THE ILE DE FRANCE- THE ENDURING ‘IT GIRL’ OF THE ROARING TWENTIES

ILE DE FRANCE NY POSTWAR

The Ile De France steams down the Hudson in her post war guise; her original trio of funnels have been replaced by a more stocky, substantial pair

It’s a fact that, while many ocean liners achieve fame, few actually achieve immortality. And those that do very often do so on the back of some catastrophic event. Those that actually become immortal over the course of a long career can probably be safely counted on the fingers of one hand.

That point made, I’d argue that if any liner can be called immortal, it is surely the Ile De France.

Why the Ile De France?

At first glance, she might seem a strange choice to some. Viewed externally through the prism of history, she was neither the biggest nor the fastest liner in the world when she emerged in 1927. And the hull, with its knife like bow and three towering, black and red funnels, looked as if it could just as easily have been a product of Edwardian designers. Yes, she was proud and dignified but, from afar at least, she was hardly cutting edge.

But inside, she was a very different lady indeed.

The entire, fabulous interior of the Ile De France was sheathed in bow to stern Art Deco styling, rivalling the greatest and most luxurious hotels ashore. Whereas all of her slowly ageing, sometimes ponderous rivals were decorated in a pre war style that made them resemble so many fusty, Edwardian theme parks, the Ile De France was stunningly, totally modern. Those new interiors were the architectural equivalent of a brick hurled through a frosted up window. They were like nothing ever seen before and, after her, nothing on the Atlantic would ever be the same again.

The French Line insisted that ‘To live is not to copy; it is to create’, and in the concept and completion of the Ile De France, that notion- one that was to become something of a hallowed mantra- was carried through to massive acclaim. In short order, the Ile De France became so popular that veteran travellers were prepared to wait an additional week or more to make sure that they could sail on her. She was new, and she had panache; as such, she was bound to prosper in the early days.

So what, then, explains her extraordinary longevity? Not until 1959 would the veteran liner call down ‘finished with engines’ for the very last time. It had to be something more than could be created by that initial, sensational splash. Something deeper and more grounded. Something far more subtle was at play here.

For sure, she had flair. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items nightly. On her maiden voyage, one particular lady upbraided her captain, saying that the Ile was neither the biggest or the fastest. The captain’s reply was pure class;

‘No, madame. But neither is the Ritz’…..

And that single sentence sums up the Ile De France with more singular brilliance than I ever could. With her all French crew, including the scarlet jacketed little bell boys who were there solely to operate the lifts, the Ile De France took every strand of the hallowed French Line traditions of exemplary service and matchless cuisine, and then wove them into the most internally dramatic and stunning ship ever built.

The result was pure magic. Noel Coward was so enchanted with her that he worked a reference to the Ile De France into the lyrics of These Foolish Things. Even when the far bigger and faster Normandie made her sensational debut in the mid thirties, the Ile De France continued to be one of the most popular ships afloat; one that had, indeed, by that time already developed a true cult following.

And, of course, her war record was nothing less than heroic. Taken over and managed by Cunard Line during the Second World War, the grey shrouded Ile De France carried literally thousands of troops to all the major theatres of war. It took a huge toll on her, both materially and mechanically. Not until 1946 would the battered, grimy trooper make her first return home to France in some seven years.

Already twenty years old, the Ile De France needed drastic rebuilding and refurbishment; a task easier envisaged than accomplished in a devastated, post war France. It would be 1949 before the ‘new’ Ile De France emerged to resume first rate French Line service on the Atlantic.

Though as lavish and loved as ever, and with her three funnels replaced by a pair of stockier, newer models, the Ile De France still had an exterior that was obviously from another era when she arrived back in New York to a fabulous, fire boat and siren welcome. But, with her return to service, the French Line served due notice to the opposition. The legend- and she was already that- was back. And how.

The service and cuisine remained as lavish as ever. On the Ile De Franc, onion soup was offered for breakfast even in tourist class. In those first, post war years, the Atlantic liner trade boomed as never before.

Paired with the reborn Liberte, formerly the rival German Europa, the Ile De France offered the most highly styled and diverse service afloat. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger and faster; the French duo had that same effortless, elegant sense of art de vivre that made the French Line the natural first choice of the beau monde. For years, the two ships raked in massive profits for the French Line.

As the fifties picked up pace, the veteran liner finally began showing her age. But in July 1956, the Ile De France made world wide headlines once again, when she rescued most of the 1600 plus survivors of the Andrea Doria, after the beautiful Italian liner- the very emblem of 1950’s built, ocean going modernity- sank after being rammed in thick fog off Nantucket. There was life in the old girl yet.

In the winter season, the Ile De France sailed on leisurely, lavish cruises to the Caribbean from New York; a role in which she was to prove surprisingly popular. During the course of one of these, she ran aground and damaged her keel. Though taken back to Newport News and repaired, the Ile De France was clearly on borrowed time. And, when it came, her end caused uproar across her native land.

In 1959, the thirty-two year old Ile De France was finally sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. But, before commencing the task, the Japanese hired the Ile De France out to a Hollywood movie company. She was about to become the biggest floating film prop in movie history.

Over the course of The Last Voyage, the Ile De France- restyled as the S.S. Claridon for the sake of the film- suffered the indignity of having her forward funnel being toppled onto the superstructure, followed by numerous dramatic internal ‘explosions’. Then, the veteran liner was sunk in shallow water as a climax of sorts. Once raised post filming, her devastated, degraded carcass was patched up, and towed away to be butchered in a scrapyard.

And yet…..

Even that final, degrading barbarism has done nothing to diminish the reverence and sheer awe in which the Ile De France is still held, both in her native land, and by the maritime community as a whole. For the Ile De France had not just panache; she had soul. She was the absolute epitome of finely styled, ocean going finesse and elegance. Of a truth, she was beloved, and in a way that few, more pretentious vessels ever were, or will be.

Those striking, Art Deco interiors marked her out as a true, ocean going game changer; a ship as bold and daring as she was beautiful and dramatic. And, of course, she was fun.

Abreast of her smoke stacks, on either side, giant electric letters used to spell out her name. And, even now, it is all to easy for the mind’s eye to see those same, brilliant letters blazing out across the Atlantic at sunset as the cocktail hour approaches.

At the same time, they were both her epitaph, and the endorsement of her own, immortal legend.

ILE DE FRANCE.

FRENCH LINE CUISINE; THE FINEST AFLOAT

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

‘Bon voyage is always French’ was the motto of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, better known as the French Line. The line asserted confidently that you were actually ‘in France’ the moment that you crossed the gangways of any of their fabled liners, no matter where in the world you actually happened to be.

Competition for the creme de la creme of the North Atlantic trade was always fierce, even at the height of the Depression. Steamship lines inherited and showcased all the values- both real and imagined- of their respective mother countries. Every transatlantic liner was an ambassador of sorts for the nation whose flag she flew, and all were sailed with a sense of fierce, patriotic pride.

But none quite reached the level of elegance, service and panache that typified the French Line; even today, most knowledgeable travellers regard it as the height of ocean liner style and glamour. And a huge amount of that appeal came from the almost relentlessly French ambiance created aboard those fabled liners.

For instance, announcements on board were always first made in French, even though something like eighty per cent of the passengers on any given crossing would be American. Table wine on board was always free in all classes; the French believed that wine was an integral part of any meal. Even the bell boys had scarlet coloured jackets that matched the funnel colours to almost cosmetic perfection.

In first class especially, their ships were staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz, or the Negresco. But nowhere did the French sense of art de vivre resound so thoroughly as in the dining experience on board.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first class dining rooms were nothing less than sea going cathedrals, raised to the religion of haute cuisine. They were stunning, theatrical spaces at least two levels high; the idea that ‘low ceilings do not aid the appetite’ was a company mantra.

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

And the food was, naturally, prepared, served, and devoured with theatrical relish and attention to detail. For example, the ground breaking Ile De France of 1927 listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items on her first class dinner menu. Twenty two years later, when she emerged as a two stacker at the end of her post war rebuild, the Ile De France still offered French onion soup as an option on the breakfast menu, even in tourist class.

Of course, the Normandie raised things to another level again; that of the truly stratospheric.

Her wine cellar was loaded aboard a full nine months prior to her barnstorming maiden voyage in May of 1935, in order that it should settle properly. It was also placed in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, that the rolling would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an occupational hazard for the French Line on any trip, but the idea that the wine should be compromised was, naturally, unthinkable.

The Normandie routinely carried no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne. Her first class dining room was three decks high, more than a hundred yards long. and lined with floor to ceiling hammered glass, back lit by enormous, lalique light fountains that hugged the edges of the room. Above it all, a gigantic gold, gilt and coffered ceiling held a powerful, imperious sway.

With typical modesty, the French Line remarked that this astonishing chamber- still the most beautiful public room ever to go to sea on any ship- was ‘slightly longer’ than the famous Hall Of Mirrors in Versailles.  It was more than big enough to contain all three of Christopher Columbus’ ships at the same time.

Approached via a pair of enormous, bronze doors, this was the first air conditioned room on any ship. Some one hundred and fifty tables allowed every first class passenger on board to dine at the same time. By now, that same menu listed some three hundred and twenty five different items on every crossing.

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

But the Normandie also had the more informal Cafe Grill right aft, a kind of supper club with live dancing .With steel and leather chairs and tables, and walls of varnished pig skin, it never really got into its swing until after midnight. You could dance until daybreak, and still savour a perfectly prepared chilli con carne at two o’clock in the morning. Many did just that.

Post war saw the eventual creation of the France, the last true year round transatlantic liner built for the northern route. The French Line described her as ‘the last refuge of the good life’ after her 1962 maiden voyage. In her, all the cherished traditions enshrined on the Normandie, the Ile De France and the Liberte lived again in one final, fantastic display of bravado.

Awed by the France, the American food critic, Craig Clairborne, described her first class dining room as ‘the finest French restaurant anywhere in the world’, and with very good reason. The old standards were adhered to with an almost religious zeal; to the end of her days, the France remained the greatest and best fed of all the Atlantic liners.

For example, Camembert was only offered on the menu on the fourth day of a westbound crossing to New York, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. It was available to order off menu at any time, of course. But tradition demanded that it only be openly advertised when at its absolute best.

The extent of this fierce dedication to the good life was pointed up in the early seventies. Cunard, wanting an impartial opinion on how the French ship compared to their brand new QE2, paid for Lord Litchfield to cross the Atlantic one way on each ship. On his return, this card carrying member of the British establishment shocked his Cunard hosts by telling them that the food and service on the France was superior in every respect to that of their new flagship.

With her withdrawal in 1974, one hundred and ten years of French Line excellence and urbanity was guillotined in a single stroke. Of course, the great France herself would be miraculously resurrected as the show stopping Norway, but the magic of the dining experience had gone. It was a different time, and a different world.

And, truth be told, there has never been anything like it since. Au Revior.

THE BREMEN; GERMANY RESURGENT

Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

Bremen and Europa were world beaters when first built

In the annals of vanished Atlantic liners, the names of Bremen and Europa are synonymous with rebirth, prestige, and the extraordinary succession of ‘ships of state’ that the post Great War era produced. Yet Bremen herself had only ten years in service for her owners, while her illustrious sister ship went on to a second, post World War Two life as the Liberte.

So why is this fabled German giant, so initially dominant but so soon eclipsed by foreign rivals, still seen as one of the great leaps forward in maritime history? Hopefully, this post will get across just some of her mystique and posthumous allure.

Please note that this is not a concise summation of the ship and her career. Other, more knowledgeable writers have already defined that in far more depth than I ever could.

Simply put, the most miraculous thing about the Bremen is that she was ever built at all. With the German economy a train wreck after the war and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, even finding the finance to put these two remarkable sister ships together was an astonishing achievement in itself.

The sheer, naked ambition was also undeniable. From the start, the Bremen was intended to snatch back the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic from Great Britain, after an absence of some twenty- two years. There was no subtlety here whatsoever; the Bremen was designed to be a winner first, and a practical passenger ship second.

And the Bremen was brutally, relentlessly modern, as much in design as intent. Her twin funnels were squat, low, oval shaped anomalies; so low, in fact, that they rained soot on the boat deck so much that both had to be doubled in height; an addition that improved her appearance immensely.

She was the first liner ever to have a bulbous bow; a kind of underwater forefoot that helped the ship to gain aerodynamic momentum in the water. So successful was this that almost every liner built thereafter had the same feature. And her forward superstructure was curved, rather than flat, to decrease wind pressure on the forward momentum of the ship. Again, this was a feature that would be widely copied.

In addition, the Bremen had the unbeatable cachet of being the largest liner to be built since the end of the war. She represented a seismic break with the past. Her designer said that she gleamed ‘like a new planet’ when the plans for her were first released.

Not that the Germans were above copying as well as innovating. In their early days, both Bremen and Europa carried a catapult plane, an idea taken from their raffish French rival, the Ile De France. As with the French ship, these proved to be ultimately impractical, and would be subsequently removed.

And her interiors attempted to emulate the Ile De France by making a complete break from the ageing Edwardian showpiecess of Cunard and White Star. But while the Art Deco styling of the Ile De France was sensational and legendary, the Bauhaus interiors of the Bremen gave her a cold, almost sterile stance. One of the first things the French did with the post war Europa was to rip it all out, and replace it with bow to stern Art Deco. Those original interiors were efficient, rather than engaging.

It had been originally intended to sail the two new sister ships on a tandem maiden voyage, so that they could take the record together. But a severe dockyard fire delayed the Europa by a full year. Hence it was the squat, solid Bremen that emerged to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard in June of 1929.

Twenty years of advances in marine technology could not be denied, and the Bremen did exactly what she was built to do, taking the Blue Ribband from the ageing, dowager Mauretania at the first attempt. It was  a stunning triumph; a real slap across Britannia’s imperial face.

It also triggered the greatest shipbuilding race in maritime history. Even as the delayed Europa emerged to join her sister on the Atlantic, the hulls that would soon become Rex, Normandie and Queen Mary were already beginning to take shape in their respective home countries. The race was on, and how.

The two sensational new German sisters now indulged in a kind of maritime ping pong with the speed record, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. But their timing was disastrous; within four months of the sensational debut of the Bremen, the Great Depression enveloped the world like poisonous fog. Within two years, passenger numbers on the Atlantic were down by fifty per cent, and even the two new liners were suffering.

Later, when the market had begun to recover, they were unfairly associated with the new Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, and many people simply would not set foot aboard either of them. Then came bigger, faster ships such as the Rex and the Normandie, which completely outclassed the German ships. All the huge advances they seemed to introduce were set at nought.

In the late thirties, the Bremen made a sensational cruise around South America, becoming the largest ship ever to pass through the Panama Canal. But even this was eclipsed in the public imagination by the legendary Normandie cruise down to Rio Carnival that same year.

A few days before war broke out, the Bremen- painted slate grey, and with her upper deck rigged with explosives- slipped out of New York to avoid the certainty of looming internment. Her crew gave the Nazi salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she slipped past it.

British navy cruisers were lying in ambush for her just outside the harbour, but the Bremen was still fast and nimble enough to avoid these. After a tense few days, she took shelter in the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk. She remained there for three full months.

That December, shrouded in fog, the Bremen battled through a series of howling gales, ghosting down the coast of Norway. The fleeing liner briefly danced into the cross hairs of a British submarine periscope, but not for long enough. By the skin of her teeth, the Bremen made it back to her home port of Bremerhaven.

Here, she joined her long since shackled sister ship, the Europa, to wait out the end of the war. Both ships were painted in dazzle camouflage, and plans were afoot to use them as part of Operation Sealion, Hitler’s ultimately aborted invasion of Great Britain.

Their use would have been insane; such huge targets would have been unmissable for any stray bomber. Though huge ports were cut in their sides to accommodate the mass landing of troops, the idea- much like Sealion itself- was soon quietly abandoned.

In March of 1941, a disgruntled crewman set fire to the Bremen as she lay idly at her berth. In circumstances that have never really been properly explained, the liner burned right down to the waterline, and became a constructive total loss. Her charred, smouldering corpse was scrapped on site.

Without doubt, the barnstorming Bremen deserved better. Not for her the glittering, albeit estranged post war career of her sister ship.  And yet, in the parade of lost ocean liners, the spectacular Bremen will always hold a special place.

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1960’S

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.

CDF (NOT) TO ACQUIRE CELEBRITY CENTURY (UPDATED)

CNV00198French sources are reporting that the 1995 built Celebrity Century will transfer over from Celebrity to the French Croisieres De France line in 2015.

This will give the Royal Caribbean affiliate a trio of ex- Celebrity vessels. The line currently operates the 1990 built, 48,000 ton Horizon. She will be rejoined in 2013 by her 1992 built sister ship, Zenith, which is currently sailing for Pullmantur.

Celebrity Century has spent her last few seasons alternating between the Caribbean, and summer Alaska cruises. Her disposal has been bruited for a few years now, though Celebrity has continued to constantly invest and upgrade its first true mega ship.

Built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Germany and delivered towards the end of 1995, the then Century was the first of a similar trio. The 71,000 ton ship was followed by two slightly larger siblings, Galaxy and Mercury. Collectively, this trio raised the bar substantially in terms of the luxury mega ship experience, with their excellent service, cuisine and facilities putting them not far below the deluxe small ships in terms of the product offered on board.

Particular emphasis was placed on the quality and placement of on board art works at the time. All three ships went a huge way towards making Celebrity a world wide brand, before the line’s annexation  by Royal Caribbean in 1998. With extra large cabins and exquisite decor, these vessels were very much the benchmark for the subsequent Millennium class sisters that followed them.

When Galaxy and Mercury were passed on to the affiliated TUI Cruises, it was apparent that the older Century was also on borrowed time as a Celebrity mainstay. Despite this, she was given a major rebuild, with several hundred cabins enhanced with new, private balconies, as  well as incorporating successful signature elements that had proved popular on succeeding new classes of ships.

As far as Celebrity Cruises is concerned, the Century will always remain a seminal, groundbreaking ship. Deployed over the course of her career to most cruising regions in the world, she remains a ship that still has a huge amount to offer the cruising market.

Transferring to CDF, she will be the first, truly big French flagged passenger ship since the legendary SS. France of 1962. As such, she becomes part of a continuing tradition of French maritime excellence that includes such storied names as Ile De France, Liberte and, of course, Normandie.

While no itineraries have yet become public, the renaissance of this already fabled ship under the French flag will be welcomed by many shiplovers and bon viveurs around the world. I wish this great and beautiful lady bon voyage, and many more years of happy, highly styled adventures.

DECEMBER 28, 2013: The transfer of Celebrity Century to Croisieres De France, originally denied after the initial publication of this piece, has now been confirmed. She will replace the smaller, less balcony laden Zenith from April of 2015.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2, 2014: You can disregard all of the above. It was today announced that Celebrity Century has, in fact, been sold to Chinese interests effective of April, 2015. What effect this will have on possible future fleet dispositions for Croisieres De France is as yet unannounced. 

ENDLESS SAILINGS ON A STARLIT SEA PART TWO- WAR AND OTHER HAZARDS

ImageIn September of 1939, Adolf Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, igniting the time bomb that mushroomed into the most destructive war in history. By its end six years later, millions would be dead, and the ranks of famous Atlantic liners would be decimated.

The outbreak of war found both the Normandie and Queen Mary in New York, shackled to their piers. They would be joined the following March by the brand new Queen Elizabeth, after the incomplete new Cunarder made a spine tingling dash across the Atlantic. Converted for trooping duties, both Queens would go on to make an indelible contribution to human history.

The Normandie was not so lucky. A catastrophic fire, started in the last phase of outfitting her as a trooper, would be compounded by a disastrous ingress of slowly freezing water that eventually capsized her in the middle of New York harbour like a beached whale. Her scarred, gutted remains were refloated in 1943, but by then she was useless. The most brilliant and original ocean liner of all time could have shaved another six months from the end of World War Two. Instead, her carcass was butchered in a New Jersey shipyard. For all her magnificence, she never earned a penny in profit.

Of the German liners, the Bremen escaped the Royal Navy by the skin of her teeth at war’s outset, only to be burned to waterline level by a disgruntled crew member in 1941. The two Italian beauties, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, both succumbed to bomb and rocket attacks in shallow home waters. Only the Europa survived to become a prize of war, awarded to France as a makeshift replacement of sorts for the fallen Normandie.

But it was the two Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that were the real game changers. Sailing alone, at high speed and painted grey, they often wafted up to fifteen thousand troops each across the Atlantic to swell the ranks of the D-Day invasion force. Between them they carried more than 1.2 million men, without the loss of a single life. It was the greatest single troop lift in history, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war in Europe.

No less a person than Winston Churchill recorded that the two ships between them shortened the European war by at least a year. Adolf Hitler was no less aware of their potential; he offered a quarter of a million reichsmarks to the U-boat commander that sank either of them. None even came close.

After the war, the two proud but grimy Queens were completely refurbished. By 1947 they were offering the most spectacular and successful two-ship service ever seen on the Atlantic. Despite their size, both were sold out more than six months in advance. Anyone who was anyone travelled on them, and Cunard was profiting as never before.

Stunned by the loss of Normandie, the French Line resumed service with the sassy, legendary Ile De France. Just over a year later, she was joined by the Liberte. This was nothing less than the heavily powdered, art deco suffused Europa. She arrived in New York to a grand welcome in August 1950 as virtually a new ship. With fabulous food and service, she quickly, quite inexplicably. became the most popular ship on the Atlantic.

Up above, commercial air travel across the Atlantic had now begun. Fledgling airlines like TWA, Pan Am and BOAC used propeller driven planes that were usually derivatives of heavy, four engined, World War Two Allied bombers, converted for passenger service. The flights were noisy, often shaky affairs. And they were also very expensive. A one way flight from Europe to America typically took around twelve hours, and often necessitated a fuelling stop on some barren Canadian airfield en route.

But, while the vast majority of the travelling public continued to prefer the fun and frivolity of crossing by sea, those flights were still a warning shot that the shipping companies closed their ears to. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic run boomed like never before. When America got in on the act and introduced the brilliant, barnstorming SS United States in 1952, more than 1.2 million people were crossing the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, even the biggest and most prestigious ships- the Queens, the Liberte and the Ile De France- were sold out many months in advance.

The United States was built for rapid conversion into a trooper, and outfitted with engines designed for fast aircraft carriers in the Pacific war. It was a power plant without equal; one displayed to dazzling effect in her July 1952 debut, when she swept the board in the Atlantic speed stakes. For some years, the ‘Big U’ carried the cream of American society, though the Brits continued to favour the clubby Queens, and more cosmopolitan types swore by the French Line.

It was an incredible time. It became common for the liners to sail from their New York piers at midnight, wreathed in technicolor showers of streamers and ablaze with light from bow to stern. On board farewell parties would continue until the last possible minute, and sometimes beyond. It seemed that the good times were here to stay.

There were occasional salutary reminders of who was really the boss. In July 1956, the sumptuous, state of the art Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket, after being rammed in thick fog by the small Swedish liner, Stockholm. This was despite both ships being radar equipped. Some fifty-six passengers and crew lost their lives.

Then, in October 1958, the first Pan Am jet airliner flew from New York to Paris in just six hours, and the death knell of the ocean liner screamed overhead at thirty thousand feet. Within two years, the jets had seventy per cent of the travelling public on board. Soon, the once crowded Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. An irreversible decline had begun. Even the United States was suffering, and badly at that.

There were attempts to use all these ships for warm weather cruises, especially in the quieter winter months. But the Queens, especially, were woefully ill suited to this kind of a role. One somewhat akin to expecting a professional footballer to adapt to playing top level, championship rugby. The attempt eked out their careers for a while, but often at the expense of their fading dignity. The United States fared better, but her deep draft meant that she could dock at very few of the more attractive cruise ports. She, too, was on borrowed time.

ImageSo it was with bemused amazement that thousands lined the banks of the Hudson in February, 1962, to witness the maiden arrival of the brand new SS. France. Built to be a ‘second Normandie’, she embodied all the style, grace and panache that the French Line had proudly excelled at for almost a century. Food and service aboard her were as impeccable as ever. Her owners called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

She was the longest passenger ship ever built. The American press called her an eighty million dollar gamble yet, for years, she averaged more than eighty per cent occupancy. She was joined in 1969 by the new Queen Elizabeth 2, a radically modern replacement for the venerable Queens. For the Elizabeth, that retirement ended with her destruction by fire in Hong Kong in 1972. The more beloved Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified relic of sorts in Long Beach to this day.

From Italy, a pair of lithe, white swans called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were briefly able to buck the airborne assault. Highly styled and snappily served, they were ultimately to fall prey to the jets. Ironically, both were destroyed by bombers while serving as static Iranian garrison ships in the 1980’s.

ImageThe United States fell by the way in 1969, leaving the France and the QE2 to struggle on. Then, in 1974, the French government finally guillotined the $24 million operating subsidy for the France. Unwanted and abandoned, the great French liner was laid up to await an uncertain fate. The QE2 was alone,

ImageA scheme to convert the France into a floating casino sank without trace. For five dark and silent years she sat alone and unloved. And then, even as scrapyard owners around the world opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives, there came a sudden, fantastically implausible reprieve….

Against all the odds, the beloved liner France was converted over eight months into the Norway, the largest, most staggering and revolutionary cruise ship ever created. Her new Norwegian owner, Knut Kloster, envisaged a bright future for her as a Caribbean cruise ship; one three times larger than her nearest rival.

His rivals thought the idea mad, and not without reason. But Kloster had the last laugh. The first thing he did was close down the forward of her two engine rooms, reducing her speed to a level more suited to leisurely cruises than fast ocean crossings. In her French Line days, the France had guzzled fuel like so much cheap table wine. At one stroke, Kloster slashed her fuel bill by a full two thirds.

With a vast amount of open deck space superimposed on board and a pair of new swimming pools added, the Norway went ‘back to the future’ with a total art deco refurbishment from bow to stern. Two vast, 400 passenger tenders were shipped on board for ferrying duties in the Caribbean. On board came the first television station ever to go to sea, an indoor promenade with eleven different shops set along a pair of window walled boulevards, and the first Broadway style shows ever to go to sea.

It went on and on. The Norway loaded aboard a fifteen piece big band, embarked a thousand passengers, and then set off on a nostalgic crossing to New York and her new home port of Miami. She became a resounding success, paving the way for every modern cruise ship that would follow her. She would dominate the Caribbean for years.

ImageLeaving New York, she passed the incoming QE2, and the air reverberated with their whistles as the two great ships saluted each other for the first time in six years. A massive mural of that meeting was displayed on the walls of New York’s Grand Central Station for years.

And here, with that moment and those two ships, is where the story of my sea travels truly begins…….