In Praise of Vintage Liners

Zimmermann is a freelance writer based in New Jersey

The deck of an ocean liner of time-honored configuration can be a magical place, particularly at night. With the ship steaming full ahead, wind whips my face, black ocean streams by, laced with heaving white foam where the ship's hull surges through the sea in a rhythmic rush at once soothing and spine-tingling.

You walk past lifeboats, fast in their davits; they're a reminder that you're at sea, not in a hotel. The teak deck moves underfoot as the bow rises and falls. Overhead are stars, bright in spite of the luminescent moon-path that always leads right to you. Lean on the broad, varnished rail and drink it in.

I've been sailing aboard these liners--ships, for instance, such as the veteran Regal Empress, on which I sailed recently--for almost half a century. I began with boyhood transatlantic crossings on such classics as the Ile de France, the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Bremen. More recently I've cruised aboard the surviving "heritage ships" as a travel journalist, often as a guest of various lines. What I like is a real ship, not the shoebox-on-a-raft that cruise ships have become.

That being the case, Sept. 30 will be a dark day for me. That morning, when the Rotterdam nudges up against the pier in Fort Lauderdale, it'll end a run of 38 years as Holland America Line's flagship, a distinction it's held from its maiden voyage in 1959 onward. P&O;'s Canberra, built in 1961 and that company's flagship for many years, will ended its career the same day in Southampton, England. The date is not random; on Oct. 1, the first phase of the new SOLAS requirements takes effect. (SOLAS stands for Safety of Life at Sea, an international code focusing particularly on fire hazards; the new law requires costly retrofitting for many old ships.)

The Rotterdam is by most accounts the grandest of the grand old liners, with glamorous public rooms little changed over its long career. The Ritz-Carleton Ballroom is probably its most impressive space, with an expansive lacquered teak mural wrapped around one end of the room and a sweeping balcony at the other. But my personal favorite is the adjacent Smoking Room (now nonsmoking for much of the day), exquisitely tricked out in wood and leather. After dinner, when the room is warm with the glow of incandescent lights, a string trio plays. I sip cappuccino and later a cognac, nibble fine chocolates and feel deeply at peace.

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Happily, the Rotterdam does not carry the torch of maritime traditionalism alone. In the face of the tidal wave of new hotel-like megaships that have entered the market in the 1990s, and despite SOLAS, a number of heritage ships sail on.

Dating mostly from the '50s and '60s, these vessels all were designed (at least in part) for point-to-point "line" voyages (hence "liners"). In other words, they were built as transport, to get people from one place to another, not for aimless sails with brief stops to sightsee, shop and dine. Many crossed the North Atlantic from Europe to New York, the most illustrious of routes, once so busy with ships that it was called the "Atlantic Ferry." Others made the long haul from Britain to South Africa or Australia.

Beyond nostalgia, what do the old ships offer that newer ones generally don't? For one thing, their inherent beauty: a graceful, swooping curve from stem to stern, a sleek seaworthiness. These ships had to tackle the open seas in all seasons and all weather, and they have the serious look of vessels up to the challenge.

For another, there's the abundance of open deck space, much of it oriented outward to sea, not inward to a swimming pool as aboard most new ships. Staterooms generally are larger aboard the old liners. In some cases, classic public rooms that speak eloquently of an earlier era have survived. There's a substantial, sturdy quality to the construction.

And there's a sense of history. Adventures have occurred on these decks and in these lounges. Immigrants relocating. Grand tours beginning. Summer abroad starting for young students who were scared but exhilarated to be on their own. National pride, too, was often part of the legacy.

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The loss of the Rotterdam and Canberra leaves Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2, which made its maiden voyage in 1969, as the last of the great liners sailing under its original house flag. The QE2, of course, throws something else into the mix by spending well more than half the year crossing the Atlantic, with passengers on deck wrapped in the steamer robes long emblematic of voyages in northern climes.

On one memorable December crossing, I was reminded what the North Atlantic in winter can mean when we hit a full gale, with seas as high as the promenade deck. To go outside I had to hold tight to the railings and pull myself along. But the howling wind, lunging vessel and almost pure white sea were unforgettable.

In 1998, the QE2 will make 17 New York-Southampton crossings, the first in April and the last in December. (There are six transatlantic voyages remaining this year.) For the balance of the year it'll range far and wide on a variety of cruises--the longest and most illustrious of which is its traditional world cruise, beginning Jan. 6 and lasting 104 days.

The QE2 has had its share of well-publicized mishaps in recent years--from its 1992 grounding off Martha's Vineyard to its premature sailing after a $45-million refit in 1994. Over the years it's been re-engined (from steam turbine to diesel-electric), refurbished, reconfigured and rescheduled (its transatlantic crossings now take six nights instead of five). But through all this the vessel has grown handsomer in its appointments--and more precious than ever as the last of the high-seas ships making a substantial number of line voyages (although one-way "repositioning" voyages to move vessels between seasonal markets are common).

Cunard operates another classically handsome ship: the Vistafjord. Technically it doesn't belong in this fleet of liners because it was built strictly for cruising by Norwegian American Line in 1973, but the Vistafjord gains honorary heritage ship membership as the dead-ringer sister of the 1965 Sagafjord. (Cunard acquired both ships in 1983 and retired the Sagafjord last year; currently it sails as the Saga Rose for new owners Saga Holidays, a British travel company with limited North American presence that markets to seniors, age 50+ only.) Of all the surviving ships of traditional mien, the Vistafjord may well be the most elegant, well-suited for its role of long cruising on a wide variety of itineraries.

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At the other end of the posh spectrum is the Regal Empress, sailing for the one-ship Regal Cruise Line. With fares as low as any in the industry, Regal obviously can't offer the white-glove treatment that Cunard does. However, with the retirement of the Rotterdam, the Regal Empress has become the queen of the ship buffs.

Built in 1953 as the Olympia, it plied the North Atlantic for about 20 years as the flagship of the Greek Line, then sailed as Commodore Cruise Line's Caribe 1 before becoming the Regal Empress in 1993. Some of its public rooms are without question museum-quality. The library, aft on the Promenade Deck, is a small gem, lined with dark wood and books. Up on the Sun Deck, the smart Commodore Club is a cozy watering hole. With step-down alcoves and a piano, it's a cocktail venue that cries out for a Manhattan or martini, straight up. And the dining room is spacious, airy and delightfully old-fashioned, with light wood paneling, murals and etched mirrors.

Based in New York in summer (sailing to Canada, Bermuda and the Bahamas and on short "nowhere cruises") and Port Manatee, Fla., for Caribbean cruising in winter, the Regal Empress sails a wide variety of itineraries--most notably a 53-night cruise around South America (see related story on L11).

The France of 1962, among the most famous of late-era transatlantic liners and one of the last great "ships of state" (government-subsidized vessels that were subjects of national pride), sails today as Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway. At 1,035 feet, the Norway is the longest liner ever built--and is likely to remain so, since the contemporary behemoths are made tall and bulky, not rangy.

Though the addition of a slab-like top deck has marred its profile, some of the Norway's public spaces remain among the grandest afloat. The Windward dining room, once the France's first-class Restaurant Chambord, retains its sweeping entry staircase and tile-ornamented walls.

Comfortably ensconced in the two-deck-tall Club Internationale (the former first-class smoking room), a wonder of airy stylishness, I've savored a proper tea served by white-gloved stewards: finger sandwiches, cookies and brewed tea. My stateroom had real character, too, retaining the original built-in painted-metal furniture from the '60s--perfectly serviceable, very much the style of a particular time, and now back in vogue.

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Two pairs of liner survivors are American-built and were originally American-flagged: Commodore Cruise Lines' Enchanted Isle and Enchanted Seas (Moore-McCormack's 1958 Argentina and Brasil), and American Hawaii Cruises' Independence and Constitution, built for American Export Lines in 1951. The Enchanted Seas is currently chartered to World Explorer Cruises as the Universe Explorer, making Alaska cruises in summer (casual in style, with an emphasis on education) and sailing as a school ship for the University of Pittsburgh the rest of the year. The Enchanted Isle cruises year-round for Commodore from New Orleans to the Caribbean.

American Hawaii recently retired the Constitution (though there are no immediate plans for scrapping it). On the other hand, the Independence has been beautifully refurbished and sails year-round on weeklong island itineraries (which can also be booked as three- or four-day segments) from Honolulu. With its spacious decks and unaltered traditional profile (it and the Norway are the last of the two-funnel liners), it is deliciously "shippy," as liner aficionados say.

Other old hulls sail on, but with little of the innards left. Orient Lines' handsome Marco Polo, for example, retains the profile of the 1965 Alexander Pushkin, but is virtually a new ship inside. P&O; Cruises Victoria, on the other hand, has a markedly changed profile (with one funnel removed) but keeps the interior feel of Swedish America Line's 1966 Kungsholm.

Perhaps the best future of all for classic liners lies with the recently created Cruise Holdings, Ltd., which has combined three small lines, each maintaining its independent personality. Seawind Cruise Line's Seawind Crown (the Portuguese Infante dom Henrique of 1961) sails year-round in the Caribbean. Premier Cruise Line's Oceanic--better known as "The Big Red Boat'--caters primarily to families on short cruises from Port Canaveral, Fla. (Completed in 1965, the Oceanic was designed for transatlantic service, but owner Home Lines had a change of heart and it was used exclusively for cruising.)

Dolphin has three traditional ships: the IslandBreeze (Union Castle Line's Transvaal Castle of 1962), SeaBreeze (Costa's Federico C of 1958) and OceanBreeze (Shaw Savill's Southern Cross of 1955). This last ship, built to trade between England and Australia and New Zealand, was a trendsetter--the first to have engines and funnel aft. This was a radical concept at the time, designed to get the exhaust uptakes out of the middle of the ship, where they intruded on space otherwise available for decks and public rooms. The legacy is the commodious feel of the vessel.

Cruise Holdings, which this week announced it has combined the three lines under one banner, Premier Cruises, is interested in acquiring additional tonnage. Speculation at the moment is that the company's prime target is--you guessed it--the Rotterdam.

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GUIDEBOOK

Liner Notes

Booking: To reserve aboard any vintage liner, use an agent specializing in cruises. While staterooms on many new ships are uniform, they may not be so on "heritage ships." So it is worth studying deck plans before reserving.

For more information: Cunard, telephone (800) 728-6273; Regal Cruises, tel. (800) 270-7245; Norwegian Cruise Line, tel. (800) 327-7030; World Explorer Cruises, tel. (800) 854-3835; Commodore Cruise Line, tel. (954) 967-2100; American Hawaii Cruises, tel. (800) 765-7000; Orient Lines, tel. (800) 333-7300; Royal Olympic Cruises, tel. (800) 872-6400; P&O; Cruises, tel. (800) 340-7674; Seawind, Premier and Dolphin now sail under one banner, Premier Cruises, tel. (800) 990-7770; Saga International Holidays, tel. (800) 952-9590.

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