In the world of travel, no people are as nostalgic as fans of the vanished ocean liners. I know. I am one. An incurable case, with zero chance of remission.
Yet of all those long vanished icons of ocean travel, none for me exerts the regret or sense of loss that the French Line does. Because if ever a line could be said to embody the real panache and elegance of ocean liner travel, then the French Line is surely it.
Why? For me, there are a number of factors. Where lines such as Cunard and White Star built ships in pairs to operate as running mates, the French Line never did. Each one was a true individual, as finely crafted a statement of intent as it was possible to produce.
There’s also no doubt that the French Line offered the best food and service afloat of any of the great lines. The dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less then 275 different items each evening. ‘Bon Voyage is always French’ was the line’s mantra. It was something the line lived up to in deed as well as the spoken word.
For instance, the wine cellar on the Normandie was stocked on board a full six months before her maiden voyage, in order to give the wine time to settle. What is more, it was loaded in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, the motion would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an unavoidable hazard of Atlantic travel, but bad wine was a mortal sin.
On the subject of wine, vin du table was always free aboard the French Line; the company considered it a vital part of the ambiance of ‘France afloat’. The French Line insisted that you were actually in France the moment that you boarded one of their ships. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, despite the fact that most of the passengers were, invariably, American.
They had style in spades. When the Ile De France first made her stunning debut in 1927, a churlish passenger remarked to her captain that she was smaller than many rivals. His reply? ‘She may not be the biggest, madame; but then, neither is the Ritz’…
Of course, the Ile De France became a legend. She introduced Art Deco to the Atlantic crossing, and her striking, modern interiors at once made every other liner afloat look dowdy and old fashioned. So sensational was her impact, that many veteran travellers were prepared to wait for a week, just to cross on her. For years, she carried more first class passengers than any other Atlantic liner. Even Noel Coward immortalised her in song.
And, even after the war, she was regarded with awe and reverence; a place where you could have onion soup for breakfast, even in tourist class.
The post war Liberte became the most popular ticket on the Atlantic. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger, and the United States faster. And she became a movie star three times over. When Marilyn Monroe tells Jane Russell that she is off to Europe, Russell asks; “On the Liberte?” Marilyn’s reply; “How else?”
Those grand, French Line public rooms had scale to match their splendour as well. When the company introduced it’s first, stunning SS. France in 1912, she featured a magnificent, two story first class dining room. The reason? ‘Low ceilings do not aid the appetite’, said the line. In fact, this was nothing less than a dig at the single story, first class dining room aboard the rival White Star line’s Olympic and Titanic.
But the impact of the Normandie was nothing short of seismic. No ship, either before or since, has made such a sensational, stunning debut as the immortal French Line flagship. Even now, the superlatives flow like fine wine.
The first ocean liner over a thousand feet in length, and the first of the eighty-thousand ton monsters; the first to be the largest, fastest and most luxurious on her maiden crossing. That crossing itself was the most epochal in maritime history.
In terms of beauty, style and chic, she was unapproachable. When she and Queen Mary were playing ping pong with the Blue Riband in the 1930’s, it took the similarly sized British ship an extra forty thousand horsepower just to reach the same speed as the Normandie. The French masterpiece was space age, sumptuous and spectacular. The world would never see the likes of her again.
But that did not stop the French from trying…
‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ With that fatuous burst of egotism on his lips, General De Gaulle watched as his wife, Yvonne, set her successor afloat on May 11th, 1960. Two hundred thousand people cheered as the second France slid serenely into the River Loire, launched from the same slipway as her elegant predecessor.
France was lithe, fabulous, and way too late. By the time she arrived in New York for the first time, the jets already had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade. The writing was truly in the sky.
Everyone knew it, too. The American press described her as an eighty million dollar gamble. The French Line called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.
Yet, to the end, the last great flagship embodied all that was special, elegant and stylish about her country. Audrey Hepburn fell in love with her. The France even carried the marginally less beautiful Mona Lisa to New York for the 1964 World Fair. Salvador Dali liked to walk his pet Ocelots on deck. Burt Lancaster would show passengers his hand spring skills.
The dining rooms were still double height and, naturally, Camembert cheese would only be offered to passengers on the fourth day out from Le Havre, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. A French Line Maitre d’ would have chosen suicide over slightly over ripe cheese. It was the French Line way.
Her layup in 1974 brought down the guillotine blade on 110 years of French Line excellence and style. But the great France, magically resurrected as the fabulous, Art Deco suffused Norway, would go on to become a legend for the second time in her magnificent career.
Something of her grand, French Line past always lingered like fine perfume within that sumptuous hull. And those great, winged stacks made her unmistakable. For that, and for the memories that she embodied, I for one will always be grateful.