Transatlantic Crossing April 1998
Along with myself, an intrepid 35 year old, were Ken and Charlotte who are two very close friends of mine. They are 26 and 54. Our terrible trio set off April 18th from Miami to do a transatlantic crossing on the SS Norway. Since we all live 45 miles north of Miami's port, flying or using an air-sea program wasn't an option. We enjoyed the short drive in the limo my travel agent paid to transport us to the ship. Sorry, no airline horror stories to tell!
The schedule began on April 18th, in Miami. We sailed to St. Maarten, spent six days crossing the Atlantic at a less than exhilarating 18 knots, spent one day in Madeira tied up at Funchal next to what looks like a former Royal Caribbean ship now called the Sundream, [Editor's Note: formerly RCI's Nordic Prince] then sailed through the straits of Gibraltar to Malaga, Spain, then onto Marseilles, France, where most passengers disembarked the ship. As we stood on the dock waiting for transportation to the airport, workers were mounting a huge "FRANCE" sign near the forward funnel for the month-long French charter the ship had booked after our departure.
When we arrived at the Miami pier, we could see a long line of massive cruise liners, with the Norway right in the middle. Even though the RCI ship just behind Norway made the former SS France look old-fashioned, there wasn't a ship in port that had the sleek lines of the former ocean greyhound.
Unfortunately, NCL had not informed us that we were supposed to be met and escorted through check-in by a concierge due to our booking a suite, so we stood in a long line for about 45 minutes. The check-in was as good as most other cruise lines except Carnival which had it down to an efficient science the two times I cruised with them. There was no escort to the cabin as on other ships, but you find it yourself after a brief point in the right direction by somebody at the ship's entrance. I actually prefer finding my own cabin and knew where it was because I had months to study the deck plans. Except for not being met by our concierge, embarkation was smooth.
I had been very lucky about three weeks or so before sailing, and had been able to upgrade from a penthouse suite to an owner's suite called the "Venus Suite", located way up on Sky deck. It was extremely spacious, with numerous floor to ceiling windows and a forward view right over the passenger tenders) and also directly over the port side bridge wing. We could get up early on port days and watch the officers and captain work the remote bridge and bow thruster controls. At night, we had to either keep the lights down low, or close the blinds.
On our first night, they sent a messenger up from the bridge to ask us to please turn down the lights because the reflection was ruining their night vision down on the bridge! From then on, we were very careful about that. The suite had no outside balcony, but two of the other Owner's suites did. We had two bathrooms, Jacuzzi tub, very nice shower, a separate bedroom suite, safe, adequate closet space but barely enough for three adults on a long cruise. We utilized all of the drawer space for clothing, and ended up doing all right. My one complaint was the ultra-modern furniture for an owner's suite: it was all either white furniture with glass doors, or very lightly-colored chairs and sofas that reminded me of the way some people in my area furnish their Florida vacation homes. I would have much preferred dark wood paneling, leather chairs, and a more masculine or opulent approach to what is considered the best stateroom on the ship. My companions did not complain one bit - they were happy with all the extra room and the view. The stateroom also had a complete audio system, two TV/VCR setups (one was in the separate bedroom suite), and a stocked mini bar. The room had everything one could have wanted - I just thought it had a cheap look to it.
A history of the SS Norway would take pages, and we were subjected to such history lessons daily, which I really enjoyed. But basically, this ship was born as the last of the great ocean liners completely dedicated to the North Atlantic run as the SS France. As much as I love the QE2, this ship was from day one also designed for cruising. In 1980, NCL bought the France and poured money into it to convert it into a somewhat modern cruise ship. Until recently, Norway was the world's largest cruise ship. It is still the longest. Many modifications were made to make her so she could make money on cruises. One major one was the removal of two propellers and a lot of steam turbine equipment which lowered the ship's great speed from over 30 knots to a maximum of 25 knots. When I spoke with the chief engineer at the Captain's private cocktail party, I was told directly by "the man" that 23 to 24 knots was the most the ship could do. In 14 days, we never cruised over 18 knots. Perhaps because of the slower speed, vibration at the stern, even at speed, was minimal.
A tour of the major public rooms would probably start on International Deck where the Great Outdoor Restaurant has a view over the stern and serves outdoor meals. Going inside, my absolute FAVORITE room on this ship, the Club International, spans the beam of the ship and is the former first class smoking room. It has been largely preserved and is magnificent. Formal Afternoon Tea was served here, and was VERY well done.
The small street of shops has everything one would need. I found the drug store stocked with everything I needed and the variety of stores was excellent. Checkers Cabaret was decked out in red chairs and carpet, and was the center of lively singalongs and dance music. This large lounge was my least favorite because of the kind of music the trio was playing, but was very popular. A nice library and Sven's ice cream parlor round out this deck. Sven's was free, BUT.... they do not tell you in the brochure that it's only open from 2 to 4 pm and that just prior to closing, the line gets very long with latecomers. The variety of flavors is small, and there is sometimes only one person working behind the counter. I'd rather they charged for the stuff and stayed open ALL the time!
Below, on Pool deck, there is the large SAGA theater where the full scale production shows were done. The lectures were done there and in the North Cape lounge also. Saga has a wonderful balcony with good sight lines and I really enjoyed going in there. Aft of that is the large Monte Carlo casino which was shockingly empty most of the time. I've never been on a ship where the passengers were less interested in the casino. But the facility was very nice and well maintained.
Walking further aft, one would see the obligatory photo gallery. And even further aft is the wonderful North Cape Lounge, which is a large room as big as the Grand Lounge on the QE2 if that means anything to you, and a more formal setting than Checkers Cabaret. Watching the dance hosts work in this room (except for one, all men over 60 who danced with the single women and I believe got a free cruise out of it) reminded me of that movie "Out to Sea". Lastly on this deck, NCL's private "reservations- required" alternative to the main dining rooms, "Le Bistro". This medium- sized formal service restaurant was a godsend for our group on nights we couldn't stomach our tablemates in the Windward dining room. And the food was excellent.
One deck down, was Dazzles disco. Due to the older crowd on board, this snazzy disco with an excellent Canadian DJ named Andrew was barely used by anybody except myself and Ken, ship staff and officers who would drop by for a while before heading for the REAL party in the crew disco, and a few middle-aged ladies who pestered poor Andrew all night long to play "It's Raining Men" or "YMCA". Yeech! One thing the Norway staff really needs to remedy is the fact that the entrance to this room off Viking deck is not marked whatsoever! In fact, spring breakers from previous cruises had stolen the sign from the door and the crew never replaced it. I'm sure many passengers never found the disco because the doors leading into it appeared to lead into restricted "crew only" areas, so few would chance opening the doors. The other entrance was from the upper pool deck and was also completely unmarked. I'll never understand why NCL let this situation continue.
The last two public rooms of note are the Leeward and Windward dining rooms. The Leeward was the site of the midnight buffets most of the time, but not all of the time. It is a two-level room with a lovely spiral staircase in the middle. Our dining room was the extremely-elegant former first class dining room which I THINK was called Restaurant Chambord. It was left mostly original, and has a great recessed ceiling with a stars and planets motif and sparkly, twinkling little lights. Wonderful! The wall mural and grand staircase add to a memorable eating experience.
I understand NCL intentionally put lots of money into their entertainment. I think it really "shows" in the shows! The Jean Ann Ryan dance group was really A plus, highly professional and talented. "Sea Legs Goes Hollywood" was one of three shows they put on for us in the SAGA theater. We also saw a full scale production of Crazy For You (if I'm not mistaken) at the end of the cruise. This cruise was themed "The Romance of Music", and featured great jazz groups. The Jimmy Dorsey orchestra entertained in the North Cape Lounge almost nightly. Of course, there was the SS Norway band which is always on board. I thought they were better than average for a ship-based band, but not as good as the big-band on the Carnival Destiny last year.
The line hired many classical musicians for this cruise, mostly string groups and pianists. My favorite by far, was the Eddie Higgins quintet which is just about the best thing I've heard in a long time. If I were a jazz music expert, I'd probably have recognized this group by name because I gathered they are rather famous in the music world. They were fantastic. There were several lecturers on board speaking of many interesting things (like "World War 2, Spain and Hitler"), but by far the most interesting and famous was none other than retired newsman Edwin Newman, who gave three lectures. Two which I remember were "The State of American Politics" and "Edwin Newman on the English Language". I chuckled when Newman seemed thrown off by the audience's jeering reaction to his assertion that National Public Radio was an unbiased source of news. Newman seems a little more feeble than I remembered him on his Saturday Night Live appearance several years ago, but still quite able to speak his mind. I enjoyed him very much. NCL really did a nice job entertaining us during this trip.Food and Dining
When I read Bob Dickinson's book on cruising, I realized just how much emphasis cruise travelers put on this section. It ranks right up there with the most important aspects of a person's cruise vacation. I think the food on each of the three NCL ships I've been on over my lifetime was quite good, and the Norway is right up there. I have to admit our tablemates were not as complementary, but I've found that elderly passengers are almost never satisfied with the food on ships. My food had lots of taste, and I didn't have a single bad meal in 14 days. My table waiter was eager to please, and filled every request anyone at our table made including the 375 lb man from Memphis who ordered double portions of everything and dribbled food down his shirt at each meal. He was one reason our party of three headed for the alternative restaurant, Le Bistro, four times during the cruise. Le Bistro is on every NCL ship, except one I think, and I don't know which ship that is...hmmm. But even with a "same day only" reservations system, we were able to get into this medium-sized bistro which has formal service and a great menu. One night, we even got one of the few window seats. By the way, the Windward Dining room is the former First Class eatery from the SS France and has been left mostly original. It was wonderful, and classy, even if a little crowded and noisy for some.
The midnight buffet was usually in the Leeward Dining room, a nice two-level room with a central spiral staircase. The buffets were NICE, and waiters seated each party formally. NCL's signature chocoholic buffet was marvelous and clever. I was critical of the fact that they only did this one time on a 14 day cruise.
The ship had a VERY nice, formal afternoon tea in the Club International, complete with white-gloved waiters and a string quartet. What I didn't understand was why the quartet leader felt it necessary to stand up and announce each piece as if it were a concert; they were there to provide ambient music in my opinion, not to demand silence while the concertmaster announced each piece complete with a story of who wrote the piece and why. The tea was as formal and nice as any I've seen on the QE2, perhaps better.
Room service, for my fellow night owls, was slow but reliable..and free. It was 24 hour service, and had a decent menu...."decent", not "good". For example, after a certain time I couldn't get smoked salmon which was the only thing on the room service menu I craved.
To wrap up this section, I'd say the following: "food good, service average".
Ports of Call
St. Maarten is a regular port of call for the Norway. We visited the Dutch side and anchored only a short distance from the harbor. The passenger tenders made the trip quickly, and our small group made its way to the meeting point for the "America's Cup Race" tour, where we actually sailed "Stars and Strips '86", a 12 meter racing yacht, on a mock race with two other boats. I was a primary grinder, and our boat actually won the race by a wide margin. This is a great thing to do if you're ever in St. Maarten. The race took most of our time there, and we headed back to the ship, taking yards of videotape as we approached the great blue hull of the Norway in the tender. In fact, my videos are always ship-intensive and de-emphasize the ports and pool-side frolicking most others would prefer to tape. But I get my share of taping done in port, also. The French side of St. Martin was into a postal strike, and for some reason this meant no cabs would take us over. We didn't pursue it any further.
After six long days at sea, made worse by the total absence of any interesting weather or larger waves and the ship's slow 18 knot cruise speed, we found ourselves backing into the dock in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. I was here on the new CostaVictoria back in '96 when I did the 18 day crossing on that ship on a westbound trip which took me to Funchal for the first time. This time was so much better due to booking a tour which wound up into the highest mountains and ended up with a ride in a wicker basket type sled down a hill. If you haven't visited Madeira, that description meant nothing, but believe me, Funchal is a beautiful place. After realizing our friend and former QE2 employee Bryan had raved about a certain hotel here called Reids Palace, we told our tour guide we were leaving the tour when the bus stopped downtown to let the people buy Madeira wine, and would be hailing a cab to drive us to Reids. The tour guide understood (okay okay, yes I tipped the guy!), and said we'd love the place. Well, love would almost be an understatement in describing the sheer beauty and chic atmosphere of Reids. And by the way, it is oh so British in its ambience, right down to the pictures on the walls of Winston Churchill's visit there years ago. It convinced me I want to visit Funchal again and stay there.
After a nighttime passage through the Gibraltar Straits at 3am when nobody could see anything, we hit Malaga, Spain the next morning. This was a short stop with only one tour offered, which quickly sold out. Our party of three simply walked the area near the tender dock (forgot to mention, we did not dock at Malaga, rather anchored a good distance offshore and tendered in) and ate at a Spanish restaurant. When the host saw us discouraged over the all- Spanish language menu outside, he escorted us inside where he handed us English menus. Awwww!! Stress-free eating. Malaga was interesting, but warranted no more than the six hours the Norway spent there.
Interesting ship note: docked near our tender pick-up point was the Crystal Symphony which made for a great photo op as we sailed by its starboard side . This ship left its dock as the Norway pulled up anchor, and both ships sailed in the same direction but about a mile apart for several hours. The Crystal Symphony stayed closer to the shore than we did and eventually outpaced us, pulling way ahead by nightfall. Our captain announced that we would cruise at 17.4 knots to our final stop, Marseilles France.
Marseilles was simply our disembarkation stop, and "goodbye" for us. A salty port city, Marseilles isn't held in high regard by most I spoke with and besides, we were only interested in getting to its airport across town to catch a commuter flight to Nice and our helicopter transfer into the principality of Monaco to begin our land tour. I must point out that somebody at NCL or perhaps their contacts in France dropped the ball on our planned limo transfer. Our concierge Catherine (provided to us as suite passengers), met us on the pier with the bad news that none of NCL's arrangements for limo's had been carried out and not one limo had arrived for any of the Owner's Suite passengers. The poor girl scrambled to get us into a taxi at NCL's expense but even though she was born and bred French, her language skills were not enough to keep every taxi she tried to stop from passing us and going to wait in the designated taxi stand 100 yards down the street. She was clueless, and helpless, and the transfer to the airport with our eight pieces of luggage and three carry-ons was a complete fiasco.
Thankfully, our flight into Nice and Monaco and the days spent later at the Hotel Ritz at Place Vendome more than made up for that. Monaco, I've started saying lately, is my very SECOND favorite place in the entire world to be; my first is on the open deck of a cruise liner at speed ! Take care, and happy cruising.
Good and Not So Good points on this cruiseGood:
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Geoff Bradford is a native Floridian living in the the Ft.Lauderdale area. An ex-musician , Geoff is now a qualified commercial pilot in search of a flying job. He spends his extra time and money traveling and got hooked on ships when his grandmother took him on his first cruise at the age of nine on a ship called the New Bahama Star. Geoff can be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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