ST. NAZAIRE, France — Sixty years ago the enormously popular Ile de France embarked from the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard on its first transatlantic crossing. In 1935 the sleek and elegant Normandie first sailed from here into its short but dazzling life. And a quarter of a century ago, in 1962, the France set out on its inaugural sailing in the waning days of the great ocean liners.
Today of the three, only the France, now Norwegian Caribbean Line's Norway and the largest cruise ship, is still in service. But it is about to relinquish the title to a giant emerging from the same shipyard, the aptly named Sovereign of the Seas.
Almost 1,800 workmen here at Chantiers are finishing the construction of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's fifth and newest vessel, the largest cruise ship ever built in terms of passenger capacity and tonnage.
The Sovereign will carry as many as 2,600 passengers and have an estimated gross registered tonnage of 74,000, compared to the Norway's 70,202.
(Gross tonnage is a calculation of the ship's interior volume rather than its weight. Several ocean liners of the past have had a larger gross tonnage than any present-day cruise ships, topped by the first Queen Elizabeth at 83,673, the Normandie at 82,799 and the Queen Mary at 81,237.)
Vital Beam Width
On the other hand, at 1,035 feet the Norway is longer than the 874-foot Sovereign, and, as trivia buffs may know, with a 110-foot beam it's a few embarrassing inches too wide for the Panama Canal. The somewhat more svelte Sovereign, 106 feet wide, will be able to slip through from the Atlantic to the Pacific if an itinerary ever calls for it.
And just as the Ile de France wowed 'em in the Prohibition Era with a 27-foot bar and a plethora of nude statuary, and the Normandie knocked 'em out in the '30s with a three-deck dining room and the first seagoing movie theater, the Sovereign of the Seas has some "gee-whiz" surprises in store as well.
RCCL's signature Viking Crown Lounge, for instance, is a 250-seat glass-walled bar wrapped around the ship's stack the equivalent of 12 stories above the sea. Two 150-seat cinemas will play different feature films daily, and each of the two dining rooms has its own kitchen.
In each cabin, passengers can make use of an interactive video system to read the menu ahead of time, order wine for dinner, schedule wake-up calls, book shore excursions or check on the running total of their bar bills.
An open, airy five-deck atrium called the Centrum will glitter with glass elevators, marble walls and luxury boutiques, looking for all the world like an ultramodern hotel lobby or urban shopping mall.
It still took some imagination to visualize the finished decor when we went aboard with Capt. Tor Stangeland and designer Martin Hallan on a sunny afternoon. The ship was being readied for its first sea trial, a two-day sailing to check on vibrations, comfort, stability and turning.
While nothing was finished and decorated except a few standard cabins for display, the ship's interior expanses are already defined in shape and dimension. An unprecedented use of glass in the public areas creates an impression of airy open spaces.
In contrast to this munificent roominess, most cabins aboard follow traditional RCCL standards, somewhere between small and compact. The company believes that its passengers spend almost no waking hours in their cabins and would prefer lavish space in the public rooms and deck areas.
In each cabin two lower beds can be put together to make a queen-size bed, and bathrooms are nicely fitted and well lit, with slightly larger showers than some of RCCL's other ships.
Easier on the Ears
The sound insulation being installed between cabins is about 10% heavier than on most new ships, which should help cut down on noise pollution, and flexible engine mounting is expected to reduce some of the noise and vibration from the diesel engines. Initial reports after the first sea trials indicated that the ride was quite smooth, with little or no discernible engine vibration.
The Sovereign of the Seas is expected to sail from St. Nazaire Dec. 23 for its home port of Miami. After some short pre-inaugural sailings, the vessel will be christened by Rosalynn Carter on Jan. 15 (a huge custom-made bottle of Taittinger champagne is being prepared for the ceremony) and will sail from Miami the next day on the sold-out inaugural cruise. The year-round seven-day itinerary will include Labadee, San Juan and St. Thomas; fares range from $1,475 to $2,380 per person double, including air to Miami.
Despite original plans to register the ship under the convenience flag of Liberia, the ship will be flagged in Norway, where its sister ships are registered. This decision followed a recent easing of Norwegian seamen's contract terms. In the past year both the five ships of Norwegian Caribbean Line and the three Royal Viking ships, all formerly of Norwegian registry, were reflagged in the Bahamas as a money-saving measure.
The cost estimate on the Sovereign of the Seas is $175 million from the shipyard, $183.5 million from RCCL, the latter figure including additional furnishings and supplies. The finished vessel will contain twice as much steel as the Eiffel Tower, more than 800 miles of electrical cable and 43 miles of piping.