In the Netherlands' second city, the food, culture and visitor attractions reflect its status as a major international port, writes Nick Elvin
LITTLE aboard the SS Rotterdam has changed since its seafaring days. The difference is the view out of the liner's portholes no longer includes the Statue of Liberty or The Bahamas - only the chimneys, cranes and high rises of the port city that shares its name.
On the quayside, about to board, I look up at the ship's grey, massive hulk which looms out of the grey sky and I imagine it must have about 12 decks. In fact it's got 13. Built nearby in the 1950s, this 228-metre, 38,000-ton giant carried many thousands of people on their holidays or to new lives across the Atlantic. It was the flagship of the Holland America Line, before becoming a cruise ship in the '70s. Thanks to two steam turbine engines it could make more than 21 knots, while its generator produced enough electricity to power a town of 12,000 people.
The Rotterdam was retired in 2003 and came home in 2008. Today it is a floating four-star hotel whose facilities include a theatre, conference centre, bars, restaurants and shops - or visitors can simply come aboard for a tour.
Just like on a cruise, there remain many activities for today's guests: one of them is cocktail mixing in one of the ship's huge lounges. Despite the chilly, wet day, it's Summer Carnival weekend in town - so it's a good time to enjoy a taste of the tropics, if not the weather. Much to my delight, my cocktail mixing partner is the carnival’s queen, Sulimar Cook.
It's Sulimar's job to lead the carnival parade, resplendent in the orange feather outfit she is giving us a sneak preview of. I ask her why she thinks she was selected for the role. It's all about her costume and her sense of carnival spirit, she tells me, while she also had to impress the judges by giving speeches. If her performance tomorrow is as good as her piña colada, the carnival should be a good one.
We're not staying on board the Rotterdam. However, our hotel, the Inntel, is right on the quayside in the city's old port - a fast, exhilarating water taxi ride away across the River Maas. The view from my room takes in the city's famous Erasmus suspension bridge, known affectionately to locals as the Swan. All around are high-rise apartments that now stand where once ships were loaded and unloaded. As with many harbours, the vessels got too big for these centuries-old docks, and today most of the action takes place downriver, in the city's modern port - Europe's largest - which stretches for 25 miles. In the old docklands retired tugs, steamers and lightships seem to slumber on the waterfront, many of them now museum pieces.
As befits a port city, the cuisine in Rotterdam has a global influence. On our arrival in Rotterdam my friends and I enjoyed lunch at Bazar, located in Witte de Withstraat. It's an atmospheric restaurant whose decorative, colourful lamps give the place more than a hint of a Middle Eastern market.
For dinner we head to the same street, to Toko94, which offers cuisine influenced by far-flung places such as Cape Verde, Surinam, Trinidad, Brazil and Indonesia. Dishes include spicy peanut soup, jerk chicken salad, spicy lamb stew and southern fried catfish, with the chefs using ingredients such as passion fruit, plantains, grapefruit and coconut slices to bring a hint of warmer climes.
After dinner we walk over to Coolsingel, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, where thousands of people have congregated in the drizzly dusk to watch the Battle of the Drums on a stage set up outside City Hall. Each team of colourfully dressed drummers has spent months preparing for this moment - and they don't disappoint.
Next day we head back into the centre of Rotterdam, like in most Dutch cities an area of pedestrianised shopping streets. With a spare half hour to fill we pay a visit to the History Museum, which tells the story of the growth of the city from the 13th Century, when it was a fishing village, right through to today's metropolis of 600,000-plus. Rotterdam was extensively bombed by the Germans and the Allies during World War Two and was subsequently redeveloped. The mansion housing the museum, the Schielandshuis, is in fact the only 17th Century building in the centre of the city to survive the bombing.
One of the more unusual examples of the city's regeneration can be found a short walk away to the east. Built in the early 1980s, the Cube Houses sprout mushroom-like out of the ground. Essentially cubes on stalks, they became so popular with curious visitors that the owners of one of the houses decided to open it up as a museum. These homes certainly offer a new slant on urban living - not least because you have to bend down the closer you get to the angled walls.
Among the amenities enjoyed by Cube residents is the country's largest market square, in nearby Binnenrotte, where you can browse everything from flowers, fruit and vegetables, and cheese, to 1980s telephones, old stereos and vintage clothes.
Later, we head to the Euromast tower, another of Rotterdam's post-war landmarks. Built in 1960 for the Floriade flower show, it measures 185m, and an ear-popping elevator ride to the first level at 100m rewards you with views of the docks and industry that stretches along the Maas (or Nieuwe Maas to give it its proper name), and the distant high rises of The Hague - easy to make out across the flat countryside.
The Euromast isn't merely a lookout tower. It also houses perhaps Rotterdam's most exclusive hotel. It boasts just two suites, and once the mast is closed to the public for the night, you're left alone to enjoy the solitude and views. There is also a restaurant, which serves up rather fine seafood couscous, and as we eat, novice abseilers nervously inch their way down the windows. It's a windy, rainy day, so I decide to take the lift back down.
Back in the city centre, the carnival is in full swing. There's an unending parade of floats doing a circuit of central Rotterdam, each with music booming out from its own PA system, and each with its own queen. It's a colourful occasion and there are more feathers than in a pillow factory on display. Brightly, skimpily dressed participants represent communities from all over the world, including Aruba, Peru and West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of people line the streets and the bars are doing a roaring trade.
When evening falls we head up Nieuwe Binnenwag to the Viva Afrika restaurant. We sip banana beer from coconut shells while waiting for our main course to arrive, and it's worth the wait. We are given a huge sharing platter containing spicy fish, lamb, lentils and chicken legs, all resting on a flatbread, or injera, which soaks up all the oils and juices.
We finish the night with a few drinks. The city seems to combine being lively, friendly and relaxed, even when the carnival is taking place, and there’s a healthy selection of bars to choose from, like music venue Rotown, or the De Witte Aap (The White Monkey), which a couple of years ago won a "world's best bar" competition.
Unsurprisingly, the weekend's festivities have generated a huge amount of litter. However, by next morning this has miraculously vanished, thanks to the mobilisation of a fleet of sweeper vehicles and broom-wielding street cleaners in the early hours.
After breakfast we head to the banks of the Maas, to the impressive former Royal Yacht Club, which today houses the Wereldmuseum. With 1,800 exhibits from the Americas, Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere, there's a lot to keep you occupied. A small bronze statue from the early Ming dynasty of China catches my eye. It depicts the deity Kapala, who has eight heads, 16 arms and four legs, in an embrace with his consort, Nairatmya. Less intricate are the wooden headrests that originate from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which were used to protect elaborate hairstyles during sleep. The figures carved into them also guard the owner against evil spirits.
It certainly is a fascinating place. There must be few other museum shops where you could pop in for a postcard and come out having bought a collection of large ornaments and booked a cultural holiday.
As we set off for the station and our journey home, we watch huge barges go by on the Maas, carrying cargo towards the Rhine, en route to the German industrial heartland and further on into the continent. Perhaps it would seem only right to travel to a port like Rotterdam by ship, however, on a weekend break every second counts, so the journey back to London is the four-hour train ride via Brussels that makes a visit to the Netherlands' second city an easy one.
The sun starts to break through. Certainly, I've been a little disappointed by the weather over the weekend, but whatever time of year, it seems Rotterdam has a festival, a bar or a spicy dish from somewhere in the world to help you feel warm inside.
Tourist information: Official Rotterdam tourism site, www.rotterdam.info
Official Dutch tourism site, www.holland.com
Travel: London St Pancras to Rotterdam, via Brussels on Eurostar and Thalys, www.eurostar.com
Hotel: Inntel Hotels Rotterdam Centre, www.designhotelrotterdam.com