This was our ten-night cruise on board Holland America's Noordam from Rome to Istanbul. My last few cruises have been on HAL, on the Rotterdam, Veendam and Statendam. In addition, we have sailed on Home Lines, Windstar, Princess, Carnival, Regency and Royal Caribbean. We are very well seasoned cruisers!
We arrived in Rome the evening before the cruise in order to get over the jet lag from the west coast [of the U.S.] and to make sure we gave ourselves some room in case of a flight cancellation (United is never on time out of SFO!). We stayed at the Sheraton Rome, where I had stayed before; it's a nice convention hotel on the outskirts of town between Rome and the airport. We had arranged for a car from the concierge and it was about $20 more for two, in comparison to the HAL transfers, so it was well worth it.
We arrived at the ship in the port city of Civitavecchia around 1:00PM. The gangway was out, so we boarded the ship and were directed to the card room for check in. No one was on the pier to take pictures and there was no fanfare for boarding. We were given our papers and directed (not escorted) to our cabin on Sun Deck.
We had cabin 006 on Sun Deck. The cabin was in great shape, with new carpets and a fresh bathroom with a full-size tub. The cabin was about 20% larger than the standard outside cabin on the Statendam-class ships. We were just next door to the Crows Nest, so it was convenient for that room. Our cabin steward was good, but I only met him once. The only drawback was that there is a bare metal sundeck above these cabins and you hear every deck chair being moved and stacked all day long.
Note: We peeked in to the Mini-Suites and they had been totally gutted and redone in wonderful shades of gray and mint green. They are stunning and unlike any HAL cabin I've seen.
The Noordam, like her sister the Nieuw Amsterdam, are the oldest ships in the HAL fleet and are either sold or up for sale. The Noordam just emerged from a freshening before the European season with new carpets and upholstery. The ship looked very clean and fresh. The carpets are similar to those on the newer ships.
Most of the public rooms are on two decks, with a large lounge amidships and the Lido in the aft leading to one of the two pools. Our cruise was full and it showed in the larger public spaces. The Lido was re-configured so it's better than it was, but the aft pool is crowded, as are many other parts of the ship. The Noordam has a lower passenger allocation for food and flowers (per one of our officers) than the newer ships (hence the $999 rates) and it shows: very limited on the flowers throughout the ship.
The main show lounge is lovely as a lounge, but horrible for shows. All but a handfull of seats have good sight lines and most passengers had to stand. The casino is nice but a bit crowded on full sailings. The Horn Pipe Club (the disco) was very dark and we were told they did not do too many renovations to this area, so they just keep lowering the lights.
Now for the vibration: you can feel it wherever you are. When the ship is under way be sure to visit the liquor store; all the bottles rattle together so much that its funny. While lounging by the pool, body parts vibrate, including those on many of the sleeping passengers. It's like being on a vibrating bed in a cheap motel! The ship is like a big pager set on "vibrate"!
Also, I found it quite tacky to have "bug zappers" outside the Lido by the pool. Who wants to hear bugs frying over hot lights while they are getting their food at the outdoor grill or lying by the pool?
We had some of the worst food we have ever had on a Holland America ship. Apparently they now get their desserts flown in from Cheesecake Factory and some nights they hit our table still frozen in the middle. I asked our Head waiter and he confirmed that they now make very little of their desserts on board. What a shame. I have a big sweet tooth and passed up dessert many times.
Entrées were unmemorable, and the soups and salads were just OK. I had asked our head waiter for plain iceberg lettuce with some oil and vinegar and was told they could not accommodate such a request. Is iceberg lettuce so exotic? In addition, many nights our food arrived lukewarm to room temperature, but never hot.
The dining room did do a nice transformation for the second formal night. It was a black and white theme, with white slipcovers on the chairs and black and white table linens. Nice touch.
Our dining room waiter was great, as usual, with the seasoned HAL crew.
This is a subject that I never think about, not being a heavy drinker or ever thinking about the quality of a drink, but this is another example of the cheapness of this ship. Each night our group would meet in one of the various bars (usually the Crows Nest) for a cocktail before dinner. I am a Manhattan drinker and as anyone knows, you put a cherry in the glass. Unfortunately, there were none on the ship and with a port a day you would think they would go out and get some, knowing they had passengers requesting them, but no. Finally in Athens I had to go to the local market and buy a jar and give it to the bar tender just to have a complete drink. Needless to say, they couldn't find the cherries the next night.
Two hundred crewmen came aboard the Noordam for the European cruises, and you could tell. Many of the Indonesians and Filipinos could not speak English. In addition, they were going through training on board, so their last focus was on the passengers. There were some shining stars in the Crows Nest Lounge, though, and as I mentioned, we had a wonderful waiter at dinner.
I would love to know if the Front Desk staff of this ship went through classes on being surly. One front desk supervisor (Tracy Fox) was the most confrontational and rude front desk person ever at sea. Example: a woman was getting out of the Navigation Deck pool and the wooden step of the ladder broke, sending her back into the pool. She yells for help and the bartender and those helpful Steiner girls just walked on by. A passenger got her out of the pool while another called the Front Desk to get the nurse. The woman was bleeding. Ms. Fox told the passenger to have the woman go down to the infirmary, because they were busy. The passenger on the telephone finally got her and the nurse up on deck while the woman was being taken care of by passengers -- she proceeded to tell some others by the pool that if the woman had not been so overweight she would not have broken the step. The woman was not overweight and on hearing this I was thinking of trying another cruise line.
Throughout the cruise we were told "No" so many times it became a joke. "Could I have an iced tea?" "No." "Will there be photos taken as we get off the ship in Greece?" "No."
In the Greek ports, the photographers could not take any photos off the ship. They said it was from the local government, so we had none of those port pictures that we love so much. Princess Cruises's Royal Princess, that we shared some ports with, had its photographers pierside, though . . . .
Rome: We took the train from the port city (Civitavecchia) into the main terminal of Rome. It was easy and only $12 for the Eurostar train. We wandered around Rome and had lunch. Since we had been to Rome before it was nice to just hang out in the city and not be too concerned about all the sights. We had lunch at a great cafe.
Naples: We took a cab to Pompeii. It was a must see! The town is so interesting to walk through. Make sure to visit the Brothel, a must on any tour! We spent the afternoon in Naples enjoying the city and having lunch (are you noticing we ate as many meals as we could off the ship!)
Crete: We toured Knosos which was interesting. That's about it for Crete. The main city of Heraklion was nothing great.
Santorini: A magical island. We took the donkeys up the hill, a bit smelly but so worth it for the view and experience. The city is perched on top of sheer cliffs, absolutely wonderful. Shopping is also great with lots of jewelry shops and great prices.
Athens: Go see the Acropolis then get back on the ship and lay by the pool.
Mykonos: Another magical island and another great seaside lunch in the little Venice area. Don't forget to see those famous windmills.
Kusadasi: Ephesus is a must. It's like beings transported back in time. Get on stage in the amphitheater, it's a kick!
Istanbul: East meets west in this great ancient city. It was worth the trip for the sail into the Istanbul harbor. It was just wonderful. Seeing all those mosques as we sailed in sure set the stage for the three days post cruise we spent in this city. We also had some of the best food of the trip here.
In ConclusionWe have always enjoyed HAL. This was number 13 for me and I celebrated 40,000 miles on the Statendam last year. I have to say this cruise was not up to the standards of the newer ships (we had such a wonderful cruise last year on the Statendam to/from Hawaii). The ambiance of this ship suffers from a surly front desk, a training ground for new crew and that darned vibration. I know there are people out there that will say "it's a classic ship" so you have to put up with a bit more than you would in a newer ship. My response is that my vacation is too important to me and I want perfection (or close to) in things that do not have to solely do with the physical ship like food and service. Also HAL needs consistency in their product, even on their older ships. The Noordam fell short. Not that we did not have a memorable cruise; we did, due to the ports and the group we traveled with.
Will I sail on HAL again? Sure, we are off on the Ryndam (only the newer HAL ships from now on!) in October but our next long cruise we booked on Princess to Asia because we feel its time to look at some of the competition. After Princess in March maybe we will try Celebrity. Listen Up HAL it only takes one bad cruise to sour a passenger on your line. With all the competition out there keep your product consistent!
James Tagliani is a dedicated SeaLetter reader and may be reached for question or comment at: AVALON1025@aol.com.
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