The SS Norway, of the Norwegian Cruise Line, was one of the grande olde ships I had always wanted to go on. Their seven-day cruise was over Thanksgiving out of Miami to the Caribbean. It was a Big Band Cruise with dance hosts and four well-known swing bands from the past. Perfect — I like the old jazz and big band music and I love to dance but often don’t have a good dance partner. I signed up.
Sailing on the Norway turned out to be a trip back in time. She was built in 1960 as the famous SS France, more than 1,000 feet long, a 110 foot beam, and with about 2,000 passengers and a crew of 900 who come from all over the world.
You felt the grand tradition as soon as you boarded. The Norway still maintained a style and graciousness reminiscent of earlier cruising. The ship has been refurbished several times, but the art deco murals, hand-laid tile mosaics, polished teak rails, and the nautical antiques from cruises bygone have carefully been preserved, and as you walked the long promenade deck you felt like you were cruising somewhere back in time. As you dined, you knew you were dining where famous stars had dined, and you look at the murals and original art works knowing they were there in those early days when others before you sat in this room, viewed those same murals, and engaged in the same kind of lively conversations with others as you’re doing now. Later that evening, you half expect Cary Grant, elegant in his tuxedo, to stroll down the deck and lean nonchalantly next to you on the rail.
It takes a while to find your way around. The Norway is 10 blocks long and 12 decks high. There is an International Deck lined with sidewalk cafes and boutiques; on the Olympic Deck is the fitness center with glass walls so you can exercise while gazing out at the sea; on a lower deck you come upon a decadent Roman Spa that offers massages, aromatherapy, body wraps, saunas, steam rooms, and an indoor pool for water exercise. On various decks are two pools, a jogging track, seven bars, six entertainment lounges, one grand ballroom, a cabaret, a large casino, disco, an ice-cream parlor, library, piano bar, and a theater for first run and old classic films. If you need them, there is a hairdresser, laundry, dry cleaner, masseuse, and medical facilities.
The Norway has 1,039 staterooms, each with individually controlled air-conditioning, private bath with shower, TV, radio and phone. Some suites have a separate living room and bedroom in addition to a master bedroom. Most penthouse suites have private balconies. One evening we were invited to a party in the owner’s suite. It was spectacular, with a wrap-around balcony, living room, bedroom, dressing room and jacuzzi. Our host — a former police officer from Illinois who had won a major lottery of many millions and was celebrating. We had a less spectacular small cabin with a porthole.
Biggest job every day — choosing from among the things to do. There were Broadway shows, exercise classes, dance instruction, basketball, golf driving and putting, paddleball, ping pong, shuffleboard, skeet shooting, snorkeling classes and excursions, volleyball, fashion shows, wine-tasting, art auctions, lectures, a tea for grandparents, a mixer for singles, and a champagne party for honeymooners. There weren’t many kids aboard this cruise, but usually there was a youth program with a children’s playroom, kids and teenager activities, and special shore excursions. How can anybody ever say they would be bored on a cruise?
We left Miami late in the afternoon and the activities started immediately. Some passengers immediately headed for the casino, waiting for it to open when we got outside the legal miles. The casino was set up for blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, 200 slot machines and a few new games I hadn’t heard of. I was happy on deck, listening to the music, snacking off the welcome-aboard buffet, and watching the shoreline disappear astern.
I was already glad I had made this decision. I felt like a different person. The holiday rush on land doesn’t apply here. I watched the waves break alongside the ship and the wake trail behind. The air was fresh. Holiday fatigue? — poof. The only traffic jam here would be the first people in line waiting to enter the dining room to dig in to another meal. The only decisions would be whether to shop on board, in port, or both, or play golf or tennis, go swimming at some tranquil tropical beach or work hard at deep-sea fishing. And tonight I would have to decide whether to have the conch fritters or shrimp, or fresh baked bread or blueberry muffins, or stuffed Cornish hen or grilled swordfish, or coconut meringue pie or that ‘death-by-chocolate’ dessert. Or a little of each. And I never would have to look for a parking space!
By the first night we were meeting people, and serious dancing had already begun. I have never seen so many people in one place who enjoyed dancing so much and who knew so much about jazz and big band music. You could wander from ballroom to ballroom, and in between on the International Deck you could sit and talk to the passengers reminiscing and comparing memories as they listened to a complimentary 24-hour CD jukebox stocked with choice selections of years of jazz and big band recordings.
Four bands were playing this week, alternating two each night: the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra conducted by Buddy Morrow, Si Zentner and his Orchestra, the Bob Crosby Orchestra conducted by Ed Metz Jr, and the Harry James Orchestra conducted by Art Depew. And every night in the Cafe Internationale, which turned out to be my favorite place, was the band whose drummer used to play the background music for the old Fred Astaire movies. He still played the old familiar brush drum arrangements for ‘Stepping Out with My Baby’ and ‘Top Hat and Tails’. I met the six gentlemen dance hosts in their navy blazers and white slacks and danced my first dances.
A few days out at sea the staff began to put up Christmas trees, more than 50, around all the decks. A few passengers helped put on some ornaments. In the spirit of the holidays, the video channel featured classic holiday films as well as period movies, big band performances, and interviews with old well-known big band stars. We all had the holiday spirit. But it’s different out here. There’s no pressure.
Our first port stop was St. Maarten/St. Martin. (The island is divided in two, half Dutch and half French.) The Dutch port, where we docked, was Philipsburg. On the other side is Marigot, with some seaside French cafes. In between there is the beach at Mullet Bay with lots of rock formations for good photo ops, swimming, and exploring. There is duty-free shopping on both sides, with merchandise ranging from inexpensive t-shirts to expensive jewelry and French and Caribbean designer clothing. Several shore excursions were offered. In the morning we chose to go sailing on a 12-Metre racing sailboat that had raced in the America’s Cup. In the afternoon we wandered along from shop to shop in the sun with calypso music in the background, then stopped for a cool drink on a restaurant patio along the ocean, and thought about the people shopping in the crowds back home.
Next stop was St. John, the U.S. Virgin Island that is a protected national park. There are empty beaches there and some excellent hiking trails. We chose sailing again, while others chose beaching, sightseeing around the island by safari bus, or went on one of several snorkel/scuba dives. Our sailboat took us over to St. Thomas, where we caught up with the ship. Most of the people went into town to do some duty-free shopping so their Christmas shopping would be done when they got home. Others headed for Magen’s Bay, most popular beach in the area. Another group went snorkeling at the protected reefs of Buck Island, where feeding fish by hand underwater is a highlight, and others viewed coral and sea life on the Atlantis submarine. We were back on board in plenty of time for a rest and a shower before dinner, and more big band music and dancing.
I have three wonderful memories from the second formal night. One was the group of musicians sitting around the CD juke box, playing the old stuff and reminiscing. “That’s Major Holley on bass, with Slam Stewart, one of those wonderful times they played together.” “Who’s the drummer?” “Sounds like Oliver Jackson.” “Right. Remember the night …” I just sat and listened, grinning, happy to be part of it.
The second memory was the scene at 1 a.m. in the main ballroom. Some of the older people were asleep sitting on the side banquettes, too tired to dance anymore, but too stubborn to leave the good music.
It was after 2 a.m. when I started back to my stateroom, taking my usual walk past the CD juke box to get a breath of sea air before turning in. The reminiscing musicians were gone, but one elderly couple were there, slim and tiny in their formal clothes, with their arms around each other, lost in memories, dancing to an old Tommy Dorsey tune. I had tears in my eyes as I walked back to my cabin.
The next day was beach day on a little island in the Bahamas — Great Stirrup Cay. I used to live in the Bahamas on one of the outislands, so it was wonderful to get back to transparent turquoise Bahamian waters. I walked the beach, and remembered my five years living in the islands.
At the end of seven days, the ship was sparkling with decorations, ready for the Christmas and New Year’s Cruise. They were already totally booked. But, I thought, I can sign up for next year. But time got away and now she will sail no more.
HISTORY OF THE S.S. NORWAY
The Norway was christened the S.S. France in 1960. Length: 1,035 feet, that longest passenger ship then ever built. Along with Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, she was one of the grand luxury ships regularly crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
But jet planes came along, and were quicker and cheaper, passenger traffic became unprofitable, and sailings were stopped in 1974. The France languished for several years in the port of Le Havre until pioneer of the cruise industry Knut U. Kloster, bought her for $18 million for his Norwegian Caribbean Line (today known as Norwegian Cruise Line) and renamed her the S.S. Norway. Over the next 10 months some 2,000 workers renovated the ship at the cost of $100 million.
She began her new life in the Caribbean, sailing her first seven-day Caribbean cruise June 1, l980 from Miami, her new home port, with an international crew of 800 from some 40 nations. In 1990 she once more returned to the shipyard, this time for a $40 million refurbishment, including a 6,000 square foot Roman Spa with pampering fitness, health and beauty programs and two glass-enclosed decks of luxury cabins, including two with floor-to-ceiling windows, wraparound balconies, and jacuzzis with ocean view. In 1993 the ship had a $23 million refurbishing and renovation of the 5,000 square foot casino to a mirrored, etched and stained glass Art Deco theme reminiscent of the ship’s legendary past.
Her future was unknown for a long time, but now she is headed to be scrap.