|Dublin, September, 2001|
This was supposed to be a fun-filled, carefree trip on a wonderful, historic ship. It turned out to be a very different experience through no fault of the SS Norway. The world was changing dramatically and fast, and all we could think of was the enemy who had once again raised his ugly head and hissed at the United States. Meanwhile, we were all supposed to be on vacation and enjoying ourselves. It was a strange paradox.*****
Berthed in the same spot as the ill-fated SS Normandie when she burned at Pier 88, the SS Norway, nee SS France and heiress to Normandie's legend, struggled to leave port on Wednesday, September 5th. The currents can be tough on a ship the length of the Norway and the Hudson River can easily send a normal-sized cruise ship on it's way to the New Jersey banks. But three tug boats and a pier "bump" later and we were off. I understand the so-called Norway "diamonds" this "bump" produced are now on sale on eBay!
Although many of the voyagers embarked in Florida on September 2, Hans and I opted to join the ship in New York on September 5. I'm sorry to report that New York City did nothing in the way of a final tribute to the ship, although the SSHSA did provide a lovely fireboat salute as we passed the Statue of Liberty for one last time. On the other hand, the city of Miami did it up right, as they should, as the ship was home-ported there for a very long time. Later in our trip, many folks lined the waterways of Canada and Europe to see the SS Norway. The empty non-reception given to the ship here in New York is a sad illustration of the general state of interest in local marine history by anyone else but us zealots.
I first sailed on this ship back in 1995 in the Caribbean. I remember spotting her the year before as we sailed out of St Thomas on HAL's Westerdam. I turned to Hans and said "That ship's next!" The Norway was just exquisite. Her lines and her presence in the water made it hard not to look at her. She clearly upstaged every other ship in port that day. I didn't fully understand the significance or the heritage of this ship the first time around. It captured me immediately this time, as soon as I stepped onboard. I really do wish I could have more chances with her. I immediately felt comfortable and happy onboard. I'd certainly sail aboard her in a minute if given the chance again.
There were approximately 300 French folks sailing with us on this farewell trip "back home". Although someone in our group assumed the food would be better because "the French are so demanding," this must have been lost on NCL, who did what they do best: provide a good middle-of-the-line cruise experience. Our trip into Le Havre wasn't met with the same kind of outpouring of humanity as when the ship returned several years ago for the first time since it left French shores. Indeed, I think because the ship will be coming and going in these waters for the next month, the grand French finale for this ship will come later. Make no mistake, however, that there was quite a mass of folks on the banks, snapping their cameras in the dusk, as we left Le Havre.
Our cabin was a very pleasant surprise. N110 (formerly France's M-72...and I also discovered while onboard that Da Vinci's Mona Lisa spent her crossing in what is now cabin N109) featured a long hallway to the main part of the cabin, with the bath split in two, as it were. The tub and shower plus sink were located right off the cabin proper and the toilette and a second sink were in a small mini-powder room off the entry hall. Ours was part of an old French Line first class cabin suite named the "Lorraine," had a twin bed and a full sized bed, lots of floor space, the classic little SS France mirrored vanity. Too bad the original mural on the wall above the beds had been removed and a French Line poster replaced it. It seemed to me that, unless stained or scruffy, the mural would have been a better compliment to the room, and I wondered why they bothered to remove it in the first place.
The ship was in top-notch shape. Everything was well-cared for and maintained, except maybe for the bumpy AstroTurf on the upper decks. I've always loved the Windjammer Bar, so tiny, snug and tucked away, and of course, the Club Internationale, which came to be called Club I or just "C.I" by all of us onboard these last two weeks. It's still one of the most stunning places gone to sea, and I enjoyed every minute I spent there. My ship postcards home were written out in that room.
We were seated in the Windward restaurant, late seating, but agreed with many others there that it was noisy, and we found it hard to be convivial with fellow diners because of the din. Many times, we sought out either the Leeward Dining room for breakfasts and lunches (the Great American Outdoor Cafe was just too busy for buffets, although we did stop there when in a hurry or when we were just lazing around) and of course we tried Le Bistro several times while onboard with small groups of friends. Food in the Great American Outdoor Cafe was badly served (hamburger patties literally handed to you after you retrieve a bun from someplace else halfway across the deck ... a cheeseburger was worse trouble) with disorganized breakfast and lunch lines. I don't know why I remember it all running better when we were onboard in 1995. Maybe it didn't and I've forgotten?
There were small, persnickety things wrong with the way NCL does business, including pier check-in, advanced shore excursion online bookings, Latitudes business and such. Plus, there was the already conceded ineptitude of the travel agency we had to use in order to sail with our ship organizations. I don't think I like being on a ship that continually uses the word "wacky" so often and so freely in their onboard announcements. Maybe it suits NCL generally, but it sure doesn't suit the SS Norway. In fact, NCL by the way they did things onboard, made it very easy to forget the SS Norway was once the heiress apparent to the famed SS Normandie. NCL does most small things (cabin service, wake-up calls, room service, spa service) fairly well as a mid-level cruise line, but they cannot compete beyond that level. Although I usually wait until the end of any cruise review I write to reveal whether or not I'd travel on the ship or the line again, I can say unequivocally that I'd love to travel on the SS Norway again (not that I think that will ever happen), but it would have to be a very special deal or itinerary for me to book with NCL ever again.
The Little Norways I & II didn't run as smoothly as tenders away from the Caribbean. Another thing I didn't remember from our last trip on Norway was the long waits for Little Norway I and II to load. Then, there's the long line to get back off. I think we made promises to ourselves to look for smaller ships in the future, especially if there's a lot of tendering to be done. Just as an example, on our call at Dublin, the last tender back was to be 5:30 PM. All of us lined up and waited patiently along the cold, damp dockside for an hour and fifteen minutes before the tender came back (NCL was running only one LN that day). It took nearly another forty five minutes to load all of the folks waiting. Then, the sea rocked the LN so much that, after our long wait, we were "flooded" on the lower deck , where many of us went to get out of the wind. When we finally arrived back at the ship at 7:10 PM, the giant Norway tooted us with a short, sharp whistle, as if the LN was an errant duckling returning to Mama.
Back at the Internet Cafe, where many of us spent an inordinate amount of time this trip, Alexandre, the young man who ran Digital Seas in the Internet concession onboard the SS Norway, was probably the most lacking in customer service skills of anyone I've ever run into on any ship. Yes, yes...I know I'm a tough customer sometimes, but he was at once boastful, obnoxious and truculent. The Digital Seas manager on the Ren this past winter was a peach, so helpful and just plain nice, but this Alexandre was a pip.
One member of our party who boarded in Florida began the struggle with him by having to e-mail both NCL and Digital Seas just to get Alex to do his job. There was supposed to be a flat rate for unlimited access, but as it turned out, Alexandre was just too lazy to set it up. Only after that complaint was made directly to NCL/Digital Seas did Alex provide the services he should have initially. He continued to make disparaging remarks under his breath while the Internet cafe was full of folks trying to contact their friends and family back home after the WTC tragedy occurred. On the day of the terrorist strike back home, Alex was asked by his boss to be at the Internet cafe for a longer period of time than usual to help people who were not Internet savvy. He groused about this continuously, but then, a half hour before he was to go off-duty he began to announce that he thought we should all remark positively about him on our comment cards at the end of our cruise! In fact, he repeated this request so many times, one woman actually turned to him and asked him to knock it off. He started up with the same thing another evening, wanting us to remark positively about him on our end-of-cruise comment cards. Someone finally asked him to keep it down, as others were trying to read and write e-mail and online materials about what was going on back home. This kid was clearly a self-absorbed boob, but I think most of us regulars in the Internet Cafe realized this early on, so we just tried to ignore him. He was almost worse than gold-by-the-inch and art auctions! Poor Alex is afraid he'll get a negative comment from us on our feed-back cards at the end of the trip. He should only know how big the audience is to a returning passenger with Internet access who is unhappy with some segmentof their cruise, however small.
On the day at sea on our way to St John's, Newfoundland, at about 3 PM the ship suddenly stopped dead in the water. I ran uptop to see what was going on. The Captain and his regalia, as well as a woman dressed in what looked like the drapes from the Club Internationale, came out on the Pool Deck. The theme from the movie Titanic ("My Heart Will Go On") was playing in the background as the badly dressed woman opened a box, removed a bad imitation of the coere a la mer and dropped it into the Atlantic. Another bad piece of costume jewelry gone to the bottom of the ocean.
St John's, as a port of call, has little to offer but it's people are swell. It was a very hot day, unusually hot according the locals. Because of high swells, the ship went around the island and on to another bay where we could drop anchor and tender in. We took a St John's city and surrounding areas tour booked through NCL, but there is really very little to see. Highlights include Point Spear, the eastern-most part of the North American continent. The only thing spectacular is the scenery. The rocky coasts, the cliffs and the ragged shore is similar to the coast of Maine, but more rugged and desolate. I watched Newfoundland fade off into the horizon from the stern of the ship, the last land we'd see in four days. Next, we'd be in Europe. One thing notable was the send-off we received from the people of Newfoundland. It was a hot summer-like Sunday, and there were so many small pleasure boats of all kinds out to see us off and bid good-bye to the Norway as she left the North American continent for the last time, bound for Europe and who knows what then?
Ocean liner and steam ship speakers onboard ranged from some of the ubiquitous ones to some very delightful new faces who shared their information gratis and with much enthusiasm. Liners Lister Bruce Peters' presentation, tracing the cruise ship from Scandinavian ferries and the histories of their lines, was by far one of the very best onboard presentations I've ever heard. His students back home are very lucky young people, indeed. Bruce doesn't just lecture, he makes you think and analyze right along with him. On the other end of the spectrum, we heard from Tom Margiotte, a Cantor rep from the owner of the SS United States ... but not much information was forthcoming. He was preaching to the choir. One attendee called his presentation an "infomercial."
A further big "shout out" of thanks goes to aforementioned Aberdeener Bruce Peters. Besides doing the best lecture and slide presentation, he also gathered a small group of us who are unfamiliar with Glasgow and took us to see what was important. Bruce got us on the train out of Greenock to Glasgow, with commentary about what was where on the River Clyde in years past. Then he pointed us in the right direction when we got into the city. Later, we all met back at Rogano's for lunch and had the pleasure of meeting Bruce's parents, who are lovely folks.*****
These next few paragraphs are not the kind of words I ever want to write when putting together a cruise review. On Tuesday, September 11, our vacation was abruptly and tragically interrupted by the news of the WTC destruction. At first, word spread slowly through the ship by word of mouth about a plane that had flown into a tower. Then, another rumor about a second plane. Most scoffed at the second plane theory and quickly wrote off the first plane as some kind of stunt gone bad or an aberration of some sort. It was a sea day, so I went to the Internet Cafe and logged on to see what I could find out. As I made my way down International Deck, the Captain came on the loudspeaker and made the announcement about what really had happened in New York that morning. He told us that the TVs set up in the Sports Bar would be set all day to CNN News rather than sports. Quickly, that room filled with shocked travelers, horrified at what they saw. Many of the foreign cruisers immediately expressed their condolences to us Americans and questions began to fly about relatives and friends of those onboard who were at the sites of such awful terrorism.
To be in the middle of the North Atlantic when this kind of news breaks, with not much in the way of information coming in because of the isolation, is extremely difficult, but NCL did it's very best to provide us with information and connection to our homes and families. All of us received a free phone call home. Internet access was free all day long to whomever wanted to use it. When we were in a spot in the North Atlantic where CNN cable coverage was spotty and broken up, the ship provided a live Internet news stream from a New York station. We always knew what was going on back home. I must admit there were times when I just wanted to get away from all the bad news around me. A trip up to Olympic Deck to walk around a bit, get some air and watch the sea did me some good.
Around the ship, we who knew each other and were worried about friends at home reached out with any news we had. Warren Davis didn't see us immediately on deck, so he slipped a note under our cabin door to let Hans and me know that Tim Rubacky, who works dangerously close to the WTC, was okay. I still have that little note from Warren from an NCL notepad: "Tim is safe!" Another airline steward friend onboard went from a happy-go-lucky vacationer to someone deeply distraught over friends and colleagues who were victims on the planes hijacked. Several folks we know onboard have no place to go back to work when this trip is over. The stories go on and on.
On Friday, September 14th, we were in Greenock for our first port call after crossing the North Atlantic. This was the first time since this tragedy on Tuesday that we hit ground. There was an announcement at the Central Railroad station in Glasgow that there would be a national day of remembrance for the victims of the WTC terrorists at 11 AM and a request was made that everyone stop what they were doing at exactly that time for three minutes. A member of our group from Aberdeen, Scotland, was taking a small group of us through the tangle that is a new city in a foreign country. At 11 AM we were right at George Square, right in the middle of downtown Glasgow. Traffic stopped, the buses and the cars. People stopped. Then, a lonely bagpiper began to play one of the most mournful noises I'd ever heard in my life. I looked around me, not quite sure where I was and said to myself "what is this place?" A little lady with gray hair and big blue eyes heard me, must have noticed my American accent and said in such a lovely brogue "this is George Square, dear." Then she reached out, touched my arm, said "I'm so, so sorry" and she began to cry. The whole of what was happening finally hit me, and I began to cry, too. American flags were on display all over Glasgow. Signs saying the Scots supported the United States and grieved with them were also all over. It was truly overwhelming. And it was the same in the other European ports we visited on this trip. Signs of support and books of condolence in city halls and churches, American flags flying, flowers in front of our Embassies, words of sympathy from strangers who felt our hurt, disbelieve and anger: all of this I will never, ever forget.*****
We also went on ship tours in France and Ireland. Dublin was better than I imagined, and I came away completely charmed by this city. Although we did a hop-on-hop-off bus tour with friends, we got to see quite a bit in our one day there. A stop at Trinity College, alma mater of one of my favorites, Oscar Wilde, was a real treat for me. We saw the Book of Kells and the Library and reading room at Trinity College, as well. On to St Patrick's Cathedral and the Guinness Brewery, then a stop for a quick bite in a health food restaurant near the ship in Dun Laoghaire, where we were anchored.
At Le Havre, we booked ship tours for Honfleur and Deuville. Although both are seaside resorts used primarily by Parisians in high season, we all enjoyed having the towns to ourselves. I wish I had more time to stay in Honfleur. It is as quaint and charming as a French village can be. Deuville is more upscale, more like a French Beverly Hills, complete with it's own Rodeo Drive. Many others on our ship went to the Normandy landing beaches (eight hours) or took all-day trips (eleven hours!) to Paris.
Once again, I enjoyed sailing with such a large contingent of ship fans, particularly fans of this ship. It reminded me a great deal and in many ways of our trip onboard the Rembrandt last August. This trip, we had the added burden of trouble back home. But there were so many stellar moments: a friend, Bruce's, wedding vows renewal, as well as Bruce's Scottish kilt on one of the last evenings onboard, getting a chance to visit for hours on deck with friends who we only have a chance to see briefly and, at best, irregularly throughout the year, as well as meeting new folks from Liners List and rec.travel.cruises for the very first time, as well as the various lectures and ocean liner-geared events...well, the list goes on and on of all the *good* things that happened these past two weeks. It is these good times that I'll remember about our trip, even though I know the world has changed, and we may all never be the same as we were before September 11th.