with an outdoor sports court for basketball and volleyball. Several Ping-Pong tables are on Deck 9 near the Lido Pool, and shuffleboard is on Deck 10, aft.
Lounge chairs on the Promenade (Deck 3) face an outdoor walkway that circles the ship. And on Deck 10, the observation deck at the ship's rear is a quiet place to enjoy the view.
Deck 11 has private cabanas for rent. However, now the ship no longer sails in the Caribbean, and whether these stay onboard remains to be seen. The cabanas did not appear to be used at all during our Australia and New Zealand cruise, despite some pleasantly warm weather. For those who do want to rent a cabana, these cost US$45 on port days, US$75 on sea days and US$299 for a seven-day package. Cabanas are equipped with two loungers, a table and chairs. Amenities in the area, which is exclusive to cabana renters, include light breakfast and healthy lunch options, a fruit basket, chilled water, a glass of sparkling wine, bathrobes, ice cream and chocolate-dipped strawberries in the afternoon, mineral-water misters and a 20 percent spa discount on port days.
The business of cruising -- settling accounts, booking shore excursions and future cruises, etc. -- takes place near the atrium on Deck 1. A medical center is one deck below on Deck A. Its hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. There's a fee for most services.
On Deck 2 is the art gallery, scene of art appreciation seminars and seemingly nonstop art auctions.
Explorations Cafe (Deck 3, midship) occupies two adjoining rooms with computers that enable free access to the New York Times. Internet rates are 75 cents per minute, with a one-time US$3.95 activation fee. Discounted packages are available, starting at US$55 for 100 minutes.
Deck 3 also houses the photo gallery, where you can peruse the results of the voracious ship photographers' labors (and make a purchase, if you like). The passenger photo competition on our Australia and New Zealand cruise generated an enthusiastic response and some good shots on display for judging. The Shopping Arcade is here, too, featuring high-end jewelry purveyor Merabella and other venues selling watches, designer bags, some clothing and sundries.
There's no self-service laundry, but dry-cleaning and laundry services are available for a fee.
The Greenhouse Spa & Salon (Deck 9, forward) is operated by Steiner Leisure. The hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except on the final full cruise day, when it closes at 9 p.m. The 10 treatment rooms, including two couples rooms, offer massages, facials, body therapies (such as scrubs) and acupuncture. Male-oriented services include shaving and an "urban cleanse facial." The adjoining salon menu has nail services, hairstyling and waxing.
Massages are excellent and blissfully free of hard-sell tactics. Check the ship's newsletter for daily specials. The spa's relaxation room is down the hall and across from the fitness center, which detracts from the feeling of seclusion many seek from a spa experience.
An exclusive area within the spa, the Greenhouse Retreat, is available for a surcharge (about US$40 per person per day or between US$249 and US$299 per couple depending on cruise length). Facilities include a large, mineral-water hydro-pool, a thermal suite with three aromatherapy steam rooms and four rain showers.
The moderately sized fitness center on Deck 9 has a good range of equipment -- treadmills, cross-trainers, cycles, free weights and some weight machines. Early mornings are busy, but the crowds thin as the day progresses. Use of equipment and some classes, such as stretching and abs, are free. Fee classes -- such as yoga, indoor cycling and Pilates -- cost US$12 each or US$40 for four. Personal training is US$85 an hour. Gym hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Deck 3 Promenade measures three laps to the mile and is for walkers only. Runners can head to Deck 10, where six laps around the open-air space equals about a mile.
Holland America maintains three age-specific programs. On Noordam, they're headquartered on Deck 10, midship.
Club HAL, with separate facilities for kids ages 3 to 7 and 8 to 12, is open on sea days from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. On port days, it's open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. After-hours babysitting is available for US$5 an hour per child. Age-appropriate activities like coloring contests and story times are structured for the little ones. Older children can play board games and video games and participate in cooking classes, among other activities.
It is worth noting that Holland America does not permit children attending Club HAL to sign themselves in and out of the program. High-school-age tweens (and their parents) in particular could find this policy restrictive, especially if they have enjoyed more flexibility on other cruise lines.
Young adults ages 13 to 17 can come and go as they please at The Loft on Noordam, a small and somewhat lackluster "teen clubhouse" equipped with games like air hockey and Wii and a few beanbags. Teens are likely to get more enjoyment making their own fun at the basketball court and on the pool deck, particularly during school holiday sailings when there are likely to be other teens onboard. The Loft is open on sea days from 10 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight. On port days, the club is open (but has no scheduled activities) from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and then regular programming resumes from 8 p.m. to midnight.