“A Vista Beyond The Others”
Review of the ms Noordam IV
Maiden Voyage: February 22 -- March 4, 2006
By: The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal
It goes without saying that many Holland America Line Mariners have been more than just a bit unhappy with the cruise-industry’s trend toward larger vessels. Those who much-prefer the S and R class ships (like the Statendam and the Rotterdam VI) tend to look upon the Vistas as being big, garish, and unwelcome. The Zuiderdam solidified this expectation, and some have been unwilling to look beyond this ship to see what others of the class have to offer. Having cruised on the Oosterdam and the Westerdam, however, I have become well aware that the Vista ships, even though large, do indeed maintain a strong continuity with the historic HAL and the traditions which have made this Line a favorite of so many for so long.
The last of the Vistas, the ms Noordam, truly goes beyond the other Vistas in establishing a powerful bond to the traditions of excellence and the atmosphere of understated elegance and luxury which has typified the Holland America Fleet for so long. From the instant one boards this lovely ship one has no doubt about the fleet to which she belongs -- no Carnival, RCI, or Princess tub, this is HAL. The impression is confirmed at every turn, in every public room, in the staterooms, and in the traditions of her gracious staff. The Vistas have, truly, come home with the ms Noordam. Her interiors are replete with the artistry and elegance of superb nautical engineering and refined european style accented with the warmth of wood and earth-tones. I was at home the moment I entered the Ocean bar and saw the hard woods, the oval-shaped dance floor, and the curve of the bar. The Explorer’s Lounge literally cradles one in comfortable luxury and the refined tones of a string quartet, while the Crows Nest provides expansive views of the open ocean during the day, and an enjoyable place to sit and chat, or dance with a partner, during the evening. The Vista Dining Room is both open and intimate, and the Pinnacle Grill is an inviting venue in which to share a leisurely meal with friends. Truly, the Noordam is a credit to the Holland America Fleet ... a true “Vista Beyond the Others.”
Differences From The Other Vistas:
From first glance it is obvious that this vessel has incorporated several major upgrades and improvements that are not currently present in the other Vista Ships. Of particular note is the inclusion of the Explorations Cafe in place of the Internet Center. This major improvement, which is part of the Signature of Excellence upgrades being introduced on the S and R class ships, finds an excellent expression as implemented on the Noordam IV. Part of the Library complex, yet also independent of it, this area is an excellent place to come and make use of the multimedia, print, and internet resources available here and elsewhere aboard the ship. There is also a coffee bar where specialty coffees can be purchased for a nominal fee.
Another upgrade which is of particular note is the introduction of the Pinnacle Bar in place of the Windstar Cafe. This comfortable, useful lounge is perfectly situated not only to help relieve the congestion at the entrance to the Pinnacle Grill, it also is a bar and lounge in its own right and a pleasant place to sit and enjoy pre or post dinner drinks. I particularly enjoyed the large, sturdy, metel framed chairs which resisted motion when bumped or in high seas. The lamps could do with some shading, however, to cut out the tendency to harsh white light from the bulbs.
Another major improvement is the redesign of the Ocean Bar and Lounge. On the other Vistas the bar and smoking area is located in a narrow section on the starboard side of the ship. This cramped area has been a serious problem for the full and efficient use of the Bar; on the Noordam, however, the bar has been moved to the Port side where it sits in the open. The starboard side has been opened up, with several conversation areas maintained for people who want to sit and chat while not being bothered by the hustle and bustle, the music and dancing found on the port side. The redesign more effectively opens the Lounge all across the open atrium, making the space feel larger and less congested, even though the square footage has not been increased.
Yet another significant improvement can be found on the Aft Lido deck, where the deck space abaft the aft pool has been expanded. There is far more deck space here than on the other Vistas. Likewise, a canvas awning has been added on both the port and starboard sides, providing more shaded areas for people to sit and eat outdoors. This expansion on the aft lido deck has been enabled by an extension of the decks below, resulting in additional cabin space for 70+ more passengers. The aft verandahs have been narrowed as a result, and while this might be seen as a disadvantage to some, the overall result is an improvement in the outdoor public spaces.
General Impressions on the Ship’s Decor:
As I have already stated, the interior spaces of this ship will be truly pleasing to the tastes of the average traditional HAL Mariner. The use of woods, carpet, paneling, wall paper, and art work is truly elegant, stylish, and conservative. The color choices are very pleasing, with earth tones and primary colors predominating. The Atrium is dominated by a lovely rotating piece -- a huge gyroscope that changes color as it rotates; it is, indeed, quite appealing. The use of art and other related items from the prior Noordams (as well as other HAL ships) provides a lovely tie to the Line’s history. Captain Card’s paintings are truly lovely and amazing -- don’t miss them in the forward stair well. The color scheme in the Piano Bar is, in my opinion, superior to that found on either the Oosterdam or the Westerdam, and the placement of the piano on a rotating platform in the middle of the room is superior to the arrangement found on either earlier Vista. The the Vista Show Lounge is warmer and more inviting that the Westerdam’s dull “white” scheme, though the placement of columns blocking the view from the mid-deck seating is still annoying. The Explorer's Lounge is lovely and as comfortable as always, truly a comfortable venue in which to enjoy an evening of classical music and after-dinner drinks. And the Vista Dining Room is, as is true on the other Vistas, an expansive, yet intimate, place to have a wonderful meal with friends and family. Views out the windows during the day reveal the passing ocean, and during the evening the lighting is dim, the service is excellent, and the companionship of one's tablemates is most agreeable. If lunch or dinner in a more relaxed, less formal environment is preferred, one can go to the Lido Resturant and enjoy a fantastic menu and the stellar, casual atmosphere offered there. Or, one can partake of the Pinnacle Grill and the fantastic steaks or sea food that are the usual fare in the ship's alternative premium steakhouse. In the Pinnacle, don't miss the Chocolate Volcano ... it's fabulous.
Overall, the crew of the Noordam appears to be off to a good start in maintaining the traditions of “the spotless fleet,” for constant cleaning, vaccuming, polishing, and touch-up work was in evidence wherever one turned. I even noticed some painting underway ... yes, even on a brand new ship! HAL's staff really knows how to take care of their damships
The Maiden Voyage:
The Noordam’s maiden voyage left New York City to the fanfair of fireboats spraying red, white, and blue water, on the afternoon of February 22, 2006. This was her first 10 day cruise to the Eastern Caribbean; it was a very nice itinerary, involving 2 days at sea from New York to the Caribbean, 5 ports-of-call, and then 2 days at sea returning to New York. I was aboard with a large group of friends from Cruise Critics, and much of my enjoyment orbited around activities with them. In large part, this cruise was more about the ship and the people and less about the islands, hence I shall not spend much time detailing the ports of call other than to say that they provided the average cross-section of cultural, natural, and economic attraction. A few photos of these ports can be found here.
My stateroom was my favorite J-category Inside: 1037, which was nearly identical to the same cabin which I have had twice on the Oosterdam. Entering it was like “coming home.” The only major difference was the flat-screen TV and the DVD player, which was a nice improvement over the CRT display found in this category on the Oosterdam. For more on this cabin, see my review of the Oosterdam.
Being a maiden voyage there were a few “bugs” to be worked out, and this is true both of my cabin of the rest of the ship. As a result, engineering staff could be seen moving around the ship on a regular basis, repairing this and that and adjusting various controls. The AC in my cabin failed to work properly during our second sea-day, but engineering quickly adjusted it until it worked perfectly. The internet kept going down, and we lost all ship-to-shore communications for our two-day return trip to New York.
Special gifts for maiden voyage passengers included an inaugural cruise commemorate plate, a book about the Noordam, and photo montage of the cruise. Additionally, this cruise was also the voyage on which I was awarded my 100-day Mariner Pin and “Hardware.”
Being a Maiden voyage I anticipated problems with the quality of service in the dining room and cabins: a crew takes a bit of “settling in” until they work well together, and I was willing to be patient. To my pleasant surprise the problems which we did encounter were far more limited than I would have expected, though there were times when they were quite annoying. My cabin steward was exceedingly efficient; indeed, after several days of conversing with him I became convinced that he had served me before and he confirmed it, admitting to have been my cabin steward aboard the Volendam in 2003! What a pleasant surprise! I enjoyed prompt service from bar staff ... several of whom remembered me from the Oosterdam, the Westerdam, and the Volendam. One wine steward in the Pinnacle recognized me right off my Panama Canal cruise on the Zaandam, and even remembered my favorite wine. The service in all these areas was exemplary, to say the least, though our wine steward in the main dining room was sometimes difficult to flag down. Service in the Lido was excellent, and prompt, although there are times when two attendants are needed at the sandwich station. Additionally, I would prefer not to have to direct the attendant at the Omelet station to cook the ingredients of my Omelet before adding the egg batter. In the main dining room our service stewards were pleasant, and they did their job to the best of their ability, nevertheless it was a continual problem that our evening meals dragged out to 2 or more hours. In the past I've usually been done with dinner by 10 pm, but on this cruise we were lucky to be eating our entree by that time ... and then, sometimes, what was offered was not even close to what was ordered. Service began slow, and improved a bit, but by the time we left St. Maarten it had taken a severe nose dive, with several members of our group experiencing unacceptable fiascos. For the most part I can chalk these problems up to miscommunications on the part of the staff, as well as to a difficult time some had in understanding english, however many of these errors were simply beyond what patience should be expected to accept. We experienced similar problems in the Pinnacle Grill. Peter was an excellent waiter, and had a good sense of humor, but meals in the Pinnacle on 3 occasions dragged far too long ... one evening extending to a full three hours! This is simply unacceptable.
Given time to settle in to a new crew, I expect that many of these problems will work themselves out. I've never known a HAL crew to not gel; Holland America's wonderful service staff, officers and crew are among their greatest strengths.
I would have to judge the quality of the food on the Noordam as being, by-and-large, quite good to excellent. I've always enjoyed the food on Holland America; even when I thought it a bit bland, I nevertheless enjoyed it and was always able to find something I liked. On the Oosterdam in January 2006 I was pleased with the quality of the dishes and felt it would be hard to surpass my experience there. The food on the Noordam, however, managed to do precisely that. Yes, many of the selections are quite similar to what can be found on other ships of the fleet, but by-and-large the quality of the preparation and presentation was superior to any on other HAL ships. This is true in the main dining room and in the Lido. Yes, there were occasional errors and problems with what was delivered, but when the correct item came its quality was usually outstanding. At least, this was my experience.
Sometimes the failure of one’s fellow passengers to observe the dress code can be a bit distressing -- it is sad when one feels conspicuous on formal night simply because one is wearing a Tuxedo! Such was not the case on the maiden voyage of the Noordam. This 10-day cruise from New York to the Caribbean was among the most formal cruises I've ever been on. Formal Nights saw an overwhelming number of men in Tuxedoes or, in the very least, dark suits. Yes, some were in slacks and sports jackets, but most (overwhelmingly most) were in Tuxedoes on all three formal nights. White dinner jackets abounded, especially, on the middle formal night, when we were still in the Caribbean. I saw very few men (I could count them on the fingers of one hand) who failed to abide by the minimum the Dress Code outlines. Informal night saw most men in suits or slacks and sports jackets, and many men elected to wear a tie on those evening. Indeed, even on Casual nights the number of men wearing jackets to dinner (with or without ties) was amazing to behold. As for women: gowns, dresses, fancy pantsuits, furs, hats ... the ladies were dressed very well most evenings, and rarely did I see any women who were not at least “nicely” attired.
The Maiden voyage of the Noordam was a wonderful cruise, and the Noordam herself is a fantastic ship ... a true credit to the Holland America Line and an excellent final installment of the Vista series. The first of the new Signature ships will have a difficult time meeting the standard of excellence the Noordam IV has set.
© 2006, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
Dr. Gregory S. Neal, Ph.D., is the Senior Pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Seagoville, Texas and an Ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity Graduate College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Biblical Studies, Languages, Systematic Theology, Liturgy, and the Sacraments. He has taught New Testament Studies, Biblical Greek, and courses on the Theology of the Sacraments in UM Schools of Mission, Continuing Education Seminars, and in undergraduate courses across the country. As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, both of which are available from Koinonia Press through your local bookstore, on the internet at Amazon.com, and in the Grace Incarnate Store. You are invited to read Dr. Neal's academic papers, theological articles, and cruise reviews on his website at Writings, and you are encouraged to listen to Dr. Neal's Messages online in Real Player format. If photography is of an interest to you, you can check out his Pictures from his travels, life, and ministry.