Between the staples of cruise life — breakfast, lunch, dinner — the desultory trip to the gym and exploring ashore on port days, one exists in a well-oiled, minutely managed comfort cocoon.
Welcome to the cruising life where, for a few days or weeks, if you're lucky, you get to do very little at all; the sights, cities and entertainment are served up in easily consumable portions, the food too, though those portions are — on the Noordam as with most cruise ships — American-sized.
And thankfully some of Holland America's celebrated dishes — a moreish bread-and-butter pudding and the excellent burgers (best this side of LA's In-and-Out) and french fries at the pool-side Dive In Bar — remain. But just as compelling were the sights and destinations in between meal times.
Early one morning, as breakfast service was in full swing on the ninth deck, an Orca whale appeared off to the port side, prompting hundreds of bleary-eyed cruisers to abandon their coffee and fish out their phones as it frolicked.
A day after I boarded in Dunedin we sailed through Fiordland's Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sound — a part of New Zealand I'd never seen. That had been my loss as the Sounds are truly stunning. All was breathlessly narrated through the ship's PA by an onboard guide who reckoned this the best weather she'd encountered in the area in four years. But the majestic beauty of the glacial fiords spoke volumes, and the day spent slowly navigating through the Sounds even impressed a brash sightseer from Kansas who had doubted the fiords could compete with the wonders glimpsed from a recent Alaskan cruise on another Holland America ship. Turns out they did.
Early one morning, as breakfast service was in full swing an Orca whale appeared off to the port side, prompting hundreds of bleary-eyed cruisers to abandon their coffee and fish out their phones...
This slow, whisper-quiet sail through Fiordland was a highlight of a trip, which also got its 2000 passengers to Hobart, Melbourne and Eden (a small harbour town in New South Wales).
Days at Sea
The weather on this trans-Tasman crossing was unpredictable, so much time was spent in the Noordam's excellent library/cafe (usually an afterthought on cruise ships. Noordam's makes a nice exception, it even had a book I'd had on my to-read list for months, The Dry, from award-winning Melbournite Jane Harper - it's brilliant).
A few passengers — many of whom seemed to be retired Canadian school-teachers — spoke of the lack of things to do on board, but I wondered if they'd checked out the daily schedule, which is delivered each morning. This listed cooking classes, table tennis, acupuncture and computer seminars, movies, spa treatments, shopping, workout classes, the nightly entertainment (an Aussie comedian, a jazz show, a song and dance night, a pretty good soul and blues band in the B.B King Lounge), and a seemingly infinite number of bars. There's also a daily Mass, Shabbat on Fridays, an AA meeting and a poker competition!
Or you could do, as many did, very little at all.
What between deck-chair lounging, swimming, food, ESPN and people watching, hours can fly by.
And that's when I started to look down at the elevator floor to check what day it was.
Sure, there are bigger, flashier ships than the Noordam, and if you want ice skating, rock climbing, wave surfing or robots serving you cocktails, look elsewhere, but I liked the laid back, low-key vibe here.
Hobart to Sydney
Each morning I had crepes made by Jermaine in the Lido (the main casual, buffet-style dining area).
He told me he reckoned it took him at least 1000 crepes before he perfected the art — and perfect it he did. He was halfway through his 10-month stint, all in daily split shifts: morning, night. It was fascinating to watch him pour the crepe mixture on the element, turn it deftly and then fold in the berry filling.
I told him on the last morning that I'd be back next year just for his crepes — and I was only half joking.
The first Aussie port of call was Tasmania's Hobart. Famous for its cold-climate wines and natural beauty, Hobart's a growing tourist destination. Best of all it's a city that's easy to explore on foot.
Salamanca square offers lots of restaurants and arty boutiques, and a few minutes up the hill is the picturesque Battery Point with world-class bakery Jackman and McRoss.
The Melbourne stop was a great excuse to grab some proper coffee — cruise ship filter coffee just isn't the same — and return to an old fave, the Din Tai Fung dumpling house in the busy Emporium shopping centre; while the stop at New South Wales' Eden — famous for its whale museum and whale-watching opportunities — gave us a glimpse of small-town Australia, but alas no whales.
Sailing into Sydney at dawn never gets old — and most of the ship were up early for it. The Noordam docks at White Bay, not the CBD cruise terminal, so passes under the Sydney Harbour Bridge — and we were up on the top deck to witness it — with just metres to spare.
Later that morning when I got into the elevator with my suitcases, destined for the airport, I discovered it was Tuesday — nine unforgettable days since I boarded.