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Groups on Cruises: Crossing the Atlantic

I was fortunate to have participated in seven fine cruises and new-ship inaugural events during the past year, which, if nothing else, provides added evidence that the industry as a whole is continuing to meet and exceed the expectations of its guests in providing memorable vacations.

I was particularly interested to see how well Holland America Line’s (HAL’s) service, food and programming stacked up on a 15-night fall transatlantic crossing from Rome (Civitavecchia) to Fort Lauderdale of its 2005-built, 82,000-ton MS Noordam. I am pleased to report that HAL’s product passed muster with flying colors, making for as fine a “premium” cruise experience as I’ve enjoyed within recent memory.

First, Noordam is simply a beautiful ship, spotlessly maintained. I particularly appreciated the classy, traditional decor that recalls the elegance of the golden age of ocean travel much more than the ambiance of a Las Vegas casino resort, which, it seems, is much more likely to be found at sea these days.

As a dedicated buff of historic seagoing vessels and with all due respect to the latest megaliners, I just prefer ships that look like ships, both inside and out. Noordam’s captain, Jeroen Van Donselaar, a Dutchman who exhibits an impressive air of quiet professionalism, told me that this was the last in the line’s fleet to be decorated in this manner before more “contemporary” furnishings were adopted for more recent builds. So if restful surroundings appeal, this is the ship for you.

Furthermore, my Deck 7 veranda stateroom was well designed and equipped, spacious and very comfortable.

Beyond physical appearances, however, Noordam’s ever-friendly and helpful staff provided exceptional service, a wide selection of uniformly delicious food and an extensive program of onboard activities, enrichment lectures, culinary demonstrations and quality entertainment to keep everyone occupied and smiling throughout our 10 days at sea. Special events like a Mediterranean deck barbecue; the Azores Port, Wine and Cheese Market buffet; an Atlantis Found Party on the bow beneath the bridge; and several evening stargazing events also added substantially to the overall mix.

The itinerary included four well-chosen ports of call: Alicante, Malaga and Cadiz, all in Spain, as well as Ponta Delgada in Portugal’s Azores. I purchased shore excursions for the stops in Cadiz (to Seville, surely one of the most beautiful cities in the world) and Ponta Delgado.

I don’t quite understand why more group coordinators, especially those who cater to an older membership base that has the time available for a slightly longer trip, do not take advantage of Atlantic crossings like this one. Almost all of the well-known lines must reposition ships between the Caribbean and Europe before and after the summer and early fall seasons in the Baltic and Mediterranean, and invariably offer them at what are truly bargain rates.

Yes, such sailings normally include only three to five (usually interesting) ports of call and have a preponderance of days at sea, but all the better for travelers to simply relax and enjoy the splendid, nonstop array of things to do aboard today’s large cruise liners. Again, though, the prices charged for these crossings are amazingly inexpensive, much less costly than one will pay for port-intensive trips.

The 1,794 happy guests aboard Noordam and the good weather we experienced en route helped prove the point.