Feels Like Home To Me

When I was a little girl, my family never went to sea or did crossings or cruises. My parents took me up to New York State's farm country to visit my grandparents and my aunts and my uncles. I remember the warmth of a large, active country kitchen and a big red barn with lots of hay for us kids to jump around in for hours on end. It wasn't a trendy, progressive and exciting vacation, but it was like going home to me, and it always felt so good to return every summer. Being onboard the Rembrandt was like that, too. I almost felt the loving hug of a favorite aunt, a safe and peaceful reminder of a familiar history, of what had came before. I sailed last week with a large but close-knit community of Steamship Historical Association of America and World Ship Society members, as well as a playful group of Internet Liners Listers. Some had the great good fortune to be onboard for the entire two weeks from New York up to Montreal and back again to Manhattan. In between, the north bounders stopped at quaint Bar Harbor, historic Halifax, the scenic Saguenay Fjord and lovely Quebec City. South bounders are heading out from Montreal to Quebec City and then on to Sydney, NS, Portland, Maine and Newport, Rhode Island. At times, the weather was not the best for us northbounders, but we didn't go for *that* kind of sunshine.

I won't take the time here and now to get into the technical statistics involved with this ship, since they are easily available to any and all, as the ship has been around for a long time. As many of you know, she sailed as the flagship of the Holland America Line since the very beginning of her illustrious career until being sold to Premier Cruises after being decommissioned a few years ago by HAL. The beloved Rotterdam V then became the Rembrandt, which I personally thought was a fitting and appropriate name for her. I was concerned for her continued stately presence on the seas, and I know others who knew her well were also tentative about her future. I must interject here by telling you that I had a bit of a false premonition before my trip. I had the song "Time to Say Good Bye" running through my head ever since I'd seen a PBS concert by Andrea Bocelli a few nights before we left for our trip while I was packing and preparing to go. I don't know why I thought of this as a omen of some sort, but by the end of the cruise, I was thinking more of another CD I own entitled "Feels Like Home"

It wasn't like that immediately for me, though. Just when I thought I was still back onboard the Rotterdam V last Sunday, something came along and reminded me I was, in truth, really on the Rembrandt. It was always a gentle reminder, no sharp stick in the eye or anything like that, but it was there. Premier always managed to snap me back to reality rather quickly, but it became quite painless after a while.

She is still a beauty. Premier can call her whatever they want and try whatever marketing stratagems they plan, but she will always be what she is. Sort of like me dying my hair blonde...that doesn't make me a blonde in my bones (thank the gods) and the Rotterdam V will never be a Big Red Boat (again, thank the ship gods). As I slept in my cabin at night and she rocked me gently like a well-loved granny, I felt a comfortable familiarity that will never fade. Granted, she's not the HAL ship of old and Premier certainly doesn't offer the HAL service of old, but the ship is doin' okay.

SOLAS revamps on the Rembrandt are unobtrusive, so much so that the casual traveler probably wouldn't even notice them. Premier did a good job here. But I wanted to "S(ave) O(ur) S(hip)" by dusting with Pledge the minute I saw the Ritz Carlton and it's famous lacquered panels. They're dingy and dull, and in need of a little tender loving care. The room's being used as (gasp!) a disco in the evenings, which is so very inappropriate. Some of the folks sailing with us actually asked the DJ to turn off the disco lights because they were almost like fingernails on a blackboard, visually. He was understanding enough to honor our request. The one evening that featured swing and Big Band music in the Ritz Carlton was heavily trafficked by all, since the room seemed much better suited for that type of entertainment than for loud disco and bright, colored lights.

Other public spaces on the Rembrandt were also not being used to their full potential. The Smoking Room should have been used as a posh martini bar or after-dinner cigar bar, but instead was left to house daytime crafts activities. The Queen's Lounge was used mostly for Bingo and very late-night karaoke. I remember these rooms coming alive in evenings past. I already mentioned the Ritz Carlton above as being totally inappropriate as a disco; in fact, it's one of the more ludicrous reincarnations on the ship. It simply doesn't work. However, the Ambassador Lounge, a vision of 50's decor, is virtually untouched by time and the new owners' inclination. Passengers congregated before and after dinner for cocktails, good conversation and classic onboard entertainment which suited the mood of the ship and this room, just like in the 'Good Old HAL Days'. Too bad about the Tropic Bar, which is another vacant onboard property. Where's Frank Gusto when you need him? The Sky Room is another no-show piece of onboard real estate, which, again, is really too bad. It doesn't even look like a bar set-up exists there anymore. It'd be ideal for intimate cocktail parties for small private groups. The setting is just wonderful. The library's still in place, but I'd dearly love to see one of the nearby kiosks used for a bookstore, a' la QE2. This ship needs something like that, instead of more Gold-By-The-Inch, Lladro and "Gems by the Carat" sales.

Cabins onboard are also untouched by Premier, except where absolutely necessary. There were no in-cabin TVs the last time I was onboard this ship, but they're there now, showing CNN (sometimes), the "View From The Bridge" cam and several movie channels. I'd heard things about faulty air conditioning, but even before we left port in New York, I saw this huge blue "thing" on an upper aft deck. Whatever it was, it made the trip comfortable, despite it's ugly deck profile. Our cabin this time was located on B deck, and we were very happy with the location, the cabin size and the comfort of our selection even though our last few trips on Rotterdam V were in cabins located forward on Boat Deck. I should note here that Premier is still giving out complimentary cotton robes to passengers as they were on the Sea Breeze in January; however, there was no shampoo nor was there complimentary post cards or pens and a few other small amenities in the cabins. Initially, I thought that this was just an oversight, but in speaking with several others, I found out this was the rule rather than the exception. The entire ship was exceptionally clean and very well-maintained, and there was always someone out polishing, vacuuming and scrubbing something or another, even very late at night. As a positive nod to Premier, their cabin and deck staff were never annoying or conspicuous as they went about their business on the ship, doing what they had to do to keep it (forgive the pun) shipshape. Our cabin steward was meticulous and invisible, but easy to find if needed.

And now, for the Food, Glorious Food. Truthfully, I knew what to expect, gauging by Premier's Sea Breeze this past winter in the Caribbean. Meats and seafood were uneven. Diners in either of the two dining rooms were treated to chewy lobster and dry "fishy" salmon, but then dazzled with wonderful lamb. Salads and hot and cold appetizers were minimal and unimaginative. Although I don't enjoy escargot myself, my table mates who ordered, raved. Soups were another story altogether, and I thoroughly enjoyed my chilled ones nightly. I'm a big fan of chilled soups and consider myself an expert critic of the art form. In fact, I'd love to get my hands on a recipe for a delightful chilled banana-ginger soup Premier's Rembrandt served one evening.

Buffets up in the Lido were good and plenty, with lots of variety and fresh, well-prepared food. Although you could never go hungry at either breakfast or lunch, neither meal offered very much in the way of permutations on a theme, such as blueberry pancakes rather than plain pancakes, everyday waffles, crepes or omelettes instead of a fancier form of the same dishes. If you enjoyed bacon and eggs or cereal for breakfast daily, then you stood in good stead. This is where you may be reminded at times that you are on a budget cruise line. This, however, is not necessarily a Bad Thing.

Something else I did enjoy was Rembrandt's daily version of afternoon tea between 4-5 PM up on the Lido. Mind you, this was not a classic afternoon tea the way Cunard and Crystal (and HAL used to) do it, but a buffet resembling a fourth meal. Not only did you have a choice of many nice pastries and sweets, but there is a wide variety of sandwich "munchies" available, as well. This is a great relief when travelers come back to the ship after a day of sight-seeing or shopping, and it's not yet dinner time for them. Another positive thing Premier has kept onboard the Rembrandt is the Lido ice cream "parlor" concept. It was a big hit on the Rotterdam V and it continues to work well.

I have one comment to make about ... (gulp) ... the ice tea. I noticed this on the Sea Breeze and again on the Rembrandt, but it wasn't until the Cruise Director made a joke about it during her introduction at the nightly musical entertainment in the theatre that I realized I wasn't the only one who thought it was peculiar. Seems many others noticed the same thing. It tasted a bit like Dr Brown's Cel-Ray soda, a regional bottled soft drink, a sort of hybrid cross taste between iced tea and iced coffee. I was actually getting used to it by the end of the trip. If I'd stayed on for another week, I do believe I'd be craving it by now!

But back to the dining room. The staff was efficient and reasonably personable, but they all seemed to have a little pre-recorded program going on in their heads all the time. For example: each and every night of our cruise, our waiter (Bonaventure) came up to each and every one at our table of eight and asked each and every one of us the exact same questions about our dinner in the exact same order (even if it meant completely and very obviously interrupting the flow of conversation amongst us diners). Late into our week onboard, we decided to try and break his routine. When Bonaventure came to ask his rote questions, I told him I couldn't tell him right now and he should "ask so-and-so" at the end of our table instead. Bonaventure was genuinely flummoxed. His cycle had been broken and his rhythm was off. He just simply couldn't carry on. He turned and left, confused. The same thing happened when a member of our rather easy-to-please table asked for a simple food request, and Bonaventure disappeared completely and forgot about the request made of him. He reappeared only for his nightly attempt to be clever (introducing the evening's desserts delivered along with a fairyland calorie count in the gazillions) which got old after the third night. By the end of the week, we felt like we were being served by a pre-programmed, computer-chipped Stepford Waiter. One positive thing I must comment about Bonaventure. He cut up my salad every night with great zeal, whether I wanted him to or not. For this, I am appreciative. I think.

All in all, I enjoyed myself immensely on this trip. I truly wish I had opted for the two weeks' round-trip onboard rather than just one week. I was with a rather large group of friends, bright and amiable people who share my passion for ships in general, and many who are great fans of this particular ship, and that made the experience even more special. This trip showed me that Premier isn't HAL, but it also showed me that the Rembrandt is truly a Grand Dame, no matter what she is named. A former officer onboard Rotterdam V who traveled with our group was pleased with the ship after being tentative about his first trip since Rotterdam V days. Since he knows the ship the best of all of us, I think we can all feel better at his nod of approval. He was completely comfortable with the changes in the (now) Rembrandt and even commented about the improvements Premier had made that HAL refused to do as the ship got older. Many in our group (including my husband) gave a sigh of relief after only a few hours onboard. In fact, in a generous and very gracious gesture, the Captain allowed Hans to fly his NASM house flag alongside the Premier house flag the afternoon we were in Quebec City. It was almost a spiritual experience to see, and we sat on the quay for a long time, staring upward and basking in the glow. The Rembrandt's Captain knew how to make a bunch of ship freaks happy and how to get our cameras clicking.

So, the long-awaited mystery was over. We were home and it felt good. The Rotterdam V lives on as the Rembrandt...and that's okay.

No, I take that back. It's better than just okay, considering this ship could have been turned into that threatened Big Red Boat or worse yet, could have gone to the scrappers. My ending question to myself is always, "would I sail on this ship again?" The answer this time is a resounding YES, YES, YES, as soon as humanly possible.

Karen Segboer

August 20, 2000