All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 1975 and 2015 unless otherwise noted.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
I made my first visit to the SS ROTTERDAM in San Diego on April 2, 1975 and paid her countless visits over the decades that followed. My first cruise in her was in December of 1991 and I would make four more, including her final Holland America Line voyage in 1997. One last sailing in the ship as Premier Cruises REMBRANDT and a sad pilgrimage to see her looking very forlorn in layup at Freeport along with her doomed Premier Cruises fleetmates would follow.
Over the past decade, as all of her contemporaries limped off to Indian or Turkish scrapyards, I watched with considerable anticipation as the ROTTERDAM’s planned restoration and revival as a hotel met obstacle after obstacle. There were times when this treasured slice of maritime architecture and engineering came precariously close to a date with the breakers. The thought of her being pried apart and sold in piecemeal bits was…well…unthinkable.
My emotions were substantially piqued by the chance to not only visit but stay aboard the magnificent ship that has been the backdrop of so many happy memories. I would have to accept that she was serving a new purpose in a stationary role and that things would be different. I did my best to temper expectations…
From the Rotterdam Central Train Station, it was a short Metro ride (Line D or E) to the Rijnhaven exit.
Had we seen the bus stop behind us, the second leg of our journey from the train station would have been more pleasant.
Instead, with the ROTTERDAM’s signature goal post funnels beckoning in the distance, we dragged our suitcases in the rain to the next bus stop to catch the 77, which efficiently delivered us to the ship. Now berthed in Rotterdam’s revitalized Katendrecht district, the SS ROTTERDAM is a breathtaking sight for those who covet the sleek liners of the mid-Twentieth Century. Even in the grim, chilly drizzle, she glistened in her original gray Holland America Line livery.
An elevator led us to a gangway at Main Deck level for the Reception Lobby, which looks largely as it did during the ship’s HAL heyday. As we checked in, my eyes couldn’t help but dart back and forth at the subtle and not so subtle changes that had been made. I was happy to see the antique map of Rotterdam in its original setting…
Directly forward and forged from the midships accommodation, the adjoining Coffee Lobby, while completely new, is nonetheless a handsome space flanking an angular bar. All of the furnishings and some of the artworks (culled from other parts of the ship) are original, giving the space an air of authenticity. Further forward, there is a suite of modern meeting rooms that were also carved out of old cabins.
Located on the port side of Lower Promenade Deck (up one from Reception), our home for the next two nights was stateroom 2040. This space and all of the hotel rooms on this level were completely rebuilt from original Cabins Deluxe and Suites.
The new spaces have restored original furniture and fittings that give them an authentic vintage feel. There are three types of this accommodation with fabrics in distinct color categories (Bahamas is vibrant tropical; Manhattan is black and white; Original is in warm tones.). 2040 is an Original.
Rebuilding the accommodation means that, unlike the ROTTERDAM’s original configuration with dozens of widely varied stateroom categories, the ship now offers a consistent, hotel-style product with new wiring, ventilation and plumbing as well as completely new loos.
My friend Rob knew all-too-well that we’d better eat before I began exploring and documenting the ship. We headed up to the Lido Restaurant on aft Promenade Deck. Originally the Cafe de la Paix and later the decoratively uninspired but functional Lido, the place has since been transformed into a trendy eatery with exposed piping on the ceiling. Vintage furnishings have recently been pulled from the ship’s stores to replace spindly MidCentury-style chairs, giving the room some added charm.
As hotel guests will likely dine in the Lido at some point, I’ll mention that the food is moderately priced (for Holland) and quite good, judging from our experience. An added plus is that the menus in all of the ship’s dining and cocktail venues feature vintage images of the ship. The cover for the Lido menu is artfully adorned with the sunburst clock from the former Ritz Carlton Lounge.
Eager to begin documenting, we returned to Promenade and Upper Promenade Decks, home to the Tourist and First Class public spaces. Immediately, we were asked to show our tour badges — unlike the QUEEN MARY in Long Beach, hotel guests on the ROTTERDAM cannot explore the ship on their own without buying a ticket. Of course, for an additional fee, a number of excellent tours can be booked. I wonder how many hotel guests have been turned off by this policy and ultimately miss discovering what the ROTTERDAM is all about.
Since I was documenting the ship for this blog and an upcoming USA Today Gallery, we were given complimentary access to the tour areas. We would have the rest of the afternoon to savor many of the ROTTERDAM’s gorgeous interiors, including the double staircase with its silvered glass panels by Akkermans that descends with the guest from the celestial trappings of Sun Deck to the undersea world of B Deck.
Many of the ship’s spaces were being prepared or in active use for meetings and other business functions. Fortunately, the Ambassador Lounge, designed by Dutch architect Han van Tienhoven, was not one of them. It features rich oil paintings (“Birds” forward and “Fish” aft) by Huub Hierck flanking its inlaid compass rose marquetry dance floor.
In its crossing and cruising heyday, the Ambassador had shades covering its bay windows and dim lighting that gave it a smoky, mysterious ambiance. Today, the rosewood paneling and the magnificent detailing, including hand-blown glass fixtures and plush armchairs in varying shapes and size, are fully illuminated in all of their vintage glory.
We continued forward to the balcony of the double deck Theater. While my inner purist prefers everything to remain just as it was, I understand why the original (admittedly uncomfortable and cramped) seating was removed in favor of convention-style chairs.
During ROTTERDAM’s latter cruising days, artists such as Rosemary Clooney, Shirley Jones and Marni Nixon performed in the Theater.
How reassuring it was to see the glazed Delft ceramic “Life” sculpture gracing the Theater’s Promenade Deck level entrance again.
Directly aft of the Theater on Promenade Deck, the Queen’s Lounge was the ROTTERDAM’s Tourist Class ballroom. Highlights include the inlaid brass and teak dance floor, the marquetry paneling and the bronze “juggler” sculptures that are inset in the room’s balustrades.
And oh, that wonderful, fully encircling promenade, the forward portion of which is glass enclosed. The conversations and sights experienced here…
We headed up to Bridge Deck for a visit to the wheelhouse, chart room and radio room. Retired veteran HAL officers are on hand to share stories and demonstrate to guests how it all functioned. A marvelous experience for all concerned.
The captain’s day room is now on display, along with his bedroom and several other officers’ staterooms.
The aft/port portion of Bridge Deck is now home to the Communication and Navigation Center, which has artifacts from the ship’s active days of cruise and transatlantic service.
The aft end of Bridge Deck was once home to the First Class Sports Deck. During ROTTERDAM’s latter cruising days, it featured a mini-tennis court.
Aft of the midships funnel-like structure that houses the Sky Room and Sun Room, there is the former Tourist Class Sports Deck, which extends to the base of her goal post stacks. Now drenched in Dutch wetness, this was the haunt of shuffleboard fanatics and some spirited tournaments under the balmy Caribbean sun.
With the outer decks enveloped in drizzle and most of the as-yet-unseen public spaces in use, we worked our way down to B Deck to see if the former dining rooms were occupied.
The former First Class Odyssey was booked but the equally beautiful former Tourist Class La Fontaine had just cleared out. Although I missed the original chairs (now fortunately in use in other parts of the ship), the Tienhoven-designed space is still breathtaking with its series of ceramic reliefs by Nico Nagler depicting the fables of Jean de la Fontaine and the remarkable constellation of Delft ceramic moons and stars looming overhead.
Before we headed off the ship for dinner, we stopped in the Experience Center (a cinema carved out of interior cabins on midships Lower Promenade Deck) to watch a short film recreating a transatlantic crossing in the ROTTERDAM.
It was nothing short of surreal to see the ROTTERDAM so beautifully maintained and settling successfully into her latest incarnation as an hotel ship.
We took the shuttle to the Rijnhaven metro station and took the first train downtown, where we exited and walked along the waterfront to Dewi Sri, a popular Indonesian restaurant, for a fantastic veggie rijstafel dinner.
On the way back to the ship, we savored Rotterdam’s innovative and futuristic architecture.
One building appears to have been speared with a giant metal rod that pierces its otherwise precariously angled side.
Nearby, the Wilhelminaplatz metro station was akin to something from “Blade Runner” or “2001, A Space Odyssey”.
When we returned to the ship, a full moon beamed through the drifting clouds. Time stood still for the Dutch dowager of the seas.
Tomorrow, we would have a chance to see all of the ship’s remaining spaces and spend some time with the man whose efforts are largely responsible for her salvation.
Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea. With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications. Knego also runs the www.midshipcentury.com website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India. He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."