The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton
The Norway. Even now, just the mention of her name produces a little shiver of delight. Despite her long and upsetting demise, that name still has an almost supernatural magic that anyone who loves her will recognise without even having to think twice.
But what was it about her that made her so damned compelling and irresistible? Like the QE2, the Norway had an incredible, undeniable star presence that stopped people in their tracks. It was impossible to be blase about the Norway; she was too vital for that; too much of a force of nature to ignore. A diva. One that not only looked better than any other ship out there, but one that knew that she did as well.
She was a stunning piece of maritime alchemy. Her size, combined with her sheer, sprawling beauty, seemed to defy both age, time, and even logic. And that, combined with her miraculous, almost Lazarus like rebirth after five years in the maritime equivalent of a coma, created a deep, real mystique that filtered like stardust through every last nook and cranny of her.
Originally, it had been intended to paint her white, and replace her famous, winged stacks with something of a more modern design. Both those ideas were sensibly thrown overboard. The ship that emerged, butterfly like, from her steel and concrete cocoon in April of 1980 seemed almost too good to believe. If ever there was a real life ‘Ship Of Dreams’, then the Norway was surely it.
That vast, matchless hull, shrouded in royal blue and topped by those easily distinctive, world famous twin stacks, was unmistakable for literally any other ship. At her bows and stern, elegant, beautifully styled gold letters picked out her name. And, when she arrived on station in Miami in June of 1980, she was more than twice the size of her nearest rival. Literally and in every other respect, the Norway towered over the opposition; a revitalised colossus, given a hundred million dollar kiss of life by a benevolent Norwegian prince.
Both said prince and sleeping beauty seemed symbiotic; Knut Kloster was in awed, unashamed thrall to Norway from the moment that he first set eyes on her. ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for the next twenty years.’
Smile? Kloster’s kiss of life would keep the Norway at the pinnacle of cruising for the better part of two decades. His devotion to resurrecting this already legendary ship changed the face of the cruise industry forever. Every single modern mega ship owes it’s very existence to Kloster’s pioneering vision, and his sheer determination and sangfroid in reviving the fabled France as the all singing and dancing, show stopping, spectacular Norway.
Internally, she was exquisite. With most of her public rooms built at double height, Kloster hired marine architects, Tage Wandborg and Angelo Donghia, to create the most stunning run of Art Deco rooms seen on any ship since the Normandie. The result was nothing short of sensational.
And, of course, she had more of everything. Back then, only the Norway could boast her own, fifteen piece big band, almost full scale Broadway shows and big name entertainers. No other ship had her own television station- WNCL- or carried her passengers ashore on custom made, double deck, four hundred passenger tenders.
While some ships had a games deck, only the Norway could stage her own mini Olympics on every cruise. And where else could you find an entire street of shops, complete with strolling musicians, and even a French sidewalk cafe with a separate ice cream parlour? It was little wonder that she blew the opposition out of the water with such effortless, spectacular ease. The ship was a giant on so many different levels.
Yet these bells and whistles, sensational as they were, only sugared the cake. So much about her was deep and sublime, almost spiritual. Did you ever stand up on deck at dusk, under those massive, electric letters that spelled out her name, and just look back at that huge, winged aft funnel as it stood there, black and massive, against a flaring, purple and burnt orange Caribbean twilight, with just the sound of the sea to break the spell?
Or did you ever saunter down the stairs into the stunning, circular Windward Restaurant in evening dress, with the sound of a lilting piano kissing the air, and feel the adrenaline running like tap water? Moments like that- so casual and so many at the time- assume a precious, priceless magic over time and tide. And, when you think about it, you realise without a shred of doubt that such moments could only ever have happened aboard her. No other ship ever quite cut it.
Part of the magic of the Norway was that she maintained more than just a hint of her original, sassy French sense of chic and stage presence. Like any true diva, the Norway could never simply ‘arrive’ somewhere; she always had to make an entrance, and she invariably did.
Even in her last days, the old girl could still cause hundreds of jaws to drop, simply by the act of entering a harbour, maybe already full with six or seven of the modern mega ships. Suddenly, nobody would have eyes for anything but Norway. It was like watching Brigitte Bardot walking into a room full of vacuous glamour models, and completely stealing the show.
And, make no mistake, she loved doing it.
Because Norway simply did not exude magic; she was magic. Norway was the giddy fairground ride that you never, ever, wanted to end. Boarding her was like climbing onto a carousel. Leaving her was like being taken off life support.
She seemed to sense the miracle of her own rebirth, and that wondrous sense of renewal was something that she wore like some sumptuous, shimmering crown. She was beautiful, dramatic and fun. Norway put magic in your soul, filled your head with music, and then danced with you. She was a sublime, beautiful flirt; a platinum chip heart breaker.
And, of course, she knew that you were hers. That you would fall helplessly, hopelessly for her, with no hope of remission. She would smile at you as you left her; that indulgent smile of hers that always knew that you would return. To her. It could never be otherwise.
The Norway was magnificent, magnetic, platinum chip soul food. She had heart, style and class. And she knew how to wear all of them to maximum effect.
Of course, the Norway was not for everybody. But then, not everybody was for her. She knew her own, and she indulged them in the same manner that any queen indulged her favoured courtiers.
Physically, Norway is of course long gone. But a ship like her- an enigma like her- was always something way beyond physical. To the end of my days, I will remember those great stacks, standing out against the sunset. I can still hear the soft, sultry jazz floating along the International Promenade. And, of course, I will always have that star struck feeling of being twenty two years old, strolling down into the Windward Restaurant in a tuxedo.
Scrappers cannot demolish dreams, memories, or that unique, charismatic on board vibe that she alone exuded. As she sails across the oceans of my mind, floodlit from bow to stern, Norway is more alive, vital and fabulous than ever.
And I’m not the only one to feel that way either, am I?