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For a lifelong ocean liner enthusiast such as me, Holland America Line’s decision to send its flagship Rotterdam on the company’s first traditional North Atlantic crossing in 40 years was both welcome and exciting news. Knowing that such celebrations of tradition are rare in the cruise industry, I decided to head to Rotterdam in Holland for the festivities, wondering how much of a link I’d find between past and present.

It didn’t take me long to discover that few cities are as inexorably linked to a steamship line as Rotterdam is to Holland America Line (HAL). I couldn’t help but stumble over HAL history: walking down a street outside my hotel, I realised it was named after the company’s founder; in the maritime museum, HAL ship models were prominent; visiting the city archives, I found that HAL memorabilia made up more than three per cent of the city’s total archival collection (perhaps most relevant to my upcoming voyage was a passenger list – also of a crossing from Rotterdam to New York on the Rotterdam (IV, but in 1910!).

I spent my first night in Rotterdam at the Hotel New York, which was built in 1901 and served as HAL’s headquarters until 1977. Today, company history permeates every wall. Deck plans from former ships are on display along with vintage posters and stained-glass panels depicting the HAL flag and funnel colours. The former boardroom has been made into a suite, affording occupants a commanding view over the River Maas and out over the cruise terminal. Even the hotel bar has two large models of SS Nieuw Amsterdam of 1938. (When even the bars have ship models, you know that shipping line has strong ties to the city.)

An even more tangible HAL connection compelled me to leave this quirky but still-hip hotel, however: on my second night in Rotterdam, I stayed on board the former flagship, the 1959-built SS Rotterdam. I had sailed on the ship three times – albeit during her short post-HAL career as SS Rembrandt – and always had a particular love for the vessel.

Admittedly, I was both eager and slightly concerned before boarding: I wanted to be back on board this classic ship, but I was worried that she would have been significantly changed following her five-year, €257 million ($348 million) renovation into a museum, conference centre and hotel.

I needn’t have worried: Rotterdam’s wide promenades, generous open deck space, elegant twin funnels and virtually unaltered 1950s interiors made her a veritable time capsule. Her beautiful profile and strong hull still conveyed her soul: that of an express Atlantic liner. It had been 10 years since I’d last been aboard and I realised that, in comparison to the new generation of mega-ships, this elegant liner, one of the largest in the world when she was built, now felt positively intimate.

Relieved that SS Rotterdam was being well loved and looked after in her new incarnation as De Rotterdam, I leapt ahead almost 40 years in ship design when I boarded Rotterdam the following afternoon. Holland America Line’s current flagship is the sixth in the line to carry the name – and when she was built in 1997, the cruise line incorporated several touches from its retiring flagship in honour of tradition.

Split funnels again proudly top the new-incarnation Rotterdam, and many of her public rooms have been given the same names as their equivalents on her predecessor. Even some decorative touches have been carried through, including a dining-room mural that echoes the stunning black-lacquer mural in the former flagship’s Ritz-Carlton lounge.

Still, the 1990s are not the 1950s, and walking around the current Rotterdam reveals the many changes that have taken place in cruising over the past four decades. On the newer ship, balconies are in abundance; a modest three-storey atrium rises up from the centre of the ship; the pool is covered by a sliding roof; and the space that was devoted to a small movie theatre on the old Rotterdam is designated the Culinary Arts Center on the new Rotterdam. The most obvious distinction, though, is that following her scheduled transatlantic crossings, this Rotterdam will not continue with her liner service but rather, will resume a life of leisurely cruising.

Nonetheless, as sailing time approaches the sense of occasion and history grows. Thousands gather to wave us off from the pier in a nostalgia-laden civic celebration. The ship’s whistle ricochets off the city skyline as we slowly back up past the Hotel New York. A reflection of the gold letters on top of the hotel, spelling out HOLLAND-AMERIKA LIJN, blazes out over the river with the setting sun and soon we’re clear of the pier from which so many HAL liners have sailed. A few moments later, we pass SS Rotterdam as whistles sound again and champagne is toasted to both former and current flagships.

No matter what the surroundings or celebrations, it is people, ultimately, who make up a ship’s personality. That evening in Rotterdam’s Pinnacle Grill, a friend of a friend joins me for dinner, and later that night, I also meet Rotterdam’s restaurant manager, Aad Nieuwdorp. His career started 50 years ago on Nieuw Amsterdam – and these two crossings are particularly meaningful to him. When the ship returned to Rotterdam in two weeks, he tells us, he would be retiring.

While Rotterdam is a definite evolution from SS Rotterdam, the differences fade once we get underway. The sense of tradition and continuity one finds on a ship crossing an ocean become stronger. Walking the deck one evening, it’s easy to imagine myself on the old Rotterdam’s equally evocative promenade – and, for just a moment, past and present slowly seem to blur.

Words: Ben Lyons