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.

Hurricane Intervenes

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.

Hallowed Interiors

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are bathed in the soft glow of incandescent Lumiline fixtures, so badly missed on captive Queen Mary, where they have been replaced by harsh if efficient and cheaper fluorescent tubes.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.

Traditionally, they had been displayed in the circular staircase connecting Sun and Boat decks on the starboard side aft.

Now they were detached from their long-held mounts and hung on boards exhibited along the Queen's Room forward wall. Passengers who wished submitted sealed bids for plaques that took their fancy; all proceeds were destined for Dutch Seamen's charities in Holland.

Fractured Bell

Also on display but not for sale was Rotterdam's massive ship's bell which is to go on permanent exhibition in a Rotterdam maritime museum. An arc of the lower flare of the bell's mouth is badly cracked and fragmented, rather like Philadelphia's liberty bell.

There are several artistic members of the vessel's Indonesian crew who, for a variety of special occasions, fashion marvelous signage out of lengths of vibrant fabric. They were put to work throughout the cruise, creating not only farewell banners for the lobby but also for the Black-and-White Officer's Ball that took place on one of the final nights. On the night in question, a curiously inverted musical priority was exhibited by the cruise staff in that, for this over-decorated, much anticipated event, a total of two musicians provided all the dance music. Meanwhile, further aft in the normally under-utilized Ritz-Carlton, an over-zealous twelve-piece orchestra played for dancing.

There were probably those among the passenger-load, your Editor suspects, who came aboard with that requisite ocean liner buff's implement for shipboard farewells, a screwdriver. But either there was nothing to take or shipboard vigilance was too strict. In fact, there were two uniformed security guards menacingly on hand for much of the cruise who were doubtless dragooned to discourage too-aggressive souvenir hunting.

September 30th was an odd disembarkation morning because no cabins were made up for an embarking passenger-load that afternoon; linen was merely stripped from the beds and that was that. A surreal calm suffused corridors normally frenetic on turnaround days.

Passengers disembarked reluctantly into an indifferent Port Everglades and flew home. Rotterdam sailed up to Norfolk where she went in to dry dock. She will soldier on under a new name, as Cruise Holding's Rembrandt. Her winter itineraries will originate out of Brazil and her summers will be spent in the Mediterranean. Significantly, she will not be entering American ports with their requirements of adherence to SOLAS's new regulations, the ramifications of which decided the company to charter off their flagship rather than take the time, trouble and expense of bringing what Holland America liked to call their grande dame up to safety snuff.

Your Editor, in league, I expect, with dozens of other Rotterdam aficionados, is neither curious nor anxious enough to book aboard Rembrandt. When ships change hands and crews and points of view, they enter an awful kind of maritime dead zone. Embarkation, for instance, a year or two ago on board Golden Princess--an ex-Royal Viking vessel--was unsettling: It looked (mostly) like a Royal Viking ship, it smelled like a Royal Viking ship but it was patently not a Royal Viking ship: Double sittings rendered the first half of the original long dining room into a deafening night club and up in what used to be Royal Viking's civilized lookout above the bridge, another piano player similarly discouraged conversation.

The qualities that make up a specific vessel of a specific company are as subtle as they are complex. And patronizing a makeover in search of resonance from the original is seldom rewarding. Rotterdam that was is, alas, no more; she will sail on, like so many of her vanished ocean liner consorts, only in the memory of her crew and passengers.


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