7 Night Western Caribbean Cruise, April 15, 2001
For years, I had dreamed of cruising on the SS Norway. As you may know, I am partial to older ships, and find it interesting to learn how former ocean liners were modified over the years to accommodate the growing cruise industry. And, for this, the SS Norway is a prime example.
But, the Norway is much more than just another survivor of the transatlantic era. She was born the SS France, the last passenger liner built for the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (a.k.a., the French Line). CGT created some of the most lavish, and most beloved, ships of the twentieth century, including the Île de France, Liberté, and the incomparable Normandie. And, the France was no exception.
And so, a cruise on the Norway was in my plans for the past ten years. But, other ships or itineraries would beckon and the Norway would have to wait.
Time was running out. During 2000, NCL announced that the Norway would be redeployed to Asia for parent company Star Cruises effective September 2001. Her spring and summer itineraries were to feature a farewell series of week-long, alternating Eastern/Western Caribbean cruises. So, with school vacation week in mind, I finally made reservations to cruise on the Grande Dame. After I selected a cabin, early seating dinner, and a pre-cruise hotel stay, the travel agent asked, "Would you like to know where you're going?"
We were headed to the Western Caribbean, but in reality it didn't matter. I was finally going on the Norway. I was finally going to see the France.
ss France sails into New York Harbor in 1962
Much has been written about the history of the Norway, so I will try to keep details to a minimum. She debuted in 1962 as the SS France, and was one of the last liners specifically designed for transatlantic crossings. (The Queen Elizabeth 2 of 1969 is the other, although she was also built with cruising in mind.) During her 12-year career as the France, she made nearly 400 crossings between LeHavre and New York. France, the ship, was the pride and joy of France, the country. Well, at least until the energy crisis of 1974, when the French government reallocated its operating subsidy to the Concorde. She spent the next five years laid up in LeHavre, and was eventually purchased by Norwegian Caribbean Line in 1979 to complement its fleet of cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Converting the cold-weather France to the warm-weather Norway was a huge undertaking. NCL spent over $80 million to expand the outer decks, install two swimming pools, and build revenue-producing areas, such as a casino, shops, and additional cabins. Two custom-built, 450-passenger tenders were added, permitting the Norway to visit Caribbean ports despite her 35-foot draft. NCL also removed two of her four engines to provide greater fuel efficiency. (She currently burns one gallon of fuel for every 33 feet traveled.) At over 70,000 GRT, she was then the largest passenger ship in the world. The SS Norway made her maiden voyage in May 1980.
Other major renovations were to follow. In 1990, her profile was changed once more when the glass-enclosed Sun and Sky decks were added, along with 135 cabins, many with private balconies. A 6,000 square foot Roman Spa was built into a lower deck, replacing an indoor swimming pool and adjoining gymnasium. Subsequent modifications focused on her interiors, such as the addition of even more shops in 1996 and an Internet café in 1999.
The Norway set the standard for the megaships that cruise the Caribbean today. But, while her newest cousins eclipse her in gross tonnage, one statistic has stood the test of time. The Norway remains the longest passenger liner ever built, at 1035 feet. (The Queen Mary2, scheduled for completion in 2003, will reportedly set a new record.)
The France serviced passengers in two classes, First and Tourist. She was built in the style introduced by Holland America's Rotterdam of 1959; that is, First Class and Tourist Class spaces were divided horizontally rather than vertically. Because each class had its own deck of public rooms, there is an abundance of space for today's single class cruisers. Today's International Deck once housed the First Class areas, while one level down, today's Pool Deck contained similar areas for the Tourist Class.
While both decks have been modified considerably from the France days, the pool deck has had the more dramatic changes. The most obvious example is the addition of 34 suites where the Tourist Class indoor promenade was once situated. One thing hasn't changed, though. This was where the fun was then, and it is where the fun is now. The Tourist Class salon is today's casino. The Tourist Class indoor pool is now Dazzles, the disco. And, the Tourist Class smoking room is today's North Cape Lounge, where Bingo and the smaller-scale shows are held.
Fortunately, the First Class indoor promenade survives on the Norway's International Deck. Now called Fifth Avenue and Champs Elysées, it traverses the port and starboard sides, respectively, and is the heart of the ship. With its dark, polished floor, expansive sea view, and tree-lined walkway, it is impossible to stroll the promenade and not feel special.
My favorite rooms on the Norway are, not surprisingly, places in which the France is highly visible. There are four such rooms, three of which are on International Deck. (The fourth is the Windward Dining Room, described in "Dining," below.)
As the France spent much of her time in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, outdoor space was not a priority. Thus, most of the Norway's outdoor areas were added during her conversion in 1980. This includes the deck extensions for the aft pool and the outdoor buffet restaurant (see "Dining," below), as well as a good portion of the open decks near the top of the ship. Perhaps this is why my enthusiasm for the design of the Norway's indoor spaces does not extend outside.
One of my favorite types of outdoor space is the wraparound promenade. Unfortunately, the Norway's outdoor promenade has several drawbacks. Its location on Olympic Deck is nine decks above the water line, too great a distance for my liking. There are also no deck chairs from which to enjoy an out-of-doors, shaded view of the passing sea. And, if that's not enough, it was redesigned as a jogging track in 1990 and is covered with a bluish Astroturf rather than teak. It's one of the few areas on the Norway that looks cheap.
What I perceive to be the worst modification made to the ship in her 40-year history eliminated a wonderful, unique outdoor space. The top cabin deck of the France, today's Fjord Deck, included a cluster of inside cabins that shared an interior courtyard. Each of these cabins had a second doorway, as well as a window, that opened up to the courtyard, offering their First Class occupants a semi-private, sheltered outdoor area. Now comes the sad part: when the Norway was born in 1980, her designers saw the courtyard as a convenient, pre-excavated space in which to install an outdoor swimming pool. Today, all that remains of Courtyard Provençal is a stark white walkway surrounding the basin of the pool. Curiously enough, the cabins' outer doors and windows are still in place, although sealed. Their view into the adjacent pool is somewhat eerie, as if the old courtyard has been drowned. In a way, it has been.
While this was tragic, it could have been worse. I learned from the on-board historian that there was another change proposed, which thankfully never came to be. In the hopes of creating additional deck space, the forward of the two funnels was nearly removed! Fortunately, this idea was abandoned, allowing the Norway to retain one of her predecessor's most recognizable features.
I try not to be too critical of the cuisine on cruise ships, as you are not likely to get gourmet meals on a ship that serves 2,000 passengers. But, I found the food on the Norway to be well above average, especially when it came to presentation. This was especially true in the two formal dining rooms, the Windward and the Leeward.
Windward Dining Room
The Windward Dining Room is largely untouched from its days as the First Class dining room on the France. The dining room's main doors open to a hallmark of the French Line -- a grand staircase on which to make a proper entrance. Yes, the logistics of the room, particularly the overhead dome, do make the Windward very noisy. Honestly, it didn't bother me, as I was too busy taking in the ambiance provided by the twinkling overhead lights and the original wall paneling. This is where I truly felt I was on the France.
The Leeward Dining Room is also elegant, but is more modern in design. Like the other former Tourist Class areas, the Leeward has undergone several reincarnations over the years. Most notable is the graceful, steel spiral staircase connecting its two levels. But, it also retains some of its original character with wall murals from the France. I personally preferred the more historic Windward Dining Room (no surprise there), but the Leeward is quieter and more intimate than most dining rooms at sea today.
Casual breakfast and lunch, as well as the occasional snack, may be found at the Great Outdoor Restaurant -- a misnomer if there ever was one. Actually, the buffet itself was pretty decent with a generous selection of items with plenty of servers on hand to offer assistance. However, the seating area was insufficient to accommodate the number of passengers who wanted to eat outside. But, the unique triangular-shaped tables for two offered wonderful views of the aft pool and the expansive ocean below.
The influence of Asia-based Star Cruises was evident. Miso soup was offered for breakfast in the dining rooms. Sea days featured an Indian/Oriental bar in the Sports Café. And, on two occasions, Club Internationale was the setting for a late evening sushi bar. And it was all wonderful.
Passenger accommodations are quite varied on the Norway, representing the styles of three different years (1961, 1980, and 1990), not to mention the class distinctions of her France days.
The most recent additions are the suites on Sun Deck, Sky Deck, and Fjord deck, added in 1990. Most of these have balconies, and are similar to the cabins you would find on today's newbuilds. Note that cabins on Sun and Sky decks are very removed from the action, forcing their occupants to become very elevator-dependent.
The Pool Deck suites, as well as most of the Fjord Deck cabins, were added in 1980. All are similar in layout, but the Fjord Deck cabins (F023 through F034) have obstructed views. As mentioned earlier, the Pool Deck suites replaced the Tourist Class indoor promenade and therefore have huge picture windows.
If you are after the original cabins (as was I), you have many choices. Nearly all cabins on Viking Deck and below date back to the France, as do the cabins forward on International and Pool Decks, most of the Olympic Deck, and amidships on Fjord Deck. But, while they may have a tremendous amount of character, keep in mind that these rooms come with some tradeoffs. Most of the original outside cabins have portholes or views obstructed by lifeboats or the outdoor promenade. The bathrooms, for the most part, were refurbished in 1980 and have not been updated since.
There was no Steerage Class on the France, although occupants of some of the smallest cabins on Atlantic and Biscayne decks may beg to differ. Some of these cabins are as small as 70 square feet. On the other end of the spectrum, the midship oceanview cabins on Viking Deck measure approximately 275 square feet, according to NCL.
Once onboard, it is easy to discern the original France cabins from the later additions. Outside the doors of the original cabins are yet another remnant of the France -- the cabin steward call light. Although no longer operational, it's just another reminder of the Norway's glorious past.
Now, I will deviate from my tribute for a few moments to comment on the cruise itself.
Ports of Call
I realize that I have referred to the Norway as the France more than several times throughout this article. But, the reality is that the France no longer exists. The ship is now the Norway, and is a classic in her own right. But, the France is still there, and not too difficult to find. I found the France numerous times during our cruise. I found the France as I sipped martinis in Club Internationale. I found the France as I strolled with my husband down Champs Elysées and Fifth Avenue. I found the France as I descended the staircase in the Windward Dining Room. I found the France while watching our son play with other children in front of the Noah's Ark mural. And, I found the France while walking on what remains of Courtyard Provençal.
Even so, the Norway has her own charm. She is one of the most successful cruise ships to have started out as an ocean liner. The France was in service just 12 years; the Norway is now starting year 22. The Norway proved that a classic liner could be reborn as a modern cruise ship, and keep up with the times through the addition of an Internet café, a sports bar, a disco, balcony cabins, and a Roman Spa. Before I set foot on the Norway, I marveled at the fact that she has been able to stay in Caribbean service for so long, given the deep draft that requires her to remain offshore at most ports. Now that I have been on board, I can't imagine the Caribbean without her.
My only regret is that I waited until 2001 to cruise on the Norway. I am certain that if I had met her earlier, I would have made several return visits. I only wish my schedule this year would permit me to cruise her Eastern Caribbean itinerary, or better yet, her September 2 transatlantic voyage to Le Havre.
Still, I have fulfilled my dream of cruising on the Norway, and she exceeded expectations. But, she will soon embark on the next phase of her life. Whether we remember her as the SS Norway or the SS France, or both, this is a ship that commands a great deal of respect. Now, as she faces an uncertain future in Asia, I can only hope that Star Cruises allows her to live out her last days with the dignity she deserves.
PHOTOS courtesy of Lisa Plotnick.
For lots more SeaLetter photos and information on Norway, click HERE.
Lisa lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and their young son. Their first cruise was on Premier's StarShip Atlantic in 1990, and they have since enjoyed many 2- to 10-night vacations on several lines, including Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival. Lisa is also an amateur passenger-ship historian and would enjoy hearing from anyone who has traveled on the SS France or SS Norway. Lisa may be reached for questions or comments at email@example.com
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