As the SS France, she pampered her two classes of passengers with unrivaled service and speed on a ship designed to shield them from the rigors of North Atlantic crossings.
Today, after a $75 million conversion, the grand lady of the Atlantic has a new name and a new role. She is the SS Norway, still a great liner but built for cruising rather than crossings, opened to the sun and the sun-seekers, and dedicated to the proposition that all passengers are created equal.
On June 1 she sailed on the first of her regular weekly cruises from the Port of Miami to the Caribbean. She is the acknowledged queen of Miami's fleet of 20-odd cruise ships. The Norway thus began more than a maiden cruise. She has also launched a new concept in cruising.
For years, cruise lines have sold passengers on the attractiveness of their ports of call. Most ships stop at three or four ports on weekly cruises from Miami, giving passengers a varied shore experience. Norwegian Caribbean Lines, however, decided to sell the Norway as a destination in itself. The cruise is the thing, they say, not the stopovers.
Thus, only two ports of call will be made by the Norway. One will be at popular St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the other a brief stop off a Bahamian Out Island for an afternoon beach party -- a kind of interlude also pioneered by Norwegian Caribbean.
On board, passengers will be tempted by more diversions than are offered on other cruise ships, if only by virture of the liner's size. The Norway has 14 bars, three swimming pools, various cabarets, theaters and lounges, a casino and a discotheque. Some eight shops will beckon to passengers strolling on the ship's two unique "main streets." There's a gymnasium, sauna, paddle ball court, library and card room.
The gym may come in handy for passengers who find their waistlines expanding, as well they might, since the ship serves three main meals and six outdoor meals daily.
With 23 entertainers and 35 musicians on board, there should be entertainment aplenty. You can go skeet shooting, take lessons in Chinese cooking, see a movie, enjoy a fashion show, play Ping-Pong or carve ice. All told, the ship claims to offer 85 activities daily.
In her rebirth as a Caribbean cruise liner, the former SS France has undergone enormous change. Because speed is not essential, half of her engines were removed, cutting her speed from 34 to knots to 17. Bow thrusters were added to make her more maneuverable.
Two of her decks were completely rebuilt, and an entirely new lindo area constructed. Now the ship boasts 65,000 square feet of deck space, more than any other ship.
New cabins were built on several decks and others remodeled. New public rooms were created, new furniture, decorations, carpeting and other appointments installed. In the process, the Norway gained more passenger capacity and 4,000 tons of weight, surpassing the Queen Elizabeth II and becoming the world's biggest paggenger ship at 69,500 tons and 1035 feet in length.
With less machinery, crew size was trimmed. The old two-class passenger system was scrapped, along with its separate dining and public rooms for each. Like other cruise ships, the Norway is a one-class vessel.
"We converted it from a transatlantic ship to a modern cruise liner of the 1980s," said Tage Wandborg, the naval architect who redesigned the ship. "It was a beautiful shop and it is even more beautiful now."
Most striking in its exterior appearance is the color of its hull -- a deep blue, instead of white like most cruise liners. The distinctive fins on the ship's twin funnels were retained.
To help passengers find their way around the hugh ship, interior decorator Angelo Donghia color-coded the carpeting: Salmon pink is the predominant color in the aft sections of the ship, turquoise in the forward zones.
Some rooms of the old SS France and their bronze motifs were left unchanged. The first-class dining room, with its circular ceiling, is one. The indoor pool, the main stairwell, massive bronze wall engravings and portions of many rooms were retained.
But the decks with the public rooms were changed extensively. Partitions that divided first-class and tourist areas disappeared. The old main tourist lounge on the France has become the Monte Carlo room, a casino. While Donghia retained the original walls and ceiling here, he installed a new floor, new furniture, sculpture and fixtures. The France's main lounge is now the North Cape Lounge. The former tourist-class writing room has become a turnstiled room where passengers can pick up and pay for photos.
Designers demolished the old topside pool and turned it into a discotheque, "A Club Called Dazzles," with a 3.3 glass floor and neon and strobe lights in the floor and ceiling. Portholes provide disco dancers with an underwater view of the new pool; nondancers can rest on an ingenious railing, indented so one can rest one's drink while watching the action on the floor.
A whole new lido deck was created, complete with pool, outdoor restaurant and loads of deck space. New deluxe cabins were built along with this new cantilevered deck.
Though half of its propulsive machinery was removed, the ship actually has gained in maneuverability. In New York a few weeks ago, for instance, the ship required only two tugs in docking instead of the former four. It can turn 180 degrees in only seven minutes.
"We can even more her sideways at three knot," Capt. Torbjorn Hauge boasted. "She handles beautifully."
Among the new cabins are 32 suites, some with private patios. Some $800,000 worth of art has been hung in the Norway, including 100 canvases, 50 tapestries, 1,400 graphic prints and 200 posters.
Superlatives are everywhere on the ship. She is the world's largest floating electricity plant, with a capacity of 30,000 kilowatts. Some 100,000 tons of fresh water are produced daily. There are several kilometers of corridors, 50,000 square yards of carpeting.
Quantities needed to supply the maximum 2,400 passengers it can handle are staggering: the Norway stocks 12,000 bath towels, 1,800 deck chairs, 21,000 sheets, 14,000 pillow cases, 18,000 napkins, 32,880 pieces of glassware.
While the Norway will have considerably fewer crew members than the old France, ship personnel still totals 783, among them 24 bartenders, 80 waiters, 34 cooks and assistant cooks, two disc jockeys and four slot-machine attendants.
Amazingly, the entire conversion job was done in eight months. Or, one should say, was almost done.
When the Norway left the Bremerhaven, Germany, shipyard in late April, ship officials were confident that the remaining work could be completed quickly. Up to that point, everything had gone so well that Norwegian Caribbean had not only marketed a transatlantic cruise from Ohio to New York and a New York to Bermuda cruise, but had even invited friends and members of the press on the shakedown cruise from Bremerhaven to Oslo.
It was a decision the line was to regret. The ship was far from completion, and the Norway simply could not accommodate passengers in the style they had hoped.
Some 500 workmen stayed on the ship, trying to complete cabins, install furniture and equipment, and above all, fix the plumbing. Some 100 cabins had toilets that didn't work. Some faucets gurgled chocolate-colored water. Lower decks and some cabins had standing water.
Passengers who boarded in Oslo had to wait many hours for a cabin; some were already occupied, unfinished or being used for storage. Elecrical cables snaked along the corridors, wires hung from ceilings, uncrated furniture blocked passageways, the unfilled indoor pool became the depository for bags of unwashed laundry.
The cruise line decided not to board additional passengers in Southampton; they were given full refunds and flown back to the United States. It canceled the Bermuda cruise.
Meanwhile, work continued on board as the ship sailed across the Atlantic. "You could see the improvement each day," said David Nichol, one of the transatlantic passengers. By the time the ship reached New York, all the public rooms and most of the cabins were finished, and nearly all the passengers left the ship happy.
It helped that NCL rebated 20 percent of their cruise fare and in some instances offered a free or discunted cruise later. Drinks were dispensed free all the way across the Atlantic and Knut Kloster, owner of the line, even picked up the tab for the gratuitites.
"Despite the discomfort and anxieties, Mr. Kloster treated us quite fairly," said Roy Cookston, another passenger.
All this was costly; Kloster estimates the lost revenue, rebates and other expenses related to the belabored Oslo-New York crossing at $1.5 million.
While the ship was in Miami, work continued on the plumbing problem and on other unfinished areas, including the lowest passenger deck, the galley, crew areas and general cleanup work.
Many, particularly the French, mourn the passing of the old SS France and of the way of travel it exemplified.
"We totally respect the attitude of the French people," Kloster said. "But we think most feel it is better that [the ship] has come back to life." "
That is exactly what has happened. The ship has been reborn, but it is no longer the SS France either in name or in concept. The SS Norway, from now on, stands on its own. If it can live up to the reputation of its predecessor, it should be around for a long time.