All aboard for a nostalgic voyage aboard one of the last surviving classic 1950s ocean liners. Click on the images to see them full size.
SS Rotterdam was the pride of the Dutch merchant marine when new in 1959. Today she’s a floating hotel and museum in her home port of Rotterdam.
Not large by modern standards, she’s still an imposing sight from the quayside.
My berth for the voyage was a spacious twin on the lower promenade deck, with some nice retro touches including original furniture…
…and suitable reading material.
This beautiful builder’s model takes pride of place next to the main staircase…
…which is a work of art in its own right, consisting of not one but two interlocking staircases occupying the same stairwell: one for first class, the other for tourist.
Rotterdam‘s public rooms are bold statements of fifties style. This is a detail from the smoking room…
..and this is a more general view of the same room. The tables with their square-shaded lamps are original; the carpet has been re-woven to the original design.
For many, the Ritz-Carlton ballroom is the most magnificent space on the ship, with a bronze dance floor…
…and a dramatic, sweeping staircase that’s perfect for attention-seekers in evening dress.
Some of the most striking artworks and furnishings are in relatively intimate spaces, like the former Tropic Bar…
..and this seriously covetable love seat in the smoking room lobby.
The Ambassador’s Lounge is the ship’s nightclub, and probably the most vibrant space on board…
…with curved murals depicting the elements air and water.
Of all the artworks on board, I most liked the red copper crustacea adorning the walls of the ship’s cocktail bar. They mix a mean rusty nail here, too.
Some of the public rooms have been reconfigured, so what was once a tourist class space (and later the ship’s casino) is now its fine dining restaurant…
…while the impressive twin dining rooms are now used for conferences.
Ceramic friezes in the dining rooms are in beautiful condition.
But it’s not just an ‘upstairs’ tour. You get to see behind the scenes too. Parts of the boiler room are screened off because there is still some asbestos down here – whereas it was stripped out from the passenger spaces above.
I don’t speak Dutch, but thanks to my knowledge of English and German I was able to understand quite a lot of what the tour guide was saying. Context is all!
The weather was grey and bleak during my visit, but I had to visit everywhere that was accessible, including the foredeck.
Sitting in the captain’s chair on the bridge with my mitts on the engine telegraph was a boyhood dream fulfilled.
The view from the bridge wing is pretty impressive – drizzle or no drizzle.
Not all the ship’s comforts were reserved for passengers. The captain’s sitting room isn’t at all bad.
SS Rotterdam makes a rather romantic setting for a wedding. And this fifties Rolls-Royce is the perfect wedding car.
Rotterdam dates from a time when ships still had curves.
Even close up, her hull is so immaculate you’d never know she was built more than fifty years ago.
Some nightspots suit jazz; others were born to boogie. In the Ambassador’s Lounge it has to be mambo. Only music as brassy and unmistakably fifties as the club itself could hope to match its Technicolor boldness: here, cherry pink and apple blossom white meet ocean blue and hot tomato red. In truth, I had a particular tune in mind. There’s something about the carefree musicality and Cuban-American sassiness of Xavier Cugat’s Siboney that’s perfect for this luxurious fifties time capsule.
To enjoy it, however, you must travel to Rotterdam, not Havana. To the city’s floating namesake: SS Rotterdam. The fifth (and not the last) Dutch liner to bear the name, she is without question the most illustrious. Built in the late fifties just as the transatlantic trade’s post-war boom began to falter in the face of competition from the Boeing 707, she was dubbed tomorrow’s ship, today. No-one could then have imagined how much truth there was in that brave claim, for in the decades that followed the flexibility of her layout, her engines-aft configuration and retro-futuristic silhouette became the blueprint for a new generation of cruise ships. In one breathtakingly sleek package she was one of the last great North Atlantic liners and one of the first truly convincing cruise ships.
At 38,000 tons and 750ft in length, the Rotterdam is not large by the standards of today’s Miami-based behemoths, but in 1959 she was among the larger liners plying the Europe to New York route, and the largest ever built in Holland. With size came dignity: as the flagship of the Holland-America line, she was – like Cunard’s Queens – a true ship of state, the flagship of the Dutch merchant marine and a vessel for national prestige as much as a means of transport from the old world to the new. She was launched by Queen Juliana; her elegant Ritz Carlton ballroom hosted Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. Frank Sinatra performed in her theatre. That’s the kind of glamour today’s Cancun-bound resort ships have a hard time living up to.
She has the looks to match – looks that subsequent generations of passenger ships have gradually lost. In the first two decades after the Second World War naval architecture reached an apogee of grace, as streamlined modernity met the minimalizing impact of improved technology on ships’ silhouettes. Funnels were reduced in number and the old-fashioned clutter of ventilators and masts was swept away to be replaced by open-air swimming pools, terraced open spaces and clean lines. Among the first examples of this new style were Italian ships like the ill-fated Andrea Doria of 1951; among the last was the QE2 of 1968. The Rotterdam arrived midway through this golden age, and her elegance of line – from curved stem to cruiser stern – disguises her considerable size. She has the look of a yacht about her.
After an illustrious career, she managed somehow to avoid a one-way trip to the beach at Alang in India, where old ships go to die. Rotterdam returned to a tumultuous welcome in her home port in 2008. She was then stripped to the bare metal for a thoroughgoing restoration that was complicated by the liberal quantities of asbestos used in her construction. The Rotterdam reopened as a static hotel ship and museum in 2010, but even then all was not plain sailing: the cost of restoring her overwhelmed her rescuers and for a time it was rumoured that she might depart for an uncertain future in Oman.
Happily, it didn’t come to that. New owners were found, and I spent a bleak midwinter night on board in the dying days of 2012.
A Christmas tree and a flaming brazier cheered the blustery quayside; a liveried footman warmed the welcome aboard. Beautiful as she is on the outside, it’s Rotterdam’s interiors that are the most evocative thing about her. The ship’s hot 1950s colours made a delightful antidote to the grey December drizzle and a refreshing change from the timid whites and beiges of contemporary good taste. At once grand and intimate, she’s big enough to have a 600-seat theatre yet small enough to retain inside the yacht-like ambience her elegant hull suggests. An Atlantic crossing to or from New York in her late fifties heyday must have felt less like a stay in a grand hotel than a glamorous four-day house party. On the North Atlantic in the fifties the classes were still divided, but on Rotterdam the division between the VIPs in first class and the tourists in second was a discreet one, removed entirely when she cruised.
What makes this lovely ocean liner so special is not just her once-revolutionary design, but that she has survived in such original condition. She is as perfect a period piece as a pink Cadillac, a Douglas Sirk movie or the sexual chemistry between Doris Day and Rock Hudson. This is the fifties as experienced by affluent Americans, and there are luxurious touches everywhere: deep, cossetting armchairs so heavy it’s a struggle to move them, a bronze dance floor patterned in imitation of the sea bed, mosaic table tops fashioned from Murano glass and – above all – wonderful modern art, from sculpture to painting and tapestry. Though the crew-to-passenger ratio is not at all what it was in her North Atlantic heyday, she makes a surprisingly successful hotel. I had an immaculate, spacious cabin in the former first class section of the ship. Its décor was a nice mix of boutique hotel modern and fifties retro, with original, custom-built cabinets and a fifties magazine on the coffee table.
By day you can tour the ship from bridge to engine room with an audioguide, though for the latter you have to join a group. Former crew members are on hand to explain the workings of the bridge or simply to tell anecdotes of their years at sea. But daytime wanderings can be thwarted by the conferences and wedding receptions that ensure the ship’s public rooms earn their keep. There are no such bars to exploration for an overnight guest, and I seized my chance to see the magnificent smoking room, Ritz-Carlton room and Ambassador’s Lounge in complete solitude, with only my camera for company.
After dinner I nursed a cocktail beneath the fish-scale ceiling of the ocean-themed bar, coveting Aart van de Ijssel’s extraordinarily prickly red copper wall sculpture, which resembles nothing so much as an attenuated, cupric plateau de fruits de mer. The drink was good and strong; the music suited the setting. There was no mambo, but one by one the voices of Ella, Frank and Tony gave aural expression to the atmosphere of fifties luxe. As on any good sea voyage, there was no particular rush to do anything. So I lingered awhile, content and just a tiny bit drunk, waiting for Doris Day.
SS Rotterdam, 3e Katendrechtsehoofd 25, 3072 AM Rotterdam, Netherlands. Tel : (+31) 10 297 30 90 http://www.ssrotterdam.nl/uk/
Xavier Cugat’s 1950s recording of Siboney on YouTube:
It was a sad Christmas for anyone who loves ships, with rumours in the UK newspapers that the QE2 has been sold to Chinese shipbreakers. It was scarcely a surprise, for the post-career fate of even the greatest of ships is not often a long or happy one. The last great ocean liner to be built in the UK, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has languished in the Gulf since 2008, when in a fit of national absent-mindedness the British allowed a priceless piece of their maritime heritage to pass from her American owners to an improbable venture in that most implausible of places, Dubai.
If (as seems likely) her fate is to be cut up for Chinese razor blades, QE2 will be the victim of a strange sort of heritage snobbery, in which a fourth-rank country house or a work of the Quattrocento acquired on some long-forgotten aristocratic grand tour becomes an object of priceless worth to be saved for the nation, while the largest and most beautiful artefacts of Britain’s lost industrial genius are regarded as expendable. Of all the hundreds of stately passenger ships produced on the Tyne, Clyde, Lagan and Mersey in the century up to 1970, Britain has managed to preserve precisely none.