How cruising went from your grandparents’ favourite holiday to an escape for explorers, foodies and music lovers

The idea of going on a cruise once conjured up images of old boys snoozing in armchairs while elderly guests play deck quoits around him — but times have changed. We sent Martin Fone, a cruise virgin, on a long weekend to Amsterdam to discover what all the fuss is about.

Cruising is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) estimates that, globally, 30 million passengers will cruise in 2019, an increase of around 34% over the last five years, with 272 of their members’ cruise ships in operation by June. The most popular destination is the Caribbean followed by the Mediterranean; the most enthusiastic cruisers are the Americans (who make up 11.9% of the passengers), Chinese (2.4%), Germans (2.19%) and the British (1.93%).

You can understand why. At a time when tourist spots are becoming dangerous, there is peace of mind to be had in relaxing in a secure, controlled environment. The global economic benefits are staggering (some $134 billion, CLIA claims) and the industry supports over 1.1 million full-time equivalent roles.

The naysayers, however, will point to the environmental impact of a leviathan carrying what would have amounted to a decent sized mediaeval army on the oceans and to the ports where they disgorge their passengers. The industry, partly through their own endeavours and partly through greater regulatory oversight, is beginning to address these concerns, particularly with the introduction of the new generation of ships.

TripAdvisor clearly believes it is here to stay, launching in April 2019 a forum dedicated to cruising. Is this, I wonder, a tip of the metaphorical hat to the embrace of social media by the silver surfers or an indicator of the change of demographics and age profiles of the people who go cruising?

It may well be the latter. Holland America Line, a British-American owned cruise line and subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, claim that the age profile of their passengers has reduced to 56 and, according to Nico Bleichrodt, their Sales and Marketing Director for Continental Europe, their aim is not to be your grandparents’ favourite cruise line. Instead, their target market, he states, are explorers, foodies and music lovers.

The Sel De Mer restaurant on Holland America Line's Nieuw Statendam

The Sel De Mer restaurant on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam. Credit: Michel Verdure

To check this out, I visited the newest ship in Holland America’s fleet, the Nieuw Statendam, which had arrived in Amsterdam. With a gross tonnage of 99,500 and 299 metres long by 40 metres wide, it accommodates up to 2,666 passengers, ‘perfectly sized, neither too big nor too small’, in Bleichrodt’s words. Launched in December 2018 and commissioned in February 2019, (Oprah Winfrey is its ‘godmother’), it is the sixth ship in their fleet to have borne the name, the first setting sail in 1898.

As a fleet, Holland America visit some 470 ports around the world and guests can, and are encouraged to, tailor their own shore visits to suit their tastes and requirements. To help in their planning, there is a large, interactive map in the Library, an oasis of tranquillity with panoramic views.

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The main dining room covering two storeys is bright and airy with stunning red and clear glass chandeliers. The meal I had in the Pinnacle Grill was astonishing and featured the best of their specialty restaurants. I had some wonderful crab cakes from Rudi’s Sal de Mer restaurant, a perfectly cooked steak from the Pinnacle Grill and a tasty mango dessert showcasing the delights of the Asian Tamarind restaurant. Needless to say, it was washed down with some perfectly selected wines.

The Lido Market on the ninth deck is the buffet restaurant, cleverly divided into food islands to control footfall and minimise waiting time. Inevitably, too, you can find an Italian restaurant, burgers, the best in the world, they claim, and pizzas. The staff seemed efficient, friendly and unobtrusive.

For those who feel they have over-indulged or are just energetic, there are gym facilities and fitness centres and for sun-worshippers, a couple of pools providing the opportunity to cool off. Spas, beauty salons and hairdressers serve those who want to glam up. For the adventurous there are cooking classes, presented in association with America’s Test Kitchen, and an opportunity to blend your own wines.

Collaboration seems to be a theme with the vessel. For the music aficionados on board, a partnership with the Lincoln Center means that some of the best up and coming classical musicians play there. We were royally entertained by a quintet whose interpretations of Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk and Radiohead’s Creep were enchanting, and moving on to the B B King Blues Club proved a laid-back finale to the evening. For those who like a more up-beat tempo, the Rolling Stone (the magazine, not the group) Rock Room provides live, FM-orientated music. Unlike many cruise ships, there is no nightclub as such; catering to younger passengers clearly only goes so far.

 

Notable is Nieuw Statendam’s commitment to art. Some 2,600 pieces of contemporary art, valued at over £3 million, are dotted around, particularly on the main staircases. Many are quirky, not least the six-foot, anatomically correct, glass reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, complete with smartphone ready to take a selfie as a modern twist. And the large, elegant floral displays are not to be missed.

At the bow of the ship is the World Stage, complete with a 270-degree, two-storey high, LED high-definition screen, on which, amongst other delights, presentations from the BBC’s Earth Experience are shown. Titanic, though, is not on the playlist. And for those who want a sense of the old-fashioned days on the ocean wave, there are promenades and decks where you can feel the rush of the breeze against your cheeks.

I had never been on a cruise ship, the nearest is a couple of days pootling along the backwaters of Kerala, and I came on board with a few preconceptions, some of which have been dispelled. Whether I will join the trend and sign up for a cruise remains to be seen. I am a grandparent, after all.


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