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Holland America Line

Rotterdam V World Cruise

by John Blinn

Rotterdam V 1997 102 Day World Cruise

Rotterdam V

Over the years I have been lucky enough to cruise a number of times and to go around the world by air, but the draw of almost four months at sea on a legendary ocean liner while visiting places as varied as Bora Bora, Sri Lanka and Istanbul AND transiting both major canals AND only unpacking once was impossible to resist. So last fall we (John and Therese) quickly tied up every loose end we could find, and in January 1997 sailed west from Florida until we proved Christopher Columbus' theory and arrived back in Florida. It took us four glorious months but frequently, then and now, we wish it would have taken longer.

The most momentous aspect of the trip was deciding to go. Therese resigned from her job (state agency policy wouldn't allow a long enough leave of absence) and then we worked probably 70+ hours a week preparing for the trip. Every bit of preparation was worth it. The reality of the trip exceeded the dream.

Who: Although I don't have exact figures, I was told approximately 800 passengers were on the ship of whom approximately 500 took the entire World Cruise.

Where: Country/Activity(Port):

  • United States (Fort Lauderdale)
  • Curacao (Willemstad)
  • Panama
  • Panama Canal transit
  • Cruising Golfo Dolce
  • Costa Rica (Puerto Caldera)
  • Mexico (Santa Cruz Huatulco, Acapulco)
  • Cruising Mexican Riviera; (Cabo San Lucas)
  • United States (Los Angeles, Kona, Honolulu)
  • Crossing the Equator
  • Society Islands (Bora Bora)
  • Tahiti (Papeete)
  • Crossing the International Dateline
  • New Zealand (Auckland, Taraunga, Christchurch, Dunedin)
  • Cruising Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound
  • Australia (Sydney, Adelaide, Perth)
  • Indonesia (Bali)
  • Crossing Equator
  • Hong Kong (Hong Kong)
  • Thailand (Bangkok)
  • Singapore (Singapore)
  • Sri Lanka (Colombo)
  • Maldives (Male)
  • India (Mumbai)
  • Oman (Muscat)
  • Yemen (Aden)
  • Egypt (Safaga)
  • Jordan (Aqaba)
  • Egypt (Suez)
  • Suez Canal transit; (Alexandria)
  • Israel (Tel Aviv, Haifa)
  • At sea (Dardanelles)
  • Turkey (Istanbul)
  • Greece (Heraklion, Crete)
  • At sea--Cruising Straits of Messina and evening passing of Stromboli Volcano
  • Italy (Naples, Rome)
  • At sea (Rock of Gibraltar)
  • Portugal (Lisbon)
  • Azores (Ponta Delgada)
  • United States (New York, Fort Lauderdale).

But please note: the original itinerary was altered after issuance of a US State Department Travel Advisory cautioning against travel to Israel. As a result, ports in Israel were canceled, port time in Alexandria was lengthened, and Piraeus (Athens), Greece and Kusadasi, Turkey were added as substitute ports.

Bottom line: twenty-five countries, forty ports, many oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Red, Arabian and Mediterranean Seas, etc.), both major canals, numerous sunrises and sunsets and one genuine North Atlantic storm.


This was the twenty-ninth World Cruise for the ss Rotterdam (also called the Rotterdam V). But as the ss Rotterdam was due to be retired September 30, 1997, this trip included not only the last World Cruise of this fabled ocean liner but also the last Atlantic Crossing, the route for which she was originally launched in 1959. In addition to the ship and the opportunity to see so much without the hassle of packing and unpacking, a voyage of this length develops a community of travelers, and their personalities, talents and interests are the core of what one carries away after the trip itself has come to an end.

The details (and caveat): Undertaking a World Cruise review seemed frankly daunting but, as I had never seen such a review in print, I thought it might be interesting. What follows is neither all-inclusive nor without clearly held (and stated) opinion. It's my feeling that no matter how long the trip nor how interesting the ports, few will be willing to slog through page after page of "Next we went _____ and did ____." So my focus will be on what particularly struck me.


Our cabin was #122, an inside "J" class cabin on the Lower Promenade Deck. Details are probably largely of historical interest as this "Standard" cabin at 144 square feet (including bathroom!) was dramatically smaller (33%) than its complement on the Rotterdam VI at 192 square feet. Yet even at 144 square feet, our cabin was itself surprisingly larger (70%) than the smallest double (84 square feet) sold on the ship.

Cabin #122 did include a full-length bathtub which was a real plus and its four large closets and six large drawers easily swallowed the contents of the five giant soft side and one large hard side bags we brought on board. My sense is that there is an inverse relationship to perceived space needs and the length of a trip. It's quite a shock to change from normal surroundings to a tiny cabin when the cruise is only a week long but if the length is substantially longer, one begins to feel the smaller space is perfectly adequate and so it was with us.

Shipboard entertainment and activities

Entertainment ranged from the "house" troupe of singers and dancers to lesser-known but capable comedians, jugglers, storytellers, singers and magicians to talented classical pianists to international stars such as Jim Nabors, Rosemary Clooney, Peter Nero and Shirley Jones. As a musician myself, my particular treat was the Rotterdam string quartet, popular quartet, popular trio, thirteen piece orchestra, five-piece dance band and Tropic bar singer/pianist who entertained from morning to night in venues all over the ship.

Additionally, the World Cruise offered a seemingly never-ending series of art and cultural lectures, excellent port discussions (frequently by those resident in the ports discussed and none of which were of the "bargain shopping" type so frequent on other cruises), Irving R. Levine, a former career diplomat, baseball legend Bob Feller, an astronaut, an ocean expert, Jack Klugman, Stephen Payne (naval architect and Project Manager for the construction of Rotterdam VI) and noted authors, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, Mary Higgins Clark and Pat Conroy. And this list, as long as it is, is not all-inclusive!

Again, although this is probably only of historical interest, the traditionally-seated theater on the ss Rotterdam was a grand venue for stage shows, movies and lectures. Some sight lines were less preferable, but over all, it was quite satisfactory.


The "typical" World Cruiser

Perhaps the question I've been asked more than any other since returning is the profile of a "typical" World Cruiser, particularly a financial profile. There were several World Cruisers aboard who had been on multiple and in fact numerous World Cruises and clearly some of those were people of not insubstantial means. But others, who had also been along before, included one Canadian rancher who was the sole resident of his little town, retired military men (but not all former officers) and others, for whom--like us--this was the dream of a lifetime. So my use of "community" earlier is appropriate. World Cruisers are people of varied interests, varied lifestyles and varied financial resources.

The second most asked question is how the World Cruiser spends his or her days? Apart from, but clearly related to what I would characterize as our environment on the World Cruise was the range of daily activities available on the ship. This included not only the host of lecturers and others mentioned above but also first run movies, ballroom dancing and bridge with well-qualified instructors, interviews with ship staff and entertainers, tea, exercise classes, bingo and backgammon and a well-stocked library. And to add to this were not only the normal kitchen tours but tours of the engine room and storerooms as well. Interestingly, rather than the more normal scheduled tours of the bridge, the bridge was open every sea day during the afternoon with a junior officer assigned to answer questions. The result was that days either in port or at sea could be as full or as leisurely as one chose to make them. Many World Cruisers were busy literally from morning until night and also took every available shore excursion. Others chose to read, chat and stroll the decks and might very seldom go ashore. As a result there was no typical day on board or ashore for a World Cruiser.

The third most asked question is doesn't almost four months at sea become boring? I'll answer this two ways. Speaking for myself, not only did it not become boring but there was a large and growing list of things I would have liked to have done if only I'd had more time. There just is too much to see and do on the ship and in the ports and too many fascinating people to have time with all of them. But as for others, I can imagine that there are people for whom such a trip could become boring. Spending four months with the same people might be stifling for some. So each would-be World Cruiser should look at themselves and decide.

The ss Rotterdam as living history

As is true of the other great ocean liners of history, the novelty of when launched, and timelessness over the years of the exterior and interior design and furnishings of the ss Rotterdam will continue to be discussed for years to come. But it was a quite different and wondrous thing to have an opportunity to live with all of that for the extended time of the World Cruise. Innovations such as the "secret" double staircase designed to both separate and facilitate the original dual class of service, the Smoking Room that served as the heart of shipboard life and the magnificent Ritz Carlton with its ninety-foot art-deco murals, patterned brass dance floor and balcony were to us not something in a full-color coffee table book but rather something we enjoyed day in and day out.

Ritz Carlton Lounge
Ritz Carlton Lounge

The itinerary and ports

The World Cruise itinerary is generally similar every year from Los Angeles to Mumbai (Bombay), India. From Mumbai the ship either heads westerly, eventually transiting the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean and on to New York or the ship heads southwesterly, to round the Cape of Good Hope and then head west to Argentina, north up the coast of South America and on to Fort Lauderdale. At least once the World Cruise went from Los Angeles to Japan rather than to the South Seas but I do not know how many times that has been the case.

The World Cruise can be taken as an entire package or with a preceding Panama Canal cruise as we did, or now, with the Rotterdam VI sailing directly to Europe at the conclusion of the 1998 World Cruise, one could add that crossing or successive cruises in Europe.

Alternatively, the World Cruise can be taken in segments. In 1997, there were 17 segments ranging in length from 8 to 33 days, and segments may be combined for a variety of possible lengths of cruise. Segments provide an alternative to someone who may not be interested in the entire World Cruise and also are a source of revitalization for other World Cruisers as there are continually new faces with new interests coming on board. On the other hand, we found almost a serenity in being along for the entire ride. Announcements of disembarkation lectures (for segments) appeared but we just continued with our pace and plans. It no doubt also has its advantages for the ship and cruise staff as most already knew our names and preferences and so there was little new to learn.

As one would imagine on a cruise with this many ports, some were accessed by tender service but the larger number were pierside docks. Most of the latter were reasonably convenient to the principal attractions in the destination city. For example, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Singapore, Istanbul and Lisbon. Others, for example Thailand, at which our port was actually Sriracha, a small town approximately two hours from Bangkok, were more difficult to access.

Discussing specific ports is probably folly as travelers' experience and taste often vary. But apart from specific ports, shore excursions in excess of one hundred in number plus an additional thirteen overland tours lasting from two to ten days provided a wide range of opportunities for the non-independent traveler. The overland tours were opportunities for extended off-ship tours (not otherwise accessible by a ship confined to the seacoast) including, for example, central Australia and Nepal. But even if one elected to see the sights independently, there was sufficient information and guidance to do so.

Time in port lasted from six hours to three days but as the Front Office handled all passport formalities (with rare exceptions), as soon as the ship was cleared passengers could go ashore and begin exploring. And as we were generally in city center, no long ride in from an airport, no hotel check-in, no packing and unpacking were necessary before exploration could begin. Of course, in no city did I feel I had all the time I might desire, but then one never does. Indeed part of the joy of traveling is finding places to which one hopes to return some day.

Operation observations

This comment is a result of comparing the Rotterdams.. One of the great ignominies of the Rotterdam V was having to be towed (sometimes backwards!) to our berth, but such was the result of her limited self-contained maneuverability. The Rotterdam VI in contrast can be moved or even "anchored" without anchor, with the computer/dual thrusters/dual props doing all the work. Amazing!

Food and service

We had an excellent opportunity to compare the World Cruise level of food and service with the standard Holland America level of food and service as the Panama Canal trip which, although included in advertising as an "official" prelude to the World Cruise, was not in fact part of the latter. Rather, the World Cruise began in Los Angeles and concluded at the traveler's choice of either New York City or Fort Lauderdale.

Additional staff was added in Los Angeles and although I do not know exact numbers, it was sufficient, for example, to drop the number of tables each Wine Steward was handling from about thirty to fifteen. The quality of provisions also improved, at least to my palate, as, again by way of example, lobster tails became more tender.

Other differences were occasioned solely by the nature of the World Cruise. For example, where suitable markets and quantities were available we were treated to market-fresh pompano, baramundi, ocean coral trout, snapper and tuna. Several times fresh Atlantic salmon from Norway was flown to our ship. And twice in Australia and again in Italy, local wines were brought aboard and made available, and these were not only interesting but also excellent values.

But, having drawn a distinction between the Holland America "standard" and World Cruise levels of service earlier, let me amplify lest incorrect conclusions be drawn. As much as I have traveled and cruised, one point that was emphatically driven home to me on the World Cruise was that others have traveled much, much more. So I am not the final word in levels of service. Still, in my opinion the "standard" Holland America level of service is very high indeed. It is better than most of the luxury resorts I have stayed in and equal to if not better than most other cruise lines. But the World Cruise raises level of service to a new high.

Some of the ways in which this is done has already been described in availability of wide-ranging lecturers and entertainment, the additional staffing and such touches as market-fresh fish. But other aspects are more subtle. For example, Holland America has long been well known for its fresh flowers but on the World Cruise there was a resident florist who not only was in charge of the new plants and flowers flown into various ports to replenish the ship, but actually set up shop on the ship to provide an area in which to build her floral masterpieces. Another example, the staff on the World Cruise included an additional person trained and employed specifically to facilitate segment embarkation and disembarkation throughout the cruise. Yet another example, Holland America was a pioneer in the Social Host program and although these gentlemen are charming and capable on other cruises, the group assembled for the World Cruise were exceptional.

Taking it all together, food and service came together on the World Cruise in 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.

One last word

Passengers who are familiar with Holland America's traditions, know they will return from each cruise with at least a carry-on bag and no doubt other HAL-provided mementos. World Cruise passengers soon find their cabins (and luggage!) overflowing with complimentary World Cruise-crested bathrobes, Delft souvenir plates and tiles, key rings, magnifying glasses, cups, postcards, fine prints of the ship and cookbooks, just to catalog a few. These are the gifts from Holland America. But a gift of more lasting importance is from the World Cruise itself. As Pat Conroy once wrote:

"...once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers.... the mind can never break off from the journey."

Exterior Photo by Andy Newman, Holland America Line


John Blinn is a musician and lives in Austin, Texas. John and his partner, Therese Ruffing, are regular cruisers and love talking about cruising. They can be reached for questions or comment at: 74357.1053@compuserve.com.

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