INTRODUCTION Itinerary: NY -- Sea -- Sea -- Grand Turk -- Tortola -- St. Maarteen -- St. Thomas -- San Juan -- Sea -- Sea -- NY
We are in our 50's, definite cruiseaholics having sailed over 50 cruises since 1984. We sail most of the cruiselines but this was our first Holland America cruise.
The Noordam was on Code Red status, indicating a norovirus outbreak on previous cruise. This entails various procedures during sailing such as no self service at buffets. A minor annoyance for passengers but a lot of additional work time for staff.
We had learned that our embarkation would be delayed until 4 p.m. as the vessel would undergo a total scrub down after previous disembarkation. Again a minor annoyance for passengers, major work load for staff.
Being armed with disembark delay information we decided to arrive at what would be our normal time, 12:30 pm and take our chances. We were driving to pier and using Pier long term parking which we have done in years past. Cost for parking was $180, reservations cannot be made but that has never been a problem.
Upon entering we were given a color coded number tag to be called to proceed through metal detectors into check in area. We had #21 Green or some such but were called almost immediately to join security line. Once passed through security we entered check in. Those that have already completed the online check in (I highly recommend it) were passed into a separate line and we were in front of a desk almost immediately. Check in was completed in about a minute, so much for good news. We then proceeded to take a seat in one of the several hundred chairs set up in the boarding area. It was about 1:15 or so and boarding was indeed scheduled to commence at 4 pm we were told. Boarding would be done again using those color coded numbers to maintain an organized system. Having brought books to read and a laptop computer we were happy to settle in considering the circumstances. HAL was offering free shuttles to Times Square area and back for those that choose to go see some of the city while waiting. I do not believe there was any provision to check hand luggage in for those taking the ride but I could be wrong. We were all advised that we would receive an onboard credit of $15 per person in lieu of missing afternoon buffet. There was a pier snack bar at entrance of pier but that would necessitate re-doing security lines so we stayed put.
Boarding commenced early a little after 3 pm and was orderly. We were onboard before 4 pm. Although cabins were not yet ready we were allowed to proceed to ours and deposited our carry on bags. We then headed up to the FOOD! Although a busy area and slow since we were all being served, it wasn't too much of a problem. There is plenty of seating normally but with everyone arriving at the same time it took some hunting to find a place to park. The Noordam has lots of table seating in pool areas as well and being that the main pool has a retractable roof which was closed, it was also comfortable and available, making that much more room to be found.
All of this was followed later by mandatory muster station drill (they take attendance) which was indeed held outside in the NY cold. Not enjoyable but went fairly quickly considering, and then off we sailed a couple hours late. We were advised that the late sailing time would not interfere with our itinerary stops. (They have the strangest life jackets I have ever seen with some sort or wrap around belt system which takes some head scratching to figure out. Eventually managed to get it on correctly but it would pay to watch the in room channel on how to put it on if you have time. If not instructions were given once up at the muster station, of course we all had them on whatever way by then.) Off to the Crows Nest lounge forward and some cocktails to watch us sail off.
CABIN We booked Suite 6102 SY category. This proved to be perfect for us both in accommodation and location. Located on deck 6 mid-ship towards aft it was a good location for heading either up or down, up for buffets and pools deck 9, or down for dining, shops, casino, lounges or lobby areas, decks 2 and 3.
Suite had a good sized bathroom with Jacuzzi bathtub and shower in addition to a separate 2nd shower stall. Double sinks and cabinets with various Elemis shampoo, body soaps and such provided in nice small containers in a rack between sinks. Plenty of drawer space, two closets with hangars and small safe. Safe is electronic, punch in 4 numbers you select and hit lock. Punch in your four numbers and unlocks. Balcony was very generous space with two cushioned chairs and hassocks, two more chairs and table. Balcony can easily accommodate 4 people comfortably. Solid dividers between balconies and overhead roof make for a fairly private balcony area. There is also a dvd player and nice lcd Tv on a good sized table area. A couch, two chairs, and a table and also a mirror make up table type area. All still allowing adequate room to move about. The bed was a good sized Queen with six pillows of varying degrees hardness and a very comfortable mattress. We were very happy with the suite. The SY suite is one of the three category suites before upgrading to AB's or deluxe suites. We peeked into one of those and it appeared to be somewhat larger but not dramatically so and also had maybe a King bed. The main difference to our thinking was slightly better mid ship location and also access to a private key carded Neptune lounge for cocktails and snacks before meals. Although we have had access to similar lounges and love them, it was not worth the added cost to us since SY afforded great cabin space and decent location anyway.
FOOD and DINING We had decided to book the Noordam after being docked beside her during our October cruise onboard Crown Princess. Because we booked late we were assigned anytime dining, the newest fad at sea and one we do not prefer. The advantage is heading out to dine whenever you want instead of having a fixed seating. The disadvantage to us is not having same staff and dinner mates each evening. We definitely prefer traditional dining. Anytime dining is new on HAL but it was fairly well organized and for most part you were seated near arrival at door. There were two evenings, however, when we found a 30 minute wait and given a beeper to be called for seating. I hate getting Outback type beeper on a claimed luxury cruise but again my opinion. The two gentlemen that handle seating were, I must say, gracious, courteous, and very good at getting people seated. Like all the staff we met on HAL they were exceptional. At times, however, you could tell that dining staff are stressed beyond normal capacity trying to keep up. They too tried very hard to accommodate though so no complaints from us.
Food is another matter. I will try not to over comment since food assortment and quality is very specific to individual tastes. I must say that I was not impressed with the Chefs' skills or the menu items and neither was my wife. We found food to be over cooked and dried out. Soups and many items very over salted. Desserts to be tasteless and merely resemble similar items served us on other ships. There are several items that can be ordered any night such as a steak, that is always a nice feature in case nothing on the menu strikes your fancy. One evening I ordered chicken cordon bleu, for example, and found it to be a very dry, baked and breaded, piece of chicken with a dime sized dab of cheese and ham in the very middle. The filet mignon and lobster tail, well okay having both surf and turf as one item an applauded plus. But actually the filet mignon was but a tiny squared slice of thin meat. Again not impressed! Ordered bananas foster and received some bananas totally surrounded by some type of pureed thick goop that remotely reminded one of the taste this should have.
One evening we decided to dine at the added cost premium restaurant which I admittedly am not too fond of the concept on ships. To my way of thinking the regular included dining should be able to be surpassed without having to pay additional. However we were afforded a $15 per person coupon for lunch by out travel agent which we decided to apply towards the $30 per person fee for dinner. My wife ordered fish and King crab legs served on a plank. This was the first time I ever saw my wife not eat the dinner. The fish looked like it had been boiled and she was not happy. On the plus side her side of asparagus was the best she had ever tasted. I had the rib eye steak which was excellent. The two sides I ordered, creamed spinach and scalloped potatoes were however uneatable. Looked like they took a large spoon of scalloped potatoes, fashioned it into a cylinder shape then baked it into cardboard. The spinach, well I have no idea what they added to that, but it tasted like creamed spinach with cinnamon or something.
Again on the plus side after the entrée we were presented with petit fours which were fantastic. The crème broulet dessert was also exceptional. Service was good, ambiance nice enough but another party did come in their best jeans to impress. Acceptable I guess in specialty high end dining if you are paying. For us definitely not worth even the discounted added fee.
Lest you think all was lost for us. We found the afternoon buffet to be very good. Maybe they want everyone to eat there in future? Pizza and pasta station, Asian station with daily sushi, sandwich station that has already made and made to order options. Nice salad bar, daily carving items and such -- all were very good. Hamburger and hotdog station near door to pool area, hamburgers a bit thin but acceptable. Make your own taco and nacho station poolside was great as well. Still this goes down as the first cruise ever that I returned a pound lighter than when I sailed off. Enough said!
LOUNGES -- ENTERTAINMENT -- CASINO We found the entertainment somewhat subdued but satisfactory. There are many small intimate lounges onboard which most provided some type of musical entertainment. There is a Sports bar off the casino which is small but enjoyable if you are a smoker anyway, which I am. It is one of the three designated smoking areas I found. The others being the cigar room off the Crows Nest lounge and the pool bar and starboard side table at the aft pool area. Most other areas are non-smoking which is fine as long as smokers like myself have someplace to duck into for a fix.
The casino is smoking but few do as it is small and having the Sports bar to go to nearby is enough for most. You have to pass through Sports bar area and casino to get to the main show lounge which might annoy some for a moment bothered by smoke. But should be the only place it will intrude on non-smokers for but a minute.
The main shows were again satisfactory but nothing to rave about. One comedian was exceptional. Lee Bayless is a funny and talented guy and does clean humor and some other things I won't mention as to not spoil it. Another juggler/comedian was a good half hour act stretched out far too long to an hour act. Musical productions of singers and dancers good but standard fare.
INTERNET Both wireless and internet library terminals available. Standard rate is .75 a minute but 50 and 100 minute packages are available at lower rates. I chose the 250 minutes for $100. There is also a activation fee of $3.95. I did that because this is the first ship I have sailed that I could use my wireless IN CABIN. None of the going to a lounge or library. It was a MISTAKE. Easy enough to set up, get instruction sheet from internet café, good wireless connection. Trouble is, like on many ships, the transfer rate is S L O W ! You will need all those 250 minutes to get what you would probably get at home in 50 minutes. And even at .40 a minute, just not worth it. Better to use a download mail program such as Outlook, download and upload at .75 a minute and forget the plan and surfing the net. One good note -- the NY Times apparently sponsors their internet to some degree so NY Times online time is free if you click through to Times on enter screen.
ITINERARY We go more for ships so I never cover ports to any large degree, it would be unfair since I do not take advantage of all that I am sure is available. We like sea days and sailing from NY provides several of those. In January having a covered pool area is a definite plus for Noordam allowing for poolside activity before getting to warmer climate.
Grand Turk, beach or Jimmy Buffet's, most anything else not really worth trying to get to most tell me. Good part is beach, shopping, and Jimmy's immediately adjacent to dock. We elected to go to beach area. Many chairs, no charge, you can rent a two person cover tent thingee for $20. Snorkle equipment and such also readily available but I doubt snorkeling there provided many fish. I would ask. Best price for cigarettes in shop for trip, 5 cartons for $80.
Tortola, little by the pier except straw market, which is a good place for those t-shirts. A couple of new jewelry shops, high end, and way at end the older art and spice shop is nice for spices and such. Having been there before we elected to take a tour around the island which we enjoyed instead of just hanging in shops. We found a gentleman, Ebert Hughes, with a new white air conditioned enclosed van. As we were getting sporadic showers that was the way to go instead of open air. He gave us a nice 3 hour tour and beach stop for $20 a person. Naturally had to wait to get two other couples before we moved off to tour. The way of the islands everywhere.
St. Maarteen, again elected to take a tour, this time a ship's tour of both Dutch and French sides. Enjoyed that as well. It included a small zoo which, though small, was a nice little stop. I think it was $49 a person, nice large air-conditioned bus and informative tour guide, Kathy -- a woman who, after stopping on islands, decided to move to one from Dallas, Texas with her husband after her only child grew up. Wish I had moxy to really do something like that.
St. Thomas, been there, done that. We docked at newer ship berths so cab needed if you want to go to Haversight Mall that most know or to Paradise Point tram ride. Town is $4 person, Mall and tram $5 person. They will definitely squeeze you into those vans and open sided jitneys before they are moving.
(Note:) St. Thomas is the first US port after visiting a foreign port, St Maarteen, and requires reporting to immigration. EVERYONE must PHYSICALLY report to the US officials with passport, etc. in hand at the Queens lounge. Matters not if you are planning to get off ship, you must report and here's the real rub, it starts at 7 am! It was handled very orderly but nonetheless you will get up when called and report to the nice men in uniform and show them your papers!
San Juan, we docked at old San Juan but note you are there but for a few short hours. Walking and shopping old San Juan always nice but we like to go across street to the Sheraton Hotel which also houses a nice casino. We did a quick hour and a half in there and I was lucky enough to come away with three hundred more than I went in with.
DISEMBARKATION In NY was easy and orderly enough. Immigration having been performed on your St. Thomas port call, it is not required upon return to NY.
Disembark is done by calling color coded luggage tags. Your tag color IS checked at disembark and you are turned away if wrong! For those that always feel that they must sneak out early. Not this time. A terminal improvement in NY is that they now have elevator that also goes to parking level. This means you can bring your bags up to parking level (not necessarily all the way to your car, you might have to bring the car to the bags). The elevators are huge but service large crowds and three levels so pandemonium exists. Also note that upon getting your luggage a porter can be obtained only by having someone go up front and get into the line for porters.
One very big positive concerning disembarking procedure for us: HAL allows you to remain in your cabin until called and they also have in-cabin room service in the morning so you can have your coffee and such just like any other day of the cruise.