My wife and I recently (12/16-12/27) sailed on the Noordam to the Southern Caribbean. This was our third cruise with HAL, so we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. This was, I believe, our best cruise experience to date. We'll always have a soft spot for the Zaandam since it was our first, but our Noordam experience will be tough to top.
Our embarkation in New York went smoothly other than a little sense of unease when we could not immediately locate the Holland America representative at the Newark airport. They eventually showed up and we were put in a car for the ride to the port. The ship is beautifully appointed without being gaudy. We've sailed on the Oosterdam before and the Noordam is similar enough that we felt at home right away. We had originally booked a VF class stateroom and were pleasantly surprised to have been up-graded to a VB. I think they're essentially the same room, but the VB is a couple decks higher on the ship. The room was very nice, and had plenty of storage for empty luggage, etc. The closets were spacious and had more hangers than we knew what to do with. We travel rather light and don't pack along formal ware for every day, but there would have been room and hangers enough if we did. The balcony, er, excuse me, verandah came equipped with two chairs and a little table, perfect for a morning cup of coffee or just taking in the scenery.
Our room steward, Nugie, was attentive, yet practically invisible. I don't know how the stewards know when the room is vacant and ready for servicing, but they do. It's uncanny. Our ice bucket was always full, the room clean, and the bed turned down nightly complete with towel origami critters no matter what our schedule. We didn't partake in many organized ship-board activities, but the ones we observed (poolside games, etc.) seemed to be well attended.
We were able to go ashore from the pier in every port we called on. This was much more convenient than tendering in. The food on board was excellent and practically non-stop. We did most of our dining in the Lido dining room, and were never disappointed. Not that we have anything against the Vista dining room, but as I hinted at earlier, we don't cruise to dress up and do enjoy the casual atmosphere and portion control that the Lido affords. We did, however, take the plunge into the Pinnacle experience for the fist time on this cruise. What a feed! It's worth every cent of the $30 service charge. I don't know anywhere ashore where such a dining experience can be had for that money. The filet is not to be missed. Cut with a fork tender and cooked to perfection. Don't miss it.
The bars on the ship are plentiful and different enough that each offers a different relaxing experience. We particularly enjoyed the Ocean Bar, both because of the many interesting and pleasant people we met there and because of the top notch bar tenders Joseph and Cesar. We also enjoyed the Sport Bar. It has the lovely quality of being the closest smoking area to the casino (which is non-smoking), has a nice casual ambiance and Edwin, the bar tender is excellent.
The casino is small, but nice. The dealers are mostly eastern Europeans and are understandably not as chatty as your typical Vegas dealer. As long as you're not looking for conversation they're fine by me. As I mentioned above, it is non-smoking, but even for a militant smoker like me that's O.K. I go to the casino to game and make a little in the process. If I want to smoke and drink I go to a smoking bar.
Our ports of call were Tortola, St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, St. Maarten and San Juan. Tortola is quaint but other than tour bus sight seeing tours not really much to do there. On a previous sailing I did go on a dive excursion here (the Rhone) that was pretty good, but not breath taking.
St. Thomas has great shopping with pretty decent prices. They've built a new shopping area adjacent to the cruise ship port. My advice is to high tail it out of there as quickly as possible and go to Charlotte Amalie proper.
Dominica is beautiful and not quite as "urban" as St. Thomas. I booked a dive there via the internet prior to sailing with ALDive. I could not have had a better experience. I was picked up pier-side and driven to the shop. After meeting the owner and staff, the dive master, a boat handler, and I hopped in a boat and headed for the dive site. It was a nice change from the often over crowded shore excursion variety. So the two of us dove a relatively recently scuttled wreck and "Champagne Reef". A very interesting dive location with never ending streams of volcanic gas bubbles seeping from the solid rock bottom. The bottom was actually so hot in places of high bubble activity that I couldn't keep my hand on the bottom. Rather like testing a hot skillet with the backs of one's fingers. Very cool.
We found Barbados to be a rather money hungry place. A lot of in-your-face taxi drivers and vendors. A taxi ride to a fairly close by beach=$20 to $25 each way! If you want a chair once you get there, cha-ching-another $5, please. Do the duty free shops at the pier and then run, don't walk, back to the ship.
St. Maarten (Phillipsburg) was by far our favorite port. The Dutch really do have this running an island thing down. Very clean with manicured landscaping. Not a pushy sales person or cab driver to be seen. Good deals in the shops. I picked up a designer white and yellow gold unique link bracelet there for I believe, half of what I would have paid for same in even St. Thomas. Now I know.
Old San Juan is nice, but we were there on a Sunday, and Christmas Eve to boot so it was pretty quiet. We had a short time ashore as we had to get headed back to New York.
I have only one gripe. As you may have gathered, I'm a pretty laid back guy. I'm not a kid-I'm 41. I've had a few years to become somewhat set in my ways, but I do play by the rules. I'm a smoker and as such I've been witness to the shrinking realm of smoker friendly places. I can respect that. I can respect that because there are still a few places in the public domain, some bars for example, where I can still enjoy a smoke. I'm not from NYC nor is the ship in NYC. With this in mind, imagine please, my annoyance when the Noordam "art" staff set up their "art" auction in the Ocean Bar, of all places. A bar with no less than seven conspicuous signs announcing to all that it is a designated smoking area. No sooner had the throng gathered for the bidding festivities when the first comments came about the smoke. I'm not alone at the bar, mind you. A pretty even mix of smoking and non-smoking patrons was miraculously coexisting before the auction. The comments from the gallery eventually incited the bar tender and several non-smoking bar patrons to remind the patrons d'art that they were in a designated smoking area. I eventually fled the scene, went to the front desk and filled out a "feedback" form explaining that with all the non-smoking areas of the ship, it might be wiser hold the auction in one of those. I have yet to hear a response. That's my only gripe, and things were back to normal as soon as the auction was over.
I'd do it all again. My wife and I both had a wonderful time. I hope this review has been helpful. If I can answer anyone's specific questions please let me know.Dvrdude A.K.A Jim