CELEBRITY DE-SCALE; INFINITY AND SUMMIT TO LOSE LINER THEMED RESTAURANTS

Celebrity Cruises has just announced some major refurbishments and enhancements to two of it’s popular Millennium class vessels- Celebrity Infinity and Celebrity Summit- to be implemented between October 2015 and March, 2016.

The overall aim- and a perfectly laudable one- is to enhance the range of leisure features and dining areas available to the premier suite class passengers on both ships.

In line with this enhanced dining philosophy is a plan to eliminate both ‘themed’ ocean liner restaurants in each ship, and replace them with a specially crafted new Tuscan Grille, the line’s signature Mediterranean themed steakhouse.

In the case of Celebrity Infinity, this will involve stripping out the decor taken from the legendary SS. United States- herself tottering on the edge of the scrapper’s scaffold right now.

For Celebrity Summit, it will mean the stripping of the gorgeous Normandie restaurant, and the removal of all the fantastic, original, 1930’s Art Deco luxe from the ship.

Two things worry me here.

Where will these beautiful, evocative fittings- currently available to the travelling public- end up?

Secondly, will these moves also presage the removal of the similar, themed restaurants from siblings, Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Summit? Sadly, it seems inevitable.

On Celebrity Millennium, the themed ocean liner restaurant features the original wood panelling and fixtures from the RMS Olympic- the twin sister ship of the Titanic.

Again, what will happen to these fittings?

In creating these themed restaurants aboard ship in the first place, Celebrity established a totally unique, nostalgic dining experience at sea; a tour de force that was at once both elegant and, more importantly, accessible to the travelling public. It was something of a masterstroke at the time, and an enviable coup for the premium, highly regarded line.

Now, it seems, all four are to be thrown away for the sake of creating some quasi-Italian themed dining experience.

I have no objection to the idea of a Tuscan Grille, but at the expense of some of the most poignant and alluring real estate at sea? It seems to me that this is not a fair trade.

Within that eminently capacious quartet of 91,000 ton hulls, surely there must be some area that can be used- or built on to- to create an additional fine dining experience?

But the idea of removing those idyllic, themed dining rooms, with their all too obvious links to the hushed, illustrious dining experiences savoured aboard liners long since gone, seems too high a price to pay in my opinion.

Dear Celebrity Cruises; please think again.

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity's elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants....

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity’s elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants….

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM; AN APPRECIATION

Like many, many others in the maritime community, I am incredibly saddened to hear of the death today of John Maxtone-Graham. My thoughts are with his wife, Mary, and his family at this time of great personal loss.

I personally owe John Maxtone-Graham an unfathomable debt; it was his taut, articulate prose, at once both factual and poetic, that served as an inspiration and a benchmark for me on so many levels. I did not read The Only Way To Cross and it’s subsequent pair of eloquently wrought follow ups, so much as devour them.

His books were crafted with the same loving care and exquisite attention to detail as the great ships that he wrote about with such verve, flair and authority. He wrote about the likes of Normandie, Titanic and Norway in such a vivid and compelling way that those grand, dramatic ships suddenly became very real once more, emerging bows on from the mists of time. The sounds, sights and smells of another era danced through my mind like wisps of Atlantic fog.

And the man was unfailingly courteous; immaculately attired, his shipboard lectures were always packed to the gills. We would sit there, spellbound, as he told us stuff that many of us already knew by heart. And often, his take on seminal maritime events just cut straight to the core of a story with effortless ease.

Consider this John Maxtone-Graham classic quote; ‘There will never be a coherent account of the last hours of RMS Titanic, because nothing coherent actually happened…..’  It’s a stark, simple statement that goes like a laser to the heart of that awful night in April, 1912; a surgical scalpel, simple, elegant and true. I was hooked on his work from the moment that I read that line.

And I was lucky enough to meet the great man; he signed a copy of one of his books for me and answered the questions of this awed, star struck young neophyte with the calm, polite patience of a man who has heard it all before. And he did it with breathtaking ease and matchless authority.

So, I bid John Maxtone-Graham a very thankful and heartfelt bon voyage as he no doubt continues on his own, very personal, fantastic voyage of discovery. It is my fervent hope that he now finds the answers to those compelling questions from maritime history that even he could not resolve in this world. No doubt he will find those answers to be fascinating. And I, for one, would give anything to read his take on those answers.

Good sir; I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration and education that you provided me with. Your prose remains as proud, sharp and magisterial as the prow of the great Normandie herself. And, like that incomparable French liner that he so adored and described so well, John Maxtone-Graham was, truly, a one off; a paradigm that defies replication. Merci.

HIGH OLD STYLE; CROSSING THE ATLANTIC IN THE THIRTIES

In the Jet Age, it seems unfathomable to remember that, only eight decades ago, commerical travel between Europe and North America was almost strictly a seagoing businees. Week in and out, over a dozen of the world’s largest liners would sail from ports like Southampton, Le Havre, Bremerhaven, Rotterdam and Genoa, bound west for a fast, four day crossing before the first sight of that fabulous New York skyline.

In the meantime, perhaps another dozen or so prestige liners would be heading in the other direction, laden with passengers bound for the hot spots of a continent already twitching more and more uneasily at the bellicose sabre rattling of the fascist dictators, Hitler, Mussolini and, from 1936, Francisco Franco as well. But, with the depression finally fading away, for the Atlantic liners it was more or less business as usual.

These were the days of the so called ‘Ships of State’, when almost every major nation had it’s own flag carriers on the Atlantic crossing. Each of these vessels was intended to embody all of the best characteristics- both real and fondly imagined- of the mother country. And, for many booking on the Atlantic crossing in the thirties, these traits often played a big part in their decision of which ship to book.

For instance, the great Italian sisters, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, sailed from Genoa to New York and back, via Cannes and Gibraltar. A large part of their voyages were spent in calm, sunny waters, and so the two ships sported vast, umbrella strewn outdoor lido decks, with swimming pools surrounded by real sand. They offered that quintessentially Italian ‘dolce vita’ lifestyle afloat. For many contemplating the voyage to or from Southern Europe, these two great Italian ocean goddesses were the natural choice.

From Germany, the marvellous twin miracles known as Bremen and Europa continued to make the crossing to and from North America with almost military precision. It was an Atlantic proverb that German liners always offered the best cabin service of any line. Crisp, modern, and suffused with almost brutally chic Bauhaus interiors, the Bremen and Europa first suffered from the effects of the depression. Later, when the market had recovered somewhat, they again suffered unfairly by their associations with the nascent Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. In an act of supreme irony, the bodies of the Hindenburg crash victims, bedecked in swastika flags, were returned to the fatherland on board the eastbound Europa in May of 1937.

Few ships were as true to their national traits as the 1938 built Nieuw Amsterdam. She was small by the standards of the day- only 38,000 tons- and had no intention of running for the Blue Riband. But she was immaculate both inside and out- a spotless, splendid high point of maritime styling and elegance. It was bruited by the great Basil Woon that ‘a speck of dirt on a Dutch ship would be enough to make the Chief Steward commit suicide’ and, while that might be slightly over the top, it certainly went a long way to describing the atmosphere that existed on this marvellous ship. Defying time, tide, and even war, the ‘Darling of the Dutch’ would sail on until the 1970’s; a quite incredible feat.

Of course, the two great ‘front runners’ of the 1930’s were the Queen Mary and the Normandie. They were of similar size- 80,000 tons- and speed. Both ships could cross the Atlantic in four days and, for four years, they played ping pong with the speed record, as it passed back and forth between the two. But, ultimately, there were only minutes’ difference in the crossing times each racked up in those heady days. Eventually, it came down more to the national characteristics that each ship was perceived to offer.

Second out of the blocks after her French rival, the Queen Mary was panelled in literally hundreds of different kinds of beautiful woods. She was all chunky armchairs, linoleum flooring and feverish lighting, with Odeon and Art Deco motifs and overlays. A direct, dignified yet obvious descendant of the Mauretania and Aquitania, she was at once both stately and familiar, but on a scale never seen before on a British passenger liner.

Beore the war, she was mainly the ship of choice for the right of centre crowd; the sort of people that were said to prefer to do business with Hitler rather than Stalin. In those days, she was never famed as a late night party ship.

The Normandie could not have been more different. Internally, she was an Art Deco temple on a lavish, unparalled scale. She was unrealistic, uneconomic, and utterly magnificent.

In first class, the evening dinner menu routinely listed some three hundred and twenty five separate items. Table wine was always free aboard the Normandie, where it was considered an important part of the meal. And, though the great bulk of her passengers were American, announcements on board were first made always in French.

The Normandie attracted a passenger load that was the polar opposite of her great rival. It was a mostly left wing crowd, leavened out with a regular, eminent roster of Hollywood movie stars. They could, and often did, party through until the early morning hours.

One passenger- English as it happened- summed up the two great ships with matchless brevity; “In my opinion, the Queen Mary is a grand Englishwoman in sportswear, and the Normandie is a very pretty French girl in an evening gown.”

These, then, were the great, palatial paragons that dominated the North Atlantic in those last, uneasy years of peace. The firestorm that would follow would put all but three of them to the sword. And the post war shape of ocean travel- glamorous as it was- would never be quite the same again.

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930's was the greatest commuter highway in the world

The Atlantic crossing in the 1930’s was the greatest commuter highway in the world

FLASHBACK; 1935 SOUTHAMPTON DEATH ROW; MAURETANIA AND OLYMPIC

The maritime community in 1935 was awash with interest in the future. After a long, stagnant period of inactivity, work on the brand new Queen Mary was racing ahead on the Clyde at a frantic rate of knots. The inauguration of the new Cunarder was now just over a year away.

Even more imminent was the debut of the Normandie; the first ever of the 80,000 ton, 1,000 foot long ocean liners was due to sail on her maiden voyage in May and, in every respect, the new French flagship was expectd to make an enormous splash.

Time, space and tide would crown each of these great creations with it’s own garland of immortality. And yet, even as they prepared for their first apperances, other, once equally lauded liners sat languishing at Southampton’s Berth 108, waiting for that last, lonely voyage to the scrapyard.

Both Mauretania and Olympic were products of the pre- war Edwardian steamship race between Cunard and it’s great rival, White Star. Each had been a sensation in its day, and for many years beyond. Each had served its country during the Great War with great gallantry and energy. And each ship had lost a sibling in a ghastly maritime catastrophe.

Of the two, it was Olympic that was larger by half, and younger by four years. And Mauretania, as the unchallenged holder of the Blue Riband for two full decades, has left behind an imprint on maritime history that can never be equalled.

Each of the two liners had been the absolute epitome of style and glamour through most of the post war era. But a combination of natural ageing and plummeting passenger numbers courtesy of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, had made their retirements not just inevitable, but even necessary if the fragile new shotgun marriage of Cunard and White Star was to have a fighting chance.

In short, the past had to die so that the future- in the growing shape of the Queen Mary- might live.

For Mauretania, her last scheduled westbound crossing was in September, 1934. Now painted a shade of cruising white, the liner was laid up at Southampton’s Berth 108- a kind of maritime death row.

She was joined there by the Olympic in April of 1935, after her final transatlantic crossing from New York. Over the winter, the Cunarder’s paint work had grown grimy along her entire length. Now the Olympic was shackled to the berth just in front of her to await their fate.

Their silent, yet still dignified demise was in sharp contrast to the pair of great new hulls readying to take to sea in their stead in that spring of 1935. Both ships were soon enough to sail their final, desultory ‘green mile’ to the breakers.

Despite that, it is safe to say that the memories of each- what they were, what they achieved and, indeed, what they have become over the course of the years- continues to sail on to this day.

And that is exactly as it should be.

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

NORMANDIE; TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

At about this time some eighty years ago, the brand new French liner, Normandie, was running speed and handling trials in the area around the Bay of Biscay, prior to sailing round to Le Havre to enter commerical service at the end of May. Once there, she would embark passengers for what remains the most spectacular and barnstorming maiden voyage in maritime history to this day.

Watching the ship, the local Breton fishermen were astonished. They reported that the Normandie, rather than ploughing through the waves, instead glided over them ‘like a gull’. It was proof, as if proof were needed, of the extraordinary seakeeping qualities of the stunning hull wrought by Vladimir Yourkevitch.

Not that the French Line wanted to give the former Tsarist Russian naval designer any credit. The Normandie was seen by her owners to extol all the great virtues, both real and imagined, of the mother country. She was ‘France afloat’ on so many levels. In their minds, it would have taken more than a little off the gloss to re-iterate that her fabulous, flowing lines- the decisive feature that made her so distinctive and swift- were actually the brainchild of a foreigner, albeit an amazingly gifted one. In fact, only at the last moment was the French Line shamed into providing free, first class tickets on her maiden crossing for Mr. and Mrs. Yourkevitch.

‘The French Line’ said the company brochure, ‘naturally welcomes any suggestions from passengers for making the ship as agreeable as possible.’  And, while history would garland the Normandie with the accoloade of the most triumphant of all the great ocean speed queens, there were aspects of sailing aboard her in the early days that were somewhat less than agreeable.

While she was not subjected to the nightmarish rock and roll tendencies of her great rival, the Queen Mary, the Normandie did have the tendency to sometimes heel sharply to one side a short notice- ‘like a destroyer coming smartly about’- as someone once put it. She was always quick to correct herself, shearing smartly back to the vertical. In such situations, the Normandie was said to shatter pieces of lalique with careless abandon.

Yet she was still by far the better sea boat of the two great liners. The French Line used to boast that she was so stable that she never had to empty her swimming pools in even the most severe of Atlantic storms. It was a standing joke for many years that the Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea. The British liner also suffered from some quite severe vibration problems. But she was far from alone on that front.

For the Normandie, too, was prone to vibration. In her case, it was noted on her trials, and extra stanchions were put into some parts of her stern to provide stiffening. This was not an outright success; once she was in service, it was noted by many that glasses in the aft facing, upper deck Cafe Grill could only be half filled with water, lest the vibration empty them all over the passengers.

This problem was largely cured later by replacing the original quartet of four bladed propellers with a set of newly designed, three bladed models. And it should always be remembered that, when Normandie and Queen Mary first came into service, they were vessels of a size and scale never seen before. Some forms of mechanical problems could only be truly revealed and, hopefully parried, once the ships were in service, and operational experience had been gained with them.

All of this was in the future as the coundtdown begun to the maiden voyage of Normandie in that momentous spring of 1935. The wine cellar had been loaded on board a full six months earlier so that, even if the ship rolled, the motion would least upset the wine. The first class dinner menus that would list no less than 325 separate items had been prepared with agonised, exquisite care. The dog kennels were almost ready, and the famous, scarlet jacketed bellboys- the mousses- were being trained and inspected daily by veteran French Line hands, especially picked for the maiden voyage.

What those Breton fishermen saw in those memorable days was a ship totally without an equal; young, fresh, vibrant, and brimming with unparalelled potential. Blooming in the first full flush of the spring of her life, Normandie was a ship afloat on a sea that was one part pride, another part promise, a butterfly emerging from a coccoon.

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie's glittering career

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie’s glittering career

 

 

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 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.

AN AGONY OF COINCIDENCE; NORMANDIE, FRANCE AND QUEEN ELIZABETH

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Sometimes, history seems to repeat itself in the long, glamorous story of ocean travel, but not always in the best ways. For there are few things as littered with coincidence, or as laden with irony, as the destinies of successive generations of ocean liners.

Here I’m going to look at just one such link; a tenuous, yet all too true timeline that binds three of the greatest passenger ships ever built- Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, and the SS. France. Take from it what you will.

FEBRUARY 9 1942

The enormous French luxury liner, Normandie, catches fire at her Manhattan berth of Pier 88. The Normandie is in the last stages of being converted to a troop ship- the USS Lafayette. While the fire is ultimately contained, a catastrophic ingress of water applied from forty-three fire engines and numerous fireboats fails to drain, turns to ice, and then ultimately causes the Normandie to capsize. Raised some eighteen months later, the most brilliant and beautiful ocean liner ever built is found to be beyond economic repair. She is towed away and scrapped.

During her first six months in limbo, Normandie shared the waterfront with the only other thousand foot long liners in the world, the Cunard siblings, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. New York dockyard workers nickname them ‘The Monsters’ for the duration of their stay.

FEBRUARY 8 1962

The brand new SS. France arrives in Manhattan on her maiden voyage. She ties up at the same Pier 88 spot where, twenty years minus one day earlier, the Normandie had capsized. At her launch two years earlier, President De Gaulle declared ‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ to the 100,000 strong crowd.

The France had endured a stormy maiden crossing that delayed her by several hours, but she poured on speed to arrive on time. Was the French Line desperate to get her into New York- and docked at that self same Pier 88- and perhaps take attention away from a particularly ghastly anniversary?

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

JANUARY 9 1972

Fires break out in six places aboard the Seawise University, the ex Queen Elizabeth, as she is in the final stages of fitting out as a floating university cum cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. The gutted ship capsizes, and is declared a constructive total loss. It is exactly thirty years minus one month since the Normandie suffered an identical fate in Manhattan.

C.Y. Tung was, in effect, on the verge of creating what was actually the world’s first mega cruise ship, a full seven years before Knut Kloster would relaunch the laid up SS France as the SS Norway, the ship that changed cruising forever.

In her last years as a Cunard ship, that company had tried to convert the Queen Elizabeth for a partial cruising role by adding a large lido pool right aft. They had hoped to keep her in service at least until the mid seventies. On acquiring the France, Kloster did almost exactly the same thing for the resurrected Norway. 

Queen Elizabeth, like Normandie before her, was in the final stages of a massive conversion when she was engulfed. The France underwent an even bigger conversion into the Norway; one that prolonged her life by almost a quarter of a century, and made her a legend for the second time.

All coincidences of course, but ones that verge on both the exquisite and the agonising. Irony, elegance, tragedy and ignominy. The four nautical horsemen of the apocalypse?

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. 

CRUISE SHIP FOOD- EVOLUTION OR REVOLUTION

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7 on Regent Seven Seas

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7 on Regent Seven Seas

Cruise ship food. More lionised than Spartacus, more colourful than a Carmen Miranda lookalike convention. Praised to the skies at times, ridiculously over hyped at others, it remains the single issue vested with the highest expectations of any cruise experience, even today.

The legacy of gourmet food at sea comes largely from the era of the great transatlantic liners, when the floating palaces of Cunard, Italia and the French Line competed with each other to attract the cream of the available trade. It was a time when the movers, shakers and opinion makers of the modern world had no option but to travel by sea, and the lines fought tooth and nail to gain their high profile, high spending patronage.

A few factors need to be borne in mind here; firstly, those gargantuan feasts so lavishly created and fondly remembered were almost exclusively for the benefit of the first class passengers. It’s a largely unspoken truth that the bulk of the passengers travelling in second class and/or tourist never got to savour those culinary Olympian heights, never mind the crew. From the start, the best food afloat was reserved for the privileged few hundred in first, travelling in what amounted to a gated, segregated community.

Secondly, standards of food handling, storage, preparation and hygiene back in those days were a lot less stringent or regulated than would be acceptable now. Those old ships did not have the sophisticated cold storage and freezer equipment of modern ships.

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Nor did they have the stabilisers, a vital prerequisite to providing a stable platform for food preparation, service and, indeed, consumption. Even back  in the thirties, it was a standing joke that the enormous Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea in bad weather. Meanwhile, her great rival, the Normandie, offered no less than three hundred and twenty five separate items on her first class dinner menu each evening. It must have taken all four days of an Atlantic crossing just to read the damned thing.

So the dining experience was the highlight of the day, but even then- as now- the food itself, however wonderful, was just one ingredient in the consummate dining adventure. Things such as a beautifully decorated and lit dining room, immaculately laid tables and deft, attentive wait staff, were just as vital parts of the overall menu as the food. And, in those days, passengers invariably dressed in their finery for dinner most evenings.

The result is a nostalgically cherished, glamourous repast that has been passed down over the decades, enshrined in legend, and accepted as the norm. And, as Atlantic crossings gave way to cruising, woe betide the line that did not adhere with limpet like fanaticism to the treasured tenets of Atlantic liner dining, both real and imagined.

And so, the cruise ships stayed faithful to the tried and tested old meal formulas. Eight course dinners would routinely be followed within an hour or two by a midnight buffet the size of Manhattan; one every bit as colourful and diverse. The amount of wasted stuff thrown overboard each night gave every cruise ship it’s own following of devoted, discerning sharks.

This little piggy tasted gorgoeus

This little piggy tasted gorgoeus

But as the ships grew bigger and began to rival even the most outrageous of Las Vegas resorts, a whole new generation of passengers began expecting more in the way of dining options and flexibility.

And more there would be.

Mainstream cruising has always thrown up a curious dichotomy; the desire to appear as lavish and indulgent to passengers as possible while, at the same time, attempting to operate to economies of scale that constantly pare down actual per person food costs as far as possible. And, while modern technology does make this illusion appear real, these two diverse factors will always collide, like duelling tectonic plates

And the cruise lines’ desire to siphon additional revenue from every passenger pocket led to what is now a virtual tsunami of extra tariff, speciality restaurants, offering individually prepared options such as French, Italian and Japanese, in a more intimate environment, for a nominal extra charge. These usually also come with significantly upgraded service.

Hand in hand with this came the provision of an almost round the clock buffet service, including at dinner time. This was in response to passengers who did not want to dress up in the evening to enjoy the still more formal, sit down, largely similar fare enjoyed in the main dining room (s) down below.

The flood of new passengers that cruising has attracted are largely appreciative of these new venues. Next was a logical freeing up of the set dining times, a charge led by Norwegian Cruise Line, with it’s Freestyle Dining.

Signature dessert on Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines

Signature dessert on Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines

This allowed passengers to turn up at the main dining room at a time of their choice between the standard evening hours of 5.30- 9.30. Other lines were initially sceptical, but Freestyle was such a runaway success that most of the mainstream big lines now offer a version of it. Like it or loathe it,  flexible dining is here to stay.

And, of course, not everybody does like it.

Some passengers complain that the food quality and service in the main dining rooms is often dumbed down, in an attempt to get passengers to upgrade to the extra charge speciality venues. If so, this is an incredibly short sighted approach that will ultimately deter increasing numbers of passengers. But there is no question that all mainstream lines have been instigating cutbacks in almost every area practicable since the watershed of 9/11. What will determine future passenger loyalty is how far those changes are perceived to have gone and, as in so many other things, that perception will vary with each individual.

The new, flexible dining times, plus the plethora of potential new venues, also marked the end for the nightly midnight buffet, now far more sensibly- and cost effectively- replaced with late night snacks, such as pizza and hot chicken wings, brought around the late night venues such as the disco, piano bar, and the casino. Colourful but impractical, the buffet was quietly lowered over the side and cast adrift.

So, what about the on board food quality itself? For years, the cruise lines created hugely unrealistic expectations about their onboard product via their advertising literature, raising it to the heroic levels of the old ocean liners. Creative to be sure, but nowhere near being consistently deliverable.

The Mermaid Restaurant on the Louis Aura

The Mermaid Restaurant on the Louis Aura

Even with the best will in the world, the most creative of chefs cannot provide gourmet food for the more than three thousand passengers on a modern cruise ship each week. The budgetary constraints already mentioned lead to the bulk purpose of everything from eggs to escargot. And, humanity and its whims being what they are, it is impossible within the time constraints on offer to sculpture each individual dish with true, one to one, lavish care and affection. You will never please all of the people a hundred per cent, one hundred per cent of the time.

Yet the food that is on offer is, in general, so varied, plentiful and easily accessible that it still makes the modern mainstream cruise experience truly the best value of all holidays, with a quality, quantity and diversity of taste that is truly mind boggling. No land based resort comes anywhere near to offering the vast, bountiful largesse of a modern cruise ship.

If gourmet food is your goal, then you can upgrade to one of the smaller, more service oriented ultra luxury ships, where the standards, cuisine and service rise hand in hand with the prices charged for the product. With numbers to cater for in the hundreds rather than the thousands, several of these ships really do offer an overall experience that could be called ‘gourmet’ dining.

One thing is for sure; no one ever starves on any cruise. Period.