QUEEN MARY 2 TO CELEBRATE 250TH TRANSATLANTIC CROSSING IN NOVEMBER

The Queen Mary 2 will celebrate yet another historic milestone this year when she sails on what will be her 250th crossing of the Atlantic in November.

The giant Cunarder- the largest ocean liner ever built- will sail from New York on November 25th on an eight night, eastbound voyage, scheduled to arrive in Southampton on December 3rd.

Fares for an inside stateroom start at £999.

It’s been something of a banner headline year for Cunard.Tthe company celebrated it’s 175th anniversary this year and, on a more sombre note, there was a pretty emotional voyage of remembrance to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland in May.

Having just completed her first, full decade of service, the Queen Mary 2 is also slated for a major refit, which will see the replacement of the mid ship, centrally located Kings’ Court buffet area among other things. The Kings’ Court has been a bone of contention for many QM2 regulars ever since the ship made her debut, back in 2004.

While it is heart warming to see the great liner passing yet another service milestone, I can’t help but point out that the original Queen Mary – half the size of the current one- used to make the same Atlantic crossing in half as many days.

Still, this really is a cause for celebration, and no doubt the event will be marked on board in suitable style. It should be quite a memorable crossing.

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

MY TRAVEL BUCKET LIST; PROBLEMS AND PANACEAS

I think most people consider the idea of a ‘bucket list’ of things they would like to do, experiences that they would like to try or, most often, places they would like to see as part of some kind of ‘greatest hits’ highlights of their lives. Once achieved and ‘ticked off’, these things mark our progress through life like so many emotional lightning rods. They connect us to those moments when we raised our game, rose above the everyday, and went for the things that really mattered on some deep, undeniable level to ourselves, rather than just being blindly channelled and herded in some direction by the people and events swirling around us.

Trust me, travel writers are no different. The more I see of the world, the more I realise how little that I have actually seen. It’s like peeling an onion; once you begin, you suddenly realise that you’ve embarked on a mission that’s going to take forever. And, in terms of travel, that’s a shockingly good analogy- though not one I can take credit for.

The one thing I have come to realise about my ‘bucket list’ is that I am going to need a bigger bucket. I had naively assumed that, by this phase of my life, I would have ticked all my main boxes, lived my dreams, done my share of smiling in the sunshine. And, up to a point, I have.

But by it’s very nature, travel is not about standing or sitting still, is it?

So, I got to considering the things that I would still like to do and, purely in a spirit of fantastical conjecture, here are a couple of things that I’m flinging without either fear, shame, or the vaguest concept of when- or even if they might ever happen- into my bucket. Here we go….

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Rio. Just say it. It rolls off your tongue like a Salsa parade, and tastes as damned fine as the most potent caipirinha. Sultry, alluring, sun kissed and stunning, Rio is one of the great, must see destinations of the world.

But flying there? Nah. Not for moi….

Such an epic destination should be the climax of an epic odyssey. And, of all the cities on the planet, the great sea-city that is Rio De Janeiro deserves to be approached in the most dramatic and apt way possible. From the sea….

Consider even the idea of sailing from Italy in late October, just as Europe begins to sag into yet another cold, melancholy, pre winter gloom. Take some big, spectacular Italian cruise ship and set out through the Mediterranean. Swing out west, through the Pillars of Hercules, and set course for the Canary Islands, the open Atlantic and, at the end of all that, landfall in South America.

Imagine the days getting longer, warmer and more welcoming as you unwind on board, surging south west over the Equator. And, at journey’s end, there is the hallowed, matchless approach to the great city itself. In, past the looming bulk of Corcovado, past Sugar Loaf Mountain, and into that stunning bay. An epic journey that cries out to be achieved in epic style. And, let’s face it- you can’t scrimp on something as sassy, sultry and downright dramatic as that.

ACROSS AMERICA BY RAIL

Now this one is arguably the daddy of them all…

I’d fly straight to Los Angeles, stay for a couple of nights on the venerable old Queen Mary, and take in a few days of the fresh, vital sunshine on Manhattan Beach, before boarding one of those fantastic, implausible, double decker Amtrak trains for the ultimate voyage; coast to coast, with a series of spectacular city stays en route.

Over a couple of weeks, I’d watch the vast, natural smorgasbord of North America unfold from my seat like a succession of spectacular drum rolls. Mountain ranges and rolling prairies, great gushing rivers and tracts of bone dry desert. Great, concrete forests of glass and steel…

We’ll roll across mighty bridges and into flaring purple and yellow sunsets. And, like fantastic exclamation marks, I’d take a couple of nights in, say, sultry, sassy New Orleans and cool, classy Chicago. Anyone detecting a bit of a jazzy vibe here?

There would be time in beautiful, patrician Philadelphia before the final arrival in the greatest city in the world- New York. And, as the train shuddered to a halt at Penn Station, there would surely be the feeling of having completed an epic adventure.

But that is not the end of it. Oh, no. My sense of wanderlust is a bit gilt edged these days. And, in one final flourish, I would take the Queen Mary 2 back to Southampton.

Think about that; seven lazy, languid, highly styled days on the last great Atlantic liner, making the most timeless and peerless of all voyages. Unburdened with ports of call or any other diversion, I would have seven full days to absorb the full, magnificent scale of the entire trip.

In the words of the great Al Green; simply beautiful.

So; what floats your boat, then?

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

QM2. Because second best is sometimes just not good enough.

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

 

 

QUEEN MARY 2-A MUSICAL PROGRESSION

“I can always tell when a bad karaoke singer walks up to the mike. The drinks glasses start throwing themselves off the shelves.” Anonymous cruise ship bartender, 2014

“Madame Edith has a very unusual voice; was it trained?”

“Yes. But it escaped, and got back out into the wild again…” Rene Artois, cafe owner of Nouvignon, France

Lush and langourous; the string quartet performing in the Grand Lobby

Lush and langourous; the string quartet performing in the Grand Lobby

Ah, music at sea. It seems to be always in the background. And yet, all genres of music play a huge part in the enjoyment- or lack thereof- on a voyage of any kind.

This is all the more true on a transatlantic crossing on board Queen Mary 2, where passenger attention, shorn of the diversion of ports of call, invariably turns inward. And, on such voyages, the entertainment programmes are always far more extensive than on a normal, warm weather cruise.

On our voyage, the sheer size and scope of the Queen Mary 2 really worked to our advantage. The great liner has a vast entertainment handle, and no shortage of public rooms in which to showcase a wide range of musical disciplines to suit every taste, at almost any hour of the day and night. We were quite literally spoiled for choice.

Most nights, the Chart Room was suffused with the sounds of soft, sultry jazz, courtesy of the extremely talented Andrew Huggett trio. This beautiful room, expansive and softly lit, lends itself perfectly to the enjoyment of that most ageless of ocean liner combinations. Martinis and jazz on an ocean liner are as perfect and enduring a pairing as Fred and Ginger ever were.

There was a very talented show band, piano players and harpists, an excellent reggae band with a surprisingly diverse repertoire- Paul Anka’s classic Diana on steel drums, anyone?- and an extremely talented string quartet that used to play in the lobby some lunchtimes and evenings. In particular, this latter set up gave this greatest and most gracious of liners a sense of elegant, almost ethereal style. Like the jazz combo, their presence fitted the great ship to perfection. They were never less than a joy to hear.

And, of course, there was karaoke……

This happened only twice on the seven night crossing, perhaps out of consideration for the sensibilities of any sharks swimming adjacent to us.

But seriously, there were some very talented people on this ship. One particular lady did a rendition of the Carpenters’ Rainy Days and Mondays that filled the room like a powerful, quiet storm. I was awed by her.

QM2 passengers enjoy the big band dancing after dinner

QM2 passengers enjoy the big band dancing after dinner

Alas, others almost filled the lifeboats. One particular piece of weapons grade caterwauling set wolves howling from Tuscon all the way back to Tromso. No wonder one woman put paper napkins in her ears.

But even that misses the point, really. Music- certain songs, from certain genres and times- act like emotional lightning rods for all of us. They are, quite literally, the soundtrack to our lives, the highs and the low points alike. And how much we enjoy the quality of live music can add greatly to the enjoyment of any voyage.

On the Queen Mary 2, I was totally blown away- pun wholly intentional- by a rollicking, big band Dixieland concert in the Winter Garden. On another night, I sat spellbound as the string quartet served up a swish, lushly put together hour of Christmas classics in the Chart Room. With the vast, opulent ship beautifully decorated for the holidays, that concert had a sparse, poignant beauty that was impossible to describe, but equally impossible not to love. It was, quite simply, gorgeous.

And, at the other extreme, it was such fun to hit the two story G32 disco one night, and drink in an entire conga line of classics by Chic, Tavares and Earth Wind and Fire like fine wine. On a real Saturday night, Saturday Night Fever came back to life on the rocking and rolling ocean. It was like suddenly bumping into a posse of old, fondly remembered friends. Quite the night, that was.

And yet, above and beyond all this, it was the song performed by the Queen Mary 2 herself that really stayed with me. The sound of water swishing. boiling and hissing along those vast, imperious flanks; the gentle hum of the ventilators on deck and the subtle, gentle shudder underfoot.

And, most thrilling of all, the deep, sonorous boom of those great Tyfon steam whistles on the funnel as they roared out across the stony Atlantic, every day at noon. In it’s own way, this is a sound as timeless and classic as any Duke Ellington tune.

Music at sea. Yes, it matters. And on Queen Mary 2, as with so may other things on board, the quality really does fit the stage. Lovely stuff.

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.

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.

POST WAR AIR TRAVEL- THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

After the Second World War, it took a few years for the patterns of past war transatlantic travel to re-establish themselves. All of the big surviving transatlantic liners were in need of massive refurbishments, and the only planes capable of making non stop transatlantic flights were still propeller driven, and mostly adaptions of mass produced bombers.

Planes like the Boeing Stratocruiser offered sleeping berths, personalised service and dining, and comfortable, armchair style seating with more than ample personal space. They could cross the Atlantic in around twelve hours. Even the fastest of the renovated ocean liners took eight times that long. On paper, air travel had the game sewn up.

But those same planes were notorious, unstable bone shakers, and even the long range ones had to land in Eastern Canada to refuel. And they could also carry relatively small numbers of passengers on each crossing. Reliable, mass market air travel remained an elusive chimera.

And the ocean liners fought back with a vengeance. By 1947, more than a million passengers a year were once more routinely crossing the Atlantic, and the premier liners of companies like Cunard and the French Line were almost always full. Far more so, in fact, than at any other time before.

Both the enormous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were usually sold out six months in advance, even in the winter seasons. And, riding the wave of this massively resurgent market, America introduced the barnstorming SS United States in the summer of 1952.

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

The big American liner thundered across the Atlantic in July 1952, and took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, at just under three and a half days. Under any circumstances it was an amazing performance and, true to form, the United States prospered mightily as the new speed record holder.

At about the same time, the first commercial jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, entered commercial service. Fast, smooth, and capable of carrying large numbers in relative comfort, the Comet eliminated almost all the discomfort of its propeller driven predecessors.

But this beautiful plane suffered from a series of design flaws and, in the next few years, no less than thirteen of them came down, killing some 426 people in all. The adverse media publicity was enormous, and it undoubtedly gave the transatlantic liners a few years’ breathing space.  Even the sinking of the beautiful Andrea Doria off Nantucket in July, 1956 did nothing to deter the tidal wave of businessmen and tourists still sailing across the Atlantic each year.

In 1958, more than 1.2 million passengers sailed the old route, either on business or pleasure. But this was quite literally the high water mark. That same October, a Pan American Boeing 707 named Clipper America flew from New York to Paris in less than seven hours. In its vapour trail, that pioneering flight carried the death warrant of the ocean liner. The writing was not so much on the wall, as it was in the sky.

Air minded visionaries such as Juan Trippe at Pan Am, and Howard Hughes of TWA, now set about monopolising the air routes, together with players such as BOAC, the predecessor to the current British Airways. The 707 itself was a complete game changer; one of the most significant and successful aircraft in the entire history of commercial flight.

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

Suddenly, air travel was safe, frequent, a lot more comfortable, and competitive price wise with the cream of the ocean going crop. The liners began to lose ground very quickly indeed. By the turn of the new decade in 1960, the jets already had around seventy per cent of the total transatlantic trade.  Even the famous and popular Cunard Queens often carried more crew than passengers on winter crossings. The big ships of all the famous old companies were sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. The flow could not be halted, much less reversed.

Yet still, big liners continued to appear. On a cloudy February afternoon in 1962, thousands lined the banks of the Hudson to watch the maiden arrival in New York of the brand new SS. France. Helicopters buzzed the great ship like so many curious dragonflies as a quartet of fire boats hurled huge, icy plumes of water skywards in welcome. Banners snapped in greeting in the frigid breeze as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her pier. She was magnificent, utterly magical, and way, way too late; a last burst of bravado in the face of the inevitable.

The France was popular and successful, but only a titanic government fuel subsidy made it possible for her to sail at all. The jets kept slashing at the Atlantic liner’s passenger numbers. By the mid sixties, the ageing Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. Attempts to use them on off season, warm weather cruises met with only partial success.

The Italians in particular fought doggedly against the airborne assault. In 1965, a pair of lithe, sparkling new sister ships called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged to sail on the Italy to New York run.  Italians have always been particularly sea minded and, for a few years, these two ships were able to buck the airborne trend, before ultimately succumbing in the mid 1970’s, after just a decade each of service.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

Then, in 1969, came the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2, a ship designed from the start both to make crossings and off season cruises. After a shaky and troubled start, the ship- forever after to be immortalised as the QE2– settled down to almost four decades of legendary service. For many years, she would steam stubbornly back and forth across the Atlantic as the last surviving liner and, in doing so, she would become the most legendary and beloved of all the long lineage of illustrious, hallowed Cunarders.

1969 also saw the withdrawal from service of the stunning SS. United States, and the inauguration of the new, mass transit successor to the 707. This new plane was the Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.  Huge, capacious, and offering unparallelled economies of scale, it took commercial air travel to a whole new level. By the time it was flying in regular service in 1970, the jets had ninety six per cent of the transatlantic trade.

By that stage, only the France and the QE2 were still making regular crossings on the old superliner route and, while they were indeed sometimes still fully booked in summer, the winters saw them seeking refuge, and indeed survival, in warmer cruising regions. The triumph of air travel was as unassailable as it was undeniable.

And yet, incredibly, in the years to come, both jet and ocean liner would come to form an alliance of sorts. As crossing gave way to cruising, the former rivals would become working partners, with each being necessary to the successful operation of the other.

But that, my friends, is entirely another story….

WHAT’S IN A SHIP NAME?

Orient Queen, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Orient Queen, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian has just announced the names of its two new ‘Breakaway-plus’ ships will be Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Escape, as voted for by a poll of around 100,000 readers. That got me thinking about cruise lines in general, and themes that they use to differentiate their ships. The hope is always to come out with something catchy, memorable and distinctive.

Having mentioned Norwegian, let’s consider them first. When Knut Kloster formed his then pioneering Norwegian Caribbean Lines (the name changed only in 1987), he did so with a small, converted car ferry that he named the Sunward. The ‘ward’ suffix was applied to a string of similar sized siblings- Starward, Skyward, Southward and Sunward II, respectively.

The 1979 arrival into the fleet of the gargantuan former SS. France- a ship almost as big as the other four put together- clearly called for something much grander. Names such as Ocean Queen and Queen of Norway were bandied about but, in the end, Kloster decided that simple, elegant Norway worked best as a name. It proved an inspired choice; setting her apart not just from the rest of the fleet, but from anything else afloat. While the smaller ships had pristine, almost glacial white hulls, the Norway was decked out in a stunning royal blue, her name picked out in huge gold letters at bow and stern.

In the late eighties, the company took delivery of the new Seaward, followed at the dawn of the 90’s by twin sisters, Dreamward and Windward. These ships would mark a clear sea change in the company’s naming policy.

New management decided to adapt new ways; the last three ships were restyled as Norwegian Sea, Dream and Wind respectively. It was a policy adopted for every future ship in the fleet, from the 1999 built Norwegian Sky right up to the recent Norwegian Breakaway of 2013.

Interestingly, rivals Royal Caribbean started in 1970 with a trio of ships- Nordic Prince, Song of Norway and Sun Viking- designed to emphasise the line’s Norwegian roots. Not until the 1988 arrival of the Sovereign of The Seas did the familiar ‘OTS’ suffix become the norm for RCCL.  It still is to this day. And it’s been very successful; totally distinctive, and one of the most popular brand names ever in commercial leisure travel of any kind.

The Berengaria, Cunard's flagship in the 1920's and beyond

The Berengaria, Cunard’s flagship in the 1920’s and beyond

From the beginning, MSC was a company that went for musical connotations. it’s first three ships were a mixed bag- Monterey, Symphony and Melody. New builds and acquisitions since, such as Sinfonia, Lirica, Opera, Musica and Orchestra have largely stayed true to this symphonic start up.

Most famous of all, Cunard did not name any of their ships with a ‘Queen’ prefix for the first ninety six years of their history, not until the immortal Queen Mary of 1936 and her later sibling, Queen Elizabeth. But the first Cunarder to be actually named after a queen was the Berengaria in 1921. The ex German Imperator, surrendered as a war prize, was renamed after the wife of Richard the Lionheart, and she preceded the Queen Mary by a full decade and a half.

That famous old company always went for names that ended in ia. And many ocean liner purists would love nothing better than to see a new Cunard ship revive a name as famous as Mauretania, or even Aquitania.

So, there you go. Just a little bit of skinny on how and why some lines name ships as they do. In it’s own way, the genealogy and genesis of ships is every bit as fascinating as that of humankind.