You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. It's a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of the imagination, a place where the cruise ships aren't all city-sized and the vibe isn't all go-go-go activities and entertainment. It's a place of reflection, a place that opens up a window on another time.
I'm talking about old ships. Call them time machines, because they are. They're living, physical presences from a time before we were born, or maybe from our youth. If they've been well maintained, and not ruined by misguided refurbishments, they have few rivals in their ability to help us slip the temporal bonds and imagine ourselves in another world.
The bigger the ship, the harder it is to preserve on a profitable basis, which is why there are few ocean liners still around from the glory days. One of the grandest, the old France (launched in 1960 and converted by Norwegian Cruise Line into the cruiser Norway in 1980), is on her way out the door as we speak. Taken out of service when a boiler explosion killed eight crewmen in May 2003, the ship has been laid up ever since, first in Bremerhaven, then off Port Klang, Malaysia. The rumor mill says she'll soon be sold for scrap. Adieu.
Younger (launched in 1969) but still very much in service is Cunard's (tel. 800/728-6273; www.cunard.com) venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, the grand dame of the cruise industry. On September 4 of last year she became the longest-serving ship ever in Cunard's 167-year history, surpassing the former record of 36 years, 4 months, and 2 days held by the 19,930-ton liner Scythia, which sailed from 1921 to 1957. Though she's no longer sailing the transatlantic route that made her reputation, QE2 is still offering cruises year-round from Southampton, England, sailing northern Europe and Atlantic/Mediterranean routes as well as an annual world cruise.
An even older if not as famous liner is also sailing weekly from Ft. Lauderdale, and she's one of our favorites. Built in Scotland in 1953 as a two-class Greek Line ocean liner called the Olympia, the Regal Empress is one of the very few ships left where you can see the kind of woody interiors and chunky steelwork that characterized the great old liners. She's a real ship-ship, totally unlike today's hotel-like megaships. Former owners Regal Cruises kept her in good shape, initiating several well-planned refurbishments that ripped out bad, glitzy 1980s additions and reemphasized the classic elements of her decor. Today that's what really makes her worthwhile -- the rich wood paneling that covers the main stair landings, the dining room, and the purser's lobby; the sunken seating clusters port and starboard in the cozy Commodore Lounge (my favorite spot for drinks and conversation); and the little-used but beautifully old-fashioned enclosed promenade. The ship does show her age, with scuffed cabin walls, stained or sagging ceiling tiles, and a "been at sea too long" smell in some areas, but quirks and all she's an absolute classic. Current owners Imperial Majesty Cruises (tel. 954/956-9505; www.imperialmajesty.com) have her on never-changing out-and-back two-night trips to Nassau, so you can get your dose of old-time shippiness without committing too much time.
As I said, smaller ships tend to age better, and some in the American market make QE2 and Regal Empress look like babes in arms. Up in Maine, the schooners Lewis R. French and Stephen Taber were both built in 1871 and still sail much as they did then -- under wind power alone, their sails and anchors hauled by hand. Both ships are members of the Maine Windjammer Association (tel. 800/807-9463; www.sailmainecoast.com), a consortium of 14 classic schooners. Other old-timers in the fleet include Grace Bailey (launched in 1882), Isaac H. Evans (1886), and Victory Chimes (1900), plus several vessels launched in the 1920s and '30s. All the vessels are owner-operated, and their captains are a wealth of knowledge about Maine's centuries-long sailing traditions -- about which you're free to ask them, since days aboard are generally unstructured, filled mostly with sailing and sometimes walks on shore, after the vessel drops anchor for the night.
Another historic sailing vessel, the four-masted Sea Cloud, is operated today by Sea Cloud Cruises (tel. 888/732-2568; www.seacloud.com). The vessel was commissioned in 1931 by Wall Street tycoon E. F. Hutton, with construction assigned to the Krupp family shipyard in Kiel, Germany. Outfitting of her interior was left to Hutton's wife, heiress and businesswoman Marjorie Merriweather Post, who spent two years on the task, eventually drafting a full-scale diagram showing every detail of her design, down to the placement of antiques. After the couple's divorce, Post renamed the vessel from Hussar to Sea Cloud and sailed her to Leningrad, where second husband Joseph E. Davies was serving as U.S. ambassador. WWII saw the vessel commissioned to the U.S. Navy, which removed her masts and used her as a floating weather station. After the war the vessel went though numerous hands: first back to Post, then to Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Montinas, then to a number of American owners before she was finally purchased by German economist and seaman Hartmut Paschberg. A lover of great ships, Paschberg and a group of Hamburg investors put up the money for an eight-month overhaul that restored Sea Cloud's original grandeur, full of marble, gold, and mahogany detailing. Today the ship offers cabins for 64 passengers, the luckiest (and richest) of whom can stay in Post's own museum-like suite, with its Louis XIV-style bed and nightstands, marble fireplace and bathroom, chandeliers, and intricate moldings. The other original suites are similarly if less sumptuously furnished. Standard cabins are comfortable but lack the suites' time-machine quality. Still, everyone aboard gets to enjoy a taste of the past in the main restaurant, with its dark-wood paneling, brass trimmings, and nautical paintings.
Down in the Caribbean, the vessels of self-styled pirate line Windjammer Barefoot Cruises (tel. 800/327-2601; www.windjammer.com) aren't maintained with the same historical accuracy -- and operate principally on engine power, despite their sails -- but most can boast a good history. The 72-passenger Mandalay was once the Hussar IV, the fourth in a line of same-name yachts E. F. Hutton had built during his lifetime. Later she was commissioned as a research vessel by Columbia University, which sailed her for 1.25 million miles trying to develop theories about continental drift. Yankee Clipper, once the only armor-plated sailing yacht in the world, was built in 1927 by German industrial and munitions giant Krupp-Werft. Allegedly, Hitler once stepped aboard to award the Iron Cross to one of his U-boat commanders. Seized by the United States as booty after World War II, the ship eventually became George Vanderbilt's private yacht and the fastest two-masted vessel sailing off the California coast, once managing 22 knots under full sail. Polynesia, built in Holland in 1938, was originally known as Argus and served as a fishing schooner in the Portuguese Grand Banks fleet. Finally, Amazing Grace, the only engine-only Windjammer vessel (used as a combination passenger and cargo ship, provisioning the rest of the Windjammer fleet), is maybe the best-preserved of all. Built as the Pharos in Dundee, Scotland, in 1955, the Grace mostly carried supplies to isolated lighthouses and North Sea oil rigs, but was allegedly pressed into service once or twice as a weekend cruiser for the queen of England. The vessel was acquired by Windjammer in 1988 and still retains some vestiges of her British past despite many modernizations. About half the cabins contain varnished wall paneling from the ship's original construction, while a piano room and a smoking room/library boast etched-glass doors and mahogany walls.
Finally we come to the stern-wheelers of Delta Queen Steamboat Company (tel. 800/543-1949; www.deltaqueen.com). The smallest member of its three-ship fleet, the 174-passenger Delta Queen, is a National Historic Landmark built in Scotland in 1927 for overnight service between San Francisco and Sacramento, California. Costing the then exorbitant price of $1 million, she was known for her fine interiors. During WWII, the government took her over, painted her gray, and used her to ferry troops around San Francisco Bay. In 1949 Capt. Tom Greene bought her, literally packed her in a big box, and towed her to New Orleans, making her the first steamboat to transit the Panama Canal. Because her superstructure is built almost entirely of wood, her career has been threatened numerous times by newer fire regulations, but her legions of loyal fans have secured her future with exemptions from the U.S. Congress. Aboard ship, learning about the river is the focus of most days, with an onboard historian ("Riverlorian") describing passing areas, showing you where you are on a chart, or weaving facts and stories about the river into daily talks. Like Delta Queen's other ships, Delta Queen was taken out of service temporarily when Hurricane Katrina ravaged her usual sailing grounds. She's currently scheduled to return to service on April 21, departing from Baton Rouge on a 7-day voyage to Memphis.
Delta Queen's sister-ship, the Delta King, still survives as a restaurant in Sacramento, which brings us to another topic: museum ships, the most famous of which has to be the RMS Queen Mary. One of the greatest ocean liners ever, she's now moored permanently in Long Beach, California, in the same complex that holds Carnival's Long Beach cruise terminal. Though many of her original furnishings are long gone, she's still the only surviving example of this particular kind of 20th-century elegance, from her staterooms' tropical hardwood paneling to her incredible Deco artwork and miles of Bakelite handrails. Stroll her teakwood decks and with just a little imagination you're back in 1936 (tel. 562/435-3511; www.queenmary.com).
Another beloved classic, Holland America's 1959 Rotterdam V, was retired from service in September 2000 when then-owner Premier Cruises filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In May 2004, RDM Technologies purchased the laid-up ship and announced plans for renovation, restoration, and eventual permanent berthing in her namesake city, where she'll serve as a hotel, convention center, and museum. The ship is currently undergoing work in Cadiz, Spain, and plans call for her to sail from there in February sporting her original gray-colored hull. More information can be found at www.derotterdam.com -- if you speak Dutch.
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