Walls of green rise steeply on either side of me, blocking out the rising sun. They loom so high and close that my travel companion asks if we’re shrinking, Alice style. But while we are in a bona fide wonderland, this fairy tale is more of a Goldilocks moment.
You see, I’m on the top deck of Holland America’s MS Noordam, an elegant mid-sized ship, that’s neither too big nor small, but just right. Not only is the stunning ship the perfect size to glide through the glacier-carved walls of a trio of stunning Sounds – Milford, Doubtful and Dusky– that we tick off as we explore the snow-dusted peaks and wild waterfalls of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, but in every conceivable way.
Having voyaged across many an ocean on bespoke and buxom vessels that have ranged from the flashy to the family friendly, I’ve never met one as singularly charming as Noordam. Indeed, after a few days of being wined and dined by the sophisticated smoothie, I’m more than a little smitten. Carrying just 1972 guests, there are no climbing walls or water slides, instead classically stylish spaces and an unparalleled level of service. Having never been a fan of OTT décor or noise, we’re a perfect match.
That’s not to suggest there’s a shortage of activities on board, it’s just that this ship plays to its slighter older and more discerning audience. Whether you’re after a quiet morning of flower arranging and towel folding, educational workshops, art appreciation and auctions, boardgames and best-sellers, a spot of Bridge or a punt in the casino, giggle-filled trivia sessions or want to swing into a dance class, there’s a full diary of imaginatively curated daily activities.
They can also enjoy yoga, indoor cycling and Pilates classes or tackle the machines and weights in the modern, well-equipped gym, hit the running track on the Deck 3 Promenade or head to the basketball court to shoot hoops, or join in regular basketball and pickleball challenges. Or, if you’re anything like me, you might be more inclined to enjoy a nurturing massage at the Greenhouse spa, followed by a soothing soak in the mineral-rich sea water of the hydrotherapy pool.
Then there are the two tranquil pool areas, one covered by a retractable glass magrodome, and both deliciously devoid of crowds on our thoughtfully curated 13-day itinerary exploring Southern Australia and New Zealand exploring one-of-a-kind destinations and hidden gems.
Departing Sydney, we’ve already ticked off a visit to Melbourne and Tasmania’s Burnie, before spending a few days at sea getting to know every inch of our floating home. I must confess that much of that time has been spent eating, thanks to Holland America’s elevated culinary offerings.
A floating feast
Dining on Noordam, like all Holland America ships, is exquisite, thanks to the six elite chefs that make up Holland America’s Culinary Council, whose multi-award winning menus are a cut above the usual cruise fare. The ship’s main dining room is a classy two-storey affair connected via a grand staircase and large windows inviting in ocean views. We enjoy hearty a-la-carte breakfasts that tick all the boxes, light lunches and exceptional multi-course dinners. Sublime signature dishes use perfectly cut and prepared meats, fresh seafood and include thoughtfully considered vegetarian options, while local ‘port to plate’ specials prove a highlight, a perfectly presented lamb rack leaving us in raptures for days. There’s also a decadent afternoon tea served daily in the dining room with tempting towers of scones, sandwiches and petit sweets.
Casual but carefully curated dining is available at the surprisingly uncrowded Lido market where a carefully curated selection of global delights is available to grab on the go. There’s also fresh pizza served until late. How late? Very. We made it a tradition to stop for a sneaky slice on the way to our state room each night. We also boomerang back to the Lido Deck’s Dive-In on a regular basis for its big made-to-order burgers, fluffy chips and DIY taco and burrito bar.
Free dining venues include the Pinnacle Grill steakhouse, a salubrious special occasion venue that is easily on par with the best you’ll find on land, while Canaletto serves up hearty, authentic Italian. Both are such superb culinary experiences they command repeat visits.
Caffeine fiends aren't forgotten either with excellent barista-made coffee, pastries and sandwiches at the popular Explorations café. Free room service is available round the clock, but we’re too busy having fun outside to make use of it.
In saying that, our cabin proves to be a haven for moments of down time. Passengers have a choice of chicly styled Interior, Ocean View and Verandah cabins, along with several Suite categories. Our Verandah cabin, while intimate, is cleverly designed to make use of the limited space. The queen-sized bed boasts a marshmallow soft mattress that cocoons us to sleep. There’s a small but comfortable sitting area with couch and coffee table, plenty of closet space and underbed storage. The verandah itself is roomy enough for two chairs and a small table and while we don’t use it as frequently as we’d like, it adds a lovely sense of space and openness to the room, as well as inviting in ever changing views as we cruise the New Zealand coastline.
A full bathtub in the ensuite bathroom, and the generous supply of fluffy cotton towels and Elemis bath amenities add an element of luxury. There’s also a large flatscreen television that offers a great selection of watch on demand movies and TV shows for those who feel like a night in.
Wine and wildlife
Our wine and wildlife packed New Zealand itinerary sails us to Auckland from the movie-star waterfalls of Milford Sound via a hotlist of cool destinations including Port Chalmers, Picton, Wellington, Napier, Tauranga, and hidden gem, Timaru. Noordam’s Shore Excursions team make exploring every port, and beyond, a breeze.
Pretty Port Chalmers leads us in to arty, alternative Dunedin, a former international whaling port that is known as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ and proves to be a haven of history and wildlife wonders. Timaru offers access to alpine lakes and the magnificent Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Picton is postcard pretty and our shore excursion sees us sliding through Queen Charlotte Sound by kayak, shadowed by a friendly dolphin.
Sailing further north, we reach New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, which – from the tippy top of its cable car to its pretty working harbour and brilliant Te Papa museum – leaves us captivated. Napier’s restored Art Deco buildings and prevalence of vintage vehicles, make it look and feel more like a 1930s movie set, and leads thirsty cruisers to the gorgeous Hawke’s Bay region, home to over 100 wine producers. From Tauranga, New Zealand’s largest port, it is just a short drive until the sulphuric scent of Rotorua’s bubbling geothermal mud pools, natural hot springs and steaming hot waterfalls is tickling our olfactory nerves.
After dark, the ship comes to life with world-class entertainment on offer along the innovative Music Walk, a genius entertainment precinct with a series of brilliant live music venues. Lincoln Centre Stage showcases classical performances, Billboard Onboard’s dual pianists lead fun all-request singalongs, while the Rolling Stone Rock Room is home to a tight seven-piece house band with rock star vocalists that lures us back night after night like some kind of rock-n’roll pied piper.
World Stage, Noordam’s main theatre, is where you’ll find the ship’s headline acts. Featuring a two-storey, panoramic screen that sees music and technology collide during sublime performances by the Step One Dance Company and vocal styling of sensational male vocal group, Cantaré. But it is the edge-of-your-seat footage of nature, set to a live orchestral performance during BBC Earth In Concert, that leaves us truly spellbound.
Every port of our action-packed itinerary has proven delightful and provided gorgeous gateways to some of New Zealand most enticing gems, and as we sail into Auckland, 14-days after first embarking in of Sydney, there hasn’t been a single moment that I haven’t enjoyed. The only thing I’m left wishing for is a few more days at sea, to better enjoy Noordam’s myriad on board delights.