SONGS AND SWANS- THE WHITE CARIBBEAN RIVALS

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

With the impending loss of Royal Caribbean’s pioneer Song Of Norway, now seems a good time to recall that first generation of ‘white ships’ in the Caribbean; the duelling first builds of Norwegian Caribbean Line (as it then was) and it’s rival, Royal Caribbean.

Both companies had their origins in Norway; Norwegian Caribbean was almost an accident; a company founded to provide some gainful employment for the Sunward, a small ship originally intended to be operated on an ultimately failed ferry service between Britain and Spain.

In an inspired move that changed cruising forever, owner Knut Kloster moved the Sunward to Miami, and set her to work on Caribbean cruises from what was, in those days, very much a backwater port. She was an immediate, resounding success. So much so that, in 1968, Kloster introduced the Starward, a purpose built, 16,000 ton cruise ship constructed in Germany.

The fledgling line attracted so many passengers that the Starward- originally built with a car deck for future possible conversion to a cruise ferry- was joined by a twin sister, the Skyward. At the same time, Norwegian introduced the concept of the Caribbean fly cruise, whereby passengers could be whisked across the Atlantic by air, taken on a Caribbean cruise, and then flown home again. It took off spectacularly; nothing would ever be the same again.

On an obvious roll, Norwegian then bought the Southward, originally intended for P&O Cruises, and also the Cunard Adventurer, as a replacement for the first Sunward, which the company renamed as the Sunward II. With these four ships, Norwegian Caribbean Line dominated this new, nascent market. For a while, at least.

Of course, none of this went unseen and, in 1969, a Norwegian trio, headed by Anders Wilhelmsen, inked a deal for a stunning, identical trio of sister ships, aimed squarely at the same market so dominated by Kloster. This was the genesis of what was then Royal Caribbean Line. All three of their new ships would be built in Finland.

Classic styling of the original Norwegian Caribbean Line

Classic styling of the original Norwegian Caribbean Line

The first of these three ships was the Song of Norway in 1970, soon followed by the Nordic Prince and then, in 1972, by the Sun Viking. They were astonishingly lean and graceful ships, with long clipper bows and unique, glass walled observation lounges, cantilevered halfway up the aft part of their funnels. These became instant, iconic recognition marks, and larger variations have typified every subsequent Royal Caribbean ship to this day.

All of this first generation of ships shared a number of uniform characteristics; small, shoe box sized cabins, none of them with balconies; a tonnage of around 16,000, and a passenger capacity of about 800. They featured centrally located lido pools, indoor and outdoor bars and buffets, and a hugely relaxed, indolent lifestyle. All painted white, the ships of Norwegian and Royal were immediate, obvious competitors. And all were based in Miami, starting a cruise boom for that Florida port that has yet to end. And, in those days, they were all staffed by Norwegian captains, deck officers and chief engineers.

All of these ships followed a regular pattern, sailing from Miami on Saturdays and Sundays to the highlights of the Eastern and Western Caribbean. In those days, banner ports such as Cozumel, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman were much more unspoiled than now.

They sailed on week long circuits of the Caribbean, alternating the routes each week. This allowed passengers to combine two cruises back to back, affording them the chance to see up to ten different islands in a fortnight. And both lines also tied in the option for adding a week long, pre or post cruise stay at Walt Disney World, or in Miami itself. Cumulatively, all of these options proved to be massively successful.

The one exception to this scheduling was the Sunward II, which sailed on three and four night runs from Miami to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and to the Caribbean’s first ‘private island’ at Little San Salvador, at that time a pioneering NCL exclusive. These short, funky little ‘runs for the sun’ also became massively popular, as indeed they still are today.

So popular was the Caribbean cruise circuit that it attracted a third major entrant early in 1972; a new, start up operation called Carnival Cruise Lines. Carnival started operations with a converted Canadian Pacific ocean liner, renamed the Mardi Gras. She was later joined in 1975 by a second ex- CP ship, the Carnivale.

The two Norwegian companies looked down at this new upstart, with it’s cheap and cheerful take on entertainment and decor. In decades to come, that derisory attitude would change dramatically.

The lido pool on the Starward, largely unchanged to this day

The lido pool on the Starward, largely unchanged to this day

The market continued to surge during the mid to late seventies, and both Royal and NCL were in desperate need of more berths. Unwilling yet to commit to the expense and time scale required for new builds, each company took a radically different tack.

In a dazzling dual coup, Royal Caribbean sent both the Nordic Prince and the Song of Norway back across the Atlantic, to their Finnish builders. There, each was cut in half, and a specially built mid section was added to lengthen each ship. This increased the number of passengers they could carry to around 1,000 each, and also allowed more deck space and leisure facilities to be added. It also increased the gross tonnage of each ship to around 23,000.

At that time, this kind of maritime surgery was hugely innovative and groundbreaking, and the two ‘stretched ‘sisters were very popular and well received. Surprising, then, that the third ship- Sun Viking- was never altered, for reasons that have never really been made clear.

Kloster opted for another course. No doubt influenced by the successful conversion by Carnival of a third former liner- the Festivale of 1978- he stunned the maritime world and bought the laid up, legendary transatlantic liner, the SS. France.

That same maritime community looked on in stunned amazement as he converted her into the SS. Norway, the first true mega cruise ship. Boasting a string of industry firsts, the stunning, blue and white Norway steamed into Miami in June of 1980, and changed cruising forever.

The ultimate game changer; the giant, graceful SS, Norway

The ultimate game changer; the giant, graceful SS. Norway

She was almost as big as the other four of her NCL fleet mates combined; in fact, the first true megaship. Huge, sleek, and swathed in beautifully rendered Art Deco, the Norway went on to become the most successful cruise ship of all time. After her, nothing would be the same again. Her success triggered the massive building programme for ever larger cruise ships that is still with us today.

That, combined with advancing age and diminishing appeal, went a long way to condemning that same, first string of pioneering Caribbean stalwarts to service with a series of smaller, sometimes less patrician owners. Over the last couple of years or so, they began to fall one by one to the scrapper’s axe.

Well, most of them….

Incredibly, both Starward and Sunward II continue in service for Louis Cruises in the Greek Islands, as the Louis Aura and the Louis Rhea, respectively. Here, their intimate size, retro style and large passenger capacity has given them a whole new lease of life.

How long can these last survivors carry on? I honestly have no idea. If you are at all interested in these classic, stately ladies, it is perhaps best to sail them while you still can.

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