Holland America (tel. 877/724-5425; www.hollandamerica.com) is the quiet older brother in the family of big-ship cruise lines. It's the steady, predictable sibling who's comfortable and easy to be around.
Take the line's newest ship, the Noordam. It's a refreshing alternative to ships that try too hard to "wow" passengers with wacky gimmicks. You won't find a surfing machine or a bowling alley on this ship, but instead spacious public areas and cabins in pleasing, easy-on-the eyes color schemes. The ship's dark navy-blue hull and lovely tiered stern decks recall the sleek ocean liners of long ago.
As the fourth and last ship in Holland America's Vista-class and the fourth vessel in the company's 133-year-long history to bear the name, the 1,918-passenger Noordam is classic HAL. Compared to the Zuiderdam, the first in the Vista series and HAL's experiment with flashier décor, the Noordam brings the line back to its more traditional roots.
Fabrics and carpeting are a palate of classic wine reds, dark blues and earth tones, with just a hint of zany, seen in the silver framed benches in the elevator landings and in the Pinnacle Grill. Antiques, artwork and floral arrangements throughout the ship lend a warm, vaguely academic feeling reminiscent of a university club or a country estate.
Highlights include the glamorous two-level main dining room, a throwback space with dark woods and a cozy living room-like feeling. It's one of the most attract restaurants at sea. For something more intimate in size, you'll likely have your best meal on the ship in the 130-seat Pinnacle Grill, with its bright white linens and striking Bvlgari place settings. Dishes range from Dungeness crab cakes to a classic filet mignon. Reservations are suggested and dinner is $20 per person.
For casual meals, the lido buffet restaurant is cleverly divided into multiple serving stations and attractive seating areas for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A row of buttery leather recliners faces wraparound windows in the panoramic Crow's Nest lounge, yet another appealing space designed in rich woods and fabrics.
Heading to the outside decks, a ho-hum pool area is set amidships on the Lido deck with a retractable roof, but the better spot is at the stern, where the pool and deck chairs are privy to the open sea and the ship's wake.
But as old world as the ship looks and acts in many ways ---from the formal high tea service to the wraparound outdoor promenade deck and the paintings of classic HAL ships in the stairways --- the Noordam isn't backwards by any means. In fact, the ship offers some pretty cool cutting edge features.
All cabins are outfitted with a flat screen TV and DVD player, massage showerhead, and extra thick bedding, bathrobes and towels. Most have balconies.
No doubt, every other cruise line in town is going to be shamelessly copying the Explorations Café. Part Internet center, library, café and gathering place, the Starbucks-like space is centrally located and one of the ship's main hubs.
Another popular recreation venue is the demonstration kitchen. Complete with flat panel TVs around the room, it shares space with the cushy Queen's Lounge and typically two free cooking demos are hosted per week.
Other innovative activities spicing up standards like ballroom dance lessons, trivia games, and wine tastings, include a self-guided iPod tour of the ship's art collection.
Though traditionally a line catering to older folks, HAL has made efforts in recent years to appeal to families and cruisers of all ages. For kids 3 to 17, the Noordam has two bright playrooms, plus a teen center and a video arcade. Complimentary supervised activities for ages 3 to 12 are offered on sea days between 9am and 10pm (though closed over lunch and dinner); and for limited hours on port days. Between 10pm and midnight, afterhours group babysitting is offered for a nominal hourly fee. Private in-cabin babysitting may also be available from off-duty crew members at a rate of $8 per hour for the first child ($5 for siblings). Teen activities may run as late as 1am.
Adjacent to the large spa and well-equipped gym, is an appealing hydrotherapy pool and lounge area; a perfect place to hide out while the kids are busy in the playroom. A movie theater, piano bar, disco, casino and sports bar round out the entertainment offerings.
Between May and September, 10-night Mediterranean cruises sail round-trip out of Rome/Civitavecchia. Fall through April, 10- and 11-night Caribbean cruises are round-trip out of New York City.
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