Some travelers choose a cruise because of the ports; others base their decision on the ship. I chose the M/S Noordam's "Sunfarer" Southern Caribbean cruise because a friend of mine was working on the ship's cruise staff. After reading a cruise review in February 1999 that John Iglehart had written for The SeaLetter, we began to communicate online. During the year, we kept in touch, and when he learned that his third contract with Holland America Line would be on the Noordam (and I would have some vacation time in December), I booked the ten-day, five-port Caribbean cruise.
This cruise was a different experience for me in two ways. First, it was the first time that I had traveled alone on vacation. Second, my two previous cruising experiences had been on Royal Caribbean's newer ships, the Rhapsody of the Seas and the Splendour of the Seas.
Because I was flying from California to Fort Lauderdale, HAL flew me in the day prior to departure. When booking the cruise, I had requested an air deviation in order to avoid any northern cities that might be snowed under in December. When the plane arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, I was met at the gate by Lemmikki, HAL's friendly representative. She escorted me to the baggage claim area and got me on the bus to the Clarion Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. Fifty-five minutes after landing in Ft. Lauderdale, I was checked into the hotel.
The Clarion Hotel is located across the street from the beach. All rooms appeared to have balconies and were of ample size. One cruise passenger I spoke with said that she had found a cockroach in the bathroom. While HAL did have representatives at the hotel the night prior to and the morning of the cruise, there was no pre-boarding check-in.
At 1:30pm on cruise day, about twenty passengers staying at the Clarion were transferred by bus from the hotel to the pier, a trip lasting 25 minutes. The check-in process went quickly. However, because HAL boards the ship according to group numbers (assigned upon arrival at the pier), I didn't actually board the Noordam until just before 3:00pm. I was happy to see my friend John on gangway duty as I arrived in the boarding area; after finishing his shift, he came to welcome me to the "beautiful and elegant Noordam."
I boarded the Noordam on Main Deck (5) and was escorted to my stateroom (412) on A Deck (4) on the forward port side. The outside cabin was furnished with two stationary twin beds arranged perpendicularly to each other. A built-in chest of drawers and "L" shaped desk (with chair) and drawer combination completed the furnishings. The remote TV was placed high over the head of one of the beds. The size of the bathroom was adequate with one sink and shower.
I was pleasantly surprised to find my suitcase already in my cabin upon arrival. Also waiting in my stateroom were balloons and a "Welcome Aboard" note from John. Shortly thereafter, John came by my room to give me a tour of the Noordam.
I must say at the outset that, despite the fact that I did not expect the modern design features of RCI's Vision-class ships, I was still disappointed in the Noordam, which was built in 1984. I agree with those who say that from a distance, the Noordam has the classic lines of the ships of old. However, the layout of the public rooms is quite unsatisfactory by today's standards. This problem is epitomized by the Admiral's Lounge, amidship on Promenade Deck (6). This lounge -- which serves as the show theatre, bingo venue, and port lecture hall -- cannot accommodate even half of the passengers onboard. With the main dinner seating in the Amsterdam Dining Room filled to capacity, and other passengers opting for alternative dining in the Lido Restaurant, all available lounge seating was filled well before every first-seating show started.
If the problem of the lack of seating wasn't enough, the lounge's sight lines are horrible. Pillars and low lounge chairs make it difficult to enjoy any of the quality entertainment that appears on stage unless one is seated in the first few rows. Further complicating the sight lines, at least for the first few days of the cruise, was the two-story Christmas tree that was lit near the stage. While beautiful, it blocked the view of even more people! About five days into the cruise, this large tree was replaced with a much smaller one. Speaking of Christmas, decorations appeared gradually during our ten days on board. Unfortunately, the decorations, mostly crepe paper bells and "Seasons [sic] Greetings" signs, looked cheap and did not complement the decor in the public rooms.
The Admiral's Lounge shares another problem with the Lido Restaurant, located aft of the lounge. Both rooms span the entire beam of the ship. Anyone wanting to transit the Noordam from the card room, Explorer's Lounge, Princess (movie) Theatre or shops in the forward section of the Promenade Deck must pass through both the Admiral's Lounge and the Lido Restaurant to reach the Lido Deck and pool on Promenade Deck aft. Compounding this access problem is the fact that passage through the Admiral's Lounge is not permitted during shows or, for example, when the Captain's welcome reception and Society of Mariners parties are happening. At these times, passengers must go up one deck to the Upper Promenade Deck (7), pass through the Tasman Terrace (which overlooks the Admiral's Lounge below) and then come back down to deck 6. Not only is this a nuisance, it is difficult for passengers with mobility problems.
Another indication of the ship's age were the notices left in our cabins -- on three separate occasions -- about repairs that would be made the following day to the ship's water or air conditioning systems that required them to be out of service for several hours. Unfortunately, I didn't learn of one repair until I returned to my cabin after midnight to find the water already shut off.
As the cruise progressed, I will admit that some of the public rooms, notably the Explorer's Lounge, Piet Hein Lounge and Horn Pipe Club, did begin to grow on me. In these places it was possible to enjoy a conversation over a drink. Through an agreement with Turner Television Network, HAL provides CNN and ESPN onboard, the latter playing in the Horn Pipe Club on Upper Promenade Deck (7). Another nice feature on the Noordam is the outside deck that encompasses the ship on Upper Promenade. Here, where five laps equal one mile, passengers can either exercise or lay out on one of the numerous lounge chairs. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find individual cloth towels to dry one's hands in the public restrooms.
At double occupancy, the ship carries 1,216 passengers and a crew of 500. I believe that the ship was at or slightly over its capacity for this cruise. The average age of the passengers was certainly over 60 years. In fact, at age 35, I know I was in the youngest five percent of the passengers.
I was assigned to a table for five at the first dinner seating in the Amsterdam Dining Room located on Main Deck (6). One of the highlights of this cruise was my dinner companions: Arnold and Lillian from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Bob and Doris from Tulelake, California. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time sharing stories about our days at sea and in port. Unfortunately, Bob got sick from the flu the last few days of the cruise and was unable to join us at dinner.
Breakfast and lunch on the Noordam were open seating in the dining room. Since the Cruise Staff is not permitted to eat in the dining room, I chose to eat breakfast and lunch on most days with John in the Lido Restaurant or at the Terrace Grill. The Lido serves a buffet of salads, entrées, and desserts. Pasta, stir fry, curry, and other foods alternate at the Terrace Grill for lunch, where hot dogs and hamburgers are also available. I found the food here to be okay.
My experience of eating breakfast and lunch in the dining room was quite different. On my first foray into the dining room for breakfast, I expected to be seated at a table with other people. I was quite surprised to find myself seated at a table alone -- and no one else was placed at the table. When a head waiter tried to seat me at a table alone on a subsequent visit, I insisted that I be placed with other people. I find it strange that the assumption is made that I would want to eat alone on a cruise. Even on the last full day of the cruise, I was put at a table by myself, only this time, the table still had dirty dishes on it from the previous diners! I got up and walked out of the dining room. Later that morning, I informed the maitre d' of my disappointment (actually disbelief) in the service I had received, especially in light of the glowing reports of HAL's exemplary service that I had heard previously.
Throughout the cruise, the food in the dining room was generally good. However, here again I had been led to expect HAL's food to be better. I did find the soups and desserts to be excellent. The entrées, especially if they were beef, tended to be a bit dry. Two of my dining companions, who had sailed on the Noordam before, noted that the quality of the food had declined.
Our waiter and assistant waiter, Putu and Rizal, were not as attentive as others I have experienced on RCI. An entrée would be served to one person while salads or soups were still being enjoyed by others at the table. Attention wasn't given to keeping water glasses full. Was the service poor? No, but again it wasn't what I had expected from Holland America.
On two evenings, John and I were able to dine together in the dining room after receiving permission from the hotel manager. However, to do so, I had to dine during the second seating, as there was no room for him to join me at first seating. Both times that John and I ate in the dining room, I felt the service was less than attentive. At one point during the last formal dinner, I even commented to John that I felt like we were being rushed through each course. We speculated that service suffers when one of the staff eats in the dining room. If this is true, it does not paint HAL's dining room staff in a good light, especially since it is the passenger who suffers.
The Noordam Cast and Orchestra do an amazing job. Unfortunately, the cast is hampered by outdated sound equipment in their performances, during which handheld wireless microphones are used instead of the wireless head mics now standard in theatres on shore and at sea. The cast performed three full-length shows in addition to two bumper shows the first and last nights of the cruise. On the remaining nights, the performers included singer Christopher Dillon, violinist and comedian David Levesque (excellent!), comedian Jack Wilks, and pianist Marty Henne. Because of the seating problem in the Admiral's Lounge, I went to the second seating show on more than one occasion.
In various lounges on the Noordam, music for dancing and listening was available every night. While listening to the Champagne Strings, a piano quartet, in the Explorer's Lounge one evening, about fifteen passengers and I witnessed the Hotel Manager, Dirk Verhey van Wijk, publicly castigate the group for sitting down while playing! What many of the witnesses and I found offensive was the public and unprofessional way in which the Hotel Manager handled this matter. He was completely out of line, even trying to justify his actions to a passenger who had confronted him on his poor behavior!
Jay Bernard, the Cruise Director, and his staff of five (Steve, John, Tracy, Casey, and Mandy) filled the days and nights with a variety of activities. With four days at sea, and having a friend on the cruise staff, I found myself doing a lot more than I have on past cruises. I learned to play shuffleboard; I participated in several games of volleyball and ring toss; I played Pictionary and watched several of the usual cruise games: the Newlywed and Not-So-Newlywed game, Liars Club, Match Game, etc. I even played bridge one afternoon. The Cruise Staff's Rockin Rolldies show was entertaining, as was the one night of karaoke.
In the Princess Theatre on Deck 6, movies were shown twice daily. Complimentary popcorn was served. As each movie is shown twice (the first time at night and then the next afternoon), there was ample opportunity to see movies released in the last two years.
Religious services were held onboard the Noordam. A rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a minister all presided at services on the weekend. Mass was celebrated everyday; a Protestant devotional service was also offered at least twice during the week.
After two sunny days at sea (the second of which found the Noordam pitching and rolling in rough seas), we docked in Cartagena, Colombia. Before leaving on the cruise, I had heard numerous stories of how dangerous this city is for Americans. However, never once on the tour did I feel unsafe. In fact, the only time we saw any military force was when passing by the army base on our return to the ship. In Cartagena, I took the City Tour "B" ($39), which included stops at Fort San Felipe, the Monastery la Popa (where it poured rain), the Old City (for some shopping), St. Peter Claver Church (where he is buried), and the Pierino Gallo Shopping Center. Emeralds were the gemstone of the day, and many men made their wives very happy in Cartagena! I enjoyed the brief time we spent in Cartagena.
The next day, the Noordam dropped anchor in the San Blas Islands, which belong to Panama. The Cuna Indians inhabit these low islands. The ship was met by boatloads of men and boys begging the passengers to throw down money -- which some did, causing the men to dive in the water after it. The San Blas Islands are the only place in the world where one can find molas, a layered embroidery done by the Cuna Indians. It rained nearly the entire seven hours we were at anchor. John and I took a tender to one island that seemed to serve as their market place. Heavy thatched huts line narrow pathways. For one dollar, the Indians let visitors take their picture or tour their house. While I found this stop to be interesting, I was also saddened by the way these people are forced to live.
Puerto Limón, Costa Rica was the Noordam's next port. For the third straight day, it rained. I elected to tour Dole's Esperanza Farms banana plantation, located about an hour west of Puerto Limón near the city of Siguerre. I really enjoyed the informative tour, during which we were taken through every stage of the banana growing process. We even saw a banana plant harvested and packed for shipping. I highly recommend this tour ($49).
The next day, the Noordam entered the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal at 7:00am. Despite the steady rain, people stood at the railing to watch the locks at work. HAL is one of a few cruise lines to drop anchor in Gatun Lake and offer shore excursions in the Canal. I tendered to the Gatun Yacht Club to take the Panama City and Oceans Helicopter tour. While expensive ($299), the view from over the Canal is wonderful. I got some good pictures of the Noordam from the air as well as the Sun Princess making its way Caribbean-bound through Gaillard Cut. The fifty-minute flight took us over the two sets of Pacific locks and offered great views of the Bridge of the Americas and Panama City. We circled the Gatun Lake Dam and the Gatun Locks before landing. The pilot of our four-seat helicopter told us that this excursion is one benefit of Panama taking back the Canal, since the U.S. prohibited air tourism because the Canal was considered to be a military operation. At 5:30pm, the Noordam reentered the Gatun Locks behind the Sun Princess to exit the Canal and head for Grand Cayman.
After a day at sea (sometime during which the sea finally smoothed out), we anchored off Georgetown, Grand Cayman. In port with us were the Sundream and the Valtur Prima. In the morning, I took the Atlantis submarine excursion ($79). As I had enjoyed the Atlantis excursion in Kona, Hawaii eighteen months before, I wanted to see the wonderful underwater environment off the Cayman coast. In the afternoon, John and I did the Beginning Scuba Diving excursion ($54). Since I have always wanted to learn to scuba dive, this excursion seemed like a great way to get a taste of it. After thirty minutes of basic training, each diver was outfitted with one tank for a thirty-minute dive in about 25 feet of clear 80° water. We got to explore the coral reef and sea life that lives in and around it. Unfortunately, John wasn't allowed to scuba dive because of childhood asthma; he did get to snorkel, however. Because of a difficulty equalizing the pressure in my ears, I couldn't go much below ten feet under the surface. Nevertheless, I had a great time!
After another sunny day at sea, the Noordam returned to Fort Lauderdale. We docked behind the Rotterdam, in port for wetdock. Passengers were not allowed to disembark until 9:20am; John said there was some baggage problem that delayed disembarkation. While waiting to disembark, I watched as the crew went through a Coast Guard fire/abandon ship drill. I was intrigued to witness six fire crew members try to return to their cabins for lifejackets after the "abandon ship" order had been given; an officer admonished them for thinking they needed to retrieve their lifejackets since others were available on deck. Clearly it is wise to conduct these drills often.
My disembarkation number was finally called at 10:20am. As John was escorting passengers who needed assistance, we bade one another a hasty good-bye. I then boarded the bus for transfer to the Ft. Lauderdale airport. My TWA flights to Sacramento (via St. Louis) were uneventful. Since the plane arrived early in Sacramento, I returned home to Stockton at 9:15pm (Pacific time).
Even though I went on this cruise with lowered expectations for the Noordam itself, I nevertheless did expect to experience the fine service and food for which HAL is known. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in these areas, too. I don't know if it was the ship, the service, or the food, but I can say that I have never heard so many people vociferously complain as did many of the passengers on this cruise. Will I sail with Holland America again? Yes. Midway though the cruise, I told John that I would not judge HAL based solely on the Noordam. She is an old ship, which I see in the media is up for sale.
The cruise documents indicated that there would be three formal nights, five informal nights, and two casual nights. However, when I got to the ship I learned that there were to be two formal nights, three informal nights, and five casual nights. Needless to say, I would have packed differently had HAL had its act together on evening attire. I would say that about one-half of the men opted to wear tuxedos on the formal nights.
While I admit my disappointment in several areas of this HAL cruise, I still had an enjoyable time. I had the opportunity to spend time with John (although he was working), visit new ports, and meet some wonderful people! Besides, any time spent on a cruise vacation is better than time spent at work.
Photos courtesy of Holland America Line.
The Reverend John J. M. Foster is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Stockton in California. He can be reached at: JJMFoster@aol.com.
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