QUEEN ELIZABETH: CUNARD’S UNLOVED SISTER?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeventy years ago today, Cunard’s reconditioned Queen Elizabeth began her much delayed maiden voyage to New York. At exactly the same time, many of the main henchmen of the late Adolf Hitler were waiting for a final appointment with an American hangman in their cells in the Place of Justice at Nuremberg.

That latter, epochal event in world history had the effect of relegating the much delayed maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth to the inside pages of much of the world press. And, in a way, it had always been thus for the storied Cunard liner.

The Queen Elizabeth was launched on September 27th, 1938, into a world already twitching ever more nervously at the sabre rattling antics of both Hitler and his Italian vassal, Benito Mussolini. Just one month earlier, her companion ship- Queen Mary- had finally wrested back the Blue Riband from her great French rival, the Normandie. Even from the start, these events conspired to put the launch of the new ship very much on the back burner of world news.

Of course, the Queen Elizabeth never ran for the speed record. One record holder was enough for the line, and of course, that honour was left with the Queen Mary. Even after the barnstorming debut of the United States in 1952, the younger, seemingly more subdued of the Queens was never let off the leash to see what she could really do.

There was always something kind of melancholy, almost hang dog, about the Queen Elizabeth in the post war years when compared to the Queen Mary. And the real tragedy here is that, in almost every way, the Queen Elizabeth was the better ship of the two, both from a technical and passenger standpoint.

The Queen Elizabeth was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the Queen Mary, with a brace of fully formed, free standing funnels and a sharply raked prow. Her upper decks were largely free of the forest of vents and guy wires that mushroomed everywhere about the older ship’s trio of smokestacks. In every aesthetic respect, she was an obviously more modern ship than the earlier liner and, from the point of view of both crew and passenger comfort, a far better ship.

And yet she never really endeared herself to either passengers or crew in the same way that the Queen Mary did, both before and after the war. A war in which she played every bit as vital and heroic a role as the earlier ship, lest we forget.

Why? There will never be a definitive answer to that question, simply because it is so hard to be rational about vessels that essentially draw a purely emotive, largely illogical, response from those that live in them and sail them. But my guess is that the public- both at home and the travelling kind- had three full years before the war to get used to the ideal of the Queen Mary, and what she actually represented. The Queen Elizabeth- the actual, truly named ‘Grey Ghost’- seemed to appear, not quite fully formed, from the fog of war, performed magnificently, only to emerge into the new, peacetime era as an unknown, largely unheralded debutante. She never had time to create her own pre war legend, that bond with both crew and travelling public, that is the foundation on which any successful commercial career is built.

Of course, she did phenomenally well on the hugely lucrative Atlantic crossing right up until 1960. And it was the Queen Elizabeth that was so expensively converted for part time cruising in the mid Sixties, at a time when both the ageing dowagers were sailing on a rising tide of red accountants’ ink. Cunard obviously saw more potential and adaptive ability in their second, prodigal child, even after almost two decades of service.

Her end- tragic and almost certainly preventable- was a kind of mirror image of her life; sensational and dramatic, but soon forgotten by those not directly affected by it. By then, she was an idea and a concept whose time was obviously gone.

As ocean liners go, the Queen Elizabeth and her service record were largely eclipsed by that of a truly beloved, yet quite inferior companion ship which, against all the odds, still somehow contrives to exist in Long Beach, California, to this day. One whose very name has come to symbolise all that is enduring and immortal about ocean liner travel.

Who knows? Perhaps ocean liner history is not deep and expansive enough to allow for the burnishing and preservation of two such gigantic legends at the same time.

CARNIVAL MIRACLE TO GET STRING OF SPRING UPGRADES

Carnival is making substantial enhancements to the Carnival Miracle in March

Carnival is making substantial enhancements to the Carnival Miracle in March

Carnival Cruises has announced that the Carnival Miracle will receive a string of enhancements and upgrades during a two week dry dock over late March.

One of four Vista class ships originally built for the line, Carnival Miracle will then sail year round from the Los Angeles port of Long Beach, on three different, week long Mexican Riviera itineraries. The ship will also offer some longer sailings to Hawaii and back later in the year.

The 92,000 ton ship will be upgraded as part of the continuing Funship 2.0 fleet wide roll out. From the end of March, passengers sailing on the relaunched ship can expect to find some sizzling new dining, drinking and leisure venues on board. Among them are;

Alchemy Bar

A vintage themed alcohol ‘pharmacy’ where trained mixologists can conjure up individually prepared cocktail ‘potions’ to order.

Cherry On Top

A kind of ‘olde worlde’ cave for sweet tooth lovers to indulge to the max. You’ll find bins of bulk candy to purchase, plus novelty items and branded clothing.

Hasbro; the game show

A uniquely interactive, audience participation show where guests can participate in such perennial, popular brand games as Connect 4 Basketball, Sorry Sliders, and Yahtze bowling.

New Sports Bar

A specially dedicated venue for sports fans of all disciplines, featuring live games and a full time, 24/7 screen ticker.

Playlist Productions

A quartet of sizzling, soulful new high energy theatre productions- Getaway Island, Heart and Soul, 80’s Pop To the Max, and 88 Keys. Each one promises to be a high intensity, visual treat from start to finish.

Red Frog Pub

Carnival’s signature, on board bar, serving up its very own Thirsty Frog beer, enjoyed in an ambience that combines the laid back style of the Caribbean with the free wheeling, bohemian fun lifestyle of Key West.

Seuss At Sea

Relive the whimsical world of Doctor Seuss, with such surreal treats as a Green Eggs and ham breakfast at sea with the Cat in he Hat and his friends, plus story time with Seuss-a-Poloosa, and more.

Spin U

A kind of master class academy for would be ‘teen jays’ between the ages of 15 and 17, developed in association with the renowned DJ Irie.

Carnival Miracle already has a slew of luxury lounging and dining options in place, including an adults only, outdoor Serenity Area, a Punchliners Comedy Club in association with George Lopez, a ‘Taste Bar’ that offers bite sized samples from all the menus right across the ship, an elegant, authentic American style steakhouse that serves up a whole conga line of prime cuts and succulent sea food.

As the Mexican market continues a slow but steady recovery, the substantially enhanced Carnival Miracle should prove to be a formidable, year round presence on the west coast, and a real alternative to the traditional Caribbean market.

 

IT’S A MIRACLE! CARNIVAL RETURNS TO YEAR ROUND MEXICAN RIVIERA CRUISING

Carnival is going back to Mexico

Carnival is going back to Mexico

In a move that should prove hugely beneficial to the Mexican economy, Carnival has announced that it will return to year round, Mexican Riviera cruises from the port of Long Beach, in Los Angeles. The Vista class Carnival Miracle will undertake a series of three different, seven night itineraries, as well as a couple of longer swings out to the islands of Hawaii and back.

The seven day Mexican Riviera market had been in decline for several years; with on shore violence in Mazatlan especially being a reason cited for many companies withdrawing ships from what had once been a popular cruising circuit.

With the return of the 88,000 ton Carnival Miracle, the route gets it’s first year round vessel for several years. Carnival Miracle has yet to receive the series of Funship 2.0 series of dining and entertainment upgrades being gradually rolled out across the Carnival fleet; but she is scheduled for a dry docking in March, 2015 which is expected to bring her fully up to specification.

The first of the seven night offerings is a return to what was the original classic run; a seven night round trip that showcased day long stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and the famous seaside resort of Cabo San Lucas.

The second itinerary should prove really popular, combining a two day, overnight stop in the popular destination of Puerto Vallarta with another, day long stop in Cabo San Lucas.

Itinerary number three showcases a day in Puerto Vallarta with a two day, overnight stay in Cabo San Lucas. However, those contemplating sampling some of Cabo’s legendary night life are in for a disappointment. The resort is a tender port, and tenders do not run at night.

As also mentioned, the Carnival Miracle will also make a couple of exquisite, fifteen night forays from Long Beach out to the Hawaiian Islands and back the first in October 2015, and the second one a month later.

Los Arcos, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Los Arcos, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

In addition to the seven night runs, Carnival also operates two smaller sister ships, Carnival Imagination and Carnival Inspiration,  from the ports of Long Beach and San Pedro, the main port of Los Angeles, on a weekly series of three and four night cruises.

Three night cruises call in at the Mexican port of Ensenada, while the four night sailings add in the resort of Avalon, on Catalina Island.

Combined with the return of the rival Norwegian Star to seven night Mexican Riviera sailings out of San Pedro, the arrival of Carnival Miracle in Long Beach offers another, no doubt welcome sign of better days ahead for this once popular cruise circuit.

THE GREATEST SPEED RACE OF ALL TIME; NORMANDIE, QUEEN MARY, AND THE BLUE RIBAND OF THE ATLANTIC

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

At 11.03 on the morning of June 3rd, 1935, the French Line’s brand new SS. Normandie thundered past the Ambrose Lightship. just off the coast of North America. As she did so, a thirty metre long blue pennant was unfurled at her mainmast, and her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream. Normandie, newest and greatest of all ocean liners, had taken the North Atlantic speed record at the first attempt. And now she was letting the world know about it.

Of course, she had not been openly trying for the speed record. No blue blooded ocean liner ever did. But there’s no doubt that the French desperately wanted the Blue Riband; France had never held it before.

The fallacy was exposed when every single one of the maiden voyage passengers was presented with an engraved silver medallion to commemorate the event, complete with the date. As for the actual Blue Riband pennant; that just ‘happened’ to be on board at the time. A happy coincidence, indeed.

That barnstorming maiden voyage of the Normandie was unquestionably the most successful in the history of ocean liner travel. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the River Hudson to witness her triumphal entry into Manhattan. Her debut attracted newspaper and media coverage fully equal in scale to the first Moon landing, some thirty four years later. And yet, even at the height of all the hoopla and celebration, the French Line directors back in Paris were casting nervous eyes over in the direction of Clydebank, where the Queen Mary was rapidly nearing completion for Cunard White Star.

One commentator summed it up perfectly when he said; ‘The coming of the Queen Mary will inaugurate the greatest speed race of all time. Which ship will be the faster; the Normandie or the Queen?’ It was a question that vexed people all over Britain and France alike. Nothing less than national pride was at stake.

In truth, the two liners had been rivals ever since they were laid down on their respective slipways in Scotland and France, right in the depths of the greatest financial depression that the world had ever known. They were of around the same size- 80,000 tons- and they were the first ships in the world ever to exceed a thousand feet in length. Each was designed to cross the Atlantic in around four days.

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

Normandie and Queen Mary were, essentially, vast, swaggering, sea going cathedrals, designed to showcase the greatest attributes and merits- both real and imagined- of their host nations. But, while work on the Queen Mary came to an agonising halt in the midst of the Great Depression, the French ploughed ahead with Normandie. She emerged in the late spring of 1935, and immediately swept the board on the Atlantic crossing. There had never been a ship like her and, in all truth, there has never been one quite like her since.

If the French were nervous about the coming debut of the Queen Mary, then their English rivals were equally jittery. The Normandie had taken every possible honour that the new British liner could hope to aspire to. If Britain was to regain its pre-eminent place as the number one maritime nation in the world, then the Normandie had to be beaten, and decisively at that.

It started well enough. On May 27th, 1936, the Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, high on jingoism and laden down with the weight of national expectation. Once clear of the English Channel, Commodore Edgar Britten put his foot down, and the big British liner thundered out to the westward. Then, two days out from New York, she hit the fog.

For eleven straight hours, the Queen Mary slowed to a crawl in the middle of a typical Atlantic sea of fog. When she finally cleared it, the big liner poured on power. She soon began to make up time.

But not enough time….

Queen Mary arrived in New York to a stunning, superlative welcome fully the equal of that accorded to her rival. But the next day, when the eastbound Normandie docked in Le Havre, she was still flying her Blue Riband pennant.

That same August, the Queen finally beat her French rival, taking the pennant in both directions. There was an air of general satisfaction back in Britain; the natural order of things seemed to have been restored.

Then, In March of 1937, the Normandie took back the eastbound record in the teeth of a ferocious storm. That same August, she also retook the westbound record as well. Game on.

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Finally, in August of 1938, the Queen Mary won back the record in both directions. Yet the British ship had always been the more powerful of the two. Her engines could generate 200,000 horsepower, compared to the 160,000 of her French rival. In theory, that gave the Queen an advantage of around twenty five per cent.

The actual speeds varied by only a fraction; both ships routinely ran at over thirty knots. Each in turn brought the crossing time down to a little under four days.

The Normandie benefited massively from her radical new hull design; sleek, clean, sweeping and modern, she was like a space ship compared to the doughty, conventional Cunarder. Her bulbous underwater bow and sharp, tapered prow combined with a broad waist and vast, soaring flanks to create a magnificent, aerodynamic dream of a hull, one as practical and successful as it was bewitching to behold.

By contrast, the Queen Mary was  a bigger, updated version of earlier, proven Cunard mainstays such as the Mauretania and Aquitania. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. For all of her considerable warmth and grace, she simply did not have the style, boldness and panache of the French ship.

But the Normandie was not quite the French masterpiece that her owners claimed. In fact, her hull was designed by a Russian emigre by the name of Vladimir Yourkevitch. Before the 1917 revolution, he had been an architect working for the Imperial Russian Navy.  Leaving Russia seemed a smart move at that turbulent time. And it was he who came up with the stunning hull design for the Normandie.

Yourkevitch was by no means prepared to work solely for-or with- the French. As specifications for both Normandie and Queen Mary were being worked out, Yourkevitch touted his revolutionary designs to both Cunard White Star and the French Line. The British sidelined the Russian refugee; the French did not.

And, in the most exquisitely agonising twist of all, Yourkevitch had to stand back and watch his great creation burn and die in front of his own eyes. As she slowly flooded and capsized at her Manhattan Pier in February of 1942, Yourkevitch begged the American admiral in charge of the scene to let him go on board.

He knew the Normandie blindfolded; better than anyone else. Yourkevitch could have opened the flood valves that would have ensured that the ship settled on an even keel. But this insignificant seeming little man was rebuffed. Admiral Adolphus Andrews told Yourkevitch that it was ‘a navy job’.

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The result? The needless, total destruction of the Normandie. With her went the chance of shaving up to six months from the end of World War Two.

Of course, the Queen Mary went on to a fabled, illustrious career that straddled both war and peace. She finally lost the Blue Riband to the barnstorming SS. United States in 1952. The new American liner had turbines developed for fast attack aircraft carriers in the Pacific theatre, and a hull shape that owed more than just a nod or two to the Normandie.

Both ships- Queen Mary and Normandie-  have rightly become immortal. They were designed, built and sailed with great style and panache. Everything about them was front page news at the time. Both survive after a form; the Queen Mary as a dilapidated, yet still dignified hotel cum tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. And as for Normandie, her reputation as the most beautiful, brilliant and daring ocean liner of all time is safe; cherished and inviolable, the magnificent French Line flagship remains the absolute epitome of luxury, style and glamour to this day.

TIME OUT IN THE 1930’S- TIME TRAVEL FOR REAL….

ImageI said in a previous blog that I had enjoyed an overnight stay in Long Beach on the venerable old Queen Mary. In fact, as things go on my ‘to do’ bucket list, this was right near the top. But I still approached the old girl with mixed feelings, and not without reason.

ImageBy the time I got to her, the Queen Mary had spent more time on life support in her Long Beach exile than in service; forty-three years against thirty-one, to be exact. I’d always assumed that there would be something mournful about her.

ImageThere would be that moment when I leaned over the railings, thrilled at the unique magic of being on such a fabled, legendary ship. The adrenaline would flow like tap water as I waited for the engines to start.

But of course, they never will….

ImageI was reminded again of the curious tourists that pay up to file past Lenin’s waxy corpse in Moscow. Was the Queen Mary the equivalent? The once great, iconic Cunarder now some tremendous, tethered mummy, wrapped in a hundred coats of black, white and red paint?

ImageI had other reservations. A lot of time and effort has gone into making the Queen Mary appear as some kind of temple to Art Deco. In fact, her interiors were much more of a Bauhaus/Odeon mixture. In terms of decor, she was by far the most conservative of the great ‘ships of state’ of the 1930’s.

ImageSure, there are plenty of streamlined, petrified Art Deco motifs still adorning the walls of her public rooms. But to call her an Art Deco ship- especially when compared to her great rival, the Normandie- has always seemed more than a little desperate to me.

But on the other hand….

ImageHere was the ship that had, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, shortened the war by at least a year with her troop carrying capacity. The ship that had held the Blue Riband unchallenged for fourteen consecutive years.

ImageShe was the ship of film stars, politicians, sportsmen. The great and the good. Noel Coward, Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Bob Hope and John Wayne. Greta Garbo. Bogart, Bacall, and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In her post World War Two heyday, anybody who was anybody at all sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary at some stage.

ImageAnd she still looks marvellous. No matter that her three funnels are plastic replicas of the originals. Those were wisely dismantled when it was found that the only thing still holding them together was one hundred and four coats of Cunard black and red paint.

ImageThe lady truly has a remarkable, swaggering stance. Even now, the Queen Mary is still a spectacular statement of intent. Just walking her outer decks is exhilarating. Stand on the wing of her bridge, look back at those three gigantic funnels, and you feel as if the old girl is ready to slip her ropes and sail off at any moment.

If only that were so…

ImageInside, many of her vast, double height public rooms can be viewed, as can the famous, supposedly haunted swimming pool. They run haunted tours on the ship. Maybe best not to give Clive Palmer any more money making ideas, though, eh?

ImageThe famous wood panelling is still waxed and buffed to an incredible degree, Just as in her heyday, the play of light on wood gives her a kind of dark, feverish feel in places.

ImageOf course, the legendary Veranda Grill has not been restored yet. If only they could achieve that, It would enhance her pulling power enormously. In the late forties and fifties, that room was the equivalent of the Savoy Grill, or the Ritz. The food and service was certainly among the best anywhere in the world.

ImageThe promenade decks are long, ghostly expanses. On my visit, they were as silent as a graveyard. Compared to how busy they must once have been, this was truly sad.

ImageBut my cabin- A-36- was wonderful. Just off the main lobby, and handy for what is still a fantastic shopping arcade; a true thirties time capsule with some excellent, eclectic memorabilia stores worth a few hours of anybody’s time. I browsed. I spent. I treasured. And I still do.

ImageBut, for me, the real highlight was the famous Observation Bar, curved around the base of the lower superstructure.

Here huge, floor to ceiling windows form a circular sweep that embraces a bewitching series of chrome balustrades, original floor and ceiling light fixtures, and groups of formal furniture. I could almost hear Noel Coward bitching about Ira Gershwin over a couple of apple martinis, or imagine Marlene Dietrich wafting into the room, all shimmering white and trailing a cloud of exquisite perfume in her wake.

CNV00099Here, the very essence of what the Queen Mary once was hits home like a cruise missile. The past is seared into every nook and cranny of this beautiful, expansive room. And, it has to be said, they make a pretty mean chocolate martini as well. It’s all good here.

ImageI left the ship feeling sad on several levels. Firstly, I was sad to end what had been a marvellous holiday (see previous blogs) and yes, I was sad to be leaving the Queen Mary, too. I want to return, and soon.

ImageThere was sadness, too, for all the parts of the ship that her owners simply cannot afford to renovate. Too much remains closed, dark and inaccessible.

Yet I am, after all, grateful that she is still there. Still proud, still beautiful, and still with a million stories to share.

ImagePartly for those reasons, I hope her venerable successor- the equally legendary Queen Elizabeth 2– can be preserved for other, future adventurers to love, cherish and wonder at. On that front, only time will tell I’m afraid.

SWEET TREATS- CRUISING DOWN TO CATALINA ISLAND

ImageIf you’re on a package tour or fly drive to California, you might be in blissful ignorance of an added opportunity to put a bit of added zing into your trip. Why not add on a short, three or four day cruise out of Long Beach down to Ensenada and the gorgeous, chocolate box time capsule that is Catalina Island. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

It was an adventure made better by an overnight, pre- cruise stay on the Queen Mary; that proud, petrified one time monarch of the North Atlantic ocean. My stay was a wonderful experience; but that’s a story for another day.

ImageThe three day Carnival cruise leaves on the Friday, visits Ensenada, and returns on Monday morning. The four day Monday departures follow the same route, but add in Catalina as a first port of call.

Here’s the thing; I think Ensenada is unrelentingly grim. There’s little to see here of merit, and the appalling poverty of many of the locals is simply heartbreaking to experience. Yes, you can shop, and drink margaritas, too. But the flies are the size of stealth bombers, and twice as fast.

There’s a hermetically sealed, faux Mexican village at the cruise terminal. It is off limits to the ordinary locals, and painted in an eye boggling shade of bubonic yellow. For me, that’s pretty much it.

ImageBut Catalina is a creature of a completely different kind.

It sits not far off shore from Los Angeles, but about five decades behind in terms of appearance and ambiance. The stance of the place is breathtaking, and the clapboard houses, fishing fleets and bustling quaysides of the tiny capital, Avalon, will put you straight in mind of New England. You come ashore by tender, and even the short ride across the water is an exhilarating jaunt.

ImageThe coastline unwinds in a series of sinuous, serpentine curves. At the end of Avalon’s waterfront sprawl is a circular, charming theatre from the thirties. It resembles nothing so much as a grand, slightly faded wedding cake; like most of the island, it seems slightly lost in the mists that can blanket the place in a heartbeat.

ImageBut take a slow, gentle walk along to that theatre, and you’ll pass benches framed by beautiful, coloured tile work that looks as if lifted intact from a Lisbon side street. Oleander and hibiscus fringe the edges of a small, dusky bronze beach that shelves almost reluctantly into the sparkling, early morning sweep of the Pacific. Canoes and kayaks are piled up like so much driftwood. This was January, after all.

ImageThe town centre is full of quirky little shops,bars and restaurants set along the main drag. They spill down into the side streets of this pocket sized town. On the opposite side of the road, a gaggle of seagull draped piers jut out into the mostly placid Pacific.

Catalina Island will always be associated with the unfortunate, still controversial death of Natalie Wood on a stormy night on this same, still water. But the town was defined by its past long before that tragic night in 1981.

ImageBecause Catalina feels very like a slice of what I imagine mainland California must have been like in the fifties. People in loud shirts, drinking sunset martinis and dining on fresh caught local fish. Lounge singers  crooning in crowded, smoke suffused waterfront bars in an age before discos. Yachts and fishing smacks bobbing like contented swans in the moonlight…

ImageLos Angeles is just twenty four miles away, yet it feels like an entirely different planet. Catalina seems to be almost unfeasible, adrift in its own time and space. A surf kissed Brigadoon, more apparent than real. And there lies the charm.

ImageLunch was spent in a fantastic, rustic fish restaurant on one of the piers. A forest of eclectic, amazing bric a brac climbed the walls all around me as the noon sun ghosted in through huge, louvered windows. The fish- fresh caught and landed that day- was stupendous, especially washed down with a cold Heineken. The whole thing was a feast for the senses as well as the palate.

ImageBack aboard, I realised that a couple of days in Catalina would probably be a great idea, especially in the summer. Any longer would probably be too much. Not a lot seems to happen. I suspect that the sense of languid charm would wear off after a few days.

ImageSo then we proceeded on down to Ensenada. I took the most sensible option open to someone who has been here before, and stayed on board. Sheer bliss ensued.

ImageAs the ship emptied and the on board vibe slowed to something quite pleasantly agreeable, I simply sagged down into the wonderful little Serenity area that all Carnival ships have. I enjoyed the solace and the sunshine, a lazily thrown together lunch, and some quality hot tub time. By the time our frazzled, sometimes slightly sozzled Mexican adventurers returned on board, my bathrobe and I had bonded quite wonderfully. And yes, I still got some sun.

Recommended? Oh yes. Absolutely.