Holland America Line aims to strike a balance between classic and contemporary, and Noordam, christened in 2006, manages this well. The ship's smaller size, with fewer than 2,000 passengers, gives Noordam an intimate feel that makes it easy to meet people and make new friends. There are lots of nooks for conversation and quiet diversions like backgammon or settling back with a good book. Dinners in the main dining rooms and two speciality restaurants are leisurely. Pre-dinner entertainment includes listening to a violin-piano duo perform and dancing to ballroom and show-tune classics. Afternoon tea is served daily.
The best of Noordam's onboard programming skews toward the educational, such as cooking presentations, Microsoft-sponsored computer workshops and BBC Earth documentary screenings. On our Alaska and New Zealand sailings, the piano bar was about as rowdy as things got, with merry singalongs running until midnight. Australian and New Zealand cruises attract a slightly more lively crowd, although the vibe still tends to be low-key. The excellent B.B. King's Blues Club is the top pick for those seeking some less sedate late-night fun.
By day, the Explorations Cafe -- with its clubby, coffeehouse vibe and free online access to the New York Times, plus a nice selection of books and games -- was a steady hub of activity. The comfortable recliners near the windows were also popular for reading or napping.
Compared with some HAL vessels' decor, Noordam's is downright glitzy. A three-story atrium midship sports a curvy green glass stairway crowned by a colossal Waterford Crystal compass. Gold-hued tiles mirror the surrounding walls. In the elevator lobbies, oversize urns sprout artificial foliage and busts of the Dutch royal family mix it up with ornate metal settees. However, there is little need to sit down when it comes to elevators. Noordam has an impressive number for such a small ship, which means there is seldom a wait for those who prefer not to take the stairs. As in other HAL vessels, some impressive and eclectic artwork provides lovely visual surprises throughout the ship. Historic photos of HAL cruisers from days gone by line the hallways and are a good fit for the ship's traditional feel.
The youngest of HAL's four early-2000s-vintage Vista-class ships, Noordam shows some signs of wear (separating wallpaper seams, worn carpet in areas). But the overall ambience makes the ship a good choice for those who don't need waterslides or zip lines to find their bliss at sea.
Daytime attire is casual, though shorts and tank tops aren't allowed in the dining rooms. The Lido Restaurant is more laid-back but does request that diners wear shoes and a shirt. Recommended dress code on most nights is "smart casual," meaning skirts or pants for women and casual slacks and shirts for men. Two formal nights on our cruise brought out a smattering of tuxes and sequins. Cocktail dresses for women and sport coats and slacks for men predominated. Alaska, Australia and New Zealand, and Pacific Island itineraries are typically fairly informal on Holland America. On European sailings, passengers tend to dress up more.
The Vista Lounge (Decks 1 through 3, forward) showcases a resident cast performing the usual song-and-dance numbers that are a staple of cruise ship entertainment. Enormous, dynamic LED screens that make backdrops astoundingly clear and almost three-dimensional give production shows added zing. Guest performers include comedians and musical acts. The lounge is a comfortable venue with plush, roomy seats and excellent sightlines from the main floor and the balconies.
As on many cruises, a number of activities on the daily roster are really sales opportunities (acupuncture consultations, gaming lessons and the ubiquitous art auction). Expect the typical array of shipboard diversions: team trivia contests, bingo, dancing, and instruction on folding towels into animal shapes.
HAL has partnered with America's Test Kitchen in offering cooking shows on most days. It's not hands-on instruction, but passengers can watch a live demonstration in a show kitchen and take home recipe cards. Demos often have a theme, such as chili, chocolate or lamingtons and take place in the B.B. King's Blues Club, aka the Queen's Lounge on Deck 2. This venue also screens movies and BBC Earth documentaries on some afternoons.
The Explorations Cafe has a fairly extensive library, including lots of large-print editions and an impressive selection of guide books. Comfy armchairs and footstools and a view of the Promenade Deck make it a nice place to hang out. Backgammon, chess, jigsaw puzzles and board games also are on loan. Regular social games of bridge, Yahtzee, backgammon, chess and the like take place here or in the nearby Stuyvesant Room and are listed in On Location, the daily activities program.
On Alaska cruises, a National Park Service ranger boards the ship at Glacier Bay to talk about the flora, fauna and geology of the region. Commentary is also provided on Australia and New Zealand sailings as the ship travels through Milford Sound. Waiters circulate on deck distributing hot pea soup during scenic cruising in Alaska and New Zealand, another HAL tradition. On New Zealand sailings there are also Maori-themed activities, including a traditional welcome and the chance to play old-style Maori games that were originally used to improve the hand-eye coordination needed for hand-to-hand battle.
B.B. King's Blues Club on Deck 2 (a multi-use space that also serves as the Queen's Lounge and America's Test Kitchen by day), gets a groove on when the B.B. King's Blues Club All-Star Band takes the stage, an impressive three times nightly, to belt out funk, soul, rock 'n' roll and blues. It's the most dynamic entertainment onboard and a good spot for a lively, late-night drink. The club closes around midnight.
The casino has the usual table games (poker, blackjack, craps and roulette), plus 126 slot machines. Most nights, it's a busy, noisy place.
Passengers seem more inclined to settle in with a good book than dance until dawn in the disco. Small, intimate lounges scattered throughout the ship tend to encourage quiet contemplation and reading rather than late-night revelry.
Atrium Bar (Deck 1, midship): The small bar near the front desk is open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It hosts events such as mixology classes and cocktail sampling (for a fee).
Piano Bar (Deck, 2, midship): One of the most popular -- and liveliest -- venues on our sailing, the piano bar drew a crowd of loyal regulars who gathered around the baby grand to unleash their inner crooners. This was our favourite place for late-night fun. It's open from 7.30 p.m. until late.
Explorer's Lounge (Deck 2, aft): Adagio, a violin-piano duo, performs classical music to pre- and after-dinner audiences four times each night.
Queen's Lounge/B.B. King's Blues Club (Deck 2, midship): The B.B. King's Blues Club All-Star Band performs three shows most nights. During the day, the space hosts more-staid events like cooking demonstrations, movie screenings and religious services.
Sports Bar (Deck 2, midship): The small bar just off the casino is divided into two distinct areas and open early until late. It's surprisingly quiet, considering the TV screens are tuned to sports, perhaps because it only has one channel. We were disappointed to miss the Melbourne Cup race on our Australia/NZ cruise.
Northern Lights (Deck 2, midship): The nightclub was never particularly busy on our sailing; instead a DJ played dance music in the Crow's Nest bar. The two-room space, one with banquettes and the other dominated by a dance floor, is due to be transformed into a new venue in the 2018 refurbishment.
Ocean Bar (Deck 3 midship): The space surrounds the ship's atrium on its upper level. On Alaska sailings, the house band performs ballroom and other music for pre-dinner cocktails and dancing, however this venue was fairly quiet on our Australia and New Zealand cruise. Happy hour is from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Sea View Bar (Deck 9, aft): The outdoor bar is next to the Sea View Pool at the rear of the ship and is open early until late.
Lido Bar (Deck 9, poolside): The popular poolside bar hosts beer tastings (for a fee) and is open from early until 9 p.m.
Crow's Nest (Deck 10, forward): The best spot for a panoramic view, the large room is packed during happy hour (from 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.). It's a popular gathering place for cruisers travelling in groups, as well as solo travellers looking to meet people. You might need to arrive early to get a seat during happy hour, unless bingo is on, in which case it will be noticeably quieter. A DJ plays later in the evening.
Noordam has two pools, both on Deck 9. The largest, the Lido Pool, with its centrepiece leaping-dolphins sculpture, has a retractable roof that makes it a popular spot in cool-weather venues. It has three adjoining hot tubs. The Sea View Pool is at the ship's rear and is surrounded by a shallow area that makes it a good bet for small children. Deck chairs here offer nice sea views. The pool also has two, small elevated hot tubs. Covered areas have dining tables and are a particularly nice spot for lunch.
Deck 11 is equipped with an outdoor sports court for basketball and volleyball. Several Ping-Pong tables are on Deck 9 near the Lido Pool, and shuffleboard is on Deck 10, aft.
Lounge chairs on the Promenade (Deck 3) face an outdoor walkway that circles the ship. And on Deck 10, the observation deck at the ship's rear is a quiet place to enjoy the view.
Deck 11 has private cabanas for rent. However, now the ship no longer sails in the Caribbean, and whether these stay onboard remains to be seen. The cabanas did not appear to be used at all during our Australia and New Zealand cruise, despite some pleasantly warm weather. For those who do want to rent a cabana, these cost US$45 on port days, US$75 on sea days and US$299 for a seven-day package. Cabanas are equipped with two loungers, a table and chairs. Amenities in the area, which is exclusive to cabana renters, include light breakfast and healthy lunch options, a fruit basket, chilled water, a glass of sparkling wine, bathrobes, ice cream and chocolate-dipped strawberries in the afternoon, mineral-water misters and a 20 percent spa discount on port days.
The business of cruising -- settling accounts, booking shore excursions and future cruises, etc. -- takes place near the atrium on Deck 1. A medical centre is one deck below on Deck A. Its hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. There's a fee for most services.
On Deck 2 is the art gallery, scene of art appreciation seminars and seemingly nonstop art auctions.
Explorations Cafe (Deck 3, midship) occupies two adjoining rooms with computers that enable free access to the New York Times. Internet rates are 75 cents per minute, with a one-time US$3.95 activation fee. Discounted packages are available, starting at US$55 for 100 minutes.
Deck 3 also houses the photo gallery, where you can peruse the results of the voracious ship photographers' labors (and make a purchase, if you like). The passenger photo competition on our Australia and New Zealand cruise generated an enthusiastic response and some good shots on display for judging. The Shopping Arcade is here, too, featuring high-end jewellery purveyor Merabella and other venues selling watches, designer bags, some clothing and sundries.
There's no self-service laundry, but dry-cleaning and laundry services are available for a fee.
The Greenhouse Spa & Salon (Deck 9, forward) is operated by Steiner Leisure. The hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except on the final full cruise day, when it closes at 9 p.m. The 10 treatment rooms, including two couples rooms, offer massages, facials, body therapies (such as scrubs) and acupuncture. Male-oriented services include shaving and an "urban cleanse facial." The adjoining salon menu has nail services, hairstyling and waxing.
Massages are excellent and blissfully free of hard-sell tactics. Check the ship's newsletter for daily specials. The spa's relaxation room is down the hall and across from the fitness centre, which detracts from the feeling of seclusion many seek from a spa experience.
An exclusive area within the spa, the Greenhouse Retreat, is available for a surcharge (about US$40 per person per day or between US$249 and US$299 per couple depending on cruise length). Facilities include a large, mineral-water hydro-pool, a thermal suite with three aromatherapy steam rooms and four rain showers.
The moderately sized fitness centre on Deck 9 has a good range of equipment -- treadmills, cross-trainers, cycles, free weights and some weight machines. Early mornings are busy, but the crowds thin as the day progresses. Use of equipment and some classes, such as stretching and abs, are free. Fee classes -- such as yoga, indoor cycling and Pilates -- cost US$12 each or US$40 for four. Personal training is US$85 an hour. Gym hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The Deck 3 Promenade measures three laps to the mile and is for walkers only. Runners can head to Deck 10, where six laps around the open-air space equals about a mile.
For the most part, Noordam serves up fresh, tasty and varied fare. A Culinary Council made up of five high-profile chefs, along with Holland America's master chef, Rudi Sodamin, contribute recipes that are featured most nights in the main dining rooms. Vegetarian options and at least one sugar-free dessert are included on dining-room menus.
Still hungry? Late-night snacks are served until 11:30 p.m., and pasta and pizza are dished out until midnight in the Lido Restaurant. Plus, sandwiches and pastries (free with the purchase of speciality coffees and teas and bottled water) are in the Explorations Cafe from early morning until 9.30 p.m. Two other eateries and the ship's weekly pop-up restaurant, Le Cirque, present even more options for those willing to pay extra for variety.
Vista Dining Room (Decks 2 and 3, aft): The pleasant main dining rooms are connected by a grand staircase and decorated in dusty rose hues. Large windows surrounding the room bring the outside in.
Breakfast consists of made-to-order eggs and waffles, plus the usual cereals and baked goods. Lunch is available on port days with a selection of starters, mains and desserts. Sample entrees might include stuffed bell pepper, salmon piccata and Swiss steak. A daily "express combo" option caters to those in a hurry.
Afternoon tea is a HAL tradition. It's served in the upper dining room daily from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and is so bountiful it could qualify as a meal. Three themed teas -- Indonesian, Royal Dutch and Cupcake -- are served once during each sailing. Afternoon tea on the Noordam is deservedly popular and can feel somewhat chaotic at times. Arrive early to secure one of the better tables and order your drinks promptly to beat the rush. A table is also reserved for solo travellers to meet and enjoy tea together.
Fixed seatings for dinner are at 5:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. HAL's "As You Wish" dining allows open seating (with or without a reservation), with the last seating at 9 p.m. Buzzers are handed out to As You Wish diners at peak times so they can enjoy a drink in the bar while they wait. Signature dishes available nightly include French onion soup, Caesar salad, grilled salmon, broiled strip loin and roasted chicken. Plus there's at least one vegetarian entree on the menu nightly. A full vegetarian menu, including vegan selections, is also available but should be ordered the night before.
A typical dinner menu has six to nine appetizer/soup/salad selections, such as deep-fried hazelnut crusted brie and salmon tartare with baby zucchini; eight to 11 entrees, such as bucatini with duck and rockfish with garlicky clams; and 10 or so dessert options, such as caramelized pear crepes with vanilla ice cream and sugar-free hazelnut mousse cake.
Wine recommendations are on the menu nightly and include vintages starting at US$5.50 a glass.
Explorations Cafe (Deck 3, midship): Occupying a corner of the ship's popular library/computer lounge, the cafe serves complimentary pastries, sandwiches and mini-bagels with the purchase of speciality coffee drinks and Tazo teas. Coffee-loving Australians might be less than impressed with the push-button machine, but staff members froth the milk manually and turn out coffee that is better than expected. Open daily from early until late.
Lido Restaurant (Deck 9, midship): The casual-dining buffet restaurant can get hectic during breakfast and lunch, particularly on sea days. Be patient if you want a window seat, and avoid tables near the serving counters. Breakfast includes made-to-order eggs (seven varieties!), omelettes, waffles, mounds of fruit, cheese and about every other breakfast food imaginable. Lunch features several hot entrees, sushi, plus an Asian and Indian station with spicy noodle dishes and stir-fries. Lunch finishes quite early, at 2 p.m. The dessert bar has pastries and hand-scooped ice cream. Deli fare, including pre-made sandwiches, is available from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The pizza/pasta bar operates from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, so there is little chance of going hungry, even when other sections of the Lido are closed.
A casual dinner with waiter service, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., incorporates a couple of entrees from the dining-room menu and other options, along with multiple appetizers, soups, salads and desserts.
Dive-In at the Terrace Grill (Deck 9, midship): Big, delicious, made-to-order burgers (including vegetarian) and what must be the best fries on the high seas (crispy on the outside, pillowy on the inside and worth every calorie) are served at a walk-up window by the Lido Pool. Adjacent is a serve-yourself taco/nachos/burrito bar. Open 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Room Service: Free room service is available round the clock. Super-early risers can get a full breakfast delivered before the Lido Restaurant opens (order by 2 a.m.). From noon to 10 p.m., you can get salmon, salads, French onion soup and sandwiches, among other fare. Items are more limited during the wee hours.
Two fee restaurants, Canaletto and the Pinnacle Grill, plus Le Cirque, a pop-up eatery offered once per cruise in the Pinnacle Grill, are available to diners who crave something beyond the ship's standard dining.
Pinnacle Grill (Deck 2, midship); US$10 for lunch, US$35 for dinner: Pinnacle Grill, the ship's special-occasion eatery focuses on Northwest-inspired dishes served in a small, elegant space. Appetizers, such as the Dungeness crab cakes, are wonderful. Fellow diners raved about the Washington-raised beef and the filet mignon topped with a lobster tail. Vegetarians can order from the sides menu, which includes grilled asparagus, wilted spinach and sauteed mushrooms.
Le Cirque at the Pinnacle Grill (Deck 2, midship); US$49 per person; US$89 with wine pairings: This once-per-cruise pop-up restaurant features menu items from its renowned New York namesake. Expect fresh takes on classic dishes, such as rack of lamb, sea bass and chateaubriand. Recommended starts and finishes to this feast: Le Cirque's signature lobster salad and creme brulee. Dinner only. Reservations are recommended.
Canaletto (Deck 9, midship); US$15: A section of the Lido Restaurant goes Italian from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. nightly, serving what we thought was some of the tastiest food onboard. Relaxed, friendly service and a large number of window tables made this one of our favorite spots to dine. A word of caution: When they say plates are meant to be shared, they mean it. Portions are huge. We particularly enjoyed the seafood soup and eggplant stuffed with ricotta as appetizers, the shrimp ravioli and the potato gnocchi with braised beef short ribs. The grilled sea bass also earned rave reviews on a recent Alaska cruise. Canaletto books out quickly during most cruises, so get in early if you would like to eat here, especially if you have a preferred dining time.
Noordam has 986 cabins, 66 percent of which have balconies. Sixteen percent are ocean-view rooms. There are no dedicated family cabins onboard, although many regular staterooms can sleep more than two people. Wheelchair-accessible staterooms are available, as are triple and quad rooms.
The color scheme tends toward earth tones -- burnt-orange upholstery, ivory wall coverings and blond-wood tables and built-ins. Holland America's signature twin Mariner's Dream beds can be configured into a queen. Other furnishings include two bedside tables with drawers and a vanity with a lighted magnifying mirror, hair dryer and stool. Luggage can be tucked under the bed; closets have shelving for extra storage, along with a safe. Mini-bars are stocked with soft drinks, beer, wine and liquor, all for an extra charge. All but inside cabins have additional small refrigerators. Dual outlets take U.S. and European plugs. Two USB outlets are installed in the bedhead to charge your phone and other devices.
A small, flat-screen TV airs a handful of stations (ESPN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC), and DVDs can be ordered free for in-room viewing. (There are more than 1,000 titles, but don't expect many recent releases or for your first choice to be available.)
Most cabins have combination bathtub/showers. Storage space is decent, with a triple-shelf medicine cabinet and a deep under-sink shelf. Elemis brand toiletries include soap, body wash, shampoo, conditioner and lotion.
Interior: The 162 standard or large interior rooms range from 151 to 233 square feet and are on Decks 1, 4 through 8, and 10.
Oceanview: Ocean-view cabins are 174 to 255 square feet and are on Decks 1, 4 and 6. These feature either a picture window or porthole.
Balcony: The ship's 497 veranda cabins, at 212 to 359 square feet (including a 54-square-foot balcony), are on Decks 4 through 8 and 10. Balconies are roomy enough for two chairs, a small table and a footrest; some are slightly larger and accommodate a third chair.
Suite: Signature Suites are on Decks 5, 6 and 8, and range from 372 to 384 square feet, including a large 89-square-foot balcony. Twin beds can be converted to a queen; a sofa bed sleeps one additional person. Bathrooms have dual sinks, a whirlpool tub and a separate shower.
Sixty Neptune Suites, on Decks 4 through 8, are 500 to 712 square feet and sleep up to four with two twins that convert to a king and a sofa bed. The spacious sitting area is roomy enough for a curved sofa. Bathrooms have double sinks and a separate tub and shower; these suites provide walk-in closets and larger balconies with up to four chairs and footrests and a full-size table.
Two Pinnacle Suites on Deck 7 are a spacious 1,150 square feet and feature a living room, dining room, king-size bed, sofa bed that sleeps two, dressing room, refrigerator and microwave, plus a guest bathroom. The huge balcony has plenty of room for four loungers placed two by two at discreet distances, several chairs and a table.
Occupants of the Neptune and Pinnacle suites have access to a private concierge lounge on Deck 7, although the benefits are fairly low-key. Think snacks, tea and coffee throughout the day and a concierge to make dining reservations and book excursions.