Transatlantic Cruising

Spring seemed like a nice time to cruise the Atlantic and land in Europe so I boarded the Norwegian Cruise Line's S/S Norway for a 14-day repositioning cruise from Miami to Marseille in the Mediterranean. I particularly wanted the Norway as it is one of the last great classic liners, formerly the S/S France, built long (1,035') and narrow to quickly make the 5-day trip across the North Atlantic. Now the Norway would be taking a more southerly route visiting St. Martin in the Caribbean then six days at sea and stopping in Funchal, Madeira then through the Straits of Gibraltar to Malaga, Spain before ending its cruise in Marseille, France. Not a bad way to go if you like ships and shipboard life because the Norway has all the necessary, accommodations, activities, entertainment, great passengers and a staff that left nothing wanting. And while you may not be doing much that could be called travel related, the ship inexorably makes its some 400 miles per day to get you through your itinerary and somehow makes you feel that you are accomplishing something just by merely being onboard.

I try to sample everything the ship has to offer to include food (here I get into trouble because the menu always features items I'm sure I've never had before only to learn that it's the name that's new), activities (never made it to the fitness center but looked in the window once), dance class (my favorite as one day I'll really learn this stuff), entertainment (only missed the passenger talent show), and shore excursions (did these on my own as I have been to most of the places before). There is really too much to do and one has to be a bit selective. The Cruise Director did a bang up job with help from the Jimmy Dorsey band, innumerable other musical outfits including a string quartet and jazz combos. If you liked live music, this was the place to be.

Was there anything I didn't like about the cruise? One or two things, almost too few to mention but I will: The Norway's internal flow pattern seems to be clumsy with not enough important signs to popular destinations and diagrams of the ships profile mounted on transverse passageways that make you wonder how they are to be interpreted. And the Art Auction to me seems to be a rather crass intrusion into the passenger's onboard experience. The pictures spill out into the passageways. The auctioneer keeps babbling on the intercom although most ships try to keep announcements to the barest minimum. And being a captive potential customer raises the fearful possibility that the time-share salesman will not be far behind in partaking of this lucrative shipboard audience.

The Norway had another interesting quirk. The large theater is not used anymore for movies but rather one watches the small screen TV in the cabin/suite for late films. It's not that the Saga Theater is used that much for anything else during the day so this is a disconcerting trend. I hope it doesn't spread to other cruise lines.

Regardless, the Norway was great fun. The passage was extraordinarilly calm and even the captain commented that this was the smoothest crossing he had experienced. It was almost uncanny that there never was any sensation of movement...certainly no pitching, rolling or yawing. I now would not mind seeing what the Norway would do in heavy weather. Maybe this is my alibi to take the westbound transatlantic trip in October.

St. Martin is a very small island, six miles by six miles, with quite a few nice beaches. Orient Beach in the northern French half of the island is probably best known and it turns out that nude bathing is permitted. I found that swimming at the beach right in Philipsburg, in the Dutch southern half, was just as good and more handy. The bar on the beach has a changing room and a shower hose and all this is five minutes from the landing where the ship's tender arrives. It seems that all the shops feature imported goods much the same as at most of the other ports of the world. Of course, this is a man talking so what does he know about shopping? I seemed to have joined my shipmates by stocking up on alcoholic duty-free beverages to last the voyage. And it was of interest to find that everyone I talked to in the town was from somewhere else...Jamaica, Australia, Canada, India, and so on. The town seemingly has been made for cruise ships and vice versa.

Funchal is a pretty port on the rugged island of Madeira which is owned by Portugal and is approximately 600 miles southwest of Lisbon. There are no beaches and most of the land is in slope so everything is built on a hillside. The fields, many in vineyards and at the lower slopes in bananas, tend to be small and seemingly marginal in production. The town is a delight and caters to the person on foot. Prices for fine clothing and tableware seemed to be high but the selection was good. For window shoppers like me it was just right.

Malaga is a much larger port than Funchal and is the center of the Costa del Sol on the Mediterranean Sea in southernmost Spain. It, along with nearby Torremolinas, is the travel destination for millions of annual visitors who want the sunny exposure and resort experience of southern Europe. In town, the short-time cruise visitor can zero in on a few readily accessible sights such as the Alcazaba palace and nearby Castillo de Gilbrelfaro. The town center is enjoyable if only just to roam and explore.

Now, Marseille is a huge port and second largest city in France. It was great for the Norway as the ship was being chartered by a French agency which for six weeks was going to call it by its original name of S/S France and everything on board was going to be French and as similar to the operation of the original ship as possible. Word was that the crew who could not speak French were to disappear. I wonder how that applied to the Norwegian skipper and whether he made his long daily broadcasts through an interpreter. In any event, the old name in big black letters was built on the superstructure and heavy traffic of onlookers started flooding the immediate port area making debarking a bit of a problem. I rented a car and getting back to the ship to pick up the luggage took forever.

The coast line at Marseille is very pretty as it has low cliffs that permit good views of the blue waters of the Mediterranean. The urban area is extensive and has all the amenities of the big city. My purpose, however, was to drive to Spain, Andorra, and France ending in Paris to catch a flight back to the USA...which I did and that remains material for another article if it comes to that.


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