Just minutes after 11 p.m., as we watched from our veranda, Holland America Line's Prinsendam loosed its lines and eased off the quay in Funchal, the capital of Portugal's Madeira.
The mountains embracing the city were dotted with lights, and late-evening traffic hummed along the waterfront. Just outside the breakwater, a launch nuzzled up to our ship and boarded the harbor pilot, who left us with a farewell wave to the bridge, a maritime ritual.
Then the Prinsendam pointed its bow westward to begin a 3,861-mile North Atlantic crossing to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
That was Nov. 11, and my wife, Laurel, and I were nearly halfway through our 16-night repositioning cruise from Civitavecchia, Rome's port. To paraphrase ocean-liner historian John Maxtone-Graham, we had eight days ahead with nothing to do — and not nearly enough time to do it.
Actually, there were plenty of "sea day" activities, including multiple trivia sessions daily, frequent lectures, bingo, movies in the Wajang Theater, nightly entertainment in the Showroom at Sea, culinary presentations, "Dancing With the Stars at Sea" competitions (with a free cruise as the prize) and enough other stuff to fill two pages of the daily program.
On the other hand, we spent much of our time reading books from the ship's excellent library, walking the teak promenade deck (a Holland America specialty, virtually extinct elsewhere) or lounging in the traditional deck chairs there, staring at the sea and listening to it rush by on this crossing of a small, classic ship.
What the captain said
"A special kind of guest signs up for a crossing," said Capt. Tim Roberts, master of Prinsendam. That must be us, we thought, because we were in the audience at the Captain's Toast, an evolution of the old-fashioned captain's cocktail party, where passengers (the traditionalist in me balks at the term "guests") are invited to meet the captain, who then introduces his senior officers.
"We are the smallest of the Holland America fleet," Roberts said, to general applause. With a capacity of 835, Prinsendam is among the smaller ships sailing in the North American market. It is one of a kind in an era when cruise ships typically have multiple "sisters" and are often clones of ships of other lines.
The ship was launched in 1988 as the Royal Viking Sun. When Kloster Cruise, Royal Viking's parent company, folded in 1994, the ship went to Cunard, then in 1999 to Seabourn. Luxurious though it was, as the Seabourn Sun it was oversized for a line touting the "Yachts of Seabourn," so off it went in 2002 to Holland America (which, like Cunard and Seabourn, is part of Carnival Corp.).
"We have loyalists still following this ship from its Royal Viking and Seabourn days," Roberts said before sending us off to dinner in La Fontaine Dining Room.
Dining, drinking and listening
Today's mega-ships may offer dozens of dining options; little Prinsendam has fewer restaurants but enough choice. La Fontaine is the main restaurant, where passengers choose either the traditional two-sitting plan for dinner or an open-seating "anytime" option, which we and our four traveling companions selected. The Lido Restaurant is a casual alternative for all meals. The Dive-In, by the pool, served hamburgers and hot dogs with tasty accouterments.
For a small additional fee, we tried the Italian-themed dinner at Canaletto ($10, and we weren't impressed) and the much fancier and more expensive but better Pinnacle Grill, where steak and seafood were the specialties ($10 for lunch; $29 for dinner).
For cocktails, we climbed to the Crow's Nest, with expansive views and piano music, or settled in the Ocean Bar, where the ship's orchestra alternated with a pop trio. After dinner we would stop at the Explorers Lounge for light classical music by a piano and violin duo on our way to the evening show — or bed.
Ports while repositioning
Repositioning cruises typically include several ports, and we enjoyed our four, helped out by Dominic, the excellent "destination specialist." Rather than shilling for the ship's packaged shore excursions (we had encountered that on other ships), he gave helpful lectures on visiting on our own.
First came Cádiz, Spain, where we six roamed the city's winding narrow lanes, following the "purple trail," one of four shown on the tourist office map and also marked on the pavement with paint. We visited Torre Tavira, a 1778 watchtower with a terrace for panoramic views of the city and a camera obscura, which a guide controlled and explained.
Next was Lisbon, where we split up. Laurel joined the trio headed for the Belém district — tower, monastery, carriage museum, Monument to the Discoveries, custard tarts at the 1837 Pastéis de Belém — while the other ship buff in our group and I scouted the other vessels in port.
At Portimão in Portugal's Algarve region, our third stop, we trekked across the broad, sandy Praia da Rocha, or Rock Beach, then continued for miles atop the eponymous cliffs to a hard-earned luncheon in the small port town of Alvor.
Roberts had news while we were waiting to leave Portimão. Because of storms in the North Atlantic, we were skipping two scheduled calls in the Azores and heading instead to more southerly Funchal — a change that suited us and many others just fine. But we were expecting rough seas.
"I've instructed the crew to affix the deadlights" — steel protections bolted inside portholes — "in the forward cabins," he said, "just a precaution. Prinsendam is a sea-friendly ship; our stabilizers will virtually eliminate rolling, but there may be some pitching," all of which proved true and no problem.
Funchal is a wonderful port. Because we had all previously ridden its cable car and visited the fabulously British Belmond Reid's Palace Hotel, we hopped a local bus headed into the mountains and walked one of the levadas, aqueducts that bring water to the city.
An evolving fleet
"This is one of the few ships its age that just gets better and better," Roberts said at a special luncheon for Mariners, as Holland America calls repeat passengers. There were so many of us — 624 of 732 total passengers — that two luncheons, on successive days, were needed. Ours, the first, was for those with the most voyages, which did suggest a certain demographic.
"The line of the ancient Mariners," a sailing companion said as we waited in a slow-moving queue to enter the dining room. Holland America has the highest percentage of repeat passengers in the industry, and Prinsendam the highest of any of the line's ships, which for loyalty puts it at the pinnacle of a large pyramid.
Holland America touts its "midsized ships," and, compared with the cruise industry's new leviathans (some with passenger counts of 5,400), this is a valid boast, but the line is trending bigger. Its four Vista-class ships each carry a little more than 1,900 passengers, and the newer Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam a couple of hundred more than the Vista class. Being built in Italy's Fincantieri yard is the 2,650-passenger Pinnacle-class Koningsdam for delivery in February 2016. As a result, the 1,260-passenger Statendam, built in 1992, and Ryndam, built in 1994, will leave the fleet this fall and transfer to P&O Australia, another Carnival line. Prinsendam is older and substantially smaller than those two ships, but 40% of its staterooms have verandas, compared with 24% on the newer pair, which weighs in Prinsendam's favor.
Loyalists keep returning to Prinsendam (though it's pricier than the balance of the Holland America fleet) because they like its traditional ambience (it "shows its age," but in a good sense), its history and lineage, which the line features in paintings and ship models. "Elegant atmosphere," Roberts cited in a Q&A with passengers as among the attractions. "Individual attention, higher ratio of crew to passengers, ample public space, nostalgia."
So what's Prinsendam's future?
"I imagine she will sail for another five years or so for us," Roberts said, "then go on to a further life with another line."
If you go
Prinsendam, Holland America Line; (877) 724-5425, http://www.hollandamerica.com. Repositioning trips are typically the best buys. We booked early in order to select the stateroom we wanted: a veranda cabin on the port (sunny) side, for which we paid $1,938 apiece, including taxes and fees but not insurance and airfare. Our traveling companions rolled the dice and waited, booking outside cabins on a "flash sale" closer to sailing for about half that price. On Nov. 9, Prinsendam will replicate our trip: 15 days from Civitavecchia, Italy, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., calling at Cartagena, Malaga and Cádiz in Spain and Porto Santo and Funchal in Madeira.