Holland America Improves on a Long Tradition

Crew on gangway of Holland America's ship Noordam
Smiling crew always welcome you back to Noordam--Photo by Wallace Immen

WALLACE IMMEN, aboard the Noordam in the Mediterranean

Near the end of my 10-day cruise aboard Holland America Linesship Noordam, there was a party for the line’s repeat passengers. Some have logged hundreds of days at sea on “the dam ships,” a reference to the fact that all the ships names end in -dam, Dutch for dike. They said a big part of why they keep coming back is because of HAL’s traditional touches of elegance and personal service. Their verdict on this cruise seemed to be that there was even more of what they like. And I could agree with them for many reasons:

Holland America’s Signature of Excellence:

Retro touches

Holland America loves tradition. After all it’s been sailing proudly for well over a century.

Noordam is actually the fourth liner to bear the name. Why they don’t call it Noordam IV to make it clear this is the new and improved version, no one on the staff could seem to explain. It’s tradition.

Carrying 1,900 guests, it’s a ship that until a few years ago would have been considered mammoth, but with so many new supersize ships carrying twice that number having entered service in the past couple of years, it’s now considered mid-size. It’s a very comfortable size.; big enough to offer multiple choices for dining and recreation and small enough to be easy to get around.

In a salute to ships of a bygone era, Noordam’s lounges feature touches such as Delft tiles and oil paintings and antiques from past liners.

A retro uniform on bell boy aboard Holland America's Noordam
A retro red bell boy uniform matches the feel of Noordam-Photo by Wallace Immen

The bellboys wear red uniforms and pillbox hats that seem straight out of a 1950s advertisement.. Instead of saying “Call for Phillip Morris,” one of the HAL bellboys rings a chime to indicate dinner times. Other uniforms are just as nautically sharp, even including tailored outfits for the crew polishing the brass.

The promenade deck with its oak deck lounge chairs are another reminder of classic liners. Holland America’s are among the few modern cruise ships to feature wraparound teak decks on the promenade level.

Scuplture aboard Holland America's ship Noordam
Entrees are made to order in Noordam's Lido Cafe

High standards for cuisine

The offerings at every meal, from the breakfast buffet to the alternative dining Le Cirque were skillfully prepared and seasoned.

Ditto for maintenance

Even though the ship is five years old, it appeared as immaculate as the day it started service. In every port, crews were out painting the hull and varnishing the rails and inside, carpets were cleaned religiously.

Some new things I like:

Le Cirque

An alternative dining experience that recreates the menu of legendary Le Cirque restaurant in New York was a memorable experience that not many passengers got to experience, as it is offered only once per cruise. Those who hadn’t booked before boarding the ship found that they couldn’t even get on the waiting list. It’s worth the  effort and the $39 a person extra charge.

Champaagne poured in Le Cirque alternative dining room on Noordam
Champagne is appropriate for dining at Le Cirque

Open seating dining

Noordam still has sections of its main Vista Dining Room with assigned tables to dine either at 5:30 or 8 pm. But now you can also opt to dine at any time up to 9:30. I found that there were many Europeans used to dining late and tables for two were difficult to come by after 8:30. As many restaurants on land now do, they give you a pager to let you know when a table becomes free.

Culinary Arts Center

The success of a theatre with a stage designed for cooking demonstrations on Holland America’s newest ships, Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam, led to adding similar rooms on Noordam and several other Holland America ships. The daily shows become highlights of the cruise and in the evening, the room transforms into a movie house for first-run films.

Some things that need work:

Service efficiency

The service seemed to be a little less choreographed than it has been on my previous Holland America cruises. Often our stewards didn’t show up to clean our stateroom until after noon. In the dining room one evening, I asked to confer with the sommelier about a wine and was told the only one was in another dining room. I suspected that some staff were filling in for colleagues who were on vacation.

The crunch at lunch

The kitchen became overwhelmed on days when a lot of tours arrived back to the ship around 1 p.m. Rather than planning to make extra in advance, once the salad bars and some entrees and desserts were cleaned out, they were not replenished.

Bartenders on Holland America's Noordam
Ronald and Leo make you feel like family at Noordam's Ocean Bar

But the glitches were minor in the context of a remarkably smooth cruise. Many things just seem to have gotten better with time. And the crew makes you feel like a part of the family, whether you are a newcomer or a long-time repeat passenger. I realized that change on this line is really about an evolution that is as complete but subtle as the changing hues of the beautiful crystal chandelier in the ship’s central atrium. Its fiber-optic lighting imperceptibly shifts through the course of an hour from silver to green to blue to gold. By the end, you realize everything is different, but the substance remains the same. And that’s the secret to staying at the cutting edge while maintaining a great tradition.

Holland America Line's logo on a deck chair
Holland America's logo on deck chairs reflects over a century of tradition

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