The Queen Mary at Sunset

She looks somewhat like some of her former passengers – a bit weathered but still stately. And she doesn’t get around as fast as she used to, either.

In fact, the Queen Mary doesn’t get around at all, for she is permanently moored in Long Beach, CA. Often, she sits next to modern cruise ships that are now making their way across the seas.

It makes for an interesting contrast – the old and the new, side-by-side – a true visual display of the differences in cruising then and now.

Queen Mary with Visiting Queen Elizabeth2 copy

Queen Mary with visiting Modern Day Queen Elizabeth 2 | Photo: KC Witherspoon

The Queen Mary has just celebrated the 80th anniversary of her maiden voyage, which took place on May 27, 1936. She came from a time when taking a cruise meant crossing an ocean. Today, it’s more about a series of ports and destinations. In her day, the Queen Mary was the destination. In fact, she made only one port of call, in France, on her way from England to New York.

The Queen Mary at Sunset

The Queen Mary at sunset | Photo: KC Witherspoon

That’s just one of the ways cruising and cruise ships have changed during the decades. For starters, all you have to do is look at the Queen Mary. Today’s cruise ships are all-white towers with some reaching an astonishing 18 decks. The Queen Mary, by contrast, is more sleek, black with white trim on the top and the letters QUEEN MARY painted on both sides of the bow, and has 12 decks, only about half of which were for passengers. She’s almost as long as today’s cruise ships – 1,019 feet while the massive 18-deck Quantum Of The Seas checks in at 1,115 feet – but sitting next to one of these behemoths she looks like the equivalent of a teenager standing next to an NBA player.

The Queen Mary on a Foggy Day

The Queen Mary on a foggy day | Photo: KC Witherspoon

The biggest difference is in the role of the cruise ships. The Queen Mary – and ships of her day – was built for Transatlantic crossings. It was open-ocean sailing, point-to-point transportation.

Today, of course, it’s a series of short hops to ports in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and other regional destinations. The Queen Mary was also almost as much of a human cargo ship as she was a cruise liner; in the 1930s and later the 1950s, there was simply no other way for people to get from England to America and vise versa.

Interior queen mary

The interior of the Queen Mary | Photo: KC Witherspoon

It’s interesting to note that as a result, the Queen Mary was faster than today’s ships – her top speed remains a secret but it was around 33 knots; today ships top out at about 28 knots and cruise closer to around 25.

Lifeboat queen mary

Lifeboat on the Queen Mary against a backdrop of downtown Long Beach, CA | Photo: KC Witherspoon

The Queen Mary was also separated into three different classes and – like today’s airplanes – passengers in the lower classes could not go into the higher-class sections. Today, cruise ships have no class compartment restrictions. The price varies on the size and location of cabins. No matter what you paid, however, once you’re on board you can go anywhere and mingle with all the other passengers. You’re actually separated more by the types of the ships rather than the ship itself (families, luxury travelers, single people and retirees all have specific ships to fit their different cruising cultures).

Deck of queen mary

A view of the deck | Photo: KC Witherspoon

Of course, no ship of today can match the Queen Mary’s history. And for this, we defer to Commodore Everett Hoard, who serves as Honorary Captain of the Queen Mary and speaks so passionately about the ship you would think he installed each of the 10 million rivets himself. He says things like, “she was the most celebrated passenger ship since Noha’s Ark” and “the Queen Mary is truly the most loved ship the world has ever known.”

Commadore Everette Hoard

Commadore Everette Hoard speaking at a press event | Photo: KC Witherspoon

Try to get him as your guide for the Glory Days Historical Tour, which covers the ship’s WWII troop carrying history and her luxury days “when the decks were filled with the most famous people in the world: Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother,” Hoard says. “This was THE way to travel before the days of air travel.”

It is her World War II service that may be the most impressive element about the Queen Mary. She carried more than 800,000 U.S. soldiers across the Atlantic – 16,683 on a single voyage – to fight Hitler. Painted grey and with speed that kept her safe from Nazi U-boats, she was nicknamed “The Grey Ghost.”  She also took Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic three times to meet with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and after the war, Churchill still loved to ride aboard the Queen.

Window With a View queen mary

Photo: KC Witherspoon

Today, you can stay in his suite and eat in a restaurant that bears his name. You can even see some of his paintings and personal belongings in an exhibit now featured on the Queen Mary.

The Queen Mary is a hotel (most rooms are pretty small; after all,  she’s a ship) and hosts various exhibits and events. There’s also a Sunday brunch in her first-class dining room, a bar and a couple of restaurants on board. Plus, there are various tours, including a Ghost Tour, because it’s said the Queen Mary is haunted.

Deck Gear queen mary

Photo: KC Witherspoon

A documentary on the history of the Queen Mary – including interviews with soldiers, war brides and others who were on the ship – has been produced and will air on the BBC in the US on Aug. 21. It has already aired in England and the ratings were through the roof (or through the smokestacks, pun intended).

Even after 80 years, the legend of the Queen Mary and the ship itself lives on.It’s unlikely any of the cruise ships sailing today will still be around in 80 years, and let alone as celebrated as is the Queen Mary.