A Fond Farewell to HAL's Elegant Explorer
By now, you may sense the idolization I possess for the sea, ocean travel, and ships. If not, my first cruise was in 1967, the year this obsession began with a family cruise on Holland America's SS Rotterdam. 150+ cruises later, sailing on over 50 ships, the passion ensues.
In just the past four years I've headed out to sea twenty-six times, eleven of which have taken me across the Atlantic. Journeying across a vast ocean in one direction not unlike our ancestors is an adventure I crave. Unlike a typical cruise, you embark in one country and disembark in another. I've not seen land for up to eight days and those sea days are reserved for reflection, a time to recalibrate the senses, self defining moments which stand still mid-Atlantic. The vast horizon, the waves, the rolling of the ship are mesmerizing ...it's all about the journey. Let's go to sea.
I dreamt of sailing on Prinsendam for years long before Holland America inherited her from sister company Seabourn in 1992. Owning a couple of travel agencies in the late seventies and early eighties we sent a fortunate few on Royal Viking Line renown for its luxurious and spacious ships. In 1988, Royal Viking Line launched Prinsendam, a larger more modern incarnation for the brand. She had balconies, a spiraling atrium and was the most posh cruise ship built at the time (and one of the most expensive at $150 million.) Mostly wealthy retirees assumed passage on Royal Viking Line. Voyages were lengthy and costly. I didn't have the time or money in my early twenties to afford such a lofty expenditure.
Long story short, it took me two and a half decades to catch up to Prinsendam. She had evolved into Holland America's most intimate ship with an unparalleled following of faithful guests. At any one time eighty-percent of its passenger manifest would be repeat guests. I knew why and it was time, but still pricey. Prinsendam sailed on exotic voyages to some of the most remote ports around the globe, a benefit of small ship cruising. I didn't have fifty-days or twenty-grand laying around until I saw a twelve day repositioning voyage from Lisbon to Ft. Lauderdale in 2018. Finally, Prinsendam was within reach and a quick call to my agent at Holland America made it happen!
One of my primary objectives for sailing on Prinsendam was to capture the essence of this great ship through photography for a new book. My visual skills surpass those of my writing and friends tell me I see things differently. Two months after I secured my spot on the October crossing, Holland America announced the sale of Prinsendam to German travel operator, Phoenix Reisen.
The news was sad but Phoenix Reisen is well known for the upkeep of its ships and operates one of Prinsendam's former fleetmates; the 1975 built Royal Viking Sea now sailing as "Albatross." Here she is in pristine condition at berth the day we sailed from Lisbon. Coincidence?
The book venture now evolved into a tribute to the "Elegand Explorer" with no room for error or compromise. I had to capture great photos as this crossing would represent more than just an experience. The objective now retained a certain significance which could not be duplicated.
Renovations since her origins as Royal Viking Sun included the addition of several balcony cabins aft replacing her original pool which was relocated on the newly built deck above. This altered her profile but not enough to upset her graceful lines.
OCTOBER 26, 2018, my non-stop TAP flight from Miami to Lisbon was uneventful. Once through customs, I grabbed a taxi at around 4:30am and failed to confirm the cost to transport me to my quaint B&B. Checking online the cab fare should have been about $15. The cabby took me for $50, a tired tourist shattered I was after a long flight. Worse yet my room would not be available until 2:30 that afternoon. I was able to drop my bags off and wandered around Lisbon in a sleepless-state for hours ending up at a corner cafe. Finally, a respite from being up for 24 hours, it was nap time. I have about thirty-six hours to kill before boarding Prinsendam.
Prinsendam arrived a day prior to our departure. I had planned to wake up and photograph her sailing under the 25 de April bridge as she entered the port of Lisbon. I was up and so was the wind and it was still dark. Venturing out into the wind and darkness at 5AM wasn't going to work. I waited for the sun to rise and was out the door. Prinsendam was tied up pier-side taking on provisions. Finally, I captured my first glimpse of her after nearly thirty-years of dreaming of the day I would sail on this classic ship.
In just a few hours I would board this 38,000 ton princess, with 800 fellow passengers, a real treat in today's world of giga-ships carrying thousands of passengers and crew. Thankfully, Holland America continues to operate a small ship fleet in the 60,000 ton, 1,200-1,400 passenger range such as Veendam. Maasdam, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. I'ved sailed on both the Rotterdam and Veendam and praise Holland America for the effort necessary to operate smaller ships.
It's time to check in and board Prinsendam. Pier-side the porters far outnumber the passengers as many guests are in-transit from the ship's previous twenty-eight day cruise through the Mediterranean. Some have been on board for months, routine for Prinsendam's loyalists, and will stay on board far beyond the short twelve-day journey across the Atlantic. Quick and easy, I step on board knowing this will be an epic journey on a ship noteworthy for its finesse and a legacy few ships will ever reach in a lifetime. At age thirty many ships are off to the breakers where they are sold for scrap and de-boned. Alas, Prinsendam will continue albeit under a different name and thoughtfully refreshed.
Enter my Vista Suite (an affordable upgrade) number 171 on Deck Nine, the second to last balcony stateroom starboard, aft. It gets a bit rocky back there - more on this in a bit, so hang on.
Why is Prinsendam so unique and in demand by devotees who refuse to sail on any other ship? Without loosing your breath, you can walk from one end of the ship to the other in less than five minutes. Every stateroom has a walk-in closet and most feature large tubs. Average size of a standard stateroom - about 190 square feet. Lounges and dining venues are rarely crowded. In fact, one wonders at times where the hell everyone is. There is an intimacy, coziness, and mature character on board Prinsendam, like one's favorite pair of shoes. Holland America could have easily replaced some of the frail furniture, chipped side tables and occasional worn fabrics but the timeless aspect and charm of the ship would have been diminished. In many areas, Prinsendam is seemingly unchanged since the day she was launched, evidenced by the signed tiles greeting guests in the foyers that lead to staterooms...
Many of these tiles are signed and dated: "EVK 1988." Hopefully we'll see them salvaged prior to the millions Phoenix Reisen will undoubtedly spend to update Prinsendam, renamed "Amera."
These heirlooms are scattered around the entire ship. With Scandinavian design embedded into the roots and bulkheads of this little ship, you feel at home and quickly grow to love the well-aged environs of Prinsendam. More than her guests, I believe the crew has grown to adore her like a life-long friend.
Our crossing would take us through the Azores with stops in Ponte Delgada, Praia Da Vitoria and Horta. Our second day in Ponte Delgada would be replaced with an additional sea day due to weather. No problem here. I'm on board to take photographs and for the exception of Horta which is simply gorgeous, I've been to the others more than once. The Azores are beautiful - one of the few destinations I would consider visiting on a land-based holiday.
My new book, "Prinsendam, Elegant Explorer" captures, illustrates and defines the ship from top to bottom, deck-by-deck, in (mostly) black and white preserving and revealing her splendor. I am told my photos speak volumes and hope to have copies on board Holland America ships soon. Her history and qualifications should not be overlooked.
Let's explore Prinsendam, an abbreviated version of the book. We'll start forward in the Atrium, a glass and chrome menagerie with its spiraling stairwells...
Forward on Deck Eight, enter "Showroom at Sea", we wander through the shops, the "Oak Room", "Java Bar and Cafe" and finally "Explorations Cafe", and "Explorer's Lounge."
Bypassing the "Wajang Theatre" (a small cinema which also hosts the Line's "Culinary Arts Center") and the photo gallery, it's obvious how quickly one can explore an entire deck.
Heading down to Deck Seven - we're aft, entering the dining rooms of La Fontaine split into two venues: anytime dining (aft) and just forward, the assigned seating section of the restaurant, a more refined and sophisticated space where guests are waited on by designated table-staff. Holland America has invested a great deal of energy and creativity in transforming their dining experience with a revitalized focus on renown culinary chefs. It's working well and each time I sail with Holland America the food progressively improves to the point where some of the more ambitious dishes at sea have been savored.
Forward of the La Fontaine arrangement, we enter a favorite of Holland America's regulars - the "Ocean Bar". Perhaps it's the two-for-one drinks at happy hour, the casual entertainment, views out to the promenade deck and ocean vistas beyond. It's a splendid central spot on the ship where during the day you can curl up with a book or people watch, thanks to its mid-ship location - the only thoroughfare from bow to stern unless you're out on the promenade deck.
Opposite Ocean Bar is the Pinnacle Grill with a menu focusing on fresh, premium ingredients—from caviar to Alaskan king crab, fresh lobster and of course steaks. It's reminiscent of a classic style steak house rich with wood, a coffered ceiling and wonderful fabrics. This space defines elegance and shines day or night.
Holland America's ships are rich with artwork and floral arrangements. While short on the prestigious art collection other ships in the fleet possess, Prinsendam's floral arrangements and creations do not disappoint. It's not just the flowers, it's how they're presented. A company-wide commitment to fresh flowers is a hallmark of the company obsolete on many lines today. I always order flowers for my stateroom - a luxury that brings life to any space.
Venturing outside, Prinsendam's wrap around promenades are wide, decked with steamers and comfy cushions. Forward, you're just about 200 feet from the bow and can feel the ship's motion in any sea, another luring attribute of small ship cruising I live for. The motion of the ocean has never affected me and frankly, I like rolling seas. Aft, promenade, you'll end up with a great view of the ship's wake. I call this "Stern Serenity."
A rare scene on ships today...steamers with cushions, teak decks, full circle.
Aft, we'll climb up a steep stairwell to the Seaview Pool and Bar...the deck added in 2012 to accommodate twenty-five new Vista balcony suites and six interior cabins. Seemingly, many fail to venture aft to this mini oasis preferring the central lido pool. Seaview is one of the ships's more inviting spots.
Small ship, small pool, more than ten people and I suspect it would feel a bit close. One fault with this addition to the ship (remember it was originally a deck below) occurs in any motion of the ocean which immediately causes a wave sequence in the pool. On our rsailing out of Lisbon, it nearly emptied itself. On a positive note the decks are always pristine. Watch your step.
Re-entering the ship we slip past the fitness center and Greenhouse Spa reaching the aft stairwell with two of the ship's four elevators. En-route heading up two flights to Deck Eleven, many guests wondered what I was photographing as I dangled well out over the railing. Ship's have the most intricate stairwell designs...a few of those guests knew exactly what I was capturing. Vertigo?
Aft, we enter Canalleto and the Winter Garden, Holland America's Italian-inspired eatery found fleet-wide. Daytime, Lido Buffet patrons, including myself, enjoy the space for views of the ship's wash and on occasion in nicer weather, the open windows providing a fresh breeze and al fresco dining.
The Lido Buffet offers stations on both port and starboard sides. Asian is featured port while starboard serves up the daily specials featuring a carvery, pastas, specialty dishes, and a healthy self-serve, large salad bar.
Heading forward we enter the Lido pool deck where we find Holland America's "Dive-In" outdoor grill, a popular spot for an afternoon burger and fries and the Pool Bar. From the photos, the pool seems more like a kid's tub. It's tiny but in reality, amply proportioned. During the combined eighteen days I spent on Prinsendam, it was never crowded albeit a bit humiliating at first to see an adult in this baby-sized pool but proved to be a great treat. Fresh water and toasty, temperature-wise, it was sublime. I found my spot here most days at sunset as the decks began to empty out. If you're wondering where all the people are (again), I'm an early riser, many are not and with seven straight days at sea, there was no rush.
Earlier in the post, there was mention of rough seas. It was less than an hour sailing out of Lisbon that those winds which kept me from heading out to photograph Prinsendam's arrival, the winds that ensued the following day, the day of our departure, would meet my prediction of large swells. I had forgotten how a 38,000 ton ship handles in close to thirty-foot seas. My aft Vista Suite was secured with glassware on the floor, my vase of flowers safely in the sink - it's off to the races, rock 'n roll. The seas would continue to surge resulting in a the elimination of our second day in Ponte Delgada and a rearranged itinerary. It wouldn't be until mid-way through the crossing that the seas would subside to a subdued six to eight-foot swell. A sweet spot for great sleeps.
On our first night at sea, the dining room, not quite empty, delivered service with aplomb. I recall some of the dishes and glasses sliding towards and away from my place-setting. In the old days, the wait-staff would wet down the tablecloths "gluing" the dishes to the table. The motion of the ocean has never affected me, in fact, I prefer some wave action. It's a reminder we're on a moving vessel in a sea we have no control over, an act-of-God thing.
Prinsendam shines with its open inviting decks promoting strolling, sports, and relaxation.
Perhaps one of my favorite places on any ship is a forward facing lounge high up, if it has one. Holland America's ships all feature such a lounge known as the "Crow's Nest." The line's newer ships have integrated their "Explorer's Cafe" into the venue and installed some fascinating electronic and digital gadgetry detailing the ship's position and other navigational and destination data. On Prinsendam (Deck Twelve), it's cushy seating and great views. Nighttime is a call for action with the evenings led by a pianist and two-for-one drinks packing the place to capacity. The Crow's Nest is the last sojourn for the late-night crowd.
Twelve days on Prinsendam was a tease. I can easily see how many can spend months on this ship and for many it's a second home. The staff and crew know these guests as if they were family members. I became acquainted with the Captain, a fine man from Norway, who personally escorted me throughout the ship affording me some photos that are simply outstanding including a position at the very front of the bow where the post flag is stationed. Pictures of the bulbous bow slicing through the ocean; a shot of the F'ocsle, and a profile of Prinsendam from the port bridge-wing were acquired.
Just a few weeks after leaving Prinsendam in Ft. Lauderdale I was back on board for a quick six-day cruise to the Caribbean with stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Amber Cove (Dominican Republic.) I simply couldn't resist the opportunity (and the price) capturing a few more final photos of the "Elegant Explorer." We missed tour stop at Half Moon Cay, Holland's private island, due to high winds but without that missed call, we would have never met the company's newest ship, "Nieuw Statendam" steaming south on her inaugural cruise from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Here we have the line's oldest and newest ships passing each other - saluting Prinsendam a fond farewell, and Nieuw Statendam a joyous lifetime of service and excellence Holland America has delivered for close to 150 years...
Finally, the proof of my book has arrived today (2.20.19) and it looks GREAT!...sign up for updates and submit your details ...coming soon. theelegantexplorer.com...
If we only live once, I'm savoring every moment of these ocean voyages of mine doing exactly what I love to do. My suggestion: find yourself, seek out and embark.
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PHOTOS: JD SCHWARTZ
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