Your Editor and his wife Mary were among hundreds of passengers who shared the final voyage of Holland-America's venerable flagship of 1959, the fifth Rotterdam. Her arrival at Fort Lauderdale was to have co-incided with the commissioning of the sixth Rotterdam about to be handed over from Fincantieri. This is the astonishingly fecund yard near Trieste that these days delivers all Carnival, Holland-America, Princess and Disney newbuildings. But, because of shaft vibration problems at high speed (new Rotterdam attempts 25 knots), the newer ship was delayed and that nice evocative overlap did not go according to plan.
Nor, as it turned out, did our embarkation aboard Rotterdam. Although the cruise--an eastbound Panama transit--originated in Vancouver, we were scheduled to join her in Acapulco. But we arrived at our hotel to find a fax from the company, advising us that the vessel would not be calling at Acapulco at all because of Hurricane Nora, to avoid which the vessel was effecting a wide detour out into the Pacific.
"Enjoy Acapulco!" was the cheery sign-off from HAL headquarters in Seattle, which we tried hard to do for three long days. We would far rather have been enjoying Rotterdam's unscheduled week at sea instead. Finally, we flew back to Mexico City to catch a late-night flight to San Jose for Costa Rican embarkation at Puerto Caldera.
First sight of Rotterdam alongside the pier betrayed her as looking her customary fit self. Vessels near the end of their life within an owning company often assume a kind of death watch patina of neglect. Not so this Dutch flagship whose officers and crew--no short-timers they--had seen to it that their ship's last, nostalgic passenger-load would be superbly accommodated in the vessel's customary pristine corridors, public rooms and cabins.
I had not been on board Rotterdam for several years and I always forget the particular decorative perquisites that always made her so special. In the corridors, the soft varnished sheen of her cabin doors and woodwork, the glow of spotless paintwork, the warmth of honest red carpeting and, refreshingly, not one of those cumbersome service carts that obstruct most rival vessels. Rotterdam's corridors are bathed in the soft glow of incandescent Lumiline fixtures, so badly missed on captive Queen Mary, where they have been replaced by harsh if efficient and cheaper fluorescent tubes.
Inside the cabin, beautifully maintained paneling still looks new, the superbly functional aluminum latches on doors and drawers worked flawlessly and a plethora of cupboards and shelves made space mockery of rival cabins. And, to present-day passengers innured to mass-produced, cookie-cutter bathrooms churned out by a factory, Rotterdam's sturdy and spacious cabin bathrooms are a delightful throwback to traditional transatlantic civility.
Passage through the canal was enriched by two exemplary factors: first, the tropical sun was replaced by tropical deluge so that passengers took shelter either along the ship's capacious two layers of promenade deck or, determined to miss nothing, beneath a perilously rain-bellied awning atop the forward hatch.
Empty Lock Chambers
Second, and far more remarkable than weather variables, was that as we descended to the Caribbean through that triple flight of Gatun locks, the lock chambers paralleling our course were drained for cleaning and maintained. A sight ostensibly unseen by passengers since 1912 was ours for the asking, those enormous cathedrals of cement showing their astonishing
depth, normally concealed by at least sixty feet of water.
The only apparent concession to the vessel's last voyage under company ownership was the sale--by silent auction--of all of the dozens of port plaques that, over the course of 38 years, had been awarded to the vessel.