The Grand Tradition of Transatlantic Cruising

Yearning to turn back the clock to the Golden Age of Cruising? Turn it back on a transatlantic cruise.

It is a misty morning in May. Passengers cluster on the outside decks of the Queen Mary 2. Some sip cups of coffee; some stand clutching cameras; some just stand in awe. It is a memorable moment: They are coming to America by ship.

Six days earlier they left Southampton, a bustling harbor in southern England. Today, they will float past some of America’s greatest icons – the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan’s towering skyline. Within an hour, they will disembark a few blocks from Times Square, having completed a classic cruise – crossing the Atlantic.

New York has nearly always been the final destination for European liners that began traversing the Atlantic in 1840. The city has seen ships bring waves of immigrants and scores of millionaires and movie stars.

As a boy growing up opposite the busy Manhattan piers in the 1950s, Bill Miller witnessed the almost daily parade of great ocean liners coming from, and going to, Europe. He plotted his weekends by consulting shipping schedules published in the New York Times and other local newspapers. “On Saturdays, five or six of these grand ships would come down the Hudson River in succession,” he recalls. “It was fabulous, not only the sight of these beautiful floating palaces but the fact that they were going to these romantic, faraway places.”

It was the notion of grand ships sailing to distant lands that caused Miller to embark on a lifelong vocation as a cruise historian. He fell in love with ships and shipping. Today, he is a noted authority, lecturing at sea and on television. He has written a series of books and has interviewed countless crew and passengers who sailed the great ocean liners of the past.

One of his favorite stories involves three ladies by the names of Smith, Jones and McBeth. During the 1940s and 50s, they cruised for extended periods of time on Cunard Line’s Caronia. Smith and Jones cruised for two or three years at a time, which you may consider remarkable, until you consider McBeth’s extended cruise.

She was “the all-time champ,” Miller says. She boarded the Caronia one day and sailed for 14 years before getting off for good. In today’s dollars, she would have spent roughly $4 million in cruise fares. “And she had the dubious distinction,” Miller adds, “of being the only passenger where the captain actually came down once a week to see her, as opposed to her being called up to his place for drinks.”

It was a grand era indeed, when folks like the Windsors, the Churchills, movie actors and actresses – almost all of high society – cruised back and forth between Europe and America. It was easy to imagine the era would never end.

But from the banks of the Hudson, Miller witnessed the end. The advent of transatlantic jet service in the late 1950s put the oceangoing liners out of business. Though cruise ships still sail into New York’s harbor, Queen Mary 2 is the only one regularly cruising between Europe and America. And grand ships like the Caronia are long gone.

For avid cruisers, however, boarding any ship evokes a sense of nostalgia. “It’s all a connection back to the days of the sailing ships, to the early liners, the immigrants, the millionaires, the movie stars, the whole history of cruising,” Miller says. “It’s a tremendous sense of history, a rich, rich heritage.”

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No-Jetlag Journey: On transtlantic cruises, you lose an hour a night cruising eastbound from New York and gain an hour a night cruising westbound from Southampton, which makes for a smooth transition for such a long trip.

Trans-Atantlic Tip: Meet The Duke
Got an hour to spare before boarding Queen Mary 2 in Southampton, England? Walk several blocks from the cruise ship terminal to the Duke of Wellington pub.

We did, and what we found in the 15th-century pub located at 36 Bugle Street was a convivial maritime setting, stone fireplaces with logs blazing and a row of cask ales to accompany the menu of traditional English fare: Fish and Chips, Ploughman’s Lunch, and Bangers and Mash.

Sailors and “cruise” passengers from earlier times may well have stopped here for fortification. In 1620, more than a century after the pub opened, another ship set sail from the foot of Bugle Street. Its name: the Mayflower.

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