MS Noordam - A Review
In summary, MS Noordam is a beautiful mid-sized ship for classic cruising, generally a good cruise experience (one glaring exception) definitely not for families or anyone who likes healthy food.
In spite of previous convictions never to cruise again but in the hope of a better experience with Holland America Line (HAL), we embarked on MS "Noordam" for a 14 night cruise to Australia, after visiting friends and relatives in New Zealand in February, 2017. We booked a veranda cabin on Deck 10, and surprisingly, that was the cabin we got.
"Noordam" is HAL's entry to the Australian and New Zealand cruise market, although you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd just left Miami, sailing out of Auckland on our cruise. According to the Captain, there were over 30 nationalities on board; I'd guess half of them were American, with reasonable contingents of Canadians, British and Australians; a few kiwis and a smattering of others. Most of the passengers were old and many were grossly undertall; seeing them waddle up to the buffet penguin style or lie around the pools like stranded whales was about as close as we got to any wildlife experience. Mercifully, almost the entire ship is non-smoking, so it is easy to escape from THEM.
Five gold stars to HAL for registering the ship in Rotterdam and hanging a Dutch flag on it (in stark contrast to most other "Flag of Convenience" cruise ships). "Noordam" is of 82,000 tonnes gross and carries about 1900 passengers, so is medium sized by modern standards, and a bit crowded when it is full. She entered service in 2006 and is well-maintained and beautiful inside and out (IMHO).
This ship is unashamedly for adults; there are virtually no kids facilities (not even a wading or paddling pool) and the few kids that were on our trip must have gazed in awe and envy at the "Carnival Legend" with its water slides, as we travelled in lock-step up the NSW coast. I don't recall seeing any "adults only" designated areas, however.
"Noordam" has five diesel generators and one gas turbine, with electric propulsion using Azipods. This didn't inspire confidence, as another ship the "Norwegian Star", suffered total loss of propulsion following Azipod failure in Bass Strait during our cruise, and had to be towed back to Melbourne. "Noordam" is very quiet and doesn't seem to vibrate as badly as some others (see "Diamond Princess" review); she is well stabilised although pitched a bit when pushing into gale force winds and heavy swell on the west coast of NZ. We didn't enjoy particularly good weather on our cruise; the ship's foghorn was in use for much of the way from Akaroa to the southern tip of the island, and gales caused us to miss two of the three fiords that we were supposed to see on the west coast (we had flakes of paint landing on our veranda).
Embarkation in Auckland was difficult, with long queues at a succession of desks for baggage drop-off, check-in and customs/immigration clearance. Fortunately a few Americans were on hand to tell the support staff how they should be going about it. Lifeboat drill was done in port, with everyone herded to their boat stations without lifejackets for a roll call. This was a very crowded affair and would have been near-impossible if we had been wearing them.
Disembarkation in Sydney was a breeze; only because aforesaid customs and immigration clearance had already been done in Hobart, where everyone had to get off the ship and queue in the customs shed before proceeding into the city. If you were sick or didn't particularly want to leave the ship it didn't matter, you still had to get off and wait for everyone else to, before you were allowed back on. On our previous NZ cruise this was all done at sea as we crossed the "ditch"; not sure if our experience was a failing of HAL or the Australian authorities, but it was a damned nuisance.
The atruim is going to be the first impression most people get of "Noordam", and it is a bit glitzy with lots of brass, glass and gold tiles. It also features curved staircases with tapered glass treads which may be marginally less dangerous on dry land. The rest of the ship is more tasteful, although not conservative.
There are 14 lifts (including four outside ones) so getting up and down is seldom a problem. Getting around is more difficult, with very confusing naming used. Thus there are three Promenade decks (only one of which has a promenade), a Lido Market where you can't actually buy anything, a Vista Lounge (which has no vista, because it is actually the ship's theatre, and is not to be confused with the Vista Dining Room at the opposite end of the ship), a Pinnacle Bar and a Pinnacle Grill (mercifully close), and both an Explorer's Lounge and an Explorations Cafe (on different decks). We were starting to get used to this by the time we got off.
The Vista Lounge sports a claimed multi-million dollar LED installation which provides instant scene changes and moving backdrops, and is ideal for stage shows. When we watched movies in there, there were parts of the theatre where you couldn't see the entire "screen" because of a low proscenium, and in any case the definition dropped off badly away from the centre seats. There are no centre seats in the circle, because the producers have a big box there, and you can't get from one side to the other.
The ship has only two pools and five jacuzzis; these got netted off at 9-10pm every evening for reasons known only to HAL. There is also a gym which is hard to find and evidently only open during the day.
Our voyage included some scenic cruising, so a nice observation lounge forward (the Crows Nest) was great to have, and there was an open observation deck above this as well. The bow of the ship was opened to passengers as we cruised into Milford Sound, but was closed again as soon as we turned to come out, possibly due to rain making the deck a bit slippery. Open deck spaces at the front of Decks 5, 6, 7 and 9 are not accessible to passengers.
Passenger facilities for the most part, are on decks 2, 3 and 9, with window cabins on Deck 1, and veranda cabins on Decks 4-8 (a few on deck 10).
The Lower Promenade deck (Deck 2), is noteworthy for having no promenade at all; just a sinuous passage down the starboard side of the ship linking the triple height theatre forward with the double height dining room aft, via the casino and a series of smaller bars and lounges.
The Promenade deck (Deck 3) is where you'll find the promenade (rhymes with "lemonade", according to the Lady of the Lift); this is generously wide and runs around the ship at the same level (but short of the bow). Inside are the theatre circle forward and the upper dining room aft (which is reserved for fixed seating patrons) linked by a meeting rooms, shops, a cafe, another bar, and the inevitable photo gallery. The shops include only jewellery, clothing and souvenirs, spirits, makeup, perfumes and very basic pharmacy.
The Lido Deck (Deck 9) has a large open deck aft with a swimming pool and two jacuzzis, a large buffet dining area oddly named the Lido Market, another pool area with three jacuzzis and a closeable glass roof, and the ship's spa and gym forward. The spa incorporates another larger jacuzzi (styled "hydrotherapy pool") to which you can buy access for the entire cruise for a mere $250, although there was often no water in it. 1960's-70's music is relentlessly piped thoughout this deck; whilst there is plenty of good music from this era, there is some that I'd hoped never to hear again, and again, and again...
Deck 10 has an observation lounge at the front, a few verandah cabins and then mostly open deck space, although restricted by the funnel structure and the Lido closing roof, making it difficult to get from one side to the other. There is also a tiny enclosed area here for kids.
Small amounts of open deck on the Deck 11 level include a forward observation deck, a "cabana" area (where you have to pay to use small stern-facing tents) and a tennis court, none of which seemed to get used.
Cabins are mostly veranda cabins of different sizes and levels of appointments or service. We had a VB verandah cabin on Deck 10, which was adequate at about 198 square feet (18.4m2), including a bathroom with a shower over a bath big enough to sit in with your knees up. There was however a generous wardrobe, 24" TV, hair dryer, beautifully comfortable split king bed, twin settee, a phone and a fridge. The fridge deserves special mention as it was the smallest I have ever seen; not big enough to stand up a wine bottle in, and in any case pre-filled with upsell drinks that we didn't want. The TV had movie channels and news channels, plus a voyage channel with maps of the ship's position and essential navigation information like speed, course, outside temperature and wind speed, sea depth and jacuzzi temperature. We asked the steward to remove a chair as there wasn't really enough space for it. There were a couple of big mirrors to make it less claustrophobic, though!
The cabin looked out to tiny verandah (32 square feet or 3m2), which was barely big enough for two chairs and the 400mm diameter drinks table, largely because the door opened outwards. It did however have a teak deck, which was far better underfoot than plastic tiles found on other ships.
Thanks to double glazing we could only hear some wild weather or the ship's foghorn quite faintly; we occasionally heard deck chairs being dragged around above, but the cabin was generally quiet. Note that there are cabins on Deck 1 directly beneath Queen's Lounge/BB Kings, whose occupants have complained about the noise. This appears to be a design flaw.
Evening dining in the main Vista Dining Room is fixed seating upstairs and anytime dining downstairs. They like smart casual attire at all times but have a couple of so-called "gala" nights when ladies and most of the men seem to get dressed up, although men are only asked to wear a collared shirt. The restaurant is also open for breakfast and lunch, with open seating but restricted hours.
The Lido Market is essentially a posh cafeteria, with limited self-service. It is open for all meals for casual dining, although gets very crowded because service is not continuous; a lot of the time large sections are closed, and you can only get snacks. There is also a hamburger bar near the swimming pool.
Two other dining rooms offer better food and service but have to be pre-booked; the Pinnacle Grill on Deck 3 at $35pp premium serves steak or lobster, and Canaletto's serves Italian style shared meals, which didn't seem like a sensibly healthy option. It is basically a section of the Lido Market, so doesn't seem very special.
A lot is said about the food on cruises and certainly, there is no shortage of it. In common with other cruise ships, the main fare is crap; too fatty, sweet or salty for healthy eating; there is hardly any wholemeal or grain bread, few green vegetables, hardly any nuts, and "fruit" seems to mean melon and maybe a bit of pineapple. Cherries and apricots which rarely appeared in the Lido Market disappeared rapidly; apples delivered to our cabin were cold-stored and brown in the middle. The food in the Pinnacle Grill was much better, but you couldn't afford to go there every day. Coffee and tea in the dining room was awful, with cream frequently substituted for milk. Decent coffee could only be purchased at the Explorations Cafe, although you could buy grog virtually anywhere, anytime on the ship from a passing waiter or a handy bar (we were frequently offered "Bloody Marys" at breakfast time). We couldn't find decent tea anywhere, and included some Twinings teabags amongst the survival rations we had to buy ashore.
The ship has a crew complement of just over 800. We only saw the Captain once when he introduced himself and some of his officers on stage in the theatre shortly after the cruise commenced, however his daily broadcasts on the ship's PA were informative and entertaining. We found the cabin and wait staff courteous, attentive, and generally good humoured.
The same unfortunately, cannot be said of the ship's officers, who were rarely seen but made their presence known to us by using foul language in the Pinnacle Grill on the last night of our cruise. Insult was added to the offence when we discovered that no-one was going to tell us the name of the offending officer, and only a suggestion slip was offered in response to our request for a complaint form (which we dutifully filled in without much conviction that anything would come of it). Consequently we were somewhat bemused by the Cruise Director's comment the following morning that there had been few complaints! HAL have a long heritage and we were surprised that the brand is allowed to be sullied in this way; we got off the ship feeling disgusted, angry and disappointed.
Entertainment in the Vista Lounge consisted of three Vegas/music hall type song and dance nights by the "Noordam Singers and Dancers" (which were well attended) interspersed were a variety of visiting acts between ports which were much better; interestingly they were nearly all Australians (so not many of the passengers would have known what was going on). There was always an 8pm and a 10pm show so as not to interfere with dining. An entertaining performance by a Maori Troupe was sadly under-attended, but not as badly as the ports lecturer; we counted 10 people in the theatre for one of those. He was a guy that gave the impression of having read all the guide books before the lecture; spoke with a very North American "twang" and finished most of his sentences with "here". We watched a couple of movies including a HAL sponsored Arctic/Antarctic doco, which was beautifully shot but spoiled by a dumbed-down commentary which reminded us of an old Monty Python sketch.
The ship had an excellent band who seemed equally at home backing up the "Noordam Singers and Dancers" or anything else between rock and mildly classical; there was also what sounded like a great blues band and singer in a Deck 2 nightclub called BB Kings (Queen's Lounge by day). We never hung around there because the music was too loud for the space, and there was a lingering sewage smell around the entrance. A piano/violin duo played popular classics every night in one of the smaller lounges, and there was also a small but evidently well-patronised piano bar.
Apart from the Captain's daily broadcasts, information was scant. A folder delivered every evening gives the programme for the following day, plus port disembarkation/embarkation info for any port visits, and a reminder of the restaurant hours. There was no port information sheet or newsletter; we had to rely on the ports lecturer for the former, and the news channels on the cabin TV (or US newspaper minatures in one of the cafes) for the latter. The Cruise Director introduced us to the daily programme in a non-patronising sort of way, although he was clearly more enthused by the offerings than we were. We docked with Celebrity's "Solstice" and Azamara's "Journey", passed P&O's pretty little "Pacific Eden" (formerly HAL's "Statendam") and possibly Cunard's "Queen Mary 2" at sea, and sailed in company with "Carnival Legend" for almost a day without any advice from our own hosts.
There were the usual art auctions, cooking demos and some workshops for anyone interested in Windows 10, also "seminars" directed at flogging you jewellery or pumping you up with botox; there were no general interest lectures as are found on other ships. Although there was dancing nearly every night in BB Kings, there were no theme nights or anything approaching a party.
The only ship tours offered were of the kitchen, and backstage of the theatre, but they were free.
Food on board (except the Pinnacle Grill and Canaletto's), entertainment and some shore transfers are covered by the fare, and self-serve tea/coffee is available free in the Lido Market 24/7. You have to pay for just about everything else (all pices in US$):
- A port to city shuttle bus was provided free in Wellington and Picton, but we had to pay for it or use public transport in Dunedin and Melbourne. Most other stops were in town except Akaroa (which required tender transfer) with many passengers disappointed to find it is a long way from Christchurch.
- Shore excursions are about 50% dearer from HAL than you can buy them ashore. You can't always get them ashore because the NZ route is fairly busy and there may be more than one ship in port.
- Drink prices are not cheap considering it is supposed to be duty-free. Soft drinks are from $2.25 a can, beer from $5.95 a stubbie, and wine $8 or more for the quarter bottles in your fridge. Passengers are discouraged from drinking the ship's water supply or even filling bottles from the drinking water dispensers in the Lido Market (ostensibly for health reasons but probably so that they can sell it to you at $3.95 for 1½L).
- Wine prices in the restaurants start at around $35 a bottle, with most around $60-70. We declined one offering at $2300 because it was quite old and didn't even have a screw cap. Wine bought ashore is ostensibly subject to $18 per bottle corkage on re-boarding, which is shameful as we visited some premium wine producing regions, but were offered mostly over-priced Californian and Chilean wines on board.
- There are no passenger laundries on this ship. Laundry is $3 to $4 a garment, but they will do as much as you can stuff in one of their bags for $20. We were pleasantly suprised to find that this included ironing, and the individual item tally for our bag was just over $76.
- Internet access starts at $0.75 a minute, reducing if you buy larger plans. We baulked at that and bought a NZ SIM for our tablet, which was seldom out of range until we left Dunedin.
- Items in the ship's shops were cheaper than what you would expect to pay in Australia, with frequent specials on cheap watches and costume jewellery.
- Photographs which are taken of you will be offered for purchase, although the photographers are fairly unobtrusive and there's no pressure to pose or buy.
HAL have an opt-out tipping policy, meaning that your credit card will be docked $12.50 per day per person for "tipping" unless you fill in a form requesting them not to. This asks you for a reason - how about "not wanting to tip persons unknown and regardless of merit just because HAL won't pay them an adequate wage"? You can't opt out of the 15% "service charge", which is added to all beverage purchases (including coffee). Of course there is no guarantee that all (or any) of these funds are passed on anyway.
Health, Safety and Security
The Captain's daily announcements inevitably ended with an exhortation to "Wash those hands and stay healthy". Although alcohol gel dispensers are placed in the entrances to the dining rooms and at other locations throughout the ship, there was never anyone on hand to encourage their use, and a lot of people didn't bother. We both caught mild "tummy bugs" and coughing could be heard in most public areas of the ship by the end of the voyage.
Safety seemed to be important and we didn't enter Dusky Sound or Doubtful Sound, to avoid having to turn the ship across strong winds and seas. The outside decks were also closed on the previous night.
Security is fairly standard. On embarkation your luggage is taken away and x-rayed before delivery to your cabin. You are photographed and issued with a magnetic striped "cruise card", which is a combined ID card and credit card for everything that you need to pay for on the ship. You can only get on or off the ship with this card, so HAL knows who is on the ship at all times. When you board the ship, your mug shot is displayed and someone makes sure it is really you, before x-raying your hand luggage and giving you the metal detector treatment just like at an airport.
The ship has its own security staff who are unobtrusive except at the "gangplank", and there are security cameras in all public parts of the ship, including the open deck areas.
HAL sent us each an email headed "Your Opinion is Important to Us" the day after disembarkation, asking us to "take a few moments to complete a short survey". We were still in Sydney at the time so it had to wait a couple of days. I got perhaps 6-8 pages into their "short survey" in the course of three quarters of an hour or so but ran out of time; it couldn't be saved so had to be abandoned for another attempt at a later time. Four days after disembarkation another email came from HAL asking us to complete our surveys within six days; seems your opinions aren't important to them after that! A fortnight after disembarkation I had another look but the survey form had expired.
It would have been nice to tell HAL that yes, we enjoyed most of our cruise although the food was awful and a couple of the ship's officers were a disgrace to their uniform and no-one was interested enough to receive our complaint, and that no, we're unlikely to travel with HAL again or recommend the experience to anyone else. The suggestion form may still be out there, however, and it has our name and email address on it, so we live in hope. If we hear anything, it will be right here.
If you want to escape the family, aren't fussy what you eat, enjoy the company of seniors, and never complain about anything, this is the ship for YOU!