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Copyright © 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman

“We Have Arrived”

By Warren H. Davis © 2001 – all rights reserved

Tuesday September 3, 1996. 6AM: My alarm did not have to ring because I couldn’t sleep all night. I jumped out of bed brewed a thermos full of coffee, toasted a bagel and took the elevator up to my building’s roof garden.  I didn’t want to miss Norway’s arrival up the Hudson. At 8:30 I was ready to give up. Perhaps she arrived early? The thermos was empty and I needed more coffee.  Just as I decided to go back downstairs a tug -boat cleared the building blocking the down river view. It stopped for a few moments, then started again in a zigzag course that appeared to be a “dance.” Suddenly that unmistakable blue bow poked its head. And there she was!  Two other tugs were nuzzling up to her while the first tug continued its dance. Traffic slowed on the West Side Highway. Thankfully nobody appeared to be around the adjoining rooftops because I suddenly realized I was jumping up and down, waving my arms like a wild man, crying and laughing at the same time. A police helicopter escort spotted me, flew over and circled a couple of times I suppose to make sure I was just a nut case and not a threat. Satisfied it flew back to the river and continued its escort.

1PM: Boarded the lady accompanied by a violin/keyboard combo playing French favorites.

2PM: Went to open seating lunch and was seated with 7 French. We couldn’t understand each other but the excitement we were all feeling transcended the language barrier. We shared a warm animated lunch, laughing at our attempts to welcome each other aboard.

3PM: Lifeboat drill announced both in English and French. In fact so were all announcements throughout the week. S/S Norway was no longer the Caribbean matriarch that started the mega-ship trend. She was transforming herself, if just for this week, back into the S/S France!

5PM: The ship’s orchestra began playing standards from the 30’s & 40’s on the aft pool lido as the ship departed. Bottomless champagne glasses are provided to each passenger. As the ship pointed her bow downriver towards NY harbor, the orchestra played New York, New York.

6PM: The first of seven special dinners was served. Two guest French Chefs and a pastry Chef join NCL’s executive chef in preparing recreations of various seven course dinners served aboard the famous French liners throughout the century. Dinners had names like the Charlie Chaplin dinner, the Cary Grant dinner, the Red Dinner (everything was red or had red in the name). One bit of confusion: the menus are fixed in traditional French style. Many passengers complained that they didn’t have choices. In fact there were choices. One could bypass menu items. The spa menu (with very tasty selections) was always available as was the vegetarian dish, and a steak or chicken could be ordered off menu any night. I saw some hamburgers come out of the kitchen the same night I dined on lamb.

A history of each menu was provided, along with news bullets of the day it was originally served.

Contrary to someone’s prediction, NCL was not scraping the bottom of the freezers. Fresh whole live lobsters were brought aboard. There was Beef Wellington, Filet Mignon, salmon, caviar, sushi, delicious soups, venison, out-of-this-world desserts on decorated plates. Premium champagne, compliments of NCL, was served with several dinners. Complimentary wine with cheese was offered as were Sweetbreads, escargot, Cornish Hens. Everything was perfectly prepared and served at the appropriate temperature or swiftly replaced.  These were not the ordinary meals designed to please everyone normally served on mass-market ships. One might have believed this was Crystal, the QE2 Queen’s Grill, Sea Goddess.

Those who boarded expecting just another cruise on S/S Norway with its standard menu were disappointed. The rest of us appreciated NCL’s effort to make each and every dinner unique, special for this voyage only.  My tablemates and I agreed that we would try everything on the French menu, even dishes we had never ventured to try before. To be honest, one or two items didn’t hit the mark, but again we appreciated the attempt. 98% of the menu was superb.

The Windward dining room was once again the famous Chambord, once hailed as one of the finest French restaurants in the world. Chambord was the original name for this restaurant, the first class dining room on S/S France.

Days 2-7: At SEA (yes!!!) One didn’t hear “where’s bingo?”, “what time are the pool games with stuff the bikini?” (although these activities were scheduled) The question was “what time is this morning’s maritime lecture?” Here is a taste of who was aboard and spoke: The chief engineer of the S/S France, the chief purser, various historians with slide shows of famous liners, artifact collectors. The most poignant (and thrilling for me) was Tage Wandborg, the naval architect that transformed the France into the Norway. His lecture was memorable not so much for the details he conveyed, or his revelations of why he made some of the design choices, but rather the love affair he has with the ship was very evident and moving.

The most festive and crowded public room was Club Internationale. Each night until 1 or 2 am, this underutilized quiet ballroom in the Caribbean, was alive with tuxedo-clad gentlemen and sequined ladies dancing the Waltz, Rumba, Cha-Cha, and yes, the Tango! Never mind the shows playing in the theater.  Never mind the disco. This was the place! The Norway had completed her transformation back into a transatlantic liner!

Tuesday 9/10: Noon until 2pm: I stepped out on deck to find the Norway was several miles off the coast of France and at a dead stop. A very regal looking woman with a hat and cape pronounced something in French to me.  Almost embarrassingly I admitted I didn’t speak French. Then in a very proper British accent and a wave of her hand toward the coast she exclaimed “We have arrived!”

For a moment I found myself in a black and white movie from the 40’s.

Le Havre’s version of news choppers started buzzing around the Norway. Police boats came out and circled the ship. Then way off in the distance tiny white dots seemed to be forming on the water and coming toward the grande damme. Slowly it became clear: this was a flotilla, no an ARMADA, of sail boats, pleasure craft, fishing boats, ferries, tour boats, and tugs coming to greet us. The Norway resumed an almost imperceptible glide toward the coast. We met the flotilla half way and they formed an escort. There were hundreds of them! Near the harbor entrance (a gate formed by two breakwaters) a fire tug started spraying.  Much to everyone’s chagrin and eventual delight of some, the winds blew the spray towards the ship. We were drenched! No matter, there were squeals of laughter! Then the Norway started blowing her whistles. The escorts did their best to salute back.

As the Norway started entering the harbor, the most thrilling and exciting part of the entry became clear. Without exaggeration, THOUSANDS upon THOUSANDS of people were crowded on to all the piers, jetties, beaches, bulkheads. The docked Island Princess began a salute. The French Flag was flying on the ship’s mast for the first time in nearly two decades. Not one eye was dry on deck. For almost an hour every boat and ship in the harbor returned S/S Norway’s continuous whistle salute. This entry into port was so moving, so thrilling, tears were running down everyone’s faces. Officers, crew, passengers. There was hugging, laughing, crying all at the same time. It is impossible to convey the emotional impact in words. You had to be there.

Le Havre: A special French line exhibit, highlighting the France, was waiting in town hall. It seems that residents were given the day off.  The pier had a carnival atmosphere the entire day. Families with strollers, grandpa in a wheelchair, Aunt Gigi with her walking stick continually flowed down to the S/S Norway’s berth to catch a glimpse.  News crews buzzed around. Officials made speeches  from a red-carpeted podium. A band played the French, Norwegian, American, and British anthems.

The afternoon newspapers featured the ship’s arrival on the front page with articles throughout chronicling its history. This passenger felt like a celebrity walking through town.

SUNSET: Searchlights were trained on the lady. She had every external light glowing. We crowded the decks once again as she saluted while slipping away toward the harbor gate. Those thousands of people were once again crowded on to every square inch of the harbor. Beaches outside of the harbor are crowded too. As the Norway’s bow pierced the gate, the breakwaters that form the gate EXPLODED! Bright white fireworks shot up, and as the ship passed through the fire gate you can see the entire wall set ablaze! The same flotilla that escorted us in to port was waiting beyond the gate. Hundreds of twinkling lights formed against the black sea. Then from boats outside of the harbor, more fireworks! This must have been a sight to behold from shore. Once again every one on deck is deeply moved.

And so ended the triumphant return of the S/S France and the maiden call of the S/S Norway to its birthplace. To understand the historical nature of this voyage I will relate something the captain revealed to those of us who didn’t know the ship’s entire history. When France agreed to sell the ship to the Norwegians it was stipulated in the contract that the ship would never again enter French waters. To be aboard this great lady as she was embraced upon her return was indeed a once in a lifetime event. This was my sixth cruise on the Norway but in many ways I felt like I was experiencing the true ship for the very first time.  Her personality changed during the voyage. I think she rediscovered her true heritage. Crossing the North Atlantic she was once again in her element, at long last performing the duties she was designed to do. Perhaps it was imagination, and maybe I’m still giddy from the experience after all these years, but during the voyage S/S Norway hit her stride and she seemed quite pleased with herself.

Photo--S/S Norway Postcard, circa 1989