The Last True LinerWhen the British shipbuilder Shaw Hunter delivered the Vistafjord to Norwegian America Line in 1973, many people thought that she was the last true passenger liner. Following the trend design of the QE2, she was designed and built for a dual role, with her classic lines reflecting the best of the transatlantic liner's evolution, combining with an emphasis on the floating resort image. I saw the Vistafjord first time in Malaga, Spain, in 1979, when I was only 17 years old, and instantly was captivated with her majestic size and design. Today, when I imagine my ideal cruise ship, I always think of the Vistafjord.
An Evolution in DesignThe Vistafjord was a sister ship to the 1965 French built Sagafjord. The hulls were almost identical and both were propelled by the same two-stroke direct-coupled engines. There were, however, some differences between them:
Between the delivery dates of Sagafjord and Vistafjord, a new passenger ship stability and damage control regulation came into effect, which meant that much fresh internal design work was necessary. For example, the Vistafjord was built entirely with noncombustible materials. The massive use of aluminium in her superstructure allowed the Vistafjord to have one more deck than her sister, and, together with a superstructure extended fore and aft, allowed her to carry 100 more passengers than the Sagafjord.
The main dining room was very bright and spacious, located on one deck with lots of natural lighting from side picture windows, in contrast to the Sagafjord's rather dark dining room which spanned two decks.
The DeliveryOn 15th May 1973, more than four months ahead of schedule, the Vistafjord was delivered to Norwegian America Line. After naming ceremonies in Oslo, she began her first transatlantic crossing to New York on 22nd May and, later that year, began to make long distance cruises for the NAL loyal clientele, together with her sister, Sagafjord.
The Vistafjord was always a vessel of balanced and unmistakable appearance. Her shape was a far cry from the square block fashion of today's cruise ships! She featured a clipper bow, with a marvelous half-round shape at the forward end giving an impressive forward view. Aft, her deck formed terraces sloping down to the stern. Her classical funnel crowned the whole design. Inside, the ship also had some interesting details. Her main stairway forward was particularly attractive with a solid teak handrail above a transparent balustrade, and its upper levels forming an oval-shaped atrium, one of the first ever found in a passenger ship. Today, almost thirty years after it was designed, this area still feels spacious and airy.
On the technical side, the cooperation between Norwegian America Line and Sulzer led to the Vistafjord being one of the first cruise ships fitted with bridge control of the main engines. Also, prefabrication of cabins was extensively used for the first time in a large passenger ship.
A Brief HistoryAfter her delivery, the Vistafjord, was used entirely for cruises. The only transatlantic crossings were repositioning cruises between the European and Caribbean seasons. Those years saw a period of increased competition in the luxury cruise sector from other Norwegian owners such as Royal Viking, and also from foreign operators. As a result, there were merger talks with Royal Viking in 1980, without any result. In the same year, the two Norwegian America cruise vessels were transferred to a new company, Norwegian America Cruises A/S (NAC), a joint venture on a 50/50 basis with Leif Hoegh & Co.
In 1983, Norwegian America Cruises was bought by Cunard. At first, Vistafjord and Sagafjord were marketed as Cunard-NAC, but later they were put under Cunard's main umbrella, and the English owner kept the name, crew and character of both ships.
In 1984, shortly after the Cunard purchase, the Vistafjord was heavily rebuilt in Malta. The main alteration was the building of a 90 ton aluminium module that was installed in the area of the old Viking Club and the shuffle board deck to form a new luxury two level nightclub. The addition had a large angled double glazed skylight, and automatic doors allowing passengers to move easily into two screened-in balconies covered with teak decking. In addition, the casino and library were transferred to other locations and the main dining room was enlarged. Thirteen more cabins were added to the Sun deck where many were fitted with balconies.
Ten years later in 1994, the Vistafjord was again sent to Malta to undergo a much needed $15 million refit. Two two-level suites were added on Bridge deck, and more Sun deck cabins were fitted with balconies. Also, almost all cabins on the lower decks were rebuilt and fitted with new furniture and baths. The upper level of the Club Viking was rebuilt as an alternative dining room.
In May 1996, Kvaerner ASA bought Trafalgar Corp, Cunard's parent company, for £904 million. Kvaerner had little interest in cruising & shipping and put Cunard Line up for sale. On April 6th 1997, during a transatlantic cruise, a fire started in Vistafjord's laundry room and all passengers were asked to don life jackets and proceed immediately to their muster stations. Fortunately, no one had to abandon ship as the fire was extinguished by the crew and the ship safely docked in Freeport, Bahamas. Unfortunately, a steward died from smoke inhalation. The cruise was cancelled and all the passenger were sent home or to their intended destinations at Cunard's expense, with full fares refunded, and a $1,000 credit for a future cruise.
In 1998, Carnival Corporation purchase Cunard form Kvaerner ASA, and appointed Larry Pimentel as Chief Executive Officer. Mr. Pimentel showed his vast knowledge and appreciation of the cruise and ocean liner business by working to restore Cunard's classic heritage and tradition. Plans were made to refurbish the Vistafjord and rename her Caronia in December 1999, exactly 50 years after the first voyage of Cunard's famous Caronia known as the Green Goddess. If there were any ship that could follow in the footsteps of the original Caronia, it is the Vistafjord.
Her DecksThe Vistafjord has nine decks for passenger use, and all public rooms, with the exception of the dining rooms and Club Viking, are situated on the Verandah deck. The Vistafjord's main architect was Njal Eide, assisted by other Scandinavian designers. The general use of wood and wood-treated decoration and flooring in all public spaces is one element, besides the artwork, that unifies the ship. The result is a traditional ship, with a sophisticated, formal atmosphere, well suited to European tastes. All the decoration elements, as well as the rest of the ship, were in pristine condition, and the Vistafjord still looked new even before she was refurbished this past December.
Vertical movement is accomplished by means of three wide staircases each fitted with two elevators. Horizontal movement is somewhat difficult on some decks because of ceiling height differences, but is very well planned on the promenade deck, with no real sense of crowding anywhere. Vistafjord/Caronia, compared with some of her modern competitors, has some minor disadvantages: Smaller cabins, fewer cabins with balconies, and no real children or teen facilities. While not suited to families, Vistafjord/Caronia is ideally suited to passengers who are looking for a relaxing ambience and an elegant and refined style.
Vista (Franconia) Dining RoomOn Upper deck (5) amidships is the impressive Vista Dining Room (Now the Franconia Dining Room on Caronia), which, with a seating capacity of 680, can accommodate the entire passenger load in one sitting. The tables are for 2, 4, 6 and 8 people, accompanied by chairs with armrests, plate cutlery and natural flowers. Tables are well distributed, with adequate space between them to facilitate the waiter's work. A large buffet cold table is located in the center of the room, where passengers can either help themselves or be served by a waiter. This full width dining room is well lit by large windows on both sides. Walls are white, carpeting is mainly green and furnishings are of fine woods and green upholstery. The ceiling is raised in the center, with large glass lights and 18 slender pillars. In this immense room, the guests are served by 79 impeccably dressed and well-trained waiters, who also guide passengers through the evening's specials and assure superb service. And another marvelous detail: this room is very quiet.
The Garden LoungeThe Garden Lounge, designed by Kay Korbing, is definitely one of the most attractive public rooms afloat. This lounge follows the half moon shape of the bow with large picture windows and a terrace running outside of a marble circular dance floor in the center covered by a circular glass dome. Between the terrace and the dance floor is a curved well filled with green plants, complemented with a glass and wood screen. The carpeting and furniture is in soft green and grey tones, with the original coffee tables complemented by large chairs. A piano is located aft of the dance floor, and the acoustics are excellent.
Aft of the Garden Lounge is the Cinema, seating 235, Unfortunately, this theatre does not have the technical equipment to double as a modern Conference Center. It does have a small stage and a lighting bridge for small shows and lectures, but it is used mainly for showing movies. The room has the original light grey decore with a Kaare Haug flavor.
The Library, located starboard side, is fitted with large green sofas, several beautiful showcases, and a large globe of the world with a globe of the moon above. On Vistafjord, the Card & Writing Room, the Business Center and the Norse Lounge were located between the Library and the Garden Lounge. On he newly-fitted Caronia, this space has been taken over by the Regent Shops boutique shopping area.
Opposite the Library are the North Cape Bar (White Star Bar on Caronia, and the Casino, small to American standards with only 28 slot machines and three tables.
The Grand Ball RoomAft of midship is the great Grand Ball Room, which covers an area of 780 sq. meters and has a maximum height of 4.5 meters. All of the passengers can be seated here, with excellent sight lines: there are only four small pillars which don't block the view and two levels, with tiered terraces running port and starboard. This full-width space also doubles as a pleasant lounge during the day, and some passengers use it as the natural Lido Cafe-extension and for afternoon tea. The square stage and dance floor are well forward, with a small bar located aft on the port side. Seating is in sofas and armchairs with geometric green and pastel upholstery, complemented by circular glass tables with stainless steel pedestals. The garnet and pink carpet, combined with the wood wall covering, gives this room a classical feel, emphasised by indirect lighting and the grey and golden ceiling decorated with circles. Large windows on both sides give a fine view, and the Ball Room ends aft in a wide glass screen leading to the outdoor facilities. The entertainment tends to be conservative, very professional and classically oriented.
The very popular Lido Cafe, the casual indoor/outdoor dining area, is located between the Ball Room and the outside pool. Created as an inside extension to the deck facilities, the room has a teak floor and nautical decore with lots of natural plants, wicker furniture, and waiters dressed as sailors. At times the room seems small and overcrowded. There is only one buffet line port side, with a dessert table opposite. The fully glazed back wall provides splendid views of the poop deck, and shelters the passengers from the sun and wind.
The ample teaked deck space encompasses over 1000 square meters and encloses a salt water pool, the Lido Bar and a small ice cream parlor. Green ceramic floor is used only around the pool, which has a circular recess in the surrounding deck to avoid splashing on to the lido area. The mosaic-tiled pool can be heated and lit. The furniture is the same as in the Lido Cafe with black cushions and black and white umbrellas. The Lido Bar has a nautical wood decore and offers a popular "daily drink special."
On rainy days, passengers can use the indoor swimming pool, tiled in mosaics, situated in the Vistafjord Spa (now Caronia Spa) forward of the engine room on C deck. A sauna, aerobics room, massage rooms and a jacuzzi are all located here along with a complete fitness facility in an attractive arrangement with extensive use of glass and mirrors.
The Tivoli RestaurantIn her early days, only the small Club Viking night club (Piccadilly Club on Caronia) was located on the aft end of the promenade deck above the main ball room. But in the 1984 refit, this space was completely stripped down and a new luxury two-level night club was built. Ten years later, the upper deck of this space was converted into a second alternative restaurant called Tivoli serving Italian cuisine from a separate galley. This intimate and elegant space, designed by Robert Tilberg, which seats only 40 passengers, has a marvellous view of the stars and the sea. It's decorated and furnished in fine wood and dark grey, with a lot of Hollywood stars portraits on the bulkheads.
The lower level follows in her former role as night club, with a small wood dance floor and live music. The aft bulkhead was formed by specially glazed aluminium doors, which can be opened into two screened balconies covered with teak decking, and form an excellent outside/inside area.
The CabinsThe Vistafjord is equipped with 569 outside (includes 52 suites with balcony) and 320 inside cabins. Room service is available 24 hours a day and includes the full lunch and dinner menus. In her 1994, refit two new duplex suites were added containing a bedroom and bathroom with jacuzzi on the lower level with a living room, bathroom with sauna, and an expansive balcony with jacuzzi on the upper level. All other cabins were also remodeled that year, with new bathrooms and furnishings. The 32 balcony cabins are located on bridge and sun decks. They are spacious (22 square meters), and tastefully decorated with sitting area and adequate closet space, a good size marble bathroom and the usual range of amenities: safe, VCR, TV, etc. Cabin service is provided by excellent Scandinavian stewardesses.
The standard cabins are well planned, but fairly small, with good sound insulation and storage space. All have a marble bathroom, but some have shower only. When first delivered in 1973, the Vistafjord housed an unusually high number of single cabins, which were in later refits converted to double cabins resulting in some double cabins being too small compared to today's standards. However, during the 1994 refit, all were beautifully furnished with new marble bathrooms and two lower beds, plus desk/dresser, adequate closet space, TV, etc.
Vistafjord Becomes CaroniaWhen Carnival purchased Cunard, the Carnival executives immediately perceived the synergies between Seabourn Cruise Line and Cunard Line and planned to ultimately divide them into two separate divisions. One, Norwegian themed, would contain the Seabourn fleet with the addition of the Cunard Sea Goddesses and a refitted Royal Viking Sun (renamed Seabourn Sun). The second division would return Cunard to the British heritage and the glory days of the transatlantic liner, replacing Cunard's confusing later years when her fleet sailed under no less than four different funnel colors. As the Vistafjord's traditional superstructure fit well into the transatlantic liner, the new owners decided to convert her into a traditional British liner. The first step was a $5 million refit under the direction of Tilberg Design performed at the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Bremerhaven, Germany, between November 20th and December 9th, 1999. The work consisted of new names for some public rooms (the Viking Club became the Piccadilly Club, the North Cape Bar (after a brief flirtation with the name "Golden Lion Pub) became the White Star Bar and the restaurant was rechristened as the Franconia Dining Room), the relocation of other public rooms (a new business center was built forward of the reception desk, and the Regent Shops took the place of the former Card Room), and the replacement of carpeting and wall coverings in the cabins. Her hull was painted dark blue befitting the Cunard liners of old.
On December 14th, 1999, in Liverpool, England, while berthed at the Pier Head in front of the original Cunard Line building atop which flew the Cunard house flag for the first time in many years, Vistafjord was renamed Caronia. During the ceremony, Great Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, a former Cunard employee, announced that, in the near future and as a result of the British government's new tonnage tax law, Caronia would be reflagged under British registry. A Carnival Corporation employee, Pam Conover, became the new godmother of the Caronia and the ceremony ended with a grand fireworks display.
After the event, Caronia set sail for Southampton to begin her December 18th Caribbean Millennium voyage that lasted until January 11, 2000 with calls in Madeira, the Azores, St. Kitts, Dominica, St.Lucia and Barbados, where she anchored on December 31, 1999, along with the Queen Elizabeth 2 for a New Years' fireworks display. Later, she completed a voyage round trip from Southampton to Capetown, a true liner voyage in the tradition of an old Union Castle mail ship. Her classic European season began on April 27, 2000 with a transatlantic crossing from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton. She will make twelve cruises in Scandinavia and in the Mediterranean before being returned to the Lloyd Werft shipyard for some minor adjustments. The Vistafjord was a great ship. She had a great personality, she had a great nautical tradition and had a loyal crew. She wasn't as huge as later-built ships, but sailed like a liner - stable, smooth, quiet. Now, the Caronia looks splendid, with her classic liner's proportions, her elegant single stack above the blue hull and her high style spacious interior. I was amazed at the cleanliness of the ship as a result of the crew's continuous maintenance. I most enjoyed the Garden Lounge, the most beautiful and impressive room on the ship. The passengers seemed to enjoy the service, sophisticated music, and reading or chatting seated near her large windows. Vistafjord/Caronia will be a formidable running mate to Queen Elizabeth 2 and offer a unique and superb experience to her privileged passengers. The pair will later be joined by a new purpose-built ocean liner, the result of the Queen Mary Project. She will be the first such vessel built in several decades and the largest liner ever to exist. If her naval architects and engineers design her with the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Vistafjord/Caronia in mind, she will undoubtedly be the most splendid ship of all time.
Photographs courtesy of Arturo Paniagua Mazorra
Arturo Paniagua Mazorra is a true ship history afficionado and resides in Madrid, Spain. He has written several other articles for the SeaLetter and can be reached for questions or comment at: AMAZORRA@santandersupernet.com.
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please