I boarded the Canberra on July 28th, 1985 for a week long cruise down to Vigo and Madeira, the only major Portuguese island in the Canaries. It was a cruise that was rare for the P&O stalwart; her usual itineraries ranged from twelve to seventeen days at that time, and the seven night run was a real rarity.
Still, it gave me the chance to sample life on a ship that I had always wanted to sail on, and the chance was too good to pass. The piece that follows is not a warts and all description of that voyage some thirty years ago, but rather a pastiche, composed of moments and memories that have stayed with me over three decades.
Externally, the Canberra was in a deplorable state. Great torrents of rust streaked her hull both on port and starboard sides. The heroine of the 1982 Falklands conflict looked as if she had actually just returned from active duty. I do not know who was responsible for making sure her overall appearance was kept up, but they had definitely fallen down on the job. No self respecting cruise ship would put to sea looking like that these days.
Internally, she was a different matter. Lots of small, clubby wood panelled rooms seemed to feed into each other. There was none of the dramatic, double decked grandeur that I had previously savoured aboard the Norway or the QE2, but there was an immediate sense of calm, welcoming warmth; I guess it was comfort rather than luxury.
In those days, you could buy a shared berth in a four berth cabin, with private facilities just down the hall. I did just this and, for the princely sum of £406.50p all in, I was also gifted first class return rail tickets to and from Southampton, courtesy of P&O. And, though the cabin was in the bowels of the ship, it actually worked out OK for the time. I was seldom in the room.
One of the things I loved about the Canberra was the graceful, upward curve of her promenade deck as it sheared skyward toward the bow. This was a green, steel painted deck that encircled the entire ship, if I remember correctly.
And I never tired of the view looking aft from near the bridge superstructure; the two great, buff funnels sat alongside each other, and resembled nothing as much to me as a pair of castle ramparts, looming against the sky. Over the week, that backdrop would vary from grey and stormy to a sublime, improbable, beautifully burnished sunset as we sailed home over the Bay of Biscay.
The Canberra was almost relentlessly British in terms of tone, ambiance and on board product. Tea in the Meridian Room was served promptly at four, and the on board currency was sterling. There were square and rectangular dining tables in the restaurant- a slightly awkward arrangment when trying to converse at dinner. The food was tailored to British palates, with more than a passing nod to the line’s imperial past in the form of some excellent Indian curries. It was good, wholesome fare all round and, to a still quite impressionable 25 year old on only his fourth cruise, definitely a taste of the high life for sure.
Despite being a big ship for those days- 45,000 tons- my overwhelming memory of the Canberra is just how warm and intimate she felt inside. The one exception seemed to be the famous Crow’s Nest lounge at the front of the ship, on the upper deck; with a wall of floor to ceiling windows opening out over the bow, the views from this semi circular room were really expansive. I remember sitting at the front, in a green chair on a swivel base, watching as the waves lashed the bow of Canberra as she head butted her way through a ferocious and unyielding Biscay howler. On such occasions, climbing and descending the famous, circular marble stairway that led to this room was an adventure in itself.
And even her fondest afficionados could hardly claim that the Canberra got brownie points for stability. During that epic, southbound passage over Biscay, the old girl rocked and rolled to port and starboard like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. She pitched and lurched on the roll, and then heaved herself back vertical again, like some sodden dowager emerging from an overly long soak in the bath. She could wrong foot the unwary with almost effortless ease.
But if ever a ship had heart, a soul, and sheer, unmatched charisma, it was surely Canberra. She did not have had the more subtle, elegant luxe of the QE2, or the stunning Art Deco splendour of the Norway, and that at first came as something of a gentle shock to me.
But, truth be told, the Canberra did not need these things. She held her head up, and did not pretend to be something she was not. People loved her because she was dignified, like some elderly hospital ward matron that always insisted on everything being done ‘by the book’. She had soul and, over the course of a week, I came to fall in love with this quirky, delightful lady.
And, of course, the Canberra inspired a fierce level of devotion among her regular passengers, many of whom would not even consider sailing on any other ship- not even her doughty fleet mate, Oriana. Like many such ‘ladies of a certain age’, style and breeding, the Canberra was a ship that had to adapt to survive in the cruise industry.
Yet she remained a remarkable throw back even then. The Canberra was not quite Downton Abbey with propellers, but she certainly had a lot of quintessential, old world tradition and tone about her. Even in 1985, she offered some the the broadest range of accommodations afloat, and she was staffed and served by a crew that was efficient and polite rather than flamboyant and demonstrative. To call her ‘restrained’ is perhaps going a bit too far, but she was certainly no boundary pushing ship by the mid 80’s anymore.
I was lucky to get to sail on her at all, of course, and I’m very well aware of that fact. The Canberra was a fascinating adventure afloat for me back then, and she has evolved into a cherished memory since. And, while I mourn the passing of the many great liners that I was not lucky enough to sail on, I will always count myself as extremely fortunate- both in terms of the experience and, indeed, the timing- that I got to sail on one of the greatest and most legendary of the last generation of cruise ships- the magnificent, majestic Canberra.