The surface of the springtime Rhine was like a mirror, still and silent as a string of cotton candy clouds flitted across it like so many ghostly galleons. From the balcony of the the A-Rosa Flora, I watched entranced as as succession of stunning vistas unfolded around me like a series of staggering drum rolls, one after another.
One minute we motored effortlessly past giant, hulking industrial plants, the new cathedrals of the 21st century. Another minute, and we ghosted past small villages clustered round the spire of some ancient church. A bend in the river would offer up broad, sandy beaches dotted with improbable gangs of roaming horses, enjoying the returning springtime sun.
Passing under vaulting, arched bridges and through long, deep canal locks, we nudged effortlessly into ancient, fabled Dutch and Belgian cities and some lesser known gems along the way. There was sturdy, Gothic accented Ghent, with its cobbled streets and looming spires, and poignant, pretty Arnhem, with its flower strewn waterfront promenade and the famous ‘bridge too far’ that still straddles the Rhine at this juncture.
Vibrant, swaggering Amsterdam and cutting edge architecture in the vast harbour of Rotterdam formed a fabulous contrast to the breezy, yacht studded harbour at Hoorn. Antwerp was all clattering horses’ hooves on cobbled streets and impossibly gorgeous waffles, lashed in hot chocolate sauce, savoured against a soundtrack of ringing church bells in one of the most magnificent grand squares anywhere in Europe.
We moved deftly through an endless hinterland of street cafes and flower strewn streets and squares, sailing past flotillas of sturdy Rhine coasters, each one with a car or two strapped to it’s stern and, often as not, a furiously barking dog standing guard on deck. Lines of plane trees stood like sentries as the setting sun flitted skittishly between the foliage, warming the ancient river with an amazing, translucent wash.
Our passage was almost dreamlike; our transport a paragon of modern luxury. The A-Rosa Flora was making only her third voyage, yet already she has become an amazing cocoon of style, warmth and excellence. With open seating dining in a window walled restaurant that regularly offered up the most amazing food I have eaten on any river boat, it was a feast for both the palate and the senses.
Smart, crisp and modern, the A-Rosa Flora boasts a vibrant, modish palette that allows for the bright, linear decor to complement the wash of floor to ceiling natural light that suffuses the boat. An elegant observation lounge right forward leads to the dining room via a starboard side inner promenade. One deck down a small, beautiful jewel of a spa offered an almost water level perspective of the outdoor pageant as it slowly unfurled.
On deck, canvas chairs and wooden tables dotted the forward and slightly raised aft deck. In between was a pool, a small golf putting green, and even a sit up, outdoor bar. Like everything else on board, the quality of fixtures and fittings was superlative. Clean, crisp and incredibly comfortable, the A-Rosa Flora is a modern, modular marriage of intelligent design and subtle, finely styled flair. If the opposition isn’t worried, it should be.
It is no exaggeration to say that dining was a feast; from the freshly baked breakfast breads and strong, piping hot coffee to the gorgeous, unmissable soups, right down to the delicately prepared fish and such evening dishes as reindeer, it was simply fabulous. The desserts were creamy, custard and chocolate confections that dared you to try and ignore them. I failed. Repeatedly.
The cabins? Four suites had proper private balconies, but most- such as mine- had a French balcony. Twin beds that convert to a very comfy double, a couple of comfy chairs, and a flat screen TV. Three wardrobes and ample drawers provide more than enough storage space; the dress code is smart casual right throughout the trip.
The bathroom is shower only, though it is an excellent shower. Best of all was the floor to ceiling sliding door that opened up onto that balcony rail; a beautiful place for enjoying a glass of chilled sekt as the A-Rosa Flora ghosted silently along the implacable, moonlit Rhine.
All things considered, those rooms are more than simply comfortable; each one is a little haven. And, this being a river boat, everything else is just a simple step away.
With an all inclusive drinks policy on board and a staff that absolutely work their socks off from top to bottom, dawn till dusk, the A-Rosa Flora serves up the storied, ancient Grand Dames that line the banks of the Rhine with singular aplomb and panache. It’s an elegant, indolent and all inclusive way to see these fantastic places, many of them looking like something straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable.
And, with all your shore excursions and transfers included for the duration, there is no more convenient or inclusive way to see the magnificent, medieval magic of old Europe. Just lovely.
With 2014 now a reality, excitement is starting to build over this year’s European debut of the giant Oasis Of The Seas in the autumn.
The 220,000 ton game changer will sail a pair of transatlantic crossings between America and Europe, together with a brace of five night Mediterranean cruises and an eight night cruise to Holland, on either side of her first scheduled dry docking and overhaul since her 2009 debut.
The first, twelve night transatlantic crossing sails from Fort Lauderdale on September 1st, and arrives in Barcelona on the 13th, with a stop at Malaga en route. This is followed by a pair of five night jaunts to Rome and Naples, departing on September 13th and 18th.
The Oasis Of The Seas then heads for Rotterdam on September 23rd, on a seven night cruise that takes her via Malaga and Vigo. The giant ship will be in dry dock for two weeks, before a return crossing takes her from Southampton back to Fort Lauderdale on October 15th, with stops at Cozumel and Nassau en route.
This first major European landfall for the giant ship will surely be a trial run for future deployments. With a third ship in the class already on order from STX France, a fourth vessel as a distinct possibility, and sister ship Allure Of The Seas scheduled for her own major European overhaul in 2015, the short 2014 season for Oasis Of The Seas will determine such things as the intricacies involved in docking and supplying one of the two largest cruise ships ever built.
A longer deployment of one of these ships to Europe looks to be a certainty. With a capacity in excess of 5,400 passengers, the Oasis Of The Seas will present a unique set of logistical challenges for the Spanish and Italian ports she will visit. Any potential hitches that can be uncovered and overcome now will make for a more seamless series of future deployments.
While Rotterdam might seem a strange place for a two week, labour intensive overhaul, the Dutch port and Royal Caribbean actually have a shared history. The Vision class Enchantment Of The Seas was lengthened in the same Rotterdam dockyard a few years back, the first- and so far the only one- of that six ship class to get this treatment to date.
A highlight of the programme will be the arrival of Oasis Of The Seas in Southampton on October 15th. She will be by far the largest passengers ship ever to berth in the Hampshire port- bigger than the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth combined.
No doubt Royal Caribbean will take full advantage of the tidal wave of excitement her arrival will generate. Whatever your take on big, modern cruise ships, there is no doubt at all that the coming of Oasis Of The Seas raises the cruising ante in Europe by a couple of notches.
As always, stay tuned.
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.