85 Years Ago: The First Cruise Ship To Come To Miami

Have you thought about cruising the West Indies, in a ship that offers space, service and no crowds, to out of the way islands, like it used to be? It’s eighty-five years since the first cruises were offered from Miami, but it’s still possible, if you look around, to find ships that carry just a few hundred passengers and are not overwhelmed by children and attractions. When you get a chance, give us a call on 020 7723 2450 and ask, but, meanwhile, we thought you might find this little story of interest.

Eighty-five years ago, in the winter of 1926-27, the Clarke Steamship Co Ltd of Quebec became the first company to operate weekly cruises from Florida, in its s.s. New Northland. Here is a little background on an important part of history that is now long forgotten.

Winter cruises had been offered from Key West in 1913 and then from Jacksonville in 1914 by the Plant Line’s 3,786-ton Evangeline, the first ship of that name, that operated between Boston, Halifax and Charlottetown in the summer months. These longer 11-night cruises, which took guests down to see the Panama Canal, then under construction, and also called at Kingston, Jamaica, and Havana, Cuba, ended with the First World War. Twenty years earlier, in 1893, another Plant Line ship, the 1,738-ton Halifax, had offered an experimental series of three 10-day cruises between Tampa and Jamaica.

The New Northland arriving at Palm Beach in January 1927

Completed in April 1926 by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the same shipyard that had built Cunard’s famous 31,938-ton Mauretania twenty years earlier, the Clarke ship had actually entered service as the Northland. Before she arrived in Florida, however, she was renamed New Northland, chiefly in order to prevent confusion with the twenty-seven-year-old 3,282-ton North Land that ran between Key West and Havana in the winter (and Boston and Yarmouth NS by summer). With both the Northland and the North Land planning to be in Havana at the same time, there was no point in confusing passengers, let alone port authorities, ship chandlers and others as to which ship they should be going to! Besides, the change of name emphasized the age of the older ship, with which the New Northland also competed for one-way passengers between Florida and Cuba.

While the New Northland had been built to cruise the Gulf of St Lawrence from Montreal to Newfoundland, in the winter time, when the St Lawrence was blocked by ice, she needed to find alternative employment. Thus, for the winter of 1926-27  Clarke chose to place their new flagship into a new weekly cruise service from Palm Beach and Miami to Nassau and Havana. As a cruise ship, she could cater for about 140 first-class passengers.  In order to promote these cruises, a $5,000 model of the New Northland was put on display in the main window of Burdine’s department store (now Macy’s) in downtown Miami.

Downtown Miami, as it appeared in 1927

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The New Northland left Montreal at the end of her first Gulf of St Lawrence cruise season on November 26, 1926, and took a cargo south to Havana before presenting for her new duties in Florida.  She arrived in Miami on Sunday, January 9, 1927, and Palm Beach the following day. Several thousand Miamians came out to inspect the new cruise ship on her maiden call and a similar event was held the next day in Palm Beach, where the new Breakers Hotel had opened twelve days earlier. Unlike today, when ships generally sail on the weekend, the New Northland‘s weekly cruises left Palm Beach and Miami every Wednesday during the winter months. Typical of advertisements that appeared in the Miami Daily News was this one for her third cruise:-

Cruise Havana – Nassau from Miami and Palm Beach. Sailing Wednesday, January 26. s.s. NEW NORTHLAND (British Registry). This palatial ship is your hotel for six days, Full day in Nassau – three in Havana. No baggage transfers. All outside cabins, many with twin beds, private baths. $90 and up.

While she would later be registered at Quebec, for the first few years the New Northland indeed remained registered at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where she had been built, hence the British flag.

The first season went well, but things had been going on in the background. In January 1926, the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company, which had been operating the Miami-Nassau overnight service for thirty years, had been replaced by Munson Steamship Lines of New York, who also owned the British Colonial Hotel (now the British Colonial Hilton) in Nassau. In 1926-27, while the New Northland was cruising, Munson had contented themselves with the Red Cross Line’s 2,568-ton Rosalind, a fifteen-year-old second-hand ship that usually ran between New York, Halifax and St John’s NF. But by the time the 1927-28 winter season rolled around, Munson had arranged to charter the much more luxurious New Northland with her two sumptuous lounges, all-outside staterooms, verandah cafe and plentiful outdoor deck areas, to operate its three sailings a week between Miami and Nassau.

Today, there is a wide choice of Caribbean cruises, but the absolute best are from the likes of Azamara Club Cruises, Compagnie du Ponant, Crystal Cruises, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and SeaDream Yacht Club, to name just a few that will take you off the beaten path. Not to San Juan, St Thomas and St Maarten but to places like Marigot and Soufrière, Jost van Dyke and Spanish Town, Havana and Santiago, St Barthelemy and Saba. Despite what some may try to tell you, the ship is not the destination at all, it is the means of getting there in great comfort and with good company and a means of enjoying the sea, with excellent cuisine and the type of understated service that really marks out luxury

The Tere Moana, for example, a 3,504-ton ship owned by Paul Gauguin Cruises, has almost exactly the same tonnage and dimensions as the New Northland, although her appearance is totally different. She carries just 90 passengers in great comfort, and no cargo, and visits many smaller ports where the big ships cannot enter. Formerly Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Levant, she sails from St Martin on her inaugural cruise on December 29, 2012.

For further details on any of these ships call The Cruise People Ltd in London on 020 7723 2450 or e-mail cruise@cruisepeople.co.uk.
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About thecruisepeople
Specialists in sea travel - ultra-luxury cruising, freighter travel, small ships and expedition voyages.

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