Rotterdam VI Inaugural Caribbean Cruise December 15, 1997
On December 15th, the Rotterdam VI began her 7-day inaugural Caribbean cruise, and my companion and I were aboard. The itinerary was: Fort Lauderdale; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; Cozumel, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman, of the Cayman Islands; Half Moon Cay, Bahamas (Holland-America's "private island"); and back to Fort Lauderdale.
Over the years I've been lucky enough to visit many Caribbean ports, so I wasn't particularly drawn by the itinerary of this cruise. Instead, the draw for me came from the 120 glorious days I had spent on the 1997 World Cruise on the Rotterdam V, and each of those days walking not once but repeatedly past the model of the Rotterdam VI, and wondering what it would be like when completed and how it would compare to the Rotterdam V. So, that's a long way of saying: I went to see the ship!
To summarize right here at the beginning: I walked off the Rotterdam VI feeling like someone who has reluctantly traded in the 1975 Honda Civic they've owned since college on a new 1998 model, and is surprised to find after a week that not only do they love their new car every bit as much as the old but, my gosh, what improvements the passing years have made!
This cruise, although referred to in a Holland America press release as the "maiden voyage" of the Rotterdam VI (also described in that same release as a ten-day cruise, when in fact it was only seven), was not truly her maiden voyage, as she had previously sailed in Europe after her October launch from the Fincantieri shipyard in Venice. She then had her initial transatlantic crossing before arriving in Fort Lauderdale on December 4th. Five days later, the Rotterdam VI was dedicated by Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet Francisca of the Netherlands. The ship then had several short preview sailings for travel agents, but this cruise was in fact her first commercial sailing in the Americas.
As one might expect on one of the first trips, there were a couple of "startup" problems that, if not already resolved, I'm confident will be solved soon. To spare you from speculating what these problems might be, two examples were repeated plumbing malfunctions (which resulted in a printed apology from the Guest Relations Manager to all passengers), and computer failure. One other personal problem I had (although I didn't know it at the time) was the shore to ship communication system. A friend attempted to contact me repeatedly both by phone and fax, and even though they enlisted the help of my travel agent and HAL, they were never successful in doing so.
The general attitude toward the new ship presented an interesting contrast with her predecessor. Few seemed disappointed when things didn't work on the Rotterdam V, because that was to be expected, as the lady was aging gracefully. On the other hand, passenger expectations were very high on the Rotterdam VI because she was so new. Yet, as one might expect on a brand new ship, some aspects were still a work in progress. For example, signage was being installed on a daily basis. Other items perhaps will await passenger comment: for example, there are no outdoor clocks on the promenade deck, but I'm certain that as soon as this is noted, Holland America will attend to it.
EmbarkationThe end-of-cruise survey Holland America circulates has ratings from 1 to 9, omitting a "10" for the stated reason that everything can always be improved, and this was certainly true of the embarkation procedures on our cruise. First, not only had the travel agent cruise that ended the morning of the 15th been three hours late returning to Fort Lauderdale (a storm delay at Half Moon Cay had caused tender operations to be halted), but second, additional travel agents had been invited to tour the ship the morning of our cruise and then have lunch; since the arrival and clearing was late, the second group's boarding and departure was late. As a result, the paying passengers were delayed in boarding and jammed into the terminal with little room to sit. Not an auspicious beginning, but tolerated, to my surprise (could that be Holland America alumni loyalty?), virtually without complaint.
The CabinMy cabin was #2689, an inside "L" class cabin on the Main Deck and approximately fifty feet from the stern, a factor the importance of which I'll return to in a moment. My view of what's adequate or spacious may be a little skewed, as my "cruising" life began almost forty years ago the summer after my first year of college, when I worked my way to Europe on an oil tanker. After that beginning, I obviously feel anything is a significant improvement.
In the years since, my view of accommodations has been shaded by those infamous tiny cubicles on Princess, RCI and a few other lines. I'll also admit I came to believe an inside cabin on the Rotterdam V (much smaller than its counterpart on the Rotterdam VI) was perfectly fine for two of us for 120 days and all the gear that's required for trekking through places as diverse as Costa Rica, Australia and Yemen -- all the while being able to dress appropriately for the World Cruise formals. So Holland America's new flagship really spoiled me with its queen bed, full-size couch, six drawers, four closets, remote-controlled TV and radio, and a full-width vanity in the bathroom. And when combined with three sets of inside stairs and elevators (each of the latter with six large, high-speed versions) and three additional outside stairs aft, getting around the ship from any cabin location is quite easy.
Now back to why fifty feet from the stern was material: the first night out, I found myself being roughly rolled from one side of my queen bed to the other, an experience I have never had on any other ship, including even the Rotterdam V during a serious North Atlantic storm on the 1997 World Cruise. The closest analogy I can make to my first night experience on the new ship is being whipped from side to side in an observation car at the very end of a fast train. And I naturally wondered how this type of movement -- if typical -- would wear over an extended cruise. But my concerns were put to rest the next day when the Captain announced that what we had experienced was the result of coming through a storm with 20-foot seas and 50-knot winds! I want to emphasize that after that night, the Rotterdam VI was the smoothest of any ship I have ever sailed.
EntertainmentThis isn't really my cup of tea (even though I'm in the music business), probably because I don't like to see anyone (especially me) "invited" up on stage. But setting that aside, the Queen's Lounge is a magnificent venue for every type of show imaginable. The surroundings are, to my eye, reminiscent of a fine turn-of-the-century Parisian show palace. The sight lines are amazing; I intentionally varied my seat from side to side and top to bottom in the theater and never found even a partially blocked view. And the audio and light mechanics allow anyone anywhere in the theater to hear, see and enjoy every word.
Queen's Lounge Showroom
One word of warning: the theater has been equipped with what I am certain are the latest and greatest in confetti cannon, operating (apparently) both from the ceiling and the stage. At the final show, I was sitting in the front row when they were activated (or should I say "detonated"?!). No doubt my heart will soon stop palpitating and will resume its normal rhythm, but for those of you who don't enjoy being shot at or having things fall unexpectedly on your head . . . beware!
The Ship HerselfOne of the great ignominies of the Rotterdam V was having to be towed (sometimes backwards!) to our berth, but such limited maneuverability was the result of her traditional design. The Rotterdam VI, in contrast, can be moved or (as at Georgetown) "anchored without anchors," with the computer/dual thrusters/dual props doing an amazing job.
The HAL press release stated that the Rotterdam VI was "built for world-cruise itineraries, the 1,312-passenger ship is capable of achieving a cruising speed of 25 knots -- 20 percent faster than most contemporary passenger vessels. This allows for more time at each port and provides safety, speed and stability on extended itineraries and ocean crossings."
If I have any reservation about the press release, it is that the scheduling of the cruises seems very ambitious. I had read various stories about problems with the new ship meeting her designed cruising speed, but in fact we frequently made 23+ knots seemingly without effort. Still, the itineraries I've reviewed seem ambitious and tied completely to "things" happening in a timely fashion and, as we all know, pilots are not always prompt, sea conditions sometimes control tender operations or, as we saw on our cruise, tours sometimes return late, and computers sometimes go down. The result can be that even using maximum designed speed, a planned arrival of 7 am becomes 8:15, then 9 am and finally 10 am. Multiply this by 10 or 15 ports or more, and the result could be ports that have to be missed and unhappy cruisers. But time will tell and hopefully my concerns will be unwarranted.
As to the design purpose, if I were to choose a few words to encapsulate what I felt about the Rotterdam VI after a week on her, vis-a-vis the press release, it would be "magnificently and functionally spacious." Critiques and photos of the furnishings and art are already beginning to circulate on the Net, and in my opinion, the Rotterdam VI has just established the standard by which all future new builds will be judged. The design of the interiors is an open concept such that all spaces are open and inviting twenty-four hours a day. That same design has resulted in interiors replete with nooks and crannies conducive to longer voyage reading, writing, knitting or just sitting and thinking. The promenade, fully covered yet virtually entirely open to the sea, with hundreds of old-style wooden deck chairs, will captivate many a traveler. There are numerous additional decks and spaces -- including the all-new Crow's Nest -- from which entering and leaving the ports of the world or traversing the Panama or Suez Canals may be fully and comfortably observed. In short, I feel the designers have hit an absolute bulls eye for their targeted purpose.
Speed and design aside, what people invariably want to know about is food and service, and on both the Rotterdam VI does just fine. Part of that, in my opinion, springs from the design. If the environment, be it the dining room or other public areas, looks and feels gracious and exclusive, then the mindset of both those giving and those receiving service will be affected positively. In other words, it's one of those equations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: fine china + remarkable surroundings + good food + friendly, caring service = a terrific dining experience.
Half Moon CayLet me get the "non-positive" out of the way first. Notwithstanding the company estimates I heard that facility development is 65-85% complete, a visit to Half Moon Cay is, at this point, essentially a visit to a construction site. But having said that, let me quickly add what a site it will be when complete.
This is probably the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. Couple that with no hawkers, no other ship(s) competing for the space, no crime, reliable food and drink, activities ranging from swimming to sailing, and parasailing to nature walks, and the result is (or will soon be) a Disneyland for adults. In passing, I'll mention a doubt raised by one visitor who said "with the advanced age of many Holland America cruisers, they won't like this at all." I saw hundreds of those same "advanced age HAL cruisers" who seemed to be having the time of their lives. I predict a giant success.
One Last WordKnowing Holland America's traditions, I was confident I would be the happy recipient of at least a Holland America carryall bag, and no doubt other Holland America amenities as the cruise progressed. What I never anticipated was that one of these would be the magnificent hard bound Rotterdam VI: Flagship for the 21st Century, filled with handsome collector photos and text detailing the history of the line, the Rotterdams I-VI and the build out of the Rotterdam VI. I assume Holland America is planning to distribute it through the inaugural season, but whether it will be otherwise available, I do not know. If it is, grab it! It was a highlight of my trip, remains so, and doubtless will for years to come.
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