By Robert N. Jenkins
A vivacious senior from Victoria, Australia, told us she loves the concept of "open seating,'' meaning passengers can opt to show up in the main restaurant at anytime during dining hours and be assigned to "big round tables, like this one'' where, she said, she could join multiple conversations.
Other passengers on my recent cruise aboard the Holland America ship combined the Mediterranean cruise with a series of continuing-education courses in professional specialties.
Or you could choose a vessel simply for its itinerary, as did a Memphis couple who brought their 18-year-old twins and 21-year-old daughter on this trip.
"We've cruised in the Caribbean three times, all on Royal Caribbean,'' explained Scott Vogel," and on board there was a lot more for the family to do,'' than on the more-sedate Noordam.
Like other Holland America ships, it boasts centuries-old antiques – you can even check out an iPod guided tour to the artworks -- and a clubby library/computer area, rather than Royal Caribbean’s frenetic pace, rock-climbing walls, ice skating rinks and wave pools.
"But I wanted the kids to concentrate on the ports of call this time. And they have loved it.''
As have Vogel and his wife Stacy, both 48.
"Timing of the trip, prices and trying something new are what is important to us,'' he added. "My wife and I take four or five long weekends a year, but for big trips, cruising is now a major option -- especially if you want a taste of places you might want to go back to.''
So this cruise was a good choice. It offered seven ports in nine days -- including an overnight stop in bustling Barcelona, plus a day at sea while sailing between charming Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and exotic Tunis, Tunisia.
The Med is now busy in the summer with cruise ships that in the past were usually based in North America. On my sailing, the Noordam played tag with Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, a Celebrity ship, two from Costa and one from MSC cruise lines – up to four vessels in port at the same time. Holland America Line (HAL), a dominant player in the Alaska market every summer, this year had six of its 15 ships in European waters.
Beyond day trips around Monte Carlo and Nice, or Florence, Pisa and medieval Tuscan hill villages, what do cruisers get on the 1,924-passenger Noordam? A few HAL trademarks, plus the occasional new offering.
Among the standards are the extremely popular Explorations Cafe, with its 20 computer stations, lending library, too-small speciality coffee stand and sleep-inducing Eames chairs. The small theater that originally doubled as a live music venue and Culinary Arts (food-prep) demonstration center, now has increased offerings.
It screens recent Hollywood releases (they are looped the following day on the TVs in all cabins). And specialists now show how to mix cocktails, keep a travel journal, hold food-related trivia contests and arrange cut flowers (Holland America ships have a florist on board to update the handsome arrangements in public spaces).
Broader-topic trivia completions also take place, sometimes twice a day, in the 10th-deck Crow's Nest lounge, where recliners face floor-to-ceiling windows at the bow of the ship. While there also is live music in the evenings, the Crow's Nest is a better place to relax with a book or a laptop than the Explorations Cafe because it has less daytime traffic.
Perhaps the defining tradition of Holland America is its service. Cabin stewards and dining room staff are chiefly Filipino or Indonesian. New hires attend a "college'' in either of those countries for four weeks, learning not just to perform their duties in mock-ups of the onboard locations, but also to learn conversational English and to be outgoing.
It is standard practice for a cabin steward to wave to passengers whom he recognizes in the corridor, then to enquire about their plans for the day. In the dining rooms, waiters and bar staff remember drink and food preferences -- "Whole wheat toast again, Madame?''.
My waiter for two dinners in the Italian specialty restaurant Canaletto recognized me walking through the pool-deck restaurant one morning and called out "Buongiorno!'' When I asked him about working at this other restaurant he smiled broadly and said, "This is my office in the daytime, Canaletto at night -- and I sleep there, too.''
The wait staff has plenty to be cheery about. As have other cruise lines over the past 15 years or so, Holland America has recruited a number of celebrity chefs to formulate menus for the fleet. HAL's Culinary Council boasts among its members Charlie Trotter, who has won 10 James Beard Foundation honors, new Harlem hotshot Marcus Samuelson, and Jonnie (cq) Boer, chef/owner of a Dutch restaurant awarded three Michelin stars.
Noordam Executive Chef Thomas Schuman told me that the line has 14 employees who train on shore with the Culinary Council members, then bring those techniques on board. Occasionally the Council chefs will come aboard to see how their ideas translate in the real world of preparing up to 950 dinners, within two hours, for the main dining room.
To be sure the food is fresh, "We buy 60-70 percent of our food from European suppliers and bake about 70 percent of our products,’’ explained Schuman. Any U.S.-sourced food must be ordered about two months in advance.
The main dining room, the Vista, is the location for one of the line’s recent innovations, an “international dinner’’ at which passengers may mix menu options from four world regions. There are enough choices to create more than 250 different three-course dinners.
That’s could challenge Schuman and his galley crew of 133. But it might be one more reason – the food options – to decide to cruise.
If you go
The 6-year-old Noordam features four basic cabin categories, with a total of nine variations, most having to do with square footage as dictated by location on the ship. The ships counts its 1,924 lower berths as capacity, but with extra beds in many cabins, my cruise sailed with 2,137 passengers. It never seemed crowded.
Fares are determined by the specific cabin, itinerary and time of year. Noordam remains in the Mediterranean until sailing in mid-October to Fort Lauderdale. From there, it will sail 10- to 21-day Caribbean trips, into next spring.
For specifics on prices and itineraries, contact a travel agent or go to www.hollandamerica.com.
Former Tampa Bay Times Travel Editor Robert N. Jenkins has written about nearly 70 ships.
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