With a history that dates back to its first ever transatlantic sailing in 1873, the Holland America Line can safely lay claim to a place among the aristocracy of ocean travel. Now headquartered in Seattle and a principal player in the Carnival portfolio, the venerable line made the transition from crossing to cruising at the dawn of the 1970’s.
HAL traditionally never built the vast, imposing national flagships that typified their Cunard and French Line rivals, instead preferring to build solid, mid size vessels with excellent sea keeping qualities; a vital prerequisite on the often stormy passage between Rotterdam and New York. All the same, the line soon acquired a reputation for running smart, well served vessels on a human scale, factors which would make the line the first choice of many travellers over the years.
It became an axiom of transatlantic lore that a single speck of dirt on a Holland America ship would be enough to make a chief purser commit suicide. Legendary liners such as the graceful, triple stacked Statendam and, more than any other, the fabulous Nieuw Amsterdam of 1938 would become every bit as iconic as their larger fellow travellers. Hollywood stars such as Spencer Tracey were often prepared to alter their travel plans, just for the opportunity of sailing on the Nieuw Amsterdam, such was her star power on the post war Atlantic crossing.
But the canny Dutch had already foreseen the increasing dominance of the jet airliner when they introduced a new national flagship, the Rotterdam of 1959. Staunch and graceful, and with a pair of parallel twin funnels mounted aft, the new ship was designed for dual purpose, Atlantic crossings and warm weather cruising. Incredibly, this venerable and much adored legend would sail on until the year 2000; a happy ending that nobody could have foreseen in the cloudy skies of 1959.
Inevitably, dwindling numbers forced the cancellation of all Atlantic crossings at the end of 1971, a new emphasis on full time cruising, and a relocation of headquarters to Seattle. Long before it’s acquisition by Carnival in 1997, the line had become one of the major players in Alaska cruises and tours during the summer months.
Today, bolstered incalculably by Carnival’s financial clout and business expertise, the line operates some of the best and most elegant ships in the upper premium market. Though the ships of today are much bigger than the Atlantic and Bermuda stalwarts of the ‘old’ HAL, devotees of the line would instantly recognise the fresh cut flowers, signature art collections and deft, efficient Indonesian staff members that have defined the Holland America brand for over a century now.
If HAL stands for anything, it is tradition and continuity. And while these factors have been key to holding and retaining a quite extraordinary level of loyalty from regular passengers, they have also been perceived as stumbling blocks in any attempt to attract newer, younger passengers to its storied fleet.
It is a conundrum, and it has to be said that the modern HAL fleet is every bit as capacious, diverse and amenity laden as its rivals. Indeed, HAL offers some of the biggest standard cabins afloat, and a level of cuisine and service well above that offered by the mainstream lines. The lack of alternative dining venues in comparison to other lines merely points up just how excellent and finely styled the on board options already are.
Holland America is changing slowly by degrees to accommodate the new cruising demographic. Like a graceful Dutch galleon tacking slowly round to take advantage of fresher breezes, it will be a case of slow and steady does it.
The Holland America Line is still a timeless, tremendous experience even now. The ships remain as immaculate and highly styled as ever; each one is a sumptuous, floating art gallery in its own right. For a classy, utterly distinctive big ship travel experience that combines the best of old world glamour with all the comfort and modern conveniences anyone could ever want, you would be very hard pressed to do much better.