Two grand ladies of the sea: The original Queen Mary and Queen Mary 2

A poster for the combined Cunard White Star brand aboard the original Queen Mary.

When we crossed a trans-Atlantic voyage on a grand ocean liner off our bucket list last summer, we were hooked by the nostalgia of the grand ocean voyages of yesteryear. On board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 with us on that voyage was a lecturer named William H. Miller (aka “Mr. Ocean Liner”) whose standing-room-only presentations that week were so mesmerizing that we bought one of his books.[1] When we read his description of the original Queen Mary as the most “beloved” of the ocean liners, we wondered whether her “daughter” the new Queen Mary 2 might in some ways resemble her earlier incarnation. Then, several synchronicities happened.

First, our son said, “I’m going to be in Los Angeles in February. Why don’t you two come and meet me before you go to Hawaii?”

Second, we started to explore activities in the LA area and discovered that the original Queen Mary is docked in Long Beach, California, a 20-minute drive from where we’d be staying in Costa Mesa.

Finally, Patty’s 89-year-old mother said, “You know, I’m sure your father came home from Europe [after fighting in WW II] on the Queen Mary.”

…so we knew we’d have to visit her…and we did.

When the Queen Mary was launched in 1936, she was considered to be the grandest liner ever built, and over her long and storied career, she not only carried passengers back and forth across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City, but was also refitted as a troop carrier during the second World War, ferrying some 800,000 troops from the UK, through Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Patty’s father disembarked), to NYC. Today, she’s a hotel and a point of interest if you’re ever in the Long Beach area.

The Queen Mary as she sits alongside today in Long Beach, California.

Stepping aboard the ship is like taking a walk back in time. Our visit was timed perfectly it seemed since the crowds were thin and our pre-arranged tour consisted only of three of us (Art, Patty and daughter Amanda who accompanied us to LA to see her brother dance) and two others who dropped out after the first five minutes lacking sufficient English skills to understand the guide (who was quite an actor). So we had a private tour.

Our guide explained the way the three classes of passengers were divided – a notion that has (almost) entirely gone the way of the dodo on modern cruise ships. (We explained how Cunard still maintains this partially in an earlier post). The classes were not segregated by level, such as one deck for first class, another for second etc. Rather the first-class passengers’ accommodations and public spaces were in the center of the ship – where a ship is most stable. The second-class passengers populated the stern (rear) and the poor third-class passengers were all the way forward, a portion of the ship that, as the guide explained, often took a nose-dive under the waves in bad weather. Those were the days before modern stabilization. There must have been a lot of nausea in the bow!

The QM's atrium as it is today, restored to its earlier grandeur.

As we moved through the large public spaces on the Queen Mary, we tried to imagine what those grand balls must have been like and couldn’t help but make comparisons to the Queen’s Room (the ballroom), the champagne bar and the theater on the Queen Mary 2.

Perhaps, though, it was in the engine room below decks in the stern that harbored the most ghosts. As we walked through the darkened passages, just the three of us (we did this part without a guide), we could almost hear the crew as they toiled away. Then as we walked into the cubicle that had been created through a cut-out area on the ship’s super-structure, we were confronted by the eerie underwater sight of one of the original propellers, still in place under the water. That sent us flying toward the light!

The ship is also used as a floating hotel these days, although, according to the guide, the walls are so thin you can hear everything going on in your neighbor’s stateroom. When we reached the end of the tour, since there were only three of us, we asked if it would be possible to see a first-class suite. They are usually not part of the tour since they are part of the hotel. The guide humored us and went to procure permission. Success! Taking our time in the suite, our guide invited us to sit in the sitting room to try to conjure images of who might have spent time in this room in the 1930’s, ‘40’s & ‘50’s.

The bedroom of the first-class suite.

The suite consisted of a master bedroom, two bathrooms with hot and cold running fresh and salt water choices, a sitting room and a maid’s room that was outfitted with its own sink but she would have gone down the hall for the toilet and a bath. The burled wood built-ins (vanity table, desk, dressers, and bedside tables) are all original to the suite – although the flat-screen TV’s are not! There is no doubt they’ve done a remarkable job of restoration to provide an experience that takes you into another era.

After the tour we repaired to one of the dining rooms for fish and chips for lunch while we overlooked a marina filled to overflowing with modern sailboats. All in all, one of the great tourist experiences for people who love the ocean. The Queen Mary’s web site says: “The ship no longer sails, but she can still take you away.” Amen!

The corridor evokes a sense of history.

[FYI: They offer a variety of tours from self-guided audio tours, through WW II tours to a Ghosts & Legends Tour. You should take at least one of the guided tours, and try to go when the crowds are thinnest for the best experience.]

Come with us on our tour…

[1] Miller, William. 2010. Floating palaces: The great Atlantic liners. Chalford, UK: Amberley Publishing.