My heart skipped a beat when I saw her at the dock. It always does. I’ve seen the RMS Queen Mary at her permanent home in Long Beach, California over a dozen times now, and every time, she calls out to me. But it wasn’t until this past July that I made a point of travelling down to California just to spend some time onboard this venerable Cunarder.
Launched in 1936 for Cunard Line, Queen Mary had a long and distinguished career criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She served in peacetime, then as a troop ship during the Second World War. Following the war, she helped bring war brides over to Canada and the United States before returning to her regular transatlantic service, crossing between Southampton, England and New York.
She served until 1967, when the jet age made her obsolete. Well, that’s not entirely true. The jet age made her prohibitively expensive to operate. A lot had changed between the 1930’s and the late 1960’s, and this big, grand, opulent ship spoke to a different time. Plans were underway to replace Queen Mary with a newer, sleeker transatlantic ship, the Queen Elizabeth 2, which would go on to serve Cunard until her retirement in 2008.
On September 27, 1967, Queen Mary completed her 1,000th transatlantic crossing before setting out on Voyage 1,001: her final journey under power to Long Beach. She sailed from Southampton for the last time on Halloween 1967, under the command of her popular captain, John Treasure Jones. She arrived in Long Beach after sailing ‘round the horn of South America, and Captain Jones rang “Finished With Engines” on the telegraphs in the wheelhouse for the last time on December 9th of that year.
Queen Mary’s conversion to a floating hotel and tourist attraction occurred after that. It wasn’t a pretty one. Deciding not to preserve the ship as she existed, her new owners mercilessly gutted much of the ship, including every area below C Deck; all of her boiler rooms; the forward engine room; both turbo generator rooms; the ship’s stabilizers and the water softening plant. Almost all of second class, third class and the crew quarters went as well.
The conversion to shoreside power resulted in all of the ship’s electrical fixtures (like the fans in the staterooms) becoming non-operational, as the vessel now needed 110 volt AC power. Air conditioners were installed on the upper decks to cope with the California heat (a very good thing!), but a switch to fluorescent lighting removed the beautiful look of the Cunarder’s original soft, incandescent lighting. As a result, the ship today is dramatically under-lit, and what lighting is there has an unusual blue tint to it.
Coming onboard Queen Mary on a hot July evening, I crossed over the gangway and into what would have been the former First, or Cabin Class, Reception Area. This now functions as the hotel reception, and at six in the evening, it is a busy place indeed: a queue of guests waiting to check in greeted me, along with throngs of tourists there to see the evening Ghost Tours.
I’m a little torn about these tours; I feel they cheapen the ship and her beautiful legacy by dangling the promise of seeing something supernatural or haunted. But, I also recognize that I am in the minority. Keeping this ship looking shipshape requires the revenues from these tours.
Queen Mary is in the midst of a massive refurbishment project. After years of neglect, her hull is finally being repainted, and repairs are being made to her interior and exterior. This is a good thing. While I was struck by the ship’s grandeur, I was saddened to see frayed carpeting, cheap vending machines, abandoned staircases, and other areas of disrepair throughout the ship. These will be fixed going forward, and that makes me glad.
If you do book a room onboard, splurge and get the Deluxe Stateroom, Mini Suite, or Full Suite. These are the original First, or Cabin Class, staterooms, and they still boast their gorgeous wood paneling and Art Deco sensibilities.