In April 2001, my new bride and I honeymooned aboard the SS Norway for a Western Caribbean cruise. It was an enormous hulk of a ship – the largest passenger ship in existence at the time, surpassed in 2004 by the HMS Queen Mary 2. As not only the largest, but also the oldest, It stood as a reminder of the not so distant transatlantic past of passenger vessels transporting passengers from Europe to New York and back over a period of weeks.
It served as a Caribbean cruiser – repurposed from its previous duties – among the specially built Carnival liners. Its refined nature contrasted against the newer and far more garish ships set it even further apart. Because it was built to withstand the pounding of the open Atlantic, it was a peculiar choice to cruise the shallower and more docile Caribbean sea. Its hull was far too deep to dock along the shorts in most ports of call, so tender boats were called to duty to transport its cruising passengers to shore. The trappings of the ship were clearly from another, more refined age with accents of real brass. The cabins had been retrofitted – the interior largely renovated – and therefore had sometimes peculiar shapes and sizes about them. Where there had once been a swimming pool in its life as the SS France, there was now a disco.
The existence of such a ship was a puzzlement. It first sailed in 1962, a bold statement of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantic to create what happened to be the last of the year-round transatlantic superships. When first conceived in 1956, it was to compete with Cunard and the United States Lines ships – and while built in competitive spirit, it was short sighted; As the ship was being built in the late 1950s, air travel began to overtake transatlantic shipping as the preferred means of intercontinental travel. It began life as a bit of a white elephant and sailed for a mere 12 years before being hulked in 1974 when oil prices soared and government subsidies for the running of the ship dried up.
It was then resurrected by the Norwegian Cruise Line in 1979 and rechristened, and renovated in 1980, into the SS Norway. By the time we took our honeymoon, NCL had been purchased by Star Cruises and plans had already begun to circulate about plans to bring the Norway to Malaysia for Pacific cruising. Even as the ship received facelifts, maintenance had been cut back and by the late 1990s it had experienced several incidents and breakdowns. By 2001, NCL had introduced “Freestyle Cruising” on all of its ships except for the Norway – her repurposing showing as the design would not support the open concept of the more modern ship.
We cruised on the Norway one more time in January 2003 – well after the point at which we understood would be her final cruising before being recommissioned in the Pacific. After having cruised on a Carnival vessel, we came to more fully appreciate the ship for what she had once been. A few months later in May, the ships boiler exploded in the port of Miami killing several crew members and injuring others. Upon hearing the news, we could not help but to wonder if any of those hurt or dead would’ve been someone who had served us a few months before.
While sad and shocking, it was not a surprise given the maintenance cut backs and other not-wholly dissimilar incidents in the past: in 1999 it was out of commission for three weeks after a fire in Barcelona. And so it was that the SS Norway came to its end on an Indian beach after having been towed there for demolition. It was a ship that seemed to be born just a little too late, never quite fitting in; but it was a beautiful ship, a destination in and of itself.
This is a video I put together from smaller clips I had of a ride on one of the tenders back to the Norway from Great Stirrup Cay during a rather unsettled weather pattern on that January 2003 cruise: