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Cruise Ship Review
Royal Caribbean International

Nordic Empress

by Brent Betit

Nordic Empress Bermuda Cruise
May 23 to 30, 1999

Nordic Empress

On the free bus from Springfield Massachusetts, the rain chased us all the way to New York harbor, and then aboard the sleek Nordic Empress. The drizzle continued down the Hudson River, past the impressive Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty, and out through the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Not an auspicious beginning by any measure -- but then the sun came out and shone on this wonderful cruise experience in every way during the rest of the entire vacation.

Sunset at SeaI'm not very good at remembering song lyrics, and my wife won't even let me sing in the shower, but sometimes a tune lodges in your cranium and just won't go away. Yes, it's more than a bit corny, but the theme song for this cruise had to be that song that begins "Heaven, I'm in heaven. . ." [For veteran readers of my SeaLetter columns, free membership in the Morons at Sea Society (MASS) for the first email that correctly identifies the song title, composer, and singer of this tune.]

Maybe it's because I've had a stressful year at work, and I didn't hear a telephone ring even once on this cruise. Maybe it's because this cruise represented the first public appearance on a cruise ship by my two ankle-biters, Matthew and Nicholas (and they didn't bite anyone's ankle the whole way). Maybe it's because my last misadventure to Northern Africa during February was still fresh in my mind. And maybe it's just because the sun shone the whole way through -- once we escaped from the North American mainland. But this was the best vacation my family has ever had together. Here's why:

Getting Ready

My wife, General Julie, marshaled the troops pretty thoroughly in the days preceding the cruise. In charge of deploying suitcases, she made liberal use of my own "Cruise Packing Tips". We had four kinds of sunblock, cool sunglasses for everyone, and enough clothing to decorate nearly the entire population of Bermuda; after all, the whole island chain only contains 21 square miles. Fortunately, I only had to lug the bags to the Explorer and then offload them at the bus stop. We never saw them again until they were delivered to room 3140, an inside quad on "B" deck.

That Cabin

Nordic Empress Outside CabinIt's a good thing Julie packed lots of lotion. The whole family had to lather up with it before we could all squeeze into the cabin. Seriously, this cabin was small. Though I had tried to prepare my wife for her first look, even my verbal abilities were no match for the reality and the initial claustrophobia. I tried the usual platitudes: "We won't be here much, hon . . . We all get to eat in the same dining room . . . It's not small, it's cozy . . . ." And strangely enough, they worked. She did get used to it, and though it cost me a promise that the next cruise would include a balcony suite, I can still honestly declare that this was a nearly perfect cruise.

The Ship

First, I should describe the Nordic Empress, which first entered service in June, 1990. Though the size of the cabins might suggest that people were much smaller in 1990, that's not really true. Peoples' expectations were smaller in 1990 -- and in fact, almost everything concerning how cruises are marketed has changed during the past decade.

The Nordic Empress is in fabulous condition for her age, and still looks like a ship. (For all their amenities, you must admit that some of the new giga-liners really don't look like ships so much as they do skyscrapers that have somehow tipped over.) Here are a few physical details on the Nordic Empress:

  • Gross tonnage: 48,563
  • Length in feet: 692.2 (our cabin represented the .2 feet, I think)
  • Decks: 12
  • Passenger capacity: 1,600
  • Dining rooms: 1 -- the two-level Carmen Dining Room
  • Casual dining: The Windjammer Café
  • Berlitz Guide rating: Three stars +

The Itinerary

The Bermuda cruise itinerary is a simple one:

Sunday Day 1 Depart New York harbor at 4:45 p.m.
Monday Day 2 At Sea
Tuesday Day 3 Arrive St. George at 10:00 a.m.
Wednesday Day 4 Depart St. George 7:00 a.m., arrive Hamilton 10:00 a.m.
Thursday Day 5 Hamilton
Friday Day 6 Depart Hamilton at 2:00 p.m.
Saturday Day 7 At Sea
Sunday Day 8 Arrive New York at 7:30 a.m.

If you are worried about mal de mer, this is a good first cruise choice, as you spend about half the cruise docked. Another benefit for most East Coasters is that flight is not involved -- and as my oldest son has so far refused to set foot on a jet, this was one of our only cruise options.

Food and Entertainment

How was the food? Everyone wants to know about cruise ship food, and putting "food" in a column title virtually guarantees numerous hits. In fact, I'm considering titling all my forthcoming SeaLetter columns with variations on the theme, even if they have nothing at all to do with the topic. And I considered calling this "The Nordic Empress Food Cruise," but the mean old editor wouldn't let me. Food. Food. Food. There, I feel better.

The food was great, from my perspective, even the surprise birthday cake I was presented with one evening by a band of singing waiters. Granted, I did not exhaust all the possibilities, as my typical day consisted of continental breakfast in the cabin (now that was an adventure!), no lunch, and first seating dinner in the Carmen Dining Room. Still, everything I sampled was excellent. My youngest son, Nicholas the Scavenger, ate everything in sight. He and his brother particularly enjoyed being able to swim all day in the pool on Sun Deck, and then paddle into the adjacent Windjammer Café whenever they developed an appetite for cheeseburgers and fries. I should add that they are both good at developing appetites. I'm sure the Nordic Empress unexpectedly had to take on more potatoes and hamburger in Hamilton.


Entertainment ranged from very good (don't miss the Billy Fellows comedy hour) to forgettable. I'd tell you about more, but I've forgotten.

St. George and Hamilton

Port reviews will follow in a later issue of The SeaLetter, but it is worth describing the character and some of the features of the two ports the Nordic Empress docked at.

St. George is a quaint village, very clean, bright, and beautiful, with a slow rhythm that does not seem to be badly impacted by hordes of cruisers. Anyone who has been in a village in England would recognize many similarities, right down to the minuscule vehicles, and the courtesy of the natives. There are ten shore excursions available in St. George, most involving walking or water. Frankly, there isn't much more that can be done in St. George -- and that is perfectly fine with me. If you're looking for glitzy nightlife, extensive shopping, and scads of hip, urban yuppies, go elsewhere. St. George is for relaxing.

We spent the day at Tobacco Bay in St. George, a small pink sand beach with adjacent snack bar, changing rooms, and bathrooms. It is a fifteen minute walk from the docks, including a fairly steep climb. You can always take a taxi, though taxis on Bermuda are quite expensive. The bus is also a possibility.

The volcanic rock formations at Tobacco Bay are stunning, the water is turquoise blue, and the beach is -- well, the beach is like a cabin on "B" deck. Minuscule. But it is a great family beach, with a protected cove, shallow waters, and a place nearby where small scavengers can fill up on junk food. Nick and Matt loved it.

Hamilton HarborHamilton is a small city, very clean with some beautiful, free parks, and orderly streets filled with buzzing scooters. There are a number of upscale shops along Front Street, and from where she docks, you could pitch a stone from the top deck of the Empress and hit several of them. Don't do that, though -- my kids almost got arrested.

Great nearby beaches (none within walking distance) include Elbow Beach and Horseshoe Bay. Each deserve a visit, as does most of the rest of the island chain. You can accomplish that by purchasing a multi-day bus pass at the Central Bus Terminal on Washington Street in Hamilton. A one week pass is $34.50. A one-day pass is $10.00. If you have more cash than sense, take a taxi instead. Just bring your wallet and turn it over to the driver as soon as you slide in the door. Hourly charges for taxis are $37.50 for up to four passengers. You must book the taxi for a minimum of three hours for a sightseeing tour. If you decide to rent a scooter, you're on your own. I don't recommend it, unless you are already an experienced motorcyclist. Inexperience, combined with the fact that in Bermuda everyone drives on the left, results in many serious injuries every year -- most involving tourists. And spending a cruise in a cast (or worse) would be a real pain. Pun intended.

As an overall cruise experience, this was a great one. Yes, there was that one unfortunate aspect of the cruise that is described in my The Worm in the Apple column in this same issue, but that was no ones' fault except perhaps a few parents who should have done their part at reducing global overpopulation years ago.

My children are now both hooked on cruising (which is an unfortunate thing for my wallet, though a good thing for family harmony). They were also perfect gentlemen in public areas throughout the cruise, earning compliments the last evening from several older ladies who had apparently been observing them during the entire cruise. "Such sweet children," one matron remarked. Yes, but she didn't see them inside that little cabin. For a little piece of heaven (and I do mean little), book a cabin on "B" deck this year, and set sail on the Nordic Empress for Bermuda.

Some Photos contributed by Brent Betit


Brent BetitSeaLetter Columnist Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife, Julie and his two young children. This was Brent's second cruise to Bermuda in the past 3 years.

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.

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