Even the weather seemed to be participating in the 12-day Atlantic crossing that recreated Holland America’s very first sailing 150 years ago. Moody skies, rain and a couple of days of rough seas followed Rotterdam VII from the port of Rotterdam until New York City welcomed us with blue skies and blinding sunshine. It seemed to mirror the long, arduous passage of millions of emigrants carried to the New World by Holland America ships and the bright future they sought upon their arrival at Ellis Island.
I was aboard to immerse myself in the colorful history of Holland America, a history that began with the construction of the New Waterway, an engineering feat that created access to the sea and allowed the city of Rotterdam to accommodate larger ships and, ultimately, become the busiest port in Europe. Holland America took full advantage, establishing itself as a Dutch leader in the transatlantic freight and passenger trade of the time. Then, as now, Holland America prided itself on having a “spotless fleet,” each vessel “a well-run ship,” and when westbound immigration took off in the late 19th century, the line added meaningful extras like local accommodations prior to sailing, medical inspections, hygiene guidance and even language lessons to those sailing towards a new life. As a result, 1 out of every 10 European emigrants chose to sail to America aboard a Holland America ship and 99% of them cleared Ellis Island.
“History?? Hell, no!” barks a woman when I ask her if she was aboard for the line’s 150th Anniversary events, events that began as we set sail from Rotterdam VII escorted by fireboats and vintage tugs from the Rotterdam museum while hundreds of well-wishers lined the pier, waving Holland America souvenir handkerchiefs as they bid us farewell. “I had no idea of any anniversary celebration,” she said between sips of a mojito. “I love Holland America and wanted to sail their newest ship and get to New York without the hassle of flying. I just want to eat, drink and dance.”
She was not alone. In fact, of those I speak with, it seems one half of the approximately 2,000 guests aboard this 99,935 grt ship are eager to lap up every drop of Holland America history while the other half are focused entirely on the ship, its cuisine, activity and entertainment offerings.
In the end, I find Holland America’s 150th Anniversary Celebration to be a tale of two crossings—the first, a maritime history nut’s dream come true; the second, a shipboard experience that dazzles even those who define Holland America history as nothing more than memories of their last sailing. Yet Rotterdam VII manages to satisfy both camps and, in many cases, even produces some converts along the way.
The Ports: Le Havre and Plymouth
Strictly speaking, a crossing takes guests from Port A to Port B with no calls in between. But today we’re being true to the exact itinerary followed by Rotterdam I in 1872 so 48 hours after bidding farewell to Rotterdam, we find ourselves in Le Havre, France. Shore excursions to the beaches of Normandy and a visit to Paris are among those offered but, though I love Paris, I realize I don’t love it enough to spend six hours round trip on a motor coach to explore the city in the rain.
It’s a different story the following day as we greet a sunny Plymouth, England, Devon’s cultural capitol, and a place filled with maritime history. It is from here that the Mayflower sailed in 1620 and the Sea Venture sailed in 1609. A highly walkable port, a visit to the Mayflower Museum, or The Box, a new cultural and heritage attraction that highlights the city’s art, natural history, film, photography and more, provide an educational focus while a stroll along the harbor to The Hoe, a vast green expanse overlooking stunning Plymouth Sound and the Smeaton’s Tower Lighthouse is an ideal outdoor experience during weather as pleasant as ours. A stone’s throw from tender drop-off, you’ll find Barbican Harbor, cobblestone lanes filled with small shops, seafood restaurants, fudge shops and certainly one of the city’s most popular attractions, the Plymouth Gin Distillery. Housed in a building that dates from the 1400s, the Plymouth Gin Distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in England, offers a variety of tours and a gift shop that features many varieties of Plymouth Gin not found outside of England.
Crossing, not Cruising!
With our departure from Plymouth, we pull up the gangway on what typically defines a cruise. For eight days, our world is Rotterdam VII and what the seas throw at us. The captain announces he is adjusting course to avoid a major storm yet we still endure 15-foot waves that may rock us to sleep but wake us with explosions as the waves slam against our ship. Particularly in cool—and, let’s face it, often cold and windy—autumn weather, a crossing isn’t the place for those who’ve only enjoyed a handful of balmy, sun-filled Caribbean sailings. But it seems most of my shipmates are hardy veterans of transatlantic voyages with many having sailed Holland America ships—almost exclusively Holland America ships—for weeks or months at a time.
The Holland America history buff in me can’t resist a comparison of Rotterdam VII with the steamship whose itinerary we’re recreating here. Rotterdam I was a mere 81.84 meters long compared with Rotterdam VII’s 300 meters. Today, I’m sharing the crossing with over 2,000 shipmates and 1,048 crewmembers while Rotterdam I’s first sailing included 10 cabin passengers, 60 “between-deck emigrants” and a crew of 44. A first-class passenger paid $36 for their crossing to New York in a cabin where toilet facilities were shared and located down a hallway.
What a difference 150 years makes.
Introduced in 2021, Rotterdam VII, the third and final vessel in the line’s Pinnacle-class series, is a floating Mecca of innovative dining and entertainment, whimsical art, spa and fitness options, two pools, two hot tubs and accommodations that range from cozy inside digs to a vast and lavish 1,290 square foot Pinnacle Suite. There are even 12 ocean-view suites designed specifically for the solo traveler.
With a Holland America Culinary Council that includes celebrated chefs like Rudi Sodamin, David Burke and artisan chocolatier Jacques Torres, it’s no surprise that Rotterdam VII is packed with outstanding dining experiences. Enjoy breakfast, lunch or dinner beneath quirky brass chandeliers overflowing with blue, gold and crystal “bubbles” at the two-level main dining room or, for a more casual experience, head to Lido Market for a vast selection of hot and cold options dished out by cheerful buffet attendants. Specialty dining includes the French cuisine of the elegant Rudi’s Sel de Mer, the Asian Fusion of Tamarind with sushi master Andy Matsuda’s open-kitchen sushi bar Nami/Sushi tucked into the space’s far corner, and the Italian Canaletto which features a menu of pasta and other dishes meant to be shared. The Pinnacle Grill chars up delectable steaks and seafood and is also where you’ll find the sweet, succulent and smoky “clothesline bacon,” a signature appetizer that dangles from the ”clothesline” of its specially-created presentation piece. The most casual choices include Dive-In for burgers and sandwiches, New York Pizza, Explorations Café, and Dutch Café which, with heavenly cappuccino, Dutch treats like stroopwafel and, in the afternoons, Holland America’s signature pea soup, seems to be hopping all day. And, of course, Rotterdam VII offers 24-hour a day room service.
The big game changer aboard Rotterdam VII, however, is The Music Walk, a full deck of lavish music venues, each dedicated to a different genre of music, from the hard-driving sound of the superlative band performing at Rolling Stone Rock Room, to the classical strains of Lincoln Center Stage’s chamber music, the rhythm and blues of B.B. King’s Blues Club and the feel-good chart toppers performed at Billboard Onboard. Thanks to the Music Walk, music-loving cruisers can say goodbye to night-after-night of “Sweet Caroline” and “Celebration” and settle themselves at a venue that showcases the music they really want to hear!
(Music fans will also love the themed art exhibited at stair landings, midship—wildly creative pieces that celebrate iconic artists, vinyl records and even cassette tapes—and these music pieces are just a small part of the $4.1 million art collection that will dazzle guests on board.)
That’s History Entertainment!
I notice the mojito-sipping woman who expressed her aversion to history seated two rows ahead of me at the World Stage, Rotterdam VII’s 714-seat theater, as the curtain goes up on Origin Story, a multi-media journey through the history of Holland America. 150 years of history unfolds through narration and visuals projected around the room on 270-degree wraparound LED screens but this is no dry recitation of names, facts and figures. This is history the way it should be taught, with emotional, personal stories and eye-opening revelations. In 1912, we learn, Holland America’s Noordam alerted Titanic to icebergs in the Atlantic but the “unsinkable” ship dismissed the warning believing icebergs were unlikely in April. Vintage photos illustrating Holland America’s role in World War II and the conversion of the 1,200-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam to a troop ship carrying 8,500 soldiers surround us and, later, we hear that Holland America invented the “booze cruise” during prohibition, allowing alcohol-starved New Yorkers to board a ship at 5:00 p.m., sail beyond the 3-mile limit where alcohol consumption was permitted and then return (no doubt in a sorry state) the following morning.
Nowhere, however, is the line between history and entertainment more blurred than during the near-daily presentations by colorful maritime historian Bill Miller who excites us with his passion, educates us with his knowledge and tickles our funny bone with a generous injection of humor. Mr. Miller, who grew up in Hoboken, NJ just blocks from the docks that Holland America called home before the line relocated to New York City’s 12th Avenue piers in 1964, regals us with presentations that showcase not only Holland America’s history but other maritime-related topics like New York Harbor, the impact of air travel on transatlantic crossings and the birth of cruising. Word spreads quickly about these enjoyable and energetic talks and soon every seat is filled for both his 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. lectures. “Just between us,” Miller says during one presentation that touched on Carnival’s acquisition of Holland America along with so many other cruise lines, “I’ve heard through the grapevine that Carnival’s in negotiation to buy the Atlantic Ocean. Their plan is to lease shipping lanes out to Carnival competitors for a hefty sum. Don’t tell anyone I told you.” You really gotta love Bill Miller!
History…Hidden in Plain Sight!
Guests, even guests who believe they are not actively celebrating Holland America’s heritage, are doing so all around the ship. They’re celebrating it during Dutch and Indonesian High Teas, at Tamarind’s “pop-up” Rijsttafel restaurant that pays homage to Indonesian tradition, in deck games that mirror those played on the decks of Holland America ships of a bygone era and, most importantly, they’re celebrating it during conversations with so many guests who are sailing this voyage as a tribute to grandparents who arrived at Ellis Island aboard a Holland America ship or who decades ago worked aboard one.
Each evening during our sailing, we may sample a dish from a menu of old, re-worked for modern tastes, in Rotterdam VII’s main dining room. A special 150th Gala Menu takes this nod to the past a step further with a full selection of beverages, appetizers, main courses and desserts all taken from Holland America menus of yesteryear, the menu itself adorned with images of vintage travel posters and presented as a keepsake to guests.
We party like it’s 1872 with Throwback Happy Hour, a 60-minute bacchanalia that rolls drink prices back to as low as 25 cents. Not all drinks are included in the promotion, but since red and white wines are offered alongside the martinis, I’m not complaining.
And we sample Holland America’s HAL Pils, a limited-edition Pilsner beer created in partnership with Seattle-based Pike Brewing, that will roll out fleetwide next year. The brew, packaged in a commemorative can adorned with the iconic Jan van Beers poster of 1898, will be available at all bars as well as in six-packs at on-board gift shops. A gin commemorating the line’s anniversary is also in the works.
We are surrounded by Holland America’s history as we sail towards New York City and I find myself marveling at the line’s 150 years of innovation while, at the same time, re-living my own Holland America story: The many Rotterdam V sailings I shared with my mom, the 1993 Statendam sailing aboard which I met my husband, and glorious sailings through the Caribbean and to Alaska aboard beautiful ships like Maasdam, Veendam, Volendam, Nieuw Amsterdam, and Noordam.
Holland America’s 150th Anniversary celebration is, indeed, a tale of two crossings. And I realize that I’m really loving them both.
Holland America will celebrate the 151st anniversary of the company itself with a 13-day crossing that departs New York City on April 6, 2023. The itinerary will be identical to this crossing which marked the 150th anniversary of the first sailing of the first Holland America ship and will include many of the same events (including presentations by Bill Miller) along with some events yet to be announced.
See sailings here Holland America Line