Auckland greets me with a grey and dull overcast day but that doesn't take away from the fact that I am about to spend a week venturing around our beautiful country on the Ms Noordam, one of Holland America Cruiselines recent additions to the South Pacific market.
The boarding process at Queens Wharf is efficient if somewhat slow, but obviously with boarding a ship this size there is always going to be queues and paperwork. Regardless, it is very well organised and I am pretty much on board within about 20-30 minutes of walking into the building. The staff are everywhere on the boat to assist you as this is the “getting to know the boat” afternoon with passengers wandering around, some looking lost and others looking like they built the boat themselves (probably repeat clients). Within about 10 minutes of getting to my stateroom there is a knock on the door and I am greeted by Ahmad, my room attendant who gives me his card, checks that he is saying my name correctly and advises me that if I need anything to ask for him. Very friendly and a great way to make you feel at home on the boat.
Ten minutes later I open the door to head out on my ship walkabout to find my bag waiting outside the door, far quicker than I had anticipated. I put off the unpacking and head out to take a wander. The Noordam is a “Vista” class ship which is a medium sized vessel accommodating just under 2000 passengers. This for me, is the ideal size. Not so big to be overwhelming but not so small that you keep seeing the same people every day. After about 30-45 minutes I was pretty confident in my ability to navigate around the ship and had pretty much ascertained which levels had what facilities and areas without too much trouble. As with most ships there are maps located at all of the elevators and stairwells so it is pretty difficult to get totally lost. Although at first the stateroom levels could be a little confusing (after and evening of dinner and a few drinks) once you figure out the bow from the stern you wouldn’t have any trouble finding your room after the first day.
We meet our fellow agents and travellers for a drink at 7.00pm and follow this up with dinner in the main dining room. This evening I partake in “Open dining” with my dining companions being an Australian couple that are on their 3rd cruise with Holland America. The main vista dining lounge is located on the lower decks at the rear of the ship and is surprisingly quiet considering its location (having experienced the exact opposite on a previous cruise). The service, food and company is great and makes for a most enjoyable first evening on board.
DAY TWO- Tauranga/Mt Maunganui
We dock early at Mount Maunganui, in fact so early that when I open my curtains expecting to see the ocean at 5.45am we are already sitting beside the wharf, tied up. The ship is a lot smoother and quieter than I have expected for this first night and this can only be to the advantage of the guests on board. Yes, there is the expected vibrations and noises, we are on a cruise ship after all, but I am pleasantly surprised by the quiet and uninterrupted night. The announcement comes over that we are docked and guests are welcome to disembark at their leisure
The Lido Market (the main a la carte dining area) is already busy at 6.30am as I wander through on my way to the pool at the back of the ship. The outdoor Lido dining area is nowhere near as busy as inside surprisingly so a quick morning dip to wake up doesn't seem to bother anyone. The ship has two outdoor pools, both on the same lido deck 9 of the ship. One on the stern deck open area is small but gets the most sun and the midship pool is covered with a retractable roof which allows for shelter in the case of too much or too little sun. Both are small but more than sufficient for a cooling waking up swim and both are surrounded by 2-3 hot tubs which get frequently more use as we head south and the weather gets chillier. It’s a beautiful day in Tauranga but a slightly chilly early morning breeze is blowing which I suspect is keeping some people inside for now. Never the less I follow the crowd out into the sunshine to investigate Mount Maunganui. They turn the appropriate weather on for us, following the herd for a walk up the mount is hard work but well worth it when we are greeting with the surrounding scenery.
Mount Maunganui Township is buzzing, and the cafes and bars are all open and ready to go for the arrival of the ship, even this early. I sample some local coffee, which is of course a big step up from the espresso style coffee on the ship (sorry Holland America). With an early start comes an early finish and I'm back at the ship by 2.30pm with tired feet, for a swim and laze around on the Lido deck.
Dinner this evening is with the group of agents that are on the trip with me, in Canaletto, the speciality Italian Restaurant on board. A few of us meet in the Crow’s Nest bar for a pre-dinner drink where to my delight I discover that they serve my favourite bourbon and the barman Nestor knows how to pour it to my liking. The Canaletto dining concept is a mix of small and large sharing plates (the original Italian style of family eating) which is a great way for fellow travellers to meet and share their enjoyment of good Italian food. Unfortunately for a group of 35 Travel agents it doesn't work so well and we all end up ordering far too much food between all of us. But this is not really problem as we are all hungry after our day out and about and the food is delicious and immaculately presented. Specialty restaurants, I think, are often one of the best things about a cruise. Although they are an extra cost to passengers they are generally amazing value considering that you are often getting world class cuisine designed by some of the best chefs in the world at a fraction of the normal cost. Canaletto is possibly not the best example of this but it is by far one the best dining experiences on the ship and I would gladly pay to go back again and again on a cruise of this length.
We finish the day with an evening show a very talented Australian singer songwriter/guitarist who, despite having a considerably smaller audience with the later show still manages to get us all moving and keep the crowd happy with a mixture of classics and new hits. The 9pm late happy hour at the Crow’s nest bar helps wind up our evening with a nightcap. (Plus the added advantage of a barman who already knows our beverage of choice)
DAY THREE- Napier
Despite more of a rolling night than the previous I have a good sleep and wake reasonably early to find us heading along the cost on a slightly more overcast and grey day. As we head further along and inland there are more whitecaps appearing and definitely the first decent swell of our trip. Despite this the Noordam seems to handle this fine and most passengers appear to be going about their business unconcerned about the rougher morning. We are due to dock at Napier, my hometown, at 12.00 lunchtime today.
Apparently there are limited shuttles available into town and no foot traffic allowed in the port area so venturing into town could take a little longer depending on your plans. I have an afternoon of catching up with family planned so am happy to let the first time visitors to Napier get off before I manage to get a ticket for a shuttle bus nearer 1.00pm and am out the door on a bus within 15 minutes. Napier turns on its usual show of Art Deco fanfare for the visitors and the weather which comes right not long after we arrive.
I finish my day with drinks and dinner with some of our group in the main vista lounge where as usual the service (even at almost 9pm) is friendly and efficient and the food delicious.
DAY FOUR- Wellington
Wellington turns on a beautiful morning for our arrival at 10.00am and pretty much stays the same for the whole day. This is our longest day in port with the ship not departing until 11pm that evening and Wellington was a great choice, allowing the guests to soak up the best Wellington has to offer almost all day. Again, a very efficient shuttle system from the boat gets us into town within 20 minutes of joining the departing queues on the lower deck of the ship.
I take full advantage of this full day in my second home and spend the afternoon and evening catching up with friends in the city and waterfront. I finally manage to make it back to the ship on one of the last evening shuttles at around 9.30pm, even having time to swing by the lido restaurant once on board, to grab an evening snack before heading to bed.
DAY FIVE- Picton
After my late night in Wellington I decide to try the room service option on board instead of making the trip along to the restaurant or up to the Lido deck. A quick phone call and a breakfast of Salmon benedict with Orange juice and Coffee is apparently on its way to me in approximately 30-40 minutes. About 20 minutes later I get a phone call asking if my food has arrived (which it had not) and apologising for the delay. I was in no way worried and in no hurry to eat but within the next 5 minutes there is a knock on the door and a waiter enters my cabin with a giant tray of food. I eat on my deck looking out over the Marlborough sounds and the food is delicious. They have also included toast and spreads with my breakfast as an added bonus and this all makes for a very relaxing (if early) start to my day in Picton. A follow up call to check that my meal was satisfactory just adds to the little touches that are part of cruising with Holland America.
DAY SIX- Akaroa
An early arrival at 6.30am to Akaroa harbour, I awaken to what I can only assume is the sound of the anchors being dropped and open my curtains to take in the surrounding Akaroa harbour. Despite the sounds of the anchor system being quite loud it takes away nothing from the beauty of our location. In fact a lot of people are already out on their decks like me, watching and listening to the proceedings of anchoring this huge vessel to the bottom of the ocean. This was my first time experiencing tender transfers to the shore from a cruise ship and the process was smooth and efficient and made for a far more interesting experience than a bus trip from the wharf. The tender boats felt safe, secure and professionally run. Akaroa is a stunning little seaside town and was in full swing early, awaiting the influx of passengers from the ship. If anything, the fact that the whole water front was covered with buses and tour operators took a little away from the experience of the place itself. But once the first few hours of tenders had finished and the majority of passengers were out and about it became a much more enjoyable place to spend the day. I opted to spend the day wandering around Akaroa and headed back to the boat in the early afternoon.
My last night on board the Ms Noordam was a quiet one, choosing to dine in the main Lido area outside so as to soak up a little of the passing scenery as we left the Akaroa harbour. A visit to the BB King Blues Club saw out my evening with some great sounding jazz and blues over a final drink for the trip.
After seven fantastic days on board the MS Noordam it is very difficult to make any real criticism about the ship. The staff are fantastic, the food is great and the general efficiency and organisation with which the ship is run is amazing. The décor could be described by some as a little tired (and in places worn) but this is largely due to the age of ship. This happens with all cruise liners (as with hotels), which is why the boats are refurbished regularly, the Noordam being due for this in 2019. But this takes nothing away from the classic elegance that Holland America pride themselves on and this boat is a perfect example of why this works so well for them, particularly with the American market. The rooms are a little smaller than some ships of a similar size I have been lucky enough to see (for couples) but we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see more types of cabins due to how busy the ship was.
On the plus side, these were the first cruise ship cabins I have seen with a bath, which I personally liked and I imagine may also appeal to some of the clientele of Holland America. The attention to detail that comes with higher end cruises is always present on board a Holland America ship, from the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff to the presentation of the meals. And all without being over the top but with a subtle class that still makes you aware of the quality that the company presents to its customers.
Coffee and food? If I had to make an observation it would be about the coffee on board the ship. It surprised me that all of the espresso made coffee on board was done by machine. It is understandable that this is the most efficient and easiest way for staff to present this, but the inclusion of a Barista in the Explorers’ Café (a small central café on the 5th floor which was the only place to buy espresso coffee during the day) would go a long way to possibly making the experience of a good coffee and bite to eat that little bit more enjoyable. Apart from that, the food in all areas of the ship was exceptional and the ease with which all dietary requirements could be met was pleasantly surprising. The style of food and service on board has an American authenticity and feel (it is an American cruise line after all) which may not necessarily suit all tastes, but the quality and variety of food would surely make up for any biases that this style of service may present.
For the right person Holland America Ms Noordam represents a good value, mid-size ship luxury cruise holiday for those that enjoy the feel of old fashioned cruising, with a relaxed yet stylish experience.