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Cruise: Ships

In Praise of Vintage Liners

Bowing to the grace and majesty of the aged grande dames of the sea

September 14, 1997|KARL ZIMMERMANN | 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.

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