Sailing out of New York Harbor, to me, is a spiritual experience. Ships usually leave near sundown, and with the Manhattan skyline on the left and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to the right, with the shards of daylight fading and twilight approaching, the departures are often breath-catchingly beautiful.
When I got the chance to sail on Holland America's Noordam, the fourth and final of its Vista-class vessels, I was thrilled. It was early spring, and Noordam's last trip out of New York before heading to Europe.
It took until the final version of Holland America's Vista-ship building program for me to make it onto a Vista-class vessel. I thought I had educated myself, but after sailing on both Statendam-class and Rotterdam-class ships, I was totally unprepared for the size of Noordam. In fact, I was totally unprepared for most of the changes in this new generation of ships, and I was somewhat surprised at my reaction.
When it began its ambitious new-build program with Zuiderdam, launched in 2002, the line had a lofty goal: Expand beyond its appeal to (mostly) very senior citizens. Bring in family groups. Create a bridge between the seniors, its stalwart and consistent passenger base, and the youngsters who would soon be purchasing cruise vacations of their own. Indeed, appealing to "multi-generational family groups" is the stated objective of the line's Vista-class program. With expanded Club HAL facilities for youngsters, the addition of its hugely successful Loft Teen Clubs, and a large percentage of staterooms fitted with balconies, the Vista-class ships ushered Holland America Line into the 21st century with aplomb.
In 2003, Holland America announced its Signature of Excellence initiative, wherein it would retrofit all of the ships in its fleet with elegant Euro-style mattresses, upgrade the bedding, add waffle-weave bathrobes to all cabin categories, incorporate massage-type showerheads into the bathrooms, add flat-screen LCD televisions and DVD players to the cabins, expand its kids and teens' facilities and change some of the public rooms into contemporary, multi-purpose meeting places. Noordam was the first ship built to incorporate all of the changes into its design -- and what changes they are.
The Culinary Arts Center (taking the place of the Wajang Theatre -- movies are still played there) and the Explorations Cafe (replacing the Windjammer Lounge, Coffee Bar and the library) might be the biggest changes onboard but they are certainly not the only ones.
Distinctive, though, to Noordam were some additional modifications. twenty-seven feet of aft deck space was added to the Lido Deck and 35 new staterooms were incorporated into the design, eliminating much of the angled raking at the stern and creating a straighter up/down aft end. This has been deemed so successful that each of the other Vista-class ships will in turn go into dry-dock to get the same additions.
I am, admittedly, on the younger end of HAL's traditional senior passenger base, but like most of HAL's older passengers, I am somewhat averse to change. Stepping onto Noordam presented me with a culture shock that took a few days to overcome. The size of the ship and its layout -- compared to Holland America's "classic" ships with their more linear passageways -- had me bufuddled; there are new elements (like the cooking center instead of the Wajang), a jazzy style, open spaces and twisty corridors absent from HAL's other ships. Almost nothing in the physical configuration of the vessel felt familiar.
With apologies to the late, lamented Oldsmobile, "This ain't your daddy's Holland America."
Happily, for me, the staff and crew were decidedly "old school," as accommodating and genuinely caring as they are on any Holland America ship. I occasionally walk with a cane ... and when I had it with me in the Lido Cafe, I didn't have to worry about carrying my tray with one hand because a smiling steward -- always -- took it from me and carried it, through the line and to whatever table I chose. A question I asked at the front desk was handled with professional, hospitable grace. And, on this larger ship, although I may have felt like I was walking miles to get from point A to point B, at least my hikes were punctuated with smiles and cheerful greetings, often -- per HAL's tradition -- by name.
I might prefer HAL's older, smaller, more classic ships (although having a verandah without paying for a suite was a wonderful perk), but in the end, the overall enjoyment of any cruise vacation depends more on the total experience than on the ship's layout. I was treated like an old friend, greeted by name and pampered by my room steward. I dined in elegance and took advantage of the modern amenities (like the Wi-Fi Internet and DVD players) available on Noordam. I watched culinary demonstrations, listened to music in the Explorer's Cafe and made new friends. Noordam might be big and modern, but it is, after all, one of those "dam" ships, and I was sad to leave when the cruise ended.
Noordam, more than any of the other Vista-class ships, has incorporated the new Signature of Excellence program into its very design. The names of some of the public rooms might be the same as on other HAL vessels, but the architecture is totally different.
The throbbing pulse of the entire ship is the Explorations Cafe, "powered by the New York Times," located on the Upper Promenade Deck. Comfy and relaxing and at the same time educational and inspiring, this sprawling space incorporates a library, Internet center, coffee bar, music listening venue and meeting place in one location. Leather chaises with earphones, tables with reusable New York Times crossword puzzles laminated under layers of epoxy, Internet stations at roundelays, and books, books, books and more books define this space as the indoor hangout for folks of all ages. The coffee bar charges for cappuccinos and lattes, but the reasonable price is worth it (about $2.50 for a specialty coffee) and the pastries are thrown in for free.
Another space in which from and function meet is The Queen's Lounge and Culinary Arts Center. The room takes the place of what used to be the Wajang Theatre, and while free hot popcorn is still served during the movies that play here, it's what's different that makes the place special. The entire front end has been designed as though it's a set from the Food Network, with cameras angled down onto a workspace with stovetop and television-type lighting. On each side of the stage is a giant LCD monitor, so no matter where you are sitting, you can see the action. Holland America has teamed up with Food and Wine Magazine, and will be hosting 60 "celebrity chefs" per year on all of their ships.
Noordam is filled with millions of dollars worth of original artwork, not all of it behind glass. There seems to be a large percentage of Asian art and sculptures, but other forms and cultures are represented as well. During my cruise, a photographer was documenting each piece; the photos and commentary will be put into iPods which can be borrowed for a self-guided tour of the art on the ship. What a fabulous idea!
The shops are all located forward of the Explorations Cafe, and in order to get from the back of the ship to the front on this level, you have to go through them. Here again, the corridors seem narrow and awkward, and until you realize that you are, indeed, on the main path, you get the sense that you've lost your way somehow, and ended up shopping by mistake. Despite this confusing design -- and once you figure out how to get into and around them -- the shops are great with plenty of logo stuff, jewelry and duty-free. The "Dam Ship" shirts sold out on the first day before I had a chance to get one, and there were wonderful 75 percent off sales that kept people coming back.
The meeting rooms across from the Explorations Cafe were well-used during my trip; for Friday night Jewish Sabbath services; Muslim services; non-denominational services; and Catholic mass on both Sunday and Good Friday. There were several private group meetings too.
A Passover Seder was held in the Lido Cafe. They closed off part of the room so non-guests couldn't see in, but the entrance was flanked with flowers, and the service was broadcast throughout the Lido area. The service was performed by a woman and it was an extraordinary experience to be able to hear it.
Most of the bars and lounges are located on the Promenade Decks that have public spaces. On the Lower Promenade, there's Northern Nights Nightclub, funky, but way too small for the crowd it occasionally attracts, the Sports Bar, the fab and well-attended Piano Bar, the Pinnacle Bar near the atrium, and of course the after-dinner favorite, the Explorer's Lounge with its classical trio or quartet playing nightly, and the complimentary chocolates served to anyone hanging around. The only smoking allowed on this deck is in the casino and in the Sports Bar which adjoins it.
The Ocean Bar is located on the Promenade Deck, and spans the area surrounding the atrium. This is a great mid-ship stop before or after supper, with a jazz quartet and small dance floor.
Both daytime (for the views) and nighttime (for the dancing) make the Crow's Nest -- situated forward and atop the ship -- a favorite for folks of all ages. Surrounded with floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a perfect place to see where you're heading, especially just before arriving in port.
The huge gyroscope that hangs over the atrium and the deco-style ceiling that surrounds it are both stunning, fitting for a ship of this caliber. The muted, earthy tones on the main public decks work well together, although at first I thought they gave a fairly gloomy impression. Too bad they don't follow on into the stateroom corridors, which are carpeted in a bright multi-tonal blue psychedelic nightmare, paired with faux burled-wood cabin doors, and suffused with awful fluorescent lighting. It's positively headache-inducing to walk to your cabin.
When the Vista-class ships were first conceptualized, passengers were clamoring for balconies. On Holland America's Statendam-class and Rotterdam-class ships, the only verandahs available are in what the line calls "verandah suites," but those accommodations (with the exception of the small whirlpool tub they each have) are now closer to most modern cruise ship standard balcony cabins, and they are the first to sell out on any given itinerary.
Noordam (as in all of the Vista-class ships) has plenty of balconied cabins in many configurations, ranging from the Deluxe Verandah Outside (200 square ft. with 54-square-ft. balcony) to uber-elegant Penthouse Verandah Suites (1,000 square ft. with 318-square-ft. balcony). In between, there are Superior Verandah Suites, which measure 298 square ft. (100-square-ft. balcony) and feature dressing rooms, sofa beds, full-size whirlpool baths with additional shower stalls and dual-sink vanities, and Deluxe Verandah Suites, which increase to 380 square ft. (130-square-ft. balcony) and add king beds (rather than queens) to the mix.
In fact, of the six passenger cabin decks, only one, Main Deck, has no balconies at all, and there are some staterooms obstructed by the lifeboats on Upper Promenade that are balcony-free as well.
Holland America used to boast the largest standard staterooms at sea. Alas, that boast has gone the way of the free cappuccinos previously offered ... in other words, the rooms are not as spacious on the Vistas as they are on the other classes. Judi and I were in a Deluxe Verandah Outside and found the size adequate if not exactly roomy, but the layout and configuration was awkward and uncomfortable. Although there is plenty of hanging space and shelving in the closet, the only drawers in the cabins are in the low nightstands and an oddly placed drawer under the foot of the bed. I'm too old and arthritic to use that large drawer comfortably, but Judi, younger, slim and fit, found it equally awkward. The best we could do was use it as laundry receptacle during the course of the cruise.
The desk/vanity area was the most surprising to me. Holland America was a virtual pioneer in the "connectivity at sea" arena, so the line is fully aware that people travel with all manner of electronic "stuff." Kids will bring their iPods and docks, parents bring their video recorders, all ages are likely to have a PDA or laptop, digital camera, cell phone charger and so on. The desk, though, is an afterthought of a slab, perched at one end over the mini-bar and a teeny cupboard at the other. It's meant to be used as a grooming station since the hair dryer is housed in the little cupboard, but there's pathetically little space for anything on the desk at all. Judi and I were constantly jockeying for laptop space. On Noordam, the LCD televisions have been hung in the corner above the desk, freeing up some of the space that's used on other ships which still have CRT televisions.
The Eurotop beds are fabulously comfortable. The ribbon-cut cotton sheets are pretty and elegant. Suite guests get duvets; standard-room guests get a double-sheeted blanket. All guests get the use of the cotton waffle-weave robe with terry-cloth inside, and many were seen walking around with them on the Lido Deck because they are so comfy.
Hint: If you're zaftig, like me, ask your steward to bring you a larger robe. They have them, and it was wonderful for me to be able to wear a robe that actually closed without that embarrassing gap ... even if the sleeves nearly touched the ground.
Even in the Deluxe Verandah Outside cabins, the balconies are huge, much bigger than on other ships. They are furnished with faux-rattan chairs, an ottoman, and a small teak table for drinks.
It saddened me to see the pre-molded bathrooms in the standard cabins; I missed the coral-pink tile of the line's older ships. The future is now, though, so I just have to adapt. Standard cabins still have Holland America's signature bathtub/shower combo, which many people said were easier to get into than the older ones. The bathroom size is adequate, with a small sink/vanity area. Lighting is murky.
Suite passengers get more perks not afforded to those in regular cabins; those in Deluxe Verandah Suites and above get a butler and use of the Neptune Lounge, a private concierge club with all-day munchies and complimentary cappuccinos and lattes. Suite passengers can also take their breakfast in the Pinnacle Grill if they desire, although we saw few in there in the mornings.
The two Penthouse Verandah Suites, 1,000 square ft. (318-square-ft. balcony) each, have gorgeous teak-lined balconies and private hot tubs.
DVD rentals are available for $3, with a fairly large library of offerings.
By far the best offerings on Noordam are the cooking demonstrations in the new Culinary Arts Center. Several times per week there is a session highlighting the preparation of some delectable treat or another, whether it's a main course, appetizer or dessert, presided over by a senior member of the kitchen staff. On those voyages where a guest chef is onboard, there are more demonstrations, using that chef's specialties as the featured recipes.
New to Noordam in 2008 is the Microsoft Digital Workshops program, comprised of complimentary classes led by Microsoft-trained "techsperts." Passengers can learn to use computers to enhance photos (Windows Live Photo Gallery), produce and publish videos onto a DVD (Windows Movie Maker) and create personal webpages or blogs (Windows Live Services and Windows Live Writer). In addition, one-on-one coaching, called "Techspert Time," is available for more than 20 hours each week.
The Vista Lounge (the ship's main theatre, located forward and comprising three decks), is a modern marvel. The only ship theatres with more high-tech goodies are those on Disney ships. This one boasts a one piece, $80,000 LCD backdrop. Although the shows are fairly average shipboard fare, the sophisticated design allows for more pizzazz, some pyrotechnics, some animation, and things like balloons and confetti falling from above. Sight lines are excellent except for certain spots in the back corners, where large pillars can be obstructive.
Holland America is well known for its low-key and fabulous lounge performers and bands. Noordam carries the tradition with flying colors. You can just about choose whatever it is you want, from the peaceful strains of the classical quartet in the Explorer's Lounge to the light jazz in the Ocean Bar or the torch songs in the Piano Bar. Northern Nights Nightclub gets the younger blood flowing with disco, karaoke, and other theme-type parties, and you can dance under the (visible) moonlight in the Crow's Nest.
The casino isn't very big, but it's lively, with several blackjack and poker tables, a full-sized craps table, a roulette wheel and banks of slots. Oddly, the nickel and penny video slots were getting the most play, and paying off the highest, too.
During the day, the cruise staff has devised some boisterous participation activities, and while they aren't quite as outrageous as those on some other ships we've visited, they are a departure from Holland America's usual low-key offerings. Hairy legs contests are now part of Noordam's schedule.
One of our favorite Holland America activities is the ship-building contest, in which entrants scrounge around for materials to build a ship over the course of the sailing. Items might include styrofoam cups, cardboard boxes, and any number of other materials -- we saw a ship made with orange peels! Near the end of the cruise, the vessels are put into one of the pools, judged, and the builders awarded prizes.
There is an art auction every day, and on occasion, the artwork is stuffed into and around the Ocean Bar, a frustrating and appallingly ugly public space. And, of course, there's daily bingo, too.
On the Observation Deck is a smallish video arcade. Teens who aren't using the Loft can usually be found here.
Holland America Line automatically adds $11.50 per person, per day, to onboard accounts; this is then shared among waiters, stewards and other service personnel. That amount can be adjusted in either direction by visiting the front desk. A 15 percent gratuity is tacked on to bar bills. Note that gratuities are not automatically included on bills for spa treatments.
Holland America is aiming to attract families, and Noordam appears to be up to the task. Its teen club and children's club are active and busy, and there seems to be plenty to occupy the youngsters. Watching kids play cards with their grandparents or do puzzles in the Explorer's Cafe was heartwarming. When the weather isn't terrific, there are always those DVD rentals.
The Loft, with its Jetson's-like appearance, silvery walls and posts and '60s-style bucket chairs, provides teens with a perfect parent-free zone. Kids between the ages of 13 and 17 are welcome; over and under those ages are not.
Club Hal is primary-color bright, and is permanently staffed by childcare professionals. Potty-trained children between the ages of 3 and 12 are nicely accommodated with age-appropriate activities.
Even on the Vista-class ships, designed for multi-generational family groups, the bulk of the guests tend to be loyal HAL Mariners and those over 60 years old. It was Spring Break during my Noordam cruise, and while there were 200 children onboard, there would have been more had the cruise been seven rather than 10 days.
Most of Noordam's guests are HAL repeaters; sophisticated, well-educated, well-heeled and traditional. They look for the little hallmarks that make them know, for certain, that they are on one of Holland America's "dam" ships, and despite its size, they find those hallmarks on Noordam.
During the day, casual attire rules. In the evenings, resort casual is acceptable throughout the ship. There are two formal nights on a seven-day cruise and three on a 10- to 14-day cruise. People love to dress up on these traditional ships, so formal night sees lots of tuxes and beaded gowns.
Shorts, tank tops and swimsuits are not allowed in the Vista Dining Room at any time; jeans are not allowed at dinner time.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The forward-facing fitness room, with its new high-tech treadmill, stair-step and weight machines, is attractive and rarely crowded.
The Greenhouse Spa, which fronts the fitness area, is large and well-equipped with treatment rooms, a thermal suite, beauty salon and thelassotherapy pool. The spa, however, is awkwardly situated at the forward end of the Lido Deck. You have to transverse the spa reception to get to the forward elevators. The thelassotherapy pool is walled off and enclosed by glass, with posters covering the windows. It looks quite bizarre, almost as though it's an unfinished component of the ship. Peering through the edges of the posters, we rarely saw anyone using it; this might be because the cost to use both the pool and the "thermal suite," with steam showers, heated tile chaises and a sauna, topped $350 per cruise. The thermal pool alone was $180, fairly steep considering that the non-enclosed hot tubs just outside the enclosure were free to use.
Yoga and pilates classes are available for a fee. Steiner Leisure, which runs the spa, offers a full range of treatments, with discounts offered on shore days. The new hot promotion is teeth whitening.
The central pool in the Lido area is gorgeous, anchored on one end by a dancing dolphin sculpture and surrounded by three generous-sized hot tubs. It's under the sliding magradome so can be used in all weather conditions. Plenty of comfy chaises surround the pool; tables and chairs surround the outer edges. This central pool is open to families and often gets quite active if there are a lot of children onboard.
The aft pool is fabulous in good weather, partly because on this ship, 27 ft. of aft decking has been added and large canvas shade areas have been incorporated into the design on each side. Much quieter and adult-only, camping by the aft pool in the sunshine is like taking a separate vacation.
We love the fact that the promenade deck makes a full circuit of the ship. Holland America's signature teak loungers are available here too, and since it's usually quiet, this is a great place to take a book and just relax.
There's a volleyball court and basketball court on the Sports Deck.
|Expert reviews are provided by CruiseCritic.com, an award-winning cruise community. This objective information can help you choose just the right ship for your next cruise vacation.|