Number of Cruises: 7
Cruise Line: Holland America
Sailing Date: September 10th, 2004
Itinerary: Classic Europe
BOOKING: Our first HAL cruise was aboard the Noordam (Rome to Barcelona cruise date: May, 2002). Because of the impeccable service, great ports and overall satisfaction with that cruise, it was not a hard decision to rebook on the Noordam. The booking was easily accomplished on the telephone, with a very helpful and polite booking agent. Because we have sailed HAL before, we routinely receive both e-mail and regular mail notifications urging us to take another cruise with HAL. I asked the booking agent about the cabin class that we booked under. (We prefer to take a lower cabin, as the lower decks do not seem to rock as much as the upper decks in inclement and windy weather. We’re seldom in the cabin, anyway, so, as long as we have a porthole, we’re good.) I asked the booking agent about upgrade offers, mainly to just see what was offered. She told me that this offer would guarantee an upgrade. Fine. I didn’t ask what that amounted to. I did ask her what perks we got as members of the “Mariner’s Society”. I found out that the answer was, basically, nothing. I did tell the booking agent that we wanted a double bed. Most of my questions to the booking agent concerned the itinerary. I was assured that, yes, the cruise included a day of cruising in the Norwegian Fjords. We booked our cruise without air flights, as we wanted to spend some time in Copenhagen before the cruise and the fact that, being an airline employee, we are afforded free flights. We usually plan to go to our beginning port a few days early, as standby flying can, and does, often leave us stuck in an airport hoping to make the next flight.
PRE CRUISE AND BOARDING:
We spent a delightful 3 days in Copenhagen on our own. Not knowing the distance between the airport and port when we booked, we took the HAL airport /pier transfer option at approximately $40.00 each. What a disappointment when we later found that we could have taken a cab for approximately $6.00 (US) each! At any rate, boarding was relatively smooth. Although our luggage took a very long time to get to our cabin (which was supposed to have been upgraded), and we had twin beds instead of the double bed as promised, we considered this minor. . Shortly after arriving, I found, in between the built in dresser and one of the beds in our cabin, extensive medical records of a former occupant of our room. I began to wonder about the deep cleaning of the cabins in between cruises, as I realized that even a cursory inspection of the cabin would have located these private and confidential documents. As we could not unpack, we went to explore and take the medical records to the main office to ask that they be sent to the person to whom they belonged. As we got to the main office, we discovered a great line of angry passengers assembled there with varying complaints that their cabin was not as had been promised, was not acceptably clean, inferior furnishings and amenities, etc. We managed to drop the records off and make our exit. When we went to the Lido deck to see Copenhagen from the ship, it was interesting to see divers on the dock, diving beneath the ship. As the day wore on, it became obvious that repairs were being hastily made to the ship. As we looked forward to beginning our cruise, an announcement was made from the Captain that he had been “urgently requested” to remain in port overnight and leave on our cruise until the next day. Nothing about why. We left 22 hours late, on Saturday, the 11th of Sept. We were later told by some passengers that the reason we were delayed was because the Noordam had hit a sandbar on the way in to Copenhagen and damaged a prop. That was later confirmed when many passe
ngers watched as a piece of the prop, approximately 4 ft in size, was hauled to the surface after being cut off the prop.
22 hours late, we left Copenhagen and arrived in Oslo, Norway the next morning. Tours were available, however, because it was Sunday, very, very few establishments were open, leaving the only opportunity for souvenirs the pier side shops that offered typical tacky merchandise at inflated prices.
At Sea: Turbulent weather, high seas and winds. Many seasick passengers.
Although we were supposed to go to Antwerp, Belgium, this was not to be. We encountered very rough seas and high winds. The next day, we were told that we would not be able to make port at Antwerp, but would instead go to Zeebrugge, Belgium. Shore excursions were hurriedly changed and chosen. We had planned our excursion to Brussels. The trip to Ghent was picturesque, but was a poor substitute for Brussels.
We were up at 5:00 a.m. and in the Admiral’s Lounge, ready for our much anticipated trip to Paris. It was only then that we were informed that there would be no trips to Paris. We were told that we were 12 hours behind schedule and would not arrive in port to allow time for the longer shore excursions. We had encountered some bad whether, yes, but, seemed to “lose” the 12 hours after we had weathered the worst of the storms and winds. At that point, the Noordam became a vessel of approximately 1,200 absolutely livid passengers. There was a small number of passengers on board that had cruised for a very specific reason. They were elderly persons, some of whom had literally saved for this trip for a long period of time. They were on somewhat of a pilgrimage. They had fought on the beaches of Normandy, during the D Day invasion. They came to go back to pay their respects to their fallen brothers. They were told, as well, that they would not be going. The majority of the passengers on board had considered visiting Paris as one, maybe the most important, reason for booking this cruise, however the disappointment we all felt for ourselves paled as the story of these passenger’s loss circulated around the ship. Most passengers even decided that, as a group, we would agree to completely abort the next port, Vigo, Spain, and stay longer at LeHarve to allow these heroes to complete their mission. Someone went to the Captain, I am told, and asked if this might be accomplished. The answer was a resounding “NO”. (Seems that most requests to the staff ended with “NO”) This was hard to understand, as most of us understood that port changes are not at all completely unheard of, and apparently very easy to achieve. Maybe that only works when it is convenient to HAL. At any rate, it is my understanding that these persons did not get to make their trip. Because of the complete and total disgust at the treatment of these persons, not to mention the disappointment of other passengers and earlier problems with the cruise, many, many e-mails were generated from the ship to the administration of HAL. I did get an answer to mine – basically that my concerns were noted, however, due to the volume of complaints directly from the Noordam, they could not address the issues at that time. Despite the promise that they would “fully respond” to my concerns at a later time, I am still awaiting their response, 2 weeks after our return home. Our alternate shore excursion was a great disappointment. We went Honfleur, France. Although is a beautiful, quaint little town, we were taken there by the tour bus, unceremoniously dumped, and left for 2 ½ hours before the bus reappeared. Our tour guide was quite apologetic, however. He had been just as shocked as the passengers. He and the driver were at the pier at 6:00 a.m. to pick us up for the trip to Paris. There was no ship at the pier. The staff of HAL had simply not notified the tour providers of the interruption of the shore excursions. Our guide was prepared for a Paris tour. He knew virtually nothing about Honfleur. We, therefore, were transported, dumped and left to our own devices to see the sights.
By this time, there were few happy people on board. Several couples told me personally that they planed to just leave the cruise and fly home when we reached Lisbon. I understand that some passengers actually did follow through with that plan.
We were told, by the Captain, that we would again be late to our next port, Vigo, Sprain. We, however, arrived on time. Strangely, since all of the complaints from the ship to HAL, the communication from the Captain to the passengers (almost non-existent up until this time) abruptly changed. For the rest of the cruise, we had reports and updates from the Captain several times a day. At this port, we saw a glimmer of change in the cruise. We had a great shore excursion to the beautiful Parador in Bayona (a 14th century castle renovated into a beautiful state owned hotel) overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful blue Ria de Vigo below and to the ruins of an Iron
Lisbon was a very interesting and picturesque port. Not necessarily a place that I would visit again, but still, quite interesting and lovely.
One of the absolute highlights of the cruise. Beautiful and historical. Our tour guide was a history writer and was absolutely passionate with his love for and knowledge of his home.
This has never been a favorite city for me. It was, however, quite impressive to many other passengers.
If there is a fairy land on earth, this is it. We could not stop at Monte Carlo as planned, but anchored in the bay at Ville Franche’, France. This beautiful little paradise was an added bonus, despite being another deviation from our itinerary. Only about 30 minutes from Monte Carlo, this change resulted in a beautiful 30 minute ride to Monte Carlo along the beautiful French Rivera. Monte Carlo has an atmosphere and flavor that simply can’t be found anywhere else on earth. We have traveled extensively in the Mediterranean and have seen many beautiful sights. This place, however, somehow exudes such gentleness, pride and warmth that one could be happy there for a long, long time. The people of Monte Carlo still show a great respect and love for their deceased Princess, Grace, over 20 years after her untimely death. The absolute jewel in the crown of the Med.
What can be said about this Eternal City that has not already been said? Despite the terrible traffic, pick pockets, often perceived intensity of the Italian people, who could not want to visit this place over and over again? Each time there, we have discovered sights and learned facts about the Roman Empire that we didn’t know before. The city itself, coupled with the remarkable St. Peters’ Basilica and Vatican City make you understand that this is not a place to be seen in one day. This place must be visited solely and apart from any other place. This city must be explored, felt, respected and appreciated. One should spend more than a little time studying the Roman history to understand and appreciate the great significance and remarkable accomplishments of those ancient architects, artists, sculptors, and great minds of the day. This city literally makes history come alive. You are there, walking the same paths of those Emperors (whether good or bad as history might record), touching the same structures, imagining how incredible it must have been when the buildings were in tact and these ruins were a bustling center of civilization. I confess, I have a great passion for Rome.
CONDITION OF THE NOORDAM:
We chose this cruise because of the variety we felt the itinerary offered. Having cruised on the Noordam previously, we had no hesitation whatsoever about doing it again. This time, however, it had changed dramatically. The ship was not nearly as clean as two years ago. We got the impression that, because the Noordam had only 5 cruises left after ours, HAL had no real interest in what happened - whether to the ship or to the passengers. The windows were disgustingly dirty, laundry facilities were scarce (only 7 machines to serve 1200 passengers at times created hostility among passengers). To do a load of laundry was a time consuming commitment, as you had to literally stay in the cramped laundry facilities in order to claim your place in line and stay during the time your laundry was being done. Some passengers simply put their things in and left. When they weren’t back at the end of the cycle, their clothing was simply removed from the machine and piled on the top to allow the next person to use the facilities. On our next cruise, we will take advantage of the expensive but easier on board laundry service. The ship had a continual vibration for the entire duration of the ship, especially at the port side stern area. Some of the passengers said that the damaged prop was the problem.
Public areas were adequate for a smaller ship and given the age of the Noordam, appropriate. The Admiral's Lounge continues to be a terrible place to try to watch entertainment, as there are only a few seats available that offer a decent view. Otherwise, you will be getting a view only of the back of the person's head in front of you. It was easy enough to find a quite place to read. Many times I sat alone on the upper promenade deck reading until late afternoon, when it seems most everyone tries to get their 5 laps for a daily mile.
THE STAFF AND CREW:
Staff really did not seem to have any feeling at all for the passengers, nor did they try to make amends for all of the problems on the cruise. The shore excursion staff seemed to discount the passenger’s disappointment and frustration at the terrible first week of the cruise, their response to one passenger that I overheard being something to the tune of: “Oh, this nothing. We had a terrible cruise about 2 weeks ago. Everything went wrong”. There was no apology from the Cruise Director and no real apology or explanation of all of the problems from the Captain. The Captain only insisted that all of the problems were totally weather related (the passengers, however, all agreed that most of the problems were more closely related to the fact that we were under way with an unbalanced prop, which we felt was a great hindrance to the ship maintaining the proper speed to achieve all of the ports.) He did, however, attempt to make a lame gesture at appeasement. Each passenger was offered a free glass of wine at dinner! Some of the passengers asked for a beer instead, but were told that that would not be allowed. Wine or nothing! The service staff, however, was very congenial, hard working and outgoing.
Communication between the staff and passengers (especially the Captain) was almost non-existent until after all of the complaints were e-mailed to HAL. Most of the first week of the cruise, we were seldom informed of what body of water we were in, what land masses we were passing, etc. We had cleared the Dover Straits before we even knew we were there. After the complaints, there was an amazing change. The Captain and cruise director were on the PA system several times daily giving passengers updates. Just a shame that that must not be the normal procedure. It should not have taken complaints to the home office to make this change.
The food was unremarkable. Not nearly as good or inviting as any other cruise I have ever taken. We chose to eat in the formal dining room only 4 nights during this 14 day cruise. We had been assured that we would have the early seating, even though we were on the waiting list at the time we booked. That did not happen. For most meals, we ate from the line in the Lido. There was a lot or repetition of dishes, but the food was reasonably good, reasonably presented, faster, more casual and just easier. A 2 hour dinner each night is not our idea of relaxing.
Lunch outside on the Lido, though was another adventure altogether. I have some serious reservations about the cleanliness of that little facility. The food was just not good. The most disturbing thing was that we and another passenger were served moldy bread. Maybe this was just the last straw for me. That was the end of my hamburger/hot dog meals on board.
As I mentioned, we are not terribly fond of the 2 hour meal each evening. Nor do we get excited about the “look at me” nights. When we travel, we go to relax. A tux and heavy sequined dress is just not what we want to do. Many passengers seemed to have the same attitude and skip those evenings in the dining room. Formal or semi formal dress being required to enter the dining room for no less than 3 nights was just a bit much. Thankfully, however, there was an alternative. I will not criticize too heavily, as I believe that this is a matter for each person to decide for themselves.
Will we sail HAL again? Probably not. Although we encountered many frustrating problems, I understand that weather can play havoc with an itinerary. I do believe, however, that a great percentage of our problems were more attributable to problems with the ship than HAL was ready to accept or admit. My main reason for not planning to sail with HAL again is their unspeakable callous disregard for those passengers that sailed to return to the Normandy Beaches. These men were heroes. These men helped to secure the freedom of the very country we were in. Passengers on the ship were willing to give up the next port in order to allow these persons to return to pay their respects to those that they fought shoulder to shoulder with, but did not come home. I cannot imagine treating these persons in any such way. That is my main reason to choose another cruise line. The very least that HAL should do is to take those men and their wives back to Normandy at HAL’s expense. Most of the passengers thought, and each person that I have told of our experience has opined, that HAL owes ALL of the passengers some sort of concession in repayment of all for the problems. Even though I heartily agree that the passengers of this ship were treated shabbily by HAL, I would be most satisfied if HAL would do the right thing for that very small group of passengers that were disappointed the most. I would speculate that most of the other passengers will have the opportunity to sail again in the future, but I don’t know about this small group. Most of these persons were over the age of 80, some with walkers, some obviously becoming fragile. I do plan to write HAL and hope the other 1200 passengers do so as well. I hope that anyone reading this long, long review will understand our feelings and disappointment. I also hope that you will determine the places you want to visit and check to see if another cruise line can take you there.