Holland America is slowly starting up its cruise business again, with the Nieuw Amsterdam sailing to Alaska by late July and the Eurodam from Greece by mid August. However there is no option yet for me as Fleet master to start hopping between ships to provide my services so I am still at home. But last week I had to opportunity to sail on the 3 day maiden voyage of the Borealis, ex ms Rotterdam. As I know that many of my readers have fond memories of this ship I thought you might find it interesting to see what the new owner Fred Olsen has done with the ship to transform it for the British Market.
On the 10th of April 2020 I left the ms Rotterdam in Fort Lauderdale while the ship was going into Lay-up after its Covid adventure with the ms Zaandam. Now 15 months later I re-joined the same ship but under her new name in Liverpool for her 3 day maiden voyage starting on July 05.
A lot of things have happened in those 15 months; the thing that remained the same was that I walked off the ship with my mask on and now I walked back on still with my mask on.
My interest in seeing the ship again was driven by the fact to find out how a Holland America Line ship the ms Rotterdam (VI) designed for the American market would be changed into a Fred Olsen ship for the British market. Two different cultures and interests although the language is (sort of) the same.
The ms Rotterdam and ms Amsterdam were sold to Fred Olsen on 20 July 2020 after a review by Carnival Corporation established that 12% of its fleet, being 18 ships, only accounted for 3% of the yearly revenue. Some of the older (Carnival) ships went for scrap but the two smaller units of the R class were put up for sale. It was decided to keep the ms Volendam and ms Zaandam as they had a slightly larger guest capacity. (1432 against 1380 lower beds) The 2 S-class ships, ms Maasdam and ms Veendam were sold to a Greek operator where they were re-united with the ms Ryndam which had been sailing for P&O Australia. Fred Olsen obtained both ships for an extremely good price while Carnival had the chance to reduce their expected costs for the lay-up period. A period nobody knew how long this period was going to last. At the time forecasts were dire so every penny was going to count.
Fred Olsen had the same challenge with the unknown length of the lay-up and thus both ships were laid up in the Firth of Forth with the rest of the fleet. Having them all together at one location gave the option to reduce costs and still maintain the safety standards and carry out any required maintenance at the same time while being able to utilise a combined crew for the purpose.
A problem with laid up ships is in general that the lack of constant inside cleaning and reduction in A.C normally results in little mushrooms and related vegetation to start growing in the public areas where in the past food was consumed. However good the on board cleaning is, and how hard you work at it, you never get all the crumbs and past dried out fluid spill residue out of the carpets. In hot climates this is a bigger problem than in cooler areas but it happens regardless to a certain extent. So even if you were not planning to change carpets on a grand scale, a year in lay-up does make it necessary. Fred Olsen was planning to change the inside décor but had to wait until it was certain when there would be a tentative date for the restart of operations. Hence carpeting and soft fabrics had the overriding priority once the start-up schedule was decided upon.
Thus the carpet in all public areas has been renewed, the wall furnishings (vanity stripes in the hallways) and all the cabin soft goods. (At least in the cabins I saw, which were mainly the suites on deck 7 and some cabins on deck 2) Due to budget constraints (Fred is not as rich as Carnival) this was the priority and thus there is still a massive amount of work to be carried out outside and inside. Hence the areas around the Funnel (tennis and basketball) were not accessible as major parts of the steelwork of the funnel base were being renewed, made rust free and painted. Also some parts of the ship to be used by the public some time in the future, were still closed off. The Neptune Day Lounge for suite guests was in use for collecting HAL artwork which was in the process of being removed from the ships public area’s and step by step replaced by Fred Olsen artwork.
Hence in some places it resulted in a bit of an unbalanced situation, HAL antiques versus modern Norwegian art but no doubt eventually the balance will be found. I was told that while Olsen Junior is running the company, Olsen Senior (now being 91 years old) was fully in charge of this operation and the Cruise Director had been assigned as the go-in-between for ensuring that each piece of art was going to be installed where Olsen Sr. wanted it and that only those HAL pieces were removed which Olsen Sr. wanted to be removed. It called for long and extensive emails to and from Norway with photos and explanations as Olsen Sr. could not come to the ship due to the Quarantine rules in the UK and the ship could not come to Mr. Olsen due to Norway still being closed to cruise ships.
Other locations which were closed and nearly impossible to find back were the public laundries of which Holland America had several, nearly one on each deck. Signage had been removed and the plan was to create one (larger?) laundry room on a deck 2 portside. The location was already indicated on the deck diagrams in the staircases but there was nothing there yet. According to the Fred Olsen website this amenity will be available in autumn 2021.
The few cabins I was able to put my nose into were all as in the HAL days albeit with new soft furnishings. In some of the lower deck cabins the artwork had been changed but in the Suites on Deck 7 (which did have a better quality art work to be honest) all is still there and I hope it stays as it is really nice stuff even if it is Dutch. The amenities for these cabins are roughly the same as was offered by HAL Although HAL had dispensers in the showers and baths and small bottles and soaps on the wash basin; with Fred it is all bottles with pump tops. But the world atlas was there and the binoculars which had been standard before as well.
What else did change? In the Crow’s-nest, the Greek pillars around the dance floor were removed and a music stage was installed in front of the Wall TV. Normally on a Fred Olsen ship the whole British Clientele goes for cocktails before dinner and this means that each lounge is filled to capacity both for first and second sitting.
One deck down, the Spa area (Atlantic Spa and Fitness) was unchanged apart from some sprucing up of the wall fabrics and the signs. Coming onto the Lido Deck (Deck 8) the Dive Inn / Hamburger Bar of Holland America was renamed in “The Poolside” with a different menu. I think it was not finished yet as the drawing in the cruise brochure indicated a different lay-out, without the Taco Bar. This self-service stand was still there but only in use as a display. The remainder of the Lido Deck with “The View” restaurant was identical to the HAL days with only the signage and fabrics changed. The speciality restaurant in the sb. forward corner, Italian food in the “Canaletto” by Hal has now become Indian Goa food in the “Vasco” by Fred Olsen. All the HAL art was still there with little reason to remove it as it fitted quite well in the new colour scheme.
Outside, the aft “paddle pool” of HAL is reduced to a pond with a large garden type area created by filling in the Jacuzzi’s and covering over the shallow pool sides still left. Holland America had in 2008 decided to remove the outdoor salt water pool on the aft deck to be able to install indoor cabins under it and left on the top a shallow wading area or paddle pool. Under the forward overhang a more permanent bar had been constructed which is still there. On the portside there was a complete pizzeria with ovens for pizza making on demand but this has been removed permanently. Pizzas are obviously not part of the Olsen product. Looking up to Deck 9 and 10 behind the funnel, the children’s playroom (Club HAL is still there but boarded up. The open deck Kids area above (Called “The Oasis” in HAL days) is in use as a smoking and relaxation area for the crew
The main public rooms are on Deck 5 and 4 and thus here most of the changes were made. The show lounge is now called the Neptune Lounge and is unchanged and so is the Ocean Bar on starboard side behind it; and is still called the Ocean Bar. Same for the shops but the concession has changed from Dufry to Hardings and they were on this first cruise still busy with finding their feet. The Drugstore on the portside has been transformed into a Flower shop, something I have never seen before on a ship. Holland America had florists on board and a program for flower sales for special occasions but there was no dedicated outlet.
The biggest change is in the area of the Casino. Here the difference between products becomes clearly visible. In 2008 Holland America had changed the area between the Shops (sb. side) and the Casino (ps. side) into a new multifunctional venue called “The Mix”. It consisted of a Champagne Bar, a Cocktail Bar and a Sports Bar. Wedged between the champagne and the cocktails was a piano so this area was also used as the late night bar.
The Champagne Bar and the Cocktail Bar have been removed to create more seating space and the area opened up to the walkway on the starboard side. The piano has been brought forward and a dance floor created in front of it. This does not mean that British guests do not drink Cocktails and or champagne. It has just been centralized in one Bar. The former Holland America Sports Bar.
On the portside the complete casino has been ripped out, including the Cashier booth and the two offices behind. (They must have had fun with getting the big safe out). Two new gaming tables are installed in the portside aft corner but no slot machines or anything else. The area has been re- designed as a sitting area, and can act as an overflow for the Ocean Bar and previous Sports Bar. The whole area is now called the Morning Light Pub & Lounge. I think it will work very well for Fred Olsen as they need a multipurpose day room as many of the established cruise staff activities such as the daily quiz / trivia still attract large numbers of guests.
Although due to Covid-19 the ships was sailing with a 50% occupancy rate, it did not feel empty. The guests were out in force in the afternoon and evening to create a good atmosphere. It was just nice that we did not have to hunt for seats during cocktail time. Normally on a British ship you have to be early to get a seat during cocktail hour as they come out in force. Hence Fred Olsen has draft beer in all public rooms to deal with the demand.
On the portside right behind it, is the Bookmark Café & lounge, our ex Explorations Cafe, which has not changed at all. Behind it the Bolette Card Room, again unchanged apart from an aft section taken out and added to the space behind. And behind is “The Forrest Room” but with the doors firmly locked it was still a mystery. In Holland America Line days this used to be the Microsoft Workshop for computer lessons. The other side has changed to a certain extent.
Holland America had here the Explorers Lounge which was in use as a day room and in the afternoon and evening for classical concerts by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. This has now been split up in two parts whereby the aft part has been transformed into “The Oriental Tea Room”. The aft inner wall has been removed, creating an extra entrance, which meant that the Terracotta soldiers and horses were removed.
The Rotterdam “La Fontaine” Dining room now has different names for the upper and the lower part has remained unchanged apart from the fabric. Originally this dining room had two wings on the deck 5 level. The Kings and Queens. The Queens was giving over to the Microsoft workshop but the Kings was still in use for overflow and special dinners. This has now been changed to the “Indian Ocean Room” Restaurant. The Holland America antiques have been removed and replaced with a Tropical mural.
Deck 4, the 2nd public room area has been changed very little. The tile display behind the Front Office, now called Guest Services, lost its sailing ships but the center display remained. The Cinema, we which called the Wajang theatre has kept it is Kitchen for cooking demonstrations behind the movie screen and it looks like Fred will continue to use it in its dual purpose role with the space now named The Auditorium. Right behind it is another speciality restaurant which started out life with us as the “Marco Polo” for Italian cuisine, then became “The Pinnacle” for North West fusion cuisine and is now the “Colours & Tastes” Restaurant with menus inspired by the Far East.
Is the Fred Olsen product comparable to HAL now they have two of our ships? Too many options that the ship can deliver, varying from TV channels to the availability of all public rooms, are still missing. But it will be interesting to see how far the ship will have grown into the full Fred Olsen product in a year or so.
While on board I asked the Captain if the Mooring Telegraph on the bridge was still there, installed by the Rotterdam Captain and I during the period before April 2020 (meant as a photo shoot point for later bridge tours), and it was. So now I was able to hand over a framed narration which detailed the history of the telegraph, from its Moore McCormack days, via the Veendam (III) and the Rotterdam (V) to the Rotterdam (VI) and now the Borealis. This made everybody on board quite happy as they all loved it (Including Mr. Olsen Sr.) but nobody knew exactly what it was and where it came from.