Pigging out on midnight buffets, line-dancing during sailaway parties, and watching fruits and vegetables being carved into edible art at lightning speed: They’re all familiar moments to enjoy aboard a cruise ship.
However, only a small minority have experienced the grande descente, when fashionable women in beautiful dresses paraded down a sweeping staircase on an ocean liner. That’s one of the reasons why London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is presenting Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, a glamorous exhibition of over 200 objects exploring the architecture, engineering, interiors and cultural impact of ocean liners.
Transatlantic travel on an ocean liner was a grand affair. Seen from the outside, the vessel was utilitarian and functional. Inside, however, it was a floating palace that reflected its modern times. Life on board was like a spectacular Busby Berkeley musical production.
My parents and I had a front-row seat for some of those spectacular productions at sea during our five-day voyage in June 1976 on the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth 2.
In 1964, Cunard, a leader of the transatlantic travel industry, started designing a smaller ship that would bring the ocean liner experience to the swinging Baby Boomers. It retained an industrial design consultant and several prominent interior designers to deliver a sturdy, striking vessel with a charcoal grey and white exterior, with “Cunard” emblazoned on it in red. Representing the very best of modern British design, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was completed in 1969.
After vacationing in London, England, we met the QE2 in Southampton, where it would set sail for New York City via Cherbourg, France. Before we walked up the gangplank to board the ship, a stewardess thoroughly checked all of my pockets, even my hair and my plush raccoon, Robin.
Thoroughly modern graphics guided us as we boarded the ship and made our way to the circular embarkation lobby. This space-age place had molded white fiberglass trumpet columns and a series of radiating concentric rings on the ceiling.
…we made our first visit to the tourist-class Britannia restaurant, where the dining steward put a pin on a map of the dining room to mark each table as he made seating arrangements for the voyage. We were seated at table 434, with another American family with a little girl who was also six years old. Britannia was decorated in the colors of the Union Jack; its chairs were an upholstered plywood shell laminated with Formica on an aluminum base.
As the ship set sail, we learned that the clocks on the ship would be stopped for one hour at 4:00 each morning. We could spend time relaxing in two swimming pools; playing table tennis, Scrabble and Bingo; or testing our luck in the Sportsman Club casino. Each morning, our room steward would slip the day’s news under our cabin door, along with a daily activity program that included offerings like watching a cartooning demonstration and participating in instructional sessions in bridge, ballroom dancing, backgammon, arts and crafts, and even golf. Illustrated lectures on using the options market for increasing your income, spending leisure time in New York City, and exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minoan art of Crete, and the art of Naples and Mexico were presented for our edification. Cabaret entertainers like pianists Alan Singleton, Nina Tichman and Margot Courtright, as well as the band “Gina and Romany Rye,” performed throughout the voyage. Films like “Winterhawk,” “The Railway Children,” “Mayerling,” with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve; and “Shout at the Devil,” starring Roger Moore, were shown in the ship’s movie theater.
Then, as we set out to sea off the coast of Ireland, the ship noticeably rose and fell, pitched and rolled, and the adventure began. The captain told us the sea had “swells” and was rough. Britannia’s waiters placed guards at the edges of the tables to keep the placesettings from sliding away. Cabin stewards encouraged us to hold on to hallway ropes for balance. Elevators were outfitted with nausea bags. We got shots for seasickness and rested out on the deck, where the fresh air and the hot tea the deck steward brought made us feel better. We went to the theater to see Richard Chamberlain in “The Slipper and the Rose,” but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the swaying curtains.
The sea got rougher and rougher. To counteract rolling from side to side in rough seas and ensure a smoother, more comfortable passage, fin stabilizers held the ship steady. During our voyage, the stabilizers broke. (Now I read that QE2 was beset with mechanical problems.) Only two passengers showed up at Britannia for dinner that evening. My dad was one of them.
The next morning, the sea was much calmer. After breakfast, I went to the Steiner of London beauty salon to have my hair washed and styled. A lady gave me a pink-and-white striped smock to wear and a small bag with a comb, brush and pink cotton balls for my ears.
Seasickness having lifted, we settled into a daily routine of sitting on deck, staring at the passing ocean, then going inside for tea time to watch a style show. I spent the last of my traveler’s cheques in QE2′s shops, selecting a pen with a QE2 that moved and two Beatrix Potter figures, Tom Kitten and Johnny Townmouse, all of which I still have.
Our last evening on board, we watched a “Roaring Twenties” show, with dancers in coral-colored costumes and feather headdresses, from the balcony of the Double Room. A dramatic spiral staircase with red chevron carpeting, red banisters and smoke-tinted glazed balustrades linked the levels of this two-deck-high tourist-class public area. Brushed aluminum ceiling finishes contrasted with red lounge chairs and brown leatherette booths.
Just as the slightest feeling of boredom set in, QE2 approached land. As we sailed into the New York harbor, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, it was too foggy and misty to see the Statue of Liberty. When the ship came to Ellis Island, a small boat brought two immigration officials on board. As we disembarked and took a taxi to the airport for our flight home, we could see that painters were already painting QE2’s side with long-handled rollers.
QE2 ended her career in 2008 in Dubai, where she remains today after having been sold to the Dubai government for $100 million. Her original furniture and fittings are still on board.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style continues at the V&A until June 19. For those of us who can’t make it to London before then, check out Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style, edited by Daniel Finamore and Ghislaine Wood. Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships, by Stephen Fox, traces the evolution of the Atlantic steamer from 1838 to 1907.