By Jack Sauter
"The most beautiful woman in the world wants to take you to Europe," proclaimed a New York Times advertisement of the May 12th, 1974 issue. Just above the message was a large photograph of the French Line's flagship France.
France was a remarkable and unique ship. The last of the thousand-footers, (only four had been built, the first two Queens for Cunard White Star and Normandie and France of the French Line), she stood unmatched in 1962, the year of her entry into service, as the last word in style, comfort and efficiency on the North Atlantic. While no ship matched Normandie's standard of excellence, France would be the closest attainment of her reincarnation.
But this was no longer 1962, and difficult times were in store for ocean travelers. In 1973, a Middle East oil crisis had resulted in a fourfold increase in fuel prices. There were times during France's world cruise of 1972 when there was some question as to whether oil could be found at any price. The letter I had in hand from the French Line specified a $40 fuel surcharge, something unheard of in the days of $12-a-ton bunker oil.
But our thoughts were far from fuel prices as my wife Marianne and I prepared for our July 11th eastbound sailing. We'd been fortunate enough to make a Caribbean voyage in the France in November 1972 and that had been the benchmark of all our cruises. The world within that 1,035-foot hull completely personified la belle France and all that meant to the seasoned traveler.
Under normal circumstances, a transatlantic crossing would have been the premier event of anyone's life, but a recent announcement from the French Line that this would be the last summer for the France made this impending voyage assume far greater significance. We didn't know it at the time, but hundreds of other former passengers had had the same idea: to sail on the France before it's too late. We'd all taken this gorgeous ship for granted; now it was coming to an end.
In order to take full advantage of our month's vacation, we booked both east- and westbound sailings. While our seagoing home was making another round trip, we'd be exploring the country of her birth. I couldn't imagine a better arrangement.
The first ten days of July had delivered typical New York summer weather: very hot with humidity to match. But the night of the 10th brought a thunderstorm heralding a cold front and the morning of the 11th dawned sunny and dry with the temperature in the low eighties. Although the turnaround time was unbelievably brief, we planned a Bon Voyage party for 30 guests. The French Line tried to discourage us by not providing any canapes or drinks but we brought our own. Most of my friends had fond memories of great send-offs on the Flandre, Michelangelo and QE2, so they were as anxious as we were to make the most of this farewell party.
Bon Voyage Gathering
Our advance guard camped out early in the Riviera Lounge on Verandah Deck aft. Champagne corks were soon popping and everyone's pleasure index went on fast-forward: we just didn't have time for long preliminaries. But the gongs sounded sooner than we expected and our party melted away. The tugs were already alongside by the time we arrived at the rail and crowds of well-wishers were packed in the few open spaces of decaying Pier 94. Before we knew it, the distance between the ship and the pier magically widened and those images began to move away. With three long blasts of her mighty whistle, France announced in no uncertain terms that this was a liner of the Western Ocean going about her business.
The slow passage downstream was one I'll never forget. Nature contrived to give this sailing her best sendoff with a glorious sky and just enough clouds to frame a perfect sunset. It was a scene straight from a calendar.
At Sea at Last
Our cabin was minimum First Class, all the way forward on Main Deck; it was eminently comfortable. Our steward, happily, was Roger, who had served us on a ten-day Caribbean cruise eighteen months before. In that mysterious way known only to ship's personnel, he remembered us as if it were the previous week and not a year and a half. Having been on board before also gave us the feeling of coming back to a well-loved hotel.
After unpacking, we headed down to the Chambord dining room to check out seating arrangements, This room which Craig Claiborne called "the finest French restaurant in the world," would be the scene of some our most memorable hours on board. We'd requested a table for eight, figuring that the maitre 'd would choose our companions with the efficiency of a dating computer. We were joined by two American couples who were traveling together and a French couple. All were within a year or two of our age. Fortunately, Catherine and Pierre had spent a few years in New York early in their marriage so their English was far better than our French.
The men occupied themselves with the menus while the women showed far more interest in the configuration of the room. A domed ceiling held a constellation of tiny lights set in a deep-blue sky: Was this an advanced vision of heaven? But the crowning Gallic touch was the path to the tables. Aware that his patrons would be among the most beautifully dressed women in the world, the architect had incorporated a descending staircase into the grand entrance that allowed every arriving diner to be seen. How long each woman wanted to be "on stage" was determined by her own pace. No woman ever forgot it.
Pot au Feu Indeed
We'd barely been seated and made introductions when Peter, our captain, arrived. His massive head hung to one side as he explained how embarrassed he was to tell us how austere things had become. Quelle dommage! Because of the cutbacks he would only be able to offer us ten special courses off the menu during the voyage! However, he would do his best to see that we weren't too inconvenienced.
Pierre told him that he had heard one of their best dishes was a pot au feu, sort of a beef stew. I thought
Peter was going to explode. "Pot au feu? Pot au feu? No, No, NO, NO ! Never!" It took him a while to realize that Pierre was pulling his leg, but it was apparent that Frenchmen don't make jokes about their cooking. On a more serious plane, Peter suggested that he and I would each like a lobster cocktail to start with and that brought an approving smile back to his face.
As an aside, one never heard the sound of music in this or the tourist class dining areas. And no waiters ever marched in carrying flaming crepes. This was serious stuff. There were 180 cooks, 22 kitchen departments and a 35,000-bottle cellar. Every meal was a joy and pure perfection. Although dining was an important event at our table, our own awe was dwarfed by the near worship with which our neighbors greeted each course. As each dish was presented in the French fashion, the husband would break out his Leica and preserve it for posterity. We often wondered if the couple ever sat around looking at all those pictures.
But food wasn't the only diversion in the Salle a manger Chambord. There was a particularly mysterious and attractive French lady who was traveling alone; she always made it a point to arrive after everyone had been seated. Exquisitely attired, she'd pause at the top of the stairs for just a moment until she was positive all eyes were upon her, and then she'd slowly descend each step at a measured pace. You could have heard a pin drop.
In spite of France's gastronomic glory, there was more to see than the dining room of this magnificent vessel. Encompassed within her eleven decks were three night clubs, a movie theater that could seat 640, two pools, two gyms, a library, a music room, a hospital, a hairdresser and barber, and sundry bars and shops. (Thankfully, she had no disco or casino which made her a totally civilized--if money-losing--vessel.) One almost needed a blueprint to get around. The France (like HAL's earlier Rotterdam) had broken new ground in her deck plan: the Tourist and First Class areas had a horizontal rather than a vertical separation. On cruises, the barriers would be removed but on transatlantic crossings, the old ways prevailed. The pool was located in the aft end of the boat deck and was covered by a glass dome. This admitted sunlight but also afforded protection from the elements, There aren't many opportunities for outdoor swimming on the North Atlantic, so this was a practical arrangement. Below deck, there was a smaller pool with a crystal chandelier, one of those exquisite touches only the French could come up with.
During the day, most of the passengers sat out on deck in those wonderfully sturdy deck chairs. Here you were pampered but not annoyed. Bouillon was served at 11:00 a.m. and tea at 4 p.m., following a habit that no doubt originated in some French version of the Ark. One could set one's watch by the punctuality. If the weather turned cool late in the afternoon, Joseph, the Chief Deck Steward, wasted no time breaking out those tartan blankets that I've somehow always associated with the French Line.
Joseph, who'd been our dining room waiter on the Flandre back in 1959, had a foolproof way of endearing himself to the ladies. When blankets were in order, he'd drape them with a flourish over the legs and hips of his clients. Then he'd carefully tuck all the ends well under, all the while smiling and murmuring something soothing though quite unintelligible.
This technique always guaranteed him generous tips. For many middle-aged women, I believe this special service was one of the chief reasons they booked on this ship.
Being on deck also brought home far more dramatically than any statistic the enormous size of the ship. One day, early in the voyage, I discovered that I'd left my sun glasses on my bed. The walk from the fantail all the way
forward to my cabin two decks below was a real hike. I figured out one day that the round trip was just about a fifth of a mile! No wonder I wasn't gaining any weight. Most of the time we just sat in those deck chairs talking, reading, sleeping or watching the sea: always the same, yet always different.
The usual indoor activities filled the Events of the Day sheet: bridge games, dancing lessons, wine tastings and, last but not least, our own John Maxtone-Graham, giving his inimitable lectures on the history of ocean liner travel. I can trace our friendship back to that crossing as I'm sure that many others can. There were no rough days and the Atlantic more often resembled Long Island Sound rather than the most dangerous body of water in the world.
Towards 5 p.m., everyone would start to stir: it was time to prepare for the Main Event. Since Marianne had far more to do and there was only one washstand and mirror, I'd quickly complete my ablutions and disappear. To fill the time, I'd go to the Music Room where, among other diversions, sat a grand Pleyel piano. I'd play Gershwin or Kern for a half hour until Marianne joined me. Then we'd head for the Riviera Lounge, the site of our Bon Voyage party. With glass doors that opened onto a small protected terrace just above the pool, this was the ideal spot to sip a Kir Royale and watch the setting sun.
One evening, we met Commandant Christian Pettre as we were walking to dinner. Marianne remarked that she felt she knew him very well simply because he dominated a photo we had taken with him on the previous cruise and which was now prominently displayed in our kitchen at home.
He broke into a big smile. "What better place for a Frenchman!"
Evenings in First Class were, of course, formal. Judging from the jewels on display, many a safe deposit
box, I'm sure, had been emptied that July, and the array of fabulous gowns made the passageways a Parisian fashion show.
After dinner and the show, we always retired to the Atlantic Bar, a tiny hideaway on Verandah Deck. There was no sign outside, and many passengers might have thought it was an extension of the library which lay across the way: as a result, there were never more than twenty people inside. Besides a snack bar that served lobster cocktails (Pierre and I could never get enough of those), hamburgers and onion soup, we could dance to a piano bass combo till 2 a.m. One of our tablemates said this was the ultimate place to unwind from all that unwinding we'd done all day.
One of the advantages of booking our particular crossing was the unparalleled opportunity to celebrate the 14th of July, Bastille Day, on board the French Line's flagship. This was a gala affair in every way from champagne to bonbons, not to forget those splendid souvenir satin ribbons emblazoned with the word FRANCE, that I'm sure most us of still keep safely tucked inside a packet of those heavenly menus. We danced till the wee hours.
That this splendid way of life should soon disappear was clearly evident in the attitude of our fellow
travelers. It seemed that everyone was trying desperately to burn these images into their memories. At the drop of a hat, total strangers would share fond memories of long-ago crossings; spouses met; splendid dinners; fierce storms; and just the great fun of it all.
When I think back, it's not the big things I recall but the bits and pieces (as I like to call them) that made the French Line distinct: those unbelievably flaky croissants at breakfast; the crusty rolls at dinner; the heavy white starched tablecloths and napkins; the perfectly set tables; the Norman butter and the vast choice of mouth-watering fromages; the freshly squeezed orange juice and the perfect omelettes; waiters and captains who greeted you with a warm smile and performed with the precision of a marine drill team. Everything we ate, from the jam in the morning until the petits fours at night, was faultless and impeccable. The soft, soothing sound of French , the quiet efficiency of the staff and the distinctive design of the interior all combined to make one feel that one was in la belle France from the first moment on board.
Alas, sooner than we expected, we found disembarkation forms under our doors; it was time to prepare for the land portion of our vacation. Strangely, I don't recall very much of what we later considered little more than an intermission between crossings: some Paris dinners with Pierre and Catherine, a picnic on the banks of the Loire, playing tennis in Beaune between glasses of Volnay, and a few lovely days in Brittany before heading for Le Havre and reboarding. A strike of the crew just before we sailed added a day to our vacation and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
We had a table for two on the return voyage, but soon we invited an elderly woman dining alone who had taken the world cruise the previous winter and had some fascinating tales to tell. It seemed that midway through that endless voyage, half the crew had changed. Unfortunately, this break didn't extend to the passengers who by now were separated into two armed camps. Well, she kept us laughing all the way back to Pier 94.
Off the Grand Banks, we passed through a vast school of sharks, hundreds of them. The outside air was cooler but calm seas persisted. As an interesting point of information, the purser confided to me that the France had more than her legal capacity on this crossing. (The absolute capacity is the number of berths available.) I immediately thought of stowaways, but he smiled and remarked that there were 52 babies on board who slept in bassinets.
Watergate filled the news sheets, but all anyone could talk about was France and her impending demise. Would she be scrapped? Become a floating hotel? A convention center? I don't recall anyone suggesting that she might make a super cruise ship simply because cruising was not that big at the time. And if she were going to be converted, why wouldn't the French do it themselves? After all, they had the following.
I guess you all know the rest of the story. Shortly after our westbound crossing, the crew seized the ship off Le Havre but a fortnight later they capitulated. The France was moored at le Quai de l'Oubli ("the pier of the forgotten") and there she waited for five years. In mid-1979, she was purchased by Norwegian Caribbean Line from an intermediate owner, Akram Oujeh of Saudi Arabia.
Rennaisance & Redemption
For nine months she remained in HAPAG-Lloyd's Bremerhaven yard, undergoing one of the most ambitious conversions in maritime history. She emerged from the yard transformed into the largest cruise ship afloat, the Norway.
If any of the old guard were concerned that the France would be irreparably altered and become unrecognizable, their fears were unfounded. The changes were nearly all to the interior and in her new role as cruise ship, all for the better. I sailed transatlantic on the Norway in July 1984 almost ten years to the day that I'd departed New York on my last eastbound France passage and was literally stunned by the beauty of her new public rooms and outdoor areas. Some things that couldn't be improved were thankfully left alone: the Chambord dining room and the indoor pool.
It was a memorable crossing, again blessed by calm seas and clear warm days, and my wife and I told ourselves that we wouldn't make comparisons with our memory of the France. It would have been similar to criticizing someone who'd bought our house and changed it, and it just wouldn't be fair.
The End of the Line
The French Line is only a memory now. The parade of venerable liners, going back to the second France of 1912, through the Paris, Ile de France, Normandie and Liberte, is no more. They brought us a level of fine living afloat that will probably remain unmatched. Some of those lucky people who sailed in the Normandie considered her the largest and most beautiful moving object ever designed by man.
I have always felt privileged to have been able to sail on such great ships as the Flandre, the Liberte, the Michelangelo and the Queen Elizabeth 2. My younger friends envy me. The France was among the last links in a fabulous chain of floating palaces that graced our lives and enhanced the history of 20th century travel. And how sad it is that we shall never see the likes of her again.
STOP PRESS: The exhilarating word from Miami is that Norway will sail transatlantic yet again, carrying passengers eastbound to Southampton, en route for dry docking there to bring her up to SOLAS's 1997 shipboard requirements. Norway is presently scheduled to sail from New York on 3 September, 1996, departing for the United Kingdom.