The Fjords Factor – Cruising Norway aboard Holland America Line’s new flagship ‘Rotterdam’

‘You wasted your money if you went to the hairdresser yesterday.’ It was a wry welcome from our tour guide as we prepared to hike up a decidedly windswept Sugarlump mountain from Alesund in the Norwegian Fjords.

Our silver-haired guide was probably not only the least young but also the most fit of our group of 25, though he took the hour-long climb at a sensible, steady pace. As we crested the final slope to arrive at the lookout point, the clouds cleared and we could see an archipelago of islands laid out before us and our ship, Holland America Line’s Rotterdam, twinkling in the sunshine in the distance.

Alesund was only the second port of call on this week-long cruise from and back to Amsterdam, and already we were taking Norway’s weather – and extraordinarily beautiful landscapes – in our stride. The day before, in Eidfjord, there’d been the chance to kayak part of Hardangerfjord, the third-longest fjord in the world. Setting off along the shoreline with the breeze behind us, we’d been thrilled when a seal popped its head out of the seaweed to watch. Then suddenly, the wind wheeled around and white-capped waves began to build in what had been a mirror-calm turquoise fjord. Our doughty kayak-captain wasn’t fazed a bit: he simply turned us around and we paddled off in the opposite direction – finding out in the process how a well a kayak surfs as well as cuts through a wave!

We felt in good hands – Holland America Line takes very good care of its passengers, with with shore excursion options ranging from relaxing drives through spectacular scenery to guided walks along famous waterfronts (such as Bergen) to indulgent foodie options (the goat farm’s salted caramel cheese was reportedly delicious) and more active tours.

However, in Geiranger, we did double-take a little when the coach driver quipped ‘You’re brave!’. Thirty of us, including many silvers like me, were on the ‘Sky to Fjord’ ride, being driven 3,300 feet up the mountain, zig-zagging through a series of hairpin bends on a road that had only been open a week because of the avalanche risk. And we were then going to free-wheel all the way down the same road by bike. At the top, the road sliced through layers of snow that reached 12 feet in places, looking like a gigantic icy lasagne. But the down-hill ride was simply fabulous fun with lots of stops to re-group and admire the waterfalls and scenery – even for those of us who hadn’t been on a bike for years.

Our ship, Rotterdam was full of surprises too. As the seventh Holland America Line ship to bear that name since the company began 150 years ago, Rotterdam’s more modern take on cruising today shows how far things have come. The ‘Origin Story’ presented in the ship’s shiny new theatre bore this out, telling Holland America’s story not as dried-up history but with real emotional clout thanks to massive multi-media screens that filled the room with snappy sound-bites, whizzy graphics and fascinating archive footage.

Beautiful artworks like this paper sculpture celebrate HAL’s history

These huge encircling screens really come into their own on BBC Earth nights when favourite BBC nature footage from Blue Planet, Planet Earth and the like, paired with a live classical quartet on stage, immerses the audience into the thick of the natural world. On other nights, thrilling dance performances max out the screens’ impact in different ways, filling the stage with movement, light and wonder.

The ship also celebrates live music in a major way with three interlinked Music Walk venues showcasing Blues, Classical, Piano and thumping rock music all on the same deck (but not all at the same time). Adroit scheduling means a spine-tingling rendition of Sweet Child of Mine in the Rolling Stone Rock Room can be followed by dancing to Memphis greats in BB King’s Blues Club while late night piano requests bring the evening to a close in Billboard Onboard. The wood-panelled Blues Club doubles as Lincoln Centre Stage for daytime and early evening classical concerts to complete the musical menu. It’s an inspired re-imagining that creates a fresh and authentic vibe compared to more traditional song and dance shows.

Holland America Line is rightly renowned for its dining and Rotterdam gilds that reputation. The main Dining Room radiates light with striking glass sculptures on the ceilings and its two levels are elegantly connected by what could be the soaring ribs of a bygone boat. Menus are varied, the Indonesian waiters unfailingly helpful, dishes well-presented and the food delicious. Breakfast especially is a calming pleasure here, away from what can be a busy deck buffet at peak times.

But for a really exceptional evening, it’s well worth the extra $32.50 per person per visit to enter the serene world of the Tamarind Restaurant. Set high over the stern of the ship, with its own galley, the Tamarind offers spectacular sea views as well as outstanding Asian-fusion dishes such as Thai Citrus Scallops and Wasabi & Soy Encrusted Beef Tenderloin. It’s up there with the very best restaurants ashore. As the charming waitress Ing-Ing urged us with a smile, ‘Keep Tamarind in your heart – and your stomach!’.

Further paid-for options include the Pinnacle steakhouse, Rudi’s Sel de Mer French seafood brasserie and Canaletto’s for Italian favourites, each delicious and a nice alternative to the included main dining-room or Lido Market, up near the top deck. During the day, for a little extra, other eateries beckon, from the buzzing Grand Dutch Café in the atrium to the Explorer’s café serving cappuccinos high above the bow, to my favourite: Gelato’s ice cream parlour on the pool deck, serving scoops of deliciousness and freshly mixed juices – the carrot, ginger, orange and turmeric blend really hit the spot.

Accommodation is well-appointed and tastefully decorated across the range, with an emphasis on the airy and spacious balcony cabins. In addition, there are rooms for solo travellers and families: multi-generational travel works well here, with the children’s club to keep youngsters amused, especially in peak summer.

Holland America attracts some of the highest loyalty rates in the cruise industry, and looking at this ship, it is not difficult to understand why. Life on board feels very civilised, with gracious service and high standards the norm. Carrying over 2,500 passengers, Rotterdam is undeniably a large ship, but cunningly disguised as a smaller one. Bars and lounges feel intimate rather than intimidating and areas flow organically. Smaller spaces are interspersed between signature rooms – the tiny Half Moon bar has seating for just five people at the counter. It’s an easy ship to navigate, including for those with mobility issues, helped by each of the three lifts and stairwells having a theme – animals (aft), music (mid-ships) and architecture (forward). Quirky modern artworks adorn each, making moving between decks a pleasure in itself.

The entry-price for a 7 day fjords cruise aboard a ship of this calibre is relatively low – around £829pp for 7 nights, including £350pp to cover return flights to Amsterdam. To enjoy the ship at its very best, however, you might like to budget for extras like alternative dining, drinks, shore excursions, the spa, some fitness classes and wi-fi.

But that is where Holland America’s ‘Have It All’ deal comes in, offering a drinks package for the week, an alternative dining night, $100pp towards shore excursions, $70pp to spend on board and free wi-fi, all for a total price of £1,479pp for inside accommodation, or £1,829 for a verandah, for the 11-18 September 2022 7 night Norse Legends departure.

If you could custom-design the perfect place to cruise, it would look something like the Norwegian fjords. And if you custom-designed the perfect ship to explore them on, it might look a lot like Rotterdam.

For more information or to book, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678.

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Gill Haynes

Traveller, writer & Associate at Silver Travel Advisor

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