It's not often that you see a godmother of a new ship so exuberant and gleeful as Oprah Winfrey when she christened Holland America Line's Nieuw Statendam in February.
"I'm a godmother!" the starr declared in front of a select group of friends, family, fans and Holland America Line VIPs after she'd sent the customary bottle of champagne to smash against the ship's hull. The ceremony, which was streamed live to millions of Oprah and cruise fans around the world, took place at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, following a three-day Oprah-hosted Girl's Getaway cruise that sold out the day it went on sale.
Oprah is the latest in a long line of famous godmothers to christen a HAL ship, several of them members of the Dutch royal family – I've seen Queen Maxima of the Netherlands do the honours for Koningsdam in 2016 and for Nieuw Amsterdam in 2010, when she was still Princess Maxima – and before Maxima, Queens Juliana, Beatrix and Princess Margriet have given HAL ships their royal best.
The cruise company harks back to 1847 and has a reputation for being a stickler for tradition, appealing to more senior members of the cruising community. However, under the direction of dynamic president Orlando Ashford, who joined the company in 2014, things have changed considerably.
Ashford is firmly in favour of respecting HAL's historic roots while taking the line into the 21st century and appealing to a new generation of cruisers.
While Oprah is not on-board Nieuw Statendam's inaugural sailing from Civitavecchia to Malaga just before Christmas, there's an action-packed program for visiting travel agents and international media. Nieuw Statendam is the second of the line's latest 2650-passenger Pinnacle class vessels – Koningsdam was the first – and the third, as yet unnamed, is due to set sail in 2021.
Ashford, who was onboard for the four-day cruise, said: "Like its sister-ship Koningsdam, Nieuw Statendam is all about fine details and thoughtful touches throughout the ship that create an ambience of both elegance and style."
The interior look is a collaboration between renowned designer Adam D. Tihany and cruise industry architect Bjorn Storbraaten and while Nieuw Statendam is similar in looks and style to the music-themed Koningsdam, there are a few notable differences.
On the food front, new features include an expanded, "re-imagined" French seafood brasserie, Rudi's Sel de Mer, complete with a collection of chef Rudi Sodamin's Food Faces plates displayed on one wall; the restaurant and its sublime menus appear as pop-up venues across the rest of the fleet. Tamarind, which specialises in Asian-fusion cuisine, now has a standalone sushi bar, Nami Sushi, plus an alfresco dining area; and the Club Orange restaurant replaces Koningsdam's Culinary Arts Centre, serving breakfast and dinner for Neptune and Pinnacle suite guests and passengers who opt to pay for a pass.
The Club Orange program has other perks, such as priority embarkation and disembarkation, but like several others on this inaugural cruise I'm not convinced by its usefulness or value for money. Time will tell, of course.
There is plenty of scope for quality dining without paying for specialty restaurants. The main dining room is a beautiful two-deck space where menus change daily and feature regional dishes from places visited on the cruise. Lido Market is a light and airy take on the old-fashioned buffet, with a series of imaginative food stations. New York Deli & Pizza is the go-to spot for light snacks, salads and, as you'd expect, pizza while the poolside Dive In does great burgers and hot dogs.
Caffeine addicts can get their fix at the Grand Dutch Cafe – you pay for coffee but the range of delicious Dutch snacks are free – and also at Explorations Cafe in the Explorations Central area on deck 12.
Further developing the musical design theme and live-music venues seen on Koningsdam, Nieuw Statendam introduces the Rolling Stone Rock Room. Now cruisers can wander along the ship's innovative Music Walk and take in classical music performances at the Lincoln Centre Stage, Memphis sounds at B.B. King's Blues Club, duelling piano players at Billboard Onboard and four decades of classic rock numbers belted out late at night in the Rock Room. It's a big hit on our cruise.
Look out, too, for Postmodern Jukebox, a show in which some amazing musicians rework contemporary songs in jazz and swing style – it's one of Orlando Ashford's favourites and will be performed on Nieuw Statendam and select HAL ships throughout the year.
HAL's ships are noted for their extensive collections of art and antiquities and the artworks on-board Koningsdam and Nieuw Statendam, many of them music-themed, signify the line's new direction. Partnerships with ArtLink and YSA Design are behind an impressive collection of art by young and emerging artists displayed around the ship. Pick up a self-guided tour or check out the gallery to buy original pieces and limited-edition prints.
As this short cruise is more about exploring the ship than destinations, we only have time to sample one EXC (Explorations Central) shore excursion, in Spain's attractive city of Cartagena. We opt for a 3½-hour guided walk that is perfect for our group of 18. Our guide Maria is incredibly knowledgeable, fluent in at least four languages and has a wonderful sense of humour. She takes us through Cartagena's history – it dates back to about 220 BC, hit its stride in Roman times as a strategic trading port and is still a major naval base – as we weave our way from the Roman theatre through charming backstreets to five different tapas bars.
We disembark in Malaga, another rather underrated Spanish city. There's much more to it than clubs and beaches, although they've got lots going for them. Think Moorish architecture, traditional whitewashed houses, atmospheric bars and restaurants, and galleries galore (it is Picasso's birthplace).
Oprah's next hosted cruise is yet to be announced but programs inspired by O, The Oprah Magazine are available fleet-wide. Guests can take morning meditation classes, browse O's Reading Room or join book discussions, and buy "inspirational videos" and other Oprah-related paraphernalia on-board. Who, I wonder, will be the godparent of HAL's next Pinnacle-class ship? She (or he) has a pretty hard act to follow.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT HOLLAND AMERICA LINE
What started in Rotterdam as the shipping and passenger line Netherlands-American Steamship Company in 1873 is today a premium cruise line headquartered in Seattle. HAL ceased operating as a Dutch line in 1989, when it was bought by the giant Carnival Corporation.
HAL's 15 ships range in size from the 2650-passenger Nieuw Statendam and Koningsdam to the 835-passenger Prinsendam, which is retiring in July. A third Pinnacle-class ship is scheduled to arrive in 2021.
Also known as EXC, Explorations Central is a program that includes destination advice from on-board EXC guides, informative EXC Talks, EXC Encounters with local experts, artists and performers on board, shore excursions, and EXC cruise itineraries.
BBC EARTH ON STAGE
These shows combine spectacular footage from the BBC Earth television series with music played onstage by the ship's orchestra. They include Frozen Planet in Concert, Planet Earth II in Concert, Alaska in Concert and Inside Earth, a fascinating insight into how the films were made.
HAL operates more than 500 cruises to more than 400 ports in 98 countries around the world. From shorter getaways to 128-day itineraries, the company's cruises visit all seven continents. Maasdam and Noordam return to Australia in November and September for the 2019-2020 season.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Holland America Line.
Emirates flies four times a day from Sydney to Dubai, connecting with daily flights from Dubai to Amsterdam. See emirates.com
Nieuw Statendam's 12-night Iberian Adventure Cruise from Amsterdam to Rome departs on September 15, 2019, and September 13, 2020. Fares from $2599 (2019) and $2799 (2020). See hollandamerica.com