Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The "Grand Dame"

By Paul Gerald

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  It’s not tough to see, on first glance, that the S/S Norway is not like most cruise ships. Most of the others, especially the ones they call the “megaships,” are great white sterile masses so sleek they look like spaceships. The Norway looks like an ocean ship. If it had a couple more stacks it would look like the Titanic, instead of the Enterprise.

That’s because it’s just about the oldest cruise ship out there. It was built in 1960 as the S/S France, intended for Atlantic crossings, but since it used to burn 800 tons of fuel per day, quicker and cheaper airplanes ran it out of that business – along with every other Atlantic crosser except the Queen Elizabeth 2. Now the Norway spends winters in the Caribbean and summers in Europe. We should all do so well in our second profession.

Life on the Norway isn’t quite like life on the other cruise ships, either. Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) touts it as the “Grand Dame of the High Seas,” and that should tell you something about the ship’s attitude. It is most definitely not a party boat. If you’ve got teenagers who need entertaining or carnal desires that need satisfying, go get on another ship.

The Norway is distinctive within its own line because it hosts most of the theme cruises NCL is known for. It was the scene of the first-ever Elvis cruise, honoring the King’s birthday, and during the year it sees country/western cruises, big-band cruises, a Smooth Jazz cruise, and two Jazz Festival cruises in October that are tremendously popular.

NCL, the only line that does these specific cruises, also hooked up with Sports Illustrated to put an SI Cafe on the Norway and host regular cruises featuring stars of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey right after each sport’s championship.

There are more cruise ships out there than pages in this newspaper (best advice is to call a travel agent if you want to go on one), but lines of interest include Commodore, which runs smaller, cheaper ships out of New Orleans; Seaborne, which is more expensive but has the advantage of including tips, drinks, and shore excursions in its fare; Special Expeditions, which takes relatively small groups on eco-tourism trips that have experts in various fields on the cruise; and Windstar, whose vessels are all four-masted sailing ships.

A cruise is its own type of experience. On the megaships, the ship is a floating hotel, a destination in itself. If you want the postcard Caribbean experience, and you define that as swimming or fishing or lying on a beach all day, you should know that these things are only aspects of a Caribbean cruise.

For example, we were on the Norway for six full days, during the Elvis cruise. Three of those days were at sea, with no land in sight, and three were port-of-call days, with a chance to go ashore on your own or on one of many excursions that the line sets up and you pay for. Those might be sailing, driving, beach outings, party boats, golf, submarines, or seaplanes. The descriptions of most included the phrase “complimentary beverages.”

When you’re on the ship, the primary activities are eating, drinking, and chilling out. The Norway, like all ships, is something of a small town, with 920 employees and room for 2,032 guests. There are two theatres onboard, a casino, a disco, two pools, a library, a fitness center, a basketball court, numerous duty-free shops, and the Roman Spa with its aromatherapy massages and hot tubs and hair/face/nail treatments. All this – and veteran cruisers told me the Norway was a quiet, relaxed boat.

The Norway, which is about a thousand feet long and a hundred feet wide, has four places to eat (five counting room service) and eight places to drink. The food – surprisingly good, considering they make 7,000 meals a day – is included in your fare and is available from breakfast at 6 a.m. to a buffet at midnight. There’s no shame in gluttony, either: Our dinner table, which was the same every night, made a tradition of ordering multiple entrees. “Let’s see, I’ll open with the prime rib, and when that gets here I’ll order the lobster tail. Then there will be many desserts.”

Prices for Caribbean cruises on the Norway (based on double occupancy) start at $479 per person for a three-day cruise. Most rooms can be had for something in the $1,000-to-$2,200 range for two people, so throw in airfare to Miami and whatever you buy and drink along the way, and you’re looking at $2,000-3,000 for two people to spend a week in the Caribbean.

I figure there’s two ways of looking at that. If you’d like to keep decisions at a minimum, eat well and often, and see several places in a week, a cruise is for you. But if you dream of that secluded, quiet beach and the feel of being away from it all, go down there on your own.

For more information on NCL’s 1999 theme cruises, call 800-327-7030 or surf to www.ncl.com.

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