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Copyright © 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman

Steamship Historical Society Luncheon & Tour
August 23, 2001

by Armand Mantia

Today my local chapter of the Steamship Historical Society was invited for a tour and luncheon onboard the Caronia of Cunard Line. As a very infrequent visitor to New York, the opportunity to visit this elegant, classy lady could not be refused.

By way of brief background, the Caronia was originally built as Vistafjord for the late, lamented Norwegian-America Line. While she always lived in the shadow of her older and slightly more beautiful fleetmate Sagafjord, she quickly gained a reputation as one of the finest ships at sea; a truly refined travel experience for those accustomed to only the best. Once NAL was purchased by Cunard, many feared for her reputation, but those fears were unfounded as Cunard actually improved an already superb product.

Recently refitted, reflagged and renamed Caronia, this ship still has much to offer the refined traveler in spite of the newer, and flashier, entries into the ultra-luxury market.

Her classic exterior, with long sweeping lines and pronounced forward sheer looks even better in her new full Cunard livery of dark blue hull, white upperworks and orange and black funnel. They simply don't build ships like this anymore. Exterior and interior maintenance were excellent. The hull showed no signs of rust and the public rooms were spotless.

After being welcomed onboard, we were taken on a tour of the public rooms. The first impression is one of quiet, understated elegance. As Vistafjord, her interiors were usually in blond Scandinavian wood, with complimenting fabrics. With the latest refit, her palette has become darker and richer, sort of an English gentlemen's club gone to sea.

The principal public rooms are located on the Verandah Deck and include the Garden Lounge. Located overlooking the bow, this is perhaps the most ideal room at sea for the classic white-gloved formal tea served here daily. It is bright and airy and would be a wonderful venue to spend hours with a book watching the world go by. The White Star Bar, located just aft, reminded many of the now gone Ocean Bar of Rotterdam V. It is a very masculine, formal room, definitely not a "pub." A full theater is quite comfortable, done in shades of gray.

The Ballroom is the largest room onboard and, while it cannot possibly compare with the show lounges on board newbuildings, it is still a nice spot for the scaled-down production shows and less formal afternoon tea served here. The ceiling treatment is still the original Vistafjord decoration

Promenade Deck houses the Piccadilly Club, the small late night venue/disco. It is somewhat tiny, but to be perfectly honest, given the average age of a Caronia passenger, is most likely more than adequate. It also has the entrance to the Tivoli Restaurant, the Italian themed alternative dining area. Containing seating for only 25, reservations are available to all passengers for only one visit per cruise.

As the ship was getting ready to embark passengers for a Newfoundland/Labrador Cruise, many of the staterooms were in the process of being serviced, and therefore were open to inspection. Our guide, Russel, a member of the entertainment staff, was quite aware of the make up of his group and our very special interest in the ship. He made it a point to bring us to the "high rent district' before those cabins were closed. Simply put, it would be very, very easy to become extremely comfortable on the Caronia. A particular treat was viewing either the Franconia or Carmania duplex suite. WOW! These two duplex suites are fabulous. A more than adequate sleeping area, with full bath and large private balcony is located on Bridge Deck. Going up your private spiral staircase, you come to the living area containing full entertainment center, beautiful wet bar, private work-out room and personal sauna. A second private balcony also includes your own private hot-tub. It's nice to be the king!

Standard inside and outside doubles and singles are well designed and appointed. However, there is a wide variation in sizes and configurations, so a travel agent who is familiar with this ship would be invaluable in choosing your cabin. There are two cabins on Promenade Deck worth noting. (Get your deck plans out) #171 used to be the dance studio during the very early Vistafjord days, and has a very strange shape. Immediately aft, is #173. I don't know what it used to be, but it is the only cabin I have ever seen where the bathroom is actually down a small, steep flight of steps. A rush call after a big night, or in heavy seas could prove to be deadly!<G>

The biggest disappointment is the Franconia Dining Room. Those familiar with the Sagafjord dining room remember what a glorious space that two deck high stunner with "grande decent" staircase was. Vistafjord was given no such extravagant treatment, and the low ceiling of the single deck room
makes it slightly claustrophobic. However, the superb cuisine we shared more than made up for the rooms shortcomings. Would that more ships could serve this quality of food.

My overall experience of this short visit was that the Caronia is a superb example of what high end cruising should be. She cannot possibly compare in the bells and whistles department with newer tonnage, even in her own category, which includes Crystal, Silverseas and Radisson. She shows her age in her design and layout, but she wears it well like any gracious lady should. She is a real ship, not a floating Las Vegas and will appeal to anyone who wants an elegant experience in traditional surroundings.

Once the Queen Mary 2 comes into service, Caronia's future is not assured. There are strong rumors that Cunard plans on disposing of her rather than spend money on another refit for the upcoming new SOLAS laws.

Copyright © 2001 Armand Mantia

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