This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver takes a look at the passing of a former ocean liner, SS France:
The Last Great Ocean Liner
The legendary SS Norway has been in Indian waters for the past several weeks and is about to be scrapped at the ships' graveyard: the beaches of Alang. Ship enthusiasts have been praying for a reprieve since she was removed from service following a boiler explosion back in 2003, and several plans to return her to service have been announced, but it now seems that it is too late to save her.
Therefore, we ship enthusiasts must now begin to mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable and perhaps a period of morning. On the other hand, many cruise passengers have probably never heard of the SS Norway, and some that have may well have considered her to be an outdated rusty old tub, anyway.
The SS Norway was owned an operated by the Norwegian Cruise Line for just over two and a half decades. However, she had a life before this. She entered service in 1962 as the 'SS France', a grand Ocean Liner and the last 'ship of state' for the French Line 'CGT' (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique). She quickly gained a reputation for style and excellent cuisine, as she operated the transatlantic route between Le Harve and New York.
In 1974 the France was laid up. The era of intercontinental ocean travel was swiftly coming to an end with the increasing dominance of the jet liner. This could have easily been the end of the story. However in 1979 the Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the France and spent a year converting her into one of the biggest Cruise ship of the period. In fact she was 50% bigger than all other ships in operation in the Caribbean.
She quickly became a big hit with the cruising public. Few other ships could match the onboard facilities and amenities. For example, in the decade of Disco music - launched by John Travolta's Saturday Night fever and the 'Bee Gees - her Discothèque was the place to be each evening and was always full to capacity. The location and layout of the disco, which was adjacent to the rear swimming pool and had portholes that looked into the pool, presented dancers with the unique opportunity to observe swimmers while they danced.
Personally, I think her 'Club International' lounge (the former first class smoking room.) was one of the most attractive public spaces afloat.
In her latter years however, as newer, larger and ever more luxurious ships entered the market, the characteristics (odd shaped cabins, retro furniture, etc) that had made the SS Norway a memorable ship in the past became liabilities in the eyes of the cruising public. While her sea keeping abilities and onboard ambiance were a link to the past, the number of passengers that might appreciate this became fewer and fewer.
I was lucky enough to cruise on her and the feeling is quite different from that of modern cruise ship. Although much of the original décor of the SS France had been 'Caribbeanized' by NCL, she still had that unique "Ocean Liner" feel.
I will never forget the surreal experience of being a passenger onboard the Norway on September 11th 2001, when New York's 'World Trade Centre' Tower's fell. We had left New York days before and on September 11th, she was crossing the Atlantic heading towards Scotland, United Kingdom.
Externally, her hull was like a knife, designed to cut through the waves of the North Atlantic like hot butter. Although her superstructure had been heightened with the addition of an extra deck with balcony cabins, she still looks like an Ocean Liner and has two majestic 'winged' funnels. Internally she still retained many of her original features. Her two main Dining Rooms were positioned forward and aft, of amidships, which are stable positions. Both were very attractive, but neither had windows, which was common at the time on such ships.
The cabins were originally divided into classes. Her tapered hull meant that many of her cabins were not the regular shapes that we have come to expect on modern ship. In fact some on the lower decks they were very small and had bunk beds.
In 2003 the SS Norway experienced a boiler explosion while she was docked in Miami. Several crew members were killed and a number of others were severely injured. After a prolonged investigation into the causes of the accident and a survey of the damages sustained, her owners concluded that she would be too expensive to repair.
It is important to note that in her final years, NCL were selling her berths at bargain basement prices. Each year, it became more difficult for her to compete with the modem mega-ships, which were commanding higher fares. To be fair, NCL recognized this and had embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize their fleets, which made it even more difficult to find a place for a 'classic' ship like the Norway might fit.
So back to the present; we are about to lose the last great operational Ocean Liner. I know Cunard fans will argue that the QE2 is an Ocean Liner too, but she was originally built as a dual purpose Liner/Cruiser. The France was converted into a cruise ship (Norway) but she was definitely built as a Liner. The Queen Mary 2 is of course a wonderful new Liner, but she's not from the Golden Age when 'The Only way to Cross' was by ship.
However, there is one other great Ocean Liner, which is presently laid-up, dilapidated and non-operational. She is the SS United States, America's 1952 flagship, which quickly proved herself as the fastest of all the Ocean liners. Interestingly, the SS United States is also owned by NCL and the company continues to say that they have plans to return her to service once the current list of ships they have on the drawing board enter service. Is it possible then, that following the death of one classic ship we may somehow witness the rebirth of another? Only time will tell.