By Brent Betit
Norway Eastern Caribbean Country Western Theme Cruise
Working Hard, or Hardly Working
If you're my age, you probably remember the popular salutation that is the title of this article. In fact, you probably heard it so many times that you grew tired of it -- which is undoubtedly why you don't hear it much any more. The proper response was, of course, "hardly working," even if you were sweating bullets. Especially if you were sweating bullets.
On a vacation, however, you want 'hardly working' to describe your normal day. You want to sleep when you want to, eat high quality food when you want to, seek out stellar entertainment at almost any hour of the day and find it, and just relax, rest, and be pampered -- if possible, in an exotic setting totally unlike the place you labor and live in. In other words, you don't even want to think about the word work, much less do any of it. (All right, the success of business centers on a number of ships suggests that some Type-A personalities take working vacations, but the term has always seemed to me a classic oxymoron.)
My wife Julie and I had been looking forward to our most recent vacation -- a November 15 sailing on NCL's Norway -- for almost six months. Julie was recently promoted to Registrar at the College where we both work (oops, there's that nasty word again), and was ready for a relaxing break. While I had sailed alone on the Song of America five weeks before (See Brent's review at http://www.sealetter.com/Nov-97/soa997.html, that was just my relaxation tune-up to what I hoped would be a sensational cruise with my wife. Julie and I, along with our friends the Tkaczyk's [pronounced "ca-chuck"] booked far in advance for good rates on category P1 suites on the Sun Deck, during one of the Norway's annual Country and Western theme cruises. We had planned everything carefully, departing a day early so we would be rested and not subject to weather-related delays. I always hate wasting the first night aboard ship, when I'm over- tired from traveling, and my wife and I had never been to Miami, so didn't mind arriving almost 24 hours in advance of embarkation time. This turned out, however, to be another chapter in the story of The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men -- which, as everyone knows, do often go astray.
Yes, our carefully-planned vacation started out on the wrong foot. We awoke at 4:30 a.m. after spending a short night at a decent and reasonably-priced Budgetel next to Hartford's Bradley airport, and peered anxiously out the window at the first ice storm of the season. The cars looked like glazed donuts, with a thick coating of one of water's nastier winter forms. On the ride in to the airport, blue lights were flashing on every horizon, and we happened upon one accident between a bicyclist (at 5:00 a.m. in freezing rain!) and a van. The bicyclist got the worst end of it, and the attendant police officers were tense and miserable, shouting at every passing vehicle to slow down. But as the old Vermonter said, "the horse was out of the barn" already, and no need to shut the barn door at that point. Perhaps we should have taken this as a harbinger of things to come on our trip and turned around.
We boarded an American Airlines Super 80 at 6:15 a.m., and then sat on the taxiway for two hours waiting to be de-iced. Finally, we returned to the gate, where we were allowed to get off the plane for about an hour. We were then de-iced at the gate, and taxied out for an immediate takeoff. But our flight, which was scheduled to get into Miami at around 10:00 a.m., didn't arrive until 2:30 p.m., and then had to wait for a gate for another 45 minutes. It was raining buckets as we taxied in, and the storm drains were so overloaded that some of them were geysering into the air. Not an auspicious beginning, and many of the passengers were understandably irritable about their missed connections. We were a day early though, and had nothing much to complain about except cramped legs. They just don't make plane seats for people over six feet tall.
Our Marriot Hotel, part of the package we purchased, was very comfortable, with several restaurants and lounges, and a pool. It is also connected via an enclosed walkway to a large though somewhat sparsely populated mall, and shares its ground floor with a Doubletree Hotel, with more restaurants and lounges, plus some shops. It would be quite possible to spend a restful vacation at this hotel without even leaving the premises.
As if asking forgiveness for the previous days' weather, Saturday broke spectacularly over Miami. It was sunny, warm, and beautiful. After we spent the morning lounging by the pool, NCL's bus picked us up right at the hotel for an easy transfer to the dock. Though I had prepared myself for the sight of the Norway (nearly a quarter of a mile long!), I was still surprised at how large she looked. And as we trudged down one of the lengthy corridors on the way to our forward cabin, I was amazed at how far away the end of the corridor looked. Any longer, and the Norway would start showing her own curvature of the earth.
Our cabin was the best we have had so far on any cruise. NCL added two decks to the Norway recently (sometime after they purchased and renovated the entire ship in 1980), so our cabin, S026 on the Sun Deck, was fairly new, and included a verandah, marble bathroom with full-sized tub, queen size bed -- and to welcome us, a complimentary bottle of French champagne on ice.
We were also given thick cotton robes to use during the cruise by our almost-invisible and very competent cabin steward (though read more about robes below). But be aware, should you book one of these cabins, that the verandah is only semi-private, as the screens on either side aren't completely solid between decks. It is nevertheless enjoyable to be able to step out of your cabin through the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors at any time, and Julie and I enjoyed several afternoons and evenings looking at the ocean and the stars. Julie also spent an afternoon looking at the insides of her eyelids, happily engaged in one of the most precious of cruise vacation experiences at sea: the afternoon nap.
Whenever I board a new ship, I look for its gathering place. A gathering place, in architect's terminology, is a "hub" which one passes through to easily reach another location in a building. In many ways, it is the key to navigating whatever structure you are currently inhabiting. In an office building, it would be the elevator lobby, equipped with a directory of floors and businesses within the building. For those of you who have cruised on Royal Caribbean's newer ships, their stunning, multi-story centrums are a vertical gathering place where one can easily get from deck to deck throughout the ship. Perhaps it is their similarity to an elevator lobby, with which everyone is familiar, that makes Royal's centrums so intuitive and easy to use. But don't look for such a vertical space on the Norway. Instead, head for the International Deck where the broad promenades of Fifth Avenue and the Champs D'Elysee stretch the length of the starboard and port sides of the ship, providing a horizontal gathering place. These are a legacy of the Norway's former duty as a trans-Atlantic liner, back when she was named the ss France, and International served as the France's enclosed promenade deck.
From International Deck, one can easily reach any of the many stair and elevator towers on the ship, and then find the public space that is the object of your search. Beware of the temptations on this deck, however, as there are many fine shops with reasonably-priced merchandise, Sven's (free) Ice Cream Parlor, Checker's Cabaret, the elegantly-decorated Club Internationale, the intimate Windjammer Lounge, and the Great Outdoor Restaurant -- the Norway's lido dining space. The International Deck has highly-polished stone floors, and the broad avenues are attractive and very functional, with some of the only enclosed public spaces on the ship with a view of the ocean. NCL has also designated each side of the ship as smoking and non-smoking (including the cabins), so those of you who are allergic to cigarette smoke can navigate the ship without being exposed to smoke (so long as you stay out of the lounges). The port side is non-smoking; the starboard side is smoking. For those travelers who have trouble remembering which side is which, my little memory trick counts the "R's" in each word. The Right side (facing toward the front or forward end of the ship) is staRboaRd, because that word has more "R's." The poRt side only has one "R," and is on the left. In any case, I applaud NCL for giving cruisers the choice of a relatively smoke-free environment.
A word of caution: several of the stair towers do not go the whole height of the ship, and there are darn few elevators on the Norway. What few there are creep along at a snail's pace, and have the most fouled-up control sequence you've ever seen. On most modern elevators, if you push the "up" button, when the elevator arrives, it goes up. Kind of makes sense, doesn't it? Apparently not here. On the Norway, you get in the cab expecting to go up and often descend to the lowest deck, then start up again, making several stops along the way -- and often, when the door opens, no one is there, because they have become tired of waiting and taken the stairs. Apparently, the controllers on the Norway's elevators respond to every pushed "call" button in order, placing a lower priority on the "destination" buttons in the cab, so be prepared to do some traveling before you get to your destination deck. Or, plan on taking the stairs. In fact, the (really funny!) comedian on our voyage, David Nastor, referred to the Norway with sarcastic delight as the ss Stairmaster. You'll probably be calling her that too, if you book a cruise on this ship. And you may even think you're having to work a little too hard at getting around the ship.
I do have sympathy, however, for the challenges the Norway's architects must have faced in developing renovation plans. I work at a college which opened in 1985. We inhabit a campus built for another college's program in the early 1960's that, like the ss France, closed in the 1970's. As I am the operations vice president at the college, I have managed the renovation of many defunct structures, having opened five buildings comprising over 100,000 gross square feet of space during the past decade. During this process, I have learned that occupying space designed for a completely different purpose requires expensive renovations -- nearly as expensive as building new space -- and even so, often results in a number of compromises. I have complained loudly for years that just once I would like to build a space designed to support a program, rather than alter existing space to accommodate a program -- and be forced, often, to alter the program rather than the space, because concrete and steel is neither forgiving nor easily changed.
NCL must have faced similar challenges in renovating the old ss France, which was designed for trans-Atlantic service before being mothballed for several years after jet travel became affordable. As you may know, trans-Atlantic service in its day was not viewed so much as a vacation as a means of transportation, traveling from New York to London, or vice versa. Passengers by and large stayed in their rooms -- which were relatively spacious -- or spent time in a few lounges. Entertainment usually wasn't the glitz and sizzle productions of modern cruise liners, and consisted more of such things as chamber orchestras, and that great fallback, walking about on the promenade deck. Though inside spas and even pools weren't unknown, outdoor pools weren't the norm and attempting to sunbathe might have landed you in a special, padded cabin. On some lines, passengers weren't even allowed out on deck, and the lights went out in the public rooms at a certain hour, after which guests were expected to be in their cabins. Given the harsh weather often encountered in the North Atlantic, care was also taken to shield passengers from the ocean, so dining rooms, for example, were windowless, and promenade decks were fully enclosed.
You might imagine that it would be difficult to alter a ship designed for trans-Atlantic travel to support the modern cruisers' needs, which include first class entertainment in spacious surroundings, outdoor pools, comfortable public spaces, top-quality dining provided in elegant and relaxed surroundings, regular events requiring the "processing" of most of the passengers on the ship every day (shows, dinners, receptions, etc.), abundant windows to provide a sense of connection to the ocean, and easy access to outdoor spaces for sunning. NCL obviously had to deal with these issues, and obviously were unable to solve all of them, leading to certain compromises. A few of the compromises include the following:
There isn't room in the main theater, the Saga Theater, to accommodate all the guests even with two seatings. The ship therefore hands out three colors of tickets to shows, and presents each show three different times -- sometimes in the aforementioned theater, and sometimes in the North Cape Lounge.
Some of the challenges associated with cruising on the Norway have solutions. Some don't. Obvious issues include the following:
Even with three seatings, there aren't enough seats, particularly if the show is performed in the North Cape Lounge. The North Cape Lounge is essentially a flat, one story lounge with many supporting columns. It seats close to 500 guests, I would estimate. At least 30% of the seats are really poor -- either blocked from view by columns, or to the side of the stage, or even behind the stage on the side.
The dining rooms are incredibly crowded and noisy. We were assigned to a table in the non-smoking Windward Dining Room, which is, courtesy of its trans-Atlantic history, windowless (as is its companion, the Leeward Dining Room). The lack of windows isn't bad; however, I prefer to eat sardines rather than feel like one. The combination of crowded tables (seat backs touching) and low ceilings leads to a kind of jet engine roar during meals, and hampers the waiters in their work. NCL has tried to solve the noise problem by installing perfboard in many areas of the ceiling, but it hasn't worked. The only way to solve the overcrowding would be to reduce the density in the room -- obviously not an option for NCL, given the population of the ship. We ate dinner the first night in the dining room, but then abandoned it.
There are two pool areas aboard the ship. There are also two funnels on the ship, both of which belch diesel exhaust. As the Norway burns an average of 200 tons of fuel per day (or one gallon for every 33 feet of travel), that's a lot of belched exhaust. Most ships nowadays have one funnel in the aft part of the ship. Exhaust gases therefore trail the passenger areas of the ship.
Carnival goes a step further, turning their exhaust stacks 90 degrees and
projecting them out beyond the beam of the ship in their distinctive, winged funnels.
With a funnel fore and aft, as they are on the Norway, exhaust gases often get sucked down into the pool decks, leaving you feeling a bit woozy after an hour or so of swimming or sunning while breathing carbon monoxide and various afterproducts of burned diesel fuel. Probably adding the two decks (therefore putting the sun decks closer to the top of the funnels) didn't help any. Trans-Atlantic passengers on the ss France probably didn't go out on deck much anyway, but this was certainly an issue on the Norway.
Unaccountably, they also had most of the forward sun deck roped off, with no deck chairs anywhere on the remaining portion. Unfortunately that area is the only potentially exhaust free deck space (because it is in front of or on the sides of the forward funnel.)
Easy routes to public spaces probably weren't much of an issue on the ss France. One had to learn how to get to the dining room, and the promenade deck -- and perhaps the spa. On the Norway, I don't know how many passengers I heard complaining about how lost they were, even having sailed on the ship before. Take my advice and head for International Deck first, then learn which stair towers go to which public space. Also, if you happen to be walking down one of the seemingly endless inside corridors in the cabin areas, look down. If you see blue carpet with zigzagging blue highlights, you're in the forward part of the ship. If you see blue carpet with zigzagging pink highlights, you're in the aft [back] part of the ship. And if you think the corridor would be a good place to land an F-15, join the club.
The Norway has a draft (depth from the waterline to the lowest part of the ship's keel) of 36 feet -- too deep for most harbors. She therefore anchors off shore and transports all passengers to the dock via tenders. While she does carry two 72 ton tenders, each of which holds about 450 passengers, and while the crew is quite skilled at this operation, it still takes several hours to get everyone transferred to shore. And since port calls often only last for eight hours or so, whittling away at either end of the eight hours leaves little time for shore excursions. If you book a shore excursion, you'll be on the first tender. If you don't book an excursion, you'll be issued tickets, and can board the tender when your ticket color is called. Do yourself a favor and book an inexpensive shore excursion, even if you don't actually go on it. This is particularly true when visiting Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island in the Bahamas. Spend the $25.00 and rent snorkeling equipment. Though the snorkeling on the island is pretty dismal, you'll get the first tender out, and have to work a little less hard to get a good space on the beach and one of the (too few) beach chairs and umbrellas. Wait for a later tender, and you'll find yourself sitting on the sand.
I wouldn't recommend this ship at all to anyone with physical challenges. Almost all of the exits to the decks have 4" or higher coamings [raised lips to prevent seawater from coming in], and to mention that the elevators are less than adequate represents a serious understatement. In addition, transfers to shore on tenders may prove tiresome, even though they are possible for people with wheelchairs. Cruise passengers sailing on any line should also be aware that the Americans With Disabilities Act does not apply to cruise ships, even those sailing out of American ports. So do not expect that ship owners will have invested the considerable amount it takes to remove barriers. Several guide books, including Fodor's Worldwide Cruises, include accessibility information, and you would be wise to review these before booking.
The Norway is rightly well known for first class entertainment, but this is difficult to appreciate if you end up with one of the many inadequate seats during a show -- particularly after standing in line for 45 minutes, only to be stuck behind a column. During our cruise, we enjoyed concerts by Bryan White, John Conlee, and Lonestar, along with the comedy of David Nastor, and a terrific Broadway show by the Jean Ann Ryan Company. We had decent seats for three of these shows, and terrible seats for two of them. During the John Conlee show, we were seated next to the forward, port side entrance to the North Cape Lounge, with a non-existent view of the stage. To add to our listening enjoyment, two of the members of the Magnum Cloggers (the opening act for the Bryan White concert) came in after the show had been ongoing for about ten minutes, and began talking and laughing loudly, alternating this with some pretty terrible singing at high volume, drowning out John Conlee. When Brian T. politely asked them to please keep it down, things got worse, and now I remember the Magnum Cloggers as the Magnum Clodhoppers. They were, on this occasion, not only apparently intoxicated, but rude as well. Wherever I've worked, I've been instructed to be courteous to guests or customers at all times. Perhaps NCL should consider letting their entertainers know about this.
Which isn't to denigrate any of the other entertainers. John Conlee -- who I saw out and about, often with his son -- is a real class act. He's very down to earth and likable. His open displays of affection for his family, and his willingness to be treated just like the rest of the passengers, left me admiring him a great deal. Lonestar's lead singer, Richie McDonald, bought drinks for darn near every passenger on the ship, and the group gave a performance that was high-energy and outstanding. Bryan White, despite the early departure of his lead guitarist (reportedly a victim of seasickness) brought the house down. And we even had good seats! David Nastor is hilarious, and the Jean Ann Ryan Company deserves accolades for a show worthy of most any stage anywhere.
Solving the dining room problem would appear impossible, unless NCL expands the rooms somehow. If they were expanded outward, into what is now passenger cabins, one might even catch a glimpse of the sea while dining, or perhaps be able to speak to your tablemates without shouting. Keeping the Great Outdoor Restaurant in operation at night would also help alleviate the overcrowded dining rooms -- and many passengers would probably appreciate the informal dining experience it offers.
However, there is an alternative. On our second night, we made reservations at Le Bistro, the alternative, reservations-only dining room located on the Pool Deck. We enjoyed a delicious, attractively-presented five star meal in spacious and beautiful surroundings, with soft, classical music in the background, with a view of the ocean, and with first class and attentive service from an extremely proficient wait staff. There is a fixed, five-course menu with a number of great appetizers and entrees, featuring such things as escargots, gravlax, and prawns, as well as specials each evening. All this for only $5.00 per person in tips. Reservations may be made by dialing 106 on the house phone system. Remember that number! We ended up eating there at dinner for the remainder of the trip.
Public spaces, corridors, stairways, and rooms appear to be well-maintained and clean on this ship, and the 1993 refurbishment is holding up well. Cruisers may be surprised at how well-kept an older ship can be. For that the crew deserve accolades, as does NCL for continuing to invest in this grand old ship. Cruise staff are the usual friendly, manically-personable folks who go out of their way to smile at and greet every passenger. Activities aboard each day fill the usual four pages of the daily ship publication, and are quite similar to those presented on other lines. Entertainment (something NCL is rightly best known for) is excellent if you can get a decent seat. Food, service, and ambiance can be wonderful for the few people lucky enough to discover Le Bistro (on some evenings, this restaurant was virtually empty!), but I've probably been spoiled on other lines and felt the main restaurant dining experience was seriously flawed.
Besides the major challenges that require cruisers to find solutions or make compromises, there were some minor irritants worth mentioning. The sun deck suites are comfortable, even lavish, but the sound insulation leaves something to be desired, unless you enjoy listening to your neighbors' lives. The first day, I sneezed, and my neighbor next door said, through the wall, "bless you." (Just kidding, but just barely kidding.) Fortunately, there is a variable-control air conditioning system which allows you to crank up the fan speed and drown out most of the surrounding noises. It requires that you become accustomed to a sound not unlike a windstorm, but at least it's a kind of white noise, and is preferable to other distractions.
There are no speakers in the cabins connected to the public address system. While having an on-off switch is essential on such a system, its availability is important in staying informed about events on board. As I was running my air conditioning fan at full tilt, we usually didn't have a clue that an announcement was being made. My technical friend, Brian T., says NCL could pump public announcements out on cabin television without a great deal of investment, allowing infinite volume control and a built-in "off" switch (which, by the way, you'll have to get out of bed and push, because there are no remote controls provided).
When we returned to our cabin on the last night of the cruise, the cabin steward had turned down the bed as usual; and, as we discovered after some searching, taken the complimentary robes away. She had also dumped the complimentary toiletries out of the small basket normally containing them, and removed the basket! There could be no other reason for this than the line's suspicion that we would steal them. I felt a bit like a convicted thief, guilty and not even given a chance to be presumed innocent. It is this small operational detail which perhaps puts the finger on where NCL goes wrong with their cruise experience: I didn't feel like their guest; I felt like an intruder.
It is possible, on as large a ship as this, to shape a satisfying cruise experience by searching out and selecting the good "ingredients" that result in a pleasant vacation, and avoiding the rest. My wife and I and our traveling companions did just that, and had a great deal of fun overall on this cruise, but it certainly didn't come as easy as it should have, nor as easy as it comes on other lines. If you pay attention to the clues and hints in the foregoing article, you can probably enjoy a great holiday aboard the Norway; and as this is an older ship, you can also find some terrific values.
I found the Norway to be a solid, well-preserved ship, and a suitable platform for a vacation. I just felt that I had to work a little too hard at having fun. (Count how often that word pops up in the article.) I was, in other words, working hard instead of hardly working -- and that just doesn't fit my definition of an enjoyable vacation.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont. His columns
include material for a planned book on the subject of cruising, and
he is interested in your comments and suggestions. Brent may be
reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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