By Gregory Straub
At the time the brochure arrived from the Steamship Historical Society advertising Norway' s first crossing of the Atlantic in twelve years, I was holding space to cross westbound with friends in Queen Elizabeth 2 on 26 August. I had booked that crossing to redeem Cruise Miles, Cunard Line's scheme (soon to expire) of rewarding past passengers with upgrades and free trips. Fearing for the line's long-term viability, I was loath to cancel, but a quick check of the schedule convinced me I could eat my cake and have it, too. Why not, I asked myself--and I am nothing if not a mark for the blandishments of brochures--cross westbound on QE2, fly to Charleston the day of arrival and board Norway that very evening for an eastbound crossing? Why not, indeed?
The crossing in QE2 was, as always, delightful. I look forward to seeing familiar faces among the staff, and I was not disappointed. Our editor had suggested this might well be my last five-day crossing, as Cunard are lengthening voyages by a day next year. (I'm happy to report I have since booked the first westbound crossing for next year another five day voyage.) The food and service were up to QE2' s usual high standards, and the effects of Hurricane ędouard were barely discernable aboard Cunard's flagship. (If I prate endlessly about the crossing on which I am not ostensibly reporting, it is only because it immediately preceded my voyage on Norway, and comparisons between the two are inevitable.)
The hurricane put us into New York on Sunday, 1 September, three hours late. The friends with whom I sailed were met at the pier by a car and driver, who sped me across the Meadowlands to Newark Airport just in time to catch the flight to Charleston. Having raced down the concourse, bags in hand--my friends' driver had brought with him a change of luggage for this no-longer-summer crossing--I congratulated myself on my good fortune; prematurely, it turned out, Norwegian Cruise Line had issued my ticket from Miami to Southampton and had unhelpfully included directions to the pier in Florida. On the plane I assured myself Norway would be difficult to conceal, and her arrival must be well-known, if not cause for jubilation, among the local populace. Wrong! My cabdriver had no idea Norway had called, nor did she know where in her fair city a cruise ship might dock. Having called in Charleston on two previous occasions in QE2 and Canberra, I thought I knew where she might berth. As we neared downtown Charleston, I searched the skyline for that familiar silhouette. Norway must loom over the low-lying port, mustn't she?
We pulled into the parking lot by the quay. No ship. My driver, a wonderful, solicitous black woman, edged her taxi toward a parking lot kiosk, from which an attendant produced a fax from NCL announcing the cancellation of Norway 's call due to Hurricane Fran (which, as it turned out, came ashore well north of Charleston). Included in the fax was a telephone number for inquiries to NCL. I jotted it down and asked the driver to take me to the Mills House Hotel. When she dropped me curbside, she asked ifI were sure I wanted to send her on. Her kindness was a credit to the city of Charleston.
Unsure of what to do next, I booked a room--I knew there were no flights out of Charleston that evening. (I was fortunate they had space at the Mills House on Labor Day weekend.) Having secured my immediate future, I set out to get in touch with NCL. Call after call dropped me into the maze of their voice mail system. I started by trying all the obvious choices: "If you are calling Customer Services, please press four." All the options I tried ended with "The office is closed for the holiday. Please call again during regular business hours." Finally, I penetrated the system and reached a live person when I punched the number for "Future Bookings." (I should have known if any desk were staffed, it would be this one.) A helpful clerk informed me NCL had faxed my travel agency the day before (Saturday of Labor Day weekend) to inform them the line would fly me to New York two days hence and convey me to Norway. The clerk had no word, of course, on what I was to do in the meantime. I settled into my involuntary, if pleasant, stay in Charleston.
On Tuesday, 3 September, I checked in for the flight to New York and met my fellow strandees. It seems there were but thirty-odd of us boarding in Charleston, so it was an easy port of call for NCL to by-pass. (I am still waiting for a response to my letter inquiring how NCL intend to compensate me for my sojourn in South Carolina.) It was not an auspicious beginning to the crossing.
Norway, for she is truly that, not ex-France, was something of a disappointment. One needs a more vivid fantasy-life than I enjoy to scratch below the sixteen years' accumulated kitsch and find Transat's flagship. Once on board, I discovered I had a well-located, (former) tourist class single (which NCL sell as a triple!) and late seating in the (former) tourist class dining room, (the [former] first class dining room having been given over to a large party of French travellers for that sitting).
It was hard to envision this ship plying the North Atlantic. Her air- conditioning was all-too-efficient: cabins and public rooms were kept at Arctic temperatures, while each cabin came with but one, thin, synthetic blanket. (How I longed for a blue Cunard steamer rug and Dennis Dawson to tuck me up!) The drinks of the day were invariably pastel-colored rum swizzles with oh-so-cute names. There were canvas-umbrellared tables aft on International Deck outside the Great Outdoor Restaurant (during hurricane season on the North Atlantic!). There were constant, annoying announcements over the tannoy about "jackpot bingo," "lotto drawings" and "casino hours." Each evening, the Club Internationale (France 's former first class smoking room) was overwhelmed by a combo playing Latin numbers through microphones. (In fact, there was not a quiet public room on the ship, and there were far too few public rooms for the number of passengers who did not have a port-call-a-day to relieve their confinement.)
The revues featured our editor's bete noire, the click track. The young performers jumped through their hoops to the canned music as if for the thousandth time, putting me in mind of the ecdysiasts at the old Troc Theatre in Philadelphia during my student days.
(To be fair, Norway is not alone in using the click-track. I yawned through a Broadway production of Showboat last year in which the small number of musicians was augmented by tape.)
I took breakfast in the Chambord (former first class) dining room, but lunch and dinner were passed in the former tourist class one. My dining companions were delightful: a retired naval engineer from Newton, Massachusetts; a man from Carmel whose grandfather had been Episcopal Bishop of California; the wardrobe master of the San Francisco Ballet; and a couple who worked for NATO in Brussels (he, Danish; she, English). Breakfast and lunch in the dining room were humdrum (albeit a great step up from the sodden cafeteria fare offered in the Great Outdoor Restaurant), but dinner was a gastronomic joy. Each night we (Continued over the page) were offered a table d'hote seven course menu, several of which had been created by Auguste Escoffier, whose great-grandson, Michel Escoffier, was aboard.
Course after course of beautifully prepared (by French chefs brought along for the crossing from New York to Le Havre only) and artistically presented food arrived by the willing, if not very deft, hands of our Jamaican steward (mon!). One memorable meal was the Diner en Rouge, created by Escoffier for a group of young English aristocrats who broke the bank at Monte Carlo by betting only on red in roulette. All the food, all the sauces were red, which, of course, we are taught is a no-no but in the hands of a master is the exception to prove the rule.
The Steamship Historical Society had laid on a program of lectures. Jean Paul Herbert, Director of the Archives of Compagnie Generale Maritime, lectured on the history of the French Line. Jeff Macklin, president of the society, gave an illustrated lecture on France and Norway and also led tours of the ship. Mitchell Mart and Richard Faber, dealers in ocean liner memorabilia, brought with them extensive collections. (The latter remarked to me he had been sold out of his stock from France, mostly by French passengers.) Pierre LeRoux, Engineer on France, lectured on life aboard that ship. Alain Mahuzier, former ship's purser aboard France, talked about the abortive sailors' mutiny after the decision was made to take her out of service. Tage Wandborg, the architect who planned the conversion of France into Norway, spoke of the challenges he overcame. Vince Messina displayed a masterly memory when he led a discussion on liners past and present in a talk entitled "Where are they now?" Captain Raymond Kerverdo, Director and Port Captain for the Fleet of CGM, spoke on navigation. Nelson Arnstein showed slides of United States ' s recent entry into Philadelphia. Stephen Card, maritime artist, spoke on "Liners in Art" and offered a painting for auction to benefit maritime charities. Jean Miottel offered a silent film of Normandie 's cruise to Rio. Each day, passengers could attend at least two lectures on ships and the sea. They were a highlight of the crossing. As was the weather: Warm, brilliant sunshine, while the United States was being battered by successive hurricanes. Each day, I lolled around the (neither former first, nor tourist class: an NCL addition) pool.
Of course, there were flies in the ointment. I was flooded out of my port-side cabin on the penultimate day of the crossing--I was reminded of the announcements in QE2 after her last refit that began: "Niagara! Niagara!"--and was moved to the corresponding starboard-side cabin, for which inconvenience NCL compensated me $50. Having got used to my former cabin, it was more than a little disconcerting to find every fitting on the opposite side (e.g., the bedside table, the shower water-temperature mixing tap, the wall adjoining my bunk.) I was disoriented enough to have spilt a drink in the bed, scalded myself in the shower and banged my head as I tried to dismount my bed through the bulkhead.
Officials in Le Havre had planned a triumphal arrival for Norway's first visit since she was France and the city was her home port. The pilot boat carried out a guide who narrated the sights aNorway steamed into port. We had a fireboat escort into the harbor. Alas, instead of sailing fore or aft of Norway, she let off her water cannons abeam, drenching the passengers who lined the port-side rails to survey the approach. At least passengers to port like me could see what was happening and rush for the doors. Passengers on the starboard side were not so fortunate. They were drenched as water shot over Norway to douse the starboard side, as well. One British passenger suggested to me it was French ambivalence about France 's return as Norway that prompted a deliberate insult. I prefer to think it was Gallic exuberance run amok.
Thousands of French descended upon Le Havre for a look at their erstwhile maritime achievement. A carnival-like atmosphere pervaded the port as merchants sold souvenirs of the visit. My favorite was a t-shirt displaying the legend France above a silhouette of Norway , complete with penthouse decks!
Back on board, our wonderful dinners had been heralded in elegantly printed menus, which we had been promised we would receive back our last night. The debarking French absconded not only with the chefs, but with the entire supply of menus, as well. Some disgruntled passengers staged a sit-in in the dining room demanding their menus. I spoke to the maitre d'hotel quietly and asked him to find me a set and deliver it to my cabin. He agreed, and when I offered him a tip, he declined. With that gesture, that maitre d'hotel recapitulated for me the essence of service in France. It was the ideal note on which to end an historic crossing.
(Your Editor is extremely grateful to Museum member Greg Straub for his deft France/Norway memoir. That crossing--a long overdue repetition of the last one in 1984--was such a success that Norwegian Cruise Line has already released plans for another round trip in 1997: Eastbound leaving Miami on August 16th, calling at New York, Halifax, St John's , Cobh and Southampton, then on to Le Havre where the westbound crossing will begin on September 1st , returning to Miami via Southampton and New York. It is a pleasure to see a liner however truncated for cruising, back on the North Atlantic where she belongs.)