THE ITALIAN LINE- AN OVERDUE APPRECIATION

When we think of the Atlantic crossing of fame and legend, minds most often concentrate on the famous, five to six day ‘shuttle’ service that sailed between ports such as Southampton, Liverpool, Rotterdam and Le Havre, to New York. And, almost inevitably, the names of Cunard, Hapag- Lloyd, Holland America and the French Line, are invoked and cherished like some holy mantra by starry eyed students of those classic old liners.

Perhaps that is partly why the Italian Line gets such relatively little recognition. It was a shotgun marriage, presided over by Mussolini, that forced three rival Italian shipping lines to merge into one large, state subsidised entity. Having supposedly made the trains run on time, the egotistical duce was now determined that the Italian flag would have a prime place on the greatest commercial trade route in the world- the Atlantic crossing to and from New York.

First out of the blocks came two of the greatest and most graceful ocean liners ever to cut salt water. The Rex and the Conte Di Savoia were near sisters of just over 50,000 tons each. With sharp, gracefully raked prows and a pair of staunch, no nonsense funnels, they were the first serious Italian challengers in the platinum chip status stakes.

With incredible interiors modelled on a variety of styles, the two vessels were tagged as ‘the Riviera afloat’ by their owners. But it was in their exterior layout that they were truly different from their cousins from the north.

As most of their voyages sailed from Genoa through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and then out into the Atlantic, those marvellous Italian maidens spent most of their time sailing in warmer, sunnier climes. And, to cater to the idea of la dolce vita afloat that these ships were meant to exemplify, both the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia boasted on deck swimming pools for each class, surrounded by swathes of open teak sprinkled with table and umbrellas, sun loungers, and served with that quintessentially Italian sense of flair and style. Some of the pools were even surrounded by real sand on deck.

They were a sensational, tragically short lived pair. Briefly, the Rex even took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. They added a raffish, exotic splash of colour, style and sheer, indolent fun to the idea of what crossing the Atlantic actually meant. Until the outbreak of the war that would ultimately claim both of them, they were a consistently popular choice.

Following Italy’s defeat as part of the Axis powers during World War two, the Italian Line returned to the fray in 1953, with a pair of 29,000 ton twin sisters, the Cristoforo Colombo and the Andrea Doria.

Moderately sized and sumptuously elegant, the two new ships were like sleek, sultry Fiats when compared to the likes of the doughty Cunard Queens, or the restored, heavily powdered ‘ladies of a certain age’ being offered by the French Line. Among other things, they introduced the idea of stepped, exterior lido decks for each class, again featuring outdoor pools and cafes, that would later become a hugely influential model on the first generation of purpose built, full time cruise ships. Each featured a proud, gracefully arced prow and a single, beautifully proportioned funnel that gave them a space age, startlingly modern stance. Those two Italian thoroughbreds were as perfectly elegant as twin charm bracelets and, for a few years, they were hugely popular, often being sold out for months on end in the high summer season.

The tragic loss of the Andrea Doria after a controversial, fog shrouded collision off the coast of Nantucket in July, 1956, left the Italian Line in something of a quandary. Eventually, they decided to replace her with a ship that would be slightly bigger, but externally very similar.

That new ship was the 33,000 ton Leonardo Da Vinci. She arrived in the port of New York for the first time in July of 1960, to an enthusiastic fireboat and helicopter welcome. But even as this latest and loveliest example of Italian flair and taste arrived, passenger numbers on the Atlantic route between northern Europe and the USA were already in free fall, thanks to the speedy fleets of jet airliners that now dominated the commercial trade.

Still, the Italians refused to give up. Travellers from the Mediterranean area tended to be far more sea minded than the people to the north, and thus in 1965- to the sheer incredulity of the maritime industry- there emerged from Genoa not one, but two new identical sister ships, designed exclusively for the Atlantic crossing.

At 45,000 tons each, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello represented the last, triumphant burst of Italian style on the ocean. Painted in bridal white, with gracefully raked prows, terraced lido decks and a  pair of cowled, latticed smoke stacks that crowned their superstructures, these two great sister ships were initially very popular indeed, bucking the overall trend of the contracting passenger trade, and often arriving in New York fully booked, even through the mid Sixties.

It could not last. Gradually, the two sisters augmented their falling passenger revenue by offering warm weather cruises. But a lack of private facilities in many of their inner cabins created a huge problem that only a massive rebuilding could remedy.

As they limped into the seventies, the Michelangelo and Raffaello suffered more and more from sudden, wildcat strikes- both on the ships and among the shore side staff- that resulted in them no longer being able to offer anything like a reliable service. This, combined with a catastrophic increase in the price of crude oil in 1974, ultimately doomed them. In their last years, both of the sister ships guzzled Bunker C crude oil as if it was so much cheap chianti.

When the Michelangelo rounded out the final Italian Line sailing in 1975, she was effectively pulling down the shades on what had once been one of the most highly styled, expertly served passenger lines of all time. Among the passengers disembarking on that last crossing was the aged Duchess of Windsor, making a somehow painfully symbolic comment on the sunset falling on the ocean voyage as the world knew it.

The end of the Italian Line, while inevitable in the context of the 1974 OPEC fuel crisis, was also a cause for great sadness, and a large amount of retrospective nostalgia for anyone lucky enough to sail on one of those vanished palazzos on the ocean. As an operator, as an innovator, and as an actual way of travelling life for many over some five decades, the Italian Line deserves the historical courtesy of being remembered.

The sun finally set o the 'dolce vita' style of the Italian Line in 1975.

The sun finally set on the ‘dolce vita’ style of the Italian Line in 1975.

FLYING THE ATLANTIC; A FEW THINGS WORTH KNOWING

Flying can't always be a joy ride.....

Flying can’t always be a joy ride…..

For those who need to fly across the Atlantic on either business, pleasure or, indeed, both, 2014 is not going to be a cheap date on the face of it. George Osborne’s blinkered refusal to reduce the stratospheric level of Air Passenger Duty (APD), edged gradually upwards by his predecessors in office, is hurting the transatlantic trade massively. Fares have simply never been higher.

However, to coin an unfortunate phrase, there are developments in the wind, both actual and potential, that could make life just a little easier for the transatlantic traveller. Here’s just a few of them.

Obviously inspired by the example of the late Baron Von Richtofen, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary is considering extending the reach of his own, personal flying circus all the way across the Atlantic by 2019. O’Leary is proposing flight tickets for around £10, sans taxes and baggage charges, natch.

There is no word yet on whether Ryanair proposes to charge for on board oxygen, or if the passengers will be required to have a whip round to pay for the privilege of a pilot. Renowned as the worst inflight experience since Toothless Matilda first mounted a broomstick, Ryanair is certainly an acquired taste. As, of course, is cannibalism.

More studied, and with genuinely good in flight hospitality, fellow Irish product,  Aer Lingus offers a much more convenient alternative to America. Flying from several UK regional airports to hubs in Dublin and Shannon allows passengers to complete customs and immigration in Ireland, before boarding their transatlantic flight.

Thus, you arrive in America as the equivalent of a domestic passenger, neatly sidestepping the lethargic, lumbering hell of those serpentine lines on arrival. And, even better, it allows passengers give the disjointed hell that is Heathrow a neat swerve.  Seems to me to be something of a win win situation, and one I will be checking out for myself later this year.

Combining budget flights with brisk, Scandinavian efficiency, Norwegian Air begins summer flights in July from London Gatwick to New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles. With fares from just £150 one way- inclusive of taxes- the hugely successful, hitherto largely short haul airline is throwing down a real gauntlet to the established legacy carriers.

In fact, the airline has been offering transatlantic flights from Sweden for some time now. And, while the airline will be a predominantly budget operation, it is safe to say that it will be more inclusive than anything Baron O’Leary might be contemplating putting on offer.

As always, stay tuned.

TIMESLIP: QE2 AND THE SS. NORWAY IN SOUTHAMPTON, JULY 26TH 1984; A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.

In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.

In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.

At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.

A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.

Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.

Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.

By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.

Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.

And then, it was our turn.

With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.

Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.

Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.

Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.

OVERTURE TO OASIS: EUROPEAN LANDFALL IN 2014

Oasis Of The Seas is Europe bound this year

Oasis Of The Seas is Europe bound this year

With 2014 now a reality, excitement is starting to build over this year’s European debut of the giant Oasis Of The Seas in the autumn.

The 220,000 ton game changer will sail a pair of transatlantic crossings between America and Europe, together with a brace of five night Mediterranean cruises and an eight night cruise to Holland, on either side of her first scheduled dry docking and overhaul since her 2009 debut.

The first, twelve night transatlantic crossing sails from Fort Lauderdale on September 1st, and arrives in Barcelona on the 13th, with a stop at Malaga en route. This is followed by a pair of five night jaunts to Rome and Naples, departing on September 13th and 18th.

The Oasis Of The Seas then  heads for Rotterdam on September 23rd, on a seven night cruise that takes her via Malaga and Vigo. The giant ship will be in dry dock for two weeks, before a return crossing takes her from Southampton back to Fort Lauderdale on October 15th, with stops at Cozumel and Nassau en route.

This first major European landfall for the giant ship will surely be a trial run for future deployments. With a third ship in the class already on order from STX France, a fourth vessel as a distinct possibility, and sister ship Allure Of The Seas scheduled for her own major European overhaul in 2015, the short 2014 season for Oasis Of The Seas will determine such things as the intricacies involved in docking and supplying one of the two largest cruise ships ever built.

A longer deployment of one of these ships to Europe looks to be a certainty. With a capacity in excess of 5,400 passengers, the Oasis Of The Seas will present a unique set of logistical challenges for the Spanish and Italian ports she will visit. Any potential hitches that can be uncovered and overcome now will make for a more seamless series of future deployments.

While Rotterdam might seem a strange place for a two week, labour intensive overhaul, the Dutch port and Royal Caribbean actually have a shared history. The Vision class Enchantment Of The Seas was lengthened in the same Rotterdam dockyard a few years back, the first- and so far the only one- of that six ship class to get this treatment to date.

A highlight of the programme will be the arrival of Oasis Of The Seas in Southampton on October 15th. She will be by far the largest passengers ship ever to berth in the Hampshire port- bigger than the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth combined.

No doubt Royal Caribbean will take full advantage of the tidal wave of excitement her arrival will generate. Whatever your take on big, modern cruise ships, there is no doubt at all that the coming of Oasis Of The Seas raises the cruising ante in Europe by a couple of notches.

As always, stay tuned.

TIMESLIP: THE MAIDEN CROSSING OF THE SS. FRANCE, FEBRUARY 1962

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

When the France was laid down in 1958 as the long term replacement for the ageing Liberte, more than 1.2 million passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. But that same October, the first ever Pan Am jet airliner flew eastwards across the Atlantic in just six hours, and the apple cart was not so much upset, as reduced to matchwood and splinters.

By the time of her launch just two years later, those same jets had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade, and those numbers were climbing as steadily as a Boeing 707 cleared for take off. So by the time that the France was finally ready for her first passengers at the beginning of 1962, a huge amount was riding on her, both figuratively and literally.

The France was the last true Atlantic liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Europe and America, with  no thought whatsoever being given to ever using her as a cruise ship. She was every bit as much of an Atlantic thoroughbred as the Normandie before her and, to the French, she was intended to be every bit as much a national showpiece as that fabled thirties showstopper. Though her actual cost was astronomical- the American press was already referring to her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’- the French invested far more in her in terms of emotional currency.

But this maritime Joan Of Arc (a perhaps unfortunate comparison when considering how many French liners were actually lost to fire) was to turn out to be more of a gilded Canute, fighting valiantly to stem the unstoppable. All the same, she was almost ready by the dawn of 1962 and, prior to her maiden crossing to New York, the French Line decided to send her on a nine day, trial run of a cruise down to the Canary IslandsIt was an idea taken up again by Cunard, when they introduced the brand new QE2 into service in early 1969.

This trial voyage sailed from Le Havre on January 19th, 1962 and, while it was a good exercise in PR, it also served to highlight the numerous potential shortcomings of the France as a cruise ship. It was the equivalent of expecting a premier league centre forward to switch to rugby league, and perform at the same level. These shortcomings- mainly revolving around a lack of outdoor deck space and her glass enclosed swimming pools- would only be permanently addressed during her 1979-80 conversion into the Norway at Bremerhaven.

However, the cruise did serve to demonstrate the excellence of her machinery. The France was the second fastest ocean liner ever built but, with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, any attempt at a tilt for the speed record, held for the past ten years by the SS.United States, was quietly ruled out. The France was expected to excel on an entirely different level.

Finally, at 1400 on the afternoon of February 3rd, 1962, Commandant Georges Croisiele took the flag bedecked France clear of the dock at Le Havre, to begin her maiden crossing to New York. Among the capacity load of 1,958 passengers on board was Madame Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the president. She was making the voyage in her official capacity as the Godmother of the ship. The young actress, Juliette Greco, was also on the roster.

February was hardly a typical time for a gala maiden voyage, and the Atlantic slammed the new liner with a series of savage, forty five foot waves that forced Croisile to reduce speed from thirty knots right down to six at the height of the gale. That said, the only casualties were a slightly dented anchor housing, one broken window in the first class library and, perhaps most distressingly, some eight bottles of premium scotch. The passengers responded with typical panache, by adapting the dance steps to the brand new ‘twist’ craze to suit the weather conditions and, despite this vicious baptism of fire, France and her surviving, happily ample supply of scotch were able to make up the lost time. She duly arrived off Quarantine in New York on schedule on February 8th, 1962.

The welcome was as warm as the day itself was bitterly cold. A quartet of fire boats arced vast, icy plumes of water into the air all around the France as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her berth; this was the exact same pier where her predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank some twenty years minus one day before. The arrival date can hardly have been a coincidence.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

A flotilla of tugs and small pleasure craft rode shotgun around the new ship as she proceeded in state past the Battery. Helicopters buzzed her like random, curious dragonflies, filming the event for posterity. Crowds shivered along the freezing banks of the Hudson and banners snapped in the icy breeze as the soaring flank of the France kissed the edge of Pier 88 for the first time. Despite the adverse conditions encountered on the crossing, the France had, indeed, performed flawlessly.

The subsequent press conference held on board was a curious mixture of euphoria and tempered wisdom. The owners stated that ‘the captain is satisfied with his ship- and the ship is satisfied with her captain.’ They then went on to enshrine her as ‘the last refuge of the good life.’

At the same time, the multi millionaire Charles Cloredisembarking from the France, took occasion to deny to the assembled press that he was planning to buy the Cunard Line.

The press were in general, enchanted and awed by the stunning new ship, but elements of it did reiterate the ‘eighty million dollar gamble’ epithet in their subsequent coverage. They also questioned the fact that the huge beam of the liner made her too large to transit the Panama Canal

That drew a classic, Machiavellian retort from no less than General De Gaulle himself, back in France. He said flatly that ‘the ship is not too big; the problem is that the canal is too small.’ In his grandiosity, Monsieur Le President had also conveniently forgotten (or ignored) the fact that the dimensions of the Panama Canal had actually been decided by another determined Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps.

CHILDREN OF THE MERSEY; LUSITANIA AND MAURETANIA

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.

They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.

That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.

One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.

At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.

The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.

In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.

And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……

From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.

At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.

The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.

Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.

For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.

That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.

Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.

For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.

But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.

The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.

The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey stormssometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.

As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.

Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.

The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.

This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE- STILL SUBLIME

Holland America's current Westerdam

Holland America’s current Westerdam

With a history that dates back to its first ever transatlantic sailing in 1873, the Holland America Line can safely lay claim to a place among the aristocracy of ocean travel. Now headquartered in Seattle and a principal player in the Carnival portfolio, the venerable line made the transition from crossing to cruising at the dawn of the 1970’s.

HAL traditionally never built the vast, imposing national flagships that typified their Cunard and French Line rivals, instead preferring to build solid, mid size vessels with excellent sea keeping qualities; a vital prerequisite on the often stormy passage between Rotterdam and New York. All the same, the line soon acquired a reputation for running smart, well served vessels on a human scale, factors which would make the line the first choice of many travellers over the years.

It became an axiom of transatlantic lore that a single speck of dirt on a Holland America ship would be enough to make a chief purser commit suicide. Legendary liners such as the graceful, triple stacked Statendam and, more than any other, the fabulous Nieuw Amsterdam of 1938 would become every bit as iconic as their larger fellow travellers. Hollywood stars such as Spencer Tracey were often prepared to alter their travel plans, just for the opportunity of sailing on the Nieuw Amsterdam, such was her star power on the post war Atlantic crossing.

But the canny Dutch had already foreseen the increasing dominance of the jet airliner when they introduced a new national flagship, the Rotterdam of 1959. Staunch and graceful, and with a pair of parallel twin funnels mounted aft, the new ship was designed for dual purpose, Atlantic crossings and warm weather cruising. Incredibly, this venerable and much adored legend would sail on until the year 2000; a happy ending that nobody could have foreseen in the cloudy skies of 1959.

Inevitably, dwindling numbers forced the cancellation of all Atlantic crossings at the end of 1971, a new emphasis on full time cruising, and a relocation of headquarters to Seattle. Long before it’s acquisition by Carnival in 1997, the line had become one of the major players in Alaska cruises and tours during the summer months.

Today, bolstered incalculably by Carnival’s financial clout and business expertise, the line operates some of the best and most elegant ships in the upper premium market. Though the ships of today are much bigger than the Atlantic and Bermuda stalwarts of the ‘old’ HAL, devotees of the line would instantly recognise the fresh cut flowers, signature art collections and deft, efficient Indonesian staff members that have defined the Holland America brand for over a century now.

The 1959 built Rotterdam, still afloat today as a hotel ship in her namesake port

The 1959 built Rotterdam, still afloat today as a hotel ship in her namesake port

If HAL stands for anything, it is tradition and continuity. And while these factors have been key to holding and retaining a quite extraordinary level of loyalty from regular passengers, they have also been perceived as stumbling blocks in any attempt to attract newer, younger passengers to its storied fleet.

It is a conundrum, and it has to be said that the modern HAL fleet is every bit as capacious, diverse and amenity laden as its rivals. Indeed, HAL offers some of the biggest standard cabins afloat, and a level of cuisine and service well above that offered by the mainstream lines. The lack of alternative dining venues in comparison to other lines merely points up just how excellent and finely styled the on board options already are.

Holland America is changing slowly by degrees to accommodate the new cruising demographic. Like a graceful Dutch galleon tacking slowly round to take advantage of fresher breezes, it will be a case of slow and steady does it.

The Holland America Line is still a timeless, tremendous experience even now. The ships remain as immaculate and highly styled as ever; each one is a sumptuous, floating art gallery in its own rightFor a classy, utterly distinctive big ship travel experience that combines the best of old world glamour with all the comfort and modern conveniences anyone could ever want, you would be very hard pressed to do much better.

THE FLY CRUISE; WHAT IT IS, AND HOW IT WORKS

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

It might seem like a no brainer even defining what a fly cruise is. As a staple of the travel industry since at least the late 1970’s, literally hundreds of thousands of people from the UK have taken fly cruises, whether in Europe, the Caribbean or, indeed, further abroad. On the whole, this article will have little enough to enlighten these people for sure. Fair enough, but please consider the following.

Of a current UK population of around sixty four million, approximately one point seven million take a cruise or fly cruise on a yearly basis, although those numbers are forecast to increase to around two million in a couple of years. That total- itself an all time record high- still represents less than one person out of every thirty-five. The potential for expansion is, indeed, incredible.

But a number of factors mitigate against a fly cruise to the potential new cruise passengers out there. Firstly, the infamous hassle endemic in airports and airport security and, secondly, the often cramped, bordering on unpleasant inflight experience itself, is off putting. Factor into that the always subliminal worry about that first ever arrival in a foreign country, and you have a trio of potential obstacles to overcome when trying to woo passengers to the storied pleasures of, say, the Caribbean or the Far East.

Here, education is key. I sometimes wonder whether some lines go far enough in explaining just exactly what the actual process of a fly cruise encompasses. This article is written in that spirit.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM THE USA:

Flying should ideally be a breeze

Flying should ideally be a breeze

If you’re going on a fly cruise that sails from an American port- typically, but not exclusively, from Florida- you will be flown from the airport nearest you to America. Often as not for those living outside London, this will involve a very early start, and a change of flight via Heathrow or, sometimes, via Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Some passengers can find this relatively simple process quite intimidating.

How to make the flight easier? You can try setting your watch to the actual time in your arrival destination before you leave. The common consensus is to drink lots of water, and very little alcohol inflight (though, God knows, the inflight standards of some airlines would drive the most dedicated teetotaller to drink). Exercises tend to help to improve the circulation.

Once you get to the other side of the Atlantic, there will be a dedicated transfer to take you to your overnight hotel.Usually, a representative of the cruise line will meet you and direct you on your way. Often as not, this will be via the hotel’s own local, complimentary shuttle. You’ll need to on the ball in finding where the shuttles pick up, usually at a specially designated ramp just outside of departures.

In general, evening meals and/or drinks will not be included in the price of your overnight stay. It will be literally room only, plus transfers. Some hotels do include a breakfast buffet in with the price, but it is certainly best to check beforehand with your agent.

You’ll transfer to the ship at around eleven thirty to noon the next morning. There will usually be a letter placed in your room when you arrive on the previous night, detailing the transfer times and meeting place- usually the hotel lobby. Typically, there will also be some representative of the cruise line on site on the morning of departure, to answer any questions you may have. If there is a big group to move, you will almost certainly taken by coach to the ship, and your luggage will go on ahead. You won’t see it again until it turns up outside your cabin an hour or so after boarding, or sometimes later.

From inflight food....

From inflight food….

So, in the event that you have any vital medicines of any kind, best to put them in a small carry on bag that you keep on your person. Also, remember to keep your passport and your cruise documents in here, too. It will make the check in process a lot simpler and more hassle free.

Hopefully, you will now be able to kick back, relax, and enjoy what is, for many, the holiday of a lifetime. But as surely as night follows day, the time will come when you have to think about the return journey. Here’s how that works in general.

Your luggage should be placed outside your cabin on the last night before you go to bed, and it is offloaded once the ship docks. After breakfast, you’ll be disembarked as part of a group, usually designated by coloured baggage tags and staggered at certain times. Once through American customs in the terminal downstairs, you’ll find your luggage standing under coloured, overhead signs that correspond to your baggage labels. A porter will then take these to a coach that will be waiting to take you to the airport to check in for your flight home.

This is where the day can get long, and downright angsty. Cruise lines in general no longer offer the complimentary day rooms at a nearby airport hotel that they once did. The result is that you can often be left at the airport with seven or eight hours of time to kill. Most Europe bound flights- especially from the east coast of the USA- tend not to depart until the late afternoon, or early evening. You should be aware of this. All of these arrangements should be explained to you in a special debarkation talk, held the day before you arrive back in port.

There are ways around this end of cruise annoyance. You could ask your cruise line if they can give you a rate for a hotel day room. This will give you a comfortable base to rest up, shower and change before the flight, or perhaps catch a few last rays of sun. At a time more to your liking, you and your luggage can then take the hotel’s complimentary shuttle to the airport. Be sure to check with hotel reception about the timing and availability of hotel-airport shuttles when you first get to the hotel.

To cruise food....

To cruise food….

Another option is to pay extra for an included city tour, run by the cruise line itself. Typically, this will take you on an excursion to somewhere like, say, the Everglades in Florida, and it may or may not include lunch. Then, in late afternoon, you’ll be transferred to the airport. This option includes the knowledge that your luggage travels safely with you on the coach. For peace of mind, this one is a pretty good option. It also keeps the ‘holiday’ vibe alive until the last possible moment.

Once you’re on the flight, I’d set your watch back on UK time and, as far as possible, try to sleep after the evening meal. Better still, eat something a good deal more substantial in one of the airport restaurants before you board, and opt for an attempt at sleep as soon as you’re airborne.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM EUROPE:

You might think that, because of the relatively much shorter flying distances between the UK and continental Europe, the time needed to join a ship in Barcelona, Rome or Venice will be much shorter than boarding one sailing from the USA?

Um, not necessarily….

If you’re flying from London or Manchester direct then sure, you’ll find that it’s a short, one flight hop, of no more than a couple of hours’ duration. But if you’re up in Scotland, Ireland, Wales or in the North East of England, it’s almost a given that you will be taking two flights, routing over airports such as Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

The problem here is not so much the actual flight times, so much as the fact that you might be laid up in one of these airports for a few hours. Again, I would recommend you keeping any necessary medication, plus your travel documents, on your own person.

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

It’s also a fact that most European fly cruises do not include a pre cruise, overnight hotel stay. Once you’ve picked up your luggage, you’ll be transferred- again probably by coach- straight to the ship. Again, there will be a representative of the cruise line to meet you when you arrive, and he or she will direct you to your waiting transfer coach. And the same will be true at the end of your cruise, too. In Italian airports especially, these return arrangements can cause some hassle.

Here, the check in desks seldom open less than three hours prior to your flight home so, if you’ve got an early evening departure from, say, Venice, you’ll be left in an airport that has very little comfortable seating- with your luggage to boot. It’s not a great way to end an otherwise marvellous adventure.

Again, most cruise lines offer an added, half day city tour in cities such as Venice, complete with a later transfer time to the airport. This is better, but personally I’d recommend booking an overnight, post cruise hotel stay for the night. This allows you to unwind without the crowds or the hassle, although you might have to arrange your own taxi transfers the next day. Still, this is the least painful option and, often as not, the cruise line can also arrange your hotel- and possibly the transfers- at a supplement.

Taking a fly cruise does not have to translate to a frightening, unfamiliar adventure into the unknown. Properly explained, easier understood.

It’s actually a pretty seamless process on the whole, one honed and practised down over a number of decades now. And another great advantage of buying a complete fly cruise package via a cruise line, is that they have total responsibility to get you to and from the ship at the start and finish.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

MUTINY ON THE FRANCE; DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARD TIMES….

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.

Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.

The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.

These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.

Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.

The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.

In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.

But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.

The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.

Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.

In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.

The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.

The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.

While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.

On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had  been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!

On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.

The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.

The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.

In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.

Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.

That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.

It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.

A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.

But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..

In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.

Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.

He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States.  And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.

By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.

Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’

Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.

The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.

It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…