PRINT BLURB: writes Neil Porten
The last time I saw Croatia from a ship was in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean; in the warm 3am darkness Croatia was there, huge and bright. Then, our encounter lasted just over 90 minutes as the Vatreni (“Fiery Ones”) succumbed to France in the Fifa World Cup final, watched by me and a couple of dozen football fans on the ship’s giant poolside video screen.
Now, Croatia is right there in front of me again, huge and bright, and if I lean out over the railing of MS Koningsdam I can almost touch the fiery terracotta tiles on the roofs of Dubrovnik.
The famous walled town is the first port of call on a 13-day round-trip voyage from Rome, taking in highlights in the Adriatic Sea, as well as Sicily, Malta and Naples on the return leg. We’re sailing in a heatwave — it’s the hottest June ever recorded in Europe — but Koningsdam, Holland America Line’s 99,500 ton, 297m long Pinnacle class ship launched in 2016, is the perfect vessel to coolly and calmly transport us under cloudless blue Mediterranean skies.
Rome’s sea port is Civitavecchia, 80km north of the Eternal City, and Koningsdam is waiting there at the long concrete pier, 14 decks above the waterline; navy-blue hull, orange-topped lifeboats, white superstructure, dark-tinted windows and glass balconies. Security procedures, check-in and boarding are quick and easy; we are in our stateroom, bags already delivered within half an hour.
Verandah stateroom 5157, starboard midship, overlooks lifeboats 17, 19 and 21 and the Promenade on deck 3. The decor is cream, with brushed bronze cornices and beech veneer — smoothing and restful. There’s a two-seater sofa, desk, chair, lighted mirror, plenty of power outlets, bedside charging ports, and ample storage. The TV is a portal to on-demand movies, music and shows, restaurant menus, ship and trip information, live forward and aft cameras.
In the tiled bathroom, the shower stall is large, and the shower itself is full-strength and simple to use. In the coming days, the Elemis toiletries perform admirably during the heatwave. And the long, firm bed, crisp sheets, long and short pillow combo, blackout curtains, double-glazing and ruthlessly efficient air-con create a haven for sleeping at any time of the day or night. The floor-level sensor light is a nice touch, proving handy for tripless trips to the bathroom in the dark.
The next few hours before we sail is the perfect opportunity to explore our home for the next two weeks. Music inspires the decor onboard. Harps, a double crown in chrome, encircles the three-deck atrium. The B.B. King’s Blues Club/Lincoln Center Stage is a cocoon of varnished wood curved like a cello. Five decks are named for composers, and much of the US$4 million of art is musically inspired. Each space is a careful composition of deep carpet, leather chairs and polished surfaces.
Undoubtedly Koningsdam is a big ship: you can’t easily hide 2650 passengers, 1036 crew and 1331 staterooms. But clever design means you hardly ever feel like you are walking a city block to get from the aft dining room to the fitness centre at the bow. When you take what feels like the most natural path, your route curves past a bar, or a lounge or a music venue: sometimes around a corner, or through glass doors. In the corridors, corners limit the distance you can see ahead to tens, rather than hundreds of metres.
Our self-guided ship tour begins with hairdresser Ante, who hails from Split, who tempts us with the luxuries of the Greenhouse Spa, a paradise of pampering with saunas, thermal suites, hydrotherapy pool, and heated ceramic loungers. The gym is nearby, where you can pound the treadmills while looking out over the bow.
Not far away, up on Deck 12, is The Retreat, a pay-extra sanctuary of covered cabanas and loungers. This deck also has what became one of our favourite relaxation spots onboard, the Crow’s Nest and Explorations cafe. This panoramic lounge at the front of the ship has a bar, espresso coffee, games and books and dozens of loveseats, sofas, and armchairs for maximum comfort while watching, for example, the sun set behind the Catania skyline and the hazy slopes of Mt Etna.
Our last stop on the Day-One tour is the Lido Balcony, overlooking the Lido pool and bar on the deck below. This split-level space with retractable roof (unnecessary this trip — did I mention the heatwave?) is the shrine of the sun worshippers and their onlookers — a family-oriented chill-out plaza where Aquaman swims on the movie screen and tanned Italians loll at the edge of the pool.
There’s more to see, but not today: just after 5pm, with windsurfers to the south, and a trio of cargo ships sailing by heading north, the ship casts off and we head in to get ready for dinner.
Dinner. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Breakfast …. Food and cruising are as inseparable as bacon and eggs, bagels and cream cheese, spaghetti and meatballs. Simply, the food on Koningsdam is endless, multifarious and delicious. Presentation and service is top notch.
Lido Market is the go-to for a constantly changing buffet of cuisines, cooked and served to you by patient, friendly staff. Great meals in the main dining room include small, sweet Italian mussels, grilled bream, a lobster tail and steak surf and turf, and tiramisu. Free in-room dining is a treat we don’t indulge in often enough. Burgers from Dive-In are fresh and tasty.
Each of the additional-cost restaurants prove to be very good value. At Rudi’s Sel de Mer they present to us a whole fresh fish — sea bass in my case — before cooking it perfectly. Under the gold domes and mood lighting in Pinnacle Grill I devour a crab cakes appetiser, and a beef tenderloin steak with dumplings. The sushi and wok-seared lobster at Tamarind is a highlight of highlights.
To drink: you can make your own red wine at Blend, a collaboration with Washington State-based Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and it is available to you wherever you choose to dine onboard; we are served a Nobilo sauvignon blanc at Tamarind; there are around 130 whiskies, bourbons and ryes to try at Notes on the Plaza Deck; happy hour at Billboard Onboard (second drink only US$2) segues perfectly into the evening trivia quiz.
The ship is a marvel, a destination of itself.
I haven’t mentioned the outdoor spaces like the adults-only Sea View Pool & Bar, the Promenade on deck 3 which gets you all the way around the ship and so close to the deep blue sea, or the jogging track and sports court topside.
I’ve only touched on the activities such as America’s Test Kitchen cooking demos, the Microsoft workshops (I really do need to Master Modern Life with Windows 10); the Ask the Captain session with the wry skipper Werner Timmers; the mahjong, bridge, and pickleball meet-ups; the shore tour lectures and the ballroom dancing hour.
And it would be remiss to leave out the Music Walk entertainment: Billboard Onboard’s duelling pianists, the B.B. King’s Blues Players, the resident band in the Rolling Stone Rock Room, the fun and stylish classical musicians at Lincoln Center Stage.
It’s almost incidental that we had nine ports of call during the voyage. But, here I present a highlights reel: a triumvirate of Italian volcanoes — Catania’s Mt Etna, Naples’ Vesuvius and the smouldering Stromboli, lethal two days before we steamed past and still having its hotspots damped by seaplanes scooping bellyfuls of water to drop on to its lower slopes; perfect pink sunsets in Dubrovnik and after departing Corfu; Koningsdam as a small thumbnail blob in the vast sparkling Kvarner Bay as our coach climbed the coastal road from Rijeka; sailing into Grand Harbour in Valletta, Malta, the full early sun warming the butter-yellow stone of the fortress battlements.
In Corfu, five cruise ships are in port: a perfect opportunity for a game of “Whose Ship is Best?” There is literally lipstick on a ship on the AIDAblu, and also a three-deck high pair of come-hither eyes, one either side of the bow. But I’m not seduced by the sparkling white German Siren, nor the Italian, nor the Norwegian. This far into the voyage my attachment to Koningsdam and her blue-hulled stateliness is complete.
Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Malta. It is been a magical odyssey, following routes plied by the ancients: Phoenicians, Greeks, Venetians. Finally, though, all roads — and this ship’s course — lead back to Rome. Across calm seas and under blue skies Koningsdam has returned us, reluctantly, back to reality.
Holland America’s Koningsdam xxxx hollandamerica.com