Hit the Road

Get the real ship experience without setting sail

Apologies to those who love to spend their vacations on cruise ships, but I’m not the cruisin’ kind.
My dear father-in-law was. I always knew this, but had lost count of the number of cruises he’d taken. It wasn’t until I read his obituary last month that I learned the count was 34. He loved seeing the world, but he was most comfortable with familiar food and the same bed, so cruising was the perfect solution.
Me? I’d rather spend more time in-country and sampling native food. Fortunately my husband feels the same way, but we actually spent a night on a cruise ship earlier this month — even if it didn’t go anywhere.
I’m talking about the venerable RMS Queen Mary, permanently docked in Long Beach Harbor.
I have to admit there is something very special about this ocean liner. Its history spans some notable decades and events of the last century and it is so classically appointed. Walking down the halls of teakwood and surveying the Art Deco ambiance, we could understand why sailing on The Queen was a treasured experience.
The Queen Mary made her first voyage in 1936 and remained in service until 1967. By today’s standards, her size is not that notable. She carried less than 2,000 passengers in her heyday — civilians anyway. After being recruited to carry U.S. troops across the Atlantic during World War II, the military managed to cram in up to 15,000 troops a trip. This was accomplished by removing the fine furniture and accessories in the staterooms and installing triple-tiered wooden bunks in every conceivable space. These were later replaced by “standee bunks,” nothing more than canvas strapped to metal frames which were installed even in the ship’s swimming pool.
To make the ship less high-profile, the wartime Queen was painted gray, and the forward section was fitted with new windows and anti-aircraft guns. To preserve the ship’s sumptuous appointments, the teak woodwork in staterooms, first-class dining and other public areas was replaced with leather. Six miles of carpet, the crystal and silver service, tapestries, paintings and 220 cases of china were stored in warehouses throughout the war years, according to ship historians.
The most amazing story about the Queen Mary occurred in December 1942 while carrying more than 16,000 troops from New York to Britain. The ship was 700 miles from Scotland when during high winds it was broadsided by what some say was a 92-foot wave. It was later determined that the ship tilted 52 degrees, and would’ve capsized if she’d rolled another 3 degrees.
I really couldn’t imagine this as we gazed on Long Beach Harbor from one of two portholes in our stateroom (about $140 a night), recently renovated to include a king-sized bed and flat screen television. But thankfully, original hardware and the beautiful teak/ Art Deco built-ins like the vanity and sitting area remained.
We found it fascinating that passengers had a choice of hot and cold fresh-water or salt-water showers, and that the stateroom provided much more storage that we anticipated. We decided that maybe we could live aboard for 10 days, which is how long it took to cross The Pond before there were trans-Atlantic flights.
We chose to cross the bridge and have dinner on the mainland overlooking the harbor because the posh and pricey five-star Sir Winston’s restaurant (Winton Churchill was a passenger for several crossings) was a bit out of our league and didn’t open early enough for us to get to the theater.
Earlier we visited the snack shop, its walls lined with posters of movies filmed on the Queen Mary: “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Aviator,” “He’s Just Not That into You,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Pearl Harbor,” to name just a few.
Several tours of the Queen Mary are available without spending the night. Visit www.queenmary.com.