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.

Step back in time aboard the RMS Queen Mary. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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.

Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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.

You can almost feel the sway of the Atlantic…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

The RMS Queen Mary is a veritable time machine. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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 most beautiful staircase onboard? This gem is all the way forward. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

You can also find the ship’s elevators, though many of the originals are now for display only. These are on the port side of B-Deck, forward. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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.

The corridors of the ship are endlessly fascinating to walk through. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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.

My stateroom for the evening, A144. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

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.

Originally noted as A102, this former Cabin Class room has two fixed beds and much of its original paneling. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

It also has a cozy sitting area…Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

…with real porthole windows that open. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

The view from my room, facing forward. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

My cabin on A-Deck, A144, was formerly numbered A102 in 1936. One of the original Cabin Class rooms, it features two separate beds that can’t combine to make a queen, along with a generously cozy sitting area underneath two porthole windows. Without the sound of the ship’s engines to drown it out, it is now possible to hear conversations in the room adjacent, so I’d bring earplugs for your stay.

Bakelite air vents are original. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Once I got settled into my room, I spent nearly the entire evening wandering the corridors of the ship. Main Deck, A Deck and B Deck are preserved almost for the ship’s entire length, and their interior corridors still showcase the ship’s sheer – the curvature from bow to stern that used to be an integral part of shipbuilding.

I kept running my hands along the wood panelling in the corridors and the white Bakelite railings. Bakelite was an early form of plastic, and it was all the rage when the ship was built. It looks a little chintzy now, but you have to remember: this was the it material when the ship was built.

A-Deck Corridor. Note the ship’s pronounced ‘sheer’. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Walking to the end of A-Deck, I was surprised to find two staircases in close proximity to each other. The wall texture changed from beautiful wood to a cheaper variety. Cabins got closer together. The superstructure narrowed with the curvature of the stern. After a while, it made sense: this less-fancy section would have originally been Second Class, and a divider would have been present in the ship’s corridors. Removed for hotel operations, you can still see the distinctive split between Cabin (First) Class and Second Class when you stroll the length of A-Deck and B-Deck.

All the way forward is a beautiful staircase that leads up through B, A, Main and Promenade Decks. At the front of Promenade Deck is one of Queen Mary’s most iconic rooms: the Observation Bar. A crescent-shaped structure, it still looks as grand as it did in 1936.

The Observation Bar is located all the way forward on Promenade Deck. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

It still proudly displays its Art Deco sensibilities. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Despite the fluctuating air conditioning that caused the room to feel hot and muggy, I sweated it out (literally) and had the nightcap I’ve always dreamt of in this room. If you concentrate, you can almost feel the roll of the ship as she plowed through the North Atlantic.

The former Cabin Class Dining Room is a grand space even today. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Originally, this map featured models of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth that would move as the voyage progressed. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Profile, port side. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

The “face” of the RMS Queen Mary. Photo © 2018 Aaron Saunders

Of course, she’ll never do that again. There’s something a little sad about it all. Maybe it was the drink working its magic, but I felt a little down as I walked back to my A-Deck stateroom. There are ghosts on Queen Mary, but they’re the ghosts of the past; remnants of a time that was but will never be again. I never understood why this ship was written about so frequently, and why she was so often described not as a ship, but as a living, breathing thing, until I stepped aboard. And now I understand. And I can’t wait to go back.

Queen Mary 2 at her Brooklyn berth on Monday, May 15, 2017. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Fortunately, you can still cross the Atlantic today, aboard Cunard Line’s modern successor to Queen Mary, the RMS Queen Mary 2. One of the most beautiful ships in the world, Queen Mary 2 continues Cunard’s proud transatlantic legacy, helping to connect people and cultures almost every week of the year.

Read Our Queen Mary 2 Voyage Reports: New York to Southampton (2017) or Southampton to New York (2015).

Curious to learn more? Visit the Hotel Queen Mary website for information on rates, rooms and tours.

 

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