Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Jim Ferri
By John and Sandra Nowlan
On land, a “Farm to Table” restaurant usually denotes a special relationship between the chef and the local agriculture community.
At sea, Holland America Line’s (HAL) new “Port to Table” concept is similar, in that on a Rotterdam cruise ship chefs work with food producers in various ports. It allows them to bring local recipes, local guest chefs, and, most importantly, local fish and other fresh products aboard for guests’ immediate enjoyment. It means the culinary traditions of a seaside town or city can become as important as the historical and cultural highlights.
Holland America Innovations Over the Decades
The “Port to Table” initiative is just one of many HAL innovations over the decades. We’re told it will expand in 2023 to include more culinary demonstrations and tastings. We were fortunate to join Holland America’s flagship, Rotterdam, on of their Caribbean cruises in December as the line was preparing to celebrate its 150th Anniversary.
In 1873 the Netherlands-American Steamship Company was founded and became a significant carrier of immigrants to the New World, followed by decades of trans-Atlantic sailings (more than 60 in 1964). In 1926 the line started its first Caribbean cruise and focused entirely on vacation cruising in 1971.
Our cruise from Fort Lauderdale was on the Pinnacle Class Rotterdam, just over a year old. It’s the seventh ship in the historic HAL fleet to be named Rotterdam.
It’s almost a thousand feet in length and holds a maximum of 2600 guests. Except at embarkation and occasionally at the buffet, however, it’s spacious enough to never feel crowded.
A Non-Standard, Standard Balcony Stateroom on This Rotterdam Cruise
Our accommodation on this Rotterdam cruise was a standard balcony stateroom. But compared with other cruises we’ve taken, it was extremely comfortable. It had a spacious balcony, a queen size bed, a sofa, a huge TV (but only MSNBC and Fox as news channels), great lighting, and plenty of storage space. Internet reception (extra cost) was good.
Most impressive, though, was the generously sized bathroom. Excellent water pressure, large fluffy towels, and a large shower stall. Two guests from New Brunswick, Canada told us it was the best bathroom they’d ever experienced in 250 days at sea. “Like a five-star hotel,” they said.
Catering to Older, Usually Retired Passengers
Holland America continues to attract older, usually retired passengers. They have little interest in water parks, belly flop contests, or loud music around the pool. On the other hand, they still seem to enjoy gambling, judging by the large casino, which was usually crowded and smoky.
A guest from Saratoga Springs, New York, was on his sixth Holland America cruise. “I love it because it’s quiet and tuned down,” he told us. “Few people use the gym, but I go there every day.”
Wonderful Entertainment on Our Rotterdam Cruise
HAL’s entertainment has changed in recent years with the introduction of the Music Walk, four distinct areas on the second deck with venues for BB King’s Blues Club, Billboard Onboard (dueling pianos with hits through the decades), and the Rolling Stones Rock Room.
Our favourite, however, was the Lincoln Center Stage, with a string trio or quartet and piano accompaniment performing several 45-minute classical concerts daily. They are brilliant young musicians from Lincoln Center in New York, a partner of Holland America.
Like its older sister ships, the large main stage on this Rotterdam cruise has high-tech production shows. They feature six talented dancers some nights, a quartet of male singers on others, plus a comedian one evening, There’s also a hilarious Rubik’s Cube nerd/magician on two nights. The Lincoln Center musicians also perform on stage for two nights, accompanying stunning BBC Earth visuals about our planet, its natural wonders, and unusual flora and fauna.
Some people told us they miss the Broadway-style song and dance productions with a live band you’ll find on other cruise lines. But we think the emphasis has changed, for the better, on Holland America.
Rotterdam’s Stunning Culinary Offerings
The “Port to Table” concept mentioned earlier was our introduction to Rotterdam’s equally stunning culinary offerings.
Living in Nova Scotia, we’re very fussy about seafood. Typically frozen and only mediocre on many cruise lines, the fish on the Rotterdam was usually outstanding. The fresh halibut, grouper, and Mahi Mahi were among the best we’ve ever enjoyed.
The Food and Beverage Director, Christiaan Criens, confirmed what the Hotel General Manager had told us. Along our Fort Lauderdale to Barbados southern Caribbean route, the line has found several trusted and certified vendors that can provide up to 300 pounds of very fresh seafood. When brought aboard, it’s identified in the main dining room as “Port to Table.”
Likewise, on New England-Canada cruises, the staff procures fresh Atlantic seafood at several ports. The F&B manager remembered with fondness visiting a large mussel farm on Prince Edward Island to stock up on those tasty mollusks. He also told us that Holland America was the first cruise line certified sustainable for Alaska seafood.
Menu Changes Based on Demographics
Since the Covid interruption of almost all cruising, Holland America has changed some of its menus.
No longer are there four appetizers, soup/salad, entree, and dessert offerings in the main dining room. Instead, chefs now combine first two with fewer choices. But, according to the Hotel General Manager, it keeps the quality but is mainly to cut down on waste.
On each separate sailing, the provisions department now looks at the makeup of guests – age, nationality, time of year, and weather – and stocks up based on demographics.
For example, Europeans eat more fish, while Americans eat more red meat. To minimize waste, new food products must be tested first to ensure quality. For example, we were told that the watermelons brought aboard now have thinner skins than before and yield much better.
Attentive Service, Good Food and Wine
The main dining room was generally excellent, with attentive service and good food. HAL’s Master Chef Rudi Sodamin works with a Culinary Council of other top chefs to advise the line about cuisine.
We did try the other eight dining venues on our Rotterdam cruise. We especially enjoyed the extra-cost pan-Asian cuisine at Tamarind, the Italian food at Canaletto, and the French-influenced seafood at Rudi’s Sel de Mer.
The buffet area, called Lido Market on Deck 9, always had a wide variety of tempting main courses and desserts. The breads, pastries, muffins, and sweet rolls were delicious. Breakfast at the Lido was often crowded, so we discovered the New York Deli and Pizza. It had everything we needed to start the day.
At lunch, its made-to-order round pizza was also excellent, but the pre-made slices we tried one day were very poor. The large burgers at the Dive-In corner were also good but not quite as tasty as Guy’s on Carnival ships.
For specialty pastries and coffees with a Netherlands touch, we loved the Grand Dutch Café on Deck 3. It featured pannenkoek (Dutch pancake) and bossche bol (a giant chocolate covered creampuff).
The Holland America wine list was organized by renowned wine critic James Suckling. The prices seemed very fair for the wide variety of vintages.
Many veteran cruisers stayed on board Rotterdam when it visited the southern Caribbean ports on its itinerary.
We especially enjoyed Barbados and our beach visit for swimming in its calm, turquoise waters. Also enjoyable were St. Thomas with its scores of huge yachts (including one called Kaos, valued at $300 million and owned by a Walmart heiress), and St Kitts for souvenirs (best prices in the Caribbean).
Our last stop at Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, was chaotic because two HAL ships were there, and beach chairs were very scarce. But the swimming was excellent.
Holland America’s Gala 150th Anniversary Celebrations
In April of 2023, our cruise ship, Rotterdam 7, will be a key player in Holland America’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. A special cruise on the flagship will sail from Fort Lauderdale to New York, then to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Historians are busy collecting stories from that era, plus menus from early crossings. The latter will be included at the restaurants. That trans-Atlantic sailing, in fact, the whole year, will be full of fascinating cuisine, culture, music, and Holland America history.