The Last Liners: A Few Ships Still Make Crossings Cruises

September 08, 1991|By John Maxtone-Graham | John Maxtone-Graham,Universal Press Syndicate

"The Liner she's a lady," wrote Rudyard Kipling a century ago. In his day, passenger ships crossed oceans on line voyages, steaming from point A to point B; in consequence, they were called liners.

Although few of today's liners still make crossings, they remain veritable stars of the busy cruising circuit and, as such, are well worth booking.

Before the Wright Brothers put us all up in the air, liners served as inevitable and luxurious intercontinental transportation, crisscrossing Atlantic, Pacific and, indeed, every ocean in the world.

Those voyages were crossings, not cruises. Liner passengers were all going somewhere, unlike the large majority of today's cruise passengers who really go nowhere: After making some island calls, they disembark at the same port from which they embarked a week earlier.

Liners survived as crossing alternatives until displaced by jets in the mid-'70s. Nowadays, only one liner does what dozens used to. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 periodically embarks on 30-knot line voyages across the Atlantic. Since she remains the lone survivor of a once plentiful breed, she deserves pride of place in the discussion to follow.

No sea voyage has quite the magic of QE2's trans-Atlantic voyage. Cruise ships, of course, make seasonal repositioning crossings from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, but none achieves QE2's dazzling speed and hence special mystique. It is not hard to choose between five sybaritic days afloat and seven uncomfortable hours aloft.

For the balance of the year, Queen Elizabeth 2 joins fleets of ex-liners on benevolent, warm-weather cruises. These are yesterday's trans-Atlantic thoroughbreds retired from fast ocean tracks and put out to cruise pasture. In addition to QE2, the major liners are Norwegian Cruise Line's Norway (which sailed for a dozen years as the France), Holland America's grand 1959 flagship Rotterdam, Constitution and Independence of American Hawaiian Cruises, and Cunard's Sagafjord and Vistafjord.

Smaller liners include Admiral Cruise's Azure Seas and Emerald Seas, Carnival's first trio of stalwarts (Mardi Gras, Carnivale and Festivale), Princess Cruises' Dawn Princess and Fair Princess, and all of Chandris' vessels except the brand-new Horizon.

Distinguished North Atlantic and Pacific veterans all, they have racked up thousands of sea miles on their figurative odometers. Yet they have a bewitching, historic charm, inside and out. Let us examine several of today's cruising liners, first from over the water and then on board.

The traditional look

Traditionally, funnels have been the focal point of any ship. From afar, one or two cylindrical funnels dominate the liner profile, creating a central midship summit atop the vessel. Conversely, contemporary cruise ships have one funnel only, near the stern, sharply raked, adorned with fins or sampans, occasionally incorporating aerial lounges as well.

Below the liner's central funnel are layers of superstructure deck, ringed with open promenades. Modern cruise ship hulls, especially Carnival's new megaships, have sheer, boxlike hulls with little access to open decks save at the very top.

Norway's funnels have unique, horizontal fins jutting out to either side. Designed to keep soot efficiently off the open decks, they work well unless an abeam wind is too strong. Just this past year, those distinctive funnels receded slightly, for, in a major profile action, NCL surrounded them with rows of top-deck suites, which appeared to lower their majestic height.

Before we leave profiles, it is worth remarking on those beautiful two-funneled sisters Constitution and Independence, which roam the Hawaiian archipelago on weekly itineraries. They have the world's only remaining counter sterns, gracefully evocative after-quarters dating back to the liners about which Kipling wrote before the turn of the century.

In the old days, ocean liners were always conservatively painted: black hulls and white upper works with the only splash of color up on the funnels. Although most of today's cruise ships are white, it is interesting that three of the largest liners cling to colors derived from the past. Queen Elizabeth 2 retains her near-black hull (following a disastrous experiment with pale gray after return from the Falklands). Rotterdam's is midnight blue and Norway's is deep royal blue. All other cruising liners are white, often dressed up with racing stripes or elaborate funnel logos to update them.

But, however they are painted, liners retain an intrinsic, aristocratic bearing that, to this passenger, promises welcome largesse below decks, especially in regard to the size, assortment and comfort of their cabins.

Since liners formerly carried first-class as well as tourist-class passengers, half of their cabins are grander than the other half. In addition, there are more public rooms because each class had its own dining room, lounges, card and writing room.

Extravagance and detail

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