Rembrandt maintains Rotterdam's classic standards

Reporter Theodore Scull and his wife, Suellyn, spent a week in the Mediterranean aboard Premier Cruises' Rembrandt, formerly operated as the Rotterdam. His report follows:

ABOARD THE REMBRANDT -- Rembrandt and the old Rotterdam fit neatly into the same sentence because they are one and the same ship, albeit under different owners.

RembrandtBoarding the Rembrandt in Barcelona, Spain, my eagle eyes were ready to seek out what changes the new owners had wrought on a classic ship that I had cruised on only last year, and several times before that, dating back to a 1966 Atlantic crossing bound for graduate school in London.

At the B-Deck gangway, a steward led us up to Main Deck Cabin 336, a roomy category C deluxe oceanview, and nothing had changed here.

Batik print curtains framed a pair of portholes, and the colorful pattern matched the bedspreads. A triple set of four drawers, combined with three cabinets and three closets required a world cruise wardrobe to fill. The carpet was a bit worn and the bathroom fixtures old, but we had a full tub bath and shower with great water pressure.

Everyone who knew the old Rotterdam was concerned that the new Safety of Life at Sea requirements that went into effect last October would doom the ingenious double staircase that climbs upwards from B-Deck to Boat Deck.

But Premier Cruises found a way to both preserve the design and satisfy the law by enclosing the perimeters of the open foyers using wood-grain bulkheads and fire doors that blended in with the original partitions.

Exploring the public rooms and teak decks revealed a ship that had been handed over by its previous owner, Holland America Line, in good condition, with little refurbishing needed, at least for the time being. We were pleased by what we saw.

The Rembrandt set sail from Barcelona with less than a full passenger load, that contained an equal number of Americans and British, the latter group embarking in Naples, Italy, plus some Spaniards, Swedes and Norwegians. But English was the lingua franca throughout the cruise.

The navigation officers were Greek, while the catering officers were mostly from other European nations, and the dining staff was international, including many Portuguese-speaking waiters, a holdover from the ship's winter cruise program in Brazil.

The Rembrandt's two elegant dining rooms, La Fontaine and Odyssey, are similar, two levels high and located on a traditional lower deck. We enjoyed some very good meals at dinner there, such as the beef Wellington and lamb entrees but found the veal a bit chewy, and the fish dishes varied between gently prepared and overdone.

With most departures from the ports we visited at 7 p.m., the first seating began was 6:45 and the second at 9:00, which is later than usual.

To maintain good audiences, the late seating's show was scheduled prior to dinner. It was a wise decision as we seldom left the restaurant before 11 p.m.

In the Lido Restaurant, a chef cooked omelets to order at breakfast and a fresh pasta at lunch, and the buffet selections changed daily and queues were kept to a minimum.

For entertainment at night, a North American song and dance group performed the music of Broadway and of the 50s and 60s, and the more exotic Brazilian troupe brought us South American and African entertainment. Both were well received.

Two theme evenings and nightly dancing took place in the Ritz-Carlton lounge with its sweeping staircase and handsome lacquer floor-to-ceiling mural, one of the finest formal lounges afloat. One afternoon, it was the venue for a formal tea with a choice of a half dozen brews, crustless sandwiches, pastries and biscuits. The Ambassador Lounge, an atmospheric hideaway with recessed alcoves, offered music and cocktails before dinner.

The Sky Room was the intimate setting for pre-dinner caviar and foie gras (moderate charge) and a late-night disco.

Overall, the atmosphere on the Rembrandt is more sophisticated and refined than that aboard other Premier ships, and that is the expressed intent for the company's new flagship.

The itinerary offered by the Rembrandt achieves a good sampling of western Mediterranean ports, and excursions can be done on your own or with a fairly priced tour.

During the Villefranche call, we took a half-day tour ($35) to Nice and the medieval hill town of Eze, had free time to explore and stayed ashore for a crepe lunch.

In Rome, we used the guided transfer ($39) and were dropped off at the Vatican just as Pope Paul VI was beginning his Wednesday morning audience in St. Peter's Square.

At Messina, Sicily, the tour ($35) to the mountainside resort of Taormina was too rushed, and the all-day boat trip to Capri ($59 with a good lunch) found a very crowded island, but this was hardly Premier's fault.

During the day excursion ($39 without lunch) from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, we visited the former Baroque monastery at hillside Valldemosa and the pretty harbor town of Porto Soller and returned aboard a narrow-gauge electric mountain railway.

The day and a half at sea allowed us to sleep in, unwind, and enjoy old-fashioned spaciousness along two wide promenade decks, one open and one partly glass protected and both furnished with now rare, wooden deck chairs.

Undoubtedly, the Rembrandt will be expensive to maintain, but to my delight, I found it to be much the same classic liner that I knew in the past.

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