Rotterdam in The Netherlands is often overlooked as a tourist city. It’s big, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s flashy, it’s gritty, and it looks and feels nothing like Amsterdam. Perhaps it’s “the other Holland ” — a maritime wonder, a reflection of multicultural Europe, a port that is just secluded enough from the Atlantic to make you feel like you’re in the heart of the mainland. I found myself there this February as a matter of curiosity, and a desire to explore more of The Netherlands than just its canal-laden tourist treasure. The SS Rotterdam hotel was my stop for just one night. Yes, a hotel entirely consisting of a massive docked cruise ship. The receptionists are dressed like sailors, and the guests are among the more unique and colorful you’ll find on the travel trail.
Henry and Laetitia, I think, were the only other people on my floor (level? cargo hold?), and they were both wearing enough navy blue and white to embarrass a J Crew himself. They were both about 70, and they saw me doing my aerobics out in the nice flower gardens in front of the ship at 3 am to burn off my jetlag. Now, I’m not normally that talkative at 2 am, especially with French people who are ballroom dancing on a balcony in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take me long to engage with this couple from Toulouse, France about just why they were enjoying their stay so much. They had never been on a cruise before, although they dearly wanted to.
“This is as close as we’re going to get,” Laetitia told me.
“We’re afraid,” Henry confessed to me. “We’re older, we get on a cruise, there’s an epidemic on board and we both get sick, the winds or the water kick up and one of us slips on the deck and breaks our leg, or who knows, the thing sinks. We don’t trust cruise ships.”
They had their laundry list of places they wanted to sail, but “couldn’t” sail: St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Canary Islands, Alaska, the Shetland Islands. Laetitia had survived a near-drowning incident when she was 20, and it soon became clear to me that this couple was held back as much by that as by fears of shipwide contagion or starring in a reality remake of Poseidon. How do I tell a woman who’s 70 that she could be enjoying herself so much on a Princess that she won’t even realize she’s hovering above millions of gallons of what nearly killed her?
I offered my various visualization strategies, and by the time 4 am rolled around, the “sailor” tour guide in the “control room” was starting to wonder about us. “Is everything in your rooms to your satisfaction?” he asked
“Can you do one of your ship tours right now?” I blurted out.
“Right now?” he said.
“Yes.” Well, we got our $100 worth in the form of a walkthrough of the engine room, the chart room, the control room, and everything else with an electrical panel on it that we could keep straight in our heads. Why did I go? Because I’ve coached anxious flyers to overcome their fears via cockpit tours, and this seemed like basically the same thing except for a ship. I see that point where people are too relieved and happy to remember exactly what was holding them back. Can two retirees still have that feeling of restless desire to make up for lost time?
“I don’t feel like I’m on water,” Laetitia said, “I feel like I’m on an island.”
Yes, I persuaded an elderly couple to go on a cruise ship tour in the middle of the night, and then to book a riverboat cruise down the Danube a week later. I’ve been helping Laetitia work through her unresolved fears about cruises via email ever since. Henry won’t talk to me; he says I remind him of Kate Winslet for some reason, and then he just thinks about Titanic. Fair enough, Henry. But send me a postcard from the world’s largest floating post office.