NCL’s SS Norway: Final Transatlantic
In 2008 the SS Norway was cut up on a beach, in India and disposed of. I was lucky enough to take her final Transatlantic crossing on her, in September 2001. I have reproduced this review as a tribute to her memory.
SS Norway – Norwegian Cruise Line
Above: The SS Norway in Southampton waters at the end of her final transatlantic crossing
This was to be the SS Norway’s final transatlantic voyage, from Miami to Southampton. In fact it wasn’t to be, as she returned back to her home port of Miami, a few weeks after this cruise. But then the Grand Dame has made a number of comebacks in her long career.
It was both a cruise and a voyage, of mixed emotions, some high and some low. We were at sea on September the 11th 2001, between North America and the UK, when world changed around us.
The SS Norway has a reasonable number of public rooms, although none of the rooms themselves are vast by modern standards, but this is not necessarily a bad thing!
There are two main show lounges, one being the North Cape Lounge and the other being the Saga Theatre. The North Cape is a typical non-tiered type lounge with moveable seats packed closely together around fixed tables, encircling a small dance floor. Similar lounges can be found any many older ships. Drinks were served from a bar at the rear, which unfortunately encouraged some people to sit and chat on the bar stools during the entertainment. Smoking is permitted in one half of the lounge. Unfortunately the smoke does not know that it is not allowed to drift into the other half of the lounge. The North Cape was often packed, so I can only conclude that it was too small for the job.
The North Cape backs onto the Photo Gallery which seems to be a rather large space. Maybe some of this could be used to extend the North Cape, with some raised seating being added at the back of the extended lounge? Maybe NCL will pay me a consultation fee?
The charming Saga Theatre has changed little from the days of the SS France, and has a traditional theatre style layout with stalls and balcony seating. It offers a much better chance of a good view, than the North Cape does. Drinks are not served here, so someone shouting ‘waiter’ will not interrupt your entertainment. Smoking is not permitted either.
The sports Bar is a strange multi-purpose room, providing a third medium sized venue. As well as hosting parties, buffets, and having banks of TV’s tuned to , yes you guessed it ‘sport’, a live band often performs on a small stage (designed to look like a locker room) of an evening.
The charming Club International (Club-I to the regulars) at the stern of the ship, is a very sophisticated lounge. It provides a fourth venue for reserved entertainment such as Jazz and the occasional lecture. It must be one of the most charming lounges afloat?
The Windjammer bar was an amazingly intimate (that reads small) bar for a ship of this size. It was charming and seemed to be a well kept secret, so never got very crowded. In fact there was no room for a crowd, there was just enough room for the piano and its player.
Dazzels Disco could do with a major face-lift and was nearly always deserted, apart from a few crew members – pity! I’m told that in the 1970′s Disco era of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ it was always packed to capacity!
There is a small Library/Internet room called the ‘Internet Cafe, but as it does not serve coffee or allow drinks to be taken in, it would appear to be rather misnamed! The number of PC’s available in it is not adequate for our increasingly on-line society. There should have been an unlimited Internet access deal on offer, but NCL could not get their act together on this!
There were a reasonable number of shops, but they mainly sold expensive clothes, expensive perfume or very tacky goods. There was no chance of purchasing a poster or history book of the SS France!
I’m not a Gambler, but the Casino seemed reasonably spacious and reasonably well used.
The internal Promenade decks Fifth Avenue and The Champs Elysees provide a very nice stroll and incorporate several information/reception desks. The fact that the proms are so long and the level of service at these desks so slow, the lines of people can easily be accommodated as they backed up down the proms! When passengers were not lined-up at the desks (only when the desks were shut) the promenade decks would have been the perfect place to sit and watch the Atlantic roll by. However, SOLAS regulations had dictated that most of the furniture was removed. Surely they could put back some light furniture of even seats that tilt and stow themselves?
Although I did not need to use the elevators, I felt sorry for those who did. They were a total nightmare. They were small, slow and not enough in number. If you have mobility problems, this ship is best avoided.
The Norway has a nice walk around external promenade, which is the longest at sea, but unfortunately it’s metal, not teak. Have enlarged fantail with pool is an attractive place to sit and watch the wake disappear over the horizon. There is a basket ball court too, which looks full sized to me.
Food & Service
Although not the finest afloat, the food was very good. The meats were very tender and there was a good selection of vegetarian options. There were a number of theme menus during the course of the cruise. The Gala Dinner was particularly interesting. It featured dishes from the classic French Liners of the past. I had ‘Fillet Mignon De Boeuf’ as enjoyed by Marlene Dietrich & Cary Grant aboard the SS Normandie in 1938.
The only theme that I found disappointing was the Italian one. The pasta I chose could have easily been a convenience/TV meal! The service was friendly and prompt, although our table always was the last to leave the dining room, so we always missed the start of the entertainment. I think this was due to the fact that we talked so much to our charming dining companions, rather than the speed of service?
Passengers are assigned to one of two Dining Rooms. I dined in the Leeward Dining room, which was originally the France’s 2nd class one. It was quite an attractive room, with two levels, located towards the stern of the ship, but it was not at the very stern, like many modern dining rooms. The Windward Dining Room, which was originally the 1st class one, was located midships. The Windward was the more attractive of the two, in fact is beautiful with a domed ceiling and a wonderful original mural on its wall, depicting a hunting scene. Although it only had one level, it is fact noisier and has less space between the tables than the Leeward.
Above: The Windward dining room
Neither dining room has windows, but this made no difference to me. Both dining rooms were largely free of vibration and excessive pitch and roll, unlike many modern dining rooms, which are foolishly located at the very stern over the rudder, drive shafts and screws.
“The Great Outdoors” is Norway’s open-air buffet area, at the stern of the ship. It was very popular, but was always total chaos! I suspect the ship was completely full, which put pressure on this dining area in particular. People would push and shove every breakfast and lunch time, to manoeuvre their plastic trays, plastic plates and paper cups and fight for a space at the often crowded tables.
The tables themselves were very close together. The food would often be cold if you dinned significantly after 12.00. This is not my idea of luxury, it was more like an army mess room!
We preferred the “Great Indoors” – room service. As an alternatively, lunch was also served in the Leeward dinning room, but this was always very busy. I would have liked to see the Windward open for Lunch too to ease the congestion.
Small, often oriental style buffets, were available in the Sports Bar and Casino late evenings, just in case you were still hungry after you five course meal??? I did take a look at the “Chocoholic” midnight buffet, which was held in the Leeward at midnight, one evening. However, just looking at all that Chocolate made me feel queasy.
Le Bistro, was the alternative/intimate French style dinning room. It had a cover charge of $10 per person. However, I was perfectly happy with the Leeward’s food and service. I don’t like the idea of additional charges for meals, so I did not try it as a matter of principal!
The SS Norway has a vast range of cabins. These range from tiny inside cabins with bunk beds (almost steerage) to the Owners suites. However, the price differential between the grades is very reasonable.
For this reason I choose a Pool Deck Suite. Theses were created when the France was reborn as the Norway. They occupy the space that the 2nd class promenades used to. They are not really suites, by modern standards, they are more like mini-suites. They do have three very nice picture windows giving great views of the Ocean and letting in lots of light, which many hotel rooms lack. There were two single beds, an adequate shower, mini bath tub, plenty of cupboard space, Fridge and TV. The only negative aspect about the cabin was that the Air Conditioning positively roared if you had it more than half power and the TV seemed to show the same programs and movies every day. (There was even a French channel).
Many of the older cabins looked shabby (pre the Nov. 2001 refit), but did have items of original furniture – which was a nice reminder of the grand dames heritage. It is important to note that many of the cabins are smaller than you would expect on a modern ship. However, if you can afford them there is the two new upper decks with suites, penthouses and owners suites, some offering balconies. Although these hardly capture the spirit of the France’s great tradition.
There was a good variety of entertainment taking place during the voyage. If you could not find something going on that you liked, you must be dead!
There were countless maritime lectures, which were mostly excellent. I’d like to give credit to NCL for these, but I can’t, because the majority of them were organised for free, by the Historical Steam Ship Society of America. Larry Rudner, who was on NCL’s payroll, was an excellent lecturer.
I really was not impressed with NCL’s trademark big Broadway production numbers. Firstly I can only recall the cast of 30 singers and dances performing two or three times during the 14 day voyage. Secondly, I did not think that the company’s singers were particularly good. I have seen amateur productions shore-side, featuring a maximum of 8 performers, which were of a higher standard.
Fortunately there were some other very good acts such as Ray Gilato, Sam Moore, Elvy Rose and John Ferrentino. The resident ‘Big Band’ is very good, too.
The Cruise Director was Adrian Lewis, who was not too over the top, when measured against other cruise directors!
The Ports of call were all very good: Miami, New York, St.John, Halifax, Scotland (Greenock), Le Havre, Dublin and Southampton. The excursions were took to the Royal Yacht Britania (Scotland, the D-Day Beaches (France)and Powers Court Gardens (Ireland) were all very good indeed, but overpriced, as all cruise excursions are, in my opinion.
The major weakness was aspects of NCL’s Organization. The lines for the purser’s desk and onboard account were constant evidence of this. Also the confusion about Internet charges for a two week cruise, rather than the normal one week. The standards of customer care demonstrated by the Purser’s staff were not always very good, either. In fact I do not think that they knew what was going on, half the time.
A member of the crew told me that other crew members found this ‘special’ cruise confusing, because it broke their routine of one week Caribbean cruises – shame!
The SS Norway is of course too big and deep to fit into many of the world’s ports, so we were tendered ashore by by ‘Little Norway 1&2′ the two tenders that live on Norways bow. In fact they are not little at all, they hold 450 pax each, resembling D-Day Landing craft. These are both fun and a pain, as it can be a very slow process. It can take 2 hours, or more to get ashore! Once again the less mobile will find that boarding these can be difficult.
The Norway was assisted by two tugs for our 5.00 pm departure, however she seemed to overshoot and her stern grazed the opposing pier. A lamp and railings were smashed.
I’m told by a reliable onboard source that the Norway effectively run aground trying to leave NY’s Pier 88. The Hudson is not dredged like she used to be in the Ocean Liner era and her 35 foot draft got stuck in the mud!
To get her free the Pilot and tugs applied extra power. When she did shift her stern continued to drift until it hit the opposite pier. The damage did not delay our departure.
September 11th 2001
The USA tragedy was announced by Captain Sverre Sovsdnes of the SS Norway over the tannoy, when we were beginning the Atlantic crossing leg of our trip. You can imagine the shock that was felt onboard! After all were were pretty isolated from the outside world.
It was arranged that we were able to receive NBC and BBC News on our stateroom TV’s. As you can imagine, the atmosphere on the ship was very subdued for several days.
The Norway had been berthed in NY, only six days before. We had all taken pictures from the decks of those wonderful twin towers as we cruised down the Hudson river.
Some of the onboard shows were cancelled on the day of the tragedy, out of respect for those that had lost their lives. The Evening meal was a pretty solemn affair too.
The Captain immediately granted every passenger 24 hours access to E-mail and a 5 minute telephone call for free. However, many passengers needed to make several calls to loved ones and I can confirm that these were NOT charged for these. I thought that this was a very nice gesture from NCL.
In addition two rather emotional religious services were held onboard the SS Norway for the victims. However, I am glad to say that the spirits on the ship soon bounced back.
For this special transatlantic voyage, the ship was almost entirely full with maritime enthusiasts. Although I did meet one American couple that booked the cruise, purely because wanted to get to the UK without flying.
The biggest non-American, group apart from the British, was a large contingent of French passengers. Unfortunately there was little integration between the French and non-French passengers and I do not attribute this to purely the language barrier!
The entire ranges of personality types were onboard, from absolutely charming to the bloody inconsiderate. Most of the American’s that I met fell into the charming category. I will let you speculate about which nationality had the highest percentage of the inconsiderate.
The age range was varied, but the majority of passengers were over fifty, were veterans of decades of cruising and new their maritime history.
The SS Norway is a wonderful ship to cruise on if you have an interest in the era of the great Ocean Liners. Her hull cut through the swells of the North Atlantic like a hot knife through butter.
Although much of the SS France has been altered, some of her original decor and features still remain. In fact there is nothing more pleasurable than exploring the ship and searching for her original features. It’s like having your own time machine!
However, if you are not a maritime enthusiast, do yourself a favour and pick another ship. Modern ships have bigger cabins, better facilities, and are simply more comfortable. However, they cannot compete with the SS Norway’s elegance and charm.
The Grand Dame is in her golden years – time is running out. If you have never cruised on her, do so while you still can. You might live to regret it if you don’t!
Below: how does a new NCL ship compare? See video below: